Elaine Scarry: Charlotte Brontë’s Miniature Books

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak to Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard. She discusses a collection of miniature books handmade by the Brontës as children. This collection of nine miniature books provides a rare glimpse into the developing voices of the Brontë sisters, who write with authority even as children. These miniature manuscripts are on display in our current exhibition, where it can be viewed through April 22, 2017. Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at http://houghton75.org/hist-75h

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 11, from Musica Omnia: Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trios MO 0105, The Atlantis Trio

Episode Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years and in the future.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit houghton75.org for more information.

[Background Music: from Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 11, (1) Allegro Molto Vivace, by Fanny Mendelssohn. Performed by The Atlantis Trio. Track 5 on the CD “Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trios” MO 0105, Musica Omnia.]

HF: Close your eyes. Now imagine you’re holding a book. It’s a first edition by the great English author Charlotte Brontë. What does it look like? What’s the binding like? How does it feel? Is it heavy?

JC: Now imagine that this book is not printed, but handwritten. Instead of a leather binding or publisher’s cloth binding, it’s simply bound in blue paper. Oh yeah, and it’s only 2 inches tall, and has tiny writing, almost illegible to the naked eye (especially aging ones like mine).

HF: Today we hear from Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value here at Harvard.

JC: She’s joining us today to discuss a collection of miniature books handmade by the Brontës as children.

HF: This collection of nine miniature books provides a rare glimpse into the developing voices of the Brontë sisters, who wrote with authority even as children. Three of these books are currently on display in our exhibition “HIST 75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library.”

[end music]

Elaine Scarry (ES): Among the many jewels in Houghton Library, I think the miniature books of the Brontës would be high on everyone’s list. Part of the reason why they’re so extraordinary is just the size itself. Even having looked at these many times, each time I look at the actual first page of writing I’m just astonished by the tiny size. What you see once you decipher the writing is that there’s this huge discrepancy between the power and authority of the voice and the miniature size of the writing. The voice seems so knowledgeable with the whole underworld of crime. It starts by boasting that “since I have been a confidant of all kinds of valets and servants and lackeys, they make me their special listener and they tell me all the dark secrets of these households.” Of course she says it in an even more complex and authoritative way than I’ve just said it, I mean it’s just kind of ringing with high-handed contempt for the moral depravity of these people which she is going to bring in front of us in a very sophisticated way for even an adult, but she’s writing this at the time she’s fourteen.

One of the other books that we have here presents itself as “Blackwood’s Magazine,” and first of all it announces on its first page that it’s “edited by the genius CB,” that is the genius Charlotte Brontë. And there you see the Brontë children’s facility with all kinds of genres. This particular book has folded into it a true story, a piece of poetry, a military conversation, and certain other genres, and all are done in a very competent way. This one is maybe not quite as extraordinary, but it’s pretty remarkable.

JC: When looking at these amazing miniature books, we’re usually focused on Charlotte Brontë as their creator. And when we talk about the Brontës, we usually think of only the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

HF: But they did also have a brother, who was the co-creator of many of the miniature books, and the next younger after Charlotte, the eldest. Professor Scarry believes he may have had an important influence on the sisters.

ES: I guess another of the many features that’s interesting about the small books is the relationship between Charlotte and her brother Branwell, and in addition the relation between Branwell and all three of the female children; Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Branwell is the author of several of the small books that are in Houghton Library. They’re not quite as authoritative and amazing as those by Charlotte, but they’re certainly inspired.

Often Branwell is, I think, undervalued because he didn’t in adult life write any great novels, and he did have a drinking problem, and he did get into trouble in some of the forms of work that he tried to undertake. But at least when they were children we know that he had a tremendous influence, and when you read a book by Charlotte Brontë, or Emily Brontë, or indeed Anne Brontë whose books are less well known but are tremendous social critiques, when you read any of those you think “where did these young women learn this male voice that seems to come out of nowhere and is a kind of oppressor’s voice, but almost a person that expects others to thrill at the sound of his voice?” It’s almost surely from the brother, Branwell, that they derived that practice, that interaction between the male and female speaking voice.

[Background Music: from Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 11, (4) Finale: Allegro Moderato, by Fanny Mendelssohn. Performed by The Atlantis Trio. Track 8 on the CD “Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trios” MO 0105, Musica Omnia.]

HF: Branwell may have influenced his sisters’ use of the male voice, but when I think about novels by the Brontës, it’s the great heroines that come to mind. Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Agnes Grey, Lucy Snowe – each of these characters have left their mark on literary scholarship. Where are they to be found in these early writings?

[end music]

ES: When Charlotte Brontë first writes a novel, the novel is one that she only published much later. It’s called The Professor, and compared to her other writings it’s relatively prosaic and it all has to do with education. Her sisters were immediately successful. That was with Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Then we know that Charlotte Brontë just sat down and in a very short time wrote Jane Eyre which has been, you know, a great classic since the moment it was written. Particularly in the twentieth century and twenty-first century, it has inspired waves of feminism. According to each wave there’s some different power that resides there.

In the early juvenile writings I’m not sure that we really that often encounter a female voice, whereas in Jane Eyre we right away find not only Jane but these other remarkable young girls like Helen Burns and other children at the Lowood School. This will be true of her other major novels like Villette and Shirley, where it’s this powerful inquiry into the female psyche. Does it have any of the criminality that so thrilled the Brontë children when they were writing these stories? It actually does. In Jane Eyre, the reason Jane Eyre’s engagement with Rochester can’t go through is because there’s this dark force coming from the attic. Much of the power of the story turns on understanding what that is, and who that is, and how it could have happened. I think that in a novel like Villette or Shirley we also see signs of that, where we’re in a more normal range of human experience but often people are surrounded by a darkness that could turn out to be very much okay and just indicate the depths of their personalities or could actually mean they’re in some alliance with forces that one ought not to be allied with.

[Background Music: from Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 11, (1) Allegro Molto Vivace, by Fanny Mendelssohn. Performed by The Atlantis Trio. Track 5 on the CD “Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trios” MO 0105, Musica Omnia.]

JC: We did come back to the light in our conversation, don’t worry, specifically to the idea of beauty and the role it has to the creative process. Especially related to writers, poets, and artists of all types, Houghton and many other special collections collect materials concerned with the act of creation. From my work as a reference librarian, I would say that it’s large theme in researchers’ work at Houghton.

[end music]

ES: Well, certainly one thing that I often teach about is beauty, and certainly beauty is connected to the process of creation. From the very earliest times, we’ve been told that one of the responses to beauty is to create. In Plato’s Dialogues, Diotima tells Socrates that when someone comes into to presence of a beautiful person it gives rise to the desire to make children. Diotima says it not only instigates the desire to have children, it also instigates the desire to create a poem, or a legal treatise, or a work of philosophy. That idea that something beautiful or someone beautiful can inspire people to creation is reiterated across the centuries.Wittgenstein says, for example, “when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.” That kind of act of putting us in touch with our creative abilities is very, very important to the work of beauty.

[Background Music: from Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 11, (1) Allegro Molto Vivace, by Fanny Mendelssohn. Performed by The Atlantis Trio. Track 5 on the CD “Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trios” MO 0105, Musica Omnia.]

HF: I have to admit, since Professor Scarry’s research deals with some of the darker sides of the creative process, we did delve back into the more bleak sides of creation.

JC: In contemporary society, it may be fair to say that bursts of creation are often seen as effects of loneliness, suffering and pain. Art Therapy as a discipline specifically seeks to harness the power of art to get through tough times.

HF: Professor Scarry explains a little about the relationship between pain and creation.

[end music]

ES: Pain can also instigate the desire to create. The problem is that the person who is in pain is often unable to create while they’re suffering, and if they can recover enough ground to begin to write or speak it can sometimes help diminish the pain. Just think about the reverse situation. If a hammer suddenly hits your hand or a dentist’s drill hits a nerve in someone’s mouth, we say that the person sees stars. What we mean by that is that the whole contents of consciousness suddenly collapses and there’s an emptying out of all kinds of objects of consciousness. So the attempt to kind of restore that self-objectifying power is part of the work of diminishing pain. The two are kind of gong in opposite directions.

When I first started working on pain, I felt that people, at least in the humanities, were too blithe about feeling that pain can instigate creation. People who are in terrible pain, let’s say somebody who is badly burned, is going to have a very difficult time creating and may have to rely on people who aren’t suffering. For example, physicians or caretakers can help provide the language for people in that situation when they can’t provide it themselves. I mean, I have certainly heard pain patients say how grateful they are for attempts by those who aren’t in pain to try to help provide a language. When you inquire into the nature of pain in many different contexts, it does turn out that it is a kind of turning inside-out of the nature of creation. It’s a kind of dismantling of the creative capacity itself, and so if you can get ahold of it and wrench it around and get back on the track of creation, it can actually have the effect of diminishing the pain.

[Background Music: from Piano Trio in d minor, Op. 11, (3) Lied: Allegretto, by Fanny Mendelssohn. Performed by The Atlantis Trio. Track 7 on the CD “Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn: Piano Trios” MO 0105, Musica Omnia.]

JC: And so we end on a hopeful note of the power of creation to diminish pain. We wish to thank Elaine Scarry for coming in and talking with us today. I for one cannot help but be inspired by the amazing creativity of young Charlotte Brontë.

HF: The music you’ve been listening to throughout this podcast is the Opus 11 Piano Trio in d minor written by Fanny Mendelssohn, who lived at about the same time as Charlotte Brontë.

JC: Thanks to the Atlantis Trio and Musica Omnia for their kind permission to use the recording in this podcast.

HF: To see the three selected Brontë miniatures, as well as several other unique selections from Houghton collections, visit HIST75H: A Masterclass on Houghton Library. The exhibit is available here in the library until April 22, and can be viewed online at houghton75.org.

JC: For transcripts and further music details, visit houghton75.org/podcast.

HF: Thank you again for joining us this week. Whether you are listening in from near or far, we hope you will join us for the next episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]