Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sunday, January 08, 2017 12:30 am by M. in , ,    1 comment
The last exhibition to celebrate the Charlotte Brontë 2016 bicentenary was the one held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. It took place from September 2016 to a few days ago in January 2017. After the exhibitions at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (BPM), the John Soane Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London it would seem that the Morgan Library would only be able to put together some of the usual Brontëana seen at the NPG (with the addition of some pieces on loan from the BPM to the afore-mentioned London exhibitions) to indulge American Brontëites: the Pillar Portrait, the Richmond portrait, the Jane Eyre manuscript (normally on display at the British Library) all crossed the Atlantic for the first time. And extraordinary (and certainly a once-in-a-lifetime event) as it is, but it is not the whole story.

Because Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will is much more than that thanks to the amazing collection of Brontë literary manuscripts, letters and rare printed books held at the Morgan Library which serves to contextualise and give depth to much of the exhibition(1). BrontëBlog visited the exhibition the last week of 2016 and we were happily surprised by what we saw there. In fact, for us, the Morgan was THE Charlotte Brontë bicentenary exhibition. Charlotte Great and Small at the Parsonage was something else, a reinterpretation in a contemporary key of many of Brontë myths interlinked with real Brontëana. And the NPG one was, in fact, a subset of what we could find at the Morgan Library. 

Charlotte Brontë. An Independent Will was located at the Engelhard Gallery on the second floor. The walls were painted in a blue hue, probably matching the blueish colour of Charlotte Brontë's day dress which stands at the entrance of the exhibition and which had previously presided over the exhibition at the John Soane Museum. The phrase at the entry is as strong as it is simple:
“To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me--the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.”(2)
The exhibition follows a chronological order and begins with Home. A couple of postcards help to fix the image of the isolated Parsonage in the middle of nowhere later immortalised by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography. Two items also connect Charlotte's fiction (in Jane Eyre) with her own infancy: a letter from Charlotte to Williams Smith Williams (WSW) confessing that Helen Burns was based on her sister Maria who died soon after leaving Cowan Bridge School, administered by the Rev Carus Wilson. And the second item is an 1857 pamphlet by Rev Robert Morphet vindicating his figure after the publication of Mrs Gaskell's biography. Other items, belonging to the Morgan collection that could be seen in this section included Patrick Brontë's book of prayer and manuscripts of some of his sermons.
providing a place and time for Charlotte Brontë:

The second section of the exhibition: Imagination, establishes the coordinates of the fictional universe(s) where the young Brontës lived, created and forged their mature writings. Manuscripts, some of them on loan from the BPM (like the charming There once was a little girl and her name was Ane (sic), 1828), some others from the Morgan collection (The Bridal, 1832; The Poetaster, Vol 2 (1830); the fascinating Catalogue of My Books with the Periods of Their Completion until August 3, 1830; or the stunning manuscript where The Vision poem is included among other poems and prose(3). Drawings, many of them on loan from the BPM but some others coming from the Morgan collection. Objects so intimate as the sisters' copies of the hymns of Isaac Watts and the Psalms of David and the devotional book owned by Charlotte and inscribed by her mother, Maria--one of the few tangible connections with her she ever had.

The third section is the territory of her Work as a teacher, governess or as a student in Brussels, trying to acquire the necessary skills to establish a school of their own. Highlights here are, without a doubt, the passionate, highly erotic confession in the so-called Roe Head diary (again, part of the Morgan collection), letters to Ellen Nussey describing her miserable life as a governess. Her copy of J.C. Russell's General Atlas of Modern Geography, in which a sketch probably drawn by Charlotte was identified recently by Claire Harman as a possible self-portrait. Some of her notebooks with devoirs for M. Heger in her Brussels years can also be seen, The selection is completed with more mature drawings, many of them coming from the BPM.

The fourth section is the one devoted to Writing and here you could find the big names of the exhibition: the manuscript of Jane Eyre (opened on the page of the An Independent Will phrase, of course), the Pillar portrait and the George Richmond portrait of Charlotte Brontë. But there was much more: her portable writing desk and paintbox (both on loan from the BPM), the manuscript of the unfinished novel Ashworth, a fair copy manuscript of The Professor, poetry notebooks belonging to Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and manuscript poems by Emily Brontë...  And some personal highlights: two letters from Charlotte to WSW: in the first one she describes her visit to London with Anne in which they met him and Charlotte's publisher George Smith and in the second one there's the motto of the exhibition which we have quoted at the beginning of this review. And a personal favourite: the copy of Jane Eyre owned by Mary Taylor and her letter (one of the few surviving ones) to Charlotte expressing her surprise and amazement after reading her old friend's novel.

The final section, Legacy, is a bittersweet one. There are the letters to WSW communicating Branwell's death, Anne's decline. The Brontë-Nicholls marriage license is on display (and with it the hope of a bright future), Patrick Brontë's handwritten copy of the registry of Charlotte's marriage, the final will and testament of Charlotte, a letter to Ellen Nussey where Charlotte thanked her for agreeing to destroy her letters to her (Ellen ignored this as it is well known)(4). A silently tragic little letter by Patrick scattering away tiny pieces of Charlotte's handwriting to admirers.

We have tried to be exhaustive, but we have skipped things and we have not dedicated the necessary space to many others. So many were the items, so numerous the emotions contained in the displays, so great the experience. It was certainly the best way to conclude a very Charlotte Brontë year. As it should be.

(1) Curiously, as far as we know, no item from the Berg collection at the New York Public Library was used, nor any other manuscript of the many more that are scattered around the US.
(2) Charlotte to William Smith Williams, 16 August 1849
(3) Branwell's manuscripts are also included, like Angria and the Angrians (1835).
(4) Arthur Bell Nicholls thought they were dangerous 'as Lucifer matches'

1 comment:

  1. New York being within a day trip, I went 5 times to this exhibit and each time saw something I missed before. I also gained an understanding of the Richmond portrait by seeing it so much. It's gorgeous, indelible and yet illusive....much like the Brontes themselves. It was an incredible show. I'm having withdrawal pains!

    It was also wonderful to see the Bronte fans , young and old who flocked to the show. To see the old faces brighten and the young ones glow as they approach both Charlotte's Richmond portrait and Branwell's portrait of his sisters.

    ...Patrick Brontë's handwritten copy of the registry of Charlotte's marriage ...

    This was fascinating because Patrick made this copy in 1857...two years after the wedding.It's filled out solely in his own hand. One wonders why he made it; because of sentiment or for some official reason? Since he was Haworth's parson, and used the form that creates an official copy , this registry copy is an official document.