Material objects are a direct tangible connection to the past. They have histories: Someone made them, someone owned them, someone used them for one purpose or another, and sometimes the facts of these histories can be known. But objects also have stories — the “deep mystery of the lives of others” — embedded within them, cultural and personal meanings far deeper than the bare facts of attribution.
In “The Brontë Cabinet,” Deborah Lutz reads the lives of the Brontë sisters “through the ‘eyes’ of thread, paper, wood, jet, hair, bone, brass, frond, leather, velvet and ash,” revealing “new corners and even rooms of these Victorian women’s lives.”
Each of the nine chapters begins with a photograph of a specific object, among them a page in Charlotte’s handwriting from one of the tiny books the Brontës composed as children, a sampler stitched by Anne, a brass dog collar, a portable writing desk, a letter torn up, then carefully stitched back together by another hand.
Some, like the letter, are particularly evocative in themselves; others, like the sampler, seem much more mundane. But as Lutz teases out “what the thing might have ‘witnessed,’ ” in the lives of the Brontës and in its larger cultural context, even the most ordinary objects become quite fascinating as emblems of an era.
Brontë aficionados will enjoy the deft interweaving of artifact, biography and literature, but the greatest pleasure is the expanding chain of associations Lutz creates in each chapter.
Chapter Two, for example, begins by describing Anne and Emily peeling potatoes, which leads to a brief discussion of different dialects used in their diary papers, which leads to a longer discussion of the Brontës’ intertwining of domestic labor with writing — something quite rare for women at the time.
The subject of housework leads Lutz into an extended exploration of the significance of sewing — as practical necessity, as craft, as a badge of femininity, as a signifier of class status, as a means of flirtation and as a way for women to be together, enjoying one another’s company.
The homely sampler was, Lutz writes, “often the only documentary evidence” of many women’s lives, and certainly one of the only forms of women’s work that had visibility. In this context, even sewing boxes and needle cases tell poignant stories.
In most cases, the artifact drives the associations, although in the case of brother Branwell’s walking stick (which Emily may possibly have used, although it was not common for women to carry canes or sticks), Lutz seems to have chosen the topic — walking — first, then hunted for a suitable correlative. This is the one chapter in which the “material culture” focus seems a bit forced, although Lutz’s discussion of walking as a form of defiance for women makes me glad she included this chapter, pretextual or not.
As the virtual world becomes ever more pervasive, paying attention to tangible objects offers a valuable corrective. “The Brontë Cabinet” is an engaging read for fans of the Brontë sisters, of course, but also anyone interested in material culture, the Victorian era and the history of everyday lives — especially women’s lives.
And if you want to know more about that torn-up-then-sewn-back-together letter, well, you’ll have to read the book.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.