A few years ago, I toyed with the idea of doing a PhD. I’d lost my brother to sudden death and I was frequently reminded of his incessant nagging concerning the benefits of writing a doctoral thesis. My brother wrote his thesis on Harold Wilson and the role of the Anglo-Libyan relationship and the British military facilities in the Labour Government’s foreign and defence policy from 1964 to 1970. You can read it here  

I originally thought about doing something relating to the Bronte family. My love for them was covered in my blog post Originally, I had hoped to offer a study of Henry Bonnell: an American book collector who donated his collection of Brontë papers, books and artefacts to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Image result for the bonnell collection bronte parsonage 1970s

In the 1970s, when I used to visit the Parsonage, a downstairs modern exhibition room had been built to show the collection in its entirety. Bonnell had collected many of the ‘tiny books’ produced by the Bronte children in their youth.  Image result for bronte tiny booksMuch of the fascination surrounding the Bronte family comes not just from studying their works but from the huge number of relics that have been found over the years. The dresses, the lockets of hair woven into jewellery and the intricate embroidered samplers. To any lover of the Brontes’ works, this only serves to make their novels come alive and add a further dimension to our understanding of their psyche.

Henry H. Bonnell (1859–1926)

However, the more I studied, the more I discovered the intrigue, and criminality that lay behind much of the acquisition of the Bronte relics; the literary relics.  It is a plot full of twists and turns, and it is arguably as relevant to any Bronte scholar today as it was in the nineteenth century. I have only chosen to focus on some of the story here. Much of the intrigue centres around Thomas J Wise, (1859 – 1937) a professional book collector and Clement Shorter (1857-1926) the journalist and biographer.

When ‘Jane Eyre’ was published in 1847, it caused a sensation. As W. Scruton wrote in 1898,

“No book of modern times took so sudden and complete a grip of the public taste and became so popular.”

three books stacked
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Even within Charlotte Bronte’s time, people became fascinated with finding out more about the author of the book and pilgrimages to Haworth started as early as the mid-1850s. When the last surviving member of the Bronte Family; their father Patrick, died in 1861, many household items were auctioned and Charles Hale in ‘An American Visitor at Haworth’, details how people were so desperate to acquire a piece of Bronte history that there are tales of people dragging away windows from The Parsonage. The Victorians were fascinated by relics. This owed much to the premature death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert in 1861 and her continued mourning of him. Photography was still in its infancy and so many people hung onto possessions left behind by the dead such as lockets of hair made into jewellery as a means of remembering them.

Image result for THE BRONTE PARSONAGE 1850S

Thomas J Wise was a professional book collector and literary librarian. Wise was interested in collecting First Editions of literary masterpieces. He also wrote bibliographies of such literary greats as Tennyson, Swinburne, Landor, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, the Brownings, the Brontës,  Shelley and Conrad. Wise was particularly skilled at seeking out the surviving relatives of famous authors and his efforts frequently reaped surprising rewards since the relatives were only too pleased to talk about their illustrious familial connections. In this way, he managed to acquire many old letters, papers and unpublished manuscripts.

Charlotte Bronte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, survived his wife by over forty years and was living in relative poverty back in his native Ireland. The journalist Clement Shorter, in league with Thomas Wise, visited him and managed to buy from him for four hundred pounds, a collection of Bronte manuscripts including Emily Bronte’s unpublished poetry, letters and tiny books. Much of the juvenilia Clement Shorter wrongly considered to be worthless. However, Thomas J Wise turned these manuscripts into between fifty and sixty thin volumes to sell on for huge profit.

Image result for thomas j wise


Many have considered Wise’s actions as little more than vandalism for the sake of profit. He was not averse to attributing works to the wrong Bronte family member to gain more profit. For example: he often passed off some of Branwell’s poetry as Emily’s or Charlotte’s

Clement Shorter was also instrumental in acquiring the correspondence between Charlotte Bronte and Ellen Nussey. Ellen had been Charlotte’s closest friend for many years and she wanted to hang onto her collection of letters during her lifetime with a view to having them eventually displayed in the museum in Kensington – the Victoria and Albert Museum. Shorter managed to acquire many of the letters and sadly, did not keep the promises he had made to Ellen Nussey and Arthur Nicholls. Rather than place them in a museum, he passed them onto Wise who proceeded to sell them on to the highest bidder.


Shortly before Wise’s death, the publication of “An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets” by John Carter and Graham Pollard called into question the nature of many of Wise’s supposed literary finds, doubting their authenticity and declaring them as fakes. Wise refused to address such allegations, claiming ill-health and memory loss. Yet perhaps the answer lies in what happened after his widow sold his beloved Ashley Library to the British Museum for the sum of sixty-six thousand pounds? Upon looking through Wise’s library, the British Library found many missing artefacts from their own collection, suggesting that Wise had stolen them for his own over the years. Fortunately, The Bronte Parsonage Museum has managed to get back many of these literary artefacts but who knows what else may be out there still?

Further Reading: 

Thomas J. Wise: Centenary Studies by William B. Todd (Editor)

Thomas J Wise in the Original Cloth: The Life and Forger of the Nineteenth Century Pamphlets : by Wilfred Partington George Bernard Shaw

An Enquiry Into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets John Carter and Graham Pollard

6 thoughts on “THE BRONTE VILLAINS

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