Views Of Patrick Brontë, On His Birthday

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all. It has long been tradition in Ireland to name boys born on this day after the great snake scaring saint, and so it came to pass that on 17th March 1777 a baby born in Emdale, County Down was named Patrick. We would come to know him as Patrick Brontë, father of the greatest writing family the world has ever seen.

In my opinion Patrick’s influence for the good on his children, and therefore on their later work, cannot be underestimated, so it’s good to see special tribute being paid to him in the Brontë Parsonage Museum this year. Thanks to reports contained within Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë (originating from the testimony of one former and short serving maid Martha Wright), however, some may still think of him as being strict, bad tempered or cold emotionally.

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Bronte cottage, County Down where Patrick was born on this day 1777

In today’s post, I’m simply going to let others speak about Patrick Brontë – those who knew him, and who saw a very different man to the one that Gaskell portrayed.

Ellen Nussey on Patrick Brontë

‘The anecdote of the little coloured shoes produced a mental sting that no time would obliterate and I felt that all commonplace readers would fail to see the Spartan nature of the act unless you [Ellen was here writing to Elizabeth Gaskell after seeing a draft of the biography] pointed it out to them, and I was intending to ask you to make very clear and distinct comments on Mr. B’s character – I do not wish anything you have said suppressed, only I think your readers will have to be taught to think kindly of Mr. B’

Nancy Garrs on Patrick Brontë

‘”Mr. Brontë was one the kindest husbands I ever knew, except my own, and an Irishman, as you will know Mr. Brontë was. When one of the young ladies told him I was going to be married he came into the kitchen and said, in his pleasantest way, ‘Why, Nancy, it true you are going to marry a Pat?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I replied, ‘it is, and if he only proves a tenth as kind a husband as you are, I shall think myself very happy in having made a Pat my choice.’ And I have been happy,” she added to us [former Brontë servant Nancy de Garrs was here talking to a Leeds Mercury reporter]. “My husband is just one of the best men that ever lived; we never have had a word!” “Not one, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “No, not one,” she answered, in her positive way. “Then you think Mr. Brontë was not hot-tempered as represented by Mrs. Gaskell,” we said. “Passionate!” exclaimed Nancy; “why he was just the opposite. I well remember one summer morning came into the kitchen and he asked me to clean his boots, as he was going to Thornton. Being bothered about some other matters, I forgot. So when Mr. Brontë called for his boots they were not touched; but he did not fly into a passion: in fact, he did not say a word, he just put on his hat and walked all the way to Thornton and back in his slippers!”‘

Photograph of Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte in old age

‘A kinder man than Mr. Brontë never drew breath.’ [from an interview in the Pall Mall Gazette]

Leeds Intelligencer reporter, February 1837

‘Though he is far advanced in years, and has suffered much from ill health, he displayed his pristine energies and faithfulness. That his life and service in his place may be long continued, is the fervent prayer of every churchman.’

Eliza Kingston on Patrick Brontë

‘I had a letter from my Uncle Brontë last June. He says he was in his 83rd year, but, though feeble, was still able to preach once on Sunday, and sometimes to take occasional duty; his son-in-law, Mr. Nicholls will continue with him. He says strangers still continue to call, but he converses little with them, but keeps himself as quiet as he can. I understand the Brontës were beloved in their own neighbourhood.’ [Eliza was his niece in Cornwall, who Patrick was in correspondence with long after the death of his family in Haworth]

The respect that Patrick was held in is also shown in a report into his funeral in 1862. Patrick had left clear instructions that he wanted neither pomp nor ceremony, but he left this world surrounded by the simplicity of love:

‘Our correspondent informs us that on his early arrival at the village the shops were universally closed, and the silence and solemnity that reigned around showed the deep estimation in which the venerable incumbent was held. At the time the procession was formed hundreds of people were congregated in the church-yard from distant villages around, and upon the arrival at the church ut was found that every pew and available space within that venerable edifice was occupied by an orderly and well-conducted and apparently sorrow-stricken concourse… Not a bell was tolled nor a psalm sung. Everything connected with the funeral was truly simple and unostentatious… The sublime and touching burial service was read amid the audible sobs of the surrounding crowd, by the vicar of Bradford. The Rev A.B. Nicholls appeared to be deeply affected and was supported from the grave to the parsonage by the Rev Dr Cartman.’

If you’re in the mood to read more on Patrick, then I recommend this superb blog post by Nicola Friar that takes an in depth look at his background and his importance in the Brontë story. Also this week, I recommend you take a look at this excellent and informative video blog which gives us a fresh, and important, new look at Anne Brontë’s ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.’

Haworth church at the time of the Brontes
Haworth church at the time of Patrick’s burial service

Having done that we have time to relax, or to jig about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, but we also have time to say, ‘Happy 242nd birthday, Patrick Brontë!’

Charlotte And Ellen, And Great Literary Friendships

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that I will have a new book out in 2020. Provisionally titled ‘Charlotte & Ellen’ it will be published by The History Press, and it will look at the fascinating life of Ellen Nussey, and particularly at her friendship with Charlotte and the rest of the Brontës. Research is going well, and I’m looking forward to travelling to Birstall, Gomersal, Haworth and Hathersage in the next few weeks – I’ve already uncovered some fascinating facts about both Ellen and Charlotte that aren’t in any other book. With this in mind, today is a great day to look at some famous literary friendships, from Johnson to Austen and from Brontë to, er, Brontë.

Charlotte & Ellen by Nick Holland

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell

Samuel Johnson is most famous as the Dr. Johnson who wrote his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. It wasn’t the first dictionary, as is often thought, but it was certainly the most comprehensive at the time. Johnson spent seven years working on it (is it just me that thinks of Baldrick burning the dictionary in Blackadder at this point?), but he wasn’t always such a methodical worker – he wrote his most celebrated novel ‘Raselas’ in just one week to raise money for his mother’s funeral. He also wrote plays, poetry, literary criticism, works of philosophy, religious sermons and travel books before his death aged 75 in 1784.

Johnson and Boswell
Contemporary caricature of Johnson and Boswell

In 1763 he met the 9th Laird of Auchinleck and instantly formed a strong friendship that would be instrumental to his work in the last two decades of his life. Auchinleck is better known as James Boswell, and his journey with Johnson a year later was the subject of the latter’s book ‘A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland’. Boswell later wrote about his great friend in ‘The Life Of Samuel Johnson’, which many people have claimed is the greatest biography ever penned.

Jane Austen and Cassandra Austen

Cassandra Austen was Jane Austen’s lifelong companion, as well as her elder sister. Cassandra was a talented artist specialising in water colours, but of course she could be in little doubt as to where the great talent and genius in her family lay. Cassandra and Jane were incredibly close to each other, possibly because they were the only girls among six brothers. It’s thanks to Cassandra that Jane went to school in 1785, as she was so heartbroken at the potential loss of her big sister that their parents had to let both go together. Their mother commented that, ‘if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.’

Cassandra Austen
A possible portrait of Cassandra Austen

In adult life Jane and Cassandra were equally inseparable, and from 1809 until Jane’s death in 1817 they lived together in a cottage on the beautiful Chawton estate which had been gifted to their brother Edward. Cassandra’s emotional support was always there, and it was this that helped Jane conquer setbacks in her personal and writing life, enabling her to claim a position as one of the world’s most loved creators of fiction.

Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë

Anne and Emily were the two youngest of the six Brontë siblings, and just like Jane and Cassandra Austen these two sisters would also become the closest of friends. Ellen Nussey, who we will come to in a moment, described their closeness more than once, and in one particularly lovely description (typical of Ellen’s fluid and romantic writing style) she said: ‘She [Emily Brontë] and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
Anne and Emily Bronte, together in the pillar portrait by Branwell

Anne and Emily fuelled each other’s creativity from their earliest days, creating their own fictional land of Gondal and later, fittingly, having their books ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ published together.

Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey

As you now know, I’ll be saying much more about these two next year – but it’s safe to say that Ellen Nussey played a huge role in Charlotte’s life, and the stability that Ellen’s friendship brought to her life helped give Charlotte the courage and indefatigability she has become renowned for – the courage to create works of incredible genius. Charlotte herself summed up perfectly what Ellen Nussey meant to her in a letter to W.S. Williams on 3rd January 1850. I will leave you with her words, and raise a toast to Samuel and James, Jane and Cassandra, Emily and Anne, Charlotte and Ellen, and to friends the world over:

‘Friendship however is a plant which cannot be forced – true friendship is no gourd springing in a night and withering in a day. When I first saw Ellen I did not care for her – we were schoolfellows – in the course of time we learnt each others faults and good points. We were contrasts, still we suited – affection was first a germ, then a sapling, then a strong tree: now, no new friend, however lofty or profound in intellect, not even Miss Martineau herself, could be to me what Ellen is, yet she is no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She is without romance – if she attempts to read poetry or poetic prose aloud I am irritated and deprive her of the book; if she talks of it I stop my ears. But she is good – she is true – she is faithful and I love her.’

The Incredible Life Of Brontë Friend Mary Taylor

This has been a momentous week of anniversaries for Mary Taylor, for the 26th of February 1817 marked her birth, whilst the 1st of March 1893 saw her death. It was a long life for the times, and a very eventful one – she is most known today as one of the two great friends of Charlotte Brontë (along with Ellen Nussey), but she also became a businesswoman, a travel writer, an ardent feminist and a novelist in her own right. This, then, seems the perfect time to remember the real Mary Taylor.

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor in old age, she was described as beautiful when young

Mary was born in Gomersal in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and her family the Taylors were on the rise. They were heavily involved in the production of red cloth that was used in British military uniforms, and as the Napoleonic wars and subsequent conflicts raged, this proved to be very lucrative indeed. The family lived in the Red House, which was until recently a wonderful museum (that’s a picture from inside it at the head of this post), and they even operated their own bank there.

The Red House
The Taylor home, the Red House in Gomersal

In January 1831, Mary Taylor was sent to Roe Head School, recently opened in the nearby town of Mirfield. She found there a fellow pupil she already knew, from the neighbouring village of Birstall, and from a similar mercantile family: Ellen Nussey. These two soon formed a close bond with another pupil there who was from a very different background; this young woman was a year older than them, small, painfully shy and from a considerably less wealthy background – there was something about her, however, that grabbed your attention; even aged 15 it was obvious that here was a woman of truly unique character and talents, it was of course Charlotte Brontë.

Mary was always honest and a plain talker, and this showed in her description of Charlotte upon her arrival at Roe Head:

“She looked a little, old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.”

Nevertheless, she and Charlotte soon became firm friends, and Mary often visited the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, after which she famously gave this description of the Brontë sisters:

“I told her [Charlotte] sometimes they were like growing potatoes in a cellar.”

A far better analogy in my mind is that they were mining for diamonds in the dark, but this comment should not be taken as a slight on Mary’s part, who loved the sisters dearly, but rather the difference in their personalities. Mary was not a home lover, never content to simply sit and read, she was a woman who from an early age was in search of adventure. It was this that took her, in the company of her younger sister Martha, to Europe after the sudden death of her father in December 1840. It was found at this point that his wealth had been built on promises, and he left a series of debts behind him, but Mary and Martha still had enough to install them in the prestigious Chateau de Koekelberg finishing school in Brussels.

Mary’s letters to Charlotte at this time fired Charlotte’s imagination, and were the driving force behind her decision to strike out for Brussels herself, in company with Emily Brontë, ostensibly to learn skills that would allow her to form their own school after their return to Haworth. Charlotte was delighted to see the Taylor sisters again, but tragedy struck when Martha Taylor suddenly sickened and died. Charlotte loved Martha greatly, as we can see from the affectionate portrait of her in ‘Shirley’ as Jessie Yorke. Mary herself is Rose Yorke in ‘Shirley‘. Martha’s funeral service, attended by Mary, Charlotte and Emily is remembered very movingly within this novel:

“Certain people who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new-made in a heretic cemetery, sat near a wood-fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling; and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; Life and Friendship yet blessed them; but Jessie lay cold, confined, solitary – only the sod screening her from the storm.”

Charlotte’s tribute to Martha can be seen at the foot of the grave in Gomersal churchyard that serves for both Mary and Martha Taylor; it reads, ‘Martha Taylor – much loved she was, much loving. C Brontë.’

Taylor grave, Gomersal
The Taylor grave, Gomersal

Martha’s death was devastating for both Charlotte and Mary, who after Brussels continued her travels by becoming a teacher in Germany. Mary could not yet return home to live in Yorkshire, it was full of memories of her father’s fall, of her dead sister. In 1845 Mary made the decision to emigrate to Wellington, New Zealand, where her brother Waring Taylor had moved three years later. This was another terrible blow for Charlotte who realised that her chances of seeing her friend again were now very slim. With her usual brilliance at finding the right words, Charlotte wrote of this loss in words that many of us can feel empathy with:

“To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky.”

Charlotte sent Mary ten pounds (worth well in excess of a thousand pounds in today’s money) to buy a cow, and in 1849 she founded her own business. Mary’s cousin Ellen Taylor had by this time emigrated to Wellington too, and they founded a draper’s shop together that proved to be highly successful. In 1851, however, Ellen Taylor died from tuberculosis, and towards the end of that decade Mary sold the business and returned to Gomersal, having first endured the terrible Wellington earthquake of 1855 that destroyed so much of the growing city. It was too late to see her old friend again however, as by the time Mary landed back on English soil in 1859, all of the Brontë siblings were dead.

Wellington 1855
Wellington, New Zealand at the time Mary lived there

Mary returned to Gomersal a woman of independent wealth, and she lived in High Royd, a grand building owned by her brother Joseph. She travelled extensively across Europe again over the next few years, and took particular delight in Switzerland, where she often went climbing in the Alps.

Mary Taylor mountaineering 1874
Mary Taylor (far left) in Switzerland 1874 (from the Red House Museum collection)

She ‘adopted’ a series of Swiss sisters who came to work as maids for her in Gomersal, and she also formed a close bond with a woman called Grace Hirst who many saw as a kind of daughter to her (although others thought their closeness was scandalous). Mary loved nothing more than being in female company, and became regarded as an eccentric, although one with a brilliant mind.

In the 1860s she began to write journalism, and she was passionate about social inequality and particularly about the rights of women. It was this subject that formed the basis of a series of articles published by ‘Victoria Magazine’ between 1866 and 1877. Collected together as ‘The First Duty Of Women’ they place Mary as a Victorian pioneer of feminism.

Even in later life, Mary Taylor showed no signs of slowing down. In 1890, at the age of 73, she had her own novel published: ‘Miss Miles, Or A Tale Of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago.’ It was not reviewed kindly, with many reviewers saying it was far too slow for contemporary tastes, but I think it’s well worth a read. In common with ‘Wuthering Heights’ it has sections written in the Yorkshire dialect that may prove hard to read and understand for those outside the county; it also, however, has passages of beauty, light and wit, and it is very well written. Mary’s three key concerns in life are well represented here: the poor conditions in which the working class lived in, religious hyprocrisy, and the importance for women to make their own way in life, rather than submitting to the marital drudgery expected of them.

Miss Miles by Mary Taylor
a page from Miss Miles by Mary Taylor

In 1850, Mary had stated (in a letter to Charlotte Brontë) that she was ‘obstinately lazy’, but she certainly overcame this trait. In her life she supported with friendship one of the greatest writers of them all, she became an excellent scholar and taught in Germany and Belgium, she wrote brilliant articles, completed a novel and stood up for the downtrodden at every opportunity; she climbed mountains, and she knocked down barriers.

Her death in 1893 brought a number of glowing obituaries from publications nationwide, but I will leave you with this one from the Whitstable Times And Herne Bay Herald. It includes perhaps the most beautiful tribute of them all, paid to her many decades previously by her great friend Charlotte Brontë: “She was full of feelings, noble, warm, generous, devoted, and profound. God bless her! I never hope to see in this world a character more truly noble. She would die willingly for one she loved. Her intellect and attainments are of the very highest standard.”

Mary Taylor obituary 1893
Mary Taylor obituary, 1893