Rare Book School Plenary: Charlotte Brontë’s “Shirley”

Stages of Composition: An Analysis of 
Charlotte Brontë’s Fair-Copy Manuscript “Shirley”

Barbara Heritage

Friday, May 26. 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM, Harrison-Small Special Collections auditorium.

On 8 September 1849, James Taylor traveled from London to Haworth, Yorkshire, to collect the manuscript of Charlotte Brontë’s novelShirley, for publication. His firm, Smith, Elder and Co., had been anxiously awaiting the completion of the book for nearly a year. Readers both in England and abroad were eager to read the next work by “Currer Bell,” whose first published novel, Jane Eyre (1847), had proved surprisingly popular. The manuscript, which now resides in the British Library (Add MS 43477-79), includes numerous excisions to its 896 leaves. Its three volumes have been characterized by some as a confused “text of grief” written during the loss of Brontë’s siblings and by another more recent critic as proof of self-censorship and even “symptoms of a writing disorder or disease.” This talk revisits these claims by taking a close look at the manuscript’s material structure and by showing how skills taught at Rare Book School, such as the identification of paper and codicological format, provide new evidence for how Brontë strategically revised her manuscript after serving as the primary caregiver for Emily and Anne Brontë. Bridging bibliography and critique, this talk suggests how systematic material-based methods can clarify feminist interpretations on women’s writing.  

Barbara Heritage is the Associate Director & Curator of Collections of Rare Book School (RBS) at the University of Virginia. In 2022, she co-curated Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day with Dr. Ruth-Ellen St. Onge at the Grolier Club in New York City—an exhibition that drew on more than 200 artifacts from RBS’s teaching collections. The show and its accompanying volume were reviewed by The New York Times and Forbes. Her essays have appeared in Studies in Romanticism, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Printing History, and RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, as well as in collected volumes. In 2018, she was commissioned by the Brontë Society to write “The Archaeology of the Book” for Charlotte Brontë: The Lost Manuscripts (2018). Her article on Brontë’s fair-copy manuscript of Shirley is forthcoming in Studies in Bibliography. She is also currently co-editing a new edition of Shirley with Tim Dolin as part of the Cambridge Edition of the Novels and Poems of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë; in addition, she’s creating bibliographical descriptions for all of the sisters’ principal published works as part of the Cambridge University Press editions. In 2018, she appeared on PBS as part of The Great American Read.