Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The woman left her home near the bleak cemetery and walked to the post office near the top of Main Street to send her package south. On August 24, 1847, plain brown paper concealed an unknown author’s remarkable story, now on its way by train from the wild moors in the north of England to one of the principal streets in the heart of London. The journey ended several hours later at a large bookseller’s shop, situated at 65 Cornhill where the publishers, Smith, Elder & Company had occupied the premises since 1824. Inside, several young men sat at a long table reading and editing sheets of manuscript while a few younger lads hurried back and forth filling inkwells, sharpening quills, or opening the post. The recently delivered packet lay on the front counter among first editions of Smith, Elder publications. A boy’s small hand lifted the brown package and tore off the paper before placing it beside one of the company’s readers.
For the next two days, the story remained nestled among soon to be published works due out in early 1848. By Thursday afternoon, the 26th of August, a young reader had found the opportunity to begin reading the newly arrived manuscript. He completed it the following morning and was so powerfully moved by the central character that he rushed into Mr. Smith’s office to declare, in the strongest possible language, that the company must publish this novel.
Smith laughed at the young man’s enthusiasm. ‘You seem to have been so enchanted that I do not know how to believe you.’
George Smith was an attractive young man with dark hair and an ambitious nature. He had begun his apprenticeship at the age of fourteen and had taken over the running of his father’s publishing business at twenty-one. Now at the age of twenty-three, with his father’s recent death, he had assumed full responsibility for the company. He was an enterprising, but fair and cautious man, so he decided to solicit a second opinion of this new novel. He chose an older, clear thinking employee who would be less susceptible to enchantment. He told the young man to give the manuscript to William Smith Williams, the company’s most experienced reader.
William Smith Williams began his publishing career with Taylor and Hessey who in 1818 had published a book of poems by John Keats. Reports find Smith Williams among a select few in 1820 who witnessed Keats departure to Italy, the country where the poet died less than a year later. After a few years of writing articles, William Smith Williams became a literary editor at Smith, Elder. From early childhood, he had loved reading literature, and in later years became a friend to writers, but being a modest man had neither required nor desired recognition for his contribution to the world of letters.
Smith Williams removed his handkerchief and wiped his brow and neck. The sultry August heat had expanded to every corner of the shop and was slipping beneath his collar. His pale face affirmed that he had passed the majority of the summer indoors, and his stooped shoulders hinted at a profession spent bending both his body and mind to the promise of discovering great books. He was in his late forties, a quiet man with mild eyes and a relaxed mouth that suggested a contemplative temperament, but the strong brow marked a large intellect hidden behind. As requested, he put this new manuscript into his bag to read at home. He gripped the bundle long enough for the damp tips of his fingers to leave a faint imprint on the last sheet. That evening he began reading and continued reading well into the night.
The next day, Smith Williams showed the manuscript to George Smith. He hesitated before handing it to him, and when he reluctantly let it go, cleared his throat, still searching for the right words to express his deep conviction that they had in their possession a writer of great literary power. Not a man prone to ebullient expression, he put one hand in his pocket and simply said, ‘I’d like you to read this.’
George Smith knew something was up, so he took the manuscript home with him on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, a warm breeze carried the perfume of blooming honeysuckle through his open study window. After a light breakfast and cup of black coffee, he began reading the story. Summer tints glowed among the furniture as a ray of sunshine traversed the small room, casting rosy reflections on the walls. A dog’s bark and the loud peals of a nearby church bell gradually lost distinction as Smith ventured deeper into the novel. At midmorning, darker hues crept in when the sun disappeared beyond the house. The cooing of doves on his windowsill had stopped and a multitude of shadows gathered round his chair. By the end of chapter nine, he felt a sense of deep solitude.
Just before noon, his groom brought Smith’s horse round to the front door, saddled and ready to go. Smith stared at the bridle in the man’s hand and tried to recall why he had ordered his horse at this time. His man reminded him of an appointment he had made with a friend to take a ride together in the country. Before Smith could respond, a woman’s voice, echoing from the novel, summoned him back to the story, so he scribbled out a quick note to his friend apologizing for not being able to see him that day, explaining that circumstances had arisen to prevent his meeting him. He handed the note to his groom and asked him to deliver the message to his friend.
Back inside the comfort of his study, Smith continued to read. An hour later, a servant rapped at the door to announce that his luncheon was on the table. He tried to soften his displeasure at the interruption.
‘I’ll be eating in my study today. Just bring me a sandwich and a glass of wine.’ He lowered his dark eyes and returned to the young heroine’s plight.
By the dinner hour, he was compelled to eat and to rest his eyes. He put the manuscript down and hurried through the meal, wondering if the heroine’s spirit would survive the tempest of her emotions. Would she indulge her feelings and return to the other man?
The clock in the hall struck once. The candlelight dimmed. Smith read the last page and placed both hands on the sheet of paper. His brain worked restlessly, calculating publishing terms for this new author. He would offer a hundred pounds conditional upon Smith, Elder obtaining the right of first refusal on the next two books. Thoughts of subsequent editions, foreign rights, and future payments circled round the image of words on a cover. A slight alteration needed there. Not quite so dry a title. Better to suggest a true story, one told to an objective party by the governess herself. Yes, that would do well. The book would be called, Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell.