I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind.
Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

zaterdag 3 december 2016

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will. Reviewed by Ed Voves and Anne Lloyd.



Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

The Morgan Library and Museum
September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017

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. 

In the earlier post, I focused upon the 1850 portrait of Charlotte Brontë, created by George Richmond. It was a gift to Bronte's father, Patrick, from her publisher, George Smith. In this review, I will comment upon several of the other Brontë treasures on view in the spectacular exhibit at the Morgan.

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 first object to greet visitors to the Morgan exhibit is one of Charlotte Brontë's dresses, the so-called "Thackeray dress". Brontë is reputed to have worn this dress to an ill-fated dinner party at the home of William Makepeace Thackeray on June 12, 1850. She almost certainly did not wear the dress to dinner. But the story illustrates the "outsider" position of Brontë - and her sisters - in the British literary scene of the 1840's and 1850's.

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.

Historian Eleanor Houghton of the University of Sussex has made a detailed study of this dress. She believes that Charlotte Brontë likely wore the dress for daytime business or social meetings, including one with Thackeray prior to the dinner party. The style was certainly acceptable for daytime use in 1850. But it would have been a laughable blunder to wear it at a dinner party when silk dresses were the norm. Charlotte Brontë was extremely sensitive about her appearance, so much so that she refused to have photos taken of herself when she was married in 1854.

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."

To focus upon the "Thackeray" dress may seem obsessive, when the Morgan exhibit is bursting with "once-in-a-lifetime" treasures, including the manuscript of Jane Eyre. Yet, it is worth considering this dress along with a famous quote by Brontë who was responding to critics of Jane Eyre. "To you I am neither Man nor Woman - I come before you as an Author only - it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me - the sole ground on which I accept your judgement."

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. 

The Brontë sisters tried every form of employment deemed suitable for gentlewomen to earn their bread. Governessing, managing a school of their own, all that was now at an end. Their hearts were not in it and their brother Branwell's erratic behavior forbade housing students even if they could find any.

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.

The "Thackeray" dress, Charlotte Brontë's portable writing desk, the Richmond's portrait and the manuscript of Jane Eyre testify to the front-row place which Charlotte Brontë earned for herself among the "greats" of English literature. But these objects from Brontë's later life can only be understood in terms of the wondrous "little books" and poems which she and her siblings created as children.
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.

There once was a little girl and her name was Ane” reads the opening line of Charlotte Brontë’s first tale, complete with misspelling. Looking at this incredible work of love, one is struck by the unshakable thought that here is “genius" or at least the seed of genius.

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?

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Parsonage

Parsonage

Charlotte Bronte

Presently the door opened, and in came a superannuated mastiff, followed by an old gentleman very like Miss Bronte, who shook hands with us, and then went to call his daughter. A long interval, during which we coaxed the old dog, and looked at a picture of Miss Bronte, by Richmond, the solitary ornament of the room, looking strangely out of place on the bare walls, and at the books on the little shelves, most of them evidently the gift of the authors since Miss Bronte's celebrity. Presently she came in, and welcomed us very kindly, and took me upstairs to take off my bonnet, and herself brought me water and towels. The uncarpeted stone stairs and floors, the old drawers propped on wood, were all scrupulously clean and neat. When we went into the parlour again, we began talking very comfortably, when the door opened and Mr. Bronte looked in; seeing his daughter there, I suppose he thought it was all right, and he retreated to his study on the opposite side of the passage; presently emerging again to bring W---- a country newspaper. This was his last appearance till we went. Miss Bronte spoke with the greatest warmth of Miss Martineau, and of the good she had gained from her. Well! we talked about various things; the character of the people, - about her solitude, etc., till she left the room to help about dinner, I suppose, for she did not return for an age. The old dog had vanished; a fat curly-haired dog honoured us with his company for some time, but finally manifested a wish to get out, so we were left alone. At last she returned, followed by the maid and dinner, which made us all more comfortable; and we had some very pleasant conversation, in the midst of which time passed quicker than we supposed, for at last W---- found that it was half-past three, and we had fourteen or fifteen miles before us. So we hurried off, having obtained from her a promise to pay us a visit in the spring... ------------------- "She cannot see well, and does little beside knitting. The way she weakened her eyesight was this: When she was sixteen or seventeen, she wanted much to draw; and she copied nimini-pimini copper-plate engravings out of annuals, ('stippling,' don't the artists call it?) every little point put in, till at the end of six months she had produced an exquisitely faithful copy of the engraving. She wanted to learn to express her ideas by drawing. After she had tried to draw stories, and not succeeded, she took the better mode of writing; but in so small a hand, that it is almost impossible to decipher what she wrote at this time.

I asked her whether she had ever taken opium, as the description given of its effects in Villette was so exactly like what I had experienced, - vivid and exaggerated presence of objects, of which the outlines were indistinct, or lost in golden mist, etc. She replied, that she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it in any shape, but that she had followed the process she always adopted when she had to describe anything which had not fallen within her own experience; she had thought intently on it for many and many a night before falling to sleep, - wondering what it was like, or how it would be, - till at length, sometimes after the progress of her story had been arrested at this one point for weeks, she wakened up in the morning with all clear before her, as if she had in reality gone through the experience, and then could describe it, word for word, as it had happened. I cannot account for this psychologically; I only am sure that it was so, because she said it. ----------------------She thought much of her duty, and had loftier and clearer notions of it than most people, and held fast to them with more success. It was done, it seems to me, with much more difficulty than people have of stronger nerves, and better fortunes. All her life was but labour and pain; and she never threw down the burden for the sake of present pleasure. I don't know what use you can make of all I have said. I have written it with the strong desire to obtain appreciation for her. Yet, what does it matter? She herself appealed to the world's judgement for her use of some of the faculties she had, - not the best, - but still the only ones she could turn to strangers' benefit. They heartily, greedily enjoyed the fruits of her labours, and then found out she was much to be blamed for possessing such faculties. Why ask for a judgement on her from such a world?" elizabeth gaskell/charlotte bronte



Poem: No coward soul is mine

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the worlds storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heavens glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.


O God within my breast.
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life -- that in me has rest,
As I -- Undying Life -- have power in Thee!


Vain are the thousand creeds
That move mens hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,


To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast Rock of immortality.


With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.


Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.


There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou -- Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.


--
Emily Bronte

Family tree

The Bronte Family

Grandparents - paternal
Hugh Brunty was born 1755 and died circa 1808. He married Eleanor McClory, known as Alice in 1776.

Grandparents - maternal
Thomas Branwell (born 1746 died 5th April 1808) was married in 1768 to Anne Carne (baptised 27th April 1744 and died 19th December 1809).

Parents
Father was Patrick Bronte, the eldest of 10 children born to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor (Alice) McClory. He was born 17th March 1777 and died on 7th June 1861. Mother was Maria Branwell, who was born on 15th April 1783 and died on 15th September 1821.

Maria had a sister, Elizabeth who was known as Aunt Branwell. She was born in 1776 and died on 29th October 1842.

Patrick Bronte married Maria Branwell on 29th December 1812.

The Bronte Children
Patrick and Maria Bronte had six children.
The first child was Maria, who was born in 1814 and died on 6th June 1825.
The second daughter, Elizabeth was born on 8th February 1815 and died shortly after Maria on 15th June 1825. Charlotte was the third daughter, born on 21st April 1816.

Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls (born 1818) on 29th June 1854. Charlotte died on 31st March 1855. Arthur lived until 2nd December 1906.

The first and only son born to Patrick and Maria was Patrick Branwell, who was born on 26th June 1817 and died on 24th September 1848.

Emily Jane, the fourth daughter was born on 30th July 1818 and died on 19th December 1848.

The sixth and last child was Anne, born on 17th January 1820 who died on 28th May 1849.

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