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The Brontës, Dickens and the 100 Club

This is a transcript of episode 19 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Monica Ali, Rachel Prothero, Clare McDonnell and Ann Dinsdale as we continue our journey through the history of music and literature in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Hello, I'm Emma Barnett and you're listening to 'Irreplaceable - A History of England in 100 places'. In this series we explore the amazing locations that together tell the story of England. So, how does it work?

Ten expert judges, ten categories, and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places which have helped make England the country it is today.

And we're ready to reveal the stories behind our next lot of Music & Literature locations. Of course, if you're enjoying the series don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. And if you're listening on iTunes, please rate this podcast and leave a review.

In today's episode we've got yet more English literary greats and musical movers and shakers.

Welcome to our category judge, the author Monica Ali, and we also have the broadcaster Clare McDonnell and Historic England's Rachel Prothero.

Monica, let's talk about location number six which brings us firmly into 19th century literature. Where are we going?

Monica Ali:
Well, in the sixth location we've got three great writers under one roof. Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell otherwise known as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. So, it's the famous Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, where they published their novels under male pseudonyms.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, again, getting back to this issue of "oh dear they're women and they're doing quite well at writing…" Yes, this is where the three sisters lived along with their brother Branwell, sisters Maria and Elizabeth and their father Patrick, who took up the position of curate at the Old Bell Chapel in Bradford. He was of Irish birth and Mrs Brontë was a Cornish woman but the passion their children had for Yorkshire has made their names synonymous with the area.

It's remarkable to think that this house in a picturesque village surrounded by Yorkshire moorland witnessed and inspired some extraordinary works of literature.

We met Ann Dinsdale at the Brontë Society to hear the story of this very special building.

Ann Dinsdale:
I'm Ann Dinsdale and I'm the Principal Curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

We're currently in the dining room which is the main room of the Parsonage.  This is where the sisters did their writing on the dining table which we can see here. And we know that every evening after their father had gone to bed, they would walk around the table discussing their writing and reading aloud from their work.

People continue to be inspired by the Brontës and I think that is why their home at Haworth is such an important house.  It's where they lived for nearly all their lives. And it's here where their great novels were written.

The Parsonage is quite a cold house. Haworth is very, very, sort of windswept and wild. The house is quite unsheltered.  In the Brontës' day, there wouldn't have been any of the trees that we can see today. It's surrounded on two sides by a graveyard and the family would have had an outlook of that from the windows in the house, looking down towards their father's church. [sounds of church bells].

All the children were passionate about learning. And their father Patrick Brontë had a relatively enlightened attitude towards education, in that it had enabled him to escape his humble origins and become a graduate of St John's College, Cambridge and then go on to become a middle-class respected clergyman. So, he was keen to make sacrifices to enable his children to develop.

Patrick Brontë had actually come from Northern Ireland and his wife Maria Branwell was Cornish. By the time they arrived at Haworth in 1820 they had six young children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte (who was the author of Jane Eyre), Emily (the author of Wuthering Heights), Branwell the only boy of the family and then finally there was Ann who was the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Their start to life in Haworth didn't really go very happily. It soon became clear that Mrs Brontë was ill, and she actually died within 18 months of their arrival here.

Patrick sent the four eldest girls to the school and the following year Maria and Elizabeth were both sent home in ill health and they actually died at the Parsonage.

Branwell was the only boy in the family and I think right from the start there were great expectations of what he would achieve in life. He died in the Parsonage in 1848 at the age of 31. The family were devastated by Branwell's death. And I think that's partly why the sisters actually made that push to get themselves published when they realised that they were never going to be able to rely on Branwell's support.

Emma Barnett:
Monica, we spoke in the last episode about Jane Austen's handling of class and society directly prior to the Brontë era and what inspired her. She died in 1817, whereas Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816, Emily in 1818 and Ann in 1820. The works by Austen and the Brontës are often contrasted for their very different styles but also, a lot had changed in English life during this short period in terms of what would be inspiring them.

Monica Ali:
I mean, there's a sort of whole host of difference there, isn't there. So Jane was of a different social class: she was writing from the South of England, sort of Hampshire rural society; the Brontës were in Yorkshire. They were, although their father was also a clergyman, they were actually a lot poorer than the Austens which is difficult to bear in mind when you see Haworth because it's actually a really impressive house. But they were skint! There wasn't much money around at the time. The Brontës were actually working women so they were governesses and they were teachers. So, it was a different sort of life.

The landscape was also phenomenally important, I think. Particularly if you consider Wuthering Heights. So, the gentile rolling hills of Hampshire are nowhere in sight. And the landscape that informs Wuthering Heights, that sort of hard almost brutal landscape actually shapes the literature itself.

Emma Barnett:
And also, I mean, Clare I think it's interesting about their social position. Because they were working women they spoke to lots of different people and they heard lots of different classes, different voices, and that probably gave them more of that colour that we were talking about when you need to create characters.

Clare McDonnell:
Yeah, it's interesting because if you look at Emily's Wuthering Heights, it features strangers, tenants, servants, telling the story of the Earnshaw family in their own voices. And you can't really write like that unless you know those people.

Monica Ali:
… exactly, and there's a lot of dialect written. And when Charlotte republished Wuthering Heights after Emily's death she actually toned down some of the dialect because she was worried that people wouldn't understand this broad Yorkshire voice. So, we're not sure how much of that has been lost in the final editions. But yeah, that was very important.

Emma Barnett:
They chose to publish their first collection of poetry under the male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell. You just can't imagine that you'd need to do that and yet, you know, still today people do try and at times hide their own identities when being published as well.

Monica Ali:
Well there's still less space for women authors. There's still less space in literary magazines and review pages. There's an annual survey done by a publication called Vida of how much space women get in those sorts of environments. A couple of years ago an author sent off her manuscript to a number of agents both under her name and under a male pseudonym and she got eight times the number of responses, positive responses, as a male than she did under her own name, which is quite phenomenal isn't it?

Emma Barnett:
Have you ever been tempted to become Mark Ali [laughter] instead of Monica?

Monica Ali:
Maybe I should think about that.

Emma Barnett:
No, no. I must say you've done very well [laughter] but I was just wondering if you've ever been tempted to do it the Brontë way?

Monica Ali:
I think there's something nice about the idea of anonymity. To have the work just judged on the work rather than perceptions of who you are. That's quite a nice idea.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, but it's pretty depressing what you've just said about the space for women.

Charlotte Brontë later wrote: 'we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked upon or looked on with prejudice'. So, we know that women are the biggest purchasers, are they not, of books so a huge market that shouldn't be overlooked.

Monica Ali:
It makes no sense does it? In fact, Kamila Shamsie called for 2018 to be the year of publishing women. And she suggested that no male novelist should be taken on in 2018 by publishing houses. Which …

Emma Barnett:
How's that going so far?

Monica Ali:
… that's quite radical, isn't it? [laughter]

Emma Barnett:
Yeah it is. Well it is 100 years since the first tranche of women got the vote in this country. So, it may be a nod. But you know equality law being what it is [laughter], she might be in trouble with that [laughter].

Right, moving on. We're obviously, very lucky to have so many remarkable female writers in this top 10. Well chosen Monica. But before we explore another might Victorian writer, [music] let's jump in to the 20th Century for what Monica has described as the mother of all live music venues. Where are we going to Monica?

Monica Ali:
We're going to the 100 Club. It's been at number 100 Oxford Street in Central London since 1942 and it has introduced so many ground-breaking music scenes and artists. It's got a very laid back, unassuming vibe but that kind of belies its importance, its historical position, its introduction of all these ground-breaking acts from the blues to the punks, B.B. King to the Sex Pistols.

Emma Barnett:
Well it did start out as the Feldman Swing Club in 1942 and it's been putting on live music ever since. But that's not all it does. Clare, tell me about the 100 Club- what do you know about it?

Clare McDonnell:
Quite a lot actually. I've been there many, many times.  It's such a fantastic venue. And again, it's one of those places that you really, really have to visit if you come to London and you're a music fan. It's a bit like the Cavern in Liverpool. I mean you walk in and you feel the history just on your clothes.  [laughter] It's an underground club.

Emma Barnett:
No, no. That's the sweat. That's the sweat. [laughter].

Clare McDonnell:
It's almost like the sweat of all those people, your parents, your grandparents, their parents, dancing, losing themselves in this amazing music venue. As you say, you know the history started back in 1942. A Jewish garment worker called Robert Feldman passed this basement restaurant named Mac's on his way home, stopped for a cup of tea and decided it would make a great music venue. And he and his brother Monty were in a jazz group- they played there, it was a hit and the rest is history.

I mean one of the most famous moments, if you say the 100 Club, is this: 1976, the first every UK punk music festival. And it's one of those ones that if everybody who actually said they were there, were there, literally they would have been queuing down Oxford Street [laughter]. The Sex Pistols were there, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and because of that, because of the history of it, lots of bands, lots of massive acts often hold secret gigs there. There was a Rolling Stones secret gig there in 1982…Bowie, Dylan and artists still do it to this day.

So, it's the legacy, it's the history. And it was going to close- it was saved from closure as well. Thank goodness it was! The walls are just festooned with pictures of every single person who has ever played there. And what's wonderful about it as well is that it's not a museum. It's still a live music venue that you could experience any day of the week, any night of the week.

Emma Barnett:
B.B. King jumping on the stage for an impromptu jam. Louis Armstrong dropping by for a visit. It's also interesting the idea that it was a melting pot, that they had a very socially liberal door policy. That was also what really put it on the map in some ways, Monica, that people were coming together at a time when society wasn't really like that in a lot of ways.

Monica Ali:
And in the 40s, I guess you had all the overseas troops, the American GIs, so they had an open-door policy to all, as you say, so you get lots of mixing in there. It was fabulous.

Emma Barnett:
And visitors were allowed to dance the Jitterbug which was considered too dangerous for many other venues. It was said "forget the doodlebug, come and dance the jitterbug" But what's significant is that idea of music being that great unifier.

Monica Ali:
Yeah, absolutely. If you think, this was still at a time of racial segregation, formally in the States and more or less informally here. That was a big deal.

Emma Barnett:
We're gonna have to talk about Oasis here. In '94, Clare as you were saying, the club was facing financial difficulties and then Oasis played NME's gig of the year, packing the room with journos and music people, which gave it a bit of a new lease of life.

Clare McDonnell:
It is so interesting isn't it? Like all of these places, if you get whoever is the Zeitgeist of the moment to come in to your room, as we were saying with Abbey Road, because that was the Brit Pop scene again. And you know, it was Oasis who essentially said "wow look at this place! The Beatles, we love the Beatles!" Noel Gallagher loves the Beatles. So everybody, the younger generation, went "wow, let's rediscover the Beatles!" They did exactly the same for the 100 Club as well.

It has to be said, it's the kind of place that you know, there's lots of big pillars that go the length of the room…it's the feeling that you get when you're in there- that you're all in it together. So, if you were lucky enough to be one of those people at the Oasis concert or at the Sex Pistols gig, it's one of those. It's an experience, you know. It's a moment that you would remember, and you would talk about. And good! Good that these bands go to these places and they put them back on the map.

Well you know what's happening in Central London at the moment, so many places are under threat of redevelopment, of housing and property developers. And that's in a prime location.

Emma Barnett:
It is.

Clare McDonnell:
So, it's so important that we recognise them, and we talk about them and we don't lose them.

Emma Barnett:
Rachel?

Rachel Prothero:
And I guess it's just the exact antithesis of going to a big stadium gig. You know, you see your band but you can't properly see them, so you watch them on a screen- you may as well be watching at home in a sense. But in a small, intimate venue like this you're actually experiencing so much more.

Emma Barnett:
And you are creating those memories that we were talking about. Well let's crack on to our final location for this episode.

We're swinging back in to literature and to the home of another astounding writer.  Monica you've picked Charles Dickens' former home in Doughty Street, London as your eighth location.

Monica Ali:
Yeah, it's now the Dickens Museum but it's where he wrote Oliver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. And you know Dickens lived and worked in London -many writers have- but I think that Dickens is the quintessential London novelist. He used London as a muse. He called it a magic lantern and his London lives in the mind like no other.

Emma Barnett:
I mean, it's quite an interesting place. It's where he and his wife lived with three of their then 10 children which they went on to have. Poor woman. [laughter]. But you know, he was a young writer coming of age, wasn't he? And he was becoming very fashionable and very successful while living there.

Monica Ali:
He was. And you can see his desk, you can see his quill, you can see the drawing room in which he would give sort of impromptu readings to his family and to guests. And of course, readings were very important … they became a very important part of his career. So, that's how and where he started to hone that skill of giving public readings- it's quite exciting going into that.

Rachel Prothero:
Yeah, when he arrived at Doughty Street, Dickens was a publisher of a magazine called Bentley's Miscellany. It was here that he began to publish Oliver Twist which was his first novel, but he produced it in instalments every month.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, they moved in in 1837, of course the same year that Queen Victoria took to the throne. He'd sit and write between 8 am and 12 every day. Is that a good amount of time Monica? Do we judge him well for that?

Monica Ali:
If he did a solid four hours and he [laughter] wasn't distracted by Google and Twitter and the laundry and all of that, you know, I think that's okay.

Emma Barnett:
Well what's the [laughter] biggest distraction, Twitter or the laundry?

Monica Ali:
Well, I'm not on Twitter so …

Emma Barnett:
Okay.

Monica Ali:
… you know, Google is a terrible distraction [laughter], laundry, the dog is a distraction. The dog. [laughter].

Emma Barnett:
Here we go, anything you can find just to avoid writing. I know it well. It's an interesting idea as well: when you go to an author's home you get a sense of course of who they are Clare, and as well as him being the writer there, they were entertainers, he and his wife. They had people around.  This is part of their life and part of those readings we were hearing about.

Clare McDonnell:
Yes, his wife, Catherine and he were accomplished entertainers. Also, she dabbled in writing. And she wrote a cookbook. It was called …

Emma Barnett:
Of course, she did.

Clare McDonnell:
Of course, she did. It was called What Shall We Have For Dinner. And you could write that now, couldn't you [laughter]. It was written under the pen name of Lady Maria Clutterbuck.

Emma Barnett:
That's what I'd put. [laughter].

Clare McDonnell:
Keeping it real. And he wrote the introduction under the name of Sir Charles Coldstream. I think they were having a little bit of an in joke there.

Emma Barnett:
That's 1837 banter for you right there.

Clare McDonnell:
Indeed. Also, going there again it's difficult I suppose when you go that part of London because it's indistinguishable really from … you wouldn't recognise the the era that he was living in and writing in. You know, the Victorian Streets, the omnibuses, the dirt, the gas lights, the carriages and you had Covent Garden, it was a vegetable market. Seven dials was a poverty trap. It was a very, very different London than the one we're looking at today.

So, Dickens would have been incredibly close to his source material. He would walk out of his door and it wouldn't take him long would it, for him to witness that.

Emma Barnett:
No.

Clare McDonnell:
To see the characters he ended up writing about.

Emma Barnett:
And that becomes a big part doesn't it, Monica? Just going back to this whole idea of these authors and Dickens taking in the world around him. And also, his history, you know his own personal history. He'd had to leave school early because his father …

Monica Ali:
His father was in debt, so they were deeply impoverished. So, you know he didn't get much schooling at that time- he was wandering the streets. You can see that that informed his work hugely and he wrote about debtors' prison- his father went to prison didn't he?

Emma Barnett:
Yes. And the family led a poverty-stricken life. At the age of 12 Dickens left school to work at a boot blacking factory on the Thames. So, even though you go to this beautiful house -I've been, I think it is gorgeous- and you see this man and his family and his ambition. But he knew what it was to come from a very different background and he sort of worked hard but didn't force that with his stories.

Monica Ali:
Yes, and his sense of social justice and inequality and his concern for poverty or unfairness in life. All of that comes in to his work.

Rachel Prothero:
Just a few years before Charles arrived in Doughty Street, the abolition of the slave trade in all British territories had been passed as an Act of Parliament. So, this was a time when the nation was becoming more political. From rural areas to cities, people were unionising across the country and there were uprisings. So, you had the swing riots which took place at industrial targets like paper mills. You had the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were a group of Dorset agricultural workers who held secret unionist meetings. People were protesting the disenfranchisement of the poor because they were placed in workhouses and families were separated in terrible conditions.

So, this was a time of very, you know, great political and social movements. And gave way to the Chartism movement which aimed to gain political rights and influence for the working classes and bring universal suffrage to all men. So, it was a time of evolving ideas, different humanitarian and social philosophies. And he really captures this.
[music]

Emma Barnett:
And so of course literary history was made, with stories like Oliver Twist and those bits of his own history going in, which you are reminded of when you go to his home.

That is it for now. Next time, I'll be back with Monica, Rachel and Clare as we reveal the final picks in England's 10 most important Music & Literature locations.

You can join the conversation by using the hashtag #100places and find out more online at historicengland.org.uk/100places.

Thank you very much to my guests.  I'm Emma Barnett and I will catch you next time.

Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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