Even great writers start from small beginnings. Eleanor Scorah reports on an encounter with a minuscule book, during Durham’s Literary Juvenilia conference, which enticingly hints at the author who we would subsequently know and cherish as Charlotte Brontë. This is kindly cross-posted from Eleanor’s blog, Object.
This week I attended a talk called ‘The Brontë juvenilia, editing, and print culture’ by Christine Alexander, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Charlotte Brontë is my one true literary love, but while I know Jane Eyre back-to-front, I have never really learnt much about the minuscule books she produced as a child.
I knew it was unlikely that one of these highly valuable and fragile books would be brought along to the talk — many of which remain in private collections — but part of me had hoped there would be one anyway. Wouldn’t they make great objects to write about? Books about the size of a large postage stamp, with tiny inked writing, and covers made from old wallpaper and other found materials. Luckily for me, Christine Alexander had brought along the next best thing: a photocopied facsimile.
The book Alexander had photocopied was The Poetaster: A drama by Lord Charles Wellesley. A book, like most of Charlotte’s works, written under a pseudonym. But this pseudonym has a different purpose to the name Currer Bell that originally laid claim to the authorship of Jane Eyre; this pseudonym belonged to the world of Glass Town. A world which, as Alexander explained in her talk, had its own sophisticated print culture.
Charlotte didn’t just write stories about the characters in Glass Town, but by the characters that lived there. Her tiny books were attributed to a variety of authors and included detailed paratextual features like title pages, tables of contents, binding etc. that turned her writings from tales to be told into physical objects. The little magazines were made such a small size to allow Branwell’s toy soldiers to read them, and so the whole chain of the publishing industry existed in miniature, from writer to reader, in the imaginations of the siblings.
these books gave Charlotte the power to publish relentlessly in an era where it seemed unlikely she would be published in the ‘bigger’ outside world.
I’m not sure if we need to form complex ideas as to why the Brontë siblings created these books. They were children, and imitating the adult world is a recognisable form of play. Interestingly, though, all Charlotte’s childhood writings were written from a male perspective, and she continued writing them until the age of twenty-three. This makes me wonder: with her own awareness that writing was not an ‘acceptable’ pursuit for a woman — an awareness that at one point in her life led her to develop her painting skills instead — were these tiny books a way she could create something society suggested she could not have? I wonder if the many many little books she published were, in some ways, placeholders for the real novel she wanted to write.
In being small, in being bound only in scraps of paper, in being written by male characters, in being part of a world in which she herself decided what would be published, these books gave Charlotte the power to publish relentlessly in an era where it seemed unlikely she would be published in the ‘bigger’ outside world.
There is an immense power in establishing your own print culture. And in this way, these tiny books remind me of zines, which allow anyone and everyone to harness the power of the physical written world. These tiny books may have been the creations of children, but the later success of these children in the adult publishing world suggest the power of the self-made book. When we can’t see our writing in print because we are too young or because society discriminates against us, we should take a leaf from one of Charlotte’s (tiny) books and write anyway, write relentlessly, and create our own print medium.