Bronte and the Bookmakers: Jane Eyre in the Nineteenth-Century Marketplace

Heritage, Barbara, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia
McGann, Jerome, Department of English, University of Virginia

Interactions with books—as historical objects, manuscripts, merchandise, and sacred scripture—were central both to Charlotte Brontë’s development as an author and to the formal structures of her novels. Yet, perhaps owing to her frequent characterization as a visionary or “trance” writer, Brontë and her writings have often been studied in ways removed from bibliography and the materiality of texts.

The following study shows how Brontë came to define literary art in opposition to “bookmaking,” or unscrupulous, profit-driven publishing and trade practices, which are satirically emulated in her early Glass Town and Angria writings. These extant artifacts—small manuscripts imitating printed books—provide new, important evidence about Brontë’s own attempts to “manufacture” literature that parodied (and perpetuated) the avaricious exploits of publishers, writers, and advertisers. Brontë’s turn from popular romance, often dated to her “Farewell to Angria,” originates in this prior engagement with the commercialization of literature, and consequently informs her reception of works by bestselling authors Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, as well as by her contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray.

Brontë’s first novel, The Professor, was never published during her lifetime, in part owing to the ways in which it resisted mainstream publishing conventions. Her subsequent work, Jane Eyre, pursued an alternative form of “profitable reading.” Crafted as a three-decker novel fit for sale to circulating libraries, Jane Eyre incorporates strands from two seemingly antithetical genres: popular romance and the moral tale of the evangelical tract. The inclusion of such discourse appealed to contemporary, mainstream readers, even while the dialogic nature of their critique designates Brontë’s literature as one that stands apart from the mass market. Finally, the religious and philosophical concept of the Book of Nature and the analogy of painting “from life” provide important alternatives for Brontë to Mammon and the marketplace for fiction, allowing her to distinguish “original” art from derivative copies, or authentic literature from those books consumed as commodities.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
book history, bibliography, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, The Professor, bookmaking, commercialization of literature, manuscript studies, drawing "from life", Sir Walter Scott, profitable reading, romance, nineteenth-century marketplace for fiction, juvenilia, bookbinding, book illustration, early writing of Charlotte Bronte, prints and drawings, popular romance, evangelicalism, Cottage in the Wood, tract literature, materials texts, three-decker novel, Book of Nature, British literature, Bronte studies, Charlotte Bronte
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