The disturbing world of Jane Eyre in paperback

I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

I’ve never come across any really good paperback designs for the Bronte books – they must exist somewhere, but not here, not today. A key fact about Jane Eyre is that Jane is, in that word all the more crushing because it usually applies to scones, plain – and all the better for it. It’s also a story about misfits and mental illness.

Not all these things get considered when it comes to Jane Eyre in paperback (click to enlarge image). It starts to go wrong in the forties (top left): a waxenly sophisticated blue-eyed Jane is pursued by what seems to be a friendly-looking science teacher. But by the early sixties (top, second left) she has morphed into a voluptuous Hammer Horror beauty pursued by a lecherous werewolf.

By the eighties (bottom left) we’re back on plainer ground – Jane has turned into an enormous carpet bag, and Jenny Agutter from The Railway Children has wandered in, attracted by the gothic railway station posing as Thornfield.

Another sixties version (bottom, second left) is trying harder, with an effective Bertha Mason gazing wanly out at us. But while the Jane in the background looks suitably thwarted, judging by her gaze and expression it’s all due to an unsuitable green glove.

Moving into the seventies (bottom, second right) and at last someone has the sense to really get to the theme at the heart of the novel – the gigantic moth of doom which follows any plain governesses intent on wedlock. Rochester knows what’s going on and assumes a look of resignation.

We’re back to vampires for the Pan version (top right), or indeed something more sinister; while the Everyman Library artiness (bottom right) is pretty good, though I’m assuming this is Grace Poole – the only possible candidate for an octagenarian in the novel, but I could be wrong.

The Signet version is the one I like, and that’s because even though Jane appears more like a Russian countess, she’s looking miserably enigmatic, and so is Rochester. It’s also dark, fluid and stylised in a particular type of illustration that’s perfectly of its era.

Evelyn Waugh and the paperback cover

Penguin first produced this series of Waugh paperbacks in the early 1970s, and they stayed in print well into the 1980s. They all featured a matt card cover, which set them apart from other titles, and added to the vintage feel. But they’re also quite psychedelic with pop-art that seems to have stepped out of the cover of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album.

An interest in Art Deco flourished at the end of the sixties with a major exhibition in the United States in 1971. Not long after there was the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. A lot of seventies design features influences from the twenties and thirties, and took the past way into the future.

The font and layout of ‘Evelyn Waugh’ is as sophisticated as any brand or logo today, bleeding into the image. These covers are a perfect blend of old and the (then) new in absorbing the contemporary trademarks of the late sixties and mixing them with a more authentic feel of the thirties. Often we see shiny, mirrored, silvery interpretations of the thirties today, but here are browns, oranges, sepia, artificial blues and greens; the matt surface of interwar printed materials (no shiny laminates before the war); and the popular wallpaper design motifs of ordinary sitting rooms.

The images all ‘explain’ too – from Brideshead Revisted‘s poppy-filled memories of an idyll, to Brenda Last’s open door to ‘freedom’ in A Handful of Dust, and the shambolic Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and Fall.

Thomas Hardy and the paperback cover

Macmillan published a whole series of Hardy paperbacks around 1975. Stylised illustration had given way to making use of full-colour photography (no-one bothers to say full-colour now of course, because it’s cheap and easy, but it wasn’t back then – it was still a bit special). Bleed-off edges keep everything uncluttered and simple, with one of those fonts that managed to look both ancient and modern at the same time. Key characters were posed in various outdoor settings, with lots of natural light. (Click to enlarge.)

I think ‘being outdoors’ was a feature of this sort of image – I keep thinking of Jarvis Cocker’s lyric about ‘lemonade light’, probably because he draws heavily on the 70s, but also because it suggests lens flare, and those washed out, coloured circles of light. Of which there aren’t any here, but it’s the kind of thing that characterises the era for me.

Again these are treading a fine line – a little too much in one direction and it could be Hardy as pulp romance. There are a few fine images here though – I think Return of the Native is great with its perfect perspective capture of Egdon Heath, as is The Trumpet-Major with the Osmington Horse in the background. Both The Mayor of Casterbridge, with its grim respectability, and Far from the Madding Crowd, with clever use of a fan to suggest Bathsheba’s flighty aspirations, are just as good.

Then things start to fall apart. Tess is just a bit dull; Under the Greenwood Tree has a bright summer haze, but it’s the start of taking the titles all a bit literally instead of imaginatively… and then there’s a raid on the BBC props department. Two on a Tower? Just that. The Hand of Ethelberta? (Monty-Python-esque as a title at the best of times, but go on, give me your hand woman!)… and then it’s just random thespians adrift in the park.

H E Bates and the paperback cover

I love H E Bates. His short stories are perfect examples of drowsy, bee-filled summers or glowing winter afternoons, and full of bittersweet melancholia not unlike Hardy shorn of some melodrama. Incredibly prolific and versatile (which, along with The Darling Buds of May is probably a reason why he’s not allowed to be admitted as one of our literary greats), his stories often, and perhaps surprisingly, centre on outsiders, the downtrodden, the innocent, where circumstance is quicksand. You’re quite likely to find a patriarch crushing his wife’s lesbian idyll, or a husband humiliated by his gin-sodden wife finding release with the village lad she attempts to devour.

I imagine publishers were keen to exploit his sense of liberated, almost pagan sensuality that finds outlets amid the sourness in small English towns and villages (see The Sleepless Moon – illicit meetings by a disused mill, bare legs and – well, I imagine the first sketch was sent back with a request to ‘cover things up a bit’). As such, on some occasions his other paperback covers almost depicted that seventies male-fantasy, the ‘dolly-bird’. Dulcima is interesting here: Carol White, who appears on the cover, took the role of a downtrodden country girl in the 1970 film with John Mills. Known for Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, she was a respected dirty-realism actress who ironically wanted the Hollywood glitz instead, dying young in its failed pursuit. Despite attempts with the bed and the bath towel, due to her skill as an actress this film-still cover tells us something quite different: about hope and hopelessness, frustration and resignation.

It’s hard to describe the particular sensibility in these covers: they occupy a particular space of time from the late sixties into early seventies. These are interesting faces, enigmatic characters whose images have to tread a fine line in making sure they aren’t sending out Trojan horses to poison romantic fantasies. There is resignation to lamplit gloom in Glenda Jackson’s The Triple Echo; and the girl in the The Four Beauties is no-one’s fool – here is freedom, independence.

Apart from the odd one out of course. That’s A E Coppard marketed as shampoo. With a slug.