Book Review: The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

If there’s one skill an English degree equips you with, it’s the ability to devour even the fattest novels in the hours between bed, the student union bar and your next seminar. But despite my ability to read fast, it took me six months to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography on Charlotte Brontë. I reached a point, around 400 pages in, just as Anne Brontë breathed her last in Scarborough, when I had to take a break from the relentless gloom of this family’s life. Anne was the sixth Brontë to die within these pages and her death left Charlotte with only her morose father for company in their parsonage in the middle of a graveyard.

My spirit broke along with Charlotte’s. But while Charlotte valiantly rallied herself to write her final masterpiece, Villette, I put Gaskell’s biography down until I felt ready to face the grieving Charlotte and the Yorkshire moors again.

What a terrible life those girls led, constantly sick with a succession of Victorian diseases, cooped up in a pokey vicarage with the dead rotting away under the flagstone floors, embroidering themselves blind (the Brontës, not the dead). No wonder the moors held such an allure for them, what freedom it must have been to stride out across the open countryside and to feel the power of nature. Hooray for the NHS, a good diet and feminism.

There were chinks of light in the darkness; the success of her novels (under the pseudonym Currer Bell) meant Charlotte was the toast of London literary society for a time; she even got to travel to the capital and hang out with her hero Thackeray. She also got to chum up with Elizabeth Gaskell who may not have been a big bag of fun, but was certainly a loyal and generous friend to Charlotte.

Although, there is some debate about Mrs Gaskell’s motives in her account of Charlotte and her family. It’s widely believed that she tweaked Charlotte’s story and character to suit her own view; the figure in Gaskell’s account is often a mousy, fearful sprite, whereas it’s thought that the Jane Eyre author was feistier, more passionate, less pious than the one portrayed in the pages of this book. Noticeable by its absence is Charlotte’s unrequited love for a Belgium professor during her time as a governess in Brussels, an episode that was the inspiration for Villette. But this was the Victorian era, when ladies worried about the propriety of any kind of fun. As a woman with one-eye on God, Charlotte would no doubt rather her prof-crush wasn’t the subject of posthumous tittle-tattle.

But I thought I caught enough of a glimpse of Charlotte’s voice and her formidably strong and intelligent mind to make this account well worth reading if you’re a fan of Charlotte’s novels. This woman had a lot of shit thrown at her, but she never whined, you could feel her loneliness in the letters she wrote, but she never allowed herself to wallow.

When I finally went back to the last few hundred pages of Charlotte Brontë: A Life I polished it off in no time, my intrigue newly fire-up by the now lonesome figure of Charlotte and the progress of what would be her last novel, Villette. I enjoyed Charlotte’s bemusement at the excitement the figure of Monsieur Paul Emanuel created in her the book. He quite got those Victorian ladies’ bloomers in a twist. One of Charlotte’s friends told the author that her ideal man was no longer Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, but Monsieur Emanuel. I love this 19th century fan-girling; Colin Firth and his wet shirt didn’t invent literary lust. Although, I’m reading Villette now and struggling to see the attraction, he takes brooding to corners Darcy would never dare go.

Like a walk on a muddy moor Gaskell’s account of the Charlotte is slow and sometimes difficult, but it’s invigorating and illuminating in its portrayal of a woman who produced some of literature’s most enduring characters.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: A Taste of Honey, The National Theatre

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On its debut in 1958, A Taste of Honey caused quite a few feathers to ruffle. Shelagh Delaney’s tale of a working class Salford mother and daughter shocked people who liked to be shocked with its overt female sexuality, teenage pregnancy, interracial sex and homosexuality, then, of course, illegal. Delaney was only 18 when she wrote her game-changing play, penning it in response to seeing a production of Terence Rattigan’s Variations on A Theme in Manchester that she thought was stuffy, boring and old-fashioned.

There’s nothing boring, or even old-fashioned despite the 1950s setting, about this National Theatre production. In fact the past looks pleasing retro, Lesley Sharp’s gowns and undergarments are very Mad Men glam and even the gas works that loom over the back-to-backs seems romantic, but maybe that’s just the Smiths’ fan in me (as an aside, it was fun playing Smiths’ lyrics bingo – I got two).

The story is a simple one; Helen drags her daughter Jo (Port‘s Kate O’Flynn) from dingy flat to dingy flat across Greater Manchester. Helen likes to pretend it’s because she’s a free spirit but in reality she’s usually running away from a man. In this case the man, one-eyed Peter with a pirate style patch and a stash of gold, tracks her down with little trouble and whisks Helen away during Christmas leaving Jo alone (and not for the first time) .

Helen and Jo relish their frequent, nasty arguments, but beneath the bravado and biting words, Jo wants to be loved and wanted by her mother. Her loneliness drives her into the arms of a black sailor, who sticks around long enough to propose and take her to bed only to then vanish across the big blue sea. Left alone after Helen marries the increasingly brutal Peter, Jo’s salvation is Jeffery, a gay man who becomes her protector, cleaner, dress-maker and only friend.

While it caused consternation in the 1950s, A Taste of Honey barely raises an eyebrow these days, even among the National’s demographic. For a contemporary audience the most shocking aspect is the dingy bedsit and the thought of sharing a bathroom not only with people down the corridor, but also a family of cockroaches. Shaking off its shocking shackles meant that the focus is on the mother-daughter relationship. It’s a vicious, complicated one, played with vigour by the two leads. Lesley Sharp’s Helen is flamboyant, glamorous and cruel and never still. When it looks like her sharp edges have been blunted and you begin to think you’ve misjudged her only for her to bite back with added venom.

There is humour and warmth in A Taste of Honey, but it also pulsates with anger and resentment at being stuck in the quagmire of life. Not that they are whingers, Helen and Jo – and they are far more alike than either of them would care to admit – are tough and resolute in their decisions, always ready to pick themselves up again. The performances from the two leads are both fantastic, Lesley Sharp’s Helen is a multi-layered, complex character – brittle, girly, mean and needy, while O’Flynn reflects a lot of these characteristics back at her stage mother, heightening the similarities between while retaining her individuality.

Despite its of-its-time themes, A Taste of Honey feels fresh and relevant, now in its final few weeks its worth trying to catch this great production of a landmark British play.

A Taste of Honey runs until 11 May. For tickets and more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Let The Right One In, Apollo Theatre

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Martin Quinn as Oskar and Rebecca Benson as Eli

Let The Right One In, the West End transfer of the Royal Court production, steps into fill the empty stage left by the retreating Curious Incident of the Dog In The Nighttime following the partial collapse of the ceiling at the Apollo Theatre last December.

Despite their ostensibly very different subject matters and storylines (vampires and Scandinavian dark-doings versus a teenage boy with learning difficulties playing Poirot) the two shows share themes of adolescence loneliness and alienation.

Let The Right One In, an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish horror novel (he also wrote the screenplay to the 2008 film) by BAFTA-award winning Jack Thorne, is a vampire story that’s more steeped in Dracula than Twilight. But for all its gore, and a higher body count than King Lear, Let The Right One In is a rather sweet tale of two outsiders finding solace in each other.

For this production, the story moves from the frozen suburbs of a Swedish town to the equally bleak Scottish Highlands in mid-winter, the set of silver birches glowing ghost-like on the perpetually low-lit stage. The deceptively simple set design later reveals itself to be far cleverer than it looks when a modest looking climbing frame becomes the focus of an impressive piece of coup de théâtre.

Oskar (the characters, slightly oddly, keep their Scandinavian names), is a bullied boy who can’t find peace at home with his often-drunk, often angry mother. Not only is he vivaciously picked on, there’s now a murderer on the loose in the woods, hanging his victims from trees like pigs and draining their blood (incidentally, this is the third production I’ve seen this year where an actor strung up by their legs, it’s not a good time for actors with a fear of inversions).

It’s in the now out-of-bounds woods that Oskar meets Eli, a Willo The Wisp like vampire whose otherness to Oskar is most apparent in her not knowing what a Rubik’s Cube is. He lends her his to play with and she becomes his guardian angel.

For all its endearing qualities, there’s a coldness to this production that’s not just the smattering of fake snow on the stage. The dialogue and the staging are studied and remote, its artificiality exaggerated by the scene-dividing dancing that bleeds into ‘over-done-the-E-at-a-rave-in-a-forest-in-1989’ style moves. I’m a little squeamish about self-conscious theatrics (and blood, fake or real) so the tree-hugging dances made me a little queasy, almost more than the over enthusiastic, bloody necking.

But the very young leads are great. Martin Quinn as Oskar is brilliant and inhabits the teenager with great conviction – he’s funny, cheeky, sensitive and confused. Rebecca Benson as the slight Eli who refuses to acknowledge who – or what – she really is, is small but mighty, her sprite-like build betraying her strong presence.

This slightly disjointed production is aided by Ólafur Arnalds sweeping atmospheric soundtrack that gives the play a filmic quality and helps keep the production lifted when it starts to sag.

While this may not have as much bite as the eerie Swedish film it’s adapted from, it’s an imaginative production that’s rather charming in its bloodsoaked portrayal of the perils of adolescence – with or without fangs.

by Suzanne Elliott

For tickets and more information visit www.royalcourttheatre.com.

Theatre Review: A Small Family Business, The National Theatre

Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken

Nigel Lindsay as Jack McCracken in A Small Family Business

There’s been some talk recently about whether theatres have become too reliant on old favourites rather than taking a punt of new drama. Shakespeare often has the finger pointed at him for his ubiquity, but Alan Ayckbourn is surely a contender for most (too?) often staged.

Ayckbourn, as all creative people should be, is a decisive figure, often dismissed as lightweight and twee by critics who don’t like his family-centric comedies. But he’s certainly a hit with the late middle aged home counties set, who within mainstream theatre at least, usually make up the largest chunk of the audience, so each Ayckbourn is a bums-on-seat cert.

While not being – quite yet – in my late middle-age, I for one have always rather enjoyed – admittedly through half closed-eyes – his over-the-top family farces that border on the distasteful.

A Small Family Business, widely-regarded as one of Ayckbourn’s best and more biting plays, premiered at the National Theatre in 1987 and returns to the Olivier with a grand set and a solid unstarry cast. The production keeps the 80s setting, so we get some ironic 21st century wink-wink moments about CD players, but on the whole, with its themes of greed and self-interest, this is an era-transcending play.

It’s the story of Jack McCracken (Nigel Lindsay), a good man with morals so rigid that his wife, Poppy (Debra Gillett) is constantly bumping her head on them in an attempt to keep him and their two daughters in the style they have become accustomed to. He’s just been recruited into his in-laws furniture firm to help re-address its recent misfortunes and soon discovers that he is an island of integrity amongst a sea of fraud and greed. Will Jack throw his good guy towel into the immoral ring or stick to his principles? As an Ayckbourn play it’s unlikely to end with everyone happy…

The play is a long one and while it smoulders amiably, it never really catches fire. The problem I found with A Small Family Business was that it felt, well, rather small. The Olivier theatre is a huge space to fill, both physically and historically, and this production felt a little lost in its hallow walls.  Tim Hatley’s elaborate set didn’t help; the suburban house that stood in for all the characters’ homes looked impressive – it’s bigger and probably sturdier than my flat – but it rather stole the show, swamping the cast and and creating some problematic blind spots. I’m used to watching plays behind pillars and through rails, but one of the Olivier’s great bonuses is its democratic seating; you can usually see as well in the gods as you can in the front row.

A Small Family Business is billed as a black comedy, although it brings into light relief the gruesomeness of human nature too vividly to be truly funny. There were noticeably few laughs throughout this production; the S&M jokes went down like a deflated  blow-up doll, whether they went over the audience’s head or, as I think, because they got rather lost in the hullabaloo.

There is much to admire about the production, the choreography of the staging and the understated acting in what is a less than subtle satire on Thatcher-era avarice. Nigel Lindsay is a captivating, impressive Jack and the other actors are accomplished more overblown foils to his solid presence.  Matthew Cottle as Benedict Hough, the private investigate brought in by Jack to save the family business only to then try and sabotage it, was genuinely creepy as the plot reached it high-pitched crescendo.

The National’s A Small Family Business was still in the preview stage when I saw it and will no doubt have some its bagginess tightened by press night. It’s a good, solid production with plenty of enthusiasm that just doesn’t feel quite big and fresh enough.

by Suzanne Elliott

For tickets and more information visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.