A view From the Bridge

Charlotte Brontë’s brushes with science

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J.H. Thompson, 1850s.

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by J.H. Thompson, 1850s.

© The Brontë Society


I enter a room that is, in effect, a cabinet of curiosities. Glass-fronted cases reflecting shards of light are crammed with an odd array of objects — a pair of callipers, a Victorian stereoscope, wire-rimmed spectacles, daguerreotypes. A stuffed giraffe looms behind a desk. There is a faint savour of the natural history museum; the hint of a steampunk preoccupation with instrumentation. It seems an unlikely space for a meeting with one of English literature’s radical firebrands, but that is what this exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum London promises: an encounter with Charlotte Brontë.

Charlotte Brontë at the Soane marks the bicentenary of the novelist’s birth on 21 April. The exhibition — in nineteenth-century architect John Soane’s home, preserved as a museum — hinges on the Yorkshire novelist’s five trips to London between 1848 and 1853 to see her publisher George Smith. During these, the show’s curator Charlotte Cory told me, Brontë had several brushes with science — encounters with eminent specialists in physics and medicine, exposure to cutting-edge technologies. Yet this sharply observant writer left just a scatter of references to these experiences that leave us guessing in all sorts of ways.

Bronte embraced travel on Britain's burgeoning rail system.

Bronte embraced travel on Britain’s burgeoning rail system.

From Frederick S. Williams, Our Iron Roads, ca. 1852, via Wikimedia Commons

Jane Eyre — pioneering ‘psychological’ novel, instant bestseller — had emerged in 1847 as the work of ‘Currer Bell’. The pseudonymous mask slipped the next year on Brontë’s first trip to the city, spurred by an impetuous decision to clear up a rumour that her novel and those of sisters Anne and Emily (‘Acton’ and ‘Ellis’) were all by the same author. Brontë’s need for speed led her to embrace one of the era’s great technological advances — rail travel. “The coming of the railways was absolutely key for her independence,” noted Cory, and Brontë’s letter about the trip hints at the thrill of how she and Anne walked to Keighley station from Haworth in a thunderstorm, “got to Leeds and whirled up by the Night train to London” in a matter of hours, where they revealed their identities to an astonished Smith.

Under Smith’s aegis, the shy provincial became an unwilling celebrity in the city she dubbed “Babylon”. She met (and was verbally mauled by) literary lion William Makepeace Thackeray, and visited social theorist Harriet Martineau. Beyond the salon, London pulsed with scientific, medical and industrial innovation: the Industrial Revolution was in full spate. The Great Exhibition of 1851, coinciding with Brontë’s fourth visit to the city, was vivid proof.

The 'British Nave' at the Great Exhibition, 1851.

The ‘British Nave’ at the Great Exhibition, 1851.

From Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts.

Housed in the vast glass-and-iron Crystal Palace at Hyde Park and masterminded by top technophile Prince Albert, it featured 100,000 objects, from hydraulic presses, steam hammers, barometers and electric telegraphs to velocipedes, microscopes, surgical instruments, ‘tangible’ ink for the visually impaired and kilometres of textiles.

The display of moving machinery at the Great Exhibition.

The display of moving machinery at the Great Exhibition.

From Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851, from the originals painted for Prince Albert, by Messrs. Nash, Haghe and Roberts

The 6 million visitors generated enough surplus funds to seed the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and design treasurehouse the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was a show not just for gawkers, but for anyone with an interest in scientific endeavour and invention. It drew in Charles Darwin; photographer, mathematician and author Lewis Carroll; and eminent physicist David Brewster who, Cory told me, squired Brontë on one of her visits.

Physicist and experimental-optics pioneer David Brewster in the 1850s.

Physicist and experimental-optics pioneer David Brewster in the 1850s.

Wikimedia Commons

Brewster was a leading light in experimental optics. His advanced ‘lenticular’ stereoscope, replacing mirrors with prisms, is displayed at the Soane. He also explored polarised light, invented the kaleidoscope, and created a precursor of the Fresnel lens. Brewster and Brontë seem to have got along, as she noted in a letter to a friend:

Sir David Brewster came to take us to the Crystal Palace — I had rather dreaded this, for Sir David is a man of the profoundest science and I feared it would be impossible to understand his explanations of the mechanisms &c. indeed I hardly knew how to ask him questions — I was spared all trouble — without being questioned — he gave information in the kindest and simplest manner…

But in another letter about the exhibition, Brontë is more pungent:

… after all, its wonders appeal too exclusively to the eye, and rarely touch the heart or head. I make an exception to the last assertion, in favour of those who possess a large range of scientific knowledge. Once I went with Sir David Brewster, and perceived that he looked on objects with other eyes than mine.

The phrase “with other eyes” is provocative. Was Brewster gripped by technological aspects of the show that failed to dazzle Brontë? Interest is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and an expert in the mechanics of light and vision might perceive the same object very differently from an artistic adept of the ‘inward eye’. Despite her poor vision (hence the spectacles at the Soane), Brontë had planned a career in art, but transmuted that visual and emotional precision into “deep, significant reality” on the page, as science writer George Henry Lewes wrote of Jane Eyre.

Brewster's lenticular stereoscope.

Brewster’s lenticular stereoscope.

From Brewster’s The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory and Production, 1856

About the objects of their gaze we can only theorise. Among the technologies on show was photography, and Brewster, who championed the calotype introduced by William Henry Fox Talbot, may well have steered Brontë towards a display. Yet here is another puzzle. At the time, every grandee from Queen Victoria to engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel sought to be ‘shot’, but Brontë, as far as we know, was never photographed. Some suspect it was vanity, given Brontë biographer Elizabeth Gaskell’s unforgiving verbal snapshot: “reddish face; large mouth & many teeth gone; altogether plain”. I wonder, however, whether Brontë felt she had exposed enough of herself in her literary explorations of intuitive consciousness.

That fascination with internal realities extended to the medical. Brontë’s last novel Villette (1853) is permeated with references to illness, has a physician as a central character, and features a drug-fuelled walk through a nighttime carnival. The inspiration is clear. Anne, Emily and their substance-abusing brother Branwell had died from tuberculosis within nine months of each other several years before. Moreover, Brontë’s hypochondriac father Patrick, prey to contemporary fears of ‘nervous disorders’, obsessively read Thomas John Graham’s 1827 Modern Domestic Medicine, as Sally Shuttleworth shows in Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (1996). So Brontë’s portrayals of the pathological — from the fiery ‘madwoman’ Bertha in Jane Eyre to Villette’s frozen, tortured Lucy Snowe — are unsurprising. (Even Brontë’s descriptions of some of the animals she saw at London Zoo have a Bertha-esque feel, from a hyena emitting “a hideous peal of laughter” to a cobra with the “eyes and face of a fiend”).

The physician John Forbes in 1852, by John Partridge (drawing).

The physician John Forbes in 1852, by John Partridge (drawing).

US National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia Commons

On her final trip to London in 1853 to check the proofs of Villette, Brontë sought to further probe extremes of human experience — “the real rather than the decorative side of Life”, as she saw it. She visited Newgate and Pentonville prisons and may have seen Bethlehem (Bedlam) Hospital with medical moderniser John Forbes, whom she had consulted years before about Anne’s health. George Smith related how in Newgate, Brontë responded compassionately to a prisoner who had allegedly killed her own child. But no letter from Brontë recording these visits has surfaced; and if she wrote none, it is an odd omission given her preoccupations, Cory noted.

Those preoccupations also led to a fascination with phrenology, the era’s pseudoscientific attempt to create a material theory of mind; the callipers in Cory’s show are the tool of the trade. On one London visit, Brontë had visited a practitioner anonymously with Smith to have her head ‘read’. The report is startling:

Temperament for the most part nervous… [The forehead] bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. It is highly philosophical. It exhibits the presence of an intellect at once perspicacious and perspicuous…

The exhibition, including the dress Bronte wore to a dinner given by Thackeray.

A view of the exhibition, showing the dress Bronte wore to a dinner given by Thackeray.

Gareth Gardner/Sir John Soane’s Museum London

Ultimately, like the exhibition (the author may never have visited the museum but, Cory declared, “ought to have”), we must speculate in trying to understand Brontë’s take on science. What did this brilliant but relatively unsystematic student of the mind, this writer preoccupied with interiority, think of the Victorian endeavour to unpeel the secrets of the Universe, from geological strata to ‘ghostly’ conundrums such as energy?

Says Shuttleworth: “She was a voracious reader of the periodicals of the time, which carried detailed accounts of new scientific and medical ideas and advances. In the pages of her novels one can track the language of the psychology of the era, transformed into a new mode of psychological presentation. Charlotte Brontë was a writer both of her time, and in advance of it.”

After Brontë’s death in 1855, the ‘invisible Universe’ of atoms and rays was gradually empirically revealed. That Brontë had trawled the unseen currents of the psyche and put her findings in books so revealing of human behaviour testifies to the power of another way of seeing.

Charlotte Brontë at the Soane is at Sir John Soane’s Museum London13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, through 7 May.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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