Once upon a time in 19th-century Yorkshire, three sisters lived on the moors, wrote some of British literature’s most famous novels, and birthed a literary industry. Yes, we’re talking about Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” and the world of Brontë fans and fanatics, second only to the world of Austen fans and fanatics.
Now comes “The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects” to exponentially raise the Brontëan stakes. Who knew that the Brontës had pheasants named Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake, and Jasper? That Emily once fit the drafts of eight poems onto a single scrap of paper three-by-two-and-a-quarter inches? That on her honeymoon in Ireland, Charlotte stopped in Killarney, “a thriving tourist spot for Victorian ‘fernists’ ” to pick entries for a fern album? Who even knew that a fern album was a thing, let alone that a “fern craze” swept mid-19th-century Britain?
Those who thrill to these tidbits will marvel at the Brontëan depths exhumed here. Those who are intrigued by the notion of a Victorian fern craze will delight in the book’s resurrection of that era, from its authors, poems, and novels to its household chores, pets, and mourning practices. But if explanations of Victorian paper-making and narratives of period deathbeds don’t appeal, “The Brontë Cabinet” probably won’t either.
University of Louisville English professor Deborah Lutz, author of previous books on Victorian sex and death, frames her task as narrating the lives of the Brontës through nine “artifacts.” In fact, the book does much more, braiding together three strands: the Brontës’ lives, detailed descriptions of a wide-ranging collection of Victorian household objects and practices, and inventories of those same objects and practices in the Brontës’ poetry and fiction — AS WELL AS a host of other Victorian authors.
While each chapter opens with a photograph of a single Brontëan object — one of the miniature books they wrote as children, Anne’s sampler, their father’s walking stick, and the collar of Emily’s fierce dog Keeper, to name just the first few — the following pages open up into copious catalogues of things and activities, in these cases having to do with the Brontës’ books and reading; housework, sewing, and crafts; walks; and pets.
Chapter 2, for instance, titled “Pillopatate,” after Emily’s phonetic transcription in a diary entry of their servant Tabby’s request that she peel a potato, segues from the diary papers Emily and Anne wrote together to the sisters’ household chores, their habit of reading and writing as they did those chores, their samplers, the history of samplers, references to sewing in their novels, the history of workboxes (sewing boxes), descriptions of their workboxes, nonsewing-related items found in workboxes, needle-cases, needlework gifts, women’s crafts (including homemade taxidermy!), the exploitation of Victorian seamstresses, and more. Literary references accumulate in similar fashion. Chapter 3 alone discusses walking in Coleridge, Dickens, Darwin, Chaucer, Wordsworth, Anne Lister, Ellen Weeton, Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Keats, and of course the Brontës themselves.
Amid this plethora of stuff, the lives of the Brontës unfold chronologically and thematically. A chapter on desks brackets the writing and publication of their novels. A chapter that begins with an amethyst bracelet woven from Emily and Anne’s hair and extends to Victorian death and mourning rituals frames the deaths of Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell in a single eight-month period. Charlotte’s marriage occurs in the chapter on ferns, which also points out that Jane Eyre lives happily ever after in a house called Ferndean. But if all these objects illustrate the sisters’ real-life and fictional stories, their proliferation may make it difficult for readers previously unversed in the Brontës to follow those stories.
Indeed, if it is Lutz’s “wish” to “resurrect the Brontës themselves, their daily living and breathing, their material presence,” she succeeds better at resurrecting the “daily living” than offering new insight into the selves. As the book’s copious endnotes reveal, biographers and literary critics have been writing about the Brontës for well over 150 years, leaving little new to be said about the family’s isolated intimacy, domestic responsibilities, and writing habits, not to mention Emily’s preference for animals over people, Branwell’s alcoholic death, or their incipient feminism.
Still, in this digital age when we memorialize the dead on Legacy.com, rather than with jewelry made from their hair, and order takeout on apps, rather than peeling our own potatoes, “The Brontë Cabinet” makes a powerful case for the value of the material world, personally and culturally, then and now. Digitized images may let us see objects all over the world, but only a walk up the steep hill in Haworth to the Brontës’ home, now a museum, will reveal that their mother’s books, salvaged from a shipwreck, have a “briny” fragrance, and their own handmade books covered in “sugar wrappers . . . still smell sweet.”
Three Lives in Nine Objects
By Deborah Lutz
Norton, 336 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Rebecca Steinitz can be reached at email@example.com.