Do you ever wonder about the beginning of a writing career, such as that of the brilliant writer Charlotte Bronte? Most of us would assume that she had unimaginable hurdles because of the time and place in which she wrote. And that was true. She lived in the nineteenth-century when women were generally not published authors. She grew up in the remote depths of Yorkshire, England in a parsonage with her clergyman father Patrick Bronte and her three brilliant and troubled siblings Emily, Anne and Branwell. Their lives were filled with tragedy. All of them died young: Anne at 29, Emily at 30, and Branwell at 31. Charlotte herself died at 38, just two months after getting married. And yet she and her sisters wrote classic novels that will live forever.
This past weekend was cold and rainy here in Los Angeles and I spent some quiet time browsing through my bookshelves. I love doing this because either I get reacquainted with some old friends or discover some new ones. In this case the book I took down was one I had bought many years ago but had never given much attention to. There was a time when I bought everything I could find on the Bronte family and consequently have a pretty big collection of books about them. I especially loved Juliet Barker's biography from 1994 which was reissued a couple of years ago. (Go here to read more.) The book that caught my eye over the weekend was The World Within, The Brontes at Haworth by Juliet Gardiner, published in 1992. It is filled with letters, diaries and writings by the Brontes. Dipping into it, I was reminded of the challenging beginnings of one of the most brilliant and short writing careers, that of Charlotte Bronte. I came upon some fascinating quotes by Charlotte and others about the beginning of her career and the difficulty of getting published. Here are a few of the most revealing:
"We had very early cherished the dream of one day becoming authors. This dream, never relinquished even when distance divided and absorbing tasks occupied us, now suddenly acquired strength and consistence: it took the character of a resolve. We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and, if possible, get them printed."
After much trouble finding a publisher, the sisters finally found one that would take them on and the poems were published at the end of May, 1846. The title page read: "Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell." Charlotte wrote:
"Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell: the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because, without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' -- we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice..."
The poems were not a great success. Out of an initial run of 1,000 copies, only two were sold. But the sisters weren't discouraged. They were each writing a novel and Charlotte had written to their publisher to consider taking that on as well. Either as a work of three volumes, or separately as single volumes. The books were The Professor by Charlotte, Agnes Grey by Anne and Wuthering Heights by Emily. Their publisher declined and was one of several who missed out on publishing one of the most famous works in English literature.
Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were eventually accepted by a publisher, though The Professor was not. Fortunately Charlotte had another book in waiting and it was Jane Eyre. She finished it while taking care of her father who was recovering from cataract surgery. She sent the manuscript off to Smith, Elder & Co. on August 24, 1847. George Smith was so captivated by it that he read it in one sitting, canceling all appointments for the day and refusing to go to bed until he had finished. Six weeks later on October 16, 1847, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published. It was an instant success.
William Makepeace Thackeray, upon finishing it, wrote to the publisher George Smith:
"I wish you had not sent me 'Jane Eyre.' It interested me so much that I have lost...a whole day in reading it at the busiest period with the printers wailing for copy. Who the author can be I can't guess, if a woman she knows her language better than most ladies do, or has had a classical education. It is a fine book...some of the love passages made me cry, to the astonishment of John, who came in with the coals...I don't know why I tell you this but I have been exceedingly moved and pleased by 'Jane Eyre.' It is a woman's writing, but whose? Give my respects and thanks to the author, whose novel is the first English one...that I've been able to read for many a day."
A reviewer for one of the biggest British magazines called it:
"One of the most powerful domestic romances which has been published for many years...it is full of youthful vigor, of freshness and originality, of nervous diction and concentrated interest...It is a book to make the pulses gallop and the heart beat, and to fill the eyes with tears."
For a long time Charlotte's family and friends had no idea that she was the writer of Jane Eyre. Her brother died without ever knowing that his sisters had published any writing. It was a while before she told even her closest friend Ellen Nussey. But it was not until January, 1848 when Charlotte saw an elderly gentlemen reading Jane Eyre at Haworth that she decided to tell her father. Her biographer Mrs. Gaskell tells the story:
"She (Charlotte) informed me that something like the following conversation took place between her and him (I wrote down her words the day after I heard them; and I am pretty sure they are quite accurate).
'Papa, I've been writing a book.'
'Have you, my dear?'
'Yes, and I want you to read it.'
'I am afraid it will try my eyes too much.'
'But it is not a manuscript; it is printed.'
'My dear! you've never thought of the expense it will be! It will be almost sure to be a loss, for how can you get a book sold? No one knows your name.'
'But, papa, I don't think it will be a loss, nor will you if you will just let me read you a review or two, and let me tell you more about it.'
So she sat down and read some of the reviews to her father; and then, giving him a copy of 'Jane Eyre' that she intended for him, she left him to read it. When he came in to tea, he said, 'Girls, do you know that Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?'"
I think that it's time for a rereading of Jane Eyre. I would love to know if this is one of your favorites. And have you read any other books by Charlotte Bronte?