Illustrations for the Age

Monro Scott Orr’s sixteen detailed and full-page colour plates adorn a beautifully presented 1921 edition (from the British Library), published by George G. Harrap & Company Ltd., a company that specialized in English classics, and became well-known for the high standard of its illustrated books. The illustrations are clear and stand out freshly on the glossy paper. The strong line definitions and particular attention to detail mark them out as early twentieth-century pictorial interpretations of the certainty of a nineteenth-century narrative, or are they? This was a time when the aim of modernist art and literature was to make the familiar unfamiliar. Orr’s work as painter, illustrator and etcher straddled a period of transition. He was born in 1874 and trained at The Glasgow School of Art from 1894 to 1900. Although he also illustrated an edition of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a similarly restrained style, his illustrations for such well-loved classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales and The Arabian Nights show the darker side of the imagined other, grotesques and haunting, unfamiliar figures. (For more images see ‘Monro S Orr illustrator’ online). His characters in Jane Eyre nevertheless also hint at subversions of the accepted norm.CSblo2.1

I can find no account of what part the publishers played in the choice of particular scenes for Orr’s illustrations, but they mark several of the significant occurrences in the narrative, each captioned with a quote from the text. However, on closer inspection they are a freer interpretation than a glance would first suggest. If you compare Jane’s first meeting with Mr Rochester in the text with that of the illustration, you will see that although his foot is painfully sprained after his fall, and Jane says that ‘he rose from the stile’, Mr Rochester is posed in a commanding, aggressive stance, rather than in a weakened, seated position. Both feet appear painless, planted firmly as he leans on his knee with hand on hip. He is depicted as master of all he surveys, including the doll-like Jane, who demurely avoids all eye contact with him. In her characterless stasis she appears to have no ability to interact with him at all, a far cry from the Jane readers know her to be.


Orr has chosen a muted colour-palette, restricting himself to sombre browns, greys and subtle greens. This seems to signify Jane’s earthly trials and tribulations, and only the final plate shows the more hopeful glimmers of a bright, verdant Spring on the tree trunks of the woodland walk enjoyed by Jane and Mr Rochester. But again Jane appears oddly disconnected as she gazes into the distance. This time she has a knowing smile, which may acknowledge her new-found purpose in life. However her elongated, strong jaw, mirrored in Mr Rochester’s depiction, is also strangely similar to those of Orr’s more fantastical, fairy-tale creations, and gives an oddly unsettling effect.

An equally disproportioned but more overtly dynamic Jane challenges the reader to join her in this Bancroft Classic 1967 edition, found on a private bookshelf. To judge from the list of classics listed on the back cover, it was aimed at the younger reader, and was meant to educate as well as entertain. With her sixties, styled, possibly back combed pony-tail and enormous hair bow and white collar, Jane stares out at the reader, while a diminutive Mr Brocklehurst glowers threateningly but ineffectually behind her.IMG_0659

The overblown size of her head denotes her importance, and there can be no doubt that she is the heroine. Although she will face opprobrium, she is a child of the sixties; confrontational, and with her slightly parted mouth, freely able to engage with anyone and to speak for herself. Disconcertingly, the illustration opposite the title page shows a seemingly much older Jane having had to suffer one of many cruelties, this time at the hands of John Reed, as she lies prostrate on the floor with what is probably Bewick’s History of British Birds.IMG_0661

No attribution is given to what appear to be the two illustrators of this volume who have failed to find a common style or purpose. The illustrations are there to entice a new readership into the pages, unlike Orr’s creations, which set out to entertain and enhance. But none of the illustrations suggest that the reader’s experience should be a complacent, untroubled, and unquestioning one.



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