Why Can’t Lily Cole Be Both A Supermodel And A Patron For The Bronte Society?

Lily Cole

by Rebecca Cope |
Updated on

Lily Cole was forced to defend herself yesterday after a row erupted over her appointment to the role of creative partner for the Bronte Society’s celebrations of the bicentenary of Emily Bronte’s birth. She had been hired to create a short film about Wuthering Heights' anti-hero Heathcliff for the project.

Taking particular umbrage over her hiring was Bronte expert Nick Holland, who said: ‘What would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief “artist” and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel? We all know the answer to that, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t fit to make the decision or have any role in the governance of the Brontë Society.’

Reading between the lines? He's unhappy that a model has been hired to an academic position, probably because he adheres to the sexist stereotype that models aren't intelligent.

His words prompted heated debate, with several other Bronte experts coming to Cole’s defence. Samantha Ellis praised Cole’s ‘innovative projects in the fields of literacy, nature, storytelling and the environment’, arguing that this made her ‘the perfect fit for Emily… to continue to be of relevance’.

Addressing the furore, Cole said: ‘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.’

Holland’s comments were widely criticised for being snobbish, which they are, but only because he is clearly ill-informed of Cole’s own credentials. A Cambridge graduate with a double first in History of Art, she’s been an outspoken advocate for increasing child literacy. In 2016 she worked with Project Literacy on the Alphabet of Illiteracy campaign, helping to highlight how illiteracy can lead to some of the world’s biggest problems, from Aids to child brides.

The outraged Bronte scholar was instead focusing on her other occupation, as a model, rather than looking at her career as a whole. Finding fame as a teenager, she has appeared on the pages of Vogue, walked for designers like Chanel and starred in various campaigns including for Marks and Spencer, but it is likely a Playboy spread from 2008 that naysayers are honing in on.

Indeed, Cole guesses as much, hinting at how her ‘teenage decisions’ are being held against her: ‘Now I find myself wondering, fleetingly, if I should present the short film I am working on for the Bronte Parsonage 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.’

It is also worth pausing over the irony that Cole considers whether or not she should be working under a pseudonym, 200 years after Emily Bronte was forced to herself. When the Bronte sisters were writing their novels in the 1840s, they wrote them under the masculine-sounding nom de plums Ellis Bell (Emily), Acton Bell (Anne) and Currer Bell (Charlotte), in the hopes that this would help their novels sell in a fair way. The dark subject matters explored in their three seminal works, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, would have been deemed inappropriate for a female author to have written. For Cole to be forced to consider this 200 years after her birth seems a depressing realisation that attitudes have only moved on so much since then.

Yet whether or not Cole has modelled for Playboy shouldn’t discount her from a role within the Bronte Society, because there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be able to do both – they aren’t mutually exclusive. Her interest in and passion for the Brontes is reason enough for her to be appointed.

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