I’m a longstanding Brontë fangirl. So when Northern Soul‘s Editor asked if anyone wanted to interview Rebecca Yorke about her new role as director of The Brontë Society and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, I jumped at the chance.
Cue the appearance of my familiar friend: imposter syndrome. My day job is at a university. I work alongside world-leading authorities on all kinds of subjects and many of my colleagues have PhDs. My highest qualification is an undergraduate degree so I’m used to feeling the difference. Fortunately, my degree was in English Literature and I work in STEM, so I don’t experience nagging regret every day. All things Brontë-related, however, hold a particularly bittersweet place in my heart. I know there’s another version of me in a parallel universe who had the tenacity (and funding) to do that Master’s in 19th century literature and a PhD in something gloriously obscure from the Brontë catalogue.
I needn’t have worried. When I speak to Yorke, her demeanour is one of warmth and inclusivity. “The Brontës ‘belong’ to all of us,” she says. “The Society’s mission is to celebrate their lives and works, widening access to their legacy and sharing their contemporary significance with a global audience. That audience is vast and varied and so are the elements that engage them, whether it’s the novels, the poetry or the latest TV adaptation.”
Emily, Frances O’Connor’s recent film about the second youngest of sisters, upset some Brontë fans and scholars due to its artistic licence. But Yorke says that “personally, I feel that if modern interpretations encourage someone to pick up Wuthering Heights, or visit the museum, where they can learn what is fact and what is fiction, then that can only be a good thing. There is room in the Brontë community for all of us.”
I agree with this, and feel a tad sheepish about taking umbrage with the rewriting of history in my review for Northern Soul. Do see it, dear reader, it’s a beautiful film – but get to Haworth in Yorkshire after to learn what really happened, yeah? Good.
Meanwhile, Yorke’s job sounds fascinating. But for those of us not in the business of preserving and promoting the legacy of literary legends, what does a director of a literary society and museum do, exactly? And how does Yorke feel about her weight of responsibility given the genuine connection many readers have with the Brontës?
“It’s an honour and privilege to take on the role of director, as well as a huge responsibility. There are 32 members of staff and over 20 volunteers whose well-being and job satisfaction I care about, over 1,500 Brontë Society members across the globe who care about our world-class collections, plus many thousands of local residents, visitors, fans and online audiences who have a passionate interest in the Brontës and their legacy. It’s a varied and fascinating role, with no two days the same and I feel very lucky.
“My aim is to lead the organisation with vision, integrity and respect for what has gone before, while ensuring that we evolve and adapt our offer and ways of working so that we can meet the challenges of the 21st century. There are also many stakeholders to consider. The Brontë Society receives considerable annual funding from Arts Council England, in return for which we deliver a programme of events, exhibitions, outreach and learning opportunities, all of which seek to widen access to the museum and highlight the contemporary relevance of the Brontës’ story.”
This sounds like a lot to take on. I ask what Yorke is hoping to achieve in the role, and if there is scope for anything above steering the ship.
“Over the next few years, I would like to expand our digital offer, engender a sense of pride in the museum in our local communities and seize all the opportunities presented by Bradford becoming UK City of Culture in 2025 and the museum celebrating its centenary in 2028.”
It sounds like an exciting time. Yorke knows that this represents just one part of the whole, however. “I’m very mindful that my time as director will eventually contribute just a few chapters to the museum’s long history. Like those who have gone before me, I – together with our amazing staff, volunteers and trustees – am just a custodian looking after this incredible cultural asset for future generations.”
Keeping the legacy alive
So what might future generations expect from the Parsonage in Haworth? Well, hopefully someone will have stumped up for something pretty essential by then. I hadn’t considered the practical challenges of running a heritage site nestled in the moors, complete with the authentic lack of modern facilities offered by a building dating back to the late 1700s.
Yorke says: “Just in case there are any philanthropists reading this, we could also do with some toilets.” I would gladly get behind a campaign. Perhaps Public Toilets for the Parsonage for the more genteel donors out there. And Bogs4Brontës for everyone else? Although the latter seems like an appeal for the ghosts of the siblings, doomed to forever wander the moors in search of a decent privy.
On the subject of hygiene, deep-cleaning the museum was January’s task. The Parsonage was open to the public on weekends but, during the week, staff were busy doing essential maintenance work such as conservation of the clocks and furniture, checking the manuscripts and other artefacts for signs of pests or deterioration, and refreshing the displays ahead of opening five days a week again from February.
This month also marks the start of a new exhibition, The Brontës and the Wild, which, Yorke tells me, “examines the influence of nature, the local landscape and even the weather on the Brontës’ work and daily lives”. On display are manuscripts, drawings and the Brontë family’s annotated copy of Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds. “We’re keen that the exhibition will prompt conversations about the environment and biodiversity,” Yorke says. “Our wider events programme will include creative workshops inspired by the natural world, plus talks and nature walks.”
Team Charlotte, Emily or Anne?
When my imposter syndrome kicked in prior to this article, I panicked and asked Twitter for question suggestions. Of all the great replies, a few made it to my interview including ‘Does the museum have any information on the ratio at which visitors ask about each sister – do people come as specific Emily, Charlotte or Anne fans or just to appreciate the Brontës as a whole?’
“There are definitely people who are Team Charlotte or Team Emily, and certainly in more recent times, Team Anne,” Yorke says. “What the ratio is would be hard to say, although Emily certainly holds a lot of intrigue for many.” I’m sure nobody has the time for this, but the nerd in me would like to compare sales of the Team Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell badges in the Brontë Parsonage Museum shop to find the answer.
Another Twitter friend asked what Yorke thinks each of the siblings would have thought of Taylor Swift, adding that “Rebecca and her daughter are both fans”. I couldn’t resist asking this one.
“Okay, who told you that?” she laughs. “I think part of Taylor Swift’s appeal is that all of her songs tell a story, and so it’s possible that each of the sisters would have appreciated Taylor’s talent for songwriting. I think Charlotte would also be impressed by her fame and success, Emily may have admired the poetic lyricism of her songs, and Anne would have approved of her fierce independence, such as rerecording all of her past material, and her status as a financially independent female role model. As for Branwell, I think it’s more likely that he would have been the subject of a Taylor Swift song. I would love to ask Taylor this question though, and will do, should she ever visit the museum.”
Another question via Twitter resulted in an answer that archivists and curators will swoon over. It sounded magical to me and I’m so unsentimental about the past that the oldest thing in my house is a packet of Colman’s stroganoff spice mix which expired in 2015. Brace yourself: what missing piece of Brontë history would you most like to rediscover and why?
“Until last year there were many manuscripts, including several ‘little books’ by Charlotte Brontë, which hadn’t been heard of for over 80 years, but which then came to light as part of the Honresfield Library. They were due to be sold by auction in separate lots, but a consortium of institutions led by the Friends of the National Libraries worked together to fundraise and save them for public benefit. I will never forget going to Sotheby’s with Ann Dinsdale, our principal curator, and seeing them for the first time. It was incredibly moving, especially knowing that these manuscripts had been written in the Parsonage, where we now work, almost 200 years ago. Some of these items will be on display in 2023.”
On the topic of something she would like to discover, Yorke says: “We have little in the collection relating to Emily Brontë, so it would be extremely exciting if the beginnings of a second novel or a poetry manuscript, or even a letter written in her hand, were discovered.”
After speaking to Yorke, I’m convinced that whoever is looking after the society and museum in 200 years’ time will be grateful to her and all the staff involved in this special chapter of its history.
Main image: copyright Brontë Parsonage Museum
The Brontës and the Wild will be open throughout 2023, for full details click here.