Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Nelson and Brontë

Earlier this year, Cornelia Parker - see Sunday's posting - made a proposal to the Greater London Authority which has since been lost in bureaucratic processes. Here it is, reproduced from an appendix in the catalogue for Brontëan Abstracts:

Nelson and Brontë - A Hair’s Breadth of History

A proposal to the Greater London Authority by Cornelia Parker

I want to propose a tiny enhancement to Nelson’s Column, adding a little more body to his hair by inserting real strands of the famous Brontë sisters’ hair into the fabric of his. Doing so would link the two iconic names in a literal and physical way, infusing the monument’s structure with an authentic bodily relic. It would in effect, combine the Romantic female with the Alpha male, the modest with the heroic and DNA with sculpted stone. Nelson could share with the Brontës, more than a name*, a parsonage childhood, the loss of a mother at an early age and bravery in the face of death. Together they could share a vista.

Although they lived a sheltered life in a Yorkshire parsonage, remaining incognito behind their male pseudonyms, the Brontë sisters’ novels became famous in their day, their heroes and heroines, like Nelson, capturing the popular imagination. Nelson’s column was built 1839 - 1852, their literature was written within the same time frame. Charlotte and Anne would have witnessed the construction first hand when they visited the National Gallery on a rare trip to London to see their publishers in 1848.

Now, the column is covered in scaffolding once again, this time for restoration to take place. It seems a unique chance in its history for that history not to be set in stone, but to be tweaked, albeit in a microscopic way.

May 2006


* The Brontës were great admirers of Nelson and they owed their names to his exploits.

Bronte is a town and commune of Sicily (in the province of Catania, Italy), slightly northwest of Mount Etna, on the side of the valley of the Simeto river. In 1799, King Ferdinand III of Sicily created Bronte as a Duchy, and rewarded Horatio Nelson (who had large land holdings in the area), with the title of Duke, because of his naval victory against the French. As well as being made a Duke, Nelson was given Castello Nelson, which at the time was the remains of a Benedictine Monastery. Today it is a local tourist attraction in Bronte. This allowed Nelson to sign himself ‘Nelson and Bronte’.

Just a year after Nelson had been granted his new title, Patrick Brunty, recently arrived in England from his native Ireland, changed his name to Brontë. It is generally accepted by Brontë scholars that the name change was due to Patrick’s admiration for the Admiral and a desire to recreate himself, to rise above the class into which he was born by severing links with his Irish peasant origin. The use of the diaeresis was to make sure that the name was pronounced in a more-or-less Italian way by the people around him**. He registered as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1802 in the name of Patrick Brontë. His daughters would go on to make the name even more famous in their own right.

Patrick, and later the whole Brontë family, had a fascination for military leaders of their recent past. Wellington and Napoleon both appear in various guises in the juvenilia of the Brontë family and Nelson was the subject of a poem by Branwell in 1841.

** Thanks to Pietro Vazzola from Venice for this reminder.

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