Last weekend saw the Bronte Society's annual jamboree, a host of events centred around the Society's AGM. Boasting over 2,500 members worldwide, it celebrated its centenary last year, and is one of the most successful literary societies around. The turnout was good, and there was no sign of the acrimony which has generated so many column inches in previous years. Everyone was on their best behaviour, encouraged perhaps by the presence of a BBC film crew.
The events kicked off in the church with the traditional service of thanksgiving and remembrance for the lives of the Brontes. One is always afraid that this sort of thing - ladies in hats, an atmosphere of sentimental reverence - can only do a disservice to literature. But the Reverend John Waddington-Feather gave a rather good address on Anne's novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Secular critics often forget how important religion was to the Brontes, and Waddington- Feather grasped the intellectual nettle of Anne's interest in doctrine and her heterodox belief in universal salvation, finishing up with the suggestion that had she lived today, she might have taken orders and delivered her own sermons from that very pulpit.
The difference, though, between a critic and a preacher is that one attempts objectivity while the other uses his text to make a moral point. Yet as writers, the Brontes have had the unusual fate of being admired (some would say worshipped) as much for their morality and spiritual qualities as for their literary output. Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857) presented its heroine as a woman 'made perfect by suffering', and, in the 19th century, Charlotte became an icon of feminine domesticity, her story appearing in conduct books designed to teach schoolgirls the virtues of housework and self-denial.
Mrs Gaskell's own ethics as a biographer, however, got short shrift in the annual lecture which followed the church service. In an iconoclastic paper, Juliet Barker, who is due to publish a new Bronte biography later this year, showed that Mrs Gaskell's behaviour, particularly when it came to acquiring and publishing many of Charlotte's letters, was less than exemplary. She suggested that the Bronte men - Patrick, Branwell, and Charlotte's husband, Arthur - had been victimised by generations of biographers as a result of the caricatured portraits painted by Mrs Gaskell and endorsed by Ellen Nussey, Charlotte's friend.
Barker's unflattering picture of 'dearest Nell' provoked murmurs of protective dissent among some society members. And the saintly image of Charlotte created by Mrs Gaskell will clearly never be dislodged from the minds of others, including that of George, an ex-Hell's Angel, who told me how his life had changed after reading the Gaskell biography. Not only did it convert him to Christianity and persuade him to give up his bad old ways. Charlotte's spirit now regularly communicates with him, through a sort of automatic writing. He showed me one of the letters - it was endearingly formal, beginning 'Dear Sir' - in which 'Miss Bronte' complained vociferously about an article in last December's Daily Mail which called her 'ugly', referred to her bad teeth, and made improper suggestions about her relationship with her publisher. The author of the article was lucky it was Charlotte she had insulted and not her sister, said George: Emily would have summoned the four winds of heaven and torn her limb from limb.
George may seem eccentric, but he isn't alone. In 1872, Harriet Beecher Stowe told George Eliot about a two-hour seance in which she had had a 'weird and Bronteish chat' with Charlotte's ghost, who had offered 'a most striking analysis' of Emily. The Brontes have often inspired a truly cranky response among enthusiasts, but it would be misleading not to point out that they have also attracted serious scholars, several of whom were there last weekend. The curator of the Bronte Parsonage Museum reported a sharp increase in the number of researchers visiting the library over the past year. If interest in the Brontes remains at the current level, the Society can look forward to surviving for at least another century.Reuse content