Four Women Writers Known by the Brontës

This weekend saw the Festival of Women’s Writing at Haworth welcome a string of celebrated writers, including Sarah Perry, author of recent hit novel ‘The Essex Serpent.’ Of course, you can guess who my favourite women writes are, but today we’ll take a look at some other women writers who were connected with the Brontës – some famous, some less so.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is perhaps the writer most associated with the Brontës, thanks to her seminal biography of Charlotte Brontë, written at the request of Patrick Brontë, in 1857. It is a brilliant work and cannot be discounted by Brontë lovers; yes, some of the information within it has been shown to be untrue with further discoveries and the passage of time (for example her portrayal of Patrick as a cruel man who wouldn’t let his children eat meat), but it is the only biography from a woman who actually knew many of the protagonists (not, unfortunately, Anne and Emily who were dead by the time she made Charlotte’s acquaintance). It is also brilliantly written, as you should expect from the woman who wrote such classic novels as Cranford and North and South.

The young Elizabeth Gaskell
the young Elizabeth Gaskell

There are also similarities between Gaskell’s life and that of Anne Bronte. She was the son of a clergyman (although her father William Stevenson gave up the cloth four years before her birth), and lost her mother at an early age. Anne was just 17 months old when Maria Brontë died, whereas Elizabeth was even younger, just 13 months, when her mother Elizabeth died. Anne, and her siblings, were then raised largely by their mother’s sister Elizabeth Branwell, whilst Elizabeth Gaskell, on account of her father’s mental breakdown, was sent to live with her mother’s sister Hannah Lumb, nee Holland, in Knutsford. She later, like Charlotte, married a clergyman, William Gaskell, and is buried in Knutsford, where she was raised by her aunt. The town now has a fabulous Gaskell Tower bearing the names of all her books, you can see it at the top of this post.

Harriet Martineau was a friend of Elizabeth Gaskell, as the Holland and Martineau families were leaders in the Unitarian movement that was particularly strong in the midlands and northwest. Harriet later became a great friend of Charlotte Brontë, but it was a friendship that some considered scandalous as Harriet was a prominent atheist. She became famous worldwide for her political writings, and for works including ‘Household Education’, attacking the poor standard of women’s education and gender inequality in general.

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau

Charlotte called her ‘a very noble and genial being’, and said that ‘without being able to share all her opinions philosophical, political or religious, I yet find a worth and greatness in herself.’ Nevertheless, Harriet’s forthright nature led to a break in their friendship, after she told Charlotte that her mind was too full of love ‘and, speaking with the frankness you desire, I do not like its kind.’

Eliza Acton is often hailed as the inspirations for Anne Brontë’s chosen pen-name of Acton Bell. She was an immensely popular writer in the early nineteenth century, but is little known today. Her writing was in marked contrast to Harriet Martineau’s, as she was most famous for her cookbooks, including ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ in 1845. It is to Eliza that we have to lay the blame for the first published recipe for brussels sprouts. She was also a poet whose verse was widely published in the periodicals that the Brontës read from time to time, so this may have appealed to Anne.

Eliza Acton 1803
Eliza Acton, drawn in 1803

There is another possible origin of Anne’s pseudonym, however. During their childhood the Brontës often read about, talked about and wrote about castles. On these occasions, it is easy to imagine Aunt Branwell telling them about a castle she saw every day in her younger years when she entered the garden of her home in Penzance. The name of this Cornish castle that the Branwells had a clear view of? Acton Castle.

Acton Castle
Acton Castle near Penzance

Julia Kavanagh is even less known today, but she made a striking impression on Charlotte. She was born in Thurles, Ireland but moved to London in 1844 after a period spent living in France. Her parents separated and Julia lived thereafter with her invalid mother, supporting both of them with her writing. It was at times a perilous support, as although her novel ‘Madeleine, A Tale of Auvergne’ was successful, money was always short. Remarkably, she was even shorter than Charlotte, as she recalled in a letter to Ellen Nussey after her first meeting with Julia in London:

‘Another likeness I have seen too that touched me sorrowfully. Do you remember my speaking of Miss Kavanagh – a young authoress who supported her mother by her writings? I called on her yesterday – I found a little, almost dwarfish figure to which even I had to look down – not deformed, that is, not hunchbacked but long-armed and with a large head and (at first sight) a strange face. She met me half-frankly, half-tremblingly… she lives in a poor but clean and neat little lodging – her mother seems a somewhat weak-minded woman who can be no companion to her – her father has quite deserted his wife and child – and this poor little feeble, intelligent, cordial thing wastes her brain to gain a living. She is twenty-five years old.’

Julia Kavanagh
              Julia Kavanagh

Despite Charlotte’s obvious fears Julia Kavanagh continued to make a living from writing, and indeed outlived Charlotte by 22 years.

Four intriguing women writers, very different, but all worthy of acclaim and all worthy of being remembered and being read. By the way, in last week’s post I mentioned a visit to the archives – it was incredibly fruitful, and what I found was something very special indeed. It will take me some time to analyse it all but look out for a special post in mid October!

The Brontës On Film, Television and in Fiction

This week marked the 196th anniversary of  the death of Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, mother of the Brontë sisters. She was a loving mother, an intelligent woman, pious (as we see from her article ‘The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns’) and humorous as well (as we see in her courting letters to ‘saucy Pat’), but the great tragedy is that she died before she could see the fantastic contribution her daughters Anne, Emily and Charlotte would make. Their works of literature are loved across the world, and they have also been remembered on film and in fiction, and that’s what we’re going to look at today.

From the earliest days of film, the novels of the Brontë sisters have been adapted for the world of movie theatres. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights first hit the silver, yet silent, screen in 1920, and just look at the huge crowds that gathered in Haworth to see it filmed:

Wuthering Heights film 1920
The 1920 Wuthering Heights captured the public imagination

Despite that, in my opinion there has never been a truly classic Wuthering Heights movie. Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon brought true star quality, but I feel that Olivier was far too posh and refined as Heathcliff. Maybe things will change next year, as a new independently made version of Wuthering Heights is due to be released? It may lack the big budget, but if it has a big heart it should be well worth seeing.

Jane Eyre has fared better with its adaptations, and I particularly enjoyed the 2006 series starring Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester. Stephens has form in the Brontë stakes, as he turned in a great performance as Markham in the BBC’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1996, with the brilliant Tara Fitzgerald as Helen. It’s a series I watch again and again, and I like to think Anne Brontë would have approved of the series.

Tenant Of Wildfell Hall DVD
The excellent 1996 adaptation of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Of course it’s not just the books that have inspired film and TV producers but the lives of the Brontës themselves. Yorkshire Television, those were the days, paid tribute to the queens of their county with the 1973 series ‘The Brontës of Haworth’. Over five hours, its a superb in-depth and moving telling of the Brontë story that is well worth looking up.

It does focus rather too much on the Branwell element, however, and this can be levelled even more at last year’s To Walk Invisible. I really enjoyed Sally Wainwright’s show, it had great acting and the recreation of 19th century Haworth was incredible, but it had some faults: I didn’t mind the ending, as we headed into the modern day Brontë Parsonage Museum shop, but a friend went apoplectic at it; I certainly didn’t like the repeated use of the F-bomb, no matter how much people try to say otherwise, there was no way this particular word would have been used in conversation, it puzzles me as to why it was used when it added nothing to the story? Also, again, I didn’t like the way the story ended after Branwell’s death, Emily and Anne’s demise was mentioned in a caption at the end and Charlotte’s was ignored completely; the character of Arthur Bell Nicholls was introduced and then no further mention was made of him – it seemed to me that they had run out of time filming it, and that they would have been better extending it to another hour or a mini-series. Nevertheless, I did very much enjoy it.

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

We are endlessly fascinated by the Brontë’s lives, something I certainly have to hold my hand up to, so it’s not surprising that there have been a number of fictional treatments of them in novels. The best of them can be very good, so I’m particularly looking forward to reading (once I’ve finished editing my forthcoming Aunt Branwell biography) two new editions to the canon. Firstly, we have ‘The Last Brontë: The Intimate Memoirs of Arthur Bell Nicholls‘ by S.R. Whitehead. Released at the start of this month it tells a story seldom heard: that of Charlotte’s husband Arthur. It already has excellent reviews.

Last Bronte
The Last Bronte by S.R. Whitehead and Without The Veil Between by D.M. Denton

Crossing the Atlantic later this year we have D.M. Denton’s ‘Without The Veil Between – Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit’. It will be great to see Anne get the fictional treatment, and as Diane is both a Brontë enthusiast and a fine novelist I have high hopes for it.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to the archives to see a little known and very special piece of work by Anne Brontë, which I’m highly excited about, but today I’m going to relax in front of the television – now where’s that Tenant Of Wildfell Hall DVD again?

Anne Brontë, Mary Taylor & The Road To Moravia

Yesterday I attended an Exploring the Brontë’s event at the newly opened Halifax Central Library. It’s a wonderful building, and right next to the spectacular Halifax Piece Hall which has just been re-opened to great success. The event featured a talk on the Brontë connections to Calderdale by Simon Zonenblick followed by a monologue by talented actress and writer Caroline Lamb of the Dangerous To Know theatre company (they’re producing a stage version of Charlotte’s ‘Shirley’ next week, and it should be a must see). She played Charlotte’s great friend Mary Taylor during her time as a shop owner in New Zealand, opening a succession of letters that reveal… well, I’ll leave you to find out, as there are further Exploring The Brontë events planned for Gildersome, London, Manchester, and then who knows? If you get the chance to catch one I highly recommend it.

Caroline Lamb
Caroline Lamb as Mary Taylor, photo thanks to Exploring The Brontes

I found Caroline’s monologue to be beautifully constructed and acted, and very moving too. At one point she mentions Anne Brontë’s life saving encounter with the Moravian church, and as the church is little known I’ll be looking at it in today’s blog. By the way, Mary Taylor herself was probably also a Moravian – athough she and her sister Martha are buried in the cemetery of the Anglican St. Mary’s church. We know, however, that her family often attended the Moravian church in Gomersal. It still stands and if you want to know what it looks like take a look at the head of this post.

In late 1837 Anne Brontë was a pupil at Roe Head School in Mirfield, where her older sister Charlotte Brontë was at that time a teacher. Things were going well for Anne; she was bright and studious, had made good friends despite her natural shyness, especially Ann Cook who we looked at last week, and had been presented with a certificate for good conduct, but in fact things were going very wrong. As she lay on her bed listening to the wintry wind howl around the hills surrounding Roe Head, seventeen year old Anne was close to death. She had suffered a mental and physical breakdown that would change her life for ever.

Charlotte herself was undergoing deep mental torment at this time, as revealed in her vituperative Roe Head journal, and hadn’t noticed the changes taking place in Anne. She had become more withdrawn, was eating less, and by stages becoming weaker and weaker until she became bed ridden and almost unable to talk, to breathe. The physical reason for this was described as ‘gastric fever’, which we would today call typhoid. The patient starts off with a flu like condition, followed by gastric problems and an inability to eat, followed by a fever and delirium. After this comes either recovery or death. This physical malaise was a sign of the mental anguish that had consumed Anne, and she knew that it was this that needed curing if she was to have any chance of surviving. The man that Anne turned to for help would have shocked her family, for when this daughter of a Church of England curate asked to see a priest she asked for James la Trobe, of the Moravian church.

The Moravian church, as the name suggests, had its origins in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. After increasing persecution in the church fled to Germany in 1722, and then spread into western Europe. In the early eighteenth century two Church of England preachers were making waves in their own establishment, the Wesleys, and they invited the Moravians, who they saw as kindred evangelical spirits, to England. John Wesley himself then joined a Moravian group, before later striking out on his own path that eventually led to what we know today as Methodism.

Moravia in the present day Czech Republic

One particular Moravian stronghold was the West Riding of Yorkshire. They had a church in Mirfield, and another at nearby Gomersal . Anne may have heard about La Trobe, the local Moravian priest, through Charlotte or she may have met him previously at the school, but why did she choose him to hear what could have been her last words?

The Church of England was undergoing a schism. The Methodists founded by the Wesleys had recently split from the official church, leaving Calvinists as the dominant faction. This was a very hard line brand of Protestantism, full of damnation and hell fire. They believed that once a person had sinned they were doomed to everlasting torment, except for a predestined few known as ‘the elect’ who would attain paradise whatever their actions were. This world, according to the Calvinists, was destined to be hard and full of pain, rather than one of hope and love.

Whilst Patrick Brontë was certainly not of this Calvinist bend, his daughter Anne heard of their teachings constantly, and they began to eat into her peace of mind. She spent sleepless nights thinking of how her soul was surely already doomed, and worrying for the souls of her beloved family too. It may sound strange to many today, but to Anne the eternal torments of hell were very real, she feared that she really would be thrown into a fiery pit that never dies. It was this that began to consume her thoughts by day and night until her mental torment brought on her physical collapse.

The Moravians, however, had a very different belief system. They believed that all sins could and would be forgiven, that no sinner was lost for ever. Some saw elements of mysticism in the faith and distrusted it, but their idea of forming a personal relationship with a loving God sang to Anne’s heart and her hopes. Writing in 1897, James la Trobe, by then a bishop in the Moravian church, recalled what happened next:

‘She [Anne Brontë] was suffering from a severe attack of gastric fever which brought her very low, and her voice was barely a whisper; her life hung on a slender thread. She soon got over the shyness natural on seeing a perfect stranger. The words of love, from Jesus, opened her ear to my words, and she was very grateful for my visits. I found her well acquainted with the main truths of the Bible respecting our salvation, but seeing them more through the law than the gospel, more as a requirement from God than His gift in His Son, but her heart opened to the sweet views of salvation, pardon, and peace in the blood of Christ, and, had she died then, I would have counted her His redeemed and ransomed child. It was not til I read Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Life’ [he refers to the biography of Charlotte written by Elizabeth Gaskell] that I recognised my interesting patient at Roe Head.’

Bishop James La Trobe
Bishop James La Trobe

Anne had found hope, she had found a new form of faith, and her health rallied until she could return home to Haworth. She was now sure of the doctrine, very controversial at the time, of Universal Salvation, whereby every one would eventually find Heaven thanks to a loving and forgiving God. This would be a ray of light in the dark days and years to come to Anne, and it is also at the heart of Helen’s beliefs expressed in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

The Moravian church didn’t forget Anne Brontë either. Her beautiful poem of faith, The Three Guides written as a dark cloud loomed over her family in 1848, has now become a part of the Moravian hymn book used in her services today. The poem finishes:

‘Spirit of Faith! I’ll go with thee;
Thou, if I hold thee fast,
Wilt guide, defend, and strengthen me,
And bring me home at last.
By thy help, all things I can do;
In thy strength all things bear.
Teach me, for thou art just and true,
Smile on me, – thou art fair!’

Within a year of writing this hymn her strong faith would be put to the ultimate test as first her brother Branwell, then her beloved twin-like sister Emily died, until finally she had to face her own mortality. Tested by fire, her faith did not let her down.

Anne Brontë At School And Her Great Friendship

The start of September witnesses a collective sigh (of relief or sadness, you decide) of parents across the United Kingdom as their children head back to school. This was a feeling that Patrick Brontë and de facto mother Aunt Elizabeth Branwell would have known as their children returned to their schools from summer or winter breaks – and especially in the case of Anne Brontë, as she, after all, spent more time at school than any of her siblings, remaining at Roe Head near Mirfield from the late summer of 1835 until the close of 1837.

When we think of the Brontës’ school days we inevitably think of tragedy. Cowan Bridge is the first thing that springs to mind, recreated viscerally as Lowood in Jane Eyre, and where elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë contracted the tuberculosis that killed them. Roe Head was a very different school, run by the kindly Miss Margaret Wooler, but even here we may bring to mind Emily Brontë’s return from homesickness after just a few weeks, Charlotte’s mental anguish as recorded in her ‘Roe Head diaries’ and the mental and physical breakdown that nearly killed Anne at the end of her tenure at the school. In this post, however, I want to look at a more positive aspect (it is the start of a new term after all) and see how Roe Head was often a happy environment for Anne Brontë, and one in which she thrived.

Roe Head school
Roe Head school, Mirfield, today

Anne was initially not destined for Roe Head at all. Charlotte gained a position as a teacher at the school in 1835, having been a pupil there four years earlier, and as part of her contract she was able to take a sister with here for a free education. This was a huge boon to the Brontë family, who although respectable in social terms were never wealthy; as the next eldest sister, Emily was understandably selected to go. During her brief time at Cowan Bridge Emily had, perhaps surprisingly, thrived. Just six years old, she impressed the staff with her ability as a pupil, and perhaps because of her tender age she was spared some of the hardships faced by other pupils. One teacher, Miss Evans, recalled of Emily at Cowan Bridge:

‘A darling child, under five years of age [sic], was quite the pet nursling of the school.’

The intervening years between Cowan Bridge and Roe Head had seen a great change in Emily. She had become reserved, and was already retreating into her fantasy world of Gondal. Charlotte soon saw that Emily was pining away in Mirfield, and that thoughts of the Haworth moors were always in her mind; she told Patrick to call Emily home or she would surely die, and remembering Maria and Elizabeth he acted immediately.

Even so it was not at first his intention to send Anne in his place, as he wrote in a letter to her godmother Elizabeth Francks:

‘My dear little Anne I intend to keep at home for another year under her Aunt’s tuition and my own.’

The offer was still too good to resist, however, and soon after Emily’s arrival in Haworth, Anne was on her way to Roe Head to take her place.

Anne was far more suited to school than her beloved sister Emily. She had a calm nature, and was obedient when given instructions. She was also a quick learner, and loved to gain knowledge. It was these qualities that led her to receiving a special award from Miss Wooler at the end of 1836. Along with a copy of a book by Isaac Watts, she was presented with a certificate that read: ‘A prize for good conduct presented to Miss A. Brontë with Miss Wooler’s kind love, Roe Head, Dec. 14th 1836.’

Anne was thriving educationally (it is her picture of Roe Head that tops this post), but as she was such a shy girl how did she cope with the demands of living among so many people unknown to her? A piece of evidence hidden away in a Leeds library shows that she handled this remarkably well, and formed a close bond with a pupil that is little known about.

Ann Cook is known today for an inscription that has caused controversy in the world of Brontë. In Charlotte Bronte’s book of common prayer there has recently been found an inscription saying:

‘Pray don’t forget me my sweet little thing.’

Ann Cook prayerbook
Ann Cook’s pencilled inscription on Charlotte Bronte’s prayer book

A further inscription reads ‘My dear, dear Miss Brontë pray remember me.’

These inscriptions were found by Gail Turley Houston who examined the prayer book at the J.P.Morgan library in New York. From the initials ‘A.C.’ the handwriting and the context, it is clear that these were written by Ann Cook at Roe Head. These facts were presented in a paper in 2011, and taken along with a letter from Charlotte to Ellen Nussey describing Ann Cook as ‘warm-hearted, prejudiced, affectionate and handsome’ it has led many to believe that there was some sort of affair between Charlotte and Ann, teacher and pupil. By taking evidence from a letter held in the archives at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library, however, we can get a very different reading.

Tragically, within a year of leaving Roe Head, Ann Cook was dead. The former classmate of Anne Brontë came from a very wealthy family, and it is clearly Ann Cook that Ellen Nussey is referring to in a letter she sent to Elizabeth Gaskell on November 15th 1855 at the time she was preparing to write her biography on Charlotte Brontë:

‘I enclose also a notice which dear C. made in a letter of the death of a young lady who was a pupil at the time Anne Brontë was at school, a pupil who attached herself strongly 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?’

Brotherton Library, Leeds University
Brotherton Library where Ellen Nussey’s letter to Elizabeth Gaskell is kept

We see here that Anne Brontë had a very strong friendship with a fellow pupil, Ann Cook. Ellen’s assertion that she attached herself strongly to Anne Brontë corresponds with Charlotte’s views on Ann as warm hearted, affectionate and prejudiced – prejudiced not to Charlotte, but to her sister Anne. It seems to me that Ann Cook’s inscriptions, though they were in Charlotte’s prayer book were intended for Anne Brontë who may also have used it. Anne Brontë was her great friend at school, it is she who is the sweet little thing, and she who is ‘my dear Miss Brontë’ (echoing her father’s description of her as ‘my dear little Anne’).

There is no scandal here, no love between teacher and pupil, just a deep and true friendship between Anne Brontë and her fellow pupil Ann Cook – and one that, until her nervous collapse in late 1837, would have made Anne Brontë happy at the thought of returning to school.