Recently, I semi-accidentally saw two of the Brontës’ original juvenilia notebooks at the British Library. There’s a reason it’s cliched to say that seeing a historical thing in person is totally different to a photo or description: because it’s true! For a historical text, a printed version has gone through word processing and editing, while even a photograph is a flat representation of something 3D. But the physical thing brings forward the reality of the past, in this case the early writings of Charlotte and Emily Bronte.
I’d gone to the British Library to study some academic editions of Emily and Anne’s poetry (which cost up to £200 each, the train ticket to London was better value), and while I was there I saw the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition out of curiosity. Scanning the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Jane Austen’s writing desk had me interested, but my heart skipped a beat seeing the next items: Emily’s original Gondal Poems notebook, and a book of Angrian tales by Charlotte. I knew the Gondal Poems book was kept somewhere in the library but I had no idea it was on display, and looking closer I saw some familiar initials above a poem: A.G.A. (pieced together from other poems as Augusta G. Almeda), who is one of Emily’s principal characters of her Gondal setting, a bold and treacherous anti-heroine. Looking even closer (at this point I was dangerously close to the display glass) I recognised the first line “O wander not so far away!”, a melancholy poem that I’d just read the night before in my less-than-£200 Penguin edition (full poem and notes on it below). Instead of a cleaned-up, edited, and neatly presented finished product I was seeing the author at work, writing in tiny scratchy letters with crossings-out and revisions, with no care for legibility by anyone except herself. It’s clearly a notebook Emily filled for her own needs, she transcribed it in 1844 from rough(er) versions, which made it feel very intimate and special to see up close. It brought to life the mythical Gondal and the very real Emily in a way a printed text can’t.
Directly below Emily’s poetry notebook was a book with writing clearly set in Angria, Charlotte and Branwell’s fantastical African kingdom. Again a familiar name leapt out: ZAMORNA, the dark and dashing king of Angria, signing a speech addressed to the “MEN OF ANGRIA”, followed by a “ᴘᴏsᴛsᴄʀɪᴘᴛ ᴀᴅᴅʀᴇssᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ᴛʜᴇ ᴇᴀʀʟ ᴏғ ɴᴏʀᴛʜᴀɴɢᴇʀʟᴀɴᴅ”. Northangerland, as you readers probably know, was Zamorna’s friend and arch-rival in the Angria setting, their complex love-hate relationship is central to several of the stories. The writing is incredibly small and surprisingly neat, although you can see the feverish outpouring of imagination in the dense blocks of text with no paragraphs and little punctuation. In her Roe Head Journal, Charlotte seems to say that she wrote from her imagination with her eyes closed, drawing astonishment from students and colleagues, but this book looks more considered than that type of ‘automatic writing’, featuring design flourishes like the signature ZAMORNA in blackboard bold. Similarly to Gondal, this brought to life Angria for me in a different way to printed versions, you can almost see Charlotte with her face right up to the page (she was very short-sighted), scribbling away as Zamorna dictates in her mind.
After seeing these (and finally checking the books I came for), I appreciated the role of the juvenilia editors a lot more. As fans, we’re obviously much more interested in the works of the Brontës themselves rather than their editors, but without the painstaking editorial work of deciphering and transcribing, we would never be able to read these early works, so we owe them a big thank you. Speaking of the editors, I recently had the pleasure of some email correspondence with Christine Alexander, editor of Charlotte’s juvenilia and the diary papers of Emily and Anne. She very kindly responded to a query I had about a list of Gondal characters, so an extra thank you to her. For those curious, here’s the full poem mentioned above: A.G.A. to A.S. O wander not so far away! O love, forgive this selfish tear. It may be sad for thee to stay But how can I live lonely here? The still May morn is warm and bright Young flowers look fresh and grass is green And in the haze of glorious light Our long low hills are scarcely seen – The woods – even now their small leaves hide The blackbird and the stockdove well And high in heaven so blue and wide A thousand strains of music swell – He looks on all with eyes that speak So deep, so drear a woe to me! There is a faint red on his cheeck Not like the bloom I used to see. Can Death – yes, Death, he is thine own! The grave must close those limbs around And hush, for ever hush the tone I loved above all earthly sound. Well, pass away with the other flowers Too dark for them, too dark for thee Are the hours to come, the joyless hours That Time is treasuring up for me If thou hast sinned in this world of care ‘Twas but the dust of thy drear abode – Thy soul was pure when it entered here And pure it will go again to God –
In the poem, A.G.A. laments for her friend or lover A.S., who is passing away on an incongruously beautiful day, she concludes that any of A.S.’s misdeeds aren’t his fault but are due to the corrupting influence of a ‘drear’ world. Not blaming the dead for their sins is a theme that recurs in other poems by Emily, including one titled “Stanzas to —” which starts “Well, some may hate, and some may scorn,”. This sentiment is oddly prescient of Charlotte forgiving Branwell’s faults after he died: “When the struggle was over—and a marble calm began to succeed the last dread agony—I felt as I had never felt before that there was peace and forgiveness for him in Heaven. All his errors—to speak plainly—all his vices seemed nothing to me in that moment; every wrong he had done, every pain he had caused, vanished; his sufferings only were remembered; the wrench to the natural affections only was felt. If Man can thus experience total oblivion of his fellow’s imperfection—how much more can the Eternal Being who made man, forgive his creature!” —From a letter by Charlotte to W.S. Williams, 6th October 1848
Edited by Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Many thanks to Tom for this excellent post.
Thanks for reading. I’d love it if you stopped by The Journal of Juvenilia Studies where you can read my essay, “Autobiography, Wish-Fulfilment, and Juvenilia. The ‘Fractured Self’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Paracosmic Counterworld”.
Images of manuscripts courtesy of Tom A.
All other images courtesy of Nicola F.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.