Since for my first post I focused on a particular object, and my second, a group of objects that fall under a wider ‘theme', for my third, I decided to adopt a brand new perspective and assess an exhibit through a more macro lens, holistically and in its entirety.
The 'Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will' exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of the most celebrated authors of the 19th century. The objects in this exhibition are extremely personal, small anecdotes of Brontë's life, starting from her days as a young governess, exemplified by miniature books Bronte made in her teenage years, up until her time as published poet and novelist, epitomized by centerpiece of the exhibition, an excerpt of the original manuscript of Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre, written in 1847, is widely considered to be one of Brontë's greatest literary endeavors. The novel features an an orphan protagonist who so passionately and so brazenly expresses her desire for identity, definition, meaning, and agency—a proclamation which rang powerfully to its 19th-century audience. The novel’s bound manuscript on display is open to the page where the character of Jane Eyre turns to Edward Rochester and declares: “I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave to you”. This book was considered extremist to readers of the time as it introduced radical, feminist notions of the independent individual. It is deemed literature so powerful it had the potential to shape society. It’s this very fierce, independent will that characterizes not only Jane Eyre, but also the artist that created her. Brontë, at many a time, has been likened to that of the character of Jane Eyre herself and this manuscript, along with the other objects in this exhibition, tell her remarkable story, serving as an ode to her legacy.
The exhibition traces a fluid, chronological circle, guiding the viewer seamlessly and sequentially through Brontë’s life. It opens by setting the scene with a framed photograph of the author’s home. For the majority of her life, Brontë lived in a modest parsonage in Haworth, northwest of the urban and industrial Bradford and Leeds, perched on the edge of a wild moor (pictured below).
The next section, Chapter 2 in this exhibition’s story, the Brontë juvenilia unfolds, including Brontë’s earliest surviving miniature manuscript book, complete with beautiful yet delicate watercolor illustrations. I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter of the exhibit, to be vicariously transported back to juvenescence and experience Brontë's childhood world of whimsy and imagination.
Charlotte Brontë’s earliest surviving miniature manuscript book, with watercolor illustrations, circa 1828.
This lighthearted chapter, however, is short-lived. The exhibition then takes a somber turn at the adjacent wall, which holds artifacts from Brontë’s life in her late teens, when the harsh realities of life appear to set in. Brontë and her two sisters faced painfully limited prospects as daughters of a working-class man. This meant one of two professions, teacher or governess, neither of which they were suited to by talent or temperament.
Perhaps one of the most disheartening artifacts the exhibition is a prospectus that the sisters drew up advertising a school that they hoped to run: “the Misses Brontë’s establishment for the Board and Education of a limited number of young ladies.” The number was very limited: zero. It gave viewers insight on the realities of women at the time - oppressed, discriminated against, subordinates, inferior to men and deemed incapable of certain professions.
Though the exhibit admittedly, does resound echoes of tragedy, it also contain lighter moments of triumph. This especially comes through in the objects that display her literary works. In the 1840s, Charlotte and her sisters, Emily and Anne, self-published a book of poems. They used male pseudonyms, which are stamped on the right of the cover in gold, because they wanted to be sure that their work would be received and assessed on it’s own terms; so that they wouldn’t be dismissed immediately as women writers.
Brontë’s gender and class posed significant obstacles to her goal of becoming a writer. Nevertheless, she was uncommonly ambitious, pursuing literary fame in a male dominated profession. She recognized her aptitude for writing, despite knowing that this society that suppressed women would discouraged her from fulfilling her talent. Having gained insight into her life’s story, I leave this exhibit truly uplifted by her passion and her drive. I have great respect for her as a writer and commend her literary works. Her legacy is embedded in the objects she left behind, exemplifying her contribution not only to literature, but also to shaping wider society.