Monday, 19 September 2016

Jessie Burton, Grace McCleen and little books

Isabel Stirk writes:
Quite a few years ago I purchased a replica set of toy soldiers from the museum shop at the Parsonage for my godson. He enjoyed many hours of imaginative play with them - there were make believe battles, disasters and a few wore a set of badly made uniforms made by yours truly!

Nearly two hundred years earlier Branwell Brontë’s original toy soldiers were having adventures of their own, written about in books the Brontë children made themselves which were less than thirteen centimetres square. The hand writing was proportionately small which created no difficulty for the children as they were all- Charlotte the most- short sighted.  These little books have always fascinated visitors to the museum and have played a big part in this year’s exhibition, curated by Tracy Chevalier, Charlotte Great and Small.

On Saturday evening (10 September), in Haworth, an appreciative audience heard Tracy Chevalier talking to two writers who have both written about miniatures.

Jessie Burton spoke about her debut novel, The Miniaturist, which is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, and how she was inspired by a visit to the Rijksmuseum. Her novel is based on a doll’s house she saw there which had belonged to the wife of a silk merchant- Petronella Oortman - who had furnished it lavishly. It was interesting to learn that Burton herself had been given a miniature writing desk by a friend on which was placed a tiny replica book with the title Jane Eyre to be joined later by another tiny book Burton’s own The Miniaturist.

Grace McCleen, who is writer-in-residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum for 2016, said she had always been interested in miniaturisation, and making miniatures, sometimes up to fourteen hours at a time, had helped her through a period of illness. She too spoke about, and read from, her own award winning debut novel The Land of Decoration. The narrator is a ten year old girl who, with her father, is a member of a fundamentalist sect who lives in a small town. To escape from the bullying she has to endure she recreates the town as an elaborate model in her bedroom.

The usual questions and answers followed and there were differing theories put forward as to why people create miniatures and why the Brontë children created their own miniature books. In the case of the Brontës I feel it may have been an escape and as they followed their heroes in their adventures they had found for a short time their own sanctuary.  For a brief period they were free from the harsh realities of their lives. Lives where they had no mother, they had lost two sisters and lived within sight of a crowded graveyard. They would hear frequently the tolling of the church bell heralding that their father would soon be conducting the funeral of yet another Haworth resident who had succumbed to the ignorance, disease and privation which abounded in the hill top village at that time. 

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