Friday, 30 September 2016

Review - Villette at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Review by Richard Wilcocks
Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, which was recognised by knowledgeable readers in nineteenth century Brussels as a close parallel for what actually happened when its author was teaching cosseted Catholic girls in the Pennsionat, is not generally esteemed for its plot, but for its exquisite characterisations and the way the shy, repressed, unmarried and fiercely Protestant central character Lucy Snowe gives vent to her thoughts and emotions throughout the novel. It is outstanding in Victorian literature for its psychological intensity and its honest scrutiny of female consciousness.

There are few dramatic possibilities in it, compared to Jane Eyre, but it has, apparently, been successfully adapted for radio. Stage and film versions have been sparse in number and unmemorable. Therefore, the version scripted by Linda Marshall-Griffiths for the Courtyard Theatre of the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of its current Brontë Season was keenly anticipated by many, especially people who have read the novel. On the night I saw it, most of the Parsonage staff were there. There had been a few clichéd journalistic comments previously along the lines of “Brontë purists might not like this…” because this version is set in the future. The summary of the new version sounded promisingly interesting, and Linda Marshall-Griffiths is undoubtedly bold, brave and imaginative. In her own words:

“In re-imagining Villette, I asked myself who is the invisible woman now, who would she be in the future? I began thinking of a clone – easily disposed of, created like a worker-ant, identical and made purely to work. A clone that survived a pandemic that killed her two identical sisters. As Charlotte Brontë used to catch glimpses of what she thought was her sisters in paintings and crowds, my Lucy Snowe is haunted by her own face and the past that both terrorises and holds her. I moved the setting of Villette onto an archeological dig in the future. Lucy Snowe flees her past to become part of a team looking for the bones of the Lady of Villette – a survivor herself, she may hold the key to an ebola-like virus…”  (from the YYP leaflet)

In the event, this play would have been most easily followed by those Brontë purists, the ones in spotless white perhaps, the ones who could compare the characters in the novel with those on stage and follow the storyline, which on the whole adheres to the original pattern. There are just five actors on stage (theatre economics of course), and much has been cut – inevitably. For example Ginevra Fanshawe, here ‘Gin’ (and Polly) is played by Amelia Donkor as a hedonistic dancer and slinky party-goer who prefers to go to the Day of the Dead celebrations rather than hang around in a boring laboratory.

Day of the Dead? Is there a Mexican connection? Is it a linking reference to the bones of the Lady of Villette in the onstage archeological trench? Not clear. It is just one of the things which lead to possible confusion, because the play is hard to get to grips with and occasionally incoherent. Disbelief is not easily suspended. The characters are sketchy and do not develop: Beck, for example, the equivalent of Madame Beck, Charlotte Brontë’s version of the sly wife of the man she loved, is played simply as a kind of workplace bully with an obsession for surveillance by a very under-used Catherine Cusack. Nana Amoo-Gottfried gives us the makings of a good, amiable John Bretton, and should also have been offered more material through which to display his talents.

Amelia Donkor (Gin) and Laura Elsworthy (Lucy Snowe)
After the first quarter of an hour or so, when I was wondering whether this was something out of Doctor Who, Laura Elsworthy, playing Lucy Snowe, was filling me with admiration for her strenuous efforts to portray a journey out of repression and into the realm of love, but she became wearing after a while, especially towards the end of the over-long first half, when she is placed at a raised front corner and engages directly with the audience. As an actor, she must have had some problems getting into the mind of one of three identical clones created by a scientist father (her two sisters, named Esme and Ashe, are dead) or showing that she has real sparks of humanity. Elsworthy does her best with what she is given, but her clunky, awkward utterances, her jerky movements and her lengthy agony-stricken diatribes, delivered expressionist-style, are just too much. And where did that Catholic priest come from? A dream? Mexico?

The second half gave some relief. Lucy became much more human, and the audience even laughed as she sat on a blanket and opened a picnic basket with the gauche Paul (Philip Cairns) to participate in a comically awkward conversation, perhaps the best part of the play. Neither of the characters knew what a picnic was, they had previously admitted, but the basket was to hand and they soon found out.

The admirable boldness of the playwright’s vision made this production watchable. On the night I saw it, a group of what seemed to be sixth formers were chatting noisily afterwards. They had not read the original and confessed to being confused, but they liked the play as a strange puzzle – and they were most intrigued by the enigmatic ending. It might make a good television version one day.

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Monday, 19 September 2016

Jessie Burton, Grace McCleen and little books

Isabel Stirk writes:
Quite a few years ago I purchased a replica set of toy soldiers from the museum shop at the Parsonage for my godson. He enjoyed many hours of imaginative play with them - there were make believe battles, disasters and a few wore a set of badly made uniforms made by yours truly!

Nearly two hundred years earlier Branwell Brontë’s original toy soldiers were having adventures of their own, written about in books the Brontë children made themselves which were less than thirteen centimetres square. The hand writing was proportionately small which created no difficulty for the children as they were all- Charlotte the most- short sighted.  These little books have always fascinated visitors to the museum and have played a big part in this year’s exhibition, curated by Tracy Chevalier, Charlotte Great and Small.

On Saturday evening (10 September), in Haworth, an appreciative audience heard Tracy Chevalier talking to two writers who have both written about miniatures.

Jessie Burton spoke about her debut novel, The Miniaturist, which is set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, and how she was inspired by a visit to the Rijksmuseum. Her novel is based on a doll’s house she saw there which had belonged to the wife of a silk merchant- Petronella Oortman - who had furnished it lavishly. It was interesting to learn that Burton herself had been given a miniature writing desk by a friend on which was placed a tiny replica book with the title Jane Eyre to be joined later by another tiny book Burton’s own The Miniaturist.

Grace McCleen, who is writer-in-residence at the Brontë Parsonage Museum for 2016, said she had always been interested in miniaturisation, and making miniatures, sometimes up to fourteen hours at a time, had helped her through a period of illness. She too spoke about, and read from, her own award winning debut novel The Land of Decoration. The narrator is a ten year old girl who, with her father, is a member of a fundamentalist sect who lives in a small town. To escape from the bullying she has to endure she recreates the town as an elaborate model in her bedroom.

The usual questions and answers followed and there were differing theories put forward as to why people create miniatures and why the Brontë children created their own miniature books. In the case of the Brontës I feel it may have been an escape and as they followed their heroes in their adventures they had found for a short time their own sanctuary.  For a brief period they were free from the harsh realities of their lives. Lives where they had no mother, they had lost two sisters and lived within sight of a crowded graveyard. They would hear frequently the tolling of the church bell heralding that their father would soon be conducting the funeral of yet another Haworth resident who had succumbed to the ignorance, disease and privation which abounded in the hill top village at that time. 

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Sunday, 18 September 2016

A case of plagiarism

Push Me Away plagiarises Emily’s Journal

Sarah Fermi writes:
I recently came across what looked like a very interesting book — Push Me Away, written by — Branwell Brontë (!).  I started to read the book, and it became even more interesting than I expected.  The primary story involves Branwell and his reincarnated double, John Eaglewood.  But there is also a supporting secondary story regarding Emily Brontë, and it was strangely familiar to me.  It appears to be based directly on events only ever described in my novel, Emily’s Journal.  This is a clear case of plagiarism.  Unfortunately, Dr Lambert-Hills, the actual author of Push Me Away, permits no true acknowledgments of his sources; the entire production is fictional including the owner of the copyright (Branwell Brontë); and the people included on the page of thanks are all fictional characters in the book. 

Sarah Fermi

So this is advice to anyone reading Push Me Away, who is wondering where the new material on Emily came from:  you can find it all in a work of plausible fiction, Emily’s Journal, by Sarah Fermi,  — available from Amazon, and from the Brontë Parsonage Museum Bookshop.  The work was based on several years of research, and there is a full account of which parts of the story are true, which are theoretical but probable, and which are fictional.

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Saturday, 17 September 2016

Opening soon - 'Villette' in Leeds

Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, re-imagined by Linda Marshall-Griffiths, opens in the Courtyard Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds on Saturday 24 September 2016. A review will appear here soon afterwards, hopefully. This is from the Playhouse's publicity:
"Lucy Snowe, alone and abandoned, boards a boat in search of purpose. 
"Arriving at an archaeological site digging for the remains of the elusive Lady of Villette, she works alongside the beautiful Gin, the prying Beck, the charming Dr John and the remote Professor Paul, though Lucy remains an outsider.
"Absorbed in her work to find a cure for the next pandemic to secure humanity’s future, can she open herself up to the possibility of love and put the bones of the past behind her?
"On the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, West Yorkshire Playhouse celebrates her unique genius with a daring new adaptation by a fellow Yorkshire writer, Linda Marshall-Griffiths. With echoes of the illness and loss that wracked Brontë’s own life, both novel and play explore the redemptive power of love and the uncertainty of holding on to it."
On the following Thursday (29 September) at 6.30pm, also at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (Other Space), there will be a discussion in the style of a debate - Jane Eyre versus Villette. A similar event took place in Haworth during the AGM weekend in June, some readers of this blog will recall. This time, speakers for Jane Eyre will be Blake Morrison  and Sarah Perry, and speakers for Villette will be Sally Vickers and Ruth Robbins.
For full details of the Brontë Season at the WYP, go to its website here.
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Monday, 5 September 2016

A visit to Norton Conyers in North Yorkshire

Looking for the 'madwoman in the attic'

Marina Saegerman writes:
I had done my research in advance and I knew the house was only open to the public on select days and times, but we were lucky: the house was open for visitors in the period that we were staying in the area (27 to 31 July 2016), only in the afternoon with guided tours at 2 pm, 3 pm and 4 pm. The estate is well hidden amidst trees and parkland, and it took us a while to find the entrance. We had to park the car near the stables and the walled garden, and then a short walk  towards the House. We had to register for the group visit in a little shed next to the house and await the guide’s arrival. We received a brochure about the house and its history, written by the present owner, the eleventh baronet, Sir James Graham, which made a very interesting read. This was a good introduction to the guided tour we were about to receive.

Norton Conyers is a late medieval stately manor house, a pleasing mix of historic styles,  with Stuart and Georgian additions. It has been owned by the Graham family (originally from Scottish origin) since 1624 (except for a period of 20 years between 1862 and 1882). The house is steeped in history and has welcomed a number of noteworthy  guests such as King James II, King Charles I and of course Charlotte Brontë.

With a little delay we went over to the house via the side-entrance which still contains the bells that rang when service was required in one of the rooms (each bell having a very specific sound for each room). We were personally  greeted and welcomed for our guided tour by Sir James and Lady Graham in the Hall. The first part of the tour consisted of an introduction by the current owners about the history of the house, but also about the extensive repair and restoration work they have been doing since 2005, when they discovered a major death-watch beetle infestation in the wooden floorboards. Many pictures were shown of how the house looked like during the restoration work, we could even see some real carcasses of the destructive beetle, collected by Sir James. During the ongoing restoration work, fascinating layers of the history of the house have been uncovered and the owners have been able to carry out 'extensive  rescue archeology', as Sir James mentions in his brochure. The restoration work has been done with great care and a real passion and  respect for the historic structure of the house. As a consequence of their remarkable renovation work, Sir James and Lady Graham received the  Historic Houses Association & Sotheby’s Restoration Award 2014, which proudly hangs on the wall in the Hall.
The most interesting part for me was of course the link with Charlotte Brontë, who is said to have visited Norton Conyers in 1839 when she was a governess with the Sidgwick family. Lady Graham pointed  out that the restoration works have enhanced many features of Norton Conyers mentioned by Charlotte Brontë in her description of Thornfield Hall: the battlements around the roof, the rookery, the main broad oak staircase, the high square hall covered in family portraits and of course the famous Mad Woman’s room in the attic.

The 'secret' staircase, hidden behind a door in the wooden paneling on the landing near the Peacock Room – the supposed model for Mr. Rochester’’s room in Jane Eyre – and  connecting the first floor to the attic rooms, was discovered in November 2004 after having been blocked up for donkey’s years. “There was no way you could tell from outside that there was anything there,” said Sir James. This discovery aroused world-wide interest because of the striking similarity with the story of Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Mr. Rochester locked up in the attic in the novel Jane Eyre. The secret staircase was probably constructed in the late seventeenth century to provide servants with a short cut from their sleeping quarters to their workplace. It  was certainly in use when Charlotte visited and she must have heard the story of a 'mad' woman  called Mary who was locked in the attic of Norton Conyers in the eighteenth century. In Jane Eyre the staircase is vividly described by Charlotte and matches the concealed staircase in Norton Conyers perfectly, now officially also called “The Jane Eyre Staircase”. This story has most probably inspired Charlotte Brontë when writing Jane Eyre, as has the house itself.
Lady Graham showed us pictures of the staircase and of Mad Mary’s Room, as the attic room is called, which is situated in a remote corner of the attic. The attic is not open to the public because of the fragility of the structure, and the staircase (which is sadly too dangerous for the public to use) can only be seen from the landing on the first floor. Lady Graham told us that they  plan to restore the staircase and attic rooms in time, but at the same time respecting and keeping the specific atmosphere of the Mad Woman’s room, supposedly quite a depressing  and sad room: “this room is in a cul-de sac in the attic, very awkward to reach, the room is north-facing with a small gable window, it has a tragic feel about it”.

After this introduction we were allowed to wander around in the house and visit the rooms opened to the public. Sir James and Lady Graham stuck around and were very willing to answer any questions. I told Lady Graham of my interest in the link of Norton Conyers with Charlotte Brontë and she showed me the library which had been restored and re-furnished with items that Charlotte would have seen when visiting. She pointed out a few of these items, such as a pair of globes, a cabinet piano in the window-bay, painting equipment, the bookcases – most of which are locked apart from one triangular bookcase in a corner which contains “everything that could be needed in the way of elementary works” as described in Jane Eyre. The room was re-furnished in accordance with the description of Mr. Rochester’s study, which was used in the novel by Jane Eyre as a classroom for Mr. Rochester’s ward Adele Varens.

Apart from the Library the rooms open to the public are: the Dining Room, the Hall, where we started the tour, the Parlour (all on the ground floor), the main oak staircase, and on the first floor: the landing with the 'secret' door, the Passage, the Best Bedroom (with a reproduction of a unique wallpaper design found in an attic cupboard) and King James’s Room, where King James II and his wife stayed during their visit in 1679 - still displaying the traditional bed they are supposed to have used. Throughout the house, in all rooms open to the public, you can see a beautiful collection of family portraits and other paintings related to the house and its inhabitants, magnificent old furniture, beautiful eighteenth century plaster ceilings and many other valuable treasures and fine art work.
The house is a real marvel, so lovingly and passionately restored to its original grandeur, with great attention to detail, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I was in awe when I finished the tour.  The house has indeed a special friendly, welcoming atmosphere, which according to Sir James “results from its having belonged to the same family for three hundred and ninety-two years”. Personally I think it is also the result of the passion and dedication with which the current owners have restored and taken care of the house. You can definitely see and feel this passion in every room you visit. And some hard work has gone into the restoration, for sure!  Thanks are due to Sir James and Lady Graham for saving this fascinating historic gem for generations to come.

We still had to visit the walled garden and the stable block which is also a Grade II-listed building, like the house. It covers over three acres and was designed in the mid-eighteenth century. It still retains the essential features of the original design: two paths meeting at the central feature (the Orangery), flanked by greenhouses, with a small ornamental pond before it and colourful flower and herbaceous borders everywhere in the garden. It gives the visitor this feeling of utter tranquility, which we all need once in a while in our busy lives.What a perfect way of ending this extraordinary visit!

And, for those unmarried souls amongst us, a special message:  Reader, you can marry hereNorton Conyers is indeed a wonderful venue for weddings and other celebrations.

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Brontë Society Conference 2016

Maddalena De Leo writes:
Helen MacEwan, Maddalena De Leo, Marina Saegerman, Akiko Higuchi, Marcia Zaaijer
The Brontë Society Conference 2016 was held in Manchester at the luxurious Midland Hotel between 19 and 24 August, this year being particularly relevant because of the bicentennial celebration of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. The Italian Section was of course present with a mini-delegation consisting of Maddalena De Leo, its representative, and Caterina Lerro.

Christine Alexander

The three days event was completely dedicated to Charlotte and was entitled '... the business of a woman's life', Charlotte Brontë and the Woman's question. Among its speakers the were some of the best and most famous world scholars of the moment - for example Christine Alexander, Germaine Greer, and Sally Shuttleworth. Beside them were many other academics from all over the world.

On Friday afternoon, after the superb reception of the nearly one hundred and fifty delegates from various nationalities in the multi-starred hotel, there was the introductory lecture during  which Christine Alexander focused on the literary ambitions of the young Charlotte, referring also to her mother Maria Branwell Brontë’s libretto recently found and bought by the Society; immediately afterwards there was the introduction of the powerful book written by her and Sarah Pearson Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life Into Literature in Jane Eyre, the major Brontë Society publication 2016 for the bicentennial. The toast offered by Brontë Studies publishers ensued then, followed by the first dinner in the very elegant Derby Suite located on the first floor and adjacent to the conference room. After it another brilliant paper was given by the representative of the Belgian section, Helen Mc Ewan, based on the point of view of the mid-nineteenth century Belgian citizens in regard to our Brontës.

Sally Shuttleworth
Saturday 20 August saw the debut of 'key-note speaker' Germaine Greer with an original and very personal paper, full of inputs and questions about Charlotte's personal and social life, a speech that clearly attracted a lot of questions and created an animated discussion in the hall, afterwards followed by a 'visual panel’ dedicated to the cinema and TV drama adaptations of Charlotte’s novels.

In the afternoon a small group of delegates went to the nearby Manchester Central Library while almost all the others took part in the excursion previously organized by the Brontë Society which included a visit to the recently restored Elizabeth Gaskell’s house at number 84, Plymouth Grove. It was there that Charlotte’s biographer lived from 1850 until her death in 1865, writing all her novels and the Life, and it was in that same living room that she talked by night with her friend in the three times that she was her guest.
Germaine Greer

Back at the Midland Hotel and after more lectures on the role of women in Victorian times, there came the highlight of the Conference, the gala dinner with its sophisticated salmon menu, followed by Claire Harman’s dissertation in which  she - Charlotte’s latest biographer - outlined the strengths and weaknesses present in the long friendship of the three former classmates, Mary Taylor, Ellen Nussey and Charlotte Brontë.

On Sunday morning, after the report of Prof. Shuttleworth about the sense of injustice denounced in Jane Eyre and the other novels by Charlotte, the topic was instead the economic aspect of the women’s question in the Victorian era. Then there followed the comments and thanks to the Vice-President of the Brontë Society Patsy Stoneman for the excellent organization of the event, and farewells to all participants after the rapid final lunch.

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Flagship event at the Gaskell House