Reviewed by Ed Voves and Anne Lloyd.
Charlotte Brontë's life was like a Victorian "three-decker" novel. Her incredible rise from obscurity to become a literary sensation with the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 was followed by staggering family tragedies, then marriage, brief happiness and early death in 1855.
What sounds like the plot of one of her novels was actually Charlotte Brontë's path to immortality.
The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City has organized an exhibition in honor of the bicentennial of Brontë's birth. With the cooperation of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire, and the National Portrait Gallery and the British Library in London, the Morgan's exhibit is worthy of Brontë's life and achievement. Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will sets a standard of curatorial excellence that will be hard to top.
Earlier this year, I reviewed part of this exhibition as it appeared at the National Portrait Gallery. The Morgan's exhibit, drawing upon three international famed institutions, is vaster in scale and superlative in the quality of the objects on display.
Born two hundred years ago in 1816, Charlotte Brontë was a product of what used to be dismissively referred to as England's "Celtic Fringe." Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë was born in Ireland in 1777, while her mother's family came from Cornwall. Charlotte Brontë was also a strong-willed Yorkshire woman at a time when the northern regions of England were the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution. She also represented, along with her sisters Emily and Anne, the final flowering of the literature of the Romantic Rebellion. Seldom has one little woman embodied so much British history and so much individual achievement in one, very brief life.
And Charlotte Brontë was a little woman. In physical stature, that is. According to the joyner who made her coffin, she measured four feet, nine inches.
The Brontë dress on view at the Morgan is of a type known as delaine dress. The word "delaine" originally referred to woolen dresses. By 1850, the term was used for light-weight dresses made of various printed fabrics, including wool-cotton mix as in the case of this dress.
Thackeray's thirteen-year old daughter, Anne, left a vivid account of the dinner party. She described Charlotte Brontë as "a tiny delicate, serious little lady, pale with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress, with a pattern of faint green moss."
According to Houghton, barège was a mix of woolen and silk threads, very much in fashion for evening dresses in 1850. When it came to fabrics, Charlotte Brontë clearly knew her "stuff."
Brontë published Jane Eyre under the nom de plume, Currer Bell. When she and her sisters, Emily and Anne decided to "earn their fortune" as professional writers they chose enigmatic male names, Currer, Ellis and Acton, respectively. The surname "Bell" was, perhaps coincidentally, the middle name of their father's assistant curate and Charlotte's eventual husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
A legacy left to the sisters by their Aunt Branwell allowed them some financial freedom, but it wasn't a complete answer. In the autumn 1845, during this time of uncertainty , Charlotte Bronte came across her sister's Emily's poems. They electrified her. Charlotte faced down Emily's fury and insisted that the poems must be put before the public. The rest is history.
Charlotte Brontë, aka Currer Bell, had the right to insist upon being judged "as an Author only." Though politically conservative, Charlotte Brontë was in the vanguard of the eminent Victorian women who would stubbornly smash the barriers of the "Old Boy" British establishment.
On display at the Morgan exhibit is a miniature manuscript book with water color drawings. It is dated to 1828, when the nine-year old Charlotte created this tiny treasure for her younger sister, Anne, later the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The Brontë treasures, currently on view in the gallery of the Morgan Library, certainly testify to one of the great sagas of creativity in human history. Why else would we continue to read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall? Why else would we throng to an exhibition such as Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library?