Monday, 23 May 2016

Bronte Country

If there is one novelist from the UK that everyone has heard of, it is probably Charlotte Brontë.  At least as famous as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Charlotte was welcomed into London literary circles by Dickens himself, Mrs Gaskell, Thackeray and others, though she was notoriously shy and once spent an hour or so hiding from unexpected visitors behind a curtain in the Gaskell drawing room.  And if there is one thing everyone knows about Charlotte Brontë, it is that she had two sisters who were also writers and died young.  In fact, she had another two sisters who died as children – probably due to the lack of care given them by the Clergy Daughters' School where four of the five girls were sent. There was also a brother who drank himself to death, with the complication of various addictions.

It is a gloomy story by anyone’s standards, and Charlotte would compound the felony by dying in childbirth aged 38, when she was just embarking on a happy married life. Put them all together, however, and the Brontë sisters are an incredible phenomenon.  It is hard to think of another literary family who achieved so much in such a short period.  One of my favourite books as a child was Pauline Clarke’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel, The Twelve and the Genii, in which an 8-year-old boy stumbles across the Brontës’ box of toy soldiers, around which they wove fantasies that proved a catalyst for their careers as writers of fiction.  The "Genii" of the title are of course the Brontë children, of whom the soldiers have a distant memory.

Whatever the reason for their fame, the Brontë sisters have become almost synonymous with English literature and with the county of Yorkshire, where I have just been attending the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies (which the SSF and WOA will be jointly hosting next year).  Haworth Parsonage was their family home, though it was not the sisters’ birthplace; they moved there from the village of Thornton (now subsumed by the metropolitan borough of Bradford) when Charlotte was aged about four.  In recognition of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte’s birth, the 2016 conference was hosted by the Brontë Society, about which there have been a number of unsympathetic media stories in recent times.  Is there such a thing as bad publicity for a literary society?  I don’t know but I would not like the SSF to suffer in the same way at the hands of the newspapers. 

On the other hand, it seems that the Brontë Society’s worst crime has been losing touch with the locals.  Apparently residents of Haworth do not feel a close connection with the Society’s aims and activities.  Here I can thoroughly sympathise, after experiences at Heytesbury and Matfield, where most of the locals welcomed the SSF with open arms but others seemed to see us as interlopers.  (Thinks: Why, oh why didn't I just leave it to them to start a literary society in honour of Sassoon?)  I can understand why it might appear so; to have strangers turning up who know little about your town or village except that a famous writer was born or died there could be annoying.  In the case of a place like Stratford-upon-Avon or Haworth, thronging with tourists throughout the summer months, there might be additional inconvenience involved, such as increased traffic, parking difficulties, noise, and the sheer congestion in the narrow streets. Matfield and Heytesbury would be very different places if they had the same cachet.
The "Bronte Village" at Haworth

Haworth as a community has changed considerably over the centuries.  Thanks largely to Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and perhaps also to the plot of Wuthering Heights, we have come to think of it as a remote village in a “wild” and “bleak” landscape, whereas in fact, by the time the family moved there, it was a thriving industrial town, with a larger population than it now has. It cannot be denied that the Yorkshire moors are a strange (though beautiful) landscape, in which one could easily lose one bearings and, failing modern communications, could end up like the toddler who followed his father out of the house during a snowstorm and whose death became the subject of a melodramatic contemporary poem. This was one of many literary efforts pouring forth from Haworth during the mid-19th century that were enumerated by afternoon speaker Ian Dewhirst.

Some members of the Gaskell Society felt that Juliet Barker, in her excellent opening talk, was unjust to the Gaskell biography.  I don’t; she made it clear that she thinks it a wonderful book, and was not slow to point out that Gaskell had never written a biography before, which excuses some of the flights of fancy that affect its reputation but at the same time make it far more readable than most literary biographies. The proof of the pudding must be that, despite the sometimes uncomplimentary portrait of them painted by Gaskell, both the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Charlotte’s husband Arthur Bell Nichols went on to thank her unreservedly for the work she had done in rescuing Charlotte’s memory from popular misconceptions.

As usual, the dinner – held at the White Lion - was another opportunity for individual societies to advertise the wares of their respective authors by reading passages from their works.  So many wanted to do so that the ALS Chair, Linda Curry, was forced to draw names out of a hat in case we ran out of time. On this occasion, I eschewed the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in favour of an extract from Sassoon’s 1936 letter to Max Beerbohm, describing events at Heytesbury during the abdication crisis.  I sensed that some of the references in this very funny passage were going over many people’s heads - but at least no one appeared to be asleep.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about the ALS is how many of its member societies are for authors I've never heard of - and I think of myself as well-read.  I intend to follow up on this comment in the next post.

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