The Brontë society is in the midst of celebrating the bicentennials of the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë, with upgrades to the museum, displays from the BBC special “To Walk Invisible”, and artistic expressions of their work.
In one art piece an artist named Tamar Stone has created a small bed, layered in blankets, shams covering pillows, and a thick, lumpy mattress, each embroidered with the words of these four siblings from their written work. In the artist statement, she writes: Women have always been associated with the home, hearth, and domestic duties. The more I learn about women’s lives being constricted by their clothes and social mores, combined with my interest in the history of housework, the more I have been exploring what was happening to women in their homes and how they were prisoners within their ‘upholstered cages’. In the past our life cycle began and ended in the bed of our home: we were born there and we died there. Today that life cycle often begins and ends in an institutional bed.
The piece is made to be interacted with, to read the “book” you peel back the layers of the bed, fold over each blanket, read the words each piece holds. When you are finished with the story, you make the bed again. The piece is undone and redone many times each day, the words read over and over and over again.
Our last stop was here, in Haworth, the home of the Brontë Parsonage. Mr. Brontë brought his young family here and shortly after lost his wife and two older daughters. Raising his younger four children with his sister-in-law, he encouraged imagination and storytelling. The young sisters and brother would create new worlds together in their room upstairs and happily recreate these into plays to be performed for the adults on the stairs in the main hall. They were also raised to care for the house: laundry and cooking, mending and sewing, sweeping and bed making.
The three sisters began publishing in the mid-1840s under pseudonyms. They’d previously seen how the works of women were received by publishers and the public, and chose the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell to carry forth their stories. Of course we know people were shocked by the savagery, violence, and passion in them- even not knowing the authors were women- and they raved over them. When Charlotte and Anne journeyed to London to clear up a publishing issue, they were received with adoration and praise. But this wasn’t necessarily what the women were after; they just wanted to write. The sisters desired to tell stories that weren’t necessarily neat or tidy, but stories that showed the human experience, real stories as they were real people.
They of course are some of the best known novels in English literature.
At the parsonage, there’s a trail that goes back to the moors and on to the Brontë waterfall, and finally to Top Withens. It’s usually always overcast and chilly and deliciously broody. After we drooled over everything in the museum- Patrick Brontë’s spectacles, the table where Charlotte, Anne, and Emily wrote their books, Branson’s brilliant and troubled artwork, we walked the path to the end.
It wasn’t a hard walk- nothing like an incline on an Alp in Switzerland- but there are moments to stop and catch your breath. (I thought of a trip to Colorado last year with our students and the starting and stopping up a mountain- this may be a trek they could do gladly!) Moor walking can be serious. It’s incredible to think the Brontë sisters made walks through the same way in skirts and corsets and collars so constraining.
I like the idea of the bed representative of life, probably because I love to sleep. Where we are born and where we die, all in one place. And I know Stone speaks to this as a cycle, but in the context of this trip I pray that this isn’t a cycle, but rather a spiral-
Each time around we see more and grow wider in our understanding of people, emotions, and possibilities. Each time reaching further and further to see new volcanoes erupt, new maps being made. Patrick Brontë offered education to his daughters and pushed imaginative worlds, his daughters in their spiral created works that challenged the world around them and the role and autonomy of women, and we who read them spiral even farther still, searching for the places and voices still needed to be heard.
A cycle, we are doomed to repeat; a spiral, we can pass by our history and stretch further to a brighter future, repeating the good and laying to rest the unjust. We can still go to bed in a spiral each night, resting with new stories and possibilities in our heads. One of my favorite things about the Brontës’ novels is that we are not doomed to be what our spheres tell us; things are made new including stories.
This year at Odyssey I went through various women in the Bible with my mentor girls, how Deborah, Lydia, and Miriam offer another story for our hearts. It was fun to see them come alive and be excited about girls who were like them, that they could see similar traits and passions in themselves. One of my girls talked about a bible verse she kept close to her, Luke 7:47: “she is forgiven, for she loved much.” She said she liked it so much because in so many places in scripture we see “he” and here a “she”. We women can see ourselves in this, a spiral of what is possible: we can love much, too.
These posts have surely gotten sappier as the trip has gone on- which is hilarious- but it’s been a lot more to process than I thought. (And I did think it would be a lot!!) But it’s hard to not be serious and sad and hopeful standing on the Brontës’ moors or in front of the church where Emily Davison’s memorial happened, or in Anne Frank’s room.
I’m slowly going through Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series (which also makes a person serious and hopeful), and in the second book she says all places are either hallowed or desecrated and our steps can determine what that place is. Oof. We have seen both on this trip, and I hope we have walked them as hallowed and sacred, spaces where women lived and made their beds, where they were courageous and human, where they raised humanity and made new maps for us, spiraling toward the future. May we be a namers and universe disturbers and walkers of hallowed ground.
Y’all, this trip has been a WHIRLWIND. There’s still a lot to write about, but for now the trip is done and I’ll be back in the states tomorrow with materials for the OLA class and stories for kiddos. I am SO excited for this course and the others this trip will influence and plan to share about those on here as well.
I also want to be faithful to the other places in the world that house the stories of grandmothers. This trip, I hope, has been just a step in that direction, as there are still several continents and countries and cities left to visit and learn about.
If you want to continue following this, perfect, please do! If not, given the trip is over, I’m totally not offended if you choose to unsubscribe- I get it, it’s 2017 and we get too many emails. 🙂
Finally, after I get back from our first Excursion to Colorado (which is Sunday, prayers for little jet leg turn around!) I’ll stick photos up under the photo tab on this blog and send out a post to make y’all aware.
Thanks so much for reading now or later all of my rambling and processing. It’s been fun to share and hear from folks along the way!!