Much like the works which this boutique exhibition displays, Becoming The Brontës offers the visitor a world in miniature.

Bringing material from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library (collected by mill owner William Law) back to light after a period of some 80 years, it opens the smallest of windows into the childhood of the Brontë siblings as they forged their voices in the smithy of their parsonage home.  

The average life expectancy in their native Haworth at the time they were coming into adulthood was a scant 24 years. Devastatingly, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell would come to know the brevity of life at first hand, losing not only their mother but their two older sisters while only children themselves. Such early bereavement, so close to home, can only have touched them deeply.  

Taking in the evidence of the imaginative play in which they shared, it’s easy to speculate how they might thereby have been drawn into a more intimate proximity, coming together to shelter collectively against the arbitrary cruelties of an existence from which you, or those you loved, could be snatched at any moment.  

Mark Webster Photography / University of Leeds

Arguably, the exhibition is at its most mesmerising in the light it can throw on these formative years. The worlds into which they sought refuge were rich in detail, even down to the production of what have since become known as the ‘little books’, roughly the size of a commemorative postage stamp, fashioned by the children as a library for the entertainment of their culturally-enlightened toy soldiers.  

Long before the cinematic universe Marvel (developed out of the raw materials of its comics) was a glint in writer Stan Lee’s eye, the Brontës were fleshing out their own interconnected mythologies. A notebook in Charlotte’s minuscule handwriting, credited to the pseudonymous ‘Captain Tree’, collects Two Romantic Tales from her fictional Glass Town. She and her brother Branwell also penned stories of the imaginary Angria, represented here in two tiny volumes with covers cut in the blue of repurposed Epsom Salts packaging.  

From such precocious juvenilia, the three sisters in particular began to hone distinctive styles, standing together, but increasingly on their own two feet. Their first collection of poetry, under cover of the aliases Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, was, after all, a joint enterprise. Still, their individuality was beginning to assert itself. Charlotte’s Fireside Tales opens with the conversational ‘Reader, I’ll tell you what – my heart is like to break’, a directness of address that anticipates the ending of her own Jane Eyre.  

Mark Webster Photography / University of Leeds

Although the collected poems sold only two copies, what followed for the sisters was a flourish of success, represented here by first editions of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Agnes Grey and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. Branwell, contrastingly, fared less well. Unsuccessful in establishing himself as a portrait painter, his own literary ambitions floundered. 

And then the outside world collapsed in on the parsonage again. During the writing of Shirley, Charlotte bore the losses of both Emily and Anne. What was to follow, however, was a growing celebrity, fostered in part by herself becoming the heroine of a dramatic tale. Elizabeth Gaskell‘s biography of Charlotte, written after she had become her friend, laid down the template by which the siblings’ story came to be more widely celebrated. The final exhibits exchange the written word for tokens of a different kind of fame; the shawl, handkerchief and bow tie that are sanctified by their prior ownership by various Brontës.  

They represent, perhaps, the way in which those first childlike fictions, invocations against death’s caprices, can be seen to have finally warded it off; escaping the frailties of flesh through the immortality of renown, and, in the process, throwing off the confines of a world in miniature for one very much larger than life. 

By Desmond Bullen

Images: Mark Webster Photography / University of Leeds


Becoming The Brontës is at Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, the University of Leeds until October 28, 2023. For more information, click here.