“These tiny books help to evoke the whole experience of the Brontë children. Here they are, living in a somewhat isolated parsonage in Yorkshire, having only themselves as playmates and needing to entertain each other.” -Leslie Morris, curator at Houghton Library.
All four of the Brontë siblings – Charlotte, Patrick, Emily, and Anne – wrote teeny tiny books as kids and adolescents. Most of Emily and Anne’s creations, which centered around a fictional island called “Gondal,” have not survived. Of Charlotte and Patrick’s, on the other hand, Harvard holds nine, the Brontë Museum owns several, and the remaining are scattered among museums and collectors.
Stitched together from paper scraps, the books contain endless poems, stories, songs, maps, illustrations, and even building plans.
Charlotte and Patrick’s stories often revolved around the “Glass Town Confederacy,” a world created for Patrick’s toy soldiers. The following introductory passage from “The Silver Cup: A Tale” by Charlotte, written in October 1829, describes a man who lives near Glass Town.
Patrick also created a fictional “Branwells Blackwoods Magazine,” seen below.
Charlotte sometimes wrote from the perspective of Lord Charles Wellesley, such as in “The Poetaster: A Drama in Two Volumes.”
Juvenilia, or work an author produces as a child, can help academics shed light on the author’s professional development and inner life. The fact that the Brontë kids mimicked published literature is particularly telling.
The books were in such a fragile state a few years ago that Harvard specialists undertook a restoration and digitization project. In order to tease and paste down individual fibers “about the width of a human hair”, the team used fine surgical instruments. One woman admitted to holding her breath to prevent “fragments of paper from blowing away.”
So… why did the Brontë children make such tiny books?
Though no one knows for sure, an expert from the Special Collections at Missouri University sums up the theories like this:
One (possibility) is that the children may have been trying to hide their imaginative plays from their stern and religious aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister, who did not encourage their literary pursuits. “Aunt Branwell,” as they called her, seems to have been a somewhat forbidding and authoritarian figure for the children. If secrecy was the motivation, Charlotte and Branwell were probably successful – most people cannot read the manuscript without a magnifying glass.
Another possible explanation is that the children wrote to the scale of the toy soldiers that played such an important role in their imaginary world. Their fascination with the miniature may have played a material part in the mythos they developed around the world they called Angria.
However, it may have been that Charlotte and Branwell had simply developed a habit of writing in extreme minuscule. It is known that the Brontës produced tiny handwritten books and magazines from an early age, even before they came up with the Young Men’s Play; Charlotte’s earliest surviving manuscript is a miniature book she made at the age of ten for her sister Anne.
Whatever the motivation, it’s clear that Charlotte, who went on to write Jane Eyre, treasured her childhood works and kept them well-preserved. After her death, her husband sold the volumes to a private collector, who then gave them to poet Amy Lowell. Lowell donated the set to Houghton Library in 1925, where you can still visit them today.