A Tale Of Two Emilys: Brontë and Dickinson

Emily was a brilliant and prolific poet, a genius born in the early nineteenth century. Her writing dazzled with invention and soaring thoughts, but it also often dealt with themes of death. Emily never had a lover and as she grew older she became increasingly reclusive, often refusing to meet or talk to guests, and spending most of her later years confined to her bedroom with only pen and paper for company. She kept her poems to herself, and it was only after the accidental discovery of them by her sister that they came to the world’s attention. You may think I’m talking about Emily Brontë, but in fact this is Emily Dickinson – in my opinion America’s greatest ever poet, and a woman who died 132 years ago this week, aged 55.

Emilia, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson in 1840
Emily, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson in 1840

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in December 1810 into a comfortable, if not overly wealthy, family and had one brother William Austin (always known by his middle name) and a sister Lavinia. At age nine she was sent to the Amherst Academy, where she stayed for seven years, and she excelled at her learning. She particularly loved to play the piano, which she was proficient at from an early age. Even at this age, however, Emily knew that she did not fit in with the regimented life others followed:

‘They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –’

In 1844 a tragedy struck that changed Emily’s life for ever. Her cousin and best friend Sophia Holland contracted typhoid and died. From that moment melancholia settled upon Emily Dickinson, and she was often consumed by thoughts of death, illness and dying; thoughts that inevitably found their way onto the page.

Wild Nights
Emily Dickinson’s handwritten ‘Wild Nights, Wild Nights’

By 1858 Emily had become a recluse, and in the privacy of her own room she began to edit and collect the poems she had been writing over the years into four notebooks. They contained over 800 poems, many of them as brilliant as anything written that century and stylistically way ahead of their time as Emily often cut up her poetry with dashes or a strange use of capitalisation. These books were discovered by Lavinia after Emily Dickinson’s death, and it was only then that it was realised what she had truly been. Emily never wanted fame or even recognition, as her poem ‘Fame Is A Fickle Food’ shows:

‘Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s corn
Men eat of it and die.’

Emily’s faith was unique to herself, she attended church for but a few years, but she believed in a universal power and in the immortal, unbreakable soul. By 1867 her isolation was complete, so that she would only talk to people on the opposite side of her door. In these last 20 years she continued to write incredible poems that became darker and darker, like ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’:

‘Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –’

Emily Dickinson grave
Emily Dickinson’s grave, Amherst

On May 15th 1886, Emily Dickinson died suddenly with her brother by her side. She had imagined her own funeral many times,and featured it in her verse:

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then -‘

Emily Dickinson found immense fame after her death, as Emily Brontë did, and the poems of both Emilys have astonished the world ever since. There are huge, some would say strange, similarities between the two women, but did Emily Dickinson know of the Brontës? She certainly knew, and loved, their work. In 1849 we know that Emily Dickinson read the first American edition of ‘Jane Eyre‘. It made such an impact on her that she later named her new puppy ‘Carlo’, after St. John’s dog in Charlotte Brontë’s great novel. At Emily Dickinson’s funeral a solitary poem was read; it had been specifically requested by her: it was ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ by Emily Brontë!

Anne Brontë as a Mother on International Mother’s Day

We celebrated the United Kingdom’s marking of Mother’s Day two months ago with a look at the depiction of motherhood in Anne Brontë’s great novels, and we have also rightly celebrated the life of Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, recently, who although her life was cut tragically short gave her children an abundance of love and support while she was with them.

In the United States of America, however, today is Mother’s Day, so let’s take a quick look at whether Anne herself ever dreamed of motherhood. Others may dispute it, and they’re perfectly within their rights to do so, but it’s clear in my heart that Anne Brontë and William Weightman loved each other, and if cholera hadn’t snatched this kind and brilliant clergyman away in 1842 then I believe they would eventually have married. After all, a young clergyman such as Weightman would have been expected to take a wife, and it would have been normal for him to choose one who was the daughter of a more experienced priest, such as Patrick Brontë. Anne was close to him in temperament, kindness and in depth of religious feelings, and it has been said that she was the prettiest Brontë, so to me they would have been a perfect match.

Certainly Anne’s succession of powerful mourning poetry after Weightman’s passing, and his undoubted appearance as Reverend Edward Weston in ‘Agnes Grey’ is testimony to her undying feelings for him. At the end of her first novel she, very movingly, gives herself the happy ending that real life had denied her – marriage to Weightman, and a chance to be a loving mother:

‘Our children, Edward, Agnes, and little Mary, promise well; their education, for the time being, is chiefly committed to me; and they shall want no good thing that a mother’s care can give.’

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Agnes, Edward and Snap walking on the beach

There is one other touching account of Anne’s dreams of being a mother, hidden under the guise of Gondalian characters in her poem ‘A Voice From The Dungeon’, written when she was just 17 years of age:

‘It was a pleasant summer’s day,
The sun shone forth with cheering ray,
Methought a little lovely child,
Looked up into my face and smiled.
My heart was full, I wept for joy,
It was my own, my darling boy;
I clasped him to my breast and he,
Kissed and laughed in childish glee.’

Anne Brontë would have made a wonderful mother, as her skill as governess to the Robinson children shows, and as demonstrated by the love they felt for her long after she left their service.

I dedicate this post to all the mothers out there, God bless you all for the selfless work you do and the heartfelt love you give – it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed!

In Memoriam: Maria Brontë and Elizabeth Brontë

The sixth of May and fifteenth of June are difficult days for lovers of the Brontë family, as it was on these dates 193 years ago that the eldest siblings Maria Brontë and Elizabeth Brontë died of consumption, what we now know as tuberculosis. Their loss was dreadful to their family, and can still be felt by us today. Certainly they remained ever on third sister Charlotte’s mind, as we can see from her letter of 13th June 1849, sent from Filey to W.S. Williams:

‘A year ago had a prophet warned me how I would stand in June 1849, how stripped and bereaved, had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through I should have thought this can never be endured. It is over. Branwell, Emily, Anne are gone like dreams – gone as Maria and Elizabeth went twenty years ago. One by one I have watched them fall asleep on my arm and closed their glazed eyes – I have seen them buried one by one.’

Charlotte's of Filey
Cliff House, Filey where Charlotte stayed with Ellen Nussey in 1849 after Anne’s death in nearby Scarborough

Maria and Elizabeth Brontë were sent to the Clergy Daughter’s School in Cowan Bridge in Westmorland in July 1824, with Charlotte joining them there two months later. They already had some taste of school, having earlier attended the exclusive Crofton Hall School at Wakefield for a term. Cowan Bridge, however, was a very different school run on very different lines by the calvinist minister Carus Wilson.

Wilson sued Elizabeth Gaskell after the publication of her biography of Charlotte Brontë, and had many references to him removed. It has been said that the deaths that claimed Maria and Elizabeth were due to the errors of a cook, but Wilson himself cannot be fully exonerated.

Carus Wilson
Carus Wilson, who became Jane Eyre’s Mr Brocklehurst

He was, by any standards, a hell-fire preacher of extreme views and extreme ferocity. An arch Calvinist, he believed that one sin would condemn a person to eternal torture in Hell, with no opportunity to escape this fate but for a group of people called the ‘Elect’, which he was of course one of.

He attacked society, his congregation and less severe clergy alike. One sermon of his began:

‘The worldliness even of the most moral and (in the general acceptance of the term) respectable Clergyman, oh! How it eats as a canker at the roots of his pastoral usefulness, and discourages many a young disciple who was beginning to turn his face Zionwards.’

Who was the target of this sermon of Wilson’s? It was delivered to mark a visit from the Bishop of Chester.

Of the 53 pupils at the school at the time of the Brontës, seven died, and others were sent home severely ill who may also have died. This wasn’t the end of deaths during Wilson’s career as a headmaster, indeed they occurred continually throughout his decades in this role. By 1840, 15 years after the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth Brontë, Wilson had moved his school to Casterton in Westmorland. The Leeds Intelligencer of 25th January 1840 reports that 70 pupils at the school were now suffering from typhoid, and that three had recently died.

In 1857, Wilson appointed a new head at Casterton, Dorothea Beale. She was a very different person to Wilson, and later became known as a suffragist and social reformer. Beale was horrified at what she found at the school, and resigned a year later. She complained about ‘the low moral tone of the school’, and ‘the want of sympathy and love’, as ‘nothing can flourish if love be not the ruling incentive.’

Dorothea Beale
Dorothea Beale

It seems that Carus Wilson had learned little in the 40 years after the Brontës’ deaths. Perhaps the defining verdict on the school should be left to Charlotte, who famously described it as Lowood in ‘Jane Eyre’: ‘That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded schoolroom and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into a hospital’

Charlotte was adamant in later years that Cowan Bridge had in fact been much worse than the Lowood of her novel, insisting that: ‘Had I told all the truth, I might indeed have made it far more exquisitely painful.’

As it is we have to read the painful depiction of Maria Brontë as Helen Burns, the kind, bright, uncomplaining young woman who is singled out for especially harsh treatment for being disorganised, and who eventually dies with Jane by her side.

In reality, Charlotte could not be by Maria’s side as she breathed her last breath on May the sixth 1825, as she, Elizabeth and Emily were still at the school. It was Patrick who had to close her glazed eyes, just as a month later he had to do for his second daughter Elizabeth who was sent home to Haworth on 31st May 1825 in ‘ill health’, along with a bill for her stay at the school.

It was a tragic event that should never have been allowed to happen, and the Brontës suffered two huge losses. We Brontë lovers suffer too, for who knows what they could have achieved if they had lived longer? They would surely have provided support and companionship to Anne, then just five years old, as she grew up.

Bronte memorial
Maria and Elizabeth are remembered on Haworth’s Bronte memorial

Let us think no longer of the cruelties of Cowan Bridge, but instead picture two kind, bright and happy children full of promise who would always be remembered by their father and siblings, always loved. Even so, it is impossible on this day not to also think of Charlotte’s mournful yet beautiful verdict on Emily, and apply it to Maria Brontë and Elizabeth Brontë too:

‘She has died in a time of promise – we saw her torn from life in its prime.’

The world will always, rightly, remember Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë – let us also take a moment of silence to remember Maria and Elizabeth.

‘Emily Brontë: A Life In 20 Poems’ – Book Launch & Giveaway

The Brontës have always felt like part of my life, and this love and admiration for the brilliant siblings was first expressed publicly in my biography ‘In Search Of Anne Brontë‘ released in 2016. I was thrilled at the reception it received, and the opportunity to talk about the Brontës to new people at new exciting locations. It’s fair to say that the book changed my life in many brilliant ways, which is why I’m thrilled today to announce the publication of my new book looking at the life of an enigmatic genius: Emily Brontë.

Emily Brontë: A Life In 20 Poems‘ is released by the History Press today and you can buy it at this link. It takes a fresh look at her life by examining twenty events, people and themes in her life, and linking each of them to one of her greatest poems. In that way you not only get a biography of Emily, but a collection of her verse as well.

Emily Bronte - A Life In 20 Poems front cover
Emily Bronte – A Life In 20 Poems front cover

As we all know, Emily was a very reserved character, and we have little correspondence from her compared to Charlotte and Anne. Some of the book is therefore based upon the testimony of others who knew her and loved her – and to know Emily was to love her. Ellen Nussey, writing long after Emily’s death, recalled the incredible power that was felt in Emily’s presence, so that even in her seeming timidity you couldn’t help but know that you were with someone very special indeed:

‘I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no woman of greater or more incontestable genius.’

Some of the book invariably is based upon my own theories as to Emily’s motivation and actions, and your opinion may differ on some of these – but that’s the joy of the Brontës, we can all approach them in our own way and have our own views on them. They are timeless and ever-evolving in the minds of those who think about their works and lives.

Emily Bronte bookmark
Emily Bronte bookmark

I loved writing every word of this book, and examining Emily’s relationship with her family, her views on religion and her own mysticism, her attitude to love, and the literary influences that shaped her great novel ‘Wuthering Heights‘, and finally how she faced illness, decline and death. I’ve also loved reading once more her great poems, such as this that heads up chapter six:

‘When weary with the long day’s care,
And earthly change from pain to pain,
And lost, and ready to despair,
Thy kind voice calls me back again:
Oh, my true friend! I am not lone,
While thou canst speak with such a tone!
So hopeless is the world without;
The world within I doubly prize;
Thy world, where guile, and hate, and doubt,
And cold suspicion never rise;
Where thou, and I, and Liberty,
Have undisputed sovereignty.
What matters it, that all around,
Danger, and guilt, and darkness lie,
If but within our bosom’s bound,
We hold a bright, untroubled sky,
Warm with ten thousand mingled rays,
Of suns that know no winter days?
Reason, indeed, may oft complain,
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain,
Its cherished dreams must always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down,
The flowers of Fancy, newly-blown:
But thou art ever there, to bring,
The hovering vision back, and breathe,
New glories o’er the blighted spring,
And call a lovelier Life from Death,
And whisper, with a voice divine,
Of real worlds, as bright as thine.
I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet, still, in evening’s quiet hour,
With never-failing thankfulness,
I welcome thee, Benignant Power;
Sure solacer of human cares,
And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!’

I hope you enjoy reading my book too – and to celebrate its launch I’m giving away a free signed copy of the book! All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is email me at insearchofannebronte@hotmail.com.

Thank you to each and every one of you for reading my blog and supporting me in this work – and, if you’re entering the competition, I wish you ‘Good Luck!’