February 13th, 2010
In the first chapter of Jane Eyre, Jane reads a book called A History of British Birds. The book is important to the text in a few ways—it introduces a number of Gothic elements to the text in a tricksy way, slipping the arctic shipwrecks and bedeviled criminals in under cover of an apparently innocent ornithological subject, and of course, it’s also the book that the wicked John Reed wings at Jane’s head, making her bleed and provoking the terrifying experience of the red room.
I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds: the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories” by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape . . . .
Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking. . . .
With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way.
Turns out, both volumes of Bewick’s are available via Google Books (volume one, volume two). And oh man, are the illustrations bizarre. Here’s what Jane was looking at, crammed in at the ends of pages to fill up space.
….and here’s my favorite, the disembodied, tourniqueted lobster claw of artistry:
Charles Dickens, or someone writing for him in All the Year Round, also found Bewick’s engavings interesting (scroll down half a page), though he doesn’t really know what to make of the WONDERFUL FISH either.