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Novels don't need illustrations. An author should be able to conjure the appropriate word pictures without having to rely on the interpretations of some interfering third-party illustrator. Yet some books seem curiously mated to their illustrations. You have only to think of Dickens and Cruikshank, or Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. To this short list I would add Charlotte and Emily Brontë and one of their latter-day illustrators, Fritz Eichenberg. As engrossing as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights might be — and they are about as engrossing as narratives can get — I have a hard time imagining them stripped of these dramatic wood engravings.
Maybe this is because I have lived with these particular editions for such a long time. The matching volumes, published by Random House in 1943, are not especially rare or valuable. Copies can be found all over the Internet for a nominal price. The Library has one copy of Wuthering Heights and two of Jane Eyre in its General Research Division. The text of each page is in two columns, which at first seems odd, but the arrangement makes for a surprisingly fluid reading experience. The spines are of green cloth, and the front and rear paper board covers reproduce the Eichenberg illustrations, each defining the passionate spirit of what lies inside. For instance, the cover of Jane Eyre (above) tells you all you need to know about Lowood, the harsh charity school to which Jane is sent, where the discipline is harsh, the diet poor, and the conditions so unhealthy that several of the girls die of typhoid.
My own copies are a bit shabby these days. The covers are scuffed, the cloth spines have a few loose threads, and the paper has taken on a soft yellow patina. I inherited them when I moved into my first studio apartment on the Upper West Side, where I discovered these abandoned Brontës in a closet and greedily added them to my own library. In our increasingly virtual world, I tend to get excited about the pleasures of owning actual books — or, alternatively, of having them available at the public library. If books finally do disappear (except maybe in damp cartons at garage sales), the world will be a sadder place. I held onto these Brontës for a long time before actually reading them. They stood on my bookshelf as a silent rebuff; whenever I noticed them there, I felt a little pull, a spark of interest. Having now read both volumes repeatedly, I find their presence has become both a comfort and a convenience, as I know I can pick them up again whenever I choose.
And this month I did return to Jane Eyre. Through whatever quirk of whim, desire, or alignment of the stars, I seem suddenly to have been afflicted with a bad case of Brontë mania. At the start of this year, I read The Brontes: Charlotte Brontë and her Family, a 1988 biography by Rebecca Fraser which only sharpened my appetite for more of this weird, fascinating family. And lots more exists. I don't think I ever realized that the history of the Brontës was so pervasive, or that the elements of their lives comprised such a personal mythology: the lonely parsonage set on the Yorkshire moors, the three writing sisters, the dissolute failure of a brother, the irascible but tender clergyman father, the obsessive juvenilia, the amazing adult poems and novels, the early deaths... Having first ventured into this biographical realm, I next needed to re-experience Jane Eyre, and it was to my durable and familiar copy that I turned.
What is it about these illustrations? They are dark and unsettling and full of elemental landscapes and human figures, which seem barely able to contain their churning emotions. Of course they lose something when scanned for the Internet and are stripped of textual context. For maximum effectiveness, they should be seen first-hand in the pages of these volumes, and even better, during the course of reading: in Jane Eyre, for instance, when Mr. Brocklehurst, the evangelical clergyman, makes Jane stand on a stool and berates her in front of her teachers and classmates:
"My dear children," pursued the black marble clergyman, with pathos, "this is a sad, a melancholy occasion; for it becomes my duty to warn you, that this girl, who might be one of God's own lambs, is a little castaway: not a member of the true flock, but evidently an interloper and an alien. You must be on your guard against her; you must shun her example: if necessary, avoid her company, exclude her from your sports, and shut her out from your converse. Teachers, you must watch her: keep your eyes on her movements, weigh well her words, scrutinize her actions, punish her body to save her soul: if, indeed, such salvation be possible, for (my tongue falters while I tell it) this girl, this child, this native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut — this girl is — a liar!"
The Eichenberg illustration transforms this monumental figure from a singular nasty clergyman into every parent, teacher, supervisor, or candidate for the presidency who has ever sought to put you in your place.
Later, when Mr. Rochester has been taunting Jane with his upcoming marriage, trying to provoke her jealousy, she delivers her demand for equality of spirit with searing conviction:
"...Do you think I am an automaton? A machine without feelings? And can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you, — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: — it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal, — as we are!"
The full-page engraving on the opposing page suggests the scene's passionate outcome, while at the same time, its landscape of twisted black trees and dark clouds obscuring the moon presages troubles to come.
What I would like to do over the next few months is sift through the Library's Brontë material and weave the threads of their lives into a public presentation, which I will then offer in one of the South Court classrooms some time in the late summer or early fall. But first I want to reread Wuthering Heights, which I recall as being an altogether stranger story than Jane Eyre.
I've picked up my own copy again and scanned the Eichenberg engravings, which evoke the texture of Emily Brontë's prose. You can almost feel the clumpy black soil and hear the wind howling across the Yorkshire moors. You can see in Catherine Earnshaw's face the conflict raging between reason and passion, culture and nature. The fortunate part of my job is that I can put Wuthering Heights next on my reading agenda and still be able to call it work.