The Story Of Flossy – Anne Bronte’s Beloved Pet Dog

Britain is a nation of dog lovers, so they say, and that was certainly true of one nineteenth century family living high up on a remote edge of the Yorkshire moors: the Brontës. Emily and Anne Brontë, the two youngest children and always so alike in character, were especially fond of animals, and throughout their all too short lives they would have a succession of pets, many of which started off as wild animals they had found injured on their beloved moors.

It was dogs that they cherished most of all however, and the two most famous Brontë dogs show one difference between Emily and Anne. Emily had Keeper, a mastiff that was intelligent, fiercely loyal, and yet could be very aggressive when cornered. Anne had Flossy, a black and white Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who was gentle and loving, yet could be strong willed too. As often found, these dogs were reflecting their owners’ personality.

In June 1843, Anne was given the young Flossy as a present by the three Robinson girls she was then serving as a governess. This is testament to how highly the Robinson children rated their kind and quiet teacher, as was also shown by the many letters they later sent to her and their visit to Anne in the winter of 1848, just months before her death.

Anne fell instantly in love with Flossy, and she would often accompany her mistress on walks across the Haworth moors, although she sometimes got a little distracted and ran off to indulge in her favourite hobby of sheep chasing. Flossy would later become a mother, and one of her puppies was given to Ellen Nussey, who also called it Flossy.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth holds two sketches that Anne made of Flossy, both unfinished possibly because Flossy never stayed still long enough to be painted. The picture at the top of this blog was once thought to have been drawn by Charlotte or Emily, but expert analysis has now proved it to be by Anne.

Emily certainly did, however, draw Flossy in all her glory, shown below, which shows how much she had captured the hearts of the family as a while. Emily’s last act, on the night before she died, was to feed both Keeper and Flossy, even though Emily was by then so thin and weak that a sudden gust of wind coming under the door blew her off her feet and against the wall. Refusing help, she slowly regained her feet and fed the dogs.

Flossy by Emily Bronte
Flossy by Emily Bronte

In May 1849, Anne had to take her leave of Flossy one last time. It is said that she cradled and cuddled the dog which was passed to her in the carriage waiting to take her on the first leg of her trip to Scarborough in search of a cure for consumption. The carriage that Anne, and all others, really knew was taking her to her death. It’s easy to imagine how hard it must have been for Anne to say goodbye to the dog she had loved so much for nearly six years, the dog she had whispered secrets to that she would tell nobody else. As always, she faced this dreadful moment with calm courage.

Charlotte, depressed and despondent after witnessing Anne’s death so soon after Emily’s, wrote to W.S.Williams to explain what had happened when she returned from Scarborough to Haworth:

“The ecstasy of these poor animals [Flossy and Keeper] when I came in was something singular… I am certain they thought that, as I was returned, my sisters were not far behind – but here my sisters will come no more. Keeper may visit Emily’s little bed-room, as he still does day by day, and Flossy may look wistfully round for Anne – they will never see them again – nor shall I.”

Flossy was to outlive Anne by another five years, although all her life she would often look around for her mistress. She was looked after by Charlotte, and often taken for walks by the assistant curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, who for some reason was very keen on doing anything he could to help Charlotte. She reported Flossy’s death to Ellen, saying that no dog had had a better life nor a gentler and easier end. It’s a fitting tribute to a pet who must have brought so much joy and happiness to Anne Brontë, a woman was not to know too much of either of those commodities.

The Bronte Pets by Amanda White
The Bronte Pets by Amanda White

Last year, I was fortunate enough to purchase a collage showing Anne Brontë and Flossy, made by the incredibly talented artist, and Brontë lover, Amanda White. It also contains three other Brontë pets, can you spot and name them?

Mansions In The Sky, The 2017 Bronte Exhibition

Every January the wonderful Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth refreshes its displays and chooses a new theme for the year. As 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Branwell Brontë, it’s fitting that he should be this year’s prime focus – and new exhibition Mansions In The Sky certainly doesn’t disappoint. Don’t worry though, there’s still room for Anne Brontë in the displays!

The opening months of this year have seen me so busy on writing projects (Brontë related of course) that this week marked the first opportunity I had to visit the Parsonage in 2017. As always, it was a complete pleasure akin to returning home or to meeting old friends again.

The dresses of Anne and Emily Bronte from To Walk Invisible
The dresses of Anne and Emily Bronte from To Walk Invisible

Alongside the Branwell items and features, costumes and props from the 2016 BBC drama To Walk Invisible feature strongly. I absolutely loved the drama (although I could have done with another episode or it being a little longer, as the ending seemed rushed) so it was fascinating to see the costumes up close. I was especially interested, of course, in the green dress that Charlie Murphy wore when playing Anne, and it was on display in the dining room next to Emily’s dress from the show. I felt this juxtaposition of the old and new worked well.

Simon Armitage is the man behind Mansions In The Sky, and he’s the new artistic partner for the museum. A good choice, as he is not only an excellent poet and a Brontë lover, he is also a Yorkshire man from the Colne Valley near Huddersfield (where I myself used to live, so I have to give him my seal of approval!)

One of this year’s highlights is a recreation of Branwell’s studio. The room is in semi darkness with fading painted walls and scuffed floors (don’t worry, that’s intentional). Newspapers such as the Halifax Guardian and Leeds Intelligencer are scattered around along with books, Branwell’s sketches, and bottles and paraphernalia that give a hint of Branwell’s opium addiction. In the corner is a bed with blankets strewn haphazardly across it. It’s very atmospheric, and gives you a glimpse into the mind of the tormented, overshadowed and ultimately tragic man.

Branwell's studio, Bronte Parsonage Museum
Branwell’s studio, Bronte Parsonage Museum

So, there is a lot of Branwell on display and a lot of To Walk Invisible memorabilia, but what recognition does dear Anne get this year? I was pleased to see Anne Brontë’s sampler on display (a needlework exercise she completed in November 1848. I always find the final lines of the sampler very poignant:

‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his. Anne Bronte: Finished this sampler Nov 28, 1828.’

A picture of her beloved spaniel Flossy is also on display, but it’s not the one you may be familiar with. Anne made two unfinished pictures of Flossy, one is almost finished and is often on display, but this year they show Anne’s rarely seen and less finished portrait of the dog she adored.

Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte
Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte

In a display case we also find one of the tiny book’s of Anne’s poetry – opened to a page showing one of the hymns Anne Brontë wrote – beginning:

‘My God oh let me call thee thine,
Weak wretched sinner though I be,
My trembling soul would fain be thine,
My feeble faith still turns to thee.’

Anne never needed this faith more than when she faced her own end, and one reminded of this is back for another year in the form of Anne’s blood splattered handkerchief. We also see a beautiful locket owned by Charlotte Brontë, contained within is a strand of Anne’s hair.

Well done to Simon and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, who work so hard, for curating such an excellent exhibition. Whichever Brontë you like best you’ll find something to satisfy, and as it runs throughout 2017 there’s plenty of time to catch it.

2017 – The Year Of Branwell Brontë

As 2016 changes into 2017, we bid goodbye to the year which marked the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth – it was a great year for Brontë lovers, and for me particularly as the way my Anne Brontë biography was beyond my wildest dreams.

Just because 2016 is over, however, doesn’t mean that the Brontë celebrations are over. In fact we’re just over a fifth of the way into a period that will mark the two hundredth birthdays of all the writing Brontë sisters (Emily’s celebration is in 2018, whilst Anne Brontë’s will be in 2020). So what about 2017 then? 2017 is the year of Branwell.

Patrick Branwell Brontë was born on June 26th 1817, the fourth Brontë child after Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontë. He was always known as Branwell by his family – it had been his mother’s maiden name, and presumably to distinguish him from his father who was also called Patrick.

Branwell Bronte, self portrait
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

Branwell is a very complex character – was he evil, wicked? I don’t think so, although he certainly did terrible things (begging money from his family to save him from being thrown into jail, threatening that he would kill his father overnight, setting his bedroom on fire), but he was a man sinned against as well as sinning.

He lost his two eldest sisters and his mother at an early age, and I think this contributed to mental problems that would throw a black cloud of his whole life, and that would send him into the horrific depths of drink and drug addiction.

We have to see both sides of Branwell: and that’s certainly something his youngest sister Anne did. Whilst dismaying of some of his actions, his affair with Mrs Robinson is believed to be the event that led to Anne leaving her governess position at Thorp Green Hall after more than five years, she remembered his kindnesses to her as a child, and believed that he was capable of redemption. If he was, it didn’t come in this life, as he descended into a personal hell that would also impact upon his family. The books created by Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë seem even more incredible when you consider how awful Branwell was making life at the Parsonage at the time he was writing them.

Nevertheless, Branwell Brontë was a boy and man who had great potential. If he had applied himself, perhaps he could have been a painter, writer or musician of some note – his painting ‘Jacob’s Dream’ adorns this post. We can’t however pretend that Branwell had the genius of his sisters, but we do well to remember the impact he had upon them and their work.

2017 will see Branwell brought to the fore and examined in greater detail, and I know that Branwell related events are planned throughout the year in both Haworth and Thornton, his Bradford birthplace. In this Anne Brontë blog, we’ll also look at key events in Branwell’s life throughout the year, and at his paintings and sketches – some of which hold keys to what he was and how he felt.

Branwell was also prominent in the new BBC drama To Walk Invisible, which I watched with joy earlier in the week. I think overall it was very well done, although I think the recurring use of the ‘f-word’ seemed anachronistic, and I found it very odd that no mention of Charlotte’s marriage or death was made at the end.

Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Bronte, To Walk Invisible
Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Bronte, To Walk Invisible

Yes, some sections were highly dramatised and the production may have employed some artistic license – but this was a drama after all, so I have no problem with that. I thought the three actresses playing the sisters were all excellent, especially Chloe Pirrie as Emily, and I especially liked the way they depicted the close bond between Emily and Anne Brontë. I look forward to watching it again and again, and I really liked the ending as well (although I know that some found it odd).

In my opinion it needed another hour, or maybe two episodes rather than one, but it was certainly a drama that lit up the Christmas week. Happy New Year and may 2017 make your Brontë dreams come true!

Branwell Brontë: Anne’s Loving Brother

Branwell Brontë died on 29th September 1849, the first in a tragic sequence that would also see his sisters Emily and Anne die within a nine month period. In the months and years leading up to his death he had become a pathetic figure, addicted to drink and to opium, begging for money to obtain his next ‘hit’ and frequently in demand from debt collectors. In a later blog we shall look into why this happened, and see how he became a real danger to himself and his family. If this image of Branwell as being mad, bad and dangerous to know was certainly true by 1849, we should also remember that to the young Anne Brontë he was often a kind and loving brother.

Patrick Brontë, as he was christened, was born in the Bradford village of Thornton on June 26th 1817, a year after his sister Charlotte. He would forever be known as Branwell, his middle name and the maiden name of his mother Maria, to avoid confusion with his father Patrick. A year after Branwell’s birth, Emily was born, and then a year and a half later came the last of the six Brontë children, Anne.

Tragedy was soon to strike Branwell and his siblings. His mother died when he was three, and Anne just one. Shortly before his eight birthday, his two eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth both died in quick succession of tuberculosis, the disease which was to be the scourge of the Brontës. When considering his later addictions and problems, we should always remember what he had to bear in his formative years. The death of his sister Maria affected him deeply, she had become a de facto mother to him and was full of promise and genius beyond her years. Later, in his poem ‘Caroline’ he would remember seeing his beloved sister laid out for burial:

“There lay she then, as now she lies –
For not a limb has moved since then –
In dreamless slumber closed, those eyes
That never more may wake again.
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;
Oh, just as when by her I prayed,
And she to heaven sent up her prayer,
She lay with flowers about her head –
Though formal grave-clothes hid her hair!”

From an early age Branwell felt a pressure on his shoulders. He was the only boy in the family, he would be expected to become a practical man, a breadwinner. His adult life was to show it was a role to which he was singularly unsuited.

In his childhood he formed a close bond with his three surviving sisters. It was his toy soldiers that started the tales of the ‘twelve men’. They would all four gather and invent stories that are incredibly complex for young children. He and Charlotte would eventually start to write them down in incredibly tiny books that they would stitch together, the famous and priceless books that have writing so small it can only be read with a magnifying glass.

The young Anne, always the doted upon baby of the family, would look up to her brother with a kind of awe. It was he would lead his sisters on their early excursions across the moors, proudly taking the lead as the ‘man’ of the family. He would sit Anne on his knee and tell her stories, and as they both grew a little older he would draw pictures for her. Always a talented artist, he would draw fairytale castles, and gentle countryside scenes and he would inscribe them ‘for Anne’.

Branwell drawing for Anne
One of Branwell’s drawings made for Anne

Anne Brontë never forgot kindnesses done for her, she would never judge somebody harshly. Even when she saw her brother’s talents being squandered and his life wasting away, she believed that there was still hope for him, if only in Heaven. The prevailing Christian doctrine at the time was that sinners like Branwell were doomed to Hell for ever. Anne couldn’t accept this, she had her own doctrine of love and forgiveness, and she expressed this in her poem about Branwell entitled ‘The Penitent’:

“I mourn with thee, and yet rejoice
That thou shouldst sorrow so;
With angel choirs I join my voice
To bless the sinner’s woe.
Though friends and kindred turn away,
And laugh thy grief to scorn;
I hear the great Redeemer say,
“Blessed are ye that mourn.”
Hold on thy course, nor deem it strange
That earthly cords are riven:
Man may lament the wondrous change,
But “there is joy in heaven!”

Anne, remembering the kind brother who drew her pictures to brighten up the days, would also secure him employment with the Robinson family for whom she worked as a governess. It was this that would lead to Branwell’s tragic end, as we shall see in a later blog, and Anne would carry a feeling of guilt around with her because of it. It was she, she would tell herself, who had brought about the demise of the brother who had once loved her so, and who she always loved.

10 Fascinating Facts About Charlotte Brontë

Whilst I am a biographer of Anne Brontë, and my enthusiasm for the youngest Brontë is plain to see, I’m a huge fan of all the Brontë sisters. As we look back to 2016, it’s only right that we should remember Charlotte Brontë, as the year has marked the 200th anniversary of her birth. That’s why in today’s blog I’ve chosen to present ten fascinating facts about Charlotte Brontë. You may know some or all of them, or none, but they all shed light on Charlotte as a person, the struggles she had to face, and how that influenced her writing.

1. Charlotte could see well in the dark, but not in the light

Charlotte was very short sighted, taking after her father who in later life had to have his cataracts cut away without an anaesthetic. She was so short sighted that she had to give up playing the piano, as she couldn’t read the sheet music in front of her. Nevertheless when she was a teacher, her pupils were amazed to find that she could seemingly read perfectly well in darkness, an ability that they thought was some kind of magic.

2. Charlotte spoke with an Irish accent

If you believe that the Brontës spoke in Yorkshire tones, you would be wrong. After the Cowan Bridge tragedy, where the eldest Brontë sisters Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and died (the school was later recreated by Charlotte as Jane Eyre’s ‘Lowood’), the Brontë children were largely taught by their Aunt Elizabeth and their father. Unlike today, when children mix much more widely and hear other voices on television, their father’s was the predominant adult voice they heard for many years, and this affected the way they talked as well. When Charlotte was 15 she was sent to another school of a much better character, Roe Head. She made lifelong friends there in the shape of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and Mary recalled how when she first met Charlotte, ‘she was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.’

3. Charlotte hated being a teacher – with a vengeance

After spending one year there as a pupil, Charlotte returned to Roe Head School near Mirfield in the capacity of a teacher. She soon found life as a teacher very different to life as a pupil. Her ‘Roe Head Journal’ of this time is a vicious, angry diary speaking of loathing for her pupils and for herself. She writes of ‘stupidity the atmosphere, school-books the employment, asses the society’ and ‘a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.’ Emily, very briefly, and Anne were pupils at the school, but after their exits her loathing of teaching grew even further until her mental health collapsed and she imagined she had illnesses that no-one else could see. Eventually a doctor was called for, who said that she must return to Haworth or die.

4. Charlotte was advised to give up writing – because she was a woman

From an early age, Charlotte and her sisters loved writing, and as she grew older so her literary ambitions grew. As a teenager she went to the very top to get an opinion on her work. Aged 16 she sent some of her work to the then poet laureate Robert Southey. He replied that whilst she had ‘the faculty of verse’, she should give up her dreams, because ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.’ Strangely enough, the young Charlotte seemed elated at this reply, writing ‘I must thank you for the kind, and wise advice you have condescended to give me… I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print.’

Robert Southey
Robert Southey, whose advice to Charlotte went unheeded

5. Charlotte’s first novel was rejected by every publisher in England

Most people today assume that Jane Eyre was Charlotte’s first novel but in fact that honour falls upon The Professor. The sisters planned to have three novels published together, but whilst Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights were published together by Thomas Cautley Newby, not one company would touch Charlotte’s novel. She had a list of publishers in England, and exhausted it completely in her efforts, but it would only finally be published posthumously – when published it became clear that she had recycled much of its contents and themes in her final novel ‘Villette’. She more than made amends, however, with her second novel about a certain governess.

6 Charlotte was little more than four and a half feet tall

Charlotte Brontë is without doubt a giant of literature but she was very diminutive in stature. Estimations of her height range from four foot seven to four foot eleven, whereas Emily was almost a foot taller, and the tallest of all the Brontës. Her clothes held by the Brontë Parsonage Museum, including shoes, corsets, gloves and dresses, would fit a child today. She was incredibly self conscious of her height and of her looks in general, leading her publisher and close friend George Smith to remark that ‘she would have given all her genius and fame to be beautiful.’

7. Charlotte fell in love with her married teacher

Charlotte’s experience at Roe Head hadn’t completely deterred her from becoming a teacher – after all what else was there that she could do? Aged 21 Charlotte, with Emily alongside her, left Yorkshire and travelled to Brussels, with the intention of learning languages that would help them set up their own school upon their return. She made good progress at the Pensionnat Héger school, but rapidly fell in love with the stern master Constantin Héger. He would be an inspiration for Rochester, but he had the same problem in that he was married. After returning to England, Charlotte wrote him a series of passionate letters. One such reads: ‘I know that you will lose patience with me when you read this letter. You will say that I am over-excited, that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur – I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches – all I know is that I cannot – that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship. I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets.’ He never replied, and in fact cut up the letters, but his wife for some reason pieced them together again, which is how they are now at the British Library.

8. Charlotte rejected her best friend’s brother, with terrible consequences

Despite her concerns about her appearance, Charlotte Brontë rejected at least three proposals of marriage that we know of. The first was from Ellen’s brother Henry Nussey. He later married Emily Prescott and became vicar of Hathersage in Derbyshire. He remained there for only two years however, before ill health made him give up his career as a priest. He was later committed to Arden House Lunatic Asylum, where he hanged himself in 1860.

9. Charlotte really did know a family called Eyre

Charlotte often visited Ellen at Hathersage, where she frequently stayed with her brother. In the middle of the Peak District it was later depicted as Morton in Jane Eyre. Inside the Hathersage church that Henry Nussey presided over is the large tomb of Robert Eyre, and a stained glass window to William Eyre, who was a leading light of Hathersage society at the time of Charlotte’s visits. She would have visited the Eyre family at North Lees Hall near Hathersage, and this is likely to have been the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in ‘Jane Eyre’. Inside it was the grand and imposing cabinet with twelve panels each depicting an apostle. The cabinet is recreated in the book, and now resides in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Eyre family grave, Hathersage
An Eyre family grave, Hathersage

10. Charlotte’s dedication in ‘Jane Eyre’ almost caused a scandal

One of Charlotte’s greatest literary heroes was William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair among other works, so she dedicated the first edition of Jane Eyre to him. Unfortunately, Charlotte didn’t know that Thackeray actually did have a mad wife that he kept confined within his home. Whilst a public secret it was well known to London society, who assumed that this new author ‘Currer Bell’ must know Thackeray, and have modelled Rochester on him. When they later met Thackeray characteristically laughed it off, although Charlotte was mortified when she discovered the truth.

There are many other fascinating facts about Charlotte: how she owned a piece of Napoleon’s coffin, how she may have made a non-marriage pact with her best friends, how she kept her writing a secret from her own father, how the death of her sisters changed the course of one of her novels, and how she left her future husband ‘sobbing as no woman ever sobbed’ when she rejected his proposal.

Of course, the most fascinating tales of all are inside Charlotte’s books, and those of her sisters Emily and Anne Brontë.

The Return Of AnneBronte.Org And A Book Giveaway!

It’s been my great pleasure to run this Anne Brontë website and blog for the last two years, adding at least one new post every week and covering topics as diverse as the clothing that the Brontë sisters wore, the Brontë cats, and sightings of Anne Brontë’s ghost on a Long Island staircase. I’ve also looked at more serious subjects of course, from the power of Anne Brontë’s poetry to her death in Scarborough.

Some of you may have noticed that my site disappeared suddenly two weeks ago – for which I offer my sincere apology. My web host (who shall remain nameless) wanted to charge me an extortionate amount to renew the site hosting. Under the circumstances I had no option but to let it lapse, and then move it to a new host.

That’s exactly what I’ve done, and I’m pleased to say that this site now has a secure feature with One.com, a great value domain hosting service.

It means that I’ve had to rebuild the site from scratch, so it may look a little sparse now. Thankfully I’d saved copies of most of the posts so over the next week I will be re-loading them onto this site.

In Search Of Anne Bronte
In Search Of Anne Brontë (The History Press), hardback cover

Thank you for your patience during this transitional period, and as a way of saying a heartfelt ‘thank you’ I’m offering two FREE and signed copies of my biography of Anne, In Search Of Anne Brontë. All you have to do is email me at insearchofannebronte@hotmail.com before 26th March 2017, and on that date I will select two names at random. One winner will receive a signed hardback copy of the book, and another will receive a signed copy of the new paperback version. This will be officially released on 4 May 2017, and the winner of this version will receive it just before that date, so you could be the very first person (other than me) to own one! By the way, the picture at the head of this post features in my book, it was taken for me by the very talented photographer Dave Zdanowicz.

In Search Of Anne Bronte paperback cover
In Search Of Anne Bronte (The History Press) paperback cover

Don’t worry, by next week the site will be back to normal and I’ll be posting a blog about the pen names that Anne Brontë, Charlotte and Emily used, and how they chose them. Once again thanks for bearing with me and my blog, and please do email me to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy. Thanks!

Nick Holland

The Fashions Of Anne Bronte And Her Sisters

“Clothes make the man”, said Shakespeare, and they can certainly give us a fascinating glimpse into the lives of historical characters and the era they lived in. The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth contains many wonderful artefacts and relics of Anne Brontë and her sisters, but I always find their items of clothing among the most amazing exhibits.

This was brought to mind this week by the opening of a new exhibit in Harrogate, “Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë: Costumes from Film and Television”. It wasat the Royal Pump Room Museum until the 31st December, and was well worth seeing. On display were costumes worn in some of the most celebrated Brontë and Austen adaptations, including Rochester and Jane’s outfits from the celebrated 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Whilst it will be fascinating to get a glimpse of the outfits worn by stars of the screen, I find it even more fascinating to see the outfits worn by our favourite stars of literature. The displays at the Parsonage Museum are changed every January, and refreshed throughout the year, but they always have a dress on display. Here is this year’s example:

We know several things about the clothing worn by the Brontës. Firstly, their dresses are inevitably made out of silk. This is because their father Patrick had a morbid fear of fire. With open flames used for heating, cooking, and lighting in the early nineteenth century, instances of dresses catching fire were all too common. The voluminous dresses worn at that time, could easily catch a flame, and the flammable materials used could bring dreadful results.

Patrick had presided over many such funerals, and he believed that silk was far less flammable than cheaper materials being used for dresses. For this reason he insisted that his daughters wear it, and it was for similar reasons that he tried to prevent curtains being used in the Parsonage (although the sisters later had them installed).

The Brontës were not a wealthy family, and this meant that they often had to repair their own dresses for year after year, until they literally couldn’t be repaired any further. They also had to rely on the kindness of strangers for hand me downs and gifts. Anne’s godmothers Elizabeth and Fanny would undoubtedly have sent clothing from time to time, and we know that Ellen Nussey did as well. For proud Charlotte especially this would have been an ordeal she had to accept.

The clothes the Brontë wore were different to what we ordinarily think of as Victorian. The hooped dresses and crinoline dresses, the bustles and the tightly drawn in waists, didn’t begin to appear until the 1850s, after Anne and Emily Brontë were dead. The early Victorian style of clothing worn by the sisters is often referred to as the ‘romantic’ period of women’s fashion, and is an organic progression from the clothing worn during the regency period and earlier.

Corsets begin to make an appearance in the 1840s, but they weren’t as constricting as in later decades, and before that the waistline and figure had a more natural look. Dresses were often worn off the shoulder and necklines could be daringly low compared to what we think of as Victorian today. To preserve modesty, white scarves or collars were worn. These can be seen on Anne, Emily and Charlotte in Branwell’s portrait of them in the mid 1830s.

Because the clothes worn by Anne and her sisters were often hand me downs or greatly repaired, they were also often out of step with the fashions of their day. When Charlotte and Emily go to Brussels, for example, we hear of Emily being mocked for wearing wide, puffed out gigot sleeves (or mutton chop sleeves) that had gone out of fashion a decade earlier.

Petticoats, stays and stockings, were all everyday essentials of the sisters’ attire, and one of the Parsonage Museum’s treasures are these: the stockings of Anne Brontë.

When we see Charlotte’s dresses at the museum, we should also remember that Anne may have worn them as well. Although a little taller than the diminutive Charlotte, she may have worn her hand me downs in her youth, whereas they would have been unsuitable for Emily who was unusually tall for the era.

Another item associated with the Brontë period is the bonnet, and no self-respecting woman would be seen outside without one. Charlotte’s wedding bonnet is often on display, a delicate and beautiful item that the villagers said made her look like a snowdrop.

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet
Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet

Another essential item of outdoor wear were pattens. These were metal or wooden soles that were placed onto the bottom of shoes, giving them more grip and waterproofing when walking outside. Aunt Branwell often wore pattens indoors, so that she made a clicking and clacking noise as she walked around the parsonage. Considering that the shoes worn by the Brontës are so delicate, it’s incredible to think that Anne and Emily in particular could walk great distances in them across the rough moorland terrain around Haworth, sometimes in excess of twenty miles a day. People today wouldn’t attempt such a feat without stout walking boots.

Many of the Brontë dresses that we now have are a brown or beige colour, but this is because they have faded over the decades. Originally, the dresses worn by the Brontë sisters were vibrant and colourful.

One of the highlights of the Charlotte Brontë exhibition currently on display in New York’s Morgan Library and Museum is a Brontë dress that is still in immaculate condition. New York’s Kimberly Eve, a Victorian scholar and enthusiast, wrote a wonderful review of the exhibition on her Victorian Musings website, and she also took this fantastic picture of this dress which I reproduce here:

Charlotte Bronte dress, New York
Charlotte Bronte dress, New York

Seeing the clothes that the Brontës wore somehow makes us feel closer to them, and allows us to appreciate their work even more. These weren’t just a name on a book cover, they were flesh and blood women. And, whilst fashions have certainly changed since the 1820s, 30s and 40s, I think the dresses of the time are indescribably elegant and beautiful – just like the writing that the Brontës produced.

How The Brontë Sisters Used Vanity Publishing

There are many routes into having a book published today, as I found at a talk at Sheffield’s Off The Shelf literary festival yesterday, but that was also true at the time that the Brontë sisters were writing. One of the little known facts about the Brontës is that they initially had to pay to have their own work published, and here’s how it came about:

By 1845, the Brontë siblings had hit a low point. Anne Brontë at least had proved that she could function in the outside world by completing more than five years as a governess, demonstrating the equitable temperament that both Charlotte and Emily found hard to sustain. In the summer of 1845 however she suddenly handed in her notice at Thorp Green Hall and quit. In a diary paper written at this time she reveals the reason why:

“I was then at Thorp Green, and now I am only just escaped from it. I was wishing to leave it then, and if I had known that I had four years longer to stay how wretched I should have been; but during my stay I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt-of experiences of human nature.”

At least one source of these unpleasant experiences was her brother Branwell. Anne was always prepared to give people a second or third chance, and so she found her brother a job as governor with her employers the Robinson family. Branwell wasted no time in falling in love with his employer Linda Robinson, and of course when a young man falls in love with a middle aged woman called Mrs. Robinson things graduate. It seems that Branwell and Mrs. Robinson had an affair, and it was this indignity that proved the final straw for Anne.

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson

By 1845, Emily and Charlotte Brontë were also back home at their familiar Haworth parsonage. They had been away in Brussels, ostensibly to learn the languages that could help them set up their own school, the Misses Brontë Establishment. All that Charlotte learned was that she loved her married professor, Monsieur Heger, and the plans for the school soon foundered.

The Brontë girls had hit a nadir. By now all in their twenties, they had failed in their attempts to be teachers and governesses; what could they do now to secure a future for themselves? It was then that fate intervened, as described by Charlotte:

“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they also had a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating.”

Emily was furious at this discovery, an intensely shy woman she resented anyone having access to her inner thoughts set down in writing, especially as she may have suspected that Charlotte’s discovery of them was less ‘accidental’ than she made out. Anne stepped into the fray, producing her own poetry and suggesting that the girls could work on a poetry collection together, just as they had written collaboratively as children. Not wishing to turn against her beloved sister Anne, Emily relented – and the result was ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

Now the sisters had compiled their book, and chosen male sounding pseudonyms to hide their identities, they had to find a publisher. This, as many writers of poetry and prose today find out, was very difficult. After a procession of rejections, the ‘Bells’ received an offer from a specialist poetry publisher called Aylott & Jones. They agreed to publish the work at the sisters’ own expense. Charlotte, Emily and Anne had recently received an inheritance from their Aunt Branwell, and so confident in their own ability they took the plunge and paid £31 10s to see their work in print. That may not sound a lot, but it was in fact almost two years wages for a governess.

After all their hard work they famously sold two copies, but the writing bug, the scribblemania, had taken hold and undeterred the Brontë sisters decided to turn to prose instead – leading to the incredible novels that we know and love today.

In effect then, the Brontë’s first foray into print was via what some people today call ‘vanity publishing’, that is paying for the work to be published rather than the publisher paying them. For the Brontës, and for us, it paid off eventually as it led to their novel writing, but it’s fitting that one of the poems Anne Brontë chose to include in this initial collection was entitled ‘Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas’ or ‘Vanity, vanity, all is vanity’. Here it is in full, and remember that if you wish to see your work in print, don’t be discouraged – after all, the Brontës weren’t:

“In all we do, and hear, and see,
Is restless Toil and Vanity.
While yet the rolling earth abides,
Men come and go like Ocean tides;
And ere one generation dies,
Another in its place shall rise;
That, sinking soon into the grave,
Others succeed, like wave on wave;
And as they rise, they pass away.
The sun arises every day,
And, hastening onward to the West,
He nightly sinks, but not to rest:
Returning to the eastern skies,
Again to light us, he must rise.
And still the restless wind comes forth,
Now blowing keenly from the North;
Now from the South, the East, the West,
For ever changing, ne’er at rest.
The fountains, gushing from the hills,
Supply the ever-running rills;
The thirsty rivers drink their store,
And bear it rolling to the shore,
But still the ocean craves for more.
‘Tis endless labour everywhere!
Sound cannot satisfy the ear,
Light cannot fill the craving eye,
Nor riches half our wants supply;
Pleasure but doubles future pain,
And joy brings sorrow in her train;
Laughter is mad, and reckless mirth —
What does she in this weary earth?
Should Wealth, or Fame, our Life employ,
Death comes, our labour to destroy;
To snatch the untasted cup away,
For which we toiled so many a day.
What, then, remains for wretched man?
To use life’s comforts while he can,
Enjoy the blessings Heaven bestows,
Assist his friends, forgive his foes;
Trust God, and keep his statutes still,
Upright and firm, through good and ill;
Thankful for all that God has given,
Fixing his firmest hopes on heaven;
Knowing that earthly joys decay,
But hoping through the darkest day.”

Tabby Aykroyd: Servant, Friend and Inspiration

Haworth is a beautiful, magical place at this time of year, but its steep Main Street (known as Kirkgate when the Brontës first arrived there in 1820) can also be treacherous in icy conditions. The road is cobbled to help hooves and feet cling onto it, so those in the know walk down the road rather than on the pavements. Even so, it’s easy to slip, and one winter’s morning in December 1836 that’s exactly what happened to a pivotal character in the lives of Anne Brontë and her family: Tabby Aykroyd.

With a large family and a busy parish to look after, Patrick Brontë needed some hired domestic help in his Parsonage. At Thornton the Garrs sisters, Nancy and Sarah, had fulfilled the role, but by 1824 Patrick and Aunt Branwell decided that a more mature woman would be an asset in the children’s upbringing.

Nancy Garrs
Bronte servant Nancy Garrs

Tabitha Aykroyd, always known by the shortened form of Tabby, entered the Parsonage as the new servant in 1824, and she would fulfil the roles of cook, cleaner, and crucially storyteller, from that day on. Little is known of her life before she entered the Haworth Parsonage, except that she was unmarried and had two sisters Rose and Susannah, and that she was born in approximately 1771, putting her in her early fifties when she moved in with the Brontës. For many years she was the only live in servant, although in later years the younger servant Martha Brown, daughter of the sexton John, also moved in.

Patrick and Aunt Branwell would have given careful consideration to their choice of housekeeper, and so we can certainly assume that Tabby already had experience in a similar role, and she was probably well known to them as a frequenter of St. Michael and All Angels church.

Tabby seems to have been a forthright no-nonsense Yorkshire woman of the type still readily found today, but also typically she could be very warm and loving. Elizabeth Gaskell, who had met Tabby, described her thus:

‘She abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded.’

A strong bond formed between Tabby and the children, although we have one story of how the young Brontës delighted in frightening her on one occasion. They were acting out a play, as they liked to do, and in this particular one they must have been pretending to be demons or monsters. So good were they at this role that Tabby fled the Parsonage in terror and ran to her nephew William Wood, a coffin maker. Branwell’s friend and biographer Francis Leyland described what she said:

‘William! William! Yah mun goa up to Mr Brontë’s for aw’m sure yon chiller’s all gooin mad, and I dar’nt stop ith house ony longer wi’em; and aw’ll stay here woll yah come back!’

William went to the Parsonage and was greeted with a great cackle of laughter from the Brontë children, delighted at how successful their trick had been.

Nevertheless the children doted on Tabby, who had become a grandmother-like children to them. She not only baked them cakes that they loved, and gave them the hugs and praise that any young child needs, she also told them tales of Yorkshire folklore that had been passed down through the centuries: tales that the Irish Patrick and Cornish Aunt Branwell would have been oblivious to.

Tabby, in the broad Yorkshire dialect that we encountered above, would tell them tales of ghosts, goblins and gytrashes, and of fairies, or feys as they were called in that area, who roamed the moors and would sometimes swap children for fey changelings. These wild stories enthralled Anne, Charlotte and especially Emily, and the influence upon Wuthering Heights is plain to see (where Tabby is an obvious model for the narrator Nelly Dean).

Tabby was around 65 when she slipped over on the Haworth ice, and her leg was badly broken leaving her unable to carry out her duties, temporarily at least. Aunt Branwell insisted that with finances tight as always Tabby had to be removed from her post, but the Brontë teenagers were equally vehement. They insisted that Tabby was part of the family, and not simply someone who could be removed when no longer in full health, and they even refused to eat until the decision had been made that Tabby could stay.

Their kindness won out, and Tabby remained at the Parsonage even though her mobility would be limited for the rest of her life. Emily Brontë stepped up to the plate, taking on many of the domestic duties that Tabby had carried out, and doing them excellently.

Tabby Aykroyd in the 1841 census
Tabby Aykroyd in the 1841 census

In 1839 Tabby moved in with her widowed sister Susannah, and it is at their shared house on Newell Hill that she appears in the 1841 census of Haworth. Nevertheless we know that by 1842 she was back at the Parsonage, and she would remain there until her own death in February 1855, having outlived all the children except Charlotte Brontë who herself had only months to live at the time.

Tabby is buried just over the wall from the Brontë Parsonage garden, a fitting tribute to the good and faithful servant who did so much to encourage the Brontë’s great works, and to bring happiness to the lives of the Brontë siblings.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
Tabby Aykroyd’s grave

Aunt Branwell and Anne Brontë

In last Sunday’s blog we took a first look at Aunt Branwell, revealing a woman who sacrificed much to step into the void left by her younger sister Maria’s death. Putting self aside she became a surrogate mother to the Brontë children, and by looking at her attitudes to them, and their attitudes to her, we can gain a bigger picture of what this dutiful Cornish woman was like.

The tragic death of her sister soon after Elizabeth Branwell moved to the Haworth Parsonage in 1821 meant that she found herself in an unfamiliar role: she was no longer just aunt to six young children, she had in effect become a substitute mother to Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë. It was a big task, but one that she was ready for.

As we saw last week, it’s easy to get a somewhat false impression of Aunt Branwell as being stern, cold, dogmatic, but if there is one word that truly sums her up it’s this: dependable. The Branwell family was a large one, and yet it seems that she was often the person that her siblings turned to and looked to. When we look at the weddings of the Branwells in Cornwall (a contemporary picture of Penzance is atop this page), one name keeps turning up as witness to the marriage: Elizabeth Branwell. When called upon by her siblings, she would always be there, and so it proved when Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, needed one of her sisters to fulfil the most important task of them all: taking her place after her death, and raising her children as she would have done.

When we look at Aunt Branwell’s relations with the Brontës one in particular stands out – it is quite clear that Aunt Branwell doted upon Anne Brontë, and that she loved her back. Ellen Nussey stated of Anne: ‘She was her Aunt’s favourite’, but why was this?

There are many possible reasons. One being that Elizabeth’s latent maternal instincts were roused by the helpless one year old infant Anne. It also must be remembered that Anne shared the same name as Aunt Branwell’s own dearly missed mother. Another possible reason is that Anne’s delicate features, clear complexion, lighter hair and blue eyes may have made her look more like a Branwell than her dark haired, brown eyed sisters.

Aunt Branwell would have also found the infant Anne a blank canvas, a child to raise as she saw fit. They shared a bedroom for much of Anne’s time in Haworth, and it is to Aunt Branwell that we can attribute much of Anne’s deep seated religious faith, with its good and bad implications. Aunt Branwell was herself a very religious woman, with one of her prized possessions being a teapot on which is written: ‘To me to live is Christ, to die is gain’. On the reverse side is etched ‘William Grimshaw, Haworth’.

Aunt Branwell's teapot
Aunt Branwell’s teapot

Grimshaw had himself been a predecessor to Reverend Patrick Brontë as Haworth’s parish priest, and he was also at the forefront of the new evangelical movement that grew within the Church of England in the mid 18th century. Along with the Wesley brothers he is one of the figures who helped to form Methodism. He became an immensely popular preacher, and so many would come to hear him that services had to be held on the wide open moors. He was also famous for the length of his sermons, and his hellfire delivery. It is said that he would go into the Black Bull Inn and whip people who were in there rather than attending his church.

It may be, then, that Aunt Branwell herself could be a bit of a Grimshaw like preacher – especially as the Branwell family had been pillars of the Methodist church in Cornwall. Certainly she would have seen the learning and interpretation of the scriptures as the most important subject of them all. Could this have seeped into Anne Brontë’s mind at an early age, and been one of the factors that led her to have a mental and physical breakdown when she was at Roe Head School? Anne struggled with dark thoughts of hell and damnation throughout her life, off and on, although she eventually conquered these doubts and fears thanks to her own belief in a loving God offering ‘universal salvation’. Whilst Aunt Branwell would have helped to form Anne’s religious beliefs, it’s more likely that the harsh and unbending preaching of Calvinist priests she heard, such as Reverend Carter at Mirfield, created Anne’s youthful breakdown.

Aunt Branwell could be exacting with the Brontë children, we hear how she made them carry out needlework lessons over and over again for hour on end, but for her it was a means to an end – she wanted to equip these children for the future lives as governesses and housewives that she thought awaited them. It must not be forgotten, however, that she was at heart a kind woman who did have a real affection for her nephew and nieces, and we do have evidence of this.

The references to a ‘mother’ in Anne’s Agnes Grey are without doubt references to Aunt Branwell, who she treated as her mother. Sharing a bedroom with her aunt gave her the love and security that she needed as a child, and that would create the kind and loving woman she grew into. In one passage of Agnes Grey, the heroin remembers:

‘In my childhood I could not imagine a more afflictive punishment than for my mother to refuse to kiss me at night: the very idea was terrible. More than the idea I never felt, for, happily, I never committed a fault that was deemed worthy of such penalty.’

Aunt Branwell silhouette
The only portrait of Aunt Branwell – a tiny silhouette

Anne, like any girl, was not above talking back to her aunt or being mischievous on occasion however. In the 1834 diary paper Emily records such an incident:

‘Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said ‘where are your feet Anne?’ Anne answered, ‘on the floor Aunt.’

Whilst putting an emphasis on needlework and bible studies, Aunt Branwell was also happy to indulge the love of reading that her nieces displayed, at a time when many people would have frowned on such an activity as being wasteful. We hear how at Christmas 1828 she gave the girls a book by Walter Scott entitled ‘Tales Of A Grandfather’. There could not have been a better present. It’s a collection of Scottish tales and folklore that Anne and her sisters loved, and its influence can clearly be seen in their youthful writings and especially in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Aunt Branwell, who had brought a legacy with her to Haworth, could also be called upon for financial support when needed. When the sisters were planning to start their own school, Charlotte turned to her aunt for support. Having already intimated that she would back them in this venture, Aunt Branwell was called upon again to fund Charlotte and Emily’s journey to Brussels. On 29th September 1841, Charlotte wrote to her (from Rawdon where she was at that time a governess):

‘You will see the propriety of what I say; you always like to use your money to the best advantage; you are not fond of making shabby purchases; when you do confer a favour it is often done in style; and depend upon it £50, or £100, thus laid out, would be well employed. Of course, I know no other friend in the world to whom I could apply on this subject except yourself.’

Aunt Branwell did indeed fund this trip, and she still offered to back Charlotte, Emily and Anne in setting up their school as well, although it was a dream that came to nothing.

There was to be one final gift from Aunt Branwell to four of her nieces. She died suddenly, and unexpectedly, on October 25th 1842, with Emily and Charlotte in Brussels. Anne was at Thorp Green Hall, and only Branwell was there. He was devastated, as he too had seen his aunt as a mother figure. He later wrote: ‘I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

Here too we see how Aunt Branwell could be kindly and caring with the Brontës. As the only make she had held high hopes for Branwell, and he had become a favourite almost to the extent that Anne was. In latter years, however, she had despaired of his drinking and inability to secure a position for himself, but he would never forget the debt he owed her. Without this stabilising influence in his life, Branwell’s decline accelerated.

I have seen Aunt Branwell’s will, drawn up in 1833 and granted in 1842, which shares her estate valued at approximately £1500 between Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, and also Elizabeth Kingston, one of the Brontë’s cousins in Penzance, who Aunt Branwell had presumably been concerned about. Anne was also left a gold watch and chain, and an eyeglass that we can imagine must have fascinated her as a child. Branwell Brontë was left nothing but a ‘japanned dressing case.’

The sums passed to these four girls were very considerable at the time, and we have this legacy largely to thank for the Brontë novels that we all love today. It alleviated the immediate necessity for them to take any job, any source of income. It also provided the funds that the sisters used to pay for the publication of their first book: ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.’ This book was far from an instant success, but it led directly to Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.

In Agnes Grey, the eponymous heroine eventually founds a school alongside her kind, wise and resilient mother. This is Anne Brontë’s final tribute to Aunt Branwell, a woman she loved and who loved her back just as a mother would have.