He is one of the country’s bestselling children’s authors and was the man Danny Boyle turned to when he wanted someone to pen the opening ceremony of London 2012, so what’s Frank Cottrell Boyce cooking up in the depths of the Brontë Parsonage basement?
I t takes the eyes a while to adjust to the darkness. As they do, music begins to play, a pair of glasses on a side table follow you around the room and in a cage a cardboard bird appears to be singing. Welcome to How My Light is Spent, a new immersive attraction at the Brontë Parsonage which tells a little of the story of Patrick Brontë – father to those famous sisters.
In the corner is the man who devised it all – Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Liverpudlian is best-known as a children’s author, a screenwriter and the man who helped bring Danny Boyle’s vision for the London 2012 opening ceremony to life and it’s that inability to say no to new opportunities which brought him to Haworth.
Over recent years, the former home of the Brontë sisters has been keen to collaborate with artists and writers to bring a fresh take on the literary family and when they approached Cottrell Boyce he immediately knew which of them would be his inspiration.
“I don’t think enough is made of how Irish the Brontë’s were,” says the 60-year-old, whose own ancestry lie across the Irish Sea. “Patrick grew up in County Down and while he moved to England in his 20s he continued to be this great storyteller, wandering around Haworth shillelagh in hand.”
The story of how the Bronte sisters penned some of English literatures greatest works while surrounded by soot and smoke of heavy industry is pretty extraordinary. However, arguably even more extraordinary is the story of their father.
Patrick Brontë (or Brunty as he was known until he tweaked his surname to sound a little less agricultural) was born in Ireland to a poor farming family, who owned just four books – two of them the Bible. Those were the days when few escaped their lot in life, but Patrick became an unlikely poster boy for social mobility.
At 12 he was working as an apprentice blacksmith, but by 19 he was educated and earning a living as a teacher. At 25 he was sailing across the Irish Sea to take up a place at Cambridge University to study theology and after graduating his transformation was complete when this son of a labourer was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England.
“The story goes that a local minister offered to give Patrick lessons after he heard him reading aloud from Milton’s Paradise Lost when he was just a teenager,” says Cottrell Boyce. “He always believed in the power of books and education and that’s what he passed onto his children.”
The new immersive installation focuses on the period later in Patrick’s life when he underwent an operation to remove cataracts. The surgery took place without anaesthetic and as he recuperated in a pitch-black room, Charlotte was his carer.
“When we were first talking about the project, someone mentioned there was a redundant room in the basement of the parsonage and I knew that would be perfect,” says Cottrell Boyce. “I want visitors to feel a little of what it was like back then, but also how because he had all these stories in his head, life was never truly dark.
“It was a really key chapter for the family, because as she looked after her father Charlotte also began to write Jane Eyre, the book that would change her life for ever.”
Cottrell Boyce worked with designer Jo Pocock on the installation and he hopes that it will help to restore the reputation of a man who was historically portrayed as a bit of a domestic tyrant.
“In an age where many thought education was wasted on girls, here was a man who positively encouraged his three daughters to learn and to broaden their horizons. He also encouraged them to use their imaginations, to play and to have fun. He has been treated a little badly in the past, but I like to think of him as an Irishman who liked the craic.”