Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Broeder en zuster, or the story of Acton Currer Bell

Ten years ago, in an old library catalog I stumbled on a novel, translated in Dutch and published in 1853, by Acton Currer Bell, called Broeder en zuster. Acton Currer Bell? A Brontë novel called ‘Brother and sister’?

First page from the Leiden library catalog
(collection of Leiden Regional Archive)

Page from the catalog with the works of Currer Bell


The pictures are from a catalog of one of the 19th century ‘reading libraries’ (“leesbibliotheek”) in Leiden, my hometown. At some point then there were about a dozen or so at the same time, usually established by booksellers. People could borrow books, to read them at home. This 1850s catalog gives an idea of the popularity of the Brontës in The Netherlands. As the obviously fake Acton Currer Bell novel does especially. A novel under that name would sell. But it also shows the confusion in the early 1850s about the identity of Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell.

This library also had copies of most of their novels in English. In the first edition they also have Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The first additional catalogue probably dates from 1859 and has Edward Crimsworth (The Professor), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in English. The additions go on to about 1872. They didn’t acquire a copy of Wuthering Heights in these years.

The Currer Bell list contains a book named De gouden ladder der fortuin. But this book, published in 1852, clearly said that it was written by Robert Bell. It was originally published as The ladder of gold in London in 1850. The title page of that book gives him as the “Author of “Wayside pictures through France, Belgium and Holland,” &c. &c.”

The library of the University of Amsterdam does have a copy of Broeder en zuster, of de zucht naar wereldsche grootheid (The longing for worldly greatness). They have got an important collection of early Dutch Brontë works, like the 1853 Villette translation.  Curiously, both are the Leiden library copies, as stamps in the books show, of the ‘Gebroeders van der Hoek’ library.

Cover of Broeder en zuster, originally published in English as Ernest Vane
 (collection of the Library of the University of Amsterdam )

A database of nearly 400 years of Dutch newspapers gives 3 (identical) advertisements for Broeder en zuster, which show that this novel was published in 1853. The first ad was published on 19 October 1853, in the Algemeen Handelsblad. They also had an ad on 14 November, while the Opregte Haarlemse Courant had one on 22 October, stating (in awkward Dutch): ‘The name of the writer recommends itself to all. No reading society which doesn’t take this work.’

Advertisement for Broeder en zuster

Acton Currer Bell had three novels published in Germany too, and a later one in Spain. The German works can be found in the collection of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) which has a great collection of early German translations. Several of them have been digitized and are thus easily available. One of these books is Acton Currer’s Die Geschwister (The sisters), published in 1851. It has the same opening line as Broeder en zuster.

When googling these first lines one very quickly finds the original novel. It’s Ernest Vane. Written by a Scotsman with perhaps the longest name in world literature, Alexander Dundas Ross Wishart Cochrane-Baillie Lamington, Baron (1816-1890). The shorter version is Alexander Baillie Cochrane. The book was published in London in 1849. It’s an almost totally forgotten novel, but it must have been quite good, in that it could make people believe it was a Brontë novel.

The good old Brontë historian Phyllis Bentley of (more than) half a century ago wrote an article in Brontë Society Transactions about another Acton Currer Bell work. This article, ‘A German Brontë forgery,’ was published in 1951.”A flutter of excitement was caused in the Brontë Society Council early this year by an appeal from two firms of London publishers and a London editor to pronounce on the authenticity of an alleged hitherto unknown Brontë novel, which an American translator believed he had discovered in Spain.”

The title of this work was, originally Rockingham oder Der Jüngere Bruder, published in 1851 in Germany (Leipzig). It is available online too through the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. It had apparently two editions, one in 1 volume, one in 3 volumes. A Spanish translation, Adversidad, was published in 1946. The original writer was a man with also a very long name. Philippe Ferdinand August de Rohan-Chabot, Count de Jarnac. His work, simply named Rockingham, was anonymously published in London in 1849.

Both the catalog of the Bavarian Library and Bentley’s article mention another German Acton Currer Bell (“author of Jane Eyre, Shirley, Agnes Grey” it says on the title page)  work, Wildfell Hall. It was published in Leipzig in 1850. Here the name Currer will have been added because Charlotte was selling best. There are later editions of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published under the name of just Currer Bell in Holland and Germany.

It is remarkable that both this Wildfell Hall and Die Geschwister are still ascribed to Charlotte, at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and elsewhere.

Bentley quotes from a letter of Adelgard Lezius, research assistant of the German Library in Leipzig. She gave three Acton Currer Bell works. Apart from Wildfell Hall and Rockingham there is also a work named, in translation only in the article, The Brothers and Sisters, published in 1871. This is quite a mystery. There is no trace of a work named Die Brüder und Schwestern. It is not in the catalog of the Deutsche National Bibliothek in Leipzig and Frankfurt, or in any other catalog we have seen. The year, 1871, is also suspicious. It’s quite possible that is a mistake for 1851. It would also seem likely that this is a German version of Broeder en zuster.

This research reveals the interesting history of the popularity of the Brontës in the early 1850s on the Continent, and something too about the morals of book publishers of that time. These were the years when for the first time rather decent bilateral copyright treaties were concluded, in the fight against ‘pirates.’ In my next articles I will delve further into this matter, and especially what it meant for translations of Villette.

Eric Ruijssenaars

No comments: