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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Brontë fever

Another day, another literary pilgrimage. Yesterday, I rose at the crack of dawn (well…6.45am, which is more than early enough for me) and ninja-d my way around so I didn’t wake Sean before heading to the train station and commencing a journey just shy of five hours long. I took the train to Lancaster and sat opposite a lovely Nepalese girl and then changed trains to a local line, getting off at Keighley. I know I say it a lot, but this really was one of the prettiest train journeys I’ve ever been on. I had good music to listen to (King Eider) and a good book to read (A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf), but I could not tear my eyes away from the scenery out my window. Every time I’d start reading again, I’d be distracted by a sudden blur of green in my peripheral vision. I’d look out the window to see the greenest fields and hills I’ve ever come across, all speckled with little farmhouses and babbling brooks and tiny, baby lambs that were racing around crazily. I saw rabbits and pheasants and centuries-old walls made of stone and the neatest little villages. I don’t think the sight of all this beauty will ever become commonplace to me. I feel like I am in every storybook from my childhood, in the idyllic settings of my favourite novels. Just beautiful.

Once in Keighley, I walked to the bus station and caught a quick bus (only about 20 minutes) to the picture-perfect village of Haworth, most famous as the place of residence of the Bronte family. Even if you’ve never read their work, most people would have at least heard their names, or the titles of their work. Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and disappointing brother Branwell (harsh, but true) grew up in the parsonage, where their father, Patrick, was reverend. The Parsonage is now a museum dedicated to the lives and work of the family. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are novels I love very much, but they are made even more special because of the fact that they were written by members of the same family. These girls were educated, yes, but they weren’t wealthy or privileged or holders of any particularly special societal status. They worked as governesses and Emily and Anne died spinsters while Charlotte enjoyed one year of marriage before her death. Their childhood was, one could argue, quite isolated. Haworth was a quiet village surrounded by wild moors, and despite some travel to Belgium for work and study, all the women ended up back at the home they grew up in before they died.

And yet, the work they are famous for was revolutionary for its time. It was violent and passionate and tackled spiky issues – domestic violence, religion and morality, proto-feminism, the plight of the lower classes, the list goes on. These three quiet, unassuming sisters produced some of the world’s best-loved books and poetry. Scholars have been writing about them for nearly two centuries, and interest in the women and their work is only increasing with more adaptations and criticism being produced every year as well as the approaching bicentenaries of their births (Charlotte is 200 in a few days – April 21). I have waited a long time to see their home.

But first! I was starving. So a giant Yorkshire pudding with roast beef was consumed. THEN it was Bronte time. The Museum is excellent. There are detailed explanations of every room of the house, and countless Bronte artefacts to see. I actually stood in the room where the girls would write. It is thought that Emily died on the couch in this same room. Upstairs there is an exhibition room in an area of the house that was a later extension, and there are plentiful letters and jewellery and all sorts of brilliant little possessions on display. Tracy Chevalier has curated a special exhibition for Charlotte’s bicentenary that emphasises “great and small” – how Charlotte’s literary feats of greatness and brilliance contrasted with the smallness of her physicality (she was a tiny woman) and her obsession with miniatures and intricate artworks, such as the famous tiny books the siblings produced.

There is a brilliant gift shop, of course, but I only bought two things – a copy of Agnes Grey, and a short story by Charlotte, both of which I have never read. Oh, and I bought a map of the local walking tracks. There are…quite a few. The Parsonage overlooks the graveyard of the St Michael and All Angels’ Church, where all the family (except Anne) is buried (and where Papa Bronte was reverend). Unfortunately, the church is closed for refurbishments, and the actual Bronte family plots are inside the building, so I couldn’t see those. But I found a cat, who let me pat him and coo at him so that was okay. Then it was time for a walk down Main Street. This is a long, steep, and cobbled road. It’s lined with lovely shops, most of them featuring some sort of association with the Brontes’ in the name of the shop or the products sold. There are tea shops, second hand book shops, gift shops, restaurants, guest houses, and all sorts. It’s lovely, and I spent too much, mostly on books. But I also bought a Kate Bush postcard, so all is well.

I walked to my hostel, which is a little way away from the main street. I walked through Central Park and uphill for about twenty minutes, stopping frequently to take photos of the absolutely stunning views of Worth Valley, and then found my way to the YHA Haworth hostel. It’s located in a massive, Gothic-style mansion, and my (very affordable) private room is built right under the slanted room, just a little bigger than Harry’s cupboard. It was utterly charming. The place was pretty quiet, but there were a couple of families with children and some hillwalker types. I spent the evening reading and had fish and chips from the hostel kitchens. Then I slept like the dead.

This morning, I was up bright and early again (for me, I mean, bright and early FOR ME). I was in the dining room at 8am and filled up on a yummy full English breakfast in preparation. I walked into town, then had a drink at a lovely cafe on Main Street while I waited until the Museum opened. I had a quick quiz around the shop once it had, then headed off over the moors to Bronte Falls and Top Withens. This is a popular walk, associated strongly with the Brontes’ because we know the sisters frequented the waterfalls and the abandoned farmhouse a mile past the falls (known as Top Withens) is thought to have inspired Emily while writing Wuthering Heights. The map said that the Falls were about two and a half miles from the Parsonage, and Top Withens was another mile or so afterwards. It was the longest freaking walk of my life. It was beautiful – my goodness, was it beautiful – but I hadn’t quite prepared myself mentally for the length. Thankfully, the walk to the Falls is mostly flat. This gives you gorgeous panoramic views over the Worth Valley. The sun was shining and there was a cool breeze, and it apparently rained overnight because it was very muddy in areas and my shoes and jeans got nicely splattered. It felt very authentic. Setting off when I did (about 10am) was a good idea – by the time I was on my walk back (a lifetime later), there were dozens of people out walking the tracks. On my way however, I was mostly alone. This led to many Kate Bush singalongs with myself and practicing my Yorkshire accent (I didn’t bring an iPod and I am a child of the digital age that needs to be constantly entertained). Finally, the Falls! They’re lovely, only a very small ‘waterfall’, nothing exciting, but there is a lovely little stone bridge and some beautiful photo opportunities. There are also the letters C BRONTE carved into a rock…I don’t know how authentic they are but it was cute.

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By this stage, I was still optimistic and energetic – Top Withens was only another mile, it couldn’t be that hard! I didn’t realise how much of the next stretch of the walk was uphill. I saw a speck of a house in the distance and thought, ‘Gee, that’s a while away. Hope that’s not Top Withens!’. It was.

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CAN YOU SEE THE BLACK SPECK ON THE HORIZON IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PHOTO? My destination.

But I made it, dammit. I walked and then stopped and then walked some more. Again, I was pretty much alone for the entire walk. I’m talking not a soul in sight. Several times I stopped just to listen, and experienced a silence purer and clearer than I thought possible. It was like I was the last person in the world. When I got to the foot of the steepest part of the walk, I sat to rest and pulled out my mandarin and found that it was gross, so I got rid of that and drank some water and soldiered on. And I got there, eventually. Puffing and sore, I took some pics of the ruins and then sat and read Agnes Grey while I procrastinated the walk back to town. It was pretty special though, lying on the grass in the sun, reading a novel, the entire valley spread out before me. I saw a lot more people around Top Withens as well. People had hiked up with their walking pole thingies and rucksacks full of picnic lunch, in groups and alone, and we all sat around and enjoyed the view. I didn’t stay for too long though. The sight of their food was making me hungry.

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I walked back, passing lots more people while feeling smug that I had finished the hard part and they were still on it. Fatigue makes me mean. In all seriousness though, everyone was lovely. I think Yorkshire people are some of the friendliest I’ve come across. I stopped to chat with a few people and patted their dogs, and they talked with charming accents and were interested in where I was from. Once I got back past the Falls, I saw a lot more people with small kids. I’m really glad I got to do this walk by myself. I didn’t have to wait for anyone else or feel rushed to keep up with someone. My own pace was a luxury. There was also a lot more sheep, and that meant a lot more LAMBS!! So sweet and small! And some dumb but beautiful pheasants. By the time I got back to Haworth I was ready to expire. Instead, I had a BLT and a milkshake and sat down for a long time. I worked out that my walk from the hostel, all the way to Top Withens, and back to Haworth was about 14.5km. It took me nearly four hours. When I felt slightly recharged, I wandered back down Main Street and caught the bus back to Keighley, and that’s where I am now, sitting in the public library and typing this blog before I take the train back to Edinburgh. I would have loved to spend the rest of the afternoon in Haworth, but the temptation to spend money was too big – this way, I’ll finish the draft of the blog and I can upload my photos and edit it later.

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I’m so pleased I finally had this experience. Bronte country is beautiful, and when paired with the atmosphere and drama of their words, it’s even better. Everyone should see this corner of the world, whether or not you are a fan. Now I’m going to stand outside real-estate windows and be sad.