- Emily Brontë's Paper Work
Emily brontë's writing process included tiny shreds of paper. She penned many of her poems on pages torn or cut with scissors, probably from notebooks, then divided into halves, quarters, or portions even smaller.1 Other scraps of poetry manuscript consist of bits of light-grey cardboard or sections of black-edged mourning stationery.2 Some fragments had been used already—for Latin exercises, accounts, geometry exercises, or doodling—and Brontë ripped or scissored a rectangle from them and turned them over to the blank side.3 On these various oddments, she recorded or composed her poems in a miniature script meant to mimic the print of published books but on a smaller scale. With some of these sheets, she tore the edges of the page to fit exactly around the already-copied poem, removing any margins.4 With others, she packed her words onto a page too minute for her purposes, cramming on more until letters almost disappeared off the brink. She often loaded many short poems onto these miniscule leaves, crowding eight or more onto sheets measuring around 3 by 2 inches.5 She sometimes illustrated them, or doodled in their margins, with mountainous landscapes, springy or furry creatures, winged snakes, and flying birds.6 On one she sketched a woman seated on a chair, gazing out a window onto the moors, perhaps a self-portrait.7 Others have odd symbols, such as horseshoe and diamond shapes—a private language whose meaning is now lost.8
These are poems made using the hand to do more than write with pen or pencil: composition included cutting, ripping, doodling, and drawing. The curating of the material appearance and haptic presence of these "scribal objects" played some role in Brontë's creative process (Jackson 45). But what was that role? How did the physical matter of composition mould the text written on the page? Or, the other way around: how did the text influence the aesthetics of the page? The material qualities of Brontë's poetry manuscripts have received little critical attention. Never has the question Virginia Jackson asks of Emily Dickinson's manuscripts been posed of Emily Brontë's: is the "text of a poem separable from its artifact?" (24). Janet Gezari, who analyzes some of these fragments of verse in her terrific book Last Things, puzzles over the lack of critical writing on the early poems that were written on these single-leaf manuscripts. She calls for their redemption from "neglect as forerunners of high modernism" (Last Things 1).9 Even feminists have not restored them to view, she points out, in large part, she believes, because of their uniqueness. [End Page 291]
But Gezari mentions only in passing the manuscripts of the works upon which she lavishes so many lovely words. Derek Roper, in his introduction to the Clarendon edition of Brontë's poems, describes the physical nature of the manuscripts only in general, abstract terms, not ascribing any meaning to their material characteristics. Edward Chitham discusses some of these poetry manuscripts but with little attention to their physical appearance and feel.10 Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars's Art of the Brontës includes pictures of two drawings on Brontë's poetry manuscripts but not the accompanying texts, giving us only a partial view of snippets that are not only visual and textual but also tactile (381–82). In the same way have literary historians largely ignored Brontë's crafted pages, packed in every part with meaning. It is worth thinking about what changes in the way we read Brontë's poems have resulted by removing them from their "historical text occasions" (Jackson 60). By considering these scraps as a kind of paper handicraft, as textual artifacts, and as "artistic structures,"11 I bring to bear on them the attentions that Leah Price and Andrew Stauffer have recently paid to the matter of books and paper (qtd. in Müller 37). Price has explored the book as a material object to be handled, thrown, hid behind, sniffed, recycled, and eaten, not just read (see Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain). Stauffer encourages us...