Surrounded by the heady delights of the Brontë Parsonage Museum library archive, I opened this substantial 1896 Bliss Sands & Co volume with its red cover and thick paper and was immediately drawn into Jane Eyre’s motif of literacy and reading. The surprisingly large illustration to the title page, placed alongside the title printed in an arresting red, is a line drawing of a window seat, its curtains drawn back to reveal not the young Jane Eyre, but a boy equally intent on exploring the book on his lap. It is impossible to ascertain if it is Bewick’s History of British Birds, but to this young reader as it was for the young Jane, it seems profoundly interesting. In the same space is a young girl seated comfortably and also pictured in the act of reading. Between them is a library carousel, its surface heaped with open and closed books.
The significance of the novel’s preoccupation with literacy, reading books and watching others read them promises to be one of the intense interests of the text. The illustrator has conflated the reading public with the novel’s protagonists to create a pictorial representation of narrative pleasures. These figures seem to capture the feelings of one contemporary reviewer who wrote:
‘Well do we remember how we took up Jane Eyre one winter’s evening, somewhat piqued at the extravagant commendations we had heard, and sternly resolved to be as critical as Croker. But as we read on we forgot both commendations and criticism, identified ourselves with Jane in all her troubles, and finally married Mr Rochester about four in the morning.’
Frazer’s Magazine 40, (December 1849), 691-94.
So important and enjoyable was reading to the creative process of writing in the Brontë household that
‘once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it.[……] But the readings were of great and stirring interest to all, taking them out of the gnawing pressure of daily recurring cares, and settling them in a free place.’
Mrs Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1924), p. 285.
This ‘free place’ seems to have been particularly relished by one of this copy’s later readers, who has left evidence of their response to the narrative, their act of reading synonymous with their indulgence in a brand of individually wrapped chocolate biscuit. A neat square of striped silver and red foil that coincidentally echoes the colours of the title page has stuck to the first page of the preface.
The wording Kemp’s Chocolate Duchess confirms that this was an early twentieth- century reader who bought, or was given, one or more beautifully decorated boxes of these delicacies. For mention of George Kemp as one of the many prestigious twentieth-century British biscuit manufacturers, see Maurice Rickards, Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator and Historian (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 54.
The second page of the preface bears the foil traces of a second wrapper. It is possible that each was left in the book as a potential bookmark, or perhaps they were hidden inside to avoid discovery. However, the next foil marker has been carefully cut into a slim, folded rectangle from the silver part of the biscuit wrapper, and is stuck purposefully into page 112. It carefully underlines the paragraph that describes Jane’s attention to her ward Adèle.
The uncanny presence of this silver scrap reinforces Jane’s description of the toy she gives to Adèle, her ‘best wax doll (which I usually kept enveloped in silver paper in a drawer)’, and it becomes a physical emanation of the narrative. Importantly, in this paragraph Jane also gives Adèle a ‘story-book for change of amusement.’ Through their underlining of the description of one source of pleasure with the remains of another, the reader seems to share Jane’s mind. Both the reader and the narrator view the reading experience as an event which binds text and reader together. Thus even a biscuit wrapper can be used to confirm that the narrative of Jane Eyre, and those texts mentioned within it, explore the relationships between books and life.