A Brontë Halloween: Mrs Baines’ Ghost

Halloween is a special time in Haworth as the village decks itself out in spooky regalia and people come from far and wide to watch its Parade of Ghouls and Parade of the Dragon. We all love a scary story, and of course three women who bring all the tourists to Haworth, the Brontë sisters, were no exception.

Haworth halloween 2017
Haworth halloween parade

On previous Halloween weekends this blog has looked at the Gytrash that haunted Ponden Hall, and which had a cameo in Villette, the ghost of Anne Brontë supposedly seen on a staircase in New York, and even the theory that Anne was a vampire who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In this year’s post we’re going to look at a ghostly story that came from another resident of the Haworth Parsonage: Aunt Elizabeth Branwell.

Aunt Branwell, as she came to be known to the nieces she raised as a second mother, was born in Penzance, Cornwall and didn’t move to Yorkshire until 1821 when she was in her mid-forties (although she had spent over a year at the Brontë birthplace in Thornton earlier). Prior to that she had lived in Penzance and it was there that she heard a tale of tragedy that befell one of her neighbours, and which turned into a tale of horror worthy of any Halloween.

The story dates from 1803 and concerns a Mrs Baines, the wealthy widow of a Captain Baines, who lived at 25 Chapel Street. I will let the nineteenth century Cornish chronicler William Bottrell relate what happened next:

‘Mrs. Baines’s orchard, a pleasant spot, in which the lady took great delight, was stocked with the choicest apple, pear, plum, and other fruit trees then known. The town boys soon found out the fine flavour of Mrs. Baines’s fruit, which was to them all the sweeter for being stolen. When the apples were ripe and most tempting, the mistress and her serving-man watched the garden by turns – the man during the first part of the night, and madam would descend in her night-dress, every now and then, to see that all was right, in the small hours of morning. One night Mrs. Baines, suspecting that her man John was rather careless in keeping guard, sallied forth to see if he was attending to his duty; and, not finding him anywhere about the garden, she went to a tree of highly-prized apples and shook down a good quantity, intending to take them away, and thus prove to John that, through his remissness, the fruit was stolen. But her man John, armed with an old blunderbus, charged with peas and small shot, was at no great distance dozing under a hedge. The rustling of shaken branches, and noise of falling apples, awoke him, and, seeing somebody, as he thought, stealing apples from their favourite tree, he up with his gun and let fly at his mistress, exclaiming, at the same time, ” Now you thief, I’ve paid ‘e off’ for keeping me out of bed to watch ‘e! I know ‘e, I do, and will bring ‘e before his worship the mayor to-morrow!” “Lord help me, I’m killed!” cried the lady, as she fell on the ground.’

Chapel Street Penzance
Chapel Street Penzance today

Mrs. Baines died of her wounds, and before long things took a sinister turn as locals reported seeing her ghost in the garden:

‘A short time after the old lady got shot, she died; and then she kept such ward and watch over her orchard that few were so bold as to enter, after day-down, into the haunted ground, where the ghost of Mrs. Baines was often seen under the tree where she was shot, or walking the grounds of her garden. Everybody knew the old lady by her upturned and powdered grey hair under a lace cap of antique pattern ; by the long lace ruffles hanging from her elbows ; her short silk mantle, gold-headed cane, and other trappings of old-fashioned pomp. There are many still living in Penzance who remember the time when they wouldn’t venture on any account to pass through Vounderveor-lane after night-fall, for fear of Mrs. Baines’ ghost. Sometimes she would flutter up from the garden or yard (just like an old hen flying before the wind), and perch herself on the wall: then, for an instant, one might get a glance of her spindle legs and high-heeled shoes before she vanished. Her walking in the garden might have been put up with, but she soon haunted all parts of the premises, and was often seen where least expected both by night and at noon. The ghost became so troublesome, at last, that no person could be found to occupy the house, where she was all night long tramping about from room to room, slamming the doors, rattling the furniture, and often making a fearful crash amongst glass and crockery.’

The new owners of the house called in a priest named Singleton to exorcise this property, giving the story of Mrs. Baines its truly bizarre end:

‘They sent for a parson, who was much famed in this neighbourhood as an exorcist that he might remove and lay the unresting spirit ; and he succeeded (by what means our informant knoweth not) in getting her away down to the sand-banks on the Western Green, which were then spread over many acres of land where the waves now roll. Here, this powerful parson, single-handed, bound her to spin from the banks ropes of sand for the term of a thousand years, unless she, before that time, spun a sufficiently long and strong one to reach from St. Michael’s Mount to St. Clement’s Isle. The encroaching sea having swept away the sandbanks, Mrs. Baines’ ghost is probably gone with them, as she hasn’t been heard of for some years, and, if she returns, the present occupiers of the old abode wouldn’t mind her.’

This is a fascinating story and one well known to Aunt Branwell as the widow Baines and her orchard were at 25 Chapel Street, whereas Elizabeth and her family lived at 62 Chapel Street, which was almost opposite the property. Certainly we can imagine the head of the household Thomas Branwell racing to his neighbour when he heard the night time gunshot, but what of the local children who liked to take the old woman’s sweet apples? Could they in earlier days have included Maria Branwell, who went on to become mother of the Brontës, or younger sister Charlotte Branwell, just 14 at the time of the tragedy, after whom Charlotte Brontë was named?

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, was she an apple scrumper?

The locals avoided the Baines property in fear of seeing her hen like ghost, but Elizabeth and Maria Branwell would have often had no choice but to walk past it. In later years, Aunt Branwell related this story to her enthralled nieces and nephew. Parsonage servant Tabby Ayckroyd‘s storytelling is often credited for its influence on the Brontës, but equally important were the stories from Aunt Branwell: in the ghost of Mrs. Baines, for example, we can see a prototype of the ghostly nun of Villette.

If you walk past some old trees tonight and hear a rustling in the leaves, don’t look round – you don’t know who might be fluttering up to take her perch on the wall. Happy Halloween!

The Brontës And The Art Of Writing

We all know, of course, that the Brontë sisters were masters of the art of writing, and their books tell us a lot about the world we live in and the authors themselves. This is particularly true of Anne Brontë’s novels, as Agnes Grey is highly autobiographical and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall touches upon usually taboo subjects she had encountered in her own family and in the wider world. Could we also find out more about the Brontës not from their written work, but from their handwriting itself.

With this question in mind I contacted one of the foremost experts in this field, Jean Elliott, MBIGDip, handwriting expert, graphologist and forensic document analyst. Jean has a quarter of a century’s experience in this field, and is often called upon to analyse handwriting in legal cases. She is also an expert graphologist, meaning that she can interpret the character of a person from their handwriting. With this in mind I sent Jean two samples of Anne Brontë’s handwriting and two of Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting, without revealing the writer’s identities. The results are illuminating.

Anne Brontë letter
One of the Anne Bronte samples used – note the cross writing style popular at the time

Charlotte’s writing was looked at first. Her letter ‘d’ caught Jean’s eye, as it reveals Charlotte to have an over emotional nature. The handwriting also shows that she is very artistic, and in Jean’s opinion she would have loved to sing, which is interesting as I’ve never heard of Charlotte singing before.

Charlotte Bronte letter
One of the Charlotte Bronte samples analysed

Anne’s writing was seen as much more rigid and with a small middle zone (apparently this means the zone that records what is happening in the here and now); this indicates that Anne could disconnect from her personal needs and instead pour her efforts into ambitions of achieving recognition and success. Anne’s handwriting also shows that she was particularly practical and self-reliant.

I’m sure Charlotte Brontë in particular would have been interested in this graphological analysis, as although the concept was unknown to Charlotte she herself was fascinated by phrenology – that is analysis of a person’s character by looking at the shape and measurements of their head. A fascination in, and belief in, phrenology is easily seen in Jane Eyre. Rochester is pretending to be a fortune teller, and he makes Jane kneel in front of him as he examines her head:

“’I see no enemy to a fortunate issue but in the brow; and that brow professes to say, – ‘I can live alone’… the forehead declares, ‘Reasons sits firm and holds the reins.’”

Phrenology was very popular in the 19th century

On whatever level we study the Brontës’ writing, we can certainly all enjoy it. The sisters, and their brother Branwell, loved to write as much as they loved reading, and as in all things with practice comes improvement. That’s why I’m delighted to announce that I have been asked to lead the creative writing group at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Plymouth Grove, Manchester.

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester

This is the house that Elizabeth Gaskell lived in as she wrote her masterpieces, including her biography of Charlotte Brontë. We know that Charlotte often visited and on one occasion hid behind the curtains there as she was too shy to meet a stranger who arrived.

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
What better place for a writing group than Elizabeth Gaskell House?

It’s an absolutely beautiful building that allows us to see the house as it was when the Gaskells lived there, and so I’m thrilled to be invited to be a part of it. I’ll be taking writing classes there on the fourth Thursday of each month. The first session is this coming Thursday, the 26th from 2 until 3pm. It’s for writers of all experience or none, and all abilities, and the emphasis will be upon fun in a supportive and encouraging environment. It only costs a pound, and you don’t need to book in advance so if you’re near Manchester next Thursday please do come along. Don’t worry, we won’t be analysing your handwriting!

Smelling Salts: A Link Between Anne and Maria Bronte

Anne Brontë was just 18 months old when her mother Maria died after a prolonged and painful illness, so of course she would have had no memories of her mother from Cornwall. Another Cornish woman, Maria’s sister Elizabeth Branwell, took her place in the parsonage and in Anne’s life, becoming in effect a surrogate mother to her.

Anne and her Aunt Branwell shared a room throughout her childhood and they became very close to each other, but one of the things Anne must have loved most of all was tales of her mother. This natural longing for a woman she had never really known was the reason why one of Anne’s treasured possessions was a tiny yet beautiful object that had belonged to her mother: her smelling salts bottle.

Maria Bronte salts bottle
Maria Bronte’s salts bottle on display at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

Smelling salts were commonly kept by fashionable women throughout the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, and their primary purpose was to revive fainting women. For this reason they were even carried by police constables in Victorian times as an essential first aid item. The smelling salts themselves were made up of ammonium carbonate and water, so that when the bottle was unstoppered ammonia was released. Wafting this ammonia under the nose of a fainted or fainting women would cause her to breathe rapidly, which introduces more oxygen into the system and revives the poor unfortunate.

Why they should have become such an essential item is a little bit of a mystery. Tight corsetry could certainly encourage fainting, but the truly impractical corsets didn’t become de rigueur until after Anne Brontë’s death, and clothing was much looser fitting during the Georgian period when Maria Branwell acquired her salts bottle. It is very lucky that Maria had the bottle at all that later became Anne’s possession, as it is one of her few items from Cornwall that made it to Yorkshire in one piece.

Maria Branwell first travelled from Penzance to Woodhouse Grove School near Leeds in 1812, to work for her Aunt Jane and Uncle John Fennell who had recently founded the school. This was an auspicious move as it was there that Maria met an Irish clergyman who had been hired as a classics examiner: he was, of course, Patrick Brontë, and by the end of the year they were married.

Bronte salts bottles
Maria and Elizabeth’s salts bottles side by side

Shortly after arriving in Yorkshire, Maria contacted her eldest sister Elizabeth in Penzance and asked her to arrange for her belongings to be sent on to her. They were accordingly packed into a large crate and loaded onto a ship, but the ship didn’t get far, as Maria revealed in a letter to her then suitor Patrick:

‘I mentioned having sent for my books, clothes, etc. On Saturday evening about the time you were writing the description of your imaginary shipwreck, I was reading and feeling the effects of a real one, having then received a letter from my sister giving me an account of the vessel in which she had sent my box being stranded upon the coast of Devonshire, in consequence of which the box was dashed to pieces with the violence of the sea, and all my little property, with the exception of a very few articles, being swallowed up by the mighty deep.’

The smelling salts bottle was one of these few articles saved from the mighty deep, and it is an exquisite and beautiful item. Small and tear shaped it is made of white porcelain with a floral pattern on the front; on the reverse in gold gilt are her initials M.B. We know that it was something Maria brought from Cornwall, rather than purchased in Yorkshire, as it is very similar to another smelling salts bottle that belonged to Elizabeth Branwell, and which has E.B. in gilt decoration on its reverse.

This is a clue as to the smelling salts bottles. They were not used to revive a fainting Maria or Elizabeth, they were instead an item of beauty to be seen with, and an indication of the exalted place within Penzance society that the Branwell family occupied. The bottles the sisters had are far more ornate than most bottles of this period, and it seems likely that their younger sister Charlotte would have had a similar bottle of her own.

Elizabeth Branwell smelling salts bottle
Elizabeth Branwell’s smelling salts bottle on display in Haworth (note that it has EB on the reverse not MB as the sign says)

When it came into Anne’s possession it may have been filled with perfume, which she could then dab onto the monogrammed handkerchief that she liked to carry. Both Maria and Elizabeth’s smelling salts bottles can be seen at the Brontë Parsonage Museum today, but whilst we can delight in looking upon them we will never feel the thrill that Anne did whenever she drew it out: here after all was a connection to the two women she loved most, her aunt who was always there for her, and her mother who would only ever be in her dreams.

Branwell Brontë -The Death of the Penitent

Anne’s brother Branwell Brontë was the great hope of the family – from his birth in June 1817 there was a weight of expectation on his shoulders: he it was who would take the family name into the world, he also who would help to provide for his sisters after his father’s death, if they themselves had not started a family of their own by that time. Of course, things didn’t quite work out like that.

Branwell is a man who strongly divides opinion today: some see him as an unrecognised genius, whereas to others he is the villain of the Brontë story who cared about nothing but his won gratification. The truth lies in neither of these extremes; he was a human being with frailties like all of us, but his frailties overpowered him. Francis Leyland, who knew him well and became his chief post-mortem defence counsel, perhaps put it best when he wrote:

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

On the other hand, Leyland did not see Branwell’s daily life at Haworth Parsonage, where he could indeed wreak havoc, and frequently did: inadvertently setting his bed on fire, having screaming fits at night, and threatening to kill his father are just some of his actions.

Branwell Bronte apothecary
Branwell Bronte frequented the apothecary, now Haworth’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

It is easy to judge Branwell harshly, but he was fighting demons from a young age. The death of his mother and beloved eldest sisters had a profound impact upon him in his early years, and his later actions speak of one who was suffering from a mental illness. Certainly, his addictions to alchohol and then opium did little to create much needed equilibrium in his life.

Towards the end of his life, aged just 31, he cut an increasingly pathetic figure, so that he we see him hunched over in the street sobbing pitifully and unable to raise his leg to climb a single step, and we witness him brandishing a knife, mouth quivering uncontrollably, because he thought he was going to meet not his friend Francis Grundy, but Satan.

Nevertheless, his death on 24 September 1848 came suddenly, and suprisingly he died not as a result of his addictions but of chronic marasmus (wasting) due to tuberculosis. It was the forerunner of the disease’s eight months reign of terror that would also snatch Emily and then Anne.

Charlotte Brontë was particularly devastated by her brother’s death. They had been incredibly close in childhood, inventing the kingdom of Angria together and producing the first of the Brontë’s little books that are marvelled at today. She was unable to accept his failings however, and in his last two years they did not speak. Now it was all too late.

Her letter to W.S. Williams after Branwell’s death revealed that she did at least find some comfort in the manner of her brother’s death:

‘I myself, with painful, mournful joy, heard him praying softly in his dying moments, and to the last prayer which my father offered up at his bedside, he added “amen”. How unusual that word appeared from his lips – of course you who did not know him, cannot conceive. Akin to this alteration was that in his feelings towards his relatives – all bitterness seemed gone… all his vices seemed nothing to me in that moment; every wrong he had done, every pain he had caused, vanished… He is at rest, and that comforts us all – long before he quitted this world, life had no happiness for him.’

In his dying moments Branwell became a penitent, and this comforted Charlotte who in turn was herself now penitent. Anne Brontë, on the other hand, had always loved her brother, even finding him a job as governor at Thorp Green Hall when his prospects seemed bleak. That move, of course, went disastrously wrong, but Anne would never judge Branwell harshly. She believed in forgiveness, and forgiveness time after time if needed. This view was expressed long before Branwell’s death, as if in a presentiment of it, in her poem ‘The Penitent’, with which we close today’s post:

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

Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day

This week saw National Poetry Day celebrated in the UK, and we can be proud in this country to have contributed some of the world’s greatest poets: from the sonnets of Shakespeare, through the pastoral perfection of Wordsworth to the genial genius of Betjeman. To that number we can also add the absolutely beautiful poetry of Anne Brontë.

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

It was poetry that first set the Brontë sisters on the publishing route, as their first creative endeavour to hit the bookshelves was their collaborative ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’ of 1836. It is well known how this sold only two copies initially (although not so well known is that it eventually sold out its run of 1000 copies, after a relaunch by Smith, Elder & Co.,) but the sisters were not disheartened, as Charlotte Brontë revealed:

‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.’

This zest for writing, a return to the ‘scribblemania’ of their childhood, turned now to the prose form and resulted in the Brontë novels we know so well.

To celebrate poetry week (as I’m now dubbing it) I finish with one of Anne’s finest poems, ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day’, one of Anne’s 21 poems selected for inclusion within ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’. Written in December, 1842 Anne was seized by the poetic muse as she walked through the Long Plantation woods to the north of Thorp Green Hall where she was then governess (that’s a picture of them at the top of this post). With the autumnal weather really making itself felt here in Yorkshire, it seems particularly apposite:

“My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves, beneath them, are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.
I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today!”