Rachel Ray was commissioned by the Reverend Norman MacLeod, editor of Good Words, the magazine of the Evangelical Society in 1862. Millais was commissioned to illustrate the serial as it appeared in the magazine.
For reasons which will become apparent, MacLeod chickened out of publishing the novel after it had been written but before Millais had completed the illustrations. In consequence Trollope sold the rights for the publication of the novel to Chapman and Hall and it was published with the above illustration by Millais as its sole illustration and frontispiece. The Trollope Society’s edition of the novel follows this approach, using that illustration alone.
The naturalism and realism of the illustration is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which Millais was a prominent member. Their stated aim was to get away from the contrived, painterly style which was in vogue in the early Victorian period and get back to what they perceived to be the more honest depictions of painters before art took a wrong turn, as they saw it, through Raphael and the mechanistic imitations of his successors. They reserved particular scorn for the influence of the Royal Academy and its leading light Sir Joshua Reynolds whom they nicknamed “Sir Sloshua” an unsubtle dig at what they regarded as the excesses of his style.
They sought to return to the attention to detail and accuracy in the depictions which they felt had been lost in this focus on form and style over content. There was frequently a religious or quasi-religious tone to their work reflecting the outlook of the leading critic John Ruskin who championed their work as well as a desire to accurately depict nature.
Millais’s work such as Christ in the House of His Parents (below) was shocking to the mid-Victorians of 1850.
Dickens deplored the ugliness and squalor of the people and the scene. How could such a depiction be appropriately uplifting of the religious spirit in the viewer.
Millais subsequently came to focus on the realism rather than the pseudo-Medievalism and religiosity of the Brotherhood. His later work was hugely successful commercially and appealed, perhaps, to the maudlin sentimentality of the late-Victorian public. This is typified by the painting Bubbles (below), which was later adapted for commercial use by Pears soap makers.
Millais was, therefore, a commercially attractive partner for Chapman and Hall to use to produce the frontispiece for the first edition of Rachel Ray in 1863. The scene which Millais chose to illustrate is when Rachel at a low point in her courtship by the brewer, Luke Rowan. She has walked alone to a spot by a stile where she and Rowan had talked previously and sits in a pensive mood, captured by Millais in his illustration. This scene is also depicted in the Folio Society edition, drawn by David Eccles. He, however, has chosen to illustrate the landscape in which she is only a small feature, rather than the portrait approach of Millais. This might be a reflection that at that point Rachel is seeking, without success, to recapture the wonders of nature conjured up for her by Rowan in his description of the countryside around them in that earlier scene on which she is pondering.
This image is unique in the 16 drawn by Eccles in that all the others feature close ups of the human actors of the story. Indeed, he captures the intimacy of the waltz from the Tappit’s ballroom scene to which MacLeod strongly objected. Not only does the man hold the woman particularly close in this style of dance – Rowan’s arm is around Rachel and his hand can be seen clearly holding Rachel’s waist – which is shocking to the puritanical morals of the evangelicals but they are so close that their faces are almost touching and the expression of unashamed enjoyment on his part and more muted but nevertheless most willing submission to the man’s embrace on her part is very evident.
Eccles also depicts the evangelical Reverend Prong as he proposes to Rachel’s widowed elder sister Mrs Prime and captures the hypocrisy of his character in declaring that “as regards money,… my motives are pure and disinterested” when they are anything but. Trollope’s unflattering portrayal of the evangelical clergyman no doubt also contributed to MacLeod’s decision not to publish the novel in Good Words magazine.
Eccles has chosen to depict the characters with an exaggerated style which, though it stops well-short of caricature, is significantly less natural than that used by Millais. In this respect it is almost Victorian – harking back towards the caricatured approach of Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). The sly nature of the sanctimonious clergyman’s wooing the wealthy widow is very evident in his expression.
Eccles provided illustrations for no other Trollope novel in the Folio Society editions so we must look outside for other examples of his work to give his illustrations for Rachel Ray context. He has illustrated Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, also for the Folio Society, and here he adopted an explicitly cartoon strip style. This approach, which strips away extraneous detail, focuses the reader on the key points – often with particular emphasis on facial expressions to give very direct clues to the internal emotions or workings of the characters’ minds.
This approach may be seen as highly suitable for Trollope in the satirical vein in which he approached Rachel Ray. Trollope observed that he could never depict the world of work through the medium of the “operatives” – the new urban working class who manned the factories in the way that Dickens was able to do so effectively in Hard Times, slaving in entrepreneur Thomas Gradgrind’s Coketown factories. Yet, in Luke Rowan, Trollope created perhaps his only example of a true businessman who was capable of getting his hands dirty in the furtherance of his (beer) manufacturing enterprise and did so with deftness and a genuine feel for his character. Eccles in depicting Rowan and others in the novel with their thinking and feelings writ plain on their faces provides support for the author’s broader intentions in this novel in a way that succeeds here but which might jar where Trollope paints more nuanced portraits of his characters in his more subtle explorations of the middle classes in certain other novels.