The Real Life Fortune Teller Of Jane Eyre

As we all know, the Brontë novels are full of great scenes and great characters, which is why we can read them time and time again and never tire of them. Some of these characters and scenes were drawn from real life, which is why researching the Brontës’ life and times can be as rewarding and fascinating. In today’s post we’re going to look at the Haworth fortune teller and their influence on Jane Eyre.

Who can forget the mysterious fortune teller who appears at Thornfield Hall and proceeds to tell the fortunes of first Blanche Ingram and finally Jane Eyre herself:

‘The library looked tranquil enough as I entered it, and the Sibyl – if Sibyl she were – was seated snugly enough in an easy-chair at the chimney-corner. She had on a red cloak and a black bonnet: or rather, a broad-brimmed gipsy hat, tied down with a striped handkerchief under her chin. An extinguished candle stood on the table; she was bending over the fire, and seemed reading in a little black book, like a prayer-book, by the light of the blaze: she muttered the words to herself, as most old women do, while she read; she did not desist immediately on my entrance: it appeared she wished to finish a paragraph.

I stood on the rug and warmed my hands, which were rather cold with sitting at a distance from the drawing-room fire. I felt now as composed as ever I did in my life: there was nothing indeed in the gipsy’s appearance to trouble one’s calm. She shut her book and slowly looked up; her hat-brim partially shaded her face, yet I could see, as she raised it, that it was a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks, or rather jaws: her eye confronted me at once, with a bold and direct gaze.

“Well, and you want your fortune told?” she said, in a voice as decided as her glance, as harsh as her features.

“I don’t care about it, mother; you may please yourself: but I ought to warn you, I have no faith.”

“It’s like your impudence to say so: I expected it of you; I heard it in your step as you crossed the threshold.”

“Did you? You’ve a quick ear.”

“I have; and a quick eye and a quick brain.”

“You need them all in your trade.”

“I do; especially when I’ve customers like you to deal with. Why don’t you tremble?”

“I’m not cold.”

“Why don’t you turn pale?”

“I am not sick.”

“Why don’t you consult my art?”

“I’m not silly.”

The old crone “nichered” a laugh under her bonnet and bandage; she then drew out a short black pipe, and lighting it began to smoke. Having indulged a while in this sedative, she raised her bent body, took the pipe from her lips, and while gazing steadily at the fire, said very deliberately—“You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly.”

“Prove it,” I rejoined.

“I will, in few words. You are cold, because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings, the highest and the sweetest given to man, keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach, nor will you stir one step to meet it where it waits you.”’

Of course this fortune teller turns out to be Rochester in disguise, but we get a good description of the art of those whose palms were crossed with silver. How did Charlotte Brontë know so much about fortune tellers? The truth is that there was a celebrated example in her own village of Haworth.

Timothy Dalton fortune teller
Timothy Dalton as a fortune telling Rochester

Whilst Charlotte, Emily and Anne may or may not have visited the wise person of Haworth we can be sure that their brother Branwell did, and for evidence of this we turn to two biographies that we also looked at in last week’s post about Branwell Brontë and the Royal Academy. In Pictures Of The Past his great friend Francis Grundy gave the following account of their visit to the fortune teller:

‘There was an old fortune-teller at Haworth, ninety-five years of age, and Branwell and the “three curates” [his friends] used often to go and consult her. She was a wonderful old soul, and, I think, believed thoroughly in her arts. At any rate, she was visited, either in jest or earnest, by the “carriage people” of two counties; and we often took our day’s spree on horseback or in “trap” thitherward. Nay, she entirely altered the life of a friend of mine, a draughtsman, who was so impressed by her wonderful knowledge of him and his doings, that he went home from an interview with her and carried out all she had told him, even to marrying a girl.’

Francis Leyland, who had also known his subject personally, in The Brontë Family: With Special Reference To Patrick Branwell Brontë also remarks upon Haworth’s fortune teller:

‘At times, during his stay with the railway company, Branwell would drive over from Luddenden Foot to visit his family at the Haworth parsonage, having hired a gig for the purpose. Mr. Grundy sometimes accompanied him, and they would escape to the moors together, or pay curious visits to the old fortune-teller, with the curates. Then, says his friend, he was ‘at his best, and would be eloquent and amusing, though, on returning sometimes, he would burst into tears, and swear he meant to mend.’ This last statement is favourable to Branwell’s calm judgment upon himself. Few – and Branwell was one of the last – drift deliberately into wrong-doing.’

Can we get any more information on this mysterious personage consulted by Branwell Brontë, and revered by the leading personages of two counties? Once again, a plunge into the newspaper and genealogical archives can be revealing. Let’s start at the end and work backwards; the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper of 30th January 1847 carries the obituary of a Jack Kaye, ‘the celebrated Haworth astrologer’. Perhaps astrology was just one of his talents, or perhaps it was deemed a more suitable title than fortune teller? We find that he lives at Town End, Haworth and is very old, ‘probably not less than eighty-five years’. We also learn that he is consulted by the great and the good of two counties, just as Francis Grundy had said, and is held in respect by his Haworth neighbours – there can be little doubt that this is the person we’re looking for.

Obituary for Jack Kay(e) in the Leeds Intelligencer, 30th January 1847

We also learn that his given name was John Kaye, but genealogy records reveal that he was actually born John Kay. He was buried, presumably by Patrick Brontë, in St. Michael and All Angels Church in Haworth on 28th January 1847. He was not 95 as Francis Grundy claimed, nor even 85 as the Leeds Intelligencer claimed, but was in fact born in 1767, putting him in his 80th year at the time of his passing (he was actually 79, as we shall see).

The 1841 census shows John Kay living, as his obituary said, at Town End in Haworth, just off what is now North Street. We get further confirmation of his year of birth being 1767 (unusually, as census enumerators in 1841 were told to round ages off to the nearest five years), and we see five further members of the Kay family living with him, presumably his son and grandchildren.

Heading back into the eighteenth century we can discover what our fortune teller did before following that vocation – he was a soldier in the King’s army. This fascinating record from 1795 is very revealing – originally born in Manchester (as we shall see) the 28 year old Private John Kay was previously a silk weaver, but has served for seven years in Captain John Picton’s company of the Twelfth Regiment of Foot of the Suffolk Regiment. He has served with honour but is being discharged because he is blind in his right eye and the sight in his left eye is now defective, possibly due to an injury sustained in combat? On the reverse side of this document we find that Kay has marked his signature with an X as he is unable to write.

Finally, I found John Kay’s baptismal record. On 7th June 1767 he was baptised in the parish church of Gorton, Lancashire – a southern suburb of Manchester. His father was Thomas Kay and his mother was named Ellin (which makes me think of Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished supernatural tinged novel Willie Ellin).

So now we know quite a lot more about the Wise Man of Haworth. Born in Manchester he was trained as a silk weaver but joined the army. He is partially blinded and after his discharge he makes his way to Haworth, a source of ready employment for skilled weavers. Perhaps his eyesight or the increasing industrialisation of the industry puts paid to Jack’s trade, so he turns to something else he has a skill for: telling fortunes. He is a great success, visited by people from across Yorkshire and Lancashire, including Branwell Brontë. It may even be thought likely that he was visited by Charlotte Brontë too when we read Jane Eyre and remember her love for phrenology – especially as his home in Town End was just a short walk from Haworth’s parsonage.

Certainly I think Jack Kay is the source of Rochester’s fortune telling endeavour. Only one mystery remains, Francis Grundy not only gets his age wrong but also his gender. It’s clear that Kay looked even older than his years, and perhaps when dressed in his fortune teller’s garbs he looked like a woman, or even affected that guise just as Rochester did?

Spooks of Haworth
You can still buy all the fortune telling equipment you need (and more) at Spooks of Haworth

You won’t find John Kay in Haworth today but it’s still a village where magic and the more arcane arts hang heavy in the air, and it’s all the better for that in my opinion. Have a great weekend, stay happy and healthy and remember to celebrate Emily Brontë’s birthday next Thursday. Please join me again for another new Brontë blog post next Sunday.

Did Branwell Brontë Visit London And The Royal Academy?

With lockdown restrictions being eased, many museums and art galleries are opening their doors to the public once more, and beautiful cities such as York and London are welcoming tourists once more (as is Haworth of course, although there’s no date for the reopening of the Brontë Parsonage Museum as yet). One London attraction that is always worth visiting is the Royal Academy of Arts which has re-opened to the public again, although its famous Summer Exhibition has been moved to October of this year. Controversy still reigns over whether Branwell Brontë ever attended the Royal Academy of Arts, or whether he made it to London at all, so that’s what we’re going to look at in today’s post.

Two Brontës who we can be sure visited the Royal Academy are Charlotte and Anne Brontë. In July 1848 they travelled to London with the utmost haste in order to prove their true identity to Charlotte’s publisher George Smith. They then remained in London for four days, and among the places visited was the Royal Academy as Charlotte Brontë revealed in a letter to W.S. Williams after her return to Haworth:

‘I have just read your article in the John Bull; it very clearly and fully explains the cause of the difference obvious between ancient and modern paintings. I wish you had been with us when we went over the Exhibition and the National Gallery – a little explanation from a judge of Art would doubtless have enabled us to understand better what we saw; perhaps, one day, we may have this pleasure.’

Royal Academy exhibitions were popular then and now

The Royal Academy is now housed in a beautiful building called Burlington House in Piccadilly, its home since 1868. At the time that Anne and Charlotte visited in 1848, however, it occupied a wing of the recently opened National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (that’s it at the head of this post, in the days before Nelson’s Column and the lions arrived). It was a place where the greatest artists of the land could exhibit their work to a discerning public, and also a place where promising young artists, for a fee, could learn their craft. It was for this reason that Branwell Brontë may have been sent to London in 1835. Certainly there is in existence a letter from Branwell to the Royal Academy in which he asks when he can attend and present samples of his work, but did he send the letter and did he even journey to London? Let’s examine the cases for the prosecution and the defence.

The prosecution would have it that Branwell Brontë never sent this draft letter and never travelled to London, and these people are invariably also of the camp that Branwell was not an artist of any talent or ability. This is the view expressed by Juliet Barker in her weighty tome The Brontës which has helped it become the prevailing opinion:

‘The Royal Academy has no record of this letter, a reply or any other correspondence with or about him.’

Juliet Barker then dismisses the testimony of Francis Grundy or Joseph Leyland that he had been to London (which we will come to presently), saying that they didn’t know him then. I would take issue with that, and other dismissive claims within this brilliant biography about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Brontë. These people knew the subjects well and were friends with them, which is more than any present day biographer can say, so it seems to me folly to dismiss outright their opinions and stories which will have come from the mouths of the Brontës themselves.

The Brontë Society also now dismiss Branwell’s possible attendance at the Royal Academy outright, based on the same grounds, but surely this lack of proof nearly 200 years later is not proof that the event never happened? I believe that there is a significant amount of material that can be used in Branwell’s defence.

First, let’s look at the testimonies, beginning with that of Francis Grundy in Pictures Of The Past: Memories Of Men I Have Met. Would that everyone had a friend as kind and unbending as Francis Grundy, as his chapter on Branwell Brontë is a brilliant defence against the charges frequently laid against him then and now, including his touching conclusion that: ‘Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.’

He also confirmed that Branwell had been in London: ‘Brontë drew a finished elevation of Westminster Abbey from memory, having been but once in London some years before. It was no mean achievement, for the sketch was correct in every particular.’

Westminster Abbey, once sketched by Branwell Bronte, was a short walk from Trafalgar Square and the Royal Academy

We next come to Francis Leyland, who had also been a friend of Branwell in his Halifax and Bradford days, and who was brother of the acclaimed sculptor Joseph Leyland. In his The Brontë Family, With Special Reference To Patrick Branwell Brontë he writes:

‘Branwell, in fact, designed to become himself a portrait-painter, and he conceived that a course of instruction at the Royal Academy afforded the best means of preparation for that profession. Being gifted with a keen and distinct observation, combined with the faculty of retaining impressions once formed, and being an excellent draughtsman, he could with ease produce admirable representations of the persons he portrayed on canvas. But it is quite clear that he never had been instructed either in the right mode of mixing his pigments, or how to use them when properly prepared, or, perhaps, he had not been an apt scholar. He was, therefore, unable to obtain the necessary flesh tints, which require so much delicacy in handling, or the gradations of light and shade so requisite in the painting of a good portrait or picture. Had Branwell possessed this knowledge, the portraits he painted would have been valuable works from his hand; but the colours he used have all but vanished, and scarcely any tint, beyond that of the boiled oil with which they appear to have been mixed, remains. Yet, even if Branwell had been fortunate in his work, he would only have attained the position, probably, of a moderate portrait-painter. His ambition, however, took a higher range, and he prepared himself for the venture, hoping that the desiderata which Haworth could not supply would be amply provided for him in London, when the long-desired opportunity arrived…

To London Branwell, however, went, where, without doubt, his object was to draw from the Elgin Marbles, and to study the pictures at the Royal Academy and other galleries, with a perfectly honest intention. Whatever impression he may have received of his own powers as an artist, when he saw those of the great painters of the time, we have no certain knowledge; but it does not exceed belief that he was discouraged when he looked upon the brilliant chef d’oeuvres of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough, Sir Thomas Lawrence, and others; and that, when he reflected on the immeasurable distance between his own works and theirs, his hopes of a brilliant artistic career were partially dissipated. Whether it was due to these circumstances, or that he had become more fully aware of the early struggles that meet all who attempt art as a profession, or that his courage failed him at the contemplation of the unhappy lot which falls to those who, either from lack of talent or through misfortune, fail to make their mark in the artistic world; or whether it was because his father was unable to support him in London during the years of preparation and study for the professional career,—the requirements of which had not been sufficiently considered,—is not now accurately known. Branwell, during his short stay in London, visited most of the public institutions; and, among other places, Westminster Abbey, the western façade of which he some time afterwards sketched from memory with an accuracy that astonished his acquaintance, Mr. Grundy.

Patrick Reid Turned Off
‘Patrick Reid Turned Off’ by Branwell Bronte, includes a sketch of a fight

Before he left the metropolis, Branwell could not resist a visit to the Castle Tavern, Holborn, then kept by the veteran prize-fighter, Tom Spring, a place frequented by the principal sporting characters of the time. A gentleman named Woolven, who was present through the same curiosity which led Branwell there, noticed the young man, whose unusual flow of language and strength of memory had so attracted the attention of the spectators that they had made him umpire in some dispute arising about the dates of certain celebrated battles. Branwell and he became personal friends in after-years.’

Leyland knew Branwell Brontë well, and especially his artistic skills and ambitions as he met him in company with his artist brother. I believe he has hit the nail on the head when he talks of Branwell’s lofty ambitions as an artist. Branwell Brontë had great self-confidence in whatever he did, especially in his younger days, as we can see from the likes of his letters to William Wordsworth and Blackwood’s Magazine. To think that a lack of confidence in his own artistic ability would stop him from even sending a letter to the Royal Academy, or attempting to make his way there, surely goes against all we know of his character, just as it went against all that those who knew him best, Grundy and Leyland, knew?

We also have a letter from Charlotte Brontë dated 6 July 1835:

‘We are all about to divide, break up, separate. Emily is going to school, Branwell is going to London, and I am going to be a governess. This last determination I formed myself, knowing that I should have to take the step sometime, “and better sune as syne,” to use the Scotch proverb; and knowing well that papa would have enough to do with his limited income, should Branwell be placed at the Royal Academy, and Emily at Roe Head.’

Royal academy
The Royal Academy in its current location

Further evidence of this plan can be found in a July 1835 letter from the man whose job it was to finance this plan, Patrick Brontë:

‘It is my design to send my son to the Royal Academy for Artists in London, and my dear little Anne, I intend to keep at home, for another year.’

Juliet Barker and others have dismissed the testimony of Grundy and Leyland because they were written many years after the events, but if that were a valid argument in itself we would have to dismiss just about every autobiography ever written. Leyland in particular is detailed in what he writes, and he is clearly a methodical and reliable narrator. What are we to make of this Thomas Woolven who it is claimed saw Branwell Brontë in a Holborn tavern? If we look further into this, we find further points for the defence.

Attending an inn to meet famous prize fighters, bare knuckle boxers by any other name, sounds just the sort of thing Branwell Brontë would do when alone in the capital for the first time. Branwell did indeed love boxing, and was once a member of the Haworth Boxing Club. Who, though, was this mysterious Woolven? Leyland mentions him once more, later in his biography:

‘The Manchester and Leeds Railway was, at the time, in course of construction below Littleborough, passing through the picturesque and romantic vale of Todmorden. Branwell became greatly interested in the work; and as stores, and other things for the completion of the line to Hebden Bridge, were forwarded from Littleborough by canal, having been previously sent to that place from Manchester by train, he soon ingratiated himself with the boatmen, and was frequently seen in their boats. It was on one of these occasions that Mr. Woolven, previously mentioned, who was officially employed on the works, recognized at once the clever young man who had surprised the company at the ‘Castle Tavern,’ Holborn, and entered into conversation with him. These incidents led to a friendly intercourse between them, which continued for some years.’

So we hear that Thomas Woolven, like Branwell, worked on the railway and became a friend of his, having first met him in London. When I delved into the newspaper archives two stories caught my eye. From 12 May 1860, reported in multiple papers including the Leeds Intelligencer we have a Thomas Woolven who is a station master who has absconded with two cheques worth more than two hundred pounds (then a huge sum).

Six years later, on 16th August 1866, we hear another, final, development via the Brighton Gazette:

‘On Friday afternoon, as the 3.30pm train from Brighton to Portsmouth was nearing the Hove station, the driver saw a man walking between the up and down lines. The whistle of the engine was immediately blown, to warn him of danger, when, instead of stepping on to the up-line he stepped on the down-line, and before the train could be stopped the engine knocked him down. The driver succeeded in pulling up the train at the Cliftonville station, and information being given there of what had occurred, search was made, and the body was found on the line shockingly mutilated and quite dead. The deceased, whose name was Thomas Woolven, was a servant of Mr Corral, coal merchant.’

Let’s imagine a scenario. Thomas Woolven has the itinerant life of a railway worker and later manager, he meets Branwell in London and again at Luddendenfoot near Halifax. Woolven is also an opportune thief, and when employed at Round Oak he steals two cheques worth many a large sum of money. He has to leave the area, but eventually finds his money is once more spent or, quite possibly, that it is too risky to catch the cheques. By 1866 his past and his demons are catching up on him so he takes his own life on what had been his life – the railway. Could it be then that Thomas Woolven, this friend of Branwell, was also involved in the theft from Luddendenfoot Station that cost Branwell Brontë his job there (simply because in his supervisory role he should have prevented it)?

What seems for sure now is that there was indeed a Thomas Woolven railway worker, and Francis Leyland’s story has some corroboration. So let’s look at the evidence for the defence: Patrick wrote to say he was sending Branwell to the Royal Academy, Charlotte wrote that Patrick was going to try to enter the Royal Academy, and Branwell wrote at the very least a draft letter to the academy. His self-confidence makes it entirely in keeping with his personality that he would at least have tried to enter the academy. His great friends Grundy and Leyland have talked with Branwell about his time in London, and a witness called Thomas Woolven, who certainly existed and whose testimony rings true, says that he saw Branwell Brontë in London.

Whether Branwell Brontë finally entered the Royal Academy admittedly has to be in grave doubt – perhaps lack of money was the deciding factor? In my mind, however, there is no doubt that Branwell Brontë did travel to London, and he did make the attempt. And I also have to say that I very much like Branwell’s portraits and think that he was a very talented artist, and no official naysaying will make me change my opinion on either of those two things.

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s portrait of his friend John Brown

I rest my case, and prepare for days of rest, sunshine and happiness with great company and great books, as tomorrow is my birthday. Another year, and more Brontë-related books to read and Brontë blog posts to write. Stay healthy and happy, and I hope you can join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë post.

The Brontës In The United States Of America

Last Saturday was the fourth of July, a day when the United States of America celebrates its national holiday marking the day in 1776 when thirteen colonies declared their independence from England. There’s little doubt that many Americans are among the most passionate Brontë enthusiasts, so today we’re going to take a look at the Brontës in America.

Of course the Brontës themselves, unsurprisingly at that time, never made it to the United States, but there are a number of interesting connections. Let’s start with the ridiculous and journey on to the sublime. Anne Brontë’s first job as governess was for the Ingham family of Blake Hall in Mirfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and anyone who has read of the Bloomfield family in Agnes Grey will know how difficult her task was.

Blake Hall, Mirfield
A piece of Blake Hall can now be found in Long Island

Anne left her employment at Blake Hall in late 1839, but the Hall remained an imposing presence in Mirfield until the 1950s when it was demolished to make way for a new housing estate, with its once exalted fixtures and fittings sold off piece by piece in auctions that attracted bidders from across the world. Perhaps the architectural highlight of the hall was its grand central staircase, and this was bought by an Allen Topping of Long Island, New York. Topping was fabulously wealthy with money no object (think ‘Jay Gatsby’), so he paid for the Blake Hall staircase to be dismantled, shipped to America and then reassembled in his own mansion.

In 1962 Allen’s widow reported seeing a ghostly lady descend the staircase dressed in Victorian garb including a long shawl. Mrs Toppings’ dog started barking but when she comforted the dog, the figure smiled at her. This spectral figure was then seen on a number of occasions, and Mrs Topping sensed that it was the ghost of Anne Brontë. Whether Anne did become the only Brontë to make it to the United States, I leave you to decide.

Anyone who has visited Haworth will be in no doubt how popular it, and the Brontës, are with book lovers from across the pond. American tourists are the lifeblood of Haworth, and I know that their presence will be warmly welcomed once things return to something akin to normal again. One particular American is very important to the Brontë Parsonage Museum story: Henry Bonnell.

During the latter decades of the nineteenth century many Brontë relics ended up in the United States, by legitimate and sometimes less than legitimate, means, and Bonnell was foremost among the legitimate Brontë collectors. He had worked in publishing and made a considerable fortune which he invested in Brontë writing, art and memorabilia. After his death in Philadelphia in 1926, he left his entire collection to the Brontë Society, and his bequest made up a large part of the collection of the Brontë Parsonage Museum when it opened two years later. Many of the exhibits you will see when the museum re-opens (which should hopefully be soon) came from Bonnell, and the exhibition room next to the shop is now named after him.

Henry H. Bonnell
Bronte collector Henry H. Bonnell

As we know, the Brontës never travelled to America (we’re not counting ghosts) but a very close relative did. Their Aunt Jane, elder sister of their mother Maria and their Aunt Branwell, emigrated to Baltimore in Maryland in 1808 with her husband John Kingston and three children (she was also heavily pregnant at the time). John had been a Wesleyan minister, but had been defrocked after being found guilty of infidelity and theft. With his good name gone, he decided to start a new life in the new world (he’d previously served as a missionary in Baltimore) but things must have gone from bad to worse, for in April 1809 Jane sailed from New York with her new baby daughter Eliza, leaving her husband and elder children behind in America.

I think this bold move marks Aunt Jane as the precursor of Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall. American-born cousin Eliza was later given a quarter of Elizabeth Branwell’s bequest, along with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, but it’s another of Jane Kingston’s children who is of particular interest to us on this occasion.

View of Baltimore by William H. Bartlett
Early 19th century Baltimore plays a part in the Bronte story

The family line of the Branwells of Penzance, cousins of the Brontës, died out completely in England in 1964 with the death of Patrick Arthur Brontë Branwell. The Branwells were gone from England, but they weren’t gone completely. Anna Branwell Kingston was born to Jane Kingston (nee Branwell) and the Reverend John Kingston in 1803, and sailed with them for Maryland in 1808. She had to stay with her father when her mother returned to Cornwall, but she later married a man named Joseph Bergstresser (a native of Pennsylvania, like Henry Bonnell). Mirroring the path the Brontës took, the Bergstressers changed their name to hide their roots and became the Burgsters.

Anna had a daugher, Maria Louisa and a son Joseph Kingston, whose family line is also now extinct. Maria, however, married Jacob Horning. They had a daughter Lottie Bell Horning (was Bell used as an indicator of their Brontë connections?) who married a William Fagen. Ada Louise Fagen was born in 1889 and married Thomas Hester, whilst Percy Horning Fagen was born in 1899 and married Athalene Kane. The lines of descent from these two children, first cousins of the Brontës three times removed, are still going strong.

I have managed to find nine such descendants, including an infant who will carry on this lineage to another generation, in various locations across the United States. Some of them have remarkable stories of their own, including a veteran of the Vietnam War, a leading pathologist, and a man whose wife survived a mass shooting. I have attempted to contact them but, alas, I received no replies. I will have to respect their privacy of course, but the fact remains that these people are the closest living maternal relatives of the Brontës in the world today – so, in a sense, there really are Brontës in America.

Genealogy is fascinating, but there isn’t much that’s as fascinating as a good Brontë book. Have a great week, stay happy and healthy, and I’d be delighted if you could join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Brontës And July, And New Brontë Books

Despite the unusual circumstances we all find ourselves in, this year seems to be flying by. We are now in the second half of the year, the month of July – a month that always sees school’s break up (er, never mind that one) and the birthday of Emily Brontë (and me). In today’s new post we’re going to look at the month of July in the Brontë writing, and we’ll also look at two excellent new Brontë related books.

July In Jane Eyre

July sees Jane take decisive action and leave Rochester and Thornfield Hall, seemingly for good. Even as the moment of flight dawns Jane is tempted by the thought of her true love, so tantalisingly and easy in her reach, but so opposed to her heartfelt values:

‘It was yet night, but July nights are short: soon after midnight, dawn comes. “It cannot be too early to commence the task I have to fulfil,” thought I. I rose: I was dressed; for I had taken off nothing but my shoes. I knew where to find in my drawers some linen, a locket, a ring. In seeking these articles, I encountered the beads of a pearl necklace Mr. Rochester had forced me to accept a few days ago. I left that; it was not mine: it was the visionary bride’s who had melted in air. The other articles I made up in a parcel; my purse, containing twenty shillings (it was all I had), I put in my pocket: I tied on my straw bonnet, pinned my shawl, took the parcel and my slippers, which I would not put on yet, and stole from my room.

“Farewell, kind Mrs. Fairfax!” I whispered, as I glided past her door. “Farewell, my darling Adèle!” I said, as I glanced towards the nursery. No thought could be admitted of entering to embrace her. I had to deceive a fine ear: for aught I knew it might now be listening.

I would have got past Mr. Rochester’s chamber without a pause; but my heart momentarily stopping its beat at that threshold, my foot was forced to stop also. No sleep was there: the inmate was walking restlessly from wall to wall; and again and again he sighed while I listened. There was a heaven – a temporary heaven – in this room for me, if I chose: I had but to go in and to say,

“Mr. Rochester, I will love you and live with you through life till death,” and a fount of rapture would spring to my lips. I thought of this.

That kind master, who could not sleep now, was waiting with impatience for day. He would send for me in the morning; I should be gone. He would have me sought for: vainly. He would feel himself forsaken; his love rejected: he would suffer; perhaps grow desperate. I thought of this too. My hand moved towards the lock: I caught it back, and glided on.’

Rydings, an inspiration for Thornfield Hall, was home to Ellen Nussey

July In Villette

Perhaps strangely we see a very similar July scene being played out in Villette. Lucy determines to sneak out of her chamber despite the sleeping draught administered by Madame Beck, and once again we see the protagonist creeping along the corridors, scared of waking the rest of the household:

‘How soundly the dormitory slept! What deep slumbers! What quiet breathing! How very still the whole large house! What was the time? I felt restless to know. There stood a clock in the classe below: what hindered me from venturing down to consult it? By such a moon, its large white face and jet black figures must be vividly distinct.

As for hindrance to this step, there offered not so much as a creaking hinge or a clicking latch. On these hot July nights, close air could not be tolerated, and the chamber-door stood wide open. Will the dormitory-planks sustain my tread untraitorous? Yes. I know wherever a board is loose, and will avoid it. The oak staircase creaks somewhat as I descend, but not much: – I am in the carré.’

Pensionnat Heger
Madame Beck’s school was modelled on the Pensionnat Heger

July In Wuthering Heights

Young Catherine has defied the instructions of Nellie and been visiting Linton Heathcliff, but their discussion of what makes a perfect July day shows the divide between them. Linton favours a lazy day, but Catherine wants to immerse herself fully in the landscape and in nature – she wants to dance in a glorious jubilee. This is a magical and magnificently drawn scene, and in it we surely see Emily’s description of her own idea of July perfection:

‘One time, however, we were near quarrelling. He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow very snappish. At last, we agreed to try both, as soon as the right weather came; and then we kissed each other and were friends.’

July In The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

For Helen Huntingdon, July is often a trying month. We learn from her diaries that this is one of the months that her husband Arthur is frequently away visiting friends, visits that can last for months at a time. At first Arthur writes to her, but eventually they become infrequent and unloving:

‘He promised fair, but in such a manner as we seek to soothe a child. And did he keep his promise? No; and henceforth I can never trust his word. Bitter, bitter confession! Tears blind me while I write. It was early in March that he went, and he did not return till July. This time he did not trouble himself to make excuses as before, and his letters were less frequent, and shorter and less affectionate, especially after the first few weeks: they came slower and slower, and more terse and careless every time. But still, when I omitted writing, he complained of my neglect. When I wrote sternly and coldly, as I confess I frequently did at the last, he blamed my harshness, and said it was enough to scare him from his home: when I tried mild persuasion, he was a little more gentle in his replies, and promised to return; but I had learnt, at last, to disregard his promises.’

So what do we learn from looking at July in the Brontë books? Well, we can see that Charlotte associated warm July nights with sneaking out of the house, and that for Emily it meant a month where she could immerse herself in nature at its most beautiful and wildest. For Anne, or at least for Helen, it was a month where her thoughts turned to loved ones and wished they were there. There is one thing that all the protagonists above have in common: they are dreaming of a better future, and ready to take steps to make it happen. Perhaps this then is the Brontë message for July: the start of the second half of the year brings new opportunities, and a warmer, happier time awaits us if we spring into action.

Talking of Brontë books, I this week purchased two Brontë related books which are perfect July reading matter. The first is called There Was No Possibility Of Taking A Walk That Day, and it’s a collection of poems from the ‘A Walk Around The Brontë Table’ Facebook group. The title also relates to our current lockdown as well as Jane Eyre, so it’s perfect for these times. I loved this book – so many people passionate about the Brontës have given full reign to their creativity and the results are always interesting and often excellent. I can’t pick out every single contributor worthy of praise because there are so many, but I especially loved ‘Seclusion’ by Christina Rauh Fishburne, which tells of raising a family in this ‘new normal’ in beautifully rhythmic and poetic prose (her brother Charlie Rauh also has an excellent poem inside – a highly talented guitarist his new Bronte related album is out later this month, I’ll have more news on that in a later post), the title poem by Julie Rose written in honour of her father who passed away in April, and ‘Lockdown And The Brontës’ by Emma Langan which blends Anne Brontë’s words with her own to create a moving story of loss, courage and hope. There are fine contributions from the UK, USA, Germany, Netherlands and Lithuania and there are also beautiful illustrations from Emily Ross, Debs Green-Jones and JoJo Hughes. As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book and it makes great summer time reading that you can dip in and out of.

Another book I loved was The Governess Of Thornfield by expert Brontë blogger Charlene DeKalb. You may remember that I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago when it was first available to download, but I now have a paperback copy. I love the premise of this – you play Jane Eyre rather than simply read Jane Eyre. By this, I mean that at certain points within the dialogue you’ll be asked to make a choice and turn to a corresponding section of the book – for example we find a familiar opening as you (Jane) are sat reading your favourite Bewick book in Gateshead Hall. The inevitable happens and Mrs Reed finds that you have hit the horrible John. You are ordered to the Red Room but do you go willingly or do you beg for mercy? That’s the first of many choices, and your answer can drastically change the course of the book; for example, will you accept Rochester’s proposal or decline it? I absolutely loved The Governess Of Thornfield for two reasons – it’s so cleverly constructed, with just the right amount of choices, and this really draws you into Jane’s story, allowing you to enjoy it in a whole new way. Secondly, it’s beautifully written. Charlene takes Charlotte’s plot and characters, but re-writes them in her own style, and the result is superb. I certainly hope that this isn’t the last book we see from Charlene DeKalb, as this is a great addition to any Brontë book collection.

Finally, I want to mention Without The Veil Between by D.M. Denton. I first read this fictional retelling of Anne Brontë’s life in 2017, and I greatly enjoyed it. For some reason it has been monstered in the latest edition of Brontë Studies by a Dr Stoneheart. Surely there is room for academic writing on the Brontës, there is room for mass appeal books about the Brontës, and there is room for well written fictional works about the Brontës? To attack the book cruelly because it doesn’t adhere solely to the facts would be like attacking Jane Eyre because: ‘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.’

Veil Between cover

As you may have guessed this is from the infamous review of Jane Eyre by Elizabeth Rigby, whom we looked at last month. I personally have had enough of Rigbyist reviewing but of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. All I will say is that I feel you would need a heart of stone not to appreciate the love for Anne Brontë that D.M. Denton has, and which she conveys admirably in what I found a sweet and moving read.

With that off my chest I move on full steam ahead to what should be a very beautiful July, and I hope that happiness awaits you all too. Stay happy, healthy and alert, keep reading books by and about the Brontës, and I will see you next Sunday for a new Brontë blog post.