Bronte fans who reject Lily Cole because she's a supermodel are missing the point

One member of the Brontë Society quit over the appointment of the supermodel as a “creative partner”. 

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Millennials have been accused of being many things – lazy, entitled and ungrateful, to name a few – but “serial job hoppers” is one of the latest additions the list. Today’s youth reportedly jump the professional ship in search of greener pastures an average of four times in the first decade after leaving education – twice as often as the seemingly more stable Generation X-ers before them.

As such, Lily Cole is every bit your classic millennial. One who can describe herself as an activist, an entrepreneur, a decorated humanitarian, an actress and a businesswoman. In a former life, she was also a supermodel. Signed by Storm Models in 2003, Cole was named British Model of the Year the following year, aged just 16. By 2009, Vogue Paris had declared her to be one of the top 30 models of the noughties, although her career took a backseat when she began studying History of Art at the University of Cambridge – from which she went on to graduate with a double first.

Most recently, the now 30-year-old has been appointed as a “creative partner” by the Brontë Parsonage Museum in West Yorkshire for their celebrations marking the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth. Within the role, Cole will make a short film on the anti-hero from Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff, with a particular focus on women's rights, as a nod to the 100-year anniversary of women getting the vote.

The Brontë Society was quick to brand Lily a “perfect fit for Emily”, owing to her “innovative projects in the fields of literacy, nature, story-telling and the environment”. And yet, such was Brontë expert Nick Holland’s outrage at the move, that he felt the only option was a sudden and dramatic exit from the historic Society.

Taking to his website in apparent fury, the In Search of Anne Brontë author wrote: “The central question should be, what would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief ‘artist’ and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel?”

As a leading expert on the Brontë sisters, Holland is certainly not unfamiliar with the plights all three faced in being taken seriously by men. When publishing their earlier work, the trio even opted to hide their identities behind more masculine pseudonyms, since, as Charlotte wrote “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice”.

Fast-forward 167 years, and Holland is echoing the exact sentiments the sisters themselves once feared. According to the BBC, Cole even questioned whether she should have used her own pseudonym, and if doing so would have allowed her film to be “judged on its own merits, rather than on my name, my gender, my image or my teenage decisions.”

It’s unlikely that many among us can say they still remain in the same profession in their early 30s that they entered in adolescence. I, like many of my peers, waitressed throughout my late teens and early 20s, but it’s been a long time since I dropped a plate on anybody or smashed a tray full of glasses (I wasn’t a very good waitress). I’d like to think I’ve gone on to accomplish a lot more since.

To define Cole only by her teenage occupation, thus overlooking all subsequent achievements, seems both bizarre and patronising, as though supermodels sign away their rights to opinions, education, and ambitions when they pose for the cover of a magazine.

While Cole said she wouldn’t like to presume how Emily might feel at having a “supermodel” working as a creative partner on her 200th birthday celebrations, she added: “I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”

In her considered response, it’s evident that the Brontë Society has gained an intelligent and thoughtful role model, who may well go on to introduce a whole generation of young girls to the sisters’ works. And, in doing so, they have also seem to have shed one of their more bigoted members. It’s hard to imagine Emily arguing with that. 

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.