Small Book, Big Story: Bronte Manuscript Discovered

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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."

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