Charlotte was slightly in love with her dashing publisher

The original handwritten manuscripts for Charlotte Brontë’s novels only exist today because they were cannily saved by Charlotte’s publisher George Smith.

In 1847, after repeated rejections from other publishers, Charlotte posted off Jane Eyre to the dynamic 23-year-old publisher, who had not long since taken over his father’s firm Smith, Elder & Co, and was seeking to make a name for himself.

He describes his first encounter with the novel, on a day he should have been lunching with a friend:

‘After breakfast on Sunday morning I took the manuscript of Jane Eyre to the library and began to read it. The story quickly took me captive. At twelve o’clock my horse came to the door, but I could not put the book down. I scribbled two or three lines to my friend, saying I was very sorry circumstances had occurred to prevent my meeting him, sent the note off by my groom, and went on reading the manuscript. Presently the servant came to tell me that lunch was waiting; I asked him to bring me a sandwich and a glass of wine and still went on with Jane Eyre. Dinner came; for me the meal was a very hasty one, and before I went to bed that night I had finished the manuscript. My literary judgement was perfectly satisified.’

The manuscript was soon followed by Charlotte herself, who, with Anne, travelled to London to convince George Smith that the Brontë novels were written by three separate people, after a rumour circulated that there was, in fact, only one author using three separate names.

Smith took an instant liking to the sisters, though he was charmed more by their personalities than their looks. He describes them as ‘two rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale-faced and anxious looking,’ and noted of Charlotte: ‘It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance; but I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful.’

Smith was a generous, charming and energetic man, who treated his authors to lavish presents, star-studded dinners and trips to view the opera from his box at Covent Garden. He invited Charlotte to London to stay with his family on four occasions, and his mother and sisters took her to visit galleries and museums, and to go shopping with them.

He was also unmarried, and, though eight years younger than Charlotte, she was clearly attracted to him, writing to her friend Ellen Nussey in January 1851:

‘Were there no vast barrier of age, fortune etc. there is perhaps enough personal regard to make things possible which are now impossible. If men and women married because they like each others’ temper, look, conversation, nature and so on – and if besides, years were more closely equal – the chance you allude to might be admitted as a chance – but other reasons regulate matrimony – reasons of convenience, of connection, of money. Meantime I am content to have him as a friend – and pray to God to continue to me the commonsense to look on one so young, so rising and so hopeful in no other light...’

Many years after Charlotte’s death the author Mrs Humphry Ward asked Smith directly whether he had ever been in love with Charlotte.

He replied:

‘No, I was never in the least bit in love with Charlotte Brontë... The truth is I never could have loved any woman who had not some charm or grace of person, and Charlotte Brontë had none. I liked her and was interested by her, and I admired her – especially when she was in Yorkshire and I was in London. I never was coxcomb enough to suppose that she was in love with me. But I believe that my mother was at one time rather alarmed.’

Smith’s mother had no cause for alarm, however. In February 1854 he married the pretty, very sociable, eminently suitable Elizabeth Blakeway. Four months later Charlotte herself was married to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate.

Smith’s career went from strength to strength, as he published Thackeray, Mrs Gaskell and Harriet Martineau – all met through his connection with Charlotte Brontë – and began both the successful Cornhill Magazine and the evening newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette.

When he died in 1901 he left to his widow the manuscripts of three of Charlotte’s novels: Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette, as well as a large collection of letters, most from Charlotte, but also some from her father, and from Arthur Bell Nicholls. The manuscripts for Emily and Anne’s novels – published by Thomas Cautley Newby, and partly funded by them, to the tune of £50 per novel – have never been found, and were, presumably, destroyed by their publisher.

George Smith’s Brontëana collection eventually passed to his granddaughter Elizabeth Seton-Gordon, who in 1974 donated most of it to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. As well as the manuscripts and letters the collection included all the correspondence from Mrs Gaskell regarding her Life of Charlotte Brontë, and several drawings by Charlotte, passed on to George Smith’s son by Arthur Bell Nicholls’ second wife Mary.

With them was an astonishing find: a photograph, inscribed on the back: ‘Within a year of CB’s death’, and dated 1854, the year of Charlotte’s honeymoon. Whether it was a honeymoon picture, to match that of her husband taken at the same time, or whether it was intended by George Smith for an edition of one of Charlotte’s novels, is unknown.

It is the only photograph in existence that is almost certainly of Charlotte.