The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.
Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials. Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.
Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.
This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.
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 Charlotte’s unpublished juvenilia book “Something About Arthur,”—housed at the Ransom Center—provides an active look into the childhood imagination of a woman who would become a major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.
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Among the most popular “show and tell” items at the Ransom Center is the collection of famous people’s hair compiled by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. It features locks from 21 authors and statesmen, including John Milton, John Keats, and George Washington.
Scattered about the collections are many other hair samples belonging to various celebrities. The most important were taken from Charlotte Brontë (brunette), Marie Antoinette (a blond lock), and Edgar Allan Poe (a black braid, kept in a locket he gave to his sometime girlfriend Elmira Shelton). When the latter’s hair was exhibited last year for his 200th birthday, it swiftly became one of the most popular items, with younger visitors calling it “creepy.”
There is just something about hair. Composed mostly of the tough protein keratin, it survives practically forever, along with bones (thus Donne’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone”). The Victorians had a particular obsession with hair, as documented in a recent study by Galia Ofek in her book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2009). In an age in which death was omnipresent, hair kept in lockets or bracelets was a way of remembering loved ones. It also had a certain fetishistic component for the Pre-Raphaelities, whose good (Millais’s Mariana) and bad (Holman Hunt’s Isabella) subjects usually had hyperactive follicles.
I had often wondered why Leigh Hunt formed the collection and how it came to us. After a bit of digging, I discovered that John L. Waltman had answered my questions about the hair collection in an obscure journal article back in 1980. Hunt’s interest in hair is well documented. He mentions the collection in one of his “Wishing Cap” essays (ca. 1830s) and wrote three poems on Milton’s hair. Part of the collection derived from Dr. Johnson’s friend John Hoole, although how and when they came to Hunt is not exactly clear. Later locks were clipped from Hunt’s poet friends, such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning.
Along with Milton’s hair, which may have been removed when he was disinterred in 1790, a single golden hair from Lucretia Borgia’s head was Hunt’s prize. He described it as “sparkl[ing] in the sun as if it had been cut yesterday.” Lord Byron stole a portion of a lock in the Ambrosian Library in Milan and presented it to Hunt with a quotation from Alexander Pope: “and beauty draws us with a single hair.”
The Hunt hair collection, minus Lucretia Borgia’s strand, stayed in the Hunt family until 1921, when it was sold at Sotheby’s and purchased by Mrs. Miriam Lutcher Stark, who in turn gave it to The University of Texas at Austin. Until the late 1990s, when the album was rehoused by the Center’s Conservation department, it was still possible to touch the hair of your favorite literary celebrity; today, one can only gawk.
While the authenticity of some of the earlier locks (notably Milton’s) is in some doubt, those of Hunt’s contemporaries are presumably all genuine. They look exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.