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!”