It is the classic dichotomy; old vs young, tradition vs innovation, the classical vs the modern. This particular debate is one seen again and again and again within literature and is one which has plagued the Brontë Society for a number of years. Now recent events have seen the clash of ideals amongst the governors of one of the world’s oldest and influential literary societies brought to light and straight into the public eye.
Nick Holland, Brontë expert and author, has resigned as a member of the society due to the appointment of Lily Cole, actress, social activist, and former model, as a Creative Partner during Emily Brontë’s bicentenary year. Cole will be working on a short film exploring the character of Heathcliff, famed romantic antihero in Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights. Her film will also look into the real foundlings of the nineteenth century, as well as women’s rights and gender politics. Holland revealed his displeasure at this choice in a blog, wondering: “What would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief ‘artist’ and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel?”[i]. For Holland, “the very basic rule should have been that the person chosen for such an important role as Creative Partner is a writer”[ii].
Perhaps now is a convenient time to mention – because even a number of other articles on this subject have neglected to do so – that Cole’s involvement with the Brontë Parsonage Museum is not the only thing being done to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Emily’s birth. Cole is one of a number of partners that the Museum will be working with. Poet and performer Patience Agbabi will be the Museum’s Writer-in-Residence for 2018, teenage book blogger Lucy Powrie will be running an online Brontë book club, band The Unthanks will be writing an Emily-inspired song cycle, and the exhibition Making Thunder Roar: Emily Brontë will invite a number of well-known figures to share their own fascination with Emily. Other announced speakers include Maxine Peake, Caryl Phillips, and Helen Oyeyemi.
Some of those involved are writers, and some are not. They come from a wide variety backgrounds and have each gone on to different careers but all share the inspiration of Emily Brontë. The Brontë Society ought to be commended for curating a programme events that offers something for everyone and speaks to those who are reading the works of the Brontës today. If the programme already involves a Writer-in-Residence, the question remains why should everyone else also be a writer? The role of Creative Partner requires a creative approach, and Cole’s background of acting and social campaigning in particular makes her well placed for that, even if she has been photographed for Playboy and Vogue. It is an acknowledgement that literature is not only relevant in the world of more literature. Barack Obama, for instance, has spoken of how he learnt how to be a good citizen through reading novels.[iii] Anyone can – and should – be able to share their appreciation of a writer, whether they are a politician or a supermodel. After reading Cole’s dignified response to Holland, hoping that her work will be judged on its merits and not “on name alone”[iv], I am even more convinced that this is the case.
Juliet Barker, a leading Brontë biographer, highlighted that Cole, with her background in film and fashion – not to mention her double first degree from Cambridge University – will appeal to a different generation of Brontë fans, even if she personally would have preferred someone with a more academic background.[v] Holland, being far less diplomatic, insists that he does not have anything against Cole personally, only “the people who appointed her” precisely because it is reflective of an overarching issue of the Brontë Society aiming for a younger audience, asking “Where is the problem in the majority of members being middle aged or older?”[vi], as members of the Brontë Society have traditionally been. Holland would do well to remember that Wuthering Heights was published when Emily Brontë was just 29 years of age, just one year younger than Lily Cole is now. As a spokeswoman for the Brontë Society remarked in response to Holland’s resignation, “The Brontës were trailblazers and it is one of the roles of the society to ensure that their lives and work continue to be of relevance and interest to modern society”[vii].
Evidently, this is not an endeavour that is important for Holland, who states that “museums should be places of quiet and contemplation”[viii] rather than the inventive and imaginative exhibits that have been at the parsonage throughout the Brontë bicentenary years. Remind me never to visit an exhibition curated by him. Museums should not be mausoleums of history or the writing that has gone before us; they should be filled with the kind of passion and vitality that runs through each page of what Holland claims is the greatest book of all time, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. I look forward to visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum and celebrating Emily’s work in 2018.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum’s Emily Brontë bicentenary celebrations begin with the exhibition ‘Making Thunder Roar: Emily Brontë’, which opens 1st February.
[i] Nick Holland, “Emily Brontë, Lily Cole and the Shame of the Brontë Society”, www.annebronte.org, 17th December 2017.
[iii] Alison Flood, “President Obama says novels taught him how to be a citizen”, The Guardian, 28th October 2015.
[iv] Sian Cain, “Lily Cole responds to Brontë Society row as member who quits is branded a snob”, The Guardian, 4th January 2018.
[v] Nicola Hartley, “Anger over model’s role in Bronte celebrations”, The Telegraph, 23rd December 2017.
[vii] Nicola Hartley, “Anger over model’s role in Bronte celebrations”, The Telegraph, 23rd December 2017.