By Philip Pearce
I SPENT ten of the happiest years of my paid working life in Yorkshire. So, whether it’s Hetty Wainthropp Investigates or Wuthering Heights, I’m a sucker for any story that takes place in the north of England. I was therefore excited to be asked to pre-view Howard Burnham’s forthcoming Zoom webinar about the Brontës of Haworth and delighted with what I watched.
It happens again on Saturday at 5:30, organized by The Monterey County Theatre Alliance. Its title, Amid the Brave… Anne Brontë and Family, suggests Burnham follows Patrick Brontë in favoring his youngest daughter over and above her better known sisters Emily and Charlotte.
As with his other monologues, Howard Burnham doesn’t just give us an online lecture, he creates the role of his character in a particular situation. Here, the Reverend Patrick is speaking to novelist Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855 as she was preparing her biography of his daughter Charlotte, the only Brontë sister to produce a best seller (Jane Eyre) in her lifetime.
By 1855 Charlotte was also the only surviving member of the trio whose works pioneered 19th century feminist fiction written in a bleak and creaky parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire. That’s a reminder to us who are weathering an international medical crisis that tuberculosis a.k.a. consumption was not just a feature of popular English 19th century fiction or of French melodramas by Dumas but a grim fact of real life and death.
The offer of “history with humor” on the logo for http://howardburnham.com is justified by his witty impressions of famous men as different as Salvador Dalí and Edward Lear. The dark and terrifying world of the reflective, compassionate Patrick Brontë and his gifted family is a different story. Burnham plays it with a serious commitment that does full justice to its tragic elements. And he lightens the mixture when he can with small, funny ironies. When Anne lines up with Charlotte and Emily to launch her debut novel Agnes Grey, she sends it to poet laureate Robert Southey. He responds by advising her to shift her creative urges to needlework and leave novel writing to the gentlemen.
It was the kind of chauvinist insult that persuaded the Brontë girls to start submitting work under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Even when the books were published, a wiseacre critic speculated that Emily’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights featured a degree of savage violence demonstrating that Mr. Ellis Bell was a dangerous madman.
Howard Burnham provides these insights brilliantly in a strong Irish brogue, the Reverend Patrick having moved east into England from just across the border in County Down.
The slides provide clear images of the people and places that figure significantly in the biographies of these three important novelists and in the wildly beautiful corner of England where they lived and worked and died.