Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bronte Versus Bronte Verses Kayo'd by Apathy


First ediiton, first printing, first issue (1846).

This is the story of a loser that couldn’t be saved, a palooka in green cloth boards that went down for a very long count, three limbs on the canvas, the other hanging onto the ropes for dear life. Though other sanctioning bodies may disagree, it holds the WBA crown for Worst-Selling Book of All Time.

Charlotte Brontë’s first published book was a flop; only two copies - two copies! - were sold in its first year of publication. The publisher couldn’t give the book away.

The book was Poems (1846), a collection by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, the sisters writing under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell so that their work would be taken seriously. "We had the vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice" (as cited in the Preface to the 1910 edition of Emily's Wuthering Heights). Charlotte (Currer) contributed nineteen poems, Emily (Ellis) and Anne (Acton) twenty-one each.

Charlotte Brontë, a colored drawing, 1873.

The publisher couldn’t give them away but Charlotte Brontë could, distributing copies to Tennyson and other contemporary authors. Not that it did much good. Only one critic paid much attention to it, and he only had good things to say about the poems written by Emily (“Ellis”), which possessed “a fine quaint spirit” (Sydney Dobell, The Athenaeum, July 4, 1846), hardly a critical ovation.

Emily Brontë.

One thousand copies of Poems were printed by the publisher, Aylott and Jones in London, May 1846 but with approximately 960 sets of unused sheets all printed up with no profitable place to go, they were put into storage.

Anne Brontë.

Not so by the way, Charlotte Brontë paid for the cost of the book’s paper and printing, £31.10s.

“In the space of a year our publisher has disposed of but two copies, and by what painful efforts he succeeded in getting rid of these two, himself only knows” (Charlotte Brontë to Thomas De Quincey).

The sales total was so depressing that it’s a wonder Brontë didn’t escape with De Quincey into opium.

And then a little book titled Jane Eyre “edited by” Currer Bell came along in 1847. Charlotte “Currer Bell” Brontë was no longer bookshop poison. Its publisher, Smith, Elder and Co., hoping to capitalize on Jane’s Eyre’s success, bought the 960 or so remaining sheets and bindings of Poems from Aylott and Jones. Many of the old bindings were restamped and new title pages (cancels) for the Smith imprint were added yet these inserted title pages retained the 1846 original date of publication. Beyond these cosmetics, there were no textual changes.

First edition, first printing, second issue (1848).

And so, there are two issues of the first edition, first printing, the Aylott and Jones, and Smith, Elder & Co.; the former obviously the book’s first appearance.

Smith and Elder’s roll of the dice with Poems came up snake-eyes. It took fourteen years for the initial print run of 1000 to sell out. That’s an average of sixty-nine people a year buying copies. A book that sells steadily over time is considered to be an evergreen title; it stays green, like money, no matter what the season. Poems, however, falls into a different class, the everlame, books that pathetically limp along, year after year, gasping for breath and refusing to die.

The second issue of Poems had many binding variants over subsequent years. In The Bronte Sisters: A Bibliographical Catalogue, Walter E. Smith believes that the light green binding with fancy harp "represents, I believe, more truly than any other the initial Smith, Elder publication effort and isolates it from some vestiges of the bibliographical confusion that resulted from the purchase of unsold quires and binding cases from Aylott and Jones" (Smith I, note 1).

First edition, first printing, second issue, first state binding.

In 1848, Lea & Blanchard of Philadelphia, gulled by Jane Eyre’s success, published an American edition of Poems. It, too, took a ten-count.

Yet Emily Brontë’s poetry has stood the test of time; she is considered to be one of the great English lyric poets. Emily Dickinson was a fan, was inspired by her, and thought so highly of Emily Brontë's poetry that she chose "No coward soul is mine" to be read at her funeral:

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

0 God within my breast 

Almighty ever-present Deity 

Life, that in me hast rest 

As I Undying Life, have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds 

That move men's hearts, unutterably vain, 

Worthless as withered weeds 

Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one 

Holding so fast by thy infinity 

So surely anchored on 

The steadfast rock of Immortality

With wide-embracing love 

Thy spirit animates eternal years 

Pervades and broods above, 

Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone 

And suns and universes ceased to be 

And thou wert left alone 

Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death 

Nor atom that his might could render void 

Since thou art Being and Breath 

And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Poems may have died but not that one. That’s the steel core of a serenely fearless, strong and independent-minded woman expressing itself.

Emily Brontë's poetry rose and left her sisters' on the canvas.

[BRONTË, Charlotte, Emily and Anne]. BELL, Currier, Ellis, and Acton. Poems. London: Aylott and Jones, 1846. First edition, first printing, first issue. Octavo. iv, 165, [1, colophon], [1, advertisement], [1, blank] pp.

[BRONTË, Charlotte, Emily and Anne]. BELL, Currier, Ellis, and Acton. Poems. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1846 [1848]. First edition, first printing, second issue. In the first state binding with blindstamped harp. Octavo. iv, 165, [1, colophon], [1, advertisement], [1, blank], [16, as catalog] pp.

Smith 1. Wise 2. Carter, Binding Variants, p. 94.

1 comment:

  1. This has to be one of my favorite posts of any blog, of all seems life-changing.

    "That’s the steel core of a serenely fearless, strong and independent-minded woman expressing itself."


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