Thursday, 5 October 2017

Exploring the Brontes at Gildersome

Last night's Exploring the Brontes event for Morley Arts Festival at Gildersome Library and Meeting Hall was very successful, comprising as usual two halves - starting with a talk from myself featuring poetry by and about the Brontes, and culminating beautifully with The Cold Plunge, a monologue written and performed by Caroline Lamb.  

Despite the fact that I have worked solitary shifts at the adjoining library for more than two years, I have never performed in the spacious meeting hall, and yesterday's event was also Caroline's first time there - her very first visit to the village of Gildersome, in fact.

As we are still in the bicentenary year of Branwell Bronte, and as I screened my film on Branwell - A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years - for the same festival very recently, I chose to frame my talk largely around him,contrasting for example some of Branwell's own poetry with that of his father Patrick Bronte:

My food is but spare, 
And humble my cot, 
Yet Jesus dwells there 
And blesses my lot.

Though thinly I'm clad, 
And tempests oft roll, 
He's raiment, and bread, 
And drink to my soul.


There is No God

I know there's none
Neither of spirit nor of stone.
No holy hill or idol shrine
Has ever held a power Divine.
Not heaven above,
Nor Hell below
Can minister to wail or woe .
I feel that when the body dies
Its memories and feelings die,
That they from Earth shall never rise.


but also the similarities, such as when both venerate the natural world:

Throughout the cloudless sky
Of light unsullied blue,
The larks their matins raised,
Whilst on my dizzy view,
Like dusky motes,
They winged their way
Till vanished in
The blaze of day.


 I'll turn my eyes unto the skies
and view the prospect there
where broad and bright the noonday light
sheds glory round the air
I see yon mighty dome of heaven
in deep cerulean blue
the white clouds oer its concave driven
til lost amid the blue
I'll turn my foreheadto the blast
and think upon the sea
the chainless boundless restless waste
which shines so gloriously.


I drew attention to the themes of social injustice present in some of Patrick's verse:

Where blinking embers scarcely glow, 
And rushlight only serves to show 
What well may move the deepest sigh, 
And force a tear from pity's eye. 
You there may see a meagre pair, 
Worn out with labour, grief and care.

...and how his son also touches upon such themes, addressing the concept of nurture vs nature, and reflecting on the possible origins of tyranny, in a remarkably modern sounding poem:

Increase of days increases misery
and misery brings selfishness, which sears
the heart's first feelings: mid the battle's roar
in death's dread grasp, the soldier's eyes are blind
to comrades dying, and he whose hopes are o'er
tuns coldest from the sufferings of mankind;
a bleeding heart oft delights in gore;
a tortured heart oft makes a tyrant mind.

On the same subject of suffering, and wanting to illustrate the hypocrisies of moralistic power, I read from Jane Eyre:

During January, February, and part of March, the deep snows, and, after their melting, the almost impassable roads, prevented our stirring beyond the garden walls, except to go to church; but within these limits we had to pass an hour every day in the open air.  Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet: I remember well the distracting irritation I endured from this cause every evening, when my feet inflamed; and the torture of thrusting the swelled, raw, and stiff toes into my shoes in the morning.  Then the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid.  From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.  Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.

The above being followed by an excerpt featuring the school's benefactor, the bullying Mr Brocklehurst, and from which I moved from depictions of cruelty to children, to cruelty to animals, as depicted in Anne Bronte's novel Agnes Grey, which like Jane Eyre enjoys this December its 170th anniversary of publication - in which the eponymous Anne, in her capacity as governess, encounters one of her spoilt young charges preparing to set traps for birds.

  I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and corn, and asked what they were.

‘Traps for birds.’

‘Why do you catch them?’

‘Papa says they do harm.’

‘And what do you do with them when you catch them?’

‘Different things.  Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.’

‘And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?’

‘For two reasons: first, to see how long it will live—and then, to see what it will taste like.’

‘But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things?  Remember, the birds can feel as well as you; and think, how would you like it yourself?’

‘Oh, that’s nothing!  I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.’

‘But you will have to feel it some time, Tom: you have heard where wicked people go to when they die; and if you don’t leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you have made them suffer.’

‘Oh, pooh!  I shan’t.  Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it: he says it is just what he used to do when he was a boy.  Last summer, he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything; except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers: and Uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed, and said I was a fine boy.’

‘But what would your mamma say?’

‘Oh, she doesn’t care! she says it’s a pity to kill the pretty singing birds, but the naughty sparrows, and mice, and rats, I may do what I like with.  So now, Miss Grey, you see it is not wicked.’

‘I still think it is, Tom; and perhaps your papa and mamma would think so too, if they thought much about it.  However,’ I internally added, ‘they may say what they please, but I am determined you shall do nothing of the kind, as long as I have power to prevent it.

Progressing - or digressing - from the cold-blooded violence of these scenes, to the wilder mayhem of Wuthering Heights, I quoted from a passage in which the drunken Hindley Earnshaw is pitted against the novel's narrator, the toughened housekeeper Nelly Dean, 

He entered, vociferating oaths dreadful to hear; and caught me in the act of stowing his son away in the kitchen cupboard.  Hareton was impressed with a wholesome terror of encountering either his wild beast’s fondness or his madman’s rage; for in one he ran a chance of being squeezed and kissed to death, and in the other of being flung into the fire, or dashed against the wall; and the poor thing remained perfectly quiet wherever I chose to put him.
‘There, I’ve found it out at last!’ cried Hindley, pulling me back by the skin of my neck, like a dog.  ‘By heaven and hell, you’ve sworn between you to murder that child!  I know how it is, now, that he is always out of my way.  But, with the help of Satan, I shall make you swallow the carving-knife, Nelly!  You needn’t laugh; for I’ve just crammed Kenneth, head-downmost, in the Black-horse marsh; and two is the same as one—and I want to kill some of you: I shall have no rest till I do!’
‘But I don’t like the carving-knife, Mr. Hindley,’ I answered; ‘it has been cutting red herrings.  I’d rather be shot, if you please.’
‘You’d rather be damned!’ he said; ‘and so you shall.  No law in England can hinder a man from keeping his house decent, and mine’s abominable!  Open your mouth.’  He held the knife in his hand, and pushed its point between my teeth: but, for my part, I was never much afraid of his vagaries.  I spat out, and affirmed it tasted detestably—I would not take it on any account.
‘Oh!’ said he, releasing me, ‘I see that hideous little villain is not Hareton: I beg your pardon, Nell.  If it be, he deserves flaying alive for not running to welcome me, and for screaming as if I were a goblin.  Unnatural cub, come hither!  I’ll teach thee to impose on a good-hearted, deluded father.  Now, don’t you think the lad would be handsomer cropped?  It makes a dog fiercer, and I love something fierce—get me a scissors—something fierce and trim!  Besides, it’s infernal affectation—devilish conceit it is, to cherish our ears—we’re asses enough without them.  Hush, child, hush!  Well then, it is my darling! wisht, dry thy eyes—there’s a joy; kiss me.  What! it won’t?  Kiss me, Hareton!  Damn thee, kiss me!  By God, as if I would rear such a monster!  As sure as I’m living, I’ll break the brat’s neck.’

...and from here managed to navigate back to the more spiritual side of Emily's writing, including readings of some of her more famous poems, and concluding with the following lines, which I often associate with the moorland wanderings and sad death of her brother Branwell:

It was night and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snow drifts lay
Streams and waterfalls and fountains
Down in darkness stole away

Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left all his sheep buried there
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with fondest care

Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood a wildered stranger
On his own unbounded moor.

The pinnacle of the event was Caroline's The Cold Plunge, a piece originally written for its debut performance at last year's Morley Arts Festival, and which last night was given its fourth rendition to a warm and appreciative crowd. 

Caroline, whose theatre company Dangerous to Know produced her play about Branwell - The Dissolution of Percy  - two years ago, appears in my film, and reads her poem Rest and Regret, which was written in response to one of Branwell's own poems, in which he apparently embraces the concept of an early death.  The poem is written in a 19th Century style, and the following excerpt is taken from its opening, in which the sorrowful scene is atmospherically set:

Do those dark walls embrace you as you dreamed?
Is death, in truth, the haven it once seemed?
No more to struggle, swaddled safe and sound
In real rest, trading atoms with the ground.

Another thought but one of just reward
Were one thy learned mind could ill-afford.
And yet in latter days, resigned to wrack,
Thy sickly soul wrenched thine ambitions back.

Caroline's monologue is delivered from the viewpoint of Mary Taylor, Bronte family friend and pen-pal, living at the time of the piece in New Zealand, where she emigrated with her cousin Ellen to run a draper's shop, and is told via the medium of letters sent to Mary by Charlotte Bronte in the 1840's.

The Cold Plunge explores the struggles for identity and independence which underpin many of the themes of Bronte novels, and the lives of the Bronte sisters themselves, and has proved very popular with audiences, who have responded positively to its messages of hope and resilience. Caroline's performance has been widely praised, and her depiction of Mary is full of compassion, humour and insight, and the response last night was wholly celebratory. In fact, we were treated to an Exploring the Brontes first - so blown away was one woman in the audience by Caroline's talents, that following the show, she asked for her autograph.

It was a privilege to share the presentation of this event with Caroline, and an honour introduce The Cold Plunge.  You can see an excerpt from the opening segment of her performance here and you join us for our next ETB performances at:

The Assembly Rooms, Brighouse, 10th October
Sowerby Bridge Library, December (date tbc)

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