Friday 26 April 2024

Valerie Sanders on clothes in the Brontë novels

University of Hull's Valerie Sanders used Rachel Ferguson’s 1931 novel The Brontës Went to Woolworths as a jumping-off point for a fascinating look at clothes in Charlotte Brontë’s novels – how they are described and what they signify. 

On a sartorial trip through the juvenilia, the letters and the mature novels, Prof. Sanders showed what clothes and dressing meant for Charlotte, both in real life and in her fiction. 

“In her novels, Charlotte takes clothes very seriously. She revels in descriptions of them, not just as indicators of a moral value system, but they also can be enjoyed as sensual experiences,” Prof. Sanders said in her talk to the Brussels Brontë Group on Saturday 20 April 2024. In general, clothes express the class, taste and values of the wearer. “They are crucial to Charlotte Brontë for indicating a character’s moral as well as social status,” she said. 

The characters in Ferguson’s 1931 book imagine what the Brontë siblings might buy at Woolworths, concluding: “They’d be after the dreary things.” While it is true that the author of Jane Eyre wasn’t noted for her sense of style, Prof. Sanders admitted, Charlotte may have been less like her character “plain” Jane Eyre than is commonly assumed, she said. 

An exhibit at the Brontë Parsonage in 2002 – ‘Inside Charlotte Brontë’s Wardrobe’ – demonstrated how Charlotte had a sense of fashion, she said. The Guardian newspaper at the time noted how the exhibit revealed Charlotte’s “unexpected penchant for colourful, fashionable, even ‘sensual’ clothing,” focusing in particular on a “bright pink wrapper” that was a main element of the show. 

The supposed Thackeray Dress

Another Charlotte Brontë garment that was the star of a show was the so-called Thackeray Dress included in a Morgan Library exhibit in New York City in 2016. It was the infamous blue dress that Charlotte may or may not have worn to a much-discussed gathering at William Makepeace Thackeray’s house in London. The Thackeray Dress overshadowed Branwell Brontë’s “Pillar Portrait” of his three sisters, which was also in the Morgan Library show. 

In another London incident, Charlotte together with Anne had “a bit of a clothes-embarrassment situation, because they are taken out to the opera and they haven’t got the right clothes,” Prof. Sanders said. This was in 1848 when they went to introduce themselves to their publisher. Charlotte wrote in a letter: “We had no fine, elegant dresses either with us or in the world! … we attired ourselves in the plain, high-made, country garments we possessed. … They must have thought us queer, quizzical looking beings.” 

In her letters, we often hear Charlotte talking about clothes, Prof. Sanders said. But it’s more interesting how she talks about clothing and dress in her novels. “Partly, obviously, to tell us about the characters and their values. But she goes beyond that,” Prof. Sanders said. She gave some sartorial samples from the novels, showing how Charlotte’s descriptions of clothes developed as her writing career progressed. 

Mr. Rochester in drag
For example, the “brown stuff frocks of quaint fashion” that are the uniform of Lowood school in Jane Eyre. And the grand gowns the ladies wear at Thornfield Hall, and Rochester cross-dressing in shawls and a turban. And Prof. Sanders reminded us that there is also a turban on Dr. John in Villette

One of my favorites is in The Professor when William Crimsworth complains about what the English wear to church: 

Gracious goodness! why don’t they dress better? My eye is yet filled with visions of the high-flounced, slovenly, and tumbled dresses in costly silk and satin, of the large unbecoming collars in expensive lace; of the ill-coats and strangely fashioned pantaloons … (chapter 19) 

“Even then, the Brits were scruffy dressers abroad,” Prof. Sanders said. 

More seriously, after the penniless Jane Eyre accidentally leaves her spare cloak on the coach, “she is reduced to this famous phrase of being a ‘well-dressed beggar’,” Prof. Sanders said. So people would think, "what can she be? A fallen woman is the most likely idea,” she adds. 

But her clothes save her. “At her lowest point, her reputation as a respectable woman – and not a beggar or fallen woman – is defined almost entirely by her clothes,” Prof. Sanders said. “They save her reputation, which is why they are so desperately important.” 

In Shirley, Caroline Helstone’s main creative outlet is clothes and dressing other people. She starts with rather frumpy older women, like her cousin Hortense and her long-lost mother, Mrs. Prior, and eventually she starts to dress Shirley as well, Prof. Sanders said. “Caroline is actually something of a fashionista,” she said. 

 … and while Mademoiselle delivered a solemn homily on her own surpassing merit in disregarding all frivolities of fashion, Caroline denuded her of the camisole, invested her with a decent gown, arranged her collar, hair, etc., and made her quite presentable. (chapter 6) 

From 'Shirley'

“Caroline is very into makeovers,” Prof. Sanders said. “I think this helps build Caroline’s character.” 

Charlotte Brontë in Shirley displays “a very different way of writing about dress from Jane Eyre. Most obviously, Caroline is not an autobiographical narrator; instead, we have two third-person characters, Shirley and Caroline,” Prof. Sanders said. 

“Whereas Jane’s taste and values are defended and explained directly to us,” dialogue is used in the later novel, as Caroline and Shirley can talk to each other about what to wear, she said. 

In Villette, the setting of a girls’ school gives more scope for a focus on clothes and fashion, as when the students dress for fete days. In this novel, Mrs. Bretton dresses Lucy Snowe – the opposite of Caroline dressing the older women in Shirley, Prof. Sanders noted. This includes the purchase of a pink dress, which Lucy objected to: 

‘A pink dress! I knew it not. It knew not me. I had not proved it.’ (chapter 20) 

Prof. Sanders dipped into the phrase “not proved it” a bit. “It is a strange expression, combining echos of ‘approved’ – I have not approved it – but also not tested it – or shown it to be true,” she said. “I don’t know whether it is going to suit me or not.” Lucy, unnerved by the brightness of the pink dress, finds the only way she can cope with the garment is to soften it with a black shawl. 

“This is the scariest dress in the whole of the Brontë oeuvre,” Prof. Sanders said. 

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This is the second talk that Valerie Sanders, emeritus professor of English at the University of Hull, has given to the Brussels Brontë Group. She gave a presentation in 2011 on Fatherhood and the Brontës

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