As I research ways to reach out with news of my upcoming novel Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, it has become evident there are an impressive number of Brontë aficionados worldwide.
Of course, the Brontë Society and Parsonage Museum have long been the pride of West Yorkshire and its natives. But, as it was for me since the threshold of puberty when I first became aware of Haworth‘s famous literary siblings, their home for most of their lives has long been a dream destination for countless visitors from hundreds and thousands of miles, oceans, continents and centuries away.
Once the identity of the author of Jane Eyre was no longer masked by a pseudonym, fans of the book started turning up in Haworth. A few years after Charlotte’s death, spurred on by the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of her, even more came, many from America where Jane Eyre was very popular. The local shops looked to benefit, for example, by selling photographs of the family that probably weren’t. Patriarch Patrick Brontë even began cutting up Charlotte’s letters in order to fulfill requests for samples of her handwriting.
The narrative of the Brontë sisters’ lives and the place they passed from childhood to adulthood in became as important to their legacy as the stories they penned. Not everyone agreed it should be so and others were skeptical but open to being convinced. Henry James (1843—1916) thought it unfortunate that the “beguiled fascination” with the Brontës’ “tragic history, their loneliness and poverty of life” got more attention than critical reaction to their writings. In 1904 Virginia Woolf (1882—1941) wrote an extensive account of and reflection on her “expedition to Haworth” to discover if, as Mrs. Gaskell implied, “Haworth and the Brontës (were) somehow inextricably mixed. The curiosity (is) only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.”
I don’t believe searching for Charlotte, Emily and Anne through the rooms they lived in, church they worshipped in, pathways they walked, objects they used, books they read, clothes they wore, music they collected, pets they had, or weather they enjoyed and endured conflicts with discovering them as writers or detracts from what they wrote. If anything, their outer and inner worlds: the “poverty” (as Mr. James called it), constraints and remoteness of their lives, the struggles of their passions and intellect, the tragedies that took young loved ones from them (not unusual in families of the time), the persistence and fearlessness of their imaginations and efforts all constructed the foundation and framework that rose into the building of their poetry and prose to stand the test of time and with the best.
“The museum is certainly rather a pallid and inanimate collection of objects. An effort ought to be made to keep things out of these mausoleums, but the choice often lies between them and destruction, so that we must be grateful for the care which has preserved much that is, under any circumstances, of deep interest. Here are many autograph letters, pencil drawings, and other documents. But the most touching case – so touching that one hardly feels reverent in one’s gaze – is that which contains the little personal relics of the dead woman. The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them, and because these, trifling and transient though they are, have survived, Charlotte Brontë the woman comes to life, and one forgets the chiefly memorable fact that she was a great writer. Her shoes and her thin muslin dress have outlived her. One other object gives a thrill; the little oak stool which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think what was probably better than her writing.”
~ Virginia Woolf, Haworth, November 1904
The original Brontë Society was founded in 1893. Two years later a small museum opened above the Yorkshire Penny Bank on Main Street in Haworth. Brontë treasures began to be donated and also obtained by the Society at auction, monetary bequests allowing the Society to purchase them. The museum soon saw around 10,000 visitors. It wasn’t until 1928 that the deed for the Parsonage was put into the Society’s hands by Haworth native wool merchant and Society member Sir James Roberts, who had purchased it for £3,000 from the Church. A lot of Brontë memorabilia had found its way to the US and in 1926 a large collection that included Bronte manuscripts, letters, first editions and personal effects was willed to the Society by Henry Houston, a Philadelphia publisher.
Brontë possessions are still being found and coming to the museum from far and wide. In 2011 Charlotte’s mahogany desk was donated anonymously (it was known to have been owned by William Law, who collected rare Bronte material subsequently inherited by his nephew, its whereabouts a mystery after Sir Alfred Law’s death in 1939 until the desk and a few other precious items turned up). In 2015 the Society obtained the mahogany drop-leaf table, complete with ink blots, a large candle burn and a letter E carved into it, the sisters wrote on.
No, there’s nothing new about the international interest in the Brontës. Less than a year after Charlotte’s death a German version of Jane Eyre—Die Waise vin Lowood (The Orphan of Lowood) was staged in New York. According to a biographer of Chekhov, the Russian writer was likely influenced by Olga Peterson’s biography of the Brontës when he wrote his play The Three Sisters. This link takes you to a Wikipedia page that lists adaptations of Jane Eyre, including, in the 1950s, a Hindi, Hong Kong, and, in the 1960s and 70s a couple of Mexican and Indian movie versions.
In the 1970s, the French produced a film, the aesthetic and atmospheric Les Soeurs Brontë, which takes a lot of liberties but I couldn’t help but be hypnotized by.
The French also did an adaptation of Wuthering Heights: Hurlevent (Howling Wind) in 1985, and so did director Yoshishige Yoshida in 1988: Arashi ga Oka, neither of which I have seen (the former saved to my yet-to-be-released Netflix list). In 2009 a Japanese musical adaptation of Jane Eyre was released and I have to admit I was really drawn in by the video clips on YouTube:
Exhibit notes and footpaths signs in Japanese reflect the thousands from Japan who visit Haworth and the Parsonage and make the walks to the Brontë waterfall and Top Withens yearly, the largest group from a specific foreign (to the UK) country. There is a great article from The Japan Times titled Why are Japanese Women still Bewitched by the Brontës. Here’s the article’s opening:
Some years ago a sassy Osaka lady asked me to introduce her to the pleasures of Western literature. I duly handed her a variety of classic books, including “The Turn of the Screw,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Lolita” and “A Study in Scarlet.” They were all methodically if unenthusiastically read, but when I presented her with a copy of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” she devoured the book, raved about it, rereading it again and again.
Japan seem to be besotted with the three Bronte sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It’s a fascination that goes beyond reading and imagining. A disproportionately high number of Japanese women visit the Bronte’s home village of Haworth in the north of England each year, a pilgrimage …
The article explores possible reasons why Japanese women love the Brontës’ novels. I particularly liked, and, dare to admit, related to one:
The extravagance of the heroine Catherine’s passionate behavior and her ardor for the enigmatic Heathcliff is one aspect of the novel’s appeal to Japanese female readers, according to Pascoe.
“An older Japanese woman told me that the novel filled her with longing,” she says, “both for the foreign English locale and for the possibility of being a different, less subdued kind of person.”
Read full article …
The Bronte Society of Japan has its own Facebook page, website and blog. On the latter the administrators recently and very kindly added a post, in Japanese and English, about my upcoming novel Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, which you can view by clicking here.
There is also a very active Australian Brontë Association that gave my new novel promotion on its Facebook Page. The ABA is independent of the (UK) Brontë Society but it grew out of a group of Australian members of the Brontë Society and … still maintain(s) strong links with the parent body.
And, of course, there is a US chapter. Because of the number of American Chapter members and their wide dispersion regions were created. Each region includes several states under a Brontë Society regional representative who acts as a liaison between their members and the American Chapter Representative.
On of my favorite foreign Brontë groups, which I discovered some time ago, is The Sisters’ Room, A Bronte Inspired Blog, Italian with a mirror English version that is administrated by two lovely young women, Selene Chilla and Serena Di Battista, who travel with others from Italy to Haworth on a regular basis. They met at university, where (they) developed a true and deep passion for the English language, literature and culture. Moreover, (they) have always been interested in the Brontë sisters’ lives, works and places, and over time this passion grew and grew … They also have a Facebook Page where they have kindly shared news of my upcoming Anne novel.
The Sisters’ Room works in conjunction with the Italian chapter of the The Brontë Society, La Sezione Italiana della Bronte Society, which was born in 1997 when its two founders, Maddalena De Leo and Franca Musi, met at a conference called The Legacy of the Brontës organized by the British Council in Bologna. Maddalena De Leo is the representative of La Sezione Italiana della Bronte Society and on the Brontë Studies editorial board, who has worked very hard for many years to have the Brontë sisters known in Italy and worldwide. As well as writing various articles for the Brontë Studies literary journal, she has translated unpublished Brontë works. Here is a fascinating interview with Prof. De Leo The Sisters’ Room posted with her in 2015: Today’s Guest: Prof. De Leo, Representative of the Brontë Society in Italy. The Sisters’ Room has a page dedicated to the Brontë Society in Italy where you can read a number of fascinating articles by Prof. De Leo.
I’m sure there are more international groups/organizations/fans to discover. Knowing there is so much interest in the subject of Without the Veil Between is a new experience on the publishing journey for me, my first two novels focusing on more obscure figures in music and history. Hopefully, the global interest in the Brontës will translate into a larger readership than I have experienced before.
Readers are often fans of Authors, but I, myself, am a fan of readers. They are the ones who breathe life into the pages that we give birth to, after all.
~ Janae Mitchell
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