A glimpse of Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia.
To attempt to pry into the juvenilia—or “hidden works,” as the biographer Claire Harman terms them—of Charlotte Brontë is to encounter a gentle but undeniable refusal. The current exhibition devoted to Brontë’s life and work at the Morgan Library & Museum, drawn largely from its own collections and that of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, allows a few tantalizing glimpses of Brontë’s early writing. Most touching and accessible is her very first extant work, a small book made for her youngest sister “Ane,” who was motherless by her second year and motherless again at age five after the deaths of the family’s two eldest daughters. Open to a page illustrated by a beguiling tiny watercolor of a sailing ship, the book makes clear how early Brontë, then age twelve or so, understood the power of imaginary travel. That travel was very soon denied to adults, for the books that followed are, even when examined with a magnifying glass, virtually unreadable, despite their careful script and wonderfully exact illustrations; they’re simply too tiny for the middle-aged eye, and perhaps for any eye other than that of a Brontë sibling.
The four surviving Brontë children—three sisters and a brother—all wrote, but their intent was never to have their manuscripts read by others, most especially perhaps their father and aunt. Charlotte once promised a boarding-school friend a glimpse and then reneged. It seems that Monsieur Heger, her teacher, muse, maître, and great unrequited love, was the first to be entrusted with a few of her most cherished early works.
To “make out,” as the Brontë children put it, meant to conjure an ever expanding and teeming world of finely drawn characters, whose imaginary histories were as intricate as any epic’s and whose landscapes were epic, too. The world of their imagination was as vast as their social world was narrow. Patrick Brontë’s position as curate in the village of Haworth, a setting at once rural and industrial, seemed to have put them in a class of their own, peers neither of the local gentry’s children nor of the millworkers’. The biographies make clear, however, that their isolation was to some degree self-imposed. After the disastrous early stay at boarding school—where the cruel conditions Brontë later depicted in Jane Eyre led to their elder two sisters’ deaths—Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell were in large part educated at home. Isolated but free of many customary social restraints, they were as at liberty to roam their imaginations as they were the moors.
Their father, Patrick Prunty—who had vaulted himself from birth in a dirt-floored Irish cottage to a Cambridge degree, becoming a less Irish sounding Brontë in the process—perhaps had reasons of his own for allowing or encouraging his children to form an art-making tribe, a nation really, of their own. He himself wrote sermons, of course, and also letters to the newspapers airing his Tory views. In his youth, though, his writing seems to have been as pleasurable for him as it became for his children. He composed poems, tracts, and his own small book, The Cottage in the Wood; or the Art of Becoming Rich and Happy, perhaps out of an unusual desire to use charm to deliver his moral lesson.
It seems, too, that Patrick Brontë understood if he allowed the children’s art making to become too important to him it would become far less important to them. Supplying them with paper and ink, however stingily, he also allowed them the time and privacy to invent a parallel world far less bridled by Victorian mores than the Brontës’ own parsonage home. The children had imbibed the Byron of Don Juan in their father’s small but catholic library, and they made good use of that intoxicant, as they did of their own highly contentious contemporary political milieu. Their father regularly walked miles to fetch the newspapers and the family received or borrowed periodicals of the day, not just Methodist journals but also the worldlier Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which Branwell and Charlotte imitated and made their own, with Charlotte eventually becoming its main proprietor. An issue of her Young Men’s Magazine, on display at the Morgan with its ad for a book titled The Elements of Lying, makes clear her social, political, and moral acuity, highly attuned to her time despite the lack of peers other than siblings.
The juvenilia itself, when viewed online so the handwriting can be not only appreciated but occasionally deciphered, remains dauntingly hermetic, a samizdat among siblings that was not meant for authorities of any kind. “Boring,” Lyndall Gordon, one of Charlotte Brontë’s many biographers, judges that early work. “And no less boring for being so voluminous.” Dipping into the tales of Glass Town, Verdopolis, and Angria in the excellent collection edited by Christine Alexander, I found myself disagreeing: I longed to enter their worlds not as an intrusive adult but as a fellow sibling. Repetious, derivative, circular, sometimes weirdly conventional, sometimes simply weird, the work is also at once hilarious and involving, sly and penetrating about the wiles of both heroes and their ladies, shrewd at every turn about the uses and misuses of power.
Charlotte’s childhood writing barreled on unimpeded by evaluation, moral or artistic, well into her twenties. The empires she created, with their swashbuckling heroes and romantically doomed women, allowed her characters through which she could explore an erotic and political agency utterly denied to her in everyday life. It was Monsieur Heger, though, who when Charlotte was twenty-six finally both recognized the extent of her genius and insisted through rigorous and objective criticism that she develop it. Her first real critic, her first real audience, her first real love: Monsieur Heger—with his cigars whose smoke he blew into her school desk at night as he corrected her essays—incited the passion that would have obliterated anyone made of less stern stuff than Charlotte Bronte. Indeed, this unrequited love almost killed her, but because it did not she became the writer we know. We cannot imagine our literature or ourselves without her.
Her career both before and after her years with Heger—when she was a governess to the overprivileged, a schoolteacher to the doltish—would relegate her imaginary kingdoms to the exhausted evening hours and summer days; when Charlotte was away, Branwell, at leisure and unobstructed, would unleash his murderous forces and kill off her most treasured characters. And yet paid work, however unrenumerative, lowly, time-sucking, and soul-crushingly boring, seemed to have spurred the sisters’ mature work, perhaps by providing material and motivation for a far bigger paycheck.
It was Branwell, his father’s brilliant home student in Greek and Latin, who could never relinquish his precocity for actual accomplishment. Staked by his father and aunt, he upended before actually entering art school and soon after being set up in a studio of his own. Pursuing his literary gifts, he published a few poems, but seemed to expect approbation for little work: he approached Wordsworth himself, only to be predictably ignored. The adults believed in Branwell, first and foremost in his maleness; they believed in his gifts; they staked their claims there with both money and hope. And perhaps overburdened by their aspirations or undermined by his own immaturity, Branwell let his future explode. The most devastating bomb was a doomed relationship with his very own Mrs. Robinson who employed him as her children’s tutor—a tale that Charlotte could well imagine in the kingdom of Angria, but was far less sympathetic to when the doomed lover was her own brother. Gin, opium, gambling, and psychosis quickly finished off the life that romantic love hadn’t quite consumed. In a prescient act, Branwell erased his own likeness in the portrait he painted of the siblings; his absence is his ghostly presence. His most well-known work, the painting hangs today in the National Gallery and, for the moment, at the Morgan.
The three sisters, for whom a school of their own was the highest aspiration, endured just long enough to complete the novels we know them for today, an accomplishment long in coming in their short lives. They had so little hope of success, it would seem, but each sister developed in dogged and cloistered discipleship to herself. Blazing through the early pages of Jane Eyre, her second novel and first great work, written as she approached thirty, Charlotte reminds us again of how easily a book is turned into a weapon, how quickly our inner lives, when discovered, can be used against us by an aggressor. Jane Eyre, orphan and beloved to no one, is once again scorned and rejected by her aunt and cousins one dismal rain-lashed afternoon. Retreating to a breakfast room and losing herself in Bewick’s History of British Birds, she feels their solitude as the birds cannot, but their landscape also sets her imagination loose. John Reed, her loutish cousin, intent on punishing her for the momentary escape and jealous of her superior intellect, soon hurls the book at Jane and damages her skull, but ultimately not the mind or spirit within. She is, as she reminds Rochester much later, not a bird to be caged.
A copy of Bewick’s History is included in the Morgan’s exhibition, leaving a viewer even better able to imagine how easily this large book was weaponized despite its neutral subject matter. The Brontës’ tiny childhood books, with far more objectionable subject matter, escaped that fate and allowed their creators’ gifts to unfold leisurely, privately, unpredictably. The opportunity to see a few of these relics up close, if not clearly, is a reason among many to make pilgrimage to the Morgan. A viewer also may bear witness to Charlotte Brontë’s tiny body, for her very dress and shoes stand sentry at the doorway that is both entrance and exit of the exhibition. How small she was, how large her accomplishment, how essential to be reminded that an artistic apprenticeship may be long, obscure, perilous, and perhaps best unseen by the adults who know us best.
“Charlottë Bronte: An Independent Will” is at the Morgan Library through January 2.
Cynthia Payne is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She grew up outside of Boston and lives in Brooklyn, New York.