Saturday, 2 February 2013

Conference Photos!

Thanks again to our speakers and to everyone that helped to make the conference possible. A special mention must go to our three volunteers on the day, Sarah, Rosa (our photographer) and Sarah.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Preview: Brontë Manuscripts

As part of the Re-Visioning the Brontës conference, Sarah Prescott of the Leeds University Special Collections will be presenting on the role of the Brontë Manuscripts in constructing and deconstructing the Brontës' mythologies. In anticipation of her paper, we have been given exclusive access to this short letter from Branwell Brontë to a friend, where he jokingly describes 'the best epitaph ever written'.

Dear Sir,
I only enclose the accompanying fragment, which is so soiled I would have transcribed it if I had the heart to exert myself, in order to get from you as to whether, when finished, it would be worth sending to some respectable period-ical like Blackwood's Magazine.
I trust you got safely home from rough Haworth and am,

Dear Sir, 
Yours most sincerely, 

[P.S.] The best epitaph ever written - it is carved on a rude cross in Spain over a murdered traveller, and simply means "Poor Fellow!"

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Past is a Brontë Country?

How the past is conserved and interpreted in the modern day is exceedingly important to how we understand it in the present. In modern Britain, literary legacies are held in high esteem by many and are known around the world. The mythologies that have emerged around writers such as Dickens, Blake, and of course the Brontës, continue to influence regional and national identities, as well as contemporary tourism.

'Brontë Country' is an recently rebranded area of North Yorkshire including towns, moors, landmarks, and the famous family home now known as the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Unsurprisingly, the majority of tourism in the area focuses on its role as setting and influence for stories such as Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Jane Eyre. Through themed walks, the local tourist board invites Brontë fans to retrace the imagined wanderings of the famous family. Regular special events celebrate the region through its notable past inhabitants.

Although these ancient landscapes have histories far beyond the Victorian era, framing their relevance  through instantly recognisable stories provides the area with a 'unique selling point' that people can associate with. It also allows an intriguing unification of fact with fiction, and art with nature, that many find appealing and worthy of contemplation. Drawing in these audiences certainly helps local economies and safeguards the Brontës' place in history, but it also raises questions about the implications of the 'heritage industry' and its strategies.

Tourism is a hugely influential in the 're-visioning' of the past today. The need to find a delicate balance between entertainment and education is a central concern of many modern tourist destinations. Acting as the 'headquarters' of Brontë Country, the Brontë Parsonage Museum plays a key role in both the creation and maintenance of the region's cultural heritage. They face the unique challenge of conserving the past whilst making it accessible and understandable to present day audiences. Although, as with any museum, this can cause conflicts when considering what stories are remembered and what stories are forgotten, the Parsonage also offer the potential for creative 're-tellings' that provide much more than just a history lesson for their audiences.

By understanding 'legacy' as an ongoing process, museums, collections and archives play an central role in furthering research, reflections and finding new audiences in the twenty-first century. At the Brontë Parsonage Museum, a Contemporary Arts Programme builds upon the Brontë story through collaborations and commissions, whilst supporting the region's contemporary creatives. Through strategies such as this, the identity of 'Brontë Country' can be expanded to incorporate peripheral histories and new experiences. Importantly, however, the Brontë family remain centre stage.

Acting in association with the Brontë Parsonage Museum, 'Re-visioning the Brontës' will continue the important task of understanding not only the Brontë family's place in the past, but also the implications of their place in the present. The updated conference schedule can be found here.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Final Conference Timetable

Please note the amended times:

29 January 2013 - Re-visioning the Brontës Conference Programme

9:30-10:00 - Registration, coffee (Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds)

9:50-10:00 - 'Air on Brontë Moor' (Wilson & Warner)

10:00-10:10 - Welcome and Introduction, Nick Cass, Conference Organiser, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies

10:10-10:25 - 'Keynote' Welcome, Jane Sellars, Curator of Art, Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate

10:25-10:50 - 'Southern Flight: Brontëan Migrations in Kate Chopin’s At Fault', Dr Carl Plasa, Cardiff University

10:50-11:15 - 'Righting the Life of the Mind: The Significance of Psychological Discourse in the Brontës' Interwar Afterlives', Amber Pouliot, University of Leeds

11:15-11:35 - 'The Brontës, Materiality, and Resonance: Three Ways of Looking', Aislinn Hunter, University of Edinburgh

11:35-11.50 - Introduction to the Brontë manuscripts in Special Collections (University of Leeds), Sarah Prescott, Literary Archivist

11:50-12:10 - Discussion

12:10-12:15 - 'Air on Brontë Moor' (Wilson & Warner)

12:15-13:15 - Lunch break

13:15-13:20 - 'Air on Brontë Moor' (Wilson & Warner)

13:20-13:45 - '"…like a new picture introduced to the gallery of memory": Re-Visioning Jane Eyre through Paula Rego', Dr Sarah Wootton, Durham University

13:45-14:10 - 'Charlotte's Dress', Lisa Sheppy, Contemporary Artist

14:10-14:45 - Dr Richard Brown (University of Leeds) in conversation with Professor Blake Morrison (Goldsmiths, University of London) on Morrison's play We Are Three Sisters

14:45-15:05 - Coffee

15:05-15:30 - 'Listening Out: the Soundtracks and Film Scores of Wuthering Heights', Dr Jenny Bavidge, University of Cambridge

15:30-15:55 - 'Wuthering Heights in Japan: the film Arashi ga Oka (1988, dir. Yoshishige Yoshida)', María Seijo-Richart, University of A Coruña

15:55-16:40 - Roundtable discussion chaired by Adam Strickson (Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing, University of Leeds), Sarah Fermi (Writer and Trustee, Brontë Society), Simon Warner (Artist and Photographer) and Jenna Holmes (Arts Officer, Brontë Parsonage Museum)

16:40-16:50 - Discussion

16:50-17:00 - Closing Remarks, Ann Sumner (Director, Brontë Society)


17:00-17:30 - Visit to the exhibitions 'Visions of Angria' and ‘Wildness Between Lines’, followed by a wine reception at Leeds College of Art.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Rogue by Name, Rogue by Nature?

“In all my past life, I have done nothing either great or good.” These were among the final words spoken by Branwell Brontë as he lay on his death bed, his body ravaged by chronic bronchitis, drink and opium, at the tragically young age of thirty one. His brutal reflection contains an element of truth. Branwell failed as a portrait painter; was dismissed from his work as a railway clerk for missing a discrepancy in finances; fired from his job as a tutor for falling in love with the employer’s wife and was forced to return to the family home in his late twenties a penniless, broken addict. However, as The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery’s ‘Visions of Angria’ exhibition illustrates, Branwell’s juvenilia is proof that he achieved something quite remarkable in his short life.

Born on 26 June 1817, Patrick Branwell Brontë was the fourth child and only son of Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë. Following the death of his two sisters at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, Branwell was tutored at home by his Aunt Branwell and his father, a Cambridge graduate. It was a combination of this education with a heavy bias towards the classics, the Tory politics chronicled in Blackwood’s Magazine and a gift of a box of toy soldiers on 5 June 1826 that inspired Branwell, along with his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne to create and write about their own imaginary world.

Each sibling selected a toy soldier and named him after someone featured in Blackwood’s Magazine. Branwell’s was initially called Bonaparte or Bony but this character was later reincarnated as Sneaky, then Rogue, then Lord Elrington, then finally his alter ego, Alexander Percy or Northangerland. The Brontë children invented a background story for their soldiers, ‘History of the Young Men’, which Branwell wrote down, and they used the west coast of Africa for the setting of their various fictitious cities and states.Critics believe the ruthless Alexander Percy was based on Milton’s Lucifer, Lord Byron’s Conrad and Walter Scott’s Richard Varney and claim that ‘The Life of Alexander Percy’, Branwell’s ongoing biography of this charismatic character, is Branwell’s best work. Branwell was also proud of his creation as he used the pseudonym ‘Northangerland’ when he was the first Brontë to have a poem published in the Halifax Guardian in 1841.

Yet, while there are some similarities between the personality of his fictional anti-hero and Branwell’s own passionate, increasingly melancholic and atheistic nature, the latter was not as roguish as Percy. Indeed, it could be argued that Branwell’s greatest crime was that he did not fulfil his early potential.

By Sarah Butler (Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery)

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Three is the Magic Number

Saturday 5 November 2011 was a particularly memorable Bonfire Night for me, not because the neighbours had a firework display of Disney-like proportions (instead of the usual damp squib of a selection from ASDA) but because I trundled off to the delightful Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield to see Blake Morrison’s play ‘We Are Three Sisters.’

I am a fan of both Chekhov and the Brontës so I was intrigued to discover how Morrison had used the Russian playwright’s ‘Three Sisters’ as a template for his own interpretation of the ‘Brontë Myth’. Indeed, there are many parallels between Chekhov’s masterpiece and the Brontës’ upbringing. Chekhov’s play revolves around three sisters living in a remote, rural town who yearn for change. In ‘We Are Three Sisters,’ Charlotte, Emily and Anne spend their days in Haworth, longing to travel to London. Like Masha, Olga and Irina, the Brontë sisters also have a roguish brother with addiction problems and a tendency to fall for unsuitable women. Both families have a loyal old maid and are visited by various local figures eager to woo the women.

However, as the renowned Brontë biographer, Juliet Barker, wrote in her blog, the play is “far more Brontë than Chekhov.”  Although there were some clever references to Chekhov’s script, for example, the Brontës cry “London! London! London!” instead of the Prosorovs’ triadic structure; “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!”, most of the dialogue was a subtle fusion of the Brontës own words taken from their letters, diaries, poems and novels delivered in earthy Yorkshire accents. Neither did Morrison shatter the traditional perception of the Brontës’ personalities. Charlotte was portrayed as strong and ambitious, Emily was passionate and ethereal, Anne was gentle but socially aware and Branwell was the much-loved, talented yet tormented brother.  All four of the actors put in solid, if a little earnest, performances. Duggie Brown was a wonderfully laconic Patrick Brontë and comic relief was provided in the doughty form of ‘Tabby.’

Jessica Worrall’s set design was also deeply evocative and in many ways, was enhanced by the intimate setting of the Lawrence Batley Theatre.  The dimly lit stage filled with heavy furniture induced a sense of cosiness verging on claustrophobia.  To convey how doom, death and wild nature were constant presences in the family’s life, gravestones framed the stage and the soundtrack comprised the unrelenting howling of the wind and Emily’s hacking cough.

All in all, ‘We Are Three Sisters’ was not as “nuts”  as Morrison first feared it would be. There was a certain reliance on poetic licence concerning some biographical events and Russian and English Literature purists may have found the melding of the two plays a stretch too far for the imagination. However, for me, Chekhov’s zesty drama breathed new life into the familiar story of Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell and proved that when it comes to innovative dramatic productions, three really is the magic number.

By Sarah Butler (Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery)

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Madwoman in the Attic?

Bertha Rochester of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is commonly recognised as the archetypal 'madwoman in the attic'. Although multiple feminist re-readings have recognised her as the condemned expression of unconventional femininity, treatments of Bertha in adaptations of Jane Eyre has frequently struggled to meet the challenge of this complex character.

In the past, it was easier to lay the blame at the doorstep of society's taboos concerning polite femininity for failures to address Bertha's outrage. Take, for example, an early Hollywood adaptation of Jane Eyre, where Bertha appears perfectly civilised despite her husband's imminent wedding to another bride.

In 2006, a BBC mini-series took the daring approach of providing Bertha Mason with an empathetic backstory. By giving insight into Bertha's own love story, alongside the relationship of Jane and Mr Rochester, viewers were asked to question who is really the victim in this love triangle? The following fan video illustrates some of the subtleties in this interpretation.

The most recent film adaptation of Jane Eyre, released in 2011, captured the difficultly of portraying Bertha by expressing her predominantly in disembodied noises. Below is a central exchange between Bertha and Jane, where we see Bertha is aware of her husband's plans for a second marriage. However, this particular scene was removed in a last minute edit, reiterating the challenge of expressing Bertha's role in modern adaptations of Jane Eyre.

Is Bertha a dangerous woman, or an unfortunate victim of her society? Does the struggle some have with her character give an insight into contemporary taboos concerning manic behaviour? What can the various depictions of Bertha in adaptations and re-imaginings of Jane Eyre tell us about the changing role of women, and the social impact of mental illness?

Re-visioning the Brontës will take place at the University of Leeds on 29th January 2013.