Lily Cole
Lily Cole (Photo: Rex Features)

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The Brontë Society backlash against Lily Cole says a lot about how men treat female genius

Nick Holland chose to resign because a former supermodel was appointed as creative partner? Looks like misogyny is alive and kicking in Haworth, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Recently, I was talking to an author friend who had some gripes about the social hierarchy of her world – she’s from a smallish artistic community and writers tend to all know one another.

“I’m just so sick of trying to impress the Lit Bros,” she said. “You know the ones: the literary Terry Richardsons of the world. They pick one or two cool girls to be in their club with them and then just dismiss the rest of us.”

The conversation stayed with me all week and felt relevant again this morning while reading that Nick Holland, author of In Search Of Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë: A Life In 20 Poems, had resigned from the Brontë Society after its decision to appoint former supermodel and Cambridge graduate Lily Cole as a creative partner. The partnership was made in honour of the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth, which is this year. 

“At first I was dismayed, now I am angry – what should have been a joyous year with genius at its centre has instead become a rank farce with the news that their creative partner for 2018 is Lily Cole,” writes Holland in his blog.

He goes on to sneer at Cole’s modelling career, her role as a “social entrepreneur (whatever that is)”, and, in his opinion, her failures as an actress. He once saw her in a play (“so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval”) and thinks her role at the Brontë Society is a direct result of nepotism from said play.

Cole, for her part, responded magnificently.

“When I was asked by the Brontë Parsonage Museum to work on a piece to commemorate Emily Brontë’s birth I immediately thought of Emily’s pseudonym, and what that gesture represented. Why could a woman not publish under her own name?” Cole told The Guardian.  

“Now I find myself wondering, fleetingly, if I should present the short film I am working on for the museum under a pseudonym myself, so that it will be judged on its own merits, rather than on my name, my gender, my image or my teenage decisions. 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. Yet I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”

What if the Brontës were as commercially popular as Jane Austen, and I Heart Mr Darcy T-shirts were being sold alongside I Heart Heathcliff ones? Would that be so terrible, Nick?

That Nick Holland has chosen to resign from the Brontë Society because a former supermodel was appointed as creative partner says an awful lot about his character. It’s also a helpful reminder that, just because you’re a man who has written several books about women, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a total fucking misogynist at the same time. Nick Holland has made the decision that, because Lily Cole is young, beautiful and popular, she can’t possibly understand his precious Brontë sisters. Moreover, she absolutely cannot represent his precious Brontë sisters. The fact that Cole has been making headlines for years about her commitment to academia is, apparently, worth nothing.

The whole story also says a heck of a lot about the pantheon of female genius and how the literary boys club regards it. The majority of female authors are dismissed by the literary press – in the London Review of Books alone, only 26 per cent of the authors reviewed are women. This is hardly a surprise, when you consider that only 18 per cent of reviewers are women.

It’s a dazzling statistic, particularly when you consider that most fiction, globally, tends to be read by women. “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” wrote Ian McEwan. In 1936, George Orwell was one step ahead of him. “Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel – the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel – seem to exist only for women,” Orwell wrote in Books v. Cigarettes. “Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories.”

I love that. Novels it is possible to respect. Ladies, please keep your love stories and plots of intrigue – call us when there’s something to respect.

Yet, men like Holland – men in lofty literary societies, men who review literature, men who still sit at the top of an industry that is chiefly funded by the women whose tastes they privately scorn – once they decide that one Cool Girl belongs to them, it’s over. She exists in his private birdcage, untouchable, perfect and totally disenfranchised from the women who were originally reading her, before the men got the memo. She is not to be played with by young, beautiful women with frivolous modelling careers and she is certainly not being passed around by the young women that Lily Cole might attract.

Because, fucking hell, what would happen if a young woman read Wuthering Heights and – I don’t know – liked it? What would happen if selfie sticks and Urban Decay eyeshadow started turning up at the Parsonage? What if – God, no, absolutely anything but this – what if the Brontës were as commercially popular as Jane Austen, and I Heart Mr Darcy T-shirts were being sold alongside I Heart Heathcliff ones? Would that be so terrible, Nick? Would it ruin Emily Brontë for you that much?

I’ve got some bad news for you, mate – the Brontë sisters are already loved by young women. They always have been and it’s because they were young women. I have personally been doing the Kate Bush Wuthering Heights dance in my bedroom since puberty. Building a man-cage for three of the most beloved literary geniuses in history is going to be a long, unrewarding process, so do yourself a favour: stop trying.

@Czaroline

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Lily Cole (Photo: Rex Features)
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