The first thing we see, on entering the gallery, is a glass case containing one of Charlotte Brontë’s dresses and a pair of her shoes, objects that make us acutely aware—more effectively than any description or photograph of these items could—of how diminutive (by modern standards) this strong and resilient woman was. Tiny books and magazines, including a copy of a satirical play about the art of writing, The Poetaster, that Charlotte wrote when she was fourteen, offer a view of the way in which the Brontë children saw writing as an imaginative game; to them, these miniature, handmade volumes—meticulously printed, and in some cases illustrated with watercolors—were, essentially, toys. Included also is the manuscript of a poem that Emily Brontë wrote when she was nineteen, a work of three hundred words, divided in forty-six lines, on a page that is only ten centimeters tall.
Curated by Christine Nelson, the exhibition reinforces our notions of Charlotte Brontë’s daring, ambition, and courage, and of the tragic circumstances over which she prevailed. In one letter, Charlotte describes the 1848 visit to London during which she and her sisters Emily and Anne revealed to her publishers that the novels they had submitted under male pseudonyms (Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell) had in fact been written by women (“Mystery is irksome, and I was glad to shake it off”). The publisher was initially surprised, but nevertheless decided to show the sisters around London, introducing them not as authors but as his “country cousins” the Misses Brown. In another, bordered in black, Charlotte mourns her brother’s death.
Taken from the frontispiece Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, a brooding, romantic engraving of Haworth Parsonage, where the Brontës grew up, positions the family home between a cemetery in the foreground and the dark moors in the distance. A famous group portrait by Branwell Brontë, done when he was fourteen, portrays his three rather pretty sisters looking fully as serious—and as haunted—as we imagine them to be. The painting is all the more haunted when one realizes that Branwell painted himself out of it. Early editions of the novels that the three sisters wrote, Charlotte’s marriage certificate (at the age of thirty-seven, she wed Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate) and her last will and testament provide an illuminating overview and a moving visual mini-biography of this extraordinary artist.
“Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” is on view at New York’s Morgan Library through January 2, 2017.