Amid the Brave… Anne Brontë and Family

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.

The Last Lion and the Eagle

By Philip Pearce

WINSTON CHURCHILL is the latest subject in Howard Burnham’s exciting series of on-line Zoom biographies under the auspices of Monterey County Theatre Alliance.

It’s no surprise that his portrait of the great man in The Last Lion and the Eagle is compelling and the slide show vivid in its panorama of the key personalities, places and events in the life of one of the most famous non-Americans in recent American history.

With its strong emphasis on Churchill’s American mother and American wife, plus his close links with figures like the Roosevelts, Harry Hopkins and ambassadors Kennedy and Wynant, it was a popular choice. Several members of the audience voted for it enthusiastically in an informal interactive chat with Howard after his performance as Edward Lear in His Shoes Were Far Too Tight. I guess I need to check in as a member of the loyal opposition when I say I liked Last Lion and Eagle but I liked Shoes and In a Dream Within a Dream better.

Why? I think because I had less advance knowledge of either Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear than I did of Winston Churchill. The two humorists were names on the covers of books I knew well but whose authors’ lives were full of quirky nooks and crannies I had never poked into. The two plays probed and explored previously undiscovered territory and I like it when theater does that. Lion and Eagle offers an affectionate tribute to a world-famous man, not so much to assess as to extol him. That’s fine. It’s what Shakespeare does for Henry V. But having lived through a lot of the 20th century and read a fair bit of its history, I found myself last Saturday taking a pleasantly nostalgic but over-familiar stroll along a well-traveled stretch of American history.