What’s really going on inside the Brontë Society?

The Brontë Society, has hit the headlines amid angry exchanges between members and the sudden departures of its executive director and chairman. Andrew Robinson reports.

Ann Sumner, who was executive director of the Bronte Parsonage, left the museum in June.

AFTER 40 years in the Brontë Society, Imelda Marsden has gathered enough material for a pacy novel of her own.

If she ever put pen to paper, the story might have allegations of snobbery as a central theme with added intrigue provided by “agitators” calling for sweeping changes at an ancient literary society. The 68 year old former nurse, a life member of the Society, lives and breathes the Brontës but fears “snooty” behaviour is thwarting its full potential along with that of the Parsonage.

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She has watched recent events unfold with a feeling of deja vu, having witnessed the controversial departure of a director back in 2000. She has also met many wonderful leaders of the Society but, she says, some are distant and unfriendly.

“Sometimes you can be made to feel as though you are a nobody. I’m a trained general nurse, just an ordinary person. I know that some people have been made to feel inferior. One or two (among the leadership) think they are above everybody else, they are snooty. Yes, it’s a literary society but there are people who are interested in history or art too.”

The apparent disconnection between the leadership and the rank-and-file is acutely felt at meetings, she said. “People on the (Society) Council don’t talk to you, not even to say hello.”

Mrs Marsden, who splits her time between Mirfield and her beloved Haworth, believes changes are needed to widen the appeal of the Brontës and the Parsonage Museum and to boost membership.

“People like Bob Barnard (former Society chairman who died last year) must be turning in his grave. He was brilliant with everybody.” She adds that “people skills” should be a requirement for leadership, not just academic or professional qualifications.

The Society’s recent troubles have included the sudden departure in June of executive director Ann Sumner, who was in post for only 16 months, and last month’s resignation of chairman, Christine Went after just 28 days. Ms Went hit out last month at “agitators” who forced an emergency meeting in a bid - which failed - to bring in a “modernising” leadership. If the Society appoints a successor to Ann Sumner, they will be the fifth director in 15 years.

“There is a depressingly cyclical nature to these departures, as someone pointed out at the emergency general meeting (EGM) in October,” said a Society member, who asked to remain anonymous. “I believe some members of Council are not letting executive directors get on with their jobs without day-to-day interference. ‘Micro managing’ was mentioned several times at the EGM.” The member added: “It’s time to stop being so precious and exclusive and just celebrate the fact that we have this family on our doorstep for everyone to enjoy.”

It’s a view shared by Bradford-based writer Joolz Denby, who tweeted this month: “As a person who has felt the sharp end of the Brontë Society I agree they need to change their attitude.”

She has worked on Brontë -themed community events in recent years but hasn’t received invitations to Brontë Society events. “They see themselves as having an exclusive little club,” she said. “And, like all exclusive cliques, they don’t want outsiders in.” She also described the Parsonage as “deadly dull” and in need of updating.

In Haworth, work is needed to get locals and the Parsonage reading from the same hymn sheet, according to Peter Mayo-Smith, priest in charge at Haworth Parish Church, who says the village has the potential to be a “Stratford-upon-Avon of the North” if people put aside their differences.

He finds spats among members “perplexing” particularly as there have been several over the years. “It seems to keep happening, there is a little bit of a pattern. They seem to have had a high turnover of chief executives.”

Mr Smith was impressed by Ann Sumner who had got involved with the village and was a “breath of fresh air.”

He believes the next executive director must continue her good work.

“I hope and pray that the Parsonage and the Brontë Society get far more involved in the community. We have seen what happens when we do that. The 1940s weekends are run by a community group which raises tens of thousands for charity.”

He called for the creation of a forum, made up of Brontë Society leading lights and local people. And he believes Society members who have been critical of the leadership can play a big part in taking the group forward.

A month on from the EGM, the Brontë Society is keen to move on. In a statement, a Brontë Society spokesman said meetings had taken place between members, Parsonage staff and Society trustees “to build and progress a number of exciting plans to take us through the upcoming bicentenary celebrations and beyond, ensuring the legacy of the Brontë family’s achievements is further strengthened.”

The spokesman said members expressed their “clear support for the Brontë Society Council and the way forward” at the EGM.

“We are aware that some members would like to see the Parsonage Museum run separately from the Brontë Society. However, the Parsonage Museum was given ‘in perpetuity’ to the Brontë Society in 1928 and has been run by Society members ever since, achieving a world renowned collection and visitor experience. Any proposed changes to the constitution of the Society would be subject to a vote amongst the whole membership and would, therefore, need to be put to the AGM in June 2015.”

On the issue of leadership, the spokesman said: “Nominations have been invited from among the trustees for the post of Chairman, and we look forward to receiving them.”

On membership, the spokesman said it has been “stable against a trend of falling membership of Societies and we look forward to it increasing with the bicentenary enthusiasm.”

A conference in August attracted new members and a new database would “transform communication” with members and non-members, improve fund-raising and promote the Society to prospective supporters.

“The publicity that will surround the bicentenaries will generate interest around the world, and the Society looks forward to seeing membership rising as the momentum builds locally and internationally.”

He said the Society is focused on developing relationships in Haworth, including with the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Christmas market, primary school, parish church and 1940s weekend.

“The leadership team at the Parsonage and the trustees are determined to renew and develop relationships with local, national and international partners to ensure that we not only continue to safeguard the legacy of Brontë family, but add valuable new chapters and interpretations to it over the coming years.”

‘I don’t do snooty’, says president

Bonnie Greer, president of the Bronte Society, told The Yorkshire Post: “One of the reasons that I accepted the Presidency is not only because I love the work of the Brontës, but because both the members and the Council have been welcoming and supportive. And because of Yorkshire - the people and the region.

I’ve been London-centered for all of my almost 30 years in this country. So to get away from the south east bubble to somewhere “real” - to me that’s great!

One of the reasons I love Yorkshire is because I, too, don’t do “snooty” and “snobby”. I never have, don’t now, and never will. And believe me, if I felt that there was an atmosphere like that around me, I’d be out of there.

I’m not the executive. I don’t manage the day to day running of the museum, but I am the President. I chair the AGM and in between spread the good news of these great literary sisters...especially to young people and diverse communities who may feel that the Brontës hold nothing for them.

My first Brontë encounter at an event at the Museum was with a Bradford official, a Muslim man with daughters. We talked about Patrick Brontë and how he allowed his daughters to write. And the man I was talking to was also a father of daughters and was very moved by Patrick’s story - as I am. Next to Emily, he’s the Bronte I connect with the most. He promised to bring his daughters to the Museum.

It is these kind of synergies and interfaces which are crucial for all literary societies going forward in the 21st century, not just ours.

Almost all literary societies must become younger, more global, more outward-looking, more diverse, more in touch with the digital world, more able to find interesting “off-piste” connections with classic work. And this looking towards the future is just one of the things I find exciting and full of possibility as the Brontë Society heads toward the bicentenaries.

This going forward is the kind of thing – along with other initiatives , too - that most of us are doing, or trying to do.

I love our present membership and curators and staff at the Museum are excellent. And my London-born husband has fallen in love with Haworth and the moors. We both have!”