When I was looking for more covers to show you in my latest Top Five Pride and Prejudice covers, I stumbled across a self-published beautifully illustrated eBook version by artist Elizabeth Monahan. The gorgeous cover, below, has a slightly quirky style to it with Lizzy and Darcy obviously at odds. I was completely struck by it, and decided to contact her to ask more about where her ideas come from, and if we are to expect some more of her art sometime soon.
Monahan happily agreed to answer some questions for The Bennet Sisters, and also provided a few other illustrations for readers to see. They’re so lovely, I’m squeeing! This is something I’d love to give to a friend or relative at Christmas, and that has a rich, strong style to it but also manages to be lovely and whimsical. Certainly not an easy thing to do.
Having trained as an illustrator at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design, in Dorset, Monahan (pictured below) now lives in Norwich working as an artist and illustrator. “I love all things arty – literature, painting, music and the theatre. I own a beautiful greyhound (called Mr. Bingley!) and have lots of laughs with my own Mr. Darcy – my husband Kevin,” she says.
When did you first read Pride and Prejudice, and what are your thoughts on the book?
I was first introduced to ‘Pride & Prejudice’ by my English teacher when I was sixteen years old, and instantly fell in love with the book and with Austen’s writing. Later, when I studied English at Southampton University, I wrote my final year thesis on Austen’s work and received a First Class Honours degree, of which I am very proud.
On the face of it, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a romance, a fairy-tale even, but I think it’s so much more than that. For me, it is a clever and witty advocate for independent thought, for not settling for second best, and the power of growing to understand one-self and others.
Of course, I love and admire Elizabeth – she is a flawed character who develops a better understanding of herself and her needs. Both she and Darcy grow up during the course of the novel. I find all the characters very compelling; they are perfect little portraits, which is why they are such a joy for an illustrator!
Is Pride and Prejudice your favourite Austen?
It is one of my favourites! I find it hard to decide between ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Persuasion’.
Which Austen character are you most like and why?
I think I’m most like Elinor Dashwood – reserved, but with hidden depths. And, of course, she is an artist.
When did you decide to illustrate the book?
I came to the decision to illustrate ‘Pride & Prejudice’ in December 2012. During 2011, I produced a series of paintings, featuring all the main characters in each of Austen’s novels. I called these ‘The Cast of…’ series and began selling them as prints in my Etsy shop, ‘BlueSkyInking’. I then took my illustrations to show ‘The Jane Austen’s House Museum’ in Chawton, Hampshire. Ann Channon, a lovely lady who works for the Museum, agreed to sell prints and cards of my work through its shop. Ann’s reaction to my illustrations was brilliant – she hooted with laughter and said that I had truly captured the humour and fun of Austen’s characters in a way that she had not seen since Hugh Thompson’s classic illustrations. In the following months, I received similar encouragement from people who bought my prints online – I was also beginning to form a sense that amongst Austen readers there was a strong desire to see a fresh visual approach to Austen’s novels that focused on the satirical elements of the stories, rather than on the romantic. Much of what I’d seen of recent attempts to illustrate Austen’s work seemed to miss the point: they were either depictions of ladies in pretty dresses, or images of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, but nowhere did I see represented well Austen’s closely observed characters, or the quickness and lightness of her writing. However, the inspiration that really set the process off was reading an interview given by the British illustrator, Chris Riddell (‘The Edge Chronicles’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’). He offered some very pertinent advice to would-be illustrators: “If nobody will commission you to illustrate a book, you must commission yourself.” These words really hit home for me, and the tiny seed of an idea began to grow: why don’t I illustrate ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and publish it myself? And so I set to work!
What was the process like?
In a word, difficult! When I am commissioned by a publisher to illustrate books, I usually work alongside a picture editor and a designer, who produce a brief for me to follow and layouts that tell me exactly what to illustrate and where the picture is going to be placed in relation to the text. With this project, I had absolutely no help – I had to make all those decisions myself, which was quite a lonely experience. Fortunately, my husband was on hand to offer the occasional glass of red wine and lots of moral support. Our retired greyhound, Mr. Bingley, was very happy to keep me company, and slept throughout the entire experience!
The hardest part of the process was getting the style of the artwork to a point I was happy with; I wanted to create illustrations that were fresh and light, not too ‘worked up’ or ‘heavy’, to capture the sparkling quality of Austen’s writing that might appeal to a modern reader. But I also didn’t want to alienate traditionalists, so I had to be mindful about not making the artwork too ‘way out’ contemporary. To help in this process I spent a lot of time at my local library, visiting bookshops, or on Google images, checking out the work of contemporary illustrators who I admire.
Another important part of the process was deciding how the characters would look. I knew that they would need to be slightly ‘cartooned’ in order to convey the humorous situations in which Austen places them; I wanted to draw expressive people, not bland cardboard cutouts. Notoriously, Austen gives very little away in terms of her characters’ physical appearance, which is rather a double-edged sword from the artist’s point of view: on the one hand, great, because you can do what you like, but on the other, what you like may not be true for the reader. I was acutely aware that everyone has a personal vision of how Elizabeth and Darcy look – it was crucial I got these two right! After a lot of worrying and sketching, I decided to go with my own personal vision of the characters, the one I had formed on first reading the book when I was sixteen.
How long did it take you to put together the book?
It took me 10 months to put ‘Pride and Prejudice’ together (I also have a 9-5 job, so I could only work on the book in my lunch breaks, in the evenings and at weekends). Once I had a style worked out and the look of the characters, I spent several weeks mapping out the book in a rough format (the walls of my studio were covered with quick drawings which followed the plot of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, a bit like a film storyboard). I then worked on the final artworks, which took me about three to four months; if I wasn’t happy with one, I would re-do it – quality control was really important to me! In total, 64 illustrations made it in to the book, although I probably produced at least double that number.
Perhaps the most time-consuming (and frustrating) aspect of putting the book together was the technological side of the process. As an illustrator, you produce the artwork and then send it off to the publishers, who employ in-house designers to put text and illustrations together to produce the finished book. I’m a bit of a ‘techno-phobe’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is my first foray into self-publishing so my learning curve was an extremely steep one. I had to learn how to put the document together and follow the specifications carefully so that my document would upload correctly as an e-book. This took many attempts and re-starts, but I got there in the end!
Were there any tough decisions to make?
Yes, realizing that I had to produce at least one illustration per chapter. Initially, I had thought that one illustration every other chapter would be sufficient, but once I’d done this and produced a ‘mock-up’ of the book, I realized that to have any impact I would need to at least double the number of illustrations. I hit a brick wall at this point, as it did mean going back to the beginning of the process again. I think the toughest decision was deciding not to give up on the project!
What will your next project be?
I aim to illustrate all Austen’s novels, so the next big project will be ‘Mansfield Park’ for its bicentenary in 2014, followed by ‘Emma’ in 2015 and ‘Persuasion’ on 2017. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Northanger Abbey’ will perhaps appear in 2016, but I might need a break by then! I’d also like to write and illustrate my own books.
I am completely in awe of her illustrations, and adore them completely. I think they’d also make great stationery, and I’d even have one of these hanging on my wall. What do you think?
The eBook can be purchased via Amazon and for other examples of her work, visit her website. If you’re a fan of buying print products, then prints and cards can actually be purchased – via her Etsy shop Blue Sky Inking.
Finally, you can also find her on Twitter: @BlueSkyInking or @IllustratedJane
Who else is in love with these?