Sunday, January 1, 2017

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will

I recently viewed Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will at the Morgan Library. I am embarrassed to confess that I knew very little about Charlotte Brontë' before this visit. I had read Jane Eyre in a condensed format one childhood summer. Thanks to this exhibition, I finally enjoyed the unabridged version and realize what I've been missing all of these years.
by George Richmond
chalk, 1850. © National Portrait Gallery, London. via
Charlotte Brontë's most beloved book, Jane Eyre was published in 1847 under the pseudonym, Currer Bell. The title of the Morgan Library show, "An Independent Will" is taken from the heated scene between Jane and Mr. Rochester where Rochester misleads Jane into thinking he will marry a society belle, but is actually about to propose to her. Charlotte Brontë gives voice to Jane Eyre's independent will, one that surely exemplifies her own.
  • Rochester: "Jane, Be still; don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation."
  • Jane: "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."
As you enter the exhibition, Charlotte Brontë greets you, or at least her dress does, and you immediately sense what a tiny powerhouse she must have been. The petite cotton and wool dress indicates that Brontë was under five foot tall. I was impressed by Brontë's accomplished artistry and her unusual ability to write in teeny tiny print. The imagination involved in creating these tiny novelettes correctly predicted Brontë's future as an acclaimed author.
Brontë’s earliest surviving miniature manuscript book with watercolor drawings, ca. 1828.  Story beginning “There once was a little girl and her name was Ane [sic],” 
Brontë Parsonage Museum.
This miniature handmade book is sixteen pages bound in a scrap of decorative wallpaper and illustrated with tiny watercolors. Charlotte was about twelve when she wrote the story for her sister Anne, who was four years younger. It describes a journey that begin's with the child's visit to a splendid castle near London and ends as she tends to her ailing mother "with so much care." Each book is about a thumbs length. Magnifying glasses are provided so that viewers can get a closer look.
The Bridal by Charlotte Brontë
Miniature Manuscript Booklet
14 July - 20 August 1832
Morgan Library Collection
After a year and a half at boarding school, sixteen-year-old Brontë returns home and resumes the bookmaking she had largely abandoned while she was away. She wrote the poem and story above about the courtship and marriage of the marquis of Douro and Marian Hume, two characters in the Glass Town saga. Glass Town was an imaginary kingdom created by the Brontë children.
The Mountain Sparrow, II March 1830 by Charlotte Brontë
Watercolor drawing with gum arabic glaze
Bronte Parsonage Museum
Thirteen-year-old Brontë copied this sparrow from a wood engraving in Bewick's History of British Birds, a profusely illustrated book that lingered in her mind for years. Bewick's is mentioned in Jane Eyre as one of young Jane's favorite books as well.
Brontës George Blackman paintbox
Pencil sketches over a manuscript draft of a poem beginning, "The moon dawned low in a dusky gloaming," as part of a story entitled, "A leaf from an unopened Volume." ca January 1834
English Lady by Charlotte Brontë
Pencil Drawing, 15 October 1834
Blue Convololvulus by Charlotte Brontë
ca. December 1832
Watercolor drawing with gum arabic glaze
The teenage Bronte made a series of flower studies while she was away at school, primarily copying from published engravings.
The Roe Head School by Charlotte Brontë
conté crayon drawing, ca. 1831–32
inscribed by Patrick Brontë By my D[ea]r Daughter Charlotte / P Bronté Min[iste]r of Haworth. Brontë Parsonage Museum
Lycidas by Charlotte Brontë
watercolor drawing, March 4, 1835
copied from a print after painting by Henry Fuseli. 
Brontë Parsonage Museum. via
Brontë created this watercolor after studying and teaching for several years at Roe Head school, where she had received formal instruction in drawing. Charlotte's watercolor interprets a print of the painting by Henry Fuseli of the grieving shepherd in Milton's Elegy, Lycidas.
Portrait of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë 
by Branwell Brontë (1817–1848)
oil on canvas, ca. 1834. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
It was amazing to see the portrait of the Brontë sisters painted by their brother Branwell. The portrait was painted by Branwell when he was about seventeen and unfinished. It is believed that Branwell painted out a self portrait in the center of the painting. The work was rediscovered in 1914 on top of a farmhouse wardrobe where it had lain folded for almost fifty years. It is on view for the first time in the United States at this exhibition.
Video via the Morgan Library 

I read the complete Jane Eyre after seeing this exhibit. My memory of reading the condensed version as a teen was that it somehow left me wanting more. Foolish girl, I should have realized that the more that I wanted was the entire book! Reading it now produced entirely different feelings. Admiration for a story well told and characters well described. A heroine who passes through trials to achieve her hearts desire; not a fairy tale ending, but a perfect one nonetheless. The writing style is timeless. When Mr. Rochester declares that he knows what is best for Jane and that she should obey, it struck me that it wouldn't take much to transpose this scene to the business boardroom with Jane as a young intern. In my younger days I think I was disappointed that Jane didn't acquiesce to Rochester's original wishes. Now I see that the more fulfilling story is for Jane to find her own power. Charlotte Brontë expresses her character's life viewed through the lens of her own experiences and weaves a wonderful story enhanced by suspense and romance. 

It is often asked, "If you could have a dinner party with anyone in history attending, who would you ask?" I would definitely ask Charlotte Brontë. Her creative mind and indomitable spirit would be amazing to see. 

I will be watching this movie soon.
Jane Eyre Movie | Official Website

Read Brontë's books on the Public Bookshelf here

Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will | Morgan Library


  1. I never knew she was a talented artist..I don't even remember reading Jane Eyre..I can appreciate her talents..I wonder if it is because I did my schooling in French?
    Very her books..paint set and art:)

  2. I was surprised as well. I think she was planning to be an artist initially ❤


Thank you for your comments!