Sunday, 7 June 2015

June Weekend - Brontës and War

Emma Butcher                Photo by Richard Wilcocks
Emma Butcher, based at the University of Hull, is the co-curator of the current exhibition in the Parsonage, which is entitled The Brontës, War and Waterloo, and her lecture on Friday 5 June was complementary to it. At first sight, the topic might seem thin, but it was made very clear that there is a lot in there! As it says in the leaflet for the Museum's current  Contemporary Arts Programme: Ferocious battles and violent, military men dominate the landscape of Charlotte and Branwell's juvenilia...  Emma Butcher looks more closely at the military material the Brontës read...

The aftermath of the Napoleonic wars seems to have been much more drawn-out and traumatic than a glance at standard histories might convey: the young Brontës were developing when many returned soldiers were still at a loose end, on reduced pay - "it was no easy ride for them back in Yorkshire", we were told. French soldiers too - thousands of prisoners of war were turned out of their prisons, to wander about the country in a state of confusion, picking up small jobs where they could. And did Charlotte and Emily ever get to see that famous battlefield at Waterloo, not far from Brussels - possible, probable... highly likely? Certainly, Charlotte was given a fragment of Napoleon's coffin - it's in the exhibition. And the children and their Wellington-fixated father had plenty of access to military news and reminiscences in newspapers and magazines.

Terror by Branwell 1830

It was not just the  1829 gift of toy soldiers to Branwell: the children were surrounded by real, close-to-home conflicts and memories of recent atrocities - the Luddites, the deadly attack on civilians by sabre-equipped yeomanry at Peterloo. Their juvenile fantasies were well-fed.

"The violent, masculine landscapes of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre can be traced back to the Brontës' early engagement with militarism and warfare," we were told. A strong case was made.

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