The craze of the 1930s and 1940s was for beautifully illustrated editions of the great Victorian novels, affordably priced to take pride of place in a middle-class home. Lecturer and author Rosalind Parry recommends five outstanding editions whose illustrations are as striking as their stories.
The area of your expertise is the craze for illustrated novels in the 1930s and 1940s. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Right around this time, all those big 19th-century novels from Britain and America are out of copyright, they’re available, and publishers start printing series of classic books. They want to pitch everyday readers on having beautiful, good-looking libraries at home.
There’s a craze for illustrated books and especially for wood-engraved illustrations. Each edition is supposed to be the most beautiful thing that you own. It’s supposed to look like a treasure out of a 19th-century library. In many cases, they have gilded titles and they’re large format. They don’t look like another book that you would buy, but they’re affordable, so they’re supposed to be these treasures for middle-brow readers.
For example, I grew up with the Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights editions that we will talk about today. They look fancy, but you could buy them on a normal person’s salary. It was a very important gift for my mom from her grandmother.
I brought them with me wherever I moved, in school, and when I worked in publishing. Then I went to grad school, and I was in a class on word and image, and I cracked them open, wondering what I could find.
When you get to grad school, you figure out that everybody’s written about everything already. But I started doing research, and it turns out that these books had fallen in between the cracks. They’re art, but they don’t show up in art history that often because they’re illustration. They’re literary, but because they were illustrated long after the novels in question first came out, they don’t show up a lot in the literature discourse. I wanted to understand what it meant to reinvent books after the fact, and that turned into my dissertation, and then into my book.
Let’s start with your first recommendation for the best illustrated novel. It’s The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. Can you introduce us to this classic work?
The Return of the Native is a great, super melodramatic Thomas Hardy novel. His earlier novels were criticized for being either too boring or too sensational, and he tried to strike a happy medium with this one. He wrote a five-act tragedy about a tiny village in England and submitted it to various publishers, most of whom rejected it, which may be a familiar experience for any writer.
He ends up placing the novel at Belgravia, which is a middle-brow magazine. They won’t publish a tragedy, so they make him add a sixth act that ends happily. A little bonus is that in any contemporary edition you’ll find, at the end of the fifth act, Hardy notes that there are two possible endings for the book, and that “those with an austere artistic code can assume the more consistent conclusion to be the true one.” This might be paraphrased as ‘this book should be sad.’ It’s a classic Hardy novel, full of landscape and striving people and romance, and it’s really beautiful.
Can you tell us a little about your recommended illustrated edition?
This one is illustrated by Clare Leighton, one of the great illustrators of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. She loved moody, tiny, black-and-white images, and she was already obsessed with Thomas Hardy when she was a young student.
It was quite early on in her career when she received this commission, and she took it very seriously. Almost immediately, she quit her teaching duties and moved to Dorset, which is where Hardy was from and where he wrote this novel.
There, she spent at least a year walking around, doing incredibly detailed images of the landscape, and finding a way to take what she was seeing in front of her (England in 1928 and 1929) and trying to imagine it in the 19th century, minus the tractors and the sense of loss after World War One. She had lost her brother Roland Leighton during World War One (his fiancee Vera Brittain later wrote Testament of Youth about their romance). In Clare Leighton’s pictures, you get this really beautiful combination of loss and imagination and nostalgia.
“She scatters Dorset throughout the book, and it feels so true to what it is to read Hardy”
There’s a real sense that the book is an invitation into Dorset. The binding is the color of straw, and the boards are sky blue. Maybe some of us will get to go to Dorset and walk around and have the feeling of seeing what Thomas Hardy saw, or imagine that we’re seeing some of it, but she is inviting everyone to have that experience and to get a little lost in the landscape, the way that Hardy allows you to do when you’re reading. That’s what I like about her work.
A professor in college told me that when you’re reading most books, you think about the pages that you’ve dog-eared—the pages you’ve specifically noticed where real action is happening. He said that with Hardy, you should be looking at the pages you don’t dog-ear, because so much of him lives in the descriptions of landscape. Leighton does tiny descriptions of these bits of landscape. She does dozens and dozens of them, and each one is just a strip of a branch or one trunk or one little reflecting pool. She scatters Dorset throughout the book, and it feels so true to what it is to read Hardy.
Your next recommendation for us is an illustrated edition of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. A lot of readers will be familiar with this book already, but can you say a bit about it?
You should read it if you haven’t already. It’s amazing. It’s much funnier than it usually gets credit for. It’s a fantastic epic on the seas. It’s full of whales—so many whales! It’s a meditation on what it means to be alive and what it means to tell a story.
Melville goes wild. We start on shore, but we spend the entire rest of the book unmoored, with our only community being this very strange group of sailors, some of whom are extraordinarily gloomy or quirky or have experienced tragedy. He’s got this quote I really love: “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians.”
I think he was really interested in how we share space with each other. Maybe that’s an overly chipper take on Moby Dick, but it’s a delight and has been overly drummed up as an unreadable book. It’s excellent.
I’ve heard in various places that Moby Dick wasn’t really appreciated in its day, and only later got rediscovered. Is that true?
The Melville revival took place exactly when this illustrated edition by Rockwell Kent came out. This edition played a big part in popularizing the book. It has been said that Melville died in obscurity. That’s arguable. People knew who he was, and they were reading the book, but it definitely wasn’t thought of as one of the classic must-read novels of all time.
Over the course of the 1920s, a couple of great Melville biographies came out. DH Lawrence was furious that America had forgotten about Melville, and he wrote about that. A number of people were saying, ‘This guy’s extraordinary.’
In many ways, Melville spoke to the Modernist movement because his writing is so quirky and strange, and interested in what’s true and what’s not true. It asks, ‘What is reality? How can we stretch language to approximate our lived experience?’ At this moment in the 20th century, a lot of people fell in love with his work, including this artist, Rockwell Kent, and it all came together to spark this revival.
Can you tell us more about this impactful illustrated edition?
When Kent was commissioned to do this, he was one of the most famous artists in America. He’s not as famous now, but he and Norman Rockwell have similar names, and they used to receive each other’s fan mail.
This book came out as a part of a series that wasn’t expected to make money; it was just supposed to show off incredible American artists and American printmaking. The publisher gave Kent carte blanche with the text and type and imagery. It came out as this crazy, really heavy, three-volume set, packaged in a huge aluminum box. They made only a thousand copies of it, for serious collectors. These days you can mostly find it in library collections.
Then, Kent negotiated to do a popular edition. It was affordable, and it was a big hit. When it came out, a writer for The New Yorker noticed that the editors had been so excited that Rockwell Kent was participating in the project that they put only Rockwell Kent’s name on the cover and spine of the book. They forgot entirely about Melville.
Kent was an amazing artist. It took him three years to do this project, even though it was supposed to take one year. It grew by several volumes as he was working on it. He did 250 illustrations, and they’re all glorious. He got a bad case of artist’s block, despite the fact that at the same time, he was doing a million other projects. His editor wrote him all these letters begging to just know when the project might finally be finished. A couple of years passed like that, with Kent ignoring letter after letter.
Then Kent went to a really good party, where he met a couple of men who were planning to take a boat from New England to Greenland. Kent signed on as the navigator, even though he couldn’t navigate. He was really bad at it. By the time he was done with that journey, the boat had sunk off the coast of Greenland. They had to be rescued. He walked across Greenland, painting. Then he showed up in Denmark and finished the Moby Dick illustrations.
Melville really did go on a whaling ship, and Kent went on this boat, and I think that they both knew the only way to tell this story is to be on the water. I feel like the pictures are full of salt air and those adventures.
Your next recommendation for the best illustrated novel is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Can you introduce us a little to this novel?
This is one of my favorite novels of all time. It’s about a young orphaned girl who is very unhappy because she lives with cousins who are mistreating her. It’s really interested in the intensity of her perspective, we’re always with her.
Its subtitle in the original Victorian version states that it’s an autobiography, and a lot of Victorians thought that the only way that this could have been written is that it was actually a memoir. They thought that a young woman had actually been an orphan and then actually gone to live in an orphanage and then actually become a governess. I think that speaks to how real the story feels.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
The family sends her to a terrible school, where she’s really unhappy. She grows up there and goes off to be a governess for a Mr. Rochester. They have this really beautiful, really strange, really unexpected romance that plays a lot with power and who’s in charge—by the end of the book, it’s Jane. It’s a real feminist awakening. It’s really great.
Was that unusual for the time, was it rebelling against the current conventions?
I think the Brontës had no patience for a Jane Austen plot that’s simply ‘meet a nice man and marry a nice man.’
Mr. Rochester is not a nice man. Not to spoil it too much, but she only ends up with him because he’s been burnt in a horrible attack by his first wife, and Jane comes back to take care of him. By the time the novel ends, he can’t see. Jane’s going to be his eyes and is clearly going to be in charge of everything.
It also feels radical to take one woman’s perspective so seriously. Jane’s assertions of independence and her sense of self make this book irresistible. It’s a great gift for a twelve-year-old. Growing up, it felt really relevant for that.
Can you please tell us a little more about your recommended illustrated edition?
This one is amazing. It was illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg, a German Jewish artist. He drew anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler cartoons, so he had to flee Germany with his family in the 1930s and start over again in New York. There wasn’t the same tradition of political satire here. His work was much more Expressionist, much harsher, and it just didn’t fit. It took him a really long time to settle in.
In 1942, he was commissioned to illustrate Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. He had never been to England, and he had never read the Brontës before, but he completely occupied Jane’s perspective. He took this young person’s feelings every bit as seriously as Brontë did.
There’s a famous scene early on in the novel where Jane is locked in this red room. Eichenberg did this illustration where the whole room is shaped around her face, and her face is twisting towards the front of the room in a way that doesn’t anatomically make sense. It all feels like that. I love how in love he was with her and how seriously he took her.
Your next recommendation for us is an illustrated edition of Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister, Emily Brontë. Can you tell us a little about this book?
If you’ve ever started reading this book and not gotten further than the first chapter, it’s worth revisiting. It’s very layered. There are a lot of narrators, and there are a lot of people who get to take charge of the story in different ways. It’s about who has the right to tell a story, to tell a love story, and to make a claim to history.
The narrative starts years after the main events of the novel have taken place and then directs us backward to this doomed love affair between Heathcliff and Cathy. It’s about the wildness of the moors and the essential wildness of people. It’s not too polite. It’s dramatic and juicy and wonderful, and it’s one of my favorite novels.
It seems like Victorian literature was a lot more experimental than some people might think.
It’s similar to the way that Moby Dick is such a crazy book and the Modernists fell in love with it. Part of what’s fun about illustrators picking up books from earlier on and putting them in a new situation is that this work ends up in a different artistic and literary context.
This edition of Wuthering Heights came out in 1942, when there had already been this blossoming of Modernism, and there was a lot more respect for the idea that there isn’t one perfect, linear story to tell.
In Wuthering Heights, meaning is really nested together. There’s a moment when Heathcliff knows that his love is dying, and he dashes his head against a tree, and it makes him bleed. But we don’t learn about it from his perspective; we learn about it from the perspective of the caretaker. She’s remembering it, but she doesn’t know exactly what happened. She’s not sure if he hit his head on the tree the night before or if it just happened.
All of the places where you would hinge definite meaning are questioned in a really beautiful way.
Can you tell us more about this illustrated edition?
The edition I’d like to talk about was illustrated by Eichenberg, who did the Jane Eyre we just discussed, although Clare Leighton (who illustrated Return of the Native) also did a Wuthering Heights. Both Leighton and Eichenberg depict that moment by the tree, but they approach it very differently.
There’s something really beautiful about thinking about the repetition of imagery. If we’re both reading Wuthering Heights, we’ll experience it so differently, but we’ll still be occupying the same essential scenes. There’s a wild encounter with barking dogs early on in the novel, and the illustrations really take on some of the energy and strangeness of the novel.
Eichenberg’s Jane Eyre is all about her perspective. His Wuthering Heights is much weirder and more interested in landscape, with the dramatic moors in the background. It’s really gorgeous.
I can’t think about Wuthering Heights without hearing the Kate Bush song in my head.
She picked the right moment in the story. The book is so much about yearning.
One cool thing about Eichenberg is his name literally translates as ‘oak mountain,’ and what he’s doing here is high-level wood engraving work, so he really associated himself with the material, with the wood.
There’s a beautiful set of images in his archives at Yale, where he tore up bits of the prints that he made from Wuthering Heights and collaged them into the shape of his face, and into a profile of his face. I think he associated himself so strongly with these books. He made that collage years after illustrating those books, but they had stayed with him.
He made another self-portrait, where he’s surrounded by the ghosts of authors that he illustrated. One of them is Emily Brontë, and she’s holding this book in front of her. He took it so seriously that he was occupying someone else’s artistic perspective. He was haunted by the experience because it’s such a haunting book.
Your final recommendation for us is an illustrated edition of Persuasion by Jane Austen. Can you introduce us a little to this novel?
This is a beautiful Jane Austen novel. It’s the only one where her heroine is a tiny bit older, which means she’s in her late twenties. It’s a novel about a second chance at love.
Our heroine, Anne, is unmarried, ignored by her family, and taken for granted. When she was younger, she had a brief, fleeting romance with a Captain Wentworth, but a family friend persuaded her not to marry him. The novel takes very seriously the idea of persuasion. What does it mean to be swayed by the people around you? How do you develop your own sense of self? And—as is explored also in Jane Eyre—how do you develop your own sense of sureness about your choices?
The plot launches when Anne gets a second chance to interact with Captain Wentworth. The novel includes what I believe is the most romantic love letter ever written (even though it’s fictional), when Captain Wentworth is trying to figure out whether Anne loves him back.
What does it mean to take persuasion seriously?
Weirdly, towards the end of the book, Austen is equivocal about it. She seems to imply that Anne may have been right, at the time, to take the advice that was given to her, but now she knows her own mind.
I think what Austen takes seriously is characters knowing their own minds, and she does that in Pride and Prejudice and many of her other novels. She lets her characters, particularly the women, change their minds for very specific reasons that combine intellectual motivations and passion motivations, and neither one of those seems to be less important or overly feminized; they’re just profound ways in which we navigate the world.
Can you tell us a little more about the illustrated edition?
All of the other illustrators look 20th century. They look of their moment. This illustrator, Joan Hassall, is a really anachronistic artist. She came up at the same time as Clare Leighton, but all her work looks like it’s from the 19th century. She fell in love with Thomas Bewick, who created a famous history of British birds in which he illustrated every bird down to the most perfect detail.
Of Hassall’s illustrations for Persuasion, there are a couple of full-page ones, but most of them are very small. They’re shuffled in with the text, as if she wants the reader to consume the text and the image at the same time. She papered the outside of the book with special patterns from 18th and 19th century textiles.
The first of this series of books came out in 1957, and it seems as though she wants you to hold one of them and feel that you’re actually holding something from the 19th century, that maybe you’re holding something that Austen could have had a part in.
The 19th century would have felt very far away by then I’m sure.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the first TV adaptations of Austen novels were coming out, and there were movie adaptations as well. When people don’t need illustrations in the same way that they used to, what are they there for? What kind of decoration and direction can they give you?
Even though Hassall illustrated all of Austen’s novels, I chose Persuasion because I think this novel is extraordinary, and because she lets you peek around corners with Anne in a way that I think is really beautiful. There’s an image of Anne eavesdropping on people through some bushes. It’s such a tiny moment, and Hassall is very good at taking tiny little moments like that and expanding them visually.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rosalind Parry is a writer, teacher, and independent scholar. She was a graduate student and then lecturer at Princeton University, and has also taught at Queens College and the Lander College for Women.
Rosalind Parry is a writer, teacher, and independent scholar. She was a graduate student and then lecturer at Princeton University, and has also taught at Queens College and the Lander College for Women.
We ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview.
This site has an archive of more than one thousand seven hundred interviews, or eight thousand book recommendations. We publish at least two new interviews per week.
Five Books participates in the Amazon Associate program and earns money from qualifying purchases.