Diaries of famous folk usually make for fascinating reading, especially when the diary belongs to a writer. The best ones offer insights not only into the writer's projects, professional challenges, and personal relationships, but can also can serve as a "trial run" for ideas that will later evolve into more finished pieces. The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives, an exhibition running through May 22, 2011 at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, features diaries from their permanent collection, including diarists ranging from English pirate Bartholomew Sharpe (c.1650-1690) to English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) to American dramatist Tennessee Williams (1911-1983.) One of the most interesting diaries in the exhibition belonged to novelist (Jane Eyre) and poet Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855.)
Charlotte's childhood was not easy. After the early death of her mother and a numbing stint at a cruelly run boarding school, she returned home and became intensely close to her three surviving siblings. The Brontes were blessed with vivid imaginations as well as literary talent, and together developed elaborate fanciful kingdoms, characters, and stories to help escape the hardships and tedium of life in their father's rural rectory.
When Charlotte accepted a teaching position at the Roe Head School, she continued to turn to storytelling as a means of escape from a job and students that brought her little pleasure. An entry from an 1836 diary (included in the Morgan show), written when she was nineteen, begins by cataloguing the day's activities and frustrations, but soon blossoms into fantastical imagined scenes. It's hardly the expected work of a Victorian maiden schoolteacher, but then Charlotte's true calling would be not teaching, but writing passionately romantic fiction.
In the passage below, Charlotte describes the exotic Queen of Angria, on her "voluptuous ottoman" as she waited for her royal lover:
I had seen [this room in the palace] in the stillness of evening when the lamps so quietly and steadily burnt in the tranquil air, & when their rays fell upon but one living figure, a young lady who generally at that time appeared sitting on a low sofa, a book in her hand, her head bent over it as she read, her light brown hair dropping in loose & unwaving curls, her dress falling to the floor as she sat in sweeping folds of silk. All stirless about her except her heart, softly beating under her satin bodice & all silent except her regular and very gentle respiration...I knew why she chose to be alone at that hour, & why she kept that shadow in the golden frame to gaze on her, & why she turned sometimes to her mirrors & looked to see if her loveliness & her adornments were quite perfect...
Go here to read the complete entry and see Charlotte's handwritten page, and here for more information about the Morgan Library & Museum.
Above: Charlotte Bronte, engraved portrait by James Charles Armytage, after a painting by George Richmond. Purchased by Pierpont Morgan before 1913. Image courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.