February 2017

EXHIBITION

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will
Morgan Library & Museum, New York
September 30, 2016 - January 2, 2017

Charlotte Brontë in Word and Image

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

When Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece Jane Eyre was first published, in 1847, its title page read: "Jane Eyre, An Autobiography, edited by Currer Bell." The title seems more than a mere literary device, however, for the novel is in a very significant sense a spiritual autobiography. Not simply "edited" by Currer Bell aka Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), it truly chronicles, albeit in fictionalized form, the evolution of her own character and values--as admirably highlighted in the recent exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum celebrating the bicentenary of her birth.

Fisherman Sheltering against a Tree

Charlotte Brontë, Fisherman Sheltering against a Tree, (drawing after Bewick),
October 23, 1829 [enlargement].

The girlish Jane Eyre who seeks refuge from hateful relatives by ensconcing herself in a curtained window-seat with a volume of Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds on her lap (Chapter 1) is, in effect, an avatar of the young Charlotte--who endlessly delighted in the Brontë family's copy of that book. Reading stories into its dramatic engravings, she would spend many teenage hours copying its illustrations in careful drawings and subtly modulated watercolors, several of which were on view at the Morgan (Fisherman Sheltering against a Tree, shown here, was done when she was only thirteen.)

For another instance of life transformed into art, the character of Helen Burns--the slightly older schoolmate Jane suffers the pain of losing in the harsh conditions of the fictional Lowood school (Chapter 9)--is modeled on Charlotte's beloved eldest sister, Maria. It was Maria who, at the tender age of eight, had tried to fill the place of their mother upon the latter's untimely death. Together Maria and Charlotte (along with two other sisters) had shared the austerity of life at a school for clergymen's daughters they were sent to when Charlotte was eight and Maria eleven. And it was there that Maria contracted the illness she would die of a year later. Like Maria, the older and much wiser Helen takes on a motherly aspect for Jane, whose intensity of feeling on her death mirrors Charlotte's deep bereavement on the loss of Maria.

Against "the quiet, self-complacent dogmatism" with which a reviewer had opined that "such creations as Helen Burns are very beautiful but very untrue," Charlotte affirmed to her publisher that Helen's character was indeed based on reality--without confiding that it had been inspired by her own sister. "I have exaggerated nothing there," she attests, adding: "I abstained from recording much that I remember respecting her, lest the narrative should sound incredible." That letter was among those included at the Morgan, which owns it.

Finally, there is the adult Jane who has come to know her own hard-earned worth. When she thinks that Edward Rochester, whom she desperately loves, is about to marry the "noble and beautiful" Blanche Ingram (Chapter 23), Jane vows to leave Thornfield, declaring:

"Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?. . . Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!--I have as much soul as you,--and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;--it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal,--as we are!"

When Rochester embraces her, avowing that they are indeed equals, she rebukes him for intending to marry a woman "with whom [he has] no sympathy." She even has the temerity to add: "I would scorn such a union: therefore I am better than you."

Finally, as Rochester tries to hold her, saying she is "like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation, she struggles free of his embrace to declare:

"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."

In so announcing, Jane is imbued with the same fierce integrity as the mature Charlotte--who could answer a critic's charge that if Jane Eyre were the work of a woman, "she must be a woman unsexed," by declaring to the critic (in a letter also exhibited at the Morgan):

To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me--the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

The author's unwavering moral compass was the pointed theme of the Morgan exhibition, aptly entitled Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will. Through relatively few well-chosen objects (many loaned by the Brontë Parsonage Museum), it conveyed in both word and image a vivid impression of the inner life of this extraordinary woman and its transmutation into literature through her fertile imagination. Due credit was also given to the prominent role played in the cultivation of that imagination by her three prodigiously talented siblings--Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Together they created vivid fantasy worlds, concretizing them in countless miniature texts, replete with illustrations. Examples such as Charlotte's earliest surviving miniature manuscript book with watercolor drawings (ca. 1828) were among the captivating texts displayed at the Morgan.

Charlotte Bronte portrait

Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850, chalk on paper,
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The close kinship between Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë was physical as well as spiritual. Like Jane, the author regarded herself as physically unprepossessing. She deplored her short stature and a countenance she regarded as homely. As a minor character reports of Jane (Chapter 36), "She was a little small thing, they say, almost like a child," and no one but Mr. Rochester "thought her . . . handsome." Surely less than five feet tall, Charlotte, like Jane, appeared more childlike than womanly. Visitors to the Morgan could well gauge her petite frame from the demure blue dress that greeted them at the entrance to the exhibition.

But the portrait that hung around the corner from it belies her claim of homeliness. Commissioned by her publisher as a gift for her father, Patrick Brontë, it was drawn from life, and Patrick averred that it showed "strong indications of the genius of the author." In its delicate features and subtle expression, I read sympathetic intelligence and great depth of soul. I find it hauntingly beautiful--expressive of the author's genius indeed.


For Further Reading and Viewing

Jane Eyre.net. A wide-ranging and discerning website devoted to appreciation of the novel, its various film adaptations, and the multiple spin-offs it has inspired, as well as of other fiction by Charlotte Brontë.

Jane Eyre (1983 BBC miniseries). Generally regarded as the most faithful film adaptation of the novel [about]. All eleven of its half-hour episodes are available on YouTube.

Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre, by Christine Alexander and Sara Pearson (The Brontë Society, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, England, 2016).

Charlotte Brontë: Ten Letters and a Fictional Fantasy (Morgan Library & Museum).

Brontë Blog. A rich resource of material about Charlotte and the entire Brontë family.