Victorian Paper Art and Craft: Writers and Their Materials

Lutz, Deborah. Victorian Paper Art and Craft: Writers and Their Materials. Oxford University Press, 20 January 2023, 240 pp., $45.00 (hardcover), ISBN: 9780198858799

In 1845, desperate after months of silence from Constantin Heger, the French professor she loved, Charlotte Brontë wrote to him in a frantic state. She begged for the crumbs of his friendship in the strongest of terms, ascribing a life-giving quality to his written word. Her final letter ends with a plea: “when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away” (qtd. in Harman, 221). We lack Heger’s replies to Brontë, and therefore cannot understand their affair in full, but there is enough evidence to suggest he didn’t reciprocate her affection. In fact, if Brontë derived nourishment from Heger’s paper correspondence, then he saw utility in hers. This final letter from Brontë served out a second life as scratch paper on Heger’s desk. The sheet is worn and creased, and Charlotte Brontë biographer Claire Harman reports that “next to Charlotte’s pleas … [Heger] has noted the address of a cobbler” (222). Today, we might call what Heger did to Brontë’s letter “scrapping.” He does not destroy the letter per se — mutilated, it still survives in the British Library— but he does turn it into scrap paper, stripping it of its emotional significance, the despairing hope with which it was initially addressed to him.

While Heger was scrapping love letters (ostensibly due to indifference), Brontë and her fellow women writers were engaging in other, more generative scrapping practices. Though this particular letter between Brontë and Heger wasn’t covered in Deborah Lutz’ latest monograph, Lutz does delve deep into similar archives for her project, titled: Victorian Paper Art and Craft: Writers and Their Materials. Lutz dwells, for instance, on what she calls Elizabeth Gaskell’s “scrappy quality.” In the second chapter of her book, Lutz uses Gaskell’s own words to describe the author’s information-hoarding method, the wide circle of important female acquaintances from which Gaskell collects, to which she distributes the “quantities of bits and crumbs” which she later uses to infuse her novels with humanity (45). Lutz draws tangible connections between the scrapbooking album culture of the early- and mid-nineteenth century and the writing of various Victorian women, pointing to surviving pages from Gaskell’s and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s manuscripts saved as contributions to friendship albums (51, 162). To Lutz, the notebook and to some lesser extent the album are “incipient books” (63, elsewhere)—collections of scraps that serve as  self-referential testaments to those “generous, if officious” friendships between women later replicated in fiction (1). Less communal scrap collections also mattered to the creative processes of some Victorian women writers: the “commonplace book,” for example, a notebook of favourite passages, which George Eliot dubbed a “quarry” to be mined for literary context and rich material while drafting (Lutz 73).

In almost all five chapters of her book, Lutz draws connections between Victorian women writers and their fictional characters—the relationships on page and in life that these writers had with journaling, scrapping, crafting, and self-making. Emily Brontë’s Catherine Earnshaw defaces her mouldy little library in Wuthering Heights (1847), just as the Brontë sisters wrote diary entries and character lists for their fictional island Gondal in the margins and endpapers of their own educational and religious tracts. Eliot derides her own meticulous record-keeping in the character of Edward Casaubon, writing of her despair when she finishes a project and is left with her own looming research, worrying that she may waste her potential in minute efforts as he has (Lutz 79). In Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), characters talk over which beloved, “yellowed letters,” are to be laid out, crafted with, or burnt (51), while Gaskell herself kept pre-written manuscript sheets handy, stored in a drawer indefinitely and waiting to be requested by a friend for an album or included in a larger story. According to Lutz, Gaskell’s Cranford especially effects a sort of piecemeal authenticity cobbled together, scrapbook-like or quilt-like, into bound stacks of details at once narrowly particular and broadly recognisable as the stuff of life.

Sampler made by Mary Frances Heaton, ca. 1852. Mental Health Museum, Wakefield

Lutz’s study also elucidates subtler ties between craft (including needlework as well as album culture, marginalia, journal-keeping) and novel-writing, locating an autobiographical urge to combine the domestically mundane and the historically relevant as characteristic of both women’s novels and women’s albums, letters, notebooks, and scraps. Through this focus on the “sorts of artifacts [which] hardly ever end up in archives … unless they were put into an album or used to shore up a piece of literature,” Lutz resists defining clear parameters of method, prioritising information—the history of a practice or of a physical thing—rather than attempting to draw direct lines between the authors she includes in her study (99). Lutz sees poem drafts next to chore lists in journals and, in the proximity of the two, finds proof that, for some Victorian authors, art belongs to the everyday. In collaborative friendship albums and autograph albums, Lutz sees pseudo-publishing circles, as if these authors, keeping records and courting audiences, were aware that their personal correspondence and writings wouldn’t be kept intact after their deaths. Gaskell’s album keeping was, at least in part, a networking tool, and a reason her methodology and personal history remain partially preserved.

Hand-crafted paper dolls sewn to a page of Miss Jane Edwards’s friendship album, dated 1830–70. The Jane Edwards album, © The British Library Board

Lutz has studied such material possessions before, in The Brontë Cabinet: 3 lives in 9 objects (2015), where she argues that such archival sources are a key to understanding the living of creative lives. This book, too, is concerned with such proximity and the significance, both in narrative and life, formed by the proximity of things and bodies to paper. Preserved plants and locks of hair between sheets of paper collapse time for readers as, in common understanding, only fictional stories can (59). To bind books in the old dresses of friends—the dust jacket of Victorian Paper Art and Craft features one such volume—or to sketch out a friendship album’s likeness on the title page of a friend’s actual album is to learn how to create layered knowledge communally and how to repurpose dear materials, “wedding the frugal to the artistic” (99). To underline, by way of fingernail-denting, on the pages of a community-shared book is to turn a single-authored text into a collaborative project (also, sometimes, a way to annoy the book’s other readers). Eliot kept a leather blotting sheet marked with her favourite quotations and verses under her manuscript sheets as she wrote, and though not all these selections made their way into her novels and essays, Lutz views Eliot’s proximity to them as an avenue for creative osmosis.

There is a similar type of proximity-based meaning-making built into the structure of her own study. Lutz refers to the project a few times as a work of “archive fever,” and this, in part, is evidenced through its varied and highly detailed endnotes — with often over 12 per page, the reader encounters many extra archival tidbits which live alongside the main text. Like her novelists, who allowed their journals and albums to seep into the narrative methodology of their works, Lutz herself is also “deliberately granular,” encouraging the cobbled-together and hybrid nature of this project (the result of leftover research sidelined on two of her prior monographs) to bleed through (2). Chapters are loosely structured along the framework of a specific author’s paper practices and those of her fictional characters, but this does not keep Lutz confined to well-known authors such as the Brontës, Gaskell, Eliot, and Anna Atkins. In each chapter, she reaches widely across multiple archives and spends nearly as much time surveying the artefacts of almost-nameless women as she spends discussing canonical authors. Her insistence on minute and various detail throughout upholds again an illuminating mode of feminine-coded storytelling — for instance, Lutz communicates to us (in Chapter 5: “Crafting”) the specific type of stitch used by Mrs. Heger to sew up the shreds of Charlotte Brontë’s destroyed love letter to Professor Heger, her husband. This information is not essential to the section’s thesis that stitching, pinning, and binding skills were a textile literacy amongst women writers which transferred into their editing and drafting practices. But sensational particulars such as this shock the reader into attention and remind us that the argument we see portrayed here is not only theoretical but material and personal (the stitch used was baseball stitch, by the way).

Anna Atkins’s photogram, part of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Eng. 1843 93–440

Lutz offers this study to the reader both as an exercise in appreciating our archival records of the papercraft Victorian women engaged in, and as a comprehensive catalog of underappreciated material stages in the creative process of meaning-making. Her final chapter’s focus on Anna Atkins’ photograms—“words produced not with ink or lead but with chemicals, sunlight, and paper” (119)—and the rise of the photograph album in the late 19th century signal a temporal end to the era of scrappy amalgam crafting which Lutz prioritises throughout the rest of the monograph. Instead of mourning this end, Lutz invites the reader to accept and celebrate the mortality of these traditions just as she resurrects them in a new form, offering Victorian Paper Art and Craft up for our marginal scribbles, our gifting and regifting, inviting all information-sifting and meaning-making so long as the book rests in “the warm hands of interested readers” (145).

Amber Bowes is a PhD student at Indiana University Bloomington, where she also works in reference for special collections at the Lilly Library. She studies Victorian literature and culture, and is especially interested in reception and book history. Her most recent public scholarship project, a virtual map of nightlife in 1840’s London, is available online here: can be reached at, and her Twitter handle is @arbowes.

Notes & references

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte: A Life (Viking: 2015)

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