The Parsonage Museum. Photo: TripAdvisor
Just before Christmas it was announced that Lily Cole has been given a prominent role as creative partner of the Bronte Society in the bicentenary celebrations for Emily Bronte planned by the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. She will be working on a curatorial project focussed on Wuthering Heights. As a fan of the Brontes, especially of Emily, I was delighted to read about the arrangements for such celebrations.
However, Lily Cole's appointment seems to have angered quite a few people. It has been described, in the press, as "putting celebrity over the Bronte sisters themselves". Lily Cole, who has just turned 30, was a fashion model, a supermodel in fact, during her teens and early twenties and has unquestionable celebrity status. This in itself is not reprehensible, why so? We live after all in a celebrity culture and celebrities are always involved in this or that project, sometimes doing no more than lending their name. But not in this case. Lily Cole will not just be invited to the inauguration or do some fundraising, she will take an active role in the research and preparations, and it is this active participation which seems to have prompted all the criticism. Some people are convinced she is simply not up to the job.
Never mind that Cole, also a fine actress, director and writer, has a first class degree in the history of art from Cambridge. Never mind that she is an able entrepreneur, a committed environmental campaigner and a very gifted, most articulate, speaker. All this does not seem to matter at all. According to her bitter critics the appointment should have gone to a Bronte scholar or a writer. Some have gone as far as speculating that if Emily Bronte were alive, she would be horrified. Would she really?
Lily Cole in 2013. Photo by @Kmeron for LeWeb13 Conference @ Central Hall Westminster - LondonThere is something quite perverse in the logic displayed by all these critics. It is worth reiterating that in order to be a creative partner and work on a curatorial project one does not have to be a widely published professional writer, and, in any case, there will be a writer-in-residence at the museum, the poet Patience Agbabi.
Clearly, some Bronte expert must have coveted the appointment of creative partner and, disappointed by the decision made by the selection committee, decided to vent their anger in public, rather than moving on. Academic scholarship does not automatically bestow the entrepreneurial skills underpinning the creative partnership envisaged by the Parsonage. Moreover, Cole's training as an art historian will definitely come in handy, whereas the fact she is young will attract a different audience, and inject new vigour in the programme, something the museum desperately needs if it wants to boost its ratings. The Parsonage cannot be locked in the past.
Emily Bronte in a disputed portrait painted by Branwell Bronte - it could be Anne
What bothers me in all this is that people are flippantly focussing on Cole's modelling and celebrity status disregarding her obvious talent and intelligence. The subtext is that of a 'brainless pretty girl', the way models are often, and sadly, stereotyped. And a hackneyed stereotype it is. In reality, models are often some of the most accomplished people one ever comes across, many taking up modelling to fund their studies - I know a model who is doing a degree in physics and another who is pursuing training as a classical musician - and many more others coming to it after skilfully holding down jobs of great responsibility - think here of someone such as Maye Musk, with multiple degrees. Rosalind Jana, writer and poet still in her twenties, is another example of a highly accomplished and talented young woman who counts modelling as one of her pursuits but is not solely defined by it. And, not to blow my own trumpet, I too before taking up modelling was, for a while, in charge of a university art history department, albeit a small one. Being a model has not stripped me of any of my skills.
Crucial, in this controversy over Cole's appointment, is the belief, mostly affecting women, that having been involved in a role that equates with being an embodiment of beauty, as modelling is constructed to be - however variedly that beauty is defined in our contemporary society - cancels out any other talent or achievement one may possess and permanently disqualifies one from being a purveyor of culture, which is what a curatorial role entails.
I find it dismaying, it's yet another take on the 'dumb blonde' myth perpetuated by Hollywood.
Personally, I am happy to side with those enlightened enough to make this appointment, regarding it as a way to usher in a time of exciting developments. I wish Ms Cole all the very best in her new role as creative partner of the Parsonage Museum and truly look forward to the outcome of this partnership.
***Read here the piece written by Lily Cole for Medium about Emily Brontë, aptly entitle 'What would Emily Brontë think" ***