W. W. Norton
Apr 24, 2015 · 11 min read

Books that joined the Brontë family library would quickly become “gritty palimpsests of heavy use.” Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz looks at the reading habits of the famous literary family.

The following is an excerpt from Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects.

Like most middle-class families, the Brontës belonged to circulating libraries, joined by a subscription fee, and kept book buying to a minimum. Of the volumes in the Brontë household, many were gifts by patrons or appreciative friends or were won by Patrick Brontë as prizes for academic work during his college days at Cambridge. Others they bought secondhand (or third-, fourth-, or fifth-hand). Books that had belonged to their mother had salty stains on them and smelled briny. They had been salvaged from a ship carrying her belongings after it became stranded on the coast of Devonshire, her box “dashed to pieces,” and most of her things “swallowed up in the mighty sea.”

Patrick dramatized, in his ill-spelled and punctuated childish scrawl, the arrival in their home of a new book of Ossian’s poems in his “Blackwood’s” of June 1829. In a pretend letter from “Sergt Bud Jen TSC” to the “Chief Genius Bany,” he explains, “I write this to accwaint you of a circumstanc which has happend to me & which is of great importance. to the world at large On May 22 1829 the Cheif Genius Taly [Charlotte] came to me with a small yellow book in her hand.” Later, when Charlotte became something of a celebrity after the publication of Jane Eyre, her letters to her publishers conveyed the thrill of receiving the boxes of books by their authors that the publishers had sent her. She thanks them, noting that she will “take care, and keep them clean, and send them back uninjured” after the family has read them.

Some volumes the Brontës owned had so many lives, they became gritty palimpsests of heavy use. One book pressed into extreme service by the siblings works as an example of many. An edition of Russell’s General Atlas of Modern Geography that Charlotte had at school no longer carries any white pages. Doodles, rows of numbers, and random inscriptions crowd out empty spaces, as do inky fingerprints. The leather binding is ragged and frayed, the edges of the pages blackened from being turned by many fingers, leaving small amounts of soil and grease. Most of the leaves are so winnowed down, their jagged edges so chipped away, they are missing a quarter of their original mass. The volume exudes a fragrance: quite possibly the smell of sweaty flesh that pressed and held it has imbued the pages and binding. The Brontës’ relish for tattered and grubby books appears in their childhood writings. Branwell, in his endless ribbing of Charlotte and her authorship, pictures her fictional alter ego scribbling away and then rising up, “brimfull of himself” and taking the “Manuscript in his greasy hand.” Another oily lad draws “a bundle of dirty-looking blurred manuscripts from his pocket” in Charlotte’s evocatively titled “Leaf from an Unopened Volume.” Books that have absorbed the smell of the cigar smoke of the man Lucy Snowe loves, in Charlotte’s later novel Villette, become aromatic reminders of his presence.

Charlotte Brontë’s “Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine,” October 1829, Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Lowell I.

Depending on their state of dilapidation, books lived in different rooms of the parsonage. Those still well bound were ranged along the shelves in Patrick Brontë’s study. Those that had been greedily consumed by all the family and had become shabby were kept on the shelves in the upstairs bedrooms, hidden from visitors. “Up and down the house” were lodged books of all sorts. In fact, the state and location of the books in a house of the period said something about the inhabitants. Working-class people, for instance, rarely owned books, except Bibles, generally given to them by clergymen like Patrick Brontë and paid for through donations from wealthy patrons. In many nineteenth-century novels, an introduction to a character’s books is an introduction to the character. The Brontës often utilized this device in their fiction. If books appeared well used and spread around the house, this implied a genteel erudition. Anne, the least known of the three sisters who would become published novelists, presents the heroine of her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in a parlor with “an old bookcase on one side of the fireplace, stocked with a motley assemblage of books.” An apparently widowed woman who supports herself and her young son as a painter, Helen Graham can’t afford richly bound volumes. Yet the description of her “limited but choice collection of books” tells us that she is meant to be taken seriously, as a reader and a thinker. Likewise, we are not meant to lend much credence to characters who have books merely for show, with expensive spines, shiny because never opened. These volumes are just furniture, expressions of wealth. In a story written when the two were still kids, Branwell makes fun of Charlotte’s pretensions as a writer by picturing her work printed in a book with “Blue morocco back with gilt edges.” If it needs such fancy gilding, it can’t be intrinsically worth much.

Whether sea-stained, scruffy, handmade, or too new, the book was savored, by the Brontës and other bookish people of their time, as a material object, as a papery thing that might be fusty, fragrant, even tasty. Rather than just a holder of “content” or text to be read, like today’s electronic books, books were things to be manipulated, made personal, appreciated in a tactile way. Books purchased with paper covers were usually rebound in leather, or sometimes the owner herself would make a unique binding by hand. When they became threadbare, volumes often received a re-covering in handsome boards. The poet Robert Southey, an ardent book collector, had two daughters, Bertha and Kate, who rebound around fourteen hundred of his volumes in fabric from their cast-off dresses, stocking an entire room, which he called his “Cottonian Library.” Inscribing books was such a common practice that it is hard to find a volume from a personal library before the mid-nineteenth century that does not have some sort of handwriting in it, or at the very least a bookplate glued onto its boards. A friend gave Patrick Sermons or homilies appointed to be read in churches in the time of Queen Elizabeth and penned on the flyleaf, “The Reverend P. Bronte’s Book—Presented to him by his Friend W. Morgan as a Memorial of the pleasant & agreeable friendship, which subsisted between them at Wellington, —& as a Token of the same Friendship, which, as is hoped, will continue for ever.”

The Brontës were incessant inscribers, a practice copied from their father. Patrick came from a poor Irish family, and he carefully kept his early books and marked them as his. Scenes of giving were commonly recorded in volumes. Charlotte wrote in her little diary of 1829 that “once papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography book and she wrote on its blank leaf, ‘Papa lent me this book.’” Charlotte felt a sense of awe for this textbook that had belonged to her sister, dead already for a few years. She considered it a sort of relic of the saintly Maria, containing her handwriting—a remnant of her personality. “The book is an hundred and twenty years old,” she continues. “It is at this moment lying before me while I write this.”

The Brontë Sisters, by Patrick Branwell Brontë

The ownership, recorded through inscription, of such precious books as Bibles could become quite a tangled web. Charlotte had her own Bible—as did all of her siblings—that had its record of possessors written in it. The New Testament was first given to Jane Branwell Morgan, Maria Branwell’s cousin, by her husband, William Morgan, on June 30, 1825. The first inscription marks this romantic gift: “J.B. Morgan’s Book from W. Morgan.” The Bible was passed on to Elizabeth Branwell when Jane died. William Morgan recorded this transfer of the book: “A memorial of J. Morgan presented to Miss Branwell by W. Morgan, Sept. 29, 1827.” When Aunt Branwell died, she bequeathed it to Charlotte, who also put her name in it. What is crucial about this Bible, why it still exists today, is not the printed text but the chain of relationships it represents, made tangible by handwriting on the page.

Charlotte pondered the nature of books as memory devices. When she began making her micro tomes in 1826, she savored this possibility, but she continued to use the idea throughout her writing life. In her fourth and final novel, Villette, her character Paulina, by taking down his books from his bookcase, rediscovers a man she knew when she was just a child. As she looks them over, she studies his inscribed name. She recollects their time together by turning the leaves, palpable greetings from the past. Not only does she pore over the books, but “she gently passes over the characters the tips of her fingers, accompanying the action with an unconscious but tender smile, which converted the touch into a caress.” His personality and their experience together have been embedded in the paper, ink, and leather, to be rediscovered by physical encounter.

Branwell’s “Blackwood’s Magazine,” January 1829, Houghton Library, Harvard University, with the cover made from recycled advertisements and bound with brown yarn.

Emily also cared about books as containers for personal memory. In the opening scenes of Wuthering Heights, the first introduction we have to her main character, Catherine Earnshaw, is through her handwriting and her books, found by Lockwood in her bed. When he first arrives in her personal space, before he had the nightmare already discussed, he finds a small collection of “antique volumes,” bound in calfskin. Mildewed things piled in a corner, they evoke paper damp to the touch, darkened with organic matter. Accidentally burning one with a candle, he finds the air perfumed with the smell of roasted leather, as if the book might be something to cook and eat, conjuring up the senses of taste and smell. Cracking open the singed, “dreadfully musty” Bible, his eyes fall directly on the handwritten inscription on the flyleaf, which reads, “Catherine Earnshaw, her book.” As he looks through the other books, he reads only Catherine’s marginalia. Accounts of her days, doodles, and caricatures fill “every morsel of blank that the printer had left.” Rather than using these books for reading, Catherine asserts herself in and on them, claiming her experience as more essential than the text. Crowding out the black letters with her own handwriting, her character, Catherine puts herself into these books. After her death, they still evoke her, especially her hands and her body.

What Catherine was up to in Wuthering Heights was based on the Brontës’ own practice. All the siblings repurposed their books as notebooks or diaries. Branwell penciled a poem about Greece on the endpaper of his father’s Greek prayer book, given to Patrick by William Morgan as a memento of his wife Jane when she died (all of which is naturally recorded in inscription). When Charlotte was in her twenties and studying in Belgium, she recorded her immediate feelings in the grimy Russell’s General Atlas of Modern Geography. Written upside down in neat print in the corner of the last page is this little bit of diary:

Brussels — Saturday morning Oct. 12th 1843 — First Class — I am very cold — there is no fire — I wish I were at home With Papa — Branwell Emily — Anne and Tabby — I am tired of being amongst foreigners it is a dreary life — especially as there is only one person in this house worthy of being liked — also another who seems a rosy sugar-plum but I know her to be coloured chalk.

Not just written on, volumes had sentimental souvenirs stuck in them, making them safekeepers of relationships. Books weren’t always distinguished from albums or keepsake, souvenir, scrap, or commonplace books. In Anne’s first novel, the title character Agnes Grey is given a clutch of primroses by the man she loves, Mr. Weston. She preserves the petals in her Bible: “I have them still, and mean to keep them always.” Used to store things, printed books had boxlike qualities. An 1827 book of botany in the Brontë library has real herbs pressed between its leaves. Their brown leather copy of Songs in the Night holds plants, tipped into many pages. Newspaper clippings, reviews, or articles were tucked into novels or into volumes of verse. Letters, signatures, and notes crept in. Books could be hiding places for secrets. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter, at the time living at Thrushcross Grange, has been forbidden to communicate with her cousin Linton Heathcliff, living at the Heights. But she receives letters from him, which she hides by stuffing them into a book. Pretending to read the book, she can enjoy the letters, even with disapproving adults in the room.

Books could be hiding places for secrets.

Books fossilized a moment, a memory, an identity. The Brontës sometimes wrote incantations in their volumes meant to keep time from slipping away, as if books could somehow fix the ephemeral or even predict the future. Patrick often wrote some version of “to be retained forever” in his books, usually after an inscription recording the experience of receiving the book. In his copy of Homer’s Iliad, for instance, he penned, “My prize Book, for having always kept in the first class, at St. John’s College — Cambridge — P. Bronte, A.B. To be retained — semper.” Anne’s godmother Elizabeth Firth gave her a Bible in October 1823. Written in what is probably Patrick’s hand is this sentiment: “Remember, my dear Child, frequently to read this book, with much prayer to God — and to keep it all your lifetime, for the sake of the donor.” Anne has penciled lightly on the verso, “Began about December 1841 What when & how shall I be when I have got through?” Charlotte sensed that paper and books had talismanic qualities. They marked time for her, in magical ways. On September 25, 1829, she placed a scrap in a copy of Life of the Duke of Wellington, a biography of her hero. As part of an obscure vow, she burned it at one end, after writing on it the names Charles and Arthur, her alter egos in her fiction and the real-life sons of the Duke. She recorded the act on another piece of paper, which she then folded and kept. We don’t know what these steps signified, but somehow their enactment required slips stored in the leaves of books, as if components for a spell.

‘The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects’ — Available Wherever Books are Sold

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBookstore | IndieBound | Powell’s

An intimate portrait of the lives and writings of the Brontë sisters, drawn from the objects they possessed.

Photo by Len Irish

DEBORAH LUTZ’s books include Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism and Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. The Thruston B. Morton Professor of English at the University of Louisville, she divides her time between Brooklyn, New York and Louisville, Kentucky.

Learn more at DeborahLutz.com.

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