Happy 199th Birthday, Emily Brontë

199 years ago today, a very special girl was born in the parish of Thornton near Bradford. She was the fifth child of the parish priest and his Cornish wife, and as they looked down on their new baby they could little have guessed the impact she would have on the world of literature. She was no ordinary baby, she was Emily Jane Brontë.

When you think of the impact that she has made on readers it’s astonishing to think that Emily Brontë wrote just one novel, the supremely powerful Wuthering Heights before being struck down by tuberculosis aged just thirty. Less than two years after Emily’s own birth she gained a younger sister in the form of Anne Brontë and just a few months later the family would move to a new parish, the nearby village of Haworth.

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

Emily lost her mother Maria when she was just three years old. She and Anne being the youngest in the family, they clung to each other for comfort and support throughout their childhood and into their adult lives. Both girls were extremely shy, often hugging each other for comfort when in the company of strangers and hiding away together, and they shared many of the same interests: from walking the moors, to playing the piano, from looking after their ever expanding collection of pets to reading the exciting adventure stories of Walter Scott.

As Emily and Anne grew up together their love for each other strengthened, and became almost twin like. Family friend Ellen Nussey saw this first hand, and as well as noting how they walked with their arms entwined with each others whenever possible, she said: “She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.”

Emily Bronte with Anne in To Walk Invisible
Emily Bronte with Anne in To Walk Invisible

It was Ellen who also gave us a description of the teenage Emily: “Emily had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little.”

Emily was by far the tallest of the Brontë sisters, and was generally of strong and robust health as well, and yet she couldn’t master her shyness. When she went to Roe Head school, where her sister Charlotte was teaching, she became so homesick that she had to be sent home for fear of her life itself, as Charlotte relates: “Every morning when she woke the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me – I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home.”

Roe Head school
Roe Head school, Mirfield, today – briefly attended by Emily Bronte

It was Anne who took Emily’s place, although also suffering from shyness throughout her life she mastered it in a way that her elder sister never could. As children Emily and Anne wrote a vast array of poetry and prose about their imagined kingdom of Gondal, and soon the lines between Gondal reality and Haworth reality became blurred for Emily. She retreated further and further into her world of make belief, and was never happier than when alone on the moors – occasions that took on a spiritual and mystical aspect for her.

It was Emily’s poetry that was responsible for the wonderful work of the Brontë sisters that we know and love today. It was well known to her sisters that Emily still wrote Gondal poetry, but she also had a secret book in which she wrote non-Gondal poetry. When Charlotte ‘accidentally’ discovered this book the course of literary history was changed forever:

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

A terrible argument ensued as Charlotte tried to persuade Emily to have her poetry published, but her reserve was finally defeated when Anne and Charlotte agreed to contribute their poems as well. The result was ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’. It sold only two copies, but the sisters had now got the writing bug and decided that for their next venture they would each attempt a prose volume that they could have published jointly. Charlotte’s contribution, ‘The Professor’, was rejected but Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’ were published together by Thomas Cautley Newby & Co in 1847.

Emily was disdainful of literary success, and of the criticism that her novel received. It was as if she had lain pearls before swine, and she would not make that mistake again. The publication of ‘Wuthering Heights’ marked the end of Emily’s writing life completely, with just one poem written subsequent to it; her prodigious output of poetry is amongst the best written in the English language, and often has a visionary quality that reveals to us the inner world Emily was living in. Outwardly calm and quiet, by the candlelight of nigh she would be visited by incredible and elating visions that would power and inform her writing.

Emily Bronte or Anne
The portrait I bought at Haworth, 1989 – is it Emily Bronte or Anne?

I personally have a lot to be thankful to Emily for. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was the first novel on my reading list at University, and within a few sentences I was hooked. My love of the Brontës was formed, and it has brought untold joy into my life ever since. That very weekend I made my first journey to the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and bought a portrait claimed to be of Emily Brontë (although I now feel that it is actually of Anne); it hung on my wall as a student for three years.

Next year will be a very special year indeed as we mark the 200th anniversary of Emily’s birth, and I’m proud that my biography of Emily will be released to mark the occasion. For now, we can all celebrate by reading some of Emily’s poetry, her astonishing novel, or watching a film version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as we say ‘Happy 199th Birthday, Emily Brontë’!

Jane Austen 200: Brilliance Like The Brontës

A representative of her Majesty’s Government this week declared Jane Austen ‘one of our greatest living writers’. Andrea Leadsom’s faux pas rightly earned her derision, as after all this week also marked the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death. On July 18th 1817, in a rented house in Winchester, Jane drew her last breath aged 41, but in her all too short life she had revolutionised the world of writing for ever. Jane not only helped secure the popularity of the novel as an art form, often seen as subservient to poetry at the time she wrote her first work, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, in 1811, she also paved the way for new generations of women writers who would follow her – and of course, chief among these to my eyes are Charlotte, Emily and Anne – the Brontë sisters.

Anne Bronte and Jane Austen
Anne Bronte and Jane Austen

Leadsom’s comments have caused debate not only because she seems to think that Jane Austen is ready to produce Pride and Prejudice too at the age of 241, but also because of the supremacy she gave to her writing. Some say that Jane is without a doubt our finest novelist, whereas others say that she cannot be considered as great as the Brontës. In my opinion, they are very different writers, but all four of them are worthy of veneration and admiration. In both Jane’s life and writing there are comparisons with the Brontë sisters, and startling contrasts.

Jane was after all an early nineteenth century writer who never married and lived with her family throughout her life. So far, so similar to our favourite siblings Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who, admittedly, did marry aged 38, only to succumb to the effects of excessive morning sickness and die less than a year later).

Another striking similarity between Jane Austen and the Brontës stands out: sisterly love. Emily and Anne Brontë in particular were very close, being referred to as being like inseparable twins and often seen with their arms entwined with each others, despite their two year age difference. A similar relationship existed between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, two years older than Jane and always by her side throughout her triumphs and set backs, and also through her final illness.

Cassandra Austen
A possible portrait of Cassandra Austen

There may also be a similarity between Jane and Anne Brontë in matters of love. Anne’s writing gives us a strong hint that she was in love with her father’s assistant curate William Weightman, but his early death from cholera put an end to any hopes Anne may have held of a future for them. Jane Austen too knew love, but found it thwarted. Tom Lefroy was the prototype of Mr. Darcy, just as Weightman was the prototype of Rev. Weston in Anne’s first novel ‘Agnes Grey‘. In Jane’s case the prospect of love was ended not by death, but by a drifting apart. It seems that in both cases, Anne and Jane never loved again.

In other ways, however, Jane Austen differed markedly from the Brontës. Jane was writing earlier in the century than Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and in a century that changed so radically as the decades advanced, this made a huge difference. Jane Austen was very much a regency woman, familiar with the values and traditions of the late eighteenth century, whereas the Brontës grew up at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, and witnessed the huge social impact brought by the industrial revolution in a way that Jane never did. As an example of this, Jane Austen travelled to London from Chawton, in Hampshire, in 1815 by horse drawn carriage. In 1848, Charlotte and Anne Brontë travelled from Keighley to London via train.

The purpose of these two meetings reveals another important difference between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters: Jane was travelling to meet the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was a huge fan of his work; Charlotte and Anne Brontë were travelling to meet the publisher George Smith, where they would finally reveal their true identity away from the masks of Currer and Acton Bell that they had hidden behind.

Jane Austen’s writing made her famous in her lifetime, a success that Anne and Emily would never know or desire. The Brontë sisters needed money in a way that Jane never did, but they eschewed fame and preferred public anonymity, although after the death of her younger sisters Charlotte did, reluctantly, step into the limelight.

Austen Chawton
Edward Austen’s Chawton House

Another important distinction between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters was their social position. Whilst the Brontës were respectable, thanks to their father Patrick’s position as a long established priest in the Church of England, they were never rich, and were solidly lower middle class, whereas Jane was from an upper middle class background. Her financial position, and her position in society, became even more secure when her brother Edward was adopted by the very wealthy Thomas Knight. Knight had no children of his own, and in 1783 chose his distant relative the 15 year old Edward Austen, afterwards Edward Austen Knight, to be his legal heir. Edward adopted a number of grand properties, including the beautiful Chawton House. He also obtained a nearby property at Chawton for Jane to live in, and it was there that she worked on some of her greatest masterpieces.

The contrast between Jane’s brother Edward and the Brontës’ brother Branwell could not be greater: Branwell seemed to be a promising talent in his own right, but there would be no wealthy patronage for him, and he died at the age of 31 after a long addiction to drink and opium.

Some have said that Jane Austen was obsessed with ‘marriage-ability’ in her novels, and obtaining or escaping matrimony is certainly her most central theme, but this was of incredible import to middle class women in Jane’s day, especially if, like the Bennets of Longbourn, they have been ‘entailed’ out of any prospect of coming into an inheritance.

I was watching a newspaper reviewer on Sky News this week discuss the use of Jane Austen’s appearance on the new ten pound note. He said that she was a Victorian Mills & Boon writer, her works are nothing but Love Actually written a hundred years ago. I was fuming at this level of ignorance and buffoonery, from the smirking buffoon on the sofa, and I feel sorry for people who share this view and haven’t discovered the brilliance of her work. Thankfully, as the unveiling of the first ever lifesize statue of Jane in Basingstoke this week showed, there are still huge numbers of people who are moved and exhilarated by her work:

Jane Austen statue
The Jane Austen statue unveiled this week

Jane Austen was, above all things, a spectacularly good writer. The pages of her novels seem to turn themselves, and they are joyous reads, even though they can also be emotional rollercoasters. They are also incredibly humorous, and contain much more comedy than you find in Brontë novels. They are also highly satirical in a way that is absent from the Brontë novels. Austen novels are set in a world of high incomes, and grand stately homes filled with servants, but Jane clinically dissects this world and often holds it up for ridicule.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the then celebrated Irish author George Moore wrote:

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

We can equally lament that Jane Austen did not live another ten years. Her novels will always be read and always be loved. While ever this planet of ours continues its restless orbit around the sun, readers will still swoon over Fitzwilliam Darcy, and his ten thousand a year, and root for Emma to put her matchmaking to one side find her Knightley. Times will change, but the novels of Jane Austen will remain timeless. For me, of course, Anne Brontë and her sisters will always occupy a position of supremacy in the writing pantheon, but there’s certainly room for Jane Austen and her novels in my affection too. It’s been wonderful to see the events in Hampshire, Bath, and beyond this week – Jane rightly being remembered, and celebrated.

Jane Austen banknote
The new Jane Austen £10 banknote

I like the new bank note, even if Jane has been airbrushed a little. The quote used on the note has attracted some mockery: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.’ This is said by Miss Bingley in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, in order to win the approval of book loving Mr Darcy. On seeing it has little effect on him, she dashes her book onto the couch and looks for something ‘more interesting’ to do. I think it’s an excellent quote for the note, even if its meaning may have passed by the Bank of England commissioners: it is, after all, an excellent example of the irony and humour that runs like a vein of gold through Jane Austen’s writing. I do think, however, that the next note should feature the Brontë sisters – after all in this age when we all strive for equality we would then have three more women on bank notes for the price of one. We have a perfect ready made quote from Anne Brontë as well, this time delivered without a hint of irony:

‘Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.’

Thornton, Where The Brontë Story Began

As we enter the latter half of July 2017 we can think back to a day 199 years ago, when a Cornish woman and an Irish man were awaiting the birth of their fifth child – Emily Jane Brontë. This waiting, and on the 30th of July the birth, didn’t happen in Haworth however, but in a moorside village seven miles away: the birthplace of the Brontës, Thornton.

Patrick and Maria Brontë moved to Thornton in May 1815. Reverend Brontë had moved to Thornton because the curacy came with its own parsonage, something he hadn’t had at his previous parish of Hartshead, where he instead rented a property at Lousy Thorn Farm. It’s hardly a name that inspires confidence in a property, so the Brontës would surely have welcomed the opportunity to move on.

Thornton signpost
Thornton signpost

There was another factor that made the move so important – the Brontë family was growing by the year. By the time Patrick and Maria arrived in Thornton they already had two daughters, Maria junior and Elizabeth, who were both to meet a tragically early end after being sent to the notorious school at Cowan Bridge – later recreated as the infamous Lowood in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’.

Further children arrived at regular intervals. Charlotte was born in April 1816, and in June 1817 she was followed by what her parents would have viewed as a particularly happy event: the birth of a son Patrick, who would be forever known by his middle name Branwell. In July 1818, another daughter was born and she was christened Emily Jane. Finally, on January 17th 1820 the final Brontë child was born, a sweetly smiling little baby who would be named Anne after her maternal grandmother Anne Branwell (formerly Anne Carne) of Penzance.

Thornton Parsonage had served its purpose for a while, but it was by now increasingly unsuitable. As well as being a brisk walk away from Patrick’s chapel itself, the chapel that became known as the Bell Chapel after Patrick had a bell tower erected, the mid-terraced house was now home to Patrick and his wife, their six young children, and two servants. It was clear that somewhere larger was needed, and Patrick, never a man shy of writing a letter, wrote to his Bishop to let him know.

Kipping House
Kipping House, home to Anne Bronte’s godmother Elizabeth Firth

In his letter he referred to the parsonage as a “very ill constructed and inconvenient building.” Fortune was soon to play its hand again, and just three months after the birth of Anne Brontë, the family was to move again, to their final location of Haworth. As Patrick walked alongside the carriages ferrying his family across the moors on 20th April 1820, often with Anne or Emily on his shoulders, he must have been full of hope, and full of love for his young family. Little did he know that less than 35 years later he would be the only Brontë left alive.

So what became of that ‘ill constructed and inconvenient building’? Happily, it is still standing today, on the middle of Market Street looking out onto the moors around Thornton, and it’s well worth a visit.

What was once the parsonage is now a beautiful café and delicatessen called ‘Emily’s’ offering high quality local food as well as specialising in the flavours of Italy. I’m also told that they serve scones to savour on Sundays. A sign outside the parsonage turned delicatessen rightly proclaims it as the ‘birthplace of the Brontës’, and a plaque on the wall gives the dates that the four children were born there.

Inside are portraits of the family, alongside the books they wrote, and Brontë memorabilia. One particular treasure is the actual fireplace that stood at the time, and by which the children themselves were born. Imagine how thrilled I was to see my own book, In Search of Anne Bronte, atop the very fireplace by which Anne came into this world. The proprietor, Mark de Luca, told me that upstairs in a bedroom is also a desk that belonged to the children.

In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily's, Thornton
In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily’s, Thornton

On taking a picture outside, a group of young Thornton-ites asked me why I was photographing the building. I explained that it was because it was the home of the Brontës. ‘Oh’, said one of the group, ‘ just wondered because everyone takes pictures of it’. Anne would have been proud.

Thornton is an essential part of the Brontë story, but it’s a fascinating and beautiful village in its own right. In this post you’ll see pictures of the rather confusing signpost showing where the Brontës moved to (I’m not sure if the distances are correct, and I’m certain the apostrophe is out of place), and Kipping House in Thornton, home to the Firth family and Anne’s kind godmother Elizabeth Firth. Later Elizabeth Franks, Patrick unsuccessfully proposed to her after the death of his wife Maria. Another fascinating building is the narrow house pictured below, at the very end of Market Street where the Brontës were born. Now called Coffin End, it was once an inn that on occasion had men wrestling bears. Don’t worry if you visit Thornton today, the bears are long since gone.

Coffin End
Coffin End, Thornton

Anne Brontë, Sunday School Teacher Par Excellence

As the end of term approaches at schools across the UK, it has become customary for pupils to present their teachers with little presents, and quite right too. Teaching is one of the most important professions of them all – as Anne Brontë understood all too well. Many people know that Anne Brontë was a governess with the Ingham and Robinson families, but her time as a teacher is less well known. In fact, Anne was a popular, if reluctant, teacher from a young age and her classroom lay just a stones throw from the house she called home – Haworth Parsonage.

Schooling in England wasn’t made compulsory until 1880, so before that time whether a child received an education was largely dependent upon their class and background. The upper classes had governesses, a profession well known to Anne and which she dissected in her brilliant first novel ‘Agnes Grey‘, and then finishing schools or private schools. The middle classes had access to schools if they could afford them, and the working class had no education at all unless it was provided by their local church in the form of a Sunday school.

Victorian school
Children playing at a modern recreation of a Victorian school

Patrick Brontë was a great supporter of education for the poor; after all he himself was from a poor County Down family, and his own education had completely changed the course of his life, taking him to Cambridge University and then on to a life as an Anglican priest. When Patrick arrived at Haworth in April of 1820 one of his first goals was to open a Sunday school – this was also something he had done at his previous parish of Thornton, where the three writing Brontë  sisters were born between 1816 and 1820. To achieve his aim of founding a Haworth school he set about obtaining subscriptions locally and from national charities, and after 11 years his goal was achieved and the school was opened. Patrick himself chose the words that can still be seen on the foundation stone:

“This National Sunday School… was erected AD 1832 by Voluntary Subscription and by a grant from the National Society in London. Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. Prov.xxii.6”

Sunday was the perfect day for educating children, not only because of its religious connotations but because on other days they would be working in mills or at the many weaving houses in Haworth, even from a very early age. Years later, Patrick would secure funding for a full time teacher and introduced early morning classes but at first, as was often the case at Sunday schools nationwide, the role of teacher would fall on the parish priest’s wife or children. Mrs. Brontë was long dead by this time, so the role of teacher fell upon three of Patrick’s children: Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne Brontë. Emily’s great reserve made her unsuitable for the role of teacher, and she was excused the duty. Years later Emily’s reserve would again make her unsuitable for a role as teacher in their proposed school, the Misses Brontë  Establishment that never came to fruition, as Charlotte admitted in a letter to her former Professor and amour Constantin Heger:

‘Emily does not like teaching much, but she would always do the housekeeping and, although she is a little reclusive, she has too good a heart not to do everything for the wellbeing of the children.’

Educationally they were more than capable of carrying out the role. Anne was only twelve at this time, and yet thanks to the teaching of her father and aunt she was very learned in everything from art, music and needlework to composition, reading the scriptures, arithmetic, geography and even languages. It seems, indeed, that Anne was possibly the most gifted of them all from an intellectual point of view, and she was the only one of the children who became fluent in Latin.

So, at just twelve years old, the young and very shy Anne, who preferred spending hours walking the moors in company with her beloved sister Emily to mixing with people outside of the family, found herself taking her turn teaching the village children.

We can wonder how Anne’s nerves held up to this first test, but we get a big clue in the text of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece ‘Shirley‘. The character of Caroline Helstone in that novel is based upon Anne, and Caroline too is a parson’s daughter who has to teach at Sunday school from the age of twelve. In the novel, a friendly neighbouring priest Mr. Hall describes Caroline’s first day as a teacher, and it’s not a great leap to conjecture that this is really Charlotte remembering what happened to Anne on the identical occasion:

“‘They made her a Sunday-school teacher when she was a little girl of twelve. She is not particularly self-confident by nature, as you may have observed; and the first time she had to ‘take a tray’, as the phrase is, and make tea in public, there was some piteous trembling and flushing. I observed the speechless panic, the cups shaking in the little hand, and the overflowing teapot filled too full from the urn.'”

Nevertheless, later in the same novel, we see how much Caroline, by which we can read Anne, was loved and respected by her pupils when they keep her company and treat her with kindness at a May Day gathering:

“Miss Helstone knew these girls liked her, yet she was shy even with them out of school… They did not take advantage of it… They stood round her still, civil, friendly, receiving her slight smiles and rather hurried efforts to converse with a good feeling and a good breeding – the last quality being the result of the first – which soon set her at her ease.”

We also have the testimony of some of Anne’s former pupils at the Haworth school itself. One young boy by the name of Binns later recalled that he liked Anne best of all the teachers because she ‘looked the nicest and most serious like’.

Anne was also a very popular teacher with the upper class Robinson children in later life, as shown by them gifting her Flossy the spaniel, and their correspondence with her and a visit to Anne in Haworth after she had finished her role as governess at Thorp Green Hall.

Despite her natural timidity Anne succeeded as a teacher, whether at Sunday school or as a private governess, because of her determination, her intellect, and above all her kindness which although hidden behind a veil of seriousness and propriety invariably led to people liking her. This is characteristic of Anne’s life as a whole: she would not allow her shyness to stop her achieving what she wanted to achieve; she would struggle against it, and eventually she would overcome.

What became of the school itself? If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Brontë  Parsonage Museum in Haworth then you’re sure to have seen it: it’s the low, long building at a right angle to the Parsonage itself – that’s it at the top of this post. Now under new management and called ‘The Old School Rooms’, it is used for functions and events throughout the year. This is not a new role for the building, as it was after all the venue for Charlotte’s wedding reception in 1854.

Anne Bronte plaque Haworth old school rooms
Anne Bronte plaque at the Haworth old school rooms

I was pleased to see that Anne isn’t forgotten inside the school. On a wall is this beautifully hand crafted and painted wooden plaque, containing words from Anne’s poem of faith ‘The Narrow Way’, itself often used as a hymn today. A fitting and lasting tribute to the woman who went from being a shy young girl to a popular and well respected Sunday school teacher. If you’re thinking of buying a present for your child’s teacher this summer, then I can think of a perfect gift: ‘Agnes Grey’ by our dear Anne Brontë .

The Brontës And The Cornwall Connection

As a man of Yorkshire myself I couldn’t be prouder that my home county gave birth to three of the greatest writers of all time – Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. There was another county, however, that can also be proud of their Brontë connections, and its as far from Yorkshire as its possible to get in England: Cornwall. (By the way, I should say at this point that the wonderful map above is courtesy of Cornwall 365, with illustrations by Keith Sparrow).

In many ways the Cornish landscape is similar to the Yorkshire the Brontës knew, with the West Penwith moors mirroring the moors of the West Riding, but that, a rich history and a rugged coastline is not all the counties have in common as the Brontë sisters’ roots are in west Cornwall, and without two special women of Penzance there would be no Brontë books to read.

Penzance in the 19th century
Penzance in the 19th century

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were born not in Haworth, but in Thornton, a village on the outskirts of Bradford in West Yorkshire. In April 1820, when Anne was just four months old, the family moved to a new home in Haworth, a place where magic and history was made. Their father, Reverend Patrick Brontë, was a Church of England minister who had become Haworth’s parish priest, a post he held for the next 40 years. Originally from County Down, it was while he was acting as an examiner at a Leeds school that he met another solitary heart a long way from home – Maria Branwell. Maria had made the arduous journey from Penzance to Yorkshire in 1812 to work for her uncle and aunt John and Jane Fennell who ran Woodhouse Grove School. It was at love at first sight when Maria and Patrick met and they married in December 1812.

Things looked rosy for the Brontë family when they arrived in Haworth in 1820, but the following year Maria Brontë was dead after months of agony. Her last words were said to be ‘Oh, my poor children!’, and the person she said them to was one who would sacrifice everything to become a second mother to the Brontës: Elizabeth Branwell.

Maria and Elizabeth were sisters, two of eleven children of Thomas and Anne Branwell, not all of whom survived childhood. Thomas Branwell came from a successful Penzance family of merchants. As well as being a tea merchant, he ran a grocer’s shop and owned a number of properties across the town, including the Golden Lion Inn and Tremenheere House. He also served as a councillor and his son Benjamin Carne Branwell, brother to Maria and Elizabeth, served as Mayor of Penzance in 1809.

The Branwell House in Penzance, Cornwall
The Branwell House in Penzance, Cornwall

Thomas and Anne died suddenly within a year of each other in 1810 and 1811, and it was this that precipitated the break up of the Branwell family and led Maria to seek employment in Yorkshire. Elizabeth remained in Penzance, living with her sister Charlotte and brother-in-law Joseph, but in 1821 when she heard of the severity of Maria’s sickness she knew her place was at her side.

Elizabeth nursed Maria until her death, and then made the life changing decision to remain in Haworth and raise her sister’s children alongside Patrick. Elizabeth, forever known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontës, was 45 when she arrived in Haworth, and she would never see Cornwall again.

It was a huge move, as she was swapping a comfortable existence in Penzance, and any lingering hope she had of finding a husband, for an uncertain life in Haworth surrounded by people whose accents were unintelligible and amidst a climate she found intolerable. Nevertheless she endured, and became a second mother to the children.

Her influence can clearly be seen on the Brontë’s works and lives. Aunt Branwell encouraged them to read and bought them books, later she paid for Charlotte and Emily to attend school in Brussels, and after her death in 1842 it was her legacy that paid for the first Brontë appearance in print. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was a collection of poetry under the pen names used by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. They had to pay £31 (a substantial sum then) to have the book published, but the funds came from Elizabeth Branwell’s will. It was a smart move, as the poetry led to the novels so loved today.

Aunt Branwell made more than a financial contribution to their lives, she gave the Brontë children the spirit and self-belief that enabled their incredible creativity. Perhaps the most touching tribute to her after her death came from an unlikely source – her nephew Branwell, who wrote:

I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

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

Elizabeth was intensely proud of Cornwall, and Ellen Nussey recalled how she often regaled her nephew and nieces with tales of her old county – and echoes of these too can be found in the Brontë novels. The Brontë sisters were very aware of their Cornish roots, as seen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; the hero Markham is casually looking over his love’s book collection when his eye is caught by a particular volume:

I took it up. It was Sir Humphrey Davy’s ‘Last days of a Philosopher.’”

Why did Anne Brontë choose to name this particular book? Humphrey Davy, as Anne knew, was from Penzance. She was paying a tribute to Davy, and by extension a tribute to the town of Penzance that had given her two mothers. A tribute can also be seen on the wall outside 25 Chapel Street, Penzance,which bears a plaque announcing: ‘This was the home of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, the mother and aunt of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë.’

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