Dramatizing the Brontes: “The Art of Sisters”

Jane Austen and the Brontës had a lot in common, as clergymen’s daughters, educated but poor, geniuses in a world with little use for brilliant women. Charlotte was famously dismissive of Austen – “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.”

But what would Austen have thought about them?

The theater-lover in her at least probably would have enjoyed a recent performance I saw: “The Art of Sisters: Tales & Letters by the Brontës,” which dramatized scenes, real and imaginary, evoking their turbulent lives.

One early one, based on a diary paper, hints at their unconventional childhood. Emily (Miriam Canfield, who also directed and adapted) gleefully summarizes a most un-Victorian domestic chaos: “It is past twelve o clock and Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play …The kitchen is in a very untidy state…”

A decade later, Charlotte (Alida Rose Delaney) is back from Brussels and writing to Constantine Heger, her teacher and unrequited love object. Charlotte’s powerful feelings would soon be channeled into fiction, as we see in the proposal scene from “Jane Eyre,” with Delaney transformed into Jane.

There’s the momentous 1845 episode when Charlotte happens across Emily’s poetry. Emily is outraged by this invasion of privacy, while Anne (Katrina Michaels), ever the peacemaker, pipes up: “Charlotte! I’ve written some poems, too!”

Their novelistic imaginations take flight as Canfield becomes Cathy from “Wuthering Heights,” explaining to a hilariously unsympathetic Nelly Dean (Michaels) why she’s marrying Edgar Linton despite loving Heathcliff.  Michaels, as Mrs. Graham of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” decries the double standard of how sons are raised versus daughters.

Back in the real world, their father, Patrick (Stuart Rudin), relates how he was oblivious to the literary goings-on in the parsonage until Charlotte reveals she’s secretly the author of the biggest novel of 1847 and gives him a copy to read. “Children, Charlotte has been writing a book!” he informs the presumably amused Anne and Emily.

But happiness is brief: Emily succumbs to tuberculosis, then Anne. Their deaths are harrowingly dramatized through one of Emily’s poems and Anne’s letter expressing a wish to live longer and do some good in the world. The tall and versatile Marshall Taylor Thurman – already a silent Heger, a scowling Heathcliff, a manipulative Mr. Rochester and a mansplaining Gilbert Markham – reappears in bare feet and a holey sweater to personify Death, brutally claiming Emily and sweeping Anne off gently.

The performance’s intimate setting, a Beaux-Arts townhouse owned by the American Irish Historical Society, brought home an aspect of the Brontës often overlooked but useful to understanding them: the Irish thing.

Early in the performance, Patrick outlines his remarkable story. Growing up on a farm in Ireland, with a love for books, he started his own school at age 16, worked as a tutor in a gentleman’s family, and went to Cambridge University at 25, becoming a minister in the Church of England. This rise from rural obscurity testifies to his intellect and energy, traits his daughters inherited.  Yet as a gentleman by education but not birth, in an England that regarded the Irish askance, he remained an outsider always. This was part of his daughters’ legacy too. Charlotte would go through life with a chip on her shoulder, while Emily was indifferent to what people thought, and Anne blazed with quiet outrage at the world’s injustices.

It’s all very far from Austen’s evasive irony, her decision to let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. But I have to think she would have admired their courage at least, so different from her own yet breathing something of the same air, faced with the same sort of obstacles.


#100daysofwriting, and a Sale

This blog’s been quiet. I’m just writing. It’s fun (mostly) but doesn’t look like much. And my social media action, such as it is, has been on Twitter and Instagram. 

Instagram has been more fun than Twitter because I deal in words so much,  at work and at play, while with Instagram all you have to do is post a picture.

About 78 days ago now I decided to take part in a 100-day challenge I read about on a lovely blog called  This Itch of Writing. Itch, in turn, was inspired by the UK novelist Jenn Ashworth  who wrote:

Anyone can join in. Just turn up every day. One sentence counts. Opening the word document counts. Taking yourself for a walk or a nap to figure out a problem counts. Any type of writing counts. You don’t have to be published or be working toward publication.

No word count boot camp or productivity porn. If you don’t have the spoons to do this every day or you care for other people then you can change the rules so they suit you. If writing is part of your job (academic friends who are working to contract – this is for you) and you need to care for yourself and your colleagues by resisting work at weekends, then change the rules to make it work for you. If you miss a day or a week or change your mind it is okay.

Let’s be gentle and see what happens: I’m doing this because it reminds me to make writing more important than the stuff other people want me to make important. Let’s go! 2/100

That’s keeping the bar pretty low, I thought, I can do that! And so far I have — though some days have been more minimal than others. I think it reminds me to make writing more important than the stuff other people want me to make important” is a beautiful phrase that cannot be said, or thought, enough.

What’s funny about #100daysofwriting, Instagram version, is that I mainly post pictures of my computer. Sometimes, to shake things up and reflect the reality of how I write, I post pictures of my notebook! Every now and then there’s one from an exotic setting like the Keighley & Worth Valley railway or the New York City subway.

So, wait, what about the sale? The Kindle version of THE JANE AUSTEN PROJECT is $1.99, down from its usual $9.99 for am I not sure how long. So if you’ve been thinking about chancing it, this is your moment.

The Six, Rated Four Ways

Most funny to least (but still) funny:

Northanger Abbey

Pride and Prejudice

Sense and Sensibility



Mansfield Park

The Order in Which I Advise People New to Austen to Read Them:

Pride and Prejudice


Sense and Sensibility

Northanger Abbey

Mansfield Park


Best Romantic Leads, in Order of Best-ness:

Mr. Tilney

Captain Wentworth

Mr. Knightley

Mr. Darcy

Edward Ferrars

Edmund Bertram (Someone’s got to be last.)

Female Leads in Order of How Much I Would Probably Actually Like Them in Real Life, From Most to Least:

Marianne Dashwood

Anne Elliot

Elizabeth Bennet

Elinor Dashwood

Mary Crawford

Fanny Price

Emma Woodhouse

Catherine Moreland (This list was even harder than the men’s list. Really I like them all.)





Writing for Yourself vs. Writing for Others

Here’s a thing I wrote for Women Writers, Women’s Books. With a picture of where I did most of my writing while in Minnesota. I left there a week ago and it already seems like a glorious, delirious dream.

To write stories is always to be alone in a room, with only our characters for company. But what about readers? To write presupposes their eventual existence. Yet for a writer just setting out, doubtful of success, the reader is as fictional as the rest of it.

We write for various reasons. To understand ourselves or other people; to make sense of life’s randomness and injustice; perhaps to draw attention to them, or to imagine how things could be better. There is a certain narcissism too, in imposing yourself on the world, insisting on your own cleverness. The archetype of the Mary Sue represents the extreme of that wish-fulfilling impulse I suspect lives inside every writer, however artfully hidden.

But also this. Continue reading

Lessons From a Retreat

Other lessons: It’s very cold in Minnesota in February. But the light is amazing.

It strikes me, a week into this experiment, that the effect of a writing retreat is to compass the usual stages of writing a novel — despair, self-doubt, acceptance, discovery, etc — into a speeded-up version,  like a time-lapse video of seedlings shooting up and unfurling leaves. There is almost none of ordinary life, with its consolations and its irritations, that commonly provides the buffer, the bread around the meat of your novel. It’s all meat here, to continue the analogy. This is both amazing and terrifying. It’s amazing to sink so deep, to consider nothing else. It’s terrifying because there is nowhere to escape from the notion that it might be utter nonsense. And what then?

Also, the writing I am producing here, just considered as writing, is terrible! I try not to worry about this, for it is of all things the easiest to fix. Interesting that a certain verbal facility was what started me down this path, the longing to express things in beautiful words — and now I am telling myself it is the part that doesn’t matter so much. Is it a case of not valuing what seems easier to come by? Not that writing well is easy either, but the structural aspects, the elements that affect the reader in a realm beyond words, drive the plot and make it hard to put a book down — these seem to me the thing you really want a retreat for, what seem to call most desperately for the focus and the lack of interruption I am so rejoicing in here.

But my time is already running out. How to enlarge on what I’ve accomplished here, how to keep it going? I need to hone the skill of resisting distraction. If I have only an hour a day but I can keep it clean, free of detritus, and focus on only one task, this will be a lot. And even if that hour doesn’t produce much in the way of obvious result, to still honor it and to see it as worth doing. Also to learn how to stay in the world of the story mentally the other 23 hours, this is crucial. There is more in that world to see than there was a week ago, more to think about.

Is it magical? Kind of, yes, in the sense that ordinary life is always magical if you can figure out to look at it properly.