Novelist Tracy Chevalier was approached 18 months ago by the Brontë Parsonage Museum with a special request. “I think I said ‘yes’ by return email – I didn’t even have to think about it, I knew I wanted to do it,” she says. This year marks 200 years since Charlotte Brontë’s birth and it is the start of an exciting phase for Brontë fans, with a whole series of events planned around the siblings’ bicentenaries – Branwell in 2017, Emily in 2018, Anne in 2020 – and Chevalier has been invited, to her obvious delight, to be what the museum is calling its “creative partner” throughout 2016.
“The Parsonage wanted to bring in someone from outside to help them come up with new and different ways to celebrate Charlotte’s bicentenary,” says Chevalier. “I had spoken here before on a couple of occasions and they asked me if I would be interested in taking part in this. The remit was to come up with an exhibition, a publication and a series of events.”
Chevalier was keen to get involved in the project having been writer in residence at York Art Gallery in 2008 and curator of a quilt exhibition (she is a keen quilter herself, more of which later) in 2014.
She says she immediately came up with lots of suggestions, admitting that she had to be reined in a little. “I had about a million ideas,” she laughs. “And some of them have happened.”
The exhibition Charlotte Great and Small, curated by Chevalier, opened at the museum earlier this month and contrasts Charlotte’s relatively closeted domestic life with her huge ambition and the boundless possibilities of her intellect and literary imagination.
“I first came up to look around the Parsonage on a rainy day in November 2014,” says Chevalier when we meet at the Parsonage shortly before the opening. “And I have been up several times since. It is wonderful to be here – I’ve spent time walking on the moors and around town. I’ve really immersed myself in the world of the Brontës, reading biographies where I found out more about Charlotte and the family – Anne was the quiet one, Emily the strange one and Charlotte the serious one – and I spent a whole year re-reading the novels.”
She has also had time to look through the museum’s precious collection of objects and artefacts. On her initial visit to the Parsonage, Chevalier says there was one thing that immediately struck her – and it was to do with scale. “What I noticed right away was how small the house felt and the rooms within the house,” she says. “When you think that there was their father Patrick, their aunt, the four children and two servants all living in this relatively small house. Then I discovered that Charlotte herself was physically really tiny and, of course, the miniscule books that the siblings created as children, which we are all so fascinated by. I responded to all that and it gave me the idea to focus on those small things, but also to look at opening up Charlotte’s emotional and intellectual landscape, which was huge. You notice that in Jane Eyre – Jane is small but she has this incredible passion.”
Chevalier first read Jane Eyre as a university student in English Literature at Oberlin College in Ohio and was, she says, immediately drawn in. “I remember wondering what the landscape was like and then when I moved to the UK it made more sense,” she says. “About 10 years ago I visited the Parsonage for the first time as a writer and that is when I felt my relationship with the Brontës changed. I had discovered by then how hard it was to get published – and it was way harder for them. For women writers, especially, Charlotte Brontë is a trailblazer – she was determined and forced her way, and her sisters’ way, into publishing.”
Chevalier says that with the exhibition she was also keen to explode some of the mythology around the Brontës, particularly Charlotte.
“I guess it is easy to look at her in a particular way – there is her first biographer Elizabeth Gaskell’s version that she was a poor put-upon woman who wrote books as an escape – but I think Charlotte was more complicated than that, in a good way. I am so impressed by how ambitious she was when she wasn’t really encouraged to be. A middle class woman at that time was expected to be decorative but she was much more than that – and I’m not sure her ambition is always recognised.”
This focussed, determined and fiercely intelligent side to Charlotte’s character is celebrated in the exhibition through the use of quotes from her letters and novels. These contrast with the small, domestic and personal objects that Chevalier has selected, including Charlotte’s own tiny shoes, gloves and bodice, a cameo portrait of her great friend Ellen Nussey, a bookmark – and one very poignant and intimate item, on loan from the British Library. A love letter that Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger, an older married man who was her teacher and mentor while she was working and studying in Brussels. Charlotte fell in love with him and later wrote him passionate letters.
“The letters were ripped up and then sewed back together by his wife,” says Chevalier. “Claire Harman speculates in her new biography of Charlotte that Mme Heger ripped them up and then repaired them because she thought Charlotte might claim her husband had behaved inappropriately. Anyway, for whatever reason they were saved and we have borrowed one of them.”
Chevalier also commissioned contemporary art installations for the exhibition which are on display in various locations around the Parsonage – including a knitted scene from Jane Eyre by Denise Salway, Tamar Stone’s doll-sized Brontë Bed, for which Chevalier sewed one of the quilts herself, embroidered with text taken from the Brontës’ letters, novels, diary entries and poems and Serena Partridge’s miniature textile pieces – objects purporting to belong to the Brontës, with fascinating back stories – that deliberately blur fact and fiction. The fact that the contemporary artwork is principally textile-based is appropriate because as Chevalier points out “sewing was such a huge part of the Brontë sisters’ daily lives”.
Another part of Chevalier’s remit as creative partner was to come up with a publication.
“I knew I wanted several women writers to write short stories inspired by the writing of Charlotte Brontë – women writers have a particular reason to thank Charlotte for her trailblazing,” she says. “And I thought of using the famous line from Jane Eyre – ‘Reader, I married him’.”
There are 21 stories altogether and contributing authors include Helen Dunmore, Susan Hill, Emma Donoghue, Salley Vickers, Audrey Niffenegger and Jane Gardam. “It’s an incredibly varied collection in tone and style.”
One of the events that Chevalier has organised is The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate which will take place in Haworth in June, pitting Jane Eyre against Villette as Charlotte’s enduring masterpiece. Biographer Claire Harman and novelist Maggie O’Farrell will advocate for Jane Eyre while biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett and novelist Charlotte Mendelson will speak in favour of Villette.
“I’m glad I’m just chairing the event,” laughs Chevalier. “And I don’t think it’s a shoo-in that Jane Eyre will win because people who are passionate about Villette are really passionate about it.”
n Charlotte Great and Small is at the Bronte Parsonage Museum until January 1; the launch of the book Reader, I Married Him will take place on April 7. For more information visit bronte.org.uk.