BAVS Research Funding Award Report – Bronte Parsonage Museum

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Since beginning my research on the commonplace books of Ellen Warter, I – like their author – have been preoccupied with the Brontës. For Warter, the sisters were the objects of estimation, affection, and interest, and she obsessively documented them within her own literary productions. Made around 1880, and now housed in the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh, her commonplace books are quite unlike ‘conventional’ examples of the genre, which traditionally compile excerpted texts from a broad array of writers upon various topics. Instead, Warter devoted over 300 pages of her volumes to the lives and literature of the Brontës, rendering them more of a record of the family than anything else.

For Warter, commonplacing was an inherently familial practice. The granddaughter of the Romantic poet Robert Southey, she was part of a family whose own commonplacing and album-making spanned several generations. Warter’s grandfather, aunts, mother, and father all made, or contributed to the production of, such volumes, a literary inheritance that places Warter’s own productions within a longer history and set of material practices. Beyond this familial context, Warter’s specific interest in the Brontës locates her albums within another subdivision of nineteenth-century album making: the production of volumes dedicated to literary celebrities, specifically those celebrating and commemorating the Brontës, a number of which I examined during my research trip to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

The Museum holds numerous scrapbooks, albums, and collections of newspaper cuttings chronicling the Brontë family. With dates ranging between 1860 and 1980, the broad range of these holdings suggests the consistency of such practices well into the twentieth century. My research at the Museum focused on those albums produced after the Brontës’ heyday in the mid-nineteenth century until around 1914, in accordance with the chronological parameters of my broader project on ‘assemblage’ in the long nineteenth century. The albums I examined were characterized by the variety of their visual, material, and textual inclusions, which variously included photographs, written correspondence, printed images, dried flora, and newspaper cuttings. Such diversity highlights the variation inherent to nineteenth-century album production, and the dangers of adhering strictly to taxonomic classifications such as ‘scrapbook’ or ‘commonplace book’; ultimately reinforcing the importance of comparing and relating Warter’s own manuscripts to these albums. Further to these material observations, the analysis of around 40 examples of such volumes also revealed a number of emergent themes within their inclusions, with emphases upon: death, commemoration, and memorialization; portrayal and representation; locality; and social and familial relations; many of which are echoed within Warter’s own books. Going forward, the project will situate Warter’s treatment of the Brontës in relation to the albums studied on this visit, as well as the album production of the broader Warter and Southey families, made possible thanks to a travel grant award from the British Association for Romantic Studies.

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I would like to thank both the British Association for Victorian Studies and the Brontë Parsonage Museum for making this visit possible. The Museum’s Brontë collection is the largest in the world, and its holdings include original manuscripts, objects belonging to the family, and the records of the Brontë Society, established in 1893. The Museum also houses an extensive research library of primary and secondary sources, making it a crucial repository for the study of any aspect of the Brontë family.

N. B. this report will also appear in a future edition of the BAVS Newsletter.
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