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Charlotte Brontë’s “Chinese Fac-similes”: A Comparative Approach to Interpreting the Materials of Authorial Labour and Artistic Process

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The activities of tracing, recycling, and copying often underlie textual transmission, yet they are frequently laden with associations of plagiarism, forgery, and theft. How do these workaday practices complicate notions of authorship, as well as distinctions made between original and derivative works of literature and art? Drawing on a comparative material analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s manuscripts and artworks, this chapter suggests how reproduction and transmission are inseparable from the practice of composition itself—and recovers how the so-called mechanical labour supporting these processes complicates long-standing assumptions about the immaterial nature of Brontë’s writing. This chapter makes a case for the value of critical-bibliographical labour—the close, technical analysis of textual artefacts that not only informed Brontë’s writing but that also continues to inform our own.


  • Bookmaking
  • Bookbinding
  • Book history
  • Manuscripts
  • Artworks
  • Mechanical labour
  • Material analysis
  • Reproduction
  • Textual artefacts

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  1. 1.

    English Oxford Living Dictionaries (2018), s.v. “text,” accessed 19 October 2017,

  2. 2.

    Leah Price, “Reading Matter,” 10.

  3. 3.

    Adrian Johns, Nature of the Book, 10.

  4. 4.

    Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, 115.

  5. 5.

    Jerome McGann, Textual Condition, 13.

  6. 6.

    Elizabeth Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 117. See also, 82.

  7. 7.

    See Rita Felski, Limits of Critique. Following Paul Ricouer’s concept of the hermeneutics of suspicion, Felski discusses the limitations of critical theory as it is commonly practised (particularly those modes of thought stemming from the Frankfurt School), and engages with a number of critics—ranging from Bruno Latour to Janice Radway—whose methods provide alternative models to suspicious interpretation. See PMLA, “On Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique,” 331–91 for responses by Sarah Beckwith, Stephen Best, Susan Stanford Friedman, Diana Fuss, Patrick Jagoda, Heather Love, Bruce Robbins, and James Simpson.

  8. 8.

    Charlotte Brontë, fair copy manuscript, British Library, Add MS 43480–2.

  9. 9.

    Brontë, Villette, 577. Subsequent citations are referenced by page number in the text.

  10. 10.

    The watercolour sketch is owned by a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

  11. 11.

    Jennifer Roberts, Transporting Visions, 1.

  12. 12.

    Brontë, manuscript, Morgan Library & Museum, MA 2696.7.

  13. 13.

    Barbara Heritage, “Brontë and the Bookmakers,” 101.

  14. 14.

    See Deborah Lutz, Brontë Cabinet, 5. Describing Charlotte Brontë’s bookmaking process, Lutz writes: “Taking a used piece of parcel wrapping paper, brownish gray and fibrous, she cut out a square slightly larger than the white ones. This too she folded once down the middle. Stacking the leaves together, with the brown sheet on the outside forming a front and back cover, Charlotte sewed them along the seam with needle and white thread. Now she had—empty and waiting—a rudimentary booklet of sixteen pages, about the size of a matchbook.”

  15. 15.

    Heritage, “Brontë and the Bookmakers,” 104.

  16. 16.

    See Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 247: “She wrote on … bits of paper in a minute hand, holding each against a piece of board, such as is used in binding books, for a desk … Her finished manuscripts were copied from these pencil scraps, in clear, legible, delicate hand-writing, almost as easy to read as print.”

  17. 17.

    Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, 311. Gilbert and Gubar quote from Brontë’s Roe Head journal, as did Winifred Gérin.

  18. 18.

    Brontë, manuscript, Brontë Parsonage Museum (BPM) Bonnell 98 (7). For a transcription see Tales of Glass Town, 165. NB: The handwritten phrase, “all wondering why I write with my eyes shut,” does appear in uncharacteristically wavy writing for Brontë, suggesting that she was closing her eyes during that particular instance of composition.

  19. 19.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 71.

  20. 20.

    Gérin, Introduction to Five Novelettes, 17.

  21. 21.

    Gérin, Introduction to Five Novelettes, 22–3.

  22. 22.

    See McGann, The Romantic Ideology.

  23. 23.

    Brontë, Tales of Glass Town, 166.

  24. 24.

    A letter written by Gérin on 14 June 1971 describes her work on Five Novelettes as “an editorial job which comprised deciphering the photostats of the original MSS to begin with.” This correspondence is part of Gérin’s archive, currently in the private collection of Mary E. Crawford and Bruce J. Crawford.

  25. 25.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 158.

  26. 26.

    Gérin, Five Novellettes, 18.

  27. 27.

    See Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars, The Art of the Brontës, 15, 20, 22, 54, and 179 for documentation of Brontë’s practice of making copies.

  28. 28.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 439.

  29. 29.

    Heritage, “Brontë and the Bookmakers,” 219.

  30. 30.

    Bock, Charlotte Brontë and the Storyteller’s Audience, 5–6. See Also: Alexander and Sellars, The Art of the Brontës, 52 and Alexander, introduction to Tales of Glass Town, xiv.

  31. 31.

    Brontë to William Smith Williams, [? Early September 1848], in Smith, Letters, vol. 2, 118.

  32. 32.

    See Stephen Regan, Nineteenth-Century Novel, 2.

  33. 33.

    See Heritage, “Brontë and the Bookmakers,” 230–40.

  34. 34.

    See Alison Byerly, Realism, Representation, and the Arts, 14–18.

  35. 35.

    Edward Copeland, Women Writing About Money, 12.

  36. 36.

    Jane Kromm, “Visual Culture,” 377.

  37. 37.

    Alexander, “Educating ‘The Artist’s Eye,’” 26.

  38. 38.

    Heather Glen, The Imagination in History, 235.

  39. 39.

    Brontë to Williams, 14 August 1848, in Smith, Letters, vol. 2, 98.

  40. 40.

    George Henry Lewes, “Recent Novels,” 686–95.

  41. 41.

    Brontë to Williams [?c.10 February 1849], in Smith, Letters, vol. 2, 181.

  42. 42.

    David Paroissien, “Dickens and the Cinema,” 78.

  43. 43.

    Brontë, fair copy manuscript, British Library, leaf 136, Add MS 43482.

  44. 44.

    Unsigned review of Crania Americana by Samuel George Morton, American Phrenological Journal, 282.

  45. 45.

    “Chinese Imitation of European Goods,” 368.

  46. 46.

    “On Writing Materials,” 70.

  47. 47.

    Both the watercolour sketch and the description provided for its sale reside in the collection of a private individual, who wishes to remain anonymous.

  48. 48.

    Printed images of Wellington were ubiquitous in the 1830s and 1840s and so finding the exact exemplar is a particularly challenging task.

  49. 49.

    John Clark, Elements of Drawing, 134–6.

  50. 50.

    Clark, Elements of Drawing, vii.

  51. 51.

    Alexander notes that the templates for Brontë’s early studies were reprinted in a number of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century manuals, including George Hamilton’s guide, The Elements of Drawing. See Alexander and Sellars, The Art of the Brontës, 180.

  52. 52.

    I have examined these drawings at the Brontë Parsonage Museum: “Study for eyes” (BPM C58), “Study of noses” (BPM C56), and “Study of ears” (BPM C52). Reproductions can be found in Alexander and Sellars, The Art of the Brontës, 180–1.

  53. 53.

    The Art of the Brontës, 28.

  54. 54.

    Johann Caspar Lavater, Physiognomy, 101.

  55. 55.

    Karen Chase, Eros & Psyche, 55.

  56. 56.

    Chase, Eros & Psyche, 56–7.

  57. 57.

    Chase, Eros & Psyche, 56.

  58. 58.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 80.

  59. 59.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 117.

  60. 60.

    Lavater, Physiognomy, 99.

  61. 61.

    Lavater, Physiognomy, 99.

  62. 62.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 76.

  63. 63.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 327.

  64. 64.

    Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, 82.

  65. 65.

    Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, 439.

  66. 66.

    Angela Hague, Fiction, Intuition & Creativity, 126.

  67. 67.

    Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy, Shelley, Selected Poems, 674.

  68. 68.

    Edward Rollins Hyder, Letters of John Keats, 200.

  69. 69.

    Chase, Eros & Psyche, 52–3.

  70. 70.

    Editors Jane Jack and Margaret Smith make no mention of the change in capitalization from manuscript to print in their editorial apparatus for the Clarendon edition. Their decision to use Smith, Elder and Company’s first edition as the copy-text for their edition was controversial, sparking critique from Bruce Harkness in his review of their edition in the December 1970 issue of Nineteenth-Century Fiction. In turn, Ian Jack (who served as General Editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Novels of the Brontës) and Margaret Smith defended their choice based on Brontë’s correspondence with Smith, Elder, giving them free rein to alter punctuation. See Harkness, “Clarendon Jane Eyre: A Rejoinder,” 370–6.

  71. 71.

    Watermarks, chainlines, and wirelines are marks crucial for dating and identifying the manufacture of paper. Chainlines and wirelines, left by the wire mesh of the paper mould, are visible in laid paper, but not in wove paper. This evidence can be essential for understanding the process by which a manuscript was assembled.

  72. 72.

    N.B. This manuscript is catalogued as “The silver cup: a tale.” MS Lowell 1 [5], Houghton Library, Harvard University—“The silver cup” being the first story appearing in the October issue of “The Young Mens Magazine.” I am grateful to the Weissman Preservation Center, Harvard University, for their assistance with this project, with special thanks to curator Leslie Morris and conservators Debora Mayer and Carie McGinnis.


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I am deeply grateful to my colleagues Aaron Hyman and Juliet Sperling (both art historians) for helping inspire this chapter, which was initially delivered in the form of a talk at the symposium, “Objects of Study: Paper, Ink, and the Material Turn,” that they organized at the University of Pennsylvania in 2017 in partnership with Rare Book School’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography. Leslie Morris, Debora Mayer, and Carie McGinnis undertook the production of new images of the Brontë manuscripts in Harvard’s Amy Lowell Collection for this project. In addition, Terry Belanger, Karen Chase, Jacob Haubenreich, and Jerome McGann each contributed expert guidance that improved this work. Last but by no means least, I am indebted to Mary and Bruce Crawford, as well as an individual who wishes to remain anonymous, for so graciously hosting me while conducting research in their private collections.

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Heritage, B. (2020). Charlotte Brontë’s “Chinese Fac-similes”: A Comparative Approach to Interpreting the Materials of Authorial Labour and Artistic Process. In: Pizzo, J., Houghton, E. (eds) Charlotte Brontë, Embodiment and the Material World. Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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