Here’s The Thing

Emily Brontë, Oil on Canvas, Patrick Branwell Brontë, circa 1833

Deborah Lutz’s new book The Brontë Sisters: Three Lives in Nine Objects unveils the domestic and inner lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by taking up in detail nine objects in their household, including tiny handmade books, needlework items, and a bracelet of entwined hair. It’s a brilliant interpretative strategy. The writing of writers occupies—almost by default—the front stage of their biographies. Loquacious words trump mute things. But Lutz’s creative plunge into the “private lives of objects,” her tantalizing title for the preface, brings the writing sisters incredibly close, not through their words as much as through the things they touched and used in their daily lives. As Lutz observes, “even ordinary objects can carry us to other times and places.” So we get to see Charlotte reciting poetry (Thomas Moore was a favorite) while her fingers are busy with a patchwork quilt or a sampler with verses from Proverbs; Emily, whom Charlotte described as “a solitude-loving raven,” out walking on her beloved Yorkshire moors; Anne writing poetry on her desk box, a portable desk—all the sisters had one—that carried papers, letters, seals, ink, and metal nibs for writing pens.

Theories about tangible things of the past, as Lutz points out, have roots in “ancient faiths.” She elaborates: “The body parts of saints, their clothing, and the objects they had touched exuded oils, perfumes, miracles and healing.” She traces how the Brontë objects moved from ordinary use to become, after fame and death, relics that brought inspiration and money. In a 1904 article about a visit to the Brontë Museum, Virginia Woolf muses that a small oak stool still “gives a thrill” because she knows Emily would have carried it with her “on her solitary moorland tramps.”

Historians and biographers rely on the written record to open doors to the past. A reckoning with objects of the past, as Lutz’s book so vividly reminds us, also resurrects the “daily living and breathing” of our subjects.

For more about Deborah Lutz’ work, please see her website here.

~ Natalie Dykstra, BSS Director

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