The Childhood of Anne Brontë

Just what was Anne Brontë’s childhood like? We have the image of it being a bleak time filled with tragedy, but was this a fair reflection? There were, of course, terrible moments during her childhood, but at other times Anne was as happy and contented an infant as any that we would recognise today.

Anne Brontë was born in the village of Thornton near Bradford on January 17th 1820, the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria Brontë. Within three months of her birth there was upheaval, as the Brontë family moved from Thornton to their new home at Haworth, with Patrick taking up his new position as the curate of St. Michael and All Angels church – one he would hold for the next 41 years.

Haworth church at the time of the Brontes
Haworth church at the time of the Brontes

She couldn’t have known, of course, but this was an auspicious move for the baby Anne, as her new parsonage was larger and surrounded on three sides by the moors that she found a fascinating wilderness all year round.

Little more than a year after the move a tragedy struck, as Anne’s mother Maria fell suddenly ill. Anne herself, and all her siblings, were desperately ill at the time as well and there was a real possibility that seven of the Brontës could die within days, as Patrick recalled in a letter to his friend Reverend Buckworth:

‘I was at Haworth, a stranger in a strange land. It was under these circumstances, after every earthly prop was removed, that I was called on to bear the weight of the greatest load of sorrows that ever pressed upon me. One day, I remember it well; it was a gloomy day, a day of clouds and darkness, three of my little children were taken ill of scarlet fever; and, the day after, the remaining three were in the same condition. Just at that time death seemed to have laid his hand on my dear wife in a manner which threatened her speedy dissolution. She was cold and silent and seemed hardly to notice what was passing around her.’

All the children recovered, but their mother died after a terrible stuggle on 15th September 1821. Anne was just a year and a half old at the time, and this protected her from the grief and sorrow around her. She would never know her mother, except from the stories told by her family, but another woman took her place in the form of her mother’s sister Elizabeth Branwell who gave up her life in Cornwall to spend the rest of her days in Haworth. Aunt Branwell and Anne were very close and shared a room together throughout her childhood. A loving bond grew between them, so that her aunt became a mother to her in every way. It is something Ellen Nussey noticed when she said of Anne that ‘she was her aunt’s favourite’, and we also see a reflection of it in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’.

The novel features a range of people well know to Charlotte, hiding beneath fictional names, so that Mary Taylor is Rose Yorke and Emily Brontë is Shirley Keeldar for example – even Emily’s dog Keeper becomes the fiercely loyal Tartar. Anne is recreated as Caroline Helstone who is being raised by her uncle, and we see Aunt Branwell as the seemingly cold Mrs Pryor. It is later revealed that Miss Pryor is really Caroline’s long lost mother, and the relationship between the two is an echo of that Charlotte saw between Anne and her Aunt:

‘The evening restored Caroline entirely to her mother, and Mrs. Pryor liked the evening; for then, alone with her daughter, no human shadow came between her and what she loved.’

Caroline and Mrs Pryor by Edmund Dulac
Caroline and Mrs Pryor by Edmund Dulac

It seems that Anne was a quiet almost angelic child, and maybe this was behind the fantastical tale that a young Charlotte related to her father one day. She burst into Patrick’s study and urged him to come quick, because there was an angel standing next to Anne’s cot. Patrick humoured his daughter and followed her, but Charlotte admonished him that he’d been too slow and now the angel was gone.

We know that Anne enjoyed her childhood toys just as much as children do today, for on 5th June 1826, her father fetched his five year old daughter a special present from Leeds – a dancing doll with pins through its joints so you could make the arms and legs move. It was another present that Patrick fetched back from this trip that is better known however, the set of twelve wooden soldiers for Branwell that led to the Brontës creating childhood tales, and then imaginary lands, and eventually the novels that we love so much today.

Anne Brontë had a happy childhood, with a loving aunt as mother, a supply of toys, and above all a close twin-like friendship with her sister Emily that would become the defining relationship in her life. The two youngest Brontës were never seen apart in their childhood, arms entwined within each others whenever possible. It is heart warming to think that Anne enjoyed such happy days as a child, for of course later years would prove much more trying.

Remembrance Sunday and the Brontë Heroes

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a time not to glorify war but to remember them, and the people who lost their lives in them and who were willing to risk everything for a cause they believed in. Of course, British people have been involved in conflicts of one kind or another for century after century, and so in today’s post we’ll look at the Brontë’s attitudes to war, and at a couple of heroes within their own family – one of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Brontë children were born as the era of the Napoleonic wars was coming to an end, with Charlotte Brontë born a year after the pivotal battle of Waterloo that on 18th of June 1815 saw the forces of the Duke of Wellington, and his Prussian allies under Blucher, defeat once and for all the tyrannical Napoleon Bonaparte. Today it is a fascinating piece of history, but for the Brontës it was also a part of their present.

At the time of the battle, the Brontë family had four members: Patrick and Maria and their two daughters Maria and Elizabeth. They were followed by Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Throughout their lives the children would read stories about the heroism displayed on that Belgian battlefield, hanging on every word carried by jingoistic papers they read such as ‘John Bull’.

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

Their father, Patrick, was a great admirer of his fellow Irishman Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and would often talk of his exploits and his genius when it came to war. The children were enthralled by these tales, and soon began to worship Wellington themselves. On 5th June 1826 Patrick, realising how keen his children were on Waterloo and military matters in general, brought a set of wooden soldiers for them. A few years later Charlotte recounted the story:

“Papa bought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds. When Papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed: ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!’ when I had said this Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him ‘Gravey’. Anne’s was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him ‘Waiting-boy’. Branwell chose his, and called him Buonaparte.”

The Brontë children could now re-enact the Battle of Waterloo in their own home, and did so at every opportunity. It wasn’t long, however, until they were dreaming up new adventures for their soldiers, the ‘Young Men’ as they were now called. This invented land was called The Glass Town Confederacy, which later led to Angria and Gondal. From this early play they developed what they called a ‘scribblomania’, writing stories and poems about the exploits of their soldiers. This passion for writing would never leave them, and of course resulted in the books the world so loves today.

The love that Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell had for military stories may have resulted from stories told by their Aunt Branwell. Penzance, where she and their mother Maria grew up, was an important naval centre at the time – and indeed it was Penzance that first heard the news that Admiral Horatio Nelson had died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The returning warship HMS Pickle passed the news to a fishing boat who headed straight back to port, where the news was then broadcast from the balcony of the Union Hotel on Chapel Street – an event that is re-enacted annually. Nelson, of course, was responsible for the name of the famous writing family of Haworth. In recognition of his exploits he was given Bronte castle in Sicily. This fact was uppermost in the mind of Patrick Prunty, who adored Nelson,  when he chose to anglicise his name upon attending Cambridge University.

Arthur Branwell
Captain Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell

Of course, at the moment our minds are particularly focused on the terrible conflict that was World War 1 – and Brontë relatives were represented here too in the shape of Captain Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell. During the war he was a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s 4th Brigade. The following picture appeared in The Tatler of 23rd August 1916 when fighting on the Western Front was approaching its fiercest. As the senior officer, the grand looking Captain Branwell is seated at the centre, but as noted by the caption many of the officers around him were by then dead.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1
Arthur Branwell in World War 1

Captain Branwell himself escaped the horrors of the trenches however, as the 4th Brigade was the Royal Warwickshire’s Extra Reserve, and in fact it never left England during the duration of the war. He was heavily involved in training new recruits, and was ready and willing to fight in France if called upon, despite being then in his mid fifties.

He was a veteran of the army who had been recalled at the start of World War 1, and had fought in the Boer War among other conflicts – it was here probably that he met the soldier Edgar Wallace. Wallace turned his hand to writing, and became so prolific that his agent famously claimed that one in four books published in England were by him. He had over 170 novels and 957 short stories published, and was also the author of 18 stage plays and countless film scripts – he was working on an adaptation of his own King Kong when he died. Wallace was particularly popular for his army stories about a private called Smithy – and one copy of Smithy preserved today includes a two page dedication to his former comrade in arms Arthur Branwell.

Smithy by Edgar Wallace
Smithy by Edgar Wallace

We may think that a soldier in ‘The Great War’ must be a distant relative of the Brontës, but not so. Born in 1862, he was in fact a first cousin once removed of the Brontë sisters – his father Thomas Brontë Branwell was the Brontë cousin who visited Charlotte and Patrick in Haworth in 1851.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Copyright: © IWM.

Another Brontë relative, via the Branwell family, served in the navy, as did many in Penzance, but paid the ultimate price.

Lieutenant Thomas Branwell was a cousin of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, and his closeness to them is shown by the fact that he had his miniature portrait painted at the same time as Maria and Elizabeth, in all his navy finery. He must have been the pride of the Branwells but terrible news came at the end of 1811, as reported by the Navy Chronicle of January 1812:

‘The St. George, Defence, and Cressey, kept the North Sea five days, in a dreadful gale from the W.N.W. west and south; but, at length, had to combat with a terrible tempest from the N.W. until they were lost. The following is a list of the principal officers who were on board the St. George and Defence when those vessels were wrecked – In the St. George Admiral Reynolds, Captain Guion, Lieutenants Napier, Place, Thompson, Brannel, Dance, Tristram, Riches, and Rogers.’

Lieutenant Branwell
Lieutenant Thomas Branwell

Brannel was of course Thomas Branwell, who died at sea onboard HMS George off the coast of Denmark. It was a naval tragedy on a horrendous scale, with 731 of the 738 man crew losing their lives and many hundreds more dying on board the Defence. It is rumoured that he and his cousin Elizabeth were in love, and if so this may explain why Aunt Branwell remained resolutely single for the rest of her life.

Lieutenant Branwell died during the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Branwell served with honour during the first World War. On this weekend we should remember them, and other brave souls who were ready to give their today for our tomorrow.

Anne Brontë Infographic: A Beginner’s Guide

Just what would Anne Brontë and her sisters have thought about the technological age that we live in today? As we near the end of 2017 (how that’s flown!) we are entering the age of driverless cars, and discussing the future threats to job security and more that could come from thinking humanoid robots.

It’s a far world of course from the one that Anne knew in the first half of the nineteenth century, but even then things were changing rapidly. Haworth, the village she grew up in, was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. It brought positive and negative changes, and resulted in Luddite risings across the north of England, where men who had lost their jobs to increasing automation took their anger out on the machines and on the mill owners who used them. It was a dangerous time, as shown in Charlotte Brontë’s second published novel Shirley.

The railway also transformed the nation during Anne’s lifetime. It was as great a leap forward then as the internet has proved to be in recent years. Prior to the railway it took Maria Branwell, Anne’s mother, around ten days to travel from Cornwall to Yorkshire by road; a journey so fraught with danger, not to say tiring, that many travellers wrote their wills before embarking upon it. By 1848, Anne and Charlotte travelled from Yorkshire to London by train in a matter of hours.

Charlotte Bronte's writing desk
Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

The sisters’ means of writing was changing as well – in their childhood days they used the traditional quills made from bird feathers, but by their maturity they were using pens and nibs very similar to the fountain pens of today. Above all else, the Brontë sisters, especially Anne, were open to new possibilities and able to adapt to new challenges and opportunities, so I feel they would have embraced today’s technology and become bloggers, tweeters and instagrammers as well as writers. Using this technology to the full, ahem, I’ve created this infographic giving a beginner’s guide to Anne Brontë – I hope she would have approved!

Anne Bronte infographic
A beginner’s guide to Anne Bronte