Father’s Day: Remembering the Brontë Grandfathers

Firstly, my apologies for not uploading a post last Sunday! I was in Haworth enjoying a weekend that was beautiful in every way, so whilst I may not have been able to commit the Brontës to my blog as I like to do they felt close to me in every other way. It was my first chance to see the new Emily Brontë exhibition, ‘Making Thunder Roar’, and one part that I did like was a video installation featuring actress Chloe Pirie reading Emily’s poetry to a background of hawks and moorland scenery.

Haworth Moors, June 2018
One of the many beautiful sights from my walk across Haworth moors last weekend.

The idyllic Haworth days are now stored to memory to bring a smile and peaceful thoughts whenever I need them. Normal service is now resumed, and in today’s post we’re going to take a Brontë inspired look at Father’s Day. We’ve examined the role of Reverend Patrick Brontë a number of times recently, but it’s worth saying again that in my opinion his contribution to the Brontë story is huge. He was a poet and inspiration, a man who gave all he had to help his children and his community, one who encouraged his daughters in their creative endeavours and allowed them free access to whatever books they liked – something which would have been anathema to many other early 19th century parents.

Yes, we should certainly say ‘Happy Father’s Day, Patrick Brontë’ but today we are looking at two other dads – the grandfathers of the Brontë siblings. Whilst Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne never met either of their grandparents they would have heard stories of them, and very inspirational stories they would have been too.

Hugh Prunty (or Brunty) was Patrick’s father. Hugh was born in Ireland into a Protestant family in the mid eighteenth century, and Patrick himself gave Elizabeth Gaskell this remembrance of his father:

‘He was left an orphan at an early age. It was said that he was of ancient family… He came to the north of Ireland and made an early but suitable marriage. His pecuniary means were small – but renting a few acres of land, he and my mother by dint of application and industry managed to bring up a family of ten children in a respectable manner.’

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Bronte cottage, County Down

If Hugh was left an orphan at an early age, who raised him? It’s here that the story gets particularly interesting as a 19th century biography relates a tale of a man called Welsh Brunty raising the child as his own. Welsh himself was rather a cuckoo in the nest, and the story of how he came to the Brunty family is told thus:

‘On one of his [Patrick’s great grandfather, a farmer and merchant from County Louth] return journeys from Liverpool a strange child was found in a bundle in the hold of the vessel. It was very young, very black, very dirty, and almost without clothing of any kind. No one on board knew whence it had come, and no one seemed to care what became of it. There was no doctor in the ship, and no woman except Mrs. Brontë, who had accompanied her husband to Liverpool. The child was thrown on the deck. Some one said, “Toss it overboard”; but no one would touch it, and its cries were distressing. From sheer pity Mrs. Brontë was obliged to succour the abandoned infant… When the little foundling was carried up out of the hold of the vessel, it was supposed to be a Welsh child on account of its colour. It might doubtless have laid claim to a more Oriental descent, but when it became a member of the Brontë family they called it “Welsh”.’

Later in this tale the adult Welsh takes the young Hugh from his family, and in this we can see a clear precursor of the mysterious foundling Heathcliff and his treatment of his adoptive family.

What we know for sure about Hugh is that he fell in love with a Catholic girl named Alice McClory from County Down – this crossing of religious lines was dangerous, yet Patrick and Alice eloped together and were married in Magherally church. They then settled down to married life in Drumballyroney, where in 1777 they had the first of twelve children: christened after the patron saint of his birthday, he became of course Patrick Brontë.

We have one more memory of Brontë grandfather Hugh, and it comes from his daughter, and Patrick’s sister, Alice. Reminiscing in 1891, at the grand old age of 95, she recalled:

‘My father came originally from Drogheda. He was not very tall but purty stout; he was sandy-haired and my mother fair-haired. He was very fond to his children and worked to the last for them.’

Let us now turn to the other Brontë grandfather, their maternal grandpa Thomas Branwell of Penzance. We all know how Patrick changed his name from Prunty or Brunty to Brontë, well, the same process occurred in Cornwall too, for Thomas Branwell had been born Thomas Bramwell and a couple of generations earlier they were the Bramble family.

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

The change of name may reflect Thomas’ changing status, for he became an extremely successful business man and a leading figure in Penzance politics. His will, dated March 26th 1808, lists a magnificent array of property and wealth, including houses across Penzance, the largest mansion in the area Tremenheere House, shops, a quayside warehouse, a pub called The Golden Lion and his own brewery (these last two perhaps rather strange acquisitions for a committed Methodist and teetotaller).

Thomas married into another wealthy Penzance family, when he wed Anne Carne, for her family founded Penzance’s first bank ‘Batten, Carne & Carne’ in 1797. It seems likely that Anne Brontë knew of the wealth and status of her grandparents when she wrote at the beginning of ‘Agnes Grey’:

‘My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire’s daughter, and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her, that if she became the poor parson’s wife, she must relinquish her carriage and her lady’s-maid, and all the luxuries and elegancies of affluence.’

Thomas Branwell was never a squire, he was new money after all rather than landed gentry, but his son Benjamin did rise to become Mayor of Penzance in 1809.

Thomas and Anne, like Hugh and Alice, had twelve children, although again not all survived childhood. Benjamin Branwell became mayor, but it is two more of his children that are remembered on a plaque on their former residence in Chapel Street, Penzance; Elizabeth, born in 1776, and Maria, born 1783. The plaque proudly proclaims:

‘This was the home of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, the mother and aunt of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë.’

Penzance plaque
A tribute to Maria Bronte and Aunt Branwell by their family home in Penzance

Thomas and Hugh must have been good fathers, for they certainly produced two wonderful children in Patrick and Maria, who in turn were good and loving parents. To Patrick, Hugh, Thomas and fathers across the world I say ‘Happy Father’s Day’ (and God bless the women who do all the work behind the scenes as well!)

The Brontë Society Summer Festival 2018

Two hundred years ago today, in the village of Thornton near Bradford, a happy event was growing ever closer. A Cornish woman in her thirties and her forty something Irish husband were looking forward to the birth of their fifth child, now less than two months away. That woman, of course, was Maria Brontë and the child to come was the enigmatic genius Emily Jane Brontë.

Back in our present day, that occasion will be marked joyously on July 30th, but this weekend another summer occasion will be dominating Haworth: the annual summer festival of the Brontë Society.

Many of the events are open to members and non-members of the society alike, and there’s a real variety of events that should appeal to all tastes: a sibling fused smorgasbord. The Brontë Society annual lecture is being given by author and historian Carol Dyhouse who will examine ‘The Eccentricities of ‘Woman’s Fantasy’… And Heathcliff’. According to the promotional material Carol will start the lecture by asking why Heathcliff is looked upon as a romantic figure when the author herself explicitly warned against this. It’s an interesting and oft asked question, although of course in truth Emily made no comment on this whatsoever, or on her masterpiece as a whole, other than what’s contained within its pages. It should certainly be a thought provoking lecture from a foremost expert in her field.

Friday night sees ‘History Wardrobe: Gothic For Girls’ take a look at the evolution of gothic literature and fashion from the 18th century to the present day, calling at Charlotte and Emily’s work en route. Also on Friday, Ann Dinsdale, head curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum and a woman who probably knows more about the museum and the people who lived there than anyone else, looks at the Brontë Parsonage Museum at 90. It’s certainly changed a lot since then, so it should make for an informative and enlightening tale.

Summer Of Impossible Things
Summer Of Impossible Things author Rowan Coleman will be in Haworth

Saturday night is quiz night in Haworth, as celebrated journalist, presenter and self professed Anne Brontë fan Lucy Mangan hosts ‘The Great Who Wants To Be A Brontë Mastermind Challenge’. Quizzes are always lots of fun (says the man who won Thornton’s Brontë quiz and still has the beer tokens to prove it, ahem – I don’t like to boast) but the competition should be fierce at this one! Brilliant author Rowan Coleman, of ‘The Summer Of Impossible Things’ fame, is just one of the team leaders who will be pitting their wits.

Of course there will also be the perennial delights available to visitors to Haworth this weekend and beyond, not least of which are the wide stretching moors so loved by Anne and Emily, and the Parsonage itself which now has Branwell’s portrait of his three sisters on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

Bronte sisters portrait
The pillar portrait is back home and on display!

I’m very much looking forward to returning to Haworth this weekend, but if you’re a little further afield there’s also an exciting event approaching in South Wales. Brontë expert Catherine Paula Han and others are part of a panel discussing Wuthering Heights on 11th June at Cardiff University and it should be an absolutely fascinating talk.

The Inspiring Poetry Of Branwell Brontë

June 1848 saw the publication of Anne Brontë’s brilliant, if at the time controversial, second novel, ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘, but she wasn’t the first Brontë sibling to be published in this month. That honour goes to her often maligned and misunderstood brother, Branwell.

Patrick Branwell Brontë was a complex man who undoubtedly had some issues that contributed to his decline and death later in the year 1848, but he also undoubtedly was a man of talent. Branwell’s addictions were in all probability linked to issues relating to the childhood losses he suffered – the devastating early deaths of his mother and then his eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth; we should not, however, let the form of his end cloud our impression of his life as a whole.

Branwell head
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

Branwell could be a happy, generous brother – it was he after all who shared the gift of twelve toy soldiers with Charlotte, Emily and Anne in July 1826, a gift that was to prove pivotal in unlocking the childhood creativity within the Brontës. Patrick had brought other gifts for his daughters, including a paper doll for Anne, but the soldiers he bought for his son were shared immediately among his siblings as a young Branwell himself remembered:

‘I carried them [the soldiers] to Emily, Charlotte and Anne. They each took up a soldier, gave them names, which I consented to, and I gave Charlotte Twemy, to Emily Pare, to Anne Trot to take care of them, although they were to be mine and I to have the disposal of them as I would.’

These twelve soldiers became the young men who populated their childhood world of the Great Glasstown Confederacy, which in turn became Angria. This is the land behind the incredibly tiny and intricate little books that can still be seen at Harvard University and in the Brontë Parsonage Museum today. It is Branwell that took the lead role in this early creative outburst, as evidenced by the initial name of their books being ‘Branwell’s Blackwood Magazine.’

Branwell was possibly the most enthusiastic early poet of the four remaining siblings, and he was not lacking in ambition, as the conclusion to his letter to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh in December 1837 showed:

‘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’

Branwell was also not lacking in talent as a poet, and we do well to remember that Branwell was the first of the Brontë siblings to find themselves in print (Anne was the only other sibling who had her poetry published without paying for it). His verse appeared in a number of local publications under the pseudonym of ‘Northangerland’, a complex character from the Angrian saga, one readily identified with by his creator. Under this guise his work appeared in publications ranging from the Yorkshire Gazette and Leeds Intelligencer to the Halifax Guardian which on June 5th 1841 published his poem ‘Heaven and Earth’.

Adam Nagaitis
Branwell Bronte played by Adam Nagaitis in ‘To Walk Invisible’

Branwell had twelve poems published by the Halifax Guardian alone, and this was no mean feat as they took their poetry very seriously, and the standard was very high. Reading Branwell’s poetry today reinforces the impression of a good poet with a real love of verse. It is sad, therefore, that by 1846 his addictions made him unable to be considered for inclusion within ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘.

Branwell was a talented man in many areas; a skilled musician from an early age, a fine artist (his painting ‘The Lonely Shepherd’ adorns this post), and a loving brother who drew sketches for his baby sister Anne – a kindness she never forgot. He could write with both hands at once, composing a Greek letter with his left hand and a Latin letter with his right – an incredible testimony to the talents that lay within him. If Branwell had reached creative maturity I have little doubt that the results would have been brilliant, but certainly for much of his life he was a loving and positive influence on his sisters and on their work.

Branwell drawing for Anne
A sketch by Branwell for Anne Bronte

I will leave you with an extract from Branwell Brontë’s long, moving and brilliant poem ‘Caroline’, in which many see a tribute to the eldest sister he loved, Maria, whose loss cast a life long shadow over his years to come:

‘I stooped to pluck a rose that grew
Beside this window, waving then;
But back my little hand withdrew,
From some reproof of inward pain;
For she who loved it was not there
To check me with her dove-like eye,
And something bid my heart forbear
Her favourite rosebud to destroy.
Was it that bell — that funeral bell,
Sullenly sounding on the wind?
Was it that melancholy knell
Which first to sorrow woke my mind?
I looked upon my mourning dress,
Till my heart beat with childish fear,
And frightened at my loneliness,
I watched, some well-known sound to hear.
But all without lay silent in
The sunny hush of afternoon,
And only muffled steps within
Passed slowly and sedately on.
There lay she then, as now she lies —
For not a limb has moved since then —
In dreamless slumber closed, those eyes
That never more might wake again.
She lay, as I had seen her lie
On many a happy night before,
When I was humbly kneeling by —
Whom she was teaching to adore:
Oh, just as when by her I prayed,
And she to heaven sent up my prayer,
She lay with flower about her head —
Though formal grave-clothes hid her hair!
Still did her lips the smile retain
Which parted them when hope was high,
Still seemed her brow as smoothed from pain
As when all thought she could not die.
And, though her bed looked cramped and strange,
Her too bright cheek all faded now,
My young eyes scarcely saw a change
From hours when moonlight paled her brow.
And yet I felt — and scarce could speak —
A chilly face, a faltering breath,
When my hand touched the marble cheek
Which lay so passively beneath.
And thus it brought me back the hours
When we, at rest together,
Used to lie listening to the showers
Of wild December weather;
Which, when, as oft, they woke in her
The chords of inward thought,
Would fill with pictures that wild air,
From far-off memories brought ;
So, while I lay, I heard again
Her silver-sounding tongue,
Rehearsing some remembered strain
Of old times long agone!’