Brontë Society Roiled Again, This Time By Controversy Over Supermodel Lily Cole

In Depth

Hear that? It’s not the winter winds wuthering across the moors, but rather—once again—the sound of the Brontë Society riven by dramatic conflict.

The Brontë Society is a literary society dedicated to the works of the famous 19th-century sisters, and they’ve designated this year a 200th anniversary celebration for Emily. So far, so good. But this particular organization seems totally unable to get through a 12-to-18 month stretch without some internal strife spilling over into the pages of British newspapers. As the Guardian explained in 2015, there’s a split between traditionalists and would-be modernizers who’d like to add a little pep to the society’s step and maybe even attract a few young faces. Why should Jane Austen and William Shakespeare get all the literary tourists? (Other than the fact that Haworth is a bit of a hike.) A 2015 meeting saw then-president Bonnie Greer attempting to keep order by banging a Jimmy Choo on the table—an attempt at lightening the mood, she explained later. Apparently it didn’t work all that well, and she ultimately resigned.

This time the controversy is about the inclusion of supermodel Lily Cole. Cole has been selected “creative partner” for the commemoration of Emily’s birth, and it has gone over badly with some traditionalists. The New York Times provides a good overview; in particular, society member Nick Holland has contributed a furious blog post to the debate. He writes: “At first I was dismayed, now I am angry – what should have been a joyous year with genius at its centre has instead become a rank farce with the news that their Creative Partner for 2018 is Lily Cole.” He goes on to complain about a play in which she once appeared, building up to this rant:

This was, quite simply, the worst play I have ever seen, and the writer of it? Simon Armitage, the incumbent creative partner at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. So here we see one of the many problems with Lily’s appointment – nepotism. Nepotism is a disease particularly rampant in literature, so that the best way to get a book deal is to be a journalist, a celebrity, or a friend or relative of one. This is particularly evident at this time of year, when newspaper’s lists of the ‘books of the year’ feature writers bigging up those who share the same agent or publisher – an act known as ‘log rolling’. We now have a Brontë log roll, as Simon Armitage passes on the baton to his friend Lily Cole.

No offense to the Brontë Society’s mainstream popularity but this looks less like a log roll and more like an attempt to get some attention from glossy magazines and the internet more broadly, which seems worth a try to boost revenues for the organization and visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. And why not? What’s it gonna hurt the literary reputation of some of the most famous authors who ever lived? Besides, Cole did put her modeling career on pause to attend Cambridge, so it’s not like they just snagged the first reality TV star they saw in the pages of US Weekly.

Unsurprisingly, the response to Holland’s response has been that he’s a big snob. And in a statement to the BBC, Cole said part of the reason she took the gig is that 2018 is also the centennial of British women gaining the right to vote, and she made reference to the sisters’ feeling compelled to publish under pen names to conceal their gender:

Why could a woman not publish under her own name? What was life like for women living in the UK in the 19th Century? What circumstances would also give rise to a child being found abandoned in a city in the 18th Century, as Heathcliff was?
Now I find myself wondering, fleetingly, if I should present the short film I am working on for the Bronte Parsonage Museum under a pseudonym myself, so that it will be judged on its own merits, rather than on my name, my gender, my image or my teenage decisions.
I would not be so presumptuous as to guess Emily’s reaction to my appointment as a creative partner at the museum, were she alive today. Yet I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.

At any rate, Oxford professor of English literature Helen Small told the New York Times that it’s really hard to know what Emily would have wanted anyway, because she’s such a mystery: “You can’t place her within the same contexts that other people operate,” adding that, “There is so little evidence for what she thought — using her in this way is irrelevant.”

You know who’d write something really funny about this? Jane Austen.

This has been The Brontë Society Drama Hour. Join us again next year for another round of extremely specific rancor.

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