The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, by Deborah Lutz

Personal items belonging to the literary sisters illuminate their wild genius, says Shahidha Bari

June 25, 2015
Book review The Bronte Cabinet Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz

The great Victorian novelist Emily Brontë once punched her dog Keeper in the face, in an attempt to discourage his habit of dozing sprawled across freshly straightened bedspreads. The rambunctious creature, likely a bull terrier, was large and unruly, prone to bad behaviour, and following that grimly disciplinary encounter with Emily, apparently devoted to his mistress ever after. Keeper’s collar, a brutish, unevenly beaten brass contraption, forms one of nine items detailed in Deborah Lutz’s new book, through which she provides an “intimate portrait of the lives and writings of the Brontë sisters”. That vaguely platitudinous tagline does little justice to the world Lutz manages to conjure in this astonishing project, which is brimful of meticulous details, observant asides and anecdotes. The various items (including letters, walking sticks and twined bracelets of hair) are gathered like talismans, and duly perform some sort of magic, transporting readers into the domestic life of the Brontës. Lutz immerses us in their mundane material reality and distils an understanding of their work that is almost always illuminating and unexpected.

Placing each object in its setting, Lutz coaxes out the habits of life to which they would have been put to use, and imagines the events they may have “witnessed”. This last figuration of objects as spectators, capable of testimony by proxy, is especially striking as a naively attributive anthropomorphism. And yet there is something in this idea that objects are imbued with the lives of those they serve – nicked, as they are, by incident, worn by habit and “warmed by touch”. Everyday objects, Lutz writes simply, “carry us to other times and places”, as though the replication of such transportation were effortless and not the product of her own painstaking attention and the careful regard with which she inspects and researches each item.

In the case of Keeper’s battered collar, Lutz lists the various Brontë family dogs, cross-matches them against their fictional counterparts in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and tracks the history of their retention as domestic pets through Darwin, Dickens and the phenomena of 19th-century “dog-snatchers”. Along the way, we discover that bull terriers in the 1830s had longer legs, that the modern breeds familiar to us are an “invention” still to come, that a forerunner of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1824, and that the earliest dog collars can be found at the eponymous Dog Collar Museum, currently housed at Leeds Castle. It is a fascinating, winding journey that returns us, ultimately, to Emily’s passionate sympathy both for the lives of animals and the rude animal life of human beings.

In some ways, the methodological underpinnings of this suggestive form of material history are as curious as the findings they produce. There is nothing new in this use of objects to recover history, yet it is an approach that seems profoundly suited to a family that had very little in reality but who made much of the small, enclosed world in which they forged their expansive imaginative realms. And their possessions are loaded with meaning, revered like relics by the army of ardent Brontë aficionados who will rattle through this study with great enthusiasm. One of the merits of the book is the due respect with which it addresses that often well-informed audience, alongside the scholarliness it also maintains. This is a book perfectly pitched to both kinds of reader, each likely to be impressed.

Early on, Lutz confesses to “speculating” and concedes her anxiety “not to overlay these objects” with excessive significance. She does “overlay”, saturating the letters, books, sewing samplers and locks of hair with meaning, but such speculations are hard to resist and are themselves indicative of how much we long to know the Brontës, extracting from every part of their short lives some sense of why and how their remarkable writings could have come to be. Musing over the exquisitely hand-stitched miniature books (eight sheets of paper of less than two inches square) famously produced by the juvenile Brontës, Lutz extrapolates from their jagged edges a notion of Charlotte’s inexpert grasp, the small hands that her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell recalled as “soft as a bird in the middle of my palm”. The tiny books contain multitudes, teeming worlds of chaotic fantasy, expansive stories of giants, admirals and aristocrats, and this repleteness is, in part, reflected in the detail of Lutz’s own biographical evocation. She lends their world a fullness that suggests the fullness of the fictions of which they were capable. She understands too the ways in which a “reality” is realised through idiosyncrasies, whimsical details like that of a character in Emily’s fictional kingdom called Eater “habited in a most dirty and greasy pinafore”.

There is a pleasing alertness to the sheer madness of the Brontës’ world, an imagination ramped up to an intense, wild and peculiar range, what Gaskell called, not unfearfully, “a creative power carried to the verge of insanity”. This lunacy was visible. Both Gaskell and Lutz note the curious recollections of the local Haworth stationer, John Greenwood, who was perplexed by the Brontë women’s rapid consumption of paper and yet so infected by their mania he would walk to Halifax to ensure a constant supply. The story provides a sense of their production, frantic, fervent, compelled and compelling. Lutz is deft in cultivating a sense of the cramped conditions of a two-storey 18th-century house, the ramshackle arrangement of bedrooms and bodies, six children, two parents, two servants, rattling around and then devastatingly diminishing with each awful death. In that chaotic space, Lutz imagines reading as an intensely private exercise, a solitude sought out in window seats and nooks, figured in an image of the short-sighted Charlotte with a book pressed to her face. That notion of reading as an intensive exercise is born of an understanding among the Brontë children of the possibilities of what books could contain. That abstract idea, though, is inseparable from the material reality of the books themselves, and Lutz observes how they acquired talismanic, animate properties. In a telling detail, she records how the books owned by their mother were “salty, smelt briny”, having been salvaged from a ship carrying her belongings that had become stranded on the Devonshire coast.

If Charlotte and Emily claim much of this study, Lutz has a real feeling for Anne’s writing too, observing that “there is something steadily subversive about Anne’s books, as if a hidden spring of resistance runs just underneath”. And in a thoughtful chapter on samplers, Lutz recognises sewing as a quietly expressive craft, powerfully akin, for the Brontës, to writing. The fascinating potted history she provides includes the story of Elizabeth Parker, a nursery maid in Ashburnham in Sussex who in 1830 recorded in red cross-stitch thoughts of suicide: “what will become of my soul…”, she sews, breaking off mid-sentence. Sewing, domestic and ornamental, has its part both in the Brontës’ lives and in their novels, and it is to Lutz’s immense credit that she acknowledges how the intensely felt life of many women, not just the remarkable Brontës, found ways to be expressed. This is a fine book, rich, immersive and illuminating, glowing with the life of the Brontës and their wild genius.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary University of London and the author of Keats and Philosophy: The Life of Sensations (2012).

The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects
By Deborah Lutz
W. W. Norton, 320pp, £17.99
ISBN 9780393240085
Published 26 June 2015

The author

Author Deborah Lutz
Deborah Lutz lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn – “of Girls fame”, she notes – just a block from the East River. But her recent appointment to the Thruston B. Morton chair of English at the University of Louisville means, she says, “that I’ll soon be dividing my time between here and Louisville, Kentucky When I move to Louisville, I plan to go to an animal rescue shelter and adopt a dog, hopefully a southern breed of some sort—something large-boned and hound-like.”

She was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, and says that life in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains made her “something of a serious walker and hiker. I was delighted that my research for this book included taking long hikes on the moors near Haworth – roaming the paths that Emily Brontë had explored before me.

Lutz comes “from a family of readers, although we didn’t keep many books in the house. I still think of the two short shelves of books we had and compare them to my walls of books in my current apartment. We went to the library and checked out books and then scrupulously returned them on time. My mother read aloud to us when we were small, which was hugely important to me as I became an academic.”

Her parents, she adds, “grew up in farming communities in Nebraska and Kansas, and many of my relatives have hardscrabble, hardworking lives. This has made me feel grateful for the time I have been given for research and writing, a luxury rarely afforded to those from humble backgrounds like mine”.

As an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Boulder, Lutz was “an incredibly ambitious student, since I quickly saw college as a way out of the stagnant situation of my family…I was always staying up late at night to study. I clocked an unbelievable amount of time in the school library. I felt like I had so much to make up for.” 

She took her PhD at the Graduate Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and observes, “This was probably the best place for me: an urban, stylish school full of smart but odd people – many brilliant misfits.”

During her doctoral studies, Lutz had the opportunity to learn from two very influential female scholars, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Avital Ronell: the former was director of Lutz’s dissertation, and the latter served on her dissertation committee.

“To both I owe a close attention to writing as a serious task, not to be undertaken lightly. I owe to them my attention to style and my care in treating writing as an art—not just a means to convey information. Eve taught me that texture, touch, and materiality matter. Avital taught me to be a fierce feminist and philosopher. Eve’s death deeply informed my book, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture,” says Lutz.

As a teenager, Lutz says, she was captivated by Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, whose most recent Norton Critical Edition she edited. “I remember I stayed up all night long, feverishly turning the pages. I was obsessed with it in a wild way. I wanted to be Jane Eyre – in some ways I thought I was Jane Eyre. One thing about her story that spoke to me was her status as an outsider, which she embraced. Mining the role of the outsider, especially given my background, has always been a part of my writing and teaching life.”

What were her goals for her Norton Critical Edition? “I wanted to reassert that Jane Eyre was a book written by a woman, about a woman, and, in large part, for women. My footnotes pay special attention to gendered references, especially what was considered to be important to Victorian women, such as domestic chores, details of dress and the history of fashion. The critical essays I chose explore women’s relationships with each other, including mothers to daughters and female authors to female readers. Female same-sex bonds were another important theme in these essays, as was conversation between (among) women.”

Our reviewer noted that Lutz performs the difficult feat of addressing both Brontë scholars and avid non-academic readers of their work. Striking this balance, she says, is “always difficult”.

“In order to appeal to fellow academics, I did a good deal of research of primary source material. I wanted to bring new information about the Brontës – and new ideas and theories – to academics. But then to appeal to a broader audience I had to tell a story and give non-specialists enough background to keep them from being confused or lost. Also, I make sure I am always engaged and interested in what I’m doing. I think that carries through into the writing. And then to think about what would interest my smartest and most inquisitive students – and focus on those aspects of the research.

In an age in which many in the West have far more possessions than the Brontës could ever have imagined owning, what things in her possession does Lutz think would say the most about her?

“I have a collection of Victorian-era jewelry made of or containing human hair – an off-shoot of my research in Victorian death culture and material culture more generally. Like all writers, I hope my writing will last. And my library – will someone read those books someday and think of me?”

Karen Shook

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Article originally published as: Covered in fingerprints (25 June 2015)

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