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Monday, 9 November 2015

Robin Walker's Bicentenary composition: “Letter to Brussels”

Pamela Nash writes: 
Robin Walker
In Charlotte Brontë's Villette, the protagonist Lucy Snowe wrestled with the grief of unattainable love and "dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin chinks." A family record passed down to the composer Robin Walker echoes the imagery: his great-great-grandfather, in attending Charlotte's funeral, recalled seeing a violet-coloured (hair?) ribbon hanging out of her coffin*.  A potent yet simple detail which provides for us a rarefied token of a tragic end, and whilst the Villette comparison lends a further frisson to the pathos of her death, the real tragedy perhaps lies in the paradox between the unrequited love in the pages of the author's work and that played out in her own life; while Lucy Snowe managed to repress the tyranny of desire - the “bottled storm” - Charlotte Brontë herself could not, as her letters to Constantin Heger reveal.

Nothwithstanding his ancestral connection, Robin Walker finds a powerful artistic affinity with Charlotte through these letters to Heger, and in commemoration of her bicentenary, he has composed a song setting of two of the letters for soprano and piano.  Having also produced a song-cycle of five of Emily Brontë's poems (premiered in 2014), he continues to draw inspiration and solace from the work of both sisters, arising partly out of a sense of “fellow feeling” and partly out of the absolute contemporary relevance of their work to him as a composer.  He identifies particularly with the emotional evaluation within their writing - the processing of experience through feeling - and, like the Brontës, his own compositional processes are founded in an instinctual response to both discipline and passion.   

It is the meeting of these elements which forms the equilibrium in the new song: although structurally a conflation of the two Heger letters, the wording is completely preserved and the approach to crafting the music reflective of the letters' own expressive shape: “introduction - desperate statement - then, calm.”   Robin's response to the texts was nothing short of visceral: “I felt the force, the beating heart; that completely understandable rage at unrequited love for a man who gave her a unique taste of power and affection.”  What interested him most however - and what he dramatised in the song - was the conflict within Charlotte's “inner life”: behind all her expostulating was a desperate need to escape the stifling constraints of Protestantism and the patriarchy of her father.  “She is externalising her own drama, with the purpose of relieving herself; through writing the letters, Charlotte overcomes her state of mind - from a state of uncertainty and turbulence to one of stability and sanity, but with literary restraint and structural control.  That containment and rationalising of the emotional response is the same process that we as composers have to undergo in order to make it recognisable as emotion to others: the transmutation of what it is to be alive, into an artefact.” 

* See Betty Emmaline Walker, The Green Lanes: A Westmorland Childhood (York, 1998), pp. 49-50

Friday, 6 November 2015

Winifred Gérin, biographer of the Brontës

To celebrate the Brontë bicentenaries, Helen MacEwan has written a new book exploring the life of one of their most important biographers. On 21 November at Waterstones Piccadilly, she will be launching Winifred Gérin, biographer of the Brontës (publication date 15 November).

Having written about the Brontës in Brussels, Helen first became interested in Gérin’s life story because of her Belgian links and her special interest in Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels period.

Winifred Gérin (1901-81) is known as the biographer who moved to Haworth to write the lives of all four Brontë siblings, literally treading in their footsteps as she researched them. But her ten years in Haworth were just part of a romantic, eventful and sometimes tragic life.

Marriage to a Belgian cellist, Eugène Gérin, took her to Paris and then, in 1939, to Brussels where the couple worked for the British Embassy. Following the German invasion of 1940 they had various hair-raising adventures in France, finally escaping to Britain where they worked for Political Intelligence. After Eugène Gérin’s death in 1945, Winifred sought consolation in writing poetry and plays until discovering both her literary vocation and second love on a fateful first visit to Haworth.

Gérin went on to write biographies of Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie and Horatia Nelson. She also wrote plays about Jane Austen, Fanny Burney and Charlotte Brontë. This book is based on her letters and her unpublished memoir.

Waterstones Piccadilly, 203-206 Piccadilly, W1J 9HD
Saturday 21 November, 2 pm

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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman - quotes from recent reviews

This is a comprehensive biography to enjoy and admire. Harman writes well and she is a fine and sensitive critic (The Times)

Finely judged and authoritative (Sunday Times Book of the Week)

Elegantly written, consistently perceptive (Daily Mail Book of the Week)

Superb retelling of Charlotte's story (...) admirably concise (The Spectator)

Harman... portrays Bronte's complexity and dark genius in elegant prose with deep human sympathy (The Lady)

Harman tells [Charlotte's] story with quick wit, a sharp sympathy, and a fire and fury of her own (Evening Standard)

Full of pleasing and piquant detail, scraps of passing recollection assembled from the various lives and letters in which the Brontes featured and from which we might reconstruct their world (Financial Times)

An extraordinary book, crammed with scholarship and glittering with trivia . . . Harman's book offers so many delights . . . This is a fantastic compendium (Independent on Sunday on 'Jane's Fame')

A shrewd but unstuffy critic, Harman's prose rings with good sense, affection and humour... [She] manages to be not only scholarly, but indecently entertaining. (Daily Mail on 'Jane's Fame')

Rich and colourful...Harman's book is a delight from beginning to end... This superb biography not only handles the familiar material with flair but goes further than previous biographies (Sunday Times on 'Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography')

Superbly readable... she has excellent taste. A marvellous and eventful read (Evening Standard on 'Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography')

There is no doubt that Harman is the first to treat this fascinating subject in an accessible, lively manner unshackled by academic jargon. It's the quality of the insights and the interpretations that make this book such a good read (Sunday Telegraph on Jane's Fame)

Claire Harman is the award-winning biographer of Sylvia Townsend Warner (1989), Fanny Burney (2000) and Robert Louis Stevenson (2005) and the author of the best-selling Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (2009). She writes regularly for the literary press on both sides of the Atlantic and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2006.

Her most recent work is Charlotte Bronte: A Life.

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman - Independent Review

Review by Lucasta Miller

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman - Guardian Review

A review by Kathryn Hughes

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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Charlotte Brontë's Secret Love by Jolien Janzing

A review of this new novel from The Bookseller:

We love this book

Charlotte Brontë is among the iconic names of English literature and in this wonderful novel Jolien Janzing gives readers a fascinating fictionalised glimpse into the life of the woman behind Jane Eyre.

Taking as her inspiration Charlotte and sister Emily’s time in Brussels, where they studied and eventually taught, Janzing weaves an evocative tale of Charlotte’s coming of age and emotional and romantic awakening. At the heart of it is Constantin Heger, Charlotte’s tutor and husband of the school’s headmistress Claire Heger, who Charlotte finds herself falling in love with despite the age gap and his marital status. And set against Charlotte’s story, Janzing introduces a compact parallel fictionalised account of Arcadie Claret, the teenage girl from Brussels with whom King Leopold I of Belgium conducted a 20-year affair.

Yet it is Charlotte Brontë and Janzing’s characterisation and portrayal of her internal struggle that captivates the reader. Admittedly the romance between her and Constantin remains quite veiled and although Charlotte’s feelings are evident, Constantin’s, while alluded to, are somewhat undefined, yet in a way this merely adds to the bittersweet nature of the whole situation.

What Janzing does so beautifully is give a real sense of the experiences, emotions and motivations of Charlotte in Brussels that later feed into her own work. Similarly, Emily, who we are given telling glimpses of, comes across vividly as the woman who would go on to create Wuthering Heights. What we have are really portraits of the authors as young women; we see the personalities, character traits and life experiences that will define their literature, and in the case of Charlotte, some of the pivotal moments and relationships in her life that will shape and develop her very consciousness.

Review in the Blackpool Gazette -

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Back on the Brontë trail in Ireland

Marina Saegerman writes:
The 2015 annual holiday  was spent as usual in our  beloved holiday spot:  Ireland.
Of course, being an Ireland fanatic and a Brontë fan, it is no wonder that especially the “ Irish connection” of the Brontë story is an attraction to me.

After having visited Banagher in 2013 (where Arthur Bell Nicholls grew up and spent the last years of his life) and the Northern Irish homeland in 2014 (Rev. Patrick Brontë’s roots), we were once more on the Brontë trail, this time in the Connemara.

Ever since I read the books on the life of Arthur Bell Nicholls two years ago, I have become fascinated by this man who played such a significant role in Charlotte Brontë’s life. Over the years, without even realizing it, my husband and I visited the places in Ireland related to the Brontës, in particular the places Charlotte and Arthur visited on their honeymoon.

When reading the story about Arthur Bell Nicholls’ life I discovered where he came from and where he spent his life after returning to Ireland. I came across a few other places that needed further investigation. One of them was Kill House near Clifden in the Connemara. This is the house where Arthur’s cousin, Harriette Bell lived with her husband and six of their seven children. Harriette was the cousin Arthur proposed to in 1851 and who declined his proposal.

My husband and I became intrigued with this house. We had been looking at the internet and found a vague location near the Sky road (Clifden). We knew the area quite well and have been driving around on the Sky road peninsula many times, but we could not figure out where the house would be situated.

This year, armed with a google map (very vague) and an old picture of the house, we went back to the Sky Road peninsula to have a better look. We were driving very slowly so as to have a good look at all the “big” houses we passed . We took all possible byways and turned corners on very narrow roads. Driving a van on those narrow Irish roads is not an easy thing to do, believe me! Finally, I thought I saw a house in the far distance that looked like a house similar to the one in the picture. We took the byway, which led us to a peninsula off the Sky road peninsula, and arrived in a “village” (which we later found out to be Cill). We recognized the place, we had been there many years ago to try and find a B&B with angling facilities, where some Belgian anglers had been staying. The house that I had seen in the distance was near that B&B, up the hill. Great was my joy when we arrived and it matched exactly the picture that I had in my hand. The sign next to the gate confirmed this. We had found “Kille House”! I was over the moon.
The house is now in private hands and cannot be visited. But just standing there at the gate and looking at the house was enough for me! Another personal mission accomplished! Two weeks later we were back in Northern Ireland, Co. Down, to meet up with Margaret Livingston and Finny O’Sullivan from the Northern Irish Branch of the Brontë Society. Last year Margaret and Finny took us on the homeland trail to trace Rev. Patrick Brontë”s roots. Finny mentioned some other places that we might visit this year, off the beaten track again, and certainly not on the homeland tour. So, off we went again, on a Brontë tour with a difference!

The first stop was Tully farm in Killead (Co. Antrim), the house where Arthur Bell Nicholls was born. It is a two-storey farmhouse looking out across the fields to Lough Neagh and the Sperrin mountains. The house has changed since the days that Arthur lived here with his parents, William and Margaret Nicholls (née Bell), and his brothers and sisters. Arthur lived here up to the age of 7 when he and his brother Alan moved to Cuba House in Banagher to live with their uncle Dr. Alan Bell and his family. Dr. Alan Bell raised the two boys as his own, offered them a good education and ensured a good start in life for them, which they would not have had if they had stayed in Killead.
The next stop  on our tour was Killead Church and graveyard on Drennans Road, where we visited the grave of Arthur Bell Nicholls’ parents and some of his siblings. It is said that Arthur and his brother never went back to their birthplace and never saw their parents again, although the families did keep in touch. Margaret Nicholls née Bell was born in the nearby village of Glenavy, and that was where we were heading to next: Glenavy Church and graveyard. The Bell graves are not easy to find, you really must know where to look, but luckily for us, Finny did know. The graves are very overgrown and it is very difficult to decipher the names , but we could discover a few names of the Bell family on the gravestones.

We had one more stop to do on this special tour: the protestant old Church of Magherally and its graveyard, a few miles out of Banbridge. It was here that Rev. Patrick Brontë’s parents Hugh Brunty and Alice McClory were secretly married in 1776. The church is a ruin nowadays, but enough is left of it to see how it would have looked like. 

An additional bonus at the graveyard (not Brontë related) was the fact that the famous Irish poet Helen Waddell (I came across her name and poems when doing research for my next calligraphy project on  Irish poetry) was buried in this old graveyard. I knew she was from the area but did not know she was buried in this particular graveyard.

I really enjoyed this special tour and learned a lot about the relatives of Arthur Bell Nicholls, facts I had read about in the biographies (see note below), but came alive when visiting the actual area where the family had lived. Finny proved to be a real fountain of knowledge during this tour.

Last year I thought we had seen all the Brontë links in Ireland. I wonder, what  next year will bring!

19 September 2015

For further reading, the following books can be recommended:
“My dear boy - the life of Arthur Bell Nicholls “(Margaret and Robert Cochrane)

“Mr Charlotte Brontë – the life of Arthur Bell Nicholls” (Alan H. Adamson)

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Abismos de Pasión

Karol Novak writes:

Perhaps a reader of this blog is able to help me. I am writing about the surrealists and Emily Brontë, concentrating at this moment on Luis Buñuel's Cumbres Borrascosas – Abismos de Pasión - Wuthering Heights, which appeared in 1953. The themes fascinated the director's followers. I particularly want to know about the actress playing Cathy who had the stage name of Irasema Dillian – but any help will be welcomed. 

Michael Baumber

Isobel Stirk writes:
Brontë Society members and anyone with an interest in Haworth, past and present, will be saddened to hear of the death of Michael Baumber.

Michael was a retired history teacher and his book General-at-sea: Robert Blake and the Seventeenth Century Revolution in Naval Warfare was written over twenty years ago. Michael had detailed knowledge of the Old Testament and his sermons, given as a Lay Reader in the Church of England, were always interesting and anticipated with pleasure.

In 2009 his book - A History of Haworth from Earliest Times- was published. It is a mine of information which emphasises that, although the Brontë family played a big part in making the village known throughout the world, Haworth has a long and fascinating history.

Michael was always willing to share his knowledge with others and I was lucky enough to have many a conversation with him about the Bronte family and Haworth itself. He always answered my numerous questions with patience and it was a pleasure to take him, on quite a few occasions, to the County Records’ Offices in Northallerton, when he wanted look at the archives there, when he was researching for one thing or another.The miles would speed past as Michael would wax lyrical about the special project he was undertaking and the journeys were certainly never boring.

A learned man- he will be sadly missed.

His funeral service will be held at The Church of St. Andrew, Kildwick in Craven, at 10am on 18 September.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Serendipity in Penzance

Maddalena De Leo writes:
At the end of July I was again in inspiring Penzance after five years, this time as the Italian BS representative with my member friend Caterina Lerro and two other Italian Brontëites. We toured the town and had an external look at Maria Branwell’s house, still closed and without life, just to take souvenir photos on its door. Afterwards at sunset I proudly showed my mates historic Chapel Street with its important buildings such as St. Mary’s church, the Admiral Benbow’s inn, the one described in the opening scene of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the Union Hotel, where it is believed the news of the battle of Trafalgar was first announced, and the Egyptian House.
After some time our appetite brought us to have dinner in The Tremenheere Wetherspoon pub in High Street, just aside the white marble statue of renown Penzance hero Humphry Davy. While there, looking around for a free table to sit, I made a welcome discovery, something I hadn’t found out in Summer 2010 when I had meticulously looked for any Brontë tracks in their mother’s birthtown. I saw in front of me on the left side of the pub a quite large gold framed panel reproducing the famous three sisters’ images and the ‘Gun portrait’ including Branwell in its centre, followed by a short explanation entitled ‘Penzance Literary links’; on the right below Reverend Patrick Brontë’s photo in old age and on the left lower side the portrait of the lady maybe thought to be Maria Branwell, the children’s mother and the Reverend’s wife. Of course I rejoiced for my discovery since it seemed absolutely impossible there is nothing in Penzance to commemorate the Brontës but on looking at the presumed Maria’s portrait I found out there is a mistake in the panel: the woman is not Maria Branwell at all but another much older one, presumably her own mother Anne Carne, since poor Maria died of cancer when she was just 38. I then enthusiastically took photos of me sitting just at the table nearby the panel.
Despite the mistaken picture my second staying in Penzance was surprisingly lucky and I felt fulfilled in my new search.

Monday, 27 July 2015

The trials and tribulations of being a governess

I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil. (Charlotte Brontë to Emily from Stonegappe, June 1839)

IMS writes:
I enjoy very much giving lectures about the Bronte family- I go to different places and meet friendly, interesting people - I have met a relative of Mary Burder, I have spoken with a descendent of the Graham family of Norton Conyers, I have seen the names of four Brontë girls in the log book of Cowan Bridge school and I have been shown precious possessions with a Bronte connection. However to me, perhaps the most important thing is, in the course of my travels, I also learn so much myself. It is always refreshing to talk with people and hear their thoughts on that remarkable family, discover which is their favourite Bronte book and wherever I go, whoever I meet, it is heartening to realise that there is great interest in those who wrote their novels at the Parsonage in Haworth.

Last week I was lecturing on Teesside and after one lecture a lady spoke with me and told me she had once, years ago, visited the village of Lothersdale -  the village where Charlotte was a governess at Stonegappe House in 1839. She said she had taken tea in the village hall and bought a pamphlet, which she gave me, containing some delicious recipes, the menu of a dinner party held at Stonegappe and little snippets about the village and the house.

This pamphlet had been compiled by a lady whose parents-in- law had lived there for twenty years but perhaps the most interesting item in it was a short poem, author unknown, written about Charlotte’s experiences in the short time she was at Lothersdale.

Stonegappe 1839
(with apologies to Henrietta, James and Thomas)

‘Sh’ this is secret between us
Don’t tell Mama she’ll be annoyed.
But Miss Bronte is making a fuss
And she says that this is not for what she’s employed.

Quick James push the mouse under her door,
Then we will run over to the back stairs,
Don’t you think our governess is being a bore,
After all, I only did for a dare
The letter was addressed to Ellen Nussey,
I only intended it to be a joke,
Never thought she would call me a hussy
Grandpa Sidgwick looked like he would choke.

So I carefully steamed it open
How was I to know the ink would run!
As I held it to the kettle in the kitchen
Cook came in and spoiled all the fun.

Now Miss Brontë’s in her room quietly sobbing
When Mama comes home she will be fuming,
Oh come on Thomas let’s go for a ride on Dobbin
I have a feeling disaster is looming.

I was told that the James, Henrietta and Thomas were children who lived at the house in the twentieth century and I am sure that they would be not at all like the difficult Sidgwick children Charlotte dealt with in the nineteenth century.

The children are constantly with me and more riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs never grew. A complaint to Mrs Sidgwick brings only black looks upon oneself, and unjust, partial excuses to screen the children. (Charlotte Brontë to Emily. Stonegappe June 1839)