Brontë link to historic volumes of British shells

Four-volume: History of British Mollusca.
Four-volume: History of British Mollusca.
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written by Jeannie Swales

What connects a scholarly, but, it has to be said, somewhat dry set of volumes on British shells to the restrained romanticism of one of Britain’s best-loved novels?

The answer lies in the name ‘Currer’. It was the Christian name adopted by Charlotte Brontë, later author of Jane Eyre, when she self-published with her sisters Anne and Emily (‘Acton’ and ‘Ellis’) their first volume, a collection of poetry, under the joint surname ‘Bell’.

Charlotte herself explained: “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine... we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice...”

But where did that unusual given name that Charlotte chose come from? It’s believed it may have been a tribute to a Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861) of Skipton, an early member of the Scarborough Philosophical Society which, in the early 1800s, built the Rotunda museum.

When the museum opened in 1829, women made up just 10 per cent of its membership – and it was to be a further 70 years before one achieved the dizzying heights of being elected as an officer.

But women collectors were a powerful force in the rapidly expanding scientific enlightenment of the late Georgian and early Victorian periods – several were major contributors to the Society during its early years, even though they had no family connection with it.

Miss Currer, who lived at Eshton Hall near Skipton, was a niece of Clive of India, and variously described by other scholars as ‘at the head of all female collectors in Europe’ and ‘England’s earliest female bibliophile’. She is also believed to have given £50 (nearly £4,000 today) to help pay the debts of the Brontë sisters’ father, Patrick, when he was widowed in 1821. Perhaps Charlotte’s adoption of her name 25 years later was a way of saying ‘thank you’?

A highly regarded book collector and scholar, with a library containing some 15,000 volumes, she donated large sums of money to the Society and bought cutting edge scientific books for the museum’s library.

These included the gorgeous leather-bound gilt-edge, four-volume set pictured here: History of British Mollusca by Professor Edward Forbes, FRS and Sylvanus Hanley, published in 1833 by John Van Voorst.

As well as books, Miss Currer also donated assorted examples of minerals to the museum, including malachite, amethyst, mica, azurite and calcite.

The books are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust.

For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or (01723) 384510.