The Kind, Brilliant William Weightman: A Tribute

In this extra mid week post I’m going to take a look at a man who played a central part in Anne Brontë’s life: William Weightman. I believe that Weightman was loved by Anne and that he loved her back, and if they hadn’t been torn apart by tragedy they may have married – I believe that’s a message contained in ‘Agnes Grey‘ and much of Anne’s poetry, but I accept that others may have different opinions. Anyway, that’s a subject I will look at in a future post, but today we are looking back at an event that happened on this day 176 years ago, and on the reputation that Weightman has now and had then.

On this day, 14th August, in 1842 William Weightman presided over his final duties as assistant curate to Patrick Brontë at Haworth’s St. Michael and All Angels’ church. Weightman, a native of Appleby, Westmorland (that’s it at the head of this post), first arrived in Haworth in August 1839, having recently graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the newly created Durham University. At Durham he would have met three people with links to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, Charles Thorp, Thomas Gisborne and Lionel Gisborne, but again this link and the implications it had for Anne will be looked at in another post.

Durham University
Durham University became England’s third University, after Cambridge and Oxford, in the 1830s.

He replaced a previous assistant curate, William Hodgson, who had left under a cloud in 1837, and Patrick seems rarely to have hit it off with his assistants (most obvious when one, Arthur Bell Nicholls, dared to ask for his daughter Charlotte’s hand in marriage). Nevertheless, Patrick and William got on brilliantly together, which is testimony to his good character. In his elegy for William Weightman, Patrick went so far as to say he had been like a son to him, and paid him this fulsome tribute:

“There are many who for a short time can please, and even astonish – but who soon retrograde and fall into dispute. His character wore well; the surest proof of real worth… but what he gained at first he did not lose afterwards. He had those qualities which enabled him rather to gain ground.”

Weightman was also hugely popular with the villagers of Haworth, who as previous ministers had found out, weren’t always easy to please. Some portraits of Weightman show him as being flirtatious or insincere, but he was anything but. Even Charlotte had to admit that she had got this aspect of his character wrong. She saw him return to the Parsonage late one evening looking sad and tired. Patrick asked him what was wrong and he replied that he was in low spirits because he has just been to see a poor young girl who was dying. The girl turned out to be Susan Bland, one of Charlotte’s Sunday school pupils. She visited the house the next day, and found that Susan was indeed dying, but also that Weightman had not only visited them but that he’d taken them a bottle of wine and a jar of preserves. Mrs Bland further told Charlotte that ‘he was always good-natured to poor folks, and seemed to have a deal of feeling and kind-heartedness about him.’ It was this that led Charlotte to concede in a letter to Ellen Nussey that ‘he is not all selfishness and vanity.’

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

Alas, Charlotte discovered too late this kindness that Anne and the villagers of Haworth had long known. The reason that this day marked the last duty of William Weightman is that on the night of the 14th he once again visited a sick parishioner, contracted cholera from them and died aged 26 three weeks later.

The man by Weightman’s side as he breathed his last is also testament to his character; it was Branwell Brontë who despite being a non-believer himself had found a firm friend in the assistant curate. In October 1842 he wrote to Francis Grundy:

‘I have had a long attendance at the deathbed of the Rev. William Weightman, one of my dearest friends’.

The parishioners loved Weightman, and they too were devastated by his death; so much so that they begged Reverend Brontë to deliver a written speech on Weightman, so that it could be published and they could then buy it. This is indeed what happened, and it marked a departure for Patrick who usually preached ex tempore, that is without notes. This funeral sermon painted Weightman in a brilliant light, stating that he: ‘had classical attainments of the first order, and above all, his religious principles were sound and orthodox.’

From Patrick there was no greater praise, and an obituary in local newspaper the Leeds Intelligencer painted a similar picture:

‘He was admired and beloved for his sterling piety, his amiability, and cheerfulness, and the loss of so zealous and useful a Minister of Christ is deeply felt by those among whom he lived and laboured. This discourse [the funeral sermon], plain and touching in its language, simple yet expressive, pays a well deserved tribute to the memory of the preacher’s beloved and lamented fellow labourer.’

There was one further tribute, and it can be seen today by visitors to Haworth’s parish church. There are a number of tributes around the walls, but the largest of them all is to Weightman. The parishioners collected for two years to raise money to pay for this loving tribute to a man who had been their assistant curate for just three years, and yet he left a lasting impression. It reads:

‘This monument was erected by the inhabitants in memory of the late William Weightman, M.A. who died September 6th. 1842, aged 26 years [actually 28] and was buried in this church on the tenth of the same month. He was three years curate of Haworth and by the congregation and parishioners in general was greatly respected for his orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning, mildness, and affability: his useful labours will long be gratefully remembered by the members of the congregation; and Sunday school teachers, and scholars.’

Weightman plaque
The William Weightman plaque in Haworth church

It’s time to put aside any doubts about William Weightman for we see here glowing tributes to him from Patrick Brontë, Branwell Brontë, a Leeds newspaper and the people of Haworth, and perhaps the most beautiful tributes of all are contained in Anne Brontë’s mourning poems and the character of the supremely kind assistant curate Weston in ‘Agnes Grey’. He was a great man who brought happiness into Anne’s life, if all too briefly, and for that we should be thankful.

Martha Brown And John Brown, Brontë Servants And Friends

1855 was a tumultuous year in and around the Haworth Parsonage, one that had started with such promise and happiness, as the newly married Charlotte Nicholls, nee Brontë of course, found that she was pregnant, ended with three families inextricably linked to the parsonage losing a loved family member.

The first 1855 death came on 17th February, when the loving, kind, long standing servant Tabby Aykroyd died. Like many people born in the 18th century, her exact date and even year of birth is unknown, but it is believed that she was aged around 84 at death. She had been a permanent fixture in the lives of the Brontë siblings since her arrival in the parsonage in 1824, and she had seen them sadly dwindle from six to one – she was spared at least the sight of seeing her beloved Charlotte die, who succumbed to excessive morning sickness just a month and a half later.

Tabby Aykroyd actress
Actress playing Tabby Aykroyd at the parsonage

Two great lights had now been extinguished within the Parsonage’s walls, and it must have been a dreadfully sombre place in that spring of 1855. Alongside the grieving father and bereaved husband, there was now only one more figure – the then 27 year old Martha Brown.

Martha too enjoyed long and distinguished service at the parsonage. She first entered it as a 13 year old girl in 1841 and remained in service there until Patrick Brontë’s death in 1861. At first enjoying a junior role she became more involved in the everyday management of parsonage life as Tabby grew older, and she would have worked closely alongside Emily Brontë after her return from Brussels in 1842.

In 1848 and 1849 she must have played a close role in nursing first Branwell, and then Emily and Anne Brontë, although Emily would not have welcomed such molly coddling, and she would have repeated this task in 1855 with first Tabby and then Charlotte. Despite this, it is thought that Martha herself was often unwell, not uncommon in pestilential Haworth of course, and she may also have been slight, as Charlotte Brontë herself advised Martha not to undertake the heavier domestic duties.

Servant and friend Martha Brown
Servant and friend Martha Brown

Alongside the above photograph of Martha Brown, we have a glowing description of her from Meta Gaskell, who visited the parsonage in company with her mother, Charlotte’s friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, calling Martha, “a blooming, bright, clean young woman.”

We know for sure that Martha was loved and respected by all the Brontës, something evidenced in Charlotte’s letters to her and by the fact she was left £30 in Patrick’s will, which was equivalent to three years’ wages for her. She also had a large amount of Brontë memorabilia, and Martha’s collection, sold after her death, provides a large amount of the items on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum today.

One mystery about Martha is what happened to her after Patrick Brontë’s death. Juliet Barker has stated that she left the parsonage and travelled to Banager in Ireland where she then lived as a servant to Arthur Bell Nicholls (who himself had left England and given up the priesthood after being strangely overlooked for the role as Haworth’s new parish priest); others however have said that she remained in Yorkshire, but made visits as a friend to Arthur in Banagher.

Martha had an impeccable reference when she came to the parsonage in 1841, and she was well known to the Brontë family as she was the daughter of village sexton John Brown, whose Sexton’s House dwelling was a stone’s throw from the parsonage, across from St. Michael and All Angel’s church and next door to the school house.

The role of sexton was an important one, as he was an important church official as well as the man who maintained church property and the graveyard. This was a very busy task in Haworth, as he had to facilitate the huge amount of funerals taking place there, liaising with the likes of coffin maker William Wood, nephew of Tabby Aykroyd. He was also the stonemason, so those in the parsonage would often hear the clink clink of his chisel upon stone, an almost relentless task in Haworth.

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s painting of the sexton (and his drinking friend) John Brown

John Brown was born in 1804, and inherited the prestigious roles from his father. He would have worked closely with Patrick Brontë on many occasions, and the acceptance of his daughter Martha into the parsonage shows that he was held in esteem. He was in fact held in high regard within Haworth society as a whole, as shown by his position of Master of Haworth’s Three Graces Masonic Lodge.

Brown managed to get Branwell Brontë initiated into this lodge as well, even though he was at the time too young to meet the Masonic rules, which shows how close the two had become. Being a stonemason was hard work, it was thirsty work, and we know that John Brown and Branwell became close drinking companions in public houses such as the nearby Black Bull. Nevertheless, it seems that he was regarded as a stable figure who could be trusted rather than a reckless drinker, as it was John who was chosen to accompany Branwell to Liverpool in 1845 in an attempt to help him recover from the stresses of his dismissal from Thorp Green and all that came after it.

John Brown was also, be necessity, a strong man, and it’s believed that he taught Branwell Brontë to box; it seems clear that Branwell looked up to the man 13 years his senior as almost an elder brother, and it was to John that he cried out that he was dying on 24th September 1848. John Brown was obviously a hard worker, and he died on 13th August 1855, with the official cause of death given as ‘dust on the lungs’. That may have been an emphysema type illness caused by the dusty years spent creating gravestones, but of course it may also have been the same disease which claimed five of the Brontës, tuberculosis.

Martha Brown grave
The Brown family grave, Haworth

For Martha Brown it was a bitter pill to swallow. Within six months she had lost her initial mentor Tabby Aykroyd, her employer and friend Charlotte Brontë, and now her own father. Without her hard work and dedication, and John Brown’s influence too, the Brontë story may have been very different.

The Five Faces Of Anne Brontë

Last Tuesday I was privileged to present a talk at the stunningly beautiful Morrab Library in Penzance, where I discussed the Branwell family of Penzance and the Brontë family of Haworth. The Branwell influence can clearly be seen in Anne Brontë’s character and writing, I believe, and this is perhaps to be expected as Aunt Elizabeth Branwell was like a mother figure to Anne, sharing a room with her during her childhood. It could also be, however, that the Branwell influence was evident in Anne’s face, for as Ellen Nussey stated:

‘Anne, dear, gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite. Her hair was a very pretty, light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent complexion.’

Could it be then that Anne had inherited the Branwell looks from her mother, whilst Charlotte and Emily had the Irish appearance of the Bruntys, and could this be a reason that her aunt felt so drawn to her? Certainly there seems to be some similarity, to my eyes, between the image of Maria Branwell drawn in Penzance in 1799 and this picture of a young Anne drawn by Charlotte Brontë over thirty years later.

Maria Branwell and Anne Bronte
Mother and daughter, Maria Branwell and Anne Bronte

Undoubtedly the best known portrait of Anne Brontë was drawn by her brother Branwell when she was thirteen or fourteen years of age, as she features as the left hand figure (as we look at it) in the infamous pillar portrait. It is interesting to note that Emily is close by Anne’s side in the portrait, emphasising the twin like closeness that Ellen had noted at this time, where they would invariably walk together with their arms intertwined.

Bronte sisters portrait
The pillar portrait by Branwell Bronte, showing Anne, Emily and Charlotte

Did Branwell paint another picture of Anne? The image below is commonly claimed as the only existing portrait of Emily Brontë other than in the pillar portrait. This is a surviving fragment of a lost painting known as the ‘gun group’ because this time Branwell does feature, holding a shotgun. Is it, however, a picture of Emily at all or actually another picture of Anne Brontë?

Emily Bronte or Anne
Often thought to be Emily Bronte by Branwell, but probably Anne

This picture of ‘Emily’ is all that survived of the completed portrait, but we do have a badly damaged early photograph of the picture, tracings used for the sketch, and an engraving based upon the photography. Here is the engraving:

Branwell Bronte gun group engraving
Branwell Bronte gun group engraving, note Ellen’s initials

It is clearly seen that the surviving portion is of the woman to the right of Branwell; it can also be seen that she bears resemblance to Anne in Branwell’s pillar portrait. The tracings seem further to confirm that Anne is the woman on the right, and Emily would have been on the far left, one of the portions that’s been lost for ever. Take a look at the engraving again, it’s been initialled, but by who? These initials were added by lifelong friend Ellen Nussey to show who sat where. Again this shows the portrait must be Anne and not Emily, but why does it continue to be attributed to Emily? Perhaps the answer is that we long, quite understandably, to have a portrait of Emily. Daphne du Maurier put it best when she wrote, in her ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë’:

“Sentiment and tradition give this lovely portrait to Emily, but the resemblance to the figure of Anne in the pillar portrait group would suggest otherwise.”

There are two further disputed pictures (as well as the portraits made by her sister Charlotte) that may be of Anne Brontë, and the artist? Anne herself! Like all the Brontë siblings, Anne was a keen and fine artist, and it seems likely to me that this ‘Portrait Of A Young Woman’ is a self portrait. The exact date of composition is unknown, although we know it was painted between 1840 and 1845; this was during Anne’s stint as a governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall near York, so some speculate that it may be a picture of one of Anne’s charges. To my mind, however, this could easily be an Anne that is older than in the pillar portrait; she is now in her twenties, her face is more rounded, and she has straightened her hair but her eyes, nose and mouth look familiar. It is the beautiful, thoughtful face of Anne Brontë as a woman.

Portrait Of A Young Woman
Portrait Of A Young Woman, by Anne Bronte

There is one more picture that I feel is of Anne, a view also shared by Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars in their brilliant book ‘The Art of the Brontës’. Dated 24th June 1842, Anne has entitled it ‘A Very Bad Picture’, which indicates of course that she was far from happy with the likeness – perhaps it was drawn for a special reason? The summer of 1842 is the time, I believe, when Anne’s love for William Weightman was at its height, and it had found itself reciprocated. Could she have been trying to draw herself to present it as a gift to the assistant curate who meant everything in the world to her? Her left arm looks strangely larger than we would expect, but her right arm is hidden, why is this? The simple answer is that Anne drew this picture from her reflection in a mirror; her left arm is closer to the mirror while the right hand out of view is drawing the picture itself.

A Very Bad Picture Anne Bronte
‘A Very Bad Picture’ by Anne Bronte

We see Anne Brontë and her family at a distance now of course, and that, and this mirror drawn self portrait, brings to my mind the words of St. Paul in his magnificent ‘Hymn To Love’:

‘Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will fail; where there are tongues, they will cease; where there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.’

Looking at these pictures of Anne Brontë can be thrilling, but after all, we only see her through a glass, darkly. When we pick up her books, however, we get a real glimpse into her heart and soul – and then we can see and know her face to face, and love her all the more for it.

A Brontë Yorkshire Day – With A Cornish Twist

I’ve just spent a blissful week in Cornwall, firstly in Newquay soaking up the sun and watching the sun setting over Fistral Bay turn the sea to a golden fire, and then in Penzance, where I followed the Brontë maternal trail and delivered a talk at the stunning Morrab Library, as well as attending an opening party of the Hypatia Trust’s new headquarters – a fantastic organisation that promotes the achievements of women throughout history.

Hypatia Trust
At the Hypatia Trust with Mayor of Penzance, Dick Cliffe

I’ve arrived back in Yorkshire on an auspicious day, as the 1st of August is Yorkshire Day. That, of course, makes me think of the Brontës (although in truth I never stop thinking of them) and they are to me the Queens of Yorkshire. It’s important, however, to remember the Cornish influence upon them, and it’s this in part that led me to Penzance and to write my biography of a special woman without whom we wouldn’t have the Brontë novels that we love today – ‘Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy’ will be published by Pen and Sword Books at the end of September, but on this day let’s have a look at the similarities between Cornwall and Yorkshire.

Brontë Birthplaces

Everyone associates the Brontës with Haworth, but Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne were actually born in Thornton near Bradford, whilst the eldest Yorkshire siblings Maria and Elizabeth were born in Hartshead near Mirfield. Penzance in Cornwall was the birthplace of two special women in the Brontë story, Maria Branwell and Elizabeth Branwell – the aunt who stepped up to the plate after the tragic death of her sister in 1821.

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – birthplace of Maria Branwell

Majestic Moorland

The moors around Haworth were a source of endless fascination for Anne and especially Emily Brontë, and they are almost a character in their own right in ‘Wuthering Heights’. Despite a distance of well over 400 miles between Haworth and Penzance, the young Branwells looked out upon a similar landscape as the Cornish town is also surrounded by rugged moors to the north.

Spectacular Seas

Haworth is far from coastal, but Anne Brontë loved the sea, and liked nothing more than being in Scarborough – the east coast resort that she visited annually while governess to the Robinson family, and to which she returned in her final days. Cornwall is renowned worldwide for its stunning coastline, and I believe that it is likely to be Elizabeth Branwell‘s tales of growing up by the sea that made her niece Anne love it so.

Fistral sunset
Anne Bronte would have loved the spectacular sunsets over Cornwall’s Fistral Bay

A Hint Of Magic

When spending time in Haworth or Penzance it’s impossible to escape a hint of magic, a sense of something other in the air. This can clearly be felt in ‘Wuthering Heights’ too, and we hear of Ponden Kirk -an ancient craggy outcrop with a hole at its base where legend says that crawling through it with a loved one could result in childbirth within a year if you married the person you were with – if you didn’t marry them, it would result in death within a year. This is clearly the fate that befell Catherine – she crawled through it with Heathcliff but didn’t marry him, and so is doomed to die. By coincidence, or not, an ancient stone structure near Penzance called Men-an-Tol carries exactly the same legend.

Maria Bronte Morrab Library
With a familiar face at the amazing Morrab Library

Penzance has a lot to be proud of – in Maria Branwell and Elizabeth Branwell it had two intelligent, loving, courageous daughters who did so much to shape the Brontë siblings into the genii they became. Whether you’re from Kernow or Keighley, Kentucky or Kyoto, be proud on this day and join with me in saying ‘Happy Yorkshire Day!’