Anne and Emily Brontë And The Crow Hill Explosion

Yesterday was World Earth Day, an important day in which we are encouraged to think about the impact our actions have upon the environment. It is also a time when we can contemplate the wonders of nature, and appreciate the power and majesty of the natural world around us – something that Anne Brontë and her sisters took great delight in.

The Brontës grew up at a time when the industrial revolution was coming to the fore, a time that would lead to the highly industrialised world that we live in today. As such, the Brontës were free from many of the environmental concerns we now have, yet there was one occasion when they witnessed the devastating effect that an imbalance in nature can bring – and it nearly cost the young girls their lives.

On the second of September 1824 Anne and Emily Brontë were keeping themselves company, as they were often want to do, while their three eldest sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were away at Cowan Bridge school. There had been heavy rain for a week, and combined with the colds that both Anne and Emily had been suffering from, they had been confined to the four walls of the Parsonage for a week. This could mean only one thing for four year old Anne and six year old Emily, who had already discovered their love of nature but were as yet too young to have found their love of reading – they were bored.

Finally the rains ceased and a weak autumnal sun broke through the obscuring clouds. Their father Patrick, who himself was a keen walker, gave in to his girls’ pleas and allowed them to go outside in the fresh post-deluge air. Accompanying them was their older brother Branwell, and their leaders were Nancy and Sarah Garrs, hired hands at the Parsonage. Branwell strode on ahead, as the oldest sibling present, as if he was now the man of the party and must therefore protect them. He was soon to find that there are some things that can’t be protected against.

After walking for around two miles, which must have been about the limit for young Anne at the time, the weather and light suddenly changed. The sky darkened and an ominous rumble sounded. The earth shook violently after which large hail stones fell from the sky. It had now become very dark, and Nancy and Sarah realised that something was very wrong. In the distance was the large Ponden Hall, and gathering the children up they ran towards it, with a voice from within the Hall urging them on. They had just reached the shelter of a porch when a huge torrent of water and mud flooded across the landscape they had been walking in.

The scarred moorlands of Crow Hill
The scarred moorlands of Crow Hill

At its peak this torrent was seven feet high and large boulders were picked up and hurled through the air. The devastation can still be seen on the scarred and cratered moors today, and the sound of the explosion taking place was reported as far away as Leeds. For weeks afterwards, the streams were full of dead fish.

Patrick Brontë had sensed something was wrong, and had been watching from the window of the Parsonage with a sense of dread as the sky above turned black transforming daytime into an instant night. When his family failed to return and the tidal wave of mud had stopped, he set out to find them. We can imagine the relief on both sides as they met on the moors, all covered in muds.

We know of this not only from the physical evidence apparent in today’s landscape, but from two other sources. Firstly, Patrick preached a sermon about the event, and he also wrote to the local newspapers describing the dreadful earthquake that he feared had claimed his children:

“I had sent my little children, who were indisposed, accompanied by the servants, to take an airing on the common, and as they stayed rather longer than I expected, I went to an upper chamber to look for their return… My little family had escaped to a place of shelter, but I did not know it. I consequently watched every movement of the coming tempest with a painful degree of interest.”

In fact, the damage not caused by an earthquake but by a rare event that has become known as the Crow Hill bog burst. Constant rain had eroded the soil until a land slip occurred, and this gathered force and momentum until mud and water broke free with an explosive force.

The Leeds Mercury newspaper reported how the tsunami of mud had reached seven feet high, and revealed how lucky Anne Brontë and her companions were:

“Somebody gave alarm, and thereby saved the lives of some children who would otherwise have been swept away.”

This very near brush with death must have made on impact on Anne and Emily’s young minds, but if anything they gained an even greater love and respect for nature and the landscape around it. They had seen how powerful nature could be, and one day through their writing they would reveal how powerful they could be as well. Emily and Anne Brontë had encountered their very own earth day, but it increased their love of nature and the landscape – a love that would become apparent in their prose and poetry for the rest of their lives.

Wuthering Heights moors
Heathcliff, Cathy and the moors – the three protagonists of Wuthering Heights

In Wuthering Heights particularly, the landscape is almost a character in itself – its dark presence brooding over the pages. We see Anne’s love of the environment in her evocations of seaside landscapes, but also in her words that pay tribute to bluebells, snowdrops and primroses.

As we think about World Earth Day, we only have to look at our beloved Brontës, and to remember their desperate escape from Crow Hill, to realise the power that the environment still has over us. We must respect it; we must preserve it.

Tiger And Tom: The Cats Of The Bronte Sisters

Today is International Cat Day, so it seems a perfect opportunity to take a look at the cat in the lives of the Brontë sisters! The wet nosed four legged friends of the Brontës are well known, and visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum can still see the collars of Grasper, Keeper and Anne Brontë’s beloved spaniel Flossy, a gift from her pupils in the Robinson household. Their cat, Tom, however is not as well known.

Tom was a black cat that was doted upon by the Brontë siblings, and it seems that he certainly knew how to charm visitors to the Parsonage, probably with the intention of gaining a cuddle or even a tasty morsel or two. The world may change, but cats never change!

We have three pieces of evidence for the Brontës love of cats. First is this picture that Emily Brontë painted, with their tabby cat Tiger taking centre stage along with Keeper and Flossy:

Keeper, Flossy and Tiger
Keeper, Flossy and Tiger by Emily Bronte

We also see a cat taking a major role in the early part of Agnes Grey, the début novel of Anne Brontë that was heavily influenced by her real life experiences. Agnes wants to be given more to do in the northern Parsonage where she lives, but her over protective family tell her:

‘Go and practice your music, or play with the kitten.’

When Agnes leaves home to become a governess for the first time, she seeks out this kitten for special attention:

‘I rose, washed, dressed, swallowed a hasty breakfast, received the fond embraces of my father, mother, and sister, kissed the cat – to the great scandal of Sally, the maid – shook hands with her, mounted the gig, drew the veil over my face, and then, but not til then, burst into a flood of tears.’

It’s easy to imagine Anne painting this season from memory, with Aunt Branwell playing the part of mother, and Tabby Aykroyd as Sally.

There’s another sign of Anne’s fondness for cats later in the book. In a moving and tender section, the poor old woman Nancy is worried because her cat has gone missing, and she fears the local gamekeeper will have shot it. Indeed that would have been its fate, but Reverend Weston rescues it and returns it to Nancy.

We also have an eyewitness account of the Brontë cat from Ellen Nussey’s report of 1833:

‘Black ‘Tom’, the tabby, was everybody’s favourite. It received such gentle treatment it seemed to have lost its cat’s nature, and subsided into luxurious amiability and contentment.’

It’s important to note here that Ellen, always a careful and fastidious writer, has put ‘Tom’ in quotation marks, meaning that this was the name that the Brontës had given it, rather than it being simply a tom cat.

Ellen goes on to explain that Aunt Branwell was rather less fond of pets, but on this particular point the Brontë girls would not be lectured to. We’ll return to our second part of the Aunt Branwell blog this weekend, looking at her relationship with Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, but as an animal lover myself I couldn’t let International Cat Day go by uncelebrated.

By the way, if you’re lucky enough to visit Haworth today, you’re sure to see a cat or two. One in particular hangs around the graveyard in front of the parsonage, its bright eyes gleaming out of the dark. That’s it at the top of this post. As it was in the 1840s, so it is today.

201 Not Out: Happy Birthday Charlotte Brontë

Two hundred and one years ago today a remarkable event was occurring in front of a fireplace in a small parsonage building in Thornton, on the outskirts of Bradford. It was the birth of Charlotte Brontë, a woman who would change the world of literature forever.

I am, of course, a champion of Anne Brontë, in my opinion the most unfairly neglected writer of them all, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a huge fan of Charlotte Brontë as well. Charlotte is an incredibly complex character, and any biographer or student of the Brontë has to accept that she played a part in damaging the reputation of her younger sister Anne by suppressing her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after her death. We also know, from Charlotte’s own words, that she destroyed works of Anne and Emily Brontë after their death, although we don’t know how much or whether she had been asked to do so by her sisters. It’s also inescapable that Charlotte truly loved her sisters, as her elegy to Anne after her death shows.

Fireplace Charlotte Bronte
The fireplace by which Charlotte Bronte was born, Emily’s at Thornton

Charlotte is our main access point to the Brontë story, not only because she wrote more novels than her sisters combined, but also because of her huge collection of letters. Charlotte’s letters are a pleasure to read, by turns vituperative, angry, loving and hilarious – it is little wonder that her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls called them ‘as dangerous as lucifer matches’, although thankfully Ellen Nussey, the recipient of the majority that we have left, denied his instructions to burn them.

Charlotte give us an insight into the woman that readers of her great books can miss; put to one side is the genius author, and instead we often see the despairing, damaged, uncertain woman who had to cope with the loss of her mother at too early an age, quickly followed by the deaths of her two eldest sisters.

Charlotte, aged just nine, put her childhood aside and instead, as the eldest surviving child, acted as a mother to her siblings. She was later to write that writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ‘did her [Anne] harm’, but it was these childhood losses that did Charlotte harm. Throughout her life she would suffer from what she called ‘bilious attacks’, in reality bouts of depression that left her unable to leave her bed or even write a letter. We can see how far the depths she descended were in her moving account of the effect the moors have on her after Anne and Emily’s deaths:

‘I am free to walk on the moors – but when I go out there alone everything reminds me of the time when others were with me and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening. My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf not a fluttering lark or linnet but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon. In the hill-country silence their poetry comes by lines and stanzas into my mind: once I loved it – now I dare not read it – and am driven often to wish I could taste one draught of oblivion and forget much that, while mind remains, I never shall forget.’

These dark moments that punctuated her life would have destroyed most people’s creativity, but Charlotte Brontë had the incredible strength and power to overcome them. She had, as Elizabeth Gaskell quite rightly said when recalling how Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre as she was nursing her father Patrick as he recovered from an eye operation, the heart of Robert the Bruce within her.

She lost all that were dear to her, the poet laureate Robert Southey told her not to write as it wasn’t a fit occupation for a woman, her first novel was rejected by every publisher in the land – and yet she didn’t give in. She couldn’t give in – writing was all she had left.

Charlotte Bronte 1843
Charlotte Bronte, 1843, painted by Mary Dixon

I recently came upon a picture that I had never really noticed before, in a book I hadn’t consulted in a while – ‘A Brontë Encyclopedia’ by Robert and Louise Barnard. The book describes the picture as ‘Image of Charlotte about 1843. This newly discovered chalk drawing of Charlotte may be the portrait painted by Mary Dixon in Brussels.’

If this is indeed Charlotte Brontë, it is very different to the one we normally see. Here she is not a child, but a woman with the experience of life etched on her face. It is also not airbrushed or idealised like Charlotte’s portraits by Richmond and Thompson, and yet to my mind it is a beautiful picture and belies the stories told about Charlotte’s plainness and longing to be pretty.

On this special day I will be raising a glass to Charlotte Brontë, at peace at last, a beautiful soul and a beautiful writer. She will live on forever while there are still people to turn pages. Happy birthday, Charlotte Brontë!

Remembering Maria: Mother Of The Brontës

15th April marked the anniversary of the birth of a very special woman, and yet one who is little known about. A woman who was kind, intelligent and loving, but one whose days were all too short – Maria, mother of the Brontës. Maria Brontë died young, and yet she displayed quantities of loyalty, creativity, and love of family that would be replicated by her daughters, and through her very absence she played a pivotal part in the Brontë story.

Maria Branwell was born in Penzance, Cornwall in 1783. Her father Thomas Branwell was a wealthy merchant and a leading figure in political and religious circles in the area. As so often in the Brontë story however, tragedy was to strike. Her mother and father died within four years of each other, along with two of her siblings. In 1812, without an inheritance of her own, Maria travelled to Yorkshire to work as an assistant in a school that had been opened by her Aunt Jane and Uncle John Fennel.

The school was in Rawdon, and John Fennel had recently recruited a new classics examiner for the schoolchildren. It was a friend of his from his days in Shropshire who had also moved to Yorkshire. He was an Irish clergyman by the name of Patrick Brontë, and when he and Maria first saw each other it was love at first sight.

We still have some of their love letters. Maria calls Patrick ‘my saucy Pat’, and it was obvious that there’s was a true love match, unusually so for the times. After a whirlwind romance they were married on 29th December 1812. Maria’s family disapproved of such a poor match, as Patrick was from a poor background and had few prospects of advancement. Anne Brontë alludes to this in her first novel when describing the mother of Agnes Grey:

“My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire’s daughter and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her, that if she became the poor parson’s wife, she must relinquish… all the luxuries and elegance of affluence; but she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world.”

Maria’s attitude, and her own writing skills, are demonstrated by an essay that she had previously published: “The Advantages of Poverty, in Religious Concerns.” She saw Patrick’s poverty as a spiritual advantage rather than a material encumbrance.

In 1814 their first child was born, a daughter they named Maria after her mother. She was quickly followed by five more children: Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane, and Anne. Just three months after Anne’s birth, the family moved to a new parish that brought a larger income. It was a growing village on the edge of the moors known as Haworth.

The Brontës looked set for a happy future, but Haworth was not to be home to Maria Brontë for long. Having six children survive childbirth was in itself unusual, but there was still a price to pay. On 29th January 1821, she walked down the parsonage staircase in obvious pain and then collapsed on the floor. A doctor was called and said that Maria would not survive the day, but she lived on in terrible pain for another eight months. Although it is commonly stated today that she had died of uterine cancer, in the 1970s Dr. Philip Rhodes, a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and one of the leading authorities in England, stated that in his opinion Maria could not have died of uterine cancer based upon the evidence we have. Instead, he hypothesised that she had died of chronic pelvic sepsis and anaemia brought on by the birth of Anne Brontë. Whatever led to her tragic and painful end, Maria Brontë had died aged just 38.

A tribute to Maria Bronte and Aunt Branwell by their family home in Penzance
A tribute to Maria Bronte and Aunt Branwell by their family home in Penzance

This would bring dramatic change for the Brontës, and especially for Anne. At just one year old, she would be unable to recall her mother in future years, but the mother’s role was taken by Maria’s sister Elizabeth Branwell. Aunt Branwell, as she came to be known, would move to the parsonage to look after her sister’s children. She was a strict and highly religious woman, but she had real love for Anne, the baby of the family, and they shared a room together.

The loss of their mother at such a young age threw all the Brontës together as never before. From now on they would all act as a mother to each other, and would learn to be self-sufficient in their own company. It was this forced independence that provided the foundations for some of the greatest works of literature the world has ever seen.

In later years, Charlotte Brontë was surprised to be presented with a gift from her father – a parcel of letters written by her mother. She was amazed and moved at their power and the woman it revealed. As Charlotte wrote:

‘It was strange now to peruse for the first time the records of a mind whence my own sprang – and most strange – and at once sad and sweet to find that mind of a truly fine, pure and elevated order. They were written to papa before they were married – there is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wished she had lived and that I had known her.’

Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, is long gone, but her legacy lives on in the wonderful works her much loved daughters gave us.

Anne Brontë At Easter: The Bluebells

May I wish all the readers and followers of this Anne Brontë blog a very Happy Easter – whatever your faith. In our modern world, Easter is a reason to celebrate for the majority simply because it gives us an extra day or two off work, and an excuse to vegetate in front of the television and eat our own body weight in chocolate.

For Anne Brontë, however, Easter had a very different meaning. She was the daughter of a priest, and she fitted the role well. There is no doubt that Anne was the most religious of the Brontë siblings, and she gave religious concerns very deep thought. Sometimes too deep, as it seems that religious doubts led to her having a physical and mental breakdown while still at Roe Head School in Mirfield.

Calvinism was the dominating influence in the Church of England in Anne’s time, and it was a harsh creed that taught that once a sin had been committed the perpetrator was damned to hell for eternity. This ate away at Anne, until she found her thoughts obsessed with fiery torments for herself and those she loved.

Thanks to the influence of a Moravian priest, James la Trobe, who visited her when she was at her weakest point, when indeed she was close to death, she found a new vision of God – one who was kind and forgiving. This was much more aligned with Anne’s own beliefs, and she would study the Bible thoroughly to find scriptural evidence to back up her new loving faith. This is demonstrated in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, when Helen explains to her scandalised Aunt that all people will be saved eventually. Helen also explains that she has studied the original Greek of the Bible and that it has been translated incorrectly – what we now think of as meaning forever actually meant for a long time, so nobody’s punishment would be everlasting. Helen here is mirroring the thoughts, words and actions of Anne Brontë.

St Michael's and All Angels, Haworth, today
St Michael’s and All Angels, Haworth, today

Anne’s strong belief in a loving and forgiving Lord brought brightness to her days, although she still found herself beset by doubts at times. She would have found the Easter week services especially joyous, as she knew that the somber ceremonies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, remembering the arrest of Jesus, and then his ordeal and crucifixion, were merely necessary stages towards the wonder of the Easter Sunday resurrection.

We know from Ellen Nussey’s evidence that Anne Brontë liked to sing, and indeed that she was good at it, as confirmed in this remembrance:

‘She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.’

We also know that Anne loved to play the piano, and listen to it played, although she was not as proficient at the keyboard as Emily Brontë was. This then would be Anne Bronte’s idyllic Easter. A short morning hop to to her father’s church dressed in her very best dress and bonnet. Singing the hymns that she loved so much and listening intently to the day’s sermon on the resurrection and the salvation it brought. It was then back to the Parsonage, where she would listen to her beloved sister Emily play the piano as she herself sang in accompaniment. After dinner, and maybe even a hot cross bun, it is likely that Anne and Emily would go for a walk across the Haworth moors, as they so often did. They would revel in the sights of spring now increasing around them.

Easter would have been a time of complete happiness for Anne Brontë, and I hope it is for you and your family today – whatever your plans are.

Yorkshire Bluebells
Yorkshire Bluebells

One of the flowers that can be found in and around the moors at Easter is the bluebell, so I leave you with one of Anne’s sweetest poems as she looks back to happy childhood memories of the bluebell – but in doing so reflects on how different her life (as a governess) has become:

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
‘Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;
That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.
Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.
Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.
But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.
Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil —
Those bitter feelings rise?
O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,
Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.
I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others’ weal
With anxious toil and strife.
‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

Just What Did Anne Bronte Sound Like?

When we look back at the classic writers and historical figures that we love it’s understandable that we start to wonder what they looked like, what they sounded like. In many cases, as with Anne Brontë, the former is easier to ascertain than the latter. We have portraits of Anne, although they were made when she was a teenager, and we have contemporary descriptions of her long brown hair falling in curls alongside her clear complexioned face, and of her beautiful violet blue eyes. But just what did Anne Brontë sound like?

There are of course no recordings, and no direct reference to Anne’s accent, but by looking at the facts about her upbringing we can make an educated guess, and she may not have had the Yorkshire accent that many people would imagine.

Let’s start by examining an account of Charlotte Brontë’s accent from her friend Mary Taylor, on the occasion of their first meeting:

“She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.”

It seems then that the predominant tones in Charlotte’s accent at least had been taken from her father Patrick, a northern Irish man who would never lose his Ulster voice. If anything, however, that paternal influence would have been even stronger upon Anne. Charlotte was raised by her mother as a young girl, Maria who had a Cornish accent. We also know that she joined in childhood games with her neighbours in Thornton, youngsters who would have had Yorkshire accents. She also went to school at Cowan Bridge for a while, where she would have come into contact with many other accents.

Anne was exposed to none of these factors. She was a one year old baby when her mother died, and would remember neither her appearance or voice. She didn’t get the opportunity to mingle with Yorkshire children at Thornton, and didn’t go to school until she was 15 years old. The voice she would have heard day in and day out would be her father’s, alongside that of her Aunt Branwell whose Cornish accent may have been less than pronounced because of her relatively refined upbringing. In all likelihood, therefore, we can assume that Anne Brontë’s northern Irish accent would have been stronger than Charlotte’s was.

Anne Bronte singing

Whilst we have no direct account of her talking voice, we do have Ellen Nussey’s account of Anne’s singing:

“She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.”

We have one other reference to Anne’s speech that is often, in my opinion, misinterpreted. After Anne took her first role as governess, to the Ingham family of Mirfield, Charlotte wrote to Ellen:

“It is only the talking part I fear – but I do seriously apprehend that Mrs Ingham will ‘sometimes’ conclude that she has a natural impediment in her speech.”

A recent biography of Charlotte Brontë by Claire Harman takes this to literally mean that Anne had a stutter, but as always with Charlotte’s pronouncements on her little sister we shouldn’t take them as the gospel.

Charlotte was referring to Anne’s shyness that would make her reticent to talk to strangers, she wasn’t saying that Anne had a stutter, or else why should she have put ‘sometimes’ in quotation marks, but rather that she could be so quiet that people might think she was incapable of talking at all. Of course, as was often to be the case, Charlotte had completely underestimated Anne’s determined nature. When she needed to, she could and did overcome her shyness and could converse freely.

Whether Anne spoke with a Yorkshire accent or, more likely, with an Irish one, one thing we can say with certainty is that she spoke, sang and wrote freely and beautifully.

Taking The Waters: Anne Bronte In Scarborough

Scarborough is a large and popular seaside town on the North Yorkshire coast, but its faded glamour, aggressive seagulls and abundance of rock shops give little indication of what it was like in the mid nineteenth century. It was then a luxurious resort visited by the cream of Victorian society, and it was particularly loved by Anne Brontë.

There are many indicators of Anne’s love of Scarborough: although not mentioned by name it features in both of her novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It is clearly at Scarborough castle that Weston proposes to the eponymous Agnes, and it is a sad irony that it is within the shadow of that same castle that Anne Brontë now lies buried.

Scarborough castle
Scarborough castle

As the early months of 1849 trooped by in sad progression, and Anne’s tuberculosis progressed along with them, there was one place above all else that she wanted to see: Scarborough. It was a place filled with happy memories for her, and filled with the sights and sounds of nature that thrilled her so, but it had one other attraction to Anne: it was a place that people came to take the waters, in the hope of regaining health or being cured of innumerable diseases.

One reason that Scarborough had become so popular by the 1840s was that it was a spa town. Its history as a spa can be traced back to the late seventeenth century, when a local woman Thomasina Farrer saw bubbling water running from the bottom of a cliff. Tasting the ochre coloured water she found it bitter, but later said that she found it to have curative qualities. Word of this soon spread, and by the early 1700s the first spa house had been built. Unfortunately, the spa’s location made it difficult to reach, except via a long flight of steps, and also vulnerable to the elements.

Coastal erosion was as much of a danger in the eighteenth century as it is today, and in 1737 a cliff fall took the original spa house with it. The second spa house was destroyed in similar fashion in 1839, leading to the creation of the building that Anne Brontë would have been familiar with (although that itself was replaced by a larger spa building in 1858, due to increasing popularity and demand).

The railway revolution also helped to popularise Scarborough’s spa, as it made travel to the town much easier from the 1840s onwards. This boom in visitor numbers also led to the creation of the beautiful spa bridge in 1827. Still open today, it links the spa complex with St. Nicholas Cliff, the site of today’s Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel at night
Grand Hotel, Scarborough, at night

In Anne Brontë’s day it was Wood’s Lodgings that stood adjacent to the bridge, and it was here that Anne stayed on many occasions, often with the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, for whom she worked as a governess, and finally in 1849 in the company of her sister Charlotte and their friend Ellen Nussey.

Anne’s first visit to Scarborough occurred in June 1840 and she would visit the resort with them on an annual basis until 1845. She would spend around five weeks there on each occasion, and she found it perfectly attuned to her spirit. The sea became for Anne what the moors were to Emily, she loved to hear it crashing against the rocks and watch the gulls wheeling above it beneath a darkening sky.

The spa complex was also of particular delight to Anne, as it was not only the natural mineral waters that brought people to it. The spa often hosted musical events and concerts, particularly during the summer months when fashionable folk from across the north of England arrived, and this was idyllic for the music loving Anne. As well as the spa’s concert hall, with seating for 500, orchestras also played on the elaborate gardens outside.

It is little wonder then, that Anne’s thoughts as she approached her final days turned to Scarborough, but now her mind was as much on the healing waters as on the happy memories of years gone by. Anne was enough of a realist to know that there was no hope of her being cured, but she did believe that the waters may, just possibly, restore her health a little and give her more time to do the work she longed to do. After all, some people with terminal tuberculosis lived for months or even years with the condition.

Anne was supported in this view by the Leeds based medic Dr. Teale, who in April 1849 said that taking the waters of Scarborough could be of some benefit to her. Charlotte, seeing how weak her only remaining sibling was, tried to discourage Anne from the journey, but as her letter to Ellen Nussey of 5 April shows, she would not wait any longer:

‘I have a more serious reason than this for my impatience of delay; the doctors say that change of air or removal to a better climate would hardly ever fail of success in consumptive cases if the remedy were taken in time, but the reason why there are so many disappointments is, that it is generally deferred till it is too late. Now I would not commit this error.’

So it was that Anne, Charlotte and Ellen arrived in Scarborough on 25 May 1849. One of their first acts was to buy tickets that gave them unlimited use of the spa and its facilities. The next day, a Saturday, Anne insisted on visiting the spa alone, much to the consternation of her sister and friend. Now in an extremely emaciated condition she took the waters, alone with her thoughts, her hopes and fears, preparing for her death. Anne also refused assistance from the Spa and walked home alone, but collapsed outside their lodging and had to be carried indoors by their maid Miss Jefferson.

It was clear now even to Anne that it was too late, healing waters or not there was nothing more that could be done for her. Even so, Anne continued to enjoy her final days in Scarborough, taking a donkey ride along the beach in a reflection of Agnes Grey’s actions towards the end of her first novel.

Spa bridge Scarborough
The Spa Bridge, Scarborough, walked across by Anne Bronte

We can follow in Anne’s footsteps today when we visit Scarborough. The Spa building may be new, but the location is that same as that sought out by Anne Brontë. We can even stand upon the same Spa Bridge, and enjoy the thrilling sea view that Anne must have loved so much. Yes, people still travel to Scarborough today to take the waters, but if you plan on doing so please do watch out for the seagulls!

Anne Brontë and the Inghams of Mirfield

In last week’s blog we looked at Anne’s school days at Roe Head in Mirfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but her association with the town doesn’t end there. She left Roe Head towards the end of 1837 (we don’t know the exact date), but on April 8th 1839 she was back in Mirfield – and this time she meant business!

Her family would have expected delicate, little Anne (as they thought of her) to stay safely at home in Haworth after a serious illness had forced her departure from school, but she had other plans. She very much enjoyed the company of her family, especially Emily, but she was determined that she should make her own way in life – she wanted to show people that Anne Brontë wasn’t as helpless as they seemed to believe.

It was a shock to them, then, when Anne told her family that she wanted to take a position as a governess. It soon became clear that she would not change her mind, she could be as stubborn as Charlotte or Emily when she wanted to be, and so the search began for a suitable position.

It seems likely that Anne’s old headmistress Miss Wooler was asked for advice, for she arranged for Anne to fill a position as governess to a family well known to her: the Ingham family of Blake Hall, Mirfield.

The Inghams were the wealthiest family in Mirfield, and as mine and mill owners the industrial revolution meant that their wealth was growing. They also lived in the largest house in the town, the large and imposing square shaped Blake Hall.

Anne was just nineteen when she arrived at Mirfield, harbouring dreams of finding well behaved children who were eager to learn. The reality was somewhat different. She had stumbled into a job as governess for children who were unruly at best, and something akin to evil at the worst. In a letter to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte would adroitly describe the Ingham children as ‘desparate little dunces’.

At the time of Anne’s arrival at Blake Hall, her charges were Cunliffe, aged 6, Mary, 5, Martha 3, and Emily aged 2; there was also a baby called Harriet. Their parents were Joseph and Mary Lister, and although they were keen on providing an education for their children that would allow them to go to boarding schools later in life, they would not allow any sort of discipline to be used on them. Despite previous governesses having tried their best, Anne was shocked to find that the children had little idea of the alphabet, virtually no knowledge of any subject at all, and were most unwilling to sit still and take lessons.

Anne’s time as governess to the Inghams was one of perpetual struggle. The children would refuse to sit still, and when she succeeded in making one sit in their chair, another would begin to run around. Sometimes they would roll on the floor screaming until their parents came in, at which point it would be Anne rather than the child who would be chastised. They would sometimes spit at Anne, or in her bag, or throw her belongings out of the window.

Whilst this was traumatic for Anne Brontë, the painful memories would lead directly to her first novel Agnes Grey, and the horrors she experienced at Mirfield are replicated in its pages. The Inghams were recreated as the Bloomfield family, just as the Robinsons she worked for later would become the Murrays of the novel. Blake Hall was renamed Wellwood House, and Cunliffe becomes the wicked Tom Bloomfield who loves nothing more than setting traps for animals and torturing birds.

At one point Cunliffe has a nest of young birds, and he tells Agnes how he plans to torture them. Agnes takes a large stone and drops it on the nest, killing it instantly. If this is taken from real life, then we can imagine how painful it must have been for the animal loving Anne.

There can be little doubt that, whilst it is a work of fiction, Agnes Grey the novel does contain many scenes taken from Anne’s own experiences at Blake Hall and at Thorp Green. Apart from the many instances in the novel that have an obvious parallel in real life, we have letters from Charlotte to back up some of the scenes in the novel. For example, Agnes says: ‘A good birch rod might have been serviceable; but as my powers were so limited, I must make the best use of what I had.’ Charlotte writes, talking of Anne’s reports from Blake Hall: ‘The worst of it is that the little monkies are excessively indulged, and she is not empowered to inflict any punishment.’

Indeed, Anne herself, in her preface to the second edition of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, defended herself against accusations that some of the wild scenes in the Bloomfield section of the book were false:

‘The story of 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.’

Anne Brontë was finally dismissed from the role of governess to the Ingham family in December 1839, with the parents unhappy at the lack of educational progress made by their children under her tuition. Given their character and abilities, however, she had done well to last for as long as eight months.

So what became of the Inghams? We know that Cunliffe and Mary as adults were both notorious for their vile tempers, although Cunliffe channelled his by becoming an officer in the army and serving in the Crimean war.

We also have a definitive account of an instance when Anne finally lost her patience with her charges. The story was told by Mary Ingam, mother of the children, to her grandaughter Gertrude Elizabeth Brooke, who in turn published it in the Mirfield parish church magazine:

‘One day grandmother, Mary Ingham, went into the schoolroom and found two of her children tied to opposite table legs while Anne wrote.’

The Ingham family went into decline, and the imposing and now old Blake Hall became too expensive to maintain. It was demolished in the 1950s, but the place where it stood in Mirfield is now home to the Blake Hall Estate centred upon Blake Hall Drive. Running off in one direction from this long, broad avenue are Ingham Garth, Ingham Close, and Ingham Croft, while to the south of the road are Brontë Close, Brontë Grove, and Brontë Way.

Blake Hall
Some of the Ingham and Bronte streets, Mirfield

Mirfield hasn’t forgotten its connections with the brilliant writer who learned and taught there, but in death, as in life, Anne Brontë and the Inghams are on opposite sides of the divide.

Anne Brontë In Mirfield

A steep hilly Yorkshire town overlooking a river carved valley, once home to Anne Brontë. Sounds familiar, right? This time, however, we’re talking not about Haworth but about Mirfield, twenty miles to the south east, and a place that Anne both learned in and worked in.

Mirfield is a small town and yet a sprawling one, spread out across the Pennine hills and where strong legs are needed for the succession of climbing streets and alleyways. In the early nineteenth century it began to grow rapidly as it and the neighbouring town of Dewsbury were transformed by the industrial revolution. The area around these two towns, and other surrounding locales including Gomersal where Charlotte Brontë’s friends the Taylors lived, became known as the Heavy Woollen District. It became a world centre for the production of heavy wool cloth, ropes and blankets, and led to the introduction of mills across the valley bottoms and the sudden enrichment of local manufacturers.

Margaret Wooler
Margaret Wooler in old age

A woman in her forties called Margaret Wooler knew that these local manufacturers would welcome a school for their daughters within the heavy woollen area, and so in 1830 she acquired a large house, built in the eighteenth century, from the Marriott family. Naming the school Roe Head she soon attracted the daughters of the new West Riding middle class, and a year after the school opened, Charlotte Brontë joined their number.

In 1835 Charlotte returned to Roe Head in the capacity of a teacher, and as part of the agreement she took her sister Emily along with her for a free education. Emily soon became so homesick that Charlotte worried for her life, which resulted in Emily returning to Haworth and Anne Brontë taking her place.

Anne would remain at Roe Head until late 1837, spending longer in school than any of her siblings did (although Charlotte and Emily would later return to education as adults at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels). Academically, Anne excelled. Always eager to learn, and eager to please, she had already gained a great deal from her Aunt Elizabeth and from her father, and indeed from the large collection of books and magazines that had been available to her in Haworth.

A mark of her success as a scholar was shown by the award of a medal to Anne on December 14th 1836, bearing the inscription: ‘Prize for good conduct presented to Miss A. Brontë with Miss Wooler’s kind love, Roe Head. Dec. 14th. 1846′

Roe Head school
Roe Head school, Mirfield, today – now the Holly Bank Trust

Anne also succeeded on a personal level in making friends with some of her fellow pupils, overcoming her natural shyness. Among her fellow pupils were Ann Cook and Ellen Lister. These are famously referred to in Charlotte’s angry ‘Roe Head Journal’, in reality a series of writings expressing her inner turmoil at this time. One such entry reads:

‘A. Cook on one side of me, E. Lister on the other and Miss W. in the background. Stupidity the atmosphere, school-books the employment, asses the society.’

Charlotte wasn’t always as dismissive of her youngest sister’s friend Ann Cook however. In recent years an inscription from Ann Cook has been discovered in one of Charlotte Brontë’s prayer books of this time. In it the pupil writes to her teacher: ‘Pray don’t forget me my sweet little thing’.

This can of course be interpreted in many ways, but it was at this time that Charlotte was writing to Ellen Nussey:

‘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.’

Whatever Charlotte’s feelings were for Anne Cook, or indeed for Ellen Nussey, we shall never know, but we do know that the turmoil and depression Charlotte was suffering with at this time led her to treat her sister Anne coldly while they were together in Mirfield. This in turn contributed to the dark shadow that was creeping over Anne’s mental and physical health, an episode that we looked into in an earlier blog looking at her relationship with the Moravian church.

After recovering from her life threatening bout of gastric fever, Anne Brontë was sent to Haworth to recuperate. Her time at Roe Head was over, but it was far from the end for her time in Mirfield. As a pupil she would often have attended Mirfield parish church, even though it was a walk of over a mile to there from Roe Head and a very steep climb back to the school afterwards. The front pews were reserved for a special local family, the wealthiest in the town and one who had contributed to the cost of the building of the imposing new church. We can imagine the young Anne sitting at the back with her fellow pupils, looking disapprovingly at the misbehaving children sat at the front.

Anne was shortly to become much better acquainted with this family and with their children. They were the Inghams, and in the next blog we’ll take a closer look at them and reveal how they influenced Anne’s first novel, and also show how Mirfield today remembers both the Inghams and Anne Brontë.

Agnes Grey: Nothing Short Of Genius

December is a time when people buy turkeys, wrap presents, and hang up mistletoe, but there’s another reason for celebration in December – it marks the anniversary of the publication of two of the greatest books ever written.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, and Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë, were published side by side by the publisher Thomas Cautley Newby in December 1847. They formed a three volume set, with Wuthering Heights occupying two volumes to Agnes Grey’s one. This was known as a triple decker and was particularly popular in the mid nineteenth century, especially among publishers who got to charge the circulating libraries who were among their main customers three times as much.

Whilst Wuthering Heights is rightly lauded the world over, Agnes Grey doesn’t get nearly as much as it deserves. Whilst very different to Anne’s other novel, the bold and dramatic The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey is, in my eyes, just as brilliant. In fact, I know I’m not alone in thinking that Agnes Grey is the most underrated book of them all, so just why do I love it so much?

Agnes Grey film picture

One reason I love Agnes Grey the novel is the same reason that I rate Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley as her best work: it’s highly autobiographical, containing people and events that Anne knew.

The second paragraph of the book starts: ‘My father was a clergyman of the north of England’, just as Anne’s father was a clergyman of (i.e. working in) the north of England. It is the first of many clues that Agnes is in fact Anne, or Acton as the author was calling herself at the time.

When writing my biography of Anne I found sixty instances from the book that could be directly related to incidents in Anne’s own life. Of course, is a work of fiction, and a great one at that, but as every fiction writer knows there is not a single book that doesn’t have a piece of the writer in it, and to deny that is to misunderstand the art of writing fiction itself.

It seems to me that there is a lot more of Anne in Agnes than there is in most protagonists, and so by reading Agnes Grey we feel closer to Anne Brontë herself. Even without this to recommend, it’s still a wonderful and quick read.

Agnes Grey is the story of a governess and her dealings with two very different families, the Bloomfields and the Murrays (who seem closely modelled on the Inghams and the Robinsons who Anne herself had served as a governess). The Bloomfield children are cruel to animals, capturing and torturing birds, and cruel to their governess, fighting with her and spitting in her bag. This matches what we know of the Ingham children, who Charlotte memorably described as ‘desperate little dunces’.

The Murray girls that Agnes teaches next are brighter and kinder, but Agnes is shocked by their attitude to marriage, and by the way their mother tries to force them into loveless matches. Again, this matches what we know of the Robinson girls – one of whom eloped with a theatre owner’s son, and two of whom continued to write to Anne for advice long after she had ceased being their governess.

At the heart of the story, increasingly, is Agnes herself and her love for the assistant curate Weston. In this we can read of Anne’s love for her father’s assistant curate Weightman, just as we can in much of the yearning mourning poetry that Anne wrote after William Weightman’s untimely death (he caught cholera from one of the many parishioners he visited who were sick, a task that Weston carries out in Agnes Grey).

I won’t give the ending away, except to say that it is incredibly romantic, incredibly moving – is this Anne, as her alter ego Agnes, giving herself the life in writing that real life had snatched away from her? The end of the book is very simple, very understated:

‘And now I think I have said sufficient.’

Few novels end on such a simple sentence, and yet in its simplicity is the power to move a reader deeply. Agnes Grey is a wonderfully well written novel, it’s short but precise with not a word out of place. In my opinion it is the Brontë novel above all others that is perfectly formed, showing that Anne had already mastered the art of novel writing. It’s like little else in English literature, and to my mind it resembles the novels of the brilliant Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, novels where not much seems to be happening and then suddenly you realise they’ve gotten hold of your heart.

George Moore by Edouard Manet
George Moore by Edouard Manet

George Moore, himself an important writer of the early twentieth century, praised the book thus:

‘Agnes Grey is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature… a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress… We know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint.’

I have to agree, and so if you haven’t already done so, give yourself a Christmas treat – read Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. It’s not as long as some other books, not as dramatic, not as loud or brash, but it is a work of brilliance that whispers its genius from the first page to the last.