Sunday, 20 April 2008

In the library at the Bronte Parsonage

So, here we are in the library at the Bronte Parsonage. The bookcases are full of treasures, and Tessa Montgomery, Daphne's daughter, is looking at the manuscripts of Branwell's poems that her mother bought from Symington, and subsequently donated to the Parsonage, after she had finished writing "The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte".
It's 50 years since Tessa was in Haworth with Daphne -- and she says the Parsonage looks almost exactly the same. The only disappointment is that she remembers being fascinated by the Bronte childrens' handwriting on the walls of their bedroom; but now, on this return visit, Juliet Barker (standing behind us in the picture, with the blonde bob) has revealed the rather less romantic news that the Bronte 'handwriting' was faked at the turn of the century by a local decorator, working in the Parsonage at the time.

You can also see Ann Dinsdale in this picture -- she is the collections manager at the Parsonage, and like Juliet Barker (a former curator), was immensely helpful to me when I was researching "Daphne".
Anyone who has read the book will know that the library is the setting for an episode in the modern narrative strand, when Rachel 'borrows' the Symington papers that are kept locked away here, decades after he was dismissed from his job as curator and librarian, after various Bronte manuscripts and relics went missing. In fact, as I explained during my talk at the Parsonage on Friday evening, I didn't emulate either Rachel (or Symington before her) by turning into a thief! I was allowed to spend a day reading through the Symington file, which revealed, amongst other things, that he had been the last person to have the Honresfeld manuscript -- the lost notebook of Emily Bronte's handwritten poems.
I'm hoping that someone will read "Daphne", follow the clues within the story, and finally track down that elusive, priceless notebook.
Good luck to any of you who are already on the trail!


BrontëBlog Adm. said...

It's great to hear everything went so well. The pictures are great.

May I say that your description of what happened to the Honresfeld manuscript in Daphne was just painful to read?

Ann Dinsdale is lovely and so very helpful and knowledgeable. She welcomed us into the library last summer and I didn't want to leave that place... ever.


Justine Picardie said...

Cristina, you'll be glad to know that my description of the final fate of the Honresfeld manuscript is entirely imagined. All I know for sure is that Symington took it from the Law collection in the 1930s, in order to have it copied as a facsimile for the Shakespeare Head edition, and then it disappears from view. Sir Alfred Law himself died in 1939, and I suspect that Symington used his death as an excuse not to return the manuscript to his estate at Honresfeld.
One of Symington's descendants told me on Friday evening that when one of S's close family relatives came to him asking for financial help, Symington gave her a Bronte manuscript -- an original letter -- telling her that she could sell it to the Bronte Society. She did so, and received £180 -- a considerable sum at the time -- only to be asked to return the money some time afterwards, when it was discovered that the letter was a facsimile copy (albeit a sufficiently convincing one to have fooled a great many people). Given Symngton's background in printing -- his grandfather owned a printing press -- it seems likely that he was responsible for the forged copies of the original letter.

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

Symington was such a character! I liked the way you portrayed him. We know what he's doing is wrong yet sometimes we can't help but sympathise, which is scary.

When I read about missing Brontë items I'd rather keep my imagination in check and not wonder what their fate was. If anything I usually tend to go for the 'hidden-in-an-attic' or 'in-private-hands' versions which may yet have a happy ending. But I just can't bear to contemplate fires, mould, etc.

There should be a book about the afterlife of the Brontë items. I find some of the stories behind the objects are truly fascinating and little known.


Justine Picardie said...

Good idea for a book on the afterlife of Bronte relics -- you should write it!

Alice @ Jakesbarn said...

So is the full extent of Symington's forgeries still unknown? might there be more of them out there? (I was glad to hear you hadn't been Symington-like at Haworth!)

Justine Picardie said...

Alice -- I think a great deal remains unknown about both Symington and Wise. And I'm sure that there are still missing manuscripts out there.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad the weekend went well. I think it's a shame, though, that Tessa had to have her memories shattered. I think I'd rather not have known the truth.

Justine Picardie said...

I know what you mean -- her memories of the handwriting on the wall were far more evocative than the truth! But then Juliet Barker's approach as a historian is rather different to mine as a novelist...

dovegreyreader said...

How lovely to see these pictures Justine, I can sense the atmosphere just by looking.

rafletcher said...

I'm writing an article for the newsletter of the Littleborough Historical Society on the subject of William Law's book collection (later inherited by Sir Alfred Law). Whilst checking some references on the Internet, I came across your blog, and learnt that one of the items from the Law Collection, Emily Bronte's notebook of poems, featured in your recent novel "Daphne". Having now read your novel and very much enjoyed it, could I ask you a couple of questions?

Do you know what happened to Symington's library after his death? Was it donated to any public collections, or was it sold to private collectors?

Similarly, do you know what happened to the Law Collection after Sir Alfred's death in 1939? In a 1982 Bronte Society publication, Christine Alexander said "It is thought that many of the manuscripts are still in the possession of the Law family, but scholars' repeated pleas for information have gone unanswered." Then some time ago when I contacted the National Library of Scotland who hold some but not all of Law's Walter Scott and Robert Burns manuscripts, they told me they knew where the residue of the Collection was, but were not at liberty to say. They could however confirm that it was in private hands and not in a public institution, which seems to indicate it is still with the family. But who is the family? Sir Alfred died a bachelor, and the executors of his will, his niece Emma Dixon and nephew Arthur Travis, were both childless.


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