“I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
What an excellent adventure! My intrepid friend and fellow traveler Nancy and I braved the rain and post-holiday crowds to catch the final day of “Charlotte Bronte: An Independent Will,” at the Morgan Library. It was a feast for the eyes, mind and heart. Charlotte was an avid reader, passionate dreamer, but above all, a fiercely devoted writer. The exhibition traced her “creative path from imaginative teenager to reluctant governess to masterful novelist.” Measuring only 4 feet 9 inches, Charlotte may have been petite, but she packed a powerful literary punch: From the first moment Jane Eyre was published in 1847, readers were captivated by the inner fire of its besieged but feisty heroine.
There were letters, manuscripts, tiny handmade books, and even one of Charlotte’s dresses on display. A highlight for me was seeing Charlotte’s portable wooden writing desk from the Bronte parsonage. How I’d love one just like it!
Charlotte came from a writing family like no other. Her two sisters, Emily and Anne, were novelists, her brother Branwell shared his sisters’ rich fantasy world, and even their father, a minister, wrote not just sermons, but poetry and plays. Even with their wealth of talent and imagination, the path to publication proved rocky. Consider Charlotte’s struggles to be recognized as an accomplished author:
She had to separate herself from the engrossing, entangling fantasy life that she and her siblings devoted countless hours to creating, so that she could find her own unique voice. She labored at jobs she disliked in dispiriting circumstances because the only work open to young women of her time were positions as governesses, seamstresses, and servants. The school that she and her sisters opened out of desperation was a dismal failure. Her first book was rejected. When Jane Eyre finally appeared under her pseudonym, Currer Bell, people assumed it was written by a man because the writing seemed too vigorous, too unrestrained to have been penned by a woman. As her success grew, it eclipsed that of her sisters, Emily and Anne. And as even as her writing prospered, Charlotte endured the loss of Anne, Emily, and Branwell in the space of two years.
And yet, she wrote on. Inspired and inspirited by her fiery energy, let’s all write on as well!
It’s amazing how often I see Jane of “Jane Eyre” or Jo of “Little Women” quoted–even today. These were perhaps my most reread books of childhood, along with “Cradle of the Deep” by Joan Lowell. I wish I had known about this event at the Morgan Library–I’d have been there!