Publishing Currer Bell


When a publisher says yes, what a magical moment that must be.

All the self-doubt and striving vanish, however fleetingly, because someone has agreed to pay you for the tale you have woven.

The Great Unpublished tell the tales of those moments to give themselves hope: tales of repeated rejections, insane numbers of times a manuscript is returned, followed by that one Yes which changes everything.

Here is just such a fairytale.

Smith and Elder had started in the late 18th century as a stationer’s in Fenchurch Street, London, but had long become established as a publishing company by the time a battered package arrived on its doorstep some time in June 1847. It was addressed unequivocally to the firm: but George Smith, who recalled it with crystal clarity when he wrote an account for the Cornhill Magazine in 1900, said that the names of three or four other publishing companies were scored out on the front of the envelope.

It was a story called ‘The Professor’ by someone called Currer Bell.

Bell also included a stamped addressed envelope; a friend had advised that publishers often did not even reply to aspiring novelists unless given the postage to do so.

The firm’s reader –  a gentleman called Mr Williams – read it. And to his eternal credit he concluded that it was beautifully written; but alas, he said, it would not sell. He wrote a detailed reply to Mr Bell, declining to publish the manuscript but explaining how its creator might be capable of writing a best seller.

His letter winged its way to Mr Bell; a slight, tiny Yorkshire woman whose real name was Charlotte Brontë.

And as it happened, this submission was her final hope. One last publishing house.

Miss Brontë recalled its arrival, still in her author role: “He read it, trembling, It declined, indeed, to publish the tale for  business reasons, but it discussed its merits and demerits so courteously, so considerately, in a spirit so rational, with a discrimination so enlightened ,that this very refusal cheered the author better than a vulgarly expressed acceptance would have done.”

Shortly afterwards, Jane Eyre landed on the doormat of Smith and Elder.

Postage was uppermost in Charlotte’s mind. She found, she wrote, that she could not arrange for return of the manuscript at the post station she had used, but if the publishers would communicate the amount needed she would forward the postage stamps immediately.

Mr Williams read it.

And then he brought it to George Smith. On a Saturday. And said: I think you’d better read this.

So on a Sunday morning like this one, Mr George Smith had his breakfast, and then sat down to do a little work.

The story, he recalls, quickly took him captive.

“Before twelve o’clock,” he writes, “my horse came to the door, but I could not put the book down. I scribbled two or three lines to my friend, saying that I was very sorry that circumstances had arisen to prevent my meeting him, sent the note off by my groom, and went on reading the manuscript.”

After a while a servant arrived to tell George that his lunch was ready.

But George would not be lunching. He asked for a sandwich and a glass of wine, and remained, glued to the story. Hours later, when dinner arrived, George admits to it being an unusually hasty affair; and by the end of the day, he had finished the manuscript completely.

And the next day he write to Mr Bell, informing him that Jane Eyre was accepted for publication.

And Currer Bell became an overnight sensation.As to his dual identity?

Wel,, that’s another story for another day.


43 thoughts on “Publishing Currer Bell

    1. 😀 Indeed. George started very humbly living above the shop in Fenchurch Street, I believe, but success lent him largesse. The motto of this story is this: if you are onto a really good thing at home, send the horse away immediately.

  1. Reblogged this on Ruthrawls's Blog and commented:
    If you are not reading Kate Shrewsday’s blog, then really, I can’t imagine why, unless you don’t know that she exists. That, or you have no desire to live on the cutting edge of history. Your choice.
    LilSis, you will love this latest blog post.

  2. I would venture that ultimate recognition of the worthiness of one’s efforts, that “yes” so long sought, might nearly outweigh the promise of monetary reward. 🙂

  3. I loved the hopeful note of this post, Kate . . . and Roger’s comment made me snort. Having servants to attend to details frees up time for other pastimes. 😀

    1. 😀 Wise words, Lou! We were sad to miss your party…congratulations, and may you and Miss TK now have even more fun that you have in the past. I’d imagine that’s a tall order, but if anyone can…

  4. Oh, how slow everything must have been with “postage” and “mail” and horses and stuff. Email rejections are so much faster. Does that make them less painful, with less time to agonize over whether or not they are coming? Or more painful, because of the harsh swiftness of their delivery? Never mind. Silly questions. Still takes plenty of time to fret about, I’m sure.

    1. Not silly at all, Katie! The agony of waiting for the post must have been hard for Charlotte and her contemporaries. I guess if the e mail means less waiting then that saves days and days of uncertainty in one’s life…

  5. Aged 9 years and a bit I sent my manuscript to Enid Blyton, confident, and ignorant in the finer details of publishing, that she would publish my book. When she replied telling me I needed to pay attention to my spelling, I tore up the hand written letter in a fit of pique!

    1. Wow,that letter would be worth a bob or two these days, Frances! But I know exactly why you did it. Just to have a manuscript at nine years old is something special. I’d be celebrating the fact that you did something so special. I once sent a picture to Twinkle magazine of my dog and I , and they sent it back saying it wasn’t clear enough. I was mortified!

  6. In my own private version of hell, it is always best to think of stories like this one, and to try to be hopeful. I’ve gotten all kinds of versions of yes on my quest: yes, you are talented; yes, your story has merit; yes, you will paper your guest house toilet with your rejection letters someday; yes, you have what it takes. All from people in the industry, people who should know. But, that has never amounted to: yes, I will represent you; or yes I will publish your work. I continue to be hopeful.

    Or, perhaps I’m just insane.

  7. It’s encouraging – in a pathetic sort of way – to know that so many famous authors received countless rejection letters before they were finally published. How fascinating that George Smith was so transfixed in reading Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” that dinner was hastily consumed and visitors were unwelcome intruders until he finished.

  8. I love it that the names of three or four other publishers were crossed out on the package. Kate, I hope that you eventually write another installment to this captivating tale for I’d like to know what George Smith thought when he learned Currer Bell’s real identity.

  9. Dear Kate, I’m a bit late in reading this, but, read it I did, then read it again with even more admiration for not only Charlotte Bronte, but for the remarkable Kate of Shrewsday Manor and all that she brings to table to digest. Thank you.

  10. What a lovely story. I think Jane Eyre may have been my first “adult” book when I was still too young to even understand it. I took it off my grandmother’s shelf because it had a pretty cover, but once I started, I was something akin to George Smith. It made my mother most unhappy that I would rather read than eat. What a fabulous story, Kate. I’ve read a few biographies of the Brontë sisters, but there’s a new one calling my name: The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family. I’ve resisted until now…I think you’ve pushed me over the edge and I will purchase it for my ever-increasing pile of unread books!

    1. It sounds fabulous, Debra! For me, too, Jane Eyre was the first grown-up book. I have never fallen out of love with it. I look forward to hearing about the new book when you have finished reading it!

  11. I think perhaps that blogging was birthed from a deep desire to hear that “yes” of which you speak without having to wait for it. To be able to write and immediately have response from those near and far …. intoxicating. The thrill of someone taking the time to partake of something you have created and perhaps even take the time to share how it impacted them, tis a very sweet yes indeed 🙂

  12. The author’s dreamed-of moment: when someone capable of launching one’s baby is blown away by it. Yet how many of the all-time greats were simply rejected, and rejected, and rejected, until finally …
    I wonder how many readers for publishing houses have blown their brains out after rejecting what then became a blockbuster for someone else?
    This, though, is the sort of fairytale which keeps us scribblers scribbling, and hoping, and hoping.

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