Literature · Research

What’s Old Is New: Reflections from My Summer Research

“What when & how shall I be when I have got through?”

When my professor/adviser first approached me regarding my college’s new summer fellowship, it seemed far-fetched. My college has an abundance of students in various scientific fields: molecular biology, chemistry, environmental science, etc. . These students (and professors) are doing important work, which typically requires a certain type of research that people like me (English majors) do not need. Their studies are far more hands-on, usually needing certain equipment to get the job done. As a result, there is a common misconception that students of the humanities only need books and articles to sustain their research. What use is a physical copy of a 1839 manuscript of a poem when you can find it on some website? When the final work has been published anyway?

This was the concern we had during the application process, that the directors of my college’s undergraduate research center would think the same, giving preference to the sciences, when it came to choosing recipients. I was especially worried because after sending in the application, in which I expressed a desire to do research in Manhattan, I made an important connection in my project that resulted in a strong need to see Anne Brontë’s bible, which I learned just so happened to be housed at the Morgan, one of my desired research locations. My application was a bit vague, but now I had a specific need to receive the fellowship and couldn’t tell the directors of the center! I was certain this lack of information would break me and ruin my chances of getting the opportunity to do this hands-on research.

But I’m dramatic, and my name ended up being the first of the inaugural summer fellows to be called.

The planning that went into our research trip was way easier than we both expected. We applied for access to both the Morgan and the New York Public Library nearly two months in advance, worried more time would be needed for our applications to be processed, but the librarians in charge of the reading rooms at both places got back to us within a few days. They were kind and welcoming, despite their rooms having rules stating colored nail polish wasn’t allowed. In fact, out of four collections I applied to see, only one denied us access, citing the need to preserve the items. At first, we were disappointed, but by the end of our research, we realized it was a blessing – my professor and I were both starting to go stir-crazy from looking at so many items in such a short period of time.

Stepping off the Megabus and stepping onto the New York City sidewalk was instantly a culture shock. I’m from a small town populated with a good amount of Amish people. People drive everywhere, any sidewalks are not heavily populated, and public transportation is practically non-existent – you need to go to the next town for that. My experience in big cities is limited to random and short trips to Pittsburgh and Cleveland (and one weekend in Indianapolis) so nothing could have never prepared me for navigating the streets of rush-hour Manhattan at peak humidity, while carrying luggage and searching for our hotel – and later for the Morgan. As a result, that first morning was miserable, and I hate to admit how welcoming and necessary a Starbucks iced tea was.

Once out of the heat and inside the libraries’ respective reading rooms, everything came together. Despite having no time for breakfast, no time for lunch, and a lack of hydration, the hours spent at the Morgan and NYPL were useful. I spent three wonderful days immersing myself into the Victorian Age – my favorite era for literature – and into the lives of my favorite literary family, the Brontës. Original letters, manuscripts, personal copies of psalms and other scripture, drawings. My professor and I even had Charlotte Brontë’s handwritten, completed copy of her first novel The Professor at our disposal, complete with an introduction from Arthur Bell Nicholls, the author’s widower.

Of course, the items I was most interested in directly pertained to Anne, the most underrated of the sisters. My research centers on the youngest member of the Brontë family: her life, her works, her views. In Anne Brontë’s writing, you will not find surprise wives who have gone mad, nor will ghosts harass you on cold winter nights. Instead, you will be confronted with reality. Drunken husbands who repeatedly commit infidelity. Single mothers trying to create a better life for their children. The killing of birds by stoning. Confined women longing for something more. These people and actions all find their way into the woman’s work because she bared witness to it all. Brontë hoped to educate her audience instead of catering to 19th century society’s often delicate senses.

Getting to look through a collection of her handwritten poems was amazing. Seeing poems like “A Word to the Calvinists” (later published as “A Word to the Elect,” seemingly to make the attack on the religion less obvious) and “The Captive’s Dream” (alternatively published as “The Captain’s Dream”), which I discuss specifically in my section on Brontë’s poetry, affected me. I could see any changes she made in these manuscripts. Her elegant script occasionally with a strike through to allow an alteration. With nearly every poem, my professor and I pulled up the published versions on our laptops to see if they were consistent with each other. Surprisingly, they weren’t always the same. Differences in punctuation – usually changing a period to exclamation – or putting more emphasis on certain words in the published versions all served to make the quiet sister appear more forceful in her writing. These discoveries led us to some questions: Do other manuscripts of Anne’s exist that reflect these changes? Or did someone else edit them before publication? If so, who? And why? It could be that during her lifetime, her work was published under the gender-neutral (though presumably masculine) pen-name Acton Bell, and Anne – or the more industry-savvy Charlotte or a publisher – felt the writing needed to be more forceful to be seen as that of a man.

Also interesting were letters of Charlotte’s discussing Anne. These letters were either to Ellen Nussey, a friend of Charlotte’s, or to William S. Williams, the sisters’ publisher. When discussing Anne, the bulk of the older sister’s words reflected the youngest’s illness. The correspondences show Anne was weak soon after Emily’s passing, that their symptoms were similar. As a result, you see Charlotte’s concern for her sister’s future, as it seems predictable. Perhaps more interesting in these letters, however, is Charlotte’s refusal to admit any similarities between her own Mr. Rochester and Anne’s Arthur Huntington. After her publisher read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, arguably Anne’s most popular work, he suggested the two characters were alike. In her response, Charlotte shut this comment down in an instant, finding Rochester to represent good and Arthur evil. While it cannot be argued that Huntington is anything but bad, recent readers have been more likely to acknowledge Rochester’s evilness than before, finding him to be very manipulative, a trait he shares with Huntington.

Though Brontë’s bible didn’t give me the information I longed for (I expected marginal notes alongside passages), I was able to verify the exact wording of Proverbs she would have read in her two year study of the Holy Bible, something I deemed essential in my section on Agnes Grey, the author’s first novel, and animal rights. Not to delve too far into my analysis, but I argue that the eponymous governess sounds like a 21st century vegan/animal rights activist when she goes against her pupil and his mother regarding his killing of innocent animals. Brontë, a religious woman and lover of animals, could have read certain passages of her Bible and applied them to not only humans but defenseless animals as well. Passages encouraging readers to speak up for the voiceless could have inspired the author.

Perhaps more importantly, however, through her bible, I discovered how open she was to change. In one of the first pages of her copy, she wonders, “What when & how shall I be when I have got through?” She approached her reading with the knowledge that she may very well be someone else entirely once she finished. Brontë is an author that was ever-changing, willing to move and grow based on new information. In a world where women were supposed to be one way – silent and often suffering, meek – Brontë was never stagnant, not as a writer or a woman. Through her writing, she encouraged women to reach for something better, to not give in to the stifling role women were forced to take during the years in which Queen Victoria ruled.

Similarly, I wondered who I would be once my time in New York City was up. From the start of my research, way back in February, my main concern was getting burnt out on my favorite writer. Would I grow to hate the time period, the novels, the woman? After draft upon draft, revision up revision, I never tired of Anne Brontë. The more I learned, the more I loved. The same happened those days in NYC. I was exhausted and starving, my eyes hurt from squinting at the tiny handwriting, my head hurt each day my laptop died in the rooms with no outlets, forcing me to resort to paper and pencil – just like the women I researched. Yet all of this could not diminish how I felt about an author that meant so much to me. I began to appreciate her even more than before and longed to go back and re-read her works, which, for the time being, is impossible.

Giving students pursuing a degree in the humanities an opportunity like this is amazing. It re-emphasizes our individual studies and choices. It shows our research is just as meaningful as the conventional scientific research. All forms of student research are important, whether the individuals make a huge breakthrough or not.

 

 

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