Rare as a Brontë

Poems, 1846
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Before Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre the Brontë sisters published a slim volume of poetry. As there was still prejudice against women authors, they each adopted a pseudonym. Charlotte became Currer Bell, Anne became Acton Bell, and Emily became Ellis Bell. Charlotte contributed 19 poems, and Emily and Anne each contributed 21. Poems was published in 1846 by a London firm, Aylott & Jones.

The collection gained positive reviews, including one from The Athenaeum which praised Ellis Bell’s work for its music and power, singling out ‘his’ poems as the best: ‘Ellis possesses a fine, quaint spirit and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted’. Unfortunately, only two copies were sold, and the sisters were lucky to recoup the 35 pounds they paid to have their poetry published. The poems were republished in 1850 by Smith & Elder with greater success. 

With perhaps only 10 copies extant, the first edition of Poems is extremely rare, and the Library is fortunate to hold one of those copies in its collection!  

Our rare copy was purchased by David Scott Mitchell towards the end of the 1890s. Mitchell disclosed to the bookseller Frederick Wymark, with a chuckle, that he bought it at a bargain price from Angus & Robertson. We believe Mitchell’s copy was from the Percy C Gilchrist library sold by Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge in July 1896. You can see the faint signature of C. Gilchrist at the top of the title page. Percy Gilchrist may have inherited the library from his father, Alexander Gilchrist.   

Below is one of the poems written by Emily Brontë. 

Poems, ‘If this be all’, 1846
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Sympathy by Ellis Bell 

There should be no despair for you 
While nightly stars are burning; 
While evening pours its silent dew, 
And sunshine gilds the morning. 
There should be no despair—though tears 
May flow down like a river: 
Are not the best beloved of years 
Around your heart for ever? 

They weep, you weep, it must be so; 
Winds sigh as you are sighing, 
And winter sheds its grief in snow 
Where Autumn’s leaves are lying: 
Yet, these revive, and from their fate 
Your fate cannot be parted: 
Then, journey on, if not elate, 
Still, NEVER broken-hearted! 

Maggie Patton, Rare Books & Maps expert

This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.