Charlotte Brontë and The Author’s Printing and Publishing Assistant

Upon publishing the Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, Charlotte Brontë equipped herself for dealing with the male realm of the literary marketplace—rather as a woman seeks male protection from being conned by a greasy mechanic—by purchasing The Author’s Printing and Publishing Assistant. Published in 1839, the chief aim of this ‘little Work’ is to ‘afford such a view of the Technical details of Printing and Publishing as shall enable Authors to form their own judgment on all subjects connected with the Publication of their Productions.’ The guide was indeed uncommonly enabling; it was not simply aimed at men but addressed itself more broadly to the gender-neutral ‘Author’. Thus, it provided Charlotte Brontë with guidance that authorised her use of a professional tone when dealing with her then-publishers, Aylott and Jones, and allowed her to dictate the material conditions of her text’s transmission.

In her work on identity formation and Victorian women writers, Linda Peterson suggests that critics tend to view Victorian female professionalism from an established ‘modern’ perspective, rather than as an active construction and performance. She refers to Brontë’s use of The Author’s Printing and Publishing Assistant as a quintessential example of female professionalism, ignoring how its significance is often underplayed in Brontë criticism and biography (in fact, it is not mentioned at all in Claire Harman’s most recent biography, Charlotte Brontë: A Life). Through Peterson’s efforts to deconstruct contemporary understandings of Victorian professionalism and the biographer’s tendency to diminish this aspect of Brontë’s life, the significance of this manual in informing her literary and aesthetic ambitions has been somewhat neglected.

Incidentally, Elizabeth Gaskell—arguably Brontë’s most conservative biographer—did make reference to the guide in her Life of Charlotte Brontë where she uses it to illustrate Brontë’s ‘self-reliant and independent character’.

If the volume was to be published at their own risk, it was necessary that the sister conducting the negotiation should make herself acquainted with the different kinds of type, and the various sizes of books. Accordingly she bought a small volume, from which to learn all she could on the subject of preparation for the press. No half-knowledge—no trusting to other people for decisions which she could make for herself; and yet a generous and full confidence, not misplaced, in the thorough probity of Messrs. Aylott and Jones.

Despite Gaskell’s conciliatory nod to Aylott and Jones, implicit is that Brontë’s consultation of the guide is a defensive gesture to protect herself from accruing unnecessary debt. That a female author should be cautious of interacting with a predominantly male literary marketplace is not surprising, and Brontë was obviously aware of how her inexperience could leave her vulnerable. The manual suggests that, if the inexperienced author wishes to avoid disappointment when publishing, they should ‘take the opinion of an experienced Publisher’ before composition. To be able to dictate on matters such as paper, type, and book size enabled Brontë to give the impression that she was already experienced in these matters. This contributed to the professional, overtly male, persona that she adopts in her correspondence and therefore enabled her to assume more control over her text’s transmission.

That the sisters adopted male personas, and pseudonyms, because they were aware that ‘authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’ is a well-known fact dictated by Charlotte herself in her 1851 ‘Biographical Notice’. This desire to assimilate herself with her male contemporaries extended not just through her authorial identity but the material elements of the Poems’ publication. The manual suggests how the material aesthetic of a book can articulate not only its status but its genre, ‘Pica is the Type usually employed in Printing works of History, Biography, Travels, &c., in the Demy octavo size; Small Pica, in Novels, Romances, &c., in the Post octavo size; and Long Primer, Poetry, in the Foolscap octavo size’. This knowledge emboldened Brontë to dictate to Aylott and Jones that she would like her work ‘to be printed in one octavo volume, of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth.’ Her awareness of the material conditions of publishing allowed her to create an affinity between her own work and Wordsworth’s; this does not only tell us about her aesthetic preferences but how she wished her work to be received. The materiality of the printed edition becomes a paratext in its own right that informs the reader’s opinion of the work by connecting it to the successful, male poetry that she wished to emulate. In this light, Brontë emerges as a conscious, professional literary artist rather than an isolated genius. By recovering the importance of this ‘little Work’, then, we can learn not simply about Charlotte Brontë’s professionalism—and how this is constructed—but how the aesthetic decisions she made about her text’s publication were linked to her literary aspirations.

Select Bibliography 

  • Brontë, Charlotte, ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’, in Wuthering Heights, ed. by Frederick Page (London: Oxford University Press, 1930)
  • Brontë, Charlotte, The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Margaret Smith, 3 vols (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Elisabeth Jay, (London: Penguin Books, 1997)
  • Harman, Claire, Charlotte Brontë: A Life, (London: Penguin Books, 2016)
  • Peterson, Linda H., Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market, (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2009)

Read Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell:

Read The Author’s Printing and Publishing Assistant by Frederick Saunders:

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