'The Bronte Cabinet' explores the true lives of the famous literary sisters

Charlotte Bronte's writing desk
Charlotte Bronte's writing desk on display at the Bronte Parsonage Museum on February 8, 2012 in Haworth, England. The famous Bronte sisters lived at Haworth Parsonage from 1820 to 1861. Their former home is now a museum containing many of the items used by the family.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images

What stories do our possessions tell?

Deborah Lutz cracks open this question when it comes to the Bronte sisters. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte are perhaps the best known set of literary sisters — Charlotte for "Jane Eyre," Emily for "Wuthering Heights" and Anne for "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall."

Lutz's new book, "The Bronte Cabinet," explores the sisters' lives using nine objects they once owned. She pulls stories from the walking stick they used to ramble through the moors, and from a bracelet made out of Emily and Anne's hair.

Haworth Village, birthplace of the Bronte sisters
A general view of Haworth Village, the birthplace of the famous Bronte Sisters in Haworth, England. The Bronte sisters lived at Haworth Parsonage from 1820 to 1861.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images 2011

These objects reveal details of the sisters' everyday lives and of their path to publication. Charlotte started hand-stitching her own books at age 13 — they were no bigger than a matchbook and she wrote in such small handwriting, they're nearly impossible to read.

Emily Bronte's artist and geometry set
Emily Bronte's artist and geometry set on display at the Bronte Parsonage Museum.
Christopher Furlong | Getty Images 2012

A little snooping between sisters is what kicked off their literary careers. When Charlotte was rifling through Emily's writing desk, she discovered her poetry and got the idea that the three should collaborate on a collection. It eventually went to print under the male pseudonyms of Curer, Ellis and Acton Bell — it sold only three copies, but they continued to use those pseudonyms as their careers took off.

Lutz unpacks their lives with these everyday items, even spending time on their pet dog's collar, which has survived the ages. She also digs into the mystery behind one of Charlotte's letters that was torn up, and later stitched back together. With these pieces, she roots the Brontes' legacy in physical objects, to fascinating effect.

Lutz joined MPR News' Kerri Miller Monday to discuss the literary sisters and the secrets their possessions reveal.

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