Emily Brontë: The Gondal and Honresfeld Notebooks

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Winifred Gérin, in her 1971 biography of Emily Brontë, describes the notebooks used by Brontë in 1844 to transcribe fair copies of her poems:

“Emily’s year alone with her father had ended. It had brought her, with the gift of liberty and solitude, the peace in which to find herself. The new year [1844] shows her collecting her poems in two carefully kept notebooks, as if in acknowledgement of the fact that, at last, she knew the worth of what she was writing. No more unpretentious receptacles for great poetry exist than the limp-backed, wine-coloured, faintly lined notebooks (they have been compared to laundry books) in which she set about copying her verse in the cryptic writing that she had evolved. From the old much-scored notebook and from the scattered scraps of paper on which she had jotted down the lines and verses as they had come in the past, she selected those poems she intended to keep. Though the actual copying began only in February (at a time of renewed tranquillity in the house) the purpose was clearly formed before, and the final division made between her Gondal Poems which she copied into one notebook and clearly marked ‘Emily Jane Brontë. GONDAL POEMS‘, and the poems that were not about Gondal copied into another, and whose purely personal character is thus established. Her later violent opposition to the idea of publishing the poems does not necessarily prove she never intended doing so; it only proves that she did not feel ready to do so then, and wished for time before communicating her most secret experiences to other people. The action of collecting her poems did not in fact mean that she was even ready to show them to her sisters, but merely that she knew they were worth preserving”.[1]

In this way, Emily Brontë was also making small books of her poems, however limited and private an edition, perhaps only for herself at this point, and however flimsy the physical state of the “limp-backed, wine-coloured, faintly lined notebooks,” akin to laundry books (notebooks used to record clothing and household linens sent out to be laundered). Again there’s the domestic reference—the tidying of Dickinson’s unruly poems into fascicles, Brontë’s poems recorded in laundry books. Her decision to begin to fair-copy the poems in two separate notebooks also suggests that she is beginning to think about artistic selection and preservation. The Gondal poems are poems she wrote about characters in the imaginary North Pacific island kingdom of Gondal, created by Emily and her sister Anne. Her more personal poems were placed in a separate notebook[2]. Unlike Dickinson, Brontë included her name in the notebooks, and recorded the dates of composition. Yet at this stage, the poems were still intensely private, recorded in her own separate notebooks. When her sister Charlotte happened to find one of the notebooks (probably the Gondal Poems notebook), and then proceeded to read the poems, Emily felt this as a violent intrusion. Charlotte described what happened:

“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, —a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music—wild, melancholy, and elevating.

My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one, on the recesses of whose mind and feelings, even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. I knew, however, that a mind like hers could not be without some latent spark of honourable ambition, and refused to be discouraged in my attempts to fan that spark to flame.”[3]

Charlotte in truth was snooping, and violated her sister’s privacy by reading her  book of poems. Yet Emily did agree in the end to participate in Charlotte’s plan to publish poems by the three sisters, although Anne and Emily insisted that they all use pseudonyms. Emily selected 21 of her poems, removed any references to Gondal, and carefully edited them in preparation for publication. It was Charlotte who did all of the thankless work of contacting publishers, eventually finding a small firm, Aylott & Jones, of No.8 Paternoster Row, London. They agreed to publish the volume at the authors’ own risk. She also had to begin to think about the physical dimensions of the book, its typography, the kind of paper to be used. In a letter dated 31 January 1846 Charlotte to ask them for an estimate of what it would cost to print an octavo volume of “200 to 250 pages…of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth.”[4]

The sisters eventually paid £31 10s 0d for a slimmer duodecimo volume. Juliet Barker notes that this sum was “just over three-quarters of Anne’s annual salary at Thorp Green,” where she worked as a governess. That they were willing to spend such a large sum on their poems suggests how important the publication was to them. They finally received their first copies of Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell on 7 May 1846. It was a book of 165 pages, bound in “bottle green cloth with a geometrical design on the front”, price four shillings.[5] A year after publication, with three somewhat favourable reviews, only two copies had been sold.

I don’t know if Emily took any greater pleasure in the bottle green cloth-bound book of her poems than in her hand-copied “limp-backed, wine-coloured, faintly lined notebooks.” In a world without typewriters or personal computers, the difference must have been striking, a metamorphosis from cramped, ornate, ink-soaked individual pages lettered by hand to multiply produced letter-press books. Here is another kind of tidying, the personality of the hand-formed letters systematized and organized by uniform metal type. She must have felt there was some value in the process: transcription, selection, editing and revision, proofs, print, like a difficult if alienating birth. But she must also have found value in the earlier act of transcribing her poems by hand, for herself alone, into the two wine-coloured notebooks.

(Thurs. 28 June 2012)


[1] Winifired Gérin, Emily Brontë, p.159-160.

[2] The Gondal Poems notebook is currently held by the British Museum after many years in private hands. The location of the notebook of personal poems, known as the Honresfeld Notebook, is unknown.

[3] Charlotte Brontë quoted in Juliet Barker, The Brontës, pp.564-565.

[4] Information on the publication hisotry taken from Juliet Barker, The Brontës, pp.572-3.

[5] Barker, p.580.

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