Why a literary scholar is locked in a war of words with a supermodel

A literary scholar and supermodel Lily Cole are feuding over what Wuthering Heights author Emily Bronte would think of plans to celebrate her 200th birthday. The bizarre scenario has sparked real debate about elitism and sexism in Britain.

A literary scholar and a British supermodel are feuding over what Emily Bronte — the English novelist who wrote Wuthering Heights — would think of recently announced plans to celebrate her 200th birthday this year.

Yes, you read that correctly. It’s a bizarre scenario, but one that has sparked real debate about elitism and sexism in Britain.

Here’s a quick primer.

What are the birthday plans?

The Bronte Society

(one of the oldest literary societies in the world) has announced grand plans to celebrate the bicentenary of Bronte’s birth this year.

They kicked off the celebrations in December by appointing

actress, supermodel and social entrepreneur Lily Cole

as their patron for 2018.

The press release said Wuthering Heights was one of Cole’s favourite books, and she was excited and honoured to help commemorate the English writer.

But the decision so incensed one society member,

Nick Holland

, that he quit the group citing irreconcilable differences.

Why is he so angry?

Holland, who has written books about the Bronte sisters, explained his reasons in a blog posted on his website last month, entitled:

Emily Bronte, Lily Cole and the Shame of The Bronte Society


Holland is the author of In Search of Anne Bronte, a biography of the writer


Twitter: Nick Holland


In it,

he describes the appointment as a “rank farce”

and argues the Bronte Society has become so obsessed with attracting a younger audience that the sisters have become an afterthought.

“Being trendy is the ultimate aim, with the Brontes themselves relegated to the sidelines,” he wrote.

His main gripe, it appears, is with

those who want to modernise the society

with “multimedia presentations” and celebrity faces.

“We hear people say, echoing the consultants, that the [society’s] membership is too old — ‘look at the events, look at the meetings, everyone is old!’ In today’s society it has become a crime to be old,” he said.

“Where is the problem in the majority of members being middle aged or older?” he asks.

But despite writing that he had “nothing against Lily herself”, his criticism of the model got



“If you don’t know Lily Cole, and you’d be in the majority, she is described as ‘a model and social entrepreneur’ (whatever that is),” he wrote.

He went on to explain how he was once “unfortunate enough” to have seen Cole perform in a play.

“Lily had the title role, and the play was so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval,” he said.

Long story short, he says

Bronte would not have approved

of her appointment and

it should have been a writer


“The very basic rule should have been that the person chosen for such an important role as creative partner is a writer,” he wrote.

We asked if you thought making older literature “trendy” for younger audiences was a good thing.

What has Cole said?

In a statement to

the BBC

, Cole refused to speculate how Bronte would have felt about her new position.

“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,” she said.

“Yet I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”

Oof. In case you missed it, that last line is a subtle nod to the fact that the Bronte sisters famously published their novels

under male pseudonyms

to ensure their work was given the proper consideration at the time.

Charlotte Bronte (right) was Currer Bell, Emily (centre) was Ellis Bell and Anne (left) was Acton Bell.


National Portrait Gallery: Patrick Branwell Bronte


In fact, Cole said she even considered presenting her work with the society under a pseudonym for the same reason.

“So that it will be judged on its own merits, rather than on my name, my gender, my image or my teenage decisions,” she said.

So what would Emily Bronte think?

Cole’s official role with the society will be as

a creative partner at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

in Haworth, west of Leeds.

According to the society, that will involve exploring and commenting on Bronte’s legacy, on today’s gender politics, and creating a short film about the Wuthering Heights anti-hero, Heathcliff.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know how the middle sister would have felt about the move, but we do know what some other, alive people think.

Here’s some of the commentary on Twitter:





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