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A Brontë Fragment

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A short poem written in Charlotte’s hand goes up for auction. What would it feel like just to hold it?

By Miranda K. Pennington


 

UPDATE: The poem by the teenage Charlotte Brontë sold for more than $140,000.

One of the few manuscripts handwritten by Charlotte Brontë still in a private collection will go up for auction at Bonhams in London on April 10. It is a poem she wrote at the age of 13, and by the time she inscribed this three-inch-square paper, she and her brother, Branwell, and sisters Emily and Anne were already writing a magazine, The Young Man’s Intelligencer.

The Brontë sisters would secure their literary immortality with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey, but as children, the four of them wrote in tiny script on small pieces of paper, to conceal their work from the prying eyes of their clergyman father, their aunt, and their housekeeper. The poem coming to auction, “I’ve been wandering in the greenwoods,” is part of the private collection of Roy Davids, a historian and manuscript dealer who has decided to sell it along with dozens of other items.

The narrator of the poem’s four short stanzas describes a mournful walk through the woods. A nightingale sings plaintively; the flowers the narrator sees and gathers (primrose, asphodel) represent youth and death. The poem echoes the loss of Charlotte’s elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, four years prior. When I read it, I can detect the seriousness of young Charlotte’s mind, her love of the outdoors, her appreciation of language, and her ear for rhythm.

She wrote the poem when she was only a little younger than I was when I first fell in love with Jane Eyre. Much of my life as a reader and writer stems from the moment my father gave me that book. I return to it, and the rest of the Brontë canon, whenever I need guidance or inspiration. They have never let me down.

The manuscript has been valued at $61,000, and experts say the bidding may go as high as $68,000. Too rich for my blood, but I still like to picture myself in the front row of Bonhams, nervously clutching my paddle. I’d ignore the other manuscripts from the Davids collection (even treasures like impromptu verses from W. H. Auden, and Louisa May Alcott’s autographed manuscript of “To the First Robin”). I would sit, fidgeting, until Charlotte’s poem came up on the block.

I’m not fond of the Brontë sisters’ poetry. It contains few hints of the passion that made their fiction so radical and satisfying. Charlotte didn’t include “I’ve been wandering in the greenwoods” in the volume of poetry she and her sisters published, but I would spend my last dime on this precious scrap if I could. Why? Because Charlotte Brontë made it. She tore off a bit of paper and wrote on it. A messy writer myself, I’m charmed by the way she wrote “From enameled ground,” and then inserted “the fair” before “enameled” so the line is crowded with the addition. Her handwriting is so small it needs a magnifying glass to be deciphered.

Eventually the poem got tucked away somewhere and stayed there while she grew up, while she traveled to Brussels and fell in love with her teacher, while she wrote about Jane Eyre meeting Mr. Rochester on the Millcote road, while she visited London and saw her hero Lord Wellington in the flesh, while she nursed her ailing sisters, and while she decided whether to marry her father’s curate after rejecting him multiple times.

I once held an etched copper plate that Rembrandt used for printmaking, and for a moment I was so immersed in the chiseled lines that I forgot where I was. Imagining myself holding Charlotte’s scrap of poetry sends tingles up and down the backs of my arms. This would be as close to a personal message from her as I’d ever get. I picture my hands in the same places where Charlotte’s hands would have been. Our fingerprints might line up. It would be thrilling to be united, even just for a moment.

 

Miranda K. Pennington lives in Brooklyn and is at work on a book about her lifelong relationship with the Brontës.


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