Wednesday 5 February 2020

Going back in time in NYC: recent events for Brontë and Austen lovers

New York City is known for being obsessed with the now. Time, it is said, moves faster here, as do the city’s inhabitants who race through the streets—to the next train, the next reservation, the next meeting. Because of this, it’s always a particular delight for me to discover (sometimes eccentric) events created by and for other history lovers, offering a moment to pause and dwell on the past, in the city that never sleeps.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended two of these. These were focused, not just on history, but on the Brontës and Jane Austen, which seemed timely given my recent post on forthcoming novels inspired by Austen and the forthcoming publication of my own novel—Brontë’s Mistress.

First up was a play—Anne Brontë: A Woman of Courage. Presented by the American Chapter of the Brontë Society in a co-production with KALIDASCOPES Media & Vision, this ran for two nights at Jefferson Market Library.

The production was a celebration of Anne Brontë, the youngest and most frequently forgotten Brontë sister, on the occasion of her bicentenary. It wove together excerpts from her novels, letters and poetry, as well as other biographical material related to the nineteenth century’s most famous literary family.

With minimal props and costuming, the four actors (Katrina Michaels, Alida Rose Delaney, Miriam Canfield and Marshall Taylor Thurman) did a great job depicting multiple characters and capturing the emotional intensity of Anne’s writing. The overall plot might have been hard to follow for those less familiar with Brontë lore, but, even taken in isolation, the scenes were an engaging sampling of Anne’s life and work.

Particularly successful were the dramatizations of key scenes from Anne’s 1848 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the novel so shocking that her sister Charlotte apologised for its existence in her biographical notice about the deceased Emily and Anne in 1850:

The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid.”

For example, Anne’s key sense of injustice in the exchange between Helen and Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still resonant in 2020, two hundred years on from her birth, even if the way she couches her moral argument in religious language may be alien and off-putting to twenty-first century audiences.

On a selfish note, I would have loved a deeper exploration of Anne’s relationship with her brother Branwell and her time working along with him at Thorp Green Hall—the focus of my novel. But here, as in other interpretations of the Brontës’ lives, more stage time was given to exploring Anne’s first stint as a governess (as depicted at least semi-autobiographically in the first half of her 1847 Agnes Grey) and the play’s creators chose to foreground the relationship between the three sisters, leaving Branwell in the shadows.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was delighted that celebrations of Anne’s life have made it across the Atlantic.

Second, last weekend I attended a marathon reading of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, at the King Manor Museum in Queens. This fascinating historic house was home to Rufus King, American Founding Father and outspoken abolitionist. Built in the 1750s, the museum was the perfect setting for the event, as attendees, many of them in period costume, took it in turns to read chapters from Volume I of Austen’s beloved 1818 work aloud.

The Secret Victorianist joins other Janeites at the Queens museum
I’m not much of a crafter, but those more talented than me stitched clothes, knitted or did embroidery while listening to the novel, making me feel (in spite of the electric light and heating) that I’d truly stepped back in time.

It was a real thrill to experience Jane Austen’s work as many of her first readers would have and something of a digital detox to spend five hours simply listening and occupying your hands (I amused myself with a colouring book for the first time in two decades). This Saturday, the museum is hosting a reading of Volume II. I won’t be able to attend, but, if you’re a Janeite in NYC, you might consider going along—even if just for a portion of the five hours.

In what’s shaping up to be a pretty crazy debut year (we’re now less than six months from the release of Brontë’s Mistress!), both these events were a great way for me to step back and connect with other lovers of the nineteenth century and I hope I’ll be able to continue to do this (and write about my adventures on this blog). Next up, I’ll be attending another play—Cheer from Chawton: A Jane Austen Family Theatrical at the 14th Street Y.

If you know of any other New York events that might be of interest to me, please get in touch—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Pre-order information for Brontë’s Mistress can be found here, and, if you want monthly updates on its release straight to your email inbox, sign up for my author newsletter below.

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