There was a woman, who wrote poems. People read them, said they were excellent, and she sent them to publishers, hoping to publish a book of poems.
But the publishers returned her manuscript, saying that no one buys poems, however her work showed promise, perhaps she should write a novel. (Any of you who write poems, will find this tale familiar.) She decided to invest in her own work, and self-published her poems. She only sold two books.
Not wanting to give up on her dream, she wrote a novel. She had heard that publishers wanted real-life characters, novels that reflected what was actually happening in the world. She wrote her novel, gave it to people to read and review, rewrote it many times, then sent it to publishers. Gradually, the rejection letters arrived. Some publishers were kind, again saying it “showed promise,” but no one would publish it.
In anger and disappointment, the woman wrote another novel, saying that although publishers said they wanted realism, in actual fact, they did not. This time, in reaction to the publisher’s rejections, she wrote a novel that was the opposite of what she’d been told. She wrote about characters who were bigger than life, about passion, and created a world that wasn’t realistic, with stylised characters and a sensationalised plot. This novel was well received, published several times, and she became established as an author.
She then wrote another novel, in the style of the unrealistic one, and this one too was acclaimed. So now, with two successful novels to her name, she decided to again return to her first novel. She was proud of it, felt it spoke the truth, and should be read. Feeling confident, she wrote a preface, and sent the manuscripts to publishers. It was again rejected.
As you have probably guessed, the author was Charlotte Brontë, and her successful novel was Jane Eyre. Her first novel, The Professor, was finally published by her husband after her death – and it still receives bad reviews today.
Now, I have always been fascinated by Charlotte Brontë. I love that both she and her sisters wrote, I love that she played imagination games when young, that her father was a clergyman, that for a while she was a teacher, that she includes lots from her own life in her novels, and that initially her books were rejected. (It also makes me laugh that when her sister Anne died, Charlotte removed her book from publication, saying that Anne had made a “grave mistake” in writing it! That so reminds me of big sisters throughout history.) I therefore decided to read her first novel, the story that was always rejected.
The Professor begins with a letter, which is Charlotte’s means to provide a back story for her main character, William Crimsworth. Even today, reviewers criticise this, saying that she has dumped information on the reader, has ignored the “don’t tell, show,” theory of writing novels. However, when I read it, I rather enjoyed that part. I continued to read, determined that I was going to love this novel, quite sure that all reviewers, past and present, did not represent my own views.
I was interested by the character of William from the outset, and enjoyed reading about his life. There was one interesting part, where Charlotte describes someone as having “plastic features” – but the novel was written in 1846, before the invention of plastic. A quick online search revealed that the word “plastic” was used by ancient Greeks, and meant “mouldable” or “flexible” – so possibly a slightly different meaning to how we would translate that today.
But then, the novel began to lose its attraction. Charlotte used lots of French phrases, and although I was reading a version with explanatory notes at the back, to keep referring to translations broke the flow of the book. She obviously was aiming her book at readers who are fluent in French (so not me).
The story was interesting – but only just. The main character is not particularly likeable, and although the plot is realistic, and gives insight into how life was at the time it was written; I’m not sure that for Charlotte’s contemporary readers it would be terribly entertaining.
In short, much as I hate to admit it, if I was a publisher in 1846, I would probably not take a risk on this book. Although personally, I enjoyed the book, I’m not sure how easy it would be to sell – I suspect it would be hard to recoup editing/proofreading/typesetting/cover/printing costs. Which for a publisher, much as we like to view books as valuable in their own right, has to be the major consideration.
As an author, I am intrigued by the story of Charlotte Bronte. The fact that such a talented author could be so mistaken about what kind of book would be marketable, is also interesting. I love some of my own books more than others – but they are not necessarily the things that sell the best. Sometimes authors have to make the decision whether they want to write something which satisfies themselves, or whether they want to write something which will be easy to sell. They are not necessarily the same.
Hope you make some good decisions this week. Thank you for reading; I’ll write again next week.
Love, Anne x