Sometimes things just come together. Wending my way through the blogosphere I came across Justine Picardie's Blog and on several sites but especially Dovegreyreader her new novel Daphne (on Daphne Du Maurier and the Brontës) has been mentioned. Fanning the flames of synchronicity theorists I had just days earlier paid one of my periodic visits to the Brontë Parsonage website and their What's On pages and noticed that Justine Picardie would be make a visit, "Novelist Justine Picardie will be reading from her new novel Daphne and discussing the Brontës and Daphne Du Maurier with Du Maurier's eldest daughter Lady Tessa Montgomery." How delightful is that!
It is lovely having a local literary society, especially when it is this one. The Bronte Parsonage and Bronte Society Museum is one of the oldest literary societies in the world. It began in 1893 and now is a thriving part of the tourist industry in this part of the West Riding. The Parsonage is beautiful. The principle rooms are furnished as they would have been at the time of the family's residence and contain many original items. In the building behind is a warren of display space telling the story of the sisters and their tragic brother, and there is also a treasure trove of a shop. The society is large by literary society standards (2,000 members) has a respected academic council and its equally resepcted publication Transactions, plus a range of staff officers including an Arts officer (who arranges lovely things like the Justine Picardie evening), and an education officer who works with schools.
The evolution of this magnificent facility is quite interesting. The rising interest in Brontëana in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century meant that many of their personal possessions appearing at auction were still identifiable and by judicious purchasing and kind donations the embryonic Brontë Society began to collect together furniture, manuscripts and other items. Initially housed elsewhere in Haworth the patronage of two wealthy members of the society sealed its early success in the 1920s. When the parsonage came up for sale in 1928 Sir James Roberts bought the house, paid for extensive repairs, and gave the deeds to the Society. About the same time American collector Mr Henry Bonnell left his extensive collection of first editions, letters and manuscripts to the Brontë Society.
The visitor numbers are enormous and enliven what would otherwise be quite a deprived part of the country. Though close to the Yorkshire Dales Haworth moors are the darker millstone grit not the pale luminosity of Dales limestone. It is beautiful but, like Mr Rochester and Heathcliffe, its attractions are not as obvious, certainly not as obvious as the more honey-pot parts of Yorkshire, and might be an acquired taste. Landscape alone would not have created the economically needed tourism here. In a rural area some miles from seats of higher education, or from the art societies of the Dales, the Bronte Society arts programme fills a potential intellectual void and we are lucky to have them here.
It is interesting to view other local literary geographies. The Gaskell Society are doing a fine job in Manchester. Much younger than its society cousin over the Pennines (interest in which ironically Mrs Gaskell with her Life of C. helped to fuel) it is battling with much smaller support and and considerably smaller levels of funding to save Mrs Gaskell's Manchester house 84 Plymouth Grove. I hope recent interest in Gaskell's work fuelled by the televisation of North & South a few years ago, and Cranford more recently, will help swell the support. Even younger and tiny is the small group of people, I am not sure they are even a society who have purchased the house in Mytholmroyd (how Yorkshire is that for a name!) back on this side of the Pennines where poet Ted Hughes was born and are trying to develop it.
I think literary societies are important. Clearly with or without a society the Brontës will remain popular but for lesser known writers a society is an important part of preserving their work, often their possessions, and also the wider interest in that work, until of course academia or the BBC costume drama department have time to give them fuller attention. As part of the evolution of this blog in the last fortnight I have added on the side bar to the left a longish list of literary societies, large and small, in the hope that people will continue to think about the cultural, educational and economic importance of writers within their geographical locale.