An Aberdeen University study of 19th Century novelist Anne Bronte’s collection of stones has revealed her to be a skilled collector with an active interest in geology.
The youngest of the Bronte sisters accumulated a collection of attractive specimens before her death, aged 29, in 1849.
It was previously thought that she could have collected the items chiefly for their aesthetic value.
However, research by scholars at Aberdeen University has revealed that Anne was an informed and skilled participant in the emerging science of geology.
Using portable Raman spectroscopy, a technique used to identify the mineral composition of rocks and stones, researchers analysed Anne’s collection which is housed at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Howarth in Yorkshire.
They found that as well as carnelians and agates which she collected in Scarborough, where she worked as a governess, the collection contained flowstone, a kind of calcium carbonate that formed in a cave like a stalagmite, and a rare kind of red obsidian which originated outside of the UK.
It is also likely that Anne would have visited the Rotunda Museum close to where she stayed in Scarborough, which contained exhibits featuring the area’s geology.
Sally Jaspars, a student at Aberdeen University’s department of English, is studying Anne Bronte as part of her PhD.
She contacted Dr Stephen Bowden from the University’s school of geoscience for assistance in analysing the collection.
The results of their collaboration, which also involved Professor Hazel Hutchison of Leeds University and Dr Enrique Lozano Diz at ELODIZ, a company specialising in spectroscopy analysis, are published in Bronte Studies.
First time the collection has been scientifically described
This is the first time that Anne’s collection has been systematically described and fully identified, showing her to be scientifically minded and engaging with geology.
Ms Jaspers said: “When I learned of Anne Bronte’s collection I thought it a great opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary research combining science and literature.
“Her interest in geology is mentioned in her literary works – indeed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall she references the science and a book by Sir Humphry Davy directly.
“This is the first time that Anne’s collection has been systematically described and fully identified, and in doing so we add to the body of knowledge on Anne and show her to be scientifically minded and engaging with geology. She was an intelligent and progressive individual who was in tune with the scientific enquiry of the time.”
Mr Bowden said: “Our Raman spectroscopy analysis which we undertook at the Bronte Parsonage Museum shows that Anne Bronte did not just collect pretty stones at random but skilfully accumulated a meaningful collection of semiprecious stones and geological curiosities.
“Anne’s collection comprises stones that are sufficiently unusual and scarce to show that they were collected deliberately for their geological value, and it’s clear that her collection took skill to recognise and collect.”