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.