The Brontë Sisters In Love

They say that money makes the world go around, although others would contend that it’s love that makes everything tick – both these things continue to elude me, but even I am fascinated by the love lives of the Brontës: did Charlotte’s loves infuse her writings, did Anne really fall for her father’s assistant, and did Emily love anyone at all? It’s time to brighten up this grey January morning by looking at the Brontës in love.

As a young girl Charlotte Brontë developed a crush on the Duke of Wellington. He was to her what Harry Styles might be to a girl today. Of course she didn’t have a poster on her wall, so instead she had to make do with reading of his exploits in books and the newspapers of the day. This also helped to fuel her amazing creativity; as a young child she, in cahoots with Branwell, Emily and Anne, would act out and write intricate stories set in a land of their making called Angria, and in these early days Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was always sure to be the hero. Do you remember what Charlotte said when her father brought them a set of toy soldiers? She snatched one up and shouted, ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!’

In real life it was hard for anyone to live up to the example of the Duke, and Charlotte wasn’t a woman who would put up with second best. She turned down at least three marriage proposals that we know of, despite being a less than prepossessing woman herself – she was around four and a half feet tall with bad eyesight and missing teeth. The first proposal she turned down was from Henry Nussey, brother of her best friend Ellen, saying that she could never marry someone she didn’t find attractive. He later married a woman called Emily Prescott and become a Church of England vicar in Hathersage, Derbyshire.

St. Michael's, Hathersage
St. Michael’s, Hathersage, where Henry Nussey ministered

Hathersage today has a particular claim to fame – it’s recreated as Morton in Jane Eyre. Charlotte occasionally stayed with Ellen there, and she would have met the richest local family – the Eyre family of North Lees Hall. What’s not as well known is that Henry Nussey didn’t stay in Hathersage long. Within two years he gave up his life as a clergyman, suffering from some form of mental illness. By 1860 he was incarcerated in Arden House Lunatic Asylum, where he tragically hanged himself.

Perhaps Charlotte’s greatest love of all was for a man named Constantin Heger. Aged 25 she travelled to Belgium in company with her sister Emily, and she remained there for two years, with a return to Haworth in the middle after the death of her aunt. She had gone ostensibly to learn French and German, so that the three sisters could set up their own school on their return; but the truth was that she wanted to see something of the world outside Yorkshire, and her other great friend Mary Taylor was already staying in Brussels.

the Heger family by Ange Francois
The Heger family by Ange Francois, Constantin is on the left

Monsieur Heger was a professor at the school attended by Charlotte and Emily. He was a proud, strong man, somewhat aloof and exacting, a bit cold and mysterious, a man who dominated all around him. Sound familiar? Charlotte had met her Mr Rochester, she loved being ordered around by him, while she submissively followed his orders. There were two problems – one, he was married to the school’s headmistress, and two he didn’t share her strong feelings.

After returning permanently to Haworth, Charlotte wrote M. Heger a string of yearning love letters. Her passion, as so often with Charlotte, was out of control. One such epistle ended ‘I cannot – I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart lacerated by searing regrets.’

He never replied to any of her letters, and indeed cut them up. For some reason however his wife stitched them back together again, which is why we now have them in the British library. There must have been a frosty atmosphere around the Heger dining table on the days that yet another letter arrived from England.

It seems that Constantin soon forgot Charlotte, if indeed he’d ever thought of her, but she would never forget him. He was not only the inspiration for Rochester but also for her Belgium based novels The Professor and Villette.

There was another man that Charlotte had esteemed, her father’s good looking assistant curate William Weightman. To be fair he seemed to charm all the women he met, and it was he who in 1840 had sent the sisters their first ever Valentine’s day card. To hide the fact the cards had come from him he walked from Haworth to Bradford to post them, sending one for each with a personalised verse inside – one for Charlotte, Emily and Anne and another for Ellen Nussey who was on one of her visits to the Parsonage at the time.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

The sisters, then aged between 20 and 24, must have been delirious with excitement, although they soon worked out who had sent them. It was an act of kindness from Weightman that was typical of the man, but Charlotte once more took it all too much to heart. She spent weeks drawing his portrait, and being roundly teased for it, and lauding him in her letters, but that was soon to change dramatically.

By February 1841 when Weightman again sends the girls a set of Valentine’s cards, it gets a very different reception from Charlotte. She writes to Ellen:

“I knew better how to treat it than I did those we received a year ago. I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character, he knows I know him… for all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round.”

What has caused this change? It seems to me that Charlotte was jealous that Weightman had overlooked her love for him, and instead turned his eye on to somebody else – someone who to Charlotte would represent the greatest betrayal of them all. The clues are there.

In another letter of this time she writes that Weightman sits opposite Anne at church, sighing softly to gain her attention. ‘And Anne is so quiet, her looks so downcast – they are a picture.’

Could this be the truth – that Weightman had passed over Charlotte for her youngest sister? Was he the one and only love of Anne Brontë’s all too brief life, a love that would only find fruition in Anne’s writings after Weightman’s untimely death.

Despite Charlotte’s portrayal of him, Weightman was a very kind hearted and sincere man, which is why after his death the Haworth parishioners dipped into their own pockets to have a large tribute to him erected in their church. He often visited sick parishioners, taking them food and drink and reading to them, but in a village as disease ridden as Haworth that was like playing Russian roulette. In August 1842 he contracted cholera from a parishioner he was visiting, and died 2 weeks later aged just 28.

Anne was away on governess duties near York at the time, but her grieving would last for the rest of her life. Had they had an agreement with each other in real life, did they harbour hopes that they could one day be married? It certainly wouldn’t be unusual for a young curate to seek a wife from the daughters of another clergyman, and Anne was described by contemporaries as the prettiest of the Brontë sisters, as well as being the most pious. We’ll never know whether they did acknowledge their love for each other, although I hope so – it’s the old romantic in me.

What we can say for sure is that after Weightman’s death, Anne created a series of poems mourning the death of a loved one. Poems with opening lines such as ‘I will not mourn thee lovely one, though thou art torn away’ and later ‘Severed and gone so many years! And art thou still so dear to me.’ She also chose to portray Weightman as Reverend Weston in her first novel, the wonderful ‘Agnes Grey‘ – to me the most underrated book ever written. She shows Weston visiting the sick, taking them food and fuel, rescuing their pets, all things she had witnessed Weightman do in real life. At the end of the novel, spoiler alert, Agnes, who is very closely modelled on Anne herself, marries Weston. In print at least Anne is giving herself the happy ending she was denied in real life – that’s my opinion, but others may disagree with my conclusion. That’s one of the great things about the Brontës, we can all create our own theories, each as valid as the other.

Olivier as Heathcliff
Did Emily find her own Heathcliff? In a word, no

So we’ve seen Anne’s possible love, but what about Emily? Could the creator of Cathy and Heathcliff really have never had a love of her own, not even an unrequited love of her own? It’s something we’ll never know, unfortunately – certainly there is no record in diaries or letters of Emily forming an attachment to anyone except her mastiff Keeper and her sister Anne, with whom she was so close that they were talked of as being like twins. It would be nice to think that she did have a love for someone, but it seems very unlikely. One early twentieth century biographer, Virginia Moore, discerned a faint name in pencil on an Emily Brontë manuscript, and announced excitedly to the world that she had discovered Emily’s secret love – Louis Parensell! Unfortunately a closer examination of the manuscript in question showed that the pencil marks actually read ‘Love’s Farewell’, an alternative title to the poem below it.

We’ll finish on a happier note, and return to Charlotte again. She had a suitor who had been taking an interest in her for many years, and once again it was an assistant curate to her father – Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Arthur Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls

After Branwell, Emily and Anne died within nine months of each other in 1848 and 1849, Charlotte felt bereft and alone, frequently suffering from attacks of depression and writing that she was ‘driven often to wish I could taste one draught of oblivion and forget much that, while mind remains, I shall never forget.’

In these darkest moments, Arthur acted as a friend to her, and he even took up the duty of walking the dogs Keeper and Flossy that had belonged to Emily and Anne. Charlotte was seemingly unaware of his real feelings towards her however, so it came as a big shock to all concerned when in December 1852 he asked her father for her hand in marriage. Patrick was furious; this was a man who had been a great help in his church, and was a fellow Irishman, yet Charlotte was by now a successful writer, and he thought his daughter could do better for herself. Patrick was also by then an old man, and worried how he could cope if Charlotte wasn’t there to look after him. Charlotte was just as angry, professing that she didn’t and couldn’t love him.

The spurned Arthur suddenly found himself persona non grata in the Parsonage, and announced he was leaving Haworth to become a missionary in Australia. Charlotte recorded what happened at the last service he officiated at. He mounted the steps to the pulpit, and then stood there shaking, unable to speak. Eventually some of the congregation helped him down and led him outside, with many of the parishioners in tears. Charlotte later found him by a wall, ‘sobbing as no man has ever sobbed.’

Arthur didn’t go to Australia, he went somewhere less exotic – Kirk Smeaton near Selby. From there he continued to write to Charlotte, and his persistence won her round, as did his promise that they would continue to live at Haworth and look after her father if they wed.

Charlotte Bronte's wedding to Arthur Be
A recent recreation of Charlotte Bronte’s wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls

On 29th June 1854, they married in Haworth. Patrick said that he was too ill to attend, so Charlotte’s old headmistress Miss Wooler had to give her away instead. Even at this point Charlotte professed little liking for her new husband, but this rapidly changed. To her great surprise Charlotte found that she loved married life and she loved Arthur. Now at last, after 38 years of loss and sadness, Charlotte Brontë was truly happy. Let us end on that uplifting note, after all what the world needs now is love, sweet love – even if only taken vicariously through the great novels of the Brontë sisters.

The Brontës, Robbie Burns, Scott and Scotland

This coming Thursday, the 25th of January, will be marked across Scotland and on far flung shores across the world, as Burns Night. The reason for this, of course, is that it is the day that Robbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, was born on in the year 1759. He was a magnificent poet but his fame has transcended the world of literature until he has become seen as a national emblem of Scotland itself. With this special night in mind, and as in just over a week I will be making my first journey to Scotland in over thirty years, I thought it a good time to look at the huge influence that Scotland had on the Brontës.

The Brontës were passionate about all things Scottish. This is partly because of their youthful reading of Blackwood’s magazine – produced in Edinburgh it featured essays and literary extracts from many great writers, including another Scottish writer, James Hogg. Hogg was a fascinating man, born into a poor life as a shepherd he became feted as a great writer and produced the sensational, and scandalous, novel ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’. This novel was a clear influence upon ‘Wuthering Heights‘, and all the Brontë siblings must have been distraught to hear of his death in 1835. This was the catalyst for Branwell to write to Blackwood’s magazine and offer his own services to replace Hogg:

‘You have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë’.

James Hogg
James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ambitious young writer received no reply to his letter, and to subsequent follow ups. One Scottish writer fascinated the Brontës even more than the Ettrick Shepherd (as Hogg was known), and that was Walter Scott. We have Aunt Branwell to thank for the Brontës’ love of Scott, for it was she that ignited their passion with her gift of his new book ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ at Christmas 1828.

‘Tales of a Grandfather’ is a stirring rendition of some of Scotland’s greatest legends, such as the tales of Robert the Bruce, and it certainly fired the young Brontës’ imagination. Scott’s influence would never leave the sisters and it can be seen especially in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ – even more so than the influence of Hogg and of other books such as ‘The Bridegroom of Barna’, first published by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1840.

Walter Scott monument
The Walter Scott monument in Edinburgh

One reason the young Brontës loved all things Scottish was that the moorland landscapes covered with heather, the wild wuthering weather that swept through the valleys, were shared by Scotland and Haworth alike. On their childhood jaunts across the moors, we can easily imagine Emily and Anne re-enacting some of their favourite moments from Scott’s tales, and the sight of a mouse or vole would surely recall to their minds Burns’s famous depiction of a ‘wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie.’

Charlotte Brontë was the only sibling who ever made it to Scotland, visiting there in the company of George Smith and his sister in July 1850, and she was mightily impressed. She fell in love with Edinburgh, recalling as it did the happy times she had spent reading about it and dreaming about it with her now gone sisters Emily and Anne. Charlotte declared that: ‘Edinburgh compared to London is like a vivid page of history compared to a huge dull treatise on Political Economy.’

Scott’s supremacy as a writer was also attested to by Charlotte in a letter to her great friend Ellen Nussey in July 1834 when she said:

‘Scott’s sweet, wild, romantic Poetry can do you no harm… for Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.’

There was another great Scottish writer who was familiar to the Brontës – the man himself, Rabbie Burns. Burn’s poetry, and particularly those such as ‘The Battle Of Sheramuir’ that deal with conflict and intrigue, can be heard echoing in the Gondal poems of Emily and Anne Brontë. Perhaps fittingly, however, in this his anniversary year, it was Branwell Brontë who exhibited the greatest influence from Robbie Burns, writing a poem, or rather a fragment of a poem, entitled ‘Robert Burns’.

Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth
Robert Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, by Alexander Nasmyth

Happy Burns Night to one and all, whether you’re in Scotland, England, America or anywhere else. It’s traditional, of course, at a Burns Supper on 25th January to read Burns’ wonderful poem ‘Address To A Haggis’ as pipe music plays in the background. Imagine the pipes wailing out, a glass of finest Scotch by your hand, as that great national meal the haggis solemnly approaches. Now to complete the ceremony (in our minds) we can recite Branwell’s fragmentary tribute to the great Rab Burns himself:

‘He little knows – whose life has smoothly passed
Unharmed by storm or strife, undimmed by care
Who – clad in purple laughs at every blast
Wrapped up contented in the joys that are
He little knows the long and truceless war
Of one on poverty’s rough waters cast
With eyes fixed forward on the glorious Star
That from fames temple beams – alas! How far
Til backward buffeted o’er ocean’s waste.’

Burns supper
Burns supper – the piping of the haggis

Happy Burns Night/Week to you all – or as Burns himself said: ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o the puddin’-race!’

Happy 198th Birthday to Anne Brontë!

The Sheffield University archives contain a series of diaries from a woman whose grandson became a Professor there, and who then gifted them to the institution. The entry from exactly a hundred and ninety eight years ago today reads as follows: ‘Ann [sic] Brontë born – the other children spent the day here.’

Kipping House
Kipping House, Thornton where the Brontes waited for news of Anne’s birth

The writer of the diary was Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House in Thornton, near Bradford, and on that cold January day, her home was filled with the five children of the local minister: Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë and the little Emily Jane Brontë, then just a year and a half old. Just a few hundred metres away, a climb up to the centre of the moorside village of Thornton, a rather different scenario was being played out as Maria Brontë, once Maria Branwell of Penzance, was giving birth to her sixth and final child. This child of course is much loved by me and many others, for in adult life under the guise of Acton Bell she would give us the masterpieces ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘.

Looking out of my window I see that snow is now covering the ground of South Yorkshire, and I know that the hills and moors around Thornton and Haworth in West Yorkshire are buried under an even thicker white blanket. This is appropriate as records show that it was also snowing on the day that Anne was born 198 years ago. As was the customary in those days, it’s likely that a local midwife would have helped with the birth and it would have taken place in front of the large fireplace that still forms the centre point of the building today – now the excellent Emily’s bistro!

Anne Brontë's birthplace
Emily’s, once Thornton Parsonage, where Anne Bronte was born in 1820

The other Brontës, as we have seen, were under the eagle eye of Elizabeth Firth, then only 22 herself. She is a central figure in Anne’s story as she was chosen to be Anne’s godmother, along with her school friend Fanny Outhwaite. These kind hearted women never forgot their goddaughter. Just 29 years later, on 14th February 1849, Fanny Outhwaite died, and left Anne the considerable sum of £200 in her will. It was from this money that Anne, by then herself dying, paid for her final journey to Scarborough in the company of Charlotte and their kind, loyal friend Ellen Nussey.

Elizabeth could have had an even more pivotal role to play in the Brontë story, as just months after the death of Maria Brontë senior in 1822, Patrick proposed marriage to the young woman of Kipping Hall. Elizabeth was horrified at the timing of this and considered the match entirely unsuitable. She later married Reverend James Franks, and eventually she and Patrick rekindled their former friendship.

If we could travel back to the January day in 1820 and take a look at the baby Anne at Thornton Parsonage or the Brontë children at Kipping House just what would we see? We would see children just like any others, for when we look upon any infant in its cradle who can say what they will turn out to be or do? Baby Anne would grow up to be a very special woman indeed, one whose achievements are only now starting to be recognised. Wherever you are, stop to raise a glass of something cold or warm and say ‘Happy 198th birthday, Anne Brontë!’

Did Emily Brontë Write A Second Novel?

We are now half way through the first month of 2018 (tempus fugit), which is of course the year above all other years that we remember the brilliant Emily Brontë. Her writing has captured the imagination of the world for a hundred and seventy years, but in many ways she remains an enigma. She didn’t make pronouncements on politics or the society of her time, she wasn’t a letter writer, she hardly interacted with other people at all when she could avoid it – to Emily Brontë, writing was everything. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding her life is why she only wrote one novel, the brilliant Wuthering Heights, and there has long been speculation over whether she had commenced or completed a second novel?

The evidence for a second prose work by Emily is found in a letter from Thomas Cautley Newby dated 15th February 1848. The letter, now part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection, is addressed to Ellis Bell and reads:

‘I am much obliged by your kind note & shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your new work if it be an improvement on your first you will have established yourself as a first rate novelist, but if it falls short the Critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel.’

Newby was the man who had published both Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, although he believed the writers to be called Ellis and Acton Bell. It is often said that Newby may have meant to address this letter to Anne Brontë, Acton Bell as he knew her, as she went on to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for him. This seems unlikely to me, however, as although he deliberately caused confusion about the Bell’s names when trying to sell rights to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in America (causing Anne and Charlotte Brontë to make their ill fated journey to London in the summer of 1848) he was above all else a businessman focused on making money and therefore unlikely to mix his authors up. The greatest proof is that the letter was found within Emily Brontë’s writing desk after her death, so it seems clear that it was intended for her, and that she had at least considered writing another novel.

Wuthering Heights, published by Thomas Cautley Newby
Wuthering Heights, published by Thomas Cautley Newby

If Emily Brontë did write at least some part of a second novel, what happened to it? We know that Charlotte Brontë burnt much of her sisters’ writings after their deaths, including juvenilia and letters. This was a common practice in those times, and Charlotte admitted to ‘pruning’ their work. It seems most likely to me that any work on this second novel by Emily was one of the selections consigned to the flames, but just how much progress on it is Emily likely to have made?

It seems to me there are two possibilities. One is that Newby sent an earlier letter to Emily, now lost, asking her for an update on a second novel that she had already agreed to (as we can surmise from Newby’s publication of Anne’s second book, despite his earlier shabby treatment of her); Emily sends a terse response to his letter saying that she is taking her time with it (having not actually contemplated writing one at all) which in turn leads to Newby’s letter quoted above.

Another possibility is that Emily, in an effort to raise her own spirits, had sent a letter to her publisher stating that she was thinking of writing another novel if he would be interested in taking it. Emily was an intensely private woman who was distraught at the reception her work had received from the public: she was called coarse and brutal, misunderstood and condemned. If she did begin work on a second novel it is likely that these harsh and unfair judgements on her previous work would have continued to trouble her, resulting in slow progress if there was any progress at all. In either scenario that Newby’s letter throws up it seems unlikely to me that Emily ever commenced any meaningful work on the book.

Emily Bronte writing desk
Emily Bronte’s writing desk

Of course, this is just conjecture on my part – like so many things in the Brontë story it will have to remain a mystery. Conjecture itself can be rewarding, however, as trying to get closer to the sisters’ lives is always enjoyable. The bottom line is that Emily Brontë left us just one novel, but as it’s the greatest novel ever written I don’t think we should complain too much.