Thursday, May 06, 2010

Thursday, May 06, 2010 12:03 am by Cristina in , ,    3 comments
Our thanks to Jenna Holmes from the Brontë Parsonage Museum for sending us a review copy of this. The book is available from the Brontë Parsonage Museum shop or directly from the author.
Charlotte Brontë's Corset
by Katrina Naomi
ISBN: 978-1-903007-12-9
Brontë Society Publications
19 April 2010
Katrina Naomi, the first writer-in-residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum as part of its Contemporary Arts programme, has fulfilled many a Brontëite's dream: she has spent time at the Brontë Parsonage having all sorts of Brontëana items brought to her from the collection. She has been allowed to (carefully and with gloved hands) interact with them and just be inspired by them. We are not poets at BrontëBlog, but we do think that if there's anything by which we could be inspired, Brontë items and surroundings are the very thing to do the trick.

Still, though, we and Brontëites from all over the world are fortunate enough that Katrina Naomi got that enviable chance as she manages to weave her feelings seamlessly into her poems, conveying them to the reader as almost a first hand experience. Her poems are true to the moment, but also deeply evocative, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek humour that fits perfectly as it steers clear of hagiography and relic-gazing. Katrina Naomi herself makes this clear in the poem that lends its name to the collection(1) when she writes,
... And I do know
I've made your tiny body so much larger
than in life. . .
As indeed we all have. But this collection serves to humanise the Brontës and see them as at home as possible. Katrina Naomi reports that judging from Charlotte Brontë's dainty boots she seems to have pronated, that a flimsy piece of paper written by Anne less than two months before she died was last valued at 180,000 pounds and that the Brontës' toy lion looks like 'he's been tortured'.

So these are the Brontës, lest we ever forget they were real people. Katrina Naomi's collection seems the perfect complement to another commission made in the framework of the Contemporary Arts Programme: Cornelia Parker's 2006 Brontëan Abstracts. Where Katrina Naomi states that she feels like 'a forensic examiner/unearthing layers of mid-thigh/socks' Cornelia Parker showed us a darn in Anne Brontë's stocking. Where Katrina Naomi admits that Anne Brontë is her favourite but she 'daren't touch/the original [letter] for fear I'd start to cough, my lungs/in revolt', Cornelia Parker showed us Anne Brontë's blood-stained handkerchief. Ms Naomi confesses, though,
Who would study curling tongs when there's
Brontë letters, poems and manuscripts?

All those things I ought to write about
but can't quite turn my hand to.
And we freely admit to being glad she didn't, though she did write a little about some such things too.

Katrina Naomi also subtly incorporates the current day-to-day of the Parsonage, and how it is to work there, to be there day after day. Staff from the Parsonage make it into the poems, and the reader/visitor gets several quick glances behind the scenes: 'The Dyson sucks up what remains/of those sisters'.

But Katrina Naomi was also there when recent key events took place. There's a poem on Sam Taylor-Wood's exhibition Ghosts and Ms Naomi - like all visitors to that exhibition - feels like a stalker treading in Sam Taylor Wood's footprints. And then there's a poem on the arrival of Emily Brontë painting box.

Sometimes, however, fancy takes flight just like it did when the sisters were writing, drawing around the table: Katrina Naomi takes Charlotte to Madrid to see 'Raphael's 'Madonna of the Fish'/which she'd spent 1835 copying'. Charlotte doesn't like 'the sun, the noise, the bars' and it is decided that Branwell would definitely make a better travelling companion in this instance.

Just like Charlotte's tiny corset managed to contain the great author that was Charlotte Brontë, so does this small collection contain all of the Brontës, what they were, who they were, how they were, what they did and where they lived, and what they are today. This evocative, subtle collection bears endless readings - we have been drifting in and out of it ever since it arrived - and shows both the lasting and varied inspiration of the Brontë sisters in modern culture and, once again, the success of the Contemporary Arts Programme.

(1) The cover picture is indeed Charlotte Brontë's corset, slightly retouched to make it seem less intimate somehow. The Brontë Society is quite reluctant to put such private items on display at the Parsonage. Anne Dinsdale, Collections' Manager at the Museum, recently told us the anecdote that this corset - or another belonging to Charlotte Brontë, if there are several of them - was displayed at an exhibition at the end of the 19th century. Ellen Nussey was duly appalled by it. Charlotte's husband was still alive too, living in Ireland, and we don't know if he heard, but rather think it better if he didn't or we can't begin to imagine what he would have felt, poor man.

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  1. It sounds like an interesting collection, but I do wonder about her corset being displayed like that. It was strange enough seeing her darned and holey stockings in a display case! But then again, do they wheel out the Richmond one again? The thing is, it would be like seeing Virginia Woolf's bra on a book cover, which would feel rather strange! Charles Dickens' underpants must surely follow.

  2. As I said in the note, the image manages to present the corset in a not so intimate light. And you may joke about Virginia Woolf's bra or Charles Dickens's underpants but that has been topped already by Queen Victoria's 'bloomers' being auctioned a couple of years ago (with pictures and all):

  3. I still think that despite the photoshopping, you know... it is still her corset. It seems rather... frank? If that's the right word.

    Oh dear... Queen Vic's bloomers?!