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Claire O’Callaghan, ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Bicentenary: Revelling in Brontëmania’

2017 November 16
by lucinda matthews-jones

Claire O’Callaghan is a Lecturer in English at Brunel University, London. She has research interests in Victorian and neo-Victorian literature and culture, the Brontës, gender and sexual theory and history. She is the author of Sarah Waters: Gender and Sexual Politics (Bloomsbury, 2017), and is currently writing a book on Emily Brontë for Saraband Press to be released in 2018. You can follow Claire on Twitter @drclaireocall and/or email her at Claire.Ocallaghan@brunel.ac.uk

How should we celebrate the important anniversary of an iconic writer, ponders Tracey Chevalier in an article in The Guardian newspaper in 2016?[1] ‘Apart from the usual TV drama-docs, the radio programmes, the plays, the biographies and novels, the exhibitions’, she notes, we celebrate ‘with quilts’ and ‘with knitting’.[2] And once you’ve got your knitting in order, ‘throw in some tiny books, a tea party and a quiet wreath-laying at Westminster Abbey’ and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a national literary celebration.[3] In 2017, it seems apt to reflect on the assorted activities that culminated to celebrate the anniversary of one of the UK’s most praised authors, Charlotte Brontë.

2016 was the bicentenary of Charlotte’s birth and marked the inauguration of Brontë200, a five-year programme led by the Brontë Society to commemorate the two hundredth anniversaries of the famous Yorkshire siblings (2017 is Branwell’s year, 2018 is Emily’s, and 2020 will be Anne’s). Charlotte would, I think, be both honoured and humbled by the occasion. After all, though she was shy, she was fiercely ambitious, famously writing to the Poet Laurette, Robert Southey, for feedback on her poetry, and persevering despite Southey’s fierce rebuff. In this post I wish to reflect briefly on a handful of events from the Charlotte’s bicentenary and offer some observations on their significance to Victorian cultural heritage and neo-Victorianism’s place within it.

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Chevalier is well-placed to reflect on what constitutes an appropriate literary celebration. As the creative curator behind Charlotte’s anniversary, she worked with the Brontë Society to find new and exciting ways to mark the occasion, ‘trying hard’, as she put it, ‘to ignore the anniversaries that surround and threaten to engulf’ Charlotte’s birth.4 The digital has played a central part in these activities, with Twitter providing a powerful means for enthusiasts across the globe to participate. On 12th July, for instance, Chevalier led a #BrontëTwitterTour of the Parsonage, a virtual peek into Charlotte Great and Small, an exhibition she curated. Items covered in the tour included images of Charlotte’s tiny gloves, her fur lined (rabbit) shoes (which show the imprint of Charlotte’s heel), and the most popular tweet of the evening, a photo of Charlotte’s tiny bodice.

Likewise, #JaneandMe asked people to take a selfie with a copy of Jane Eyre and post it on Twitter using the designated hashtag. As Chevalier notes, it was a ‘little idea’ but one that ‘took off and even trended on Twitter for a few hours’.[5] Using the digital in this way meant that in her role, Chevalier could sit back as the tour unfolded and engage with participants instead. Such offer a different experience to traditional heritage practice. Here, artefacts are not only collected and displayed statically, but rendered digitally in order to elicit responses from observers who are interacting live with other viewers as well as the curator.6 Moreover, as Chevalier notes, there is something ‘wonderful’ about ‘people getting out their dog-eared copies ofJane Eyre to photograph themselves with’ it.[7] This isn’t just fan studies in practice, but a shift towards cultural heritage as narratives, ‘practices [and] representations’ of the subject with which the audience can participate.[8]

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Charlotte’s bicentenary was also celebrated through other non-traditional interpretations. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, for instance, ran a neo-Victorian production of Villette re-imagined (ah, that much-used word in neo-Victorian studies) by Linda Marshall-Griffiths. This was not Villette ‘as we know it’ (as one review put it), for the adaptation (if indeed it can be called that) was set in the future on an archaeological dig in which the characters searched for the Lady of Villette.[9] Apparently, this Villette wasn’t necessarily ‘one for the Brontë devotees’, a comment which implies limitations to the heritage practice associated with certain Victorian figures such as the Brontës and neo-Victorian participation in it.

A different though nonetheless unorthodox celebration also took place in December 2015 just prior to the anniversary year, when the residents of Haworth were cordially invited to the wedding of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nichols.[10] What, I hear you say? A wedding? Yes. On Friday 11th December 2015, residents and Brontë enthusiasts congregated in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels church to experience the re-enactment of Charlotte’s wedding, a ceremony created by the BBC for a documentary in the bicentenary year. Compared to the fun of #JaneandMe, such an event may appear contrite to many, and one may ask if this Brontëmania gone too far. But who gets to determine the answer to this? Whatever your view, such an occasion demonstrates how the cultural appetite for the Brontës remains undiminished – unsatisfied, even, but it also invites question about the limits to such endeavor? What are the parameters of Victorian cultural heritage? Where does the Victorian meet the neo-Victorian in this quest? And who determines the cultural value of these ‘artefacts’?

For me, these questions came to the fore in my visit to the two London exhibitions that ran as part of the bicentenary activities. Celebrating Charlotte Brontë 1816-1855 was held at the National Portrait Gallery from late February to mid-August and offered a chance to view original works of Brontë heritage, such as ‘The Pillar Portrait’ painted by Branwell. Meanwhile, Charlotte Brontë at the Soane curated by the neo-Victorian artist, Charlotte Cory, offered an alternative exhibition that focalized around one of the Charlotte’s dresses; the dress, it was believed that Charlotte was said to have worn to dinner with Thackeray. Like ‘The Pillar Portrait’, Charlotte’s dress was the centerpiece to this exhibition. Eleanor Houghton’s revelation that the dress is not, in fact, the “Thackeray dress” (just a dress of Charlotte’s) may have concerned for the curators.11 But does this new and fascinating discovery diminish one’s encounter with the garment? For me, the answer is no. The very fact that we can view such a personal item of property and marvel at the fact that Charlotte once wore it should please even the hardest Brontë fan.

Indeed, the cultural value of the dress was further underlined by other aspects of the Soane exhibition that drew on contemporary heritage practice, for alongside Charlotte’s dress at the Soane were assorted modern objects, including a toy giraffe. The giraffe stood in for ‘the young George Smith’ who ‘stuck his neck out and published a novel by an unknown writer that took the literary world by storm in 1847’.12 Not only is this object several times removed from the reality of Charlotte Brontë life and merely signifies a real (and very) important figure in her life, but it is a random stuffed toy. From a scholarly perspective, one may ask what place this item has in her bicentenary? Perhaps it offered a light-touch interpretation of Charlotte’s arrival in the offices of Smith Elder & Co on Saturday 8th July 1848. For others, myself included, the item lacked cultural value in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, the giraffe looked great, but it was a disappointing end to the exhibition because it’s symbolism didn’t capture the significance of what it was said to represent. Perhaps there are limits, then, to Victorian cultural heritage and neo-Victorianism’s participation in commemorative practice? And perhaps significance is determined by a subjective perception of cultural value? Naturally, one might argue that the toy giraffe says no more about Charlotte Brontë than my own participation in #JaneandMe? After all, through the latter I articulated something of my own value and appreciation of this literary masterpiece (maybe that’s just the scholar in me?). But, I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t really what literary celebrations are for.

Author Note: I am very grateful to Tracey Chevalier for taking the time to correspond with me and give me permission to reproduce this image from her Twitter tour.

[1] Tracey Chevalier, ‘Charlotte Brontë: National Treasure for 200 Years’, The Guardian, 10 April 2016, n.p. [Accessed 1 January 2017] 

[2] ibid

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Personal correspondence with Tracey Chevalier, 26 November 2016

[6] Jeff Malpras, ‘Cultural Heritage in the Age of New Media’, New Heritage: New Media and Cultural Heritage, ed. by Yehuda Kalay, Thomas Kvan, Janice Affleck (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 13-27.

[7] Chevalier, personal correspondence

[8] Malpras, ‘Cultural Heritage’, p. 15.

[9] Ron Simpson, ‘Review: Villette’, What’s On Stage, 29 September 2016, n. p. [Accessed 3 January 2016] < http://www.whatsonstage.com/leeds-theatre/reviews/villette-west-yorkshire-playhouse_41893.html>

[10] ibid.

[11] See Eleanor’s full article here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/05908876.2016.1165956

[12] Sir John Soane’s Museum London, ‘Charlotte Bronte at the Soane’ Guide, 2016, n.p. An image of the said giraffe may be seen here: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/charlotte-bronte-at-the-soane-museum/

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