Illustrations for Pride and Prejudice by Hugh ThomsonText by Isabel Snowden, former Collections Officer at Jane Austen's House
Before television, film and even theatre productions, Jane Austen’s novels to life by illustrators. This ‘Peacock’ edition of Pride and Prejudice, published in 1894 by George Allen, was the first fully illustrated edition of Jane Austen’s most popular novel. This was not the first attempt to add illustrations to Austen’s novels, but with 160 illustrations (including headpieces, tailpieces and ornamental initials) it was the first to fully integrate them into the novel to bring the story to life.
The illustrator, Hugh Thomson, was best known for his pen and ink illustrations and, along with Jane Austen, illustrated the novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. Thomson used to visit the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum to research costume styles, room decorations and furniture design for his illustrations. Despite this, the drawings have a distinct late 19th century style rather than accurately representing the start of the 19th century. Like Jane Austen in the memoir written in 1870 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, Pride and Prejudice has been given a Victorian tint in these illustrations.
Thomson’s ability to capture the spirit of the novel’s scenes in his humorous drawing has drawn many people to these illustrations. Just like a favoured television or film adaptation, these illustrations provide readers with visual link to the story and characters. Also similar to more recent adaptations, these illustrations attracted new fans to Pride and Prejudice, and have become almost as iconic as the novel itself.
This edition – known as the Peacock Edition, due to its decorative cover illustration – proved more popular than any previous one and by 1907 the publisher had sold 25,000 copies.
Hugh Thomson’s illustrations of Pride and Prejudice have proved to be more valuable of the late nineteenth century illustrated editions. Macmillan & Co. published an edition of Pride and Prejudice in 1895 illustrated by C. E. Brock however; it is the 1984 George Allen edition that fetches a much higher price in second-hand bookshops today.