My Very Dear Reader . . .

Bronte sistersIt is scarcely the province of an author to refute the arguments of his censors and vindicate his own productions, but I may be allowed to make here a few observations with which I would have prefaced the first edition had I foreseen that the necessity of such precautions against the misapprehensions of those who would read it with a prejudiced mind or be content to judge it by a hasty glance.

In other words: “If I’d known you critics were going to slamdunk my novel, I would have put in a foreword to make what I was doing crystal clear.”

In a recent (multi-threaded) discussion about author etiquette, there seemed to be a general consensus that it’s a bad idea for authors to talk back to reviewers in self-justification.

I mentioned that authors (and playwrights) talking back— or rather striking back, often in highly entertaining fulminations— was a staple of English newspapers in the eighteenth century. The Victorians were more decorous (though in some cases, not much more.)

Victorian scene

It isn’t surprising that while the early Victorians were busy inventing the modern novel, they were also busy exploring how the author interacts with the public outside of the fictional pages of a book. Letters and memoirs can be revealing, but there is a third form equally so: the author preface to later editions.

Victorian books

The above quote was written by Anne Bronte in 1848, for the second edition of her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which she unflinchingly depicts the violently unromantic, physically and emotionally harrowing cost of living with an angry alcoholic. There is no Byronic romance here, though the initial impulse for the character might have arisen from her siblings’ shared fascination for the Byronic villainous hero, as we find in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and poor Branwell’s juvenilia.*

I wish to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. . . . When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.

Anne justifies her choices, and then goes on to talk about the moral duty of fiction, also taking a swipe at the critics who dared to cavil at the excruciating detail of a governess’s life among savages with a pretense of civility, depicted in Agnes Grey. Anne had been writing from personal experience. It showed.

She goes on to defend the separate works of the sisters:

Respecting the author’s identity, I would have it to be distinctly understood that Acton Bell is neither Currer nor Ellis Bell . . .  as to whether the name be real or fictitious, it cannot greatly signify to those who know him only by his works. As little, I should think, can it matter whether the writers so designated is a man or a woman … In my own mind, I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be.


one of the tiny handwritten books of wild juvenilia the Bronte kids wrote in secret.

She then makes a sly remark that seems to corroborate her being in fact male (because as everyone knows, that extra chromosome guarantees superior veracity) but then goes on to firmly state:

 All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.

This, in more decorous form, echoed Aphra Behn’s ferocious preface to the print version of her play The Dutch Lover, written in the 1670s, in which she rails against the hypocritical pontifications that only permit male writers to express amorousness in their poetry and plays, while women are the targets. Why shouldn’t women get their innings in the fictional battle of the sexes?

When one considers all those lists going around the Internet right now, exhorting people to read female writers, and complaints about females being short-sheeted in awards, advances, and publicity, it’s clear that gender parity has a long way to go, however much everything else has changed. 

Questions of gender aside, the entirely human hunger for the acknowledgement of the value of one’s work, whatever that work may be, has prompted a lot of friction between the need to publicize one’s efforts, and the universal weariness of a public constantly bombarded by PR.

I’m not drawing any conclusions here— I suspect the only answer is “Whatever nets success!”and that is going to change as fast as fashion—but it amazes and amuses me to pick up a very old book and discover an author struggling with the expectations and reactions that are not, after all, so new.


* I suspect modern readers, vaguely aware of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte, dismiss them as a bunch of Victorian spinsters from a parsonage, writing twee twaddle, unaware that these three took the English publishing scene by storm. Critics howled with repulsed fascination about the coarseness, indelicacy, immorality, and gritty realism in their books. And that was before the news got around that they were women.


About Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith's website and Book View Cafe ebooks.
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4 Responses to My Very Dear Reader . . .

  1. I have TENANT ready to read over the holiday season. Do you have any sense of the relative popularity of the three sisters’ work, in its time? Certainly JANE EYRE is the most popular work of the Bronte sisters today, with WUTHERING HEIGHTS in second place.

  2. I have had Tenant on my Kindle for a couple of years and still haven’t read it. Gotta take care of that problem soon.

  3. Carol Anne Douglas says:

    Thank goodness for writing about Anne. She is neglected. Tenant is a great book. Charlotte and Emily aren’t the only Brontes.

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