Saturday 22 October 2016

Review: Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will, Morgan Library and Museum, New York

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

The year 2016 marks 200 hundred years since the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the most celebrated of the three Bronte sister novelists, whose 1847 Jane Eyre continues to hold an important place in the English literary canon.

The Morgan Library and Museum’s incredible exhibition to mark the bicentenary is a treasure trove for Bronte fans, bringing together manuscripts, juvenilia and the only portraits of Charlotte produced in her lifetime.

Branwell's portrait of his sister, with painted over self-portrait (1834)
A volume of the Jane Eyre manuscript is exhibited in the US for the first time, but the real joy of the exhibition is in discovering the Brontes’ youthful writings (definitely use one of the museum’s magnifying glasses!), the tiny books in which Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne recorded the annals of their imaginary kingdoms, Angria and Gondol. In her childhood work, you can trace the influences Bronte drew upon. There’s the text of a play – The Poetaster – inspired by Ben Jonson, a sketch of John Milton’s Lycidas, and Gothic narrative poetry, such as her ‘Miss Hume’s Dream’ (1830).

Charlotte's sketch of Milton's Lycidas (1835)
Charlotte and Branwell also produced detailed miniature editions of their own periodical, the Young Men’s Magazine, inspired by their reading of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which you can study here. The tagline? ‘Published by no one, possessed by all.’

Charlotte’s talents as an artist are clear and I particularly enjoyed the sketches she made from Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, vol. 2 (1804), also on display, which many may recognise from the opening chapters of Jane Eyre.

An example of Charlotte Bronte's juvenilia
The layout of the exhibition allows you to grow up with Charlotte. The record of her birth is followed by her early work, letters from her schooldays, correspondence related to her literary successes, memorial cards for the deaths of her siblings, devastatingly close together, her marriage certificate and then, scarcely nine months later, materials related to her own death.

Charlotte's marriage certificate (1854)
It all feels very personal and it’s hard not to find it emotionally affecting. One of Charlotte’s dresses is on display, forcing you to confront her diminutive size, while the painted over figure of Branwell looms in the background of the only portrait of the three sisters, a missing piece in the story of the siblings at Haworth.

A memorial card for Charlotte's death (1855)
The exhibition is on display until January 2 2017. Go now while you can. New York may need to wait another 200 years before playing host to the Brontes again.

Do you know of any NYC exhibitions you think the Secret Victorianist would like to visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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