Victorian Literature and Culture
Susan David Bernstein, Boston University

Unpicking Aesthetics: Conceptual Art and the Brontës


What can you do with a century-old volume of Jane Eyre besides read it or hurl it back at an obnoxious cousin? Conceptual artist Ellen Bell (no relation to Ellis, Currer, or Acton Bell) creates material art out of Brontë’s novel as well a biographical details of the sewing labors of the Brontë sisters. The selection of words, the shape of the object itself, and the very process of piecing it together constitutes what I call “unpicking aesthetics,” the recycling old into new forms and transforming one creative work into another. Charlotte Brontë and her sisters routinely unpicked and turned worn garments into clothing that perpetuated the life of the fabric they wore. This “unstitching” process is a kind of sustainability, not only for the pages of books but also for recycling well-read texts to renew the pleasure and pain of Victorian women’s domestic and creative labors.