Saturday, 10 December 2016

Charlotte Brontë - Terrible Teacher, Brilliant Novelist

Conrad Beck writes:
Richard Wilcocks        Photo by Gail Alvarez
There is much to say about the life and works of Charlotte Brontë, and a speaker would be well advised to find a very definite focus for a one-off session. In Headingley Library on Thursday evening, in front of a substantial audience, Richard Wilcocks found it in the author's dismal attempts to become a teacher and a governess, just about the only work available for a young woman in her social position at the time. He did not simply deliver a lecture, but showed slides, read from Charlotte Brontë’s early poetry, her juvenilia and her Roe Head Journal, and appeared in role as the rich mill-owner John Benson Sidgwick, who had employed her to be a governess for two of his young children. It was assumed that most of those present knew at least something about the author, her most well-known novel Jane Eyre and about its early chapters set in the fictional Lowood School. A quick hands-up operation revealed this assumption to be correct: just about everybody had visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth as well.

Richard Wilcocks began by revealing some of his sources - Juliet Barker’s The Brontës and biographies by Winifred Gérin and Clare Harman in particular – and by giving an account of the time when Charlotte was a pupil at Roe Head School in Mirfield, which was for the daughters of merchants and manufacturers. She was the equivalent of a member of Year 10 today. There was a passing mention of her earlier experiences at the puritanical school in Cowan Bridge, the model for Lowood, which was swept by a disease (probably Typhus) which finished off her older sisters Maria and Elizabeth. At Roe Head, short-sighted, tiny for her age, unfashionably dressed and the opposite of gregarious, she was still haunted by grief: she told Mary Taylor, one of two girls who became her friends, that she had dreamed about her dead sisters, who had appeared in the school’s drawing room, waiting to see her, but that when she had gone forward to greet them, they had changed into fashionable young ladies. We heard about Mary’s debates with her friend, Mary adopting a radical stance (she came from a family of dissenters), Charlotte arguing from the viewpoint of a convinced Tory, and we were read extracts from Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey, her other friend.

We were given glimpses of the extraordinary world of the imagination which obsessed Charlotte and her brother Branwell at this time – Glass Town, which later became Verdopolis. She retreated to this world, full of remarkable events and vivid heroes like The Duke of Zamorna, writing microscopically and with her nose almost touching the paper. She shone in lessons. Ellen wrote: “She was first in everything but play”. Her drawings from this time are intricately detailed, and she left school wanting to be an artist.

When she returned to Roe Head in 1835 she considered herself to be a poet and an artist, and resented having to put up with the drudgery of teaching. She came with her tall and taciturn seventeen year-old sister Emily, a pupil isolated amongst much younger girls, and who was in so much mental anguish that she was sent home after three months, but she wrote poems like The Bluebell and A Little While, A Little While at this time. Charlotte retreated even further into her imaginary world, and wrote in her journal even when she was in front of a class, the girls commenting on the fact that she appeared to be writing (still microscopically) with her eyes closed. One of the things she wrote, after describing her charges as “oafs” was:

Must I from day to day sit chained to this chair, prisoned within these four bare walls, while these glorious summer suns are burning in heaven & the year is revolving in its richest glow & declaring at the close of every summer day that the time I am losing will never come again?

Arguments with Miss Wooler, the long-suffering head teacher (the model for Miss Temple in Jane Eyre) were followed by Charlotte’s exit, but a few years later she was a governess at Stone Gappe, a splendid house not far from Kildwick. Charlotte's time at the Lothersdale house between May and July 1839 was unhappy, and this is reflected in Jane Eyre when Jane is forced to live with her aunt's family at Gateshead Hall after being orphaned. Stone Gappe was the summer home of John Benson Sidgwick, principal partner at High Mills, Skipton, and his wife Hannah. Charlotte worked for the couple as a temporary governess for two of their children – seven year-old Mathilda and three year-old John. The couple also had three older children and Mrs Sidgwick was pregnant with a fifth child while Charlotte was employed there. She liked Mr Sidgwick. He seemed to her to be an ideal Conservative gentleman as "he strolled through his fields with his magnificent Newfoundland dog". However, Charlotte found Mrs Sidgwick to be unjust and unsympathetic, resentful of complaints about her children and tyrannical in her demands for "oceans of needlework". The children were far too young to benefit from anything Charlotte could have taught them and like all young children, did not interest her. John supposedly threw a Bible at her, which hit her on the head.

Richard Wilcocks used what might be called an ‘educated Yorkshire accent’ when he played the part of John Benson Sidgwick, who gave us his opinions on governesses in general, saw Charlotte as a miserable oddity, and confessed to having been impressed when she revealed her obsession with the life of the Duke of Wellington. Had a Newfoundland dog not rescued Napoleon when he had fallen overboard during his escape from the island of Elba (near Corsica), he revealed, there would have been no Battle of Waterloo.

Audience comments

A cosy setting for the talk. Interesting details without trying to cover everything. 

Has made me want to go away and read more. Thank you

Enthusiastic, entertaining and excellent. A good prelude to the Headingley LitFest

Excellent - really brought the Brontes to life. Lots of new information.

Most enjoyable. The women seemed to live again thanks to Richard's enthusiastic, researched and no-holds-barred accounts of their darker sides

I feel very lucky to have a chance to participate in this event. It was a bright, brilliant and smart performance. I would like to visit some again. 

Thank you very much.

It was a fully attended enjoyable event which took a small part of the Brontes' lives in an interesting depth with slides of properties, dog (excellent) and west Yorkshire accent.

Interesting and vivid. Nicely reinforced known information and added to it, particularly about locations I want to visit. Information about duration would've been appreciated as I'm on public transport!

Entertaining and stimulating lecture presenting Charlotte Bronte from a somewhat different viewpoint.

Very interesting - a different aspect of Charlotte Bronte's life. Enjoyed the way it was presented - good accent.

Absorbing, illuminating, entertaining. It may be that E.Bronte's second novel was recycled by way of ????

The talk was very informative and interesting and raised some new ideas. Thank you for a lovely evening.

A very interesting talk on the life of Charlotte Bronte and a bit about her sister Emily by Richard Wilcocks. I particularly enjoyed his impression of John Sidgwick, Charlotte's employer

Interesting. My ears pricked up when I heard about High and Low Mill in Skipton. I have been proof-reading about the Smiths Family History and these Mills came into it (as did Kildwick Parish Church)

Very interesting and informed presentation. Encouraging further reading.

Very interesting aspects and good taster for the festival.

Very entertaining and informative

Entertaining and informative and enjoyable

Interesting and informed

A delightful, interesting, informative and entertaining evening.

Quite interesting but it could have been more scintillating.

Many thanks. The speaker's enthusiasm and depth of knowledge shone through the hour.  We enjoyed many anecdotal scenes and readings which made interesting social commentary. I was not sure of the real objectives of the speech as it meandered from place to place, although with a common theme. The speaker's visual aids were not distracting but had the screen been arranged better to make the slides bigger and more visible it would have been an advantage. Also the use of a small cheap device to move the slides on would have avoided stepping in front of the front row. The most distracting element for me was the use of 'crutch words - 'anyway' repeated 35 times and 'um' 93 - this is not a criticism - everyone does it and I am particularly conscious as a Toastmaster and public speaking coach! Very interesting and enjoyable.

Very interesting

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