Infighting at the Yorkshire-based Brontë Society led to “furious exchanges” between “warring factions” at the organisation's a.g.m over the weekend.
The society’s new honorary president, Dame Judi Dench, was absent from the annual meeting, which was held on Saturday (11th June) at the West Lane Baptist church in Haworth, Yorkshire, across the road from the Brontë Parsonage Museum, according to the Express. However, it emerged that three people have resigned from the society over the last year.
The row, which has now gone on for two years, was sparked by mixed views between modernists and traditionalists over the direction the society should take to keep in step with the 21st century and to attract new members. Modernists, who include the society's new chairman John Thirlwell and treasurer Rev Peter Mayo-Smith, are keen to make the organisation more business-minded, with more rules. This prompted one unnamed audience member to shout during the meeting: “When I read all these rules and regulations I felt like I had come into the Stasi. We need fresh air and openness.”
The a.g.m. saw vice president Patsy Stoneman assert her authority in Dame Judi’s absence by telling someone shouting for former chairman Alexandra Lesley to be allowed to speak, that he would be asked to leave the room if he "continued in this manner". The man had reportedly been "screaming" the words “let her finish” over and over, after Lesley was cut off after the three-minute time-limit by Stoneman. Lesley said: "I may have had my three minutes but I have not had my say."
Lesley, who left her post after just six months, said during the meeting she had resigned because "I felt there had been a lot of bad behaviour".
"We have a long history of arguments and a lot of the time feelings are left to fester because they are not properly explained," she said.
In the last year, the society's president, chairman and executive director, along with “almost half” its trustees, have resigned over the tensions, according to the Times.
Members were left frustrated over a lack of explanation for the recent departures after being told "you'll have to ask them". One member, Richard Wilcox, said: "I'm looking at this big swathe of resignations and wondering why is this? Why have so many people resigned? It's not entirely a mystery but can we have an explanation?"
Former president of the society Bonnie Greer resigned at last year’s a.g.m. in June amid an "internal feud" over how to preserve the Brontës' legacy. During 2015's a.g.m. she was forced to use the heel of her Jimmy Choo shoe as a gavel to keep order, tweeting afterwards: "Lot of Council gone because for many last year has not been fun. Thus my Jimmy Choos. Levity desperately needed".
When Sunday Express journalist Mark Branagan - also a member of the society - was spotted writing notes during the a.g.m., a vote was further held to decide whether or not he could remain. The society allowed him to stay, after a vote of 56 to 46, despite the “conflict of interest” it presented to the society’s treasurer, Rev Mayo-Smith, who maintained the meeting was private.
Mayo-Smith told the Times yesterday that it was only "a very small minority” at this year's a.g.m. who caused the disruption and that he thought his presentation "went down very well”, adding, "I’m excited for the future”.
Thirlwell, Brontë Society chair, told The Bookseller the exchanges reported on formed a “small part of an otherwise informative and constructive meeting”.
He said: “The trustees were pleased to report that celebrations surrounding Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary have met with great success and visitor numbers, audience figures and membership are on the increase.”
He added that an executive director had recently taken up post at the museum in Haworth and partnerships with both the local community and other arts organisations “continue to be forged”.
“It’s an exciting time for the society and we remain committed to developing the organisation and sharing the story of the extraordinary and inspirational Brontë family with audiences across the globe,” he said.