I stumbled across this one just before Christmas, too late for it to make it on to my Christmas list but just in time for me to tell my Dad that I wanted it. I read it during my recent holiday and kept looking up to tell my friends how good it was, which didn’t really mean much given that I am the only Brontë fan in the group. Really, it’s so good that I have the website – I would bore my friends and family totally rigid if I did not. The concept behind this biography seems rather inspired by Paula Byrne’s Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things but Lutz’s struggles from the very outset to root her writing into the nine titular objects, frequently slipping into personal asides and tangents, but this is no criticism. Indeed, The Brontë Cabinet is one of those glorious books where virtually every line feels worth noting down and is clearly a true passion project on the part of its author. Lutz’s prose soars from the minutiae of the tiny books of Angrian and Gondal adventures to more weighty considerations regarding death and mortality and then on to the very nature of the objects themselves and how much looking at them can even reveal. This is a true treat for the enthusiasts – a book to savour and one to which I know I will return.
With each successive chapter, Lutz delves into a different aspect of the girls’ lives, putting them into the context of the wider Victorian culture but also conjuring up the minutiae of their daily routines and habits that makes them seem more like flesh-and-blood people than any other book I can remember reading. There are times when Lutz appears to attempt a direct communion with the spirit world, describing in excitement the smell of this or that object or musing over what a scratch on Emily’s desk might mean. Lutz’s previous book related to the Victorian death culture, so it is perhaps understandable that she is so interested in how the Brontës have been memorialised, but it makes this feel like a biography of the senses rather than one concentrated on the narrative; it was not just about the Brontë sisters but also about us, and how we have related to them after their deaths.
The first chapter deals with books, examining the tiny books which the children used for their ‘scribble-mania’, then also how the books themselves were markers of status, with dilapidated well-read books kept out of sight in the upper floor of the Parsonage and then the smarter ones downstairs. Yet within the books, Anne marks her heroine Helen Huntingdon as a serious young lady by showing her ‘limited but choice’ selection of books, in contrast to other characters who have a selection of smart volumes which have never been opened. More profoundly, a book has the potential to offer a dialogue, such as in Wuthering Heights when Lockwood stumbles across the elder Catherine’s old diary with its scribblings of the various possibilities of her name. Patrick’s personal medical ‘bible’ is full of his personal annotations and various of the family include inscriptions from the people who gifted them. Charlotte’s diary records her sense of awe at receiving her sister Maria’s old geography textbook, complete with her sister’s handwriting in the blank leaf.
Each chapter of this fantastic book is jam-packed with reflections on what the lives of the girls must have been. The second chapter ‘Pillopatate’ refers to the phonetic transcription of family servant Tabby’s instruction that Anne should ‘peel a potato’, prompting a chapter considering their domestic chores. The contrast between the mundane domestic chores and the girls’ writing is a sharp one but again, it illustrates how much better of an understanding the Brontë sisters would have had about women’s lives than their male counterparts. Lutz muses on the meanings of their samplers, these symbols of duty, along with their ubiquitous work-bags which seem to have functioned as a proto handbag – an interior space to be taken out in public. Yet it is interesting that despite their own expertise in the area, various of their heroines (or at least Charlotte’s) own themselves to despise the activity, with her heroine Shirley refusing it entirely. Charlotte herself resented its demeaning nature, being particularly cross when called upon to sew as part of her governessing duties – most galling of all was when she was instructed to make dolls’ clothes. Bad enough to be called upon to menial labour but worst still to do so for an inanimate object.
Naturally enough there is a chapter on walking, contemplating Branwell’s walking stick but also the girls’ relationships with the moors which surrounded them all of their lives. Lutz describes how walking as a woman is a rebellious act. Even before the Brontës ever set pen to paper, Elizabeth Bennet was shocking the Bingley sisters by walking to visit her sister Jane. Jane Eyre is viewed as a lady of potentially negotiable affection when she walks among the hamlets, seeking aid after her flight from Thornfield – it is no coincidence that one of the terms for prostitute is street walker. What has always interested me though is how risky it was seen to be – Mrs Gaskell even euphemistically ascribed the cause of Charlotte’s death to walking over wet grass in thin shoes. The idea of such sturdy walkers as the Brontë girls was positively defiant.
What is fascinating however is how Emily appears to have related to her walking; her heroine Cathy Earnshaw describes how a dream of heaven was dreadful to her and that she longed to be back in Wuthering Heights. Later however, she would exchange the earthly pleasures of the moors for the material pleasures of Thrushcross and the bitterness of the bargain appears to claim her life. The question lingers over whether one can enjoy and experience nature without being consumed by it. Lutz uncovers several interesting reflections about Emily, particularly in the subsequent chapter concerning animals, which Emily appears to have found easier to relate to than humans. Indeed, when one accepts that, many of the interactions and behaviours within Wuthering Heights do indeed become easier to understand. Of particular focus is Emily’s intense bond with her dog Keeper, who she clearly adored but was not above beating to keep in line.
Further reflections are inspired by letters – with Lutz paying particular attention to the desperate letters Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger and which he apparently ripped into pieces (Harman disputes this theory in her biography) and which were later sewn back together by his wife Zoe, lest any accusations be made. Further hay is made from the letters written between Charlotte and Ellen Nussey, which were not burnt as per the instructions of Charlotte’s husband Arthur – although those she wrote to Mary Taylor were, so much to the loss of scholarship. Interestingly, Lutz reports on how Vita Sackville-West read Charlotte’s letters to Nussey and pronounced them love letters, whether Charlotte was aware of her preference or no. Having had a look at a few myself, I couldn’t say for sure but I can understand her reasoning.
Lutz returns to familiar territory when she contemplates ‘Death Made Material’, or rather the various mourning relics which were common in the period. Death is at the centre of so much of the Brontë literature, from Aunt Reed’s deathbed in Jane Eyre to the various deaths in Wuthering Heights (Mr Earnshaw, Catherine, Linton, Heathcliff, I may have forgotten others …) but there are also the tragic stories of the girls’ own premature demises. Emily got up still insisting that she was well on the day she died, picking up her sewing and only agreeing to see a doctor around two hours before she breathed her last. The practice of taking mementos, particularly hair, was a common one, with Charlotte having a bracelet made from the hair of her two sisters – keeping a tangible remnant of them within reach and touch, as if they were not gone at all.
It is so very easy to be caught by the magic and romanticism of these objects – I could sense Lutz’s excitement on discovering pebbles in Anne’s writing desk which she seems to have collected while on holiday in Scarborough with her employer’s family. It is almost as if Anne has just stepped out of the room, leaving these scattered rocks behind only moments ago. We can imagine her stooping to pick a stone that she likes and then moving on. But Lutz takes matters a step further by questioning not only the provenance of so many of the Brontë relics (much of which is dubious) and what the practice even means. What does a relic really provide? At what point does an object touched by a Brontë truly take on signficance? It’s something I have wondered about myself – there are so many campaigns to keep this or that object within the country, such as the famous case when Kelly Clarkson bought Jane Austen’s ring, but what would it even mean if the object was lost? The dresses which were once Charlotte’s and which now sit proudly on display went through several other owners after her death and were even adjusted to other women’s measurements. Many of the family’s belongings were sold on immediately after Patrick’s death, making it difficult to prove conclusively their validity. I particularly liked the story about the two jet brooches that Stella Gibbons found in a shop and passed on to Winifred Gerin as belonging to Emily and Charlotte. It seems fairly clear that this was Gibbons being mischievous.
Lutz’s clear empathy for her subjects and enthusiasm for her work turns this into a truly magical biography, truly breathing life into these long-dead women as we almost get a glimpse of their lives. As Lutz describes the sisters’ writing desks, how personal each truly was, we realise just why Emily was so angry when Charlotte snooped into hers to read her poetry. It cannot have been accidental, it is a physical intrusion, almost a violation. The Brontë Cabinet is no mere ‘modish’ study, but rather a sincere and truly heartfelt attempt to better understand three women whose very private lives have rendered them opaque. I may have visited the Parsonage almost a dozen times in my life, but through this book, I felt for the first time that I could imagine the lives of the family who once lived there. A magnificent achievement.
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Published by W. W. Norton & Company on May 11th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Literary, Women, Literary Criticism, Women Authors
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