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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Charlotte Brontë’s Scottish jaunt

A record of Charlotte Brontë’s Scottish jaunt in the visitors’ book at Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s home
Helen MacEwan, Malcolm Morrison (Abbotsford guide), Kathleen Shortt

Helen MacEwan writes:
On a trip to Edinburgh on 10-11 May I met up with Kathleen Shortt, the Brontë Society’s representative for Scotland. We went south to the border country for a tour of Sir Walter Scott’s house, Abbotsford, by Malcolm Morrison, a BS member who lives in Melrose and works at the house as a volunteer guide. Scott’s literary creations were of course hugely influential on the Brontës, as on so many other writers of the period; in 1834, advising her friend Ellen Nussey on which novels to read, Charlotte Brontë had written: ‘For fiction read Scott alone – all novels after him are worthless’.

Abbotsford, his amazing and highly personal creation in stone, was to ruin him financially, though he eventually managed to write his way out of debt. We were privileged to have not only a private tour of the house with Malcolm but also a private viewing of the visitors’ book that covers 1850. The book, whose binding is in too fragile a condition to allow it to be permanently displayed, was brought out for us by Sandra Mackenzie, the Heritage and Learning Officer, and opened at the page where Charlotte Brontë and George Smith signed it during their visit to Abbotsford on 5 July of that year along with 17 other visitors. . Charlotte had joined her publisher for a couple of days’ sight-seeing in Scotland when he and his sister went to fetch their younger brother home from his school in Edinburgh for the summer vacation. She was originally to have joined the Smiths for a longer tour of Scotland but her time with them was curtailed, probably because of the disapproval of Ellen and others of her jaunts with the unmarried Smith.

Charlotte and George Smith signatures in the visitors' book

Despite the brevity of her Scottish trip Charlotte waxed lyrical in letters about her glimpse of Edinburgh, Abbotsford and Melrose, telling her friend Laetitia Wheelwright that ‘Edinburgh compared to London is like a vivid page of history compared to a huge dull treatise on Political Economy – and as to Melrose and Abbotsford the very names possess music and magic.’

The visit to Abbotsford was magical for us too, since apart from the fascination of the house itself there was the thrill of seeing Charlotte’s signature – a record of a trip she enjoyed so much, at the height of her friendship with her handsome young publisher.