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?

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