Bronte Project: Visiting the Parsonage

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The Parsonage (and a a rare photo of Benn!)

I’ve been to the Parsonage so many times (it’s one of the things that happens when you grow up in a bookish family in West Yorkshire…) but I never get bored. I was especially interested in the Bronte 200 celebrations, which aim to mark the 200th anniversaries of the births of Charlotte (2016), Branwell (this year), Mr Bronte arriving in Haworth (2018) and the birth of Anne (2019). I was especially keen to visit after we found Anne Bronte’s grave last year.

Of course, when you’re in Yorkshire, you should really start off your lunch with rhubarb gin…

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One thing that was really exciting was that the Parsonage now has the ACTUAL table that the sisters wrote at. It was acquired in 2015 and it was the first time I’d seen it. Imagine- the ACTUAL table that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were written on. This was the table the sisters paced round as they discussed their projects. There’s even an E carved into the wood.

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I am aware that this is a rubbish photo. It is actually quite impressive in real life.

Throughout the house, there are costumes from To Walk Invisible, the Sally Wainwright drama that was shown over Christmas. The attention to detal was so amazing- it’s a shame my photography couldn’t do it justice.

This year is all about Branwell, the tragic Bronte brother, who should have been a great success but instead fell from grace. There are dedicated exhibitions: one is a recreation of his bedroom during the last years of his life, which was surprisingy melancholic. Branwell has been painted as a ne’er-do-well, but he was also a bit of an unfortunate soul and the bedroom really reflects this.

There’s also a dedicated area to Branwell’s written work, with new poetry by Simon Armitage. The best bit is seeing stuff in ‘the flesh’ that you’ve only ever seen in books- one of these was the famous Branwell sketch ‘A Parody’, which he drew in a fit of self-pity whilst ill. It was genuinely a bit of a thrill for a Bronte nerd.

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One of the things I was desperate to do was to participate in an art project by artist Clare Twomey, in which visitors to the Parsonage are invited to write a line from Wuthering Heights into a new manuscript. This is because the original, handwritten by Emily Bronte, has been lost. Each participant is asked to write a line from the novel with a pencil (you get to keep the pencil at the end, to encourage you to continue writing.) I was given a line from chapter 27, in which Linton begs Catherine not to leave, or else he’ll die.I was a bit miffed I got a horrible character, but hey ho, that’s the luck of the draw. I wrote VERY carefully, so that a) my writing was legible and b) I didn’t make a mistake. Anyway, I managed it and I’m quite chuffed that my name is in something that’s sort of historical.

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Part of my Haworth tradition is making a pilgrimage to the church where the family are buried (without Anne, who is buried in Scarborough.) Although the Brontes would not have recognised the church as it is now- it was remodelled after Mr Bronte’s death- there is a sense of tranquility and history.

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Note the vase of heather from the moors

It was a lovely day- and to mark it, I HAD to buy something that combined two of my favourite things (there should be more book-based tea blends, IMHO):

21248346_10154868783112267_1111194524416760488_o I’ll report back on the tea ASAP.

Musings on a mural

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The day after Boxing Day, I needed to get out of the house for a bit. I wasn’t up for a run (I haven’t been for a run since my ill-fated attempt at Hove Park Run last month…), so I decided to go for a long walk around where I live.

I found myself in a tiny graveyard. I was half looking for a particular grave that I knew was there but, like most of December, the day was damp and gloomy- and it wasn’t a good day for a grave hunt (I’ll probably blog about the hows and whys of my search in a future blogpost. It’s a writing related thing.) I also felt a bit odd, wandering around a graveyard on my own, dressed ever so slightly like Justin Bieber. I appeared a bit weird, if I’m honest. And then my eye was drawn to the little church that sits by the graveyard.

I’ve lived near this church, on and off, for most of the time I’ve lived in Brighton, but I’ve never been in. I only found the graveyard about ten months ago, by accident. I noticed that the church was open, so I stepped inside. It was a welcome respite from the weather and I was curious to see what it looked like in the actual church itself.

What I found was a small, pretty church with three thirteenth century murals- the picture above is the best one and it tells the story of the murder of Thomas Becket. It fascinated me and I sat there for a while, just looking at it. I’m not religious, but I found myself sitting in this deserted church (it’s no longer used for worship, but is open most days for visitors), deep in thought. I mean, it’s not every day that you unexpectedly come across a mediaeval religious painting about a mile from your house, is it?

The thought that struck me was that the mural was nearly 800 years old. Somebody at that time painted these pictures on the walls, with no idea that some weird girl, 800 years in the future, would sit there thinking about it all. I thought about all the people who had sat in the church over the centuries, looking at the paintings- whether through devotion, boredom, curiosity or a mixture of all three. Inrealised that the existence of the paintings means that the area where I live has been inhabited for nearly a thousand years and that the church has seen plague outbreaks, survived Henry VIII’s reformation of the church, civil war, a massive fire in 1906 and everything else. It’s slightly mind-bending. I’ve looked at a book that was published just after Shakespeare’s death and the park that contains the church has two ancient elm trees which have stood since the time of Elizabeth I. Both of these thungs impresed me with their longevity. I feel it whenever I go to a museum. Time is everywhere.

I found that I thought a lot about that mural and about time in the days running up to new year. We all get wrapped up in thoughts of ‘new year, new me’ and become focused on stuff like that. But we’re just specks in time, aren’t we? We all think, thanks to stuff like Doctor Who, we’ve become more confident with stuff to do with time and space and history and science, but it’s funny how one thing-in my case, a picture of a martyr- can make you really stop and look hard at your life and your place in the world.

 

 

My letter to the Unknown Soldier

As this year is the centenary of the start of World War I, the project 14-18 Now has been commissioning art projects and other events to mark the event. One of the projects is collecting letters to the statue of the Unknown Soldier who stands on Platform One at Paddington Station. Today is the last day you can submit a letter before they are collated to be stored in the British Library.

Image: 14-18 Now

Image: 14-18 Now

I decided to write a letter for the website and, as I’ll be featuring bits and pieces of World War I stuff on the blog, I thought I would publish it here as well. I decided to write it to my great-grandad, John Hennessey. I’ll post more about him soon.

 

It’s funny; I’ve only discovered more about your war experience since writing to your niece. Your daughter- my grandma- didn’t know you’d been gassed. She said you never spoke about your time at war to your daughters.

I keep your photo in the living room. You’re there with three of your pals, all dressed up in your army uniforms. I assume that they were also part of the same Irish regiment. You all look terribly young. I think about my own son, husband and brother and think about how I would feel if they were called up. I’d be terrified. I can imagine your parents were horrified when you signed up, underage.

Through research, I found out about your regiment. Your regimental song is ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’, which I sing to my little boy as I get him ready for bed. He’s your great-great grandson and he definitely has a family resemblance! I always think about you as I sing it.

To be honest, I only know snippets of your life at war. I know that you told my mum you had shrapnel still left in you. I know that there are family legends that you walked frm Cork to Dublin to join up (although having done my research, I’m not sure how true that is.) I was told that you’d never had a pair of boots before joining up. I’ve seen your village and where you were born- I can believe it.

I desperately wish I could speak to you and ask you about your life. Searching through archives and speaking to relatives only gives us so much.
Yours sincerely and with love,
Stephanie

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

I was really lucky this weekend to get to go see the biggest exhibition this year (unless you’re a fan of David Bowie. Then I guess that’s the biggest exhibition of the year for you.) My sister Em and I went to see Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum in London.

One of the most famous paintings to have survived Pompeii; this shows a baker and his wife
Image: British Museum

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve been swotting up in preparation for the weekend; if I read about an exhibition afterwards, I always get cross if I realise I’ve missed something, so I decided to go prepared. I even asked well-known classicist Mary Beard what we should try and see (her advice: see whatever is comfortable to get to.)

Image: Telegraph.co.uk

The exhibition itself is laid out as if a Roman house- in this case, it’s based on the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii. Visitors are guided through each room, looking at the paintings and furniture (which has mainly survived from Herculaneum, which did not suffer the same level of carbonisation as Pompeii, meaning that wooden furniture was well preserved when it was discovered.)

Image: British Museum

Although there were some exhibits I knew I wanted to see, such as the preserved cradle (which, when found, was discovered to have its tiny occupant still inside, swaddled in blankets), there were some major surprises. One fresco of birds is more than reminiscent of William Morris’ designs in the 19th century- even the colours are similar.  When wandering around the exhibition, I was struck by how the colours of the paintings really gave them an immediacy. It was almost bizarre to think that these paintings and objects were two thousand years old.

Image: Guardian.co.uk

One thing I knew about, but which still prompted me to giggle like a schoolboy, was the Pompeiian obsession with matters of the flesh. Apparently in the city itself there are, ahem, more male bits on display than have been drawn a Year 9 Science textbook. And you find them in some mind-boggling places in the exhibition. I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to visit, but there was a particular statue which raised eyebrows and a rather odd wind-chime that my sister offered to buy a copy of for me. Also, there’s a very famous bust of a man on display- and his face is not the only thing on display. It’s just… weird the way it’s been put together.

One of the most famous casts from Pompeii- a dog trying to escape its chain
Image: British Museum

Of course, this wouldn’t be an exhibition about the hell wreaked by Vesuvius if there weren’t casts. There is one particularly gobsmacking group of casts which is actually both moving and upsetting.  But what brings these people to life is the display of the items they chose to take with them: a set of medical tools, precious jewellery, a statue of the goddess Fortuna. It’s very sad and human.

The exhibition runs until September 29th. You can buy tickets here.

The rise of the female TV historian

I have never hidden the fact that one of my greatest regrets in life is that I never took history at either GCSE or beyond. My reluctance to study the subject was due to the fact that, at my extremely hard up secondary school, options were very limited and I chose drama (why, oh why?) Since my late teens, I’ve been a bit of an armchair historian, devouring books on loads of subjects, but particularly long dead women. If you were a beheaded queen, I’ve probably read most of the books about you. The bulk of my reading is historical non-fiction and, at the moment, I seem to be in a Georgian phase. I’m the family geneologist, tramping backwards and forwards to Ireland to find out about my long-lost relatives. At university, I did an enhancement course on Tudor and Stuart architecture and used to get on the nerves of the actual history students with my enthusiasm for the subject (admittedly it was, in part, dry. But also interesting!) It’s one of my dreams to be able to afford to do some kind of proper qualification in history one day and then to do something with it.

But one thing that was always clear to me was that history was very much dominated by men. The historians I was watching on TV were David Starkey and Simon Schama. I honestly cannot remember ever watching, or seeing advertised, programmes presented by female historians until recently. In the last five years, there has been a massive improvement in the representation of women presenting serious, well-researched historical documentaries and in the last year, we’ve been truly spoilt.

At the moment, we’re lucky enough to have Bettany Hughes presenting ‘Divine Women’, Mary Beard and ‘Meet the Romans’ and recently, Suzanne Castor’s ‘She-Wolves’. Lucy Worsely pops up with regularity and Amanda Vickery is also on TV quite a bit. All of these women have a calm, reassuring presence and I enjoy watching them; without fail, their passion shines through, whether it’s Hughes by the Ganges watching a Hindu goddess being given to the water, or Beard reading with enthusiasm the epitaph of a long-dead Roman. I also never come away from watching these programmes feeling patronised. I wish that I could have been taught by any of these women. Maybe I’d be researching and publishing my own historical work by now if I had. If this is the effect on me, maybe there are teenage girls who are watching who are inspired to take up their own historical research. It can only be a good thing.

However, it seems that these women have something that the male historians don’t; they are consistently judged on their looks. Whether they’re a ‘stunner’, as a Times reviewer once called Hughes in a review ridiculously entitled ‘Historian or Exotic Dancer?’ or berated for their looks, as Mary Beard has found out this week,  it seems that there are still hang ups that seem to influence people’s expectations of whether a female historian is suitable for TV work. Too attractive? Well, are you sure, my love, that you know what you’re talking about? If you’re not a glamourpuss, should you even be allowed anywhere near a TV camera? No one ever made those arguments about Starkey, did they?

Anyway, regardless of what other people think I, for one, will continue to watch, enjoy and be inspired by these fascinating women and continue to dream of my own journey through history. History has always been overwhelmingly male. It was mostly written by men, taught by men and presented by men. I think the balancing that now seems to be happening is welcome and long overdue.