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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Barry Simmons - Scrambled Eggheads

 IS writes:
The annual gathering at the Old White Lion on the Sunday evening is always something to look forward to in the programme of the Brontë Society June Weekend. Friendships are renewed, new ones are made and excellent food is available. This year members, in teams of four, replete with choices such as scampi, chicken, garlic mushrooms, sticky toffee pudding and in my case a humble cheese sandwich which was delicious, prepared to pit their wits in a quiz compiled by Barry Simmons (pictured). 

Resplendent that evening in a sparkling, red sequined jacket - which would have done Liberace proud - he can be regularly seen on our television screens in the quiz programme 'Eggheads'. He is a quizzer par excellence - he has been a winner of 'Brain of Britain' and he is a researcher at the text question and answer service. So it was probably with some trepidation that the teams - with names such as Chapter, Keeper’s Friends, Heathcliff’s Revenge - prepared to do battle.

Barry, who lives in Leeds, asked his brain teasing questions with humour and patience, and when the winner was declared there was only one mark between the top two teams.

The evening ended on a high note with Audrey Hall (pictured in a recent post), one of the Society’s vice- presidents, telling about some Brontë items she has recently acquired for the museum via her family connection with the Nusseys and also with Oakwell Hall. It was so good to hear about Audrey’s latest project - she has worked so hard over many, many years for the good of the Brontë Society and I thank her for all she has done and continues to do.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Katherine Langrish, Maxine Peake, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris and Claire Harman
Helen MacEwan (Brussels Brontë Group) writes:
A highlight of the weekend was The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate on the Saturday evening (11 June) of the Summer Festival. Which is Brontë's greatest novel, Jane Eyre or Villette? Claire Harman (who had given that morning's lecture) and Joanne Harris argued for Jane Eyre, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Katherine Langrish for Villette, expertly chaired by Tracy Chevalier.

Each writer's defence of her chosen novel was preceded by readings given by Maxine Peake, in which we heard, for example, about Jane in the Red Room, Jane in the early days at Thornfield longing for a more fulfilling and intellectually stimulating life, and Lucy, at the Pensionnat, similarly yearning for a fuller life to lead her 'upwards and onwards'.

For Claire Harman, Jane Eyre is 'a book that has everything and has fed generations of readers imaginatively, emotionally, intellectually and erotically', while for Joanne Harris it can be read at different times of life and mean different things. Katherine Langrish described Villette as 'a pressure-cooker of a book, boiling with suppressed passion', while Lucy Hughes-Hallett explored the theme of surveillance in the novel, the subject of her talk to the Brussels Brontë Group in 2014. Everyone spies on everyone else in Villette. This was illustrated by passages in which Lucy watches Mme Beck and M. Paul rummaging through her belongings, though the two have very different motives in wanting to know more about her: Hughes-Hallett described M. Paul, a hero she finds more convincing than Rochester, as 'someone with the generosity to look at someone else and see them as they are, and love them.'

This first round of presentation was followed by a lively debate in which further points were discussed, after which it was over to the audience. Jane Eyre came out top in the votes taken both before and after the debate, but the second vote revealed a significant swing in support for Charlotte's last novel. All four speakers were so eloquent, however, it's difficult to say which of them mounted the best defence. And I imagine many of us find it almost impossible to choose between Charlotte's best-seller, a novel first read and loved in youth, and the more complex novel we appreciate when we're a little older. As Katherine Langrish put it, if Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice, Villette is Persuasion.

This was a wonderful event, professionally presented, with six high-calibre performers and a great format. Could we please have many more such debates at Haworth in future?

Monday, 13 June 2016

Claire Harman's lecture

The Annual Brontë Society Lecture this year was delivered by Claire Harman in a venue relatively new to the occasion - the Hall Green Baptist Chapel. The annual church service followed it, in the same place. This was because St Michael's and All Angel's is currently still being reordered and reroofed.

Charlotte Brontë - A Life seems to have been read by a large percentage of the appreciative audience, though the queue for signed copies stretched around the church. "Her protagonist is both fervent dreamer and cool realist, imaginative artist and clear-eyed professional," wrote Kathryn Hughes in her Observer review last year, and the clear-eyed Claire Harman showed just why that is an accurate assessment of her work, which moves on significantly from Gaskell (naturally) and also from more recent biographers like Juliet Barker.

In the photo, she is sitting with Audrey Hall, a leading authority on Ellen Nussey, and who recently became one of the Society's Honorary Vice-Presidents.

Charlotte - The Movie!

Lip Service
Charlotte - The Movie is a film commissioned for Charlotte's bicentenary, and it premiered at West Lane Baptist Church on the Friday evening of the June Weekend/Summer Festival. Performed by Lip Service Theatre Company , an outfit very well known to most of the substantial audience because of its live shows (there was a call for hands up), it was made in the Parsonage and nearby with the enthusiastic assistance of the staff. Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding (pictured), who in various guises took all the main parts, from Mrs Gaskell to Robert Redford, have been writing and performing together since 1985, with eighteen original comedies for the stage, a comedy series on Radio 4 and a number of television appearances to their credit. They more than lived up to the description of them by a Guardian reviewer a few years ago - "The Laurel and Hardy of literary deconstruction".

There were excerpts from their long-running stage show Withering Looks, but this was several steps on from all that. The laughter at the introduction (in English followed by Japanese) and the opening scene in the Parsonage Dining Room ("Don't sit on that couch!") continued right through to the final gags about submitting the film for the Sundance Festival. The studied naivety, the in-jokes and the child-like glee went down well, and the quiz papers dished out afterwards (sadly, hardly anyone knew that Queen Victoria's middle name was Alexandrina) provided a good excuse to chat with the audience, to soak in a few comments. Both Maggie and Sue were certainly on edge before the screening, but much more relaxed after they had heard the reactions. The only (slight) irritation appears to have been that people laughed too much, which meant that they sometimes missed the witticism which was next in line. These things can be timed better with the punters live in front of you.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Story of the Withins Farms

Top Withins - 1920s 
Friday 10 June was the first day of what used to be called either 'AGM Weekend' or 'June Weekend' but which has now been renamed 'Summer Festival'. At 3pm first Steve Woods, then Peter Brears gave their illustrated talk 'The Real Wuthering Heights: The Story of the Withins Farms', which was a bigger and better version of a talk given on the same subject three years ago. It began with a brief reference to the letter from publishers Smith, Elder & Co to Ellen Nussey, who was being asked for clues about locations. They wanted to know what the Brontë Sisters had in mind because they were producing the first illustrated edition of the collected works, and Volume Five (1873) of this was Wuthering Heights along with Agnes Grey. As Ellen Nussey's reply has been lost, we do not know much for sure, but the book included an illustration of Top Withins by E M Wimperis which she seems to have suggested to him, so there is some evidence that it was one of the places in Emily's imagination - along with others.

The talk was the result of years of careful study, and covered Top, Middle and Lower Withins, three farms which made up about a hundred acres, much of it rough pasture and much of it probably never used - too rough perhaps. Most farms in the area were dairy, producing milk, butter and a little cheese. Two hundred years ago this would have been consumed by the many weavers and spinners in the area - and because it was not much of a living, the farmers and their families would have done plenty of carding and spinning themselves. There were some sheep, and about half a dozen cows at each farm.

It would have been an isolated life, with long walks down to Stanbury or Haworth, unpleasant and hazardous in bad weather, especially in heavy snow, and especially for any children on their way to school and back in the later years of the nineteenth century. The ruined Lower Withins was finally demolished in the 1930s ("There were plenty of Brontë enthusiasts taking away souvenirs") and Top Withins was fixed into its present state fairly recently, though it seems to have been still quite substantial in the 1920s.