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The Illustrated Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte, illustrations by Dame Darcy

(Penguin)

This is one book you should judge by the cover. If you can tear your eyes away from that cover art long enough to read the rest of the book, that is.


Jane Eyre—a strikingly large-eyed, ghostly figure—stares tearfully out from the cover of this book. One hand twists in horror as she grabs at her dark cloak; the other hand delicately reaches for her face, a single finger poising, frozen, over her bottom lip. The mansion burns furiously in the background, its windows cracked and broken, while jagged, vicious flames claw at the black sky.


Dame Darcy’s distinctive illustrations add fresh life to the classic tale of Jane Eyre—who, by Darcy’s hand, is no longer just an orphan girl turned governess turned almost-mistress of Mr. Rochester. The story is no longer merely that of shattered and mended love, the story of how Jane abandons Mr. Rochester upon discovering his secret—he is already married—or the story of how she eventually returns and they live happily ever after. The story is now the haunting union of powerful words and stunning illustrations.


Darcy’s work ranges from small black-and-white drawings adorning pages’ corners to full-page colored illustrations. Her most impressive feat is the way her drawings perfectly denote the characters’ essential inner qualities. Jane’s lovable oddness, for example, is shown through the irregular shape of her head and the unearthly slenderness of her body, while her deeply contemplative nature is apparent from the wide expressiveness of her eyes. Picture after picture, Darcy captures the strange charm of Jane more vividly through illustration than if she were a living person. And as for Mr. Rochester, the sharp angles of his figure, his pointed cheekbones and jawbones, and his dark deep-set eyes are the perfect visual representation of his fierce, brooding personality.


Darcy’s ability to bring the intangible to life is evident throughout her illustrations of the novel’s major moments. The first full-page colored illustration shows a spindly young Jane, who has been locked in a room by her uncaring aunt, sitting beside a window. She holds one deathly pale arm up to the icy panes, gazing out into what seems to be the darkness of her own thoughts. She sees a burning ship sinking, she sees the devil guarding over the evil souls of hell—and Jane, a fragile girl in a light pink dress, can only look, her mouth fallen open in aghast wonder. Darcy could not have better portrayed this moment of recognition, the moment when Jane fully grasps, for the first time, the concept of sin and all it entails.


In another key illustration, Jane and Mr. Rochester stand together in the garden, the moment before he asks her to marry him. Jane, who thinks Mr. Rochester wants to marry someone else, is weeping frenziedly, her body leaning backwards as though she might crumple. Mr. Rochester, with a characteristically dark expression upon his face, looms towards her, his hands clasped behind his back in an effort to restrain the passion he feels for her. Darcy’s interesting artistic details highlight the scene, as an unnaturally large moth—half the size of Jane—hovers in the upper left corner of the page, and a dark storm cloud in the opposite corner lets loose a bolt of lightning that splits into two branches, reaching down on either side of Jane—a warning of the perils to come.


But the most moving illustration of all comes at the novel’s end. This black-and-white drawing is the last full-page illustration of the book, set moments before Jane and Mr. Rochester reunite. As Jane approaches the house, she sees Mr. Rochester step outside. Jane peeks up at him from the bottom left corner of the page, hidden by bushes and tree branches. Mr. Rochester’s face, haggard in grief, is bent downwards in Jane’s direction, but being blinded, he cannot see her. Raindrops fall like tears all around him, and he dejectedly extends one finger to catch a droplet. Jane looks at him with a mixture of sorrow, yearning, and love that Darcy conveys beautifully.


In this case, what you see on the cover is what you find inside: brilliantly rendered moments, each as delightfully detailed, expressive, and imaginative as the next. Darcy’s illustrations of Jane Eyre transform this classic work into a modern artistic masterpiece.

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