Imagine a windswept moor in the north of England. Add a big house, where a clergyman and his four children live — isolated, pale little children inventing fantasy worlds in the nursery of a rambling old house.
These were the peculiar origins of the Bronte sisters, the novelists Emily, Charlotte and Anne who, with their brother Branwell, endured a grim and lonely upbringing by vanishing into fantasy worlds so obsessively and vividly imagined that they even had their own magazines. Next month, the auction house Sotheby's will sell one such manuscript produced by a 14-year-old Charlotte, estimated to fetch $315,000 to $475,000.
The magazine is tiny, "half the size of a credit card," Gabriel Heaton, deputy director of books and manuscripts at Sothebys, tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, and designed to be the right size for the Bronte children's toy soldiers. Its 19 pages are crammed with more than 4,000 words — short stories, news, even advertisements — discernible only by magnifying glass.
The pages are roughly hewn and much-handled. It's "what makes it such an evocative object," Heaton says. "You can almost see her there with her little scissors."
And on these little pages, the Brontes spun such dreams, each conjuring up entire kingdoms. Charlotte's fantasy city featured immense palaces and awesome, towering buildings. It was presided over by the Duke of Wellington and his two sons — the heroes of the story.
The private dream world of the Brontes exerted an enormous influence on their later work, in terms of the flowering of their Gothic sensibility — and, astonishingly, the recycling of key plot points.
In one of Charlotte's stories — a "powerful evocation of madness, especially when you think this is coming from a 14-year-old girl," Heaton says — a man imprisons his enemy in the attic. He goes mad with guilt and imagines his enemies setting fire to his bed curtains.
It's a scene that prefigures the famous madwoman-in-the-attic and the bed burning from Jane Eyre, proving that this small manuscript might be more than just a curiosity. Heaton says, "There are clear links between this manuscript ... and the later work."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Imagine a windswept moor, which would of course have to be in Yorkshire in the north of England. Add a big house, a parsonage where a clergyman and his four children live. Think gothic, isolated, pale little children inventing their own fantasy world in the nursery of a rambling old house.
The novelists Emily, Charlotte and Anne Bronte lived in such a place with their brother Branwell and created such imaginary worlds. The auction house Sotheby's is selling a tiny manuscript produced by Charlotte in the style of magazines of the period.
Gabriel Heaton, who is the deputy director of books and manuscripts at the auction house, joins us from London.
Mr. Heaton, welcome to the program.
GABRIEL HEATON: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, Charlotte Bronte, who would go on to write "Jane Eyre," made this little tiny manuscript. Could you describe it? How little is it?
HEATON: Oh, it's absolutely tiny actually. It's about half the size of a credit card. But crammed onto that in 19 pages are more than 4,000 words. So the script is so small that you need a magnifying glass to read it.
WERTHEIMER: I understand she made it to be approximately the right size for the children's set of toy soldiers.
HEATON: Yeah, that's right. Because it's a magazine set in a fictional world.
WERTHEIMER: So when you hold this little tiny thing in your hand, you understand that the little tiny hands of Charlotte Bronte made it.
HEATON: Oh, yeah. And not just made it, wrote it, but even you can see how she cut out the individual pages to make this tiny thing, because they're all slightly roughly cut. And you can almost see her there with her little scissors. And that is what makes it such an evocative object actually.
WERTHEIMER: Let's just talk about these children. What was their fantasy world about? It was a little town. Each of the tin soldiers had a little kingdom.
HEATON: Oh, well, not a little town. I mean, Charlotte's fantasy capital was not a little town. It was an enormous capital with towering buildings and gorgeous palaces. It was presided over by the Duke of Wellington. And then you have his two sons, who sort of increasingly become the chief heroes of the stories.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that whatever this little fantasy world was that that influenced their later work?
HEATON: Oh, absolutely. Oh, it was an enormous influence on their later work. And the sort of the gothic extravagance of the Glass Town stories, they very much play into that gothic side of the imagination that you always see in Charlotte, and of course especially in Emily as well.
WERTHEIMER: Now, much has been made of a scene in this little magazine which prefigures something in "Jane Eyre," where a madwoman sets fire to the bed hangings and very nearly murders her husband, who has her locked up in the attic - Mr. Rochester, as we think of him.
HEATON: Yes. That's right. Yes. I mean, it's the end of one of the stories here has a very powerful evocation of madness, especially when you think this is coming from a 14-year-old girl. And it's sort of this villain has been sent mad with guilt. And in his insane revelry he imagines his enemies coming and setting fire to his bed curtains. And, actually, he had previously imprisoned his enemy in the attic, which of course is where Bertha, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester is also imprisoned.
So yeah, there are clear links between this manuscript, this story here, and the later work.
WERTHEIMER: Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby's, thank you very much.
HEATON: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Charlotte Bronte's miniature magazine will be sold next month. If you want to take a look, we have a picture of it on NPR.org.
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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.