On Feb. 23, 2013, the Brussels
Bronte Group had the second installment of a great new tradition -
presentations by group members. These do-it-yourself talks were initiated last
February and now have become an annual event. The talks were on Emily Brontë’s
poetry and calligraphy; and on the real-life inspiration behind the character
of Mr. Brocklehurst in ‘Jane Eyre.’
First up were Marina Saegerman and Maureen Peeck to talk about Emily
Brontë’s poems and calligraphy. Marina’s three passions in life are Emily’s
poetry, calligraphy and Celtic culture - and all three come together
beautifully in her wonderful calligraphic cards of Brontë poems, which are now
on sale at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. At one point, Marina
referred to ‘my bible’' and held up the Penguin edition of Emily’s poems, with
lots of Post-It notes marking the pages.
Marina explained the history
of calligraphy, with a particular emphasis on the Book of Kells, a masterwork
of Western calligraphy produced by Celtic monks around the year 800 and a
special source of inspiration for Marina. While admiring the elaborate
calligraphic illustrations and ornamentation in the book, Marina also called
attention to the many small drawings of animals sprinkled in the text at odd
places. ‘These monks were really cheeky chaps,’ she said, explaining how they
used the animal drawings and other tricks to cover up their mistakes.
Marina told us how the Book of
Kells has inspired and influenced her calligraphy in her Brontë poetry cards.
Her favorite script is a colorful Celtic calligraphy called uncial script. Then
she showed how she plans and creates her calligraphic poems, using a page from
her latest project - a calendar of Brontë poems - as an example. She showed us
how she envisaged, laid out and produced the ‘April’ page of the calendar,
using a drawing of daffodils and Emily’s poem that starts ‘From our evening
fireside now’, which features a line about April rain.
She showed examples of Emily’s
two handwriting styles - the tiny, cramped script she used when writing her
poetry, and the spiky one that she used for letters and her French devoirs
while she was in Brussels.
Then Marina and Maureen read
some of Emily’s poetry for us, which Maureen then analyzed. One that Marina read
is her favorite Emily poem: ‘Love and Friendship,’ which begins: ‘Love is like
the wild rose briar/Friendship like the holly tree’. She also read `Alone I sat
this summer day’ ‘The night is darkening round me’ and ‘The Night Wind.’ Maureen
read ‘Remembrance’ (a.k.a. ‘R Alcona to J Brenzaida’) and ‘Stars’ (in which the
line ‘Like petrel on the sea’ threw us for a moment).
They showed the poems in
Emily’s own handwriting and in a calligraphic script while Maureen commented
upon them. Maureen, retired lecturer at the University of Utrecht, explained
that Emily’s poems rarely are about everyday occurrences. They usually deal
with ‘state of mind’ - the speaker musing in solitude. In ‘The night is
darkening,’ the narrator may be hoping to transcend herself - she half-dreads
and half-welcomes the ‘tyrant spell,’ Maureen says. ‘Remembrance’ reflects the
influences on the living that alter their relationship with the dead. Emily is
bent on transforming her world by acts of imagination, Maureen said.
(Work by Marina can be viewed on the Picture Gallery of our website.)
In the afternoon, Paul Gretton gave an animated talk
about the Rev. William Carus Wilson, the inspiration behind the character of
Mr. Brocklehurst, the evangelical clergyman in charge of Lowood School where
the young Jane Eyre suffers so much. Wilson founded the Clergy Daughters’
School at Cowan Bridge, where Patrick Bronte sent four of his daughters,
including Charlotte. Wilson also was the author of somewhat macabre moral tales
about children dying young, some of which Paul shared with us during his presentation.
Mr. Brocklehurst is a
tempter/monster figure in ‘Jane Eyre’ -the ‘punitive father figure,’ Paul
explained. Like St. John Rivers later in the novel, and even Rochester, Mr.
Brocklehurst tries to get Jane to deny her identity and follow his will. But
Jane turns out to be stronger than all of them.
of Mr. Brocklehurst flared into a controversy only 10 years after the
publication of ‘Jane Eyre’ - when Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography
identified Cowan Bridge as the model for Lowood in the novel. But Gaskell
admits the evidence as to the truth about Cowan Bridge and Carus Wilson ‘is so
conflicting that it seems almost impossible to arrive at the truth.’ Paul
argues that in painting Mr. Brocklehurst, Charlotte focused on one aspect of
Wilson’s character - the strict side of his Calvinism - and ignored other
facets, including his charity and his opposition to slavery.
Paul stresses that while ‘Jane
Eyre’ is very autobiographical, Charlotte Brontë changed more than she didn't
in transmuting her experience into the novel. For instance, Jane arrives at
Lowood on Jan. 19 - in the middle of winter and part of a harsh journey of
transition for the character. Charlotte arrived at Cowen Bridge on Aug. 10 - in
the middle of summer. Charlotte was at Cowen Bridge for nine months; Jane was
at Lowood for eight years. Also some of the description of Lowood in the novel
is connected with Roe Head instead of Cowan Bridge.
Wilson’s strict Calvinist bent
comes through in the moralistic stories for young children he published in
magazines and collected in books. These stories – ‘chiefly in words of one
syllable’ - were directed at ‘the very youngest children,’ according to the
1836 volume of ‘Child’s First Tales,’ but nonetheless had a macabre focus on
death. Paul read bits of some of them to us, highlighting the many references
One tale, ‘The Necklace’,
discouraged ostentatious dress and ended: ‘when you call to mind how soon this
vile body will die, and be the food of worms, I think you will not wish to deck
it out with a necklace, or ear-rings or fine clothes.’ Another one, ‘The
Gallows,’ used a public hanging of a sheep-stealer to warn against similar
sins. Each tale was illustrated with a woodcut.
Perhaps the most shocking one
was ‘Mama Ill,’ in which the child is urged to pray that the mother will die
and therefore be in heaven. One titled ‘Dead Boy’ was a strong incentive for
not going sliding on the ice. Often the reference to death would come in the
last sentence, giving a ‘sting in the tail of the tale,’ Paul quipped. He noted
that in Chap. IV of ‘Jane Eyre,’' Mr. Brocklehurst gives Jane a similar book of
moral stories titled the ‘Child’s Guide,’ telling the girl to ‘read it with
prayer, especially that part containing “An account of the awfully sudden death
of Martha G--, a naughty child addicted to falsehood and deceit.”’
Paul said William Carus
Wilson’s ideal of the perfect child could be summed up in a famous 19th
century poem – ‘Casabianca’ by Felicia Hemans, published in 1826. The poem is
set during the Battle of the Nile and tells the story of the young boy
Casabianca who refuses to desert his post aboard ship without orders from his
father, eventually dying in the battle. Paul ended with a dramatic reading of
"The boy stood on the burning
Whence all but he had fled… "