Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Emily Brontë Poetry and Music Recital at Ponden Hall

The programme for this recital was devised by John Hennessy and presented at Ponden Hall on Monday 8 October 2018.  Music: Beethoven, Clementi, Haydn, Kalkbrenner, Pinto, Schubert, Traditional.

Performers: Gordon Balmforth (piano), Clarissa Hutchins (soprano), John Hennessy. Alexandra Lesley (speaker)

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Emily Jane Brontë and her Music - Review

Richard Wilcocks writes:
It is an understatement to say that John Hennessy has ‘filled a gap’ in studies of Emily Brontë. He has swelled out a new section of an encyclopaedia with this work, which is based on a staggering amount of research in many places in addition to the library at the Parsonage. The appendices alone make up about ten percent of it, including customary indexes and bibliographies along with ‘Notes on Playing the John Green Upright Cabinet Piano’ by Ken Forrest and settings by the author of ‘It is too Late to Call Thee Now’ and ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’. A French pianist, Isabelle Oehmichen, is in there too, musing on ‘particular problems with the playing of the first movement’ of Beethoven’s Appassionata when she had the privilege of sitting at the cabinet piano. Hennessy deals with the extraordinary restoration of this fragile, long-neglected instrument at the beginning of the book, part of a section entitled ‘Musical and Cultural Influences’. It is now one of the first items a visitor encounters upon entering the Parsonage. Financed by a generous American Brontë Society member, Virginia Esson, in 2008, Forrest spent a couple of years researching, removing accumulated detritus and sorting out what could remain and what would have to be replaced before it could be played again.

It represents the sometimes neglected fact that the Brontës lived in a musical household, and that music significantly affected their lives and the subject matter of their literature. A cabinet piano is present at Thornfield in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for example, enabling Adèle to have lessons on it from Jane, who learned how to play at Lowood, which can’t have been simply a place of burnt porridge, stool-standing and hypocritical evangelicals. Branwell played the flute and was rather good with church organs, inviting the thought that he should have taken up music rather than oil painting. Anne Brontë wrote a poem entitled ‘Music on Christmas Morning’ with an opening line which begins, ‘Music I love…’ 

Patrick Brontë believed, with John Wesley, that music should enhance Christian worship. Piano-playing was a lot more than a ladylike accomplishment at the Parsonage, especially for Emily Brontë, which is made clear by Hennessy, covering matters which have been either downplayed by previous commentators or omitted because of lack of available evidence.

He has found plenty of evidence, much of it convincing, some of it to be found scattered around in commentaries over the last century or so and some of it new. Circumstantial evidence is given on many occasions, for example when he focuses on Emily’s nine months in Brussels at the Pensionnat, often treated cursorily because the city, and characters inspired by Constantin Heger, do not crop up in Wuthering Heights. Of course, Emily was terribly homesick, but the time she spent there was, he argues, ‘of considerable importance to her creative development’. He draws attention to her study of French and German there, particularly German, and her early encounters with German Romantic literature through reading Blackwood’s Magazine back in Haworth. 

She probably read macabre, gothic tales by E.T.A Hoffman*, the author who inspired so many writers and musicians, like Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker Suite) and Offenbach (Les Contes d’Hoffman). In Brussels in 1842 and shortly after her return to Haworth, Emily ‘probably came to know something of Beethoven, at least some of) his music, and very possibly be influenced by it’. Hennessy has documented the scores connected with her, and speculates on the sonatas which she may have played at the Parsonage. Did she contribute to the deterioration of a cabinet piano which could not hold up against Romantic frenzy?

It is certainly an enticing idea that Beethoven, and his sonatas like the Apassionata (No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57) was a significant influence on Wuthering Heights. Hennessy spends plenty of time on the history and character of the composer, and of course his music, linking him to Emily and investigating possibilities. Interestingly, he compares the initial reactions of critics to first performances with what critics said about Wuthering Heights when it first appeared. One pundit in Leipzig, writing about the finale of the second symphony, described it as ‘a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and bleeding to death’. The Scottish writer Peter Bayne described Wuthering Heights as ‘unquestionably and irredeemably monstrous’, part of ‘the horror school of fiction’.

Both Ludwig and Emily knew how to make people feel unnerved and uncomfortable, one of the reasons that they both live on triumphantly. ‘Nature’ and the outdoors was the motive force for both, as for other Romantics. Their treatments of it are similar, provoking a kind of bracing discomfort in the listener, or a reader. Beethoven’s sixth symphony is misleadingly entitled (by himself) as Pastoral, but it is not just about ‘prettified shepherds’ (as Berlioz commented) just as Wuthering Heights is not just about a romantic relationship set in beautiful heritage landscapes, as most film-makers used to think. Hennessy sets out his analysis of the connection between the two at length in the first part of the book, his discourse culminating in the chapter ‘Emily Brontë’s Musicality’, in which he looks scores in general and references to musical performance in the Brontës’ works. The bulk of the book, ‘Music Scores Owned by the Brontë Family’ is then made up of the unprecedentedly detailed attention he gives to a large number of scores. 

Nothing seems to escape him, including small finger marks and ink spots. He is in the top league of musical detectives.

Deutsche Leser! Kannst du Hoffmans Einfluss auf Wuthering Heights sehen?

Emily Jane Brontë and her Music
 by John Hennessy (2018), York, WK Publishing.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Brontë Society June Weekend 2018

This article is reproduced with the permission of the Brussels Brontë Blog

Helen MacEwan writes:

Several members of the Brussels Brontë Group attended the Brontë Society’s 2018 weekend of events in Haworth, this year celebrating Emily Brontë’s bicentenary. Our group included Guy and Evy Desloovere-Van de Voorde with their 8-month-old son Arthur Branwell – his first visit to the village of the family that inspired his name!

Ann Dinsdale's presentation

After an invitation to join Brontë Society trustees for chat, tea and cake in a restaurant in Main St, the weekend’s events kicked off with a presentation on the Brontë Parsonage Museum, now 90 years old. Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator, and Jane Sellars, a former Director, talked us through highlights in the Museum’s history. Ann Dinsdale is the author of numerous books including At Home with the Brontës: The History of Haworth Parsonage & Its Occupants and The Brontës at Haworth.

All Things Gothic

After dinner we were regaled by ‘an evening of all things Gothic’, a highly dramatic and hilarious one-woman entertainment by the amazing Lucy Adlington of the History Wardrobe, who commented on – and in some cases modelled – the costumes on show. Her romp through the Gothic in literature was interlarded with readings from the Brontës’ novels and other works such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She is the author of several books on costume history.

Lucy Adlington, The Gothic Lady

The Eccentricities of ‘Woman’s Fantasy’

Saturday, the day of the Society’s AGM, is always packed with events. The first of these was a lecture on The Eccentricities of ‘Woman’s Fantasy’… and Heathcliff by Carol Dyhouse, a social history professor from the University of Sussex. Among other questions she looked at why Heathcliff is so often seen as a romantic hero and how far, if at all, this can be attributed to the novel itself as opposed to reinventions in screen versions of the book.

Carol Dyhouse

Brontë Society Annual General Meeting

From the Gothic heroes of the Brontës’ novels and women’s fantasies to a sermon in the church where their father preached: the Brontë Society weekend certainly offers variety and a range of experiences. On Saturday morning – another tradition of the weekend – was a church service, led by the current Rector of Haworth, dedicated to the Brontës in the (rebuilt) church of St Michaels & All Angels. After lunch it was time for the Society’s AGM. The Society currently has around 1,800 members and employs over 40 staff at the Museum, which has just made a successful bid for significant Arts Council Funding as a National Portfolio Organisation. Possible future projects were discussed, for example the idea of turning a Victorian underground reservoir in Haworth into a centre for women’s writing. The perennial question of when the Museum is to build toilets for visitors also came up – when doesn’t it! At present visitors have to use the ones in the car park, threatened with closure.

The day wound up with a quiz hosted by Lucy Mangan, journalist and co-presenter of the BBC documentary Being the Brontës (March 2016). The competitors included museum staff and Society members.

Private View

Sunday was also a busy day. As usual, the museum opened at 9 a.m. for a private viewing by members. A highlight, continuing from last year which was Branwell Brontë’s bicentenary, is the recreation of Branwell’s bedroom, curated by creative partner Simon Armitage in collaboration with museum staff and the production team of the film To Walk Invisible. The installation, supposed to present the room as it might have been in the late 1830s when Branwell had ambitions to be an artist, features an unmade bed and artworks and other objects scattered in disorder.

The morning programme consisted of Brontë Treasures (a private viewing in the Parsonage library of treasures in the Museum collection) and a talk by me on Charlotte Brontë’s legacy in Belgium, the subject of my new book Through Belgian Eyes. Thus our group and its work were well represented at Haworth this year.

Screening of Wuthering Heights (1992 version)

After lunch more energetic members joined a guided walk across the moors to Ponden Kirk, the rocky outcrop close to Top Withens supposedly the inspiration for Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights. For those who didn’t feel up to this 9-mile walk there was a screening of the 1992 version of the novel with Ralph Fiennes and Juliet Binoche. A dinner and quiz rounded off the day.

Emily (Chloe Pirrie) at Ponden Kirk - still from the TV film To Walk Invisible

Jack Sharp - inspiration for Heathcliff?

The closing event was an excursion to Halifax on the Monday. After a tour of the Piece Hall, there was a visit to Halifax Minster and the former Holy Trinity Church to view sculptures by Branwell Brontë’s great friend Joseph Leyland. David Glover, President of Halifax Antiquarian Society, gave us a talk on Leyland’s life. Over a splendid tea at Holdsworth House Hotel, he gave another talk on Law Hill School near Halifax, the story of Jack Sharp, a member of a local family who may have inspired the character of Heathcliff, and High Sunderland Hall, a building often cited as a possible inspiration for Wuthering Heights.

I hope that many Brussels Group members will join me for the Brontë Society weekend in Haworth next year (8-9 June) to enjoy a rich programme of events and spend time not just in Haworth but in local places with Brontë connections. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

Helen MacEwan to speak at Leeds Library on 7 June

Helen MacEwan, author of Through Belgian Eyes: Charlotte Brontë's Troubled Brussels Legacy will be speaking at the historic Leeds Library at 7.30pm on Thursday 7 June 2018. Register now for this free event at:


The event's title is Charlotte Brontë in Brussels

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Through Belgian Eyes

Through Belgian Eyes: Charlotte Brontë’s Troubled Brussels Legacy by Helen MacEwan

In this fascinating book, Helen MacEwan once more reveals herself as the current leading figure in the area of Brontë studies which concentrates on the time spent in Brussels by Charlotte Brontë, as a pupil and as an assistant teacher. Her well-known negative observations on Brussels and its inhabitants, and on Belgium in general, are rehearsed, embroidered upon and set in context, and the influence of her experiences in the city on her writings, particularly those relating to her beloved teacher, Constantin Heger, are examined in detail in a discourse which is both scholarly and accessible to less academic readers.

Less well-known ground is ploughed in addition: MacEwan has researched not only what Belgian commentators wrote about Charlotte Brontë, but what other literary figures thought of Brussels and the relatively new country at a crossroads of Europe in the nineteenth century. Many of their opinions were not too different to hers.

Baudelaire, Thackeray, Picard

Charles Baudelaire, in temporary exile from France, wrote posthumously-published notes about the ‘menacing stupidity’ and the boring ‘spirit of obedience and conformity’ in the country contemptuously named by Charlotte as Labassecour (Farmyard) in Villette, and thanked God he was born French. William Makepeace Thackeray wrote ‘…my impressions of this city are certainly anything but respectful. It has an absurd kind of Lilliput look with it.’ The writer and politician Edmond Picard recalled Brussels in the reign of Leopold I as ‘a provincial town that was slowly getting used to its role as a new capital… a town of quiet streets and sleepy squares with grass growing between the paving stones’, an account which, as MacEwan points out, brings to mind Lucy Snowe’s description of her excursion to the old Basse Ville to visit Mme Walravens, just one of many examples which indicate that Charlotte’s detailed descriptions of a vanished ‘little town’ Brussels are essentially accurate.

Pensionnat Heger

The Professor and Villette are often valued by Belgian historians as sources of knowledge about the Brussels of the mid-nineteenth century, and not just its layout and buildings. A surprising amount of evidence appears to have disappeared. Charlotte’s time at the Pensionnat Heger is covered fictionally in great detail, and much of the fiction can be taken to match the facts of life in a girls’ boarding school at the time. MacEwan adds rich pages of information about comparable schools of the time, their regimes and their intakes. As for the citizens about whom she was so scathing and dismissive, especially her fellow pupils and the girls she taught as a sous-mâitresse, it could be that she got it right, in spite of the fact that she spent much of her time confined, stricken by boredom and loneliness, in a school which she considered to be a type of convent. She was not much of a teacher after all: evidence for this can be found in accounts of her early experiences at Roe Head School in Mirfield. MacEwan balances Charlotte’s negative opinions against those of others, including those of former pupils who actually enjoyed their time at the Pensionnat, which appears to have been, according to them, less rigorous and more friendly than other schools.

Constantin Heger

So was Constantin Heger a little too friendly as a teacher, or just more or less in line with modern, less-authoritarian practitioners? He is arguably the most significant fictional brusselois in literary history. In a chapter with the title ‘Grande passion and petite pluie: Charlotte and the Hegers’ which will be read first by many, I suspect, MacEwan refers to Claire Harman’s biography, which was launched to coincide with the recent bicentenary. This begins not in Haworth but in Brussels. Charlotte, in her second summer, ‘depressed and tormented by her feelings for Heger’, is moved to confess to a Catholic priest in the Church of St Gudule. It ends in Brussels too, in the study of the 78 year-old Heger, who is writing a letter to another former pupil at the Pensionnat, Meta Mossman.

Addressing her in affectionate terms, he includes: ‘Letters and the post are not, luckily, the only means of communication, or the best, between people who are really fond of one another…’ which has led some to speculate that he was flirtatious and to wonder ‘what else went on’ with Charlotte, who might have been one of many. Jane Eyre’s long-distance communication with Rochester comes to mind, and Lucy Snowe’s description of Paul Emmanuel in Villette:  ‘his mind was… my library, and whenever it was opened to me, I entered bliss’. Of course, MacEwan weighs this against other views of Heger as a mediocre and unimaginative pedagogue. Whatever category he fell into, Charlotte created various versions of him in her novels, a fact unknown to those (the majority) who read just Jane Eyre, unaware of her experiences in Brussels.

Madame Beck

The portrayal of Madame Beck in Villette, probably based on Madame Heger, has been praised in Belgium, amongst other countries, as a masterpiece, full of psychological insights. Some who knew her recognised a number of similarities. Others, especially those close to Madame Heger, like her daughter Louise, thought of the portrait as a libellous caricature, and the whole novel as a work of revenge and ingratitude. Yet others detect a certain admiration as well as antipathy in Charlotte’s mind: Lucy Snowe compares Madame’s abilities to those of a police commissioner or prime minister. Here and throughout the book, MacEwan deploys all of the available evidence when dealing with autobiographical elements.

Richard Wilcocks

Paperback edition released 1 January 2018