Charlotte Bronte: A Celebration 

Charlotte Bronte: A Celebration 

Event: Charlotte Bronte: A Celebration 

The Royal Society of Literature/National Portrait Gallery 

Report by Eleanor Baggley

Over the last couple of weeks excitement has been mounting in the lead up to Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday on the 21st April. There have been events around the country, new exhibitions, and various new books inspired by the novel. As Claire Harman remarked in the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday evening, ‘the bicentenary has brought the focus on Bronte in a way that hasn’t happened in a long while’.

The Royal Society of Literature hosted an event on 21 April, the day of the bicentenary, at the National Portrait Gallery. Tim Robertson, Director of the RSL, introduced the panel of speakers: Claire Harman, Rachel Joyce and Moira Buffini. Each of the speakers has a particular connection to Bronte and Jane Eyre. Claire Harman is a literary biographer and wrote Charlotte Bronte: A Life, Rachel Joyce has adapted all of Bronte’s works for radio, and Moira Buffini wrote the screenplay for the 2011 film starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender.

Claire Harman opened the evening with a bit of an introduction to Charlotte Bronte and the publishing history of Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre wasn’t Bronte’s first novel; her first, The Professor, was rejected by publishers (it was later published posthumously) whilst Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey had both been accepted. Jane Eyre was an immediate bestseller in a style that I would argue we’re not quite used to anymore. It went to three editions in the first nine months and was dramatised (poorly) within a couple of months. Charlotte spent the first year after publication in anonymity as Currer Bell before revealing her identity and gender to her London-based publisher.

Haworth

The question that panellists discussing a book like Jane Eyre are always asked is ‘when did you first read it?’ Both Joyce and Buffini answered this question eloquently and with obvious admiration for the book. Joyce talked about the ‘slightly mystical association’ she’d always had with Haworth since visiting it as a child and the impression she has always had of Jane talking directly to you. For Joyce, Eyre gives a voice to the introvert and encourages those who feel unheard to write.

Buffini too talked about it being a ‘most intimate book – you are the friend and confidant of Jane Eyre’. Buffini was enthusiastically encouraged to read the novel at school by her older sister and since that first reading Jane has become a ‘lifelong friend’. This feeling of intimacy and friendship that both Joyce and Buffini talk about is shared by many, I’m sure. According to Harman, Bronte’s editor changed the title of the novel early on to ‘Jane Eyre: An Autobiography edited by Currer Bell’, supporting the idea that Jane feels like a living, breathing woman rather than a character in a novel.

Undoubtedly modern

For the panel the book is undoubtedly modern: ‘everything is so pertinent to women these days, that’s why this novel is so enduring’. Not only is it a modern novel in terms of scope and the issues it explores, but it’s also a very cinematic novel. Harman argued that it lends itself well to film. Even so, Buffini ‘felt a very great responsibility’ to Charlotte and to the novel when adapting it for the screenplay. To Buffini, ‘film adaptations will come and go, but the book endures’.

Listening to these three women talk so eloquently and passionately about Bronte and her work was inspiring, to say the least. After the talk I popped to the first floor of the Gallery to visit the mini exhibition, Celebrating Charlotte Bronte: 1816-1855. The exhibition was wonderful and includes letters, Charlotte’s ‘Little Books’ and a piece of paper signed by the three sisters under their pseudonyms. Visiting the exhibition was the perfect way to round of such a brilliant discussion and I left the National Portrait Gallery with a sudden urge to re-read, re-watch and re-listen to Jane Eyre.

Report by Eleanor Baggley

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