There it was — a two-piece cotton and wool day dress printed with blue flowers, leaves and tendrils, with slightly puffed sleeves and mother-of-pearl and brass buttons. A pair of cloth ankle boots with leather toe caps stood beside it.
Charlotte Brontë is said to have worn this dress during a June 1850 visit with novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in London. The author of Jane Eyre, then in her mid-thirties, was only four feet nine inches tall, with an 18 1/2″ corseted waist.
This was the moment I had been waiting for. I was standing before the first showstopper of Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Presented to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, the exhibition traces her development from a talented young writer to a celebrated novelist through literary manuscripts, letters, rare books, drawings, portraits and personal artifacts from the collections of the Morgan Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England and London’s National Portrait Gallery.
The young Charlotte and her siblings spent time sketching fashionable ladies, painting landscapes and copying illustrations of birds by Thomas Bewick, engraver and author of A History of British Birds in 1816. A watercolor depiction of a stone cross on the West Yorkshire moors that surrounded the Brontë family home in Haworth was found tucked inside Charlotte’s school atlas and is thought to be her work.
Her paint box, still stocked with cakes of paint, porcelain mixing wells and palettes and paint brushes, is displayed nearby.
But it is the Brontës’ juvenilia that is most remarkable. Miniature manuscript books dating from around 1828 measure just over two inches and are filled with watercolor drawings and short stories written in microscopic handwriting similar to printed fonts. Magnifying glasses are on hand to take a closer look at these extraordinary items.
Charlotte’s portable writing desk is outfitted with writing tools, including pen shafts and nibs, sealing wax, an ivory-handled seal, and an abundance of wafers, or adhesive disks used to seal letters.
Also on view—for the first time in the United States —is a portion of the manuscript of Jane Eyre, from the collection of the British Library. It is open to the page on which appears the famous line that inspired the title of the exhibit: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”
Near it are copies of the first American edition of Jane Eyre, published by Harper & Brothers in 1848, and the copy of the first edition of Jane Eyre that Charlotte presented to her friend Mary Taylor. Copies of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, published in 1846 and 1848 under Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s pseudonyms, are also on view.
Several items in the exhibit are so rare to leave their current homes that it is extraordinary to see them together at the Morgan Library. These pilgrimage objects include the only two portraits of Charlotte that were painted during her lifetime, both shown for the first time in the United States. One is the famous painting of the teenaged Charlotte and her sisters, Emily and Anne, painted by their 17-year-old brother, Branwell, around 1834. The ethereal image in the midst of the girls is said to be Branwell’s self-portrait.
The other portrait of Charlotte was a chalk sketch that her publisher commissioned in 1850 to give to her father, Patrick Brontë.
Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, the curate at Haworth, in 1854; nine months later, the 38-year-old was dead. A memorial card and an 1858 letter from Charlotte’s father to an American admirer with a sewn-on sample of Charlotte’s handwriting, conclude the exhibition.
Two years later, novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote The Life of Charlotte Brontë; the biography’s frontispiece shows an engraved view of the parsonage where the Brontës lived in Haworth. Mrs. Gaskell’s biography helped to establish the Haworth parsonage as a tourist destination for Brontë fans who continue to seek it today. I’m one of them.
Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through January 2, 2017. For more, see an online exhibition titled Charlotte Bronte: Ten Letters and a Fictional Fantasy, as well as The Brontës: A Family Writes, by Christine Nelson, a Morgan Library publication that features the manuscripts and rare books in the library’s Brontë collection. Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre, by Christine Alexander and Sara L. Pearson, explores how art and objects inspired Charlotte in creating her most famous work, while The Art of the Brontës, by Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars, includes discussion of the Brontës’ miniature manuscripts.