In the Brontë story, Brussels and Manchester have a lot in common – they were both visited by Patrick, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, but not by Anne. Nevertheless, they both played a big part in the life of Anne Brontë and her family, and have left an immortal mark on world literature. This week I travelled to Manchester to the Salutation Inn, a location that’s easy to miss and yet which deserves to be on every Brontë lover’s list.
The Salutation Inn is easy to reach as it’s in the heart of Manchester, just around the corner from the green space in front of Manchester Metropolitan University, and within walking distance of Manchester’s Piccadilly and Oxford Road train stations. Manchester is a city of great contrasts, with ugly modern buildings (or dynamic, if you like that sort of thing) rubbing shoulders with Victorian architecture which is by turns brutal and beautiful. Much of what was once Mount Pleasant has been demolished – but one lone Victorian outlier remains. What is now 59 Boundary Street West was once 83 Mount Pleasant – and by happy coincidence that’s the address we can see atop Charlotte Brontë’s letter to Ellen Nussey dated 21st August 1846:
“Dear Ellen, I just scribble a line to you to let you know where I am – in order that you may write to me here for it seems to me that a letter from you would relieve me from the feeling of strangeness I have in this town. Papa came here on Wednesday, we saw Mr Wilson the Oculist the same day, he pronounced papa’s eyes quite ready for an operation and has fixed next Monday for the performance of it. Think of us on that day dear Nell. We got into our lodgings yesterday – I think we shall be comfortable, at least our rooms are very good, but there is no Mistress of the house (she is very ill and gone out into the country) and I am somewhat puzzled in managing about provisions. We board ourselves – I find myself excessively ignorant, I can’t tell what the deuce to order in the way of meat etc.”
Patrick Brontë was by this time approaching his 70th birthday, and his eyesight had been deteriorating rapidly for many years due to cataracts. Indeed, he may by this time have been completely blind, as reported in the Leeds Intelligencer a month earlier, when Patrick was in attendance at a grand concert held at Haworth’s church.
Emily Brontë had accompanied Charlotte to Manchester earlier in the year where they had consulted the eminent eye surgeon Dr Wilson, and Charlotte returned with her father in August for the operation to be carried out. Patrick had his cataracts cut away without any anaesthetic, a procedure which he described as not painful although he reported a slight burning sensation. It was a success, allowing him to read again, although in his final years his eyesight deteriorated once more. Post-operation, Charlotte took on the role of comforter and maid to her father, as they spent a long period in what is now The Salutation Inn. We find an update from Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 26th August 1846:
“Dear Ellen, the operation is over – it took place yesterday, Mr Wilson performed it, two other surgeons assisted. Mr Wilson says he considers it quite successful but papa cannot yet see anything… Papa displayed extraordinary patience and firmness – the surgeons seemed surprised. I was in the room all the time, as it was his wish that I should be there. Of course I neither spoke nor moved till the thing was done, and then I felt that the less I said either to papa or the surgeons, the better. Papa is now confined to his bed in a dark room and is not to be stirred for four days – he is to speak and be spoken to as little as possible.”
The Salutation Inn is a perfectly lovely Victorian pub, serving fine food and drinks, and when we walk its floors we know our footsteps tread the spot once trodden by Charlotte in this time of trial for her and her beloved father. It is a moving location too, and whilst much has changed, of course, since it was a boarding house for the Brontës the beautiful ceiling catches the eye. That too is more modern, but it has been reproduced from a plaster cast of the original ceiling that Charlotte would have seen – and it is vibrant and exquisite.
Of course this is an important part of the Brontë story already, but a blue plaque outside reveals its added significance, and in her Life Of Charlotte Brontë Elizabeth Gaskell explained just why the Salutation is so important:
“Among the dispiriting circumstances connected with her anxious visit to Manchester, Charlotte told me that her tale came back upon the hearts, curtly rejected by some publisher, on the very day when her father was to submit to his operation. But she had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did The Professor return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude – in those grey, weary, uniform streets, where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, – there and then, did the genius begin Jane Eyre”
Incidentally, Elizabeth Gaskell’s home on Plymouth Grove, now a lovely museum, is just a mile from The Salutation Inn, so if you get the chance you could visit both on one day. Charlotte herself stayed at Plymouth Grove on three occasions, and one famous incident reveals that she could be just as shy as her sisters Emily and Anne:
“Mrs Sidney Potter, author of Lancashire Memories, called at Plymouth Grove, during Charlotte Brontë’s stay. As she was announced, Mrs Gaskell rose to welcome her friend, and turned round to the chair near the window to present Miss Brontë. To her astonishment the chair was vacant, and apparently Charlotte Brontë had fled by the door which led to the dining-room. Mrs Gaskell apologised for her absence, hoping it would only be temporary, but Mrs Potter left without seeing the famous writer. Immediately Mrs Gaskell had said ‘good-bye’ to her visitor, Charlotte Brontë appeared from behind a heavy curtain, which hung from the window. Her explanation was that she was not able to face a stranger.”
The purpose of my visit to Manchester was to talk to the wonderful Pamela Nash, organiser of ‘A Fine And Subtle Spirit‘ – a celebratory concert to mark Anne Brontë’s 200th birthday. Pamela has put a lot of work and love into organising what should be a remarkable and very fitting tribute to Anne at Manchester’s Cross Street Chapel on March 28th. Of course, very sadly, external factors may yet play a part but this is scheduled to take place as planned. I very much hope it does take place at some point in the calendar at least because it will be a magical evening.
Coronovirus may also affect the Anne Brontë celebrations due to be held on Wednesday at Huddersfield University, another programme that should have been well worth attending. Keep an eye out online for up to the minute information on these and other events.
COVID-19 will disrupt and change many things, but we can take inspiration from Charlotte and Patrick Brontë isolated within that boarding house in Manchester. They were faced with darkness and silence, all looked bleak – but the light returned, life resumed and triumphs awaited that courageous and brilliant woman. In her initial letter to Ellen, Charlotte finished by writing:
“Mr Wilson says we will have to stay here for a month at least – it will be dreary. I wonder how poor Emily and Anne will get on at home with Branwell – they too will have their troubles. What would I not give to have you here! One is forced step by step to get experience in the world Ellen – but the learning is so disagreeable. Write very soon – remember me kindly.”
Many of us may be forced to share Charlotte’s despair soon – separated from those we love, in isolation from the life and places we knew. Temporarily. Like Charlotte, remain strong, keep love in your hearts, face whatever fate throws at you like Robert The Bruce. Conquer every obstacle through your strength, patience and endurance. Better days are coming, and until then we can find solace in the brilliant books of the Brontës and others – with that, let us all find courage to endure.