Brontë New Year Resolutions For 2018

We have entered the last moments of 2017, and as 2018 looms it’s time to make New Year resolutions. I never know what to resolve to do, so I thought that this year I’d take inspiration from my very favourite people – the Brontës. Here is a light hearted, and not so light hearted, look at what I think the Brontë resolutions may have been, based upon extracts from their own letters and writings.

Anne Brontë: I will speak my mind more in 2018.

“Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience… When I feel it is my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own.”

(Preface to the second edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’)

Anne Brontë was known for her gentle nature, but she prized honesty above all other traits, and resolved to speak what she saw as the truth even if it was out of kilter with what society expected.

Anne Bronte peace, peace quote

Branwell Brontë: I will believe in myself more in 2018

“Now, sir, do not act like a commonplace person, but like a man willing to examine for himself. Do not turn from the naked truth of my letters, but prove me – and if I do not stand the proof, I will not further press myself upon you. If I do stand it, why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë.”

(Letter to Blackwood’s magazine, 1837)

Whatever Branwell‘s faults were, he certainly didn’t lack self-belief. This is one of the letters he wrote to Blackwood’s, a magazine the Brontë siblings loved, pointing out that they should hire hime as a writer. He never received a reply, although they did keep his letters.

Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Bronte, To Walk Invisible
Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Bronte, To Walk Invisible

Patrick Brontë: I will not care what others think of me in 2018

“I do not deny that I am somewhat eccentrick. Had I been numbered among the calm, concentric men of the world, I should not have been as now I am, and I should in all probability never have had such children as mine have been.”

(Letter to Elizabeth Gaskell, 30th July 1856, after her less than flattering portrait of him in her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë‘)

Elizabeth Gaskell, believing the testimony of a sacked servant, unfairly portrayed Patrick as a cruel man. His riposte proves the opposite, and he went on to say that her biography of his daughter Charlotte was ‘every way worthy of what one Great Woman, should have written of Another, and that it ought to stand, and will stand in the first rank of Biographies, till the end of time.’

Photograph of Patrick Bronte
Photograph of Patrick Bronte

Charlotte Brontë: I will see more of the world in 2018

“Mary’s letter spoke of some of the pictures & cathedrals she had seen – pictures the most exquisite & cathedrals the most venerable. I hardly know what swelled to my throat as I read her letter – such a vehement impatience of restraint & steady work, such a strong wish for wings – wings such as wealth can furnish, such an urgent thirst to see, to know, to learn. Something internal seemed to expand boldly for a minute – I was tantalized with the consciousness of faculties unexercised – then all collapsed and I despaired.”

(Letter to Ellen Nussey, 7th August 1841)

Letters from Brussels, via her other great friend Mary Taylor, had awakened Charlotte Brontë’s wanderlust. With the help of Aunt Branwell‘s money she did eventually make it to Brussels, as a pupil and then teacher, but it led to a doomed unrequited love affair with the Professor Constantin Heger. From this turmoil came Charlotte’s great characters of Rochester and Paul Emanuel.

Bronte plaque in Brussels
Bronte plaque in Brussels

Emily Brontë: I will keep in touch with my friends more in 2018.

“All here are in good health, so was Anne according to the last accounts – the holydays will be here in a week or two and then if ‘she’ be willing I will get her to write you a proper letter – a feat that I have never performed.”
(Letter to Ellen Nussey, May 22nd 1843)

Ellen was one of Emily’s very few friends, and the two surviving letters of Emily Brontë are both addressed to her. Both, however, are only a few lines long. Emily, as she acknowledged, was not a letter writer as her sisters were. What she was, however, was a poet and novelist of the very finest order, and it is that which we will celebrate in 2018 on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of her birth. We are about to enter the year of Emily Jane Brontë, so may I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Emily Bronte new year

Anne Brontë’s Music on Christmas Morning

As you may know, this Anne Brontë blog switched hosts earlier this year and in the process some previous posts were lost, including a Christmas post from yesteryear. As we celebrate this joyous day in 2017, I felt it was time to re-load it to the site – this is, after all, a time for repeats. Once again then, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, thank you for your continued support, especially recently, and present this beautiful poem that Anne Brontë wrote on Christmas Day 1843 – Music On Christmas Morning:

‘Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.’

Christmas in the Novels of the Brontë Sisters

With just hours to go until the dawn of Christmas Day, excitement and anticipation is growing around the land, and a similar feeling could be felt in a remote moorside parsonage nearly two hundred years ago. The Brontë’s Christmas celebrations were much less commercially oriented than the ones we know today, but they still enjoyed the joyous day – as evidence of this, we find many references to Christmas within the Brontë novels.

Christmas features most of all within Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and we get a glimpse of what Christmas would have been like not only at Thrushcross Grange and the Heights, but also in Haworth. After a Christmas cake and a ‘fragrant feast’ the revels begin:

‘In the evening we had a dance. Cathy begged that he [Heathcliff] might be liberated then, as Isabella Linton had no partner; her entreaties were in vain, and I was appointed to supply the deficiency. We got rid of all gloom in the excitement of the exercise, and our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them. After the usual carols had been sung, we set them to songs and glees. Mrs Earnshaw loved the music, and so they gave us plenty.’

Fezziwig's Christmas ball
Did the Bronte’s enjoy scenes similar to Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas ball?

I remember carol singers knocking on the door every Christmas in my childhood, but now it seems that the tradition has been forgotten and allowed to die away – I’d better not get started on that! Back to ‘Wuthering Heights’, where the dour manservant Joseph is less than enamoured of the festivities, however, and indeed of festivities of any kind:

‘After playing lady’s maid to the new comer, and putting my cakes in the oven, and making the house and kitchen cheerful with great fires, befitting Christmas eve, I prepared to sit down and amuse myself by singing carols, all alone; regardless of Joseph’s affirmation that he considered the merry tunes I chose as next door to songs.’

To Joseph, singing cheery songs is a great sin, and in him we see a representation of the hardline Calvinists that were becoming more influential within the Church of England at this time – men such as the fire and damnation preacher William Carus Wilson who founded the dread school at Cowan Bridge recreated by Charlotte Brontë as Lowood.

‘Jane Eyre’ also allows Charlotte to reveal what a typical Christmas was like at the time, on this occasion at the Gateshead estate where the young Jane is being lovelessly brought up:

‘Christmas and the New Year had been celebrated at Gateshead with the usual festive cheer; presents had been interchanged, dinners and evening parties given. From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded; my share of the gaiety consisted in witnessing the daily apparelling of Eliza and Georgiana, and seeing them descend to the drawing-room, dress out in thin muslin frocks and scarlet sashes, with hair elaborately ringletted; and afterwards, in listening to the sound of the piano or the harp played below.’

By the way a prototype of Jane’s cousin Eliza may well be Eliza Williams, a second cousin who visited the Haworth Parsonage in 1840, leading Charlotte to write in a letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘My cousin Eliza is a young lady intended by nature to be a bouncing, good-looking girl. Art has trained her to be a languishing affected piece of goods. I would have been friendly with her, but I could get no talk except about the Low Church, Evangelical clergy, the Millennium, Baptist Noel, botany, and her own conversion. A mistaken education has utterly spoiled ‘the lass’.

In ‘Agnes Grey’ by our beloved Anne Brontë, Christmas is talked of as a time when Agnes and her mother hope that the school they plan on founding will begin to pay it’s own way:

‘Mary offered to lend the little she possessed; but my mother declined it, saying, that we must begin on an economical plan; and she hoped that the whole or part of mine, added to what we could get by the sale of the furniture, and what little our dear papa had contrived to lay aside for her since the debts were paid, would be sufficient to last us till Christmas; when, it was hoped, something would accrue from our united labours.’

Agnes is very much a representation of Anne herself, and so here we see a representation of what we undoubtedly know by looking at their employment history – that Anne was the most practical of the Brontë sisters.

We see a very different side to Christmas in Anne’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, as the heroine Helen’s diary entry reveals a day far removed from happy celebrations:

‘DECEMBER 25th. – Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future, though not unmingled with foreboding fears. Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered, but not destroyed; my hoped diminished, but not departed; my fears increased, but not yet thoroughly confirmed.’

Christmas roses in the snow
Christmas roses in the snow

There then follows an incredibly moving passage, as Helen looks down upon her infant child Arthur, full of fears that he will grow up to be like his father – leading her to pray that God should snatch him away from her now if that was to be his fate. Christmas features in another powerful and moving passage near to the book’s close, wrapped in the symbolism of a Christmas rose:

‘Without waiting for an answer, she turned away her glistening eye and crimson cheek, and threw up her window and looked out, whether to calm her own excited feelings or to relieve her embarrassment, or only to pluck that beautiful half-blown christmas rose that grew upon the upon the little shrub without, just peeping from the snow that had hitherto, no doubt, defended it from the frost, and was now melting away in the sun. Pluck it, however, she did, and having gently dashed the glittering powder from its leaves, approached it to her lips and said – “This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, Gilbert, it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals – Will you have it?”’

These two beautiful passages referred to above are more than enough, in my opinion, to confirm Anne Brontë as one of the greatest writers of all time. I’ll certainly be thinking of Anne at Christmas time, and also all of you wonderful people who read my blog – have a very merry Christmas!

No Emily in Time or on Earth: The Death of Emily Brontë

It’s December 19th, a happy day when Christmas is around the corner – but for one family on the western extremity of Yorkshire 169 years ago it was very different. Death had come to the Haworth Parsonage, and on December 19th 1848 it was to claim Anne Brontë’s beloved sister, Emily.

As children Anne and Emily Brontë, the youngest members of the family had been inseparable and although they were very different in appearance Ellen Nussey had described them as being like twins. As they grew older they often walked the moors together, created the fictional land of Gondal together, and wrote together, but at last a journey was coming that Emily must walk alone.

Emily Bronte or Anne
Emily Bronte by Branwell (although it could possibly be Anne)

1848 had started triumphantly for the Brontës, as Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey had been published jointly a month earlier and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre had become an overnight sensation. It was to end very differently. Their brother Branwell had sunk further into his drink and opium addiction, but his condition suddenly worsened and on September 24th he died. Whilst the official cause of death was put as ‘marasmus’ this chronic wasting had in fact been a sign of tuberculosis. At Branwell’s funeral, Emily started to cough too – it is thought that this was the last time she ever left the Parsonage.

It soon became apparent to all that Emily was gravely ill. She was becoming very thin and coughing violently, but refused any medical help and said that all doctors had was ‘quackery’. In vain, Charlotte consulted leading homeopaths, but Emily refused to take their medicines or followed their advice. It was dreadful for Anne and Charlotte to watch their sister carry on as if nothing was wrong with her, but as always once Emily had made up her mind she could not be dissuaded. Emily still insisted as always on feeding the dogs Keeper and Flossy from scraps of bread and meat held in her palm. A sudden draught blew underneath the Parsonage door and swept Emily off her feet blowing her against a wall. Refusing help even now, she slowly regained as if nothing had happened.

On the following morning, she had trouble rising but insisted on walking down the stairs and doing the household duties she had been carrying out as before. It is likely, however, that by now Emily had gone blind. ‘I’ll see the doctor now’, she finally said, but it was far too late. At two o’ clock in the afternoon of 19th December, 1848, Emily Brontë, the great solitary genius of the Yorkshire moors, died. We can imagine that her hand was held by Anne, the sister she loved more than anything else in the world. Six months later, tuberculosis would come back to claim her as well.

Death was not something Emily Brontë was afraid of, indeed she had often addressed it in some of her most powerful poetry, as shown here at the conclusion of her great poem ‘A Death-Scene’:

One long look, that sore reproved me
For the woe I could not bear –
One mute look of suffering moved me
To repent my useless prayer:
And, with sudden check, the heaving
Of distraction passed away;
Not a sign of further grieving
Stirred my soul that awful day.
Paled, at length, the sweet sun setting;
Sunk to peace the twilight breeze:
Summer dews fell softly, wetting
Glen, and glade, and silent trees.
Then his eyes began to weary,
Weighed beneath a mortal sleep;
And their orbs grew strangely dreary,
Clouded, even as they would weep.
But they wept not, but they changed not,
Never moved, and never closed;
Troubled still, and still they ranged not –
Wandered not, nor yet reposed!
So I knew that he was dying –
Stooped, and raised his languid head;
Felt no breath, and heard no sighing,
So I knew that he was dead.

In a moving letter to Ellen Nussey, two days before Christmas 1848 Charlotte revealed the aftermath of Emily’s passing:

‘Emily suffers no more either from pain or weakness now. She never will suffer more in this world – she is gone after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible then she might be with us still for weeks and a few hours afterwards she was in Eternity – yes, there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now. Yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the church pavement’

Yes, indeed there is no Emily in Time or on Earth, but to all those who read her words and love her she will live on in our hearts forever. And on that point, a big thanks to those who have provided me with support after my post last Sunday about the insulting selection of Lily Cole as Emily’s creative partner in the pivotal year of 2018. I was surprised by how much my words seem to have touched a chord, and I’m very grateful. The organisers of this calumny will not admit any fault, of course, and they even contacted me on Twitter to ‘clarify that there have been no consultants in the Bronte Society’, seemingly oblivious to their 2015 external consultants Rowie Shaw and Sue Charteris, not to mention the appointment of Kitty Wright as Chief Executive, whose LinkedIn profile begins: ”I’m a strategically focused communications and arts management professional, who has also worked in the legal sector. I have a record of leadership, change management, policy development and project delivery.’

Ah well, they certainly can’t prevent us all from taking down a favourite book and having a great Brontë Christmas!

Snow in the Lives and Works of the Brontës

Haworth never looks more beautiful than when it’s under a coating of snow, with the white expanse of moorland stretching away beyond it in rises and falls – as shown in the picture at the head of this post, which is thanks to the wonderful Haworth shop Hathaways. As snow is general all over England today (to borrow a line from James Joyce) I thought we should look at the Brontë’s attitudes to snow in their lives and writing.

Haworth Parsonage snow
Haworth Parsonage in snow

The freezing temperatures that Haworth has in December must have been even more fierce for Anne Brontë and her sisters, without any form of automated heating and without the thick layers of clothing that we take for granted today. The best they could do would be to pull another shawl around their shoulders, and place metal pattens over their shoes to protect against the damp and ice.

As anyone who has visited knows, Haworth Main Street is very steep, as are many of the streets running off it, so it can be especially treacherous in winter. It is for this reason that the road is cobbled, giving extra traction to human boots and horse hooves.

Tabby Ayckroyd, the loyal and much loved servant of the Brontës, found out how dangerous it could be in the winter of 1836 when she slipped on ice and sustained a broken leg. This caused pain and discomfort for Tabby for the rest of her life, and Patrick Brontë and Aunt Branwell suggested that it would be better for her to leave their employ to be looked after by her sister Susannah. The Brontë sisters, however, would hear none of this and threatened to go on hunger strike unless Tabby was allowed to stay – they won the day, but as Tabby was no longer able to carry out all her previous tasks it marked the start of Emily’s years as Haworth Parsonage’s very own domestic goddess.

Snow would not have stopped Emily walking upon the moors she loved, though it may have prevented Anne from accompanying her as she liked to do. Worse even than the snow were the cold winter winds that blew, rattling window panes and creeping under doors. They often brought ill health with them, as Anne Brontë revealed in an 1848 letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘We are all cut up by this cruel east wind, most of us i.e. Charlotte, Emily, and I have had the influenza or a bad cold instead, twice over within the space of a few weeks; Papa has had it once, Tabby has hitherto escaped it altogether.’

Snow features in all the sisters’ books, but it is almost a character itself in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – gone is the white purity normally associated with snow; it is instead dark, blinding, incredibly dangerous – snow is in effect nature’s Heathcliff.

David Niven snowstorm
David Niven as Lockwood in a Wuthering Heights snowstorm

We see Lockwood losing his way in an incredible snow storm, and of course we see Cathy’s ghost appear surrounded by snow as well, snow that Heathcliff is oblivious to in his state of anguish:

‘“Come in! Come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice; it gave no sign of being; but the snow and wind whirled wildly through, even reaching my station, and blowing out the light.’

Heathcliff is often seen covered in snow, but it does little to hide his true nature:

‘His hair and clothes were whitened with snow, and his sharp cannibal teeth, revealed by cold and wrath, gleamed through the dark.’

Snow is also found in Anne Brontë’s debut novel Agnes Grey, but once again it is a troubling presence as Agnes has to chase the wicked Bloomfield children through it:

‘All three escaped me, and ran out of the house into the garden, where they plunged about in the snow, shouting and screaming in exultant glee. What must I do? If I followed them, I should probably be unable to capture one, and only drive them farther away, if I did not, how was I to get them in? And what would their parents think of me, if they saw or heard their children rioting, hatless, bonnetless, gloveless, and bootless, in the deep, soft, snow?’

Much of Agnes Grey is based upon Anne’s own experiences as a governess, and we can surely see hear a reflection of a real life dilemma Anne experienced when in charge of the unruly Ingham children of Blake Hall in Mirfield.

Jane Eyre snow
Jane Eyre in the snow, photo by John Scope

Snow features heavily in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre too, and once again it signifies danger or despair, as when Jane returns to her room after the terrible truth of Rochester and Bertha has been revealed on what should have been her wedding day:

‘A Christmas frost had come at midsummer: a white December storm had whirled over June; on hayfield and corn-field lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway.’

Snow is also used as a metaphor in Charlotte’s final finished novel Villette, as it is used in the surname of the heroine Lucy Snowe. We know that in original drafts she was called Lucy Frost, but both surnames sum up the cold hearted despair that Charlotte herself felt when rejected by Constantin Heger in Belgium, the real life catalyst for her brilliant novel.

If you’re going out today wrap up warm – and don’t forget your winter bonnet and pattens!

A Brontë Advent – Haworth Christmas Events

We are now into the series of Advent and many of us are gearing up for Christmas – and of course this is a time that would have excited Anne Brontë and her family too, even though the concept of Christmas in the first half of the nineteenth century is very different to the one we have today.

Christmas, for good or bad, has become a commercially driven festival, but the giving of presents was done on a much smaller scale in the Brontë’s time, and the exchanging of Christmas cards was completely unheard of.

Haworth Christmas Main Street
Haworth Main Street in December

Anne Brontë was undoubtedly the most devout of the Brontë siblings, so she in particular would have loved the Advent celebrations advancing week by week in her father’s church a short walk from the parsonage she called home – such as the lighting of advent carols and the singing of hymns. Christmas music was a particular delight to Anne – so much so that she wrote a poem called ‘Music on Christmas Morning’, which begins:

‘Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.’

We can imagine this warming sight as Christmas day dawned at the Haworth Parsonage: Emily Brontë, a highly accomplished pianist, playing a carol while Anne, who Ellen Nussey said liked to sing in a quiet yet sweet voice, sang to her family.

The village of Haworth also loves music at Christmas – and indeed the Advent Christmas period as a whole is one of particular joy in this beautiful moorside village. In recent decades the modern tradition of ‘scroggling the holly’ has drawn the crowds, but there is no scroggling this year – fear not, for there are lots of other exciting activities coming that are great for Brontë lovers and families alike. This weekend is ‘choral weekend’ – one the whole Brontë family would surely have enjoyed. The 9th of December is the night of the torchlight procession, a moving spectacle as folks in Victorian attire process up the steep and picturesque Main Street. Sunday the 10th is even more spectacular, as a there is a candelit carol procession from 4.30 which culminates in a traditional carol service at St. Michael and All Angels’ Church.

Haworth moors snow
Haworth’s moors are a spectacular sight in December

The following weekend is brass band music – and there really are few sounds more magical than brass bands playing the carols and songs we all love. There are a number of top quality bands playing around Haworth all weekend – and I’ll be there myself on the 17th (don’t worry I’m only listening in, not playing a tuba!).

The Brontë Parsonage Museum is also particularly magical throughout December – particularly on Thursday 8th December – as there’s a chance to experience the parsonage by candlelight and then look at some of the Brontë treasures including manuscripts by Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It’s a tour I’ve done myself, and it truly is thrilling. Places are limited but you can find out more at the Brontë Society website here – where you’ll also find details of other events including Christmas wreath making workshops.

It’s certainly beginning to feel a lot like Christmas here in Yorkshire, by which I mean that it’s absolutely freezing of course, but life feels good when you wrap up warm and read a Brontë book with a warm drink near to hand!