Category Archives: Literature

Visit to Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage

Since my interest in the Bronte’s has begun, I’ve desperately wanted to go back to Haworth. I went for the day years ago, before I had read any of their novels, and didn’t go to the Bronte Parsonage. This time around I was going to Sheffield to visit my sister with my parents, but the day before we left, travelled up to Haworth just for the day. It was not enough time  to be able to explore Haworth and the beautiful moors surrounding it, but it was such a worthwhile trip and has definitely left me determined to visit again.

Of course the main attraction for me was to see the Bronte Parsonage. After arriving we were told there was a talk we could attend, and so while waiting we went to the gift shop and I bought all the Anne Bronte things I could find.  (Counts as dissertation research right?) One small complaint I would have I that there isn’t nearly enough Anne in the shop, even with the postcards they had one of Emily, Charlotte and Branwell, but not an individual one for Anne. Other prints of quotes from their novels left Anne out again, though I did manage to find a card with a quote from Agnes Grey on. I’m biased I guess, and the shop had a great selection of books, my dad buying The Bronte’s: A Life in Letters by Juliet Barker which I’m looking forward to reading.

 

The talk we were given exceeded my expectations, sometimes at historical places the talks are too vague, or they leave large chucks of information out or stick to historical myths and misinterpret historical figures entirely. The one at the parsonage though given by someone who worked there, was great, detailed without being dull, and kept it equally balanced on all members of the family. It kept it focused on their lives, their works, and what we have left of their lives today, such as the famous Branwell painting of all three of the sisters. Admittedly I disagreed with one point in the talk, that Anne didn’t have that same spark of genius as Emily and Charlotte, but naturally I’m incredibly biased in that opinion.

 

It’s clearly a busy year for the Parsonage, with it being Branwell’s bicentenary year, and the airing of the brilliant To Walk Invisible in December, the costumes and props being displayed around the museum. The museum really felt like their home. It should regardless, but I’ve been to their places that have been great, but have left me feeling disconnected from the actual people that lived there. You could imagine and see the Bronte family in all of the rooms, you felt like you were in their home, and was nice to feel comfortable and relaxed while walking around, while still receiving information about the family.

 

Branwell, the Bronte brother that everyone had high expectation of who sadly became an alcoholic in his struggle for greatness, is being celebrated this year. Simon Armitage has turned Branwell’s room into how it might have looked in his last years, chaotic and disordered. There are drawings all over the wall, half written poems everywhere and it’s incredibly effective in picturing Branwell’s state of mind, and feeling sadness for someone that had great potential.

My favourite part however was the Wuthering Heights manuscript they are currently creating for Emily’s bicentenary next year. Since the original Wuthering Heights manuscript was lost. Claire Twomey is recreating this manuscript of Emily’s incredible novel, visitors writing a sentence out from the book into the manuscript, being gifted a pencil each to encourage and inspire visitors to write. When I visited they were on Chapter 11, and it’s worth paying a visit to be a part of it and get to have it exhibited next year.

 

Aside from the rooms of the house itself, there is a room with artefacts and information displayed, such as letters and drawings, and information about the entire Bronte family. Seeing Anne’s bloodstained handkerchief was shocking, I didn’t realise that they kept it, let alone that it was displayed in the museum.  But it was incredibly interesting and well displayed, I especially loved that there were quotes from various Bronte novels on the walls.

The rest of the day passed very quickly, had a great lunch at a café called Villette (titled after Charlotte’s last novel), had the best piece of chocolate cake (sadly ate it before I could get a photo). Managed to have a quick look in some of the shops in Haworth, and visited the Church.

 

The Church was very quiet and beautiful, and they had plaques commentating the deaths of the Bronte family. Anne however, is buried in Scarborough where she died, somewhere I desperately want to visit. After visiting the Church we had to leave sadly, and didn’t have time to visit the moors or do any of the walks around Haworth, so another trip is definitely needed.

 

Thankful to the Bronte Parsonage for keeping the family’s memory alive so well, and it was everything I had hoped for and more.

Thanks,

Sarah.

Monthly Reading Roundup: May

Monthly Reading Roundup: May

Didn’t get to read quite as much this month, but with my exams and other assignments it’s been a stressful time. Thankfully I’ve finished my second year of university, so this summer I’m looking forward to actually having the time to read for fun, as well as starting reading for my dissertation on Anne Bronte.

Brontesaurus: An A to Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte by John Sutherland
During revision I’ve been reading shorter books, and after finishing off April with the brilliant Anne Bronte book by Samantha Ellis, I continued the Bronte trend with Brontesaurus: An A to Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte by John Sutherland. Sutherland uses the alphabet to examine various myths and stories about the Bronte family, from Branwell’s opium use, and the origin of the word ‘Wuthering’. It’s probably best to read this book if you already have an interest in any or all of the Bronte’s, and not only adds humour to the questions surrounding their lives, but discusses them in an engaging way. Admittedly I think I rushed through the book too quickly, and for me personally I think I would have appreciated the book even more had I read through it in small chunks, as going through it all so quickly made parts of it harder to get through.
Rating: 3.5/5

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Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

While revising I managed to read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a short but incredibly powerful novel that has been on my to-read list for ages. The novel serves a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, following Mr Rochester’s doomed first wife Bertha Mason. To readers of Jane Eyre, we know her as the wife Rochester was deceived into marrying, who he secretly harboured and locked away in Thornfield Hall, due to her madness and violent behaviour. Jean Rhys takes the character of Bertha, whose real name in the novel is Antoinette Conway and looks at her life leading up to her marriage and what comes to her becoming the ‘mad wife’ that Charlotte portrays her as.
Antoinette is living with her family in Jamaica when the novel begins, and without trying to give too much of the plot away, her mother’s madness and events lead to the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester, (who is never actually named in the novel). Though reluctant to marry him, the marriage starts off well before Rochester is poisoned with tales of her mother’s madness and other stories about Antoinette’s family that shift his behaviour to her. It’s horrible to see Rochester act so cruelly to his wife, going so far as to strip her identity away from her, refusing to use her real name, calling Antoinette Bertha instead. Rhys’s structure of setting the novel in three parts allows the novel to focus on the stages in Antoinette’s life, the second section being narrated by Rochester as well as he deals with his marriage, allowing the reader to have a closer understanding of his actions, and pity Antoinette even more.
Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre this is a worthwhile book to read, and not only shines a light on the dismissed character of Jane Eyre but gives her a powerful voice, Antoinette’s struggle to find her identity in society while dealing with an emotionally abusive husband in Rochester being heart-breaking to read, as well as casting a darker shadow over the character of Rochester and Jane Eyre. The novel illuminates the power men had in marriage, and how easy it was for women to be abused and dismissed, and have their own narratives twisted entirely.

Rating:4/5

 

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

The best book of the month without a doubt was The Power by Naomi Alderman. On the shortlist for the years Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, it was the best book to read after I finished my exams, and reminded me of how much I love getting absorbed in fiction, especially with books that are so hard to put down. The novel looks at a society where women gain electric powers, the ability to produce electric jolts through their hands. It begins in teenage girls, who pass it on to other women as it continues. Female babies are now born with the power, and older women can be passed on the power from those who have it. Men are now the ones who are afraid of women, who can’t go out late at night by themselves. Attempts to dismiss this power are soon proven wrong, as women all over the world access this ability and began to change society forever.

The novel follows four characters, Roxy the daughter of a crime boss in London who manages to have the most powerful abilities, Allie a foster child who uses her power to become a religious figure of a faith distanced from men, Margot, an older woman in America whose power enables her to successfully further her political career, and then Tunde, a young man who is amazed by this power and becomes key journalist in recording and charting the events as they unfold around the world.

It’s hard to read this novel and not feel powerful yourself, especially in the first half. Alderman so believably portrays this situation in today’s modern society, and the different characters allow her to go down various avenues in examining how the women use their power, and how the rest of the world reacts to it. While initially the power is liberating, it soon takes a darker turn for all of the characters, power being abused in horrifying ways that shifted my initial perceptions of the novel.
This is a truly worthwhile read, and I would strongly recommend it especially if you like work by Margaret Atwood.
Rating: 5/5

 

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Hoping to have my post on my recent visit to the Bronte Parsonage up next week!
Thanks,
Sarah

Monthly Reading Roundup: April

 

A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray Rating: 4/5

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Reading Non-Fiction, especially History books for me, always seems more daunting than it actually is.  After neglecting my growing pile of history books, I decided to start with A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to get me back into non-fiction, with Jenni Murray perfectly merging the general overview of these women’s lives with her personal experiences.  This helped make the book engaging and enjoyable, rather than it reading like a Wikipedia page or just dull retelling of facts like some history books. Every woman’s place in the book is justified, no matter how controversial, as well as how they helped to shape history. The book shines when Jenni Murray reveals her personal experiences with each of the women, high points I loved include her sighting of Boadicea’s statue, her relationship with Barbara Castle and her interview with Margaret Thatcher.

Jenni Murray focuses on women from every part of history, their impact on politics, literature, science, maths, and Art. I really liked how it was a mixture of well-known women such as Elizabeth I and Jane Austen, and then others I had never heard of such as Caroline Hershel, and Ada Lovelace. It makes me angry that a lot of the names in the book I had never heard of, and how their ground-breaking work into our society hasn’t been recognised, let alone taught nearly enough.

For women whose names you know and connect with immediately, for those whose names recognize but don’t know anything about, or for the women you haven’t heard of at all, this book covers all of them. If anything, this book demonstrated how and if anything, how there are still a large number of bold, brave, and brilliant women whose impact on our society still hasn’t been told.

Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood Rating: 4.5/5

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Yes, there’s a recurring theme with my book selection this month with regards to forgotten women in history, but hey, I have no regrets. Jenni Murray’s wonderful book gave me the courage to tackle the longest book that I got for Christmas, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe.

This was not an easy read and took me longer than I would have liked, but it definitely paid off. This was a thorough and intense history book, but for me, it was the best mix of familiar women and history and those who I had never researched about before.  I love Tudor History, especially Henry VIII’s wives, and so I like how the stories of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were woven into the book with less written about Tudor women like Margaret and Mary Tudor, who I really enjoyed learning about.

All the women more or less seemed to be connected in some way, and Gristwood did a great job setting the stage beginning with the figure of Anne de Beaujeu, who helped bring up both Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy, who are linked to Isabella of Castile, Anne Boleyn and Marguerite of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albert, and who is quoted at the beginning of every chapter.

It is still so incredible to see all the women who exerted power and wielded such considerable influence during this period, yet are never taught about or given the praise they deserve. For me the biggest revelation was Margaret of Austria, a woman who I had heard of, but knew absolutely nothing about. Her role as regent of the Netherlands, who was at the centre of European politics, having dealings with all the political powers, governing her lands successfully, being crucial in gaining support for her nephew Charles V to be elected Holy Roman Emperor, and successfully negotiating a peace treaty on behalf of her nephew with France, in the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, also known as the ‘Ladies peace’ as the French King’s mother, Louise of Savoy represented Francis in the treaty.

Gristwood keeps the book engaging, going through the century by switching back and forth between the various countries and their key periods. Even when the formidable figures such as Margaret of Austria pass, Gristwood proves how there were new emerging key players later on in the century, such as the rise of French Queen Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots, leading to of course Elizabeth I. This was a truly worthwhile read, and a must read for anyone who enjoys history and the 16th century.

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis Rating: 5 Stars

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I didn’t plan on reading yet another non-fiction book, but while on holiday in Dorset I spotted this book in a great independent bookshop, and so I had to buy it and read it straight away. I’d been looking for this book in bookshops near me for a while, as I’m trying to avoid getting my books online so I was surprised, yet incredibly happy to see it in a small independent bookshop.

As you may have seen in my last post, I’m incredibly interested in Anne Bronte, and I’m planning on focusing my dissertation on her and believe she is woefully underrated, writing two ground-breaking novels in her lifetime. I mentioned in my last post that Anne’s legacy had been improving with two new books being published about her this past year. Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis, was one of them.

Yes I’m incredibly bias when it comes to enjoying this book, but honestly it is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, or at least tied with Ali Smith’s To Autumn. Like Jenni Murray it is not an academic book, but a mixture of the author’s life and experiences alongside the subject matter. Having only one subject to focus on made it easier to be attached to Samantha and Anne’s journey, and I can’t overstate how much I loved this book.

Samantha Ellis’s discovery of Anne Bronte’s strength is written about after she was shown Anne Bronte’s last letter at the Bronte Parsonage, and revealed what goes against Charlotte’s martyr-like portrayal of her sister, and that rather than Anne quietly and gracefully accepting her death, she didn’t want to die. Anne wanted to live, to write more and accomplish more than what she did. This courage and spirit sets off Ellis’ journey to uncover Anne’s story and what she was really like.

This book has a fantastic structure, every chapter focuses on an important figure in Anne’s life, whether real or fictional, and the role they played in Anne’s journey, such as her family, Ellis looking at not only Charlotte, Emily and Branwell, but their father Patrick, and mother Maria, as well as the two other Bronte sisters who died in childhood, Maria and Elizabeth. Haworth really comes to life in the book, and I’m visiting the Bronte Parsonage next month so Ellis’s descriptions of it has made me even more excited.

It was frustrating to read all the critical reception of Anne’s work, and how she has been so easily dismissed as the ‘other sister’, and Ellis too doesn’t hold back on her opinions on how Anne has been presented both then and now in contemporary society, looking at the portrayals of Anne not only by critics, but in media and other literature, as well as the television adaptations of her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hal.

Ellis writes a truly brilliant book, it’s emotional, funny and heart-breaking and I felt so sad at how little we know of Anne and how so many of her letters and other works have gone, but happy to know of her determination and courage, and the wonderful works of fiction she left behind. My dissertation seems more and more daunting by the day, but reading this book reminded me why I chose Anne and how determined I am to examine the brilliance of her work, so I’m truly grateful I read it.

If you are a fan of the Bronte sisters, love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and have never read Anne’s work, then I definitely recommend this book. Even if you haven’t read the Bronte’s, this book is worthwhile in highlighting an inspiring author that is excellently told by Ellis.

I’m hoping that after my exams finish next month I can post more, I’m planning a post on my trip to Haworth, as well as a post examining whether historical accuracy matters in Television and Film adaptations.

Thanks,

Sarah

The Bold and Brilliant Anne Bronte

“I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man”- Anne Bronte, Second preface to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

 

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It was only until I studied ‘Wuthering Heights’ at A-Level that I realised there even was a third Bronte sister. Even so, she received a passing mention, and it wasn’t until the summer before I started university that I investigated her novels. I watched the Tenant of Wildfell Hall and was incredibly surprised that this incredible story had never gained my attention beforehand. The 1996 adaption wasn’t perfect, but the brave and feminist character of Helen Huntington shone and compelled me to buy the book and bring it with me on holiday. The book far surpassed my expectations and left me with one nagging question. Why and how has Anne Bronte been forgotten?

Charlotte and Emily wrote ground-breaking, wonderful novels and are justly remembered for them. Anne on the other hand is the ‘other Bronte’ and those who may have heard of her aren’t familiar with her novels or poetry. Her novels are viewed as not reaching the same literary heights that Charlotte and Emily’s did, but to me, and to those who have read her work it’s clear Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are equal to anything Charlotte and Emily wrote, and surpass them in ways too.

Anne’s devotion to the truth is evident in all of her works, her unflinching honesty in Agnes Grey written before Jane Eyre details the harsh reality of being a governess, Anne writing about the hardships she herself experienced while being a governess. Anne shed light on a life that numerous women experienced in Victorian England, and while it doesn’t reach the gothic greatness of Jane Eyre, the novel is unwavering in its account of the tough life of a young governess. Agnes ends up with the sweet Mr Weston, and finds companionship and love, in a healthy and caring marriage. Unlike Charlotte and Emily, Anne herself persevered and managed to make her career as a governess a success after her turbulent experiences, becoming close friends with her employers the Robinson’s, and gaining her brother Branwell a position as a tutor, until his subsequent affair with Lydia Robinson caused Anne to resign and move home.

It is Anne’s brutal depiction of marriage however, that dominates her second and best novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While examining Victorian marriage, Anne also addresses the true nature of the mysterious and damaged men that her sisters, and readers have idolized. The Byronic, brooding figures of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester have been heavily romanticized, especially in TV and Film, despite characters like Heathcliff behaving awfully, and while being a captivating and complex character to study, I question whether his actions warrant the rose-tinted view the media seems to enjoy.

 

 

Many Victorian novels end in marriages to these kind of figures, Jane with Mr Rochester, young Cathy with Hareton.  The marriage of Helen and Arthur Huntington however, happens early in Helen’s life, Anne raising the question of: What is marriage actually like to one of these men? Arthur at first appears attractive and charming compared to the other dull marriage prospects that Helen faces, and she believes that her love can change him and make him a better husband and father. However Arthur soon descends into alcoholism, resulting in him being emotionally abusive, having an affair and negatively influencing their son. This stark and violent illustration of alcoholism and its consequences on a marriage had not been written in such an intense nature before, let alone by a female author. As she did with Agnes Grey, Anne channelled her own life experiences into Tenant, the Bronte family dealing with their brother Branwell falling to alcoholism, eventually resulting in his death in 1848. While her novel was criticised, Anne defended her work, claiming

 “When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest?”

Helen leaves her husband and takes her son, and moves to a new town under her maiden name where she meets Gilbert Markham, who takes an interest in the mysterious new woman. It’s evident why the novel is considered one of the first sustained feminist texts, Helen breaks the law by running away from her marriage and slamming the door in the face of her husband despite the persecution she faces, because she knows it’s the right thing to do for herself, and to protect the future of her child. The novel ends with her second marriage to Gilbert, after she’s secured her independence and financial security. While Gilbert isn’t the best dashing romantic hero, he loves and respects her. This time, she proposes to him, having an assurance that she will have a happy marriage on her terms of devotion and respect.

 

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However since then, Anne’s work has fallen off the public’s radar and seen as a lesser version of her sisters. It didn’t help that Agnes Grey was published in the same volume as Wuthering Heights, or that despite being written first, was published after Jane Eyre. However after Anne’s death in 1849, Charlotte chose not to republish The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, stating that

“Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake – it was too little consonant with the character – tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring, inexperienced writer”

As the novels dark themes were too radical it sees that this didn’t fit with Charlotte’s view of who her sister was, thus leading to its suppression. Charlotte didn’t appear to take Anne’s work seriously, and while partly it may have been to do with the negative critical response and Charlotte wanting to protect the memory of her sister, to suppress a work that was ground-breaking and important, disappoints me greatly.

The lack of television or film adaptions for her novels has contributed to the lack of recognition of Anne’s work, not receiving the Hollywood treatment like Wuthering Heights or the number of adaptions like Jane Eyre. Sadly without a captivating romantic lead, it seems no one believes an adaption could be a success, maybe Anne’s refusal to sugar coat reality doesn’t leave a stereotypical period drama that producers believe will draw in viewers. The 1996 version of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is worth watching, but it’s definitely dated in parts and an update for the novel is desperately needed and its feminist themes and Helen’s struggle to escape a toxic marriage are just as relevant in society today.

 

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However this last year, it seems everyone is catching onto the brilliance of Anne Bronte, with at least two new books published on her, a BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Agnes Grey, and the BBC’s brilliant television drama, To Walk Invisible which looks at the three years in which all sisters wrote and published their novels while dealing with the decline of their brother. Anne’s portrayal was fantastic, highlighting her strength and honesty, her close relationship with Emily and her integral role in the family.

In September I’ll be starting my third year of my English Literature degree, and I’ve planned to focus my dissertation on Anne and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, something I’m nervous but excited to start researching. I hope this spotlight of Anne continues, because she deserves far more than to be seen as the ‘other Bronte’, I hope that people continue to write about her, adapt her novels and talk about her courage and bravery, and that she claims her place in the literary canon with her sisters, as she rightfully earned with her feminist, radical views that proved she was far ahead of her time.

I’ve wanted to write about literature for a while, and I’ve decided to take a break from television reviews for now, so expect more book related posts coming up soon!

Thanks,

Sarah