Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 30 April 2017

Let's Hear It For The Girls

by Jennifer Young

The Parsonage. (Image courtesy of SMJ.)
Recently I enjoyed a literary weekend away, to Stratford-on-Avon via the Lakes and Bronte Country. There’s material there for a dozen blogs, but I’m going to confine myself to just one aspect. And it’s the one aspect of a wonderful weekend that disturbed me. 

You think of the Brontes and you think, first of all, of the sisters — of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Of course, there are other Brontes, too — their parents, the sisters who didn’t write and the adored but feckless only brother, Branwell. But it’s the three who wrote the books who are the focus of the whole Bronte experience. Isn’t it?

I’m sure the Bronte Parsonage Trust would argue that that’s what they’ve done, but the subliminal messages I picked up weren’t quite so clear. The Parsonage itself is a strange place, austere as you might expect it to be. In the first room on the left there’s the dining room. Charlotte’s portrait — the famous one — hangs on the wall and there are sheets of paper and a quill on the spot where Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. Upstairs, the sisters’ bedrooms are full of glass cases, letters they wrote, costumes from the BBC dramatisation of their lives. To go out, you go through Branwell’s room. 

On the outside looking in - Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
(Image by Rich Tea.)
And here’s the thing. In the rest of the house the girls and their genius are confined to their glass cases, but Branwell’s tortured spirit is allowed to roam free. His bed is unmade. His desk is chaotic. His room is plunged into shadow. It’s beautifully done — but why this one room? 

When we left the Parsonage itself we were directed through an exhibition space that was devoted…well, to Branwell. There’s a window onto a garden where there’s a statue of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. They’re on the outside, looking in. Symbolic or what? There’s nothing explicit, and certainly no direct claim that he wrote his sisters’ books, but I came away from the whole place with a very strong sense that somebody responsible for the exhibition design felt that poor Branwell was mightily hard done by. 

The theory that Branwell was the author of his sisters’ books or, at the very least, the creator of Heathcliff, is for me an implausible one. Let’s remember: it was so hard for women to get published that the three sisters, literary geniuses all, had to pretend to be men, so why, if Bramwell had written any or all of the books, would he go through such peculiar hoops to avoid taking the credit? 

I’m not an expert on the Brontes, but Haworth did leave me troubled. It was difficult enough for the sisters to find publication and recognition during their lifetimes. It’s all the more awkward to see them overshadowed by their brilliant but troubled brother over 150 years after their deaths. 

9 comments:

  1. Would love to visit this place one day. I had heard that Branwell's behaviour may have inspired the characters in Wurthering Heights (both Heathcliffe's later behaviour and Hindley's alcoholism after the death of his wife), although not that he actually helped write his sisters' books. However, I think it's great you left still thinking about the family who lived there. It shows that the exhibition can stir visitors' thoughts on a family whose legacy continues to live on.

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    1. There are all sorts of theories on the internet and I'm sure most are rootless. But I was struck by how much he dominated the place, and the different approach to him (as opposed to his sisters). It's a wonderful place and well worth a visit.

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  2. I loved your post, Jennifer. I visit the Bronte Parsonage fairly regularly, as I live quite nearby. Two things have struck me from your post. There has been a lot of general interest in Bramwell Bronte recently, eg in the BBC series To Walk Invisible. I think the curators at the parsonage are perhaps reflecting this interest.
    The second thing that strikes me is that I expect Bramwell dominated the whole household when he was alive. He may not have meant to, but he was an addict, and a troubled man. Your post has made me think about this more deeply, and I feel for the whole family. It must have been incredibly stressful having to live with him, and the fact that the house is so tiny makes it even more claustrophobic. No wonder they escaped into their imaginations.

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    1. In fairness, I think my view was possibly skewed by the fact that there was temporary exhibition about him - and there's certainly no doubt that he must have been a difficult person to live with, and such a waste of talent.
      I certainly felt that his story was important, but that it dominated his sisters'.

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  3. It's a long time since I was in Haworth, but I do remember coming away with the impression that Bramwell was 'very important'. At the time I didn't find this odd. Now, thanks to you, I find the whole Bramwell-focus infuriating! Thanks for the insight.

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    1. Thanks, Gill. It was certainly thought-provoking.

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  4. I'm going to stick my head above the parapet here and say - I am not a Bronte fan. I find it rather creepy that we revere them and want to keep them in aspic, as it were, through having the house they lived in more or less untouched from their time. Do we really know that's how it was? Weren't they all troubled in their way? - or is it only historians who have told us so? It's as though - imho - we are saying, in a way, they were better than us. This is the same, of course, for other authors whose former homes are now open to the public ..... probably just me being bah humbug! Very interesting post in that it got me thinking about why I rarely visit stately homes and the like ....

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  5. Interesting, although I was never into the Bronte sisters. Your reasoning seems solid.

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  6. Fascinating post, Jennifer, but also worrying that you felt the remembrance of Bramwell's life eclipsed that of his sisters. It sounds as though he was a big influence in their lives when alive, shame if he continues to shadow over them even in remembrance. I've always wanted to visit The Parsonage - hopefully one day.

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