Originally published: 09.12.16
A lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. Or, in this case, a contemporary artwork shared by a witty but mistaken tweeter can lead to a myth taking root worldwide, with over 16,000 retweets and nearly 30,000 Twitter likes in a few days. That’s a lot of people who now think this is true and that Charlotte Bronte really did go for muddy walks in her black silk mourning slippers and then fix them with Emily’s hair, not forgetting to embroider little sprigs of heather on the insoles.
Last week, @BookwitchSara tweeted,
No matter how goth you think you are, you aren’t Charlotte “I repaired my mourning shoes with the hair of my dead siblings” Bronte
together with a photo of what purported to be Charlotte Bronte’s black silk mourning shoes in a glass cabinet at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth.
The label in front of the shoes was clearly visible:
Leather, silk, human hair
Long walks over damp ground caused damage to Charlotte’s mourning shoes which she meticulously repaired with the hair of her departed siblings. A sprig of heather, symbolizing solitude, is believed to have been stitched with Emily’s hair.
Charlotte GREAT & SMALL
she literally repaired her shoes with the actual honest to God hair of her dead siblings.
But she didn’t.
The shoes are part of an artwork by the artist Serena Partridge, who
makes accessories and garments inspired by European costume, dating back some six hundred years. In her work, scale and proportion are distorted to create curios that often send up the futility of life à la mode. Serena renders her follies more mysterious by presenting them as museum acquisitions, encased with fictional labels.
Serena has confirmed on Twitter: she made the shoes, the story is fictional (though Charlotte going for long solitary walks is not) and the hair belongs to a member of the Bronte Parsonage Museum staff and (in a lovely literary twist) the novelist Tracy Chevalier. ‘Charlotte Great and Small’ on the label refers to the name of the installation.
The use of hair in Victorian mourning jewellery is well-known, as is hair embroidery, though I don’t know of it being done on shoes, and it seems unlikely, not least because you wouldn’t want your precious relic of your sister to get foot-sweat and grime on it. I also don’t think you would have worn your expensive black silk mourning shoes for walks–the Victorians had practical outdoor boots just like we do. This is fine, though, it’s part of the fairytale Serena Partridge was spinning, and once you understand the point of her work the incongruities make sense.
So if you have seen and shared the tweet, please share the correction: tell your friends Charlotte did NOT embroider those mourning shoes. She wasn’t a Goth, she was a real Victorian person following the mourning rituals of her age and we owe it to the people who lived in the past to respect the truth about them.
I’m not interested in blaming any of the original three parties involved in this, the artist, the tweeter or the museum. The artwork is exquisite and I feel privileged to have seen it when I visited Haworth. The information about who really made the shoes is there in the museum; it’s quite hard to see, but then, it’s an endlessly tricky call in historic house museums how much text to put in and where to put it. Too much, obtrusively placed, and the atmosphere will be ruined and it will be harder for visitors to see the actual house and objects, but too little, displayed unobtrusively, and you risk people missing important information, as happened here. I do think Metro is culpable, though, because it claims to be a news site and I remember a time when reporting news meant more than just screengrabbing from Twitter without even bothering to go back to the original tweeter’s timeline to see if she had pinned a correction–which she has.
Katharine Edgar is a Yorkshire-based feminist who writes young adult fiction, including the forthcoming Five Wounds. She blogs about her historical fiction writing: Tudor history, women’s history, crafts and writing.