Blake Morrison and the Brontës
Blake Morrison began his talk by drawing out parallels between his own childhood and the Brontës’. He told us about growing up near Skipton close to the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, in an old rectory at the top of the village, not far from Pendle Hill where the ‘Pendle Witches’ famous in local legend were hanged in 1612. His mother was Irish and his father, as a doctor (in fact both parents were doctors) was an important man in the village just as Patrick Brontë the parson was in Haworth. He told us about reading Jane Eyre in secret as a teenager – in secret because it was not considered boys’ reading in the laddish Yorkshire culture of the time; it was not on the curriculum at the boys’ grammar school he attended – and about the affinity he felt with the young Jane and the novel’s power as a book for young adults. Blake told us how he found out that his mother was hiding her copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in her bedside table around the same time that he was hiding his of Jane Eyre (a novel that when it first came out was also regarded as a ‘naughty’ book!).
Blake went on to tell us how he came to write his play about the Brontës, We are three sisters. First he recounted how an earlier Brontë-inspired stage production, a musical version of Wuthering Heights he wrote in 1986, was never performed; four other musical versions of the novel were doing the rounds at the time and in the end Heathcliff with lyrics by Tim Rice, starring Cliff Richard, was the only one to be staged. To give us a taste of his own version of Wuthering Heights, Blake read us the ballad Isabella’s Song, which starts:
As I stepped out one summer night
to feed my white ring-dove
a shadow fell across the gate
and swore undying love.
The shadow stretched out tall and slim,
its face was black as night.
It spoke to me of wedding-rings
and bridesmaids bathed in light ….
The full poem can be read in his book of verse A discoverie of Witches (2012) prompted by the Pennine landscape in which he grew up. In a very different mood, the collection also includes the Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, an exploration - in dialect - of the deeds and motives of Peter Sutcliffe, convicted of killing 13 women in 1981. Morrison has never shrunk from tackling such subjects, and has written a book on the James Bulger murder case.
|Blake Morrison chatting to a
Brussels Brontë Group member
Turning to the genesis of his play We Are Three Sisters, in which he took up the challenge of re-writing Chekhov’s play with Charlotte, Emily and Anne as the sisters, Blake told us that when a theatre critic friend first suggested the idea to him, he dismissed it as ‘bonkers’. He was however persuaded to go ahead with the project by the artistic director of the theatre company Northern Broadsides, which staged the play in 2011.
In Blake’s play, Moscow, to which Chekhov’s three sisters long to go, has become London, and, similarly, various characters in the Chekhov play are replaced by equivalent characters from the Brontës’ circle (their doctor, Patrick’s curate). Blake explained that although he used the Brontës own words in his text where possible, the use of Chekhov’s play as a basis meant he had to take some liberties with the Brontës’ life story, with sometimes amusing results. For example, in his play the woman with whom Branwell is believed to have had an affair, his employer’s wife Lydia Robinson, turns up at the Parsonage, which she never visited in real life. Members of our group read out extracts from two scenes in the play: Charlotte and Anne telling Emily about their trip to reveal their identity to the publisher George Smith in London, and Charlotte telling her father about the publication of Jane Eyre.
Contrary to the common perception of the Brontës’ lives as eventless, Blake found them full of interest and drama and wanted to show Haworth as less bleak than it is generally portrayed. His play has many touches of humour and he describes it as a ‘tragi-comedy’, much like the original Chekhov.
In the course of the talk, in addition to some of his poems, Blake read us extracts from his memoir And when did you last see your father? Made into a film in 2007 starring Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth, it contains many memories of his childhood. By the end of his time with us we had gained many insights into his personal background and the wide range of his literary output as well as becoming acquainted with his Brontë play.
Charlotte Brontë in Ireland
It was good to welcome back Monica Wallace, who has spoken to our group before and was an active member of it when working in Brussels as transport attaché for Ireland in 2009-14. She is now back in Dublin, working for the Irish transport department. For this presentation she researched the family of Charlotte Brontë’s husband, the Anglican clergyman Arthur Bell Nicholls, and the route taken by the couple on their honeymoon in the summer of 1854 at the start of their brief marriage (Charlotte died 9 months later in March 1855).
Monica began by filling us in on Nicholls’ family – born in County Antrim as one of a large family that was struggling financially, he was adopted at a young age by a more affluent uncle, his mother’s brother Alan Bell, who ran a school in Banagher. Arthur never saw his own parents again; his mother died 5 years later. Like Charlotte, he had a stint as a badly-paid teacher when he helped out at his uncle’s school. His biographer Alan Adamson (whose widow Monica met on a trip to Canada) speculates that despite Arthur’s happiness in his new family, he probably suffered from insecurity as a result of these upheavals and financial problems in his early days.
Monica also filled us in on some of the developments in Irish history in Nicholls’ and Patrick Brontë’s lifetimes, for example Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic Emancipation, which was followed with interest by the Brontës; the Anglican Patrick Brontë initially opposed it but changed his position. She sketched conditions in Ireland at the time of Charlotte’s visit and the often condescending attitudes of English visitors to the country, such as Thackeray.
|Monica Wallace fills us in on Arthur Nicholls' family
She then took us on a richly-illustrated tour of the honeymoon route, starting in Dún Laoghaire (where Monica herself lives) and thence to Cuba House, the family home in Banagher, via Dublin. From there, Charlotte and Arthur went on to visit Kilkee, Tarbert in Co. Limerick and Tralee, the Lakes of Killarney and the Gap of Dunloe (where Charlotte escaped unharmed when thrown from her horse) in Co. Kerry. We saw some of the hotels where they stayed and learned that at that period hotels were strictly segregated into Protestant and Catholic.
We gleaned fascinating snippets about Arthur’s family, such as that one of his brothers had a daughter named Charlotte Brontë Nicholls, and Banagher: Anthony Trollope lived there in the 1840s in the first years of his marriage and is sure to have met the Bells.
|Arthur Bell Nicholls
Charlotte may have had some misapprehensions about the Bell family. For example, she appears to have believed that Cuba House was owned by the family (in fact it came courtesy of the school of which Alan Bell was headmaster) and that Nicholls’ aunt Bell was educated in England (actually she spent just one week at an English boarding school before being brought back to Ireland as her family missed her). What is certain is that where the Bell family was concerned Charlotte was forced to abandon her prejudices against Ireland, and had nothing but praise for her in-laws’ ‘gentility’ and kindness. She also gave positive reports of her new husband as she began to really get to know him for the first time, in his native country and his family circle.