Male authoriship made a book more saleable in the 19th century. More credible.
And this is one of the reasons why the Bells chose their names. The Brontë sisters entered literary life as Messrs Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell. The story of Currer Bell’s discovery has already been told in these pages: His ‘Jane Eyre’ was an overnight sensation.
Along with the public chatter about the story which spel.bound the English readership, there was a hubbub of speculation: was the writer of Jane Eyre really a man?
The publishers, Smith and Elder, had their suspicions that Currer was not what he professed to be. “For my own part,” wrote publisher George Smith, “I never had much doubt on the writer’s sex; but then I had the general advantage over the public of having the handwriting of the author before me. There were qualities of style, too, and turns of expression which satisfied me that Currer Bell was a woman.”
But the firm respected Bell’s anonymity, All correspondence was addressed to ‘Currer Bell, Esq.’
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Bell household, things were not as they should be.
At precisely the time that The Professor landed on the doormat of Smith and Elder – July 1847 – two other manuscripts had found their way to a different publisher.
Thomas Newby, however, was a ne’er do well. Charlotte Brontë later branded him a ‘shuffling scamp’. But the young Brontës were not to know that when they received an acceptance letter, Emily’s for Wuthering Heights and Anne’s for Agnes Grey.
Did they smell a rat when Newby demanded a £50 deposit, returnable upon decent book sales?
Possibly. But writers, on their journey to print, will do much to speed their way to success. Newby, at his offices in Cavendish Square,London, sat on the manuscripts. He waited until Smith and Elder had achieved acclaim for the third Bell brother; and then he published the two novels. The Oxford Companion to the Brontës records that he printed as well as published the books; and that they were peppered with errors.
It was not until Mr Smith was negotiating terms with an American publisher to publish Currer Bell’s next book, Shirley, that it became evident that Newby was more than just a penny-pinching skinflint.
It seemed Mr Newby had informed them that he was about to publish Currer Bell’s next book; under her nom de plume of Acton Bell.
Mr Smith wrote to Currer Bell, indicating he would be happy to contradict this falsehood with the American company. But Charlotte was mortified. She felt,records Elizabeth Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Brontë, that her honour had been compromised; and so Charlotte and Anne Brontë, or Currer and Acton Bell, or whomever you will, jumped on the first steam locomotive and made their way down to London to clear things up in person.
At eight o clock on a Saturday morning the sisters arrived in London, and made their way to a Paternoster Road guest house for an ‘agitated breakfast’. Subsequently, they set out on a ‘pilgrimage’ to George Smith’s offices in Cornhill.
George Smith heard the knock at the door.
A clerk appeared to inform him that two ladies wished to see him, declining to give their names, but on a matter of urgency.
His first sight of the Brontés is memorable. “Two rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale -faced and anxious-looking, walked into my room,” the publisher recounts. One of them stepped forward with a letter addressed from Smith and Elder to Currer Bell. And it had been opened.
George Smith admits he became sharp: what was a young lady doing opening Currer Bell’s correspondence?
“I got it from the post office,” the young lady replied, “and it was addressed to me. We have come that you might have ocular proof that there are at least two of us.”
And the scales fell from George’s eyes, and he recognised that this little woman was the author of a masterpiece.
And I have run out of words, with so much more to tell.
We shall just have to leave another chapter for another day.