Skip to main content

"I am no bird, and no net ensnares me."

It's been a while, Brown Brontë readers, I know. I've had so many other research and writing projects on the go that my blog has fallen by the wayside a little bit. I fully intend to try and post a bit more regularly now, but you've heard that before so I'm making no promises as to how often that will be. I will say that I've read and watched a bunch of stuff and I'd love to share reviews with you all, so watch this space.

For now, I'll start with my thoughts on "I Am No Bird," a dramatic and musical production by Stute Theatre, who are performing it as part of this year's Ilkley Literature Festival

It's a lively little piece that explores what it means - and meant - to be a woman trying to make a living from the arts. It looks at the barriers to women's creativity, historical and current, and, spoiler alert, there's a lot that hasn't changed, depressingly. 

The piece depicts three women trying to write and put on a show about the Brontës. They argue about the best way to portray the sisters ('if Emily were alive today, she'd be wearing jeans!); what the musical numbers should be like ('this is boring; aren't you bored?'), and whether Branwell should be part of the show or not. The dialogue is interspersed with musical renditions of the novels, and some of the particularly infuriating criticisms that Charlotte, Emily and Anne received, most notably from Robert Southey, who wrote in response to Charlotte's request for feedback on her poems, that 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be.' Urgh.

It did get a bit meta, with the actors playing actors playing the Brontës, slipping in and out of their characters' characters and addressing the audience from time to time. Perhaps that won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I was happy to play along for the evening.

I admired the energy and multiple skills of the three-woman-strong cast. They acted, sang and played musical instruments to accompany the songs, which ranged from toe-tappingly catchy to discordantly experimental. I loved the use of the motifs of birds and fire, because of their links with the novels. I loved the broad Yorkshire accents of the actresses, and the little dramatic tricks they used; such as making 'chatterboxes' out of newspapers and flapping them to parody the pearl-clutching reviewers who found the novels immoral, scandalous or distasteful. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Branwell as a mop with a pair of boots underneath and a bottle of whisky, although I was disappointed that there wasn't a more nuanced consideration of his character. There is one point where the sisters say something along the lines of 'he feels nothing,' but surely Branwell's problem was that he felt everything, and too much; he was a Brontë, after all. But that's another post, maybe.

There is a lot that will resonate with women who write and create art; the struggles of balancing domestic responsibilities with creative urges; the talking down to you by others who think they know better; the cultural expectations of society; the fact that people often don't see your work as 'work.' There is a point when one of the actors in her actor-persona has a mini-meltdown because her ex keeps calling her at work because he can't manage their children. Then there's dealing with criticism; when to take it on board, and when to stand by your art, succintly demonstrated by Charlotte and Emily respectively.

It might sound as if the play didn't say anything very profound or new, but the fact that these issues are still so familiar to us is, I think, the whole point; what has changed, really, in the past 200-odd years? Yes, women can publish under their own names now, but there are still instances when women in business and industry find people's attitudes towards them change drastically for the better, when they operate under male names. Virginia Woolf wrote, in the twentieth century, of the importance, as a woman, of having a room of one's own, to do creative work undisturbed. We know that women carry out the bulk of unpaid caring duties; that women's careers take a nosedive after having children; that the pandemic has seen proportionally more women giving up their jobs to take care of children and families. Even with the best will in the world, with the most supportive partner in the world, there are days when everyone just wants a piece of you and you just don't get the uninterrupted time you need to sit down and focus on a writing project. This is without even delving into how race and class intersect with gender to create additional barriers to making a living from art.

So, although the substance of the message in the play may not have been groundbreaking, the fact that I could still recognise myself and other women I know in those characters on stage, means there's still a lot of work to do.

If you enjoyed this post, then follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Join the conversation at The Brown Brontë's Book Club .


Popular posts from this blog

Six Striking Titles For Mother's Day

The pandemic has meant lots of us have not been able to see or visit our own mothers for a whole year or more. There are many who are dealing with the pain of having lost their mothers during this time. For those of you who are yourselves mothers – whether you’re homeschooling, working from home or not for whatever reason, worrying about work, finances, the mess in your home, the amount of time the kids are spending staring at screens, or generally feeling like you’re doing a rubbish job – fear not, you are not alone. I have put together some of my recent reads about the joys and sorrows, fears and hopes of modern motherhood. They’re not all pandemic-specific, but a lot of them focus on the big eternal concerns as well as the minutiae of mothering. Sad or funny, long or short, thrilling or thoughtful – I hope there is something here to suit different tastes. And the best part is, you don’t have to be a parent to enjoy any of them! So take a look below, at my Six Striking Titles f

Chatting with Kate Morrison, Author: A Book of Secrets

Something special on the blog today, readers: I'm thrilled to be chatting to Kate Morrison, author of stunning debut A Book of Secrets, as part of its Random Things Tour. Join us as we talk about historical research, women's independence and racism in Elizabethan England. "A Book of Secrets is the story of a woman named Susan Charlewood living in Elizabethan England. Born in what is now Ghana, Susan is enslaved by the Portuguese but later rescued by British sailors, who bring her to England. Once in England, she is raised in an English Cathoic household. When Susan comes of age, the family marry her off to an older Catholic man, John Charlewood. Charlewood runs a printing press and uses it to supply the Papist nobility with illegal Catholic texts and foment rebellion amongst the Catholic underclass. When Charlewood, Susan takes over the business and uses her new position to find out more about her origins.  A look at racial relationships at the beginning of the eve of the

St George of Merrie England: History, Myth and Fairy Tale

Today - 23rd April - is St George's Day . Most of us are aware of St George's Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins; Google says he was born to Greek parents but in fact his mother was from Syria and his father from what is now Anatolia, right in the middle of modern-day Turkey. Not much else is known about him other than that he was a soldier in the Roman army who was martyred for being Christian.  He is also venerated in the traditions of different cultures and faiths, including in some Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. The idea of patron saints is an interesting one to me - I've always thought that the fact that these saints hail from different parts of the world to the countries they are patron saints of, is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand their cultural and ethnic differences are overlooked in favour of the unifying aspect of their faith and values - but on the other hand, patron saints are a symbol of nationhood - and often co-opted by nationalists.