In support of the Brontë Parsonage MuseumSolidarity between sister novelists and our literary houses
As the Brontë Parsonage Museum faces an uncertain future, Jane Austen’s House trustee Professor Kathryn Sutherland writes on the importance of literary houses.
‘Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? … Let us not desert one another’ (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, chapter 5)
Charlotte Brontë claimed not to have read an Austen novel until after the publication of Jane Eyre. In 1848 she recorded her reading of Pride and Prejudice, on the recommendation of George Henry Lewes. Two years later she added Emma to her list, telling her editor, W. S. Williams, in April 1850, that ‘I excite amazement by replying in the negative’ when asked ‘whether I have read’ Jane Austen.
Now, Charlotte, we at Jane Austen’s House know that is a fib!
Charlotte Brontë, we can reveal, was a secret admirer of her sister novelist. Why else would Jane Eyre, in its story and heroine, so closely mirror Mansfield Park? Ours is not to question why Brontë withheld information about her private reading: the workings of the creative mind are, we acknowledge, mysterious and secret. It is enough that she paid Austen the compliment of revisiting in Jane, the servant-heroine, Austen’s tale of Fanny, the servant-heroine, both of them outsiders ‘born to struggle and endure’, caught between religious duty and desire.
We, in our turn, confess openly our admiration for all the works of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. The three sisters were, like Jane, that rare thing, great writers even in childhood. In Catherine Earnshaw’s cry ‘I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free’ (Wuthering Heights, ch. 12), we hear something that chimes with the joyous anarchy of Jane’s teenage writings.
At Jane Austen’s House we stand in solidarity with our sister novelists, daughters, like Jane, of the parsonage. This time last year, Ann Dinsdale, Principal Curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and I were preparing a joint presentation for Ilkley Literary Festival (listen again here) on the importance of protecting a public right in cultural objects: in the manuscripts, artefacts, and houses that represent our shared literary heritage. Such objects are constituent of a thriving culture. Back in September 2019 we could not imagine how, a year on, our argument would seem even more urgent.
We are living through desperate times for literary houses and museums, for theatres, concert halls, for the arts in general. Yet this is the time when we need more than ever what novels, music, plays offer us: windows onto alternative lives and ways of being, and the opportunities for reflection and for solace and companionship that they give us.
We have the books, streaming services, and ingenious virtual alternatives, but we need the public spaces and real encounters too. The museum inside the house is a supplement to our reading, a kind of authentication. This is where Jane Austen or Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë wrote. Readers from all over the world come to these places to find confirmation of the intimacy of connection that we discover in their writings. Literary houses are powerful places, freeing the visitor to imagine how life is transformed into art. Though we still have the books and the films, we’d all be the poorer without these special places. Part of our common culture, we all have a stake in them. It is in our interest that we ensure they continue, stay open, and thrive. We owe it to ourselves to save them.