Book Chapter

Picturing the Reader in Jane Austen’s Novels



Halsey K (2022) Picturing the Reader in Jane Austen’s Novels. In: Yeates A & Palmer B (eds.) Picturing the Reader: Reading and Representation in the Long Nineteenth Century. Writing and Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century, 11. Bern: Peter Lang.

Jane Austen’s novels are saturated with representations of readers: good and earnest readers like Fanny Price and Anne Elliot, deluded readers like Catherine Morland, frivolous readers like Emma Woodhouse, self-serving readers like Caroline Bingley, ostentatious readers like Mary Bennet, and foolish or plain bad readers like John Thorpe and Sanditon’s Sir Edward Denham. In Austen’s work, characters’ responses to the books they read often function as a shorthand to alert the reader to the kind of character who is at hand. Characters’ reading choices are important, but the use they make of their reading is even more so. Catherine Morland is probably the most obvious example of someone who puts her reading to the wrong uses, but Catherine is not the only one of Austen’s characters to indulge in quixotic daydreams sparked by her reading, or to see the world through the lens of literature. Characters of this sort appear in all of Austen’s novels, to a greater or lesser extent, and their interactions with books provide a kind of intertextual commentary on the plot. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Austen’s novels were reissued with illustrations by a number of different artists. In this chapter, I will consider Austen’s own textual representations of reading alongside the illustrations of books and readers in the later nineteenth-century illustrated versions of her novels. In so doing, I hope to shed light not only on the ways Austen herself represented and conceptualised readers, but also how nineteenth century illustrators interpreted Austen. Given the pervasive presence of books and reading in Austen’s work, it is surprising how rarely her nineteenth-century illustrators chose to present her characters reading, instead concentrating far more on fans, dresses, hats and other female accessories. Characters in the illustrated Austen novels are far more often found in a ballroom than in a study or a library. Her illustrators’ choices had long-lasting and wide-ranging effects on how successive ages perceived Austen’s work, and they also have much to tell us about the perceived or intended readership of these novels. I discuss the relationship between these choices and Austen’s reputation very briefly, although it is not my central focus here.

Title of seriesWriting and Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century
Number in series11
Publication date31/12/2022
Publication date online31/05/2022
PublisherPeter Lang
Place of publicationBern
ISSN of series2235-2295

People (1)


Professor Katherine Halsey

Professor Katherine Halsey

Professor, English Studies