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In the Market for Fame: The Victorian Publication History of the Brontë Poems Susan K Bauman In 1846, the Brontë Poemswere poised to slip into oblivion. Elizabeth Gaskell comments on the poignancy of their unnoticed entrance into the literary arena when, in The Ufe of Charlotte Brontë, she depicts the "little volume of poems" as "[stealing] into life" while "some weeks passed over, without the mighty murmuring public discovering that three more voices were uttering their speech" (Gaskell 223). Gaskell implies the crowded marketplace drowned out the poems; the Brontë sisters' sudden celebrity as novelists further overwhelmed the slender book. However, the poems show a remarkable endurance in print throughout the nineteenth century because of the efforts of Charlotte 's publisher, Smith, Elder and Company. They marketed the verse by having it partake in the growing fame of the Brontë novels. The history of the Brontë poems reveals a symbiotic relationship of complementary interests: Charlotte's desire to promote the reputation of her sisters by rescuing Poems and repackaging their novels with their verse neatly dovetails with Smith, Elder's desire to produce a marketable commodity through canny advertisement and presentation . After Charlotte's death, the poetry survives due to the business acumen of a clever Victorian publisher intent on transforming the Brontes into a literary product to meet a carefully developed readerly taste. Not much has been written about the history in print of the Brontë poems after the 1840s. It is well known the sisters' first volume of Poems, which they published at their own expense in 1846,1 failed to achieve commercial success: in 1847, in a letter that is often quoted, 44volume 30 number 1 In the Market for Fame Charlotte wrote with chagrin: "in the space of a year our publisher has disposed but of two copies" {Utters 1, 531). Few people, however, seem aware of the implications of Charlotte's inclusion of additional poems by her sisters in the 1850 reissue of Wuthering Heights andAgnes Grey. It led to a practice that Smith, Elder & Co. maintained for the rest of the century. They continued to publish the poems of Emily and Anne Brontë with the novels, eventually adding the Poems of 1846, which included Charlotte's verses,2 and finally even Cottage Poems by their father, Patrick Brontë, in order to appear to the Victorian reading public as the authoritative source of all things Brontë.3 Charlotte was anxious to promote her sisters' poetry because she wished to use their graceful verse to recuperate their reputations from the notoriety that had surrounded both WutheringHeights and The Tenantof WildfellHall.4 So, after Poems failed completely, she strove to revive it, hinting politely to George Smith that she would be pleased if his company would see to "the disposal of the remaining copies" (Fetters 2, 117) and probably hoping that they would then republish the volume. Her pretext for this request was a perfunctory letter from AyIott andJones, written in the autumn of 1848, which inquired what she would like done with the unsold volumes (117). Walter Smith argues that the poor sales of the first issue of Poems can in part be "attributed to the obscure imprint of Aylott andJones, who were primarily booksellers and stationers rather than publishers, [and] lacking distribution outlets" (xvi).5 It is hardly surprising that Charlotte, who had quickly realized that she was in good hands with Smith, Elder, was eager to have them take responsibility for the poems. When they did, Charlotte openly expressed relief and happiness in a subsequent letter to W S. Williams, a reader for the company, exclaiming: "I am glad the little volume of the Bells' poems is likely to get into Mr. Smith's hands" (Utters 2, 117). This entire exchange reveals Charlotte's clever adeptness at getting what she wanted when it came to her sisters' legacy. Even if Charlotte knew what she wanted, perhaps she did not realize the extent of the favour she was asking of her publisher. A. S. Collins explains that, despite the success of poets like Felicia Hemans Victorian Review (2004)45 S. Bauman and Lord Byron in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, poetry's "days...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 44-71
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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