Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 12:30 am by Cristina in ,    No comments

The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects
by Deborah Lutz (Author)
W. W. Norton & Company, May 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0393240085
Arranging long-locked drawers and shelves
Of cabinets, shut up for years,
What a strange task we've set ourselves !
How still the lonely room appears !
How strange this mass of ancient treasures,
Mementos of past pains and pleasures;

These volumes, clasped with costly stone,
With print all faded, gilding gone;
These fans of leaves, from Indian trees–
These crimson shells, from Indian seas–
These tiny portraits, set in rings–
Once, doubtless, deemed such precious things;
Keepsakes bestowed by Love on Faith,
And worn till the receiver's death,
Now stored with cameos, china, shells,
In this old closet's dusty cells.
This fragment from the poem Mementos by Charlotte Brontë heads the last chapter of Deborah Lutz's The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects but serves to define the whole book. Inspired by nine day-to-day objects that once belonged to the Brontës, Deborah Lutz tells about the Victorian context behind them. A context full of anecdotes and surprising examples both concerning the Brontës and their contemporaries.

Deborah Lutz has managed to combine a 'chatty', conversational way of writing with solidly scholarly background and research. The Brontë Cabinet is a wholly entertaining read, yet thoroughly researched and incredibly enlightening. New Brontëites will find some of the facts about the Brontës interesting and old Brontëites will refresh their memories and - we are pretty sure - learn new things if not about the Brontës themselves, then surely about the period they lived in. She manages to make it look easy - and yet it can't have been. The amount of research is huge(1) and the skill to arrange the objects in a way that helps tell the Brontë story chronologically is certainly awe-inspiring.

Who hasn't stood in front of a glass case at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (or anywhere else where there's an object once connected to the Brontës) and felt something - was moved by an entirely ordinary object that wasn't meant to carry all that history, all that weight when it was first made. So Ms. Lutz makes a good case for all these objects being secular relics. Brontë admirers sort of worship them - we are guilty ourselves of doing so. Don't feel ashamed - Virginia Woolf felt it too when she visited Haworth in 1904. Deborah Lutz partly quotes from this too:
Here are many autograph letters, pencil drawings, and other documents. But the most touching case - so touching that one hardly feels reverent in one's gaze - is that which contains the little personal relics of the dead woman. The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them, and because these, trifling and transient though they are, have survived, Charlotte Brontë the woman comes to life, and one forgets the chiefly memorable fact that she was a great writer. Her shoes and her thin muslin dress have outlived her. One other object gives a thrill; the little oak stool which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think what was probably better than her writing. ("Haworth, November 1904" by Virginia Woolf)
So Deborah Lutz takes each object and writes a chapter around it, telling us both the Brontë story and the Victorian story, putting the Brontës firmly in the period they lived in but with which they aren't always really associated both because they lived in the earlier part of it and because their tastes and style tend to be reminiscent of an earlier period. And yet, looking at their belongings and their way of life, it's clear that they can't have been anything else. The Brontës were Victorians through and through.

Much of the book has a novel air about it. We don't think any biographer has paused to really describe their desks and their exact contents (except for Anne's, which was empty when it was returned to the Brontë Parsonage Museum) and it's a truly fascinating read in that aforementioned secular-relics sort of way. New to the Brontë world and free from the chains of having to write a proper biography, she tells the Brontë story in an unusual way: linking the latest advancements in the post to the Brontës' letter-writing habits, etc(2). She has a way of telling things very vividly: the way she writes about the desks and how they are inextricably connected to the writing of their juvenilia, their letters and their poems and novels. When you see them on display so 'aseptically', it's easy to overlook their ink stains and how those stains came to happen: Emily Brontë really used that object to write, word for word, the novel we now read as Wuthering Heights. And isn't that amazing?

Each chapter is a veritable surprise, with Ms Lutz taking you places you wouldn't have reached otherwise. We admit to perhaps having been able to do without all the stuff about fern in the chapter entitled Memory albums. We already knew it was an essential part of the Victorian era - it was truly a craze back then and Ms Lutz herself seems to have been trapped by it judging by the length and depth of what she writes about it. We still find it mystifying and, to put it bluntly, rather boring. On the other hand, the chapter entitled Death Made Material was a joy - paradoxically, perhaps - to read..

If you are the sort of person who has no trouble getting rid of stuff, you might want to give The Brontë Cabinet a pass, but if you have ever looked at an object and found in it much more than the object itself, be it a meaning or a memory or even a feeling, you will definitely appreciate and understand this book. If, apart from that, you are interested in the Brontës and the period they lived in, this book will definitely make an enthralling read(3).

Notes

(1) Although she sometimes gives credit where credit is no longer given. She claims that,
Branwell sketched his aunt's head just after her death, with her cap neat and her face at rest.
And the corresponding note says:
A page from Branwell's sketchbook that has the drawing of his aunt is reproduced in Brian Wilks, The Brontës (London: Hamlyn, 1975), 79.
Puzzled by this reference and the fact that such sketch is not included, for instance, in The Art of the Brontës, we got in touch with Ann Dinsdale, who assured us that, 'The so-called Branwell sketchbook was discredited many years ago.'

(2) Reading about the crazy wafers found in Emily's desk all full of plays on words, etc makes for fascinating reading but Ms Lutz makes the mistake of assuming  that because there are hardly any letters left written by Emily, she didn't write many. Of course she wasn't an avid letter-writer like Charlotte, but when they were far from each other, we know from Charlotte's replies to her, that they corresponded. And although we don't have any letters either, it is easy to imagine that Emily and Anne regularly wrote to each other too. So we definitely can guess 'to whom she may have sent these wafers'.

3) And after you are done with it, you may want to read Brontë Relics: A Collection History (2012) by Ann Dinsdale, Sarah Laycock and Julie Akhurst or the poetry book Charlotte Brontë's Corset (2010) by Katrina Naomi or the exhibition catalogue from Brontëan Abstracts (2006) by Cornelia Parker. And there's always the lovely Sixty Treasures (1988) by Juliet Barker. If that's not enough - which it won't - we highly recommend a trip to the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

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