If only we knew the content of the Valentine’s Day cards that William Weightman sent to the Brontë sisters on this day in 1840! What we do know for sure is that Weightman had arrived in Haworth the previous year to serve as Assistant Curate to Reverend Patrick Brontë, and he quickly charmed all in the village, including the three young women resident in the parsonage: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.
Weightman was astonished to find that none of the sisters (then aged between 20 and 23) had ever received a Valentine’s card and so he decided to put that right. He sent four cards, because faithful friend Ellen Nussey was also in the parsonage at the time, and he walked from Haworth to Bradford to post them so the postmark wouldn’t give the sender’s identity away too easily. From a letter from Charlotte Brontë we also know the title of three of the poems. ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ is obviously for Ellen Nussey. ‘Soul Divine’, I conjecture, is surely fitting for Emily Brontë who would later write ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine.’ ‘Away Fond Love’ must be for Anne Brontë, as she was at that moment trying to secure a new position as a governess that would take her away from Haworth – and that two months later would see her begin a new post at Thorp Green Hall. I believe William and Anne were already smitten by each other, and the sending of the cards allowed him to express his true feelings for Anne without rousing suspicion.
One card title we do not know, and I believe that’s because Charlotte was too modest to reveal the title of the card sent to her. We also, of course, don’t know the wording of the verses themselves, so what could they have been? We hear that Weightman was an excellent scholar, and he knew the poetry loving Brontës would be hard to impress, so maybe he took inspiration from some of the poems he knew and loved and adapted them to his needs? That’s just what I’ve done below, and so I apologise in advance to Messrs Spenser, Marvell and Keats (and Weightman) as I try to conjure up the kind of verse that could have charmed the Brontës and Ellen Nussey on that cold February day:
Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen
Men call you fair, Ellen, and you deserve it,
For that yourself you daily do see:
But the greater fair of a gentle wit,
And virtuous mind’s more praised by me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to nothing and lose its hue:
But your soul is permanent and free
From failures which with time ensue.
That is true beauty: that does show you,
To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:
Born of that fair Spirit, from whom all true,
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only is fair, and fair Ellen He has made,
All other fair, like flowers, untimely fade.
Oh soul divine, now learn to wield,
The weight of your immortal shield.
Place on your head thy helmet bright.
Ready your sword against the fight.
For see – an army, strong as fair,
With silken banners breaks the air.
Now, if you beat that thing divine,
In this day’s combat let it shine:
And show that you have all the art,
To conquer this resolvèd heart.
Away Fond Love
Away fond love, would I were steadfast as you are –
Not in lone splendour hung awake the night,
And watching, with eternal lids afar,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless hermite,
The moving waters at their silent task,
Washing these all too human shores,
Or gazing anew on a soft-fallen mask,
Of snow upon those oft trod moors.
No, stay – my steadfast unchangeable guest,
Could I but gaze upon my love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever by thy side and well,
Still, still to hear so near her tender breath,
And by a word live on – or swoon to death.
Well that’s my light hearted take on the Brontë Valentine’s cards, but in all seriousness we can thank Weightman for bringing some joy into the sister’s lives. Whether you have a dozen cards and two dozen red roses on your mantelpiece, or look upon a card from the Dog’s Trust dog you sponsor, have a good day and remember – you’re never completely alone when you have a good book or poem within reach.