Thursday, 9 May 2019

Ken Hutchison's devilish Heathcliff

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Ken Hutchison and Kay Adshead
Browsing through the pages of The Crystal Bucket by Clive James, last read a long time ago (published 1981), I came across his scathing newspaper review of the 1978 BBC mini-series version of Wuthering Heights. He described it as ‘the blithering pits’. Could it have been that bad? I found that the series was in five fifty-minute episodes directed by Peter Hammond, with a screenplay jointly written by David Snodin and Hugh Leonard and a musical score by Carl Davis. I bought the DVD version.

Ken Hutchison played Heathcliff , Kay Adshead was Catherine Earnshaw. A number of child actors performed, with two assigned to the young Heathcliff. In a display of enthusiastic ‘fidelity’, there was an attempt to cover every single chapter of the novel, but the result inspired widespread ridicule in spite of the relative accuracy of its character representations, and some accusations that the BBC had commissioned the series mainly because of the great success of Kate Bush’s famous song earlier in the same year.

The series is not without merit. Clive James’s remarks possibly refer to the hyperbolically histrionic Kay Adshead as Catherine, to clumsy special effects, and to some inept attempts at melodrama, but Ken Hutchinson plays Heathcliff as brutal, cruel and devilish as Emily Brontë conceived of him, at least in the first few episodes. I was quite impressed at first. He is an interesting contrast to the pin-up stars who in other versions have been cast in the part, and there is no obeisance to the myth of transcendental romance created by the Wiliam Wyler version of the novel in 1939.

Carl Davis, who had won much praise for the music composed for The World at War (ITV, 1973 – 74), produced a superb score. True to the novel, Edgar and Isabella first appear as children of about ten years old through the windows of the Grange, where they pull at a small dog, and Catherine and Heathcliff are shown riding ponies and playing by a beck on the moors, but some of their actions are awkward, for example when Heathcliff shrieks in a temper after Catherine, back from the Grange, calls him dirty.

There is an interesting dramatic moment when Nelly discovers the generally neglected Hareton playing with his father’s gun and takes it away from him, and another soon afterwards when the drunken Hindley, as in the novel, holds him over the edge of a balcony, to be caught by Heathcliff. How many adaptations include that? When he is a little older, Hareton is beaten viciously with a stick.

The recognition of one of the novel’s strong themes -  of child neglect and abuse - is significant, because of the way most feature film adaptations gloss over or minimize it. The presumed psychological effects of the abuse are also included: Heathcliff hangs Isabella’s spaniel, to be rescued by Nelly, and Hareton is seen hanging puppies soon afterwards in the same episode.

The final two episodes covering the second generation are straggly, lacking dramatic impact, partly because of the problem of constantly visualizing scenes of violence, the actors seeming to tire, and partly because the fixed desire for as much fidelity as can be crammed into four hours gives the impression that the narrative is being covered in full out of a kind of duty. Fidelity definitely has its limits.

It’s just about worth watching, though, if you have the patience, if only because Ken Hutchison very nearly gets there with his Heathcliff.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Anne Brontë Bicentenary (2020) - early notice!

A Fine and Subtle Spirit

- a celebration of music and poetry to commemorate the bicentenary year of Anne Brontë's birth -

At 7.30pm on Saturday 28 March 2020 at Manchester's Cross Street Chapel, there will be a concert of new choral music and poetry to celebrate Anne Brontë.  Specially composed for the occasion, Lucy Pankhurst's 'A Fine and Subtle Spirit' will be joined by other choral settings of Anne's words, among them works by Paul Vowles and by American composers Dale Trumbore, Cristi Cary Miller and Judith Herrington - alongside much-loved sacred works by John Rutter and David Fanshawe, and some of the hymns of Anne herself.   

Poets Liliana Pasterska and Philip Wattswill give first performances of their new poetry along with the Anne Brontë poems of Edwin Stockdale. 

Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, Manchester M2 1NL, UK

Pencil it in now - full details will appear nearer the date, and in due course on

Artistic Director Pamela Nash can be contacted at

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