Emily Brontë, Lily Cole and the Shame of The Brontë Society

In life and in this blog I try to be positive whenever possible, but on very rare occasions I find myself in sympathy with Charlotte Brontë when she wrote after a confrontation with Miss Wooler that set her employer crying for two days: ‘I was in a regular passion, my “warm temper” quite got the better of me – of which I don’t boast for it was a weakness, nor am I ashamed of it.’

Charlotte was renowned for her fiery temper, so we can only imagine how angry she would have been with the Brontë Society’s plans for Emily Brontë’s celebrations in 2018, announced this week.

July 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Jane Brontë, author of, in my opinion, the greatest novel ever written – Wuthering Heights. She was a reclusive woman who increasingly retreated into her fantasy world of Gondal – and yet you couldn’t meet Emily without feeling in awe of her, and knowing you were in the presence of someone very special. Ellen Nussey, for example, was Charlotte Brontë’s best friend and yet she felt that even Charlotte could not match Emily’s achievements, as she wrote in a letter to Meta Gaskell, Elizabeth‘s daughter:

‘I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no women of greater or more incontestable genius.’

I have Emily to thank for my love of the Brontës. Wuthering Heights was the first book on my list when I commenced my English degree in 1989 – I was instantly hooked, and made my first visit to the Brontë Parsonage museum that weekend. From that moment also I was counting down the days to my 21st birthday so that I could take life membership of the Brontë Society. Alas, the actions of the Brontë Society now mean that I can longer continue being a member.

This week the Brontë Society announced some of their plans for their year of celebrations for Emily Brontë. At first I was dismayed, now I am angry – what should have been a joyous year with genius at its centre has instead become a rank farce with the news that their Creative Partner for 2018 is Lily Cole.

If you don’t know Lily Cole, and you’d be in the majority, she is described as ‘a model and social entrepreneur’ (whatever that is). I am unfortunate enough to have encountered Lily before as a few years ago I had a front row seat of a new play about Helen of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Lily had the title role, and the play was so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval. If the acting was bad, and believe me it was, the dialogue was even worse – one line in particular was of such clunking ineptitude that it has remained with me forever: ‘women smell my power, men smell like sex’. It was when Lily delivered this line with all the passion of the announcer at Piccadilly station that I began longing for the train home.

Lily Helen of Troy
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy

This was, quite simply, the worst play I have ever seen, and the writer of it? Simon Armitage, the incumbent creative partner at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. So here we see one of the many problems with Lily’s appointment – nepotism. Nepotism is a disease particularly rampant in literature, so that the best way to get a book deal is to be a journalist, a celebrity, or a friend or relative of one. This is particularly evident at this time of year, when newspaper’s lists of the ‘books of the year’ feature writers bigging up those who share the same agent or publisher – an act known as ‘log rolling’. We now have a Brontë log roll, as Simon Armitage passes on the baton to his friend Lily Cole.

Lily’s acting career has since encompassed Marks & Spencer adverts, a role in the St. Trinian’s movie, and a risible star turn in a documentary about Elizabeth I this year. How can anyone have thought that this made her a suitable choice to be in charge of Emily Brontë’s celebration year? I have nothing against Lily herself, other than her terrible acting, but against the people who selected her.

Over the last few years it has become increasingly apparent that something is rotten in the state of Haworth’s Brontë Society. Annual General Meetings have descended into open warfare between modernisers and traditionalists, but it seems now that the council is being run along the lines of BBC farce W1A. For the last two years or so, a consultancy has been advising the Brontë Society on what to do – with pathetic results.

The drive now is for one thing – attracting a young audience. Being trendy is the ultimate aim, with the Brontës themselves relegated to the sidelines. The museum has a wealth of Brontë treasures, but they are now favouring the display of artificial items they feel will appeal to a modern audience. For this reason rather than seeing Branwell’s items in his anniversary year, we see a mock up, TV style, guess of what his studio would have looked like. In 2016, Charlotte’s year, a large display area was given up to a modern artwork of miniature pieces that had been fabricated in some sort of bizarre tributes – including a miniscule pair of shoes with a sign underneath saying that Charlotte had sewn them together using hair from her sisters. From what I heard at the time, and what I’ve seen shared on social media, many people believed these ridiculous items were authentic, when the fact was the authentic items were locked away in storage. The rot had set in.

The drive to attract younger members to the Brontë Society is a pointless one. We hear people say, echoing the consultants, that the membership is too old – ‘look at the events, look at the meetings, everyone is old!’ In today’s society it has become a crime to be old.

Where is the problem in the majority of members being middle aged or older? Yes they will eventually wither and fade from this world, but they will then be succeeded by another generation if middle aged and old society members. It is the way it always has been and always will be, unless they drive loyal members away, as they have done with me.

There is talk of increasing multimedia presentations at the parsonage – this is complete anathema to me. The Brontë’s works and belongings should be at the very centre of the museum. Why watch a film about the Brontë items when you could be looking at the items themselves? Museums should be places of quiet and contemplation, awe inspiring places where the imagination is aloud to take flight free of bombardment from artificial sights and sounds.

This idea would make the consultants, and board of the Brontë Society, choke – how could I have such silly, outmoded ideas? Whoever appointed Lily Cole as creative director, no doubt at the nudging of Simon Armitage, needs to look in the mirror and step aside. The central question should be, what would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief ‘artist’ and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel? We all know the answer to that, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t fit to make the decision or have any role in the governance of the Brontë Society. The very basic rule should have been that the person chosen for such an important role as creative partner is a writer.

This is in no way a denigration of many of the brilliant staff at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and their wonderful volunteers who give up their time not to attract a certain demographic but because of their passion for the Brontës. They are heroes, but it brings to mind the fate of our World War One soldiers who were lions led by donkeys.

There are other long standing problems with the actions of the society – not least in their failure to interact with many of the brilliant businesses and shops in Haworth – the shops who often invite representatives of the Society to their meetings, but are left waiting in vain. Equally dismaying is their downplaying of Thornton in the Brontë story when they should be creating stronger ties with the fabulous village where the Brontë story began.

I am obviously completely out of kilter with the Brontë Society and it’s aims, but I am afraid I shall stay in my old fashioned world where I can continue to gain immense pleasure from the words of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë – and it is their words above all else that are their true museum and testimonial. I will certainly still continue to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum, it is a place I love more than any other, but I can no longer continue to be a member of the Brontë Society whose leaders’ views are so opposed to my own. It’s best that I leave the society now, before they announce James Corden as the creative partner for 2019, a year in which Patrick Brontë is being remembered, and Rita Ora as organiser for Anne Brontë’s celebrations in 2020.

I'm just going to write

My rant is over, normal service will be resumed next week – but as Charlotte Brontë knew all too well, sometimes you just have to write because you can’t help it.

Snow in the Lives and Works of the Brontës

Haworth never looks more beautiful than when it’s under a coating of snow, with the white expanse of moorland stretching away beyond it in rises and falls – as shown in the picture at the head of this post, which is thanks to the wonderful Haworth shop Hathaways. As snow is general all over England today (to borrow a line from James Joyce) I thought we should look at the Brontë’s attitudes to snow in their lives and writing.

Haworth Parsonage snow
Haworth Parsonage in snow

The freezing temperatures that Haworth has in December must have been even more fierce for Anne Brontë and her sisters, without any form of automated heating and without the thick layers of clothing that we take for granted today. The best they could do would be to pull another shawl around their shoulders, and place metal pattens over their shoes to protect against the damp and ice.

As anyone who has visited knows, Haworth Main Street is very steep, as are many of the streets running off it, so it can be especially treacherous in winter. It is for this reason that the road is cobbled, giving extra traction to human boots and horse hooves.

Tabby Ayckroyd, the loyal and much loved servant of the Brontës, found out how dangerous it could be in the winter of 1836 when she slipped on ice and sustained a broken leg. This caused pain and discomfort for Tabby for the rest of her life, and Patrick Brontë and Aunt Branwell suggested that it would be better for her to leave their employ to be looked after by her sister Susannah. The Brontë sisters, however, would hear none of this and threatened to go on hunger strike unless Tabby was allowed to stay – they won the day, but as Tabby was no longer able to carry out all her previous tasks it marked the start of Emily’s years as Haworth Parsonage’s very own domestic goddess.

Snow would not have stopped Emily walking upon the moors she loved, though it may have prevented Anne from accompanying her as she liked to do. Worse even than the snow were the cold winter winds that blew, rattling window panes and creeping under doors. They often brought ill health with them, as Anne Brontë revealed in an 1848 letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘We are all cut up by this cruel east wind, most of us i.e. Charlotte, Emily, and I have had the influenza or a bad cold instead, twice over within the space of a few weeks; Papa has had it once, Tabby has hitherto escaped it altogether.’

Snow features in all the sisters’ books, but it is almost a character itself in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – gone is the white purity normally associated with snow; it is instead dark, blinding, incredibly dangerous – snow is in effect nature’s Heathcliff.

David Niven snowstorm
David Niven as Lockwood in a Wuthering Heights snowstorm

We see Lockwood losing his way in an incredible snow storm, and of course we see Cathy’s ghost appear surrounded by snow as well, snow that Heathcliff is oblivious to in his state of anguish:

‘“Come in! Come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice; it gave no sign of being; but the snow and wind whirled wildly through, even reaching my station, and blowing out the light.’

Heathcliff is often seen covered in snow, but it does little to hide his true nature:

‘His hair and clothes were whitened with snow, and his sharp cannibal teeth, revealed by cold and wrath, gleamed through the dark.’

Snow is also found in Anne Brontë’s debut novel Agnes Grey, but once again it is a troubling presence as Agnes has to chase the wicked Bloomfield children through it:

‘All three escaped me, and ran out of the house into the garden, where they plunged about in the snow, shouting and screaming in exultant glee. What must I do? If I followed them, I should probably be unable to capture one, and only drive them farther away, if I did not, how was I to get them in? And what would their parents think of me, if they saw or heard their children rioting, hatless, bonnetless, gloveless, and bootless, in the deep, soft, snow?’

Much of Agnes Grey is based upon Anne’s own experiences as a governess, and we can surely see hear a reflection of a real life dilemma Anne experienced when in charge of the unruly Ingham children of Blake Hall in Mirfield.

Jane Eyre snow
Jane Eyre in the snow, photo by John Scope

Snow features heavily in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre too, and once again it signifies danger or despair, as when Jane returns to her room after the terrible truth of Rochester and Bertha has been revealed on what should have been her wedding day:

‘A Christmas frost had come at midsummer: a white December storm had whirled over June; on hayfield and corn-field lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway.’

Snow is also used as a metaphor in Charlotte’s final finished novel Villette, as it is used in the surname of the heroine Lucy Snowe. We know that in original drafts she was called Lucy Frost, but both surnames sum up the cold hearted despair that Charlotte herself felt when rejected by Constantin Heger in Belgium, the real life catalyst for her brilliant novel.

If you’re going out today wrap up warm – and don’t forget your winter bonnet and pattens!

A Brontë Advent – Haworth Christmas Events

We are now into the series of Advent and many of us are gearing up for Christmas – and of course this is a time that would have excited Anne Brontë and her family too, even though the concept of Christmas in the first half of the nineteenth century is very different to the one we have today.

Christmas, for good or bad, has become a commercially driven festival, but the giving of presents was done on a much smaller scale in the Brontë’s time, and the exchanging of Christmas cards was completely unheard of.

Haworth Christmas Main Street
Haworth Main Street in December

Anne Brontë was undoubtedly the most devout of the Brontë siblings, so she in particular would have loved the Advent celebrations advancing week by week in her father’s church a short walk from the parsonage she called home – such as the lighting of advent carols and the singing of hymns. Christmas music was a particular delight to Anne – so much so that she wrote a poem called ‘Music on Christmas Morning’, which begins:

‘Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.’

We can imagine this warming sight as Christmas day dawned at the Haworth Parsonage: Emily Brontë, a highly accomplished pianist, playing a carol while Anne, who Ellen Nussey said liked to sing in a quiet yet sweet voice, sang to her family.

The village of Haworth also loves music at Christmas – and indeed the Advent Christmas period as a whole is one of particular joy in this beautiful moorside village. In recent decades the modern tradition of ‘scroggling the holly’ has drawn the crowds, but there is no scroggling this year – fear not, for there are lots of other exciting activities coming that are great for Brontë lovers and families alike. This weekend is ‘choral weekend’ – one the whole Brontë family would surely have enjoyed. The 9th of December is the night of the torchlight procession, a moving spectacle as folks in Victorian attire process up the steep and picturesque Main Street. Sunday the 10th is even more spectacular, as a there is a candelit carol procession from 4.30 which culminates in a traditional carol service at St. Michael and All Angels’ Church.

Haworth moors snow
Haworth’s moors are a spectacular sight in December

The following weekend is brass band music – and there really are few sounds more magical than brass bands playing the carols and songs we all love. There are a number of top quality bands playing around Haworth all weekend – and I’ll be there myself on the 17th (don’t worry I’m only listening in, not playing a tuba!).

The Brontë Parsonage Museum is also particularly magical throughout December – particularly on Thursday 8th December – as there’s a chance to experience the parsonage by candlelight and then look at some of the Brontë treasures including manuscripts by Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It’s a tour I’ve done myself, and it truly is thrilling. Places are limited but you can find out more at the Brontë Society website here – where you’ll also find details of other events including Christmas wreath making workshops.

It’s certainly beginning to feel a lot like Christmas here in Yorkshire, by which I mean that it’s absolutely freezing of course, but life feels good when you wrap up warm and read a Brontë book with a warm drink near to hand!