Contributors: Juliet Barker, John Bowen, Rebecca Fraser, Bonnie Greer, Boyd Tonkin
Reviewer: Dawn Smallwood
It is one of many events part of the Bradford Literature Festival. The festival has a rich and exciting line up of events for their programme which explore themes relevant today through literary and historical celebrations. The panel chair, Boyd Tonkin, opens the discussion asking the panel of experts what their first personal encounter was with the Brontës.
The issue of gender is then explored; Juliet Barker, a biographer, discusses how women had to conform in a predominant masculine society in the 19th Century, however, Patrick Brontë always encouraged his daughters to be independent especially with reading. It is noted that Charlotte Brontë presented a “masculine persona” in her writing particularly in Jane Eyre. Rebecca Fraser, a biographer, considers how brave Charlotte Brontë is by not to accepting such peripheries and bravely wrote the way she did. John Bowen, University of York, summarises how the Brontë sisters created historic changes and movements in novel writing.
There has been critical debate about Heathcliff’s origin as a “dark-skinned gipsy”. The mystery about where he came from and where he has gone to continues to be argued today with no resolution in sight. It is stressed however, by the panel, that there is no need to resolve this as “Heathcliff only has a linguistic existence”. The experts reflect on views the Brontës had about race which seemingly linked with the family’s Irish heritage, the absolution of slavery and the exotic.
Everyone acknowledges that the Brontës novels have an impact on many readers today particularly among the young. Fraser feels these are “real books” for teenagers with emphasis on feelings and emotions. There is continuous re-interpretation of the classics today in films, television and on stage. However Bonnie Greer, president of The Brontë Society, feels there is more work to be done in reaching out to those in the “digital age” where little reading is done and developing strategies for engaging a “response”. It seems there are no definitive answers to the relevant issues raised but continues addressing and exploring through the love, study and reinterpretation of the novels.
Tonkin thanks the audience for attending this incredible discussion with the experts’ enthusiastic appreciation of the Brontës from a historical, social and literary perspective. One certainly feels inspired to either re-read the novels of the Brontë’s and/or buy biographical books on sale after the discussion.
Reviewed on: 23rd May 2015