The three Brontë sisters — Charlotte, Emily and Anne — produced some of the nineteenth century’s most enduring literature. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall each issued from their respective pens in an astonishing display of sisterly creativity. But what was their world really like? A new study by the academic Deborah Lutz, entitled The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, seeks to cast fresh light on the sisters’ life in Haworth, West Yorkshire, where they lived together in the grey-brick parsonage that’s now a dedicated museum.
Examining the day-to-day life of the sisters, “Emily putting down her iron to jot down an extract of Wuthering Heights on a scrap of paper”, or “Charlotte dripping ink from her pen onto her portable writing desk in her fervour to write Jane Eyre”, Lutz shows how “the banality of domestic chores ran parallel to their extraordinary imaginative lives”. Its particular discovery is the extent to which items from their real lives either re-appear in the texts, or otherwise exercise a strong influence over them. A blackthorn walking stick feeds into the image of Jane Eyre wandering over the moors, a re-enactment of the sisters themselves “striding out in their unfeminine heavy boots”. The brass collar of Emily’s dog leads to a perceptive analysis of Wuthering Heights, where the supposed civility of man is put into question through Heathcliff’s restless savagery.
Most interestingly, Lutz traces the many lockets in Charlotte novels, used “as a sign of everlasting bonds”, back to an amethyst bracelet made from her sisters’ hair soon after their early deaths from tuberculosis in 1848 and 1849. Although it might seem morbid today, jewellery like this became popular during the Victorian period. And the fact that Charlotte had the bracelet made confirms both the close bond between the three sisters and the weight of symbolic importance that such objects could achieve.
“Object history” and “material culture” have recently become the key words in popular history writing: Neil MacGregor’s bestselling A History of the World in 100 Objects consolidated a growing trend. As Rachel Trethewey writes in theIndependent, these studies represent “the new formula used to enliven well-worn biographical snippets.” But if that judgement sounds a little damning, then Trethewey is nevertheless full of praise for Lutz’s book, “fresh and enlivening” in equal measure.
Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects is published by W.W. Norton and Company. Rachel Trethewey’s review appeared in the Independent on July 16th.
To read the Connell Guides to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, click on the books below!