Sunday, 21 September 2014

Brontë Conference 30.31 August 2014: The Brontës and the Condition of England

The last weekend of August I joined Helen, Judith, Maureen, Jolien and her husband Paul and about 
70 other Brontë lovers/scholars at the Scarman Centre, Warwick University, for the Brontë Society 
Conference 2014. This conference contained five sessions and two additional treats. And indeed we 
were treated! On Friday afternoon Juliet Barker told us what political animals the Brontës were, at 
least when they were young and all at home in Haworth, reading as many magazines as they could lay their hands on and debating the articles read.

The second treat Melissa Hardie-Budden. She is researching the Brontë connection in Cornwall, 
the families of Thomas Branwell and Anne Carne, the maternal grandparents of the Brontës. These 
families were very often in trade. This gave them a wide, though very Cornish, network of connections in all directions of life, including a scientist like Sir Humphrey Davy. There is still a lot more to be done here, but I think Mrs. Gaskell would have been astonished already.

The first Session (on Saturday) was on Patrick Brontë. Dr. Logan, from the Irish branch of the Brontë Society, made clear to us how much Patrick was moulded by the people he met when he was young and still in Ireland. Not only his own kin, but people in a wider circle, who saw how promising a young man he was and helped him to Cambridge University. In Isobel Stirk's story we see Patrick later in life, preaching in the church in Haworth to rich and poor people alike. Patrick would talk to everybody: he wanted to help the poor and needed the rich people to get things done, like healthy drinking water for all the people of Haworth. Brian Wilkes gave us lovely insight in his rich knowledge of all things Brontë and in this case all things Patrick and the world beyond. Marianne Thormählen discussed the case of the Brontë novels being historical fiction or just fiction. Of course Shirley is set in the time of the Luddite Riots, a time Patrick could clearly remember, but there are no historical figures in Shirley, nor in any other of the Brontë novels. 

The theme of the second Session was Religion. Bob Gamble surprised everyone with his research 
done on the education of William Weightman. He calls Weightman and his fellow-students Northern 
Lights, the term used for the lighthouses on the northern shores of Britain, because they were the first students coming from the new University of Durham. And Weightman was not just the flirty, flighty 
young man he looks like in Brontë-lore, but a serious and empathic curate. He could have gone back 
to Durham before the dreadful cholera that killed him, struck Haworth, but he decided to stay and help Patrick with his huge parish.

Sarah Pearson reflected on Charlotte’s ideas on the Condition of the Church of England: it should 
not become too Catholic, nor too Protestant and certainly not too far from the daily life of its people. 
Though Charlotte Brontë is not known for her progressive thoughts on religion these ideas, especially the third one, sound very modern to me.

The third Session was on Industrial Unrest. Ariella Feldman told us, that even in very difficult times for workers, like in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, workers, rebelling against losing their jobs, would still use a folklore kind of yell when attacking the mills, so maybe not all the fairies left, when industrialisation began. Erin Johnson talked us through the influence of the Captains of Industry in those days and of writers and historians like Thomas Carlyle.

The fourth Session on Women started with an interesting talk of Rebecca Fraser on where the Brontë 
sisters, especially Charlotte and Anne, stood in the Woman Question. Birgitta Berglund, who used 
the "yell" 'Fashion in a Feminist Issue' for her talk, made it even more interesting by showing us very 
literally what a part of the Woman Question, the Great Corset Debate, meant to a woman. She is 
sure that the Brontë's wore corsets, because all women did, even working women. Maybe not as 
tightly laced as she was herself by then by her friend and colleague Marianne Thormählen, but still. 

One wonders how any woman could work with a corset on. Or walk on the moors. Or go on with your lecture like Birgitta. It changed her breathing and therefore her voice, like modern day high-heeled shoes change your walking. Molly Ryder, in her talk on ‘Asylum Metaphors in Villette’, kept to the theme of confinement and gave us an insight into what solitary confinement, not just in a corset, but in an asylum could do to a person, woman or man for that matter.

The fifth and last Session was on War and Empire. Emma Butcher showed how in their juvenalia 
Charlotte and Branwell reimagined the times of the Napoleon
ic Wars and the impact of wartime on
the Condition of England. Sarah Fermi, great organiser of this conference, ended the series of lectures by thinking aloud on the question of colour. There is still a lot of research to do on questions like: did the Brontës meet coloured people? Did they know people who got rich by trading slaves? And what did they think about that? And of course the never answered question: where does Heathcliff come from?

Bonnie Greer had in her speech at Conference Dinner told us how important it is to us, members of 
the Brontë Society, to be the true heirs of the Brontës and let nobody else run away with the Brontë 

Many delegates thought this was the best Conference ever. Maybe a few more historians as speakers 
would have given us an even better idea of the Condition of England in Brontë-times, but I do think 
the organisers of the next Conference will have a whale of a job to surpass this Brontë Society 
Conference 2014.

Marcia Zaaijer

Kate Bush concert “Before the dawn”

My impressions regarding the Kate Bush concert “Before the dawn”. After 35 years of silence as far as concerts are concernd, Kate Bush was back on stage in the Hammersmith Apollo in London for 22 concerts between 26 August and 1 October 2014!

Tickets for the concerts were gone in a few minutes. Stressful minutes for those fans who wanted to go, clicking away on the computer to get what was still to be had, and I finally got a “hospitality package” for the opening night on 26 August: a superb hamper of delicious food and drinks in a magnificent setting (St Paul’s neo-gothic church in Hammersmith London, opposite the Apollo 
theatre) as a starter before the concert, premium seats for the concert and the wonderful souvenir book were all included in the package.

The atmosphere of anticipation beforehand, waiting outside with the crowd to get in the concert hall, was really magical. You could feel the excitement everywhere!

I loved the first part of the concert, which was a series of songs followed by a theatrical performance of “The Ninth Wave”: Kate gave a spectacular show, she had a very strong voice and the whole story was fascinating to watch. 

The second part after the break was in my view a little bit less interesting, still spectacular in a way but also  very confusing. Less strong than the Ninth Wave performance.

The anticipation and expectations in the concert hall grew with the “encore”, and although she performed two beautiful songs, you could feel that the audience was waiting for “Wuthering Heights”, which did not come. The audience was applauding for more, but Kate did not return to oblige. That was a little bit of a disappointment, but overall I was glad to have been there and seen it all.

It was certainly a magical evening. Something to treasure always.

Marina Saegerman
5 September 2014

Friday, 22 August 2014

My missing link: A visit to Patrick Brontë’s homeland in Co. Down, Northern Ireland – tracing the Brontë family roots!

Over the years I have been able to visit many places related to the Brontës, both in the UK and in Ireland, but there was one place that I had not yet visited and which is essential to the Brontë history: the place where Rev. Patrick Brontë was born and where he grew up. This was my missing link in the Brontë story. So this year’s mission on our holidays in Ireland was to be a visit to the area where Patrick Brontë was born and lived until he moved to Cambridge, the area around Rathfriland in County Down, Northern Ireland. I have always been fascinated by the Brontës’ Irish ancestry (probably a consequence of my fascination with Ireland in general) and have read all that I could find on this topic. So you can imagine that I was very excited to see the area where Patrick Brontë spent his early years and to visit the places related to his family.

The day of the visit was to be Saturday 26 July 2014. On our way back home from Boyle to Dun Laoghaire (Co. Dublin) a small detour was planned to Northern Ireland, where I booked us into a B&B in Rathfriland for one night.
In preparation of this visit I had been (re)reading some books on the Brontës’ Irish background. My main guidebook for the trip was to be “The road to Haworth – the story of the Brontës’ Irish ancestry” by John Cannon. This book tells the story of the Irish Brontës, it gives a very good picture of their family history (as far as it is known) and it reads like a Brontë novel. It gave me some background information for the visit of the Irish homeland.

We set off in the morning and planned to arrive in the  Rathfriland area around noon.
A few days before our departure I had phoned the secretary of the Irish section of the Brontë Society, Miss Margaret K Livingston, to see whether we could meet her when we were in the area. We decided to meet up at 1 pm for a picnic lunch  at Drumballyroney where the Brontë Homeland interpretative Centre is situated. The Drumballyroney Schoolhouse and Church are also the start of the Brontë Homeland drive.

The Rathfriland area breathes Brontë: a lot of houses or institutions have a Brontë-related name: Brontë manor, the Brontë primary school, a Brontë nursery unit, there was even a house called “Villette”.

We arrived at 12 o’clock on the dot, the time that the interpretative centre opened its doors. No need to say that we were the first visitors of the day. Since we were well before the time set to meet Margaret, I had some time to browse around in the Schoolhouse to see the video on the Brontë family and read all the information panels, giving information on the various members of the Brontë family, including Patrick Brontë’s parents and their unusual “country courtship”. The small schoolroom also contained some exhibits related to Patrick Brontë and the Brontë sisters, amongst others a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress.

Margaret arrived well on time and was accompanied by another member of the Irish section, Mr Finny O’ Sullivan. The weather gods were not on our side that day, it was pouring outside. But a  picnic was planned, and a picnic we would have! Margaret decided to have a picnic in the schoolroom: since we were the only visitors at that moment, this was not a problem. We were treated to a real picnic feast: lovely fresh sandwiches, biscuits, cake, strawberries and cream, tea & coffee and juice, … too much for our poor bellies!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Book launch: "The Brontës in Brussels", 26 June

I suspect I’m not alone in saying that each time I make my way through downtown Brussels to a Brontë event, I gather the aura of the old city as I go, preparing myself for another delicious escape into the nineteenth century. Depending on my mood, and whether or not the North Sea climate has graced the city with mist, I might imagine a little figure in grey on a cobbled corner, or a dark-coated gentleman disappearing down an alley in the park.

I’m sure I’m not alone in confessing that this time, on June 26, as eager as I was to welcome Helen MacEwan’s new Brontë book into the world (The Brontës in Brussels), other matters distracted my journey into town. That is to say, like many of you, I was rather preoccupied by the fate of the Red Devils later that evening as they advanced in the World Cup. Instead of little ladies in grey, therefore, dallying on forgotten corners, I spied Devils supporters in tri-coloured wigs and red horns brandishing lurid, plastic pitchforks, a spectacle that would surely have rendered poor Charlotte and Emily Brontë senseless had they encountered it (though not before confirming their deep suspicion of the Catholic faith’s puzzling obscurantism…).

The above observations are not incidental to this little piece. Helen’s new book is, indeed, a journey back in time to the Brussels the Brontë sisters would have known in the early 1840s. No one can dip into these sumptuous pages without escaping contemporary Brussels – even in all her football finery. Along with a wealth of colour illustrations from the period. The Brontës in Brussels presents a fascinating look at how this city influenced the two sisters’ hearts and imaginations. Cogent details transport the time-traveller immediately: we follow Charlotte on a ramble along the Rue de Louvain, where she refreshed herself with a coffee and currant bun; we slip into an illustration of a wide, leafy boulevard with views over the surrounding countryside, and find ourselves at once elated and heartsick to touch this Brussels we will never know. Thanks to Helen’s book, however, this vanished city still has a pulse. She guides us to those corners where, if we close our eyes, we might still detect a horse’s hoof or rustle of silk in the endless drone of traffic. Such moments bring a familiar frisson to those of us who have spent many years in Brussels and fallen in love with her enigmas.
Most moving of all is Helen’s inclusion of Charlotte’s letters to Constantin Heger. The stark intimacy of these confessions draws the reader far from Brussels, all the way to the moorland chill of Yorkshire and the grey-clad little woman who anguished there, in physical and emotional exile from her “promised land”. It is with a strange sort of clairvoyance that we read those letters, knowing as we do how Charlotte’s genius would eventually transform her despair into great art.

Familiar faces as well as new ones could be seen in the substantial gathering at Waterstone’s on Thursday night. Helen presented a series of slides from her book while subtly drawing us ever deeper into the lost world just outside the door. By the time she’d finished, no one wanted to open that door and step back into real-time Brussels. After a series of stimulating questions (followed by some welcome stimulants of the liquid variety), Helen’s second Brontë book was successfully launched and her appreciative readers dispersed into the evening.

I found myself lingering alone at a bus stop in a sort of Brontë-induced reverie. Nearby, cafés were swelling by the minute with Red Devils supporters, and a passing pitchfork brushed my elbow. But these things barely registered this time. I had eyes only for the elaborate cornices overhead that a Brontë might have glanced up to admire; I kept watch out the bus window for the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudule, trying to imagine what desperation had driven the anti-Catholic Charlotte to mount its steps and seek confession. The bus traversed the mythical “Quartier Isabelle”, so lavishly illustrated in Helen’s book, and as I swept past the Belliard steps, they seemed narrower and steeper than usual, the flash of long grey skirt at their summit utterly unremarkable.

Across from the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a man in a crowded bar was draping himself in the Belgian flag and downing a Jupiler. It’s proof of the early success of Helen’s book that he clearly seemed lost in the wrong century, for I was certain that I’d spotted the watchful Mme. Heger, bustling up and pursing her lips in disapproval. The bus had whisked me up the hill, however, before I could say for sure what her expression had been.
World Cup, 0. Brontës, 1.
Leona Francombe

Monday, 30 June 2014

Annual Brontë Society weekend 14 - 15 June 2014

This year nine members of the Brussels group were in Haworth for the annual ‘AGM weekend’ or ‘Brontë Festival’. The weather was a little changeable and the atmosphere at the AGM slightly unsettled, with the need to fill a couple of key posts on the Brontë Society Council and at the Museum. But we had plenty of sunny spells for walking on the moors and chatting on Main Street café terraces, and meeting up with friends in Haworth was, as always, a joy.

The first event, on Friday 13 June, was a talk by novelist Stevie Davies, author of Emily Brontë: Heretic. She was speaking about her new novel Awakenings, set in 1860 against the background of charismatic religious movements and the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Stevie came to Brussels in 2009 to talk about Emily Brontë and the Mother World. I recommend her novel Four Dreamers and Emily about a Brontë conference in Haworth. Although a fantasy featuring imaginary characters, it will strike a few chords for anyone who has been in Haworth during the Brontë weekend!

Air on Brontë Moor on Friday evening brought together music, images and poems inspired by on the moors around Haworth, with music provided by David Wilson, filmed images by Simon Warner and readings of poetry (his own and that of Emily Brontë, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and others) by Adam Strickson. Although it was jinxed by technical problems, with some images failing to materialise on the screen, it was an enjoyable mix. Earlier in the evening entertainment was provided by Pennine Harps, a quartet of four female harpists.

Air on Brontë Moor
On Saturday, events were packed back to back as always. A talk on the Wesleyan Methodist circles in Cornwall in which the Brontës’ mother, Maria Branwell, and her sister, who looked after them after her death, grew up, was followed by the AGM. Bonnie Greer, the Society’s President, was in the chair. The Brontë Society Council has a busy few months ahead. ´The Museum director, Ann Sumner, is moving to a new post and the term of office of the Chairman, Sally Macdonald, is coming to an end so these two posts must be filled soon.

The lecture was given by Lucasta Miller, author of The Brontë Myth, always a speaker worth hearing. Her subject was Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s Naughty Book. She considered it in conjunction with the work of another female writer of ‘naughty’ novels, Letitia Landon, who is the subject of her next book.

Lucasta Miller
After the prize-giving for the Society’s Creative Competition for best short story, poem and illustration (judges: novelist Margaret Drabble, poet Simon Armitage and artist Victoria Brookland), Lucasta Miller returned for the evening’s panel discussion on fictional biographies and spin-offs of well-loved classic novels. How far are they justified, what can they provide? Ably chaired by Patsy Stoneman, who has twice given excellent talks to our group, the panel also included novelists Tiffany Murray and Catherine Rayner.

Sunday was a more restful day, with some relaxed indoor events alternating with the traditional tramp over the moors. Unfortunately, sunny spells were less in evidence today! As always, the Brontë Parsonage Museum was opened for a private visit by Society members. Some then proceeded to the library for a viewing of ‘hidden gems’ of the Museum collection, presented by Collections Manager Ann Dinsdale, followed by refreshments from the famous Betty’s Tearoom in Ilkley.

Those not walking attended a screening of pictures from the scrapbook of Ellen Nussey, best friend and chief correspondent of Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte’s letters to this friend form the bulk of her voluminous correspondence and the source of much of what we know about her. Audrey Hall, who inherited the scrapbook and has researched its contents, gave this presentation and then formally handed the scrapbook over to the Parsonage Museum.

The weekend was rounded off by the now traditional dinner and entertainment at the Old White Lion. This year members were not asked to write Brontë-themed limericks, which had us scratching our heads and biting our pens last June. Instead we brainstormed ideas for events for future AGM weekends and to celebrate the bicentenary years coming up, starting with Charlotte Brontë’s in 2016. After the meal we sat back and enjoyed costume-maker and historian Gillian Taylor’s talk on a replica of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding dress, based on descriptions of it and Gillian’s knowledge of the period. Charlotte was married to Arthur Bell Nicholls on 29 June 1854 and died nine months later.

This year’s Monday excursion was to Liverpool, in whose streets, it will be remembered, Heathcliff was found as a child. There were opportunities to visit the International Slavery Museum, Albert Dock and Tate Liverpool, the Liverpool Maritime Museum and the Beatles Museum.

The 2015 Brontë Society AGM weekend will be held on 6-7 June.