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Authors: Catherine Reef

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Victorian novelists strove to present real life on their pages, to observe people’s problems and interactions. Some, like George Eliot and Charles Dickens, also cast light on society’s ills and the conditions of the lower classes. Dickens published his novels first as serials in magazines. From 1837 to 1839, he brought out
Oliver Twist,
whose title character is one of the many orphans living in London.
Oliver Twist
exposed the harshness of the workhouses that sheltered the poor, the depraved lives of criminals, and the evils of child labor. It also broke new ground by presenting a prostitute, the character Nancy, in a sympathetic way. Dickens went on to write other important, socially conscious novels, among them
David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times,
and
Little Dorritt.

 

Many people know Victorian England through the novels of Charles Dickens, who wrote about the prosperous and the poor. This illustration is from his final, unfinished novel,
The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

 

William Makepeace Thackeray, another great Victorian novelist, achieved fame with
Vanity Fair,
which was published first in serial form, in 1847 and 1848. He took a satiric look at society by focusing on two women, the scheming social climber Becky Sharp and her sweet-natured, naïve friend, Amelia Sedley. Thackeray subtitled
Vanity Fair
“A Novel Without a Hero,” because every character had flaws.

In July 1846, a second parcel left Haworth addressed to a London publisher. It held the manuscripts of three novels:
The Professor,
by Currer Bell;
Agnes Grey,
by Acton Bell; and a third by Ellis Bell. Titled
Wuthering Heights,
Emily’s novel told a strange, tragic tale of love and revenge on the moors. The sisters hoped their novels would be published together as a three-volume set. But as the three books, as yet unknown, made their way into the world, their authors could only wait for news of them.

In August, despite a throbbing toothache, Charlotte traveled with her father to the city of Manchester, where he was having surgery to restore his sight. The lenses of his eyes had developed cataracts. Removing a lens, if done correctly, would restore the sight in that eye. Patrick Brontë was wide awake throughout the surgery and felt everything, because the doctor performed it without anesthesia. In his copy of
Modern Domestic Medicine,
the Reverend Brontë later noted, “The feeling, under the operation
—which lasted fifteen minutes, was of a burning nature—but not intolerable. . . .
My lens
was
extracted
so the cataract can never return in that eye.” The doctor removed one lens—the left, because if an infection set in, then only that one eye would be permanently blinded. A month’s convalescence in a darkened room followed the surgery. During this time a nurse applied leeches to the patient’s temples to reduce inflammation.

 

Patrick Brontë’s well-used copy of
Modern Domestic Medicine
contained many handwritten notes about ailments that afflicted his family.

 

Sitting near her father’s bed, Charlotte had little to do except bear with her aching tooth. To pass the time, she began to write another novel. It featured a tiny woman without money and lacking beauty, a person few were likely to notice—“a heroine as small and as plain
as myself.”

six
“It Is Soul Speaking to Soul”

C
HARLOTTE
wrote steadily, holding her face close to her pencil and paper, while her father slowly improved. After five days, the doctor removed the Reverend Brontë’s bandage. After two weeks, he let the patient sit up. After three weeks, Charlotte dismissed the nurse, whose too-polite servility she distrusted. At the end of the fifth week, she took her father home. Sight returned gradually to Patrick Brontë’s left eye; he was writing sermons and reading newspapers without his daughters’ help before many more weeks had passed. He felt so confident about resuming his old activities that he sent his curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, off to Ireland for three weeks, to visit his family.

While the Reverend Brontë healed, his son worsened. Branwell spent most of his time drinking in Halifax and mailing strange letters to his friends. He sent one to the sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland that read:

 

Constant and unavoidable depression
of mind and body sadly shackle me in even trying to go on with any mental effort which might rescue me from the fate of a dry toast soaked six hours in a glass of cold water, and intended to be given to an old Maid’s squeamish Cat.

 

Branwell’s debts piled up. In December 1846, his father and sisters had to settle his accounts to keep him out of jail.

The winter of 1846–47 was discouraging and cold. It was so frigid that Charlotte imagined England had slid north into the Arctic.
“The sky looks like ice—the earth is frozen, the wind is as keen as a two-edged blade,” she wrote to Ellen Nussey. Everyone in the parsonage caught colds. Anne’s developed into asthma, and Patrick Brontë came down with influenza. In the village below, rising prices for bread and potatoes forced many weavers’ families to do without. Hunger, dangerous conditions in textile mills, and contaminated water led to poorer health and climbing death rates.

Through the winter and spring, one publishing house after another rejected the sisters’ novels. Then, at last, in July 1847, a year after they first posted their manuscripts, the publisher T. C. Newby agreed to print
Agnes Grey
and
Wuthering Heights
as a three-volume set, if the authors put up fifty pounds. (
Wuthering Heights
would take up two volumes, and
Agnes Grey
would fill a third.) Anne and Emily would get their money back when—and if—their novels earned a big enough profit. Whether T. C. Newby rejected
The Professor
or its author refused to pay for publication is unknown. But Charlotte continued to send out her novel every time it came back, crossing out one publisher’s address on the wrapping and scribbling in a new one.

The seventh firm to receive the manuscript responded with a long letter. Smith, Elder and Company was rejecting
The Professor,
like all the others, but the gentlemen wondered if Currer Bell had a longer work to submit. If so, they promised to give it close attention. Publishers preferred longer novels that could be printed in three-volume sets, as a book that could be purchased in installments was easy for many readers to afford. Also, the circulating libraries that served cities and towns liked the three-volume system because three patrons could read one novel at the same time.

It just so happened that Currer Bell had a longer novel. Charlotte spent the next month finishing the book with the small, plain heroine. She packaged it and mailed it to Smith, Elder and Company, 65, Cornhill, London. Its title was
Jane Eyre.

George Smith, who managed the company, started reading Currer Bell’s book on a Sunday. Smith was twenty-three and had taken over Smith, Elder and Company in 1846, after his father died. The novel intrigued him so much that he canceled plans to go horseback riding. He gulped down his dinner so he could return to Jane Eyre’s story, and he stayed up late that night, unwilling to sleep until he had read every word. The next day, Smith wrote to Currer Bell again, to offer one hundred pounds for the right to publish
Jane Eyre.
If the novel proved popular enough to be reprinted or published in other countries, then Currer Bell might earn as much as five hundred pounds.

 

Just twenty-four years old when Charlotte Brontë first sent him her work, George Smith would become the foremost publisher in Victorian England. As an older man he recalled his friendships with Brontë and other great writers as “the happiest and most characteristic feature of my business life.”

 

Charlotte Brontë understood that she could never support herself for life on a hundred pounds, but it thrilled her to know that a publisher had spotted her talent. She agreed to the terms that Smith offered, but she put her foot down when he asked her to rewrite parts of her book. Some scenes in
Jane Eyre
were too brutal, Smith thought.

The author explained that while writing she had immersed herself in the spirit of the work. She had lived every sorrow and joy along with her main character. “Were I to retrench,
to alter and add now when I am uninterested and cold,” she wrote, “I know I should only further injure what may be already defective.” She urged Smith to have confidence in his fellow Victorians.
Jane Eyre
“might suit the public taste better than you anticipate—for it is true and Truth has a severe charm of its own,” she stated.

On October 19, 1847,
Jane Eyre: An Autobiography
(“Edited by Currer Bell”) became the first novel by a Brontë to be published. Its pages introduced the world to a new kind of female character. Society easily overlooked women like Jane Eyre, drably dressed and lacking beauty and wealth. Yet as they followed Jane from childhood to maturity, readers found her to be a person of deep feeling and the equal of any man. Outspoken and courageous, she stood in contrast to the passive woman who was the Victorian ideal.

“There was no possibility
of taking a walk that day.” A cold winter wind blows around the great house called Gateshead as
Jane Eyre
begins. Clouds block the sky, and a heavy rain hammers the ground. The bleakness outdoors matches the leaden mood within, where the orphaned Jane has taken refuge with a book. She tries to distract herself with its pictures, but even these are dreary: a lone rock emerging from the sea, a headstone in a moonlit graveyard, a demon besetting a thief.

 

Young Jane Eyre was reading
A History of British Birds,
a book the Brontës owned that had peculiar illustrations. On one page a rock stands alone, battered by a winter sea. It symbolizes Jane’s isolation.
BOOK: The Bronte Sisters
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