The Original Zenobia, And A Writer In The Family!

The adult writing of the Brontë sisters that we so love today have their roots in the youthful writings of four siblings that centred upon two imaginary universes – Angria and Gondal.

Angria was the first land to be created and it flowed from childhood games and tales that had developed from a set of twelve soldiers bought for Branwell in 1826. These early Angrian adventures form the bulk of material into the incredible little books that can be seen at the Brontë Parsonage Museum today. Belying the tender years of their creators, the Angrian adventures are complex, full of spies, passion, double dealings and bloodshed, but they also contain a welcome streak of humour, with mock adverts in the style of those they found in their father’s literary magazines.

The Angrian writing was done exclusively by the older siblings Charlotte and Branwell, but Emily and Anne Brontë were encouraged to make verbal suggestions from the sidelines, and their contributions appear in the tales under the guises of the Genius Emmii and the Genius Annii.

Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte
Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte

Being a genie and listening to their adventures in a far off land was great fun for the youngest sisters, particularly as Tales From The Arabian Knights was one of their favourite books, but soon they wanted to take a more active role. Their opportunity came in 1831, when Charlotte left Haworth to become a pupil at Roe Head School in Mirfield. By now Anne and Emily were 11 and 13 respectively, and it wasn’t long before they decided to create a world of their own – the world of Gondal. This was an island kingdom of their own imagining that was frequently at war with the neighbouring state of Gaaldine.

Gondal helped to cement the twin like bond between Anne and Emily. They would take long walks on the moors together discussing the next development in the Gondal saga. They would spend hours in the Parsonage whispering plots into each others ears. Gondal was their land – and it was a land full of even more intrigue and passion than Angria had been. One of the major recurring characters in Gondal is Alexandria Zenobia, and the choice of name in this instance is very telling for they had encountered a real life Zenobia in the periodicals they loved to read – and even more excitingly, the tales of this flesh and blood Zenobia were related by a man who was known by their Aunt Branwell – and who was related to her and the mother who had tragically died during their infancy.

Lady Hester Stanhope
Lady Hester Stanhope

John Carne of Penzance was a second cousin of Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, whose mother’s maiden name had been Anne Carne. He was a well travelled man who write books about his journeys across what were then, to the people of England, largely unknown countries and continents. John’s 1826 book ‘Letters from the East’ was a great success and excerpts were printed in a number of publications including The Quarterly Review. It contains lurid descriptions and fantastical tales that had the young Brontë’s gasping with excitement, including his description of the British explorer and archaeologist Lady Hester Stanhope, niece of former Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Frequently crossing hostile territories she was feted by locals and hailed as ‘Zenobia, Queen of Syria’ in memory of an earlier Queen who is pictured at the top of this post:

‘Her restless and romantic mind dwelt with pleasure on the idea of a power to be established in the East, of which she was to be the mistress: – a large fleet was to come from afar to aid this conquest, and her sceptre was to wave with equal glory to that of Zenobia who defended Palmyra.’

Did Emily or Anne see themselves as a Lady Hester Stanhope as they gazed upon their own territory, the moors of Haworth? Did they dream of becoming a writer like their relative John Carne? Their names have deservedly survived much longer of course, and the name Zenobia itself is now most famous for its association with a poem Anne Brontë wrote when she was just 17. Entitled ‘Alexander and Zenobia’, I leave you with an extract from it now:

‘Fair was the evening and brightly the sun,
Was shining on desert and grove,
Sweet were the breezes and balmy the flowers,
And cloudless the heavens above.
It was Arabia’s distant land,
And peaceful was the hour;
Two youthful figures lay reclined,
Deep in a shady bower.
One was a boy of just fourteen,
Bold beautiful and bright;
Soft raven curls hung clustering round,
A brow of marble white.
The fair brow and ruddy cheek,
Spoke of less burning skies;
Words cannot paint the look that beamed,
In his dark lustrous eyes.
The other was a slender girl,
Blooming and young and fair,
The snowy neck was shaded with,
The long bright sunny hair,
And those deep eyes of watery blue,
So sweetly sad they seem’d,
And every feature in her face,
With pensive sorrow teem’d.
The youth beheld her saddened air,
And smiling cheerfully,
He said “How pleasant is the land,
Of sunny Araby!
Zenobia, I never saw,
A lovelier eye than this;
I never felt my spirit raised with more unbroken bliss!..
So pleasant are the scents that rise,
From flowers of loveliest hue,
And more than all – Zenobia,
I am alone with you!’

Valentine’s Day 1840 at the Brontë Parsonage

This is the week when postal workers really earn their pay, in most of the country backs groaning from the weight of Valentine’s Day cards and at my house from the weight of the hefty winter fuel bills about to pop through my letterbox.

We often think of Valentine’s Day as a modern phenomena, something to help shops sell cards and merchandise between Christmas and Easter (or is that just me?) but in fact the giving of Valentine’s cards far predates the giving of Christmas cards that only became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Brontë sisters received their first cards on February 14th, 1840, and even though they eventually discovered the source was their father’s new assistant curate it must still have been a thrill for them – especially for Anne.

Victorian Valentine
This Victorian Valentine’s Day keepsake seems tailor made for the Brontes

The man was, of course, William Weightman, who had recently gained his Master of Arts degree from the newly founded Durham University and commenced life in the clergy. In the run up to February 14th he was astonished to find out that none of the sisters had ever received a Valentine’s day card, and characteristically he sprung into action. What he did next was a testament to his kind and good nature, although as we shall see Charlotte later took a different view of it. He not only bought four cards, not wanting the visiting Ellen Nussey to feel left out, but wrote personalised verses in each. His efforts didn’t end there, as he then walked more than ten miles across very rugged terrain in the height of winter to Bradford, where he posted them. He did this of course so the Brontë sisters wouldn’t guess he had sent them because of a local postmark, thereby adding to the excitement and intrigue.

The titles of the poems on each card can be equally intriguing to us: with only one can we positively identify the target, as ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ was obviously meant for the great Brontë friend Miss Nussey. One title, sadly, has been lost in the intervening years, but two of the other three were called ‘Soul Divine’ and ‘Away Fond Love’. Could ‘Soul Divine’ have been for Emily, in tribute to her indomitable spirit, and could ‘Away Fond Love’ have been a reference to Anne, who was at that moment looking for a new situation as a governess that would take her away from Haworth? If so, then the missing title could have been for Charlotte, who may possibly have ripped it up in a fit of pique after falling spectacularly out with the young man she had once thought so highly of.

Despite the Bradford subterfuge, Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Ellen soon worked out who their anonymous sender was, and they wrote him a collective poem in return:

“We cannot write or talk like you;
We’re plain folks every one;
You’ve played a clever trick on us,
We thank you for the fun.
Believe us frankly when we say
(Our words though blunt are true).
At home, abroad, by night or day,
We all wish well to you.”

Were the sisters annoyed at being made fun of, or did they see it as an act of kindliness? Either way we can imagine how delighted they were when their cards first arrived. These were young women who loved the romance of novels by Walter Scott and the poetry of Byron, and had created their own lands of Angria and Gondal full of the intrigues of love, so this romantic gesture must have set their hearts a-flutter, if only for a moment or two. Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 17th March 1840 (her father’s birthday, a fact she doesn’t mention in her letter) told of how well received the cards had been, and what an impression they and their sender had made:

‘Walk up to Gomersal and tell her [Martha Taylor] forthwith every individual occurrence you can recollect, including Valentines, “Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen” – “Away Fond Love”, “Soul Divine” and all – likewise if you please the painting of Miss Celia Amelia Weightman’s portrait [Celia Amelia was Charlotte’s pet name for William] and that young lady’s frequent and agreeable visits.”

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman, aka Celia Amelia, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

In February 1841, William Weightman once more sent Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë a Valentine’s day card, but this is how Charlotte viewed it now as revealed in another letter 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.”

Charlotte had Weightman’s character correct the first time round. His kindness would eventually be his undoing as his passion for visiting sick parishioners led to his early demise from cholera just two years after sending the Brontës their first ever Valentine’s Day cards.

If he had lived longer he may well have sent cards annually to Anne Brontë, for I like to think that they were an ideal match for each other. It was not to be, but at least the sisters had that thrilling 14th of February in 1840 to remember. Whether you get one card or a dozen cards next Wednesday, I hope you have a great day. And if, like me, you will look be looking at an empty and cardless hearth don’t worry, cheer yourself up with an extra pancake on Tuesday instead!

Muriel Spark and the Brontë Diet

This week saw the launch of ‘Making Thunder Roar’, the year long exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum that aims to celebrate the life of Emily Brontë. I was in Glasgow at the time, taking in celebrations of Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday, but I hope to make it up to the parsonage in the near future – and of course I hope they’ve done Emily proud by putting her front and centre of the exhibition as her great talent deserves. Muriel Spark was an excellent writer herself, of course, with ‘The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie’ just one of her brilliant books. She was also a huge Brontë enthusiast, leading her to write her own book on the subject: ‘The Essence of the Brontës.’

Muriel Spark also spoke on the subject in a 1961 BBC interview, recorded in Haworth, as she paid special tribute to the effect that Emily Brontë had on her writing and her life. She said that: ‘I was fascinated by her creative mind because it was so entirely alien to my own.’

Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark, born 1st February 1918

The Brontës and their world seemed alien to Muriel Spark in 1961, so how much more alien can they seem to us over half a century later? That’s part of their fascination, we want to know the everyday details of their lives – how they dressed, what they read, what they ate. A fellow Brontë lover that I met in Glasgow brought this particular question up this week, so today I will take a look at what constituted the Brontë diet.

This has been a subject of some controversy, because the earliest Brontë biography gave a less than truthful appraisal of their daily meals. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her brilliant but occasionally flawed biography of Charlotte, carried a report from ‘ a good old woman’ who nursed Maria Brontë in her final illness, that: ‘I used to think them spiritless, they were so different to any children I had ever seen. In part I set it down to a fancy Mr. Brontë had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat… he thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner; but they never seemed to wish for anything else.’

Unfortunately Elizabeth had misread the veracity of her witness, as the woman in question, Martha Wright, was less than trustworthy when it came to her opinions of Patrick Brontë. She had been dismissed from his service shortly after his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell arrived at the parsonage, with the woman who would become known as Aunt Branwell taking over the duty of nursing the dying Maria. This seems to have tainted her views of the Brontës, and her assertion about their diet is provably untrue.

Emily and Anne Brontë, inseparable friends as well as sisters, came into the habit of writing diary papers together. In the diary paper of 24th November 1834, the earliest we have, the sisters paint a picture of domestic life in the Parsonage on that day. Emily writes (with the haphazard spelling then so typical of her): ‘we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding the kitchin is in a very untidy state’. She also says that she is peeling apples, and that family servant Tabby Aykroyd later makes her peel potatoes, as Charlotte is making an apple pudding: ‘Charlotte said that she made puddings perfectly and was of a quick but limted intellect.’

We can guess that Charlotte was talking about Tabby here, rather than making such a judgement about herself. This reveals a very tasty meal being prepared, a far cry from the spartan dining suggested by Martha Wright.

Charlotte was not particularly skilled at cooking or baking. In August 1846 she was lodging temporarily in Manchester with her father, as he recovered from cataract surgery – surgery that was undertaken upon him without any anaesthetic, and that he reported didn’t hurt other than a slight burning sensation as the cataracts were cut away. On 21st August of that year she wrote to her great friend Ellen Nussey to say that one of her greatest difficulties was that she ‘was somewhat puzzled in managing about provisions.’

bread baking
Emily Bronte excelled at bread baking, an essential Victorian skill

Emily, on the other hand, turned out to be a master of the domestic scene. As Tabby became older and infirm, as the result of a slip on the icy Haworth street that broke her leg and left her with a permanent limp, Emily took over many of the cooking and baking duties that Tabby had formerly held. It was a task that she loved, and like much that she turned her hand to, from piano playing to novel writing, she possessed a brilliance at it. Emily became famed for the quality of the bread that she made, and people said that it was the best in the village. Haworth stationer John Greenwood, who knew the family well, said that Emily could often be found: ‘in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand.’

We also hear of Emily learning German from a book propped up on the table where she was kneading and preparing the day’s loaves.

Bread was the cornerstone of the Brontë diet, and of the diet of early Victorian society in general, but was we’ve seen they also enjoyed potatoes and other vegetables, and beef and mutton, this was sheep farming country after all, would also have been regularly eaten. Pigeon pie was a delicacy to be savoured, and we also know that Emily made bannock, a traditional variety of flatbread. Fish dishes on a Friday would have been a reminder of their Irish heritage, but what else did they eat? A 1981 book called ‘Haworth Kitchen: Recipes From the Home of the Brontës’ reveals a varied and often appealing diet, so whilst many of their meals may of course seem a little jaded to our modern tastes, we can be sure that the Brontës enjoyed nutritious meals that were tasty as well. It was the fuel that powered their imaginations and creative genius, and we can all, from Muriel Spark to myself in my South Yorkshire study, be thankful of that.