Understanding the sisters as real people: Alex’s postcard from Brontë Country

Alex Bronte country

Why I went…

Before taking this course on the Brontës, I had never read any of their works. As the semester began and I was introduced to these incredible women, I developed an interest and an adoration for their works and for who they were as people; especially as women authors in a time where men were the predominant writers. When I found out about our opportunity to go to the Brontës’ birth place and childhood home, I was ecstatic. I had already learned so much about them but I thought that by going to these places I could develop a deeper understanding of who they were as human beings rather than famous authors.

What I got out of the experience…

I learned much more about the Brontës than I ever thought possible by visiting these literary sites, but not in the way that I expected.  What surprised me the most was the way that they are represented as commodities rather than actual people. The museum itself helped my understanding of these sisters as real people to an extent, but even at the museum there is a gift shop; they are still making money off the works of these authors. All around the town you can buy products with the Brontë sisters’ names on them, including things such as biscuits and alcohol. This gives visitors the impression that the Brontë sisters, or rather their way of life, is an object that can be purchased, but it is not. Seeing Haworth in this way made me become almost defensive of the sisters as people, not as authors. They were very real and they lived normal lives.

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A call for creative inspiration: Lydia’s postcard from Oxford

Lydia Anvar photo

Lydia at the Shelley Memorial, Oxford, March 2016

Why I went…

On March 19th, I decided to go to Oxford to see some memorials to some of my favorite authors (both old and new favorites). This past semester I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, as well as a selection of poetry by her husband, Percy Shelley. I had heard of Mary Shelley before, but I did not know that her husband was a poet. Actually, I had not even read a lot of poetry before taking this class. However, I absolutely loved the poetry! I found it so interesting how the Romantic poets wrote poetry on poetry—trying to pick their craft apart and understand it in its purest form.  I admire Shelley because of the dignity with which he regarded poetry. He wanted it to be respected and if anyone (like Wordsworth?) disrespected poetry or the creative process, he was not happy. My favorite poem by him is ‘Ode to the West Wind’ where it says:

“Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!”

I love this as a call for creative inspiration about taking the bad and turning it into good.

What I got out of the experience…

It was so exciting to see where Shelley studied at Oxford. I find it interesting that, even though he was dismissed from the University, they still have a statue for him. I also find the nature of the statue interesting. I don’t know why Shelley’s daughter-in-law chose to memorialize him as she did—dead and naked. Our tour guide said that he thought it could be to communicate that, even though Shelley is dead, his influence is eternal. He also said that the statue had been subject to a lot of pranks from Oxford students in the past. He said one time students filled the area with water and dumped gold fish in it (hence the presence of the giant golden gate that I’m standing in front of in the picture).  Anyways, it was so neat to not only see the statue of Shelley, but walk around the college where he studied and the city where he lived. It put his age into perspective too. He was just a few years older than me when he wrote ‘Ode to the West Wind’. It inspired me to be more intentional about my writing. A lot of times I say to myself “oh I’m only 20, I still have a time to write.” A lot of the poets that we’ve read about in class, though, had done a lot more writing than I have by the time they were twenty. My trip to the picturesque town of Oxford served as a nice break from school and a motivational boost for my writing.

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Finding the sites that were significant to Austen: Oli’s postcard from Bath

Oli Photo

Oli at the Jane Austen Centre, Bath. Spring 2016.

Why I went…

The Jane Austen Centre was one of the key reasons I was so excited to go to Bath. I wanted to learn more about Austen and to have tea in the regency tea-room. I also just wanted to see the city that was mentioned in all of her novels and featured in two – with such differing views of the city in those two novels as well. I had also hoped to visit the assembly rooms, though unfortunately did not make it there during my stay.

What I got out of the experience…

I learned a lot that I hadn’t previously known about Austen in the Jane Austen Centre. Little pieces of things that I had heard about her before came together – such as the fact that she never married, and that she had one awkward proposal and a sweetheart that never came to anything. I never knew before that there weren’t many pictures of her either, and that the only known picture, drawn by her sister, was said not to be very like. Going through the museum and having tea was fun, but I think my favorite part was walking around Bath finding the sites that were significant to Austen while she was there. Again, I didn’t find all the places that I would have liked to, but following the guide was like a scavenger hunt, and reading about the different sites in Austen’s Bath was really interesting and peaceful.

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Entering into Wonderland for the first time: Shannon’s postcard from the British Library

Shannon Sonderman Photo

Shannon at the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland Exhibition. Spring 2016.

Why I went…

I went to the British Library in London in the hopes of seeing the Alice in Wonderland exhibit.  Alice has become a figure of my childhood; she was able to change her surroundings which is something most children are unable to do.  Alice created a world in which she was an important person; she got to do whatever she wanted and learned, along the way of her journey, what was acceptable and what wasn’t. She was able to make up rules and learn from her mistakes.

What I got out of the experience…

Walking through the exhibit, I felt like Alice entering into Wonderland for the first time. The decorations were all attuned to the books and the original illustrations. The experience was visual, allowing participants to read pages from original texts as well as later adapted texts. The illustrations allowed the characters to come to life and participate in the experience alongside the library’s participants. This exhibit brought Alice in Wonderland into the real world, and it was refreshing and fun to take part in.

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Some reflections on the Student Engagement Project

The Placing the Author team (sans Holly!) on the steps of Elizabeth Gaskell's House

The Placing the Author team (sans Holly!) on the steps of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

From the earliest stages of the planning process, we wanted to create a space within our project for undergraduates to develop their abilities as writers and researchers and to take part in academic exchange. We developed the Student Engagement Project as a way to facilitate their inclusion by offering one-to-one mentoring to three talented and motivated undergrads. Our three conference assistants, Laura Lutton (Bishop Grosseteste University), Holly Williams (Keele University), and Beatrice Lord (University of York), gained hands-on experience of planning an academic event, from drafting a conference programme to liaising with speakers and delegates. In return, they brought a tremendous enthusiasm to the project, a fresh perspective on the reasons for our enduring fascination with the homes and haunts of nineteenth-century authors, and a social media savvy that ensured our project reached people around the world. Here are their reflections on being part of the Placing the Author team. We hope you enjoy them.

Laura Lutton, Bishop Grosseteste UniversityLaura crop

I had the great pleasure of earning a place as a conference assistant for the Placing the Author conference. This event took place on Saturday 20th June 2015 in Manchester at the wonderful and inspirational Elizabeth Gaskell’s House.

The weather was beautiful, and from the moment of arriving at the house from the outside, I could see this venue was the perfect choice for such an insightful event. I was not only a conference assistant that day but I was also very aptly a literary tourist, there to assist but also to listen, learn and absorb the history.

Once inside the venue, I continued to feel in awe of such a grand lady as Elizabeth Gaskell having lived in this house. I felt a sense of calm and tranquility as I explored the house, retracing the footsteps of literary greats who were friends of Mrs Gaskell’s.

I chose panel A: ‘Il turista: tourism and literary networks in Italy’ as my first panel. Each of the three speakers was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about her chosen subject, and I went to lunch feeling inspired and lifted to learn more about these subjects.

After a delicious and refreshing lunch, during which I had the chance to meet some lovely people, there happened to be a very engaging panel: ‘The Brontёs at home’. This panel was charming and poised, much like each of the four speakers. Each speaker had something new and exciting to present and I felt especially drawn to this panel due to my already existing love of the Brontё sisters and their works.

After a short refreshment break, I once again chose panel A: ‘(Re-)visiting the past’. Three papers were presented by two speakers and each one was educational. I already have a great love for Shakespeare and his works, but hearing how Shakespeare was adapted for children by fellow author E. Nesbit was quite remarkable.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity and experience I was given. I aspire to gain more knowledge based upon some of the speakers’ papers and I will endeavour to become a more frequent literary tourist. The conference was a trip I will never forget, beautifully organised, smooth transitions from one panel to another, a delicious lunch and lovely refreshments all set within such a delightful and easily accessible venue. The venue staff and volunteers were all very polite and friendly and I enjoyed having the opportunity to speak to so many lovely people who share my love of literature. I do hope there will be another conference soon. I will definitely attend.

Holly Williams, Keele UniversityHolly crop 

The papers presented at the conference covered a range of topics including arguments surrounding relics, myth and nostalgia. Charlotte May and Dr Christopher Donaldson tackled the idea of literary figures engaging in tourism themselves, opening discussions of how writers such as Samuel Rogers and Harriet Martineau may have taken on qualities associated with their respective surroundings. Lively discussion also surrounded all four of the papers which made up ‘The Brontёs at home’ panel. The use of letters, discussed by Kimberly Braxton as another form of physicality, a link to the body which no longer exists, was particularly fascinating to me, paving the way for some re-evaluating of my own desire to see Keats’s letters.

The setting of such talks and discussions was perfect, as we heard from Dr Irene Wiltshire about how houses such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s make the transition to literary shrine whilst being able to appreciate the very place around us. The varying arguments posed as to why we feel motivated to make such pilgrimages became even more poignant as the guests, myself included, had all undertaken journeys of varying lengths to be there on the day, in the house of Mrs Gaskell herself.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the postcard project, both during its running pre-conference and in the open discussion, was a standout feature of the day, and for me, of the experience as a whole. People’s eager attitude and willingness to share made me question some of my pre-existing assumptions which labelled literary tourism as a rather solitary act. Contrary to this, although the motivations for engaging with relics and literary tourism may be intensely personal, the desire to share and communicate is also present for many. Whilst visiting a literary home may create a link between ourselves and an author, sharing the experience offered the opportunity to create links with others who share similar sensibilities, affording these trips a new lease of life and a way to continue. Spending the day interacting with people who are eager to explore and discuss such activities only strengthened my interest in the subject. Each speaker prompted a response in me, be that either agreement or disagreement that was welcome and has excited me about the future and the direction of my own ideas and work as I enter my final university year.

Beatrice Lord, University of York

Beatrice cropPlacing the Author enabled me to explore three different worlds. It seems only appropriate given the conference’s focus on spaces, both physical and imagined.

The world I first explored is that of academia. As an undergraduate, I naturally spend a lot of time within a university environment, listening and learning at seminars and lectures. But in becoming a volunteer conference assistant, I was provided with a different and valuable opportunity to collaborate with a team of academics. Through my mentor Claire, I experienced a wealth of hands-on activities. I gained insight into organising an academic event, from the logistics of expenses to the art of timetabling.

Throughout this learning curve I was encouraged to take an active part in the process, an experience which has really helped me in deciding to pursue a postgraduate course.

Literary tourism is the second world I was able to delve deeper into. It was thrilling to be swept up in the great wave of enthusiasm for the subject. Helping to manage the blog and Postcard Project opened my eyes to just how diverse and far-reaching this world is, as did the conference itself. Everyone wanted to be there, to soak everything up. And everyone brought something new to the conversation. The realm of relics and souvenirs is much darker than I realised. Human hair and teeth will forever stick in my mind as possibly the most disturbing connection to dead authors.

Finally, I was able to access Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic world (although Placing the Author has made me hyper-aware that this ‘access’ reveals more about my own than the author’s world!). It might seem strange but I found it difficult to take in. Her house was beautiful. They had so perfectly captured the splendour of Gaskell’s beloved garden and the date of the conference meant we saw it in full bloom. Inside was an array of elegant rooms with high ceilings. Could this really have belonged to the woman who wrote so knowingly about devastating poverty?

To some extent though, my weeks of working on the Placing the Author team had prepared me for this. The dozens of accounts I had read told me that we can develop such strong preconceptions about places and experiences, only to find them remarkably different to or even better than what we imagined.

Considering Brontë’s ‘everyday’: Angharad’s postcard from Haworth

Angharad outside St Michael and All Angels Church, Haworth. Summer 2009.

Angharad outside St Michael and All Angels Church, Haworth. Summer 2009.

Why I went…

I fell in love with Charlotte Brontë when I was eleven years old and read Jane Eyre and Villette in quick succession. I had always pretended to be above literary tourism so had never visited the Parsonage before. This summer, though, we were in the area just as I was thinking about how Charlotte Brontë would fit into my PhD project, which was shaping up to be more focused on life-writing – and less on novels – than I had expected. I realised that I needed to think more about how the life of the author might be interwoven with her novels.

What I got out of the experience…

As I walked through Haworth, peered into the Sunday school and wandered past the Church, Brontë became more than just an author for me. At the same time, she became more ordinary – less a Genius and more a typical parson’s daughter. I could imagine the routine of her days and weeks: attending services, teaching at the Sunday school, taking a walk on the moor just behind the Parsonage. The Church and Sunday school were closer to the Parsonage than I had imagined. None of her activities would take her far from the house and I finally appreciated the bounded nature of her existence before her temporary escape to Brussels. While at Haworth, her domestic and religious activities dominated her life. Thinking in this way about Brontë’s ‘everyday’ enabled me to think more about what her works say about the difference between literary and ‘real’ women’s lives.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Summer 2009.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Summer 2009.

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‘All that light might symbolize to her’: Diane’s postcard from 30 Torrington Square, London

The window from the first landing of Christina Rossetti's house, January 2010

The window from the first landing of Christina Rossetti’s house, January 2010

Why I went…

Rossetti’s 30 Torrington Square home is no longer a single-family dwelling: it has been broken into flats, and the basement floor, the former kitchen, is now the office of the chaplain of University College London.  Therefore it took some arranging by helpful people to get inside and wander about a bit.  At first, my desire to get inside was motivated by my interest in Rossetti’s last illness: breast cancer.  I knew she had undergone a mastectomy in one of its rooms, and I knew that during her last months, when dying of cancer, the drawing room became her bedroom.  I have attached a photo of a window from the inside of 30 Torrington Square, London, the residence of Christina Rossetti from September of 1876 until her death in December of 1894. I have other photos, some of me standing in front of the house, but this one has much more meaning to me.  My husband took it the second time we were able to get inside the house, which was in January of 2010.

What I got out of the experience…

After our first visit, I had come to think about how important windows must have been to her.  She spent many hours in this house and those windows would have provided light and all that light might symbolize to her.  I had even begun to think of some of her poems as types of windows.  This particular window is the first window you see when you enter the ground floor hallway. It is positioned on the first landing of the stairs.  I found myself imagining Rossetti climbing those stairs and perhaps pausing to look out the window.

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