On this day 160 years ago, novelist Charlotte Brontë died aged 38. Brontë is best known today for her bildungsroman Jane Eyre, the first edition of which is pictured here. One of the first details that you might notice about the book is that the name Brontë does not appear on the title page (nor indeed anywhere else within). Instead, the novel is billed as “An Autobiography” which is “edited by Currer Bell.” Aware that female writers faced disproportionate criticism and prejudice, Charlotte and her literary sisters Anne and Emily adopted male pseudonyms corresponding to the first initials of their forenames. Charlotte thus became Currer, while Anne and Emily became Acton and Ellis. They submitted their manuscripts under these aliases to publisher after publisher, until finally each sister had one novel accepted for publication. Anne’s Agnes Grey and Emily’s Wuthering Heights were published in December 1847, while Jane Eyre premiered in mid-October of the same year.
Jane Eyre was immediately popular, attracting attention from ordinary readers and famous authors alike. Brontë’s literary advisor at the book’s publisher Smith, Elder, and Company sent a copy to author William Makepeace Thackeray, to whom the first edition is dedicated. Said Thackeray to the advisor, “I wish you had not sent me Jane Eyre. It interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it.” After the novels were published, great speculation arose about the sisters’ identities. Some thought that the author of Jane Eyre was Thackeray’s governess, while Thomas Cautley Newby, publisher of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, started a rumor that the three authors were actually one, writing under multiple pen-names. Neither Charlotte’s nor her sisters’ publishers knew the real identity of the Brontës. To quell the rumor that they were not separate authors, Charlotte and Anne traveled to London to meet Charlotte’s publisher George Smith, who was surprised to learn that they were “rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale-faced and anxious looking.”
Like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which we highlighted two months ago, Jane Eyre is published in the triple-decker format. RBML’s copy was acquired by the University in 1909 and is bound in late 19th-century brown levant morocco, with gilt accents and marbled endpapers. SL
Bell, Currer (i.e. Charlotte Brontë). Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. (London : Smith, Elder, and Co., Cornhill, 1847)
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