The Bronte Cabinet

Deborah Lutz

April 21, 2016 
The following is from Deborah Lutz’s, The Bronte Cabinet. Deborah Lutz’s books include Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism and Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. A professor of English at Long Island University, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

It was Charlotte’s poking around in Emily’s private writing space, in the autumn of 1845, that led to the sisters’ first appearance in print. While Charlotte practiced being out in the world with her writing, taking risks by unbending in letters, Emily penned poetry for herself alone, not sharing it with Anne either, even though the two still wrote Gondal stories together. Emily, now twenty-seven, and Anne, twenty-five, even pretended to be characters from their fantasyland, “escaping from the palace of instruction” while on a train to York at the end of June. Yet Anne notes in her diary paper, written a few weeks after this trip (dated July 31, 1845), that Emily is “writing some poetry.” “I wonder,” Anne goes on, “what it is about?”[1]

Based on the manuscripts of Emily’s poetry that still exist, her writing process went like this: she composed poems on scraps of paper, some of them scratched on corners torn from letters, handwritten essays, or snippets of light-brown cardboard. Many of the odd bits of paper came from notebook pages divided into halves, quarters, or smaller portions. With some of these leaves, it appears she tore down the page to fit snugly around the already penned poem, leaving no margins. She drafted verse in the tiny script Charlotte and Branwell used for their magazines, often loading numerous short poems onto minuscule fragments, in one case crowding eight separate poems onto a sheet measuring just three by two and a quarter inches. She seemed to pack her crabbed words onto a sheet too small for her purposes, cramming in more until her verse fell off the edge. She composed one 1844 poem about death titled “At Castlewood,” and with a Gondal setting, on part of a sheet of black-edged mourning stationery, in use from their Aunt Branwell’s recent death. After its last line she wrote, “My task is done.”[2]

Emily sometimes illustrated her poems with landscapes spouting volcanoes, furry or springy creatures that look like extraterrestrials, snakes with wings, and birds in flight. On one she drew a picture of a person sitting in a chair, looking out a window onto some moors, probably a self-portrait. Others have various symbols, like diamonds and horseshoes, that comprise a private language, its meaning now obscure.

Later she made fair copies of this host of little leaves in a notebook, revising as she transcribed. The notebook’s non-chronological order made some sort of sense to her, and it fulfilled her need to see the poems together as a body of work. A few years on, she decided to revise and rearrange the best ones and to add some new poems, in two fresh notebooks, one for the Gondal poems and another for the others. This meant tearing sheets out of the first notebook and discarding them once they were rewritten (and generally revised) into one of the new notebooks, or merely crossing them out in the first notebook if they shared a leaf with a poem not deemed worthy to be copied into a later notebook. One, “Gondal Poems,” has a red paper cover retaining its original price of 6d and a title page that mimics a published book, decorated with twisting vines. These notebooks stood as Emily’s version of publication, final copies with just herself as an audience.[3]

Emily likely stored her poetry scraps and notebooks in her portable desk, along with letters, stationery, seals, ink, and metal nibs—all of the latter were found there after her death. The desk locked, and she may have kept it that way, with a key she carried on her person. All three of the Brontë sisters had these portable writing desks (Charlotte’s is pictured at the beginning of this chapter). Branwell must have had one too, bigger than his sisters’—women’s desks were made more “delicate” than men’s—but it has not been located. Emily called them “desk boxes,” as in her 1841 diary paper, which begins, “It is Friday evening, near 9 o’clock—wild rainy weather. I am seated in the dining-room, having just concluded tidying our desk boxes, writing this document.”[4]

On the page next to her writing, Emily sometimes drew portraits of herself using her banged-up rosewood desk, her sheet (the one she was actually writing on just then, visibly pictured) propped on the ink-stained, purple velvet that covers the writing slope. When closed, the desks became rectangular cases, not much larger than shoeboxes. Divided on a slant and hinged together, when opened the lid and bottom lay flat, forming a continuous sloped surface for writing and reading. Even when unfolded, the desks were small, so they were sometimes called lap desks, although they were also known as table desks. In the portrait already mentioned of Emily in her little bedroom (pictured here), she is sitting on her wood stool, penning a diary paper on her desk as it rests on her lap. Keeper is stretched out on the rug near her and Flossy on the bed. In another picture of herself composing, she scribbles on the writing slope as it sits on a table. Another, drawn on the same page, has her standing at the window, gazing out, with the desk open on the table, a page sitting on it, ready.[5]

No pictures of Charlotte using her desk exist, but the nature of its service can be surmised from the desk itself. Ink bottles sat in slots at the top of the opened desks, and one of Charlotte’s still has dried ink crusted on the bottom. The brown-velvet writing slope, stained like Emily’s with ink, is especially blackened on the upper right-hand corner, where Charlotte dipped her pen into the bottle, the ink having dripped as she moved the pen to the page. The slopes on these desks opened to reveal storage areas. Charlotte squirreled away in these nooks all sorts of oddments. A braid of Anne’s hair, tied with a blue ribbon and stuffed in a little envelope, cut by their father when Anne was thirteen, found a place there. Charlotte also stored in it hand-drawn patterns for collars, cuffs, and wallpaper, pointing to the use of the desk for domestic work and artwork along with writing. Needlework and desk boxes were more than close cousins—letters and papers were stored in both, as were sewing patterns and bits of cloth. Even the paper for manuscripts showed this lack of separation: in the center of a paper pattern for a coin purse, Charlotte penned a little poem about long-lasting love, titled “I can never forget.”[6]

Given the Brontës’ penchant for tiny text, it is fitting that they would have miniature desks to make and store their specks of scribbling. These wood boxes have an affinity with the tin box, about two inches long, where Emily and Anne kept their folded diary papers. In turn, they put the tin box into one of the desk boxes. Arthur Nicholls, Charlotte’s husband, who inherited many of their things, turned it out from the bottom of a Brontë desk in 1896 to show an early biographer. Writing boxes went into trunks when the sisters traveled. Seemingly part of their process of composition, the folding and putting of texts into containers, and then those containers into other ones, carried over to the manuscripts of their novels. Sections of Charlotte’s fair copy of The Professor, for instance, show signs of being folded in two or four, so it is likely that it underwent a boxing process of some sort. Emily bought another tin box in 1847 in order, her biographer Edward Chitham thinks, to hold the manuscript of Wuthering Heights.[7]

Charlotte has her character Lucy Snowe mirror this practice. The letters she receives from the man she loves, while not of her own writing like the Brontës’ texts were, still need, compulsively, to be encased in many layers, as explored in the previous chapter. First they are wrapped in silver paper and put into a casket. The casket then goes into a locked box, all of which is hidden in a drawer. When that doesn’t keep out the prying eyes of Madame Beck, there is the oiled silk bound with twine, then the bottle stoppered and sealed, and finally the burial that includes a slate and cement. Given this scenario, one can imagine the kind of excavation that had to happen for the Brontës to get their writing into print.

The sisters’ predilection for hiddenness was shared during this time. Victorians favored special boxes for all sorts of activities. They not only relished the practice of keeping things boxed up but also had a penchant for putting these boxes into other ones. Characters in many a Victorian novel can be found sedulously putting things into things. The novelist George Eliot, who herself had a box for storing lace that contained “false” drawers opening out in strange and secret ways, gives an illustration of this common ritual in her book Mill on the Floss. The character Mrs. Pullet draws a bunch of keys from her pocket, choosing one to unlock a wing of a wardrobe. From among layers of linen she extracts a door key. Moving to another room, she unlocks another wardrobe. After she takes out sheet after sheet of silver paper, a bonnet is disclosed.[8]

Despite seeming to be specially made for them because of their fairy littleness, the Brontë desk boxes were unremittingly average, of the sort ordinary middle-class women possessed. With their basic inlays and simple designs, they were nothing like the dreamy desk that Charlotte imagined in an early story, constructed of satinwood and containing a diamond pen, gold inkstand, and a vase to hold letter wafers. The penny post made such desks nearly ubiquitous, used for writing all those letters and for storing materials for correspondence, like stamps, wafers, and the new-fangled envelopes. Keeping apace with innovations in the post office, desk boxes became cheaper, some even made of papier-mâché. George Eliot had a black one of these, decorated with mother-of-pearl. Florence Nightingale also owned a black papier-mâché desk, with a still life painted on the top that includes dead birds. A gift from well-wishers in Derbyshire, near where she grew up, it has a plaque affixed on the front reading, “Presented to Florence Nightingale on her safe arrival at Lea Hirst from the Crimea / August 8 1856 / as a token of esteem by the inhabitants of Lea, Holloway, and Crich.”[9]

Some desk boxes of the day had so many parts and uses and could be so transformed by hidden springs, levers, and buttons that they seemed straight out of fairy tales. Department stores, where one could also buy needlework boxes, sold desk boxes of all sorts, as did jewelers and cutlers, like Thomas Lund’s 1820s “Cutlery Warehouse” at 56 and 57 Cornhill, London, which advertised “Portable Writing Desks, Dressing Cases, and Morocco articles of every description.” In 1830 a maker named Michi of 4 Leadenhall Street, London, advertised mahogany desks in nine sizes. Ladies’ desk boxes, sometimes simply called “stationery cases,” could be purchased pre-stocked with luxury items such as rose-scented paper and wafers, called “Papier d’Amour,” and even colored and perfumed inks. One shown at the Great Exhibition by Eliza Byam of Soho Square had many roles to play: “Compound stationery case: traveling, writing, working, dressing and refreshment case; lady’s carriage companion.” Some portable desks had mirrors added to the top, thus doubling as vanity cases; others had fire screens, to keep the heat off the face of the writer while penning letters. One type of lady’s traveling desk worked also as a needlework table, with a pleated bag for storing items in process, but it also featured an adjustable reading stand, with a hinge so it could be stowed, and a pullout writing slide. Elizabeth Gaskell had one of these multi-use, portable desks, much fancier than what the Brontës used. An upright box with doors, one of which opened to disclose a steep writing slope, it included a wooden support for a timepiece and a forest of dividers, cubbies, and drawers. No wonder Lewis Carroll’s unsolved puzzle, asked by the Mad Hatter in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, gained such traction: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”[10]

The plot device of the locked desk as personal space safeguarding secrets was a favorite of many Victorian novels, like Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the abusive husband holds his wife prisoner in her own home. After reading her plans to escape him in her diary, he takes the keys to her writing desk, thus spiriting away a significant portion of her privacy. In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair—Charlotte’s favorite novel—the clever, scheming governess Becky Sharp has a desk box, her “private museum,” where she hides all the tokens of her adultery: love letters, cash, and jewels given to her by rich lovers. When her husband forces open her desk, their marriage is over. The character Amelia Sedley, who gave Becky this desk, puts, in the “secret drawers” of her own writing desk, the gloves left behind by the man she loves. Another character, the spinster Briggs, has similarly hidden away in her old lap desk the “lock of yellow hair” of her “hectic young writing-master” from twenty-four years before and his letters, “beautiful in their illegibility,” further underlining the equation of desks and the recesses of the heart. In a potential mix of fact and fiction, Mary Shelley, traveling with her portable desk earlier in the century, was rumored to have stored there that book containing her husband’s heart.[11]

In another jumbling of desk and body, Charlotte eroticized the contents of her character Shirley’s desk. Louis Moore, standing in Shirley’s drawing room alone, thinks over how much he adores “all her little failings,” how she “enchains” him hopelessly. He notices she has left her desk open, with the keys hanging in the lock, even though here are “all her repositories . . . her very jewel-casket.” He dwells on the charm of what he finds there: “a pretty seal, a silver pen, a crimson berry or two of the ripe fruit on a green leaf, a small, clean, delicate glove.” These things, “her mark,” lead him to exclaim, “Why does she leave fascination in her footprints?”

The Brontë sisters probably took their desk boxes with them to their teaching and governess jobs. Anne described a horrid situation with a desk in Agnes Grey, likely based on her own experience. Her charges, brats all, find the most outrageous possible abuse to visit on their mild-mannered governess. One yells to the other, “Mary Ann, throw her desk out of the window!” Agnes explains that “my precious desk, containing my letters and papers, my small amount of cash, and all my valuables, was about to be precipitated from the three-story window.” In Jane Eyre, the moneyed and snobbish complain about the “nuisance” of governesses, and how the children took joy in driving theirs, “the poor old stick, ” to extremities. One pliable governess would “bear anything; nothing put her out . . . we might do what we pleased” such as “ransack her desk.” Lucy Snowe’s employer in Villette sneakily has the keys to Lucy’s desk and workbox copied so she can nose around in them whenever she wants. Such violations were all the more hateful since the interior of the governess’s desk provided one of the few private spaces at a job that was lived, except for sleeping, almost always in public. “A private governess has no existence,” Charlotte wrote to Emily (whom she calls here “Lavinia”) from her first governess job. Charlotte viewed these duties as little more than wiping “the children’s smutty noses” or miscellaneous “drudgery,” and her charges as, variously, “fat-headed oafs,” “riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs,” “small, petted, nuisances,” or “pampered spoilt and turbulent,” so it comes as no surprise she felt a governess needed all the privacy she could get.[12]


[1]  AB diary paper, July 1845, in private hands.

[2]   An example of EB’s paper recycling can be seen on a version of the “chained bird” poem at the Berg, dated February 27, 1841, written on the back of a handwritten text in Latin; the sheet with eight poems is at the Berg, beginning “When days of Beauty deck the vale,” with poems dated from September to November 1836; Derek Roper discusses these manuscripts in great detail, in his introduction to The Poems of Emily Brontë (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1995), especially 13–21.

[3]   In this first notebook, British Library, Ashley MS 175: 1839, EB recorded the dates of composition and transcription. It was made in 1839 and contained the best of her poems going back to 1837. She wrote in a cursive hand, which was very unusual for her. The Gondal notebook is also at the British Library, add. MS. 43483. It retains its original binding, but the 1839 one was disassembled and the leaves remounted by the collector Thomas Wise. The non-Gondal one, now known as the Honresfeld MS, went missing in the twentieth century, but a facsimile copy was made in 1934, in volume 17 of the Shakespeare Head edition of the Brontës’ writing: Thomas Wise and John Alexander Symington, eds., The Poems of Emily Jane Brontë and Anne Brontë (Oxford, UK: Shakespeare Head, 1934). EB started both notebooks in February 1844.

[4]   Both EB’s and CB’s desks, along with their contents, were kept by CB’s husband, Arthur Nicholls, after CB’s death. After his death, they were sold by his second wife at a Sotheby’s auction in 1907. See “Catalogue of Valuable Books and Manuscripts,” July 26–27, BPM, P.S. Cat. 3. CB’s desk was bought by Alexander Murray Smith, the son of her publisher George Smith, who later donated it to the BPM. EB’s desk was bought by Henry Houston Bonnell, the bibliophile and Brontëana collector from Philadelphia, who later donated it to the BPM; a non-portable standing desk at the BPM is also believed to have belonged to CB, probably bought by her in the 1850s, when her writing was bringing in fairly steady royalties; AB, diary paper, July 1841, manuscript missing.

[5]   The drawing of EB’s that makes it clear that she is representing the page she is currently writing is the diary paper of June 26, 1837, BPM, BS105, which pictures AB and EB sitting at a table, the diaries they are working on in front of them and labeled “the papers.”

[6]   The velvet’s border on CB’s desk repeats the star pattern, in brass set into the wood, on the outside of the box. The slope of AB’s desk has an especially feminine appearance, with a cerise-pink-velvet lining. AB’s desk has the most obscure provenance and was donated to the BPM empty. The Haworth stationer John Greenwood owned it, and his great-granddaughter Mary Preston donated it to the museum in 1961; the hair, BPM, BS 171, is accompanied by a note in PB’s hand that says, “Anne Brontë / May 22 1833 / Aged 13 / years,” and was in CB’s desk at the Sotheby’s sale in 1907. It is unclear when the hair was put there and by whom: CB, or her father or husband after her death; see Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars, The Art of the Brontës (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), for more information about the sewing patterns, especially 265; coin purse pattern, BPM, C36.

[7]   Nicholls’s pulling of the tin box out of a desk comes from Clement Shorter, Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1970), 146; it’s possible that CB sent some sections of The Professor in the mail for friends or others to read, before she began sending it around to publishers—thus, these sections may have been folded to fit into envelopes. See, for instance, the introduction by Margaret Smith and Herbert Rosengarten to The Professor (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1987), where they explore this possibility; the information about the second tin comes from EB’s account book. Edward Chitham, A Life of Emily Brontë (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1987), 195.

[8]   EB and CB each had paint boxes, and EB had a leather box that was specially made to hold her geometry set (which included a folding bone ruler and a retractable pen with a steel nib); George Eliot’s lace box is at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, X/R0723.

[9]   CB, “Last Will and Testament of Florence Marian Wellesley,” PML, Bonnell Collection; George Eliot’s desk was stolen in 2012 from a museum in Nuneaton, Warwickshire; Nightingale’s desk is at the Florence Nightingale Museum, London, FNM: 0371.

[10] For the Lund warehouse, see Michael Finlay, Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen (Cumbria, UK: Plain Books, 1990), 127; for Michi, see David Harris, Portable Writing Desks (Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire, 2001), 20; the Byam quote is from Catherine J. Golden, Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (Gainesville, FL: Florida University Press, 2009), 132; the features of the elaborate desks come from Mark Bridge, An Encyclopedia of Desks (London: Apple Press, 1988), 84; Gaskell desk, BPM, LI.2005.7.1; Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), 7.

[11] William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (New York: Penguin, 2003), 565, 168.

[12] CB to EB, June 8, 1839, in LCB, vol. 1, 191; CB’s Roe Head Journal, BPM, Bonnell 98; CB to EN, June 30, 1839, and May 1842, in LCB, vol. 1, 191, 193, 253.


From THE BRONTE CABINET. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Co. Copyright © 2016 by Deborah Lutz.

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