by Roger Lathbury

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Even before she started writing mature fiction, Emily Brontė composed poems of intensity and accomplishment. However, she is remembered today for Wuthering Heights. The circumstances of its appearance in December 1847 by a house of questionable reputation are a remarkable story in themselves. The novel came out under a pseudonym, Ellis Bell. If—as there is evidence to think—Emily Jane Brontė hoped that her pen name would prevent the world from knowing her real one, that hope was doomed, for the world was already enthralled with a novel by Currer Bell, Jane Eyre, the product of Emily’s older sister Charlotte. It would be only time before publishers, reviewers, critics, and the curious would learn the identities of the Bells, Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne Brontė). The contrasting circumstances and reception of these first novels by Charlotte and Emily Brontė point to the nobler, less compromising, more intransigent spirit of Emily. Given this character, Emily’s association with the greedy, ignoble publisher who delivered it to the alien world of Victorian England may seem as astonishing as the book itself.

Notwithstanding its high literary reputation today, the status and initial commercial success of Wuthering Heights did not match that of Jane Eyre, put out by the established firm of Smith, Elder and Company in October 1847. Reviewers were repelled by Ellis Bell’s novel. A typical reaction is an unsigned review from The Atlas, which the author herself clipped, now preserved amongst the papers at the Brontė museum in Haworth. The third paragraph begins

Wuthering Heights is a strange, inartistic story. There are evidences in every chapter of a sort of rugged power—of unconscious strength—which the possessor seems never to think of turning to the best advantage. The general effect is inexpressibly painful. We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity. Jane Eyre is a book which affects the reader to tears; it touches the most hidden sources of emotion. Wuthering Heights casts a gloom over the mind not easily to be dispelled. It does not soften; it harasses; it extenterates. [“extenterates”?]

It is still scandalous today to a certain mind. It says that human love can be of such intensity that it lasts beyond the grave, and that love and hatred are the products of disinterested passions working though humans, who may not be so “human” as they think. For all the religion and religious sentiments in her poetry, Emily Brontė’s sensibility is pagan, not Christian; it is violent rather than informed by reason and sweetness. Is it any wonder that the book had a hard time finding a publisher? And that when it did find one, he was, if not one of “the worst forms of humanity,” nonetheless a scoundrel?


Like other beginning novelists, Charlotte and her sisters sent their manuscripts out (“perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half” writes Phyllis Bentley in The Brontės [London: Thames and Hudson, p. 93]) only to be spurned time after time. In early August 1847, Charlotte submitted three novels to the firm of Thomas Cautley Newby: The Professor, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. Newby rejected the first of these but agreed to publish the second and third. He agreed to print 300 copies but demanded his usual harsh terms for first time novelists: £50. This sum he promised to return to the authors once 250 of the 300 copies were sold.

Having obtained the money and set the book in type and sent proof sheets to the Bells, Newby then did nothing. The Bells (Brontės) wrote. Newby did not respond. He had his money. What further income could he expect from the venture?

Meanwhile, Charlotte pressed on. After Newby rejected The Professor, she sent the manuscript to Smith, Elder and Company. Like Newby they refused but in a thoughtful and courteous letter. The consequence was that later that same month the furiously writing Charlotte sent another manuscript, Jane Eyre. Its first reader, W. S. Williams, immediately saw its quality and passed it on to George Smith, who spent a Sunday ( ! ) reading it. This was late August 1847, as Charlotte’s cover letter is dated 24 August. By October, Smith, Elder and Company had published it. By December it was the talk of literary London.

Newby in October 1847 was still dilly dallying on Wuthering Heights, hesitating at a dubious commercial undertaking. He did not so neglect all his authors. In the same year as Wuthering Heights appeared, Newby published Anthony Trollope’s first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, obligingly sent him by Trollope’s mother, Frances, a successful novelist. Judging shrewdly that the Trollope name was worth something, he brought out Trollope’s book at his own expense, suggesting when he could that it was the work of the then more famous mother. It was only when Jane Eyre proved that the Bell name might also be worth something that Newby resumed production on Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Even then he rushed the job, ignoring corrections Ellis and Acton Bell had made on the proofs he had supplied.

The three volume novel was, in mid-Victorian England, a standard format—Jane Eyre was so presented. Newby had no qualms about stretching what were really at most two volumes, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, into three by heavily leading the text—putting more white space between the lines. Volume I is 348 pages, Volume II 416—extended by today’s standards but not obviously fattened. Like the First Folio of Shakespeare, his three volumes from two Brontės are superficially well produced. There were two bindings, a ribbed deep claret for private purchasers and a plain cloth with paper labels for circulating libraries such as Mudie’s. Also like the First Folio, the text abounds in typographical errors, some obvious, some not. Charlotte noted to her publishers, “The books are not well got up—they abound in errors of the press.” There is no record, however, of any such point’s being mentioned in reviews, and such public as the book immediately had was too small to make much of an objection.

T. C. Newby was doing everything in his power to increase the size of that public. His deviousness extended to seizing upon a potentially lucrative confusion. He bought newspaper ads that implied that Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell were the same person, an idea that persisted for some time at first independently and then because of Newby. The Athenaeum on Christmas day 1847 speculated that “all three [Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey] might be the work of one hand.” Even after Emily Brontė had been dead two years, Sydney Dobell, writing in The Palladium, attributed Wuthering Heights to a younger, less formed Currer Bell. Privately, to her own publishers, Charlotte Brontė protested Newby’s behavior; publicly and commercially the consequence of it was just what Newby had hoped: Wuthering Heights started to move.

Newby was an incorrigible rogue. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey did eventually sell the requisite number of copies for royalties to be paid to the Bells, but Newby never repaid any of the money he was advanced. Although he promised to print 300 copies, he printed 250, thus ensuring that only he would stand to gain. None of this was known to the few readers and critics of the novel; his dishonesty passed unnoticed.

Today we probably care less about Newby’s unscrupulousness in business matters and more about his carelessness with Emily Brontė’s text. It is easy in retrospect, now that we can see Wuthering Heights for the masterwork it is, to decry Newby’s irresponsibility. It is worth noting that Charlotte’s protest about Newby’s editorial integrity is milder than her anger over his dishonest advertising. “The books are not well got up” is a soft enough objection. Victorian readers were much less fussy about textual matters than we are today. We don’t know Emily Brontė’s feelings, yet there is reason to think that she was less disturbed than might be expected, since, as we shall see, she wanted to continue publishing with Newby.

However inferior the rascal’s edition may be, it is still the best text we have because it is the one closest to the author’s manuscript, which has not survived. Until textual studies came into their own in the early twentieth century, authorial manuscripts were not deemed to possess value beyond the market price of the autograph. Once a book was in print, the handwritten pages were used as kindling; and thus were frustrated the hopes of later ages to see the original efforts that produced Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Wuthering Heights. Without Newby, we might not have Wuthering Heights at all.

What Emily Brontė did with her own copy of her book is, like much about her, unknown. Until the mid 1960’s there were reports of a first edition that could be traced directly back to Arthur Bell Nichols, Charlotte’s husband, who inherited all Charlotte’s effects upon her death in 1855. It was thought to have alterations in Emily Brontė’s hand; however, when the book was sold in 1969, Sotheby’s reported that the writing was Charlotte’s. This copy, bought for £700, has much associational interest but no special authority. Under the mistaken impression that the emendations were Emily’s, the late William Sale was still chasing after it when he assembled the Norton Critical edition of Wuthering Heights in the 1980s.

We have evidence that Charlotte complained to her own publishers about Thomas Cautley Newby. She also did so to her sisters. They, with an inflexibility or a perversity worthy of Heathcliff, ignored her. An 1848 letter from Newby to Emily Brontė indicates that she was dealing with the villain: “Dear Sir [i. e., Ellis Bell, a man]—I am much obliged by your kind note and shall have much pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel.” She died before any such novel was written, but in 1848 Anne Brontė, shortly before her own death and the death of her sister Emily, published her next novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall under Newby’s imprint.

Newby continued to attempt to capitalize shamelessly on the confusion about the three Bells, as he was to do throughout his career (the firm ceased operations in 1874). He offered The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the American firm of Harper Brothers as a work by Currer Bell. Unfortunately for Newby, Charlotte Brontė’s own publishers, Smith, Elder and Company, were at that point engaged in offering Currer Bell’s Shirley to the same firm. When news of this situation reached Smith, Elder and Company in the summer of 1848, George Smith wrote anxiously to the Bells in Haworth. The consequence was a trip by Charlotte and Anne to London to meet Smith, where she confessed, “We are three sisters.”

Charlotte’s revelation infuriated the independent and reclusive Emily Brontė, who already in 1846 had quarreled violently with Charlotte when the latter published her—Emily’s—poems, under the name Ellis Bell, without permission. A letter after the fateful London visit written by Charlotte to Smith, Elder and Company cautioned these worthies not to mention “sisters.” The warning points to Emily’s Brontė’s abiding displeasure. Charlotte’s actions may have done as much as Emily’s natural contrariness to push her into continued negotiations with Newby; the woman who makes Heathcliff say, when his beloved has died, “May she wake in torment! ...And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me then!” is a vengeful soul. Could any ordinary publisher, any respectful businessman, have been a kindred spirit of such a person? The harshness of Newby’s treatment may have struck a sympathetic chord; his shady opportunism may have done more to keep Emily in his stable of authors than gentlemanly conduct could have, for in his own way he was as uncompromising and true—though to different values, to be sure—as Emily.

The more tractable Charlotte was probably not getting her pound of flesh back when, in 1850, after Emily’s death she edited a second edition of Wuthering Heights for Smith, Elder and Company. She did repair many of the obvious errors of Newby: (e. g., “journies” in place of “journeys”), but her text is as troubled in its own ways as that of 1847. She simplified Joseph’s Yorkshire dialect. She changed Emily’s short paragraphs, in order to make Wuthering Heights into one volume. It may not be too much of an exaggeration to compare the first two incarnations of Wuthering Heights to a sponge, expanding and contracting according to circumstances.

Contemporary lack of interest in Charlotte’s changes matched its lack of interest in Newby’s sloppiness. The question 19th century critics and readers asked was not What did the author write? but Which text reads better? For roughly a hundred years reprints followed Charlotte’s emendations. The first scholarly edition of the novel did not appear until 1976, edited by Ian Jack for the Oxford University Press. (The Oxford World Classics edition of the 1920’s was an imperfect effort in the same direction.) Jack restored many original readings and dutifully listed the variants and changes. There is still a need for a reprint of the Newby first edition. Orchises Press is planning to produce one in 2004.

With the passage of time and the growing reputation of the Brontės, the machinations of Newby take their place in the myth of the Brontės. Upon his death in 1882 he joined the pantheon of rogue publishers that now includes Leonard Smithers (The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband), Reginald Stanley Caton with The Fortune Press (books by Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Kingsley Amis—Caton himself satirized as L. S. Caton in Lucky Jim and other Amis novels), and Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press in Paris (Lolita). All these helped deliver literary work of a quality beyond their understanding.

Opportunistic, mercenary, crass, sly, suave, Newby treated many of his authors as badly as he did the Brontės, but had that been all he did he would be remembered by only a few antiquarians. However, Newby also dealt with one of the rarest spirits of his age. In an ironic twist, his limitations ensured that Wuthering Heights arrived in Victorian England in a way that now seems to add to its legend and that have helped add to what little we know about its author.

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