Monthly Archives: May 2016

Alliance of Literary Societies Annual Meeting

Haworth Parsonage

The Annual Meeting of the Alliance of Literary Societies took place last weekend at Haworth on the bleak Yorkshire Moors as guests of the Bronte Society who are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte.

The keynote speaker for the weekend was historian Juliet Barker, author of The Brontes: A Life in Letters, who sparked controversy with her talk Rewriting Writers’ Lives – Mrs Gaskell and The Life of Charlotte Bronte. She put forward the theory that Mrs Gaskell was invited to write the biography of Charlotte Bronte immediately after the writer’s death to protect her reputation against prevailing critical opinion that Bronte had written about unsuitable subject matter for a woman author (bigamous marriages, mad women in the attic and un-fulfilled love affairs) with unwomanly lack of reserve and, it was implied, was therefore morally deficient herself. Mrs Gaskell, she argued, had a further agenda in writing the biography, which was to further the cause of women writers generally and to enable them to escape the ghetto of subject matters pertaining to the home and hearth, and raising a family in line with good, true Christian values, to which Victorian critics would wish to consign them.

Juliet Barker 2

Barker asserted that in order to fulfill these objectives, Mrs Gaskell presented a partial picture of her subject, drawing on the more outlandish tales of Charlotte’s friends and acquaintances than on the memories of her surviving relatives – her father and her husband. This led to a portrayal of Charlotte’s father as a mean, tyrannical and eccentric figure who was a poor father to Charlotte and her siblings. The poverty of their upbringing was exaggerated and the unhappiness they suffered when sent away to school was over-stated. Mrs Gaskell also, it was suggested, over-egged the wildness of the bleak moors and the resulting social and cultural isolation of the girls growing up in Haworth.

Barker cited the response of her father to this unflattering portrayal of himself was to laugh and that he actively tried to dissuade friends and colleagues who sought to publicly correct what they perceived to be a mis-represetation of him by writing in his defence to the newspapers. She argued that Patric Bronte in so doing was supporting Mrs Gaskell’s portrayal of the family, not because it was accurate, but in order to further the objectives for which it was written, namely to protect and enhance his daughter’s posthumous reputation and standing as an author. Better to sacrifice his own public reputation, he felt, confident that his true friends would be unswayed in their relationship with him by Mrs Gaskell’s writing, than to allow his daughter’s reputation to be besmirched.

There were some fierce rebuttals of this thesis by members of The Gaskell Society and strong cross-questioning of the details Barker had put forward in support of her argument. They appeared to feel that this proposition that Mrs Gaskell was selective in her attention to facts from her sources and wrote with an agenda rather than in a purely objective way made her less than truthful.

While I would stop short of suggesting, as Barker somewhat jokingly did, that perhaps Mrs Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte should be placed on library shelves alongside her works of fiction, I accept the basic premise that all biographers must be selective from amongst the plethora of the information their researches reveal when deciding what they include about their subjects in their final publication. And, further, that the selection process will be coloured by any agenda they have in writing the book about their subject’s life. This does not, in my view, diminish the resulting work or make it any less truthful. Indeed, the work of historian’s such as Barker, to examine the underlying processes and potential biases of the biographer sheds greater light on both figures – the subject and the biographer.

By way of lighter entertainment, the afternoon’s speaker was Ian Dewhirst with his talk The Druggist and the Relieving Officer, and Other Writers in Haworth. Dewhirst is a local historian and writer with a droll turn of phrase. As the rain beat against the windows of the room he introduced the audience to the concept of the bleak moors. It was, he suggested, to gales (I chose the word carefully) of laughter, essential to preface every reference to the moors with the word bleak.

Ilkley Moor

From this starting point, he argued that far from being unlikely that three young women in such a bleak, isolated moorland village should turn to writing, there was little else to do and, furthermore, that everyone else was doing it too.  It would, he suggested, have been more surprising had they not become writers, when everyone from the local apothecary, to the clergyman in the next village were all at it. The area was, it transpired, a veritable hotbed of literary ventures, with at least two local printers in Keighley, able to publish books indistinguishable in outward appearances from those printed in the major metropolises of London, Manchester or Glasgow. It seems the lines between traditional publishing, self-publishing and vanity publishing were already pretty blurred by the mid-19th century.

By way of example, he recited some of the poetry written by these local contemporaries of the Brontes and demonstrated that the output was indeed a curate’s egg.  But amongst the risible there were indeed some gems which might have been polished into respectable literature.

His light-hearted and amusing talk provided the perfect foil to the more earnest debate of the morning while actually providing not a little support for the arguments put forward by Barker earlier in the day. If Gaskell over-emphasised the bleak isolation of Howarth, underplaying its position as a thriving milltown, well-connected with larger towns and cities in the area such as Keighley, Leeds, Bradford and Halifax, she did so for the purpose of emphasising the genius and originality of her subject, Charlotte Bronte.

 

 

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Trollope Collection

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I was very privileged to be invited to his home by Geordie Greig along with a group of fellow Trollopians.  The purpose of the evening was to view Geordie’s remarkable collection of Trollopiana (if that is the correct noun to apply to a collection of Trollope related artifacts – mostly, but not exclusively, books).

Geordie was, I think, at least as enthusiastic as we were. The opportunity to share the delight of rummaging, I can think of no better term, through his collection together with like-minded people was patently a joy to him. (One can imagine the groans and rolled eyeballs that might greet such an offer from those who are less enamoured of Trollope’s writing.)

Geordie spent the evening leaping up as another connection was made and he was constantly shifting his library steps to pull another volume from the floor to ceiling shelves to share with us.

The photo above is of the copy of the petition which was submitted following the investigation into corruption and malpractice at the by-election in the Beverley constituency where Trollope stood and failed to be elected as an M.P. Leafing through the volume, Geordie read entry after entry where voters admitted that they had received 2 shillings or 2s6d to vote for one candidate or another and that this was the customary sum which they expected to receive each election, perhaps supplemented by a glass or more of beer. It is no wonder the constituency was found to be hopelessly corrupt (even by the lax standards of the era) and the election declared void with the constituency then merged into another for the future.

Geordie also has a copy of the official record of the poll result:

 

Poll

Of course, Geordie has first editions and copies of the novels signed by the author. All are lovingly stored in individually constructed slip cases to protect them. I was particularly taken with the part works which he had collected, having myself previously studied research on the subject of Victorian publication of novels in magazines and part work editions. I was surprised at the plain covers used. They were very simple and often featured just the title, author’s name and publisher. The era of lavish external illustrations to market the books was yet to come. Below is the collected part-work publication of Can You Forgive Her?

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Sometimes, it was not simply the book itself which was of note but letters or notes slipped within the pages, or inscriptions on the title pages. A first edition of Trollope’s posthumously published Autobiography, inscribed by his son Henry for presentation as a gift to the publisher, becomes suddenly very personal and a poignant reminder of the family’s recent loss which had preceded the publication.

As Geordie explained, there are perhaps half a dozen collectors (or institutions which collect e.g. Ivy League University Libraries in the USA) who are willing to pay the highest prices for rare items relating to Trollope. He is in the tier below with pockets that are somewhat less deep, but nevertheless, he has amassed a beautiful collection which comprehensively covers the entire duration of Trollope’s publishing lifetime (from one of the hundred or fewer surviving copies of the first edition of The Macdermots of Ballycloran through private copies of How The Mastiffs went to Iceland to that posthumous first edition of The Autobiography). It was a genuine pleasure to spend the evening with Geordie, sharing his enthusiasm and each fresh treasure that he revealed for us.

 

 

 

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Charlotte Bronte at 200

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Following on from Trollope’s bicentenary last year we now have Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary. There is a small exhibition of portraits and artifacts associated with Charlotte which can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It gives a tantalising glimpse into the world of the Brontes. Charlotte began writing stories at a very young age and kept them in tiny handmade books crammed with almost indecipherable handwritten text and the exhibition has an example on display.

Also on display is the portrait of the three sisters painted by their brother Branwell.  It is in poor condition having been kept folded up on top of a wardrobe for decades. The decision was taken not to restore the painting but to leave it in its damaged state. Charlotte is on the right of the painting. The shadowy figure painted out and replaced by the pillar between Charlotte and her sisters is a self-portrait by Branwell who decided the balance of the picture would be better without him.

For those who want to hear more about Charlotte, there is an excellent documentary on the BBC World Service:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03sqwl4

 

 

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