Monday, 27 July 2015

The Brontë Cabinet - Review

Jacob Wandel writes:

The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz
336pp, WW Norton

Keeper's collar
Having been fascinated by Lutz's Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, which is about attitudes to mourning and the habit (still prevalent today in many quarters) of collecting objects intimately associated with a deceased loved one – strands of hair in a locket for example – and having been a little shocked during my last visit to the section on nineteenth century photography in Bradford's National Media Museum, where I found myself studying the faces of dead children in their tiny coffins surrounded by flowers, I was particularly interested in the stance the author would take on the Brontës in this recently published book. I was not disappointed.

I was fascinated, not because I am acquainted with many objects associated with the family which are in the Parsonage, the result of many trips there during vacation time, but because of the elaborate connections which Lutz makes. She spins off from the heavy, brass collar which Emily Brontë's (officially her father's) mastiff Keeper wore to give the reader a wealth of information on contemporary attitudes to pets, bringing in references to Emily's poems and Wuthering Heights. What kind of frisson was induced in the author, who adored the huge creature, as she was writing about Heathcliff's hanging of Isabella's dog? Then there is the photograph of a lock of hair which belonged to Maria, the tragic mother of the sisters, who died of cancer before she became grey. Lutz goes into great detail in reminding us of the consequences. According to her, the children “never stopped trying to find in the act of writing a means to overcome death”. She reminds us, too, of Nelly Dean adding Edgar Linton's hair to Heathcliff's in the locket on Cathy's neck.

Charlotte's love letters are in the book, of course – how could they not be? We picture very clearly the grim-lipped wife of M.Heger in Brussels as she pulled the torn-up fragments from the wastepaper basket and stitched them back together – perhaps to wave in her husband's face. Lutz's eye for detail is impressive, and her focus on objects is, ultimately, a way of coming back to the poems and novels. This book is one to buy, I believe.

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