Book Review: Charlotte Bronte: A Life

bronte-a-life-xlargeThe Bronte sisters are well-biographised (if that is a word); the outlines of their stories are a part of the cultural consciousness, and there are a number of biographical works available on them, of which I have read a few (most memorably Juliet Barker’s The Brontes and Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte). Yet Claire Harman’s in-depth biography somehow fills a gap; it takes account of the most recent scholarship on Charlotte Bronte’s life and work, and traces where some of the more misleading myths came from. Harman acknowledges her debt to previous biographers, especially Gaskell, but also identifies Gaskell as the source of some of the myths. Significantly, for me at least, Harman is not one of those biographers given to undue speculation of the “she must have thought…” school, instead providing context and source for any speculations, and unpicking the Bronte myth which sprung up so quickly after Charlotte’s death.

Few writers seem to have enjoyed quite such remarkable posthumous fame. Haworth became a site of pilgrimage not long after Charlotte’s death, with its popularity as a tourist destination being one of the reasons cited for the introduction of the railway into the area (I’ve never been, but am excitedly planning a visit). brontesThe Bronte Society formed in 1893, not quite 40 years after Charlotte’s death. The sisters – or brothers, as they were presumed to be, using the pen names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – were quite the talk of London and literary society during their lifetime, but the details of their lives, discussed by Mrs Gaskell and others, have caused their stars to rise even further since their deaths. And there is something fascinating about the insistent tragedy of their lives. The world of the Haworth parsonage, in its bleak and wuthering position on the edge of the moors, is described so vividly that on finishing the book I feel as if I have been in another world. The lives of the children – six in total, suffering the death of their mother at a young age – is one of imagination, famously explored in their juvenilia (which in fact continued well into adulthood) of the Gondal and Angrian sagas. But the bereavements they repeatedly suffered, with the two eldest girls dying whilst at school, and the deaths of Emily, Anne and Branwell at a young age, not to mention the deaths of friends and relatives, makes one wonder how Charlotte and her father Patrick could bear the constant sadness. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments described here is how Anne, Emily and Charlotte used to walk round and round the dining table after finishing writing for the evening; after their deaths, Charlotte did so alone.

Charlotte appears here as a very real woman: religious, but constantly aware of her lack of beauty, desirous of love but reluctant to marry the wrong man, protective of her writing bronte-largeand her literary reputation, especially after the runaway success of Jane Eyre, a novel which surprised and shocked the literary establishment as much as it delighted it. She was a highly complex woman – that much is obvious from her novels – and Harman is aware that to speculate too much about her psychological depths is unnecessary. In fact, her novels say it all. I’m usually rather reluctant to link fiction to biography, but particularly in the case of Villette it is hard not to do so. I teach this novel on a module on Victorian literature and psychology, and as Harman points out, it is a novel of remarkable psychological depths, reflecting both Bronte’s and the Victorians’ growing interest in the new discipline of psychology. Like Bronte, the protagonist Lucy Snowe has a phrenological reading done; like Bronte (and indeed Jane Eyre), she is an intelligent woman who stands up to the prevailing norms of society which wish women to be beautiful, coquettish, childish. More than that, Villette depicts the experiences of an English woman teaching at a school in Brussels, a woman who falls in love with one of the other teachers. To align this with Bronte’s experience is not mere speculation; her letters indicate it happened, and Harman demonstrates the ways in which Bronte often uses her fiction to tell the truth about her own feelings. It was pleasing, too, to see the prominence Harman gives to the sisters’ poetry and its significance in their growing confidence in their ability to express themselves on the page.

Eventually, at the age of 38, Charlotte Bronte married. Initially reluctant when her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls,proposed to her, she is surprised by how happy marriage makes her. It is the final tragedy of her life that her death comes only 8 months after their haworth parsonagemarriage, due to complications of pregnancy (the same suffered by the Duchess of Cambridge, as Harman points out). She was planning another, more realist work prior to this, having visited prisons, lunatic asylums and other grim places of hardship in Victorian London, and who can say what else she might have written? However, despite all this, I’m left with a feeling of admiration for this woman who chose her own way in life against the odds, standing up to publishers, resisting attempts to make her conform, writing unexpected novels, and finding a way to be a woman writer at a time when Robert Southey could write to Bronte that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’. Less wilful than wild Emily, less meek than pious Anne, Charlotte was very much her own woman, demonstrating an interest in how women writers could work: she saw Harriet Martineau’s solitary life, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s busy family home, and adapted her own writing life to her changing circumstances. Though I teach several Bronte novels and am very familiar with them, I want to return to them now with fresh eyes, keeping in mind the remarkable woman who wrote them.


Turning to See

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Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery currently have a free exhibition called ‘Turning to See‘. It’s a novel premise, but it’s well worth exploring. Curated by John Stezaker, its centrepiece is Van Dyck’s splendid last self-portrait, which was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery with the Art Fund. It’s now touring the country so that everyone has a chance to see it – and I do suggest you take the opportunity, if you can. As it travels, the portrait will be part of a number of different exhibitions, many of which will relate to portraiture, I imagine. BMAG’s exhibition is creative and unusual in its approach: ‘the display will create a spectacle of turning in the gallery and will mirror the way the viewer moves around the space’, and one does feel watched, moving around and looking at the pictures, many of which look back at you. This effect is heightened when you visit at a quiet time: it’s just you and lots of people looking back.

‘Turning to See’ is a deliberately ambiguous title. The exhibition notes suggest both turning as pose, and turning as metamorphosis. The transformational effects of pose are apparent here, as the subjects turn towards or away from the viewer. I was fascinated by how this raised my awareness of pose in portraiture: not all of these are natural poses, though some are casually glancing at their audience, while  James Jefferys, in this self-portrait, below, appears to be looking up with annoyance at whoever has come to disturb him. A turn to see, of course, is always a pause, a disruption of previous activities, the opportunity to see something new or rethink things. Art should be like that.


Me interrupting James Jefferys at the opening of the exhibition

Van Dyck himself, in this very immediate and powerful self-portrait, is posed formally, his posture slightly uncomfortable, but looking very much the man in charge of the exhibition, while others seem to be turning to deliberately avoid looking directly at the viewer. Burne-Jones’s Phyllis and Demophoon demonstrates a much more physical turning (without clothes on) while Rossetti’s Proserpine is mournfully turning her eyes away. image1

There are quite a lot of Pre-Raphaelite works here, including this wonderful portrait of Jane Morris, awkwardly turning, looking somehow both completely natural and also splendidly posed. (My picture here isn’t great, but I quite like the post-modern juxtaposition of Jane Morris with the reflection of me holding up my iPad!) There’s also a sketch for Rossetti’s Found, in which the ‘turning’ both indicates the metamorphosis of a respectable woman into a fallen one, and a turning away in remorse and anguish. Rossetti’s sketch for Orpheus and Eurydice also appears, as does Arthur Hughes’s beautiful ‘Study of a Girl’s Head’, the picture of innocence, unlike Rossetti’s disdainful ‘Portrait of Ada Vernon’, whose turning posture suggests she is looking rather snootily at you.

John Stezaker also has a few of his own works here, which are photo-collages and indicate both the physical turn and also metamorphosis: merging film portraits, the works indicate a blurring of boundaries of gender and space. Man Ray’s striking portrait of Lee Miller almost obliterates her, focusing on a length of exposed neck as she turns away. The exhibition space is surveyed rather grandly by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s imposing bronze Alfred Wolmark, who is turning to have a closer look at Van Dyck. Posture, I think, brings out character and narrative, speaking without words to tell the viewer what is really going on. This effect s intensified here, though, because these portraits are encouraged, by their positioning and juxtapositions, to interact with us and with each other, across the centuries, across countries. There is much to be considered here: it has made me think about portraiture more carefully, but it is also a playful exhibition which challenges our notions about portraits, people and the gaze.

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Hidden treasures in the archive

Recently I seem to have had a lot of sneak previews of things I find exciting. Last week, I visited the Art & Design archives at Birmingham City University (where I work). The contents include the Birmingham School of Art archives, and the archivist had contacted me to say:

We have some 60+ historical studies, a large number of which are of medieval scenes with a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence. However, we also have examples of stained glass designs, designs for metalwork and jewellery, illustrated books, calligraphy and greetings card designs that show just how influential the Arts and Crafts tradition was at the School of Art in the late nineteenth century.

This was enough for me to be very keen, but the contents are broader than this:

Our largest collection is the School of Art’s own archive, which contains a significant number of student artworks in a wide variety of genres, including metalwork, jewellery and stained glass designs, mind and memory drawings, exercises in creating patterns, illustrated books, calligraphy, work produced by students of the School of Printing under the direction of Leonard Jay, fashion designs and botanical illustrations as well as examples of fine art – portraits, life drawings, historical studies featuring medieval legends, etc. The collection is strongest for the Arts and Crafts period, i.e. 1880-1920. We also have a large collection of London Transport posters which have already attracted the attention of colleagues from Visual Communication.

I was really struck by the amazing breadth of works by Florence Camm. Clearly a great deal of her work was preserved for some reason, and there were numerous sketches and cartoons for stained glass (for which she is most famous). A true daughter of the city, living in Smethwick throughout her long life (1874-1960), she was born into a family of stained-glass makers, and despite being a woman was encouraged to study, work and exhibit, which she did prolifically. The Birmingham Municipal School of Art, as it was then, was receptive to female students and permitted her more or less the same opportunities as the male students. The works of hers in the archives demonstrate her growing skills at draughtsmanship – you can see how she struggles with certain aspects of her drawings, for examples, and how over time she improves. Camm’s wonderful stained glass can be seen at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (see below: the Dante and Beatrice windows) as well as in churches across the West Midlands.

The strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work can be seen here, as in her other works, though some seem to be gesturing towards a more Modernist approach.

There are some wonderful calligraphic pieces by unknown students, with illuminated letters (annoyingly I don’t have images to share); many of the quotations are from Ruskin, Shelley and Tennyson, and the ornate borders, gold leaf overlaid for a 3-dimensional effect, are startling to see, their colours still strikingly bright. I’m also interested to know that there are photographs of student life in the early 20th century, including a wonderful common room (sketches of designs for the walls are also in the archive, and they are beautiful period pieces).

More information about the archives, including how to book a visit, can be found here. Do go and see them if you’re interested; there is so much scope for new research to be done here. There is also a brilliant blog about the different ways the archive has been used in teaching and research.


Florence Camm, Preliminary drawing and colour scheme for stained glass design featuring the story of the Prodigal Son, 1901.

Pre-Raphaelite Women at Wightwick Manor

20160611_153955_resizedAt the weekend we visited one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite places: Wightwick Manor, a National Trust property on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. It’s a wonderful Arts & Crafts house begun in 1887 by local businessman Theodore Mander, founded on principals learned from the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, and particularly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s lecture ‘The House Beautiful’, which Mander attended and took notes on. Wilde’s ideas, drawn from Morris and Ruskin, centred around beauty and pleasure (and occasional utility); Wightwick embodies these in the most dramatic and appealing way possible. The Manders family went on to collect Pre-St Agnes EveRaphaelite works well into the twentieth century, now augmented and displayed by the National Trust, and the house is an absolute feast of Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts works of art, furnishings, fabrics and decoration. They also cultivated the acquaintance of several Pre-Raphaelite descendants, and had some very exciting tea parties there.

Many of the works they own aren’t on display (though I was thrilled to have a private view of 9 Elizabeth Siddall drawings), but the rich collections includes Rossettis, Millais’s, Burne-Jones and many more. What really strikes me, though, is what a fabulous collection of the work of women Pre-Raphaelites is here. All too many galleries and exhibitions have few women Pre-Raphaelites on show, but here, there are some corkers: Siddall’s St Agnes Eve (right) – one of my favourite paintings – and The Haunted Wood are here, as well as Emma Sandys’ Elaine (left), one of several works attributed to Emma Elaine_Sandysmore recently, having previously thought to be the work of her brother. Lucy Madox Brown’s The Tomb Scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Act V: sc.3) is on display – probably her best work; and Evelyn de Morgan’s other-worldly The Mourners – a 1917 response to war in a very Pre-Raphaelite style – is also here. There are also two wonderful images of Christina Rossetti, both by her brother Dante Gabriel, but my favourite is the cartoon ‘Christina Georgina Rossetti in a Tantrum and destroying the Contents of a Room’; it beautifully undermines everything we expect about the apparently demure poet.

There are some wonderful works by William and Evelyn de Morgan, including some beautiful tiles, and the Trust is fundraising to be able to provide an exhibition space for the De Morgan Foundation (find out more here). There are also Kelmscott Press books and a large number of other books and works on paper. I’m excited to see that the full collections of works at Wightwick Manor can be explored online – I shall be spending some time on this! Wightwick Manor © National Trust

The immersive Pre-Raphaelite experience is what makes Wightwick unique. The information and the helpful room stewards means that one can quickly being to understand the life that the Manders family, across generations, lived here as serious art collectors, but simply to look around is to begin to see how the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic plays out: the richness of colour, texture, detail, pattern, is overwhelming, but somehow quickly settles in one’s mind as the colours and organic, natural shapes are drawn together in the décor. Many will find it too much, perhaps, but for me it is a wonderful mixture of the medieval and the late-Victorian: harmony and beauty prevail.

For those who have children with them, the dressing-up box and the nursery with games which can be played were a huge bonus; I wouldn’t have had nearly so much time to explore without those to distract my son! The beautiful Edwardian gardens would have been more of a draw if it hadn’t been raining so hard, but a quick game of hide-and-seek still took place.


Port Sunlight: Art and open spaces

20160506_131726_resizedLast weekend I went for the first time to Port Sunlight, a garden village on the Wirral which is perhaps best known now for the Lady Lever Art Gallery. I hadn’t realised how much the whole village was shaped around a specific ethos, though, and was amazed by the whole place. The village was built (or begun, anyway) in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever, for the factory workers at his ‘soapery’; Lever was one of several enlightened Victorian entrepreneurs who understood that business and industry are best served by happy, healthy workers, with a high standard of living and education, access to culture and entertainment, and good food and hygiene. The village represents these ideals in practice, and indicate the best in Victorian idealism; this is not what one thinks of when considering the working conditions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century factory workers.

The museum, which we visited first, outlines the story of the village, from its origins as swampy land which was considered useless, through the vision of the remarkably foresighted Lever as he built the factories, houses and public buildings, using 30 architects 20160506_125310_resizedso that there is a wide variety of building styles. Everything was designed to ensure that his workers would be happy as well as productive: the houses had their own bathrooms, running water and light and air; there was a school, a shop, a church, hospital and a village hall as well as gardens and communal green spaces (still beautifully cared for). As the community grew, events were organised – concerts, clubs and activities, and though life in the factory was probably quite dull, remuneration was good and the life that the workers could have there made up for it. I was interested, though, that the museum did indicate some dissenting voices – a few who found the approach of Lever and his village too paternalistic, with rules about what they could and couldn’t do, for examples. Yet, with 13.5 houses per acre, compared with up to 100 per acre in the slums of nearby Liverpool, the benefits must have been great, and apparently the children were so much healthier that they were considered much more a handful by the teachers than those growing up in less healthy conditions.

20160506_111529_resizedAfter the death of Lady Lever, the art gallery was built as a memorial to her, housing the Lever collection of over 20,000 objects. Many of these were Pre-Raphaelite paintings (some of which were on loan to Liverpool when we visited), and the distinctive though wide-ranging taste of the collector is apparent in this large gallery. This interest in Pre-Raphaelite painting seems appropriate, given its emphasis on the careful depiction of nature, its idealism and emphasis on narrative, as well as the parallels between Lever’s approach to providing access to culture for his workers and Ruskin and Morris’s ‘Art for All’ ideals. Like the Cadbury village at Bournville – though on a larger scale – Port Sunlight may be founded on industry, but it rejected the worse impulses of the industrial world and married a romantic, sometimes even medieval, arts and crafts approach with the practicalities of industry and business.

Book review: Reader, I married him

e5c275e734198bc85259b1e4ad625129Reader, I Married Him: Stories inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier, is one of many celebrations of Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary this year, and is a result of Chevalier’s collaboration with the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth. I read it because, to be honest, I’m a bit of a Bronte geek, and the idea of a range of stories which bring Bronte’s wild and wonderful work into the 21st century holds a strong appeal. Chevalier asks in her introduction: “Why is ‘Reader, I married him’ one of the most famous lines in literature? Why do we remember it and quote it so much?” Moreover, she adds,

It is not, ‘Reader, he married me’ – as you would expect in a Victorian society where women were supposed to be passive; or even ‘Reader, we married.’ Instead Jane asserts herself; she is the driving force of her narrative, and it is she who chooses to be with Rochester.

True. It is, I think, at least in part the thrill of this quiet, plain heroine who is able to change her own life and take control of her own destiny, that appeals; she is still a modern heroine, all this time after her publication in 1847. That is, no doubt, the driving force behind many of these stories, by familiar names including Helen Dunmore, Kirsty Gunn, Tessa Hadley, Susan Hill, Esther Freud, Lionel Shriver and Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few. To me, though, it was an odd collection; I was, perhaps, trying too hard to trace the stories’ origins in Jane Eyre; many seem to feature a relationship or a wedding which might, very loosely, be derived from the line “Reader, I married 9780008150570him”, but in some cases I was lost as to the Bronte connection and thus perhaps didn’t enjoy the story as much as I should.

Some stories, however, were wonderful – illuminating the original text, whilst bringing a modern creativity and understanding to a new piece of fiction. Helen Dunmore’s ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’ gives a revisionist reading of the Jane Eyre story (one might almost say myth), in which Jane and Mr Rochester are cast as much less positive characters, while poor Bertha is given a rounded, much softer and sympathetic character. Grace shows that not all women have a voice; not all women can put their story forward and create their own destinies like Jane Eyre, and reminds the reader that after all, Jane is a fiction – more women, perhaps, suffered the repressive lives that Grace and Bertha had. The flipside of the fairytale has always been represented by Bertha, and this story re-reads Bronte’s text to show how facts might be manipulated. Of course the idea of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ is familiar from Gilbert and Gubar’s critical work of the same name, but this concept with its multiple possibilities of dual consciousness, the repression of women, the psychology of characters, seems ripe for fictional exploration but doesn’t really feature in this book.

The appealing mismatch of the strong but slightly prissy, educated woman and the careless man is reflected nicely in Chevalier’s own story, ‘Dorset Gap’, in which a geo-caching expedition leads to a sly twist at the end. Francine Prose reimagines the story in which Rochester becomes an even more sinister figure, disposing of unwanted wives in a manner close to Bluebeard. Susan Hill, who admits she hasn’t read Jane Eyre, writes a story from the point of Bronteview of Wallis Simpson, exploring the problems of being needed and adored. Perhaps my favourite is Emma Donoghue’s ‘Since First I Saw Your Face’, exploring marriage (so a very loose connection to the novel) as complicated by repressed sexuality, and through the prism of another true story, the life of Minnie Benson, mother of E F Benson of Mapp and Lucia. Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The Orphan Exchange’, with overtones of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, eventually reunites Jane with her childhood friend Helen Burns.

These stories play on the tensions inherent in the novel, particularly with regard to marriage. As John Sutherland puts it in Can Jane Eyre Ever be Happy?:

The echoes of Bluebeard in Jane Eyre are obvious. Rochester is a swarthy, middle-aged rich country gentleman, with a wife locked up in a secret chamber in his house. He wants another wife – like Bluebeard, he is a man of voracious sexual appetite. … what is most striking is Bronte’s inversion of the conclusion of the fable. In Jane Eyre we are encouraged, in the last chapters, to feel sympathy for Bluebeard – a husband more sinned against than sinning. The locked-up wife is transformed into the villain of the piece. … Not only is sympathy demanded. We are to assume that – after some moral re-education – Jane will be blissfully happy with a Bluebeard who has mended his ways. It is more daring since … Edward Rochester is responsible for Bertha Rochester’s death.

Like Francine Prose, Sutherland concludes that one might not, therefore, ‘be entirely confident that his wife-killing ways would not return’. The stories here speak not only to the novel, then, but also to the multiple classics of criticism which have accrued over the last fifty years. Though I might not have appreciated every story here, I’ll not read Jane Eyre in quite the same way again; the stories open up little pinholes of possibilities – other readings, other texts, other characters – in the novel.