As regular readers of my blog will know, I’m obsessed with all things Brontë, however, there is a special place in my heart reserved for the Brontë juvenilia. Set in Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, the Brontës penned their literary sagas from childhood, and despite being very different from what readers traditionally associate with the Brontës’ adult works, there are also features and characters which reappear in the sisters’ later novels (you’ll find shades of Rochester in Zamorna, and whispers of Jane Eyre in Elizabeth Hastings). You can read more about these worlds and works in some of my previous posts including The Importance of the Child Author, which can be read by clicking here, and An Introduction to the Brontë Juvenilia, which can be found by clicking here.
Much of Anne and Emily’s Gondal saga has been lost to time, however, many of Charlotte and Branwell’s Glass Town and Angrian writings are extant. Charlotte’s juvenilia is my main obsession and area of research, however, I am branching out to explore more of Branwell’s work. You can imagine my excitement when, back in 2015, I heard rumours of a lost Brontë manuscript that had resurfaced in an old book belonging to the siblings’ mother, Maria Brontë. My excitement was further increased when it was revealed that there were actually two manuscripts which were fragments of Charlotte’s juvenilia. In 2016, the Brontë Society raised enough money to purchase the fragments, which were found in between the pages of Maria’s book, The Remains of Henry Kirke White, edited by Robert Southey, the man who famously advised Charlotte that “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life”. The book finally returned to Haworth in 2016, and I was lucky enough to be able to handle it in August of that year during my MA dissertation research, and I couldn’t resist attempting my own transcript of Charlotte’s fragments. I didn’t entirely succeed due to time restrictions and more pressing areas of research for my dissertation, but I was asked not to publish or publicise my transcript due to a forthcoming volume about the fragments and Maria Brontë’s book.
Fast forward to 2018 and that book, entitled Charlotte Brontë: The Lost Manuscripts, has finally enjoyed publication. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a volume which promised to shed light on this recent discovery, analyse the fragments’ relationship to the wider Glass Town and Angrian saga, and potentially introduce new readers to the wonderful paracosmic world of Charlotte and Branwell Brontë. I had a lot of expectations for this book, read on to discover my thoughts and overall verdict. I won’t give too much information away here to avoid spoiling the experience for other Brontëites and lovers of juvenilia.
The book begins with a short introduction from the President of the Brontë Society, Dame Judi Dench, and is followed by a longer introduction by Brontë expert and Principal Curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the brilliant Ann Dinsdale. Essays by Barbara Heritage, Emma Butcher, Sarah E. Maier, and Anne-Marie Richardson form the bulk of the volume, and there are also transcripts of Charlotte’s fragments. The poem “Clifton Grove” by Henry Kirke White is also printed in the book. The volume is designed to provide an insight into the history of Maria’s book, the Brontë juvenilia, and the recently discovered fragments. Unfortunately, it isn’t entirely successful. That’s not to say that the volume is not worth reading; Dinsdale’s contribution is, as one would expect, fascinating and comprehensive, setting the scene of the circumstances surrounding the origins of the book and its journey back to Haworth. The other essays are meticulously researched, and they contain a great deal of information, but something feels off about the publication.
I think the main problem is the structure of the volume. There is nothing wrong with the order the essays are presented in, but instead of feeling like a book and a study dedicated to Charlotte’s juvenilia, it rather feels like a group of essays that have been randomly put together. There is no sense of unity or cohesion. As a result, the volume is tediously repetitive at times, with the individual contributors all giving us a brief history of Maria’s book. Many more Brontë facts are repeated throughout, including information about the origins of the juvenilia, and lots of information about Henry Kirke White. The placing of the transcripts in the volume is also extremely odd. Instead of positioning the transcripts of Charlotte’s poem and prose piece at the beginning of the book, they are inserted in between the pages of various essays, breaking up the sense of cohesion and drawing the readers’ attention away from the individual essays.
The volume also fails in its discussion of the Brontë juvenilia. There are too many quotes within the essays from random pieces of juvenilia which are seemingly unconnected with either the manuscripts or each other. It would have been beneficial to clearly state which pieces the quotes are taken from. To readers unfamiliar with the Brontë juvenilia, the volume will do little but further confuse them, and potentially discourage them from exploring the writings, some of which are available in affordable paperback editions which do a much better job of contextualising the saga’s events and characters. This is such a shame as there are some really interesting points to be found in the essays. Heather Glen’s Tales of Angria and Christine Alexander’s Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal do a much better job not only of introducing new readers to the tales, but of providing information for those already familiar with the Brontë juvenilia. You can find more information on editions of the Brontë juvenilia by clicking here for a short list of available juvenilia.
However, the strangest aspect of the volume is the essay dedicated to Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights which feels totally out of place in a book ostensibly about Charlotte’s work. One can only wonder whether this essay was shoehorned in due to the Emily 200 celebrations at the Brontë Parsonage Museuem. Let me state that this is not a bad essay, it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the volume despite the connection to Henry Kirke White. This is definitely one that I need a little more time to process due to my frustration that a book about Charlotte’s work is not actually about Charlotte’s work. The volume overall really struggles to establish what it is actually about. Is it about Maria Brontë? Is the subject Charlotte’s juvenilia? Or is the focus actually on Henry Kirke White? After reading the book, I believe it’s the latter. There is a lot in there about Charlotte’s work, and I certainly don’t think it has been falsely advertised, it just struggles for unity and cohesion. Honestly, less information about Henry Kirke White would have meant more room for information about Charlotte’s work.
One other thing I feel I must add is that upon first reading the prose manuscript two years ago, despite the presence of one of Charlotte’s most used characters, Lord Charles Wellesley, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this is part of the Glass Town saga, especially as it takes place in Haworth. I rather feel this was more an experimental piece by the teenage author, who may have been trying to test out new ways of writing. The poetry fragment was much more interesting and more in-keeping with Charlotte’s tone and characterization. That’s just my opinion though.
My overall verdict? It’s not a bad volume, but I don’t think I would recommend it due to its structural issues and the often confusing way in which the information is presented to the reader. It’s obviously well worth purchasing for juvenilia or Brontë scholars as it contains transcripts of the lost manuscripts, however, perhaps a shorter volume which just contains the transcripts and snippets of information would have been more reader friendly, especially to those unfamiliar with the Brontë juvenilia. There are also a few typos in there such as a misused apostrophe on page 134 that really need correcting before a second print run. Sorry, I’m super fussy about my apostrophes. I’m not sure whether the reference to Rosamund and her father, Mr. Olivier from Jane Eyre on page 165 is an author error or printer error, either way, it needs correcting to Rosamond and Mr. Oliver. I’d also have really liked to have seen some kind of character profiles on Lord Charles, Zamorna, and Mary Percy, as they feature in the manuscripts. Perhaps that’s my next blogging project following the eventual completion of my A-Z of Charlotte’s juvenilia which you can read by clicking here. I’m really glad I read this, however, I doubt I’ll be picking it up again in the near future. The volume just seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to me. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts if they have found the time to read it, or on Charlotte’s lost manuscripts more generally.
Click here to access the journal of juvenilia studies. This is a free, open-access publication featuring scholarly articles on juvenilia. The current and inaugural edition features “In Search of the Authorial Self: Branwell Brontë’s Microcosmic World” by respected Brontë critic, Christine Alexander.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.
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Southey quote is taken from The Brontës: A Life in Letters edited by Juliet Barker (London: Penguin, 1997).