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Seeking correspondence through possessions: the Brontës’ lives and stories in Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet and Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs

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Seeking correspondence through possessions: the Brontës’ lives and stories in Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet and Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs

Cette communication a été filmée dans le cadre du colloque international  "Writers in Neo-Victorian Fiction" organisé par l'équipe anglophone ERIBIA le 11 octobre 2019 à la Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines de l'Université Caen Normandie, sous la responsablilité d'Armelle Parey (ERIBIA, Caen) et Charlotte Wadoux (19-21, Paris 3).

Dr Lucy Sheerman works at the Creative Writing Centre at the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge. She is currently working on a series of fan fiction versions of iconic novels including Rebecca (Dancing Girl Press) and Jane Eyre and a critical book about fan fiction responses to Jane Eyre.


Ever since the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) the Brontës’ lives and stories have remained a contested site of meaning and misreading. The iconic status of Jane Eyre as apparently autobiographical text is blurred with the real biography of its author.
In my paper I will examine the conflation of biographical and literary approaches to rereading and rewriting the Brontës and the way in which this is figured through their material legacy. I will focus in particular on two recent works – Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs and Deborah Lutz’s, The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects. Lowell’s novel presents its heroine Samantha Whipple as an explicitly unreliable narrator who is also the last remaining descendant of the Brontës. She is sent to study literature at Oxford, by an eccentric will, to search for a mysterious family inheritance described only as ‘The Warnings of Experience’. In Lowell’s book, I will argue, Brontë relics represent an association with death and loss, the material object emptied out and carrying the aura of emptiness and grief. Conversely, Lutz in her work of literary theory uses the same objects to summon a lived sense of the Brontës which, Claire Harman argues, weaves ‘a kind of magic around the Brontës’ possessions and evokes their lives, works, and legacies’.
A study of these divergent ways of looking at the same material will allow me to consider the way in which the Brontë narratives and lives are continually recast and reconstructed and the extent to which this both sustains and suppresses the originals.



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