Illuminated initial I

llustrators of the 1860s routinely visualized both poetry and prose, but Edwards was probably at her strongest in the interpretation of fiction. Some of her work was to designed to service Braddon’s sensational work in Belgravia. She illustrated Birds of Prey in 1866–67, but her illustrations lack the febrile energy of George Du Maurier’s images for Adam’s The Notting Hill Mystery (Once a Week, 1862–63) or Barnes’s for Reade’s Put yourself in His Place (The Cornhill, 1869–70). Edwards was much better suited to Trollope, there being a fundamental similarity between his notion of domestic life and deep feeling and her own, and for George Smith, the proprietor of The Cornhill Magazine, she seemed a natural choice as the illustrator of The Claverings (1866–67). Acutely aware of the need to construct gainful collaborations (Cooke, Illustrated Periodicals, 119–21), Smith was the driving force behind his arrangement; however, Trollope makes no mention of Edwards in his Autobiography, and there was no direct consultation between them. Edwards seems to have been free to choose the subjects to illustrate and the manner in which she showed them; the result is one of the most interesting, and neglected, dual texts of the period. The work has been considered by N. John Hall in his Trollope and His Illustrators (1980), but he does not consider the intricate textures of the artist’s response.

Trollope’s text is well-served by Edwards because his writing provides a series of opportunities for her to focus some of her primary interests. As noted in the section above, she was adept at combining social observation with the representation of her female characters’ psychology, and this approach is especially effective in depicting both the circumstances and the decline of the central figure, Lady Ongar. The novel is concerned with Julia Brabazon’s marriage to Lord Ongar purely, as Trollope puts it, for ‘money and rank’ (Autobiography, II, 2), and the consequences of her actions are the focus of the illustrations.

The situation is well-depicted in the opening, proleptic design, which represents the wedding and leads the reader through the opening instalment (February 1866) to the climactic final two pages. Lady Ongar is represented as a self-assured, monumental figure who casts a disdainful glance to one side, the embodiment of female power and an unambiguous sign of a woman who has taken her control of her own situation (The Cornhill, 13: facing 129). Lord Ongar, on the other hand, is a typical Edwards man: Hall comments on the ‘two-dimensional’ (105) nature of her male characters, and as in many of her designs the bridegroom is shown as a fragile form, overwhelmed by the muscular lines of his bride’s gown; she is young and vigorous, described as ‘strong lass’, and he is ‘a puir feckless thing, tottering along [with] not half the makings of a man (152). Indeed, Edwards reverses gender roles, stretching the notion of propriety and challenging stereotypical notions of femininity. For example, Julia’s face is unambiguously cold and detached: far from appearing either passive or innocent in the sense of being the blushing bride, her face conveys a strong sense of self-hood. The bride is traditionally shown in Victorian art as the bride-groom’s accessory, but here the situation is inverted.

However, this first, brazen appearance of the controlling Julia Brabazon is highly ambiguous, and Edwards enriches the text by reflecting on the sexual implications of such a marriage. While never mentioning Julia’s sexuality, Trollope loads his description of the wedding with erotic inferences. Edwards, though, makes them if not explicit, then at least more noticeable. The author speaks of ‘lusty bells’ (152), but the illustration suggests the bride’s carnal desire in the form of her perfect figure and intense beauty. At the same time, Trollope implies their marriage will be sexless, noting there was ‘no ecstatic joy’ or ‘real rejoicing’ in the parish; there will be no bonfires, no ‘comfort’. All we have is the impotent ‘half a man’ (152), though even then Edwards manipulates the focus. Though described in the text as infirm, Trollope specifies in his Autobiography that Lord Ongar is a ‘worn out debauchee’ (II,2), and in her illustration the artist endows him with a salacious expression as he views his prize: the male gaze controls the female object, the subject of visual possession, he has just purchased. What at first seems something of a female triumph is converted into a resonant sign, as in so much of her art, of womanly suffering. We can only speculate on the sexual depredations she will experience, and this is implicitly presented as one of the results of marrying for money rather than love.

Edwards’s opening design is thus skilfully deployed as a sort of paradoxical scene in which the cold-hearted bride is established as a strong character who is yet to be pitied. Edwards cleverly sets the tone and in subsequent designs charts the complexity of the situation. Trollope explains how the novel unfolds in his Autobiography, noting how

The chief character is that of a young woman who has married so manifestly for money and rank that she does not even pretend, even while she is making the marriage, that she has any other reason … Then comes the punishment natural to the offence [of not being able to marry Harry]. But she is strong – strong in her purpose, strong in her desires, and strong in her consciousness that the punishment which comes upon her has been deserved [II, 2].

This ‘consciousness’ informs Edwards’s portrayals of Julia as she realizes the emptiness of her wealth following her husband’s death. Isolated and withdrawn, she is shown as a self-contained figure reflecting on the pointlessness of her life, especially in Was not the price in her hand (Cornhill 13: facing 513), the initial that opens Chapter XVI (14:85) and Lady Ongar, you are too near the edge’ (14: facing 385). In the last of these Edwards shows her character as an archetypal figure of grief, withdrawn into the monumental outlines of her dress in the manner of illustrations by Sandys. The same approach is applied to Florence Burton, and both sets of women as depicted as women of sorrows. This situation resolves itself in the melancholy double-portrait of Lady Ongar and Florence (15: facing 513). In this, the closing design, and as in the best of her illustrations for Trollope, Edwards offers a convincing and often very moving representation of the psychology of women who, however assertive or tough-minded, are imprisoned by the conventions of their time.

Edwards’s illustrations for The Claverings are apposite, challenging, and surprising. They very much confirm the overall effect of suffering and sourness that made the novel unpopular, and materially contributed to its honest assessment of the predicaments of female experience. Most of all, they enhanced the hard-hitting portrait of Lady Ongar. A contemporary noted that ‘the most powerful chapters are those in which [the character’s] feelings are analysed’ (London Review, 547), though without the illustrations the effect would be diminished.

Taken as a whole Edwards contributed a distinctive voice to the ensemble known as The Sixties. If Reid and other critics found her uninteresting, then it is possible to view her afresh as a major artist of small dramas and intimate suffering.


I am greatly indebted to Mr Alan Hart for permission to use material from his excellent website charting the Meadows family. The site gives much additional biographical information on Mary Ellen, as well as details on her later work in the period after the sixties. The address is: her family

Primary Works Cited

The Argosy (1868).

Braddon, M. E. Birds of Prey. Belgravia 2 (June 1867). Co-illustrated by Braddon.

The Churchman’s Family Magazine (1863–64).

Good Words (1866).

The Graphic (1869–80).

Idyllic Pictures. London: Cassell, Petter, & Galpin, 1867. Co-illustrated by Edwards.

The Illustrated Times (1867).

Lever, Charles. The Bramleighs of Bishop’s Folly. The Cornhill Magazine 15 (June, 1867): pp. 640-664; 16 (July-December 1867): 1-666; 17 (January-June 1868): 70-663; 18 (July-October 1868): 1-403. Rpt. London: Chapman & Hall, 1872. Illustrated by M. E. Edwards; engraved by Joseph Swain.

Once a Week (1865–68).

The Quiver (1864–68).

The Sunday Magazine (1865).

Trollope, Anthony. The Claverings. The Cornhill Magazine 13–15 (1866–67).

Secondary Works Cited

[Anon] ‘The Claverings.London Review 14 (11 May 1867): p.547.

Cherry, Deborah. Victorian Woman Artists. London: Routledge, 1993.

Clayton, Ellen C. English Female Artists. 2 Vols. London: Tinsley, 1876.

Cooke, Simon. Illustrated Periodicals of the 1860s. London: British Library, 2010.

Engen, Rodney. Exhibition of Proof Wood Engravings at the Mendez Gallery. Stroud: Hodgkins, 1986.

Garrigan, Kristine Ottesen. ‘Women Artists.’ Victorian Britain: An Encyclopaedia. Ed. Sally Mitchell. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011. Pp. 864–866.

Gerrish Nunn, Pamela. Victorian Women Artists. London: The Women’s Press, 1987.

Hall, N. John. Trollope and His Illustrators. New York: St Martins Press, 1980.

The Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury. 8 August 1868. P. 7.

Reid, Forrest. Illustrators of the Eighteen Sixties. 1928; rpt. New York: Dover, 1975.

Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. 2 Vols. London: Blackwood, 1883.

White, Gleeson. English Illustration: The Sixties, 1855–70. 1897; rpt. Bath: Kingsmead, 1970.

Created 7 September 2014

last modified 6 September 2023