A few weeks ago I was up in Trawden without a thought in my head about the Brontës – well, not until someone in the pastoral meeting I was attending mentioned that we were a mere eight miles from Haworth. We may have been in a different county, but almost within hailing distance none the less.
As I stared out of the big bay window on that bleak Saturday, watching the snow flakes swirling down against the backdrop of the steeply undulating moorland, it became obvious that I was in what most of us have convinced ourselves is authentic Brontëland.
It began to seem very appropriate that, as we had driven the snaking icy roads to get there earlier that day, my friend and I had exchanged stories of the people we had worked with professionally, people wounded by traumas, some of them from childhood, some of them more recent.
The Brontë family history is a painful one. They were well acquainted with grief. Even when I seemed to be distancing myself from it by putting it in a table to help me understand better how old the younger sisters were when the sequence of deaths that bedevilled their childhoods began, the pain of it was if anything even more visible. The trauma was not only about death. It was about the separation of the two older sisters from the youngest children, following so close after the mother’s death. It was about the atrocious conditions in the boarding school which ultimately contributed to the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth (see two earlier posts for the traumatic nature of boarding school education, even in the 20th Century). The table I’m including here stops at 1829: that was not the end of all the pain, but that’s something that will have to wait until a later post.
I’ve referred recently to later triggers that reinforced the hint life gave me in Trawden. One of them was hearing about Samantha Ellis’s book. I’m only half-way through and already I have picked up a number of useful clues about the possible relationship between trauma and creativity.
What I want to focus on briefly here is her account of what happened to Anne Brontë’s greatest achievement after she was dead. According to Ellis, after the second edition, Charlotte vetoed further publication: Ellis argues this was part of her attempt to whitewash Ann’s reputation, which seemed to her to have been tarnished by the book. This gave Thomas Hodgson his chance to steal some profit. He hacked the text down to fit into one volume so he could publish it more cheaply than if he’d stuck with the original three. After Charlotte died her publishers made the mistake of using his text as their source. This is the one that is still alarmingly prevalent. Ellis writes (page 142):
The mutilated editions are still everywhere. My own copy of the novel is a mutilated edition. It takes a while to find one that isn’t. I get slightly obsessive about checking, and find butchered texts in bookshops, in libraries and on friends’ bookshelves, all bought in good faith, because unless you knew they weren’t right, you couldn’t tell.
Her use of the word ‘mutilated’ intrigued me. It is as though this were for her a sort of posthumous traumatic atrocity. Some degree of outrage is, though, understandable, as I discovered soon after reading her words.
To my alarm, I checked out my own copy of the Folio Society Edition. Surely you can trust the Folio Society to get it right? Apparently not. It is a mutilated version. This explained my own difficulty when I recently picked it up to read the novel for the first time. That’s right. I said ‘for the first time.’ I admit it. I was an Anne ignorer as well. Anyway, back to the main point. I was puzzled by the abrupt beginning, the result of Hodgson deleting the real opening from his version. I didn’t even realise at first that it was meant to be a letter, let alone who Gilbert was or why he was writing it.
Fortunately Ellis prescribes a remedy (page 142): ‘There are better versions – the best, I think, is the 1996 one edited by Stevie Davies.’
It didn’t take me long to work out via the web that my local bookshop had a copy. I rang them to make sure it was still there: it was and it was the only one they had. I put on my shoes, grabbed my coat and set off on the twenty minute walk to the shop as fast as I could in case someone else might get there first.
Even as I walked I asked myself why was I so fired up about this. Anne has been dead just over a hundred-and fifty years. She’s not going to be upset, surely, if I buy it later, or even if I just read the butchered Folio copy I’ve got on my shelf. Then I remembered how Patrick Brontë had regularly walked ten miles to meet Anne’s mother before they married and ten miles back to his home. I remembered the integrity with which he had fought for justice later in his life, making far greater efforts than a twenty minute walk to do so. The injustice of a mutilated novel may seem small beer, but I realised it mattered to me. To appropriately honour Anne’s memory it was only right that I should rectify this travesty done in the name of easy money.
As I walked home at a slower pace, taking the long route over the modest upward slope of Churchill Gardens, I was glad that I had made the effort. I had checked that the book did indeed contain the missing opening: then I was sure it also had all the other missing details, some of which are crucial to Anne’s depiction of her heroine, Helen. Some kind of justice had been done. I can now read what she really wrote when she created a book that would give women even then the strength to fight against oppression in the home.
As I opened the door to go in, my wife asked where I’d been. She was surprised at my explanation.
‘Why didn’t you ask them to keep it for you? You could’ve saved yourself a walk and picked it up tomorrow when you’re in town anyway.’
I couldn’t find a way to explain it then. I’m not sure whether I fully understand it now. Maybe this is all a sentimental rationalisation of an unfathomable impulse. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be coming back to the Brontës on this blog sometime soon.