Monday, 30 November -0001

The Write Things

Emily Brontë worked at a portable desk box and a tiny stool. These precious items tell us everything, reveals Victorian literature expert Deborah Lutz

Written by Deborah Lutz
Writing is usually a silent act. Maybe the scratching of a pen can be heard, or the tap of keys, or music in the background as a stimulus, but generally the writer sits alone in stillness. Some prefer writing in the hushed comfort of bed, like Edith Wharton, who tossed her finished sheets onto the floor. Proust worked in bed late at night, in a room made as quiet as possible with cork lining. Trollope, on the other hand, toiled on the train to his job, on a specially made tablet, which must have made for a noisy working environment. Emily Brontë crafted her poetry on snippets of ripped-off or scissored paper, as did Emily Dickinson, on odds and ends like envelope flaps. Charlotte Brontë did some literal cutting and pasting on manuscripts of her novels, and Jane Austen used pins. Elizabeth Barrett Browning would sometimes sew in revised text, using needle and thread. We can add these whispery sounds to the writer’s soundscape.

BronteCabinet-Jul10-02-176Emily would carry this tiny wooden-slatted stool outside and perch on it to write.Silent, also, are the writer’s working implements, especially long after her death. We have her words of course, and, if we are lucky, sets of garrulous letters, memoirs and accounts from those who knew her. But those desks, pens and chairs sit cipher- like. What can we learn about Jane Austen and her work by studying her portable desk, for instance, with its leather-covered writing slope and its concealed drawers, opened with a hidden bolt?

Emily Brontë is an especially vital case, given her famously secretive nature and the fact that so little of her writing outside of Wuthering Heights and her poetry survives. Yet she drew pictures of herself writing, or pausing from writing, on some of the sheets of paper on which she was working. From these and snippets of servants’ gossip, we can reconstruct a few facts about her work habits. She wrote in her little bedroom or while at her domestic duties in the kitchen. She could be found scribbling at the parlour table with her sister Anne, and occasionally she wrote outside, near the house or out on a ramble on the moors.

Brontë often used her portable rosewood desk (which can be seen at the Brontë Parsonage Museum) either open on her lap or on a table, her sheet of paper resting on the ink-stained, purple-velvet writing slope. She called it her ‘desk box’, as in her 1841 diary, 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.’

Her ink bottle sat in a compartment in the upper-right-hand corner, and in the storage spaces underneath the slope she kept stationery, envelope seals, metal nibs, wooden pens, blotting paper with ink stains, fragments of lace, an ivory seal and other writing miscellanea. Speculation that Brontë had begun a second novel when she died rests largely on a letter and an envelope found in this desk. Addressed to Ellis Bell (Emily’s pen name) and from her publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, the 15 February 1848 note mentions a second novel by Ellis then underway (although it is possible he was confusing Ellis with Anne Brontë, or Acton Bell, who was then writing her second novel). When these desks were folded they could be locked, and it is likely that Brontë took the key with her.

Another of Brontë’s tools was a tiny, wooden-slatted stool. A Brontë servant reported seeing her carry it outside to perch on to write. On a onepage diary (which she called a ‘diary paper’), she has drawn herself resting on this low seat in her upstairs bedroom, her dog Keeper stretched out on the floor near her. Flossy, Anne’s spaniel, is sleeping on the bed. Brontë, in contrast, is active, bent over her open writing desk settled on her lap, clearly absorbed in filling her sheet. Unlike the dogs, Brontë doesn’t look comfortable, especially for doing such close work as writing in the miniature hand she used for composing her poetry on the tiny slips of paper she favoured. It feels like a careful balancing act: body on stool, desk on lap, paper on desk, pen on paper. One wonders if Brontë needed this austerity in her work in order for her creativity to thrive, for her to invent the characters in Wuthering Heights, who are like emanations from the windtorn landscape, emerging emotionally stunted and violent like the land that bred them. Much of her poetry also tells of a harsh world, where artistic souls languish in prisons and chains or moon over the graves of their beloveds, who died in their prime.

Yet, notwithstanding desk and stool, with Brontë it is absence more than presence that we find. The manuscript of Wuthering Heights is missing, along with her childhood writings about the imaginary land of Gondal (except for a group of poems about its people that survived). And who knows what else was once there and is now gone for good? Brontë remains one of our most silent writers.

The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives In Nine Objects, by Deborah Lutz (WW Norton & Company, £17.99).

The Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum: 01535-642323,

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