Diary: Kathryn Davis on Jane Eyre, Classics Illustrated No. 39

The Cutters lived around the block, meaning Jennifer Cutter wasn’t in my circle of friends. I don’t remember how I got to know her, since we didn’t go to the same elementary school or the same church. I remember her family thee-ed and thou-ed—maybe they were Amish? Once a week a farmer arrived on our street with eggs and scrapple and shoofly pie from Lancaster County, which was where the Amish lived. It’s also possible the Cutters were Quaker. I can’t remember what Jennifer looked like. I really can’t. It’s almost as if I never actually looked at her. Nor can I remember her house—aside from the third floor, where the comic books were stored. It’s as if my recollection of Jennifer Cutter is as poorly drawn as the images in the Classic Comic Books the Cutter’s attic was filled with from floor to ceiling. The attic was dark, the walls unfinished. There were rafters, no windows. In order to see what you were reading you needed a flashlight. Possibly I’m merely imagining how dark it was.

The first Classic Comic was printed in 1941; it was the brainchild of Albert Lewis Kanter, who saw it as a way of introducing reluctant young readers to great literature. Its debut issue, under the banner “Classic Comics Presents” was The Three Musketeers, followed by Ivanhoe and The Count of Monte Cristo. Jane Eyre didn’t come along until 1947; by that time the series’ name had been changed to Classics Illustrated. Nowadays these earliest editions are prized for their garish and highly collectible line-drawn covers.

There seem to have been two versions of a cover for the 1947 edition of Jane Eyre. In one of them Mr. Rochester looks a little like Dick Powell dressed like a dandy, delicately warding off encroaching flames. The second cover shows Bertha Antoinetta Mason (i.e. the novel’s Mrs. Rochester), a deranged redhead with large breasts and legs like a hockey goalie’s, baring something resembling fangs as two men attempt to restrain her from attacking a priest. The latter is the cover I remember from the Cutters’ attic.

I loved Jane Eyre. Even though I had a mother and a father and a little sister, I strongly identified with Jane as an orphan, nor have I turned out to be alone in equating my sense of alienation—of being exceptional, a misfit, a sprite, a “poor and obscure … small and plain” creature who spoke her own mind, who was more intelligent than everyone else, etc., etc.—with that condition. Over the years I’ve discovered many fellow orphans among my writer friends and students. Of course the complexities of Jane Eyre’s situation and psyche were only dimly revealed to me in Classics Illustrated No. 39. It’s not just that Jane Eyre looked like Debbie Reynolds. It’s also that the artist who drew her for Classics Illustrated No. 39 couldn’t draw hands. In retrospect I realize that in the shadow-strewn attic of memory I’ve confused the draftsmanship of the Classic Comic Books’ artist with that of Hal Foster, a much better artist, who drew Prince Valiant.

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The house I lived in as a girl didn’t have an attic, nor did it have inside it any Classic Comics, since my mother considered them an abomination, forbidding me to so much as dream of reading, let alone owning a single copy. In compensation she gave me the beautiful Rainbow Classics matched set of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights for my tenth birthday. At about this time she also got a job painting custom lampshades for a woman named Florence North who had an interior decorating business I’d pass on my way to and from school, and there was a large barn behind the shop where a man named Eugene “distressed” pieces of furniture by hitting them with a chain. On my way home I liked to stop there and climb the stairs from the first floor of the barn to the loft. As I climbed it would get darker, and the smell of the barn—of what it had used to be filled with—got stronger. Instead of an attic, a barn! In the city of Philadelphia! There was a little window at the head of the stairs and I could sit there on the top step, reading in the dim, flashlight-like light. I could think I was a little girl in a barn. I could see myself, a child, reading.

Jane Eyre, as written by Charlotte Brontë, begins temperately: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning.” Whereas Classics Illustrated No. 39, as retold by Harry Glickman, starts with a yellow narrative box announcing “Presently Jane entered the room,” followed by the words “Here comes that little brat” emerging from a speech balloon above the head of one of the ghastly Reed children, Jane’s first, terrible charges.

I think what Classics Illustrated No. 39 made overt was the melodramatic undercurrent of the story, its forbidden nature exemplified by the outrageous cover art, though obscured by the genuinely inexplicable plight of the cute blond girl who finds herself in a house inhabited by a master with an oddly mutable face, interrupted at all times of the day and night by crazed sounds of laughter that turn out to be emanating from a person eventually described to Jane in a speech balloon as a “rather large, mad-looking woman.”

There is something genuinely subversive about the act of reading, of being a reader. I think it’s what makes people angry, makes them say things like “If you’re not busy, could you at least get up and [fill in the blank with an odious activity that requires leaving the book behind]?” Classics Illustrated No. 39 awakened in me an exhilarated sense of something like terror—a feeling conflating an encounter with literature with the privileged form of terror you bring on yourself, the Cutters’ attic with the second floor of Florence North’s barn, with getting lost (that is, losing yourself) in a book. You lose yourself and yet yourself becomes something different. It’s not like identifying with a character. My formative encounter with Classics made that clear. When I looked down upon myself reading it wasn’t my mind’s eye that was in operation; in these moments I was something else, not a child. I was an orphan, in need of nothing from any other human being except to be left alone.

Kathryn Davis is the author of eight novels, most recently The Silk Road, which appeared in paperback last summer. Her memoir, Aurelia, Aurélia, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press next spring.

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