Luxurious bliss for Bronte scholars and afficionados under the auspices of the Australian Bronte Association, this event was a superb one day conference held at the State Library of NSW with top speakers both from here in Australia and internationally. The event was part of the bicentennial celebrations of Charlotte Bronte’s birth world wide.

Brontë was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters – Anne , Charlotte and Emily – who survived into adulthood, along with their brother Branwell. Charlotte is most famous for her novel Jane Eyre, her other books being Shirley, The Professor and Vilette.

The day began with an official welcome by Sarah Burns, President of the Australian Bronte Association. The first talk was Celebrating Charlotte : The Life and Writing given by Emeritus Scientia Professor Christine Alexander, who is patron of the ABA .

Professor Alexander described how whilst Charlotte was shy and diffident by nature she was bold, courageous and tenacious in her writings. She faced enormous struggles in her life which was cruelly cut short at the age of 38.

Professor Alexander looked at Charlotte’s life and her relationship with her siblings , father and husband. The juvenilia was mentioned – Professor Alexander talked about her detective work around the globe trying to find additional and/or missing works.

Charlotte Bronte’s life was entwined with her work and Professor Alexander looked at this and how the family tragedies deeply affected her. An enthralling , fascinating talk .

After a break for a delicious morning tea , eminent Australian author David Malouf gave an engrossing talk about the background to his opera of Jane Eyre, first performed as part of the Cheltenham Festival in 2000 and then in Canberra in 2005.

Malouf spoke broadly about how as a librettist he chose the characters and voices to write for, the problems associated with writing an adaptation of a novel for the stage, how he focuses on the connection between the audience and the voice of the narrator, and the issues around  balancing the chosen required voices. He posed the question,- Which comes first? music or libretto?, and talked about the collaboration between composers and librettists.

Professor Tim Dolan, based at the Curtin University in Perth, was next to the podium and gave a fiery inspirational talk about Together Alone: Charlotte Bronte, The Woman Writer and the Industrial Novel which looked at the Brontes in the context of Victorian industrialisation and their harshly changing world.

Professor Dolan looked at how the Brontes innocently yet accurately reported the harsh reality of their lives. Letters were used to provide a new understanding of Charlotte and how she used her writing to examine the economic climate of the time and also the position of women in society , with disturbing undercurrents of domestic violence in some of the novels. Charlotte felt proud of her work yet simultaneously guilty and trapped in her home environment.

After lunch Professor Helen Groth from UNSW presented a very interesting talk on Charlotte Bronte and the “Listening Reader” asking what did it mean for Victorian readers to listen to Charlotte Bronte and her siblings, and what does it mean to read Bronte with a critical ear and with attention to the acoustics of the novels?

Charlotte trained her readers to carefully listen and new critical work has drawn attention to the way we ‘hear ‘the text , drawing the reader into the environment of the books.

Charlotte herself apparently appeared elusive at parties almost disastrously shy and inaudible, with quite a strong Irish accent inherited from her father. The aural /oral world of Jane Eyre was then examined. An example was in  Vilette with Lucy Snowe being compelled to listen and rather overwhelmed, at first, by the barrage of sounds upon her arrival in London.

The final paper of the day was Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys in Modern Dress by Professor Sue Thomas from La Trobe University in Melbourne. This talk looked in particular at three plays by Polly Teale as performed by the Shared Experience company from Oxford : After Mrs Rochester, Bronte and Jane Eyre.

Jean Rhys, who wrote The Wide Sargossa Sea , a novel about Bertha Mason , the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre life, was vigorously discussed. Why did Rhys identify so strongly with Bertha?! The way an audience collaborates in construction of memory and the narrative of a play was also examined. The three plays were briefly analyzed and commented upon,  and in regards to After Mrs Rochester, in particular, mention was made of the powerful Dogwoman series of paintings by Paula Rego.

To complete the day there was a short Q & A session raising such topics as the relationship between the various Brontes , their domination by their father the Rev. Patrick Bronte, how Emily was seen as quite eccentric,  about Anne who was viewed as younger and often dismissed but was actually a prodigious talent, the connections with Jane Austen’s family and their possible links to sugar cane plantations and slavery and much more…

A very exciting and informative day.

CELEBRATING CHARLOTTE was a day long conference held at the State Library of NSW 14 May 2016