The sisters had struggled to find a publisher. Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey, together with Charlotte’s The Professor, had all been declined by publishers in 1846, but then an opportunity arose, at least for Emily and Anne.
Thomas Cautley Newby offered to publish their novels if they could raise £50 to cover his expenses – a sum that would be repaid if and when sufficient copies were sold. Wuthering Heights filled two volumes of a familiar three-decker, and Agnes Grey the other volume.
In the end, only 250 or so sets of the sets were printed and the sisters never saw a penny.
Moreover, Newby, running what was essentially a one-man operation, moved so slowly that Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, wisely accepted by Smith & Elder, beat them into print by a couple of months.
In the set sold by Forum, the two volumes of Wuthering Heights were in period half calf, rebacked to preserve the original backstrips, and Agnes Grey in a matching but modern binding. It took £65,000.
A few copies, however, have made considerably more – the record standing at £200,000 for a set sold at Sotheby’s in 2006.
The 1847 first of Jane Eyre in this collection was in a 20th century binding of half morocco and failed against an estimate of £20,000- 30,000, but an 1848, three-decker first issue of Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in rebacked period cloth made £9000. On the following day, Christie’s (25/20/12% buyer’s premium) took £12,000 for another first in a later, De Coverly binding.
“It was not until the 1990s that it was reprinted and could be appreciated as a landmark in feminist literature
Published by Newby, The Tenant… sold well and a second edition appeared within six weeks – perhaps because of, rather than despite its supposed coarseness and themes.
Following Anne’s death, Charlotte declined to have the novel reprinted, famously and somewhat harshly stating: “For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully.”
Following Charlotte’s death a heavily edited version of the work appeared, but it was not until the 1990s that it was reprinted from the original and could be appreciated and recognised, as Forum notes, as a landmark in feminist literature.
The Professor, Charlotte’s first novel, finally made it into print in 1857. Publication, in its original and unedited form, was overseen by Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nichols, in conjunction with Elizabeth Gaskell, and it was the former’s signed copy that Forum sold at £6000.
Only a copy owned by Charlotte’s lifelong friend Ellen Nussey has made more – £8500 at Sotheby’s in 2011.
One of the day’s surprises was provided by a copy of Gaskell’s best-selling Life of Charlotte Brontë, first published in 1857. A fourth edition of the following year, it bore the ownership plate of the sisters’ father, Rev Patrick Brontë, and sold at £14,000 rather than the £500-700 suggested.
Higher than predicted sums greeted further lots which offered letters or cards in Brontë hands.
One notable success was a bid of £13,000 (against a £500-700 estimate) on an envelope addressed by Emily to Ellen Nussey, with whom Charlotte was staying at the time.
* As reported in ATG No 2302, the Forum sale included three copies of the book of Poems that in 1846 had marked the sisters’ joint and, initially, very disappointing first attempt to get their work printed. One made a record £45,000.