Have you ever wondered where it all began for Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë?

The Genesis of the authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. (Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë)

Charlotte’s discovery of Emily’s poems

       The story of the Brontë sisters’ metamorphoses into the Bell authors begins ‘…in the autumn of 1845…’[1] when Charlotte discovers poems by Emily and considers them worthy of publication. It is a story dominated by the personality of Charlotte who presents as an able strategist capable of carving a niche for herself in a literary world governed by male and not infrequently misogynistic powerhouses. This tale of a crafty, sometimes conniving, survivor in a world often perceived to be poised to victimise ‘her’ is as worthy a place on the plinth of literary immortality as that other tale of Charlotte Brontë: the famed author.

In the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights Charlotte revealed the genesis of this story of literary publication. What followed was an intriguing biographical account of how Charlotte, on finding poems written by Emily, was to turn around the fortunes and the history of three teachers/governesses whose dreams heretofore had hardly stretched beyond the hope of someday having their own school. Charlotte believed Emily’s poems to be above average and convinced her, eventually, to attempt to have them published:

…My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicenced; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication…[2]

While amazed at the standard of writing in Emily’s’ poetry, ‘…these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry women generally write…’[3], there was no surprise in the existence of such compositions belonging to her sister, as Charlotte acknowledges the previous literary endeavours of the siblings:

…The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition; formerly we used to show each other what we wrote, but of late years this habit of communication and consultation had been discontinued; hence it ensued, that we were mutually ignorant of the progress we might respectively have made…[4]

This early ‘…communication and consultation…’ mimics in microcosmic fashion the world of critical reviewing as well as its awareness of a reading community, suggesting an early understanding of authorship which, while taking place in the security of familiar surroundings, no doubt helped in some way to create in the sisters a receptivity to future advice and criticism from publishers, critics and the public. My analysis of Charlotte’s correspondence with her publishers highlights her appreciation of the existence of an audience and the need sometimes to compromise one’s craft in order to secure literary success.

Back in that autumn of 1845 Emily was not the only aspiring Brontë poet; Anne, it would appear, wanting to please Charlotte, also did some composing which Charlotte accepted as worthy of inclusion:

…my younger sister quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that, since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers.[5]

Charlotte, armed with her sisters ‘…effusions…’[6] along with some of her own, took charge of pursuing a dream shared by all three since childhood:  ‘…We had cherished the dream of one day becoming authors…’[7]



[1] Taken from the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey as reproduced in  The Norton Critical Edition of Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, third edition, edited by William M. Sale, J.R. and Richard J. Dunn (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), p 315.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See n 3.

[7] Ibid.

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