Charlotte Brontë and Me – Publishing then and now
I’m reading Charlotte Brontë Selected Letters (Oxford University Press 2010). It’s reassuring to learn that Charlotte and her sisters went through many of the same travails to get their work published as we face today. They even had to make up pseudonyms and change their sex to be taken seriously. Then, with Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey just published, poor Emily and Anne Brontë both succumbed to consumption within months of each other, before ever seeing their works acclaimed.
Family tragedy aside, it’s somewhat comforting to me that Brontë faced the same fears waiting on responses or acceptances and harboured the same insecurities over whether her work had merit; or if anyone would want to read what she had to say.
Though Brontë writes of her own work with great humility, it’s obvious from the way she states her opinions in reference to other works and writers of the day in her letters that she held more belief and confidence in her place as a writer and the merit of her writing than her words often bespoke.
Back in 1847 the publishing process seems much the same, even down to query letters when Brontë wrote to a publisher requesting “permission to send for your inspection the M.S. of a work of fiction”.
It seems self publishing was in vogue too with Charlotte later lamenting, the three sisters, writing under the pseudonyms Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell “heedless of the repeated warnings of respected publishers, have completed the rash act of printing a volume of poems”.
I laughed to read her summing up of the outcome:
Works of many current day writers suffer similar fates, no doubt. I don’t know if we’re all able to face the facts as honestly as Brontë does. She recognises her early works as not her best, and better to come. As they did.
Brontë suffered disappointment in works she loved and believed in too. She tried in vain to find a home forThe Professor, a novel she revised three times, but the work was not picked up until published posthumously in 1857.
Small flags filter through some of her rejections, with remarks relevant today, such as “for want of varied interest”. A truth especially current when even the most brilliant manuscript may not make it if not enough readers are deemed likely to pick it up and buy it.
Publishing in the 1840s must have been super efficient and fast, even with the convoluted process of book manufacturing. Brontë submitted Jane Eyre on the 24th August 1847. A letter written by her on the 12th September 1847 declines to revise the mss a third time claiming “were I to retrench, to alter and to add now when I am uninterested and cold, I know I should only further injure what may be already defective.” I’m not sure many publishers would allow we writers today the same claim to get out of a rewrite or revision.
Convoluted process from typeset to print, or not, Brontë received her six copies of Jane Eyre on the 19th October 1847, some five weeks later. She was initially offered and paid £100 for the copyright, to which offer she responded,
The publisher later added sums to make a total of £500 for the copyright of Jane Eyre. Sounds to me, working it forward to what the same sum would equal today, that Brontë would have made many times more than a current day author would be likely to. I think even the £100 would have set her well beyond the standard advance and print run in 2011 for a newish author.
So things change, and much stays the same. Charlotte and me, we’re hanging in there. She’s way ahead of me in sales though. Love to know what you’re reading and if it’s proving inspirational? You can let me know by posting a comment.
Just for fun, Making Books is a fascinating look back at the book manufacturing process in 1947. Click on the arrow to enjoy.