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Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Poetry at the Parsonage

Richard Wilcocks writes:
It was certainly a turn-up for the books: I can not recall any events even similar to this one in my experience, and I am guessing it was unprecedented. It should be made to happen again, and not just because it links with the Parsonage's well-established and enlightened stance on contemporary arts, and because all the Brontës wrote poetry but because festivals like this should be essential items on both the Parsonage and the Haworth annual calendar. It should be repeated. Perhaps an annual poetry weekend could grow to become as significant as a Forties weekend.

The organising geniuses were Matthew Withey and Joanna Sedgwick with other members of staff and volunteers from the Parsonage, together with Mark Connors from the Leeds-based Word Club, well-used to rounding up poets of all kinds, and a poet and novelist himself. They spent many happy hours planning everything, drinking plenty of lattes in 'Cobbles and Clay' (on Main Street) to help things along. Some ideas never materialised: the marquee in which performances were going to be situated did not appear because the Health and Safety people from Bradford Council did not like the sheep droppings they discovered on the chosen field, so the poets were sent to either the old school room ('Charlotte's Stage') or to the West Lane Baptist Church ('Emily's Stage') to hold forth.

"Poetry at the Parsonage was a two day celebration of the vibrant poetry scene that stretches across all corners of Yorkshire and we were blessed with contributions from Leeds, Bradford, York, Wakefield, Sheffield, Hull, Otley, Ilkley, Huddersfield, Halifax, Horsforth, Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge, Filey, Marsden....and many other places where poetry thrives in 2016," said Mark Connors on his Facebook page, and audiences were exposed to just about every variety of it. Some was Brontë-related, most of it not, and poets were of every age. My own ten-minute contribution was delivered to an audience which included the magnificent Queensbury Ladies on the front row, and if I was asked to pick out memorable individual performances I would choose Antony Dunn ( at the young end and Patrick Lodge ( at the senior end. I missed the workshops, but on evidence from a participant, can say that the one led by veteran poet and creative writing coach Char March ( was brilliant.

There was a bar on the grass behind the Parsonage which attracted few drinkers on the Saturday, mainly because of the cold, blustery weather, but more on the Sunday, when there was more sunshine - and musicians.

Here are two glowing reviews:

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Barry Simmons - Scrambled Eggheads

 IS writes:
The annual gathering at the Old White Lion on the Sunday evening is always something to look forward to in the programme of the Brontë Society June Weekend. Friendships are renewed, new ones are made and excellent food is available. This year members, in teams of four, replete with choices such as scampi, chicken, garlic mushrooms, sticky toffee pudding and in my case a humble cheese sandwich which was delicious, prepared to pit their wits in a quiz compiled by Barry Simmons (pictured). 

Resplendent that evening in a sparkling, red sequined jacket - which would have done Liberace proud - he can be regularly seen on our television screens in the quiz programme 'Eggheads'. He is a quizzer par excellence - he has been a winner of 'Brain of Britain' and he is a researcher at the text question and answer service. So it was probably with some trepidation that the teams - with names such as Chapter, Keeper’s Friends, Heathcliff’s Revenge - prepared to do battle.

Barry, who lives in Leeds, asked his brain teasing questions with humour and patience, and when the winner was declared there was only one mark between the top two teams.

The evening ended on a high note with Audrey Hall (pictured in a recent post), one of the Society’s vice- presidents, telling about some Brontë items she has recently acquired for the museum via her family connection with the Nusseys and also with Oakwell Hall. It was so good to hear about Audrey’s latest project - she has worked so hard over many, many years for the good of the Brontë Society and I thank her for all she has done and continues to do.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Katherine Langrish, Maxine Peake, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris and Claire Harman
Helen MacEwan (Brussels Brontë Group) writes:
A highlight of the weekend was The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate on the Saturday evening (11 June) of the Summer Festival. Which is Brontë's greatest novel, Jane Eyre or Villette? Claire Harman (who had given that morning's lecture) and Joanne Harris argued for Jane Eyre, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Katherine Langrish for Villette, expertly chaired by Tracy Chevalier.

Each writer's defence of her chosen novel was preceded by readings given by Maxine Peake, in which we heard, for example, about Jane in the Red Room, Jane in the early days at Thornfield longing for a more fulfilling and intellectually stimulating life, and Lucy, at the Pensionnat, similarly yearning for a fuller life to lead her 'upwards and onwards'.

For Claire Harman, Jane Eyre is 'a book that has everything and has fed generations of readers imaginatively, emotionally, intellectually and erotically', while for Joanne Harris it can be read at different times of life and mean different things. Katherine Langrish described Villette as 'a pressure-cooker of a book, boiling with suppressed passion', while Lucy Hughes-Hallett explored the theme of surveillance in the novel, the subject of her talk to the Brussels Brontë Group in 2014. Everyone spies on everyone else in Villette. This was illustrated by passages in which Lucy watches Mme Beck and M. Paul rummaging through her belongings, though the two have very different motives in wanting to know more about her: Hughes-Hallett described M. Paul, a hero she finds more convincing than Rochester, as 'someone with the generosity to look at someone else and see them as they are, and love them.'

This first round of presentation was followed by a lively debate in which further points were discussed, after which it was over to the audience. Jane Eyre came out top in the votes taken both before and after the debate, but the second vote revealed a significant swing in support for Charlotte's last novel. All four speakers were so eloquent, however, it's difficult to say which of them mounted the best defence. And I imagine many of us find it almost impossible to choose between Charlotte's best-seller, a novel first read and loved in youth, and the more complex novel we appreciate when we're a little older. As Katherine Langrish put it, if Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice, Villette is Persuasion.

This was a wonderful event, professionally presented, with six high-calibre performers and a great format. Could we please have many more such debates at Haworth in future?

Monday, 13 June 2016

Claire Harman's lecture

The Annual Brontë Society Lecture this year was delivered by Claire Harman in a venue relatively new to the occasion - the Hall Green Baptist Chapel. The annual church service followed it, in the same place. This was because St Michael's and All Angel's is currently still being reordered and reroofed.

Charlotte Brontë - A Life seems to have been read by a large percentage of the appreciative audience, though the queue for signed copies stretched around the church. "Her protagonist is both fervent dreamer and cool realist, imaginative artist and clear-eyed professional," wrote Kathryn Hughes in her Observer review last year, and the clear-eyed Claire Harman showed just why that is an accurate assessment of her work, which moves on significantly from Gaskell (naturally) and also from more recent biographers like Juliet Barker.

In the photo, she is sitting with Audrey Hall, a leading authority on Ellen Nussey, and who recently became one of the Society's Honorary Vice-Presidents.

Charlotte - The Movie!

Lip Service
Charlotte - The Movie is a film commissioned for Charlotte's bicentenary, and it premiered at West Lane Baptist Church on the Friday evening of the June Weekend/Summer Festival. Performed by Lip Service Theatre Company , an outfit very well known to most of the substantial audience because of its live shows (there was a call for hands up), it was made in the Parsonage and nearby with the enthusiastic assistance of the staff. Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding (pictured), who in various guises took all the main parts, from Mrs Gaskell to Robert Redford, have been writing and performing together since 1985, with eighteen original comedies for the stage, a comedy series on Radio 4 and a number of television appearances to their credit. They more than lived up to the description of them by a Guardian reviewer a few years ago - "The Laurel and Hardy of literary deconstruction".

There were excerpts from their long-running stage show Withering Looks, but this was several steps on from all that. The laughter at the introduction (in English followed by Japanese) and the opening scene in the Parsonage Dining Room ("Don't sit on that couch!") continued right through to the final gags about submitting the film for the Sundance Festival. The studied naivety, the in-jokes and the child-like glee went down well, and the quiz papers dished out afterwards (sadly, hardly anyone knew that Queen Victoria's middle name was Alexandrina) provided a good excuse to chat with the audience, to soak in a few comments. Both Maggie and Sue were certainly on edge before the screening, but much more relaxed after they had heard the reactions. The only (slight) irritation appears to have been that people laughed too much, which meant that they sometimes missed the witticism which was next in line. These things can be timed better with the punters live in front of you.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Story of the Withins Farms

Top Withins - 1920s 
Friday 10 June was the first day of what used to be called either 'AGM Weekend' or 'June Weekend' but which has now been renamed 'Summer Festival'. At 3pm first Steve Woods, then Peter Brears gave their illustrated talk 'The Real Wuthering Heights: The Story of the Withins Farms', which was a bigger and better version of a talk given on the same subject three years ago. It began with a brief reference to the letter from publishers Smith, Elder & Co to Ellen Nussey, who was being asked for clues about locations. They wanted to know what the Brontë Sisters had in mind because they were producing the first illustrated edition of the collected works, and Volume Five (1873) of this was Wuthering Heights along with Agnes Grey. As Ellen Nussey's reply has been lost, we do not know much for sure, but the book included an illustration of Top Withins by E M Wimperis which she seems to have suggested to him, so there is some evidence that it was one of the places in Emily's imagination - along with others.

The talk was the result of years of careful study, and covered Top, Middle and Lower Withins, three farms which made up about a hundred acres, much of it rough pasture and much of it probably never used - too rough perhaps. Most farms in the area were dairy, producing milk, butter and a little cheese. Two hundred years ago this would have been consumed by the many weavers and spinners in the area - and because it was not much of a living, the farmers and their families would have done plenty of carding and spinning themselves. There were some sheep, and about half a dozen cows at each farm.

It would have been an isolated life, with long walks down to Stanbury or Haworth, unpleasant and hazardous in bad weather, especially in heavy snow, and especially for any children on their way to school and back in the later years of the nineteenth century. The ruined Lower Withins was finally demolished in the 1930s ("There were plenty of Brontë enthusiasts taking away souvenirs") and Top Withins was fixed into its present state fairly recently, though it seems to have been still quite substantial in the 1920s.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Poetry at the Parsonage - first weekend of July

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Matthew Withey and Mark Connors
On the Parsonage website (see links on the right of this page) you can read all about the significant and potentially spectacular gathering of most of the current species of Yorkshire poets in just a month's time. You will find a list of the main names there, but two which should be given a special mention right now are those of Matthew Withey, one of the main organisers at the Haworth end, and Mark Connors, seen together here at the launch of Charlotte Great And Small. Matthew is on the Parsonage staff and Mark is not only a poet himself but an energetic organiser of events who runs marathons in his spare time - most recently in Edinburgh. He can always be found at Word Club, which meets monthly at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds, and often at other poetry venues across Yorkshire. To get so many people together as performers for a weekend event is an amazing achievement. 

All that is needed now is a series of audiences, so please plan to come! The festival will take place in the Parsonage garden, the Old School Room and West Lane Baptist Centre (there's a substantial Fringe) with refreshments available. Admission is free (donations of £3 a head appreciated) and everyone is welcome.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The 'To Walk Invisible' Parsonage

Take a look at this Radio Leeds video on Facebook - about the construction of a replica of the Parsonage on Penistone Hill. Plenty of chipboard in there! It is for five days of filming for Sally Wainwright's television drama To Walk Invisible, which will be on screens at Christmas.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Brontë 200 at the Gaskell House in Manchester

Pamela Nash writes:
One of the North West's most pre-eminent literary venues will play host to a unique event this September as part of their “Brontë 200” celebrations. Elizabeth Gaskell's House in Manchester celebrates the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë's birth with two world premiere song settings by composer Robin Walker as well as readings from poets Philip Watts and Edwin Stockdale.   Soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers will be joined by pianist Janet Simpson and violinist Suzanne Casey.

The musical and literary inspiration for the programme is drawn from the themes of unobtainable love, from the writings of both Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Walker's setting of Charlotte's unrequited love letters to Constantin Héger, “Letter to Brussels” for soprano and piano and his dramatic scena setting of Emily's poem “Self-Interrogation” for soprano, violin and piano are complemented by readings of Stockdale's Brontë-inspired poems alongside the poetry of the Brontë sisters themselves.

Saturday, September 17th, 7pm, Elizabeth Gaskell's House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester M13 9LW.

Watch this space for further updates, but enquiries may be sent to Pamela Nash:

Friday, 29 April 2016

Poems by Charlotte, Emily and Anne - pages by Julian Yanover

Julian Yanover writes:
I have built what I consider to be a unique page about the Brontës at and where I added several of their poems, their biography, a multimedia gallery and more importantly a timeline and time-map of their life, which can't be found anywhere else online.

I would be grateful to receive your comments  (click below)

Charlotte Brontë's Bicentenary in Italy

A member of the Italian Section writes:
Maddalena De Leo and Caterina Lerro
On Thursday 21 April Italy celebrated Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary in a number of ways and the Italian Section of the Brontë Society was of course  involved through its representative, Prof. Maddalena De Leo. She was asked to take part to two radio broadcasts, the first on Rai Radio2 (Ovunque6) and the second on Rai Radio3 (Fahrenheit) where she talked of Charlotte, her importance today and the ‘feminism’ throughout her work.

The day in Italy was also celebrated in the Sicilian town of Bronte, where a meeting was held with journalists, teachers and students who spoke of Charlotte and read some of her prose. The Italian representative was invited there as well, and appeared on a Skype conference to greet all Sicilian citizens and to read a message expressly sent from the Brontë Society to the Mayor of the town of Bronte. It was a wonderful occasion to create a promising bridge between England and Italy.

In the afternoon a major conference organized by the Italian Ministero dei Beni Culturali was held in Naples at the National Library with Maddalena De Leo and Caterina Lerro as speakers in front of a large and involved public. Prof. De Leo read her interesting paper about Charlotte’s heroines in Juvenilia and in the novels mainly pointing to the differences existing between the first and the second group of them, Prof. Lerro spoke of the meaning of Jane Eyre as a novel, commenting on three of its most important pages (the incipit – the meeting with Rochester – ‘Reader, I married him’) with the help of her students who played the parts of the characters.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Celebrations at the Brontë Parsonage

Tracy Chevalier

A tour of the current exhibition - Charlotte Great and Small - with a series of commentaries from its curator, Tracy Chevalier, was one of the highlights of yesterday's bicentenary celebrations at the Parsonage. An item in a glass case in the Bonnell Room, where the tour started, is one of the letters which an agonised and infatuated Charlotte sent to Monsieur Heger at the Pensionnat in Brussels, which was first torn up by the recipient, then sewn back together by Madame Heger.

Interestingly, we were told that studies of the folds in the paper show that M.Heger kept it intact for years. One speculation is that Mme. Heger wanted to preserve it as evidence that her husband had not actually 'done anything' with his pupil. Four works by the artist Ligia Booton take off from this letter, and hang on a wall nearby, part of the exhibition.

Charlotte Brontë celebrated in Bronte, Sicily

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Juliet Barker in Brussels for the Bicentenary

Helen MacEwan writes:  (from the Brussels Brontë Blog)

Committee members of the Brussels Brontë Group with Juliet Barker. 
From left to right, Dawn Robey, Jones Hayden, Helen MacEwan, 
Juliet Barker and Lisbeth Ekelof.
Juliet Barker’s eagerly-awaited talk in Brussels, over our weekend of events to celebrate the Charlotte Brontë bicentenary, took place against the backdrop of travel disruption following the attacks of 22 March. With flights cancelled or deviated, the weeks leading up to 16 April were anxious ones and the news of a Belgian air traffic controllers’ strike shortly before she was due to fly seemed the last straw. But she made it to beleaguered Brussels Airport, all the way from her home in North Yorkshire.

The main focus of her talk was The things Gaskell left out of her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Over dinner the evening before the talk, Juliet expressed admiration for Mrs Gaskell as a novelist, but her talk made it clear that she has a few bones to pick with Gaskell the biographer. In Barker’s view, the problem with Gaskell’s Life is that it is a fiction rather than a truthful biography.

She began with a reference to an article published in Sharpe’s London Magazine in June 1855, shortly after Charlotte’s death, that deeply upset her friend Ellen Nussey. Called ‘A few words about Jane Eyre’, it revived many of the rumours about Currer Bell that circulated when that novel was published. It contained not just accusations of Charlotte’s impropriety and ‘coarseness’ but accusations against her father, claiming that he had neglected his children and left their education to servants. Nussey was so incensed by the article she asked Mrs Gaskell to mount a defence of Charlotte. Yet ironically, as Barker pointed out, the original source for much of the information in the article was Gaskell herself. It was taken from letters written by her the Lake District shortly after her first meeting with Charlotte, based on spiteful gossip by a disgruntled former employee of the Brontës.
When she embarked on her biography, Mrs Gaskell herself admitted how hard it was for a novelist to be strictly truthful (‘You have to be accurate and keep to facts; a most difficult thing for a writer of fiction’). Barker’s claim is that Mrs Gaskell in fact had no intention of being objective and impartial. Her objective was to defend and vindicate Charlotte as a woman and writer and, in the process, facts were distorted or suppressed; what she omitted was as important as what she included.

Barker started with Gaskell’s description of Haworth, using contemporary sources to demonstrate how far removed the real village and its inhabitants were from the remote spot and wild, lawless community depicted by Gaskell on the basis of sources 100 years out of date. Not only is Haworth a mere four miles from Keighley, but when the Brontës lived there it was a hive of industrial and cultural activity. Far from being a cultural desert, it had an abundance of concerts as well as textile mills, and the Brontës were involved in village life.

Barker then referred to the Brontë juvenilia, pointing out that the sense of fun and the relish for violence and debauchery that overflow from its pages are at odds with the picture of the young Brontës’ oppressed and deprived childhood painted in Gaskell’s Life.

Turning to Charlotte herself, Barker claimed that in portraying her as a martyr whose sense of duty predominated, Gaskell suppressed many facets of her character. Among these were her hatred of teaching and of her pupils and her rebellion against the restrictions of her life, as revealed in the journal she kept at the Roe Head school.

Barker devoted a large section of her talk to Charlotte’s time in Brussels, since one of Gaskell’s most important omissions was Charlotte’s feelings for Constantin Heger. Revealing her love for a married man would have given credence to the notion of her moral laxity both as a writer and – some reviewers suggested – a woman.
Gaskell’s use of Charlotte’s letters from Brussels and, later, to Heger exemplified her cavalier attitude to documentary sources. Gaskell quoted from these letters very selectively, omitting Charlotte’s account of her confession in the Cathedral and her more emotional appeals to Heger. She gave the impression that Monsieur and Madame Heger acted in unison with regard to Charlotte, claiming that it was Madame’s idea to send one of the Heger children to be educated by the Brontës in Haworth even though Charlotte recorded that the idea came from Monsieur but was vetoed by his wife. She distorted the facts to account for the estrangement between Charlotte and Zoë Heger, attributing it to differences over religion even though Heger was just as devout as his wife. Charlotte’s growing unhappiness in Brussels is attributed by Gaskell to her concerns about Branwell, though these belonged to a later date after Branwell was dismissed from his post with the Robinsons.

Gaskell succeeded in her aim of establishing Charlotte’s reputation as a woman and gained a reputation herself as a great biographer. But despite Patrick Brontë’s tribute to theLife as ‘in every way worthy of what one great woman should have written of another’, the storm of protests from Mrs Robinson and others who believed themselves maligned in the book left Gaskell feeling ‘battered and bruised’, Barker said, determined never to write another biography and to confine herself in future to the safer realm of fiction.

Juliet Barker’s talk was followed by a rewarding and wide-ranging question and answer session in which she took the opportunity to defend Patrick and Branwell Brontë, with both of whom she believes Gaskell dealt unfairly. Patrick was an inspiring teacher of his children and Barker pointed out the similarity between his methods and Heger. He would get the children to read articles and then talk and write about them. Instead of rote learning they were encouraged to think for themselves and become passionately involved in what they learned.

Barker also views Branwell as an inspirational force, claiming he was always ahead of his sisters creatively. He was
innovative and the first to get published (he had a poem published in a local paper). It was his idea to write novels rather than poems to make it easier to find publishers. In Barker’s view his achievement was less than his sisters’ not just because he lacked their application but because of the sheer diversity of his talents.

Barker also defended Arthur Nicholls, charging Gaskell with revealing too much about Charlotte’s initial rejection of him and being influenced against him by Ellen Nussey. Barker’s verdict is that in her concern to protect Charlotte’s reputation, Gaskell did not scruple to damage that of the three men closest to her.