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Rewriting Jane Austen: when old meets new

Updated Tuesday 29th October 2013

Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility is a modern take on Jane Austen's classic novel. But how close to the original is she?

Creative commons image Icon The Spider Hill under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence under Creative-Commons license British author, Joanna Trollope The publication of the first book in the series, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (2013) provoked the shock of recognition but in a parallel universe: a familiar title and a familiar author, but never before linked in print. There are more shocks of recognition within, as the look of the printed page is unusually elegant. It is certainly much more pleasant to view than my much-thumbed paperback edition, now jaundiced with age, which is typical of a budget reprint c.1982.

What seems familiar? The answer is in the spacious relationship of the black ink of the content to the white page of the book, specifically in the quality of the letter styles. Collectively, the designs of letters, numbers and other print symbols are called a font, and this font is identified on the reverse title page (where all the legal and publisher details are found) as Andrade. Recognition comes from having used historic printed books for my research and teaching. Remembering that the first edition of Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, it seems that the publisher has chosen to continue the theme of the past inspiring the present in the choice of font.

‘Andrade’ is a font designed as recently as 2005 by the Portuguese designer Dino dos Santos. He took explicit inspiration from the Portuguese design heritage of handwriting and type design by looking back to the work of the eighteenth-century master of script styles Manoel de Andrade de Figueirido (1670-1735). ‘Andrade’ is based on Figueirido’s book of 1722, brought up to date for digital publication and for twenty-first century expectations.

There are other ways in which the designer of the new book (Lindsay Nash) emphasises the text’s origins. The work follows a division into volumes, which reflects the original circumstances of the publication, in 1811, of Austen’s novel as three physically distinct books. Novels tended to be published in the smallest common format, which was about the size of a small modern fiction paperback (although these have got larger in recent decades).

The crucial difference between then and now is the layout of print: far fewer words were laid out on each line, with fewer lines on a page, and so to avoid making an enormously fat book, multiple slim volumes were produced and individually bound. Nash has chosen to emphasise the first letter of each chapter, by making the capital letter far bigger and taking up three lines of text.

This is also a historic practice, dating back to the Western tradition of early medieval styles of handwritten and highly elaborate capital letters and retained in this more restrained form for centuries after the transition from manuscript to print began c. 1450. Indeed the attractive font has more general historical origins in the humanist revival during the Renaissance of handwritten scripts developed in the eighth century, which themselves consciously copied aspects of classical Roman script. As a result, there are centuries, if not millennia, of visual echoes in the page of 2013.


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