This year around 12 members of the Brussels Brontë Group headed for Haworth for the annual Brontë Society AGM weekend. Visitors to Haworth are not always in danger of getting sunburned on the moors, but this year the weather was so kind to us we needed our sun hats. Many of us joined an organised walk to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse high on the moors thought to have inspired the location of Wuthering Heights, led by local historian Steve Wood, who also gave a talk on the history of the spot over the weekend.
One of the fixtures of the weekend is of course the Annual General Meeting itself, which gives an insight into how the Brontë Parsonage Museum is run. The Bronte Society, which currently has around 1500 members, is one of the oldest literary societies in the world (in the UK there are societies in honour of practically every well-known writer). It was set up in 1893 and has run the Museum since the Parsonage was gifted to it in 1928. The governing board, or trustees, of the Society (‘Council’) is elected by members and delegates the day-to-day running of the Museum to a Director and other staff. As well as maintaining and acquiring manuscripts and artefacts, and books for its library, the Museum is a vibrant creative centre with a very full educational and arts programme (talks by writers, art exhibitions, activities for schoolchildren).
The AGM always includes a presentation on developments during the year at the Museum which this year was given by its new Director, Ann Sumner. The TV Brontë documentary broadcast in March, in which our Brussels members took part, was seen by over 10 million viewers and has brought many new visitors to the Museum. The main excitement in the past year was the complete redecoration of the Parsonage with bespoke wallpapers and curtain fabrics, based on analysis of evidence such as scraps of wallpaper surviving from the period. Some rooms reflect the look of the house when all four siblings were alive, others Charlotte’s improvements and ‘gentrification’ when she became wealthier in the 1850s. On Sunday morning we were able to inspect the new look at a special early opening for members only.
A new acquisition was on view that is of particular interest for Brussels members: a devoir, French essay, of Charlotte’s that fell out of a book in a private collection last year – apparently the owner had no idea it was there. Members contributed £3000 towards this purchase.
Called L’Amour Filial, it was written in August 1842 and includes a few corrections by M. Heger. How many other undiscovered Belgian essays of the Brontës are out there? Could there be one in an old volume on your bookshelves or perhaps in an antiquarian bookshop in Brussels?
Under the new Director there are plans to further improve and also expand the Museum. ‘Visioning strands’ in the ‘vision for the future’ include a café and toilets.
|The walk up to Top Withens|
|Brontë Society members at Top Withens|
Apart from walks on the moors, the AGM and visits to the Parsonage, another traditional feature of the weekend is a special service for Society members in the church where Patrick Brontë preached for 40 years. Whether habitual church-goers or not, most members appreciate this opportunity to remember the members of the Brontë family in the church where they are buried and where they worshipped each Sunday. There are readings by Society members and Museum staff. The address always reflects on a particular member or aspect of the Brontë family and is often given by a guest speaker, this year the Vicar of Hartshead where Patrick was curate before moving to Haworth. (Poor Patrick was destined to be a curate all his life. He was never Vicar in Haworth because at that time it was part of the parish of Bradford rather than a parish in its own right). The address included anecdotes of the problems faced by new curates in Haworth, where the church trustees and congregation sometimes objected to the ministers appointed for them by Bradford; on one occasion they caused havoc during a church service, prevented an unpopular new incumbent from preaching his sermon and hounded him out of the village.
This year, local primary schoolchildren took part in the church service, singing and reading one of Charlotte’s poems.
As always, too, there were lectures and entertainment. In his talk on Byron and Emily Brontë in a cosy Main Street café venue, the Yorkshire poet Andrew Mitchell read us his narrative poem The Death of Lord Byron about the progress of Byron’s funeral cortege from London to the family vault in Nottinghamshire, giving the thoughts of some of those who saw the procession pass – Keats, Coleridge and the poet’s former lover Lady Caroline Lamb, among others. He then examined similarities between Byron’s and Emily’s personalities and writings. We learned that Byron was able to give freer rein to his love of animals than Emily; while studying at Cambridge he kept a menagerie that included a bear and three monkeys. Pointing out that the concept of the Byronic hero, which influenced Emily in Wuthering Heights, was in turn influenced by Milton and the character of Satan in Paradise Lost, Mitchell categorised Wuthering Heights as a Romantic novel in the Miltonic tradition.
The entertainment provided over the weekend included Michael Yates’ play The Brontë Boy featuring a tortured Branwell Brontë. Most of this play was fairly predictable though there were some surprises – such as a voluptuous, giggly Emily – and some apparently deliberate deviations from the facts; for instance, Heger returns one of Charlotte’s letters to her, which she then reads it to her brother. And jazz singer Val Wiseman, who leads the Society’s London group, performed the songs on her album relating the story of the Brontë family and their novels and fictional characters, Keeping the Flame Alive.
|Val Wiseman in concert|
The witty and moving lyrics were written by Val herself. On Sunday night, as is the tradition, we provided our own entertainment at a dinner in the Old White Lion, attempting to write limericks on Brontë themes and enjoying a sketch called Fawlty Parsonage written by the Brontë Society Membership Officer and performed by Museum staff.
|Museum staff perform the comedy sketch Fawlty Parsonage|
|Levens Hall in Cumbria|
The Brontë link with Levens Hall is somewhat tenuous (not that we minded this!); the 1999 BBC series of Brontë biographer Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters was filmed there. We also visited the farmhouse in Silverdale, Morecambe Bay, where the novelist spent summer holidays.
|Oakwell Hall in Yorkshire, the model for Fieldhead in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley|
Oakwell Hall has a less tenuous link with the Brontës; Charlotte visited it when staying with her friend Ellen Nussey and used it in her novel Shirley as Fieldhead, the home of the novel’s heroine. We were given a brilliant guided tour enlivened by ghost stories and the sight of groups of schoolchildren, demure in period costume with white caps, being instructed in crafts of the period by ladies in shawls and aprons.
The next Brontë Society AGM weekend is on 14-15 June 2014. The full programme of events always begins on Friday and ends on Tuesday. We hope many more Brussels Group members will join us in Haworth next year.
Marina Saegerman writes:
One of the most pleasant surprises of the weekend for me was Val Wiseman’s performance on Saturday evening. I knew Val had a beautiful voice and I had heard some of her songs on CD, but the way she brought the Brontë story through her songs and her comments was just amazing.
There was a wonderful feeling of intimacy with the audience and so much respect for the Brontë family. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and could have stayed a bit longer to listen to Val’s interpretation of the Brontë’s lives and work. Very good entertainment.
On the other hand, “The Brontë boy” was a bit of a disappointment to me. Having read so many good reviews, I expected so much of it. The respect I found in Val’s performance was lost to me in this one. I could hardly recognize father Patrick, Charlotte, Anne and certainly not Emily (my goodness!!). And Branwell was all too gloomy all the time, it seemed as if he really was doing everything against his will. The only character I liked was John Brown. On the whole, I had mixed feelings about this play. I would certainly not recommend it further.
But throughout the weekend I really enjoyed the walks and the talks, and the wining and dining, and the excursions. It is a pity that the Brontë Society has decided to move the AGM to a date a week later, and that therefore I might most probably not be able to attend!