The Beginning of the Brontës

February 27, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 2 4 min read

Judging by the dresses on display at the Bronte Museum, Charlotte Brontë was less than five feet tall but, like her famous heroine Jane Eyre, she was the opposite of meek. When she was ten years old her brother, Branwell, appeared at her bedroom door with a box of toy soldiers he’d just been given by their father. Charlotte immediately seized a soldier and named him the Duke of Wellington. Her sisters, Emily and Anne, followed suit, naming their soldiers Gravey and the Waiting Boy. Together the four siblings appointed themselves the Genii and dispatched the soldiers to the Glass Town confederacy in Africa. Later Emily and Anne developed the country of Gondal while Charlotte and Branwell created Angria. All four wrote about these imaginary kingdoms. Their passionate juvenilia, much of it according to the Bronte Museum Guide repetitive and poorly spelled, paved the way for the novels we cherish.

coverBut none of their work would have seen the light of day had it not been for Charlotte. At the age of twenty she wrote to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems and professing not merely a desire to write but “to be for ever known.” Southey wrote back, praising her poems and offering his much quoted advice: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” Charlotte replied submissively and, in her fashion, heeded his words. Three years later, when she sent some fiction to Hartley Coleridge, (son of the more famous Samuel) she did so under the name of one of her Angria characters: Charles Townsend.

Coleridge’s discouragement did not deter Charlotte any more than Southey’s. She kept writing poems and stories but without, as far as we know, seeking publication. Then, in 1842, she went with Emily to study French and German in Brussels; the sisters planned to open their own school. Charlotte spent much of the next two years, with and without Emily, at the Pensionnat Heger and developed intense feeling for their married teacher, Constantin Heger. By the time she finally left Brussels, she had much of what she needed, in terms of both skill and subject matter, to create her mature work.

Back at the parsonage, Charlotte came upon a volume of Emily’s verses and, struck by their vigor and originality, decided that the sisters should use some of the money they’d inherited from their aunt to publish a collection. She approached the London publisher Aylott and Jones with poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The sisters chose the somewhat ambiguous pseudonyms, Charlotte later recalled, because of “a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine.” For a cost of fifty pounds an initial print run of 1,000 copies of Poems was published in 1846. (To put this in perspective, Charlotte had Jane as a governess earn thirty pounds a year.) Despite some good reviews, Poems sold two copies.

cover cover Undeterred, hoping to be more commercial, the sisters turned to fiction. By the summer of 1847 Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey had been accepted but Charlotte’s The Professor had still to find a home. While the manuscript was doing the rounds, she had begun a new novel and when, in August of that year, Smith, Elder and Co. sent an encouraging rejection, Charlotte was able to respond as follows.

I now send you per rail a MS. Entitled ‘Jane Eyre,’ a novel in three volumes, by Currer Bell. I find I cannot prepay the carriage of the parcel, as money for that purpose is not received at the small station-house where it is left. If, when you acknowledge the receipt of the MS., you would find the goodness to mention the amount charged on delivery, I will immediately transmit it in postage stamps. It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Bronte, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present. To save trouble, I enclose an envelope.

Jane Eyre was published on October 19th of that year and has remained in print ever since.

cover The details of rejection, of worrying about postage and communication, will surely be familiar to many contemporary writers. What is completely unfamiliar is the speed of publication. Of course publishers can still produce books with alacrity, as we see every year when topical books appear with lightning speed, but for most authors the wait between submission and publication is closer to two years than two months. My own novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, appeared eighteen months after I sent it to my agent.

According to an article in the New York Times the single biggest reason for this tortoise-like pace is marketing. Smith, Elder and Co. was not trying to create a buzz about Jane Eyre; their job was simply to print, distribute, and hope for the best. And in Charlotte’s case the best happened. Jane Eyre was published to huge acclaim and some shouts of moral outrage which probably only increased sales. But nowadays the sheer number of books forces bookshops, reviewers, and readers to make difficult choices; publishers try to influence those choices by creating a buzz and that takes time.  (And of course publishers, too, are making choices: which books will they single out for extra attention.) For the writer these delays have the incidental side effect that most new projects are begun not with total concentration but amid distractions, few or many, internal or external, on behalf of the previous work.

Whatever the buzz, very few writers achieve Charlotte’s success. And very few suffer the subsequent loss of three family members. Branwell died in September 1848, and was soon followed by first Emily, then Anne.

Last December at the Bronte Museum, I stood in the doorway of the modest dining room and pictured Charlotte, aged twenty, circling the table with her sisters, talking about the stories and poems that made their lives vivid, and then, aged thirty-three, walking around that table alone. But happily Charlotte’s life changed again. She found companionship with her father’s curate. She and Arthur Nichols were married in June 1854. In her last letter, written shortly before she died nine months later, Charlotte might have been copying her famous description of Jane and Rochester’s blissful marriage. “No kinder, better husband than mine, it seems to me, there can be in the world. I do not want now for kind companionship in health and the tenderest nursing in sickness.” How wonderful that her life at last imitated her art, however briefly.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands and teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She is the author of a collection of stories, nine novels and a collection of essays about writing.  Her new novel, The Road from Belhaven, will be published in February.