The Mystery Of 2 Sisters, 4 Cousins And 3 Weddings

This festive period should be a happy time, a chance to spend quality time with those you love, eat too much, drink too much, and watch too many Poirot movies (can you ever watch too many Poirot movies?). I hope you’ve all had a jolly Christmas and are looking forward to a happy and productive 2020. Six people were certainly having a happy, if perhaps a little nerve-jangling, time on this day in 1812. They are at two separate locations exactly 400 miles apart, but they have a timeless connection. What could it be? Let’s take a look at these six individuals, put our little grey cells to use, and then read an account that reveals the truth about the extraordinary events.

Let us begin in Guiseley, where standing nervously in the cold air outside St. Oswald’s Church is William Morgan. It is a cold Tuesday morning, and perhaps Morgan is waiting to greet his congregation for a week day service, for he is a minister in the Church of England. This, however, is not his church, and he is far from his Welsh homeland. Morgan was at the time a 30 year old curate in the diocese of Bierley near Bradford, whereas Guiseley was a larger parish situated between Bradford and Leeds.

St. Oswald's Church, Guiseley
St. Oswald’s Church, Guiseley, site of a joyful event in 1812

Perhaps Morgan’s eyes sparkle as he thinks of a woman who is making her way to St. Oswald’s at this very moment, one who he first met three years earlier in Shropshire and whom fate brought into his path again here in the West Riding of Yorkshire? Jane Fennell is her name; she is 21 years old, and has travelled extensively throughout her young life, although she still bears traces of her original Cornish accent. The reason for her peripatetic life up to this point is that her parents are ardent followers of Wesleyanism, what we now know as Methodism. Following the examples of its founder John Wesley they have travelled to spread his message of love and salvation for all, and after a sojourn in the town of Wellington in Shropshire, they have formed a Wesleyan School at Woodhouse Grove in Apperley Bridge, five miles from Bradford and eight from Leeds. Jane’s father John Fennell is also here in Guiseley, glancing often towards Morgan, a man whom he has recently employed in his school.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan

Jane’s mother is here too, another Jane Fennell although her maiden name was Jane Branwell. She will be casting appreciative, if teary, eyes not only at her daughter but at her niece who will arrive at the church with Jane – Maria Branwell, who left Cornwall just half a year earlier. The Fennells had made Maria an offer of employment at their new school in Yorkshire. Jane Fennell senior had been sister to Maria’s father Thomas. Following the death of Thomas Branwell in 1809, Jane knew that her niece Maria was looking for a new start, and a chance to make her own way in life. She also knew of Maria’s intelligence and practical nature, so it seemed a good move for all to invite her to help in the running of the school. Perhaps Maria is in Guiseley today as bridesmaid to her cousin Jane Fennell, for when Jane arrives we can see that she is attired in a bride’s white ensemble? Maria , too, is all in white.

Maria Branwell’s glance turns sideways to another man waiting by the altar of St. Oswald’s Church. He is an Irishman in his 36th year, and he too is a new arrival in this area of Yorkshire. Patrick Brontë is curate at St. Peter’s Church in Hartshead-cum-Clifton, but in the summer he had also accepted the post of Classics examiner at Woodhouse Grove School. Patrick had met the head of the school John Fennell during a stint as curate in Wellington, Shropshire in 1809. It was in Wellington also that he had first met William Morgan, also a Shropshire curate at the time. Three men who met in Shropshire in 1809 now standing in a church in Yorkshire three years later. Patrick began his duties at Woodhouse Grove just as John Fennell’s niece Maria arrived from Cornwall. Fate will always work her magic, but sometimes she has fun adding a few twists and turns along the way.

Woodhouse Grove School
Woodhouse Grove School where Maria met Patrick

It is to Cornwall that our gaze turns now, and we see a very different church – St. Maddern’s at Madron, the official parish church of the growing town of Penzance. Standing outside the church is a 35 year old woman dressed in fine silk, as she loved to do – she was always one for the fun and gaieties of her native town. Her name is Elizabeth Branwell, she is the eldest surviving sister of Maria who at that same moment walks down the aisle in Guiseley, 400 miles to the north. Elizabeth is happy on this day, she likes to organise things, and through a series of letters relayed from south to north and from north to south, she has helped to bring off a rather unique, and uniquely happy, event. The Branwells are a leading merchant and political family in this southwestern tip of England, and the crowd of people gathered outside shows that a marriage is to take place. Elizabeth is not the bride – she will never play that role, although her name is found time and time again as witness to the marriages of her siblings. Perhaps her love had died many years ago in the icy waters of Scandinavia? There will be nobody else for Elizabeth, but today, as always, she will be there for her family, and it is her youngest sister that she is now acting as bridesmaid for.

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

Elizabeth has long been familiar with the man who is the centre of attention on this day, for he is her cousin Joseph Branwell. Originally a teacher, he has recently changed course and commenced a career as a banker at Bolitho’s Bank. He is a man with seemingly a sound future ahead of him, and he has eyes only for the blonde haired woman, all in white, by his side – his cousin Charlotte.

20 year old Charlotte Branwell is the youngest of the Branwell family, the last of twelve children born to Thomas Branwell and Anne Carne. She and Joseph will go on to have ten children of their own; they are deeply in love. Charlotte’s thoughts on this day are on her husband, of course, and on her family alongside her, but also on that church in Guiseley that first caught our attention.

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, the aunt who gave her name to Charlotte Bronte

So, there we have a cast of characters who, despite a separation of 400 miles, all seem to be connected to each other. As the wedding bells ring out in Yorkshire and Cornwall, and six names complete the registers of marriage, it makes me think of Poirot’s pronouncement as the denouement of the seemingly impossibly convoluted ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ approaches:

“I said to myself: This is extraordinary – they cannot all be in it! And then, Messieurs, I saw light. They were all in it. For so many people connected with the Armstrong case to be travelling by the same train through coincidence was not only unlikely: it was impossible. It must be not chance, but design.

Joseph Branwell
Joseph Branwell wed his cousin Charlotte

We see the same in the Brontë and Branwell case playing out on this day exactly 207 years ago today. Three loving couples have married each other: William Morgan and Jane Fennell, Joseph Branwell and Charlotte Branwell, and, of most interest to us, Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell. They have married each other at the same time, despite the distances between them, not by chance, but by design. We have proof of this in a letter published by The Cornish Telegraph on Christmas Day 1884. It was written, just to make things even clearer, by another Charlotte Branwell – the by then 59 year old daughter of Charlotte and Joseph who we encountered above. A triple wedding at Christmas – what a delightful thing, and perfect festive fare for us all to think about today. I leave you with the letter now, and wish you all a happy end to 2019 – I will see you in the New Year:

“It was arranged that the two marriages [Patrick and Maria and William and Jane] should be solemnized on the same day as that of Miss Charlotte Branwell’s mother, fixed for 29th December in far off Penzance. And so, whilst the youngest sister of Mrs. Brontë was being married to her cousin, the late Mr Joseph Branwell, the double marriage, as already noted was taking place in Yorkshire. Miss Charlotte Branwell also adds that at Guiseley not only did the Rev. Mr Brontë and the Rev. Mr Morgan perform the marriage ceremony for one another, but the brides acted as bridesmaids for each other. Mr Fennell, who was a clergyman of the Church of England, would have united the young people, but he had to give both brides away. Miss Branwell notes these facts to prove that the arrangement for the three marriages on the same day was no caprice or eccentricity on the part of Mr Brontë, but was made entirely by the brides. She has many a time heard her mother speak of the circumstances. ‘It is but seldom,’ continues Miss Branwell, ‘that two sisters and four cousins are united in holy matrimony on the same day.’”

Cards, Crackers And Music On Christmas Morning

So here it is, Merry Christmas, and I hope you’re having a fun, and not overly stressful, day. Christmas has changed a lot since the days of our beloved Brontës in Haworth Parsonage, but we still enjoy Christmas music, still exchange presents, still pull crackers, still tell corny jokes, and still swap Christmas cards.

Er, hang on, whilst presents and love were still high on the agenda, crackers as we know them only arrived after the time of the Brontës. They were invented in the mid to late 1840s by a sweet manufacturer from London with the exotic name of Tom Smith. They were simply sweets, with a motto, in a festive wrapper that pulled open but they failed to make any impact until a moment that changed Christmas history in 1861. Tom saw a spark make a crackle in a coal fire, and realised that his festive sweet wrappers would be more popular if he made them crack too – he called them ‘Bangs Of Expectation’ and the modern cracker was born! One thing the Victorians weren’t short of was bad jokes suitable for crackers. They loved cringe-making puns and plays on words so here’s a festive jolly from the nineteenth century Answers Magazine:

We know that Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë received Valentine’s cards from William Weightman in 1840 and 1841, a tradition that was already centuries old at that time, so surely they received Christmas cards too? Strange as it may seem, Valentine’s cards greatly pre-date Christmas cards. In fact, the very first commercially printed Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole. In 1846 a thousand copies of this first card were made, and sold at auction. It was in the latter half of the century that they became an essential feature of the festive season, so it’s likely that none of the Brontës sent or received one.

We will come, as is my own tradition on this blog, to music in a moment but firstly let’s take a look at some genuine Victorian Christmas cards. It tells us a lot about them. If you’re expecting nativity scenes, Santa or a star over a stable think again. Prepare yourself for puddings climbing out of a cauldron, snowmen who assault passers by and dancing stag beetles rather than reindeer!

Nothing said ‘Christmas’ to the Victorians like a painting kangaroo

A jolly Christmas indeed, if you avoid the snowman mugger!
Ah, that famous Christmas phrase!
No, I can’t do you a donkey or reindeer – how about a beetle. frog and fly on a beach?

We all love our Christmas songs, whether they be traditional carols or modern hits, and this at least we have in common with the Brontës. How do we know that? Well, Anne Brontë wrote about it in a poem that she composed on Christmas Day itself. I wish you all a delightful Christmas Day and a happy and healthy festive period for you and your loved ones. May your ‘Bangs Of Expectation’ always be loud, and surround yourself with love, and with ‘Music On Christmas Morning’:

“Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.”

Haworth Christmas pillar portrait
Happy Christmas from me, Anne, Emily, Branwell and Charlotte – to you all!

Celebrating Emily Brontë At Christmas

This week saw a very sad anniversary for Brontë lovers, as the 19th of December marked the 171st anniversary of the death, aged 30, of Emily Brontë. The last weeks of her life were traumatic, especially for her family, and as Charlotte said of her, ‘She died in a time of promise’. Let us not remember the details of her passing however, but instead concentrate on her life and her work – for they were truly brilliant.

Those who knew Emily paid testament to the fact that, even though she was painfully shy, she was tremendously kind-hearted. Today we can get to know Emily through her work, and whether it was painting, poetry or prose it was universally fantastic. Emily, like her sisters and brother, was a more than proficient artist, so I’ve used some of her art to illustrate this post, including this picture of Nero, the hawk she rescued from the moors and nursed back to health:

"Nero, body of a merlin" by Emily Bronte
“Nero, body of a Merlin” by Emily Bronte

You may have noticed that we are rapidly approaching Christmas! Time really does fly, but whilst technology is changing every aspect of our world it’s nice to know that some traditions remain, especially during this festive period. That means that some of the activities that the Brontës would have enjoyed at this time of year, from pudding making to carol singing, remain today.

'Keeper from life' by Emily Bronte
“Keeper from life” by Emily Bronte

On Christmas day itself I will have a special post that will, as has become my blogging tradition, finish with Anne Brontë’s own Christmas words, but it will also include a celebration of something which was only invented in the Brontës’ lifetime – the Christmas card. I know that many of you will be too busy on the big day itself to spend time on the net, so today’s post is finishing with a Christmas theme too, this time courtesy of Emily.

Flossy by Emily Bronte
Flossy by Emily Bronte, her portrait of Anne’s spaniel

If I won’t get the chance to say it to you on Wednesday I will say it now: Merry Yule and Happy Christmas (oh and Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating that today as well)! If you’re spending it with your family, friends and loved ones – have a joyous one; if you’re on your own, turn to the company of a great book and have a glass of something nice. Treat yourself – you deserve it! We close this post with a look at Christmas day celebrations from Wuthering Heights, and we can think of how Emily Brontë and her siblings must have witnessed similar events every year at that parsonage in Haworth. I must go now, I think I can hear the approach of the Gimmerton band:

“The little party recovered its equanimity at sight of the fragrant feast. They were hungry after their ride, and easily consoled, since no real harm had befallen them. Mr. Earnshaw carved bountiful platefuls, and the mistress made them merry with lively talk. I waited behind her chair, and was pained to behold Catherine, with dry eyes and an indifferent air, commence cutting up the wing of a goose before her. ‘An unfeeling child,’ I thought to myself; ‘how lightly she dismisses her old playmate’s troubles. I could not have imagined her to be so selfish.’ She lifted a mouthful to her lips: then she set it down again: her cheeks flushed, and the tears gushed over them. She slipped her fork to the floor, and hastily dived under the cloth to conceal her emotion. I did not call her unfeeling long; for I perceived she was in purgatory throughout the day, and wearying to find an opportunity of getting by herself, or paying a visit to Heathcliff, who had been locked up by the master: as I discovered, on endeavouring to introduce to him a private mess of victuals.

In the evening we had a dance. Cathy begged that he might be liberated then, as Isabella Linton had no partner: her entreaties were vain, and I was appointed to supply the deficiency. We got rid of all gloom in the excitement of the exercise, and our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them. After the usual carols had been sung, we set them to songs and glees. Mrs. Earnshaw loved the music, and so they gave us plenty.

Tree by Emily Bronte
Tree by Emily Bronte (unfortunately she didn’t draw a Christmas tree)

Catherine loved it too: but she said it sounded sweetest at the top of the steps, and she went up in the dark: I followed. They shut the house door below, never noting our absence, it was so full of people. She made no stay at the stairs’-head, but mounted farther, to the garret where Heathcliff was confined, and called him. He stubbornly declined answering for a while: she persevered, and finally persuaded him to hold communion with her through the boards. I let the poor things converse unmolested, till I supposed the songs were going to cease, and the singers to get some refreshment: then I clambered up the ladder to warn her. Instead of finding her outside, I heard her voice within. The little monkey had crept by the skylight of one garret, along the roof, into the skylight of the other, and it was with the utmost difficulty I could coax her out again. When she did come, Heathcliff came with her, and she insisted that I should take him into the kitchen, as my fellow-servant had gone to a neighbour’s, to be removed from the sound of our ‘devil’s psalmody,’ as it pleased him to call it. I told them I intended by no means to encourage their tricks: but as the prisoner had never broken his fast since yesterday’s dinner, I would wink at his cheating Mr. Hindley that once. He went down: I set him a stool by the fire, and offered him a quantity of good things: but he was sick and could eat little, and my attempts to entertain him were thrown away. He leant his two elbows on his knees, and his chin on his hands and remained rapt in dumb meditation. On my inquiring the subject of his thoughts, he answered gravely—‘I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait, if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do!’”

Charlotte Brontë’s Letters And North Pole Days

Christmas preparations are in full swing chez Holland, and I’m juggling work on my book about Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey with completing my Christmas shopping. Both are a joy and not a chore of course, but I hope you won’t mind if today’s post is a rather shorter one than usual.

Charlotte was a brilliant novelist, of course, and a wonderful poet too, but some of her best writing can be found in her letters. She was always frank in her correspondence and often brilliantly descriptive too. Her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls once called her letters ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’, fearing that she opened herself up too much in them. Even then he must have been concerned that one day the public would see them after her death, and for this reason he also demanded that Ellen Nussey burned the correspondence she had received from her best friend.

Ellen Nussey schoolgirl today
Ellen Nussey was Charlotte’s great friend and regular correspondent

Thankfully for us all, she resisted this call, and today we can indeed read hundreds of letters from Charlotte Brontë’s genius mind. Arthur had nothing to worry about, for reading the letters can only make Charlotte grow in our estimation. It also allows us to share in what the Brontës were doing on a particular day, so I leave you now with a letter sent by Charlotte to Ellen on 15th December 1846. We hear about Anne’s characteristic courage when dealing with her asthma, and of the cold weather affecting Haworth then, just as it does now. I hope that wherever you are, you aren’t experiencing too much of a North-Pole day, and that you and your loved ones are healthy and happy. Charlotte’s writing, and that of her sisters, can always bring a warming glow:

“I hope you are not frozen up; the cold here is dreadful. I do not remember such a series of North-Pole days. England might really have taken a slide up into the Arctic Zone; the sky looks like ice; the earth is frozen; the wind is as keen as a two-edged blade. We have all had severe colds and coughs in consequence of the weather. Poor Anne has suffered greatly from asthma, but is now, we are glad to say, rather better. She had two nights last week when her cough and difficulty of breathing were painful indeed to hear and witness, and must have been most distressing to suffer; she bore it, as she bears all affliction, without one complaint, only sighing now and then when nearly worn out. She has an extraordinary heroism of endurance. I admire, but I certainly could not imitate her.”

Haworth Christmas Main Street

‘Retirement’ By Anne Brontë

As Anne Brontë reveals in her often autobiographical novel ‘Agnes Grey‘, she frequently turned to poetry when in need of solace:

“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 – and often find it, too.”

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell contained many of Anne’s best poems

Anne loved to read poetry, but thankfully for us she loved to write it too, and her verse often gives us clues about her life and feelings at the time she put quill to paper. She also often, although not always, dates her poems, giving us further clues to the inner meaning of her verse. On one occasion Anne even helpfully gave her poem the title of the date she composed it: ‘Monday Night May 11th 1846′, although Charlotte later changed its title to the rather more catchy ‘Domestic Peace‘.

The poem we are going to look at today is dated Sunday, 13th December 1840 and as this is the Sunday before that date in this year’s calendar rotation it seemed a fitting time to examine it. It is called simply ‘Retirement’, but it’s not referring to a permanent retirement at the end of a working life, but a rather shorter retirement at the end of a working day, week or term.

The date of its composition may indicate that this was Anne’s last day at Thorp Green before returning home to Haworth for the Christmas holidays with the family she loved. She had commenced her post as governess there in May of that year, and although her Robinson charges were much better behaved than her previous Ingham charges of Mirfield (as all who’ve read of the Bloomfield children in ‘Agnes Grey’ will appreciate) she still longed for peace and solitude once more.

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne was governess at the time she wrote ‘Retirement’

All of the Brontë siblings were shy, and Anne’s difficulties when in company led Charlotte to wonder whether her employers would believe that she stuttered, but with typical courage Anne fought and overcame her introverted nature when at work, allowing her to hold down a job for far longer than her sisters and brother. Elizabeth Gaskell, based solely upon what she had heard from Charlotte and other Haworth villagers, made a distinction between the natures of Anne and Emily:

“Emily was… extremely reserved in manner. I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness would please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne, like her eldest sister, was shy; Emily was reserved.”

This may well have been unfair on Emily, for those who knew her best, like parsonage servant Martha Brown, often commented on how kind hearted she was. Nevertheless there is no doubt that all the sisters found it a strain to be in the company of people they didn’t know, and this is at the heart of Anne’s poem.

Martha Brown
Martha Brown became a close friend of the Brontes, as well as a servant.

At the end of her first year as governess to the Robinsons, Anne was in desperate need of some relaxation – a chance to rest her mind and spirit and simply let it stretch its wings and soar where it will. This is a feeling that all teachers will be familiar with, but whether you work or have reached a state of permanent retirement I hope that you find a time to rest and relax as the winter holidays approach. Let us end now with Anne’s poem itself, short, simple and yet it still resonates with us all today!:

“O, let me be alone a while,
No human form is nigh.
And may I sing and muse aloud,
No mortal ear is by.
Away! ye dreams of earthly bliss,
Ye earthly cares begone:
Depart! ye restless wandering thoughts,
And let me be alone!
One hour, my spirit, stretch thy wings,
And quit this joyless sod,
Bask in the sunshine of the sky,
And be alone with God!”

Winter And The Brontë Sisters

The water in my bird feeder was a solid block of ice this morning, Jack Frost had left patterns on my single glazed windows and there was a distant murmur of sleigh bells in the air; it can only mean one thing – winter has arrived! December 1st marks the beginning not only of Advent, but of meteorological winter, so today we will be looking at how winter has appeared in some very beautiful pieces of Brontë writing.

We are also now just one month away from the start of 2020, the 200th birthday year of our beloved Anne Brontë! Please allow me then to give a brief mention of my new book ‘Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200’ which will be released on 1st January, a month today! It will be a very special book indeed featuring many things never published in a book before, but more on that in the New Year. You can pre-order on Amazon at your bookshop or order now via the publisher, The Valley Press from Anne’s very own Scarborough! Here is its rather lovely front cover:

Crave The Rose by Nick Holland
‘Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200’ is out next month!

Now, let’s return to chilly winter! Haworth is a beautiful place in winter, with its exposed and elevated position amidst the Pennine moors meaning that it always receives a good covering of snow. It’s a magical place for tourists to visit, but watch out for ice – it’s as treacherous today as it was in December 1836 when loyal old servant Tabby Aykroyd slipped on some ice and broke her leg. She was never as mobile again, but the Brontë siblings loved Tabby and they refused to eat until it was confirmed that she would be allowed to continue living and working in the parsonage.

Wrap up warm, tread carefully, and you are sure to have an incredible time on a winter visit to Haworth. The moors can be especially charming under a wintry blanket, and it was this that tempted Charlotte Brontë to walk them with her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, as she recalled in a letter to Ellen Nussey:

Bronte waterfall

Charlotte could little have guessed that this very same waterfall would one day bear her own family name – a century and a half later they draw tourists to them, eager to see the Brontë Falls. Winter can be found, symbolically, in Charlotte’s novel ‘Villette’ as its heroine is called Lucy Snowe. The importance of this choice is shown by the fact that the protagonist’s name was changed to Snowe during the editing phase – until that point, Charlotte had called her Lucy Frost!

Anne Brontë loved nature, and especially its flowers, and they pop up time and time again in her work. The winter rose, or a Christmas Rose as we might call it, held a special symbolism for her, as we see in this touching scene as Helen and Gilbert prepare to pledge their futures to each other in ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’:

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall

Winter snows also play a central role in ‘The Student’s Serenade’, a very moving poem by Anne, and one of her very best. Moving because we see Anne tired after a day’s study, or possibly a day’s work as a governess at the time she wrote this in 1844, when she is woken by snow falling and immediately thinks of snows falling on the moors she loved – and of one who loved to walk them in the snow with her but who has long been gone:

“I have slept upon my couch
But my spirit did not rest,
For the labours of the day
Yet my weary soul opprest.
And before my dreaming eyes
Still the learned volumes lay,
And I could not close their leaves
And I could not turn away.
While the grim preceptors laughed
And exulted in my woe:
Till I felt my tingling frame
With the fire of anger glow.
But I oped my eyes at last,
And I heard a muffled sound,
‘Twas the night breeze come to say
That the snow was on the ground.
Then I knew that there was rest
On the mountain’s bosom free;
So I left my fevered couch
And I flew to waken thee.
I have flown to waken thee –
For, if thou wilt not arise,
Then my soul can drink no peace
From these holy moonlight skies.
And this waste of virgin snow
To my sight will not be fair
Unless thou wilt smiling come,
Love, to wander with me there.
Then awake! Maria, wake!
For if thou couldst only know
How the quiet moonlight sleeps
On this wilderness of snow
And the groves of ancient trees
In their snowy garb arrayed,
Till they stretch into the gloom
Of the distant valley’s shade.
O, I know thou wouldst rejoice
To inhale this bracing air,
Thou wouldst break thy sweetest sleep
To behold a scene so fair.
O’er these wintry wilds, alone,
Thou wouldst joy to wander free;
And it will not please thee less,
Though that bliss be shared with me.”

Emily Brontë loved nature even more than Anne did, and the wilder it was, the more she loved it. It’s no surprise then that Emily opens her mighty novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ with a fierce snow storm that leads to narrator Lockwood making an early acquaintance with Heathcliff – and Catherine!

holly tree
My very own holly tree on this cold and frosty morning

The holly tree has long been synonymous with winter and with Christmas, as the beautiful carol ‘The Holly And The Ivy’ shows. This is an old hymn and its associations are older, for holly has been revered since pagan times. It is a symbol of rebirth, for in the depths of winter it is said that the Holly King reigns over the world, to be replaced by the Oak King when new roots and new life appear. Emily loved the Holly king’s reign, and winter was always a magical time for her. For Emily Brontë, holly also symbolised the importance of friendship, and its pre-eminence over everything else. We see this in her poem ‘Love And Friendship’, also dating from 1844, and obviously written with the love of her life in mind, her closest friends and confidante, Anne Brontë. It is a sweet poem for this sweetest of seasons – so I leave you with it now, and with Emily’s winter blessing – may your garlands always be green!

Love and friendship