Monday, February 7, 2022

Time Travel Diary: Victorian Novels with Pretty Covers


My love of Victorian literature began with Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, which my mother bought for me on a "just-us-girls" trip to the bookstore.  I had never read anything like it:  it provided a transition from the whimsical children's fantasies of  E. Nesbit  to the Victorian novels that have at times dominated my adult reading.  And Jane Eyre was followed by the discovery of other masterpieces, the dazzling Villette, Wuthering Heights, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Even now, I never tire of Bronte's Gothics and Hardy's "loam-and-love-child" tragedies. The tropes are common in the 19th century but spellbinding:  the heroines learn at the altar that their fiancé has a mad wife in the attic; they are terrified when they see the ghost of a nun in a school attic (Charlotte Bronte had a thing about attics);  they abandon a soulmate for a more biddable mate; and are ruined by an unwanted pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Although these books do not center on the marriage plot, the importance of marriage is never far from our consciousness. We are ensorcelled by Jane's defiance and independence, Lucy's quiet determination, Catherine's willful, impulsive spirits, and indignant on behalf of Tess, who, in retrospect, may have inspired my abortion rights work.


Victorian aficionados always have more reading to do.  When I briefly moved in with Dad, who worked the night shift and dated on the weekends, my Victorian lit enthusiasm increased. My unsupervised evenings were divided between baking Pillsbury cookies and reading everything I could find by Hardy and Dickens.
Once an honors student, I gave up homework altogether. (One wonders if Dad even read my report card.) I was too busy with Bleak House and Jude the Obscure to complete more than one school assignment that year:  I  remember grudgingly skimming The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for English class, and comparing it unfavorably with David Copperfield


In my twenties, I fantasized about time travel to an ultra-green 19th-century England, where Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Jude Hawley, Jane Eyre, and Esther Summerson lived in imagination.  I hope to get there one day (after I get my time machine); at the moment, I am that irritating person who collects multiple copies of Victorian novels.  These are not first editions; they are reading copies with pretty covers. There are so many gorgeous covers for Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd.  I also have a soft spot for the Heritage Book Club editions of Hardy, illustrated with woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker.  

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Heritage Press edition), illustration by Agnes Miller Parker

In general I'm a paperback girl, but a few years ago I acquired a Folio Society edition of Jane Eyre with dramatic illustrations by Santiago Caruso
that I actually find a little eerie.  I also have the Folio Society edition of Wuthering Heights, because Patti Smith wrote the introduction.  A perfect pair.

The Folio Society editions may be collectibles for the shelf, but my original paperback copy of Jane Eyre still has a place of honor.


  1. I still remember my family's copies of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. They were hardbound editions from the 1940s and had dramatic woodcut illustrations. My dream is to find copies in a used bookstore, but I might have to wait till I'm flush and buy them online someday.

    1. Liz, I know those copies. I have seen them at used bookstores. I don't have them either, but they were not particularly costly - then!

  2. Wonderful books. Thanks for the post. G

  3. I totally understand having multiple copies of the same book simply because you like the different covers. I do the same thing, even when shelf space is scarce!
    I am much impressed by your love of the Victorian novel. I like 19th century literature quite a bit but not anywhere approaching this level. Also my mix of authors is slightly different; less less Bronte and more Jane Austen, if that makes any sense. I've never gotten on with Dickens, I must admit (I do love Bleak House and gained an increased respect for Great Expectations a few years ago from a class in the Victorian novel). I also really enjoy Trollope, although I haven't read in in some years.

    1. There are so many brilliant Victorians, and I love the ones you mention. Heavens, I must make up for lost time with The Last Man and get going on a REAL 19th-century classic. If I could turn back time...

  4. I can relate so much, Kat!

    I took an AP English class in high school and read very few of the books assigned because I had my own reading path to follow. I had been thinking that AP English would be my thing, but I was far too interested in reading what I wanted to read -- lots of Hardy, John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy. I wrote papers on several books I didn't read for that class -- including A Tale of Two Cities. I only started reading Dickens a few years ago, and have yet to read ATOTC. But David Copperfield and Great Expectations were wonderful. I have a friend who swears by Our Mutual Friend. That may be my next Dickens.

    But I tore through everything by Hardy. I bought a copy of Tess at Joseph-Beth Books in Lexington, Kentucky, one Christmas after John Irving mentioned it in A Prayer for Owen Meaning. On the drive back to Michigan we stayed with friends in Indiana, and I cracked the spine of the Penguin edition of Tess of the d'Urbervilles that evening and was spellbound and entranced. I'm not sure what it was -- maybe, as you mention, without a time machine, it was the closest thing to time travel. And to a bucolic world where the time was measured by seasons and moons, and old pagan beliefs and rites still survived.

    I still have that Penguin edition, and have owned other editions of Tess. But I'm even "worse" -- I often buy copies of that same or similar edition of Tess -- some with old orange Penguin spines, but my original was the black spine with the red stripe at the top and a painting of Stonehenge on the cover.

    Oddly, too, my other favorite Hardy was The Trumpet Major. If I were to reread that one today I might find the melodrama pretty thick. But I even remember one critic, not anti-Hardy at all, who said that the Victorian trope of the villain twirling his mustache is present in Alec d'Urberville. Sort of true -- yet there is such a depth to Tess, and the language is absolutely sublime.

    Did you ever read any of Hardy's short stories? "The Three Strangers" in Wessex Tales is a favorite.

    I am reading a lot of the moderns in recent years -- Woolf, Joyce, Nabokov, Alice Munro, and lots of European writers - but Jane Eyre and Villette call to me from my shelves, in well-worn and well-loved Penguin editions, lovingly used, with their bindings and pages already softened and ready to read. I'm overdue!!! Especially since Jean Rhys's Wild Sargasso Sea also calls to me, and I gather it would be helpful to know Jane Eyre to understand it all the better!

    1. Holden Caulfield loved Eustacia Vye. That's how I discovered Hardy, through graces of Catcher in the Rye. I did read Hardy's tales and should take a second look. The Trumpet Major left little impression, but I do have an attractive Folio Society edition ($3 at a used bookstore).

      I can't weed my multiple copies, so am relieved other people also "collect." For part of 2020 the library was closed so we couldn't donate old books. I took my extra copies of Hardy out of the box and put them back on the shelf!

      Well, you can't go wrong with the authors you mention! I do like the writers fo the 20th century. You'll love JE. Just don't watch any of the Jane Eyre movies. They will put you off the Brontes.

      Sorry it took me so long to find this comment.