What happened to the Brontë Poetry collection?

The Fate of the Brontë sisters’ poetry collection and the emergence of the Brontë novels.

Equipped with the poems of Emily, Anne and her own and having decided on the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell, Charlotte set about getting them published. The initial correspondence with publishers sees Charlotte acting as agent for the Bells and in this complex manner we have a trinity of Charlottes: Charlotte the agent; Charlotte the sister and writer; and Charlotte masquerading as the poet Currer Bell. On the 28th of January 1846, writing for the first time to potential publishers, Charlotte addressed the following note to the publishing house of Messrs Aylott and Jones:



May I request to be informed whether you would undertake the publication of a collection of short poems in 1 vol. oct-

If you object to publishing the work at your own risk-would you undertake it on the Author’s account?-

I am Gentlemen

Your obdt. Hmble. Servt.

C Brontë[1]


Charlotte’s ignorance of business etiquette is evident in this first letter as it is unlikely that a publisher would risk the expense of an unknown author if given the option of the author paying their own publishing costs. The curt tone of the letter reflects a sense of urgency, which I believe is related to the family’s need to earn money more than a desire to be published. Although Aunt Branwell had left her nieces money when she died in 1842, which they had hoped to use to set up a school for girls, these plans had come to nothing and now, with her father’s failing eyesight and Branwell’s drinking habits, there must have been a high level of anxiety related to finance.

Charlotte’s approach, while to some extent unorthodox, worked as, on the 31st of January, just three days later, she writes again, acknowledging the firm’s agreement to publish the poems at the author’s expense. Charlotte’s tone is this letter is somewhat imperious considering her lack of artistic standing.  She, a complete unknown, has just been accepted by a publishing house to have something published and instead of expressing gratitude Charlotte insists that the quality of paper used be the same as that used for Wordsworth’s latest edition of poems:

…I should like it to be printed in 1 octavo volume of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth…[2]

31st January 1846.


Charlotte is clearly preoccupied with cost as the letter is frequently punctuated with references to money:

…you should see the manuscript in order to calculate accurately the expense of publication…

…I should like however previously to have some idea of the probable Cost …

…you can make a rough calculation on the subject…[3]

31st January 1846.


Having alluded to the immediate need for financial security in the Parsonage and the therefore serendipitous discovery of Emily’s poems, it is also fair to say that money seems to have always been a concern for Charlotte; if we return to some earlier letters there is a pragmatism regarding financial matters that suggests reluctance at ever being in debt. It is possible that this practical approach emanated from the degree to which the entire livelihood of the Brontë family depended on their indebtedness to the Parish of Haworth. If the Rev Brontë had died during his incumbency the family would have been left homeless and impecunious, as the new curate, and possibly his family, would take up residency in the Parsonage. This was most probably a constant worry for the family and must have influenced their attitude to financial matters (and perhaps matters of the heart).[4] The fact that this latest money making scheme was manageable from the Parsonage, a place which the girls constantly yearned for when not there, and also gave vent to skills honed by their childhood literary endeavours was, from the outset, a winning formulae.

While Charlotte may have been ignorant of business etiquette, she was no shrinking violet where publishers were concerned, and the tone in her correspondence is suggestive of a shrewd, mistrustful individual, business-like to a point yet lacking the craft that could have assuaged the sense of urgency that must obviously have been detected by Messrs Aylott and Jones. From the first letter of January 28th 1846 Charlotte wrote fifteen letters to the publishers before the poems reached the public domain, the probable date of that event being May 22nd.[5] Although the manifest purpose of this early correspondence is to act as agent to the poets, Charlotte, through questions asked of the publishers and demands made on them, reveals a strong sense of the importance of critics and reviewers, not that they were significant in their own right but that their opinion could affect sales. Also evident is an awareness of a reading public whose tastes in literature must be understood if the writer intends satiating their literary appetites. This notion of writing for a purpose other than self-fulfilment, and the limitations that process places on creativity becomes more obvious when Charlotte begins to correspond as a writer, after dropping the mantle of agent.

As was predictable, the publishers were happy to allow the Bells cover the cost of producing the volume. The initial estimate for the cost was £31. 10s. To put some perspective on this amount, in 1841, working as Governess in Upperwood House at Rawdon, Charlotte speaks of her wages in a letter to Ellen:

…My salary is not really more than £16. per annum, though it is nominally £20., but the expense of washing will be deducted there from…[6]

?3rd March 1841.

Almost two years’ salary being risked on this venture demonstrates either a grandiose opinion regarding the quality of the poetry or a desperate attempt, at any cost, to escape the fate of the governess. I suspect the latter as at this stage her condemnation of life as a governess supersedes her praise or optimism regarding the poetry about to be published. Charlotte forwarded the cost on the 3rd of March 1846; the accompanying, short letter is curt and demanding in tone, much in keeping with the temper of most of her dealings with these publishers:



I send a draft for £31-10S-being the amount of your estimate-

I suppose there is nothing now to prevent your immediately commencing the

Printing of the work- When you acknowledge the receipt of the draft-

Will you state how soon it will be completed-

I am Gentlemen

Yrs truly

C Brontë[7]


This price was later increased by £5, which was paid on May 25th 1846, ‘… I now transmit £5-being the additional sum necessary to defray the entire expense of paper and printing-…’[8] Charlotte sent other sums of money to cover the cost of advertising but was adamant that the money was only to be spent if there was an advantage to be gained:


…should the poems be remarked upon favourably it is my intention to appropriate a further sum to advertisements. If, on the other hand they should pass unnoticed or be condemned, I consider it would be quite useless to advertise as there is nothing either in the title of the work or the names of the authors to attract attention from a single individual…[9]


This pragmatism balances the somewhat foolhardy nature of risking so much money on a first collection, pseudonymously published.

The power of the critics to influence commercial success is well understood by Charlotte and her obvious willingness to acquiesce to their opinions ‘…if they….should…be condemned, I consider it useless to advertise…’[10] is an early  indication of  how her relationship with the critics is going to evolve.

The small book of poems was 170 pages in total and cost 4 shillings; unfortunately, Charlotte’s fears of the volume going unnoticed were to prove prophetic as only two copies of the 1000 printed were sold in the first year of publication. When Smith, Elder bought the stock from Aylott and Jones in 1848 there were 961 still unsold.[11] Reviews on the first appearance of the Poems were as sparse as the sales, The Critic, The Athenaeum and the Dublin University Magazine being the only publications to print one. These reviews were favourable as the following extracts reveal:

…Amid the heaps of trash and trumpery in the shape of verses, which lumber the table of the literary journalist, this small book of some 170 pages only has come like a ray of sunshine, gladdening the eye with present glory, and the heart with promise of bright hours in store…[12]

Emboldened by the favourable reviews in The Critic and The Athenaeum, Charlotte wrote to the publishers on  July 10th 1846,  forwarding a further £10 to be spent on advertising in whatever publications Aylott and Jones deemed suitable. The sum advanced is symptomatic of a very sheltered existence as the minimum usually spent in advertising a new book at that time was £20 and the maximum £150.[13]  Charlotte asked that the following extract from The Critic be ‘…appended to each advertisement…’[14]:

…they in whose hearts are chords strung by nature to sympathise with the beautiful and the true in the world without, and their embodiments by the gifted among their fellow men, will recognise in the compositions of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the presence of more natural genius than it was supposed this utilitarian age had devoted to the loftier exercises of the intellect…[15]

Reminiscent of the theories of poetry proffered by William Wordsworth and encapsulated in his concept of poetry as a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’,  and in view of the respect Charlotte had for the poet, it is not surprising that she chose that particular extract as it attributes a Wordworthian romantic quality to the poetry of the Bells.[16] The Athenaeum review, while less gushing than The Critic in its praise, was perhaps more discerning, recognising as it did the superiority of Ellis Bell’s poems, an opinion shared by most Brontë scholars. The following extract from The Athenaeum’s review illustrates this:

…The second book on our list furnishes another example of a family in whom appears to run the instinct of song. It is shared, however, by the three brothers – as we suppose them to be – in very unequal proportions; requiring in the case of Acton Bell, the indulgences of affection…and rising, in that of Ellis, into an inspiration, which may yet find an audience in the outer world. A fine quaint spirit has the latter, which may have things to speak that men will be glad to hear…[17]


Omitted from this extract, as reproduced in Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters, but included in a footnote by Margaret Smith, was the telling comment made regarding Currer Bell’s efforts in the Athenaeum review:

…The muse of Currer Bell walks half way betwixt the level of Acton’s and the elevation attained by Ellis…[18]


Charlotte wrote to the editor of the Dublin University Magazine, thanking him for his inclusion in an article on poetry the comments on the volume which included the following:

…uniform in a sort of Cowperian amiability and sweetness…

…impressively told…

…full of unobtrusive feeling…unaffected and sincere…[19]


The reference to Cowper was no doubt pleasing to Charlotte as he was her favourite poet, yet in spite of these encouraging remarks the Poems were not destined to be the sisters’ literary breakthrough. Before the final outcome of the poetry volume was known, Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell were back in production. While still in consultation regarding the Poems, Charlotte wrote to Aylott and Jones informing them of ‘…three distinct and unconnected tales…’[20] these ‘tales’ would progress to become Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and The Professor. It is not clear when the sisters began their stories but they must have been near completion at this stage if Charlotte was offering them for publication. Still acting as agent for all three, Charlotte writes with a more confident voice than when first presenting the poems:

…C. E & A Bell are now preparing for the press a work of fiction…It is not their intention to publish these tales on their own account. They direct me to ask you whether you would be disposed to undertake the work…[21]

6th April 1846.


In contrast to the first letter requesting a publisher for the poems Charlotte is not now prepared to cover the cost. This is either a hopeful confidence in the merits of the novels or the consequence of a dear lesson learned after the failure of the poems. Charlotte is still signing herself as C Brontë in this correspondence as she continues in the role of agent for the writers. The firm’s reply to this letter obviously indicated a willingness to advise the Bells on how to pursue the publication of novels as Charlotte in turn replies on April 11th:


…I beg to thank you in the name of C. E. & A Bell for your obliging offer of advice; I will avail myself of it to request information on two or three points…[22]

11th April, 1846.


Charlotte reveals, through her three questions to the publishers, an ignorance of how the writer-publisher relationship is established and yet in the line of questioning and the letter as a whole there is shrewdness indicative of an appreciation for literary production and what was commercially successful at that time:

…in what form would a publisher be most likely to accept the M.S…

…What publishers would be most likely to receive favourably a proposal of this nature…?

…Would it suffice to write to a publisher on the subject or would it necessary to have recourse to a personal interview…[23]

11th April 1846.

The firm did reply to this letter but as there was no further communication with them regarding these manuscripts we can assume that they were not interested in publishing them. The daughter of Mr. Aylott, Mrs Martyn, in a letter to Clement Shorter[24] suggests that her father refused the novels on the grounds that he was ‘…rather old-fashioned and had very narrow views regarding light literature…’[25]. Some other publications of the company at that time seem to suggest that there was a leaning towards less secular material: Six Lectures on the Importance and Practicability of Christian Union, Chiefly in relation to the movements of the Evangelical Alliance by J. Aldis (1846); Thirty-Six Nonconformist Sonnets by a young Englander (1846); and Notes on the Epistle to the Thessalonians by A. Barnes (1846). It is difficult to imagine Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and The Professor as literary bedfellows with such piety.  Replying Charlotte thanks the firm for their advice and adds, ‘…when the M.S. is completed your suggestions shall be acted on…’ (15 April 1846)[26]


[1] Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 445.

[2] Ibid., p. 449.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Charlotte’s decision to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls seemed rather rash as there was no sense that she had any deep feelings for the man, however it came at a time when her father was very unwell and faced with the prospect of all her family (save one, Anne, was buried in Scarborough) lying in the Parsonage graveyard it is reasonable to suggest that Charlotte was willing to marry the next incumbent in order to remain close to them.

[5] Smith, The Letters, Vol.1, p. 474, n. 2.

[6] Ibid.  p. 246.

[7] Ibid, p. 454.


[8] Ibid, p. 474.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 486, n. 2.

[12]Reproduced from The Critic, July 4th, 1846 in   Barker, The Brontë, p. 150.

[13] Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 474, n. 4.

[14] Ibid. p. 484.

[15] Ibid.

[16]  One could read the extract as an antidote to the wrongs with the world suggested by Wordsworth in the following lines from his poem, The World is too much with us, (from 1807):

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

[17] Reproduced from The Athenaeum, July 4th, 1846 in, Barker, The Brontës, p. 151.


[18] Smith,  The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 485.

[19]  Ibid. p. 502, n. 2.


[20] Ibid, p. 461.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. p. 462

[23] Ibid.

[24] Clement Shorter, who many believed swindled letters from Ellen Nussey for £100 and from Arthur Bell Nicholls for £125, is the author of Charlotte Brontë and her Circle (1896) and The Brontës: Life and Letters, 2 vols. (1908).

[25] Reproduced in Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 445, n. 1.

[26] Ibid. p 464.

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