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.

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#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

Emma

Persuasion

Mansfield Park

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

Pride and Prejudice

Persuasion

Sense and Sensibility

Northanger Abbey

Mansfield Park

Emma

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.)

 

 

 

 

Further Evidence That Charlotte Bronte Is a Piece of Work

A friend alerted me to the Austen/Bronte-themed podcast Bonnets At Dawn, which recently featured the creator of the marvelously strange web series Black Girl in a Big Dress and referenced a fascinating LitHub article from a few months back, Reading Jane Eyre While Black. Around that time I’d been reading “Villette” and was struck by how much she seemed to deplore Catholics, too. Which does not excuse her handling of poor Bertha Rochester, but does help us set it in a wider context.

By a strange coincidence, I learned of the Bonnets At Dawn podcast at the same time I was reading “The Professor,”  the only Bronte novel I’ve not read before. Continue reading

Book event tomorrow!

Just a reminder that the performance reading and author discussion is taking place tomorrow, Dec 6 at 6:30.
Shakespeare and Co is at 939 Lexington Ave. between 68th and 69th Street, not far from the shiny new 72nd Street Q stop and even closer to the 6 train.
Sarah Rose Kearns, the guiding genius behind this thing, is both talented and organized. She is also as obsessed with Jane Austen as I am. It’s been so interesting seeing her visualize parts of my novel as a play — I can’t wait to see how it goes.

On Harvey Weinstein, Sexual Politics and Science Fiction

Like lots of people, I’ve been thinking about all the accusations of sexual misconduct that have come spilling out into public notice ever since the Harvey Weinstein story broke – hardly six weeks, yet what feels a lifetime ago.  Like many women, I’ve wondered if we will look back on this historical moment as a paradigm shift in what is considered acceptable behavior.

It’s important to be realistic about the limits of such a shift. Some men will still behave like jerks, whether through groping, leering, impolite remarks, or rape. There will be still be painful, awkward episodes among all genders of misread social cues, attempted flirting gone horribly wrong, unreciprocated workplace crushes, etc.

But is it too far-fetched to imagine a world where the goal posts have moved? Where the default of people’s conduct and their expectations of other people’s is different than today? It’s a topic that science fiction has not ignored. Continue reading