Friday, 27 April 2007

'Who were the Brontës?' exhibition opens

Emma King - whose photo appears below - was primarily responsible for the new exhibition at the Parsonage which hopes to tackle some of the commonly held myths and perceptions about the lives of the Brontë family head-on when it opens to the public today for two years. It was officially opened yesterday evening by Chairman of the Brontë Society Richard Wilcocks, who described it as "excellent and very accessible".

He went on to talk briefly about the enduring mythic power of some of the characters created by the Brontës, one obvious example being the 'madwoman in the attic' created by Charlotte. This Bertha, or perhaps Antoinette, was still intriguing and influencing creative spirits like, for example, the theatre director Polly Teale, who had made her a central character in the Shared Experience play Brontë.

He chose Branwell as the member of the family who was often perceived as merely a drunk and a drug-taker who couldn't hold down a job. "He definitely had talent," said Mr Wilcocks before reading an excerpt from a poem written in Branwell's despair over the end of his secret relationship with Lydia Robinson. He then read lines which Branwell had written to be set to music, adding, "Branwell was the equivalent of the boy today who gets the wrong advice after finishing high school: I am sure he could have been a successful musician."

Visitors to the Museum will be taken on a journey of discovery and invited to interpret the evidence for themselves through the fascinating collection of objects, drawings, letters and hair samples of the Brontës, to arrive at their own conclusions to some fundamental differences between reality, fiction and established Brontë myths.

The lives of the Brontës have inspired many hundreds of biographies, novels, films and plays and Curator of the exhibition, Emma King, believes many of the stereotypical ideas of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë are at least partially or wholly untrue. She said, “The popular story says that the Brontës lived a remote, rural life. It describes three sisters who lived in poverty with a distant father and unfriendly aunt. Their brother drank away the family money, forcing them to work. Yet before their tragic, early deaths they each wrote novels that would become famous around the world – the story is an attractive one, but not entirely true. This exhibition hopes to challenge some of these perceptions."

One of the earliest documented writings about the lives of the Brontës came from Charlotte Brontë’s first biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, whose manuscript of The Life of Charlotte Brontë, published some 150 years ago, is on display at the Museum until June 2007. Gaskell made the
most of the tragic aspects of Charlotte’s life and her unkind portraits of Charlotte’s father and brother have been accepted as fact. Even 150 years ago, the book was met with libel action and threats of legal action. Mrs. Gaskell vowed never to write another biography, complaining that the book had landed her “in the hornet’s nest”.

The thoughtless critics, who spoke of the sad and gloomy views of life presented by the Brontës in their tales, should know how such work was wrung out of them by the living recollection of the long agony they suffered – Elizabeth Gaskell.

Hopefully, the exhibition will encourage visitors of all ages to decipher for themselves what is the real truth about this unique family with the help of some 21st century technology. New scientific research by The University of Bradford has recently thrown new light on a small part of the Brontë story. Dr. Andrew Wilson, an archaeological scientist at the University, carried out tests on Brontë hair from the museum’s collection for a recent ground-breaking Cornelia Parker exhibition at the Parsonage.

He discovered that the Brontës ate a healthy and balanced diet which was better than that for people living in the East End of London at the same time. The research disproves the myth that their father, Patrick, restricted his children’s

The exhibition is free on admission to the Museum.

Diane Kay

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