|The film set on the moors
|The replica Parsonage
This is of course the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary year and there was plenty of excitement at the real Parsonage too. At a special private viewing for Society members, we were able to inspect the exhibition ‘Charlotte Brontë Great and Small’ curated by the novelist Tracy Chevalier. A selection of small artefacts (tiny books, Charlotte’s child-sized clothes....) are contrasted with her big ambitions. In other rooms, visitors can view miniature objects such as a small bed with quilts embroidered with texts from the Brontës’ works, and a knitted scene from Jane Eyre! In addition, at a fund-raising event called ‘Hidden Gems’, a group of members had the opportunity to view a selection of ‘gems’ from the Museum’s collection.
We attended a talk about a new history of the Withins Farms by Steve Woods and Peter Brears, who also led a (rather wet) walk over the moors to Top Withins. The annual lecture was given by Claire Harman, author of a new biography of Charlotte Brontë, who spoke to our group in Brussels in April 2015. A highlight of the weekend was The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate on the Saturday evening, in which four distinguished women writers debated whether Charlotte’s greatest novel was Jane Eyre or Villette. Claire Harman and Joanne Harris argued for Jane Eyre, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Katherine Langrish for Villette, chaired by Tracy Chevalier. Readings from the two novels were given by the actress Maxine Peake. For a fuller account of the debate see the report on the Brontë Parsonage Blog.
|Claire Harman, who gave the annual lecture
|The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate. From left to right. Katherine Langrish,
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris and Claire Harman
A lighter look at the Brontës was taken by the comedy duo ‘Lip Service’ (Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding) in a film made at the Parsonage which was screened for members. Some of us saw their hilarious stage show ‘Withering Looks’ in Haworth a few years ago. Entertainment was also provided in the form of a dinner and a quiz with quizmaster Barry Simmons from BBC2’s ‘Eggheads’. I doubt that I was alone in performing rather better in the questions on the Brontës than in the more challenging geography, science etc. questions that followed.
Entertainment of another sort was provided by the Brontë Society AGM. For some years the Brontë Society council has been divided about the best way to run the museum and the direction the Society should take. Stormy moments in recent annual general meetings have been relayed with glee by the local and national press, particularly last year when the then President Bonnie Greer jokingly threatened to bang on the table with her Jimmy Choo shoe to restore order. The new President, Judi Dench, was unable to be present to chair this year’s meeting, which got off to bumpy start when questions were asked about the recent resignations of several council members, with one member protesting loudly that the former chair should be allowed more time to give her account of events. This year the press came up with headlines such as ‘Withering Slights’ (‘Wuthering Fights’ was a favourite last year). Tempers cooled down, however, for the second part of the meeting. The new chair, John Thirlwell, set out his vision of a more ambitious Society and Museum and introduced Kitty Wright, the new Museum Director.
On Monday many of us joined a coach excursion to various places in the ‘Shirley Country’. We visited the graves of Charlotte Brontë’s two schoolfriends: Mary Taylor’s in the churchyard at St Mary’s Church in Gomersal (where a stone has been laid in memory of her sister Martha Taylor, who died in Brussels) and Ellen Nussey’s in Birstall. We also visited the Red House in Gomersal, home of the Taylor family, and Oakwell Hall, the inspiration for Shirley Keeldar’s home in Shirley, Fieldhead. Charlotte visited this house in the 1840s, when it was a boarding school.