Bestselling Novelist Tracy Chevalier Brings Brontë Artefacts to Life at University of Leeds

Acclaimed historical novelist Tracy Chevalier will be joined by the University of Leeds’ Dr Katy Mullin on Tuesday 3 October, to share insights into the artefacts displayed in the landmark exhibition ‘Becoming the Brontës at the University’s Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. 

Free and open to all, ‘On the Brontës: Tracy Chevalier in conversation with Dr Katy Mullin’ will take place in the Esther Simpson Building from 6.30pm.

Renowned for the accuracy and intensity of her evocations of the past in bestselling books including ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, Tracy Chevalier’s interest in Yorkshire’s greatest literary family began when she first read ‘Jane Eyre’ as a university student in Ohio.

After moving to the UK, she visited the Brontës’ home at Haworth Parsonage, and the Airedale landscape and the traces of their harsh childhood in the house renewed her fascination with Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell. By then she had published her first book, and felt a particular admiration for Charlotte, who had battled financial instability, bereavement and misogyny to get her own books into print – at first under a male pseudonym.

Image: A curator cradles ‘Visits in Verreopolis’, a miniature, handwritten book by Charlotte Brontë. Credit: Mark Webster Photography / University of Leeds.

“Everything seemed small in Charlotte’s life”, says Tracy Chevalier. “She herself was tiny, yet all the way through her letters and novels there are references to her heart swelling, her desire for wings, her need to learn and to know and to have ambition. 

“Her emotional and intellectual landscape was huge”. 

Running until 28 October, the ‘Becoming the Brontës’ exhibition opens a window onto the writers’ imaginative world as it took shape, revealed by the precocious siblings in handwritten books, letters, sketches and poems. The show’s star items include eight miniature books crafted and written in minuscule script by a young Charlotte, and ten-year-old Emily’s pencil sketch that shows a small hand reaching through a broken window, evoking the later image of Cathy grasping Lockwood’s hand in ‘Wuthering Heights’.  

Rare first editions and a vivid handwritten account of a visit to Haworth by Charlotte’s biographer Elizabeth Gaskell illustrate how the Brontës’ creative energy went on to redefine the English novel.

‘Becoming the Brontës’ is co-curated by the British Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the University of Leeds’ Brotherton Library. Many of the items on display come from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library – a unique literary collection assembled by a Rochdale mill owner in the 19th-century, and saved for the nation in a campaign led by the Friends of the National Libraries and a consortium of libraries and writers’ houses including the organisations involved in this exhibition.  

“The Honresfield acquisitions of manuscripts and early publications allow us extraordinary insight into how Charlotte, Emily and Anne became the Brontës”, says Dr Katy Mullin, Senior Lecturer in the University’s School of English, whose specialisms include Victorian literature, sexual politics and the changing status of women in the 19th– and early-20th centuries.

“The ‘little books’ they put together in childhood show not only remarkable imaginative talent, but also how the siblings were already imagining themselves as published writers. Other items in the collection, above all Emily’s notebook of 31 poems, with her own and Charlotte’s marginal notes, show the tensions and compromises required to make private writing public. Some of those tensions were to do with the increasingly painful gulf between the sisters’ successes and their brother’s conspicuous failure, as Branwell’s letter indicating his descent into addiction shows.”

Tracy Chevalier

As Creative Partner at the Brontë Parsonage Museum for Charlotte’s bicentenary in 2016, Tracy Chevalier curated an exhibition and edited a short story anthology inspired byJane Eyre’. She is looking forward to returning to Yorkshire to illuminate the family’s lives and legacy through the objects on display in the current show. 

“There is a special magic being in the same room as objects the Brontës have created,” she says. “I particularly love Emily’s book of poems, where she writes at the end ‘Never was better stuff penned’, yet in the same manuscript her sister Charlotte is busy making corrections! It says so much about the sisters’ relationship.”

Free tickets for ‘On the Brontës’ can be booked via Eventbrite. Before the event, there will be a chance to view ‘Becoming the Brontës’ at the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery, with opening hours extended until 6pm. 

Tracy Chevalier and Dr Katy Mullin will be in conversation from 6.30pm in the Esther Simpson Building, Lyddon Terrace (off Clarendon Road; What 3 words location: plot.corn.take). 

‘Becoming the Brontës’ runs at Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery in the Parkinson Building at the University of Leeds until Saturday 28 October. Admission is free and open to all, with no booking necessary, and the gallery is open from 10am – 5pm, Tuesday – Saturday.

For more information, visit the Leeds University Library Galleries website, or call 0113 343 2778.

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