Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Living with Emily Brontë - at The Leeds Library

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Ann Dinsdale
Photo: Richard Wilcocks
Ann Dinsdale pitched her talk well, aiming it at a middle ground between those of us who were in the know and those who were not. I would guess that most of those present had a large amount of knowledge and plenty of preconceptions already, judging from the questions asked. She began with the 'pillar portrait', probably the most reproduced, and the most verifiable, of the representations of the sisters, painted in oils when they were teenagers by brother Branwell, who would have struggled to achieve a good A-level grade in most modern sixth forms. The original is terribly creased because Charlotte Brontë's husband, Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, took it to his home in Ireland, folded it up, put it on top of a cupboard and forgot about it. It was not discovered until long after his death, by his second wife, in 1914, and is now in the National Portrait Gallery. The one in the Brontë Parsonage Museum is a reproduction. Ann soon moved on to the other treasures in the Museum, the real originals, the table in the dining room, for example.

Grasper by Emily Brontë
What history is signified by that table!  Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Anne's Agnes Grey and Emily's Wuthering Heights were all written on it, and the three authors would walk around it discussing what they had written and reading passages out. The table, its top stained with ink blots and inscribed with a small letter E (possibly but improbably carved by Emily) was bought from a family which had owned it since the auction of possessions after Patrick Brontë's death in 1861, and it had become normal for them to eat Christmas Dinner around it. The Brontë Society acquired it for an enormous sum after being given one year to get together enough grants and donations. Some artefacts were donated, others acquired at auctions, like a rare portable writing desk. We were told about conservation, about how much highly skilled work is involved in it, and shown slides of manuscripts and drawings, because the sisters were all good visual artists as well. Being able to draw and paint was a 'ladylike' accomplishment, along with playing the piano (they did that as well) and Ann picked out some of Emily's efforts. She did not copy landscapes from books. She drew Grasper from life, so that he jumped out to be stroked, and at the age of about ten she drew a latticed window in some old farmhouse. A pane is broken and a disembodied fist is coming through. That image stayed with her, it seems. We moved to the final section of the talk, on Wuthering Heights.

It's got plenty of brutality in it, said Ann, after reading from some of the critics who attacked it vehemently in the nineteenth century. Read it. Don't just think of the many film adaptations. The one from 1939 directed by William Wyler, with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, for example, is pure Hollywood romance, a project of Samuel Goldwyn which departs considerably from the original. Ann spoke about a silent version by the Ideal Film Company from 1920 which has been lost, though the screenplay by Eliot Stannard has been found and is in the Parsonage. Directed by A V Bramble and starring the well-known-in-his-day Milton Rosmer as Heathcliff and Ann Trevor as Cathy, it was advertised as 'Emily Brontë's tremendous Story of Hate'. Heathcliff looks pretty rough and belligerent in some of its publicity photos. In the recent (2011) version directed by Andrea Arnold, Heathcliff is black, which is one reasonable interpretation of his description in the novel. After all, he was rescued by Mr Earnshaw from the slaving port of Liverpool.

The enigmatic Emily Brontë was controversial and is still controversial, and it follows that her bicentennial celebrations should cause the public to consider her in that way: Ann's final slide was of actress, model, Cambridge graduate and Brontë Society champion Lily Cole sitting on the small, blue sofa in the drawing room where Emily died of tuberculosis in 1848, almost exactly a year after her only novel was published.

Chloe Derbyshire writes:
As a student of English Literature I had no idea what to expect when signing up to go and see the “Living with Emily Brontë” event. I was expecting more of the same: an analysis on Wuthering Heights and a discussion of some poetry. However, what I received exceeded my expectations.

Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth took captivated members of the audience through a guided tour of the Haworth Museum, which essentially resembles the home of the Brontë family. What I was surprised to discover was that the Brontë family (especially Emily) were not merely writers, but all-round creative individuals. Dinsdale presented the audience with incredibly detailed drawings in Emily’s own hand from when she was merely 10 years old, as well as revealing the cabinet piano which is kept in the Museum today, 200 years later, recently restored to playable condition. These fascinating and unfamiliar details of the lives of the young Brontë children revealed a whole new world and a whole new perspective for me.

Dinsdale provided the audience with the possibility of forging an intimate bond with the Brontës by exhibiting their home furniture (and some thrilling, heart-warming, and occasionally funny, stories of how these have been accumulated and returned to the Parsonage over the years) as well as their creative materials, which emanated an almost tangible sense of their intelligence and creativity. All of this, accumulated with the setting in the architecturally beautiful and historic Leeds Library, meant that I almost felt as though I was in the house at Haworth, witnessing the Brontës’ production of timeless art and literature.

Eleanor Smith writes:
At the intimate event, Ann Dinsdale took the audience on a thorough and personal journey through the house of the Brontë family. We were treated to the history of many of the objects that feature in the Brontë Parsonage Museum. The objects were extremely interesting not only because they demonstrated how Emily and the rest of the family lived, but also because of the less obvious details they revealed about their lives. It saddened me to learn that Emily’s writing desk contained negative reviews of her only novel, Wuthering Heights, meaning she likely died without knowing the true appreciation of her brilliance that readers have today. Likewise, an exchange with her publisher suggests she may have been contemplating a second novel. It left me with many feelings and contemplations about what could have been.

Ellie Goodwin writes:
It was a pleasure to hear this engaging talk in the cosy and atmospheric Leeds Library. We were taken on a personal tour of objects from the museum relating to Emily Brontë along with an account of the process of acquiring the items and restoring them. 

What was most striking to me about the event was the smallness and preciousness of the artefacts that we have that concern Emily Bronte. Her tiny diary entry revealed a microcosm of life at the Parsonage interspersed with an account of the goings on in Gondal, the fantasy world she had created with Anne.  Her work that Ann Dinsdale showed us was so tiny and detailed I couldn't help but think how easily it could have been missed and lost. Ann skilfully presented not only the tragedy of Emily's short life and her dying before she knew of her literary success, but the tragedy of how little we have of her. Of the clothing in The Bronte Parsonage Museum, only a chemise is known to be hers.
At the end of the talk it was striking how detached Emily seemed from the world. Even in her lifetime Charlotte seemed to act as a mediator between Emily and the wider world and this still seemed to be reflected in the scant evidence we have of Emily's own writing and thought that remained so fascinating and enlightening.

Headingley LitFest is really grateful for the support we received from Leeds University students Chloe Derbyshire, Ellie Goodwin, Phoebe Shanahan and Eleanor Smith.

Audience Comments

It was a pleasure to listen to this well-informed speaker telling us about Emily Brontë with slides and images that added to the experience. I was particularly interested to hear excerpts from the reviews of Wuthering Heights and to know that Emily had saved them. The speaker brought the lives of the Brontës into the room.

Very informative talk - very impressed by the tremendous detail and accompanying illustrations - and the dedication of the Brontë Society. The personal details/family history relates to the Brontës' creations and this aspect was particularly interesting.

Very interesting story about Emily and her time at the Parsonage in Haworth that I already knew and I was also interested in knowing that there is a forthcoming exhibition about her giving more details at the museum.

Very informative and knowledgeable talk about Emily Brontë. I'm inspired to look at some of her poetry now.

Very interesting and enjoyable. Great pace and well illustrated.

Extremely knowledgeable and showed a capacity to throw new light on the old subject of the Brontës. Was a useful update.

Loved hearing about the silent film version of Wuthering Heights. Will it ever be found?

Fantastic event. Events about the Brontës are remarkably important, so it is a pleasure that there are some in Leeds.

Wonderful but would have liked little more speculation on Emily's personality, imagination and sources of inspiration. 

Very enjoyable. Very knowledgeable speaker. Lovely venue.

Fascinating talk about one of the lesser known sisters. Thankyou!

Really interesting Brontë history. Wonderful venue.

Informative and interesting. Beautiful setting.

An inspiring setting for a very interesting talk.

It was a really interesting and informative talk which brought Emily Brontë to life. I would like to visit the Parsonage to learn more.Very interesting hearing about how fans over the years have preserved the Brontë legacy.

Warm and engaging. A fascinating insight into the life of a fascinating person.

Informative and enlightening talk and slides about Emily Brontë; interesting to find out about the life of the author of Wuthering Heights and make comparisons with the novel. Glorious setting for talk.

A very interesting talk, well illustrated by slides. Good to hear the stories behind Emily's possessions and how they returned to the Parsonage. Ann Dinsdale spoke very elegantly and held my attention throughout.

Brilliant event, very illuminating and well organised. Relaxed setting.

More events on the Brontës in future please.

Interesting information and pictures.

The Leeds Library a great setting for this fascinating and atmospheric talk.

1 comment:

  1. What a good evening! Glad to have your account, Richard. I wish Grasper could have been there. He looks such an intelligent dog - and why wouldn't he be, given who owned him.