Was Branwell Brontë The Real Arthur Huntingdon?

Thank you to all who watched me at the online Felixstowe Book Festival on Friday – I really enjoyed it, and if you missed it you can catch some of the action via this link: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=584953558891931&ref=watch_permalink

I was asked some excellent questions, and one woman wanted to know how much Branwell Brontë had influenced Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s brilliant novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.

Helen is happy with her marriage to Arthur – but it won’t last

Arthur is possibly the most villainous of all Brontë characters – Heathcliff may run him close, but at least we can see from his back story where his seething jealousy and anger comes from. Arthur is wealthy and handsome, with all the advantages privilege can bring, and yet he cares for absolutely nothing but his own pleasure.

Huntingdon is a narcissist and a hedonist, but everything he does is taken to extremes. He drinks heavily and takes drugs, he cheats on his wife and abuses her physically and mentally, and does his best to corrupt his young son so that he will grow up to be as venal as his father. Living life so recklessly produces the inevitable ending, and Arthur dies at a young age, presumably from liver failure caused by his excessive alcohol consumption.

Anne Brontë, as we know of course, is a brilliant novelist, and so skilfully does she depict Arthur’s behaviour that people often think she must have drawn it from real life – and then their attention usually turns to her brother Branwell.

Charlotte Brontë, too, may have thought that Huntingdon is a portrait, at least in part, of their brother – after all, he too was addicted to alcohol and opiates, and his behaviour was increasingly erratic in his final years. In her autobiographical notice of Anne and Emily, Charlotte wrote:

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail as a warning to others.’

Huntingdon is a character with no redeeming features

Whose talents misused and facilities abused had Anne been called on to contemplate near at hand and for a long time? In the aftermath of Branwell’s death, Charlotte wrote to W. S. Williams:

‘When I looked on the noble face and forehead of my dead brother… and asked myself what had made him go ever 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.’

Charlotte saw Branwell in Huntingdon in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, and it may be this that turned her against what is, on any objective view, a brilliant work of literature, but is Branwell Brontë really the prototype of Arthur Huntingdon? I don’t think so.

Certainly Anne would have seen Branwell’s drunken behaviour, but Branwell was far from the unredeemed villain that we see in Huntingdon. He could be kind, thoughtful and loving, especially in his younger days when the four surviving Brontë siblings were very close. We also know that on occasion Branwell managed to quit his drug dependency by going cold turkey, which points to his influence on another character altogether within The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall: Lord Lowborough.

Lowborough is first seen as one of Huntingdon’s crowd of pleasure seekers, but he eventually turns his back on their antics and weans himself off opiates. Perhaps then this is closer to Anne’s view of Branwell: a man who has been troubled, who has burdens to bear, but who is capable of redemption. I think perhaps the best, and most touching, description of Branwell’s character comes in Francis Grundy’s Pictures Of The Past in which he devotes a chapter to a man who’d been a close friend: ‘Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.’

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, home of the Robinsons

Branwell was no domestic demon, although he could certainly on occasion cause domestic turmoil, but Arthur Huntingdon was, so if Branwell wasn’t the inspiration for Huntingdon, who was? One possibility is Edmund Robinson, Anne’s, and later Branwell’s, employer at Thorp Green Hall. Edmund was a member of the gentry who could live comfortably and extravagantly, just like Arthur. He was a choleric man who liked hunting and drinking. Although ordained as a priest in the Church of England (common then among younger sons of the aristocracy who wouldn’t inherit a title), he never held a curacy and only officiated at family baptisms and on one other occasion: the baptism of a young girl from Thorp Green village. We can speculate why he took such an interest in this infant – could he, like Arthur, have been serially unfaithful to his wife, and could this be one reason why Lydia Robinson, in her turn, took an interest in Branwell Brontë – a man who respected her and showed her affection? He died aged 46, possibly as a result of his intemperate lifestyle.

Another man who is sometimes named as a Huntingdon suspect is George Gordon, better known as Lord, Byron. He certainly behaved abominably towards his wife Annabella, having numerous affairs including with his own half-sister Augusta Leigh. In December 1815 they had a daughter Ada, who is now famed as the mathematical and computing pioneer Ada Lovelace, but just a month later Annabella took her baby and left Byron for good.

Annabella Milbanke
Wikipedia names Annabella Milbanke as a possible Helen, making Lord Byron a possible Arthur

There is one possible inspiration for Arthur, certainly for Helen, closer to home for Anne. Her aunt Jane, from the Branwell family of Penzance, married the Methodist minister Reverend John Kingston, but six years into their marriage a scandal engulfed the family. John had been discovered having affairs with other men and with having committed theft, and he was thrown out of the Methodist church. With his job gone and name tarnished, John took Jane and their family to start a new life in Baltimore, America.

It seems that their marriage must have disintegrated further in Maryland, for just a year later Jane left her husband and sailed back to England with her baby daughter Eliza, tragically having to leave her older children with their father. With the help of her sister Elizabeth she set up a laundry business back in Penzance, and lived as a single parent. It seems clear to me that Elizabeth, Aunt Branwell, must have told her nieces at least some of this story, and that Aunt Jane became a prototype for Helen.

Early 19th century Baltimore, where Eliza Kingston was born
Early 19th century Baltimore, where John Kingston fled with the Brontes’ Aunt Jane

In summary then, I don’t think Branwell was Arthur – for all his frailties he was much loved by Anne, who had found him a job alongside her at Thorp Green Hall, but I do think Arthur could have been influenced by Edmund Robinson, John Kingston and even Lord Byron. Like all great writers, Anne took a variety of sources and life experiences and created something powerful and original. Whoever the inspirations are, we can all agree that The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is a brilliant book that is as relevant today as it’s ever been. Stay happy and healthy, and I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Online Brontë Talk Tonight – And Branwell’s Birthday

I hope you don’t mind but today’s mini post is a quick reminder about my Brontë talk at the online Felixstowe Book Festival’s book club – tonight from 7.30pm to 8.30pm. It’s completely free, and I’d love to see you there.

Crave The Rose by Nick Holland

I’ll be talking about my book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200 and about how to write a work of non-fiction, but mostly I’ll be talking about Anne, her novels and her siblings. The first part of this session will be me taking questions from Liz Rastrick, after which I will take questions from people viewing via Zoom.

If you want to watch via Zoom you can join at half past seven using meeting ID: 858 5444 7275 or use the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85854447275 You should also be able to watch via the Felixstowe Book Festival’s Facebook page, but you won’t be able to ask questions live if you use this method.

Happy Birthday Branwell
Happy 203rd Birthday Branwell Bronte!

We’ll be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Anne Brontë’s birthday, so feel free to have a slice of cake to hand – I’m just about to bake one myself. No doubt I’ll also mention Anne’s brother Branwell Brontë – and it’s his 203rd birthday today! I leave you with this poem by Branwell – if you can join me tonight that would be great, although I know how busy we all are now, and I will be back with another full length post on Sunday. Here is Branwell’s ‘The Results of Sorrow’ written under his pen name of Northangerland, with his touching last line: “A tortured heart will make a tyrant mind”:

Brontës Online: Musicals, Dramas, Docs & Books

This plaguey lockdown has brought changes to us all. It has been hard for many adjusting to this ‘new normal’, but there have also been some new opportunities and heartwarming moments. One thing I’ve absolutely loved has been the superabundance of culture now available for free online. I’m temporarily unable to visit beloved venues such as the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and Glyndebourne, but I’ve really enjoyed watching some of their stunning productions online, and all for free.

Unfortunately, the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre play is no longer available to watch – it was brilliantly staged and very well acted, but for me it just failed to hit the heights I’d hoped for – although it was certainly an enjoyable production. In today’s post I’m going to look at some Brontë themed productions that are still available to watch, and I’ll also bring you news of an online talk that I’m giving free next week – it’s free to watch, so I’d love to have you there.

Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte Bronte in Wasted
Emily, Anne, Branwell and Charlotte Bronte in Wasted

Let’s start by looking at Wasted, which was produced at Southwark Playhouse in Autumn 2018. It’s a musical – I love musicals, so far, so good, and Southwark Playhouse has a great reputation when it comes to them. I saw Funny Girl there a few years ago, with Natasha Barnes standing in for Sheridan Smith as the lead character Fanny Brice.

I was pleased then to see Natasha back and playing another real life character – this time she stars as Charlotte Brontë in a rock musical setting. Yes, Wasted sets the Brontë setting against a rock backdrop – could that really work? Well, I’m pleased to say that in my opinion it does. All musicals make you suspend what you think of as ‘normality’ (just like this plague), after all in real life when you have stabbed someone, lost a loved one, or made a life changing decision you don’t immediately burst into song. You may think that setting the Brontë story against a backdrop of guitars, drums and rock style vocals would be incongruous, but in fact I think it works well and the story of our favourite siblings still comes across loud and clear.

We begin with Charlotte on stage, or Mrs. Nicholls as she introduces herself before informing us that she is expecting a happy event shortly. We then head back to her childhood in Haworth with Anne, Emily and Branwell, and one of the things I loved about this musical is the characterisation that the talented cast instil into their roles. There are some minor quibbles – Anne is portrayed as more self-righteous than she actually was, for example, and at one point we are informed that ‘there are no Catholics in Haworth’, something which was as untrue then as it is now. There’s a little swearing too, but if you’ve watched To Walk Invisible you’ll be used to that.

Those quibbles aside, this is a production with plenty of strengths. Its creative team of Carl Miller (book) and Christopher Ash (music) clearly know the Brontë story well, and have a passion for our favourite writers; this is shown in plentiful little moments borne out by what we know of the Brontës, such as the young Charlotte being called ‘Talli’ by her siblings.

Siobhan Athwal is feistiness personified as a forthright Emily Brontë, while Molly Lynch is a quietly determined and eye catching Anne. Matthew Jacobs Morgan is excellent as Branwell, portraying his youthful arrogance but also showing how his great creative potential is, well, wasted due to factors beyond his control. It’s a moving performance, as is Natasha Barnes’s Charlotte. Barnes is a consummate musical professional, a powerful singer who can take us through the full gamut of emotions, and that’s exactly what she and her fellow cast members do in a little more than two hours with more highs and lows than a rollercoaster ride. It ends, in a reversal of T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, not with a whimper but a bang. The title track sees the late Brontës lament how their lives have been utterly wasted, but of course we know very different and it’s this that gives this musical a delicious pathos and feverish power. Your lockdown time certainly won’t be wasted if you watch it, and it’s available completely for free at the following link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/archive-2018/wasted

Jane and Rochester 1983
Zelah and Timothy as Jane and Rochester

YouTube is a great spot for Brontë treats. Some can still be purchased over the internet, so I won’t give the links but among the gems on offer are the 1973 Yorkshire Television series The Brontës Of Haworth and the BBC’s 1983 version of Jane Eyre starring Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton. This, in my opinion, is the very best dramatisation of Charlotte’s work, brimming over with passion and yet completely faithful to its source material.

Haworth's Main Street in The Bronte Business
Haworth’s Main Street in The Bronte Business

Unfortunately there’s no To Walk Invisible on iPlayer yet, but there is a real treat for fans of the Brontës and social history in the form of The Brontë Business. First shown in 1977, the brilliant Joan Bakewell travels to Haworth to see how Brontë related tourism is affecting the village they lived in. It’s a fascinating documentary on many levels, and it’s often surprising how very different the village and society was back then. It often looks and feels closer to Victorian times than our own, and the meeting of the Brontë Society committee could have come from a spoof documentary film – and yet it also has its powerful, moving moments as the only woman present tell us tearfully of how there isn’t a day when she doesn’t think about Wuthering Heights. Times change, but the power of the Brontës doesn’t. If you live in the United Kingdom (sorry to everyone reading this abroad as I don’t think iPlayer shows are available overseas) then you can catch the documentary here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p027vyvp/the-bronte-business

The Bronte Society in 1977
The Bronte Society in 1977

We all love reading of course, and due to their age and our copyright laws all the Brontë novels can be downloaded for free on the internet, but there’s a fun new book available for free right now as well. The Governess Of Thornfield is a reworking of Jane Eyre by Charlene DeKalb, and what makes this especially interesting is that it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ book – if you’re not familiar with this style of book, it means that at regular steps throughout the narrative you have to decide what happens next by selecting from a number of options and choosing which section to turn to. With a number of different endings will Jane live happily ever after with Rochester, or is a different ending waiting for her? You decide. It’s free today, the 21st of June, and can be found on Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ve downloaded it and look forward to reading it later as I loved this kind of book in my youth. It’s sure to be well executed as the author runs the brilliant Eyre Guide blog and is a fellow Brontë fanatic; this could be a great way to introduce younger readers in your family to Jane Eyre too, or simply a lovely way to pass a few hours.

Finally, on to my Brontë discussion – this Friday, 26th June, at 7.30 pm I will be discussing Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200, In Search Of Anne Brontë and the Brontës in general at the Felixstowe Book Festival. I had hoped to be at this lovely seaside resort in person, but of course all such festivals have been cancelled or suspended, but I’m thrilled that they have moved their events online. On Friday at 7.30 I’ll be discussing the books in conversation with author Ruth Dugdall, after which I’ll be taking questions from an online audience (at a ‘live’ talk I was once asked what bus number ran from Keighley to Haworth, so I hope that one doesn’t crop up again). It’s completely free and you can join in via Zoom using the meeting ID: 858 5444 7275. Zoom is the online meeting app that has taken the world by storm in recent months, and it’s so easy that even I can use it. Don’t worry, you don’t need to go on camera yourself, you can still view the fun – all the details are here – all you have to do is have the Zoom app on your phone, laptop, PC or tablet, press the ‘join meeting’ button and enter the above ID number when prompted. I’ve been talking to myself for the last three months, so please do join in or view if you can as it would be nice to talk to somebody else for once.

Felixstowe Book Festival Nick Holland
Join me at the Felixstowe Book Festival via Zoom on Friday!

Whatever you do during this lockdown, don’t let your time be wasted. Stay happy and healthy and I’ll see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and there might even be a bonus mini-post on Friday too.

Charlotte’s Revenge On Brontë Criticism

The old saying says that there are only two certainties in life: taxes and death. I think we can add a third: criticism. It doesn’t matter what we all do in life, somebody will find something to criticise us about, whether it be our skills as a parent, in a job, or in a creative endeavour. This latter criticism was something the Brontës had to face on many occasions, and unfortunately it was far from constructive. In today’s post we’re going to look at two prime examples of the criticism that Charlotte Brontë faced, and how, with a little help from a publishing house, she gained a belated yet rather unique revenge.

The critics misunderstood and attacked the Brontës because they were such powerful, original writers. Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (as the critics believed Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë to be called) were writing with a brilliance, freshness and honesty that shocked many of the staid men and women whose job it was to pronounce judgement on the latest literary releases. Yes, women too were among the most vociferous critics of the Bells, and perhaps the most brutal and unfair critique of them all came from Elizabeth Rigby, later to become Lady Eastlake.

Elizabeth Rigby
Charlotte Bronte’s nemesis Elizabeth Rigby

To be fair to her, some people have pointed out Elizabeth’s better qualities; it seems that she was very helpful to Effie Ruskin at the time she was undergoing marital difficulties with John Ruskin – the marriage was eventually annulled and Effie married the eminent Pre-Raphaelite John Millais. Elizabeth Rigby could be a good friend, but not to writers whose books she was reviewing. Wordsworth, for example, she denounces as, ‘ a puzzle to me – commonplace in thought and barren in word, yet with some he is more popular than any other poet.’ The great artist Turner was, ‘pertinacious and stupid.’

In December 1848, as a reviewer for the Quarterly Review she was given the task of reviewing Jane Eyre, and produced a review so shockingly lacking in astuteness that I have to reproduce it here:

‘The inconsistencies of Jane’s character lie mainly not in her own imperfections, though of course she has her share, but in the author’s. There is that confusion in the relations between cause and effect, which is not so much untrue to human nature as to human art. The error in Jane Eyre is, not that her character is this or that, but that she is made one thing in the eyes of her imaginary companions, and another in that of the actual reader. There is a perpetual disparity between the account she herself gives of the effect she produces, and the means shown us by which she brings that effect about. We hear nothing but self-eulogiums on the perfect tact and wondrous penetration with which she is gifted, and yet almost every word she utters offends us, not only with the absence of these qualities, but with the positive contrasts of them, in either her pedantry, stupidity, or gross vulgarity. She is one of those ladies who put us in the unpleasant predicament of undervaluing their very virtues for dislike of the person in whom they are represented. One feels provoked as Jane Eyre stands before us – for in the wonderful reality of her thoughts and descriptions, she seems accountable for all done in her name – with principles you must approve in the main, and yet with language and manners that offend you in every particular.

It would be mere hackneyed courtesy to call it ‘fine writing.’ It bears no impress of being written at all, but is poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct, which flows ungovernably on to its object, indifferent by what means it reaches it, and unconscious too. As regards the author’s chief object, however, it is a failure – that, namely, of making a plain, odd woman, destitute of all the conventional features of feminine attraction, interesting in our sight. We deny that he has succeeded in this.

Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit… altogether an anti-Christian composition… the impression she leaves on our mind is that of a decidedly vulgar-minded woman – one whom we should not care for as an acquaintance, whom we should not seek as a friend, whom we should not desire for a relation, and whom we should scrupulously avoid for a governess… No lady, we understand, when suddenly roused in the night, would think of hurrying on ‘a frock.’ They have garments more convenient for such occasions, and more becoming too… if we ascribe the book to a woman at all, we have no alternative but to ascribe it to one who has, for some sufficient reason, long forfeited the society of her own sex. And if by no woman, it is certainly also by no artist… We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.’

These are just the, ahem, highlights, as Elizabeth Rigby’s review is over 15,000 words in length – almost a novella in itself. It should be said, however, that this long review also incorporates a scathing appraisal of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and it also addresses the rumour ‘current in Mayfair’ (which Elizabeth dismisses) that Jane Eyre has been written by a maid in the service of Thackeray.

Imagine the impact that this review had on Charlotte – seeing her work dismissed as coarse and of little value, and herself dismissed as a woman of low morals. This was by no means uncommon in reviews of Charlotte and her sisters at the time, and this criticism even continued in the aftermath of Charlotte’s death.

In June 1855, just two months after her passing, Sharpe’s London Magazine printed an article examining the author’s life and work entitled, ‘A Few Words About “Jane Eyre”:

‘Some eight years since, a novel, in three volumes, emanating from the shelves of, if we are not mistaken, Messrs. Smith and Elder, found its way, by their influence, into the circulating libraries; and, in due course of time, met with readers, and became famous. But the strange thing was, that no two people could agree with their opinions of it, so full was it of contradictions. Miss A. was delighted with it, Miss B. as much disgusted – Miss C. heard it so talked of, that she was most anxious to read it; but her married sister, Mrs. D, said, “No woman under thirty ought to open it.”’

This critic also attack Rochester’s use of, ‘real wicked oaths, like a bold, bad, live man:

‘All this was very odd and incorrect; the novel-reading public had become accustomed to the “fiends and furies” style; believed in it as the common language to the aristocracy of nature, and associated all plainer speaking with pot-house company, skittles and unlimited beer and tobacco. So the public clamoured at this glimpse of nature thus unceremoniously revealed to them, very much as they would have clamoured if the writer had chosen to go to the opera sans culottes [‘without pants’]’

Having monstered Jane Eyre the magazine then prints a number of blatant untruths about the Brontë family history – stating, for example, that Patrick Brontë had been a minister in Penzance and met Maria Branwell there, but that her family turned their back on her because of the marriage. In truth, of course, Patrick never went to Cornwall, and far from shunning Maria a member of the Branwell family, Elizabeth, visited them in Thornton for over a year, and eventually became resident in Haworth Parsonage. The magazine also gave a most unflattering portrait of Charlotte’s physical features, which you can see below:

Charlotte’s great friend Ellen Nussey was distraught when she read this article; so much so that she wrote to Charlotte’s widow Arthur Bell Nicholls and begged him to write to Elizabeth Gaskell asking her to produce an authorised Brontë biography. Arthur was less than keen on this idea, possibly because he and Ellen were on far from friendly terms, so Ellen next wrote to Patrick Brontë who was much more receptive to the scheme. He wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell and the result, of course, was her The Life Of Charlotte Brontë.

The criticism the Brontës received was unfair and unmerited, and we can be sure that it hit home. I recall an interview between Michael Parkinson and the brilliant poet laureate John Betjeman in which he talked of the negative criticism he’d received:

‘I always believe it’s true. I believe anything that’s said against me is true, and anything said in my favour is flattery. I never can believe that I’m any good at all.’

The truth is that Betjeman was very good indeed, as were the Brontës, and that must have made the criticism, and especially the personal attacks, even harder to bear. Anne Brontë looked her critics straight in the face, and hit back in brilliant fashion in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall; Emily Brontë met the attacks with her customary stoicism, but the effects of the cruel words can perhaps be seen in the fact that she wrote no new work after the publication of Wuthering Heights, other than the reworking of an earlier poem. And Charlotte? Well for Charlotte, revenge was served cold. Do you remember that photograph of Elizabeth Rigby earlier? This week I purchased another edition of Villette for my Brontë collection – it was published by Pan Classics in 1973. Take a look at the cover star – I wonder what Lady Eastlake would have thought of her picture being used to illustrate a novel by an author who she felt had ‘long forfeited the society of her own sex’?

Bravo to the person who selected Elizabeth Rigby as the cover star of Villette!

I believe it’s game, set and match to Charlotte. Stay happy and healthy, and I hope you can join me next Sunday for my next Brontë blog post.

The Month Of June In The Brontë Novels

We’ve entered what is often called ‘Flaming June’ – the month that marks the beginning of meteorological summer. Of course, as we’d expect from the sort of year 2020 has become June has announced herself not with hot, sunny days but with downpours and gusts. After record breaking temperatures in April and May, when most of us were firmly locked down, now the first few Covid parolees are stumbling blinking through their doors we seem to have reverted to north-pole days once again. Such is the year we find ourselves in, but at least we will always have great books to divert and console us. In this week’s Brontë blog post we’re going to look at the month of June in the novels of the Brontës.

Jane Eyre

‘It was the first of June; yet the morning was overcast and chilly: rain beat fast on my casement. I heard the front-door open, and St. John pass out. Looking through the window, I saw him traverse the garden. He took the way over the misty moors in the direction of Whitcross – there he would meet the coach.

“In a few more hours I shall succeed you in that track, cousin,” thought I: “I too have a coach to meet at Whitcross. I too have some to see and ask after in England, before I depart for ever.” It wanted yet two hours of breakfast-time. I filled the interval in walking softly about my room, and pondering the visitation which had given my plans their present bent. I recalled that inward sensation I had experienced: for I could recall it, with all its unspeakable strangeness. I recalled the voice I had heard; again I questioned whence it came, as vainly as before: it seemed in me – not in the external world. I asked was it a mere nervous impression – a delusion? I could not conceive or believe: it was more like an inspiration. The wondrous shock of feeling had come like the earthquake which shook the foundations of Paul and Silas’s prison; it had opened the doors of the soul’s cell and loosed its bands – it had wakened it out of its sleep, whence it sprang trembling, listening, aghast; then vibrated thrice a cry on my startled ear, and in my quaking heart and through my spirit, which neither feared nor shook, but exulted as if in joy over the success of one effort it had been privileged to make, independent of the cumbrous body.

“Ere many days,” I said, as I terminated my musings, “I will know something of him whose voice seemed last night to summon me. Letters have proved of no avail – personal inquiry shall replace them.”’

Thornfield Hall after the fire
Jane found a very different Thornfield Hall to the one she’d left

In Jane Eyre the start of June sees our eponymous heroine decide to track down Rochester after seeming to hear his voice calling to her. The rest is history, so I don’t think I will be spoiling too much if I say that reader, she married him.

Wuthering Heights

‘On the morning of a fine June day my first bonny little nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born. We were busy with the hay in a far-away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. “The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go: he says she’s been in a consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr. Hindley: and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it, Nelly: to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it day and night. I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”’

In Wuthering Heights Frances has given birth to a son who we will later come to know as Hareton, but giving birth signals her own death, just as it will for Catherine after the birth of Cathy. At the climax of the novel these two children, now adults, will themselves find love and redemption and the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that Emily Brontë saw in nature will continue.

Hareton and Cathy
Frances’ son Hareton finally finds happiness with Cathy, and the cycle is complete (for now)

Agnes Grey

‘The 1st of June arrived at last: and Rosalie Murray was transmuted into Lady Ashby. Most splendidly beautiful she looked in her bridal costume. Upon her return from church, after the ceremony, she came flying into the schoolroom, flushed with excitement, and laughing, half in mirth, and half in reckless desperation, as it seemed to me.

“Now, Miss Grey, I’m Lady Ashby!” she exclaimed. “It’s done, my fate is sealed: there’s no drawing back now. I’m come to receive your congratulations and bid you good-by; and then I’m off for Paris, Rome, Naples, Switzerland, London – oh, dear! what a deal I shall see and hear before I come back again. But don’t forget me: I shan’t forget you, though I’ve been a naughty girl. Come, why don’t you congratulate me?”’

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson was less than happy at Anne’s advice for her daughters

Agnes finds it hard to congratulate her charge because she has married for position and not for love. The same battle was played out in real life, as the Robinson girls often wrote to their former governess Anne Brontë for advice on the matches their mother had made for them. Anne gave the same advice as Agnes – follow your heart, don’t marry for wealth or status. We know this from a letter Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey in July 1848:

‘Anne continues to hear constantly – almost daily, from her old pupils, the Robinsons. They are both now engaged to different gentlemen and if they do not change their minds, which they have already done two or three times, will probably be married in a few months. Not one spark of love does either of them profess for her future husband… Anne does her best to cheer and counsel her [Bessie Robinson] and she seems to cling to her quiet, former governess as her only true friend.’

Bessie certainly listened to Anne’s advice, much to her mother Lydia’s chagrin. She had been betrothed to Henry Milner, a wealthy mill owner’s son, but the engagement was broken off. The Robinsons were sued by the Milners for breach of contract, and a court ordered them to pay the offended party the substantial sum of £90 in compensation. In Agnes Grey we see Rosalie regret her decision to marry, later inviting Agnes to visit her.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘June 1st, 1821. – We have just returned to Staningley – that is, we returned some days ago, and I am not yet settled, and feel as if I never should be. We left town sooner than was intended, in consequence of my uncle’s indisposition; – I wonder what would have been the result if we had stayed the full time. I am quite ashamed of my new-sprung distaste for country life. All my former occupations seem so tedious and dull, my former amusements so insipid and unprofitable. I cannot enjoy my music, because there is no one to hear it. I cannot enjoy my walks, because there is no one to meet. I cannot enjoy my books, because they have not power to arrest my attention: my head is so haunted with the recollections of the last few weeks, that I cannot attend to them. My drawing suits me best, for I can draw and think at the same time; and if my productions cannot now be seen by any one but myself, and those who do not care about them, they, possibly, may be, hereafter. But, then, there is one face I am always trying to paint or to sketch, and always without success; and that vexes me. As for the owner of that face, I cannot get him out of my mind – and, indeed, I never try. I wonder whether he ever thinks of me; and I wonder whether I shall ever see him again. And then might follow a train of other wonderments – questions for time and fate to answer – concluding with – Supposing all the rest be answered in the affirmative, I wonder whether I shall ever repent it? as my aunt would tell me I should, if she knew what I was thinking about.’

Helen is happy with her marriage to Arthur – but it won’t last

In this extract from Anne Brontë’s second novel we find certain similarities with the extract from her first. Helen is secretly longing for what she then sees as a dashing suitor: Arthur Huntingdon. Her aunt, however, has given her the exact opposite advice that Agnes has given: don’t follow your heart, think of marriage as an opportunity for social advancement. Helen then follows a very different path from Rosalie Murray, and yet her marriage too is unhappy and abusive. Anne’s underlying message then is not to rush into marriage – whether you follow your heart or the money. That this is Anne’s heartfelt belief can also be seen in the conclusion of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. After Arthur’s death, Helen is finally free to marry Gilbert, but by following clues in the text we can see that Helen makes him wait a further 28 months before finally marrying him.

Four extracts from Brontë novels, three of which are specifically dated the 1st of June. They cover the whole spectrum of human life and emotions – birth, death, marriage, hopes that will turn to despair. June is a time of change and opportunity; it has always been such as such, and their writing shows just how much the Brontës believed in the transformative power of June and the start of summer. Let’s hope that things change for the better for our world in this particular June – there’s still time for this to be flaming June rather than flaming hopeless. Stay happy and healthy, I’ll see you with a new Brontë post next Sunday.