The Story Of Anne Brontë’s Fair Godmothers

Anne Brontë was just a baby when her mother Maria died, with her Aunt Branwell and her older sisters Maria and Charlotte becoming mother figures to her. There were two more women in the young Anne’s life however, and although they may not have been in regular contact they still played a significant part in her life: Anne Brontë’s godmothers, Elizabeth Firth and Fanny Outhwaite.

When Reverend Patrick Brontë moved to his new parish of Thornton, near Bradford, in May 1815 he had a wife and two daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, over the course of his nearly five years in the parish he would have four more children – Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne.

Thornton, like their next parish of Haworth, wasn’t a straightforward parish – most of the inhabitants preferred the non-conformist Methodist and Baptist churches to the official Church of England, and resented having to pay taxes to the official church as they were then made to do.

Elizabeth Firth
Elizabeth Firth, a loyal godmother to Anne Bronte

One Thornton family, however, made the Brontës very welcome – the Firths. The Firth family were the undoubted leaders of Thornton society, and lived at the imposing Kipping House to the south of the village, with a view looking over the moors (that’s a picture of Kipping House today at the top of this post).

By May 1815 there were only two Firths living there: John Scholefield Firth and his daughter Elizabeth, then aged eighteen. Mrs. Firth, also named Elizabeth, had died in a tragic accident a year earlier when she was thrown from a horse outside her home. John Firth was a doctor, but a man of considerable means, and he was a staunch supporter of the Church of England.

He saw it as a source of pride to regularly host the parish priest and his family, aided by his teenage daughter Elizabeth and from 1815 onwards his second wife Anne Greame.. Elizabeth Firth is of particular importance to Brontë lovers and researchers, because from the age of fifteen she kept a diary, detailing her daily activities. Many of them may seem mundane, for example one of her first entries is from 7th January 1812: ‘Miss Outhwaite went home’. From 1815 onwards however her diary becomes full of the Brontës: for example on 6th November 1817: ‘I went to Bradford with Mr Brontë. The Princess Charlotte of Wales died.’

The diary doesn’t go into too much detail, but it shows the vast social intercourse between the Firth and Brontë family. She also volunteered as a teacher at Patrick’s Thornton Sunday school. One mark of the respect that Patrick, and his wife Maria, had for Elizabeth Firth is that they asked her to be godmother to their daughter Anne.

Although the Brontë family moved to Haworth shortly after Anne’s birth, they did keep in touch with Elizabeth Firth. We know that she visited Maria Brontë in Haworth during her long terminal illness, and that she took the elder Brontë children back to Kipping House with her for a while. By this time, Elizabeth had become mistress of the house, as her father died suddenly in late 1820, with Reverend Patrick Brontë by his side.

Elizabeth was now a relatively wealthy young woman, and three months after Maria Bronte’s death, Patrick visited her at Thornton. After his return to Haworth he wrote Elizabeth a letter proposing marriage. She rejected his proposal, and may have been angered by it as her diary records on 14th December 1821 that she had sent ‘my last letter to Mr Brontë’. Why was she angry? It may have been the age difference, at 24 she was twenty years younger than him, or it could have been the difference in social standing between them. She may have found his courtship unseemly so soon after the death of his wife. There was also the fact that she had her heart set on another, and she later married Reverend Franks of Huddersfield.

The break between Elizabeth and Patrick didn’t last long, and by 1823 they were reconciled, with Patrick visiting her in Thornton again.

The young woman mentioned in Elizabeth’s 1812 diary entry, Miss Outhwaite, also features heavily within them. Fanny Outhwaite had met Elizabeth at the exclusive Crofton Hall school near Wakefield, and they soon became best friends.
Fanny Outhwaite too was the daughter of a surgeon, Dr. Thomas Outhwaite. As a frequent visitor to Kipping House from her Bradford home, Fanny came into regular contact with the Brontës, and thus it was that in 1820 Patrick asked her to join Elizabeth as godmother to Anne Brontë.

The choice of these two young women as Anne’s godmothers showed that they were looked on approvingly from a moral point of view, but it was also a practical choice. They were both women who had considerably more money than most in the Brontë circle, and it seems likely it was hoped that they could make a financial as well as spiritual contribution to Anne’s life. They didn’t disappoint.

Crofton Hall
Crofton Hall, where Anne Bronte’s godmothers met at school

Patrick Brontë spent large sums of money on medical care, fruitless though it was for his dying wife, and ran up significant debts in the process. Elizabeth and Fanny were among the friends who cleared his debts. They made further contributions throughout the lives of all the Brontës, regularly sending them gifts. Elizabeth paid for the eldest Brontë daughters to attend Crofton Hall School, where she and Fanny had met, but they were there for just a term, Patrick seemingly realising that it would not do to ask Elizabeth to fund their whole school careers.

It was this that led to the fateful decision to send the Brontë girls to the much more affordable Cowan Bridge School, and Elizabeth Franks, as she then was, and her husband visited Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte there in 1824.

Elizabeth and her husband lived close to Roe Head School, and in the summer of 1836 they invited Charlotte and Anne to spend the summer with them. The girls did this under duress, as they would much have preferred to be back at home in Haworth with Emily and Branwell. It was to be one of the last times that Anne would see her godmother, as in September 1837 she died at the home of the Outhwaites. A local newspaper reported that she died after ‘a protracted indisposition’, and so it may have been that she was being treated by Dr. Outhwaite.

Fanny Outhwaite herself died at the beginning of 1849. She too had remained in some sort of contact with the Brontes, and we know that Patrick visited her in June 1836 after she had broken her arm. She did not forget her goddaughter, and in her will she left Anne the sum of two hundred pounds: in that time a very substantial amount of money.

By that time, however, Anne Brontë too was dying. The legacy from her godmother allowed Anne to pay for her final trip to Scarborough, the resort that she loved and which was to witness her last breath on 29th May, 1849.

Patrick and Maria had made a good choice of godmothers for Anne. They were kind and caring, and provided financial support when needed throughout their lives, even if they couldn’t always be with her as much as they would have liked. Anne was a prodigious letter writer, even though only a handful remain, so it seems likely to me that she would have kept in correspondence with her godmothers. Maybe this is why Fanny Outhwaite remembered Anne so fulsomely in her will? Alas, any such letters have been lost to time. Elizabeth Firth’s diaries however have been preserved, and are now in the Sheffield University archives. A transcription of the diaries can also be read online right here, and they’re a useful and fascinating resource for Brontë lovers, as well as a fascinating glimpse into social history.

The Death Of Charlotte Brontë – March 31 1855

Today is a sad day for Brontë lovers everywhere, as it marks the anniversary of the death of Charlotte Brontë, an event that occurred on 31st March 1855.

After Anne’s death in May 1849, Charlotte found herself the last of the six Brontë siblings. During the subsequent years her career as a writer prospered but she suffered increasing bouts of depression and neurosis. She could not even walk the moors in peace, sensing the spirits of Anne and Emily around her. It brought to her mind their poetry: ‘Once I loved it, now I dare not read it, and am driven often to wish I could taste one draught of oblivion and forget much that, while mind remains, I shall never forget.’

Nevertheless, in her final year she did at last find some real happiness and inner peace, much to her surprise. When she married Arthur Bell Nicholls on June 29th 1854, after a long campaign of wooing that had at first seemed far from propitious, she professed little liking for him, but after the wedding she rapidly fell in love with him. It seems that she also rapidly fell pregnant; whilst never mentioned specifically by her in her correspondence of this time she does seek advice from people who have had babies, in guarded language that can be easily interpreted. The Brontë Parsonage Museum also has a tiny, beautiful and moving baby bonnet that a friend had made for Charlotte in readiness for the impending happy event. It was never to occur.

Charlotte Bronte baby bonnet
The baby bonnet made for Charlotte Bronte’s child by Miss Wooler

By 19th January 1855, Charlotte was confined to bed with nausea, but thought little of it, and she was making plans to visit Ellen Nussey at the end of January. Before that time however her condition had sharply deteriorated to the extent that she didn’t even have strength to write back to Ellen’s letters.

When she died the cause of death was given as consumption, and it seems likely that all of the Brontë children had some latent level of tuberculosis in them throughout their lives, but this wasn’t the disease that claimed Charlotte. An expert opinion was given in 1972 by Professor Philip Rhodes, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of London. He stated that ‘the evidence is quite clear that she died of hyperemesis gravidurum, the pernicious vomiting of pregnancy.’

Charlotte became unable to eat, until even the sight of food made her vomit. She was becoming increasingly thin and weak, but without today’s medical understanding of this condition doctors didn’t know how to treat what should have been an easily manageable condition. After two months of vomiting, inability to eat and continuous fatigue, the bed ridden Charlotte suddenly changed. She was now ravenous, and frequently delirious. It was too late, there was nothing to be done.

Her last words were said to Arthur, her husband of just nine months, as he knelt by her side weeping and praying. A rare moment of clarity possessed her: ‘Oh, I am not going to die am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy.’

Bronte burial plaque
The Bronte burial plaque, St. Michael’s, Haworth

On 31st March 1855, Charlotte Brontë Nicholls died. The Brontë line was now at an end forever, and her father Patrick had the unhappy fate of outliving them all. They are gone, and yet in a very real sense Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë live on through their words, through their imagination, through their genius.

Who Were The Real Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell?

When the Bell brothers published their book of poetry ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘ in 1846 it seemed to be an act of little significance, reportedly selling just two copies (although one of this duo of readers was so impressed that he wrote to the publisher, Aylott & Jones, for the Bell’s autographs). Of course, we know now this was an act of incredible significance as it was actually the first book to reach print by the Brontë sisters (and, on a side note, every copy was eventually sold). The poetry is important of course, but the names are important too – so let’s look at why the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were chosen – for behind the names lie very touching tales of the sisters and what they cherished the most.

All of the Brontë sisters were shy, to a lesser or greater degree, possibly as a result of the relative seclusion they were brought up in after the death of their mother Maria, thriving in their own company rather than in that of others. Emily Brontë above all prized anonymity and secrecy, so it is likely to be she rather than her sisters who pressed for the use of pseudonyms when presenting their work.

Charlotte, in the biographical notices of her sisters she composed after their death, explained why they had used ostensibly male names:

‘ We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’.

This is a sentiment that was echoed by Anne Brontë in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

‘All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’

So we know why the sisters chose to hide behind the mask of the Bells, but just why did they choose the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? Firstly, it allowed them to retain their initials: Currer Bell was Charlotte Brontë, Ellis Bell was Emily Brontë, and Acton Bell was Anne Brontë.

The surname Bell could have been chosen simply because of the sound of the bells from their father’s St. Michael’s and All Angels church, a short stroll from the Parsonage in which they lived. It’s a sound they would have often heard – so could it be that they heard the bells peeling as they tried to conjure up a nom de plume for themselves?

Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls

Another option is that they may have borrowed part of the name of their father’s new assistant curate – Arthur Bell Nicholls. He arrived in Haworth in May 1845, not long before the sisters began to send their poems to prospective publishers. At the time they could not have guessed the importance that Arthur would have to their lives – he would become dog walker to Flossy and Keeper after the death of Anne and Emily, and he was later to marry Charlotte Brontë.

I suggest a third possibility, however. Could Bell be a shortened form of the maiden name of their mother, and more pertinently perhaps their brother? By removing the middle letters of the name they could disguise it so that B(ranw)ell becomes simply B’ell or Bell. Branwell Brontë was unable to be part of their writing venture, but he was still regarded fondly by his sisters and in this way he still could, somehow, be present.

Winifred Gerin, the brilliant biographer of the Brontës in the sixties and seventies, suggested the origins of two of the pen names.

Eshton Hall, home of Frances Currer
Eshton Hall, home of Frances Currer

Charlotte Brontë was for a short while a governess to the Sidgwick family of Stone Gappe at Lothersdale, North Yorkshire. The neighbouring property of Eshton Hall, a huge mansion near Skipton, belonged to a Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer. She was famed for her large library, similar to the one Charlotte was familiar with at Ponden Hall near Haworth. Could it be that Frances Currer’s learning impressed Charlotte so much that she later adopted her name?

Acton Bell may have taken ‘his’ name from Eliza Acton. Largely forgotten now, she was a cookery writer and more importantly a poetess of note in the early to mid nineteenth century, and likely to have been read by Anne in the magazines that the sisters enjoyed, passed on from their father.

Eliza Acton 1803
Eliza Acton, drawn in 1803

Another possible source of the name is Acton Castle near to Penzance in Cornwall. It would have been well known by Anne’s mother Maria and by her Aunt Elizabeth, who was like a mother to Anne throughout her life. It could be that Anne heard her aunt talk of the castle (after all, we know that she liked nothing more than talking of her beloved Cornwall), liked the name, and decided to adopt it as a tribute to the land of her maternal forebears.

Acton Castle
Acton Castle near Penzance

Winifred Gerin is, however, unable to suggest an origin for Ellis Bell, but I believe I have not just one but two possible answers. Emily and Anne Brontë were incredibly close and loving sisters, and Emily was always longing to hear of Anne’s adventures as a governess. She would have known all about Mary Ingham, Anne’s employer at Blake Hall of Mirfield, recreated so searingly in Agnes Grey, and she would also have heard of Mary Ingham’s exalted father: Ellis Cunliffe Lister. Ellis was the member of Parliament for Bradford, in effect the Brontës’ parliamentary representative.

Alternatively it could be a tribute to Emily’s older sister Elizabeth, who tragically died of tuberculosis aged just 10 in 1825, a time when Emily was just six years old. Perhaps the young Emily found it hard to say the full name Elizabeth and so used a shortened form – Ellis? Elizabeth Brontë was, by all reports, a practical and loving sister and she would often lead her younger siblings across the moors. Emily Brontë would without doubt have loved these walks, and therefore she doubtless would have loved the sister who led them, and could have paid a touching tribute to her when selecting a pen name. This, I think, is the most likely origin of Ellis Bell.

So there we have the inspirations, possibly or even probably, of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – three very different people yet all represented in the Brontës works – the solitary yet scholarly woman, the greatly missed sister, the female poet – and at the end of the name, a tribute to their brother. We can see then that each name was carefully chosen and that each has a touching story behind it. We adore Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë, of course, but we should also cherish the names of Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell.


Removing The Masks: The Young Brontës

Anne Brontë was a naturally shy woman who kept her feelings hidden whenever possible, and this reserve also extended to lesser and greater degrees throughout her siblings. Their father Patrick was well aware of this, and developed an idea that would help him find out what his children were really like, and what they thought. To unmask his children, he would put them behind a mask.

We have no idea what kind of mask Patrick had in the Parsonage, could it have been a Pierrot style mask, white and neutral, or even a large tribal style mask that would have fascinated his exploration loving youngsters? Whatever mask it was, Patrick lined his children up and made them wear it one after the other as he asked them a single question that would get to the heart of their character. The answers are very revealing, so we’ll look at each one in turn. Here is how Patrick Brontë explained the event:

“When my children were very young, when as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age, and the youngest about four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under the cover of the mask.

Masks image
The anonymity of masks helped the Brontes open up

I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell) and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, ‘Age and experience'”

So Patrick started with the child of most interest to us, Anne Brontë herself. Was this because she was the most timid, or simply because she was the youngest? Her answer is both moving and illuminating. For a four year old girl she is wise and eloquent beyond her years. She doesn’t want a doll or to live in a fairytale castle, although we know she did love both these things; no, what she wanted were the two things she was fated never to have – age and experience.

“I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell) what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who was sometimes a naughty boy; she answered, ‘Reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him'”

In Emily as a five or six year old child, we see Emily as an adult. Reason is all very good in its own place, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. She wouldn’t shy away from the harshness and cruelty of life.

“I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of men and women; he answered, ‘By considering the difference between them as to their bodies’.”

We can already see that Branwell was already a sometimes strong willed and troublesome child from Emily’s question and answer. We now hear him flippantly dismissing his sisters as being somehow less than him simply because they weren’t male, his arrogance and pride coming to the fore as it would with devastating effect years later.

“I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, ‘The Bible’. And what was the next best; she answered, ‘The Book of Nature’.”

From this, we see that even at age seven or eight, Charlotte Brontë loved nothing more than reading books – which is why her father asked her which was her favourite. He may have been surprised by her answers though, which show that she loved her faith and the rugged yet wonderful countryside around the Parsonage even more than the books within it.

“I then asked the next what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, ‘That which would make her rule her house well'”

This is the oft overlooked second sister, Elizabeth Brontë. The straightforward, practical member of the family looking forward to a traditional life of domesticity that she would never know.

“Lastly, I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity'”

This is the most moving answer of them all. Maria Brontë, brilliant child genius who by this age of ten could already converse with her father on all the subjects of the day. Within two years of putting on the mask she would be called to her eternity by tuberculosis.

Patrick gained a lot from putting the Brontë sisters and their brother behind the mask, but we can also see a premonition of another kind. Timid in real life, Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë found that they could be bold, truthful and creative when hidden behind a mask of anonymity. It’s something they would do again little more than twenty years later, when they took upon themselves the masks of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

Anne Brontë And The Quest For Truth

Anne Brontë prized honesty above all other qualities, and her writing was a quest for the truth, so when she felt her integrity called into question she sprang into action. The result was the ‘Preface to the Second Edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’, and it’s not at all as dry as the title makes it sound. It contains anger, indignation, and pride in equal measures; it is a manifesto outlining all that Anne Brontë believed in, and it’s beautiful, powerful, and moving by turns. It is, in short, unlike anything else in the Brontë canon.

The catalyst for its creation was a series of reviews that followed the publication of both Agnes Grey and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Critics had said that they seemed too wild and unreal, that they dealt with subjects that were not fitting for modern novels, that they were morally lax and even ungodly. The Spectator said the author had ‘a morbid love of the coarse, not to say of the brutal’. The Rambler intoned, ‘The scenes which the heroine relates in her diary are of the most disgusting and brutal species.’

Indifference to her books Anne could take, after all people had been indifferent to her throughout her life, but these accusations cut her to the bone. ‘If you cut me do I not bleed?’ the merchant of Venice famously said, and Anne was to bleed over the three pages of her preface.

Tenant Of Wildfell Hall stage production
The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, stage production

A measure of Anne’s insistence on honour is shown by her swift action when she found that her publisher, Thomas Newby, had wrongly been telling people that she, or rather Acton Bell as he knew her, was also the author of Jane Eyre. Within twenty four hours of the letter arriving, she and her sister Charlotte Brontë were in London to confront their respective publishers. Charlotte no doubt expected Anne to break off her contract with Newby and turn instead to her publisher Smith, Elder & Co. Anne, however, would not turn her back on a contract she had signed, but instead insisted on Newby publishing a preface to the second edition being planned for The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall in which she would refute some of the accusations being made against her. It was to become her personal manifesto, as well as the last piece of prose she would ever have published. Anne Brontë would now speak with her own voice, as if she knew she was running out of time, on subjects close to her heart:

On the importance of truth in writing: ‘My object in writing the following pages, was not simply to amuse the Reader, neither was it to gratify my own taste, nor yet to ingratiate myself with the Press and the Public: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it.’

On the proper subject of fiction: ‘If I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.’ (This has sometimes, wrongly, been taken as an attack on Wuthering Heights, but it is instead a rebuttal of critics who said that the vérité scenes of her novels were not a fitting subject for literature.)

On the didactic power of literature: ‘When we have to deal with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.’

On the perfect work of art: ‘I love to give innocent pleasure. Yet, be it understood, I shall not limit my ambition to this – or even to producing ‘a perfect work of art’; time and talents so spent, I should consider wasted and misapplied.’

On being misunderstood by critics: ‘When I feel it is my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name.’

On the true identity of the Bells: Respecting the author’s identity, I would have it be distinctly understood that Acton Bell is neither Currer nor Ellis Bell, and therefore, let not his faults be attributed to them. As to whether the name be real or fictitious, it cannot greatly signify to those who know him only by his works.’

On the equality of the sexes: ‘All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’

Anne was an experienced and usually rapid writer, but days turned into weeks as she wrote this preface. She would delete lines, tear up pages, until she was satisfied that everything she said was just how it should be. This, after all, was Anne Brontë presenting her true self to the world: honest and truthful, courageous, bold, and not the downtrodden, quiet woman some people still think of. Today, increasing numbers are finding that her books may be set nearly two centuries ago, but they speak to us in a very modern way, and with an understanding that few other Victorian novelists have achieved.

I think Anne would have been proud of the impact her novels continue to have, and delighted at the praise she is now finding. I myself want here to give thanks for all the kind words people have given me regarding my biography of Anne, ‘In Search Of Anne Brontë‘. From a glowing review in The Mail On Sunday, to praise from readers on both sides of the Atlantic, it means so much to me, and I hope it introduces Anne Brontë to even more readers.

In Search Of Anne Bronte review, Mail On Sunday
In Search Of Anne Bronte review, Mail On Sunday

To Write Invisible: The Brontës And Anonymity

Yesterday, I attended the annual lecture at the Brontë Society summer festival, this time delivered by acclaimed biographer of Charlotte Brontë, Claire Harman. The venue, Haworth’s large and impressive Hall Green Baptist Church, was packed to the rafters, so much so that I had to take a seat on the upper balcony. There were initial microphone problems, and at one pound a battering noise on the door as if somebody was trying to break in (reminiscent of Cathy at the window of Wuthering Heights), but Claire carried on like the professional she is and delivered a very interesting lecture.

Hall Green Baptist Church
Hall Green Baptist Church, Haworth, site of the Bronte Society lecture

In effect, the theme of the lecture could be called ‘To Write Invisible’, coming as it did just two days after completion of the BBC’s filming of the new Brontë drama ‘To Walk Invisible’ in Haworth. Claire looked at why the sisters chose anonymity, how their true identities were revealed, and how Charlotte craved anonymity once more even after she had gained fame and success.

We all know that the sisters chose to publish their first book, their poetry, and then their subsequent novels under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, retaining only their real initials. Charlotte herself, in her 1950 biographical notices of Ellis and Acton Bell, revealed the reasoning: ‘We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’

Charlotte also writes that the choice of names was ambiguous, rather than being positively masculine, which Claire repeated in her lecture, and which I have also heard Juliet Barker proclaim. In my opinion, however, the names are distinctly masculine, and Charlotte in her account was trying to circumvent any charge of dishonesty.

An example of the maleness of these names would have been well known to Anne at the time. Ellis Cunliffe Lister was the MP for Bradford, and he was also the father of Mary Ingham who had employed Anne as a governess at Blake Hall in Mirfield.

Anne addresses the choice of names in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, in which she hits back at her critics:

‘As little, I should think, can it matter whether the writer so designated is a man, or a woman or two of my critics profess to have discovered.’

Claire also pondered why they craved anonymity. Emily, especially, was very desirous to keep her writing life a secret, but this was an extension of her extreme reserve and aloofness witnessed by Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs. Gaskell was careful to draw a distinction between Anne’s shyness and Emily’s reserve. She said that Anne would have liked to please if she knew how, but Emily was indifferent whether she pleased or not.

Anne and Charlotte had particular reasons to hide their authorships behind a mask, their writings contained many autobiographical moments, and real people hidden under assumed names. In Agnes Grey, for example, the Bloomfields are obviously representative of the Inghams and the Murrays of the Robinsons, the two families that Anne Brontë worked for. She was careful, however, to change not only their names but their ages, slightly, to hide the real inspiration behind her often brutally frank portrayals.

Charlotte encountered this problem too with her portrayal of the dreadful head of Lowood school, the hypocritical calvinist Mr. Brocklehurst. He was closely modelled on Reverend. Carus Wilson, the head of the Cowan Bridge school that had led to the deaths of the eldest Brontës, Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte would forever be adamant, as Claire Harman revealed, that the real life Cowan Bridge had been even more shocking than the fictional Lowood.

Charlotte’s second novel, Shirley, contained a large number of her friends and family under fictional names. Emily and Anne were the heroines Shirley and Caroline for example, while her great friend Mary Taylor and her family became the Yorkes. This brought anxiety for Charlotte, would some of the people in the book recognise themselves and therefore recognise who the mysterious author Currer Bell actually was?

Claire Harman
Bronte biographer Claire Harman

Claire Harman here quoted from a letter of Charlotte to W.S.Williams, of her publisher, on 21st September 1849:

‘The original of Mr. Hall I have seen – he knows me slightly, but he would as soon think I had closely observed him or taken him for a character – he would as soon, indeed, suspect me of writing a book – a novel – as he would his dog Prince.’

Mr. Hall is one of the multitude of clergymen in the novel, and by far the kindest one. He was based upon Reverend William Margetson Heald, vicar of Dewsbury. He was more shrewd than Charlotte realised, however, and did indeed recognise himself. Shortly after the novel’s publication, the identity of Currer Bell was a matter of great speculation. A Haworth born merchant now living in Liverpool, John Driver, wrote to his local newspaper saying that he recognised the setting and many of the people in the book, and that the author must be from Haworth.

Charlotte was fighting a lost cause, and the true identity of Currer Bell as the tiny obscure daughter of a clergyman from a poor, moorside village in Yorkshire was finally confirmed. By this time, of course, both Emily and Anne had died, and so Charlotte, in her biographical notice, revealed their identities too.

Charlotte now became a literary sensation, and much sought after by society in London and elsewhere, but she soon longer for anonymity again more than ever. Her fourth novel (the third to be published) ‘Villette’ was her most personal yet. She revealed the true nature of her thwarted love for M. Heger, the stern teacher who had been her master in Brussels, and gave a searing and at times painful insight into her own character in the form of Lucy Snowe.

She begged her publishers to publish the novel under another pen name, rather than using either Currer Bell or Charlotte Brontë. This would have been commercial suicide of course, and eventually the publisher managed to persuade Charlotte of this, although she then implored them not to advertise the book.

The three Brontë sisters craved anonymity until the very end, only by obscuring their identities could these women gain the courage they needed to craft such incredible and often incredibly honest works. Timid in real life, under their anonymous cloak they were all powerful and dared to write anything.

Today, of course, they are known and lauded across the whole world, and Claire finished her lecture by talking about her visit to Westminster Abbey to see poet’s corner on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. Amidst all the pomp and statues, in the bottom right hand corner sits a relatively tiny engraving to Charlotte, Emily and Anne: ‘With The Courage To Endure’. This motto itself is an echo of Anne Brontës final words to her sister Charlotte: ‘take courage’. This plaque may at first seem tiny and insignificant, as the girls themselves did to those who didn’t know their incredible secret, and yet fittingly it’s next to the statue of Shakespeare. Denied it in life, in death they have been placed among the true literary greats.

Bronte memorial, poet's corner
The Bronte memorial, poet’s corner

Triumph And Tragedy: Anne Brontë In London

When Anne Brontë, accompanied by her sister Charlotte, arrived in London on the dawn of 8th July 1848 they had intended to stay for one night only and return to Yorkshire on Sunday. That would give them enough time to meet Charlotte’s publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., and Anne’s publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, to resolve the misunderstanding that had distressed them so: due to their use of male pseudonyms, Anne’s publisher had tried to convince the world that Acton and Currer Bell were the same person. Stung by this slur against their honesty, they sprung into action.

It didn’t take long for the sisters to convince George Smith of the truth of the situation, remarkable and undreamed of though it was, but this was to change their plans completely, with dreadful consequences. Smith, and his assistant William S. Williams, were in awe of these two young women who could produce such powerful writing. Waving away their protests, Smith insisted that they stay in London for at least a few days as his guests. They insisted that they couldn’t stay at his mother’s house, as he had suggested, but they would remain at the Chapter Coffee House. Thus it was that Anne and Charlotte remained in London until Tuesday, as Charlotte’s publisher paid tribute to their genius and introduced them to the delights of the capital.

On that first night the Brontës were to be guests at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, now the Royal Opera House. Charlotte, as usual when faced with stressful situations, came down with one of her bilious attacks and a severe headache, but as evening arrived their escorts for the night came to fetch them. Smith himself would be Charlotte’s escort, and Williams would be Anne’s. Plainly dressed as, be necessity, they were, they were horrified to see the men wearing tail coats. Upon reaching the opera house they saw ladies wearing the finest dresses and jewellery, and Charlotte in particular would have been mortified.

WS Williams
WS Williams

For Anne, her initial misgivings would soon have been replaced by extreme joy. Anne loved music, and often played the Haworth Parsonage piano, a pleasure denied to Charlotte by her extreme short sightedness. She regularly bought sheet music and had often attended recitals in Keighley and Scarborough. Her favourite form of music was light opera, and so she must have been thrilled to find that she would be watching an opera by the master of the genre, it was ‘The Barber Of Seville’ by Rossini.

On the next morning, Anne indulged the other great love of her life: worship. It may seem surprising that she didn’t go to mass at St Paul’s Cathedral, directly opposite their rooms, but typically she selected somewhere less ostentatious, and when Mr Williams arrived to collect them on Sunday morning she asked to be taken to St Stephen’s Church in Walbrook, whose minister was the renowned evangelist and philanthropist George Croly.

St Stephens Church Walbrook
The magnificent interior of St Stephens Church, Walbrook

The next few days were a social whirl, as the two gentlemen paid the authors the homage their talents deserved. They dined at the homes of both Smith and Williams, walked around beautiful parks, were shown around art galleries. They were taken shopping, where they bought presents for everyone at the Parsonage, from Emily to Tabby Aykroyd. They also, of course, at some point visited the unscrupulous Newby. Alas, history doesn’t record what happened at this meeting, but we can easily imagine Anne laying aside her usual timidity to tell him exactly what she thought of his shabby methods.

Tuesday arrived, and the sisters had to return to Haworth. Smith tried to persuade them to stay longer but didn’t press the point, probably guessing the truth which was that Anne and Charlotte had by now used up all the money they came with. The train journey northwards must have been mixed with fatigue, excitement, and pride. They had done exactly what they had set out to do, and much more besides. It was Anne’s only journey outside of London and she had seen sights such as she’d never seen before, from beautiful architecture to some of the world’s greatest art.

It was the peak moment of victory for Anne, but it was to be followed by a rapid descent. Within a year, she, Emily, and Branwell would all be dead from tuberculosis, but where did the disease come from? Consumption is a disease that thrives in heavily populated areas and was relatively rare in Haworth which was instead prone to epidemics of cholera and typhoid. It seems likely that this contact, in London, with so many people saw Anne unknowingly pick up a huge dose of tuberculosis which was then passed on to her sister and brother. In this way, the triumph of London would lead directly to one of the most tragic episodes in the history of literature.

Smith, Elder & Co: Anne Brontë In London

When Charlotte and Anne Brontë arrived in London on the morning of 8th July 1848, they had just one thing on their mind: restoring their honour. A day earlier a letter had arrived from Charlotte’s publisher, Smith, Elder & Co. that would change literary history for ever. In it, George Smith asked if Currer Bell could explain how a book entitled The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was being hawked to an American publisher as a new work by the author of Jane Eyre.

George Smith
George Smith, publisher of Charlotte Bronte

The truth of the matter, of course, was that The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was written by Anne Bronte under the pseudonym of Acton Bell. The sisters’ use of male pseudonyms had been intended to hide the real identities of this shy trio and to ensure that their books were not judged unfairly because of the gender of the authors. As the events of July showed, however, it had been causing confusion and speculation. Anne’s unscrupulous publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, had used this uncertainty to try to gain a better deal for Anne’s new book in the United States. This swiftly resulted in the letter which devastated Charlotte, Anne, and Emily.

One thing they couldn’t countenance was having their honesty questioned, but how could they solve this problem? At this point even their publishers had no idea of the true identity of the authors, but the sisters quickly agreed that this had to change. Emily, the most insular of all the Brontës, would not make the journey, but she gave her blessing to her two sisters as long as they still kept the identity of Ellis Bell a secret.

After checking in at the Chapter Coffee House on Paternoster Row, a location Charlotte had earlier stayed in en route to Brussels, they wasted little time in setting out for Smith, Elder & Co. Here they encountered another problem. The publisher was located at 65 Cornhill, a street running off from the Bank of England premises, and home to many bookshops and publishers. The sisters had a vague idea that it was not far from Paternoster Row but after setting out on foot got completely lost, and were too shy to ask for directions.

Charlotte recorded, when relaying the story of her London adventure to her friend Mary Taylor, that it took them well over an hour to finally reach the publisher. I recently retraced their steps and it took me ten minutes of gentle strolling to reach 65 Cornhill. In effect it’s a straight road which leads from Paternoster Row, past St Paul’s Cathedral, and then turning into Cheapside which in turn changes its name to Cornhill. Many of the buildings still there today would have been seen by the sisters, and Anne would have loved the stately imposing architecture unlike any she’d seen before.

Eventually the reached the building today. The Shanghai Commercial Bank stands on the spot today, but the original building is no more. Anne and Charlotte must have taken a moment on the threshold to compose themselves, could they actually carry out their plan, could they throw their masks of anonymity aside? Holding hands for comfort they stepped inside.

The ground floor was a bookshop. Charlotte walked to an assistant and asked to be taken to George Smith, the head of the publishing house. Unworldly as they were, it had not occurred to them that he might not be at work on what was a Saturday morning. Luckily for them, Smith was a workaholic and in his office on the floor above. The assistant, unaccustomed to such requests, nevertheless went to Smith’s office to pass on the request. He was unhappy at being disturbed and told the assistant to find out their names and their business. The assistant returned shortly to say that the women would not give him their names but said that it was important business and they must see him.

Smith was now intrigued, and asked for them to be shown up. He was surprised to see two women standing before him, they were small in stature, timid, and wearing clothes that were far from fashionable. He took a moment to survey them and then asked them why they wanted to see him.

At this point Charlotte stepped forward and planted the letter on his desk that she had received just a day earlier. It was addressed to Currer Bell.

Smith was now on the verge of becoming alarmed, he was not adverse to publishing mysteries but didn’t necessarily want to be in one himself.

‘Where did you get this?’, he asked Charlotte.

‘From the post office’, she replied, ‘it’s addressed to me.’ There was no going back now.

Smith, a young man who had recently taken over the firm from his father, could hardly take in what was happening. Could this really be his stellar new writer Currer Bell with whom he had exchanged so many letters? He produced paper and a pen, and asked Charlotte to sign her signature. Her ‘Currer Bell’, of course, matched those that Smith already had.

Smith was amazed, but there was another surprise to come. Charlotte explained that she was a poor clergyman’s daughter from Yorkshire by the name of Brontë, and then introduced her sister Anne and explained that she was Acton Bell who had recently caused so much controversy with The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

The mystery was now cleared up, and any charge of deception was quickly transferred from the sisters themselves to the publisher Newby. Smith left the office briefly and came back with his head reader, William Smith Williams. It was Williams who had first recognised the brilliance of Jane Eyre, and he too was now amazed to discover who Currer Bell really was. The sisters explained that they were now going to visit Thomas Newby and then return to Haworth, but Smith would hear nothing of it. They were now his guests of honour, and he would show them the respect their genius deserved. In next week’s blog you’ll read more about their prolonged stay in London, and how a joyous few days for Anne would lead directly to one of the most tragic events in English literature.

The Cornhill history door, London
The Cornhill history door, London

Cornhill hasn’t forgotten its two famous visitors. A wooden door stands at 32 Cornhill which is an incredible work of art by sculptor Walter Gilbert. Made in 1939 it’s one of London’s hidden treasures. The door features eight elaborate panels showing significant moments in Cornhill’s history. The first panel notes its founding by King Lucius in 179AD, and the eight panel shows two women talking to a man in a top hat: it is Charlotte and Anne Brontë at the moment of their ultimate triumph, and is at the head of this post.

The Chapter Coffee House: Anne Brontë In London

Anne Brontë and her sisters will forever be associated with Yorkshire, and indeed she only ever made one journey outside of her home county, but what a journey it was! I’m lucky enough to be spending some time in England’s capital myself, so in a series of three blogs I’ll be following Anne’s footsteps and reliving the adventures of Anne Brontë in London. In the next blog I’ll be looking at the reason for Anne and Charlotte’s sudden journey, the publishing house of Smith, Elder & Co. In the third blog I’ll examine the enjoyment that Anne gained from her visit, as well as the tragic aftermath, but in this first blog I’ll be uncovering the location of the Chapter Coffee House where Anne and Charlotte lodged during their London adventure.

On 7th July 1848 Charlotte Brontë received a letter that chilled her to the bone. It was from her publisher Smith, Elder & Co informing her that a publisher named Thomas Cautley Newby had been trying to sell the rights to The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall to an American publisher by stating that it was by the author of Jane Eyre, by then a smash hit. This confusion had resulted from the sisters’ use of pseudonyms, with Charlotte publishing as Currer Bell, and Anne and Emily as Acton and Ellis respectively. Nevertheless many critics and readers believed all their novels to be the work of one person. Newby, Anne’s unscrupulous publisher, had decided to exploit this belief to make a killing for himself, and Charlotte’s publishers were mortified that they may have been duped by the mysterious Currer Bell who had promised them rights to a new book.

The Bronte sisters were horrified, after all their very honesty was now being called into question. A conference was held and an incredible decision made – the only way that they could prove their identity would be to go to London themselves. This would involve the dramatic step of throwing off their ‘Bell’ masks but that position of secrecy had now become untenable. Emily gave them their blessing, but remained at Haworth, and within hours of receiving the letter at the Parsonage, Charlotte and Anne had already set out on their rail journey to London.

They had acted, as always, hastily and decisively, and when they arrived in London in the early hours of the 8th of July they realised that they had no idea where to stay. After a little thought, Charlotte recalled the Chapter Coffee House on Paternoster Row. It was here that she, Emily and their father Patrick had stayed as they made their journey to Brussels in February 1842, and a location that Patrick had stayed at himself as a young man. Hailing a cab, Charlotte asked to be taken there; it was quite simply the only location in London that she knew.

Once there, Anne found the location very much to her liking. It was exactly opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, and she could hear the bells ringing and look out at the magnificent building from her window. If the proprietors of the Coffee House could not have guessed the nature of the two young geniuses who were now staying with them, neither could Anne nor Charlotte have realised that they were the latest, if greatest, in a line of writers to frequent it. In the late eighteenth century it had become very fashionable among the capital’s literary set and had been visited by the likes of Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Thomas Chatterton.

Once settled into the Coffee House, and having taken some refreshment, the sisters wasted no time in heading off for Smith, Elder & Co of Cornhill. You can read the incredible story of what happened then in the next blog. One mystery, however remains: just what happened to the Chapter Coffee House? By careful examination of descriptions, maps old and modern, and study of the area as it is today, I believe the location can finally be revealed.

We know, of course, that the House was on Paternoster Row to the rear of St Paul’s Cathedral, but the area has changed drastically since 1848. It has been supposed that the Coffee House was somewhere in the open area now known as Paternoster Square, yet it seems to me that the correct location is still on what is today’s Paternoster Row, directly in front of The Temple Bar.

Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte
Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte

As a starting point, let’s take a map that Patrick Brontë has very usefully drawn showing the location of the Chapter Coffee House. Some streets are no longer there, but some remain and the positioning of Ludgate Hill, Ave Maria Lane, Amen Corner and Cheapside give us a big clue to where it actually was.

We can see that the Coffee House was located on the corner of a street called Paul’s Alley which was no longer there, but below Amen Corner itself. This means that it couldn’t be in what is now the modern Paternoster Square. If we take a look at this modern map and compare it to Patrick’s, I’ve marked with a red C the spot where the Chapter Coffee House actually stood.

What is there today? Let’s take a look:

Site Of The Chapter Coffee House
Site Of The Chapter Coffee House

Unfortunately on the exact spot where the Chapter Coffee House stood is now a gap. In the gap is a pump saying erected by St Faith’s Parish 1819, but this pump was only moved to its current spot in 1973 just as the imposing Temple Bar behind it was only moved to its current site in 2004.

How can we be certain that this is the correct spot? As well as matching the approximate location on Patrick’s map the buildings alongside the gap should also be taken into account. On the left hand side is Paul’s bakery. To the right is Chapter House, now being restored by St Paul’s, and bearing a sign saying ‘Paul’s Alley on the side. Whilst the façade of Paul’s bakery is modern, the doorway retains its original portico-like shape, as do the doors and windows of Chapter House. Take a look at them now:

Chapter Coffee House neighbours today
The Chapter Coffee House neighbours today

Compare this to an early nineteenth century picture of the Chapter Coffee House and its neighbours:

The Chapter Coffee House in 1843
The Chapter Coffee House in 1843

The roofline of Paul’s and Chapter House is different to that in the picture, but that is because the roofline had to be restructured. Examine the third story windows and you can see the outline of the taller windows that were originally placed there, just as in the illustration. The reason for this restoration is given in the architectural evidence provided by the company currently working on the restoration of Chapter House.

It’s well know that St Paul’s Cathedral itself survived the bombing of London, the Blitz, in World War Two, but the buildings opposite suffered a direct hit and were caught up in a conflagration. Much of the structure was gutted, yet the outside façade remained, and restoration saved what are now Paul’s and Chapter House. The building in the middle, where the gap now is, was obviously beyond saving and the Chapter Coffee House was lost forever.

There is little doubt in my mind that the gap next to Chapter House once saw two nervous young Yorkshire women walk through a door no longer there. The bricks are now gone, but the ghosts remain, and by standing on the spot we can still enjoy the view of St Paul’s Cathedral that must have thrilled Anne so.

View Of St Paul's Cathedral
Anne Bronte’s view Of St Paul’s Cathedral from the Chapter Coffee House

Haworth Sanitation And The Babbage Report

The 22nd of March is World Water Day; it sounds like a joke but it’s far from funny. One in three people around the world have no access to a toilet or clean water, and that has an incredible impact on the health and prospects of more than 1.8 billion people who are put in danger of contracting cholera, typhoid, polio and more. It’s a huge problem in the developing world today, but it was also a huge problem in the Haworth of Anne Brontë and her sisters.

Haworth today is a beautiful tourist village, but in the 1840s it was very different. The industrial revolution had led to a massive expansion of Haworth, and that brought with it overcrowding, disease and very insanitary conditions. The lack of toilets, sanitation and fresh water led directly to the epidemics of typhoid and cholera that annually wiped out a huge percentage of the population. In fact, in 1838, when Anne was eighteen, the average age at death in Haworth was just 19.6 years.

Lower Laithe Reservoir, built thanks to Patrick Bronte

Patrick Brontë, who was overworked simply from the non-stop funerals he had to hold, realised that sanitation was at the heart of the problems that had made Haworth the most unhealthy place in England outside of the London slums. He wrote repeatedly to the government, and at last in April 1850 a government inspector called Benjamin Herschel Babbage carried out an official inspection. He was shocked by what he found, and the results of his report, and Patrick’s persistence, were that Haworth gained a reservoir, a cleaner water supply and more toilets. It was a life saving transformation for the village, especially when you consider some of the astonishing facts contained in the Babbage Report into Haworth:

• There were 69 toilets for two and a half thousand people

• 24 houses shared one toilet

• Seven houses had no access to a toilet at all

• There were eleven water pumps for the whole village, two were out of order

• One tap was within two metres of a large cess pit in the middle of Main Street

• There were no drains, and human and animal effluent ran down the sides of the steep street

• The village drinking water was polluted by rotting flesh from the overcrowded graveyard

• 42% of children born in Haworth died before the age of six

These statistics are incredible, almost unbelievable, but true. It’s little wonder that Haworth became a place where people could sicken and die at any time. Anne Brontë and her family were lucky, as the Parsonage was one of only two buildings in the village with its own clean water supply, thanks to a nearby spring. We too are lucky who can take toilets, clean water, and sanitation for granted. One in three across the world are not so lucky, and yet, like Haworth after the Babbage report, things can change. Find out more, and maybe do your little bit to help, by visiting the World Water Day website. If Patrick Brontë had been alive today, we can be sure he would be a campaigner.