#JaneEyreProject – a town celebrates a book
St Leonards is gearing up to fête one of our great nineteenth century novels in a unique fashion, capitalising on the wealth of artistic talent and creative skills in the area. Gail Borrow of ExploreTheArch theatre company is the catalyst who has inspired a whole community to celebrate a novel written 170 years ago.
Twenty five businesses and six community groups in
St Leonards-on-Sea are joining experimental theatre company, ExploreTheArch, and visual arts hub, Hastings Arts Forum, to offer vibrant perspectives on Charlotte Brontë’s much-loved classic, Jane Eyre. Breaking away from the traditional literary festival format, a myriad of displays, installations and interactive experiences will be scattered throughout this eclectic town. The full list of activities can be seen here.
“Words, words, everywhere. All over town.”
Claire Paisley of Paisley and Friends,
At St Leonards Warrior Square station, Transition Town Hastings is creating a space inspired by the location of the famous proposal in the novel. Nestled amongst the raised vegetable beds and fruit trees that the organisation has created next to the platform, their work will not only be a place to visit but also a place to propose – whether to offer a proposal for the organisation, the town, other folk or for oneself. Offerings to be pinned to the fabric of the installation.
In the station itself, the Torn Pages Project will offer travellers the chance to take a torn page from the novel and return it with their musings scribbled and doodled in the margins. The pegged up doodled and annotated pages will be on display for the length of the project along with letters detailing memories of reading Jane Eyre which The Burtons’ St Leonards Society are displaying among the flowerbeds of the nineteenth century St Leonards Garden.
“Focusing on snippets of language from various chapters in the novel, we have a myriad of perspectives from the academic to the downright daft – it’s such a fun way to delight in our literary heritage. I’ve had a fascinating time selecting wines that relate to quotes in the book!” says owner Mark Plummer of The Wine Shed restaurant in Kings Road.
The Wine Shed is not alone in rising to the Jane Eyre challenge – Kings Road’s restaurants, cafes, antiques and vintage businesses and shops are all responding to phrases and passages in the novel with window displays, inventive menus and trails, the road leading to the commercial geographical centre of the town. And this is where the majority of community groups are displaying their interpretations of the text.
Along with window displays by Bobos Flowers and Who’s Wearing What, London Road will be transformed with insights and musings from Black Winkle Studio young artists, The Links Project contributors and the Jane Eyre letters collective, thanks to Boots who are hosting the work. Empty units will be stuffed with engravings of Jane Eyre portraits, poems inspired by the sea bird imagery in the novel and letters gathered from all over the world from Jane Eyre readers. Visitors’ letters will add to the developing display.
More small independent businesses in Norman Road and along the sea front are offering personal viewpoints and insights and seek to share ideas with visitors. Love Café is focusing on the orphan who receives an orange from Jane in return for assistance in settling into her new home attached to the village school in Chapter 31. Her fleeting presence in the novel (we know little of the orphan other than her home – the workhouse) offers the possibility of developing her world. Visitors to the cafe will be able to contribute to her diary during the project, collectively building a character and world for her.
At Hastings Arts Forum, participating artists will be working in situ, the free entry experimental exhibition evolving over the two weeks and exploring many aspects of the novel including Bronté’s use of interiors. Sally Meakins who is curating and contributing to the Hastings Arts Forum’s exhibition says, “There are so many ways to explore a book. We’ve had a terrific response from a call out to our artists and we’ll be mounting an exciting mixed media, multidisciplinary show from 21 February to 5 March that’s truly an experimental investigation.”
And ExploreThe Arch’s gothic new production, The House of the Heroine, celebrates the remarkable bird book engraver Thomas Bewick published in the late eighteenth century. Jane Eyre hides behind a curtain with the tome, aged 10, at the beginning of Brontë’s novel. This candlelit new production foregrounds the avian imagery in the book and the sights, smells and textures of rural Yorkshire. On arrival, however, viewers wander round the nooks and crannies of an opulent Europe where Rochester and his mistresses languish in artifice and fleeting pleasures. There are drawers to open, pullies to operate revealing the magical delights of Parisian theatre, pleasure garden spectacles and fine dining (wine bar in residence, courtesy of The Wine Shed, St Leonards). Musicians dart from St Petersburg to Florence and viewers are invited to do the same. It is Jane Eyre herself who calls the audience away from city-break splendour to mossy Yorkshire and Bewick’s birds. Parisian opera performer, Céline Varens is ready to entice viewers back to the European capitals. Who is the heroine of this romantic novel? Who ends up with Mr Rochester?
“The essence of our work is a mix of experiential and visual responses and personal reflections on a literary masterpiece with cross community engagement,” explains ExploreTheArch’s composer Vladimir Miller. “There are so many residents working in the creative industries in this town, and so many community members who are passionate about the arts, that we are uniquely placed to bring literature to life with vivid and informed perspectives. The whole community is coming together to celebrate Jane Eyre.”
ExploreTheArch have been opening their theatrical home to the public for just over a year now. The first event was a Burns night with a difference, followed by three events focusing on the literature of Wales, Ireland and England. Since then, Siberia and seedy London have been re-interpreted with paper, pulleys and immersive theatrical technique. Each event has been full of surprises. Tickets sell out fast, so it is recommended that you book online as soon as possible. Some tickets are also available through Bobo’s flowers.
These experiential, interpretive insights run from Tuesday 21 February to Tuesday 7 March (Hastings Art Forum’s exhibition ends on 5 March) and offer a lively day of exploration in St Leonards. For young people studying a nineteenth century text in their English syllabus (mandatory at GCSE) to those who are familiar with or have not picked up a copy of Brontë’s masterpiece before, this is a thought provoking initiative examining a town’s relationship with our literary heritage and embracing and valuing diverse responses. Visitors are welcomed and their viewpoints eagerly anticipated. Whether a letter reminiscing of a first read of the novel (please send ahead to firstname.lastname@example.org) or a scribble on a torn page, a sketch of a character or the description of a favourite character, it will be on display somewhere in the nooks and crannies of St Leonards. Residents are warmly invited to come onboard to celebrate and reflect on a steely, principled young heroine who develops an independent mind and dogged resolve to carve a life that honours her values and aspirations. She’s a great role model for the twenty first century.
With Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition running over the period and exhibitions at the nearby Jerwood and De La Warr Pavillion galleries, there’s plenty to do on this section of the Sussex coast this spring.
Hastings Arts Forum’s exhibition The Jane Eyre Project runs from Tuesday 21 Feb–Sunday 5 March, Tues–Sun, 11am–5pm, free entry. 01424 201636.
ExploreTheArch’s The House of the Heroine performances run until Tuesday 7 March, with performances at 8pm. Please check the company’s website for performance dates and book early as the intimate venue sells out quickly. There are a limited number of free children’s tickets available via the website. The production is recommended for secondary school age children – with parental discretion.
Useful information for Jane Eyre pilgrims to St Leonards…
St Leonards Warrior Square, the town’s station is served by train services from Charing Cross, Victoria, Ashford and Brighton. Please check for disruption due to the ongoing industrial dispute if using Southern’s Service. St Leonards-on-Sea is on the traffic-free Route 2 National Cycle network. Parking is also plentiful in the town.
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