Friday 27 March 2020

Review: The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick, Sharon Wright (2019)

Three sisters living at the edge of a Yorkshire moor, with their widowed father and troubled brother—this is the legend we’re used to hearing about the Brontës. But in her wonderful recent biography, The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick, Sharon Wright shines a light on that other member of the family—the mother, who gave Branwell Brontë (the Brontë sibling most central to my forthcoming novel) his name.

Maria Branwell, who was, from 1812 until her early death in 1821, Mrs Brontë, has always been a shadowy figure. Anne Brontë, the youngest of the famous siblings, had no memory of her. Charlotte, Branwell, and Emily were, respectively, five, four, and three at her death. But here she comes to life, as does her sprawling, successful family, enterprising business people from bustling Cornish Penzance.

In the early chapters of her biography, Wright charts the fortunes of the Branwell family (who shared with Patrick Brontë an unfortunate habit of frequently changing the spelling of their last name). Later, our focus is more securely on Maria—on her move from Cornwall to Yorkshire, her whirlwind romance with the Reverend Brontë, and her life as a young wife, giving birth to six children within seven years.

I rate my knowledge of the Brontës pretty highly (I did a LOT of research into the family, especially Branwell and Anne, for my novel, Brontë’s Mistress), but the biography still taught me lots I didn’t know. I’d never, for instance, spent time with Maria’s surviving letters (published here in full in the appendix), or realised that she had writing aspirations of her own, even as she went through multiple pregnancies in quick succession.

More than anything the book left me with an impression of how connected the Brontës were—to a large family of Cornish relatives, and to middle class society in Thornton, where the young couple set up their first family home. Our prevailing view of the Brontës is often one centred on isolation. The Brontë parsonage, sited as it is at the edge of Haworth, gives us the impression of the family as having existed on the outskirts of the world.

There’s a romance to isolation that many of us might have believed in (at least until the last few weeks). The Brontës’ physical distance from the (publishing) world and their motherlessness are both factors that have contributed to the establishment of the Brontë myth. But Maria existed, and her influence on her children—on their friendships, reading taste, and personalities—seems to have extended long after her death.

If you, like me, love the Brontës, I’d highly recommend checking out Sharon Wright’s book. And if you’re a reader of fiction, as well as non-fiction, you might want to read more about my novel, Brontë’s Mistress, here.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

February/March Articles Featuring Bronte’s Mistress

It’s hard to believe that articles are being written about anything other than COVID-19 right now, but in the last few weeks, I’ve been delighted that my forthcoming novel, Brontë’s Mistress, and I have been featured in three articles.

First up, I wrote a piece for Books By Women, titled ‘The Brontë Myth: Why This Literary Family Continues to Inspire Writers Today’, about the extraordinary family of Victorian women novelists who continue to fascinate readers and history buffs today. I covered how the Brontës’ playacting, early deaths, physical and emotional isolation, and frequent literary rejections make them especially compelling to writers, and how I engaged with these topics in my own book.

Then, earlier this month, Brontë’s Mistress was listed as number one (!) on Pretty Progressive’s list, ‘13 Amazing Books Every Feminist Should Read in 2020’. I was grateful for the Women’s History Month shout out and excited to see my story, about a woman who is a ‘bad feminist’ by many modern measures, featured in the piece.

Finally, last week I, along with four other women writers, was interviewed as part of Bookstr’s 5x5 series, where the publication poses five questions to writers with something in common. In ‘5×5 International Women’s Month: Celebrating Amazing Female Authors’, I spoke about my perspective as a woman writer, my choice of genre, the advice I’d give aspiring writers, and how to celebrate Women’s History Month. I really enjoyed reading my fellow writers’ perspectives and being in such great company.

It’s an uncertain time to be releasing a book and I’m really grateful to the publications and people who are helping me bring Brontë’s Mistress to the world. If you’d like to feature the novel, or me, in your publication, on your social media, or on your blog, please get in touch. You can always reach me on Facebook, on Twitter, or on Instagram, or by commenting below.

For more information on Brontë’s Mistress, check out my author website, or sign up to my author mailing list below (my next email goes out on April 1st!).

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Tuesday 10 March 2020

Theatre Review: Cheer From Chawton, 14th Street Y, New York City

Another post for Jane Austen fans! 

Last month I wrote about attending a marathon reading of Jane Austen’s 1818 Persuasion in the beautiful setting of the King Manor Museum in Queens. This month it was time for another event perfect for so-called Janeites—a one-woman play at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan.

Cheer From Chawton is a play that playwright and actor Karen Eterovich has been performing for over ten years. She’s taken it to museums and theatres, played for British and American audiences, and answered lots of questions from crowds along the way.

The conceit is that Jane Austen has been tricked by her family at their home in Chawton. They’ve left her to tackle an unrehearsed solo performance, rather than engaging in their normal amateur theatricals. ‘Jane’ relates the story of her life and changing fortunes as a novelist, giving us occasional cameos of her most memorable characters. There are even roles for unwitting members of the audience, as Eterovich pulls spectators onstage, or, in the guise of Miss Bates from Austen’s 1815 Emma, moves through the crowd, addressing us by different names.

The play is good fun, if a little chaotic. I did wonder what those who’ve never read Austen, or seen adaptations of her works, would have made of it! But, more than ten years on, the show is still finding its audience—diehard fans, who are so familiar with Austen’s oeuvre that they can move from scene to scene, and even from novel to novel, with ease.

At the close of the show, Eterovich held a brief Q&A session, fielding enquiries about her process and the places she’s taken the play. I asked her what question was the most common on her tours. She told me that she’s often asked about the feat of memory involved in learning lines of early-nineteenth-century prose. Her answer? Memorising Austen is a great way to realise how word-perfect the writing is.

I can well believe it. In an era when many first encounter Austen on-screen, in period dramas complete with lavish costumes, brilliant ball scenes, and the occasional nudity (hello Johnny Flynn in the opening scene of the 2020 film adaptation of Emma!), Cheer From Chawton still delights with few props, no visual effects and no dashing male lead. How extraordinary that Jane’s words are still echoing through the centuries.

Do you know of any other NYC-based shows the Secret Victorianist may want to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And, if you’re on Team Bronte vs. Team Austen, or just love all things nineteenth-century, check out the details about my upcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, here.