America finally meets Charlotte Brontë at The Morgan Library & Museum's Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will exhibition September 9, 2016 through January 2, 2017

Photograph taken by Kimberly Eve of Victorian Musings
Charlotte Brontë's dress and pair of shoes 
The Morgan Library & Museum
A close-up photograph of Charlotte Bronte's dress taken by Kimberly Eve/Victorian Musings

Who would have ever thought you could fill the Bronte family into one room! No, not the Parsonage but a room on the second floor of The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.   You see, this is an exhibition focused upon third born sibling Charlotte Bronte. However, father, Patrick Bronte, sisters Emily and Anne are present as well along with brother Branwell and maybe a husband, too!  Perhaps the greatest author of the nineteenth-century can be discovered, re-discovered, adored and revered right here in the city of my birth.

I am not sure if every little girl discovers Jane Eyre in their pre-teens as I did but I have carried that orphaned girl who became Mrs. Rochester with me all my life. I know her, she is real to me and always will be. I always thought I would have visited Haworth by now but alas it hasn't happened yet. I made it to the dales but that was all.  So, when news of this exhibit finally reached social media I was beyond thrilled to see it; for I thought it would be her manuscript of Jane Eyre, her letters, her drawings perhaps. This would have been enough for me until The Morgan released that photographic image of her blue dress...Absolutely impossible I thought to myself. In no way would Haworth release the Bronte family items; especially not across the pond!  I am so glad to have been wrong.  

The minute you step out of the glass elevator from the lobby to the second floor you make a sharp right turn and open the glass doors. There it is! Dead center encased in glass was the dress Charlotte Bronte 'supposedly' wore to that party when she met her literary idol, William Makepeace Thackeray.  Just cast your eyes to the left and you will see the smallest pair of flat shoes I have ever seen. Even at her 4'9 height (though I thought her height was 4'11) her shoes were indeed tiny, flattened thinned soles with laces on either side. I know because I bent down almost sitting on the floor to take the photographs in order to see both sides. They look to be fabric material on top small brown polka dots. The bottom of her shoes leather maybe or is it plastic imitation still thin with no support. How in the devil did she and her sisters walk forty miles across the moors through all sorts of rough terrain and weather?  Goodness, I get a charley-horse if I try to walk more than one mile! 

On the first wall of the exhibit was Charlotte Bronte's baptismal record. Next to it was the famous carte-des-viste of the father of the Bronte's himself. I gasped audibly not expecting to see it. Everyone recognizes this image I am sure. It is smaller than I thought but the white cropped framing makes it look larger than it is.  Interestingly, there was no drawing or image of their mother, Maria at all.  The focus remained on the Rev. Bronte as leader and guide of his daughters and son's lives most probably because he outlived them all and his letters survive. 

Carte-de-viste photograph of a woman, 
possibly Charlotte Bronte but more likely 
Ellen Nussey, ca. 1856 
The Morgan Library and Museum Catalog note
Photograph by Kimberly Eve/Victorian Musings

I was not prepared to see this photograph. I just never gave it much thought but I am so glad I have. It is one of the most curious photographs to survive within the Bronte family archive. If it is Ellen Nussey, can you believe what all the fuss is about? I hope you and Charlotte are having a good laugh over us all down here engaging in such silliness. Now when it comes to portraits there are two almost sacred ones and both of them can be found here in the exhibit. 

Branwell Bronte was about seventeen when he began this unfinished portrait, depicting his teenage sisters over a decade before they published the novels that made them famous. During the 1950s, infrared photography confirmed the presence of a fourth figure-presumably a self-portrait that Branwell had chosen to efface-beneath the central pillar. As the oil paint has faded over time, the ghostly image has become ever more apparent to the naked eye.

The painting's condition reflects its history. Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte's widower, took the work from Haworth parsonage to his new home in Banagher, Ireland, after Patrick Bronte's death. In 1914, Nicholls second wife, Mary Ann, discovered the painting on top of a wardrobe in their farmhouse, where it had apparently lain folded for over fifty years. It was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery that year and placed on display, to the public's great fascination. A century later, it is on view here for the first time in North America. (The Morgan Library & Museum Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will exhibition catalog note)
Look!  There it is!  Oh, it is iconic isn't it?   By now, everyone knows this painting and perhaps even the story painted by their brother Branwell.  I couldn't believe I was standing in the same room with all of these treasures that I have seen photographed in every Bronte biography printed since the dawn of time.  It is a large enough portrait in size and hard to describe the feeling of being able to freely walk up to it, for it is not roped off or behind glass. You can breath on it, touch it (they hate that) or just gaze at it imploringly as I did right before I heard in my mind a whisper, "Kimberly, hurry up"  What was that? The room is filled with people walking around this room. So, I did what any rational woman does when they hear an imaginary voice, "Alright, Charlotte I'm coming! You're almost as impatient as I am". 

On the other side of the wall of the family portrait was the independent willed one herself, Charlotte Bronte captured by George Richmond in his beautiful drawing from 1850. His signature can be seen in the left hand corner. Again, it was as if the noise in the room softened, crowded voices hushed; almost stilled and all I could focus on was the fact that I was actually able to walk up to this drawing and take my time studying every detail. Of course, the folks around me hated me because I took forever but I didn't care for I had waited a lifetime for this moment. No, I'm not breaking into song but if I ever make it to Yorkshire I just might!  (Watch out Nick) 

In 1850, publisher George Smith commissioned this portrait of his celebrated author as a gift for her father, Patrick. Sitting for a professional artist was traumatic for the self-conscious Bronte, but none of her discomfort is evident in George Richmond's graceful rendering. This is the only professional portrait for which she sat during her lifetime and the only surviving life portrait except for her brother Branwell's painting of his sisters, which is on view in the rear of the gallery.

The portrait hung in the dining room of Haworth parsonage during Patrick Bronte's lifetime and an engraving of the work served as the frontispiece to the first volume of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1857 Life of Charlotte Bronte. It has appeared in countless studies of the Brontes since then and is on view in North America for the first time. (The Morgan Library & Museum Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will catalog note). 
Charlotte Bronte letter to Ellen Nussey dated Brussels, 6 March, 1843
Bronte Parsonage Museum 

I was so happy to find that The Morgan included Charlotte's friendship with Ellen Nussey as part of the exhibit. It is so important to include not only spouses but lifelong friends of the subject as it provides a much different and needed perspective on someone who has reached an iconic status in literature and the world. 

I wrote an article about Ellen Nussey and her friendship with Charlotte Bronte. If anyone would like to learn a bit about Charlotte's dear friend Ellen Nussey 

Charlotte Bronte's younger sister, Anne Bronte was also included in this exhibit. Her notebook, her poetry was displayed and Charlotte's portrait of Anne is here as well. 
Anne's Poetry Notebook rebound later by Riviere & Son, 1838-41
Anne Bronte made neat copies of nine compositions in this notebook but eventually selected only one for inclusion in the 1846 volume of poems she published with her sisters. Her narrative poem, "The Parting" shown here, bears no resemblance to Charlotte's sentimental poem of (almost) the same title. (The Morgan Library & Museum)

Charlotte Bronte's portrait of her sister, Anne Bronte
17 June 1834, Watercolor drawing,
Bronte Parsonage Museum

There were so many treasured personal items belonging to Charlotte and her siblings that I couldn't possibly share them all. These are just some of the special ones that touched my heart that I have been longing to cast my eyes upon. I am so grateful to Bronte Parsonage Museum for loaning their belongings to The Morgan for lucky ones such as I.  One day I will walk through the doors of the parsonage, hopefully accompanied by a friend (you know who you are) and I will see much more!!  

Discover Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will for yourself,  The Morgan Library & Museum


Nick Holland said…
A fantastic review, Kimberly - it was almost as good as being there. Glad you enjoyed it!
rshepherd1964 said…
Wonderful, Kimberly! I should really stop to look in at the Parsonage en route to Beamish Museum, but we're a bit spoilt for choice here and there's so many things to see. I would recommend visiting Yorkshire near Christmas if you can. When I lived in the Lake District I went to Leeds one day to shop and on the journey home stopped at a small town for a break. There were hundreds of people in the main square, all dressed in Victorian clothes and singing Christmas carols. I'm told that there are quite a few similar events in Yorkshire but to me it seemed absolutely magical, as though I really had stepped back in time. Let's face it, I was their perfect audience! :-)
Kevin Marsh said…
What fantastic treasures. Great review, obviously you were fascinated by the exhibition, your passion comes out in your blog. Thank you for sharing such lovely photographs and fine words.

All the best.