Happy Birthday Charlotte Brontë, 202 Today!

Jane Eyre is one of the most celebrated works of literature of all time, but there is much more to its creator than this incredible novel of a governess, a mysterious attic and an unquenchable passion. Its author was a complex woman, sometimes fiery, sometimes dismissive, but always full of an enormous love for those she was close to. It’s these qualities that we remember as we say ‘Happy 202nd birthday, Charlotte Brontë!’

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21st April in the parsonage on Market Street in Thornton, a moor-side village four miles from Bradford. Already at Thornton were Charlotte’s elder siblings Maria and Elizabeth, and in the four years after Charlotte’s birth she would be joined by her brother Branwell and then her younger sisters Emily and Anne.

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, aunt to Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Brontë was named after Charlotte Branwell, the youngest sister of her mother Maria. As this Charlotte lived in Penzance with her husband, and cousin, Joseph Branwell, the two namesakes never saw each other, but we know that the Brontë and Branwell families corresponded over the 400 miles that separated them.

By spring 1820, just three months after Anne’s birth, the family were making a short trip to their new parish, and new home, of Haworth. Just a year after their arrival, Charlotte’s mother Maria tragically died and this terrible event would, in a way, lead to the literary treasures we have today. The siblings were thrown together, they developed an independence, but also a dread of people from outside their family unit. Their mother’s sister Elizabeth, known as Aunt Branwell, now lived with them in Haworth and made incredible sacrifices, financially and emotionally, but in those first months and years after their mother’s death it was eldest sister Maria who became a real and much loved mother figure, despite being of tender years herself.

We should never underestimate the devastation that the early losses of her mother and then eldest sisters had on Charlotte, and this is the root of the depressive bilious attacks that she often suffered from throughout her life. Her incredible spirit could not be bowed forever, however, and her brilliant novels are testimony to her fortitude and strength, as well as her genius. Her husband famously described Charlotte’s letters as ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’, and she certainly didn’t hold back in them. By examining them today we can still get a glimpse of the real Charlotte Brontë:

Teaching her sisters

‘In the morning from nine o’clock till half past twelve I instruct my sisters & draw, then we walk till dinner, after dinner I sew till tea-time, and after tea I either read, write, do a little fancy-work or draw, as I please. Thus in one delightful, though somewhat monotonous course my life is passed.’ (21 July 1832)

Self-criticism and love for Ellen Nussey:

‘What am I compared to you? I feel my own utter worthlessness when I make the comparison. I’m a very coarse common-place wretch! Ellen I have some qualities that make me very miserable, some feelings that you can have no participation in – that very few people in the world can at all understand… they burst out sometimes and then those who see the explosion despise me and I hate myself for days afterwards. We are going to have prayers, so I can write no more of this trash yet it is too true.’

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
A young Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

(October 1836)

Life as a governess:

‘My dearest Lavinia [Emily Brontë]… I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil. While she is teaching the children, working for them, amusing them, it is all right. If she steals a moment for herself it is a nuisance.’

(8 June 1839)

Wish to move on in the world:

‘If I could leave home Ellen I should not be at Haworth now – I know life is passing away and I am doing nothing – earning nothing – a very bitter knowledge it is at moments, but I see no way out of the mist.’

(14 October 1846)

On the reception of ‘Jane Eyre’:

‘I feel honoured in being approved by Mr. Thackeray because I approve of Mr. Thackeray… one good word from such a man is worth pages of praise from ordinary judges. You are right in having faith in the reality of Helen Burns’ character: she was real enough: I have exaggerated nothing there: I abstained from recording much that I remembered respecting her, lest the narrative should sound incredible. Knowing this, I could not but smile at the quiet, self-complacent dogmatism with which one of the journals lays it down that “such creations as Helen Burns are very beautiful but very untrue”’.

(28 October 1847)

Mourning her siblings:

‘They [Emily and Anne] are both gone, and so is poor Branwell – and Papa has now me only – the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children. Consumption has taken the whole five… I am ordered to remain at the sea-side a while… I do not know what my next address will be, I shall wander a week or two on the east coast and only stop at quiet, lonely places.’

(4 June 1849)

Finding love with her husband:

‘I trust I feel thankful to God for having enabled me to make what seems a right choice – and I pray to be enabled to repay as I ought the affectionate devotion of a truthful, honourable, unboastful man… We go to Kilkee a watering-place on the South-West coast. The letters may be addressed – Mrs. Arthur Nicholls.’

(10 July 1854)

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

We will leave her letters there, and leave Charlotte in a moment of love and happiness that she richly deserved. She endured a lot, yet always fought on, and it was she that was the driving force behind the brilliant novels of the Brontë sisters that we love today. Let’s raise a toast and a smile and say ‘Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë’.

Happy Birthday Maria Brontë, nee Branwell

Today marks the 235th birthday of a very special woman – Maria Brontë, born Maria Branwell, the mother of the Brontë siblings: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane, and Anne.

Maria Branwell was born into a prosperous and well connected merchant family in Penzance, Cornwall on 15th April 1783. Her father Thomas Branwell was a wealthy businessman, and under him the Branwell property empire and fortunes grew. Maria’s brother Benjamin rose to become Mayor of Penzance, but she was particularly close to her sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth, who would become better known as Aunt Branwell after sacrificing everything to raise Maria’s children after her tragic and untimely passing.

Thomas Branwell b J. Tonkin
Maria’s father Thomas Branwell by James Tonkin

It was the death of Maria’s parents Thomas and Anne that led her, in the summer of 1812, to make the arduous journey from Cornwall to Yorkshire to work as an assistant in a school that had been opened by her Aunt Jane and Uncle John Fennell (as a comparison, this is a longer journey in miles than the one her daughters Charlotte and Emily would later take when they travelled from Haworth to Brussels).

The school was in Rawdon, between Bradford and Leeds, and John Fennell had recently recruited a new classics examiner for the schoolchildren. It was a friend of his from his days in Shropshire who had also moved to Yorkshire. He was of course Patrick Brontë, and when he and Maria first saw each other it was love at first sight. The rest, as they say, is literary history.

One part of Maria’s story that is often overlooked is that she herself was a brilliant mind and an excellent and fluid writer, as Charlotte Brontë found out as an adult when presented with a very special gift by her father. It was a lovingly preserved and cared for package of her mother’s letters, and the effect on her was very moving:

‘It was strange now to peruse for the first time the records of a mind whence my own sprang – and most strange – and at once sad and sweet to find that mind of a truly fine, pure and elevated order. They were written to papa before they were married – there is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wished she had lived and that I had known her.’

We still have some of Maria’s love letters to Patrick, who she christened ‘my saucy Pat’, and they are beautifully written, often playful, but most obviously full of love. By this time neither she nor Patrick were in their first flush of youth, she was approaching her thirtieth birthday and he was six years older, but they fell head over heels for each other almost instantly, and were married within six months of their first meeting.

As early as 5th September 1812 their love is evident, as is the fact they had already decided to be together:

‘O my dear friend, let us pray that we may live lives holy and useful to each other and all around us! I pitied you in your solitude, and felt sorry it was not in my power to enliven it.’

By 18th September, Maria was writing:

‘I believe a kind Providence has intended that I shall find in you every earthly friend united; nor do I fear to trust myself under your protection, or shrink from your control. It is pleasant to be subject to those we love.’

Woodhouse Grove School
Woodhouse Grove School where Maria met Patrick in 1812

Maria was certainly having an effect on Patrick too, and he could think of nothing but his love to the point where he often forgot anything else. After forgetting to tell the Fennells about visitors to the school that he had arranged, John Fennell thought Patrick’s behaviour had become so out of character that he should be sent to the lunatic asylum in York (presumably he only said this in jest). Maria reports this in the same letter as above:

‘I do not know whether you dare show your face here again or not after the blunder you have committed. When I got to the house on Thursday evening, even before we were within the doors, we found that Mr and Mrs Bedford had been there, and that they had requested you to mention their intention of coming – a single hint of which you never gave. They all agreed that I was the cause of it. Mr Fennell said you were certainly mazed and talked of sending you to York. Even I begin to think that this bears some mark of insanity!

By 24th October, their feelings for each other were in no doubt, as Maria writes:

‘Unless my love for you were very great how could I so contentedly give up my home and all my friends… Yet these have lost their weight… the anticipation of sharing with you all the pleasures and pains, the cares and anxieties of life, of contributing to your comfort and becoming the companion of your pilgrimage, is more delightful to me than any other prospect which this world can possibly present.’

The last surviving letter of Maria’s extant today is dated 5th December:

‘We intend to set about making the cakes here next week, but as fifteen or twenty persons whom you mention live probably in your neighbourhood, I think it will be most convenient for Mrs Bedford to make a small one for the purpose of distributing there, which will save us the difficulty of sending so far.’

St. Oswald's Church, Guiseley
St. Oswald’s Church, Guiseley, site of Maria’s wedding to Patrick Bronte

The cakes were for their wedding, as they were married in Guiseley’s St. Oswald’s church 24 days later. These were the letters that Charlotte Brontë loved to read, and they revealed a warm, witty, loving woman. This is how we should remember Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, as well as for the brilliant family she bore, as we say ‘Happy birthday, Maria Brontë!’ Incidentally, we’ll be saying that again in a week’s time, in a sense and for a different reason, as although we don’t know the exact date her first child, the kind, brilliant and prodigious genius Maria Brontë junior, was born, she was baptised on 23rd April 1814.

Daphne du Maurier and the Brontë Influence

The Brontës created some of the most brilliant and acclaimed novels ever written, and in the decades and centuries following their death they have inspired a range of writers across the world to create their own masterpieces.

In an earlier post we looked at their influence upon Muriel Spark, but it can be seen even more clearly in one of the most celebrated of twentieth century writers: Daphne du Maurier. Her most celebrated novel ‘Rebecca’ is eighty years old this year, and a 2017 poll by bookseller WH Smith named it as the nation’s most loved novel of the last 225 years: that’s some accolade, even if I’m sure we can all name some books written in Haworth that should also be considered for that title.

Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs de Winter
Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs de Winter

Daphne du Maurier was born in London in 1907 into a rich and famous family, and she was the granddaughter of George du Maurier whose celebrated Victorian novel ‘Trilby’ launched that word and that of its evil villain ‘Svengali’ into the English language.

Daphne married Major Frederick Browning in 1932, but after his death in 1965 she moved to the county she has become synonymous with, and which she had often visited throughout her life: Cornwall. Two years later she wrote a book called ‘Vanishing Cornwall’, and one of the chapter titles show why the county held such an appeal for her: ‘The Brontë Heritage’. In it she traces not only her own love for the Brontës, but for the influence that the Cornwall of their mother and aunt had on their upbringing. It’s a perceptive and moving chapter, the work of a genius who has been touched by others of the same ilk, but there was one Brontë in particular that Daphne du Maurier had an affection for: Branwell.

The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier

Du Maurier’s biography of the only Brontë brother was published in 1960 and bears the title, ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë’. It’s a great biography, and despite its title it is in fact a tribute to the tender genius that Branwell had before finally being overpowered by demons of drink and drugs, demons from his past. Her preface to the book reveals her intentions:

‘If it [Branwell’s biography] brings some measure of understanding for a figure long maligned, neglected and despised, and helps to reinstate him in his original place in the Brontë family, where he was, until the last years of disintegration, so loved a person, then this book will not have been written in vain.’

There is no doubt at all that Daphne love Branwell and his siblings, but there is another reason that writing of the infernal world was so important to her. Her own husband too had become an incurable alcoholic, leading to his complete mental collapse in 1957. In Branwell she undoubtedly saw Frederick, who also had been ‘so loved a person’ until the last years of his disintegration.

Daphne du Maurier was a brilliant yet complex woman; it is said that she could be cold towards her own daughters for example, but she left us some incredible works of literature including ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘My Cousin Rachel’. She also wrote sparkling, yet often dark and sinister, short stories such as ‘The Birds’ which was made into a legendary film by Alfred Hitchcock. It is this story that has inspired a magnificent sculpture in her honour in Fowey, Cornwall, where she lived. Unveiled in March of this year it has already been christened ‘The Rook With A Book‘.

The Du Maurier statue, Fowey, Cornwall
The Du Maurier statue, Fowey, Cornwall

‘The Birds’ is a great achievement, but her towering legacy to endless generations will be ‘Rebecca’, and as long as people read they will follow Mrs. Danvers and the second Mrs. de Winter to Manderley. There is little doubt that ‘Rebecca’, with its tale of a young bride living in the unworldly shadow of an earlier wife, is greatly inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre‘, which in turn obviously owes a debt to Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey‘.

It is said that in her final years, Daphne du Maurier lamented that she could no longer write, but her last remaining pleasure was to talk about the Brontës with her Yorkshire-born housekeeper Margaret Robertson. If you’re looking for a non-Brontë book to read, for a change, then you could do far worse than read the novels of Daphne du Maurier:

‘A dreamer, I walked enchanted, and nothing held me back.’

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989)

Daphne du Maurier head and shoulders

Happy Easter: Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day

Easter was a festival that was especially loved by Anne Brontë. As the daughter of a Church Of England priest, you would have expected all of the Brontë sisters to have been devout Christians, yet Charlotte’s writing often hints at a questioning of her faith, and Emily developed a faith of her very own, an almost mystical belief where she saw the power of God through the beauty of nature. Their brother Branwell, once the organist at the parish church, stopped attending altogether as his addictions took hold, although he rediscovered his faith on his death bed.

Anne Brontë, however, found her faith strengthening throughout her life, and turned to it to help her through the losses and tragedies she faced. Anne it was who was almost fanatically devoted to the church, and so she would have been enraptured by the Easter triduum: the Maundy Thursday service that replayed the Last Supper, the silent mourning of Good Friday, and then at last the joyful celebration of Easter Sunday.

Scarborough's roaring waves
Scarborough’s roaring waves this week.

Easter is also a time when spring is making its glorious appearance, and this too would have been a joyous time for Anne, as like Emily she loved nature in all its forms. She adored the sight of primroses and snowdrops reaching up into the sky, and in later years, when governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, she loved the sights and sounds of waves crashing against the shore at her beloved Scarborough. We hear this clearly in Anne Brontë’s 1842 poem ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day’; I close this post with the poem and wish you all a very Happy Easter:

‘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!’