Brontë Society Conference 2016

CBRichmond

My brain feels like it is leaking out my ears in the best possible way. The 2016 Brontë Society conference has just concluded and I am drinking tea in a Manchester café trying to process everything I have heard over the last 48 hours. It has been a brilliant weekend, full of thought-provoking, challenging, fantastic ideas and new readings and theories that were both surprising and strange. I had previously deliberated over attending, unsure if I could justify the cost to myself. I am so, so glad I went with my gut. Not only was it Charlotte’s bicentenary (and therefore a once-in-a-lifetime event), but it fitted nicely with my philosophy of trying everything in the UK that is unavailable to me back in Australia. I’m very lucky that I was able to find the money and go.

The Midland hotel in Manchester is just as grand as I had imagined, and is far more pricey than the usual hostel dorms I would travel in, so it was nice to spoil myself for a few days. After taking the train from Edinburgh, grabbing some lunch, and checking in, the afternoon kicked off with an introductory lecture from Professor Christine Alexander on Charlotte Brontë’s early literary ambitions. The theme of the conference was: “the business of a woman’s life” – Charlotte Brontë and the Woman Question. This title refers to the infamous exchange between Charlotte at the age of twenty and the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, who (probably meaning well) advised her that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be”. Professor Alexander’s lecture was therefore well-placed to introduce us to Charlotte as a young writer, and explore how this advice was to affect her literary trajectory, transitioning from her copious amounts of juvenilia through to her adult, post-teaching career as a novelist.

This was followed by a drinks reception doubling as a launch for a bicentenary publication by the Bronte Society – Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre. The authors, Professor Alexander and Sara L. Pearson were both present to sign our copies and tell us about the writing process, and so commenced my potentially unwise spending spree at the conference book stall. Dinner was lovely, and was my first proper opportunity to get to know the other delegates. The Brontë community is exceedingly welcoming and warm – all weekend I was introduced and included and drawn into friendly conversations, given phone numbers and email addresses, and engaged in fascinating discussion with my fellow Brontëphiles. After dinner, Helen MacEwan, who has written extensively on the Brontë’s experiences in Brussels, gave a talk on how the Belgians perceive Charlotte, both in the past and present. As Charlotte was generally less than complimentary towards Belgium and its inhabitants, this talk was quite funny, though Helen MacEwan was careful to detail the reasons why Charlotte held the opinions that she did. Helen was written extensively on Belgium and the Brontës, and guides literary tours around Brussels, for which I will now commence saving…

My bed was king-size, comfy, and I was too fast asleep to properly appreciate it. Breakfast was enormous and delicious, served buffet-style with all manner of options you can imagine. Unfortunately I had not bought my bathers with me, otherwise I would have been sure to use the spa/sauna/relaxation pool available and fully enjoy the hotel experience. But it didn’t matter – we started again promptly at 9.30am on Saturday morning for the keynote address from Professor Germaine Greer. I just can’t overestimate how wonderful this was. It was bold and controversial (no surprises there, it was written by Germaine Greer), and argued that Jane Eyre as a text broaches the last great taboo, positioning Rochester as a father-figure and Jane as the daughter-figure and seducer of the father. Basically labelling the novel as an exploration of father-daughter incest is an unusual claim to make in a room full of Brontë devotees, but in true Greer fashion, she was unapologetic without being aggressive, firm in her words while inviting us to argue with her, and presented some truly nuanced and brilliant observations on femininity, physicality, the relationship between Patrick Brontë and his children, and Charlotte herself. I know Germaine Greer is a divisive figure, and there are positions of hers that I most definitely disagree with, but hearing her speak was an honour, and a memory I will cherish forever.

Tea and cake played a large role in this conference. There were lots of breaks for both, and it delighted me. After a short indulgence, we re-assembled to hear a group of speakers discussing Charlotte Brontë’s 20th century impact – Dr Siv Jansson on the biographical films of the Brontës, Dr Catherine Han on contemporary literary adaptations and how they relate to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 seminal critical text, The Madwoman in the Attic, and Dr Sarah E Fanning on feminism and representations of Jane Eyre on screen. All of these presentations were wonderful, and this section was a conference highlight for me.

After lunch, a group of us went to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, and although the visit was a bit rushed, it was a delight to see the residence that Charlotte had visited during her friendship with Mrs Gaskell and hear about the way the Gaskell family lived and worked. I will definitely return for a longer visit at a later date.

We returned to the hotel just in time for the next set of speakers, discussing the theme of writing and a woman’s life – Heather Williams on the plight of unwed daughters standing in as substitute wives for their widowed fathers in Victorian literature, Professor Temma Berg on the business and representation of coquetting in fiction, and Dr Jian Choe on Charlotte’s urban experiences and the impact on her life and art. (Unfortunately Dr Choe was not present, but the paper was read to us by Jan Lee). Dinner was a formal affair followed by a talk by Claire Harman on the lives of Charlotte’s schoolfriends, Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey, and their behaviour and influence on Charlotte’s work. I really enjoyed this talk, though by this time it was so late that I couldn’t absorb it as thoroughly as I wanted – I am looking forward to seeing it reproduced in print further down the line, hopefully.

This morning after another delicious breakfast, Professor Sally Shuttleworth spoke to us about justice and injustice in Charlotte Brontë’s fiction, particularly as seen through the experience of the child characters. Professor Shuttleworth has written extensively on child psychology and how this is represented in literature of the Victorian period, and just happens to be Professor of English Literature at Oxford so, y’know, she knows what she is talking about. A truly brilliant lecture. We leapt straight into the last section afterwards, on employment, education and economics. Margaret Mills was also absent, so the Vice President of the Brontë Society, Dr Patsy Stoneman, read her article on education and employment in Charlotte’s work, while Professor Joanne Rostek spoke about feminist economics and different economic readings of Shirley, and Professor Deborah Wynne discussed the influence of the textile trade and manufacturing industries of Yorkshire and how they framed Charlotte’s life and work.

And just like that, the conference was finished! Thanks were given and lunch was eaten, contact details were exchanged and goodbyes were said. It has been an absolutely mind-blowing experience for myself, and I am trying to figure out how to get back in 2018 after my visa has expired in order to attend Emily Brontë’s bicentenary conference…

I have to finish writing this blog now. My mind needs a rest, but I wanted to get all the details down before I forgot them! My train leaves shortly and this café is closing soon, so until next time, you will find me reading my enormous pile of new books.

 

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Trafford Centre and Frodsham

Okay, so after our airport breakfast, we got on the free bus that drives you across the terminals to the car rental village. Even just stepping out of the airport doors into that crisp, English air was exhilarating, because to me (and perhaps this is just because I’m a tourist), everything seems so quintessentially British, and brings me right back to some of my best travel memories. We also passed bunny rabbits eating airport grass while we were on the bus, so that helped.

We picked up the car and drove to the beautiful Trafford Centre, which is pretty much like a really classy and pretty version of Chadstone. There’s lots of high-end, boutique retail, and I felt particularly yuck as I slobbed through in my clothes that I had been in since Melbourne, but I managed to sort out my SIM card, get some lunch, get some groceries and essentials, and have a good stickybeak around some of the more beautiful parts of the Centre. Mum showed us the food court which is modelled on New Orleans, with all the beautiful frescoes and facades serving as shop fronts. There is lovely mosaic and different types of design and architecture throughout the building – it really was something different.

Afterwards we drove to Frodsham, our home for the next three nights. Frodsham is a village close to Chester, and we’re staying at Yarrangall B&B, which is about 3 miles outside the village on a farm. It is GORGEOUS. Even driving through Frodsham had the three of us sighing and exclaiming over the most mundane things which became utterly enchanting when viewed through the lens of a charming English village. The B&B is surrounded by tiny country lanes and paddocks full of horses. There is a huge duck pond with a resident flock of geese, and the owners of the B&B run the small farm themselves and make jams and chutneys and sauces to sell. We have our own little studio flat, two rooms with three beds, a bathroom and tea and coffee making facilities. I am already thinking about coming back here later on in my travels.

It is 8.15pm and Marnie and Mum are already asleep. I am pretty knackered myself, so I’ll wrap up this blog entry for now, but I hope to post many pics of Yarrangall and Frodsham tomorrow, now that I’ve unearthed my camera from my luggage. Until then xxx

Here at last!

 

 

In Dubai Airport, typing this in Word because the wifi is being slow. Feeling as though I have been gently steamrollered and hung out to dry, but the worst leg is behind. Crossing so many time zones is doing my head in. We left Melbourne at 4.15pm, arrived 13 hours later in Dubai at 11.15pm, and now we leave Dubai at 3am to arrive 8 hours later in Manchester at 7am. I managed to sleep about 90 minutes on the first leg, which is 90 minutes more than I was expecting to sleep, so that’s a nice start, especially as my cold has not helped matters. Mum and Marnie are being wonderful as always, and the entertainment unit is really good, stacks of variety. Have watched a bunch of comedies, trying to snatch dozes where possible. Dubai Airport is massive and very fancy, but don’t feel quite able to appreciate it on account of being somewhat zombie-like at the moment. Just had a cup of tea and some fruit salad, now minding the bags while Mum and Marnie are stretching their legs. I’ll probably post this once we’ve reached the UK unless the wifi improves, so if you’re reading this, yay, I’ve survived the second leg!
Okay, I ended up not posting this separately after all! Just to let ya’ll know we are in Manchester Airport now, eating breakfast and killing time until 9am when we can collect our rental car (we landed at 6.30am). The second leg was more bearable, being shorter and being on an Emirates plane rather than a Qantas plane meant we had even more variety of stuff to watch. Managed to snatch another hour or so of sleep but feel pretty average at the moment. If I have the energy tonight, I’ll write another blog!

Robin Hobble and her band of slightly maimed men.

Our last couple of days in Liverpool were lovely. Sean and I walked around – hobbled around – Crosby and we went out to wagamama for dinner with the McGuiness clan on our last night. The next day Andrew and Luce took us to pick up a hire car and we got a zippy little Renault Megane and Sean drove us to Manchester! We stayed in a really nice little hotel in Radcliffe for the night, and took a tram into the city centre to meet Aaron, Katie and Kimberley for dinner. This was excellent. Aaron and Katie had offered to take me round Manchester while I was in Liverpool but I ended up being too crippled to take them up on it, so last night we went to Pizza Express and caught up with their wedding plans and with Kim’s eventful stay in Derry. Manchester seems like a really nice city and I was sorry we couldn’t spend longer there, but we checked out this morning and drove to Edwinstowe, right on the edge of Sherwood Forest. After getting a bit lost a couple of times, we arrived at the Sunnyside View B&B, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to visit the area. It is so friendly and personal and our room is GORGEOUS. It’s like something out of a novel. I insisted we drive to the Sherwood Forest Visitor’s Centre, but I’ve saved most of it for tomorrow. Today, we just looked in the gift shop and walked to the Major Oak, where Robin Hood and his Merry Men used to meet up to steal from the rich, give to the poor, and be general outlaw types. The tree is freaking enormous, but you can’t get very close to it, because of the erosion caused by too many visitors. Also, in April, too many trees are bare. I really want to come back in the height of summer when everything is leafy. But it was a nice walk, and I want to do it again tomorrow to shoot a bow and arrow….

For dinner tonight we walked for about two minutes to a pub called ‘The Robin Hood’ and we had heaps of food for a pretty decent price. Then we sat at the bar for ages and talked to the staff because it was a crazily quiet night. They were really lovely and welcoming and we’ll definitely go back tomorrow. We got home and I discovered my knee has pretty much doubled in size again. This sucks because the pills I am taking are killing the worst of the pain, but they are also meant to be anti-inflammatory. Instead, my knee is getting bigger. And the doctors told me to stay active to help my back, so that’s why I’ve been walking on it so much. GAH. Really getting on my nerves now. But at least the pain is being treated.