Is a book just a story, or a physical object as well? This is a question I discussed once over several editions published by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Morris was a late Victorian writer, designer, and socialist, famous for publishing gorgeous (and unaffordable) editions of classics, among them the renowned Kelmscott Chaucer. That book is the size of a paving stab and weighs just as much; each page resembles a medieval manuscript, with its intricate script, engraving-like illustrations and leafy designs around the borders. One has the sense of reading a medieval book in both senses: the story and the format of the book itself.
All that has very little to do with Jane Austen, of course, as Morris was decades after her time, except that his idea of a book as an object, and of reading as a physical experience as much as a mental one, seems to be the driving force behind Palazzo Editions’ Bicentenary Edition of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
There are those books for which a pretty edition can be just as important as a scholarly one. For example, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is, to use a favorite word of Wilde’s, exquisite, both in its language and the atmosphere of aesthetic pleasure that it creates. An elegant edition of such a novel would be yet another aesthetic pleasure to add to the ones created by Wilde’s words and felt by his characters. The same is true of Sense and Sensibility. It is a novel of society and of manners, of politeness and appearances. Its characters worry about silks and first impressions (and deeper issues too, of course), and sometimes, reading the story, one also wants to attend an elegant tea time. And Palazzo Editions’ version of the classic story seems to come out of that world of refinement and manners; it’s an edition that makes one feel as if one belongs to Austen’s elegant world.
This is by no means a scholarly edition. Although it does contain an introduction and afterward by Austen scholar Katharine Reeve, both are only a few pages long; each presents several interesting facts about Austen’s life and writings, but neither is particularly useful for an in-depth examination of the novel. Both merely bring the story into context. Thus, it is not for those who show their love for books by cracking the spine and scribbling in the margins, as I do. It will not provide the kind of historical and literary context that Oxford Classics will. For those that want to get a feel of the story more than an interpretation of it, however, this is a perfect edition.
In fact, those who find that aesthetic pleasure is a part of their reading experience will almost certainly enjoy this gorgeous edition. The book has ten beautiful full-color plates with illustrations of key moments of the text, as well as elegant black-and-white silhouettes of the characters elsewhere throughout the book. All were done by Niroot Puttapipat, and his fairytale-esque drawings are so charming that I was surprised he is not more well-known. I had difficulty finding information about him and his work online, which is a shame, as his illustrations are magical without making Austen’s story into the fairytale that it is not. They are colorful, but not too much so, and have in their style a certain grace. The whole book is printed on beautiful, sturdy paper, and the inside cover contains illustrations of Sydney Place, where Austen lived in Bath, giving the book yet more of an aura of belonging to Jane Austen’s world. In short, charm and elegance, words not uncommon in Austen’s oeuvre, are perfectly fitting to describe this enjoyable volume.