I am always a little bit surprised to be eating Bronte biscuits on the train to Leeds; Shakespeare Sponge Fingers have not yet materialised in the shops of Stratford, but perhaps it is only a matter of time, and ‘materialise’ is the right word.
This is not a column about the iniquities of decorating tea-towels and tea-pots with our literary heritage, or even the re-domestication of the female genius by turning her into a biscuit.
No, today we discover how art meets arcana, not far from the popular nineteenth century practise of mediums and ouija boards, that began with Browning and ended with Yeats and his psychic guru, Madam Blavatsky.
The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth is opening a new exhibition this weekend that features a cross-media installation by Cornelia Parker, the Turner Prize short-listed artist.
As part of her filming for her installation, titled Brontean Abstracts, she invited psychic Henri-Llewellyn Davies, to pick up the various vibes and visitations going on in England’s most famous – and freezing – rectory. (I am allowed to complain about the north because I was born there – and like the Bronte’s I discovered that the best way to keep your fingers warm is either play an instrument or write a book).
Anyway, Henri took a medium with her, and the pair of them voiced a few sullen servants, still sloping around the place, and talked to camera about their spiritual impressions.
They found no Brontes, which is a bit of a relief, but as Henri pointed out to me – ‘Creative people have got better things to do than hang round some old Rectory for a hundred and fifty years.’
Quite right, and Henri should know, being a direct descendent of Jack Llewellyn Davies, the youngest of Barrie’s Lost Boys. On the other side of her family are the du Mauriers, but she says she has never had any trouble from Daphne, which from the author of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, can only be good manners and self-restraint.
Most writers harbour a modest ambition that their work should live on after their deaths. This is becoming less likely, as bookshops stop back-listing titles, and publishers re-interpret ‘in print’ to mean available on demand. I am not sure how you can demand what you don’t know exists. The current deluge of new titles in the shops is distorting any sense of what is or isn’t worthwhile. What worries me is not that so much of what is published is bad – but that it is competent and mediocre, and is setting a new standard of banality.
Perhaps it will be the writers themselves who will live on after their deaths, while their books are forgotten. The cult of celebrity makes this likely – indeed the heritage industry encourages it, so that we know the names and eat the biscuits, but ignore the work.
Part of the Bronte celebration this autumn will be a graphic novel of Wuthering Heights with pictures by Siku and words by poet, Adam Strickson. We are told this will present the ‘passionate story’ in a ‘completely new exciting and innovative way.’
I am already fast asleep. Wuthering Heights is fabulous and doesn’t need pictures. Nor does it need Emily’s language stripped out and re-fitted by someone else. Simply re-using the basic story is what Mills and Boon and Hollywood have been doing for years, and I am unconvinced that we should be thrilled by this ‘radical’ idea. Like the 9/11 Commissioned Report, a picture-book Bronte is really for people who can’t manage too many words on the same page.
Don’t get me wrong – graphic novels can be fabulous. Alison Bechdel, the American cartoonist, is just publishing Fun Home, a memoir of her father; it is a wonderful piece, moving and clever. It was designed to be what it is, and it works.
There is no substitute for reading the text itself in its own right, and I hope that anyone visiting the Bronte Parsonage this autumn will be drawn back to the books, which have nothing of ectoplasm about them, but yet are what Wordsworth understood as ‘the real, solid world of images.’
I’ll be re-reading too, both Lucasta Miller’s first-rate book, The Bronte Myth, an exciting synthesis of scholarship and social comment, and George Eliot’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, fixing the moment when the cult of personality first begins for writers.
And don’t forget Jane Eyre, adapted by Sandy Welch for the BBC in a remarkable TV version that does full justice to the novel.
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