It’s Emily Brontë’s Party. Can Lily Cole Host It if She Wants To?
Posted January 5, 2018 7:25 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 7:30 p.m. EST
LONDON — Should a 30-year-old supermodel help lead a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Brontë?
That question is at the crux of a row that broke out after the Brontë Society in Britain, one of the world’s oldest literary societies, anointed Lily Cole a “creative partner” for a festival about Brontë, the author of “Wuthering Heights.”
The collaboration, announced this week, spurred a Brontë biographer and society member to write a scathing blog post denouncing it as a “rank farce.”
“What would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief ‘artist’ and organizer in her celebratory year was a supermodel?” the biographer, Nick Holland, asked.
Holland said Cole’s appointment smacked of a desire to be “trendy.” He was quitting the society, he added sarcastically, before it had the chance to announce comedian James Corden and singer Rita Ora as future partners.
The society runs a museum at the parsonage in Haworth, the village in northern England where Brontë grew up with her sisters Anne and Charlotte, both of whom also wrote major novels, and her brother, Branwell.
The clash may seem, to paraphrase another literary giant, much ado about not much. But in an era when women the world over have broken through the walls of silence surrounding forms of patriarchal abuse, the row became a trending topic on social media. The issue was skating on the edges of an infuriating male habit to control what women say and do, some commenters said.
Holland’s post set off sharp reactions online, overwhelmingly in Cole’s favor. While he received some support for his post, many critics dismissed his comments as sexist and snobbish, noting that Cole had helped save a London bookshop and graduated from Cambridge. Others rejected his arguments with pithy obscenities.
Moreover, said Helen Small, a professor of English literature at Oxford, making assumptions about how Emily Brontë would have reacted was a stretch: Brontë is regarded as one of the most enigmatic figures in literary history because of the absence of a confessional narrative in her work.
“You can’t place her within the same contexts that other people operate,” Small said by phone Friday. “There is so little evidence for what she thought — using her in this way is irrelevant.”
The issues raised by critics of Holland’s post would have been familiar to the Brontë sisters. They initially published their work under pseudonyms — some androgynous or gender-neutral — to protect their art from prejudice. (“Wuthering Heights” was first published under the pen name Ellis Bell.)
When Charlotte, author of “Jane Eyre,” asked poet Robert Southey about her work, he told her: “The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind.” He added, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”
For the anniversary of Brontë's birth, on July 30, 1818, the museum asked Cole to make a film about Heathcliff, the antihero of “Wuthering Heights.” Her mandate was to “consider gender politics and women’s rights” in 2018, which also marks 100 years since British women got the right to vote.
Responding to the contretemps, Cole drew parallels with the sexism the Brontë sisters faced. “I find myself wondering, fleetingly, if I should present the short film I am working on for the Brontë Parsonage Museum under a pseudonym myself, so that it will be judged on its own merits,” she wrote.
Cole shot to prominence in the early 2000s as one of a crop of “otherworldly” models. She was the youngest woman to appear on the cover of British Vogue, at 16. She walked some of the most prominent runway shows before studying art history at Cambridge and dipping in and out of acting and activism.
In this, she followed in the footsteps of supermodel peers who in the late 1990s parlayed their fame into personal brands, including Cindy Crawford and Iman, who started businesses, and Christy Turlington, a graduate of New York University and Columbia who advocates for women’s health. Karlie Kloss, an active model, attends NYU and runs camps for girls, Kode With Klossy.
“I would not be so presumptuous as to guess Emily’s reaction to my appointment as a creative partner at the museum, were she alive today,” Cole said in her statement. “Yet I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”
But to Holland, Cole is hardly qualified to run in Brontë's circles: He said the society should have appointed a distinguished female writer instead. (The society did include in the festival poet and performer Patience Agbabi, artist Kate Whiteford and the folk duo the Unthanks.)
In his post, Holland also took a dim view of Cole’s acting, recounting her performance as Helen of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theater. “The play was so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval,” he wrote.
He also saw shades of nepotism, because the incumbent creative partner at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Simon Armitage, wrote that play. Attempts to reach the Brontë Society were unsuccessful on Friday. Armitage did not respond to a message left with his agent.
In an email on Friday, Holland said he had been “taken aback” by the reaction to his post, and that he had been the subject of “bullying” online.
“I hate bigotry of all kinds and have fought against it all my life,” he wrote, “and now some accuse me of turning against Lily Cole simply because of her gender — a bizarre allegation as my heroes the Brontë sisters were women.”
“In light of the unwanted attention and abuse I’ve had online, I won’t be giving any more interviews,” he said, adding, “You understand.”