What I learned from Charlotte Brontë’s independent will

This past week I had the opportunity to visit The Morgan Library and Museum in NYC and view the Brontë exhibit titled “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” (after the famous line from Jane Eyre).

It’s taken me a few days to process what it meant to me to be in the same room as some of these artifacts. The closest thing I can think to compare it to would be if you were in the presence of religious relics.

The exhibit was well worth the steep $20 entrance fee. It included some of Charlotte’s sketches (modeled after sketches from books in the Brontë family library); letters (to her best friend, Ellen, and Charlotte’s publisher, among others); the original manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte’s tidy penmanship; and Charlotte’s miniature paint box. Some of these items, like the Jane Eyre manuscript and Branwell’s iconic painting of the sisters, are on loan to North America for the first time. Reading Charlotte’s letters (sometimes with the aid of a magnifying glass), I was delighted by the wit and self-deprecation that comes across in her correspondence.

My FAVORITE parts of the exhibit were Charlotte’s writing desk and the tiny manuscripts from the Brontë children’s juvenilia (see pictures below).

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m fascinated by the earliest stories written by the Brontë siblings. It’s the inspiration behind my debut novel, The Mourning Ring. The Brontë children spent hours at the Parsonage in Haworth working on stories in a shared universe, developing characters and histories much like today’s RPGs (role-playing games). I love to think: “Charlotte Bronte was just like me! She had an unhealthy obsession with fictional characters in a world of her own creation.”

Viewing Charlotte’s tiny manuscripts (seriously, they’re about 3 inches tall) reminds me of the stories I scribbled onto tiny pages as a child (see my less well-preserved manuscripts below). The sense of accomplishment I felt to “publish” one of these tiny tomes and share it with a friend, family member, or simply add it to my personal library.

Charlotte’s correspondence with her publisher and Jane Eyre‘s earliest critics (who debated whether the novel could have been written by a woman) proves that her will to be known (and remembered) for the quality of her writing was far stronger than any desire for fame or fortune. Charlotte Brontë was a strong advocate for her writing, and the work of her younger sisters. If she hadn’t taken a risk by self-publishing their collected volume of poetry (under male pseudonyms), the publishers at Smith, Elder & Co. might never have agreed to publish Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or Agnes Grey. The world would have been without several literary classics.

The lessons I’ve learned from Charlotte Brontë: Write everyday. Write even when no one cares and you know no one is reading. Write bad stories to make room for the better stories. Love your characters and support the work of other writers. Above all things–believe in the power of your story and it will  transform those who read it.

-S

NOTE: “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” is on exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum until January 2, 2017. Get to NYC while it’s still there!
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