Alice Karle Appraisal
Fine & Decorative Art
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
Collected Brontë First Editions
Auction Sale for $187,733
The Brontë sisters’ story is as strange and dramatic as any of their novels. The publication of the Brontë novels is one of the great events in the history of publishing. Our client, having inherited a library of nineteenth century English literature, requested we evaluate and catalog the collection. The first editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë were found on the topmost shelf, out of sight and literally gathering dust. Searching the rest of the library, we assembled the complete first editions of all the novels of the three Brontë sisters: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Shirley, Vilette, and The Professor, all with very worn, later leather bindings.
On behalf of our client the collected first editions of the three Brontë sisters, sold for £111,600 ($187,733 including auction premium) at Bloomsbury Auction, Lot 67, on May 19, 2014.
In 1847 all three of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë, published under their pseudonyms as Cupper Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell. Charlotte Brontë was the author of Jane Eyre, Emily of Wuthering Heights, and Anne of Agnes Grey.
All three manuscripts had been sent out to various publishers, as well as the manuscript for The Professor. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was the first to be published under the imprint of Smith, Elder, & Company, a reputable publisher. Jane Eyre was a great success. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were published subsequently by Thomas Cautley Newby as a “three decker” with Agnes Grey as volume III of the set. Newby has been variously described as unscrupulous, devious, a rogue, dishonest, and careless. He demanded payment of £50 to print Wuthering Heights to be repaid once 250 of the 300 copies sold. However, having set up the type he proceeded no further until the successful publication of Jane Eyre prompted him to complete the project. Newby produced only 250 of the 300 promised copies and never repaid the authors.
Speculation followed as to the identities of the “Bells.” The Athenaeum on Christmas day 1847 speculated that “all three [Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey] might be the work of one hand.” Newby, seeing a potential financial advantage, went so far as to purchase newspaper ads implying that all the Bells were one person. In an effort to dispel the rumors, in the summer of 1848 Charlotte and Anne traveled to London to meet with George Murray Smith, the publisher of Jane Eyre, and revealed the identity of all three sisters.
Anne’s only independently published novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was released in June, 1848. Anne Brontë died the following year in 1849 of tuberculosis at age 29. While Wuthering Heights had overshadowed Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was an instant success with its shocking portrayal of alcoholism, domestic abuse and debauchery. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered the first true feminist novel.
Charlotte Brontë did not allow Anne’s novels to be reprinted after her death. Both Charlotte’s sister Emily and brother Branwell, also passed away in 1848. Charlotte’s other published novels during her lifetime were Shirley (1849), and Vilette (1853). She married in 1854, but succumbed to complications of pregnancy and died in 1855 at age 38. Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, which had initially been rejected, was posthumously issued in 1857.
Charlotte Brontë wrote of her sister Emily:
“For my part I am free to walk on the moors – but when I go out there alone – everything reminds me of the times when others were with me and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening – My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet but reminds me of her.”