Classic Books · Literary Places

Literary Places: Charlotte Bronte Exhibit at The Morgan Library

The first novel of Charlotte Bronte displayed at The Morgan Library
This is Charlotte Bronte’s first novel as displayed at The Morgan.

Back in January, I wrote about my pilgrimage to The Morgan Library in Manhattan to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The book I’ve reread more than any other. The book I’ll be rereading again in approximately two weeks. The book that’s my favorite holiday reading tradition because it moves and inspires me each time as if I were reading it for the first time.

Meantime, I’m rereading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for the first time since graduate school. Translation: I’m reading it for myself, for my own benefit and enjoyment. No essays, tests, or anxiety required.

You know what isn’t surprising at all? It’s rather more fun this way. More relaxing. I can let myself be carried about by the soothing rhythms of her language. I can delight in the portraits and set pieces. I can marvel at and be inspired by the novel’s fierce, intelligent heroine. And that’s just my experience of the first 200 pages.

Between you and me, I don’t remember loving Charlotte Bronte’s writing as I do at this moment. This is a topic I plan to revisit. For now, I want to tell you: I wouldn’t have thought to reread Jane Eyre were it not for the Charlotte Bronte exhibit currently on display at The Morgan Library. My parents, who live in Manhattan, invited my sister and me to view it with them back in September. I love exhibits of this kind as I love experiencing the homes and towns of authors and literary characters who have moved me. Artifacts can connect us across time. Besides the thrill of imagining an author writing that letter or sitting at that desk, artifacts tap into our common needs and discrete ways of solving them. They reveal how we negotiate challenges and restrictions with our human spirit and imagination. 

The thoughtful curating of books, letters, paintings, and personal possessions made for an enchanting and poignant experience. If you’re accessible to New York City, I highly recommend this exhibit, which runs through January 2. For those who aren’t close enough to view it in person, here are a few highlights:

The first thing I saw walking into the exhibit is Charlotte Bronte’s dress and shoes. She appears to have been as petite physically as she was fierce emotionally and intellectually.

Charlotte Bronte dress and shoes at the Morgan Library exhibit

Several of the teeny books she wrote with her siblings are displayed. She must have been incredibly near-sighted to write and illustrate these books. Being incredibly near-sighted myself, I wished I could hold them up close to my eyes (without my corrective lenses, obviously).

Display of tiny books Charlotte Bronte wrote with her siblings on display at the Morgan Library

To fully appreciate the craftsmanship of these books, the exhibition curator included magnifying glasses through which to view details.

Magnifying classes to view tiny books in the Charlotte Bronte display at the Morgan Library

Here is another shot I took through the magnifying glass. Again, the level of detail is exquisite.

Magnified tiny book by Charlotte Bronte at the Morgan Library exhibit

Among the items on display is Bronte’s portable writing desk. It’s the 19th century version of a laptop: compact enough for traveling and setting up wherever one found a flat surface.

The writing desk of Charlotte Bronte at the Morgan Library

 

Reality, meet fiction: This is a copy of History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick. The volume appears in the pages of Jane Eyre. It provides comfort to the young orphan growing up in her abusive aunt’s home.

History of English Birds at the Charlotte Bronte exhibit

A portrait of the three sisters: That’s Charlotte on the right.

Portrait of the Bronte Sisters at the Charlotte Bronte exhibit

Here is an engaging video with curator Christine Nelson discussing the exhibit:

 

No visit to The Morgan is complete without a stop into Pierpont Morgan’s awe-inspiring 1906 library.

The Morgan Library

Also essential during every visit: standing in front of the vault, where the priceless books are housed, and inhaling that old book smell.

Priceless books from the vault at The Morgan Library

A Shakespeare first folio that belonged to Morgan was also on display.

Shakespeare first folio on display at the Morgan Library

The Morgan has several other exhibits running, including A Christmas Carol (through January 8). Click here to see the full list of current exhibits.

8 thoughts on “Literary Places: Charlotte Bronte Exhibit at The Morgan Library

  1. How wonderful! I have been dying to visit the moors where the Bronte sisters wrote and roamed. sigh. This is exhibit would be the next best thing. But I wont be anywhere near NYC before the January 2nd, so thank you for the photos. And that library looks to be a treat too.

  2. Wow I love this. Charlotte Bronte is one of my favourite authors. I always meant to go to York when I was in the U.K and visit the Bronte museum but never quite got there. I’ve read Jane Eyre many times, mostly like you for study purposes and I’ve even played Jane Eyre in the dramatized version. Thanks for reminding me that I should re- read it, just as I should re-read Tess, Woman in White, vanity Fayre and many other favourites.

    1. Oh yes, Rachel, I agree – so many wonderful classics I want to reread. Vanity Fair is one I loved when I first read it, so thank you for the reminder! I hope to make it back to England. There are so many places I want to visit there, York included!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing these pictures, and your impressions of the exhibit! I just read about it on the website Jezebel the other day and was like, I MUST see this! (But how?)

    I’ve always loved “Jane Eyre”, ever since I got a copy of it from a great-aunt when I was in middle school. It was a little bit advanced for me, but I read it not long after, and Iow-key loved it. Like, I don’t feel as fond of it or happy about it as Jane Austen’s books (which I’ve actually read far less) – I guess because it’s a far more sobering book.

    But I’ve re-read it at least half a dozen times, at various points in my life, and have pretty much always had a copy on me in some way (physically or digitally). My favorite part is probably the early chapters, with the red room and Jane’s terrible time at boarding school, especially the story with her friend Helen Burns. I always loved how she got through that and what she became.

    I even ended up spontaneously writing the essay on my AP English exam about the book.

    But although I usually look up information about an author, the basic biographical blurbs of Bronte that I’ve come across, have been enough for me. When I read the Jezebel article – and now yours – I realize I’ve missed out. I think Bronte seems like a genuinely interesting and downright inspiring person. I love that she once said it didn’t matter as an author if she was a man or a woman – basically, she said she was just an author, telling a story. I have to confess that I feel that way today and hate when people base what they read on an author’s gender, race, country of origin, etc. I know I may be crucified for saying that, but to me, it’s always about the story and/or the beauty of the writing first. That, alone, has led me to discover all sorts of authors, from all walks of life. Ruling someone out based on something about them like that just seems so limiting. Anyway, I thought Bronte put that so wisely and succinctly.

    And seeing her dress and shoes – and especially that book that appeared in “Jane Eyre”, is so, so moving. I would love to see this show and actually will be in NJ/NY in a week or so (I’ll send you an email about that), but have no idea how I’d manage it, since no one else is an Eyre fan and since it’s not easy to get into the city with all the family holiday obligations. So all that to say, thank you even more for writing about this and for sharing the images and your impressions. The stuff of dreams….

    Also, I’m very much looking forward to hearing how you felt about “Jane Eyre” after reading it for pleasure this time. Weirdly enough, I’ve never really particularly thought of Bronte’s writing as beautiful – it’s very nice but not for me particularly distinctive that way, even though there are, of course, lovely passages. I’m looking forward to hearing more about that. And thanks for making me think – as you always do – more about my feelings about a book. Here, I’m wondering why this particular novel has stuck with me for so long and in such a deep and influential way.

    1. Hi Alysa! Thank you so much for this – so much to think about. I’m about 60 percent through “Jane Eyre” and have to say I’m with you that, so far, the best parts are the early chapters before she arrives at Thornfield. I am not feeling Rochester, at all. My refrain has been “what an a**hole,” to be honest. Helen, I love and found the chapters with her so incredibly moving and thought-provoking. She articulated a few things I’ve been thinking about lately, so it’s been a timely read for me.

      I hear the spirit of what you’re saying regarding gender, etc. Your comment made me think of J. K. Rowling. The first edition of HP1 was published under “Joanne Rowling.” She went by J. K. after the first edition so her gender wouldn’t be identified. And of course, when she wrote her crime novels, she published under a male name. I guess some things never change…

      1. Haha – Rochester is the exact kind of guy I’m attracted to, sadly enough: Mysterious, brooding, clever, worldly, sort of weird looking, passionate, has conversations where he compares you to a magical creature. Troubled past/intriguing secret = bonus!

        Incidentally, I end up regretting those crushes/relationships…. I realize the ones I should go for are the St. Johns of the world, but still, I’ll probably always be a Rochester gal.

        Also, wow, I hadn’t thought about Rowling in that context – I knew she’d used her initials to not stand out as a “female author” and such, but what a cool way to tie that in to Bronte’s quote. Thanks for that thought!

        1. Haha, meantime, I want to kick the Rochesters in the mummblemummble. Though I will take clever and passionate and add witty. St. John…not so much. I like Jane Austen’s men so much better. Thank you – it was a thought hovering around in my brain, and you helped me articulate it!

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