As It Happens

This 'perfect miniature magazine' by Charlotte Brontë is heading back to England

The Brontë Society is celebrating its purchase at auction of a tiny tome, written by a young Charlotte Brontë. The elusive miniature magazine completes a collection the society's museum has been building for years.

Rare book Brontë wrote as a teen for her toy soldiers fetches nearly $880,000 at auction

The second issue of the Young Men's Magazine, a miniature manuscript dated 1830, written by Charlotte Bronte when she was 14 years old. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)


It's a little bigger than a matchbox, but smaller than a playing card. It's a miniature publication called The Young Men's Magazine, and it was written by Charlotte Brontë. 

On Monday, that tiny little treasure fetched almost $880,000 at an auction in Paris and now it's coming home to England — thanks to years of effort by the Brontë Society.

The literary society runs the Brontë Parsonage Museum in the village of Haworth in West Yorkshire, which was once the home of the Brontë family. 

Brontë Society spokesperson Rebecca Yorke spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what it means to finally add this rare book to the museum's collection. Here is part of their conversation.

Why did the Brontë Society want to get its hands on this little book so badly?

The society has one of the largest collections of Brontë material in the world. And the little books are some of the most iconic things in that collection for visitors and for scholars.

There were six books originally. And we know that because they're numbered and dated. And the museum already had four. One of them was in a collection called the Law collection. And that entire collection disappeared in the 1930s and nobody knows where that is.

And then there's this last one that came up for auction [Monyda]. It also came to auction in 2011 and the Brontë [Society] actually went to auction that time and were outbid, and it was devastating.

So this was a second chance to bring it home to Haworth, complete the collection, and sort of finish that story.

And you had support, didn't you? Because you didn't want to see this disappear for a second time and not get it. So you had some pretty high-powered people trying to help you get hold of this.

That's right. And, of course, you know we have Judi Dench as our president and she very kindly decided, yes, she would agree to put her name to this campaign.

The Brontës are known and loved the world over. And, you know, just from our Twitter feed alone we know there are high-profile people out there that love the Brontës. And so, we were very fortunate and able to harness some of that support and love.

English author Charlotte Brontë is best known for her novel Jane Eyre, which Yorke says shares some similarities with her teenage writings. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This little book was written by Charlotte Brontë. She was, of course, best known for Jane Eyre. But she ... created this little book, this little magazine, when she was 14. Is that right?

The Brontë children were all encouraged to read very widely. And they were given access to writers like Byron. Their family subscribed to periodical magazines and so the Brontës created these tiny little magazines, which were like facsimiles of things they'd seen.

So this particular series has got a contents page. It says "Edited by Charlotte Brontë." It's got adverts and short stories.

So it's a really early indication that Charlotte wanted to be a writer. She wants to be published. You know, they're just sort of perfect miniature magazines.

You're describing a magazine. But we're talking about something very tiny here. Aren't we? 

That's because Mr. Brontë bought the children some toy soldiers and the children created an imaginary world that were inhabited by these soldiers. They gave their soldiers names.

And so these magazines were created to be of the size for those soldiers to read, and hence the term Young Men's Magazines. Those young men were those soldiers.

And also, because of those Byronic influences that I talked about, sometimes the contents were a bit racy, as you might say. And so it also meant that by making them that size, they were too small for Mr. Brontë to read or Aunt Branwell to read.

Yorke says the miniature magazine includes some 'racy' elements, which she thinks might be why it was written in such small print. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

But they're actual stories. It's not just that they're made to look like when you're making things for a dollhouse or for children. These are actually written. There's a handwritten story or stories in this book, right?

That's what makes it really exciting. These are proper stories in miniscule handwriting. You need a magnifying glass and even then it's a bit of a struggle.

This particular book that we acquired ... has 4,000 words in it. And, in particular, one of the stories is about a murderer who is haunted by his victims. There's a scene that describes him as having a fire in his head that's sort of burning so brightly — this sort of violent feeling in his head — and then he sets his bed curtains on fire.

Anyone who's ever read Jane Eyre will recognize that as being reminiscent of Mr. Rochester's bed and curtains and the bed burning scene in Jane Eyre.

So it's, again, a really early indication that Charlotte's themes that she was trying and playing with as a young teenager were things that obviously stayed with her and then she made them into her more mature work.

The magazine will be added to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, which includes other Brontë family artifacts like Emily Brontë's artist and geometry set. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

But she was writing these Byron-esque stories, there racy stories, when she was 14.

Mr. Bronte was quite forward thinking and radical in the material he let his children read.

They obviously were brought up, to some extent, by their servant and the housekeeper who would have told them bits of gossip from the village.

So, yes, I think that's what's extraordinary. A 14-year-old vicar's daughter wouldn't have been expected to be writing about some adulterous dalliances and illegitimate children. But they did.

Written by Alison Masemann and John McGill. Interview produced by Alison Masemann. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.