Halloween In Penzance And Haworth

Halloween in Haworth is a wonderful time, with the village decorating itself out in spooky garb before the weekend culminates in its famous dragon parade. Once again, there’s a similarity between Haworth and Penzance, as the Cornish town from which mother of the siblings Maria Brontë hailed also loves to hold parades that pay tribute to a more esoteric side of life – like the spectacular Montol festival held to celebrate the Winter Solstice.

Haworth Halloween
Haworth at Halloween

Aunt Branwell, a second mother to the Brontës in all but name after arriving at Haworth parsonage in 1821, loved to tell stories of her native Penzance, and one such story must have been that of Mrs. Baines – a ghostly tale fit for any Halloween! Incidentally, I was lucky enough to give a talk in Penzance earlier this year, and the audience all knew the story of the Baines ghost; they could even pinpoint the location on which it took place! If you’re not too scared of ghosts, on one day at least, gird your loins, pull your shawl round your shoulders and read on as we stroll back to Penzance in 1803 and examine the tragic tale of Mrs. Baines, the rich widow of a Captain Baines, who lived at 20 Chapel Street. I will let the nineteenth century Cornish chronicler William Bottrell relate what happened next:

‘Mrs. Baines’s orchard, a pleasant spot, in which the lady took great delight, was stocked with the choicest apple, pear, plum, and other fruit trees then known. The town boys soon found out the fine flavour of Mrs. Baines’s fruit, which was to them all the sweeter for being stolen. When the apples were ripe and most tempting, the mistress and her serving-man watched the garden by turns – the man during the first part of the night, and madam would descend in her night-dress, every now and then, to see that all was right, in the small hours of morning. One night Mrs. Barnes, suspecting that man John was rather careless in keeping guard, sallied forth to see if he was attending to his duty; and, not finding him anywhere about the garden, she went to a tree of highly-prized apples and shook down a good quantity, intending to take them away, and thus prove to John that, through his remissness, the fruit was stolen. But her man Jan, armed with an old blunderbus, charged with peas and small shot, was at no great distance dozing under a hedge. The rustling of shaken branches, and noise of falling apples, awoke him, and, seeing somebody, as he thought, stealing apples from their favourite tree, he up with his gun and let fly at his mistress, exclaiming, at the same time, ” Now you thief, I’ve paid ‘e off’ for keeping me out of bed to watch ‘e! I know ‘e, I do, and will bring ‘e before his worship the mayor to-morrow!” “Lord help me, I’m killed!” cried the lady, as she fell on the ground.’

Penzance in the 19th century
Penzance in the 19th century

Mrs. Baines died of her wounds, and before long things took a sinister turn as locals reported seeing her ghost in the garden:

‘A short time after the old lady got shot, she died; and then she kept such ward and watch over her orchard that few were so bold as to enter, after day-down, into the haunted ground, where the ghost of Mrs. Baines was often seen under the tree where she was shot, or walking the grounds of her garden. Everybody knew the old lady by her upturned and powdered grey hair under a lace cap of antique pattern ; by the long lace ruffles hanging from her elbows ; her short silk mantle, gold-headed cane, and other trappings of old-fashioned pomp. There are many still living in Penzance who remember the time when they wouldn’t venture on any account to pass through Vounderveor-lane after night-fall, for fear of Mrs. Baines’ ghost. Sometimes she would flutter up from the garden or yard (just like an old hen flying before the wind), and perch herself on the wall: then, for an instant, one might get a glance of her spindle legs and high-heeled shoes before she vanished. Her walking in the garden might have been put up with, but she soon haunted all parts of the premises, and was often seen where least expected both by night and at noon. The ghost became so troublesome, at last, that no person could be found to occupy the house, where she was all night long tramping about from room to room, slamming the doors, rattling the furniture, and often making a fearful crash amongst glass and crockery.’

The new owners of the property called in a priest named Singleton to exorcise this property, giving the story of Mrs. Baines its truly bizarre end:

‘They sent for a parson, who was much famed in this neighbourhood as an exorcist that he might remove and lay the unresting spirit ; and he succeeded (by what means our informant knoweth not) in getting her away down to the sand-banks on the Western Green, which were then spread over many acres of land where the waves now roll. Here, this powerful parson, single-handed, bound her to spin from the banks ropes of sand for the term of a thousand years, unless she, before that time, spun a sufficiently long and strong one to reach from St. Michael’s Mount to St. Clement’s Isle. The encroaching sea having swept away the sandbanks, Mrs. Baines’ ghost is probably gone with them, as she hasn’t been heard of for some years, and, if she returns, the present occupiers of the old abode wouldn’t mind her.’

The Montol parade in Penzance is spectacular

It is a fascinating story to us today, but to the Branwells of Penzance it must have seemed very real – after all, they may have been involved in it themselves. The widow Baines and her orchard were at 20 Chapel Street, whereas Elizabeth and her family lived at 62 Chapel Street, which was almost opposite the property. Certainly we can imagine the head of the household Thomas Branwell racing to his neighbour when he heard the night time gunshot, but what of the local children who liked to take the old woman’s sweet apples? Could they in earlier days have included Maria Branwell, who went on to become mother of the Brontës, or younger sister Charlotte Branwell, just 14 at the time of the tragedy, after whom Charlotte Brontë was named?

Charlotte Branwell
Was Charlotte Branwell an apple scrumper?

The locals avoided the Baines property in fear of seeing her hen like ghost, but Elizabeth and Maria Branwell would have often had no choice but to walk past it. In later years, Aunt Branwell related this story to her enthralled nieces and nephew. Parsonage servant Tabby Ayckroyd‘s storytelling is often credited for its influence on the Brontës, but equally important were the stories from Aunt Branwell – in the ghost of Mrs. Baines, for example, we can see a prototype of the ghostly nun of Villette:

‘A sudden bell rang in the house—the prayer-bell. Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush—close, close past our faces—swept swiftly the very NUN herself! Never had I seen her so clearly. She looked tall of stature, and fierce of gesture. As she went, the wind rose sobbing; the rain poured wild and cold; the whole night seemed to feel her’

Ghost nun
Was the ghost nun of Villette inspired by Mrs. Baines?

When you turn off your light tonight, or blow out the last candle in the last pumpkin, don’t look out of the corner of your eyes, don’t listen to that strange door – and whatever you do, don’t step onto the landing! The veil between our world and previous worlds is thin tonight, but when you read Brontë novels it’s never a trick, and always a treat!

Without The Veil Between, An Interview With DM Denton

Earlier in the week I marked World Sight Day by looking at Patrick Brontë’s sight saving operation, and the impact it had on the Brontës, but today’s post is something different – an interview with DM Denton, the American author of acclaimed novel ‘Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine And Subtle Spirit’.

There have been several attempts down the years to portray members of the Brontë family in a fictional form, and it can be a dangerous undertaking as I feel you really have to have a love of the family to be able to pull it off. Thankfully, Diane Denton certainly has that, and it’s a quality that was also evident in another excellent recent piece of Brontë related fiction, SR Whitehead’s ‘The Last Brontë’.

Veil Between cover
Without The Veil Between, DM Denton’s Anne Bronte novel

Diane is obviously very familiar with Anne’s novels and poems, and as she lived in the UK for sixteen years she understands the landscape the Brontë siblings looked upon as well. Here, then, are DM Denton’s answers to the questions I set her:

Diane, you’ve become noted for your historical fiction, but what made you pick Anne Brontë for a subject?

First, let me thank you, Nick, for having me as a guest on your blog. My interest in the Brontës began in my youth, through my mother’s prized 1943 Fritz Eichenberg illustrated editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Emily dominated my Brontë consciousness for a long time, while I enjoyed Charlotte’s writing but wasn’t so impassioned about her. Anne tugged patiently at my awareness and curiosity, until, over decades, the combination of visiting Scarborough and standing in front of her grave in St. Mary’s churchyard, coming upon a miniature edition of Agnes Grey my mother had bought in Oxford that serendipitously opened to Chapter XXIV, The Sands, and having the idea for a series of novellas about undervalued women authors, set me to write about Anne. Sometimes the closest thing to ourselves takes a long time to reach. A friend of mine insisted it should be a full length novel. I resisted the suggestion, mainly because I didn’t think there was enough material, but my research and writing of a few chapters convinced me she was absolutely right. All those “little things” about Anne’s character, life and writing too often ignored, rushed over, or put in the context of her sisters and brother, offered more than enough.

The book’s title is ‘Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit’. What was the inspiration for the title?

Without the Veil Between is the last line from Anne’s poem In Memory of a Happy Day in February (1842), referring to the veil between her and God, earthly and eternal life. In choosing that phrase as the title, I realized, as well as representing Anne’s piety, it could symbolize the veil that had obscured Anne from consideration and appreciation, one I wanted to respectfully lift. When the poem was published posthumously in 1850, Charlotte made some edits to it, including the second to last line that leads up to without the veil between, changing To see the glories of his face to Like Moses, I would see His face. At the end of the novel, I chose to use Anne’s version, because I felt it was her way of implying it wasn’t just God she was looking forward to being reunited with after death.

As I neared the novel’s completion, I needed a subtitle that would identify it as being about Anne. The first line from her poem The Bluebell, suggested by the same friend who insisted the book be a novel, offered the perfect solution.

The book features your own illustrations. Did Anne Brontë’s drawing skills inspire you, as well as her writing skills?

Certainly. All the Brontë siblings were very artistic, their artwork giving an intimate view into their lives. I have always loved the way 19th century novels were illustrated. I had already done cover artwork for my own and others’ publications and interior illustrations for another author. When I asked my publisher if I could add some, she said: “I was hoping you would want to!”

DM Denton Profile Pic
New York author, DM Denton

Your book looks at Anne Brontë’s time at Thorp Green Hall and at her relationship with William Weightman. Do you think she loved Weightman and did he love her?

I do think love was budding between them, probably, at that early stage, more seriously for Anne. Although William did enjoy being a flirt, he might have soon realized, because of Anne’s patience and faith and his own maturing, what a loving, constant companion and excellent curate’s wife she would have made him. As I wrote her reaction to the news of William’s death, I certainly experienced the romantic tragedy that had been inflicted upon her, but, also, how her resolve to do something positive and purposeful with her life was strengthened. I think the happier ending she gave Agnes Grey reflected, not only what she had hoped for, but, also, how she might find a satisfying and productive way to go on in the Mr. Weston-less version of her real-life story.

What is your favourite Anne Brontë poem and why?

The Bluebell, as it is beautifully written, features one of my favourite flowers that evokes special memories from my own life and symbolizes Anne herself. A bluebell seems insignificant and vulnerable, even a little sad, until one realizes its lovely pervasive colour and fragrance, and buoyancy that gives it the ability to bend without breaking. Its silent eloquence appealed to Anne, how it ‘understood’ it had more or less of power. I also love the way the poem looks backwards and forwards, acknowledging, as Anne often does, how bliss and melancholy, hope and disappointment are often part of the same experience or reflection. Not least, I love this poem because it introduces others to my labour of love about her!

What message does Anne have for people today?

I think Anne’s own words can answer that better than any I might come up with. There are so many I could quote that are still relevant. As a life lesson, a wise and compassionate alternative to the self-interest and fear-mongering we see infecting society today, I often go back to this one: But no generous mind delights to oppress the weak, but rather to cherish and protect.

Another quote, from Anne’s preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, speaks to the present in terms of how important honesty, integrity, courage, and activism is: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn and obloquy for the mud and water into which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures …

Your book has, quite rightly, had some great reviews – do you think you’ll return to the Brontë family for future books?

I haven’t any plans to at this time, but one never knows. Of course, I hope my book about Anne will be read by more and more for a long time, for, in terms of my life and writing style and standards, I never want to move too far away from her.

What do you think Anne and her sisters would have thought of the worldwide fame they’ve achieved two hundred years after their births?

Just going by her reaction to celebrity in her lifetime, I think Charlotte would have loved and hated it, the former when she felt she could control it and the latter when she couldn’t. It’s tempting to assume Emily would have scoffed at it, tried to avoid it and her life being changed by it, and even been very distressed by it. But there might have been a glimmer of satisfaction in it for her. I’m not sure any of them would have been comfortable with fame for themselves, other than its effect of offering them a living through writing. Certainly Anne would have seen the chance to be more charitable. I do believe she would have been pleased her voice, her message was finally being heard, while remaining vigilant to it being misconstrued. She would have realized the providence and explored the potential of the platform fame had given her.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m about 10K into another biographical novel, this one about Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894), Victorian poetess and the youngest sister of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder, artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Rossetti siblings (including another brother William and sister Maria) were like the Brontës in terms of their personal and creative closeness, their loyalty to and support of each other holding up through thick and thin. The novel is just beginning to take shape in terms of its form, covering Christina’s life from childhood to, at least, middle-age, if not beyond.”


Thanks to Diane for some very illuminating answers there. The book can be purchased from Amazon in the UK here and in America here, and you can find out more about DM Denton and her historical novels at her website here.

The Brontës And World Sight Day 2018

Today, the 11th of October 2018, is World Sight Day. Held on the second Thursday of every October it helps to draw awareness to blindness and vision impairment. Statistics show that around 250 people start to lose their vision every day in the UK alone. That’s a grim fact, but the reality of blindness and impaired vision was well known to the Brontës of Haworth.

Patrick Brontë lived until he was 84 years old, a grand age for somebody in the nineteenth century, especially in a parish as disease ridden as Haworth. It is testimony to his overall fitness and good health, but as he grew older his eyesight faded rapidly.

Photograph of Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte in old age

He was approaching 43 by the time Anne Brontë, his sixth and final child, was born, and so as the Brontë siblings grew up they had to deal with the fact of their father’s diminishing eyesight. This put pressure on the whole family, but especially the only son Branwell, as if their father’s eyesight failed to the extent where he could no longer do his job it would be expected that he would become the family’s main breadwinner.

The cause of Patrick’s vision problem was cataracts, and the extent of his problem was a newspaper report into a grand concert in Haworth on 20th July 1846. Eighty musicians participated, along with numerous singers, and the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper reported that St. Michael’s and All Angels church was ‘crowded to suffocation’. It also reported that the venerable parish priest Patrick Brontë was also in attendance but it reported, tellingly, that he was ‘now totally blind.’

Patrick was understandably frustrated at his loss of vision. He had to rely increasingly on his assistant curates; he had been a voracious reader, and now his own daughters, and earlier his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell, had to read the newspaper to him. In a later letter Charlotte remembered how, ‘Papa’s vision was completely obscured – he could do nothing for himself and sat all day-long in darkness and inertion’.

It could not go on, and so they sought expert, and at the time revolutionary, medical aid. In February 1846, Charlotte consulted an eye surgeon, William Carr, a relation through marriage of Brontë friend Ellen Nussey. Carr advised that Patrick’s cataracts would need to harden before they could be operated on.

Manchester Royal Eye Hospital
Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, originally the Manchester Institution for Curing of the Diseases of the Eye

In July 1846, not long before the concert mentioned above, Charlotte sought further advice, this time from one of the country’s leading eye surgeons, William James Wilson of Manchester. Emily travelled to Manchester with her, a remarkable fact in itself as by this time she rarely left Haworth and revealing of the loving bond Emily felt for her father. Wilson had founded the Manchester Institution for Curing of the Diseases of the Eye in 1814, but he advised that he could not give a definitive prognosis without seeing Patrick himself.

Charlotte wrote to Ellen explaining how she was going to take her father to the surgeon: ‘Papa must therefore necessarily take a journey to Manchester to consult him – if he judges the cataract ripe we shall remain, if on the contrary he thinks it not sufficiently hardened we shall have to return, and papa must remain in darkness a little while longer.’

On Wednesday 19th August 1846, Charlotte was back in Manchester, this time with Patrick instead of Emily. Dr. Wilson pronounced him a fit subject for surgery, and the operation was performed on August 24th. Charlotte had expected ‘couching’ to be carried out, where the cataract is pushed down allowing some vision to return, but in fact Dr. Wilson cut away the cataracts – without the use of any anaesthetic.

Patrick later wrote in detail what happened during the operation:

‘Belladonna, a virulent poison, prepared from the deadly nightshade, was first applied, twice, in order to expand the pupil. This occasioned very acute pain for only about five seconds. The feeling, under the operation, which lasted 15 minutes, was of a burning nature – but not intolerable – as I have read is generally the case, in surgical operations. My lens was extracted so that cataract can never return in that eye… I was confined on my back a month in a dark room, with bandages over my eyes for the greater part of the time, and had a careful nurse, to attend me both night and day. I was bled with 8 leeches, at one time, and 6, in another, (these caused me little pain) in order to prevent inflammation.’

The Salutation
The site of Charlotte and Patrick’s stay in Manchester is now The Salutation pub

Poison applied to the eyes, cataracts cut away without anaesthetic, leeches applied to the eyes – all may sound ridiculously primitive to us, but it was cutting edge surgery in more ways than one – and it worked. Patrick regained his eyesight to the extent that he could read again. The month after the operation was a particularly trying one for Charlotte, alone in Manchester with her bandaged father. She must also have been thinking of her own eyesight, which like her father’s had never been strong. Would she too, one day, by lying with bandages over her eyes like this? Would her father ever see again? If not, how would she cope, how would they all cope?

It was at a time when Charlotte was already at a low ebb, as her novel ‘The Professor’ had been rejected by all the publishers she knew of. She could have failed and crumbled, but that wasn’t Charlotte’s way. Her eyesight may have been poor, but her vision was always strong. What happened in that drear apartment at 83 Mount Pleasant Street was described movingly by Charlotte’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell:

‘She had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did ‘The Professor’ return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude – in those grey, weary, uniform streets, where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, – there and then, did the genius begin “Jane Eyre”.’

Bronte plaque at The Salutation, Manchester
Bronte plaque at The Salutation, Manchester

On World Sight Day let us be thankful for Dr. Wilson, and for countless eye specialists in the health profession in the decades since then. Let us also be thankful for our own sight, that allows us to enjoy the great works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.

Anne Brontë and National Poetry Day 2018

This week saw the 2018 renewal of National Poetry Day, and it even encouraged me to write my first poems in many years. I discovered what I had long forgot, that writing poetry can be fun, but it can also be empowering. Some people turn to the writing of poetry to look deep inside themselves, using it as a journal to express powerful thoughts and painful memories, and through the writing of verse they achieve understanding or peace, and this is how it was to Anne Brontë too, as she revealed in ‘Agnes Grey‘:

“When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry.”

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Agnes Grey, in which Anne speaks of the power of poetry to her

Anne knew all about long oppressing powerful feelings which she kept to herself, and it’s for that reason that she wrote poetry from her earliest days until her last. Anne was especially close to her sister Emily Brontë, and in their childhood they created a fantasy world known as Gondal, writing huge amounts of prose and poetry on the subject, and creating a complex web of characters and events. Alas, none of the prose remains but we do still have a large number of their Gondal poems. They are incredibly accomplished for young minds, and often talk of grand adventures, romances thwarted, and prisoners locked in dark dungeons.

When away from the influence of Emily, for example when at Roe Head school in Mirfield or as governess to the Ingham or Robinson families, Anne wrote poetry that was much more personal to her. Occasionally she wrote poetry that was ostensibly said by Gondal characters, but which really spoke of her own feelings, as in the beautiful yearning of ‘Home’:

“How brightly glistening in the sun
The woodland ivy plays!
While yonder beeches from their barks
Reflect his silver rays.
That sun surveys a lovely scene
From softly smiling skies;
And wildly through unnumbered trees
The wind of winter sighs:
Now loud, it thunders o’er my head,
And now in distance dies.
But give me back my barren hills
Where colder breezes rise;
Where scarce the scattered, stunted trees
Can yield an answering swell,
But where a wilderness of heath
Returns the sound as well.
For yonder garden, fair and wide,
With groves of evergreen,
Long winding walks, and borders trim,
And velvet lawns between;
Restore to me that little spot,
With grey walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.
Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within –
Oh, give me back my HOME!”

Here we read, so often repeated in Anne’s writings, the desire to be back in the rugged country she so loved.

Haworth moors snow
The weather beaten moors of Haworth feature often in Anne’s poetry

It was a chance discovery of Emily’s poetry by Charlotte that launched the literary career of the sisters and changed our world forever. Here is how Charlotte later remembered the discovery:

“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating. Meantime, my younger sister (Anne) quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.”

Emily, predictably, was furious at this discovery. An intensely private woman, she hated the thought of people reading her words and seeing into her soul. It took two days of arguing to win her round, and it was then that the sisters agreed to publish a collection of their poetry: “Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.”

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

The book received some pleasing reviews but failed to sell, but the sisters had caught the publishing book and embarked on a new project to write novels. We all know what happened after that. Emily is often regarded as the premier Brontë poet, but it was Anne who enjoyed commercial success, being the only sister to have her poetry published in periodicals. Friend of the family Ellen Nussey recalled one such incident:

“I observed a slow smile spreading across Anne’s face as she sat reading before the fire. I asked her why she was smiling, and she replied: ‘Only because I see they have inserted one of my poems.'”

There is one large section of Anne’s poetry that we cannot overlook, her love poems. From the date William Weightman arrived as curate at Haworth, the formulaic Gondal love poetry became something very different, something real. After his untimely death, she wrote poem after poem about loss and mourning. A coincidence or something much deeper? Was this the poetry that reveals those ‘powerful feelings we must keep to ourselves’? I think if we look at Anne’s words, and look into our own hearts, we can find an answer. So whether you’re feeling happy or sad in the week to come, perhaps you could follow Anne’s example and let it inspire you into the creation of poetry!

What’s In a Name? From Branty To Brontë

What’s in a name, as a famous writer once said? On this day, the 3rd of October, in 1802 a 25 year old Irishman was recorded in the register of St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he’d arrived two days earlier. He was named ‘Patrick Bronte‘ but that was the first, but certainly not the last, time that would be used.

Patrick was born on the 17th March 1777 in Drumballyroney, County Down, and named after the patron saint whose feast fell on that same day, but at that time his family name was Brunty, or possibly Prunty or even O’Pronntaigh, and his parents Hugh and Alice could never have imagined the life that lay ahead of him.

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Bronte cottage, County Down where Patrick was born in 1777

The expected course of Patrick’s life would have seen him become a farmer or a labourer on the land (although he had also been taking weaving lessons) but from his earliest days he displayed remarkable talents and, most importantly, a love of reading and learning. The story goes that a local minister, Andrew Harshaw, heard the young child Patrick reading aloud ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton, and was so impressed that he offered to provide the boy with free tuition in the early hours of the morning, so that he could continue his weaving work as before.

Patrick was a rapid learner and a brilliant scholar, so much so that, whilst still in his teens, he was made head teacher of Glascar Hill Presbyterian Church School thanks again to Harshaw’s auspices. His time at Glascar, however, soon came to an end when the school was disbanded, but Harshaw then secured his protege a job at Drumballyroney school and the post of tutor to another local priest, Thomas Tighe.

Drumballyroney church
Drumballyroney church, presided over by Thomas Tighe

In our lives moments happen that seem insignificant at the time: we go somewhere, do something, or meet somebody, and only later do we realise with hindsight that it was that second which changed our life forever. This was such a moment in Patrick’s life. Thomas Tighe was not only a priest, he was from a very wealthy family, and he too was impressed by Patrick’s abilities and passion for education and the scriptures.

Tighe himself had been educated at St. John’s, Cambridge and had also been a fellow of Peterhouse College, and it was under his tuition that Patrick learnt the Greek and Latin he would need to pass the Cambridge entrance exams. By 1802 he was ready and able to take that step, and Tighe himself recommended Patrick to his old college, St. John’s, as well as subsiding his entry. Tighe, then, was a philanthropist who was willing to spend his own money to help the church secure what he knew would be a fine new minister. He also, of course, secured a future that would lead to the Brontë novels we know and love today.

So why do we not laud Charlotte, Emily and Anne Prunty today? We have to return to the register of St. John’s from 216 years ago. On 1st October, the Admissions Register recorded:

“1235 Patrick Branty Ireland Sizar Tutors: Wood & Smith”

It seems that Patrick’s accent had led the registrar to hear Branty, and so it was recorded (a sizar, by the way, was a student who was being sponsored or paying reduced fees). Two days later, Patrick appears again as he takes up his official residence at the college. Once again he is recorded as ‘Branty’ but this is crossed out and it then reads “Patrick Bronte’; Patrick has obviously corrected the registrant, but in so doing has invented a new surname for himself.

St John's College, Cambridge
St John’s College, Cambridge

It could be that Patrick thought that ‘Branty’ sounded too obviously Irish at a time when anti-Irish sentiment ran high in England. It may also be that he thought its Irishness would bring with it Catholic connotations, hardly ideal for a man taking his first steps towards a Church of England career.

Brontë is also a rather grand sounding name, and helped to mask the bearer’s humble origins. The name became grander when it eventually acquired the diaeresis, the two dots above the letter e, with which we are all familiar today. Patrick often used a plain ‘e’, and in their early years the surname frequently used the French accented ‘é’. Only later in their lives was the ‘Brontë’ we know today uniformly adopted by his children.

His excellent knowledge of Latin, thanks to Reverend Tighe, meant that Patrick was well aware that ‘bronte’ means thunder in that ancient language, which is sure to have impressed his fellow students who all spoke Latin as well as they spoke English. Patrick was also aware that one of his heroes, Admiral Horatio Nelson had been made Duke of Brontë in 1799, a castle and village on Sicily, by King Ferdinand III of the Two Sicilies in thanks for his valiant actions against Napoleon and his fleet.

Union Hotel Nelson
This statue of Nelson is at the Union Hotel, Penzance – uniting both sides of the Bronte family

It was a noble name, a grand sounding name, a thunderous name, and Patrick adopted and then wore it for the rest of his days like a suit of the finest cloth, cut from his own imagination.

By a strange coincidence, a similar change of surname happened with the Brontë siblings’ maternal forebears, the Branwell family of Penzance, Cornwall. It was only in the generation of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell that this surname was adopted, as before that they had been the Bramwells, and before that the Brammels and Brambles.

I’m off now to read a book by one of the Branty sisters. It doesn’t have the same ring does it? ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ said William Shakespeare, but a certain Reverend knew that names can have much more import than that. Well done Patrick on your wise choice!

Aunt Branwell And The Brontë Legacy

As you know, I’m passionate about the writing of the Brontë sisters. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë produced some of the greatest novels of all time, along with some sublime poetry, but I feel it’s important to remember others in their story as well, from their parents Patrick and Maria, to their brother Branwell who led their childhood scribblemania, and their eldest siblings Maria and Elizabeth Brontë, who would always be remembered.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell, painted by James Tonkin in 1799

One person I feel that particularly deserves to be remembered is Aunt Branwell, and yet she is often relegated to the shadows of Brontë history (although a cabinet of her belongings can be seen in the Brontë Parsonage Museum (as shown in the header of this post), or remembered as a dour woman who had little effect on her nieces – something I believe to be completely untrue.

Aunt Branwell and the Bronte Legacy cover
Aunt Branwell and the Bronte Legacy, out now in paperback!

That’s why I’m so proud that my new book, ‘Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy’ is available right now from the publisher Pen & Sword, all good bookstores, and at Amazon via this link:


This is the first ever biography of Elizabeth Branwell, the woman who made a huge sacrifice in 1821 when she left the warmth and familiarity of Cornwall to travel to Haworth, firstly to nurse her dying sister Maria and then staying on to raise her nephew and five nieces. She made financial sacrifices as well to aid her sister’s children, and without her legacy there simply wouldn’t be any of the Brontë books we know and love today.

In my new biography we look at:

• The extended Branwell family of Cornwall who produced Maria and Elizabeth

• The Brontë aunt who emigrated to America but returned with her baby, and in so doing became a prototype of Helen in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’

• Why Elizabeth Branwell came to Haworth, and why she stayed

• Why Elizabeth is portrayed negatively by Elizabeth Gaskell

• A family tragedy that could have led to the death of Elizabeth’s only love

• How Aunt Branwell’s stories of Cornwall can be found echoed in Brontë novels

• Why Aunt Branwell’s will was so central to the Brontë story

• The Brontë cousin who also benefitted from the will, and how she too turned to writing before enduring an end even more tragic than that of her Haworth relatives

• The Branwell descendants still living, on another continent, today as the closest Brontë relations in the world

I’m thrilled to say the book has already had great reviews, with one reader saying:

“This is the third book about the Brontë family that I have read this year and it was by far the most enjoyable. Breathing new life into the well-trodden area of biographies about this amazing family, the author has done a wonderful job in bringing Elizabeth Branwell to life from the scant information available. The book is well-researched and the author has an engaging writing style which draws the reader in.”

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

I will also be doing an official book launch at the end of this year in Penzance in Cornwall, the birthplace of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell – and therefore where the Brontë story began. There will be more news on that as the date approaches, but for now thank you for listening to me promote my own book – normal service will be resumed next week!