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How the Brontës Came Out As Women

Claire Harman | Knopf | September 1, 2016 | 7,925 words

When Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell burst onto the literary scene, everyone wondered who these mysterious men could be—and if they could even really be men.

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How the Brontës Came Out As Women

When Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell burst onto the literary scene, everyone wondered who these mysterious men could be—and if they could even really be men.
The Brontë Sisters, by their brother Branwell. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)

The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical recep­tion of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventu­ally, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.

Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”

Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement.

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