Eliza Kingston, The Brontë’s Tragic Cousin

It is likely that we would have none of the Brontë books we so love today without the aid of their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. Why so? Simply because it was the legacy that Aunt Branwell left Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë that allowed them to pay for their first book, ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’ to be published, and that allowed Anne and Emily to pay Thomas Cautley Newby to have ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ published.

Aunt Branwell silhouette
A tiny silhouette showing Elizabeth Branwell

Aunt Branwell’s will came into effect in 1842, and after dividing her worldly goods between Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell, she finishes by dividing her money: ‘after the aforesaid sums and articles shall have been paid and deducted, shall be put into some safe bank or lent on good landed security, and there left to accumulate for the sole benefit of my four nieces, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Jane Brontë, Anne Brontë, and Elizabeth Jane Kingston; and this sum or sums, and whatever other property I may have, shall be equally divided between them when the youngest of them living shall have arrived at the age of twenty-one years.’

Anne Brontë, the youngest of these four cousins, was 22 years of age at the time, meaning that they all came into their inheritance equally and immediately. Four cousins benefited but whilst the world knows three, the fourth remains obscure, and yet the story of Eliza Kingston is the most tragic of them all.

The Branwell family of Penzance was a large one, so why was Eliza the only other niece or nephew that Aunt Branwell remembered in her will, other than the Brontës with whom she had lived for more than 20 years? Eliza was the daughter of Jane Kingston, older sister of Elizabeth and of Maria, the mother of the Brontë siblings. She married a Methodist minister, and former missionary, named John Kingston in 1801 in Madron, Cornwall, but before long Reverend Kingston had been banished from the Methodist church and he, Jane and their family had to sail for Baltimore in America to start a new life together.

Sadly things went from bad to worse for the Kingston marriage and in April 1809 Jane Kingston set sail from New York and returned to her beloved Penzance. With her was the baby Elizabeth named after her sister, but forever called Eliza, born in America, but tragically she had to leave her three older children behind with their father.

View of Baltimore by William H. Bartlett
View of Baltimore in the early 19th century by William H. Bartlett

Jane was back in Cornwall and living a short distance from the Branwell house on Chapel Street; due to an abusive marriage she’d had to leave her husband and wave goodbye forever to all but her baby. She was a single mother and her conduct at that time would have been seen by many as scandalous, but the way she was treated by her sister Elizabeth tells us much about her. We know from Aunt Branwell’s will that she had provided money to Jane to set up her own business, and it is clear to see that she had continued to look out for her niece Eliza as well. Elizabeth Branwell was a woman who would never turn her back when her family were in need. I believe that it is also clear that she told her Brontë nieces about this ill starred aunt and cousin in Penzance, for let’s boil Jane’s story down to its essentials: she married a man who was not what he seemed; she had to take her young child and leave her husband far behind, trying to make a new life with the help of a sibling who stood by her. It seems clear that Jane Kingston, aunt to Anne Brontë, was in fact the original of Helen, the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Helen and Arthur in 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'
Was Helen of’The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ really Jane Kingston?

Jane Kingston died in 1855, but what happened to Eliza, the quarter share recipient from her Aunt Elizabeth’s will? It’s a story as sad as any in the Brontë cannon. She invested her inheritance in the Cornish tin mining industry made famous today by Poldark, and at first her investment flourished. We know from her letters to an American brother-in-law that she was aware of her Brontë cousins and had read her books, and she was also in correspondence with Patrick Brontë – in fact it’s thanks to a letter from Eliza that we see the last ever glimpse of Patrick, in 1860 the year before he died:

‘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.’

In 1854, Eliza gave a pen portrait of herself in a self-deprecating way very reminiscent of her Haworth cousin Charlotte:

‘My dear Brother, you ask me do I look like Anne [her by then deceased sister to whom Joseph was once married]. Alas, no! I fear I am neither like her in features, form, or disposition. My mother thinks she was her best child, and I am about the worst, but you shall judge for yourself. I am of middle stature, rather large boned, but not very fleshy, high shouldered, short necked, neither fair nor dark, high cheek bones, large mouth, irregular teeth, grey eyes, brown hair, very grey on the front part of my head… of an irritable temper, but frank and open with those I like, rather impudently so sometimes. To crown all, I am an Old Maid of 46, or shall be so on the 23rd of this month. It has cost me an effort, I assure you, to give this picture of myself, but as you wished to know particulars, I thought it best to be candid. I might have married, but I did not like the offers, nor did I think them suitable. When I tell you I have always greatly admired beauty under all circumstances, you may partly guess what mortifications and painful feelings I have had to endure.’

Before long however, Eliza’s investments became worthless and she began a descent into complete and utter poverty and despair. By 1866 she, in desperation, is writing to known philanthropists begging for help:

‘I thought some time since that there are institutions for the help of those in reduced circumstances, I would try to ascertain their rules. One, the National Benevolent Institution, does not help those under 60. I am not yet 58. I was advised to write Miss Burdett Coutts who is said to be the richest commoner in the United Kingdom. I did it on the 1st of this month… but received no reply, the case twice before to others.’

10 Morrab Place, Penzance
I visited 10 Morrab Place, Penzance last year – once home to Eliza Kingston

Eliza’s final letter to her brother in law Joseph is terrible and moving:

‘I feel very weak at times, if I over-exert myself or do not take sufficient nourishment; I require (if I could have it) animal food every day… I cannot live so low as I used to. I was informed that it was a case of nervous debility which I knew before… there is often a cobweb (or something like it) floating before my left eye… I live in constant dread of the future… I have no prospect of a home or rooms or indeed any money to pay rent… God only knows how it will end… I sometimes feel as if my heart would break.’

In 1878 Eliza Kingston died; she had lived a longer life than her Brontë cousins, but in no measure a happier life. The place of her final days is revealing; she was in a Penzance lunatic asylum. In her letters we see that Eliza is a fine writer in her own right, and after her death a distant relative gives us one final tragic glimpse of Eliza:

‘I think my mother asked Miss [Eliza] Kingston about Charlotte Brontë on more than one occasion. They talked about her together, and Miss Kingston spoke a good deal about what Charlotte Brontë had brought out in her works, and how she depicted characters. I have a vivid recollection of wonder that our poor cousin Eliza Jane could say such beautiful things and see so much in books, and yet look so plain and prosper so badly. Is there any record of the book she wrote, or was it only a part? Perhaps she destroyed it. She said no one would publish it.’

So now we see that just like Anne, Emily and Charlotte, cousin Eliza too used the money and freedom that Aunt Branwell’s legacy left them to write a book. But Eliza’s book is lost forever, nobody would publish it, and now nobody will ever see it, however brilliant it may have been. Even so, let’s keep the name of Eliza Kingston alive.

In Memory Of Patrick Branwell Brontë

This is one of the most tragic of all days in the Brontë story, for on this day, the 24th of September 1848, Branwell Brontë died in Haworth at the age of 31. Not only was this a sad day in itself, it marked the beginning of just over eight months of mourning that would also see Emily and Anne Brontë die of the same condition: tuberculosis.

The man born Patrick Branwell Brontë in 1817 remains a controversial figure; yes, he had serious difficulties to deal with in later life, but thankfully more and more people are now returning to the positive aspects of Branwell and his work.

Branwell head
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

With that in mind, let’s pause today and think about what those who knew Branwell best had to say about him, his family and friends:

Patrick Brontë on Branwell Brontë

“My poor father naturally thought more of his only son than of his daughters, and much and long has he suffered on his account – he cried out for his loss like David for that of Absalom – My son! My son! And refused at first to be comforted.”

[This was from a letter of 2nd October from Charlotte to W.S. Williams. She was wrong that Patrick felt more of Branwell than his daughters, if anything it seems that Emily may have been closest to him, but it shows the depth of his grief for the man who had once been the great hope of the family. From his birth, it would have been expected that Branwell would make his way in life, and also provide enough money to look after his sisters too after their father’s death should they need it.]

The Lonely Shepherd
The Lonely Shepherd by Branwell Bronte

Charlotte Brontë on Branwell Brontë

“When I looked on the noble face and forehead of my dear brother (Nature had favoured him with a fairer outside, as well as a finer constitution than his Sisters) and asked myself what had made him ever go wrong, tend ever downwards, when he had so many gifts to induce to, and aid in an upward course – I seemed to receive an oppressive revelation of the feebleness of humanity; of the inadequacy of even genius to lead to true greatness unaided by religion and principle… When the struggle was over – and a marble calm began to succeed the last dread agony – I felt as I had never felt before that there was peace and forgiveness for him in Heaven. All his errors – to speak plainly – all his vices seemed nothing to me in that moment; every wrong he had done, every pain he had caused, vanished; his sufferings only were remembered; the wrench to the natural affections only was felt… Had his sins been scarlet in their dye, I believe now they are as white as wool. He is at rest – and that comforts us all. Long before he quitted this world – Life had no happiness for him.”

[This moving letter, again to Williams, of 9th October shows Charlotte wrestling with her feelings. For a long time before her brother’s death she had ceased speaking to him, but she was facing demons of her own at the time and in their childhood they had been incredibly close. Only after his death did she realise how much she still loved him.]

Branwell Bronte gun group engraving
Branwell Bronte’s gun group engraving

Francis Grundy on Branwell Brontë

“This generous gentleman in all his ideas, this madman in many of his acts, died at twenty-eight of grief for a woman. But at twenty-two, what a splendid specimen of brain power running wild he was! What glorious talent he had still to waste!.. This plain specimen of humanity, who died unhonoured, might have made the world of literature and art ring with the name of which he was so proud… He was a dear old friend, who from the rich storehouse of his knowledge taught me much. I make my humble effort to do my duty to his memory. His letters to me revealed more of his soul’s struggles than probably was known to any other. Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way. More sinned against, mayhap, than sinning, at least he proved the reality of his sorrows. They killed him, and it needed not that his memory should have been tarnished… but Fiat Justitia! And I must say what I can in favour of my old friend.”

[Branwell Brontë met Francis Grundy during his days on the railway in Luddendenfoot near Halifax, and they became firm friends. This extract is from Grundy’s 1879 autobiography ‘Pictures Of The Past’ in which he launches a spirited defence of Branwell against the portrait of him in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Life Of Charlotte Brontë‘]

Branwell drawing for Anne
A sketch by Branwell made for a young Anne Bronte

Anne Brontë on Branwell Brontë

“I mourn with thee and yet rejoice
That thou shouldst sorrow so;
With Angel choirs I join my voice
To bless the sinner’s woe.
Though friends and kindred turn away
And laugh thy grief to scorn,
I hear the great Redeemer say
‘Blessed are ye that mourn’.
Hold on thy course nor deem it strange
That earthly cords are riven.
Man may lament the wondrous change
But ‘There is joy in Heaven’!”

Anne Brontë’s poem ‘The Penitent’ was composed in September 1845, while Branwell was still living, but at a time when both she and he had recently left their employment at Thorp Green Hall. Anne is clearly talking about her brother, and sharing her belief that he had a good heart and would be forgiven one day by the ‘great Redeemer’. She could not have known that this day would be just three years ahead of her, but Anne had faith in a kinder judgement waiting for the elder brother she loved, the one who had drawn pictures for her as a child, who had held her hand and led her across the moors. Let’s think of Branwell Brontë today and pass a kinder judgement on him ourselves, for we are none of us perfect, and perhaps at heart, to borrow Grundy’s words, we are all just moving in a mist and only a step from losing our way.

Branwell Northangerland
Branwell writing under his Northangerland pseudonym

Rest in peace, Branwell Brontë.

The Brontës And Their Odes To Autumn

John Keats famously called autumn the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, but he wasn’t the only writer to take inspiration from this russet-hued season of falling leaves and temperatures. Let’s face it, there’s been more than a hint of autumn in the air recently, at least up here in the chilly north of England, so it seems the perfect time to see what Anne Brontë and her sisters had to say about autumn.

Autumn in Yorkshire often brings windy conditions alongside cooler days and nights, but it can also be incredibly beautiful, especially if walking through parks and woodland where red and gold coloured leaves blanket the ground, crunching warmly beneath our feet. This is certainly something that Anne loved to do, and she got the perfect opportunity to experience it whilst living as a governess at Thorp Green Hall near York. As beautiful as Haworth is, the moorlands are largely devoid of trees, but the area around Thorp Green provided plentiful woodland for her to walk through, often in company with her dog Flossy that she was presented with whilst there. In 1843 she sat down and drew this lovely autumnal landscape:

Autumnal landscape by Anne Bronte
Autumnal landscape by Anne Bronte

Autumn weather at Thorp Green also inspired her poem ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day’:

“My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves, beneath them, are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.
I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today!”

We see from this how much Anne loved the wild weather of this season, but how it made her long to be at a place she loved even more: Scarborough with its crashing waves and stunning views across the seemingly infinite sea.

As we might expect, Emily Brontë loved autumn weather too, and the wilder the better. Even the world ‘wuthering’ that she made famous forever means a moaning gusty wind. This season, and its weather, also infused her verse. In autumn 1838, while teaching at Law Hill in Halifax, wrote a beautiful but little known poem beginning:

“Loud without the wind was roaring
Through the waned Autumnal sky,
Drenching wet, the cold rain pouring
Spoke of stormy winters nigh.
All too like that dreary eventually
Sighed without repining grief –
Sighed at first – but sighed not long
Sweet – how softly sweet it came!
Wild words of an ancient song –
Undefined, without a name –
‘It was spring, for the skylark was singing.’
Those words they awakened a spell –
They unlocked a deep fountain whose springing
Nor absence nor distance can quell.
In the gloom of a cloudy November
They uttered the music of May –
They kindled the perishing ember
Into fervour that could not decay
Awaken on all my dear moorlands
The wind in its glory and pride!
O call me from valleys and highlands
To walk by the hill-river’s side!”

Law Hill School
Law Hill School, where Emily dreamed of autumn in Haworth

This is just part of a lengthy poem, but Emily also had the knack of being able to write very succinct yet powerful poems, and in this next poem she captures the essence of autumn perhaps better than anyone other than Keats:

“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.”

hedgehog Bronte

The importance of the seasons to the nature-loving Brontë sisters is clear, and Charlotte too wrote a verse that gives autumn a very different feel. Here we see Charlotte Brontë alone in a somber mood, but she embraces the gloom of autumn like an old friend. The autumn chill is as cold as she feels in her heart, she and autumn are akin. It’s a short verse, particularly by Charlotte’s standards as her poems tended to be epics spanning several pages, but I think it’s possibly her greatest poem:

“The Autumn day its course has run – the Autumn evening falls,
Already risen the Autumn moon gleams quiet on these walls,
And Twilight to my lonely house a silent guest is come,
In mask of gloom through every room she passes dusk and dumb.
Her veil is spread, her shadow shed o’er stair and chamber void,
And now I feel her presence steal even to my lone fireside,
Sit silent Nun – sit there and be,
Comrade and Confidant to me.”

Charlotte was at her most evocative in these eight lines, we can almost picture her alone by an autumn fire hearth. Autumn can certainly be melancholy, it is a time when we remember lost loved ones, and for Charlotte, Anne and Emily that was especially so on the 15th of September. Today is the anniversary of the death in 1821 of Maria Brontë, mother to the siblings we all know and love. On this day their thoughts must naturally turn to the woman who had loved them so much, and on dark, cold nights our thoughts can do the same. This is the season of fall, but as Anne and Emily knew it is also a season of rare beauty if we look for it, a season of hope, for the wheel of the year turns and those bare trees will bring fruit and leaves once more.

Maria Bronte
Maria Bronte drawn in 1799, let us remember her today

Whatever autumn brings you, I hope you embrace it and enjoy it. Wrap up warm, kick the leaves around as you walk, and return home to a warm drink and a great book.

Tributes To The Late, Lamented William Weightman

This week marks the 177th anniversary of  the passing of William Weightman. He died on 6th September 1842, and with his final breath the love of Anne Brontë’s life passed away too. There are some who want only to deal with indisputable facts when dealing with history, but without speculation, without listening to our hearts when the existing evidence is placed before us, we miss out on so much. We see history and historical figures as merely dry cardboard, two dimensional entities, a string of dates and figures, rather than the flesh and blood creatures they really were, ruled by passions and love just as much as we are. It seems clear to me that Anne Brontë was in love with William Weightman, and that she felt his loss greatly throughout her short life.

William was from Appleby in Westmorland (that’s it at the head of this post) and was just 26 when he died, and the nature of his death shows the kind of man he was – he had contracted cholera after visiting a sick parishioner, something he did regularly, sometimes taking them gifts as well to alleviate their want. This trait is also mirrored by Reverend Weston in ‘Agnes Grey‘, and Agnes’ love Weston is really a mirror image of Weightman.

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Weston (Weightman) and Agnes (Anne) walk the beach

Perhaps the best way to pay tribute to him is to listen to what those who knew him said, including the Brontës:

Charlotte Brontë on William Weightman

[Charlotte’s views on Weightman changed dramatically; she fell under his spell herself but finding her feelings not reciprocated accused him of falseness and christened him ‘Celia Amelia’. Later, however, as this letter to Ellen Nussey shows, she was confronted with his true character]

“There is one little trait respecting him which lately came to my knowledge, which gives a glimpse of the better side of his character. Last Saturday night he had been sitting an hour in the parlour with Papa; and as he went away, I heard Papa say to him – ‘What is the matter with you? You seem in very low spirits tonight.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been to see a poor young girl, who, I’m afraid, is dying.’ ‘Indeed, what is her name?’ ‘Susan Bland, the daughter of John Bland, the superintendent.’ Now Susan Bland is my oldest and best scholar in the Sunday-school; and when I heard that, I thought I would go as soon as I could to see her. I did go, on Monday afternoon, and found her very ill and weak, and seemingly far on her way to that bourne whence no traveller returns. After sitting with her some time, I happened to ask her mother if she thought a little port wine would do her good. She replied that the doctor had recommended it, and that when Mr. Weightman was last there, he had sent them a bottle of wine and a jar of preserves. She added, that he was always good-natured to poor folks, and seemed to have a deal of feeling and kind-heartedness about him. This proves that he is not all selfishness and vanity. No doubt, there are defects in his character, but there are also good qualities. God bless him!”

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

Branwell Brontë on William Weightman

[Charlotte wrote of how surprised she was that the usually reserved Emily Brontë quickly became friends with William, but he also made an impression on her brother Branwell and they became close companions. His death just days before that of Aunt Branwell dealt a double blow to Branwell Brontë]

“I have had a long attendance at the deathbed of the Rev. William Weightman, one of my dearest friends, and now I am attending at the deathbed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours… excuse this scrawl, my eyes are too dim with sorrow to see well.”

Patrick Brontë on William Weightman

[Patrick didn’t always get on with his assistant curates, but he was greatly impressed by William from the first. Perhaps if he had one day asked for the hand of a daughter of his, Patrick would have given him a better response than Arthur Bell Nicholls received? Patrick’s love for William can be found in the funeral sermon he preached for him.]

William Weightman funeral sermon
Patrick published the William Weightman funeral sermon at the request of his parishioners

“In his preaching, and practising, he was, as very clergyman ought to be, neither distant nor austere, timid nor obtrusive, nor bigoted, exclusive, nor dogmatical. He was affable, but not familiar; open, but not too confiding. He thought it better, and more scriptural, to make the love of God, rather than the fear of hell, the ruling motive for obedience… For about three years, our Reverend Friend in his sacred office has laboured amongst us, faithfully preaching the doctrines expressed and implied in our text, There are many, who for a short time can please, and even astonish – but, who soon retrograde and fall into disrepute. His character wore well; the surest proof of real worth. He had, it is true, some peculiar advantages. Agreeable in person and manners, and constitutionally cheerful, his first introduction was prepossessing. But what he gained at first, he did not lose afterwards. He had those qualities that enabled him to gain ground. He had classical attainments of the first order, and above all, his religious principles were sound and orthodox… As it ought to be with every Incumbent, and his clerical coadjutor, we were always like father and son… He had the rare art of communicating information with diligence and strictness, without austerity, so as to render instruction, even to the youngest and most giddy, a pleasure, and not a task. The Sunday School Committee, and Teachers, as well as learners, have duly appreciated his talents in this way, and will long remember him with esteem and regret… As he was himself a friend to many, and an enemy to none, so by a kind of reaction, he had, I think I might say, no enemies and many friends… Our late lamented friend ran a bright, but short career. He died in the twenty-sixth year of his age. He had not attained the meridian of man’s life; amidst the joyous, and sanguine anticipations of friends, the good wishes of all, and, as may naturally be supposed, the glad hopes of himself, he was summoned for his removal from this world to the bar of eternity… When good men die early, in the full tide of their usefulness, there is bewildering amazement, till we read in the scriptures, they are taken away from the evil to come. In all such cases, we want faith, and strong faith too.”

William Weightman funeral sermon page
The William Weightman funeral sermon also details how he came to Haworth

The Haworth Parishioners On William Weightman

[The parishioners could be very hard to please, but they loved William, which is why they implored Patrick to publish his funeral sermon, above, and why they collected money to have a plaque raised in his honour. It remains the largest single tribute in Haworth’s church and bears these words:]

“This monument was erected by the inhabitants in memory of the late William Weightman, M.A. who died Sept. 6th 1842, aged 26 years 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 memorial plaque

The Leeds Intelligencer On William Weightman

“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 above], 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.”

Anne Brontë On William Weightman

We will finish with a tribute to William Weightman from the woman who loved him, and who I believed was loved by him in return – our own beloved Anne Brontë. She not only made him the romantic hero of her first novel ‘Agnes Grey’ she also composed a series of mournful poems for the rest of her life, where the subject is clearly William Weightman. I leave you with just one of these; written in April 1844, ‘A Reminiscence’ marks the poets love for a man who is buried under the cold, damp stone of the church floor. William Weightman was not buried in Haworth’s churchyard, but beneath the floor of the church:

“Yes, thou art gone! and never more
Thy sunny smile shall gladden me;
But I may pass the old church door,
And pace the floor that covers thee,
May stand upon the cold, damp stone,
And think that, frozen, lies below
The lightest heart that I have known,
The kindest I shall ever know.
Yet, though I cannot see thee more,
‘Tis still a comfort to have seen;
And though thy transient life is o’er,
‘Tis sweet to think that thou hast been;
To think a soul so near divine,
Within a form, so angel fair,
United to a heart like thine,
Has gladdened once our humble sphere.”

Charlotte Brontë, London And The Iron Duke

Apologies for the late posting – I’ve spent the last week in London, a glorious hustle bustle of a city and one I always love to visit. There’s so much history there, and of course the streets are paved with literary history too in the form of Brontë gold.

The Chapter Coffee House in 1843
The Chapter Coffee House the year after Charlotte, Emily and Patrick visited

I’ve looked before at how Anne Brontë came here with her sister Charlotte in July 1848, driven by a desire to prove their innocence after Charlotte’s publisher George Smith wrote that it was being said that the three Bell brothers, Currer, Ellis and Acton were one and the same man. Of course, the truth was very different, but it involved Anne and Charlotte finally throwing off their Bell masks and introducing the Brontë sisters to the world. This was the only time Anne travelled outside Yorkshire, and she must have delighted in the capital’s sights and sounds, but Charlotte Brontë visited London on numerous occasions.
In fact, Charlotte’s first visit to London was in 1842, accompanied by Emily and her father Patrick as they made their way to Brussels to attend school at the Pensionnat Heger. After the death of her sisters, Charlotte tried to forget her sorrows by writing, seeking the company of friends, and sometimes travelling, and so she returned to London more than once as the guest of George Smith. In his memoirs, Smith gave a compelling account of one of these visits, and we see Charlotte meeting her hero the Duke of Wellington, standing enraptured in the House of Commons, and even comforting a prisoner in Newgate. Here is his account:

“Charlotte Brontë stayed with us several times. The utmost was, of course, done to entertain and please her. We arranged for dinner-parties, at which artistic and literary notabilities, whom she wished to meet, were present. We took her to places which we thought would interest her – The Times office, the General Post Office, the Bank of England, Newgate, Bedlam. At Newgate she rapidly fixed her attention on an individual prisoner. This was a poor girl with an interesting face, and an expression of the deepest misery. She had, I believe, killed her illegitimate child. Miss Brontë walked up to her, took her hand, and began to talk to her. She was, of course, quickly interrupted by the prison warder with the formula, ‘Visitors are not allowed to speak to the prisoners.’ Sir David Brewster took her round the Great Exhibition, and made the visit a very interesting one to her. One thing which impressed her very much was the lighted rooms of the newspaper offices in Fleet Street and the Strand, as we drove home in the middle of the night from some City expedition.

Newgate Prison
Newgate Prison, where Charlotte comforted a wretched prisoner

On one occasion I took Miss Brontë to the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons. The Ladies’ Gallery of those days was behind the Strangers’ Gallery, and from it one could see the eyes of the ladies above, nothing more. I told Miss Brontë that if she felt tired and wished to go away, she had only to look at me – I should know by the expression of her eyes what she meant – and that I would come round for her. After a time I looked and looked. There were many eyes, they all seemed to be flashing signals to me, but much as I admired Miss Brontë’s eyes I could not distinguish them from the others. I looked so earnestly from one pair of eyes to another that I am afraid that more than one lady must have regarded me as a rather impudent fellow. At length I went round and took my lady away. I expressed my hope that I did not keep her long waiting, and said something about the difficulty of getting out after I saw her signal. ‘ I made no signal,’ she said, ‘I did not wish to come away. Perhaps there were other signals from the Gallery.’

The Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Miss Brontë and her father had a passionate admiration for the Duke of Wellington, and I took her to the Chapel Royal, St. James’s, which he generally attended on Sunday, in order that she might see him. We followed him out of the Chapel, and I indulged Miss Brontë by so arranging our walk that she met him twice on his way to Apsley House. I also took her to a Friends’ meeting-house in St. Martin’s Court, Leicester Square. I am afraid this form of worship afforded her more amusement than edification.”

Wellington iron
Iron miniature of the Duke, owned by Charlotte Bronte

I myself followed Charlotte’s footsteps and visited Apsley House (that’s it at the head of this post). It’s incredibly grand; situated right next to the entrance to Hyde Park it demonstrates the affection that the first Duke of Wellington was held in right across Europe, and the wealth that his success as a General brought him. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures within the magnificent rooms which are open to the public, but there was more gold than Fort Knox and an incredible collection of art. Vast mirrors are actually panels that slide back in daytime to reveal windows looking out onto what was then Kensington Village. Quite simply, it’s the most breathtaking house I’ve seen, and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits London. Here’s a short video I made looking at Charlotte Brontë’s love of the man who once called Apsley House home, and whom she proudly called ‘a real grand old man’:

London is a magical place to visit, although may be a little too hectic (not to say expensive) to live in, and it’s made all the more magical by the knowledge that we walk in the footsteps of the likes of the Duke of Wellington, and of Charlotte and Anne Brontë.