The Brontë parson who made the books look better

The internecine conflict between its traditionalists and modernists has for years played out like the plot from a Victorian novel. But the latest figures to emerge from the parsonage at Haworth suggest that the steady­ing influence of a clergyman who is Patrick Brontë's spiritual successor might finally be calming the waters.

Kitty Wright, executive director of the Brontë Society, and John Thirlwell, chair of the trustees, Brontë Society, at the Bronte Parsonage Museum. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

As it celebrates its 125th anniversary, the Brontë Society – one of the oldest such groups in the world – has reported that not only is income from visitors to the parsonage it administers up by more than a fifth, but more of them are joining as members.

It is welcome news for an organisation whose last fallout, over its decision to use the actress and model Lily Cole as a figurehead for its celebrations of Emily Brontë’s bicentenary this summer, created national headlines.

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The writer and academic Nick Holland, author of three books about the Brontës, resigned in outrage. “What would Emily think if she found that the role of chief ‘artist’ and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel?” he wondered.

Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

But the honorary treasurer’s books suggest that the Society is in rude health.

The interest created by To Walk Invisible, Sally Wainwright’s BBC drama about the sisters’ rise to fame and their brother Branwell’s battle with alcoholism – and perhaps by the furore over Ms Cole – has swelled numbers for a second successive year.

Worldwide membership of the Society had increased by nearly six per cent as of last Christmas, and the number has continued to rise this year.

The treasurer has a unique and direct connection to the family. As rector of Haworth Parish Church, the Rev Peter Mayo-Smith was fulfilling the role Patrick Brontë, father to Emily, Charlotte and Anne, had held for four decades.

Ann Dinsdale, principal curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

He was conscious of the weight on his shoulders.

“One of my great heroes is Patrick Brontë,” he said. “When you look at what he did for the Haworth area, his campaigning was in the mould of Wilberforce.

“He was a remarkable and very much a modern man in some ways. He brought education in because he saw it as the way out of poverty. And when there was raw sewage in the streets, he fought long and hard to get proper sanitation.

“Isn’t it ironic that his legacy in the village is a tourist economy based on his family.”

The rector, who two years ago moved in semi-retirement to the neighbouring moorland parish of Eldwick, was brought in to the Brontë Society after previous bouts of acrimony.

Its then chairman, the British-American playwright Bonnie Greer, had to bang her stiletto on the table to restore order as an extraordinary general meeting descended into chaos. She resigned, blaming what she called “malevolent lamebrains”.

At the 2016 AGM, another outfall was reported, with one member repeatedly “screaming” until he was threatened with expulsion, and another comparing the Society’s rule book to the East German Stasi.

Rev Mayo-Smith, who at 68 is not in Ms Cole’s target demographic, admitted that he did not know who she was, save for having seen her on Doctor Who. He has yet to meet her but is “looking forward” to doing so.

He did, however, meet the Duchess of Cornwall, who said her visit to the parsonage earlier this year fulfilled a long-held ambition.

The Brontë Society is from this year one of the Arts Council’s “national portfolio organisations”, which means it will receive funding of nearly £1m over the next four years.

Its trustees say its recent success is due in part to an expanded events programme and use of social media – a method of communication that would have reduced Wuthering Heights to 280 characters – to help spread the word.

The chair of trustees, the former Look North presenter, John Thirlwell, said: “Over the last three years, trustees have worked with the museum’s senior management to bring the organisation up to date – reviewing policies, procedures and our constitution to ensure they reflect those of a modern, multi-faceted charity.”