Sarah Fermi, life member of the Brontë Society and author of Emily's Journal (2006), died on Christmas Day, 2018. Her funeral service was held in the East Chapel of Cambridge City Crematorium on Tuesday 15 January. The Chapel was filled to capacity. In addition to family members and friends, it was attended by representatives of the Brontë Society and a number of Brontë academics. These included Dr Patsy Stoneman, who has written a full obituary for the April issue of Brontë Studies. At the funeral, she delivered this eulogy:
Sarah Fermi, 1935-2018
Many of you already know the story of how Sarah and I met, but I shall tell it again, because it showed me so clearly what an extraordinary person she was.
It was thirty years ago, one morning in June. We were in Oxenhope, having walked a couple of miles from Haworth on a Brontë Society guided walk, both on our own, and both a little bored. Sarah asked me what I planned to do later that day, and I said I wanted to walk to Ponden Kirk. ‘So do I’, she replied, ‘Shall we go?’ I didn’t like to say that what I’d had in mind was to take my car as far as I could, just walking the last bit. So, off we set towards Ponden.
At Stanbury, after a couple more miles of rather hilly walking, we stopped at the ‘Wuthering Heights’ pub for lunch and Sarah noticed that I was wet with perspiration. In her rather penetrating American voice, she asked me, ‘Are you menopausal?’ Coming from someone I’d only just met, this was rather startling, but, like most other people, I quickly learned to value that straightforwardness. With Sarah, you didn’t get many euphemisms, but neither did you get anything devious or underhand.
On that memorable day, we trudged steadily upwards but on the heights of Ponden Kirk we met one of those sudden storms which, even in June, in that landscape, bring searing wind and horizontal rain. We sheltered for a while in a barn with about a hundred sheep, then staggered down the hill to Ponden Hall, where Brenda Taylor, bless her, rescued us with a warm fire, hot tea and a lift back to Haworth.
All this time, Sarah was talking. She believed that Emily Bronte could not have written Wuthering Heights without equivalent personal experience. She had noticed that Emily’s poetry was suddenly full of grief at a particular date, and she had searched local records until she found what she thought was the cause – a boy called Robert Clayton, born within weeks of Emily, who lived a stone’s throw from where we had been walking that day, and who died when they were both eighteen and just as the grieving poems began. I listened like the wedding guest in ‘The Ancient Mariner’. Even though I had never thought it important to trace the biographical sources of fiction, the detail of Sarah’s research had me in thrall.
During that day I got to know the Sarah I grew to love. She was impetuous, shrewd, entertaining, resourceful and courageous. She had a lively imagination. Above all she was tenacious of her purpose. She had the enthusiasm of a fanatic combined, most unusually, with a scholar’s respect for logic and evidence. Many people before had made a guess at a lover for Emily, but none had made such an effort to substantiate their theory. For the next fifteen years Sarah searched for the documentary evidence which would prove a connection between Emily Bronte and Robert Clayton. She never found it – if his family were illiterate the evidence may never have existed. But she would not publish as ‘history’ what she could not prove with evidence. Instead she wrote up her theory as a fiction which you probably know – Emily’s Journal, published in 2006. It happens that Brontë ‘spin-offs’ are my own area of expertise and I can confirm that Sarah’s fiction is unique in its intricate and accurate negotiation of ‘known facts’. Emily Bronte may or may not have known Robert Clayton, but there are no impossible conjectures in Sarah’s story.
Sarah’s dogged pursuit of evidence may not have yielded the truth about Robert Clayton, but it did throw light in other areas. Since that day, she has published no fewer than twelve scholarly papers in Brontë Studies, each offering new evidence on problems in Brontë biography, some of which had puzzled researchers since the nineteenth century. In November of last year she was still working on a final paper, entitled ‘What Do We Know About Emily Jane?’. It will appear in Brontë Studies in April.
Sarah’s research involved travelling, searching in dusty archives, land registers and church records, but she also loved to engage with other people. Some of my best memories are those Brontë weekends when, with a ‘gang’ of like-minded people, we would sit round Brenda’s big table at Ponden and talk, and talk, and talk.
Researching, moreover, was not Sarah’s only Brontë activity. As a member of the Brontë Society, she wanted to make things happen. From 2008 until 2015 she was the Society’s Honorary Publications and Conference Secretary, a position she used to introduce many innovations. She oversaw the transfer of Brontë Studies from one publisher to another, significantly improving the status of its editors. She set up the Society’s Literary Competitions, attracting distinguished judges and insisting that the prize-winning entries were published. Her pushing for a publication to mark Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary bore fruit as Celebrating Charlotte, the splendid volume edited by Christine Alexander and Sara Pearson.
Above all Sarah transformed the Society’s three-yearly conferences from fairly modest gatherings, mainly of members, into international events attracting new participants from throughout the world. With Sally McDonald, she made a huge success of the 2011 conference on ‘The Brontës and the King James Bible’, held here in Cambridge, and the 2014 Warwick conference on ‘The Brontës and the Condition of England’. She brimmed over not only with ideas but with a vibrant energy which carried them through to the smallest details. It was sad, therefore, that increasing ill health forced her to relinquish final control over the 2016 bicentenary conference on ‘Charlotte Brontë and the Business of a Woman’s Life’, which was held, as she wished, at the Midland Hotel in Manchester.
Susan Aykroyd, the Vice-Chair of the Brontë Society’s Council, is here today in a formal capacity to recognise Sarah’s contribution to the Society. Sarah was pushy and obstinate, but she got things done, and very many people here today have reason to know that behind that sometimes abrasive manner lay immense generosity and personal kindness.
For me, Sarah became a close companion, even though mostly by way of telephone and email. Very few days went by without our consulting about plans, problems and discoveries. She was almost the only person with whom I exchanged work in progress. She was a good writer, unfailingly lucid and sensible. I am only now beginning to realise how much I relied on her always being there, ready to talk things through, rational and well-informed, but also animated, and predisposed to be on my side, as a good friend should be. For me, she was not just a good friend, but a great friend, and I shall miss her more than I can say.