Review - Villette at the West Yorkshire Playhouse - *Review by Richard Wilcocks* Charlotte Brontë’s *Villette*, which was recognised by knowledgeable readers in nineteenth century Brussels as a close parallel...
14 hours ago
English Literature, History, Private Press,Children's Books & Illustrations
London / 15 December 2011 10:30 AM
BRONTË. SOLD BY SERGEANT TREE AND ALL OTHER BOOKSELLERS IN THE BOOKSELLERS IN THE CHIEF GLASS TOWN PARIS ROSS GT PARRYS GT WELLINGTONS GLASS TOWN &C &C &C ... FINISHED AUGUST 19 1830
Unpublished miniature autograph manuscript written in minuscule script, comprising title page (p.1), half-title and contents (p.2), "A letter from Lord Charles Wellesley" (pp.3-10), "The Midnight Song" (pp.11-14), "Journal of a Frenchman [continued]" (pp.14-18), "Advertisements" ("...Six young men wish to let themselves all a hire for the purpose of cleaning out pockets they are in reduced CIRCUMSTANCES...") (p.19), blank except for "Em R" in a different hand (p.20), the manuscript being composed of five bifolia, each produced individually and varying in size by up to 3mm, folded into a single gathering and stab-stitched in brown paper wrappers with "SEPTEMBER 1830" inscribed on the upper cover, 20 pages, 35 x 61mm, in a red folder and brown morocco slip-off case (50 x 70mm) with gilt lettering on the spine ("Young Men's Magazine C. Brontë Sept. 1830"), in exceptional condition but with tiny nick to second leaf, without paper loss.
ESTIMATE 200,000-300,000 GBP
On Charlotte Brontë's death in 1855 her surviving manuscripts passed to her widower, the Rev. Arthur Nicholls, who moved to Ireland in 1861. In 1895 Nicholls was approached by Clement Shorter, acting on behalf of the bibliographer, collector, and forger T.J. Wise, who purchased the bulk of the manuscripts for £400. No complete list of these manuscripts is known but since this manuscript was not included among the residue of Nicholls's collection (sold in these rooms 26 July 1907, 19 June 1914, and 15 December 1916) it can be assumed that it was among Wise's purchases. Folders and slip-off cases similar to that protecting this manuscript are also found with some of the manuscripts from Wise's collection. Wise sold many of the individual manuscripts to a range of collectors, and this manuscript has remained in private ownership in Continental Europe until the present time.
"We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair..." (Charlotte Brontë, 19 December 1835)
An unpublished manuscript containing three works by the young Charlotte Brontë never seen by scholars, this is undoubtedly the most important Brontë manuscript to have appeared at public auction in more than thirty years and one of only a handful of such manuscripts remaining in private hands. The "magazine" is set in the fantasy world of "Glass Town", the earliest of the fictional worlds created by the four Brontë siblings.
Charlotte's first burst of creativity, of which the magazine is a representative example, came in early adolescence. Its wellspring was the intense community she formed with her three siblings. Brontë juvenilia is of unusual importance as their childhood empires of the imagination loom so large in our understanding and appreciation of their mature works: generations of readers have been moved by the thought of these four extraordinarily gifted children conjuring up wonderful worlds together in their lonely Yorkshire parsonage. In their father's words: "As they had few opportunities of being in learned and polished society, in their retired country situation, they formed a little society amongst themselves – with which they seem'd content and happy." (Rev. Patrick Bronte to Mrs Gaskell, 20 June 1855). This solidarity was certainly fostered by the relatively isolated position of Haworth, but it was engendered by family tragedy. Their mother had died when Charlotte was five and her youngest sister Anne only one, and the only extended period spent by any of the siblings outside the family had been when the four oldest girls (including Charlotte and Emily) had been sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. The brutal, uncaring and unsanitary regime
had left the girls half-starved and susceptible to disease, leading to the death of Charlotte's two elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth (Charlotte's fury at the school finally found expression in her depiction of it as Lowood School in Jane Eyre). After this traumatic experience the four surviving children were educated at home, their unfettered imaginations fed by free access to their father's library.
The world of Glass Town, the first expression of the incredible imaginative community at Haworth, had its origins in a gift of toy soldiers:
"...Papa bought Branwell some soldiers from Leeds. When Papa came home it was night and we were in bed, so the next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed and I snatched one up and exclaimed, 'This is the Duke of Wellington! It shall be mine!'..." (Charlotte Brontë, The History of the Year, 12 March 1829).
Following Charlotte's lead, each of the siblings took one soldier as their own and named them for a hero: Branwell chose Napoleon in a riposte to Charlotte's Wellington, whilst the younger sisters Emily and Anne named theirs for the explorers Edward Parry and William Ross. The children assembled a world – a "confederacy", in which all four siblings had their own realm – around these characters. It was a world assembled from the material to hand: prints of Biblical illustrations by John Martin hung in Haworth Parsonage, which formed the basis of the towering cities of Glass Town; the geography of their world was based on West Africa, about which they had read in the life of Mungo Park; from the Arabian Nights they took the four near-omnipotent Genii (one for each of the siblings) that hovered over the world, intervening at will; the texture of the world and the adventures of its inhabitants drew extensively on Blackwood's Magazine, to which their father subscribed.
By 1829 the two older children, Charlotte and Branwell, had increasingly coherent literary ambitions and began to collaborate on written stories set in their imagined kingdom. It was Branwell who first began an imitation of their favourite periodical, initially called "Branwell's Blackwood's Magazine" early in 1829, but after a few months he passed "editorship" to his elder sister. Charlotte wrote six issues of "Blackwood's Young Men's Magazine" from August to December 1829, and in August of the following year she began a "second series". Although the title was changed slightly (becoming simply the "Young Men's Magazine") she was careful to reassure her readers that it was the work of "the same eminent authors". The magazine contained travel narratives and adventures, often in the form of letters from correspondents, longer narratives in serial parts, poems, "Conversations" (modelled on Blackwood's Noctes Ambrosianae), and even advertisements and reviews of (fictional) books and paintings. These various pieces were written by a host of imaginary characters, and even have a fictional bookseller. This loving recreation of the accoutrements of publication are an unmistakable indication of the strength of Charlotte's literary ambitions and formed just part of her output: in the summer of 1830, just before she wrote the second series of the Young Men's
Magazine, she wrote a "Catalogue of my books with the periods of their completion" which totalled 22 volumes, all written in little more than 12 months.
"[A]n immense amount of manuscript, in an inconceivably small space" was Mrs Gaskell's comment when she saw Charlotte's juvenilia. Its minute size is the most extraordinary physical feature of this manuscript, as it is of the other early works by Charlotte and her siblings. The manuscript offered here contains more than 4000 words crammed on to 19 pages (including the title page and half title) each of which is no more than 35 x 61mm. It must have been extraordinarily laborious work, especially as Charlotte's desire to replicate a printed magazine went so far as carefully printing out each individual letter. The tiny scale of the manuscript reflects the miniature nature of its subject, since Glass Town was originally populated by characters based on Branwell's toy soldiers, as well as its intimate nature – it was produced to be shared only among the four Brontë children. This imaginary world was intensely private and the miniature scale of these works ensured that they were easily hidden and indeed could only be read without a magnifying glass by the sharp eyes of a child.
The first piece in this issue of the Young Men's Magazine, "A letter from Lord Charles Wellesley", is also the most substantial, taking up about half the manuscript (about 2200 words). Its author, the son of the Duke of Wellington, was a frequent hero of the Glass Town stories, a practical man of action prone to understatement and occasional cynicism, he was a deliberate contrast to his brother, the Marquis of Douro. Here he report a "rather mysterious incident" that begins when he was awoken in the night and, whilst admiring the stars from his palace garden, hears a sudden shriek:
"...I looked up & beheld a boat softly floating down the canal: in it were seated 4 men three rowed and the other appeared to be struggling with something white but I could not perceive what. till they drew nearer then I saw it was that little girl Caroline Krista whom such a great stir has been made about since the publication of your last magazine..."
Before he can intervene the girl is stabbed to death and when he leaps into the canal to avenge her he himself is captured by the murderer, whom he recognizes but names only as T_e. Lord Charles is taken to his country house where he is imprisoned in a vividly-described attic: "the floor was of wet rotten wood blacker than the back of a chimney. the sides were of the same but ...partially concealed by elegant draperies of spiders web. & no vestige of furniture was to be seen not even a straw bed". He waits for death, but the assassin sent by T_e proves to be a friend of the Wellesley family and instead helps him escape. A week later he finds himself at a dinner party seated opposite T_e, who now believes his enemy dead, but "he was too busily engaged in the disecsion of a fat roast goose to notice me" and Lord Charles escape to wreak his revenge. Gaining access to a linen closet off T_e's bedchamber, "I took a large white damask toilet cloth & wrapped it round me like a winding sheet", he waits until his victim has fallen asleep: "...just as the clock struck twelve I stepped with noiseless feet (having stripped my shoon) from the closet: stealthily I
approached the bed & placed my hand (which was as cold as ice by reason of my having taken the precaution o[f] wetting it with water) on his brow. he started & opened his eyes "Caroline Krista sends the ghost of Charles Wellesley to dispatch you to the regions of the dead" said I in the most hollow tone I could muster.."
The fright of conscience sends Lord Charles's victim into a delirium which is described in a passage of remarkable power:
"...he constantly raged about the spirits of Caroline Krista & Charles Wellesley dancing before him. he said that every now & then they glided through his eyes to his brain where an immense fire was continually burning & that he felt them adding fuel to the flames that caused it to catch the curtains of the bed that would soon be reduced to ashes. at other times he said he felt them pulling his heart-strings till a sound like a death knell came from them..." What makes this vivid description of madness particularly significant is that it is a precursor to one of the most famous scenes in Charlotte Brontë's later fiction: the moment in Jane Eyre when Bertha, Mr Rochester's insane wife (who was, like Lord Charles, kept in the attic) seeks revenge by setting fire to the bed-curtains in her husband's chamber. The second piece in the magazine strikes a very different tone and is, appropriately, the work of a different fictional character, Lord Charles's brother the Marquis of Douro. Over the years Douro increasingly became the central character holding together the Glass Town saga, gaining new titles as Duke of Zamorna and King of Angria, and Gerin identifies him as Charlotte's prototypical Byronic hero: "To ignore Zamorna [i.e. Douro] is to lose the very concept from which Rochester sprang – the love not only of Charlotte's adolescence but, as time would show in all essential traits, of her life." His piece in this magazine is a melancholy "midnight song". As with his brother's adventure, this began on a summer night:
"...The earth was wrapped in midnight's robe
As on the dewy ground
I lay. & all the mighty globe
Silence embraced around..."
On the wind he hears a mysterious "mourning voice of woe | Sweeter then heavenly harp it sang", and this song – with its own metre and rhyme-scheme – is inset within the poem. It is a plaintive song of hopelessness and exile, the singer cursing the indifferent heavens (as so often, expressing sentiments far from those conventional for a clergyman's daughter):
"...The universal God of might
With contempt ye gaze afar
On each sun & on each star
Planets roll unheeded by
Comets flame along the sky
Brighter glories you surround
Fairer scenes in heaven are found..."
His only hope is that the wind will carry to him tidings from England, "that green gem of the north", from which he has been irrevocably exiled and now can only visit in his dreams. Like the story that preceded it, this poem is constructed of conventional elements but with real mastery both of phrasing and narrative (if not of metre), especially in its refusal to provide explanation: it maintains its mystery by never revealing the nature of the speaker or his exile.
The final piece in the magazine is the second instalment of the Journal of a Frenchman, which begun in the previous issue with a young man celebrating the death of his tyrannical father and inheritance of a title. "Paris Glass Town" was Branwell's kingdom and it is possible that they worked together on this piece, although it is in the same hand as the others. In this second episode the young Baron arrives in Paris, is presented at court, and goes to a ball hosted by the "Comtess Du Ouvert", in a narrative that dwells on luxury and vanity. It focuses on such details as food, drink and costume, gives a detailed account of the narrator's foppish and effeminate preparations for his first ball ("...I first washed myself in rose-water with transparent soap then got myself shaved till my chin was smoother than satin: next my cheeks received a fresh bloom by the addition of a little rouge...") and describes the social etiquette of the Tuileries Palace with considerable aplomb for a fourteen year old girl who had never left the north of England. Charlotte still finds an opportunity to give her narrator a gothic nightmare ("...I was doing penance for some trifling fault by lying all night in a coffin while the ghost of my father constantly haunted my sight hovered round me...") but the narrative ends with the whirl of dance:
"...presently the orchestra commenced a sweet enlivening air that set five couples in motion: it was a cotillon. I rose & offered my hand to Mademoiselle Julie Grisette. she accepted it with delighted surprise & we danced a quadrille with eight others then the set being over refreshments were introduced. I led my partner to a seat & politely handed her the choicest dainties. Again the music sounded & more couples tripped the light fantastic toe to a Swiss tune of extreme harmony. We continued dancing till dawn or day when all separated with the greatest regret & I again returned to my house..."
The Young Men's Magazine came towards the end of Charlotte's first creative outpouring. Although the issues were "published" monthly, her habit of dating her manuscripts means that we know all six were actually written over a period of less than a month in August-September 1830. This stage of writing came to an abrupt end in January 1831 when she was sent to obtain the formal education that would make her fit to earn her own living at Roe Head School, some 15 miles from Haworth. The school's headmistress, Margaret Wooler, was a kindly and intelligent woman who appreciated her student's intelligence and hard work, and Charlotte made a number of life-long friends at the school (including Ellen Nussey, for whom see lots 35-44). Yet her absence from home meant painful banishment from the secret world she shared with her siblings, and she was shouldered with a new burden of responsibility and selfsacrifice, keenly aware of the cost of her schooling and the importance to the family that she should become financially self-sufficient. Her writing became a buried secret, the exuberant imagination that was given full flight in the safety of Haworth became a threat to her equanimity that had to be suppressed. If exceptionally vivid imagination – encompassing both her capacity to give her fantasies a near tangible reality and her taste for the gothic – always remained a chief characteristic of her writing, it was when this imagination was set against the dull reality of dutiful drudgery that her prose flamed into maturity. The pent-up frustration of powerless women was something she began to learn at Roe Head, when she bade farewell for a time to her world of Glass Town.
Charlotte Brontë's manuscripts were dispersed in the nineteenth century (see provenance, below) but the vast majority are now in institutional collections in the UK and USA. Two miniature manuscripts were in the collection of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr, sold at Christie's, 13-14 July 1979, lots 53 and 54. One of these is now at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the other, a three-page miniature manuscript containing two published poems, passed into the collection of William E. Self and was sold at the sale of his library, part 2, Christie's, New York, 4 December 2009, lot 13, for $50,000 (hammer).