The mystery of the Brontë’s pseudonyms.

If you watched the Drama #Towalkinvisible last night on BBC about the Brontës it may have struck you how little attention was given to the pseudonyms adopted by the sisters, other than an invisible hand dramatically writing the names in ink: Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, Acton Bell. That lack of detail is down to the fact that little is documented as to where the names came from. This presented my inner Hercule Poirot with a superb challenge. The following is the result of my research into the possible origins of the Bells. My favourite speculation is the French connection!

Why Bell?

Was the name Bell randomly chosen without any great thought?

This idea is not persuasive; there was nothing random about the Brontë family: trips a few miles down the road were planned with the precision of an Antarctic expedition, evidenced in the many letters that would to and fro between Ellen Nussey and Charlotte before either ventured forth to visit the other. Bearing this in mind it is likely that considerable attention was afforded to such an important aspect of their potential published personas. The relative solitude of their existence lends intensity to their lives where even the most menial activity is given heightened significance. For all her inadequacies as discussed earlier I find myself agreeing with Gaskell when she suggested:

…Life in an isolated village, or a lonely country-house, presents many little occurrences which sink into the mind of childhood, there to be brooded over…Thus, children leading a secluded life are often thoughtful…the impressions made upon them by the world without…the accidental meetings with strange faces and figures — (rare occurrences in those out-of-the-way places) — are sometimes magnified by them into things so deeply significant…[1]

With this in mind it must have been very exciting for the sisters to enter into this particular masquerade and consequently we must ponder the very real notion that considerable thought went into the choosing of pseudonyms. However, due to a dearth of primary sources revealing sources of inspiration for the names little has been said about Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in an academic medium.  The only clue Charlotte gives regarding the origin of the names Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell, the names eventually adopted, is that they must sound Christian and male. Because no other documentation exists, the origin is somewhat of a mystery and can only be intelligently speculated on.

Much of the speculation regarding the surname Bell points to the arrival of the new curate in Haworth, Arthur Bell Nicholls. This theory was the preferred choice of Winifred Gérin in her biography where the following is proffered:

…The name Bell may have been chosen by the arrival that summer of their father’s new curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls.[2]

I suspect that this idea has been tagged on because of Charlotte’s marriage to Nicholls in June 1854. Nicholls had arrived in Haworth first in May 1845[3]and up to the point where the pseudonyms were chosen there is nothing in Charlotte’s correspondence to suggest that she harbours any feelings for him strong enough to inspire an imaginary surname. The opposite, in fact, is the case, as the following extracts from letters to Ellen Nussey reveal:

…Who gravely asked you “whether Miss Brontë was not to be married to her papa’s Curate”?

I scarcely need say that never was rumour more unfounded-it puzzles me to think how it could possibly have originated-A cold, far-away sort of civility are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr Nicholls-I could by no means think of mentioning such a rumour to him even as a joke-it would make me the laughing- stock of himself and his fellow curates for half a year to come-they regard me as an old maid, and I regard them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow and unattractive specimens of the “coarser sex”…[4]

10th July 1846.

…Mr Nicholls is returned just the same-I cannot for the life of me see those interesting germs of goodness in him you discovered, his narrowness of mind always strikes me chiefly-I fear he is indebted to your imagination for his hidden treasures.[5]

15th October 1847.

Admittedly Charlotte was not in the habit of bearing her soul to Ellen but there was nothing to be gained by coyness regarding the Reverend Bell, consequently it is fair to conclude that the sentiments expressed above represent an accurate assessment of Charlotte’s opinion of the man and therefore deem him an unlikely source for the origin of the literary Bells.

My reading of the Brontës inclines me to make two further suggestions as to who or what the original Bell was. In June 1847, following the abysmal failure of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the publication of which they had paid for themselves, the girls decided to send some well known authors a copy of the Poems. Among the recipients were such literary greats as Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Hartley Coleridge and the lesser known John Gibson Lockhart. The latter was the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott and his biographer but had won the hearts of the Brontës as a result of his many contributions to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. A letter to Lockhart from the novelist Harrison Ainsworth of November 15th, 1848, held in the Brontë parsonage Museum in Haworth, concerning itself with rumours regarding the identity of the Bells, concludes:

…Currer bell, I agree with you is not a belle; and there must be more than one hand at work to ring all these changes…[6]

I wondered having read that extract was it possible that Charlotte’s wry humour was at work here and Bell was a deliberate choice after the French word belle (denoting female), and in as obvious a fashion as this the Brontë sisters were duping the predominantly male world of literary reviewers.

If not a pun on the French word, there is one other possible origin of the Bell surname and would be very much in keeping with the girls’ desire to keep things Christian. Charlotte and her siblings were not born in Haworth but in Thornton and according to Clement Shorter the chapel where the Revd Brontë officiated and where all the children, except Maria were baptised was called Bell Chapel:

…Eighty years have passed over Thornton since that village had the honour of becoming the birthplace of Charlotte Brontë. The visitor of to-day will find the Bell Chapel, in which Mr. Brontë officiated, a mere ruin, and the font in which his children were baptised ruthlessly exposed to the winds of heaven…[8]

Working on a metaphorical level, it is apt that a literary baptism, eager to maintain a sense of the Christian naming should endeavour to incorporate both; even if this was not the case it is a far worthier notion than that suggested by Gérin. Despite the fact that Charlotte would one day be Charlotte Bell Nicholls, in 1846 there is little evidence of her desire to attach herself in any way to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate.

Charlotte’s chosen Christian name was, according to Gérin ‘…the least difficult of the three to trace to a recognizable origin…’:[9] when Charlotte was governess at Stonegrappe for the Sidgwicks one of their more illustrious neighbours was a Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer, of Eshton Hall, Skipton. Miss Currer’s reputation was based on the fact that she owned ‘…one of the most considerable libraries in the north…‘.[10]

Charlotte would no doubt have been aware of the woman and possibly even read books from her collection as Currer was known to make donations to the Mechanics’ Institute Library of Keighley,[11] from where the Brontës borrowed. As Rebecca Fraser has shown in her biography, Mr Brontë joined the Keighley Mechanical Institute shortly after it was founded in 1825 in order to borrow books and provide a wide range of reading material for his children. In their book, Everyman’s Companion to the Brontës,[12] Barbara and Gareth Lloyd Evans give April 8th 1833 as the exact date on which Patrick joined the Institute. [13]

Miss Currer, a wealthy lady, also had associations with the Clergy Daughters School, the possible inspiration for Lowood in Jane Eyre, where presumably, due to a harsh regime, Charlotte’s two sisters Maria and Elizabeth contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and subsequently died. As Gérin has shown, “She was one of the founder patrons of the Clergy Daughters’ School, so that her name must have been doubly familiar to Charlotte.”[14]

One final, slightly bizarre, connection between Charlotte and Miss Currer is the fact that both were already living under an assumed name, as Miss Currer’s father, also a Revd Henry Richardson, rector of Thornton only ‘assumed’ the surname and arms of Currer.[15]  ‘Brontë’ was also an assumed name, adopted by Charlotte’s father, Revd Patrick Brontë in place of his birth name Prunty.

The sources for Anne and Emily’s pseudonyms, Acton and Ellis, are even more difficult to identify than Charlotte’s Currer. Realistically any associations made are merely aspirational on behalf of the particular mythology the researcher wishes to promote.

In her biography on Emily, Gérin suggests,’… The poetess Eliza Acton (1777-1859), who had considerable success in her day and was patronised by royalty, may have suggested Anne’s pseudonym to her…’[19] Gérin’s implication that Acton’s success was attributable to her poetry is misleading. Acton did write poetry but without attaining much commercial success or notoriety and had it not been for the success of a further endeavour the literary world would most probably not have remembered the poetess who wrote the following:

I LOVE thee, as I love the calm
Of sweet, star-lighted hours!
I love thee, as I love the balm
Of early jes’mine flow’rs.

I love thee, as I love the last
Rich smile of fading day,
Which lingereth, like the look we cast,
On rapture pass’d away…[20]

The successful venture referred to above was a cookbook. Acton is more remembered as an early Mrs Beeton, of cookbook writing fame.  Apparently worried by the lack of popular acclaim, Miss Acton approached her publisher, Mr Longman, asking him to suggest a subject for a book that would be popular. He, according to anecdotal evidence, suggested …a really good cookbook…, and after years of planning and research Eliza produced, in 1845, Modern Cookery for Private Families.[21]

In her article The Brontë Pseudonyms: A Woman’s Image-The Writer and her Public, Marianne Thormahlen observes that ‘…The combination of poetry and domesticity in the person and work of Eliza Acton increases the probability of her surname having been chosen as a “veil” by one of the Brontë sisters. Household chores made up a very considerable portion of their daily lives…’[22] Published just a year before the Brontës’ volume of poetry in 1845 it is highly likely that the sisters were aware of the book and appreciated a commercial success story embedded in domesticity as their lives had thus far been.  Gaskell captures this ‘Angel in the house’[23] view of Emily in the following extract from A Life:

…and after Tabby grew old and infirm, it was Emily who made all the bread for the family; and any one passing by the kitchen-door, might have seen her studying German out of an open book, propped up before her, as she kneaded the dough…[24]

If we accept that Charlotte’s Christian pseudonym is based on a real surname it is likely that Anne and Emily’s follow this pattern: the level of achievement attained by the real Acton and Currer was certainly enough to merit admiration and adaptation of their identity and yet their names, not being among the shining lights of the Victorian world, were not household names and thus allowed the Brontës to appropriate them without fear of their own achievements being attributed to others.

Emily’s pseudonym is the most open to speculation. Gérin has nothing to offer:’…There appears to be no clue to the origin of Emily’s choice of name, Ellis…[25] Thormahlen argues, rather convincingly, that the writer Mrs Sarah Stickney Ellis was Emily’s source. If one accepts the above speculations on Currer and Acton it is easy to accept that Emily also based her adapted Christian name on a real surname of a relatively successful Victorian woman.

Stickney Ellis (1812-1872) a seemingly typical middle class English woman, wrote reflectively in defence of the social order of Victorian England and the domestic and social duties of women in that society. Also a conservative novelist, Ellis, addressing the ladies of England in her many conduct books, advised against any activity that would interfere with their womanly duties, activities, ironically enough, such as writing.

Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own, writes of Ellis in the following fashion:

…If we turn to the books of Sarah Stickney Ellis…The Women of England, The Wives of England, The Mothers of England, and so on, we might get the impression that a wife’s duties were so detailed and overwhelmingly as to preclude any other activity…[26]

Thormahlen argues that while the conservative nature of Ellis may not have appealed to the very individualistic Emily Brontë, her sentiments on governesses in The Mothers of England, must have endeared her to the sisters. Ellis writes:

‘…And here I must beg to call the attention of the mothers of England to one particular class of women, whose rights and whose sufferings ought to occupy, more than they do, the attention of benevolent Christians. I allude to governesses, and I believe that in this class, taken as a whole, is to be found more refinement of mind, and consequently more susceptibility of feeling, than in any other…[27]

As we cannot be sure if the Brontë sisters ever read anything by Mrs Ellis or indeed Eliza Acton, and perhaps they were unaware of the extensive library belonging to Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer; therefore all of the preceding rationale is highly speculative.

It is empowering from a female perspective to suggest that the choices the Brontës made were calculated to hoodwink the predominantly male literary world as not only were these masculine names belonging to the fairer sex, they could also have been inspired by women of strong character and achievement.

However at the risk of unravelling my own thesis it is equally feasible that the names presented themselves in a serendipitous manner, perhaps some reference in a magazine lying about the Parsonage was all the invitation and inspiration needed to merit their usage.

[1] Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857; London: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 70.

[2] Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë, The Evolution of Genius, (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 309.

[3] Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 393.

[4] This is part of a letter written to Ellen Nussey, dated July 10th 1846 and reproduced in Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 483.

[5] Extracted from a letter to Ellen Nussey, dated October 1847 and reproduced in Smith, The Letters, Vol. I, p. 551.

[6] Smith, The Letters, Vol I, p. 530.

[7] Ibid, p. 516.

[8] Clement K. Shorter, Charlotte Brontë and her Circle (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), p. 56.

[9] Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë, The Evolution of Genius, (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 309.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Barbara and Gareth Lloyd Evans, Everyman’s Companion to the Brontës, (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1982), p. 14.

[13] Although not detailed in the book I presume this information is available by accessing the records of the Mechanics Institute in Keighley, particularly when such a precise date can be given.

[14]  Gérin, Emily Brontë, pp.185-6.

[15] http:/

[16] This was contained in a letter written to Emily dated July 1839 and reproduced in Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 195.

[17] Written to Ellen Nussey on the 26th of July 1839 and again reproduced in Smith, The Letters, Vol. 1, p. 196.

[18] Fannie Ratchford with the collaboration of William Clyde DeVane, Legends of Angria, compiled from the early writings of Charlotte Brontë (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933), p. 316.

[19]  Gérin, Emily Brontë, pp.185-186.

[20] The first two verses of what is perhaps Acton’s most remembered romantic poem first published in a volume entitled Poems by Eliza Acton (Ipswich: R. Deck, 1826) and reproduced on the following web page,

[21] G.M. Young (ed), Early Victorian Britain, 1830-1865, Volume One (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), pp.125-126.


[23] A phrase that denotes a Victorian Sentimentality towards women and based on the long poem by the American poet Coventry Patmore, first published in 1854.

[24]  Gaskell, Life, p. 105.

[25] Gérin, Biography of Emily Brontë, p.186.

[26] Elaine Showalter, A Literature of their Own, from Charlotte Brontë to Doris Lessing (London: Virago Press, 1999), p 65.

[27] Reproduced from The Mothers of England, p 353, in Marianne Thormahlen, ‘The Brontë Pseudoynm’, English Studies, 3 (1994) p. 252.


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.

Why the Brontës decided on pseudonymity.

The rationale of pseudonymity.

Before publishers were approached with the poems, the Brontë sisters decided to conceal their identities with noms des plumes. Charlotte, in the preface, offers the following as an explanation:

…Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton 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 the 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; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.[1]

Charlotte’s ‘vague impression’ that female writers may be discriminated against is not the main reason for their adaptation of androgynous names. It is predominantly to justify the masculine nature of their writing. To give themselves a licence to be true to their natural sense of expression.

Contrary to what one might presume of the concept of veiling as an almost repressive form of concealment, suggestive of religious ritualistic covering demanded of women, Charlotte’s use of ‘veiled’ is more inclined to follow a practice initiated by her father. In her biography of Charlotte Brontë[2], Gaskell recounts an episode where the Rev Brontë gave each of his children a mask and proceeded to ask them questions. In the following extract from a letter to Mrs Gaskell, Patrick Brontë outlines his modus operandi and reasons for it:

…When my children were very young, when as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age and the youngest four – thinking that they knew more, than I had yet discover’d, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deem’d that if they were put under a sort of cover, I might gain my end – and happen[en]g to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand, and speak boldly from under cover of the mask…

30th July 1855[3]

Speaking ‘…boldly…’ when in disguise was a device that Charlotte used in her fiction, suggesting that she associated this device with a freedom of expression and a pathway to truth.  In Jane Eyre Rochester seeks to discover Jane’s feelings for him while disguised as a gypsy, a ruse that also allows him to say plainly that which he dare not say as her master. Speaking somewhat enigmatically, he insinuates that he holds the key to Jane’s happiness if she in turn loves him:

…Chance has meted you a measure of happiness: that I know. I knew it before I came here this evening. She has laid it carefully on one side for you. I saw her do it. It depends on yourself to stretch out your hand, and take it up: but whether you will do so, is the problem I study…[4]


Similarly in Villette the spectral figure of the nun turns out to be the very real, disguised Alfred, le Comte de Hamal as he secretively visited and courted Ginevra Fanshawe. In a letter to Lucy Snowe, Ginevra reveals their secret:

…Do you begin to comprehend by this time that M. le Comte de Hamal was the nun of the attic, and that he came to see your humble servant?…But for the nun’s black gown and white veil, he would have been caught again and again by you and that tiger-Jesuit, M. Paul…[5]

In a similar fashion the concealment of identity behind pseudonyms, ironically, would allow the girls to be truer to their real selves.

No doubt, as stated clearly by Charlotte in the above extract from the 1850 preface, the gender issue was also a matter for concern: anticipating prejudice based on their gender and deciding that their writing was more masculine than feminine, their choice of pseudonyms would be ‘…positively masculine…’.

Charlotte’s reference to the male nature of their writing reminds us of the Brontë Juvenilia, the Angrian tales, supposedly inspired by a box of twelve wooden toy soldiers; the fact that they were made of wood is revealed in the ligneous names of some of the characters such as General Leaf, Captain Tree, Corporal Branch and so forth. These tales followed the adventures of Byronic heroes through wars and voyages of discovery. There is a decidedly masculine tone to the tales which is no great mystery when we consider how writers usually begin their career; writing about what they know. When children write, their compositions are seldom original but tend to imitate the styles and subjects of what they have read. The Brontë children’s inspiration was contained in the magazines coming into the house and the novels of the great male writers of their day. With few female literary sources and an undeveloped individual style the masculinity evident in the style and plots of the Juvenilia is inevitable.

In her most recent publication on the Juvenilia, Christine Alexander views the male voices of Charlotte’s early writing as reflective of the repressive state of the nineteenth-century woman and child, as opposed to a stylised plagiarism of literary models available to Charlotte:

…the narrative ‘I’ is splintered into multiple male voices, affirming the powerlessness not only of youth but of femaleness…[6]

Alexander is correct in her observations regarding the oppression of childhood and femaleness in the nineteenth century, however whether or not this generalisation is applicable to Charlotte Brontë’s adaptation of male personas is questionable; perhaps the use of male names, rather than a repression of femininity, is opportunistic and strategic and more suggestive of the business acumen of Charlotte Brontë than a fear of recriminations based on her femaleness. Charlotte’s fictional females, particularly the protagonistic ones, seldom succumb to female powerlessness and this, as conveyed in her letters, is because their creator knew little of that world of gender discrimination that existed beyond the moors of Haworth.

Having decided on the concept of pseudonyms, the next step for the sisters would have been choosing their new names. There is a lot of speculation about the origin of Bell as a surname and Acton, Ellis and Currer as Christian names, that is worth exploring further.


[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] Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857; London: Penguin Books, 1997).

[3] Juliet Barker, The Brontës:  A Life in Letters (New York: The Overlook Press, 2002), p. 3.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: George Routledge and Sons limited), p. 203.

[5] Charlotte Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 1979), pp 573-574.

[6] Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster (editors), The Child Writers from Austen to Woolf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 154.


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.

Charlotte Brontë: I thought I might share some facts on Charlotte as part of her bicentenary celebrations.

The name Brontë:

The Rev Patrick Brontë , father of the Brontë authors was born Patrick Prunty, into a family of ten children, in Co. Down in Ireland. Although the family were peasant farmers Patrick showed an early interest in Greek and Latin classics and came to the attention of a local Methodist, the Rev Mr Tighe.

Mr Tighe sent Patrick to St John’s College, Cambridge in 1802. While there, in the company of such illustrious characters as Lord Palmerston, the future Prime Minister, Patrick decided to change his name from the rather Irish, peasant sounding Prunty to Brontë.

The choice of Brontë may have been because it meant ‘thunder’ in Greek, and the ambitious Patrick was determined to make himself be heard in some capacity, or it may have been in honour of the fearless, Admiral Lord Nelson, who was Duke of Bronti.

Lyndall Gordon, in her biography, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life, believes it was the latter, as Patrick liked to identify with ‘…fearless fighters…’[1] an attribute emulated by Charlotte in her juvenilia.

[1] Lyndall Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life (London: Vintage, 1995).