A literary scholar and a British supermodel are feuding over what Emily Bronte — the English novelist who wrote Wuthering Heights — would think of recently announced plans to celebrate her 200th birthday this year.
Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a bizarre scenario, but one that has sparked real debate about elitism and sexism in Britain.
Here’s a quick primer.
What are the birthday plans?
The Bronte Society (one of the oldest literary societies in the world) has announced grand plans to celebrate the bicentenary of Bronte’s birth this year.
They kicked off the celebrations in December by appointing actress, supermodel and social entrepreneur Lily Cole as their patron for 2018.
The press release said Wuthering Heights was one of Cole’s favourite books, and she was excited and honoured to help commemorate the English writer.
But the decision so incensed one society member, Nick Holland, that he quit the group citing irreconcilable differences.
Why is he so angry?
Holland, who has written books about the Bronte sisters, explained his reasons in a blog posted on his website last month, entitled: Emily Bronte, Lily Cole and the Shame of The Bronte Society.
Holland is the author of In Search of Anne Bronte, a biography of the writer (Twitter: Nick Holland)
In it, he describes the appointment as a “rank farce” and argues the Bronte Society has become so obsessed with attracting a younger audience that the sisters have become an afterthought.
“Being trendy is the ultimate aim, with the Brontes themselves relegated to the sidelines,” he wrote.
His main gripe, it appears, is with those who want to modernise the society with “multimedia presentations” and celebrity faces.
“We hear people say, echoing the consultants, that the [society’s] membership is too old — ‘look at the events, look at the meetings, everyone is old!’ In today’s society it has become a crime to be old,” he said.
“Where is the problem in the majority of members being middle aged or older?” he asks.
But despite writing that he had “nothing against Lily herself”, his criticism of the model got personal.
“If you don’t know Lily Cole, and you’d be in the majority, she is described as ‘a model and social entrepreneur’ (whatever that is),” he wrote.
He went on to explain how he was once “unfortunate enough” to have seen Cole perform in a play.
“Lily had the title role, and the play was so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval,” he said.
Long story short, he says Bronte would not have approved of her appointment and it should have been a writer.
“The very basic rule should have been that the person chosen for such an important role as creative partner is a writer,” he wrote.
What has Cole said?
In a statement to the BBC, Cole refused to speculate how Bronte would have felt about her new position.
“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,” she said.
“Yet I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”
Oof. In case you missed it, that last line is a subtle nod to the fact that the Bronte sisters famously published their novels under male pseudonyms to ensure their work was given the proper consideration at the time.
Charlotte Bronte (right) was Currer Bell, Emily (centre) was Ellis Bell and Anne (left) was Acton Bell. (National Portrait Gallery: Patrick Branwell Bronte)
In fact, Cole said she even considered presenting her work with the society under a pseudonym for the same reason.
“So that it will be judged on its own merits, rather than on my name, my gender, my image or my teenage decisions,” she said.
So what would Emily Bronte think?
Cole’s official role with the society will be as a creative partner at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, west of Leeds.
According to the society, that will involve exploring and commenting on Bronte’s legacy, on today’s gender politics, and creating a short film about the Wuthering Heights anti-hero, Heathcliff.
Unfortunately, we’ll never know how the middle sister would have felt about the move, but we do know what some other, alive people think.
Here’s some of the commentary on Twitter:
Tweet by Mister Who: Nick_Holland_ Just read about you resigning from the Bronte society over lilycole. You do know she got a double first in art history as well as A grade a levels in English, philosophy, ethics and politics? She’s not some dumb bimbo supermodel as you seem to think.
Tweet by Fern Riddell: I really don’t think the Brontes would have had that much time for a man who judges a woman based solely on her looks, and instead purposefully ignores her mind and love of the arts.
Tweet by Alice: As a member of the Bronte Society myself, I’m glad to wave goodbye to you Nick Holland.
Tweet by Donna Ferguson: I interviewed @lilycole last year. She was kind, articulate, funny and possibly the cleverest person I’ve ever met. The Bronte Society will only benefit from her membership & are lucky to have her. Anyone who thinks otherwise has definitely never met her.