The Bell Brothers

4 min
Save your jibes about chronology. Our story starts here.

In 1820, a small book publisher in London named Richard Alyott received a letter from Monticello, in the American town of Charlottesville. The unsigned letter began with a Latin epigram vaunting the power of literature. The body of the epistle inquired whether a certain triad of brothers had "had their book of poems printed" by Alyott's "distinguished publishing house yet." The writer had some questions about the said brothers that could use some clearing up. The letterhead bore the eagled insignia of the United States Government. Mr. Alyott puzzled over the contents of the letter throughout the day and even brought it home with him to puzzle over in front of the fire while his wife knitted nearby. Mr. Alyott could not remember where he had heard the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell before. If Alyott and Jones had published a book of poems by them, it must have been a very long time ago, and it must not have been very popular. Though the names rang familiar, Mr. Alyott could not place them for the life of him.

In 2020, in Charlottesville, Virginia, two roommates got into their last argument. Lorrie was a postdoc in quantum astrophysics and Olivia was writing her dissertation on British Romanticism. This was the least of their conflicts. Olivia was a less than stellar roommate, sure, but Lorrie was exigent and cruel. After Olivia stole one of Lorrie's SpongeBob Mac and Cheeses, Lorrie got her back by dropping her iPhone into a vat of dark matter, which surprisingly improved her reception, but also made her the target of a string of lewd messages from a wraith from the sixth dimension. When Olivia accidentally killed Lorrie's betta fish, Lorrie decided to make her the guinea pig for a new piece of technology.

Transportation through time is not an issue with time so much as it is an issue with space. So when Lorrie set up the machine in Olivia's bedroom and calibrated it to 1820, she first sent a plastic coat hanger. The hanger zapped out of existence, and Olivia—whose herbal tea had been very gently drugged—did not budge. Lorrie googled "1820 plastic." There: a conspiracy website that claimed that a Virginia farmer had discovered an object of a strange, stiff, white material lodged in a tree in Albemarle County in 1822. If this exact location was in the middle of a tree, then a few feet to the left should be fine.

Olivia woke up to birdsong upsettingly close to her face. She touched the dewy grass around her to make sure she wasn't dreaming. Someone—perhaps someone salty that a fish that seemed determined to die died—had dragged Olivia, pillow and all, outside while she slept. A bit harsh, Lorrie, no?

We will not elaborate which paths this young woman took through a forest of rust-colored trees to wind up at a farmhouse. Nor will we detail how the farmwife offered Olivia some biscuits and eggs in a syntax she found unnerving. We won't bore you with her mounting realization that something was horribly wrong. We won't belabor which mathematical tricks Olivia pulled out to impress the farmwife, tricks which by modern standards would have earned a student a 3 on an AP calculus exam but which at the time would have earned one a professorship at Yale. We will not detail, either, how the farmwife brought this young woman to town, where she performed the same tricks to the Alderman, then the Mayor; nor how this earned her an audience with the patron on the hill, a certain Thomas Jefferson. Nor will we bother explaining how, when asked in Jefferson's twilit study (yes twilit; a twenty-minute car ride took several hours by buggy), this young woman professed herself a clairvoyant. It was easier for her to explain.

We will not recount these things at length, since in reality, our story picks up here: when the aged Jefferson asked this young woman to prove her psychic gift, and she found herself unable. She knew she ought to have named the next president, but could not for the life of her remember. She briefly considered mentioning Sally Hemmings, but decided that would do nothing to endear her to this man. Nor could she cite any historical event that, at this stage in American history, would not seem fantastical (to explain Pearl Harbor would have meant first explaining planes). Even her knowledge of literature in this era only covered the Old World. She needed something that would either happen tomorrow, or something that no one else knew.

At this point in the evening, her host was spending less time listening to her, and more time scrutinizing her over his glasses. Suddenly, it broke on her: The Bell brothers. She compelled Mr. Jefferson to write post-haste to their publisher in London, and to ask him whether he could please put us in contact with the brothers, as we had a pressing question about their identity. The letter was sent and Jefferson offered to host this young woman until a reply arrived. She woke up still stuck in the past, and, though there remain no primary sources about her feelings that morning, it's fair to assume that she wept.

Three weeks later, Richard Alyott walked to work wondering about this phrase: whether this "book of poems" had been "printed by his distinguished publishing house yet." Yet? His partner in the publishing house had not heard of the Bell brothers, either.

Three weeks after that, Jefferson would read the response without surprise, since his guest, Olivia, had only become less and less credible as time had worn on, before finally retiring to her room with claims of ill health he believed were spurious. Jefferson tossed the letter in the fire.

Twenty-six years after the ashes disintegrated, the Bell brothers first sent in their manuscript to Alyott, and another ten years later, they revealed themselves to be the aliases for the Brontë sisters. Which left another 170 years, still, before Lorrie, an ailing billionaire, scrawled a message of regret at the bottom of her will, apologizing to the young woman who died of a common cold in a strange, familiar nation, and taking credit for the first memory foam pillow in America, discovered in an empty field, in Virginia, in 1822.

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