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Saturday, 6 February 2016

Official launch - Charlotte Great and Small

Well over a hundred people were at the official launch of the exhibition in the Parsonage on Friday 5 March. It was a real gathering of the clan! Old friends and acquaintances were reunited and everyone had a good time: a great start for Charlotte's centenary year.

Members of staff spoke about how easy it was to work with exhibition curator Tracy Chevalier. Here are two of them with her - Arts Officers Lauren Livesey and Jenna Holmes.

Tracy Chevalier had a rapt audience when she told the story of the exhibition from the moment she had first arrived at the Parsonage to investigate possibilities.

After a short speech of appreciation, Lauren presented Tracy with this bunch of flowers. 

Article by Tracy Chevalier in the Guardian here.

Photos by Richard Wilcocks

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Charlotte Great and Small

Find out about the exhibition curated by Tracy Chevalier (from February) here -

For a taste, see this short video on Charlotte's bed -


"This small bed is my response to the daily lives Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë led in the Parsonage. The siblings – especially the sisters – shared much of their domestic space, working together in the kitchen, writing in the dining room, sleeping in the same bedrooms and sometimes beds. The quotes embroidered on the bed and bed clothes are taken from their letters, diary entries, poems and novels. You can see more of this project at my website:"  (Tamar Stone)

Monday, 4 January 2016

Winifred Gérin: Biographer of the Brontës

Review by Richard Wilcocks:
This recent biography of a biographer, and if Winifred Gérin’s work on Elizabeth Gaskell is included, biography of a biographer of a biographer, is meticulously researched, perceptive and really surprising. Based on her many letters and an unpublished memoir, it has some of the qualities of a spy thriller, because Winifred Gérin’s life was much more than that of a dedicated library-dweller. Until I read Helen MacEwan’s revelations about her, I knew her simply as the author of Charlotte Brontë The Evolution of Genius, about which the Times reviewer of the time (1967) wrote “…her book holds the reader as closely as a novel.”  The same could be said about this one. Winifred Gérin had strong connections with Brussels, which certainly triggered the author’s initial interest in her (she lives and works there today), managed to escape from the advancing German armies and the Vichy French during the Second World War, got involved with secret war work with her Belgian husband when she reached England, wrote poetry and plays, then moved to Haworth to find her real vocation and to fall in and out with the Brontë Society.

The first chapter with its account of her childhood in a cultured family (the Bournes) in London’s Norwood is as fascinating as all the others: a love of literature (Dickens in particular) and the theatre was encouraged, with stories and dramas from history, especially those involving monarchs. She became infatuated with the Stuarts and Marie Antoinette, heard Jane Eyre read to her by her mother Katherine at the age of seven, acted out historical or allegedly historical events, like King Charles II hiding in an oak tree, with her siblings, and lost a beloved brother to diphtheria. The parallels with the young Brontës are drawn out by the author. She attended concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, becoming spellbound by the stars of the day, like the violinist Fritz Kreisler and the pianist Vladimir von Pachmann, “who wore his white hair to his shoulders like Liszt and would keep up a running commentary for the audience as he played.”  There was so much intellectual stimulation that there was little need for governesses, mostly German Fräuleins who were regarded by young Winifred as “nuisances”.

She was deeply affected by a joyous stay in Paris, which much later was to give her an understanding of the continental, Catholic world of Brussels, “just as her subsequent romance with a Belgian gave her a special interest in the spell cast on Charlotte by her Brussels teacher Constantin Heger.” MacEwan builds plenty of foreshadowing into her construction. As in a novel, the reader gets a taste of what is to come, often at the end of a chapter.

Winifred and Eugène in 1932
Eugène Gérin was a well-known cellist, brilliant by all accounts, met by Winifred in Plombières-les-Bains, a pretty spa town in Eastern France, described in concert publicity as a “violoncelliste poète”. They matched each other well, and she became close to his family before they both had to move on to escape the invaders in 1939. After a series of stressful journeys, often on slow, packed trains, accompanied by a cello and a pet cat in a basket (!), they reached Nice, which was in the southern section of a divided France sapped of hope and controlled by collaborators. The account of their time in a rented flat there, when they were able to offer what help they could to a few of the large number of Jewish refugees in the area before managing to make it across the Pyrenees to Franco’s Spain and then neutral Portugal, is really quite gripping, reminding me of Marcel Ophüls’s famous documentary film Le Chagrin et la Pitié (The Sorrow and the Pity). In England, Eugène assumed a Walloon accent for propaganda broadcasts to the French-speaking parts of occupied Belgium. The detailed references in the book are many: I was moved to find out more about the death of the film actor Leslie Howard, who was in a plane on its way from Portugal to England shot down by a German fighter over the Bay of Biscay in 1943.

Eugène’s death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 49 in 1945 devastated Winifred, who tried to come to terms with the loss by writing. In Full Circle, an unpublished poem with a distinctly Wordworthian feeling, she recalls how she once had a foretaste of what it might be like to lose him. He was ahead of her on a winding mountain track, moving out of sight occasionally, turning back now and then to smile at her, a smile which now seemed to be an adieu:

As though in premonition of the end
I first had intimation of the time
That was to come, as though the tranquil air
Had cried out with my loss, and with you there
I’d seen the same path empty I must climb.

The poetry was followed by plays, including one – My Dear Master: The Love Story of Charlotte Brontë – which was a turning point in her life, leading her to Haworth. She put a significant focus on the struggle between Charlotte and Madame Zoë Heger, playing up the clash of cultures as well as that of rivals, but all the same her efforts were apparently hampered by a liking for over-long speeches and a lack of dramatic action. After moving to Haworth she met a kindred spirit in the much younger John Lock, whom she married, and with whom she collaborated (1956) on A Souvenir Guide to Haworth, home of the Brontës. She wrote a foreword in which she exercised her great talent for descriptive writing, evoking the beauty of the moors. As for so many others, a love of the their wild beauty was essential to fully understand the Brontës. She used to lie on her back in the heather on sunny days gazing up at the sky, just as Emily (and Cathy) did. MacEwan remarks: “Its style was far more rhapsodic and emotional than that of previous Haworth guide books.”

The Brontë Society at the time of the Locks was ‘a body noted for its unity and decorum’ according to Fred Taylor, the Keighley Borough Librarian, dominated by mill-owner and solicitor Donald Hopewell, its president for forty years, with Sir Linton Andrews, editor of the Yorkshire Post, as its Chairman. This unity was about to be lost in a ferocious dispute about the biggest changes to the Parsonage Museum since the construction of the wing added by Rev. Wade in the 1870s. There was a proposal to build an extension at the back to free up exhibition space in the original Parsonage rooms, to make them look less austere, more like Mrs Gaskell’s account of the interior in 1858 after Charlotte’s refurbishment. John and Winifred were in the ‘dead against’ faction, describing the changes as making the Parsonage look like a brightly-painted doll’s house. The acrimonious dispute, which sent the Society into convulsions for several years, led to the resignations of the Locks along with many others.

Winifred then began the most significantly productive period of her life, devoting long hours to research, with biographies of Ann, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell as well as Elizabeth Gaskell, The Young Fanny Burney, Horatia Nelson and Anne Thackeray Ritchie. John Lock in 1965 finally produced Man of Sorrow: Life, Letters and Times of the Reverend PatrickBronte, 1777-1861, which was long in the making. One problem for a biographer treating the Brontës separately is a need to repeat swathes of detail which applies to all of them, avoided by later operators like Juliet Barker, who treated them together in the same fat volume: the Gérin biography of Emily is slim, however.

One of Gérin’s ‘faults’ from a severely academic point of view was her occasional lack of neutrality, the way she sometimes ‘got too involved’, offering her personal point of view over-frequently, and letting her emotions slip in spite of an admirably scholarly attitude. One of the most memorable passages in her work on Branwell is about when he supposedly wandered the streets of London, suffering a crisis of self-confidence, after he was supposed to have signed on at the Royal Academy. This was a leap taken from his own writing on a character he created – Charles Wentworth – whose nerve failed on encountering a great metropolis. She made similar extrapolations from other Brontë writing, over-playing the autobiographical card perhaps. Juliet Barker found no real evidence that Branwell’s trip had ever taken place. Gérin worked on Branwell at the same time as Daphne du Maurier, who got out The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë just before her (in 1960), and which is now much better known. MacEwan compares the two: “Du Maurier is succinct where Winifred is prolix. Du Maurier focuses on Branwell’s inner rather than outer world; Winifred is concerned with the details of both.”

“Winifred always wrote about people with whom she felt an emotional connection and affinity,” states McEwan in her preface. The same applies to Helen MacEwan: Winifred Gérin is brought very close to the readers of this book.

Winifred Gérin Biographer of the Brontës by Helen MacEwan
Sussex Academic Press 2016-01-04
ISBN 978-1-84519-743-8

Brontë200 - this year

Major exhibitions, displays and events at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth will mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë in the coming year. Richard Moss's preview for Culture 24 contains selections of some of these - for example:

The Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth have invited the novelist Tracy Chevalier to be a “creative partner” for the bicentenary year, to explore creative ways of responding to the Brontë legacy. The acclaimed writer, whose works include Girl with a Pearl Earring, has developed an exhibition called I Shall Go Off Like a Bombshell which, through objects and quotations “explores the contrast between Charlotte’s constricted life and her huge ambition”. 

The whole article, with illustrations, can be viewed here. A new website will soon be online ( devoted to the bicentenary.

Are you a Charlotte (of any age) who was born on 21 April? Want to share in the celebrations? If so, email . You could also help to track down other eligible Charlottes by using #seekingcharlotte

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Jane Eyre Christmas Card

There's still a little time to pay an online visit to the Parsonage shop before Christmas - how about a Jane Eyre card for your favourite fellow aficionado? Or would you prefer something to do with Wuthering Heights? A 2016 calendar? Visit the shop here.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Ferndean Manor under threat

Wycoller Hall
'Ferndean Manor', home of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is under dire threat - as is the picturesque and inspirational Brontë Way, which starts at Ferndean Manor and leads to the Parsonage Museum, Haworth. 

Called Wycoller Hall in real life, Ferndean Manor is the centrepiece of the gorgeously romantic Wycoller hamlet clustered around a stream at the heart of Wycoller Country Park. Its moody scenery and residents inspired the Brontës.

Lancashire County Council, which cares for the ruined Hall, the Brontë Way and the surrounding countryside is planning to completely close down the management, maintenance and ranger service. Visitors will no longer be able to see the great aisled barn or use the countryside activity centre. The visitor toilets will close and the privately run cafe and shop are unlikely to survive. Wycoller hamlet is Lancashire's prettiest visitor destination with thousands of visitors served by dozens of volunteers - who want to do more to promote the place. It is managed by countryside ranger with a modest budget. Any cost savings from closing it down will be negligible and the volunteers scattered.

Click here to sign the petition

Christmas in Haworth

Happy Christmas to all readers of this blog! And thanks to ace photographer Mark Davis for this one, taken last week at the Haworth Torchlight Parade!

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

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

Heathcliff whr r u ?

'Heathcliff whr r u': literary classics by text message -

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 -