THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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20 posts categorized "Biography"

14 December 2015

An Unrequited Love? Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger

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by Claire Harman, author of the biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life, 2015, written to celebrate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth. Harman researched Charlotte's life using manuscripts at the British Library.

Of all the hundreds of letters by Charlotte Brontë which have survived, the four to Constantin Heger, her former teacher in Brussels, are the most disturbing to read, as she clearly wrote them in desperation and intended them for his eyes alone. Heger was the first person outside her family to take Brontë seriously as an intellectual, and she had returned from Brussels to Haworth in 1844, convinced that the strong bond she had formed with him would be continued in correspondence. However, the more needy and ardent her letters became, the more Heger drew back into long silences, provoking a sort of panic in the 27-year old writer. In January 1845, she made her feelings explicit:

all I know – is that I cannot – that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains that have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope – if he gives me a little friendship – a very little – I shall be content – happy, I would have a motive for living – for working.       Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on – they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men’s table – but if they are refused these crumbs - they die of hunger -  No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love – I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

Mw00798

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, chalk, 1850, NPG 1452 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Perhaps not surprisingly, this made Heger withdraw even further and by the end of the year he had ceased to reply to Charlotte’s letters at all. Her last surviving message, written on 18 November 1845, shows the depths of suffering this caused her:

Your last letter has sustained me – has nourished me for six months – now I need another and you will give it me – not because you have any friendship for me – you cannot have much – but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium.  […] [S]o long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me – when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.  

         When Heger’s family donated these letters to the British Library in 1913, they caused a sensation with the revelation of Brontë’s passionate feelings for her married mentor, but without the other side of the correspondence – Heger’s – it is easy to judge Brontë’s feelings as largely irrational and unprovoked. Heger’s wife Zoe told her daughter Louise that her husband had thrown Miss Brontë’s letters away, but that she had rescued them from the wastebasket and mended the ones that had been torn up with glued paper strips and thread, then carefully preserved them in her jewel box. Her reason for doing this was to have some evidence to prove the strong feeling was all on one side (fearing the damage to her school’s reputation), and the implication was that the tearing and mending was all done soon after Heger received the letters in 1844 and 1845.  Looking at the manuscripts carefully, though, there is plenty of evidence that they were re-folded and retained long enough to acquire staining and dirt marks, so perhaps Heger kept them to himself for quite a long time, even though he never answered them.   

        Meanwhile, Charlotte became a published writer, under her pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’, with Poems (1846), a joint collection with her sisters Emily and Anne (writing as ‘Ellis Bell’ and ‘Acton Bell’) and the following year took the reading world by storm with Jane Eyre, followed by Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853 (a novel explicitly modelled on Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels with the Hegers).  When, in 1856, a year after Charlotte’s death, Elizabeth Gaskell went to interview him for her biography, Constantin Heger read her extracts from the letters and copied out some passages for her to use, and in 1869 a friend of the family attested that Heger had shown the letters to his wife’s cousin and ‘told the whole story’.  As Charlotte Brontë became more and more famous in the last decades of the century, perhaps Monsieur reconsidered his association with her and secretly took pride in it.  Clearly, there was a time before she was famous when she seemed nothing but a nuisance or liability. Her last letter to him – unanswered – had contained a humiliating confession by Charlotte of how she had become ‘the slave of a regret, a memory, the slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one’s mind’. It must have been left open on Heger’s desk at some time, for along the side of the last page, in pencil, are some local tradesmen’s addresses – one a cobbler. Heger had used Charlotte Brontë’s heartrending cri de coeur as a piece of scrap paper.

You can see digitised images of the four surviving letters from Charlotte to Constantin Heger on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary is in 2016, celebrating her birthday 21st April 1816. You can also view digitised images of the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre.

 

05 August 2015

Lee Harwood: Sailing Westward

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                                                                         Lee small 2010   Lee Harwood (1939-2015)

Chris Beckett writes:

        There is a haunting valedictory quality to Lee Harwood’s recent collection, The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014). And yet the poems, many of which recapitulate with a light (and last) touch themes and motifs familiar from Harwood’s considerable body of work, are far from sombre:

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

Sadly, the sense of journey’s end – or journey’s beginning – that characterises The Orchid Boat is now made all the more poignant by the news that Lee Harwood passed away last month, on Sunday 26 July.

So where’s the boat?
A sampan or a lugger?
or an elegant steam launch?
Is there room for me and that crew of sages? 

‘Sailing Westwards’, the poem that concludes The Orchid Boat, moves seamlessly in typical Harwood manner between landscapes imagined and landscapes remembered, from the mountains of China to the hills and mountains of Snowdonia that Harwood climbed with untiring enthusiasm and a perpetual sense of wonder. We have seen the ‘elegant steam launch’ in Harwood’s poems before; and the lifelong delight that he took in the orchids of the Sussex Downs finds new resonance in ‘Departures’, the poem that opens The Orchid Boat: ‘Without thinking / I step aboard the orchid boat, / the feel of silk / carrying me beyond all mirrors’.

       Lee Harwood established his reputation as a distinctive new voice in English poetry with The White Room, published by Fulcrum Press in 1968. Landscapes (1969) and The Sinking Colony (1970) quickly followed, and in 1971 his work appeared in Penguin Modern Poets 19, along with selections from Tom Raworth and the American poet John Ashbery. In 1975, Trigram Press published Harwood’s translations of the poems of Tristan Tzara, a seminal influence whose work Harwood discovered in the early 1960s. Thereafter, Harwood was published exclusively by the small presses, a state of affairs that reflected the divided and divisive territory of English poetry during the 1980s. In 2004, Shearsman Books published Harwood’s Collected Poems to considerable acclaim, prompting an upsurge of retrospective interest in his work. The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, a collection of essays on his work, was published in 2007, and this was quickly followed by a series of illuminating interviews conducted by Kelvin Corcoran, Not the Full Story (2008). Recently, Harwood’s poems found an appreciative home in the London Review of Books, and his work was championed in sensitive reviews by August Kleinzahler and Mark Ford.

       It is a great pleasure to report that the extensive papers of Lee Harwood, which were acquired from the poet by the British Library in 2012, will be made available later this year. The preparation of the catalogue, which has benefited from the poet’s close involvement, is now in its final stages. It is a matter of great regret that Harwood did not live to see the release of his papers, although he took great satisfaction in seeing his papers join the national collection. The archive is a rich record of the life of a singular poet who belonged to no particular school, finding sympathetic friends across poetry’s territorial divisions, both at home and in America. Journals, diaries, notebooks, and much poetry in draft, are supplemented by a considerable number of letters received: there are 77 files of letters and 146 correspondents, from Ashbery (John) to Wylie (Andrew). A sense of the variety of Harwood’s correspondents, and the number of letters in the collection, can be quickly given by some examples: Paul Evans (122 letters), Harry Guest (354), August Kleinzahler (48), Douglas Oliver (48), F. T. Prince (22), Tom Raworth (58), and Anne Stevenson (in excess of 400). Harwood greatly valued the close reading of his work by other poets, and one of the instructive rewards of the letters is to read their detailed responses to his work.

08 July 2014

Arthur Graeme West’s 'Diary of a Dead Officer' remembered.

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In the run up to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War the British Library has been involved in a number of projects including collaboration in a Europe wide initiative, Europeana. This project covered a range of activities one of which was the digitisation of thousands of books and documents.  Part of my involvement with the project was to put forward literary works to be digitised.  One book that had a particular impact on me was The Diary of a Dead Officer: Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West.  This slim volume comprises diary extracts written between 1915 and 1917 and a selection of West’s poems.

IMG_1186The Diary of a Dead Officer. British Library shelfmark 010856.de.16

The Diary was published posthumously in 1919 shortly after the end of the war and was edited by the pacifist campaigner C E M Joad who had been a friend of West’s since schooldays.  The Diary charts West’s growing sense of disillusionment as the reality of war takes its toll.  West had initially tried to obtain a commission in 1914 but had been turned down because of poor eyesight.  Undeterred, he enlisted as a private in the Public Schools Battalion in February 1915.  However, faced with the realities of army life and the way the war was being conducted, his sense of duty and patriotism gradually turned to disenchantment.  In 1916, after serving in France for several months, West was sent to Scotland for officer training, a period when West’s disillusionment reached crisis point.  Many of the instructors were soldiers who had not experienced life at the front making it difficult for them to gain the respect of the officer cadets who had served in the front line.  West felt that the training he received was ineffectual for the conditions faced in the trenches and at times he felt it bordered on the farcical.  During this period he became increasingly influenced by the writings of Bertrand Russell and the pacifist arguments of his friend Joad to the point where he decided he would write to his Commanding Officer resigning his commission and refusing to take any further part in the war.  In the end, West couldn’t bring himself to deliver the letter and reported for duty as instructed.  He went back to France in September 1916 on active service with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry and was killed by a sniper on 3 April 1917.

Along with the diary excerpts is a selection of West’s poetry.  The poetry section opens with ‘God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men!’ West’s angry reaction to the patriotic poetry of those idealistic young men who believed they were living through “epic days”.  The most well-known of West’s poems is ‘The Night Patrol’ a powerful and honest account of the atrocious conditions and horrific experiences endured by those living in the trenches and one of the first realistic war poems to be published.

Last year I was delighted to learn that the Old Stile Press were to publish a fine press edition of West’s work to commemorate the 1914 centenary.   This new publication, in a limited edition of 150 copies, contains newly commissioned linocut illustrations by the artist and print-maker John Abell who also provides an afterword.  The Illustrations, several of which are full-page, reinforce the sense of horror and outrage found in West’s narrative. The black and white images create a striking and haunting impression.  Hand printed by Nicolas McDowall this edition is a fitting tribute to West.  For more information about the creation of this work please see the Old Stile Press blog.

West’s frank and powerful writings deserve to be more widely known.  I hope the interest generated by the centenary of the First World War and publications such as the one from the Old Stile Press will go some way to helping his work reach a wider readership.

The Old Stile Press edition of The Diary of a Dead Officer is now available to consult in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room, shelfmark RF.2014.b.25.

26 June 2014

‘The most beautiful lyrical prose of the 20th century’: Happy birthday Laurie Lee

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Laurie Lee in 1935 cropped

Laurie Lee in 1935

Laurie Lee was born one hundred years ago today in a house on the road that leads out of Stroud and climbs up through Slad, the Cotswold valley which he later immortalised in Cider With Rosie (1959). Gloucestershire is celebrating the centenary in style in a summer-long programme of events, but Laurie Lee’s popularity and significance goes far beyond the Cotswolds. Here at the Library, home to Laurie Lee’s archive, we held an early birthday celebration of sorts with an evening of readings and reflections from P J Kavanagh, Tim Dee, Brian Patten, Adam Horovitz and Louis de Bernières.

  Louis playing cropped
Brian Patten, Tim Dee and P J Kavanagh look on as Louis de Bernières plays the Spanish guitar

The centenary of Lee’s birth seems like an appropriate time to reconsider Lee’s literary legacy, not least because Lee seems to have felt that his work wasn’t fully appreciated by the literary establishment, hugely popular though it has always been.  After his overnight success with Cider With Rosie in 1959 Lee seemed to feel that his work was looked down upon in some quarters: ‘poor old Laurie, such a good poet, what a pity he’s now writing best-selling prose.’ Lee’s perception of his critical reputation was one of the points discussed by fellow poet and friend, P J Kavanagh:

Listen to P J Kavanagh remembering Laurie Lee

If Lee felt that he was regarded as a lightweight, it was perhaps a result of some of his early reviews. In response to criticism from the poet Roy Fuller who challenged Lee to leave aside nature writing, write about contemporary themes and use a greater range of verse forms, Lee responded: ‘You dare me to be more complicated, but I dare to achieve simplicity’. Luckily for us Lee was true to his word: he pursued his quest for the illusion of simplicity in prose and verse; his work continued to be infused with a sense of the past; and he proved himself to be one of the finest nature writers in the English language. This last point was the topic of naturalist Tim Dee’s talk:

Listen to Tim Dee on Laurie Lee's nature writing

Following a wonderfully humorous rendition of U A Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ by U A Fanthorpe, Louis de Bernières spoke about Lee’s last book and his own personal favourite, A Moment of War.

Listen to Louis de Bernières on A Moment of War

The full recording of Laurie Lee: A Celebration of his Life and Legacy will be available to listen to onsite at the Library shortly, but here are a few more clips of our guests reading from Lee’s work:

Listen to Brian Patten reading an extract from 'First Bite at the Apple', from Cider with Rosie

Listen to Tim Dee reading an extract from Cider with Rosie about the Slad Valley

Listen to Adam Horovitz reading an extract from 'The Kitchen', from Cider with Rosie

Listen to Adam Horovitz reading 'Edge of Day' by Laurie Lee

Listen to P J Kavanagh reading 'Home from Abroad' by Laurie Lee

If these clips have whetted your appetite to hear from Laurie Lee himself, you'll find a selection of recordings available on our recently released Laurie Lee CD, the latest in our spoken word series. And if you'd like to see material from his archive, a free exhibition on Lee and the Spanish Civil War is on display in the Treasures Gallery until 20 July. 

22 May 2014

Something to smile about: Charles Dickens on Discovering Literature

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Photographs of Charles Dickens

Portrait photographs of Charles Dickens, 1861

You may already know that the majority of the British Library’s most treasured holdings are stored below ground in our deep basements, only to be looked at when they are beckoned above by curious readers. The Library’s new online learning resource Discovering Literature liberates some of our most precious holdings from the depths; allowing them to be seen in high definition, at anytime, anywhere, [and most importantly] whilst drinking a cup of tea!

Discovering Literature and Charles Dickens were made for each other. Dickens was a huge character and a prolific writer. It can be a dizzying experience to try and wade through all that has been written by or about him. Discovering Literature allows us to learn more about Dickens the individual while at the same time intricately weaving him into the 19th century world he inhabited.

The site features the manuscripts of some of his works, articles about him by leading Dickens scholars and also topical pieces about some of the issues that interested him, such as crime, poverty and the supernatural. All these scholarly additions are supported by high quality images of collection items, allowing access to primary source materials that bring Dickens to life. The site also features plenty of ephemeral items that help to contextualise and make real the issues that permeated his works, such as the newspaper advertisements for Warren’s Blacking Factory. 

Warren's Blacking advertisement

Advertisement for Warren's Blacking Warehouse

They are interesting to look at of themselves, but once you realise that they are advertising the boot polish manufacturers where Dickens worked as a 12 year old boy they become so much more pertinent – you begin to realise where the author’s concern for child labour and the plight of the poor comes from.  The same goes for the Diet Table from a workhouse report, laying out the daily rations to be administered to the inmates:

Workhouse report

Reports of the Sub-Committee appointed by the Committee of Management, of the Parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, for the revision of their workhouse, etc. (1831)

Closer inspection reveals that the daily diet consisted of meagre rations with gruel for breakfast and very little in the way of nutrition. This report, and others like it from the time, emphasise that there were to be no second helpings in any circumstances.  The punishing regime of the workhouse in Oliver Twist is revealed as the norm and not a literary exaggeration. 

The beauty of being able to view these otherwise rather plain and innocuous seeming objects alongside literary works, manuscripts and personal correspondence enables us to unlock the secrets they contain and reveals them to be so much more than they first appear.

Manuscript preface to cheap edition of Oliver Twist

 

Preface to the Present Edition of Oliver Twist (1850)

As the preface to the cheap edition of Oliver Twist exposes it is so easy to make the mistake that the places and issues that Dickens writes about are largely made-up (Dickens is responding to a magistrate who has claimed that Jacobs Island is a fictional location – they were real slums in Rotherhithe). Items such as these are a stark reminder that these kind of things really happened to people.

These documents serve to show just how much Dickens was influenced by the world around him. They also confirm that many of our perceptions of 19th century Britain have been greatly influenced by what he wrote, making it even more important to separate truth from fiction.

Finally, I wanted to highlight the photographs taken of Dickens in 1861 [shown above]. A couple of them show the author with a slight smirk on his face (a rare thing for a Victorian photograph in general). They remind us that Dickens was a real person too, and not just some mythical author from the 19th century…

 


 

24 April 2014

A Long Forgotten Poem by the Admirable Crichton

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James Crichton, known by the appellation the Admirable Crichton, was the epitome of the cultured Renaissance man.  Perhaps for many, the name the Admirable Crichton is more familiar from the 1902 play by J M Barrie ‘The Admirable Crichton’ or its subsequent film and television adaptations. However, these have little connection with the historical figure apart from portraying a highly talented individual. 

So who was James Crichton?  He was born in 1560 in Dumfriesshire.  His father was a lawyer and land owner in the service of Mary Queen of Scots. On his mother’s side he could claim royal descent from the House of Stewart.  As a child he displayed a prodigious intelligence.  He was educated at St Salvator’s College, St Andrews gaining a BA in 1573 and an MA in 1575.  Two years later, in 1577 at the age of just seventeen, he left Scotland for the continent and continued his education in France at the Collège de Navarre and, according to some sources, subsequently spent two years in the French army.

  James_Crichton
 The Admirable Crichton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1579 he travelled to Genoa and then a year later to Venice where he was reputed to have wooed crowds with his skills in oratory.  In Venice he also made the acquaintance of the influential printer Aldus Manutius who became a great friend and promoter of Crichton’s abilities.  By this time Crichton was said to be a skilled horseman, swordsman, accomplished dancer, man of letters, debater, and to be fluent in ten languages.  For many he was regarded as the perfect gentleman with elegant social graces and enviable good looks.  From Venice he travelled to Mantua where he entered the service of the Duke of Mantua and seems to have been well established within the court by 1582.  However, his popularity was not universal; in particular he seems to have aroused the jealousy of the Duke’s son and heir Vincenzo Gonzaga.  This resentment came to a head one summer’s evening in July when an angry altercation took place in the streets of Mantua which resulted in the Prince mortally wounding Crichton.  He was buried the following day in the small graveyard of the church of San Simone in Mantua. 

Shutters
Photogravure © Norman McBeath 

It was Crichton’s first impressions of his arrival in Venice, combined with the compelling majesty of the city, that inspired his most accomplished poem ‘Venice’.  The British Library is delighted to announce it has acquired the first English verse translation of Crichton’s Latin poem.  The book is a new collaboration between the poet and academic Robert Crawford and the photographer and printmaker Norman McBeath.  The source of the text is taken from the two volume anthology of Scottish-Latin poetry Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum (1637), a copy of which is held at the Library at shelfmark 1213.a.7.  Robert Crawford’s impressive translation will hopefully generate wider interest in this sadly neglected poem.  The poem is accompanied by eight evocative photogravures by Norman McBeath which perfectly capture the enigma and splendour of that fascinating city. 

Venice is published by the Edinburgh based Easel Press in an edition of twenty copies and will be available to consult in the Library’s reading rooms shortly.

24 January 2014

Hanif Kureishi on why he deposited his archive at the British Library

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       On Wednesday we announced the acquisition of Hanif Kureishi’s Archive at the British Library’s Cultural Highlights preview for 2014.

  Hanif Kureishi diary2
   Hanif Kureishi Archive. © Hanif Kureishi

        Hanif kindly agreed to join us for the press launch. An early start meant an improvised breakfast in the staff canteen, but over eggs and hash browns he shared his thoughts with me on how he thinks his archive will be used in the future and why he was so keen for it to find a permanent home at the Library. Click on the link below to hear the interview:

Hanif Kureishi interview at the British Library 

        The archive includes drafts and working material relating to all of his major novels, as well as over 50 notebooks and diaries spanning four decades. The collection also includes electronic drafts of his work in the form of Word files, including some relating to his new novel, The Last Word, which will be published by Faber next month. The Last Word tells the story of the relationship between an eminent writer and his biographer. It raises some interesting questions about identity, posterity and the inter-dependence of the writer and those who attempt to write about him, both of them being re-made in the process.

        The first diary in the collection dates from 1970 when Kureishi was just 15 years old. As well as recording everyday events and reflecting on his writing projects, the diaries are deeply philosophical in places and highly introspective. They give some fascinating insights into the workings of a restless, questing mind which is always driven to know more; as he records of his friend and hero David Bowie, at one point, his is a mind that’s “interested in everything”.  

Hanif Kureishi archive 2
Entry from a diary of Hanif Kureishi’s describing a meeting with Shabbir Akhtar, 13 May 1992. After the controversy following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, Akhtar acted as spokesperson for the Bradford Council of Mosques. © Hanif Kureishi

        Along with the drafts of Kureishi’s best known writing, such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, are those of some lesser known ones and some surprises. The archive holds, for example, a draft of his adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage (written for the 1984 production at the Barbican with Judi Dench in the leading role) along with an adaptation written with his long-time collaborator, Roger Michell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was never realised.

        We’ll be starting work to catalogue the collection in the next few weeks and expect to be able to make it available in the Library’s Reading Room by the end of the year. Hanif Kureishi will be headlining the Library's Spring Festival at the end of March which this year focusses on the art of screenwriting. You can find more details on the Library's Events web pages at www.bl.uk/spring

21 November 2013

Professor Heger's Daughter

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Chrissie Gittins is our guest blogger this week. Chrissie writes poetry, short fiction and radio plays and has just published her new poetry pamphlet, Professor Heger's Daughter, with Paekakariki Press. Here she writes about finding inspiration for one of these poems in a visit to the British Library's Manuscripts Reading Room.

  Paekiri cover
Credit: Paekakariki Press

I first read about Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger in the Saturday Guardian early in 2012. They were mentioned in an article by Lucasta Miller about a recently discovered fable which Charlotte had written. After her aunt died Charlotte returned home to Haworth from Brussels, where she’d been studying, and wrote a series of passionate letters to her teacher. Professor Heger tore them up on receipt and threw them in the wastepaper basket; the only reason they survive is because his wife rescued them, stuck and stitched them together, and kept them safely in her jewellery box. The letters are now part of the extensive collection of Brontë literary manuscripts held at the British Library.

I cut out Miller’s article and stored it alongside a mound of cards scrawled with ideas which I keep in a pink glass vase from Poland, bought at the market in Hay-on-Wye. The image of the letters surfaced periodically in my mind and, when I had a stretch of time in autumn last year, I re-read the article. After making enquiries about viewing the letters, I realised I would first need a letter of recommendation. At the end of October I made it to the Manuscripts Reading Room at the British Library, clutching a letter from Judith Palmer, the Director of the Poetry Society, which said, ‘The material state of the manuscripts in question – and their folding/tearing/re-binding – is central to the research Ms Gittins is pursuing (rather than the text alone).’

At the counter I was given the four letters, encased in glass, two at a time. I made sketch maps of the tears and stitching in my notebook, and made notes about a ‘river of a rip’ and the ‘mountain range gashes’.

  Image1
My notebook, 21 October 2012

I copied Charlotte’s handwriting on her envelope to Monsieur Heger and studied her sepia handwriting leaning to the right on the thin creamy paper. To be so intimately in her presence was astonishing. What I didn’t think I could do was assume the persona of Charlotte Brontë in order to write a poem, so I tried to find a different angle. One of the letters is partly written in English, the rest are written in French; so I made two return visits to study the letters, and others written by Charlotte, taking my lead from Margaret Smith’s translations in her edited Letters of Charlotte Brontë Volume 1, 1829-1847 (Oxford University Press).

It was then that I decided to write a poem from the point of view of one of Heger’s daughters – probably Louise, who became a successful landscape painter. After several drafts the poem, ‘Professor Heger’s Daughter’, came together in January of this year while I was staying in a windswept Southwold. I incorporated quotes from the letters and used their arrival at the family home as the structure.

   Image3
Searching for words - page from an early draft of my poem

I am pleased to say that ‘Professor Heger’s Daughter’ is now the title poem of my new pamphlet collection which has just been published by Paekakariki Press. It’s printed in traditional letterpress with original wood engravings and is available on their website: www.paekakarikipress.com

My thanks to the staff at the British Library for this fascinating excursion.