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There really is “Something About Arthur”: A peek into Charlotte Brontë’s childhood

By Kelsey McKinney

The daughters of Patrick Brontë built a literary empire. Combined, the three women published seven novels and two books of poetry. In 1847 alone, Charlotte published Jane Eyre, Emily published Wuthering Heights, and Anne published Agnes Grey. For the Brontës, literature was a way of life that started young. Charlotte’s unpublished juvenilia book “Something About Arthur,”—housed at the Ransom Center—provides an active look into the childhood imagination of a woman who would become a major part of the Western literary canon.

Charlotte Brontë wrote “Something About Arthur” at the age of 17 shortly after returning from boarding school. The text is 25 pages long and includes a 42-line poem. It is the story of a struggling artist who battles an arrogant aristocrat for the heart of the heroine, Lady Emily Chalwort. Like many of Charlotte’s juvenilia books, “Something About Arthur” is small enough to fit in one hand, measuring only 5.7 cm by 9.5 cm (2.5 inches by 3 5/8 inches). Charlotte’s handwriting is microscopic and barely legible.

Charlotte’s motivation for creating such small books is debated. Patrick Brontë was by no means a poor man, though it is suspected that he may not have wanted to fund the paper cost of his children’s fantasies. The distance from the Brontë house to the nearest store to buy paper could be a reason. Some suspect that the small words kept the stories secret from adult eyes or that Charlotte was merely trying to imitate newspaper print. The most common theory, however, is that the books were originally created for a group of toy soldiers. In 1826, the year the first small manuscript was created, Patrick Brontë returned from a conference toting a set of 12 wooden soldiers for Branwell, the second eldest and only male child. Eventually, each child chose his or her favorite soldier. The stories in these juvenilia manuscripts, it is speculated, were not about the soldiers, but created for them. Thus, the size of the book would need to be in direct proportion to the size of the soldier.

When creating the worlds for their toy soldiers, the Brontë children were divided. Charlotte played primarily with the next eldest, Branwell, leaving Emily to play with Anne. Charlotte and Branwell created an imaginary kingdom and filled it with the characters of their imagination. They named the imaginary world Verdopolis. They created characters with names, occupations, and motivations. Charlotte transcribed their fantasies in her tiny, illegible hand. These fantasies became “Something About Arthur” and what is known as the “Glass Town” series. The majority of Charlotte’s juvenilia novellas are set in Verdopolis, the earliest written at the age of 14. “Something About Arthur” was written three years later, and Charlotte stopped writing about the characters of Verdopolis by her mid-20s.

The Brontë sisters’ fiction has long been the subject of biographical interpretation. The Brontë children were known to be social recluses. Charlotte especially was timid and often struggled to cope with her surroundings. Some scholars claim that because the Brontës spent the majority of their lives secluded, the fiction they produced must be the product of their own circumstances. Yet others dispute this claim. We may not see Charlotte herself in the characters of “Something About Arthur,” but we do see Charlotte’s evolution as a writer. This tiny book shows her love for strong heroines, current events, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her writing mimics gothic literature and the adventure novel, two devices she would discard in her later works. “Something About Arthur” is the beginning of a craft that would be skillfully and carefully honed.

The Ransom Center acquired “Something About Arthur” in 1952 through the Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark Foundation. Fannie Ratchford, esteemed figure in the Ransom Center’s history, orchestrated the entire affair.  Miriam Lutcher Stark pledged her entire library to the university in 1925. Knowing that his library contained a similar Brontë juvenilia piece titled “The Green Dwarf,” Miss Ratchford prompted him to acquire “Something About Arthur” in 1952 when she found it on the market. He did just that. Today both juvenile manuscripts, and Miss Ratchford’s correspondence with Lutcher Stark, can be found in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Last December, another of Charlotte’s juvenilia books sold at auction to Le Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris. This book was the first in the “Glass Town” series, penned in 1826 when Charlotte was 14. It too is believed to have been written for the wooden soldiers.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.

 

Three Ransom Center authors announced as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award

By Kelsey McKinney

Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, and Anita Desai were selected as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, and Anita Desai were selected as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Authors Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, and Anita Desai were selected as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  The Ransom Center holds the archives of Banks, Delillo, and Desai.

Banks was nominated for his twelfth novel Lost Memory of Skin, DeLillo was nominated for his collection of short stories The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, and Desai was nominated for The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three novellas.

DeLillo was awarded the PEN/Faulkner award in 1991 for his novel Mao II (1991). Banks was previously nominated for Affliction (1990) and Cloudsplitter (1999). This is the first nomination for Desai.

The winner of the 2012 PEN/Faulkner award will be announced on May 5, 2012.

To celebrate this news, the Ransom Center will give away a signed copy of a Russell Banks book. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Banks” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the book. [UPDATE: The contest has closed, and the winner has been notified. Congratulations to David J., winner of a signed copy of Affliction by Russell Banks.]

Related content:

Anita Desai’s latest book now on shelves

Don DeLillo and David Mamet honored by PEN

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

In the galleries: Russell Banks adapts to a word processor

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" opens this week in Austin

By Alicia Dietrich

Playwright Tom Stoppard wanted to incorporate ideas of chaos theory and thermodynamics into the intricately structured plot of his play Arcadia. His archive shows how he consulted with his son, a physics graduate student at Oxford University, and with his son’s colleagues to get the details just right.

The play opened to acclaim at the National Theatre in London on April 13, 1993, and now Austinites can see an Austin Shakespeare performance of Arcadia, which opens Thursday and runs through February 19 at the Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

The Stoppard archive, which was acquired in batches between 1991 and 2000, spans more than 60 years and includes materials related to Arcadia and other well-known works, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).

To celebrate the opening of Arcadia this week, the Ransom Center is giving away two tickets to the Sunday, February 5 performance at 3 p.m. Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley will speak about “The Real Tom Stoppard” before the performance at 2:15 p.m.

Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Arcadia” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the tickets. [Update: A winner has been chosen and notified for this drawing.]

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Musician Graham Reynolds plays an interlude during the program “Censorship,” presented by the Harry Ransom Center in conjunction with the Dionysium. Photo by Pete Smith.
Musician Graham Reynolds plays an interlude during the program “Censorship,” presented by the Harry Ransom Center in conjunction with the Dionysium. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visitors at the Dionysium event enjoy a night of lecture, debate, theatrical presentation, and music. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visitors at the Dionysium event enjoy a night of lecture, debate, theatrical presentation, and music. Photo by Pete Smith.
Isaiah Sheffer of Selected Shorts reads selections from some notorious banned books. Photo by Pete Smith.
Isaiah Sheffer of Selected Shorts reads selections from some notorious banned books. Photo by Pete Smith.
Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of The New York Times Book Review, spoke informally with Ransom Center staff about the future of publishing. Photo by Pete Smith.
Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of The New York Times Book Review, spoke informally with Ransom Center staff about the future of publishing. Photo by Pete Smith.