The Work of Art as Child: Inversions of Power in the Work of the Brontes
Why is there an obsession with the tiny? A belief in miniaturization's seemingly innate worthiness? Why were the Bronte's drawn to the small-scale – as they most assuredly were, judging from the various miniature books, paintings and objects they created? That which follows is pure supposition since nothing can really be known of the miniature's attraction for them beyond the fact that their most famous mini works - the tiny chronicles of Gondal and Angria - had their beginning in scaled-down newspapers the Bronte children created for a set of toy soldiers presented to Branwell, and in time, due to a shortage of paper and desire that their writings should not be legible to grownups, expanded into sagas written in minute volumes made from scraps of sugar bags, wrapping and wallpaper.
An act of imagination, resourcefulness and subversion, then; and nothing all that unusual, in itself, given that children are apt to create miniature things, and that miniaturization was extremely in vogue with the Victorians; except for the quality of some of the writings, the extent of them, and the scope. These tiny volumes would prove to be the compost from which at least three of the greatest works of nineteenth-century literature would sprout and spawn a parallel fantasy world that would sustain the Bronte children, at one time or another, for the rest of their, often harrowing, lives.
In general it seems that the allure of the miniature owes much to a belief that through endeavor, sheer excellence encompassing a very certain type of beauty closely associated with detail and delicacy, the maker of the miniature feels she can save her soul and wrap it up; can condense – divinely; hold something back from ruin, forever, by ensuring that it is contained in infinitely small but infinitely dense packages retreating still further in ever-greater concentration like neutron stars. Is the diminutive size itself some assurance that no harm will come to the object? Is the danger being noticed and the allure that of going unseen by an all-seeing Eye (though salvation being seen by the right sort of see-er/seer)? Are miniaturizations, in being less overtly noticeable, therefore less vulnerable to destruction?
Or is it – and is it – that they are also charming; so charming that no one could fail to like or want to protect them? Come close to them? If so, the creation of the 'wonderful' miniature plays into the Victorian idolization of the child-like; of all that is small and pure and innocent and naïve, humorous and serious, gay and heartbreaking all at once (whether knowingly or not).
Or, is the appeal that of those typically Victorian virtues: modesty and frugality? The danger of making larger entities one of excess? If so, this could be averted by travelling in the opposite direction; by suggesting the bigger the importance, the smaller the packet; the tinier the object, the more prodigious the intelligence that made it. The romantic fragment (which Charlotte once deliberately faked, tearing the edge of a page of one of their tiny volumes to make it look as though it had been part of a larger piece of paper - or casually created; or, even better, found) has an air of other-worldly mystery, enviable carelessness, as if dashed and cast off - though now intensely valuable (largely owing to the fact that it has skirted so close to oblivion) - so that although the object is enchanting and perhaps beautiful does not appear to have been considered or carefully constructed, to be crafted at all; as, upon closer inspection, it will be found most certainly to have been. This gives an illusion of innocence, purity and something crude, raw and plain; when all the time the fragment it much more highly artificial and constructed than its ostensibly whole counterpart.
And of course, fragments tend to be tiny, and if they have artistic merit because they are fragments (and not because they are part of some larger work of art), tend to be made. For Charlotte to pretend her tiny volume had been written on a scrap of something larger is fascinating, then; simultaneously drawing attention to its' maker's brilliance, dexterity and inventiveness, and suggesting that, at least in this instance, she did not have to resort to using a scrap; that her ostensible inventiveness had, on this occasion, to be deployed in some other way: namely by conjuring a fiction of its own necessity. It also suggests that the work itself – the saga written in minute letters on those tiny pages – needed a frame to justify or perhaps augment its existence; that perhaps, it itself – at least to it's maker – was not quite enough. It also points to a central part of miniaturization's appeal: that the miniature is not so much about the object itself and how well created, but the very fact of its smallness (which Charlotte, in this instance, underlines); miniaturization is not simply smallness, but relation, and can only exist in parallel with something larger that is not itself.
Perhaps then, the impulse to create miniature, ironically, as Charlotte's action suggests, is an impulse to construct something that is, overtly, not even worth that much notice, something apparently insignificant; is a perverse turning the back on that which is obviously worthy of attention and admiration; a love of the unworthy, apparent humility, a desire to play safe - for, should the astronomical effort in fact be ignored, the miniaturist can pretend it does not matter; there was nothing to see in any case.
They could save their souls. Wrap them up, save them through thoroughness - through not missing a thing: not a dot or a dash or a word or a glance. Nothing lost; all gathered in and accounted for; because, ironically, although in the process of making miniature artifacts there are necessarily many details (and internal workings) that must be omitted, the illusion is precisely the opposite: that everything has been documented, faithfully reproduced and accounted for. There is a feeling of peace in such amassing; such satisfaction (at least, when you think you have accomplished it); such cessation of anxiety. The miniaturist has studied the object and consigned every mark and aspect she deemed necessary in order to reproduce its essence, to paper or wood or clay. The miniaturist, in this way, exercising god-like all-seeing, all-knowing control. And the smaller the world, the larger the creator (by contrast).
In a miniature there are, by necessity, far fewer marks than in the full-sized archetype, but each mark can be made to stand for so many more; is an impression only, but one so wonderful that it is, in effect, the whole. This will stand for this; there is almost a ransoming going on. The artist, the creator, decides what stands for what; translates the world for her viewers or readers; controls, codes and decodes reality for us. She is the intermediary, intercessor. A Christ-like figure.
In fact though, the position we adopt to study or make miniatures is the opposite of someone stretched out on a stake: we have to bend over, we have to curl; it is a reverential and a defensive position, one designed to protect our most precious organs, and therefore, in our subconscious mind, aligned with safety. But the miniature artifact does not only implicitly require us to adopt a defensive response, it elicits a protective impulse – quite different from both the responses and postures evoked when creating art of great size, which entails stretching up, standing back, opening outwards.
Looking at and creating miniature things therefore, perhaps engender a sort of comfort: a feeling that the viewer or creator is exercising caution, and hence safe; all while simultaneously acting in a protective way towards the artwork. An interesting inversion arises: the artist, by paying more than the usual attention to create the miniature, hence ensuring the realization of his vision - is himself protected; and, perhaps, created. Miniatures are protected precisely because of their smallness; we daren't handle them more than we can help for fear of damaging them. And so the fragile goes from being a liability to being something extremely powerful; something that commands, and mostly gets, very special treatment.
That is not perhaps surprising given that the impulse to create miniatures at all, at least from observation of my own subtlest motivations, comes from a sort of fear; from an obsessive, introverted, compulsive, tight, detail-oriented/trifle-saving, un-simplifiable psyche - rather, say, than an expansive, sweeping, loose, spacious, happy-to-simplify-and-miss-something-out psyche; the impulse to create miniature comes from a feeling of not enough. Every blade, every stone must be accounted for and recorded. The protective response elicited by miniaturization is thus a completion of the emotional trajectory the artist succumbs to when she begins to create the miniature in the first place: the creator wants protection; the viewer or audience give it; all quite unconsciously.
A miniature work of art elicits a different response to a large one. The feeling of wonder may be similar, but the large work will also involve a feeling in the viewer of being 'impressed' in both senses; being intimidated or over-whelmed. Viewing a miniature will involve a feeling of wanting to appreciate, protect and preserve. The miniature elicits a desire to cherish. A warm feeling is kindled. Perhaps the creators of each work subconsciously want to encounter these different responses, and, according to their personalities, are drawn, for differing reasons, to each form of art.
We come closer to the miniature in order to experience it better. This is suggested in the very roots of the word, which lie in the late 16th century Italian 'miniatura' and came to us via medieval Latin from word 'miniare', meaning to 'rubricate, illuminate'; which in turn came from the word 'minium', meaning 'red lead, vermilion', a substance used to mark particular words in manuscripts with the intention of drawing awareness towards certain details, highlighting their value and significance. The massive work of art, on the other hand, elicits feelings of 'awe'. The origin of this word is also instructive, deriving from Old English 'ege' which means 'terror, dread'; and, faced with great magnitude, the natural human desire is to honor, revere and bow down before. It is, overall, a cold feeling; we draw away to experience the large work of art better.
There is also the fact that in miniature, as everyone knows, there is an immense amount of painstaking, often awkward work; work that wrecks eyesight and health faster than many things. And the sheer amount and weight of the work involved in making miniatures can feel rather like working off a debt or a sentence; it can feel worthy; good in a moral sense, though not pleasurable. It appeases conscience, perhaps.
It is worth noting that when looking at the very small, unlike the very large, we have to concentrate. Our minds, source of such unending, enervating (and mostly pointless) activity – stop - for a precious few moments; we are forced to block out the superfluous and unpleasant and humdrum as we do not do in quite the same way as when contemplate the large, in which we step backwards. With the miniature we are sucked in; it is down the rabbit hole, a vortex of fascination. The movement may not be more powerful, but I believe more consuming and involuntary.
Escape is always attractive and perhaps never more so than when we are in prison-like circumstances, where pleasures, freedom and expression are greatly proscribed, as they were in the period in which lived the Brontes. There are no human-sized openings, only chinks, interstices. Which sometimes, when entered, expand; exponentially. Often the tighter the constraints, the greater the outpouring; the severer the paucity the more astonishing the host. The smaller the cell, the larger seems the inmate and the more powerful the effusion, the narrower must be the strait.
Of course, we are now talking metaphorically and no longer about the physically diminutive artifacts created by the Brontes but their various literary achievements, all of which rose from a life that (certainly for Emily and Anne) could not have been much narrower or very much shorter or all that more bleak.
But that is how it happens: the crucible. Through the very smallness comes immensity. The initial limitation is an incitement, then a virtue, and even, sometimes, a gift.