May 24, 2013
Charlotte Bronte as "Currer Bell"
On this day in 1847, Charlotte Bronte sent her manuscript of Jane Eyre to her eventual publisher, Smith, Elder and Co., in London. Her accompanying note shows her maintaining her pseudonym, though perhaps just barely:
I now send you per rail a MS entitled Jane Eyre, a novel in three volumes, by Currer Bell. I find I cannot prepay the carriage of the parcel, as money for that purpose is not received at the small station-house where it is left. If, when you acknowledge the receipt of the MS, you would have the goodness to mention the amount charged on delivery, I will immediately transmit it in postage stamps. It is better in future to address Mr Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present....
The novel had already been rejected five times, and Brontë might have been close to seeing the wisdom offered by both Wordsworth and poet laureate Robert Southey, who had advised that novel-writing wasn't the proper pastime of a lady. But not likely, going by the temperament of her heroine, Jane:
"I tell you I must go!" I retorted, roused to something like passion. "Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?... Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you-and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal -- as we are.
Smith, Elder and Co. took the risk on passages like that, and Jane Eyre was an immediate and controversial hit. Many first reviewers railed at Currer Bell -- if she was a woman, then an "unsexed" one who dared "to trample upon customs established by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon our domestic circles" -- but there was cheering from the budding Suffragette movement, and William Makepeace Thackeray was so unmanned that he wept in front of his butler.
In his preface, "Currer Bell" says that he would like to dedicate his second edition to Thackeray -- "if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger." Bell also gives thanks "To the Public, for the indulgent ear it has inclined to a plain tale with few pretensions." And to the press, who granted a "fair field" to "an obscure aspirant." And his publishers, for supporting "an unknown and unrecommended Author." And then he reminds "the timorous or carping few" of "certain simple truths":
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns....
The world may not like to see these ideas dissevered, for it has been accustomed to blend them; finding it convenient to make external show pass for sterling worth -- to let white-washed walls vouch for clean shrines. It may hate him who dares to scrutinise and expose -- to rase the gilding, and show base metal under it -- to penetrate the sepulchre, and reveal charnel relics: but hate as it will, it is indebted to him.