Brontë’s Bonnet

Clothing very often holds a privileged position within house-museums dedicated to women writers.  Charlotte Brontë’s old bedroom includes  two glass cases containing clothing either ‘worn by’ or ‘carried by’ Charlotte, as the captions point out. One cabinet, positioned in the centre of the room, consists of a dress draped with a shawl, a half-folded parasol, a pair of stockings, a pair of gloves, and a fan. In a separate case, located against the bedroom wall, is all that remains of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding outfit: the wedding-bonnet and veil. In this, she married the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls in Haworth parish church on June 29, 1854. Brontë’s first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, noted that locals described her as looking ‘like a snowdrop,’ in her white muslin dress topped off with this pale green-trimmed bonnet and white lace veil. The famously quiet wedding was followed by an unexpectedly happy marriage which was cut short by the bride’s death from complications associated with her pregnancy. Faded and partially dismantled though it is, displayed in the bedroom in which she died on 31 March 1855, the wedding outfit is nowadays – and has been for some considerable time — one of the most celebrated items in the collections of the Haworth Parsonage Museum.  Continue reading

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Cowper’s Nightcap

In order to write this post, I will need to put on my thinking cap. We’re all familiar with this phrase as a figure of speech, but in the nineteenth century, there was indeed a strong connection between thoughtful writing, and the wearing of headgear.  Continue reading

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Dickinson’s Humming-Birds


In 2010 the photographer Annie Leibovitz paid a visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. Out of that trip she began to put together a book of photographs and accompanying text, which she published subsequently as Pilgrimage (2011). Almost the first photograph in the book is a full-page plate showing in extreme close-up a large Victorian glass dome filled with small, brilliantly-feathered birds, including five humming-birds poised as though in flight. Such explanation as is offered within the caption for the inclusion of these birds within Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage is puzzlingly unhelpful:


Life in the Dickinson family was complicated by the fact that Austin Dickinson [Emily’s brother] had a lover, Mabel Loomis Todd. After Emily died, Todd edited her poems and oversaw their publication. She also founded the Amherst Historical Society in 1899 and arranged for a friend of hers to leave her eighteenth-century house to the Amherst History Museum. A vitrine with stuffed birds from the former owner is in the museum’s Todd Room. Continue reading

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Keats’ Hair


From the deceased’s author’s skull, we turn today to the deceased’s author’s hair. In 1855, in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, English essayist and poet Leigh Hunt is recorded describing hair as ‘the most delicate and lasting of all our materials’. He continues

‘It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or a friend, we may almost look up to heaven, and compare notes with the angelic native; may almost say, ‘I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now’. Continue reading

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Series 4: Burns’ Skull

Today I am in leafy Alloway, Scotland, the birth place of Robert Burns. Despite the prettiness of this quaint and picturesque village, I have come to feast my eyes upon something entirely morbid. I am here to visit the Burns Birthplace Museum, and to view one of the Museum’s most startling exhibits. In the Museum’s entrance exhibition is an opaque mirrored cabinet. If you pass straight by, you see only your reflection. But if you press the inviting button which illuminates the interior, you come face-to-face and eyeball to eyeball with a life-size, full-colour, 3D forensic reconstruction of Robert Burns’ head. A short distance away, there is another cabinet which contains a cast of the poet’s skull, which, in 2013, served as the basis for the reconstruction. Continue reading

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Speaking Stones


My very last post in this series! It’s about how whole houses have been made to speak in the author’s voice, so making the long-past and long-dead into a perpetual, first person presence. I think the reason for doing this is because the author springs into renewed life with each act of reading, existing for readers in a perpetual present. More, the author sets up an intimate relationship with the reader, which readers have wished both to honour and somehow bring more plausibly into their own physical world. Place responds by embodying the author and speaking in the author’s voice. Continue reading

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To what extent or in what sense does an author die? If an author does not (quite) die, then what to do with the body? The history of the fates that have befallen individual authors’ corpses is long, varied, and often grotesque, but here are four examples of tombs and funerary monuments that try to convey the peculiar quality of authorship as at once dead but somehow perpetually alive. Continue reading

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Writers’ animals, explored in an earlier post ( meditate upon the nature of authorship and writing in relation to the body. This is true also of efforts to represent the author at more or less life-like and life-size, as dummy, effigy or statue. Here are four representative examples of how effigies think about what an author is. Continue reading

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So many objects associated with authors have become iconic because they seem to symbolise authorial imagination. But this is true of views, too, which allow the literary tourist to look with the author’s eye, and to send a postcard suggesting the experiment to a friend. Continue reading

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In contrast to the anti-houses featured in my last post, the habit of thinking of the author in relation to domesticated animals pins the author to domesticity and embodiment. But though you might think that this also pinned the author to dumb mortality, these animals talk, and have achieved a parasitic immortality of their own. Continue reading

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