The Death Of Anne Brontë

On this day, May 28th, in 1849 a young woman in her twenties was dying in a room in lodgings taken at Scarborough, with her sister Charlotte and friend Ellen looking hopelessly on. She died in obscurity, even though her latest novel ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ had recently become a celebrated novel under the pseudonym of Acton Bell. Yet now, 167 years after the death of Anne Brontë, we can give her the praise that she deserves for her talents as a writer, and for her great courage and humanity.

Anne’s health had been deteriorating for many months, and after the passing of her beloved sister Emily five months earlier it was clear that Anne too was dying of consumption, or tuberculosis as we call it now. It seems likely that Anne had carried tuberculosis within her since her early childhood, but the visit to London in the summer of 1848 had exposed her to massive doses of tubercular pathogens that she then brought back to the Haworth Parsonage with devastating consequences.

Unlike Emily, who refused to see a doctor until the day of her death, Anne sought to prolong her life if possible. She tried every remedy suggested, although complained that one medicine tasted like train oil, and had to desist from taking it because it made her sick. By May 1849 she was incredibly emaciated. We know from the account of William Wood, Haworth’s coffin maker, that Emily Brontë, despite being unusually tall for her time, was buried in the thinnest adult coffin he had ever made – measuring just seven inches across. Charlotte reported that Anne had become even thinner than Emily.

Nevertheless, Anne wanted to try one last thing – she wanted to go to Scarborough, famed for the healing waters of its spa. Did Anne really believe that the waters could cure her (she had after all spent many summers in the resort and seen others ‘taking the waters’)? Did she want to see her beloved Scarborough one last time? Or was it simply that she wanted to spare her father Patrick the onerous duty of burying the third of his children in nine months? Quite probably, it was a combination of all three, and so it was that on May 25th the three young women arrived at Wood’s Lodgings in Scarborough, the respectable lodging house previously used by Anne when she was with the Robinson family. The Grand Hotel now stands on the site.

Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough
Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough

Anne had recently received a bequest from her Godmother Fanny Outhwaite, and she used the money from this to pay for the journey for herself, Charlotte, and Ellen and also to pay for a ticket that allowed them unlimited access to the Spa and the newly built Cliff Bridge linking it to Wood’s Lodgings.

In Scarborough, Anne revived a little, although her breathing was very bad. She took a donkey ride across the sands, insisting on driving the animal herself so that it wouldn’t be mistreated. Here, on the beach, she asked Charlotte and Ellen to be alone. She had a lifetime of thinking to do, and only days or hours to do it in. This, after all, was the very beach she had chosen for the denouement to Agnes Grey. Here was the spot on which she had turned around and found her love Edmund Weston waiting for her. Did she know feel the real Weston, William Weightman, drawing closer to her?

After an hour, Anne drove the donkey back, all was now done that needed to be done.

On Sunday May 27th, Anne asked to be taken to the church, but Charlotte gently explains that this is out of the question. She then tells her companions to go, but they won’t leave her. That evening, as Ellen explained in a beautiful booklet she wrote entitled ‘ A Short Account Of The Last Days Of Dear A.B.’, there came ‘the most glorious sunset ever witnessed’. There was a golden sky filled with sunbeams, a boat bobbed on the ebbing tide, and they had moved Anne to the window to look down at it. Here, to my mind, is a replica of Anne’s picture of a decade earlier ‘Sunrise Over Sea’. What she had pictured as a woman looking out at a sunrise at the start of her adult life, had become a woman looking at a sunset at the end of it.

Anne Bronte’s beloved Scarborough

The next day, Whit Monday, Anne had to be carried down the stairs by Ellen. At one point their heads clashed and Anne slumped forward. A horrified Ellen thought she had killed her friend, but Anne revived and said: ‘don’t be sorry, you did your best.’ She was then placed on a sofa that she would never rise from again.

A doctor was called for and pronounced that Anne had only hours to live, but Anne remained calm and collected throughout. She was not scared to go, although she asked Ellen to be like a sister to Charlotte in her absence; she called upon her faith, and in this final test it was not found to be lacking. Her last words, as recorded by Ellen, were spoken to Charlotte:

‘Take courage, Charlotte, take courage!’

The doctor later said that he had never seen such a gentle death, and a sign of its tranquillity is that tea was brought in to their rooms shortly after 2pm when Anne had taken her final breath.

This is inevitably a day of sadness, after all a great writer was taken from us aged just 29 when she had so much more to say and give. But, we should look at the joy she has given us and follow her final command, to take courage. This is a good day to give thanks for Anne Brontë, and read one of her books or poems, this woman of truth, beauty, and courage.

The Award Winning Ponden Hall And The Brontës

England is lucky enough to have lots of guest houses and B&Bs that have a wealth of history to them, as well as a warm welcome for their visitors. One such place is of particular interest to Brontë lovers – Ponden Hall which nestles near the moorland reservoirs between Haworth and Stanbury. Emily and Anne Brontë, and sometimes Charlotte and Branwell too, were frequent visitors to the Hall, and so they would have been as pleased as I was to hear that it recently won a prestigious Dorset Cereals Award for the best B&B’s and friendliest hosts.

I can fully understand it winning the award, having visited myself, and even if it didn’t have such an incredible literary heritage their home made cakes are not to be missed! Anyway, this post isn’t intended as an advertorial, so let’s take a look at Ponden Hall’s Brontë connection!

Emily and Anne Brontë were always happiest in each other’s company, walking miles in each others company, revelling in the stark yet stunning countryside that surrounded them and often dreaming up plots for their Gondal stories with line by line coming step by step. Often they would cross the moors with one particular destination in mind – Ponden Hall.

Ponden Hall is a large and imposing stone fronted farm house around a two mile walk from Haworth itself (you can still cross the Moors to it, or take the road and stop off at Stanbury’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ pub en route). At the time of the Brontës it was home to the Heaton family, who were trustees of Haworth’s St. Michael and All Angel’s Church, and leaders of Haworth society.

As the church was the incumbency of Reverend Patrick Brontë, the families became well known to each other, and Emily and Anne in particular were frequent visitors to the Hall. Both Anne and Emily could be intensely shy, yet at Ponden they felt relaxed and at home. Alongside its moorland location it had another attraction to the literature loving girls – it held the largest private collection of books in Europe at that time, including a first edition folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The familiarity the sisters gained with the hall can be seen in the work of Anne, Emily and Charlotte.

There can be little doubt that Ponden Hall was the architectural inspiration for Anne Brontë’s Wildfell Hall. It shares the same central portico underneath a date bearing plaque, and flanked by tall latticed windows. It also seems likely that Ponden Hall is the real Wuthering Heights. Whilst the more often feted Top Withens matches the spot on the moor of Wuthering Heights, it is a small and unimposing building, whereas Ponden Hall is much more like the building Emily so powerfully describes.

The box bed at Ponden Hall
The box bed at Ponden Hall

We know too that Emily sometimes stayed at Ponden Hall and slept in a box bed there. There is still a box bed today, next to the window that Emily would have looked out of towards the moors. Just seeing it sends a thrill through your bones, it’s impossible not to imagine that incredible opening to the novel, with Cathy’s ghost scratching at what was probably the very same window. You can sleep in that room and that box bed today, but don’t have nightmares of a plaintive voice wailing: “’Let me in – let me in! I’ve been a waif for twenty years!'”

Ponden Hall’s ghostly qualities can also be seen to have inspired Charlotte Brontë. Legend states that the Hall is haunted by a Gytrash, a ghostly demonic dog akin to a Hound of the Heatons rather than a Hound of the Baskervilles. The memory of this Ponden Hall legend returned to Charlotte when she was writing Jane Eyre, as we can see from Jane’s first encounter with Rochester’s dog:

“I heard a rush under the hedge, and close by glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash… Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone.”

Gytrash by Phantom Of Truth
Gytrash by Phantom Of Truth

Ponden Hall certainly inspired the Brontës, and it’s well worth staying at or visiting today. There is history in its stones and in its walls, the same walls gazed upon by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë nearly two hundred years ago.

William Shakespeare And The Brontës

Hot on the heels of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, April 23rd 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest playwright of all time – William Shakespeare. It’s a day when people across the world will celebrate his wonderful work, but what did the Brontës think of him, and what influence did he have on Anne Brontë in particular?

The only pronouncement we have on Shakespeare from the Brontës was not an altogether flattering one, but then again it was from Charlotte who was never one to gild the lily, as the bard would have said. On July 4th 1834 she wrote to Ellen Nussey advising her what she should read:

‘If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don’t admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth and Southey. Now Ellen don’t be startled at the names of Shakespeare, and Byron. Both these were great men and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good and avoid the evil, the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakespeare.’

Shakespeare 400
The Shakespeare 400 was celebrated in 2016

The Brontës, home educated though they were to a large extent, were much better read than a lot of their contemporaries, as Patrick allowed them free reign to read what they would, rather than censoring or limiting their reading materials as many fathers would have done. They also had access to the complete works of Shakespeare in an incredibly rare first folio.

It was housed at nearby Ponden Hall, two miles directly across the moors from Haworth and a place that Emily and Anne in particular often visited. In the early nineteenth century it had one of the largest private library collections in Europe, and pride of place went to that Shakespeare first folio. Alas it has now left Ponden and its whereabouts have long since been lost, as it would today be priceless.

Can we see Shakespeare’s influence on any of Anne Brontë’s works? How about The Taming Of The Shrew? A woman living in a man’s world, strong willed and determined to stand up for her own rights. Of course whilst Shakespeare eventually subjugates his Katherina, Anne insists on the triumph of Helen in her The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

I love Shakespeare (not quite as much as I love the Brontës of course), so I’ll be joining in the celebrations, just as I joined in Charlotte’s ‘Brontë 200’ celebrations in Haworth on Thursday. It was a wonderful day, and I was especially pleased to meet some of this blog’s readers and fellow Anne fans there.

Elizabeth Gaskell – Biographer Of The Brontës

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Anne Brontë’s writings, and those of her sisters Emily and Charlotte Brontë as well. There are other writers who I love almost as much as the Brontë however, and foremost among them is a woman born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson. She had a very interesting life, and wrote some incredible books such as Cranford and North And South, and of course the world knows her better as Elizabeth, or Mrs, Gaskell.

Gaskell is of particular interest to Brontë lovers because she not only knew the family, she wrote the world’s first Brontë biography – her wonderful ‘The Life Of Charlotte Brontë’ published in 1857. More on that later, but first let’s take a look at the woman herself.

The young Elizabeth Gaskell
the young Elizabeth Gaskell

She was born Elizabeth Stevenson in September 1810 in Cheyne Walk London, making her five and a half and nine and a half years older than Charlotte and Anne Brontë respectively. Gaskell (her married name, and by which I will refer to her from now on) had something in common with Anne that would influence both their lives – she lost her mother while still an infant. Anne was eighteen months when Maria Brontë died, and Elizabeth was just thirteen months when her own mother Elizabeth Stevenson, nee Holland, died.

Both Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne Brontë were brought up under the influence of an aunt. Her father suffered greatly from depression and was unable to bring up his daughter, although she did return to London to nurse him before his death in 1829. The majority of Elizabeth’s childhood was spent in Knutsford, Cheshire, where she was raised by her Aunt Hannah (more on Knutsford later as well), and the town was recreated as Cranford in one of her most celebrated works. It was in Knutsford as well that she met and fell in love with the Unitarian minister William Gaskell, and they married in 1832.

Gaskell loved to write, and had contributed many stories to magazines under the rather improbable pseudonym of ‘Cotton Mather Mills’. In 1848 her first book Mary Barton was published, based largely upon her own experience of losing her first two children in infancy. It was an instant success, and her subsequent works made her one of the foremost writers of the time, also gaining her a friend and ally in Charles Dickens.

The great and good of literary society would often visit the Gaskell’s at their large new home in Manchester, now the recently opened Elizabeth Gaskell Museum. One such visitor was Charlotte Brontë. They had initially met in London, and soon became firm friends. Both were short women, a little on the dumpy side it has been said, but both were brilliant writers not afraid to challenge convention. On one occasion we know that Charlotte hid behind the curtains at the Gaskell’s house, as she was too shy to mix with the other guests.

Gaskell’s books are a delight to read, and they are as relevant today as ever, dealing as they do with social inequality and the north-south divide as well as timeless themes of love, hope, and loss. The book that really captivated me, of course, was her life of Charlotte Brontë.

It seems that it was Patrick Brontë, alone after Charlotte’s death in 1855 had seen him outlive all his children, who first suggested that Mrs Gaskell should write a biography of her friend Charlotte. He gave her unprecedented access to her papers, and Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor contributed too.

The book is a brilliant read, one genius writing about another, and incredibly moving. Her stories of Anne and Emily were second hand, as although she often visited the Haworth Parsonage this wasn’t until after their deaths. That doesn’t mean that they are worthless, however, far from it.

Modern, revisionist, readings of Gaskell’s biography often pour scorn on it, because she didn’t have access to the research and archives that modern biographers have. This is far from fair. What Gaskell did have was a personal knowledge of Charlotte and many people in the story, and she was hearing first person testimonies that were still fresh in the memory. That’s why her biography is so important today, and whilst there may be some factual errors, and other sections that were changed because she was threatened by law suits (from Carus Wilson, the head of Cowan Bridge School for example), it’s still the closest we can get to how Charlotte herself thought and acted (other than her brilliant letters of course).

Gaskell inspired me and many other biographers to step into the world of the Brontës and make our own contributions, however small they may be. It’s a book I can read over and over again, and often do. Her depiction of Anne is tender and affectionate, she has obviously learned to love Anne Brontë through the depiction she had of her from Charlotte.

I mentioned Knutsford earlier. It was a place very dear to Mrs Gaskell, and I’m proud to announce that I will be talking about Anne Brontë and her sisters at the Knutsford Literature Festival on Saturday, 8th October. You can find more details here – I’m really looking forward to it, and it would be great to see readers of this blog there!

Elizabeth Gaskell's grave
Elizabeth Gaskell’s grave, Knutsford

Mrs Gaskell lies buried in Knutsford, she died of a heart attack in 1865. I mentioned that she was born in September 1810, but I forgot to mention the date. It was the 29th of September, so I’d like to make a toast to this fine biographer and fine friend of the Brontës, and say ‘Happy Birthday Elizabeth Gaskell!’

Ellen Nussey And The Legacy Of The Brontës

In last week’s blog we looked at the life of Ellen Nussey and her friendship with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. Today we’ll examine her role in the preservation and dissemination of the Brontë story, and her life after the death of the three sisters she loved.

Ellen Nussey old
Ellen Nussey in old age

Ellen and Charlotte Brontë were close friends from the moment they met as teenagers at Roe Head School, Mirfield, in January 1831, but there was one moment of interruption in their relationship. Charlotte accepted a proposal from her father’s assistant curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, having rejected him in December 1852, and the acceptance created a rift with Ellen.

The cause of this rift can never be ascertained with any certainty, was it jealousy, disappointment, or more? Some have said that Charlotte and Ellen may have had an agreement that they would grow old together as old maids, and Ellen saw Charlotte’s engagement as a betrayal.

The two women had corresponded daily for years, but that came to a sudden end. Eventually they were reconciled, and Ellen Nussey acted as Charlotte’s bridesmaid in her marriage to Arthur on 29 May 1854. Nevertheless it seems that Ellen never liked Arthur, and later referred to him as a ‘wicked man who was the death of dear Charlotte.’

This seems to have been a harsh judgement, as Charlotte was certainly enamoured of her husband, but in one sense Ellen was right as it was Charlotte’s pregnancy that led her to die of hyperemesis gravidurum (excessive morning sickness) less than a year into her marriage.

With Charlotte’s death in 1855 the line of six Brontë siblings came to an end, and both Arthur and Ellen were determined to preserve their reputation – but in very different ways. Even whilst Charlotte was alive, Arthur had urged her to impress upon Ellen that she must burn her letters after reading them, describing her lively missives as ‘dangerous as Lucifer matches.’ Charlotte wrote to inform Ellen that she would be unable to write to her unless she agreed to this request, but thankfully for us all she resisted the command.

Charlotte Brontë’s letters are beautifully written, and very revealing of her innermost thoughts as well as her everyday life. They are also the most numerous and important source of information on the Brontë sisters that we have, and the vast majority that are now known to exist were written to Ellen Nussey. We have over 350 letters from Charlotte to Ellen, detailing everything from her relationship with Branwell, her depression after the deaths of Emily and Anne, to her taste in literature, her thoughts on politics, and how she came to be published. In short, Ellen’s collection of letters bring the Brontës to life for us, but that would all have been lost if Arthur’s exhortations before and after Charlotte’s death had been heeded.

The letters from Charlotte to Ellen were also the basis for the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, by her friend and brilliant author Elizabeth Gaskell, and they have formed the cornerstone for every Brontë biography written since. Ellen was happy to lend the letters to Mrs Gaskell, quite rightly, but unfortunately she also put her trust in some people who were less than reliable.

Ellen lived to the age of 80 and never married, but she was never short of company because her friendship with the Brontës made her famous in her own lifetime. Brontë fans would often visit her at Moor Lane House in Gomersal. Visitors include the American artist Frederic Yates who painted a wonderful portrait of Ellen Nussey as an old woman. Ellen’s visitors were sure to be regaled with glorious tales of the Brontës, and many of them also left with a memento of Charlotte, Emily or Anne that she had passed onto them.

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates

Some exploited this generosity, and in particular a man named Clement Shorter. Shorter was made the first President of the Brontë Society, a move that the Society greatly regrets today as with hindsight he is clearly a villain of the Brontë story. Shorter worked in cahoots with a man named Thomas Wise, then esteemed a great literary collector and preserver but later imprisoned as a fraud and forger.

In the late 1880s they began to schmooze the now elderly Ellen, offering her £125 for the letters that they claimed they would preserve for posterity and use for a new biography of Charlotte from which Ellen would receive two thirds of the profit. In actuality, they were selling the letters at auction and to collectors, many in the United States of America, at a huge profit.

Clement Shorter
Clement Shorter

In these last years of her life, Ellen was in effect robbed of the letters she held so dear, and we have been damaged by Shorter and Wise too. Many of the letters and objects that they took from Ellen by their sharp practice remain in private collections, the whereabouts of some unknown, although others have been bought by the Brontë Parsonage Museum or returned voluntarily.

One thing they could not steal from Ellen, however, were her memories. And they can never take from Ellen the honour and praise she deserves from us, for her friendship and loyalty to the Brontë sisters in their lifetime and after their death.

Ellen Nussey: Great Friend Of The Brontës

A lot of the information that we have on Anne Brontë and her sisters comes from the primary sources of their writing and from the many letters of Charlotte Brontë, but there is another woman we have to be extremely grateful to – Ellen Nussey. Ellen met Charlotte when they were pupils at Roe Head School and became her lifelong friend; through her frequent visits to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth she also became friends with Anne and Emily Brontë. Her recollections of the sisters and their lives were central to Elizabeth Gaskell’s brilliant biography of Charlotte, and Ellen’s writing legacy proved invaluable to me when I was writing In Search Of Anne Brontë as well.

Ellen Nussey was born on April 20th 1817 in the village of Birstall, in the wool processing area of Yorkshire’s West Riding. Her parents John and Ellen were quite wealthy, as John was a cloth merchant – then a booming trade.

She first met Charlotte Brontë in January 1831 at Roe Head in Mirfield, forming a great trio of friends along with Mary Taylor of Gomersal, a village adjacent to Ellen’s Birstall. Charlotte’s time as a pupil lasted a year, but her correspondence with Ellen would last a lifetime, and shows the deep love and affection that Charlotte had for Ellen. Charlotte often talks of how pretty Ellen is, and how perfect she is in character, a perfection that she herself feels she can never attain:

‘Don’t deceive yourself by imagining that I have a real bit of goodness about me. My darling if I were like you I should have my face Zion-ward though prejudice and mist might occasionally fling a mist over the glorious vision before me, for with all your single-hearted sincerity you have your faults. But I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up and makes me feel Society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I dare say despise me.’

Thanks to Ellen we have the description of Haworth Parsonage at a time when the sisters were teenagers in 1833 (very neat, regimented, and a little bare), of their garden (sparse but for a few blackcurrant bushes), and of Anne and Emily:

‘Emily had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.

Anne, dear, gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite. Her hair was a very pretty, light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent complexion.’

It is from this same period that we get Charlotte Brontë’s sketch of the young Ellen – a charming and pretty picture, but for the long neck that Charlotte seemed to add to everyone she drew.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte

Perhaps the biggest testament to Ellen’s character is that Anne and Emily both became firm friends with her, an honour afforded to very few people – especially in Emily’s case.

We have letters to Ellen not only from Charlotte, but from Anne and Emily too (although Emily’s letter is a short missive bemoaning the fact that she is a poor letter writer, and advising Ellen to wait for a better letter from Anne).

Ellen Nussey shared a lot in common with the Brontë sisters, not only a love of books and reading. She too had lost a parent when she was young, although in Ellen’s case it was a father rather than a mother. She could also be sympathetic and understanding when it came to Branwell, as she also had a brother who was a raging alcoholic. The Nusseys were a large family, Ellen was the twelfth child, and it was a tragedy they had to bear that three of Ellen’s brothers took their own life – including Henry Nussey who in 1839 proposed to Charlotte and was rejected. Henry became vicar of Hathersage, and Charlotte’s visits to the Derbyshire village to see Ellen there would provide background material for Jane Eyre.

Ellen’s closeness to the Brontes has caused particular confusion in one aspect in that a photograph once thought to be of Charlotte Brontë is in fact undoubtedly of Ellen herself. Until recently it was used as the main picture on Charlotte Bronte’s Wikipedia page, but by comparing it to known and verified pictures of Ellen we can see that it is the same woman. It is reproduced below with the picture once thought to be Charlotte on the left, and a picture of Ellen in later life on the left.

Charlotte and Ellen
Charlotte Bronte and Ellen Nussey? Actually two photos of Ellen

Ellen’s great kindness was shown throughout her correspondence with the Brontë sisters, as she often sent them gifts, from bonnets to medicinal crab cheese when Anne was ill. She was a visitor to Haworth on many occasions, and was there on the fateful day of January 5th 1849 when Dr. Teale of Leeds made his diagnosis of incurable consumption in Anne Brontë. Ellen described it thus:

‘Anne was looking sweetly pretty and flushed, and in capital spirits for an invalid. While consultations were going on in Mr Brontë’s study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking around the room supported by me. Mr Brontë joined us after Mr Teale’s departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards him and said, ‘My dear little Anne.’ That was all – but it was understood.’

She also accompanied Anne on her final journey to Scarborough after Anne had sent a plaintive final letter to Ellen asking her to come:

I know, and every body knows that you would be as kind and helpful as any one could possibly be, and I hope I should not be very troublesome. It would be as a companion not as a nurse that I should wish for your company, otherwise I should not venture to ask it.’

It is Ellen’s detailed eyewitness account of Anne’s final days in York and Scarborough that provides much more information about Anne’s final days than modern day research ever can – Ellen after all knew Anne and the Brontës far better than we can ever hope to.

Ellen Nussey was a kind, generous and intelligent woman who brought moments of light and happiness into the lives of all three Brontë sisters – for which we should be very thankful. She was the daily correspondent, the sender of ribbons, the giver of gifts, the visitor when ill, the crutch when walking, the organiser of funerals. She was in every sense a true friend, but the story of how Ellen preserved the Brontë legacy after their deaths, sometimes against the odds and against the express wishes of others, is just as important, and we’ll take a look at it in next weeks Anne Brontë blog.

Anne Brontë And The Influence Of William Cowper

‘In looking over my sister Anne’s papers, I find mournful evidence that religious feeling had been to her but too much like what it was to Cowper’, these were the words of Charlotte Brontë after the death of her youngest sister Anne, but just who was Cowper and what influence did he have on the life and writing of Anne Brontë?

William Cowper was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 1731 and died in 1800, and yet his reputation was still huge at the time that the Brontë were writing. Cowper’s fame is rather faded now, but he was one of the most popular poets of his time, and seen as one of the most important influences on the Romantic movement epitomised by the likes of Wordsworth, Keats and Byron.

Quote by William Cowper
Quote by William Cowper

His poetry as a whole has two main themes running through it – the power of nature and the power of faith, and one of his lasting legacies is the phrase: ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ which is taken (slightly altered) from his poem ‘Light Shining Out Of Darkness’.

Cowper also put his fame to good use, becoming a prominent anti-slavery campaigner in the late eighteenth century, and his words were used by Martin Luther King Jr. during his civil rights campaigns.

We can safely assume that Cowper’s work was read and enjoyed in the Brontë household, and Anne herself left evidence of this that we’ll look at later, but it wasn’t his poetry that Charlotte was referring to in her comment at the head of this post. Cowper had two things in common with Anne (and indeed with Charlotte): they both lost their mothers at an early age, and they were both attacked by religious doubts that drove them to their mental and physical limits.

From an early age Anne Brontë was a keen biblical scholar, but she found her interpretation of the bible differed greatly from much of the church’s teaching of the day. Calvinism was an increasingly powerful faction within the Church of England. Calvinist preachers, in effect what we would think of as Puritans today, taught that sin once committed could never be expunged, and that you could even be born a sinner and condemned to the fiery torments of hell forever.

It’s difficult for us today, even those of us who have faith, to imagine the terror that hell represented in the early and mid nineteenth century. To Anne Brontë and many others, the threat of hell was a real place where people would suffer the worst kind of torments. During her years as a pupil at Roe Head, Anne dwelt more and more on thoughts of eternal damnation – would those she loved be condemned to hell, would she herself end there?

These thoughts interrupted Anne’s sleep, turned all happiness into sadness, and eventually led to a physical and mental collapse that resulted in her being sent back to Haworth from Roe Head. Having come through this crisis Anne found a new and stronger faith based upon the notion of a loving and forgiving God, and although it may sound strange to us that was a controversial theory at the time. She continued, however, to be beset by doubts and fears from time to time.
William Cowper was famous not only for his poetry, but also for the religious fears that beset him. He found it harder to overcome them than Anne did, and was committed to an insane asylum between 1763 and 1765. He had another breakdown in 1773, after having a dream in which he foresaw that he was to be punished with eternal damnation.

Crazy Kate by Henry Fuseli
Crazy Kate by Henry Fuseli, an illustration to a Cowper poem

Was Charlotte right to think that Anne had suffered like Cowper all her life? Probably not, as although doubts did attack Anne from time to time she had the strength of faith and resilience to overcome them. Was Charlotte, again, projecting her own fears and thoughts onto Anne? After all, in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, Charlotte once wrote:

‘I abhor myself – I despise myself – if the Doctrine of Calvin be true, I am already an outcast.’

Certainly, Anne thought very highly of William Cowper, not only of his work but of him as a person – he had faced the same struggles, confronted the same demons that she had. It is this that led Anne to write a poem to his memory, and so we finish today’s post with Anne Brontë’s poem ‘To Cowper’.

‘Sweet are thy strains, celestial Bard;
And oft, in childhood’s years,
I’ve read them o’er and o’er again,
With floods of silent tears.
The language of my inmost heart
I traced in every line;
MY sins, MY sorrows, hopes, and fears,
Were there-and only mine.
All for myself the sigh would swell,
The tear of anguish start;
I little knew what wilder woe
Had filled the Poet’s heart.
I did not know the nights of gloom,
The days of misery;
The long, long years of dark despair,
That crushed and tortured thee.
But they are gone; from earth at length
Thy gentle soul is pass’d,
And in the bosom of its God
Has found its home at last.
It must be so, if God is love,
And answers fervent prayer;
Then surely thou shalt dwell on high,
And I may meet thee there.
Is He the source of every good,
The spring of purity?
Then in thine hours of deepest woe,
Thy God was still with thee.
How else, when every hope was fled,
Couldst thou so fondly cling
To holy things and help men?
And how so sweetly sing,
Of things that God alone could teach?
And whence that purity,
That hatred of all sinful ways —
That gentle charity?
Are THESE the symptoms of a heart
Of heavenly grace bereft —
For ever banished from its God,
To Satan’s fury left?
Yet, should thy darkest fears be true,
If Heaven be so severe,
That such a soul as thine is lost —
Oh! how shall I appear?’

Maria Brontë – Tragic And Genius Sister

The book reading world knows about the remarkable achievements of the three famous Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. There were five Brontë sisters in total however, and the oldest of them all, Maria, could possibly have become the greatest genius of them all if she hadn’t been struck down at such a tragically young age.

We don’t know the exact date of birth of Maria Brontë, but it was early in 1814 in the Yorkshire village of Hartshead where her father was then the Church of England priest. Hartshead itself is just a short walk from Roe Head School where her younger sister Anne was to be a pupil more than twelve years later.

St Peter's Hartshead
St Peter’s, Hartshead, the village of Maria Bronte’s birth

The first Brontë child, she was named after her Cornish born mother Maria, just as the first son was named after father Patrick, although forever to be known by his middle name of Branwell. From an early age, it was obvious that the family had a true prodigy on their hands. She took a great interest in the books and newspapers belonging to her father, and Patrick later reported that by the age of nine he could converse with her on any leading topic of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any adult.

In many ways, Maria had to grow up fast. After the death of her mother in September 1821, the eight year old found herself the oldest of six motherless Brontë siblings. She was not only eldest sister then, she in effect became almost a surrogate mother to them. It was a role she was well suited to, as by the age of just five she had already been described as ‘grave, thoughtful, and quiet to a degree well beyond her years.’

She would read to her younger brother and sisters, with little infant Anne rocking on her knee. It was little wonder that they all doted on her, but Maria was a candle that burned brightly, fiercely, quickly. When Patrick Brontë famously put a mask on his children and asked them each a carefully tailored question, he asked Maria what was the best way of spending time. She answered: ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity’, as if she knew what was coming.

In July 1824, Patrick’s three oldest daughters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontë set out for a new clergy daughter’s school at Cowan Bridge in what is now Cumbria. At the school one teacher, a Miss Andrews, noted her ‘extra-ordinary talents’, and yet it seems that her clumsiness or untidiness singled her out for particularly harsh treatment at what was becoming a school for dying rather than a school of learning. By early 1825, Maria was suffering from tuberculosis, and was sent home to Haworth to die. She passed away aged eleven on 6th May 1825, her sister Elizabeth also died of the condition a month later.

Charlotte was the most affected by Maria’s death. She was recreated as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, the bright young woman who befriends Jane and is cruelly treated at Lowood to the point of death, dying asleep in Jane’s arms. Throughout their lives, both Charlotte and Patrick would vehemently assert that Helen was a faithful reproduction of Maria, and what she had to endure at the school.

Helen Burns
Helen Burns in ‘Jane Eyre’ was a depiction of Maria Bronte

Branwell too remembered his beloved eldest sister, with the Caroline of his early poem recalling his viewing of her laid out for burial:

‘She lay, as I had seen her lie

On many a happy night before,

When I was humbly kneeling by –

Whom she was teaching to adore.’

If Maria had lived who knows what would have become of her. She could perhaps have become a great a writer as her sisters, maybe even greater (if that’s possible). As with all children taken before their time, history will never know what it missed.

Anne was in many ways inured to the loss of both Maria and Elizabeth because of her age at the time, but there was one other touching monument to Maria that’s easily missed, and it comes from Emily.

Branwell, notable for being mischievous from the earliest age, would sometimes tease his sisters that he heard Maria knocking on the windows on stormy nights. This recalls the incredibly powerful scene near the beginning of Wuthering Heights, when the ghost of Cathy knocks at the window and cries:

“‘Let me in – let me in!… It is twenty years,’ mourned the voice. ‘Twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!'”

When did Emily write this scene? In mid to late 1845, twenty years after the death of her sister Maria.

Jane Austen Verses The Brontë Sisters

In a week that saw the release of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ it’s time to take a look not at the Bennets versus the undead, but at Jane Austen versus the Brontës.

I once asked one of the hard working guides at the Brontë Parsonage Museum what was the question they are asked more than any other. It was ‘Which of the Brontë sisters wrote Pride and Prejudice?’, followed closely by ‘Is this where Jane Austen wrote her novels?’

Pride & Prejudice
A classic scene from the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice

It seems that many people today get the Brontë and Jane Austen mixed up, and it was a comparison that the Brontës had to live with in their lifetime as well; it was as unfair then as it is today.

On a personal level there are only superficial similarities between Austen and our favourite writing siblings. Austen was an early nineteenth century writer who never married and lived with her family throughout her life. So far, so similar with Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who only married in the last year of her life). Austen was writing earlier in the century than the Brontës, however, and she came from a wealthier family and a more exalted social position. For this reason, it was much easier for Jane Austen to find the time to write, and she was relatively free from worries about her income. It could also be why, in my opinion, her novels lack the grittiness, the integral truth, found in Brontë novels.

Certainly it seems that Austen was not a hit in the book loving Brontë household. Indeed, Charlotte Brontë insisted that she had never read her works until she was urged to by the critic G. H. Lewes. She was far from impressed:

“Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point… I had not seen ‘Pride & Prejudice’ till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”

It irked Charlotte that her books were being compared with those of a writer she had little knowledge of or regard for, and whose books she felt were completely dissimilar. It’s a comparison that persists to this day of course. Charlotte wasn’t the only Brontë to fall foul of an Austen comparison, as Anne Brontë too had a similar fate when she published fer first novel ‘Agnes Grey’. A newspaper called the Atlas wrote:

“‘Agnes Grey’ is a somewhat coarse imitation of one of Miss Austin’s charming stories.”

It’s a pity, of course, that the reviewer hadn’t found the stories so charming that he’d remembered how to spell Miss Austen’s name.

What then is the reason for the inextricable intertwining of Jane Austen and the Brontës today? Sad to say, but it must at least partly be due to the fact that they are all female authors, and yet Dickens and Thackeray, for example, are never confused. Charlotte, Emily and Anne chose male pen names because they were afraid they would not be taken seriously as female writers. How right they were, and they and females in many artistic and scientific fields are still suffering for it today.

One early twentieth century writer, however, thought it was unfair that Anne Bronte in particular was being overlooked in favour of Jane Austen. In 1924, celebrated Irish author George Moore wrote:

“If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.”

My opinion may not be the prevalent one, but in my mind Anne Brontë already has that higher place.

Animals In The Novels Of Anne And Emily Brontë

Anne Brontë, like her sister Emily, was a great lover of nature and animals, and this was reflected in all three of their novels. It became almost a shorthand for virtue in a character, the villains mistreated animals whilst the heroes and heroines were kind to them.

In Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, the governess first has to deal with the monstrous Bloomfield family, modelled on the Inghams of Blake Hall, Mirfield that she had worked for. The young Tom Bloomfield likes to torture birds, setting traps and then killing them in various horrible ways. In this he is encouraged by his father and uncle, who think that this is a proper and manly way for a boy to behave. Agnes takes a very different view, and when she finds that Tom has a nest of fledglings that he intends to torture, she drops a stone on them killing them instantly and thus sparing them further torment.

Blake Hall, Mirfield
Blake Hall, Mirfield

If this was modelled on real life, as much of Agnes Grey is, then we can imagine how awful it must have been to carry this act of mercy through. Anne herself hints that this really happened in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, when she writes:

‘Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from the life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration.’

Similarly in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, we see the bullying, abusive, drink sodden husband Arthur Huntingdon taking his young son hunting and smearing blood on his face.

Emily Brontë, often in company with Anne, would frequently take long walks across the moors near Haworth, rescuing injured animals that she found, bringing them home and nursing them back to health. In her great novel, Wuthering Heights, she uses this same shorthand to reveal how villainous Heathcliff really is. Nelly Dean, the books co-narrator, finds the first evidence that Heathcliff has eloped with young Isabella Linton in the shape of her dogs that he has left hanging. This was his wedding gift to his new wife, and a fitting symbol of the cruelty that was to come.

On the other side of this coin, Anne uses kindness to animals to demonstrate that a character is a hero. This is apparent in the character of Edmund Weston in Agnes Grey. We see him rescuing the old woman Nancy’s cat, before it is shot. He also rescues Snap, the dog that Agnes had loved and had to leave behind when she left the employ of the Murray family, modelled on the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall.

Snap had been sent to a rat catcher much to the horror of Agnes, but later when she is walking along Scarborough beach she is delighted to see the dog run up to her:

‘I heard a snuffling sound behind me, and then a dog came frisking and wriggling at my feet. It was my own Snap – the little, dark, wire-haired terrier! When I spoke his name, he leapt up in my face and yelled for joy. Almost as much delighted as himself, I caught the little creature in my arms, and kissed him repeatedly. But how came he to be there?’

It is then that Agnes looks around and sees Weston, the man that she had loved and had to leave behind. He has bought Snap from the rat catcher and been ever on the look out for Agnes herself. Thus starts what is a very understated, and yet very romantic, end to the novel. It is very moving as well, when we consider that Weston is undoubtedly based upon William Weightman who had been snatched from Anne by cholera five years previously.

Flossy by Anne Bronte
Flossy by Anne Bronte

To Anne, and Emily, a love of animals was a prerequisite for a good character, and as a lover of animals myself I certainly concur with that. This love extended beyond the page and into their real lives as well, as they had a succession of pets, from geese, named Adelaide and Victoria after the royal princesses, to cats, rabbits, pheasants, hawks and canaries, and of course their famous dogs Keeper and Flossy.