Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Elizabeth Monahan: Guest Post

The brilliant and lovely illustrator Elizabeth Monahan has recently published an illustrated version of Pride and Prejudice. I was so thrilled when I heard about it as I just love her work! She has been so kind and has written a guest post for my blog, explaining a little more about herself and her work, focusing on the process of illustrating such a popular and well-loved novel! 

I am a freelance illustrator, having graduated from The Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. I’ve illustrated a number of children’s books for Oxford University Press, Channel 4, and Dominie Press, and recently illustrated a new edition of The Wizard of Oz, published by Quarto.

I live in Norwich with my husband, who is a freelance photographer and our retired, ex-racer greyhound, Mister Bingley!
(A greyhound called Mister Bingley! How brilliant - I love it!)  

I have loved Jane Austen’s books for as long as I can remember, and her novels have been a touchstone for my enduring love of historical fiction. I studied English Literature at Southampton University, and chose the works of Jane Austen as the subject of my final year degree thesis. After this, I took a sabbatical from illustrating, and worked as a secondary school English teacher for 3 years, before returning to my easel in 2007.

The advent of new technologies inspired me to realize my dream of producing a self-published version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, using my own illustrations. I’ve been really encouraged by the success of my ‘Cast Of’ series, a set of paintings that I produced in 2011, featuring all the main characters from each of Austen’s six novels. I’ve been selling prints of them through my own Etsy shop, ‘BlueSkyInking’, and also through the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.

(I absolutely love the 'Cast Of' series and they are the perfect for any Janeite's wall! Hanging on my bedroom wall, I have The Cast of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. They are such fun illustrations and the characters are captured just brilliantly!)

I wanted to honour the bicentenary of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with my own tribute, and decided to produce a newly illustrated edition that focused on the satirical nuances of the plot rather than the more familiar romantic themes. I’ve enjoyed the many adaptations of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ on TV, especially Andrew Davis’s seminal 1995 BBC interpretation, but felt the time was right to offer a fresh insight into the book, with contemporary illustrations highlighting the timeless quality and enduring wit of Austen’s prose. I hoped this approach would appeal to a new generation of Austen fans, who might be unfamiliar with the novel, and crave something more rewarding than the limited scope offered by the film and TV adaptations. However, I didn’t want to alienate Austen’s established fan-base, so I had to be careful not to make the artwork too ‘modern’. I started by making very rough pencil sketches and once I’d settled on a style, I worked them up into something more ‘substantial’. I also spent a lot of time in art galleries, museums and public libraries, visiting bookshops, and researching the work of contemporary illustrators whom I admire, to gain insight and inspiration.
(I can assure you that this is achieved, the contemporary drawings seeming to fit perfectly without feeling too modern, fitting the feel of the book.)  

I also had to decide how to ‘personalise’ the characters. I knew that they would need to be slightly ‘cartooned’ in order to convey the humorous situations in which they find themselves. Jane Austen gives very little away in terms of her characters’ physical appearance, which offers plenty of scope to freely interpret them. I was acutely aware that everyone has their own ‘take’ on Elizabeth and Darcy – it was important that I got them right! My husband is forever reminding me of the old saying (which we keep stuck on the fridge). It reads: ‘I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure - which is: try to please everybody’. After a lot of worrying (and a lot of preparatory sketching), I decided ‘to please myself’ with my own personal vision of the characters, the one I had formed on first reading the book when I was sixteen.

(I can imagine the difficultly in trying to 'personalise' the characters as there are so many different portrayals to influence you!)
When I am commissioned by a publisher to illustrate a book, I usually work with a picture editor and designer. I will work to a specific brief and follow a design-template that directs me where to place a picture in relation to the text. Once the artwork is finished, it’s sent off to the publishers, who’ll use their own design team to marry the text and illustrations, before it’s sent to the printers. I enjoyed no such luxury, or support, (apart from the odd cup of tea from my husband, and words of encouragement from family and friends alike). I had to make all those decisions on my own. Once I’d settled on a ‘style’, I mapped out the book in a rough format, producing a ‘storyboard’ version, which covered the walls of my studio. All in all, it took ten long months. I continued to finesse the completed artworks, which took a further three or four months. In total, 64 illustrations made it in to the book, although I rejected hundreds in the process.
(Rejected three-hundred? Wow! I have to say how very pleased I was to see so many illustrations throughout the book - sometimes a book can be called 'illustrated' and yet it features an illustration perhaps only every 40 pages or something silly like that!)   

Perhaps the most time-consuming (and frustrating!) aspect of putting the book together was the technological side of the process. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is my first foray into the ‘dark-arts’ of self-publishing, so my learning curve was vertiginous! 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!

I hope to illustrate all of Austen’s novels. My next challenge is ‘Mansfield Park’ for its bicentenary in 2014. I hope it won’t take as long as Pride and Prejudice. I’ve started to do rough outlines for the main characters, and I’ll hope to post regular updates of my progress. I’ll have to re-read the book over the Christmas holidays, and I hope to start in earnest in the New Year. I hope to follow it up with ‘Emma’ in 2015 and ‘Persuasion’ on 2017. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Northanger Abbey’ will perhaps appear in 2016, but I may need a rest by then!

(I am so pleased to hear that you are aiming to illustrate all 6 of her novels! I am looking forward to Mansfield Park already - good luck with it!)

Thank you again to the lovely Elizabeth for doing this post for me - it has been really interesting learning more about how you tackled illustrating Pride and Prejudice.

Currently the book is available for the kindle (here are the amazon UK and US links), but
I am hoping and would love to see this also brought out in paperback sometime - I own a hardback set of the 6 novels, and a pocket sized set, but I have an opening for a paperback set!

Your affectionate friend,
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  1. Oh dear me! That looks awesome! :D She really needs to get them paperbacked not only for kindle. I would love to buy one!

    1. I really hope she does as well - my kindle is only in black and white and so I miss the images in the fully glory - in colour! I hope to see them in paperback sometime :)
      Thanks for commenting!


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