Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Eulogy for Sarah Fermi

Sarah Fermi, life member of the Brontë Society and author of Emily's Journal (2006), died on Christmas Day, 2018. Her funeral service was held in the East Chapel of Cambridge City Crematorium on Tuesday 15 January. The Chapel was filled to capacity. In addition to family members and friends, it was attended by representatives of the Brontë Society and a number of Brontë academics. These included Dr Patsy Stoneman, who has written a full obituary for the April issue of Brontë Studies. At the funeral, she delivered this eulogy: 

Sarah Fermi, 1935-2018
Many of you already know the story of how Sarah and I met, but I shall tell it again, because it showed me so clearly what an extraordinary person she was.
         It was thirty years ago, one morning in June.  We were in Oxenhope, having walked a couple of miles from Haworth on a Brontë Society guided walk, both on our own, and both a little bored.  Sarah asked me what I planned to do later that day, and I said I wanted to walk to Ponden Kirk.  ‘So do I’, she replied, ‘Shall we go?’  I didn’t like to say that what I’d had in mind was to take my car as far as I could, just walking the last bit.  So, off we set towards Ponden. 
At Stanbury, after a couple more miles of rather hilly walking, we stopped at the ‘Wuthering Heights’ pub for lunch and Sarah noticed that I was wet with perspiration.  In her rather penetrating American voice, she asked me, ‘Are you menopausal?’ Coming from someone I’d only just met, this was rather startling, but, like most other people, I quickly learned to value that straightforwardness.  With Sarah, you didn’t get many euphemisms, but neither did you get anything devious or underhand.
On that memorable day, we trudged steadily upwards but on the heights of Ponden Kirk we met one of those sudden storms which, even in June, in that landscape, bring searing wind and horizontal rain.  We sheltered for a while in a barn with about a hundred sheep, then staggered down the hill to Ponden Hall, where Brenda Taylor, bless her, rescued us with a warm fire, hot tea and a lift back to Haworth.
All this time, Sarah was talking.  She believed that Emily Bronte could not have written Wuthering Heights without equivalent personal experience.  She had noticed that Emily’s poetry was suddenly full of grief at a particular date, and she had searched local records until she found what she thought was the cause – a boy called Robert Clayton, born within weeks of Emily, who lived a stone’s throw from where we had been walking that day, and who died when they were both eighteen and just as the grieving poems began. I listened like the wedding guest in ‘The Ancient Mariner’. Even though I had never thought it important to trace the biographical sources of fiction, the detail of Sarah’s research had me in thrall.
During that day I got to know the Sarah I grew to love.  She was impetuous, shrewd, entertaining, resourceful and courageous.  She had a lively imagination. Above all she was tenacious of her purpose.  She had the enthusiasm of a fanatic combined, most unusually, with a scholar’s respect for logic and evidence.  Many people before had made a guess at a lover for Emily, but none had made such an effort to substantiate their theory. For the next fifteen years Sarah searched for the documentary evidence which would prove a connection between Emily Bronte and Robert Clayton.  She never found it – if his family were illiterate the evidence may never have existed.  But she would not publish as ‘history’ what she could not prove with evidence.  Instead she wrote up her theory as a fiction which you probably know – Emily’s Journal, published in 2006.  It happens that Brontë ‘spin-offs’ are my own area of expertise and I can confirm that Sarah’s fiction is unique in its intricate and accurate negotiation of ‘known facts’.  Emily Bronte may or may not have known Robert Clayton, but there are no impossible conjectures in Sarah’s story.
Sarah’s dogged pursuit of evidence may not have yielded the truth about Robert Clayton, but it did throw light in other areas. Since that day, she has published no fewer than twelve scholarly papers in Brontë Studies, each offering new evidence on problems in Brontë biography, some of which had puzzled researchers since the nineteenth century. In November of last year she was still working on a final paper, entitled ‘What Do We Know About Emily Jane?’. It will appear in Brontë Studies in April.
Sarah’s research involved travelling, searching in dusty archives, land registers and church records, but she also loved to engage with other people. Some of my best memories are those Brontë weekends when, with a ‘gang’ of like-minded people, we would sit round Brenda’s big table at Ponden and talk, and talk, and talk.
Researching, moreover, was not Sarah’s only Brontë activity.  As a member of the Brontë Society, she wanted to make things happen.  From 2008 until 2015 she was the Society’s Honorary Publications and Conference Secretary, a position she used to introduce many innovations.  She oversaw the transfer of Brontë Studies from one publisher to another, significantly improving the status of its editors.  She set up the Society’s Literary Competitions, attracting distinguished judges and insisting that the prize-winning entries were published. Her pushing for a publication to mark Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary bore fruit as Celebrating Charlotte, the splendid volume edited by Christine Alexander and Sara Pearson.
 Above all Sarah transformed the Society’s three-yearly conferences from fairly modest gatherings, mainly of members, into international events attracting new participants from throughout the world.  With Sally McDonald, she made a huge success of the 2011 conference on ‘The Brontës and the King James Bible’, held here in Cambridge, and the 2014 Warwick conference on ‘The Brontës and the Condition of England’. She brimmed over not only with ideas but with a vibrant energy which carried them through to the smallest details. It was sad, therefore, that increasing ill health forced her to relinquish final control over the 2016 bicentenary conference on ‘Charlotte Brontë and the Business of a Woman’s Life’, which was held, as she wished, at the Midland Hotel in Manchester.
Susan Aykroyd, the Vice-Chair of the Brontë Society’s Council, is here today in a formal capacity to recognise Sarah’s contribution to the Society. Sarah was pushy and obstinate, but she got things done, and very many people here today have reason to know that behind that sometimes abrasive manner lay immense generosity and personal kindness.
For me, Sarah became a close companion, even though mostly by way of telephone and email.  Very few days went by without our consulting about plans, problems and discoveries.  She was almost the only person with whom I exchanged work in progress. She was a good writer, unfailingly lucid and sensible. I am only now beginning to realise how much I relied on her always being there, ready to talk things through, rational and well-informed, but also animated, and predisposed to be on my side, as a good friend should be.  For me, she was not just a good friend, but a great friend, and I shall miss her more than I can say.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Emily Brontë's drawing of Trajan's Arch in Ancona

Emily Brontë, Ancona and Maddalena De Leo, a subtle Fil Rouge

Maddalena De Leo writes:
Emily Brontë's drawing
In September 2018 news was given in the Brontë Society Gazette of the recent successful finding of a pencil drawing by Emily Brontë in Dallas, reported by email. To announce the news Sarah Laycock, the curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, who after the necessary checks to ensure the authenticity of the object in question and with the opinion of experts such as Ann Dinsdale and Jane Sellars, contributed with many difficulties to the transport of the drawing from America to the UK and its restoration. It was then displayed in the bicentennial year of the birth of Emily in the museum to be admired by visitors from all over the world.

The design in question is entitled 'Ancona' and is signed 'E.J.Brontë 1835', as usual for the author and the sisters on the sidelines of all their figurative and literary works. It represents the Arch of Trajan, an important monument of Roman origin located in the Italian city of Ancona near the port and close to the hill where the Duomo of S.Ciriaco stands.

One wonders how and why Emily Brontë wanted to reproduce with her own pencil a monument she had clearly never seen, located in a place that she could not even imagine visiting. In fact, the four Brontës especially in their youth often copied images from books and prints and delighted in building stories around them with unparalleled imagination. Many of their artistic products, from the hands of Charlotte, the sisters as well as Branwell, are very accurate copies of illustrations taken from books they possessed or borrowed.

Print in the book
Emily copied her drawing entitled 'Ancona' from the print contained in the book Life and works of Lord Byron by John Murray, a grandiose work articulated in several volumes and published in 1833. The print was by a certain Edward Francis Finden and reproduced a drawing of Samuel Prout (1783-1852), at the time one of the main masters of watercolors depicting architectural monuments. Since he had the opportunity to stay in various European countries including Italy, he painted various sketches of the most important monuments he had admired in his travels.

The Arch of Trajan in Ancona dates back to 114-115 AD, and it is named after the Roman emperor who built it. It was an example of gratitude for the man who had given the Doric city a port, thus allowing it an important commercial life on the Adriatic and to the east. The English essayist Joseph Addison (1701) spoke of the Triumphal Arch of Ancona, built in honor of Trajan, located near the sea in white marble and exposed to winds and sea air.

Why did Emily choose to reproduce the drawing from this print? Was she attracted by the imposing arch or by the fact that it was a tangible proof of the greatness of the ancient Romans? Would she have liked to see it in person?

The arch today
Analyzing at the same time the drawing of Emily and the print of Finden taken from Prout I can immediately notice the almost complete elimination of the crowd of people walking near the Roman monument. Emily thus emphasizes the Arch which, by itself stands out in the centre of the image appearing closer to the observer than it is in the drawing reproduced in print. For this purpose, the details of the hill with the cathedral beyond the Arch, well outlined in the press, are almost absent in Emily’s drawing. I even hypothesize that Emily's interest in Ancona finds an echo in the name 'Alcona', one of the four provinces of the fantastic kingdom of Gondal she created, whose queen is A.G.A., otherwise known as Rosina from Alcona, as Fannie Ratchford stated.

Since I was born just in Ancona and although I have not lived there except for the first six years of my life, I am still very attached to my hometown of which I have a vivid memory. Often as a child I found myself walking with my father right under the Arch of Trajan, without even imagining that a few years later I would have been fascinated by the English literary family to whom I have dedicated myself for a lifetime. Learning today that my Emily reproduced with such alacrity a very important monument of Ancona from a print found in nineteenth century England produces in me great enthusiasm. And it naturally leads me to meditate on the curious coincidence that binds me further to this unpredictable author so dear to me.

 My thanks to BPM curator Sarah Laycock for the images

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.