Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë - a review

We would like to thank Oxford University Press for generously providing us with a copy of the recently-published Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë, edited by Margaret Smith.

Price: £19.99 (hardback)
ISBN-13: 978-0-19-920587-5
Publication date: 13 September 2007
350 pages, 15 b/w photos, 234x156 mm

Men don't seem to understand making letters a vehicle of communication--they always seem to think us incautious. I'm sure I don't think I have said anything rash--however you must burn it when read. Arthur says such letters as mine never ought to be kept--they are dangerous as lucifer matches. . .
~ Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey, ?20 October 1854
With volumes like the Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë edited by Margaret Smith we can never be grateful enough that Ellen Nussey didn't keep her word to burn Charlotte Brontë's letters. But that was only the first and most important step. Now Margaret Smith's extraordinary editing renders them both alive and accessible to everyone. Charlotte's letters are printed as she wrote them, with her spelling mistakes and her peculiar punctuation. But, especially, each letter is accompanied by a set of notes where the names mentioned in the letter, the references to historical events, fragments from Mrs Gaskell's Life, French words, the now-outdated expressions are all explained carefully and in depth without clashing with the reading of the letter itself. A number of black and white plates has also been included: portraits of people Charlotte knew as well as a specimen of Charlotte's handwriting.

After editing what we consider to be the definitive three volumes of The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, with a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends, Margaret Smith now publishes a compilation that could be initially intended for the Brontë aficionado willing to read Charlotte's most famous and significant letters as close to the originals as possible. Comparing each letter in this book with the same letter in its corresponding volume of the complete Letters we realise that the reader is less overwhelmed with data (postmark information, annotations in the letters, etc. are left out) - but the manuscript location, if known, is still usefully provided. More basic facts are introduced as well. But not only that: the last volume of the Letters was published in 2004. Since then, things have come to light and investigations carried out which have made possible the identification of people mentioned in Charlotte's letters, previously unknown (ie. Bessie Hirst). This is what makes this edition interesting for the Brontë scholar with all three volumes at home/at hand.

What's more, this constitutes possibly the first scholarly compilation of Charlotte Brontë's letters made widely available to every sort of reader thanks to its affordable price. Not only are the contents tremendously wealthy in resources but the outward look is impressive too. A gorgeously-designed dustjacket, hardcover and high-quality paper guarantee this volume won't fall to pieces when it's used as often as it will certainly be.

The introduction by Margaret Smith gives a picture of who Charlotte was and how outward events affected her letter-writing. Perhaps we could have done with a note on the text as well, explaining at length the editorial policy, which is more accessible than in the previous volumes: less deletions by Charlotte herself, etc.

The reader always knows where Charlotte was and what her situation was. This is very carefully done, being of such importance to the letter itself. At the beginning of the book there is a very detailed chronology of Charlotte Brontë's life. And if further information is needed, what is usually the first note of the letter will provide us with the information we need. And not just Charlotte's context: also in most cases - apart from the biographical notes on regular correspondents or people frequently alluded to - the recipient's or whoever else's might be mentioned in the letter. The only instance where we found a puzzling contextualising square bracket right after Charlotte's opening sentence was in letter 15 (to Ellen Nussey, 3 March 1841) where for reasons unknown to us Margaret Smith feels it's needed right there, rather than in a note.

Save for that one exception, Charlotte's voice prevails. It's Charlotte telling us her story from her unique point of view: at times prejudiced, at times humourous, at times bitter and at times sensible. Charlotte no longer is the angel in the house, but a modern woman with virtues and defects. We learn of her interests, of her trials and tribulations, of her ideals, of her take on current affairs, of her views on literature and writing, and of family life, both her own and others'. Unlike in the three volumes of The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, with a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends, the sole letter included not written by Charlotte herself is the last one, written by her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls reporting the news of her death to her friend Ellen Nussey. And a very worthy exception it is.

Thus, this book bears no resemblance whatsoever to Juliet Barker's The Brontës: A Life in Letters (1998), since that book told the Brontë story drawing from Brontë letters (not just by Charlotte) and their circle's writings, with brief comments by Juliet Barker in between. Neither book is exclusive of the other.

Most letters that have frequently appeared in biographies and monographs are featured in this edition. We don't think this is solely because they are famous, but also because these letters tend to be the most informative and complete about the Brontës. This is very useful for several reasons: we finally get the 'whole picture' of many well-known fragments, thus learning Charlotte's real frame of mind when she wrote it; we also get the means of going to the source: checking the real punctuation, the real context.

However, to make reading easier and more accessible this volume doesn't include such an exhaustive adherence to the source as the three previous volumes. That is to say: deletions either by Charlotte herself or by the recipient afterwards are hardly ever noted. In the case of Charlotte's own deletions we guess they have only been included when they actually add to what she was writing (more like unconscious slips of the pen consciously deleted), although it would have been very helpful if this had been clarified in that much-missed note on the text. Deletions by the recipients: of proper names and highly personal affairs have been tacitly included, transcribing the letter such as it originally was. A note duly informs us when the reading is conjectural or words are illegible.

Charlotte was a prolific letter-writer. That's the reason why we have so many letters of her (yet some are sadly missing which would have added substantially to her story), and that's why it must have been a hard task for Margaret Smith - who is probably the most knowledgeable scholar on Charlotte's letters - to compile this selection. With this in mind we know it is unfair to say which letters we missed, but we must do so briefly. We regret that Charlotte's long, informative letter to her friend Mary Taylor of 24 September 1848 hasn't been included. We consider this is a perfect letter for such a selection because it summarises very crucial months in the Brontës' lives. Actually, 1848 - such a key year in so many senses - is mainly told in letters to William Smith Williams - the reader at Smith, Elder & Co. - thus giving a great deal of information about Charlotte's 'professional' side but leaving family life aside, in a year which was to bereave Charlotte of two siblings. Indeed, Branwell's death is quickly got over with. Nevertheless, this might also be a matter of personal taste and whether one is more focused on the literary or family side.

When a letter refers to something that might have been written in another letter, Margaret Smith - always loyal to her wish of letting Charlotte speak for herself - quotes from the relevant parts in a note. In this way it can be said that actually more than 'just' 169 letters have been included.

In short, the Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë edited by Margaret Smith is a perfect introduction (or re-introduction) to Charlotte Brontë's epistolary style, a highly valuable, first-hand source of information on the author who wrote some of the most important novels in English Literature and her siblings. Reading these accurate transcriptions of Charlotte Brontë's letters is pure magic - a momentary lapse into what her correspondents might have felt.

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Comments :

2 comments to “ Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontë - a review ”
elena said...
on  

I am trying to find Charlotte's letters to Heger. Does anybody know if they are included in this book?

Cristina said...
on  

This is your book then. The four extant letters are included both in the original French and its English translation.

The letters are also included in a number of other books: the pertinent volume of Margaret Smith's complete edition of the letters (vol. 1) or Winifred Gérin's biography of Charlotte Brontë are two of them.

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