As a new edition of Charlotte Bronte's letters is published, Mark Bostridge uncovers the odd fate of the originals
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The Independent Culture
JUST OVER a century ago, on 31 March 1895, Clement Shorter, a small, thickset man in his late thirties, alighted from a train at Banagher, a straggling town on the banks of the Shannon in County Offaly, Southern Ireland. Here he was welcomed by a cordial handshake from Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte Bronte's widower. Nicholls had left Yorkshire in 1861 following the death of his father-in-law, Patrick, the last of the Brontes of Haworth, and had returned to his childhood home where, after renouncing holy orders, he had become a gentleman farmer.

Shorter was a journalist, one of the extraordinary army of popularisers who, with the enormous expansion of the reading public, exercised a significant influence on literary taste in Britain in the years leading up to the First World War. Above all he was an enthusiast with an entrepreneurial flair for obtaining and publishing literary relics: as George Meredith once remarked, Shorter was of the type who would have printed a famous writer's blotting-pad in a limited edition if he had been able to get hold of it.

Shorter had "become possessed", as he discreetly phrased it, of a packet of Charlotte Bronte's letters - in fact copies of Charlotte's letters to her great schoolfriend, Ellen Nussey - and had travelled to Ireland to secure Nicholls' permission to publish them. Well aware that Nicholls had always been fiercely resistant to books about the Brontes, he was surprised to find him genial and accommodating. But then Shorter had come to Banagher at what he called "the precise psychological moment", deliberately timing his visit, it appears, to coincide with the anniversary of Charlotte Bronte's death. Indeed, as Shorter accompanied Nicholls into the drawing- room at Hill House where the famous Richmond portrait of Charlotte was hanging, the clock chimed out the very hour at which Charlotte had died, 40 years earlier.

The more plausible explanation, though, for Nicholls' willingness to receive Shorter must be that he was in desperate financial straits. Shorter had been given a "blank cheque" by his friend and dining companion T J Wise, later exposed as the greatest literary forger of the age but at this time still esteemed as a collector, who wanted to buy any Bronte manuscripts that were available.

Shorter could hardly believe his eyes at the richness of the haul that Nicholls offered him. A brown paper parcel at the bottom of a wardrobe was revealed to contain not only bundles of letters, including those written by Charlotte from Brussels to her brother and sister Emily, but also the tiny manuscript books of Charlotte and Branwell's childhood - which, as Mrs Gaskell had told the publisher George Smith, "give one the idea of creative power carried to the verge of insanity" - and scraps of Emily and Anne's diary papers.

Retaining the copyright for himself, Shorter bought the manuscripts on Wise's behalf. Over the next two years Wise would acquire other groups of letters from Nicholls, all with the assurance that the papers would eventually be given to the nation. However, not long afterwards Wise began to sell a large part of his collection on the open market, scattering it far and wide. In his zeal for selling to the highest bidder many of the letters were lost forever to untraceable locations, and, in a further act of literary vandalism, Wise split up manuscripts by Branwell Bronte and sold them as Charlotte's. Meanwhile, Shorter exploited his exclusive control of the rights in a series of biographies of the Brontes, gasping, affectionate books which bear signs of having been hastily scrambled together.

Wise and Shorter's transactions with Nicholls have had severe repercussions for Bronte scholarship. Amazing as it may seem, given the fresh crop of books about the Brontes which continue to appear every season, generations of Bronte writers have been denied an authoritative edition of the letters; and this absence of reliable printed texts together with the inaccessibility of many of the originals has encouraged the more fanciful to stray into the realms of semi-fiction, thereby perpetuating the Bronte myth.

Charlotte's own letters, the backbone of the Bronte story, and among the finest in the English language according to her most recent biographer, Lyndall Gordon, have only been available until now in transcriptions that were often wildly inaccurate or in garbled versions which conflate two letters into one or present a single letter as two separate ones. This sorry situation is about to change, as Oxford University Press are soon to publish the first of a three-volume edition, edited by Margaret Smith, which will bring to a culmination an extraordinary story which has always carried a taint of deceit and even fraud.

That element of deception is nowhere more evident than in Wise and Shorter's treatment of Ellen Nussey. Ellen, whose correspondence with Charlotte stretched back to their schooldays at Roe Head, had been dissatisfied with Mrs Gaskell's Life and, anxious to defend Charlotte from charges of irreligion, she had made several abortive attempts of her own to publish the 370 or so letters from Charlotte which she had preserved. Each time she had been thwarted by the knowledge of Nicholl's strong aversion to her, and by the near certainty that he would never give her permission to publish. She contented herself with providing early biographers of Charlotte with strongly biased reminiscences, which characterised Nicholls as selfish and sadistic, and Mr Bronte as an "old villain".

Then, in the late 1880s, Ellen Nussey made one further disastrous attempt to prepare a private edition of the letters she owned, in conjunction with a Yorkshire antiquarian named Horsfall Turner. A thousand copies of the book had already been printed when Ellen got cold feet about proceeding with the project. The collaboration with Turner was dissolved with considerable acrimony, and Ellen set about destroying the sets of printed sheets. For weeks on end, with the assistance of the minister of her local church, Ellen burned, pulped, and finally buried 30,000 odd sheets of closely packed paper.

By now, Ellen was easy prey for a pincer-like approach from Shorter and Wise. Shorter ingratiated himself with Ellen, commiserating with her over her misfortunes, before introducing her to Wise who, he told her, would pay her pounds 125 for her letters and would not prevent Shorter from using them in a biography from which Ellen would enjoy two-thirds of the profits. The offer was enticing but Ellen temporised. Wise, who, Smith notes, was by turns "bullying and cajoling, self-righteous and oily", won Ellen over with the promise that Charlotte's letters would be preserved intact in the South Kensington Museum for the use of future generations. They would never be "scattered abroad" or distributed, but would be used "to enhance the honour & reputation of their gloriously gifted writer".

Subsequent letters between Wise and Shorter and Ellen Nussey make depressing reading. Having assured Ellen that Wise was thoroughly reliable, Shorter refused to intervene when, to Ellen's horror, it became obvious that Wise was selling her letters at auction. When Ellen complained that she had been betrayed, Wise threatened her with legal action.

That Wise was the villain of the piece there can be no doubt, but what about Shorter? In the 1970s, Tom Winnifrith, among the first to investigate the unreliability of successive Bronte editors, concluded that the case against Shorter was not proven, and that remains broadly true. "Clem" and "Tommy" enjoyed dining out with each other to hatch their schemes, but was Shorter fully implicated in Wise's nefarious dealings? Or was he like the narrator-biographer in James's Aspern Papers (itself a commentary on the late 19th-century cult of the author) who, in his eagerness to lay his hands on his subject's literary effects, at times crosses the boundaries of strictly ethical behaviour?

Margaret Smith takes the view that, like so many others, Shorter was hoodwinked by Wise, but Juliet Barker, a former curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum and the author of last year's excellent biography of the Brontes, is more suspicious. She believes that Shorter played a pivotal role as a willing "front man" for Wise, and that he was well informed about Wise's intentions. Furthermore, as one of the very few to have set eyes on the heavily blotted document, hidden away in the Bronte Society's vaults, by which Nicholls assigned copyright in Bronte manuscripts to Shorter, Barker questions whether Nicholls was really aware of what he was giving away, and whether Shorter had any right to claim copyright of unpublished material in perpetuity.

The question of the copyright of the letters resurfaced in 1913 when the son and daughters of Constantin Heger, Charlotte's Brussels Professor, donated Charlotte's four surviving letters to their father - retrieved and patiently glued and sewn together by Mme Heger after her husband had thrown them away - to the British Museum. This was one of the few important caches of Charlotte's letters to have eluded Shorter: he believed that the letters to Heger had been destroyed. While the predominantly male literary establishment heaved a collective sigh of relief that the letters contained little that was damaging to their heroine's reputation ("she passed stainless through her experience"), Shorter thundered at The Times for having breached his copyright by printing the letters in full.

Shorter died in 1926. By a supreme irony Wise, as nominal co-editor of the highly inaccurate and much criticised 1932 Shakespeare Head edition of the Brontes' Lives and Letters, was seriously hampered by his own former activities, for many of Charlotte's holograph letters were now impossible to trace. Wise died in disgrace in 1937, three years after he had been unmasked as a manufacturer of counterfeit first editions.

There is a sad coda to the publishing history of Charlotte's letters. In the late 1940s Mildred Christian, an American academic from New Orleans, began extensive research into the location of Bronte manuscripts in the United States for a new edition of the letters, but she died in 1989 without having completed her work.

Margaret Smith has built on Mildred Christian's discoveries, and the edition is dedicated to her memory. It is a work of painstaking scholarship: she has located new letters and redated and established accurate texts for old ones, reassembling one letter, which had been cut up for autograph hunters, from fragments in five separate locations. The first volume, which stops at the publication of Jane Eyre, allows us to appreciate fully for the first time Charlotte's glancing wit, the sarcastic edge to her voice, and her freedom of expression.

In Villette, Lucy Snowe buries a cache of letters under a pear tree in the allee defendue of a Belgian Pensionnat. Margaret Smith has made a magnificent job of disinterring Charlotte Bronte's own letters, and in doing so has inaugurated a new era in Bronte studies.

! `The Letters of Charlotte Bronte, Volume 1: 1829-1847' ed Margaret Smith is published by Oxford University Press at pounds 55 at the end of June