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.