- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 4, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393352706
- ISBN-13: 978-0393352702
You may remember me from such manias as a fascination with all things Brontë, evinced by several posts written earlier this year. Upon the Grand Event of the purchasing of Claire Harman’s biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, as a preface to Harman’s book I began reading Lynne Reid Banks’s fictionalized biography of the family, The Dark Quartet, which lit a fire in me.
Thus began my Brontë year.
Over the past couple of weeks, in the midst of weeding my book collection, my hands again alighted serendipitously on Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet. I’d received this advance copy months prior to its publication in May of 2015, however, before I could crack the cover life intervened. The publication of the book coincided with the beginning of my divorce proceedings, so unsurprisingly I didn’t get around to reading it last year.
That’s since been remedied. Over the course of the past couple of weeks I fairly flew through it, thoroughly absorbed. I’m surprised the pages didn’t catch fire, I turned them so quickly. And I have the inky hands to prove how often I underlined passages and wrote excited notes in the margins.
” … I feel the deep mystery of the lives of others in this palpable emissary of past moments, now impossible to recover. The texture of those lost days settle into possessions that outlive their owners, it seems to linger in a mended tear, a stretched elbow, a corner’s roundedness.”
The Brontë Cabinet
Reader, I’m smitten by the Brontës, all over again.
I knew lots of the basic facts from other reading, but my world was positively blown apart by the revelations Lutz imparted. Really amazing things, explaining much about how these mousy pastor’s daughters came to produce turbulent, passionate works of sensuality and darkness.
Lutz’s premise is this: she takes eight objects owned by the Brontë family and explains not only their relevance to the family, but also each particular object’s place within Victorian society. The result is at once fascinating and fanciful, as the author both flexes her scholarly research muscles and, occasionally, engages in melodramatic leaps of supposition, imagining how the Brontës may have felt or acted or experienced, even when there’s nothing to back it up.
I love hard facts, and can sometimes indulge possibilities. Where I draw the line is in making sweeping assumptions based on the most tenuous of connections. Still and all, this is a remarkable book I will probably read again and refer to in future.
Following are the eight Brontë-related items, and a bit about each as presented by Deborah Lutz:
Item One – Tiny Books
Brontë lovers will recognize these as the wee works “published” by the Brontë children. I’d give anything to touch them, to turn the pages and get inside their minds, wouldn’t you?
“This mania for scribbling wasn’t an unusual activity for literary middle- or upper -class children in nineteenth-century England … Jane Austen filled the beautiful notebooks her father had bought her with sparkling imitations and parodies of fashionable society novels … Mary Ann Evans (who later took the pen name George Eliot) wrote a fragment of a historical novel in a school notebook … the young Stephens had their family magazine, produced weekly, in the 1890s, with Thoby and Virginia (later Woolf) as the main authors…”
Item Two – Pillopatate
Needlework wasn’t just a way to while away time. Young ladies were expected to be skilled in the art of mending clothing, as well as making pretty samplers, needle cases, etc. As with so many other aspects of life in the 19th century, thrifty recycling of fabric was a necessity. Small, handmade items also made very good gifts, useful things prettily made.
“The act of sewing itself had something of a public character, since women were expected to keep their hands busy, even among company. Advice manuals taught how best to show off skills and elegant hands while at needlecraft, even as a way to potentially attract a mate.”
Item Three – Walking Stick
The girls loved roaming the moors, and as the footing wasn’t always the most stable, it’s possible they may have borrowed their father or brother’s walking stick on occasion. These were fashionable and prized items to Victorians, who often bought beautifully crafted sticks and them handed down from generation to generation.
Walking with sticks wasn’t feminine, but Emily Brontë was well-known for thumbing her nose at society. She’s also the one of the sisters most passionate about perambulating the moors. If any of the girls used a walking stick, it was most likely to be Emily.
“The tallest person in her family except for her father, she “slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth.” A “solitude-loving raven,” Charlotte called Emily, “no gentle dove.”
Item Four – Keeper, Grasper and Other Family Animals
Not just the family walker, Emily was also the family animal lover. But she was no tender flower sitting around petting her dears. One famous story has her beating her dog, Keeper, for daring to lie on beds in the parsonage. After beating him nearly blind, she washed his wounded face. Forever after, so the legend goes, Keeper was inseparable from her. And, when Emily died, her animals kept vigil, waiting for her to return.
The “cult of the pet” was a very Victorian custom. We probably owe our affliction for cat videos to our 19th century forbears.
Thanks for that.
“Queen Victoria so loved dogs that she collected close to a hundred in her lifetime, most of them living in the kennels on the grounds of her castles. When she was dying, her Pomeranians kept her company on her deathbed.”
Item Five – Fugitive Letters
Oh, the Victorians loved their letters! But they were very expensive to send. Payment for letters fell on the recipient, not the sender, and costs were so exorbitant people often waited to send letters until someone they knew was visiting the area where the recipient lived, to hand deliver their missives. Counter-intuitively, sending packages was less expensive than letters. Knowing that, people often illegally tucked letters in with other merchandise to save on postage.
Charlotte and her close friend Ellen Nussey were passionate letter writers. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of letters were exchanged between them. Something that made me cringe inside, after Charlotte’s death her letters were sometimes cannibalized, so mourning fans could have a small scrap of something written in her hand. Ellen, as well as Patrick Brontë, were guilty of this.
“Ripe for reform, the post service changed radically in 1840 when it instituted a countrywide penny post. All letters weighing under half an ounce traveled anywhere in England for one penny … Charlotte wrote jubilantly to Ellen in January 1840: “I intend to take full advantage of this penny postage and to write to you often … that is as often as I have time.”
Item Six – The Alchemy of Desks
Portable desks held writing papers, sewing supplies, sealing wax and pens, buttons and stashes of money. They were ubiquitous in the Victorian era, so even poorer ladies like the Brontë girls owned them.
They held little cubbies with secret openings to secure dear treasures.
“Another precious desk was Jane Austen’s mahogany one, its writing slope covered in leather, that she took along when traveling … on one trip in 1798, the desk … was accidentally placed in a chaise whose luggage was bound for the West Indies. It was saved just in time when she sent off a horseman to stop the carriage. “No part of my property,” Austen remarked, “could have been such a prize before, for in my writing box was all my worldly wealth.”
Item Seven – Death Made Material
So many books have been written about the Victorian cult of death and mourning. Ever the trend-setter, Queen Victoria was a model for widows everywhere. She never ceased mourning after her beloved Prince Albert died. Her sadness was unrelenting.
Treasuring locks of hair is another custom of the era, sending off tresses cut from the corpses of loved ones to crafters who turned them into beautiful pieces of jewelry. Alternatively, hair was kept within lockets and tucked into books.
After losing her sisters, Charlotte had a beautiful bracelet made from their hair – a beautiful tribute within a family which had known so much loss.
“Part of the body yet easy to separate from it, hair retained its luster long after the rest of the person decayed. Portable, with a shine like certain gems or metals, hair moved easily from being an ornamental feature of the body to being an ornament worn by others. By the 1840s, hair jewelry had become so fashionable that advertisements for hair artisans, designers, and hairworkers ran in newspapers …”
Item Eight – Memory Albums
FInally, the memory album. Snippets of poetry and prose, observations of life, and little souvenirs were kept within these albums. The Victorians were crazy about ferns and other plants, pressing them into books and what came to be called scrapbooks, i.e., little bits of life kept as mementos. Similar to commonplace books, these memory albums were to be treasured and sometimes shared. They told the story of a life.
“Victorians were prolific album compilers, creators of all manner of curated collections arranged in the little museum of the volume. Albums, along with Wardian cases, were part of the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting, containing, classifying, and organizing, especially when it came to saving the past by placing it into some sort of permanent system.”
This is only a small part of what’s to be found in The Brontë Cabinet, the treasures held in this book. I didn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage every lover of things Brontë and Victoriana to give it a read. It’s given me so much to think about, so many new interests and avenues of exploration. Not least among them is the theory Emily may have written a second book, which Charlotte perhaps destroyed…
A second book. Possibly destroyed. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Or perhaps it’s still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found… Hey, it could happen,
I’m so glad to have run across this book again, especially in this year of all things Brontë. It was all pleasure, through and through.