The Marriage of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls

163 years ago to this day a happy event was taking place at St. Michael and All Angels’ church in Haworth -the marriage of Charlotte Brontë to the church’s assistant curate Arthur Bell Nicholls. It almost seems like I can picture that event of Thursday 29th June 1854, but that’s because I was lucky enough to be present at a re-enactment of the wedding carried out at the same location two years ago. It was being filmed as part of a two part BBC documentary, and it was a rather wet, yet magical, day that will live long in my memory.

Whilst the re-enactment of the wedding was great fun, and the actress playing Charlotte (the talented Sophie Trott) captured her look and spirit perfectly, just what do we know about the marriage and the events leading up to it? Let’s also ask another marriage related question – if she had lived longer would Anne Brontë herself have married?

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet
This is Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

By 1853, Charlotte was the last Brontë sibling left alive, and she lived at home with her ageing father and their servants Martha Brown and Tabby Aykyroyd. She was 37 that year, and although she was by now a literary success it seemed that she would remain a spinster forever. It was in that year, however, that Arthur Bell Nicholls proposed to her. Nicholls was, like Charlotte’s father, an Irish priest in the Church of England, and he’d served Patrick as assistant curate since May 1845. Over eight years he had fallen in love with the tiny, tormented Charlotte, and one of the duties he now loved to perform was to walk the dogs Keeper and Flossy that Emily and Anne had had to leave behind forever.

His proposal, however, was not well received on either side. Patrick was furious that his assistant had dared to propose marriage to his daughter who he now felt could do much better, and he was also worried about what would happen to him if the daughter he was so reliant upon left. Charlotte herself professed herself not in love with him at all, and said that she barely liked him. Arthur had been building up the courage to make the proposal for months, maybe years, and the rejection hit him hard. He announced that he had applied to become a missionary in Australia and resigned his position at Haworth. On the last but one service he conducted, Charlotte records how he started shaking at the pulpit and then became unable to speak. The congregation had to lead him outside, many of them in tears, and Charlotte herself admits that she herself wept a little. The whole village knew why he was leaving, and on the following week the spectacle happened again. Charlotte writes how she later found him near the church “sobbing as women never sob”.

At this, what they supposed, final meeting Charlotte tried to console him a little, but this seems to have reignited Arthur’s hopes. Instead of going to Australia he moved to another church in Yorkshire, and continued to write to Charlotte. Eventually, his persistence and obvious dedication began to wear Charlotte down, and a year later he returned to Haworth where his second proposal was accepted on the proviso that they would remain at the Haworth Parsonage and continue to look after Patrick.

This acceptance of an engagement now outraged Ellen Nussey, Charlotte’s lifelong friend, as it seems that they had some sort of pact to grow old as spinsters together. Ellen herself would never marry, and nor would her other great friend from her school days Mary Taylor, or her former teacher, employer and now friend Margaret Wooler. For the first time in their lives they ceased writing to each other, but somehow the rift was healed in time for Ellen to act as Charlotte’s bridesmaid.

Charlotte, typically, didn’t want any fuss or extravagance to be made regarding her nuptials, although Ellen eventually forced her to go shopping for bridal wear and made her select a white dress. The beautiful bonnet the bride wore is on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and locals said that she looked ‘like a snowdrop’ as she, Ellen, and Margaret walked the short distance from the Parsonage to the church.

Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls
Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls, the happy couple

The wedding took place at eight o’clock in the morning, and one important man was not to be there. At the last moment Patrick said that he felt too ill to attend, although of course we’ll never know if this was true or if he was still harbouring some resentment at the marriage itself. Margaret Wooler stepped into the breach and it was she who gave Charlotte away, with Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden conducting the ceremony.

Also present at the church were Joseph Grant, a friend of Nicholls, and his wife, Sutcliffe Sowden, the vicar of Hebden Bridge, the sexton John Brown and his daughter Martha, Joseph Redman, the parish clerk, and John Robinson, a local boy and former pupil of Charlotte’s. We can also assume that the by now aged and infirm Tabby Aykroyd would also have been there if she was well enough on the day. It was a low key affair, as Charlotte wanted, and they held a reception afterwards at the Sunday school building that lay between the church and the Parsonage.

To Charlotte’s great surprise she fell in love with her new husband, and on Christmas Day 1854 wrote to Ellen of how happy they were together. It was not to last. Charlotte fell pregnant, but was struck down by extreme morning sickness, then a frequently fatal condition in those days before drips, and died on March 31st 1855.

As Charlotte Brontë married in her late thirties, we can ask whether Emily and Anne may have done the same if they had lived to see those years. I once put this question to a famous Brontë expert, who shall remain nameless although they are in my opinion today’s greatest authority on the Brontës, and they opined that Emily would never have married, as she was in their opinion a little odd and so would never have found a suitor. Anne Brontë, however, they felt may one day have found a husband, if she had ever regained health and overcome her mourning for her one love William Weightman.

It will remain one of the Bronte mysteries that keep us all so enthralled by this incredible family of geniuses. Watching ‘Charlotte’, ‘Arthur’ and their wedding party leave the church, as I did in 2015, was like stepping back into the mid 19th century, and the BBC kindly gave us these wonderful confetti cones to throw:

Confetti
A happy reminder of Charlotte Bronte’s big day

On this day we should remember the happy moments the Bronte sisters enjoyed, after all it wasn’t all doom and gloom at that famous moorside parsonage.

Branwell Brontë: 200 Today

The years 2016 to 2020 are a four year ‘Brontë 200’ period that marks the 200th anniversaries of the births of all the writing Brontë children, with dear Anne being celebrated in the last year of the cycle. Today sees Branwell Brontë take centre stage, as on 26th June 2017 he was born to Patrick and Maria Brontë in the parsonage on Market Street, Thornton.

His birth would undoubtedly have been seen as a blessing, being the first son after three daughters (in order of birth Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte). Here at last was the child who would become the man to take the Brontë name forward into the world. He would also be expected to be a breadwinner and to be able to support his sisters if they should fail to marry or if his father became ill or worse. It didn’t work out like that.

Branwell Brontë certainly divides opinions today. Some see him as a talented writer in his own right, unfairly overshadowed by his sisters, whereas others see him as the devil incarnate – but the truth is that he was neither of these things. To find the true Branwell we have to take a more nuanced look at this very complex, very troubled man.

Let us turn first to Branwell as a writer. He was the first Brontë to appear in print, under the pseudonym of Northangerland, a character from the imaginary land of Angria that he created with Charlotte, but while his poems have a charm and an intelligence they don’t match the poetic creations of Anne, and fall far behind the poetry of genius crafted by Emily. The worst calumny is that some people still think that Branwell Brontë wrote some or all of ‘Wuthering Heights‘. This theory gained popularity in Victorian times because some people had difficulty believing a reclusive parson’s daughter could have written a work of such brutality, power and brilliance, but surely we’ve moved on from that now? Branwell was already a hopeless case by the time of the novel’s creation, and his talent never approached the level of the writer of ‘Wuthering Heights’. This claim was summed up by the 1929 Brontë biographer Kaye Sugden as follows:

‘[Francis Leyland’s 19th century biography of Branwell] attempts to maintain that his achievements as an author were such that he might easily have written all, or at least a part, of ‘Wuthering Heights’. We know, of course, for a fact that he did nothing of the sort; but even if we did not, the productions which Mr. Leyland prints in wearisome profusion are almost without exception so mediocre that we are quite convinced of his incapability… He was no genius, and all his sisters’ fame will never make him one.’

Branwell Brontë certainly was no genius, and yet today he is frequently treated as though he is the equal of his sisters. This does not mean that he should be overlooked, however, and he was a man with great potential. I’m a fan of his paintings, although I know that some are less so, and feel that he could have made a success of life as a portrait painter if he had endured, but it was this quality that he severely lacked. Both Emily and Anne were models of patience and endurance, but they had taken their brothers share. When problems occurred, Branwell would flee from them – as we see from his record in adult life: he failed possibly to even turn up at the Royal Academy, where his father expected him to study art; he abandoned his role as a portrait painter in Bradford after a year, having run up debts and gained few commissions; he began a short lived job as a tutor with a mammoth drinking session in Kendal; his promising and well paid job as a railway clerk was ended when he failed to watch a subordinate who stole money, having instead spent his days drinking, sketching and writing.

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown

Most disastrous of all, of course, was his stint as a governor to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, a post that Anne had obtained for him, an action she would come to regret. The story is well known of how Branwell fell in love with Mrs Lydia Robinson, but did she love him back? It’s entirely possible as at this time he could be exquisitely charming, and Charlotte admitted that he had fair looks that had eluded his sisters.

Branwell was dismissed in disgrace, and he later learned that whilst his beloved Lydia’s husband had died, the terms of the will forbid him to make contact with Lydia. This was a lie of course, but Branwell was so unworldly-wise that he believed it just as much as he initially believed that he had a chance of marrying the widow Robinson. Branwell was already a heavy drinker and this mortal blow accelerated his descent into an alcohol-fuel hell, he also turned increasingly to opium that he bought from the nearby apothecary.

Branwell did not always drink simply because he could not afford it (which is why he often chose opium which was cheaper and left no trace on the breath), but when he did there should be no doubt that he drank to a terrifying excess. Towards the end of his life we hear of him collapsing in a fit on the floor or public houses, a sure sign of delirium tremens. He also suffered from the haunting visions that come with DT; on one of the last days of his life he met his friend Francis Grundy at the Black Bull Inn. Grundy reported his horrifying appearance, with wild unkempt hair and constantly quivering lips; he also wrote of how Branwell produced a knife from his sleeve – he had thought Grundy was the devil and was going to kill him.

Jacob's Dream Branwell Bronte
Jacob’s Dream by Branwell Bronte

Branwell was incredibly disruptive to his family at this time, as on the occasion when he fell asleep while trying to read by candle light; Anne discovered his room on fire, and the strong Emily had to carry him from his bed as they threw water to put the flames out – an episode that Charlotte would later recreate in ‘Jane Eyre‘ of course. His father Patrick, by then ageing and half-blind, insisted that Branwell share a bedroom with himself for his own safety. It was an act of bravery, as Branwell often cried out that in the morning at least one of them would be dead.

It is even more incredible that the Brontë sisters managed to create their great work in what must have been a terribly strained environment. Nevertheless, we should not condemn Branwell out of hand: he was not a bad man at heart, he was a troubled man who had fallen victim to an addiction and could find no way out. In a sad letter to his great friend J.B. Leyland he reveals not only his love and respect for his father but his despair at his own life:

‘I know only that it is time for me to be something when I am nothing. That my father cannot have long to live, and that when he dies my evening, which is already twilight, will become night – that I shall have then a constitution still so strong that it will keep me years in torture and despair when I should every hour pray that I might die.’

A year after writing this letter Branwell was dead. A major cause of Branwell’s despair was of course his thwarted love for Mrs Robinson, a love that fuelled the sense of injustice that readily burned within him. The real root of his problems, however, go back much further – the loss of his mother when he was an infant and then of his eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth when he was a child caused him great damage. It led to lifelong depression for both Branwell and Charlotte, but in the brother and sister who were once inseparable it took on different appearances. He received a further blow in 1842 with the loss of Aunt Elizabeth Branwell. She could be both stern and kind, but she had shown him love when he needed it and had helped to curb his wildest excesses. He revealed his love for his Aunt in two anguished letters:

‘I am attending at the death-bed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours… I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

No, we should not judge Branwell; we would not want to walk a mile in his shoes. Rather today let’s look at the good things he did. It was he who led the childhood walks across the moors and started a lifelong obsession for Emily and Anne; it was he who painted the only portrait of the three Brontë sisters together; it was he who drew drawings of castles and rustic scenes to please his little sister Anne; it was the sharing of his toy soldiers that led to the Brontë children creating their first stories, and it was he who took charge of the writing of their first little books: entitled ‘Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine’. It has to be said that without Branwell there would probably be no Brontë books at all.

Bronte sisters portrait
(R-L) Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë by Patrick Branwell Brontë, 1834

Grundy’s aforementioned views on Branwell and Wuthering Heights cannot be allowed, yet his final judgement on his former friend is a very fair one:

‘Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.’

Let us remember what he could have been on this day. He was an essential part of the Brontë story, if not altogether good he was not bad. Let’s raise a glass (he’d like that) and say ‘Happy 200th birthday, Branwell Brontë!’

The Brontës and the Taylors of Gomersal

Anne Brontë spent much of her life at the famous Parsonage in Haworth, although it should be pointed out of course that she spent nearly six years in total as a governess, meaning she held down a job in the ‘real world’ for far longer than any of her siblings. When in residence at the parsonage she would have met visitors, one of the most frequent being Charlotte Bronte’s great friend Ellen Nussey who would stay for days or weeks at a time. Another visitor who would have met Anne is Charlotte’s other lifelong friend Mary Taylor – and she and Ellen were very different people.

Ellen Nussey was a kind, loving and pious woman who saw tragedies in her own family that mirrored that of the Brontës. Mary Taylor was a fiercely independent woman, full of opinions, and a woman who refused to be bound by the constricting norms of nineteenth century society.

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor in old age, she was described as being beautiful when young

Mary, like Ellen, was born in Birstall in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but the Taylor family moved to the imposing Red House in nearby Gomersal (that’s it at the top of this post). Until recently the Red House was a fabulous museum run by knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers, but alas it was closed by the philistine Kirklees Council in a cost cutting measure. Hopefully it will one day open its doors to the public again but as it’s up for sale its future looks far from certain.

The Taylor family were very successful cloth merchants, and a measure of their wealth is that they had their own bank adjacent to the Red House. They made their wealth from producing the material that was used to make the red uniforms for the British army. The economic situation in the country was very volatile, however, and by the late 1830s the Taylors were on the verge of bankruptcy, especially as a period of peace in Europe was doing little for the trade in military uniforms. By the time of Joshua Taylor’s sudden death in 1840 however the family fortunes had revived a little, although he still left large debts.

Red House bedroom
A bedroom in the former Red House museum

The Taylor family as a whole left such an impression on Charlotte that she recreated them as the unconventional Yorke family in her second novel ‘Shirley’, with Mary as Rose Yorke and her sister Martha as tragic little Jessie Yorke.

Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey were a year younger than Charlotte and met her at Roe Head School, Mirfield, forging relationships that would last a lifetime. It was Mary who gave a memorable description of her first impressions of the young Charlotte:

‘She looked a little, old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.’

You might think that was a sorry start to a relationship, but they were soon firm friends, and it was that which brought her into contact with Anne. We know that Charlotte often visited Mary at the Red House, but could Anne Brontë have done so as well? It was, after all, only a relatively short journey from the Roe Head school that Anne attended as a pupil whilst her sister Charlotte was a teacher there. There’s no record of such a visit, but Anne is likely to have met Mary Taylor on one of her sojourns to the Haworth Parsonage. On one such visit, in June 1840, we hear about Mary playing chess against William Weightman, and also that her behaviour during the visit was sometimes ‘mad’. She was certainly not a run-of-the-mill Victorian lady.

The fiscal uncertainty that engulfed her family helped to make Mary a very self-sufficient woman. She was sent to Brussels to study along with her sister Martha, and it was her letters to Haworth that encouraged Charlotte and Emily Brontë to join her there (Anne was left out of the adventure, being ensconced in Thorp Green Hall at the time as governess to the Robinson family). Whilst the Taylors were at the exclusive Chateau de Koekelburg school, Charlotte and Emily had to settle for the respectable, yet cheaper, Pensionnat Heger. Nevertheless the Brontës would make frequent journeys to see the Taylors, until tragedy struck as we shall see later.

Red House main bedroom
The Red House main bedroom when it was open to the public

Travel was in Mary Taylor’s blood. In 1845 she emigrated to New Zealand, leaving a woeful Charlotte saying, ‘to me it is something as if a great planet has fallen out of the sky’. She later sent her friend a gift of £10 to buy a cow.

In Wellington, Mary Taylor founded a shop and then a wool trading business. It was very successful, but in 1860 she returned to England and Gomersal. In later life, Mary often travelled to Switzerland, and contributed articles to journals and newspapers, often with a stridently feminist bent. In 1890 she published her only novel ‘Miss Miles, or a Tale of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago’. It is a neglected book, but you can still find copies online and it’s well worth a read as it paints a picture of the world that Charlotte and Mary, and therefore Anne and Emily as well, knew during their formative years.

Mary Taylor died in 1893 aged 76. She is buried in St. Mary’s Church, Gomersal. Below her monument lies a tribute to Martha Taylor. She died suddenly in Brussels aged 22, and it was a huge blow to Mary and to Charlotte who held strong feelings for her. Some have hinted that a love relationship may have formed between Charlotte and Martha, but this is something we will never know – and even great writers have to be allowed their secrets. All we do know is that it left Charlotte devastated, and is an event referred to in three of her novels. She pays a particularly poignant tribute to Jessie York (who is of course Martha Taylor) in chapter nine of ‘Shirley’:

‘Do you know this place? No, you never saw it; but you recognise the nature of the trees, this foliage – the cypress, the willow, the yew. Stone crosses like these are not unfamiliar to you, nor are these dim garlands of everlasting flowers. Here is the place – green sod and a gray marble headstone. Jessy sleeps below. She lived through an April day; much loved she was, much loving. She often, in her brief life, shed tears, she had frequent sorrows; she smiled between, gladdening whatever saw her… The dying and the watching English girls were at that hour alone in a foreign country, and the soil of that country gave Jessy a grave.’

The fact that Martha remained on Charlotte’s mind can be seen in that Charlotte remembers this scene, one she had seen played out for real in Brussels seven years before writing ‘Shirley’, once again in chapter 23. We can also see that Charlotte is distracted because she now spells the name ‘Jessie’ rather than ‘Jessy’ as earlier in the novel. It is a vision she could never eradicate:

‘Certain people who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new-made in a heretic cemetery, sat near a wood-fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling; and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; Life and Friendship yet blessed them; but Jessie lay cold, confined, solitary – only the sod screening her from the storm.’

Taylor grave, Gomersal
The Taylor grave, Gomersal

The Belgian graveyard that Martha Taylor was buried in has been dug up and built upon. Now all that is left is a stone beneath Mary’s memorial in Gomersal, reading: ‘Martha Taylor sister of Mary. 1819-1842. Buried in Brussels. Much loved she was, much loving. C. Brontë’

The Taylors made a huge impact on Charlotte Brontë, and were also known to Emily and Anne, but tomorrow in a special post we will look at someone who perhaps had the greatest impact of them all, for good and ill, as we wish a happy 200th birthday to Branwell Brontë.

Brontë Treasures In The Ellen Nussey Archive

Leeds is a large, vibrant city just 20 miles to the east of Haworth. It is home to some exceptional bars and restaurants, the world famous Leeds United football team, and Victorian shopping arcades nestling near modern malls. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in the north of England, and this week I visited Leeds University’s Brotherton Library where I found some real Brontë treasure.

The Brotherton Library Special Collections room houses many old and valuable manuscripts, but there was one set in particular I was looking for: referenced ‘BC MS 19thC Brontë/07’ it is the Ellen Nussey archives. Collated inside the pages of a leather bound book are hand written letters and extracts written by Charlotte Brontë’s best friend Ellen Nussey, and they give startling insights into the Brontë sisters as a whole.

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey in old age, painted by Frederic Yates

We have Ellen to thank for much of what we know about the Brontës, thanks to the hundreds of letters from Charlotte that she kept, as well as the reminiscences that she shared with early biographers including Elizabeth Gaskell and Clement King Shorter. The Brotherton archive, however, expands upon much of the information the biographers used, giving us a sometimes very different view on Anne, Emily and Charlotte. For example we find that Emily had a wicked sense of humour, Charlotte was terrified of wild animals, and Anne made a very close friend at school. Here are some extracts:

On Charlotte Bronte’s love for Constantin Heger:

‘M. Heger wasn’t proud of having made this involuntary conquest.’

On Anne Bronte’s close friendship with Ann Cook:

‘I enclose also a notice [in a letter sent to Elizabeth Gaskell] which dear C. made in a letter on the death of a young lady who was a pupil at the time Anne Brontë was at school, a pupil who attached herself to Anne B. and Anne bestowed upon her a great deal of quiet affection and genial notice. I think the young ladies friends would most probably be gratified if dear C.’s comments on her decease were inserted. They are monied and influential people in the neighbourhood, some of them not very friendly to Currer Bell‘s emanations. Would they not be won by her kindly thought of one of their own?’

On Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrait of Patrick:

‘The anecdote of the little coloured shoes produced a mental sting that no time would obliterate and I felt that all commonplace readers would fail to see the Spartan nature of the act unless you pointed it out to them, and I was intending to ask you to make very clear and distinct comments on Mr. B’s character – I do not wish anything you have said suppressed, only I think your readers will have to be taught to think kindly of Mr. B’

On Emily’s treatment of guests, and her peculiarities:

‘It used to be a matter of surprise to Charlotte that she [Emily] made an exception in my favour – she used to wish for my visits and was always kind and polite in her behaviour which was not often the case to other guests. Charlotte said she liked me because I never seemed to mark her peculiarities and I never pained her by treating her as a peculiar person.’

Ellen Nussey's account of Emily & Anne Bronte
Ellen Nussey’s account of Emily & Anne Bronte

On Anne and Emily’s love for each other:

‘She and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’

On Keeper’s sadness:

Poor old Keeper! Emily’s faithful friend and worshipper – he seemed to understand her like a human being… Keeper was a solemn mourner at Emily’s funeral and never recovered his cheerfulness.’

On Emily’s sense of humour, and teasing of Charlotte:

‘She [Emily] could be really vivacious in conversation… feeling pleasure in giving pleasure. A spell of mischief also lurked in her on occasions, when out on the moors – she enjoyed leading Charlotte where she would not dare to go of her own free will. C. had a mortal dread of unknown animals and it was Emily’s pleasure to lead her into close vicinity and then to tell her of what she had done, laughing at her horror with great amusement.’

Vivacious Emily with a sense of mischief
Vivacious Emily with a sense of mischief

I was visiting the archive not only as a Brontë lover, but also as part of research into my biography of Emily, ‘Emily Brontë: A Life in 20 Poems’ that will be published by The History Press in 2018. It is moments like this that make all the work worthwhile. I found the archive exhilarating, but often sad and mournful too. Perhaps the saddest letter of all was one to Elizabeth Gaskell, after a proof copy of her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ had been sent to Patrick Brontë and Charlotte’s widow Arthur Bell Nicholls. They believed, wrongly of course, that Ellen had been responsible for unfavourable comments about them in the book. Here, Ellen pleads with Mrs Gaskell to clear her name:

Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell
Ellen Nussey’s plea to Elizabeth Gaskell

There is further rare and wonderful Brontë related material in the beautiful Brotherton Library (that’s it at the top of this post) as well; it’s open to the public and free to use, although you do have to tell them what you want to see at least two days in advance. I heartily recommend it to you all, and I came away knowing more about Anne, Emily and Charlotte, and once more filled with admiration for the kind Ellen Nussey.

The Brontës and the Haworth Music Scene

We know the Brontës as a brilliant writing family, and one who loved nothing more than reading novels or books of poetry or composing their own. Whilst that much is certainly true, we should not forget the joy that Anne Brontë and her siblings got from another of the great arts: music.

Branwell was the first of the children to show a musical bent, as we know that he became a proficient flute player at an early age. In late 1833 or early 1844 Haworth parsonage gained a new arrival that would transform the daily lives of its inhabitants: an upright cabinet piano.

Bronte piano
The Bronte piano in the Haworth parsonage

The piano, originally sold by Green’s of Soho Square, London, was second hand and very much an economy model, but it was still a significant purchase for a man of Patrick Brontë’s often strained means so it’s likely that he received some financial assistance in the purchase from his childrens’ godparents such as Mrs Firth, and Mrs Francks and Miss Outhwaite.

Patrick knew it was a gift his children would love, but also that it had a practical value. An ability to play and therefore teach music was a valued skill for a future governess, the likely career of his daughters, to have. There was also another reason, as a letter that Patrick sent to many of his parishioners in September 1833 revealed:

I have spoken to several people concerning the organ. All seem desirous of having one if the money can be procured. Miss Branwell says she will subscribe five pounds, and some others have promised to give liberally. Mr Sunderland, the Keighley organist, says he will give his services gratis on the day of the opening of the organ, and, in general, the real friends of the church are desirous of having one. A player can also be readily procured.’

Patrick had sent up a fund to buy a grand organ for his church. On 23rd March 1834 it was unveiled alongside a spectacular production of Handel’s suitably themed oratorio ‘Messiah’. The children must have been spellbound at this performance, but it was soon to be their brother playing that self same organ. When Patrick had said that ‘a player can readily be procured’ he had his own son in mind.

The Keighley organist Sunderland was hired to teach Branwell the organ and piano, but Emily and Anne were soon added to the lessons too, with extra lessons provided by a local teacher named William Summerscale. Whilst Branwell proved to be proficient at the keyboard, and did indeed fulfill the role of church organist for a number of years, the enthusiasm of his younger sisters meant that Emily and Anne soon surpassed him in ability. Alas, Charlotte’s poor eyesight meant that she was not allowed to take music lessons for fear that reading the music would strain her eyes.

Ellen Nussey gave a first hand account of listening to music from the sisters:

‘Emily, after some application, played with precision and brilliancy. Anne played also, but she preferred soft harmonies and vocal music. She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.’

We still have much of the sheet music bought by Emily and Anne, and it is a prodigious collection. Much of it is copied out in the sisters’ own handwriting, or with fingering marks added to the scores to guide their hands when playing (the image at the top of this post is ‘Auld Lang Syne’ copied by Anne into one of her music books.) From these we can see that Anne loved light, melodic pieces and comic operas by the likes of Rossini and Mozart, whereas Emily preferred complex pieces by Beethoven, Liszt, Dussek and Clementi.

We know that Anne saw a performance of Rossini’s brilliant opera The Barber of Seville when she went to London with Charlotte Brontë in the summer of 1848, an evening that she surely treasured. Emily may have bettered this by meeting one of her musical heroes in person: Franz Liszt gave a concert in Halifax, eight miles from Haworth and a place Emily knew well from her time as a teacher, in 1841, and he also conducted a concert in Brussels during the time she was there.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt

The Brontës didn’t always have to travel far, however, to hear beautiful music, as Haworth itself was a hotbed of musical perfomance. Their father’s church sometimes held musical concerts, such as one particularly grand event on 20th July 1846 featuring celebrated tenors. It was covered by the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper who reported that the church was ‘crowded to suffocation’, and also that taking pride of place in the church was the organiser, the Reverend Patrick Brontë who it noted was ‘now totally blind.’

This grand yet sacred music would have been a delight to Anne, but she and her siblings may have loved the secular music that was also frequently available in their village even more. The Haworth Philharmonic Society was formed in the 18th century and it gave a spectacular concert every year, as well as smaller events on occasion. These concerts were held in the function room of the Black Bull Inn, and it is a time when the girls would have been allowed into the public house chaperoned by their Aunt Branwell (Patrick was a man of habit and always insisted on leaving at nine o’clock which was when he retired to bed).

These concerts were loud, raucous and full of fun as this report of the 1834 annual concert in the Bradford Observer shows:

‘The Philharmonic Society in this place, held a concert in the Large Room of the Black Bull Inn, on Tuesday evening, April 1st. The songs, catches, and glees were well selected. Miss Parker sung with much sweetness, and was highly applauded. Mr. Parker was in fine voice, and sang with his usual effect. Mr. Clark sung several comic songs with much taste, and was often encored, particularly in the song of “Miss Levi,” which kept the audience in continual laughter. The concert was very numerously and respectably attended, and the company went away highly gratified.’

Black Bull Kate Bush
The Black Bull still has live music; I saw a Kate Bush tribute sing Wuthering Heights there!

It is pleasing to think of this as a joyous family event: Patrick and Aunt Branwell remaining dignified, whilst Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Branwell laughed along in front of them. Music became a central delight of Anne Brontë’s life, referred to in her poetry such as ‘Music On Christmas Morning’, and she loved her music scores just as much as any teenage girl loves the latest hits today.

General Election 2017 – How Would The Brontës Have Voted?

After what seems like years of interminable campaigning, the day of the General Election has at last arrived. As I type this I don’t of course know the result, but it’s fair to say that whilst Theresa May is still hot favourite to remain in number ten, a buoyed Jeremy Corbyn has been seen taking measurements for a new red carpet. There have been many big issues, but of course the really big question is this: just who would the Brontë sisters have voted for?

It is commonly stated that the sisters were ‘high Tory’, but before Labour supporting Brontë fans go red in the face it’s important to remember that voters at this time had only two choices: Tory, equivalent to the modern day Conservatives, or Whig, who evolved into the current Liberal Democrats.

It’s also important of course to remember that large sections of the country were completely disenfranchised. Women over 21 wouldn’t be allowed the vote until 108 years after Anne was born. The vast majority of men, including Patrick and Branwell Brontë, were also barred from voting by the archaic system then in place. By 1832 around 1 in 1000 people had the vote in England. Cities that were growing rapidly such as Leeds and Manchester had no MPs at all while Dunwich, with a recorded population of 32, was represented by two Members of Parliament.

This was a source of great unrest, with the Chartist movement calling for large scale reforms, including votes for men. The area around Haworth was said to be a hotbed of Chartist activity, with the threat of a violent uprising hanging in the air. This was an inspiration for Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, as well as a reason that Patrick slept with loaded pistols by his bed every night.

female chartists
A contemporary cartoon on female chartists

Although they couldn’t vote, the Brontës were firm supporters of the Tory cause. Patrick had been at University with Henry Temple, later Lord Palmerston. Palmerston was a Tory grandee and would serve twice as Prime Minister, although he later became a Liberal. The undoubted hero of the family was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. He was not only a famous war veteran, he was also a Tory politician who would serve as Prime Minister.

The children took a keen personal interest in politics, and would gain a real grasp of the issues of the day from the newspapers and periodicals that they read. Charlotte described them thus: ‘Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper the Leeds Intelligencer – a most excellent Tory newspaper edited by Mr Wood the proprietor Mr Hennaman. We take 2 and see 3 Newspapers as such we take the Leeds Intelligencer Tory and the Leeds Mercury Whig Edited by Mr Bains and his Brother Soninlaw and his two sons Edward and Talbot – we see the John Bull it is a High Tory very violent’.

Her friend Mary Taylor of the Red House at Gomersal was later to reveal how interested Charlotte was in politics: “We used to be furious politicians, as one could hardly help being in 1832. She [Charlotte] knew the names of the two Ministries; the one that resigned and the one that succeeded and passed the Reform Bill. She worshipped the Duke of Wellington, but said that Sir Robert Peel was not to be trusted; he did not act from principle like the rest, but from expediency… She said she had taken an interest in politics ever since she was five years old. She did not get her opinions from her father – that is, not directly, but from the papers he preferred.”

The Reform Act of 1832 led to some major cities including Leeds getting their own MP. Emily and Anne’s jointly written diary paper of 1834 reveals their excitement that Sir Robert Peel had been chosen to stand as MP for nearby Leeds:

‘Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to stand for Leeds’

We can only imagine what Charlotte thought of that!

If Anne Brontë was alive today, would she have voted Conservative? It’s an intriguing question, and one that’s impossible to answer, but we can look at what would have been important to her and draw our own conclusions. Anne, following the example of her father, was very keen on the power of education to improve people’s lives. She took a keen interest in the conditions of the poor. She cared greatly about animals and animal welfare, and it’s safe to assume that she would also have been passionate about modern environmental concerns. It seems fair to wonder whether Anne’s political persuasions today would be of the red, or even green, variety rather than blue.

There’s another option at this election that Anne Brontë and her siblings may have found intriguing: there’s now a Yorkshire Party. The central tenet of its manifesto is that Yorkshire should have a devolved parliament similar to that in Scotland and Wales (both of which have smaller populations than Yorkshire). Unfortunately there is no mention of them making it compulsory to read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in schools, but maybe that will make it into their next manifesto!

Vote Bronte

Whatever the outcome of the General Election, it always makes sense to vote Brontë when you’re choosing a new book to read – they’re a strong and stable reading choice, and they certainly provide entertainment for the many, not the few.

‘Domestic Peace’ by Anne Brontë

In light of the recent terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, and at other locations around the world, it is easy to sink into a slough of despond. That’s when the power of art and literature becomes even more important; the power to lift the gloom and show us a greater, more exhilarating side of human nature.

This is certainly the path that Anne Brontë took whenever woes oppressed her, and she found the writing of poetry and the reading of poetry to be particularly cathartic. This poem was originally titled ‘Monday Night May 11th 1846′, so at least we know when Anne wrote it, but Charlotte later entitled it ‘Domestic Peace’.

It seems that on the day of May 11th there had been some sort of argument at the Haworth Parsonage that had ended in an uneasy silence and withdrawal. The date is significant, as it was the time when ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘ was in the process of being published, and it is possible that this had re-opened the original argument between Charlotte and Emily – seeing her work in print and exposed to the public was almost more than the reclusive Emily could bear, and she was now regretting acquiescing to the scheme.

Bronte Parsonage and sisters
The sisters at Haworth Parsonage argued like any other family

In this poem, Anne looks back to a time when the sisters were happy and at peace with each other. Yes, the Brontë sisters had tensions and arguments just like any other family, and yet they also possessed a great love for each other that would always see them reconciled. Anne’s message is simple: we must turn aside from worldly thoughts, and remember that above all else the thing we should seek is peace.

When we read this beautiful poem let us too become reconciled to one other, and look again for joy and happiness. The happiness that can come from walking in nature in the sunshine, looking up to a bright and full moon, listening to gentle music, or taking a break from the everyday stresses and strains by reading the works of the Brontës – here is ‘Domestic Peace’ by Anne Brontë:

Why should such gloomy silence reign;
And why is all the house so drear,
When neither danger, sickness, pain,
Nor death, nor want have entered here?
We are as many as we were
That other night, when all were gay,
And full of hope, and free from care;
Yet, is there something gone away.
The moon without as pure and calm
Is shining as that night she shone;
but now, to us she brings no balm,
For something from our hearts is gone.
Something whose absence leaves a void,
A cheerless want in every heart.
Each feels the bliss of all destroyed
And mourns the change – but each apart.
The fire is burning in the grate
As redly as it used to burn,
But still the hearth is desolate
Till Mirth and Love with Peace return.
‘Twas Peace that flowed from heart to heart
With looks and smiles that spoke of Heaven,
And gave us language to impart
The blissful thoughts itself had given.
Sweet child of Heaven, and joy of earth!
O, when will Man thy value learn?
We rudely drove thee from our hearth,
And vainly sigh for thy return.