February In The Brontë Novels

March, and with it Spring, is just around the corner, and it may herald a better, more promising, time for all of us. I had thought, then, of offering up Emily Brontë’s magnificent poem ‘Hope’ for today’s blog post, but unfortunately it is a tale of hope fleeing not arriving, so it didn’t fit in with my general feeling of optimism. Instead then, with just a day left to squeeze it in, we’re going to look at the month of February in the Brontë novels:

Wuthering Heights

‘Edgar sighed; and, walking to the window, looked out towards Gimmerton Kirk. It was a misty afternoon, but the February sun shone dimly, and we could just distinguish the two fir-trees in the yard, and the sparely-scattered gravestones.

“I’ve prayed often,” he half soliloquised, “for the approach of what is coming; and now I begin to shrink, and fear it. I thought the memory of the hour I came down that glen a bridegroom would be less sweet than the anticipation that I was soon, in a few months, or, possibly, weeks, to be carried up, and laid in its lonely hollow! Ellen, I’ve been very happy with my little Cathy: through winter nights and summer days she was a living hope at my side. But I’ve been as happy musing by myself among those stones, under that old church: lying, through the long June evenings, on the green mound of her mother’s grave, and wishing – yearning for the time when I might lie beneath it. What can I do for Cathy? How must I quit her? I’d not care one moment for Linton being Heathcliff’s son; nor for his taking her from me, if he could console her for my loss. I’d not care that Heathcliff gained his ends, and triumphed in robbing me of my last blessing! But should Linton be unworthy – only a feeble tool to his father – I cannot abandon her to him! And, hard though it be to crush her buoyant spirit, I must persevere.”’

Linton and Cathy have a less than happy marriage
Linton and Cathy have a less than happy marriage

Edgar knows that Heathcliff plans to make his daughter Cathy’s life a misery by marrying her to his son Linton. His great sadness is that he knows he will be powerless to prevent this, although Nelly tries to reassure him that there is hope yet.

Jane Eyre

‘“I’m sure last winter (it was a very severe one, if you recollect, and when it did not snow, it rained and blew), not a creature but the butcher and postman came to the house, from November till February; and I really got quite melancholy with sitting night after night alone; I had Leah in to read to me sometimes; but I don’t think the poor girl liked the task much: she felt it confining. In spring and summer one got on better: sunshine and long days make such a difference; and then, just at the commencement of this autumn, little Adele Varens came and her nurse: a child makes a house alive all at once; and now you are here I shall be quite gay.”’

Mrs. Fairfax (the narrator here) has endured a lonely winter at Thornfield Hall, but with the arrival of Adele and now Jane, her isolation is over. I think we can all sympathise with Mrs. Fairfax here.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘But sometimes, I believe, she really had some little gratification in conversing with me; and one bright February morning, during twenty minutes’ stroll along the moor, she laid aside her usual asperity and reserve, and fairly entered into conversation with me, discoursing with so much eloquence and depth of thought and feeling on a subject happily coinciding with my own ideas, and looking so beautiful withal, that I went home enchanted; and on the way (morally) started to find myself thinking that, after all, it would, perhaps, be better to spend one’s days with such a woman than with Eliza Millward; and then I (figuratively) blushed for my inconstancy.’

Markham and Helen
Gilbert is irresistibly drawn to Helen

Gilbert is supposedly to marry Eliza, but his acquaintance with the mysterious Helen of Wildfell Hall has stirred up deeper feelings. This February stroll seems to him to mark the passing of a cold wintry alliance with Eliza into something altogether warmer and invigorating with Helen.


‘One February night – I remember it well – there came a voice near Miss Marchmont’s house, heard by every inmate, but translated, perhaps, only by one. After a calm winter, storms were ushering in the spring. I had put Miss Marchmont to bed; I sat at the fireside sewing. The wind was wailing at the windows; it had wailed all day; but, as night deepened, it took a new tone – an accent keen, piercing, almost articulate to the ear; a plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves, trilled in every gust.

“Oh, hush! hush!” I said in my disturbed mind, dropping my work, and making a vain effort to stop my ears against that subtle, searching cry. I had heard that very voice ere this, and compulsory observation had forced on me a theory as to what it boded. Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm – this restless, hopeless cry – denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life. Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind. Hence, I inferred, arose the legend of the Banshee. I fancied, too, I had noticed – but was not philosopher enough to know whether there was any connection between the circumstances – that we often at the same time hear of disturbed volcanic action in distant parts of the world; of rivers suddenly rushing above their banks; and of strange high tides flowing furiously in on low sea-coasts. “Our globe,” I had said to myself, “seems at such periods torn and disordered; the feeble amongst us wither in her distempered breath, rushing hot from steaming volcanoes.”’

February can bring storms and howling winds, and such a night has brought to mind for Lucy the myth of the banshee – whose sorrowful wails heralds tragedy and death. Much later in the book, and with Lucy living a very different life, we find the true force of storms and the fulfilment of this omen.

Agnes Grey

‘One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather; for Miss Matilda had set out on her daily ride, and Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls. But it struck me that I ought to leave these selfish pleasures, and the park with its glorious canopy of bright blue sky, the west wind sounding through its yet leafless branches, the snow-wreaths still lingering in its hollows, but melting fast beneath the sun, and the graceful deer browsing on its moist herbage already assuming the freshness and verdure of spring – and go to the cottage of one Nancy Brown, a widow, whose son was at work all day in the fields, and who was afflicted with an inflammation in the eyes; which had for some time incapacitated her from reading: to her own great grief, for she was a woman of a serious, thoughtful turn of mind. I accordingly went, and found her alone, as usual, in her little, close, dark cottage, redolent of smoke and confined air, but as tidy and clean as she could make it. She was seated beside her little fire (consisting of a few red cinders and a bit of stick), busily knitting, with a small sackcloth cushion at her feet, placed for the accommodation of her gentle friend the cat, who was seated thereon, with her long tail half encircling her velvet paws, and her half-closed eyes dreamily gazing on the low, crooked fender.

“Well, Nancy, how are you to-day?”

“Why, middling, Miss, i’ myseln – my eyes is no better, but I’m a deal easier i’ my mind nor I have been,” replied she, rising to welcome me with a contented smile; which I was glad to see, for Nancy had been somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy. I congratulated her upon the change. She agreed that it was a great blessing, and expressed herself “right down thankful for it”; adding, “If it please God to spare my sight, and make me so as I can read my Bible again, I think I shall be as happy as a queen.”

“I hope He will, Nancy,” replied I; “and, meantime, I’ll come and read to you now and then, when I have a little time to spare.”

With expressions of grateful pleasure, the poor woman moved to get me a chair; but, as I saved her the trouble, she busied herself with stirring the fire, and adding a few more sticks to the decaying embers; and then, taking her well-used Bible from the shelf, dusted it carefully, and gave it me. On my asking if there was any particular part she should like me to read, she answered –

“Well, Miss Grey, if it’s all the same to you, I should like to hear that chapter in the First Epistle of St. John, that says, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’”

With a little searching, I found these words in the fourth chapter. When I came to the seventh verse she interrupted me, and, with needless apologies for such a liberty, desired me to read it very slowly, that she might take it all in, and dwell on every word; hoping I would excuse her, as she was but a “simple body.”

“The wisest person,” I replied, “might think over each of these verses for an hour, and be all the better for it; and I would rather read them slowly than not.”

Accordingly, I finished the chapter as slowly as need be, and at the same time as impressively as I could; my auditor listened most attentively all the while, and sincerely thanked me when I had done. I sat still about half a minute to give her time to reflect upon it; when, somewhat to my surprise, she broke the pause by asking me how I liked Mr. Weston?

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was the inspiration for Edward Weston

“I don’t know,” I replied, a little startled by the suddenness of the question; “I think he preaches very well.”

“Ay, he does so; and talks well too.”’

Agnes’ haughty young charges in the Murray family think little of the assistant curate Reverend Weston, but the poor parishioners of the area have a very different view of him. Agnes’ love for Weston is growing because of his character and actions, rather than his looks; these are the things that the author Anne Brontë prized most highly too, and which she found pleasing in both Weston and in his prototype Reverend Weightman.

Hanover Press will re-publish neglected Victorian classics in high quality new editions

It’s a shorter post today because I’m currently preparing to post copies of my Hanover Press books Rachel Gray and The Hanover Press Book of Flowers. I’m really happy with how they’ve turned out, and I’m thrilled that more people will be able to read Julia Kavanagh’s most personal novel once more. Copies will be heading out to Kickstarter backers next week, but if you missed out on that you can pre-order now at hanoverpress.co.uk/store in readiness for its general release on March 11th.

So what do we learn from the depiction of February in the Brontë novels? It’s a time of change, a time to say goodbye to coldness in the air and coldness in our hearts. Better times are coming, it seems to say, and so we must trust to the future and wait for the warmth. I will see you again in March, i.e. next Sunday, for another new Brontë blog post.

Tabitha Aykroyd, Loyal Servant, Friend – and More

Today marks the anniversary of the burial of Tabby Aykroyd, who had been a loyal servant to the Brontë family since 1824. She died on 17th February 1855 and was buried four days later, and she plays a central role in the Brontë story. In today’s post we’re going to look at what’s known about Tabby, and reveal new evidence which could tell us much more about her.

We know that Tabby, or Tabitha, to give her her full name, was already in her fifties by the time she entered Haworth Parsonage. Previous parsonage servants Nancy and Sarah de Garrs had recently left their positions, and with his six children by then motherless, Patrick Brontë and his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell decided that, in Patrick’s words, an ‘elderly’ woman was better than two younger ones.

Nancy Garrs
Tabby replaced Nancy Garrs and sister Sarah

Tabby quickly became a firm favourite of the young Brontes, akin to a grandmother figure. It is believed that she often shared tales of Yorkshire folklore with her employer’s children, and that these stirring tales did much to inspire the imagination of the young Brontës; their influence can be seen most strongly in Wuthering Heights.

At the close of 1836, Tabby slipped on ice upon the cobbles of Haworth’s steep Main Street, badly breaking her leg and leaving her with a walking impediment for the rest of her life. Aunt Branwell recommended that Tabby should be let go, not merely because she could no longer perform all her duties but so that Tabby could be looked after by her sister. The young Brontës, however, were having none of it. They refused to eat until the decision was reversed, and under these circumstances Tabby was allowed to stay. It is clear then that to the Brontë siblings, Tabby was an essential and much loved part of the family unit.

June Watson as Tabby Aykroyd
June Watson as Tabby Aykroyd in ‘To Walk Invisible’

Nevertheless, Tabby’s leg injury flared up from time to time, and in 1839 she moved into the house of her sister Susannah Wood. It must have been a lengthy convalescence for she was still there when the 1841 census was taken, but by 1842 she had returned to the parsonage. We know from the interview that Martha Brown (the younger servant later brought in to work alongside Tabby) gave that Tabby also became partially blind in later life, just as her employer Patrick Brontë had. This led to Charlotte secretly finishing off the work that Tabby had been unable to do – such as removing the eyes from potatoes. In this we see the continued love that Charlotte had for the old woman who’d been by her side from childhood; her main concern was that no attention should be drawn to Tabby’s errors, and that Tabby herself should never know that Charlotte had corrected them.

Alas, on 21st February 1855, Charlotte broke some sad news in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey: ‘our poor old Tabby is dead and buried.’ Charlotte could not have comforted Tabby in her final days as by that time she herself was coming to the end of her life – she survived the woman who had started as her nursemaid, becoming a servant and then a friend, by just over a month.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
Tabby Aykroyd’s grave is at the perimeter of the parsonage garden

As another mark of the respect that she was buried at the head of the churchyard, just beyond the parsonage’s garden wall. The memorial stone reads: ‘Sacred to the memory of George Aykroyd of Haworth Hall, who died Jan 6th 1839 aged 76 years. Also of Susanna Wood, who died April 19th 1845 aged 90 years. Also of Tabitha Aykroyd who died Feb 17th 1855 in the 85th year of her age. Faithful servant of the Brontë Family for over thirty years.’

For such an important part of the Brontë story, it seems that little concrete is known of Tabitha Aykroyd. As the Brontë Society website itself says: ‘Almost nothing is known of Tabitha Aykroyd’s life before she entered 1824, aged 53 (born around 1771). She was almost certainly a native of Haworth, and we know of two sisters: Rose, who married a Bingley man called Bower, and Susannah, who married a Haworth man called Wood. Tabitha never married, and while there is no record of her life before she entered the Parsonage in 1824, it is thought she had worked in domestic service and on farms.’

This then is the sum of our knowledge on the Brontës’ beloved Tabby – and yet much of it may not be true, after all. As I always like to do I have been heading into newspaper archives and the world of genealogical research, and the results have certainly been intriguing.

Few records exist for Tabitha Aykroyd, but could that be because she wasn’t born Tabitha Aykroyd at all? The supposition that Tabitha was unmarried has prevailed, but it wouldn’t have been unusual for a woman in her fifties in the early 19th century to have another marital status – widowed. We must also consider her appointment as servant to the Brontë family in 1824. Her duties would have been all encompassing, from cleaning the rooms to cooking meals, but she would also have been expected to help look after the young Brontës – six children aged between four (Anne) and ten (Maria) with no mother. Patrick Brontë and Aunt Branwell, who by that time was also living in the parsonage, were very shrewd and practical people – what sort of person would they have thought suitable to take on this role: someone who had raised their own children, or someone with no experience of children at all?

There is no record of baptism for a Tabitha Aykroyd in the vicinity in the 1770s (or any similar name as spellings could be very inconsistent at this time), but let’s take a look at this certificate from the parish register of Haworth’s St. Michael’s and All Angels church:

On 2nd March 1773 we find recorded the baptism of Tabathy Dawson, more correctly spelled Tabitha Dawson, the daughter of William Dawson of Near Oxenhope, the neighbouring settlement which formed part of the Haworth parish. Fast forward 19 and a half years, and we find a happy event in the life of young Tabitha Dawson – she is getting married; to Joseph Aykroyd.

Here then is the creation of a Tabitha Aykroyd, married in the Haworth parish church later presided over by Patrick Brontë on the 4th September 1892. A year and two months later we find in the register another happy event – the baptism on November 15th 1793 of, ‘Jonathan son of Joshua and Tabitha Aykroyd.’

In fact, it seems that Jonathan was the first of eight children born to the Aykroyds, including the tragic Hannah Aykroyd who was born and died in 1807. Another scenario is presenting itself; could the Tabby Aykroyd who entered Haworth Parsonage in 1824 be a widow who was well known to the parish priest, and who had extensive experience of raising children and looking after a busy household thanks to her own large family?

What then of Susannah Wood and George Aykroyd, buried alongside Tabby? A family tree that I examined showed a George Aykroyd and Susannah Aykroyd; the latter of whom married William Wood in Haworth on 26th December 1782. There was no Tabitha in their family, but they were brother and sister to one Joshua Aykroyd. It seems to me, therefore, likely that Tabitha Aykroyd was in fact the sister-in-law of George Aykroyd and Susannah Wood.

As always, alas, we can’t pop into our nearest time machine and settle these things once and for all; but I believe that the genealogical records, and the simple logic behind Tabby’s appointment, makes it possible that Tabitha was the widow of Joshua Aykroyd, and the mother of a large family of her own. I would say that it’s probable.

Archives and genealogical websites are a fascinating place. I made another interesting discovery this week – look at this charming picture from the Leeds Mercury in June 1930; taken by Wilfred Moore of Keighley it shows his ten year old son being dragged to the sea in Sandsend, near Whitby. I was also this week reading an autobiography entitled Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day in which the author talks of being taken froim Keighley to Sandsend every weekend by his father, whereupon he loved swimming in the sea in his woolen bathing costume. There can be no doubt then that this picture shows a young boy who would grow up to be another legend of Brontë country: the late great Captain Sir Tom Moore.

Captain Sir Tom Moore’s first media appearance – Leeds Mercury, 20th June 1930

There is also no doubt that Tabitha Aykroyd was the perfect woman for the task she was given in 1824, and she entered Haworth Parsonage at the perfect time. She contributed greatly to a loving atmosphere that the Brontë siblings thrived on, and she helped to fire their creativity that had such a brilliant outcome.

I will see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post; one more thing – if Tabitha Dawson is indeed our Tabitha, then her baptism on 2nd March suggests that she was born in the last week of February. Let’s all say, ‘well done Tabby Aykroyd, and Happy Birthday!’

Valentine’s Day: Love In The Brontë Novels

It’s that time of year again; that time of year when we can put away our everyday concerns and concentrate on something altogether more important: love. In previous years we’ve looked at the well known story of how assistant curate William Weightman sent the Brontë sisters their first ever Valentine’s Day cards on this day 1840. It must have been a special moment for Anne, because she undoubtedly had feelings for him, feelings that I think were eventually reciprocated. In today’s post we look at love scenes in the novels of the Brontës, you will, after all, find it in every Brontë novel, and we’ll intersperse the text with some Victorian valentine’s cards – like this one:

The Professor

‘“You are laying plans to be independent of me,” said I.

“Yes, monsieur; I must be no incumbrance to you—no burden in any way.”

“But, Frances, I have not yet told you what my prospects are. I have left M. Pelet’s; and after nearly a month’s seeking, I have got another place, with a salary of three thousand francs a year, which I can easily double by a little additional exertion. Thus you see it would be useless for you to fag yourself by going out to give lessons; on six thousand francs you and I can live, and live well.”

Frances seemed to consider. There is something flattering to man’s strength, something consonant to his honourable pride, in the idea of becoming the providence of what he loves—feeding and clothing it, as God does the lilies of the field. So, to decide her resolution, I went on:—

“Life has been painful and laborious enough to you so far, Frances; you require complete rest; your twelve hundred francs would not form a very important addition to our income, and what sacrifice of comfort to earn it! Relinquish your labours: you must be weary, and let me have the happiness of giving you rest.”

I am not sure whether Frances had accorded due attention to my harangue; instead of answering me with her usual respectful promptitude, she only sighed and said,—

“How rich you are, monsieur!” and then she stirred uneasy in my arms. “Three thousand francs!” she murmured, “While I get only twelve hundred!” She went on faster. “However, it must be so for the present; and, monsieur, were you not saying something about my giving up my place? Oh no! I shall hold it fast;” and her little fingers emphatically tightened on mine.

“Think of my marrying you to be kept by you, monsieur! I could not do it; and how dull my days would be! You would be away teaching in close, noisy school-rooms, from morning till evening, and I should be lingering at home, unemployed and solitary; I should get depressed and sullen, and you would soon tire of me.”

“Frances, you could read and study – two things you like so well.”

“Monsieur, I could not; I like a contemplative life, but I like an active life better; I must act in some way, and act with you. I have taken notice, monsieur, that people who are only in each other’s company for amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together.”

“You speak God’s truth,” said I at last, “and you shall have your own way, for it is the best way. Now, as a reward for such ready consent, give me a voluntary kiss.”

After some hesitation, natural to a novice in the art of kissing, she brought her lips into very shy and gentle contact with my forehead; I took the small gift as a loan, and repaid it promptly, and with generous interest.’

Early Valentine's Day card

Wuthering Heights

‘“It is not,” retorted she; “it is the best! The others were the satisfaction of my whims: and for Edgar’s sake, too, to satisfy him. This is for the sake of one who comprehends in his person my feelings to Edgar and myself. I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. – My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again.’

Agnes Grey

‘“I’m afraid I’ve been walking too fast for you, Agnes,” said he: “in my impatience to be rid of the town, I forgot to consult your convenience; but now we’ll walk as slowly as you please. I see, by those light clouds in the west, there will be a brilliant sunset, and we shall be in time to witness its effect upon the sea, at the most moderate rate of progression.”

When we had got about half-way up the hill, we fell into silence again; which, as usual, he was the first to break.

“My house is desolate yet, Miss Grey,” he smilingly observed, “and I am acquainted now with all the ladies in my parish, and several in this town too; and many others I know by sight and by report; but not one of them will suit me for a companion; in fact, there is only one person in the world that will: and that is yourself; and I want to know your decision?”

“Are you in earnest, Mr. Weston?”

“In earnest! How could you think I should jest on such a subject?”

He laid his hand on mine, that rested on his arm: he must have felt it tremble—but it was no great matter now.

“I hope I have not been too precipitate,” he said, in a serious tone. “You must have known that it was not my way to flatter and talk soft nonsense, or even to speak the admiration that I felt; and that a single word or glance of mine meant more than the honied phrases and fervent protestations of most other men.”

I said something about not liking to leave my mother, and doing nothing without her consent.

“I settled everything with Mrs. Grey, while you were putting on your bonnet,” replied he. “She said I might have her consent, if I could obtain yours; and I asked her, in case I should be so happy, to come and live with us—for I was sure you would like it better. But she refused, saying she could now afford to employ an assistant, and would continue the school till she could purchase an annuity sufficient to maintain her in comfortable lodgings; and, meantime, she would spend her vacations alternately with us and your sister, and should be quite contented if you were happy. And so now I have overruled your objections on her account. Have you any other?”

“No – none.”

“You love me then?” said he, fervently pressing my hand.


Victorian Valentine

Jane Eyre

‘He seated me and himself.

“It is a long way to Ireland, Janet, and I am sorry to send my little friend on such weary travels: but if I can’t do better, how is it to be helped? Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?”

I could risk no sort of answer by this time: my heart was still.

“Because,” he said, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”

“That I never should, sir: you know -” Impossible to proceed.

“Jane, do you hear that nightingale singing in the wood? Listen!”

In listening, I sobbed convulsively; for I could repress what I endured no longer; I was obliged to yield, and I was shaken from head to foot with acute distress. When I did speak, it was only to express an impetuous wish that I had never been born, or never come to Thornfield.

“Because you are sorry to leave it?”

The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway, and asserting a right to predominate, to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last: yes, – and to speak.

“I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield: – I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life, – momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in, – with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”’


‘”Caroline, the houseless, the starving, the unemployed shall come to Hollow’s Mill from far and near; and Joe Scott shall give them work, and Louis Moore, Esq., shall let them a tenement, and Mrs. Gill shall mete them a portion till the first pay-day.”

She smiled up in his face.

“Such a Sunday school as you will have, Cary! such collections as you will get! such a day school as you and Shirley and Miss Ainley will have to manage between you! The mill shall find salaries for a master and mistress, and the squire or the clothier shall give a treat once a quarter.”

She mutely offered a kiss – an offer taken unfair advantage of, to the extortion of about a hundred kisses.

“Extravagant day-dreams,” said Moore, with a sigh and smile, “yet perhaps we may realize some of them.” Meantime, the dew is falling. Mrs. Moore, I shall take you in.”’

Victorian valentines card


‘And now the three years are past: M. Emanuel’s return is fixed. It is Autumn; he is to be with me ere the mists of November come. My school flourishes, my house is ready: I have made him a little library, filled its shelves with the books he left in my care: I have cultivated out of love for him (I was naturally no florist) the plants he preferred, and some of them are yet in bloom. I thought I loved him when he went away; I love him now in another degree: he is more my own.

The sun passes the equinox; the days shorten, the leaves grow sere; but – he is coming.

Frosts appear at night; November has sent his fogs in advance; the wind takes its autumn moan; but – he is coming.’

Valentines cherub

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall

We have love in all its forms in our selections above, but when it comes to tender, understated, beautiful love, the pen of Anne Brontë is hard to beat. I wish you all a very Happy Valentine’s Day – if this lockdown is keeping you from the one you love, know that things could soon be very different; if you are alone today, I hope you find love from a pet, or from the things and books you love. I will see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Story Of ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’

This week in 1846 saw a very important moment in the Brontë story, and, indeed, in the story of English literature as a whole. On the 6th of February 1846 three sisters, weary yet undaunted after a series of rejections, sent their collection of poetry to a specialist publisher in London; the publisher was Aylott & Jones, and the book was Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; by May of that year the first Brontë book was in print, and things would never be the same again.

The story of the genesis of this collection is well known; how Charlotte accidentally ‘discovered’ a secret collection of Emily’s brilliant poetry, and how the persuasive powers of her beloved sister Anne eventually made Emily agree to a joint venture – they had been writing poetry since childhood, now it was time to send it out into the world.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, with its original frontispiece

Always a woman of action, Charlotte Brontë then obtained a list of English publishers and began to send their parcelled up manuscript to them, time after time it returned unheralded, unwanted. The sisters soon realised that most publishers only wanted prose works; indeed the halcyon days of poetry sales in the first decades of the nineteenth century were over. It was clear that a specialist poetry publisher was needed – Moxon’s, publisher of Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, were uninterested, so who would the Bell brothers call upon next?

A popular magazine of the time was called Information For The People, published by Chambers of Edinburgh, and one of their specialties was answering questions submitted by their readers. Amongst them must have been Charlotte Brontë for she wrote to them asking for the name and address of a suitable publisher of poetry: they recommended Aylott & Jones of Paternoster Row, London, a company who acted as a stationery seller as well as a publisher of prose and poetry. They were situated in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral so it’s fitting that their main line was the publishing of theological works, but they would also publish poetry collections if the author’s shared the cost of publication.

Paternoster Row
Paternoster Row, London (now gone), home of Aylott and Jones, and of the Chapter Coffee House

Perhaps it was the ecclesiastical address of the authors, writing from Haworth Parsonage (wherever that was?) that impressed Aylott & Jones, but we know that by 31st January, the work had been accepted at the writer’s risk – that is, the Bells would pay for the cost of the paper, printing, binding and publicity.

Thankfully the sisters had the remnants of their legacy from their Aunt Branwell which allowed them to cover these initial costs, which we know were £35 18s 3d, well over a year’s wage for a governess or teacher at the time. A handful of years earlier, without this legacy, the Brontës would have been unable to meet these costs, and it seems likely that the Brontës would never have found their way into print.

On 6th February, Charlotte wrote once more to Messrs Aylott and Jones:

‘Gentlemen, I send you the M.S. as you desired. You will perceive that the Poems are the work of three persons – relatives – their separate pieces are distinguished by their respective signatures. I am Gentlemen, Yrs. Truly, C Brontë’

It’s interesting to note here that whilst the work would go on to be published under the nom de plumes of the Bell brothers, Charlotte wrote to this publisher under her own name (with the first name left as an ambiguous initial). When she later came to submit their works of fiction she always wrote letters under the name of Currer Bell.

At this time when the postal service was in its infancy there was a maximum weight limit of 16 ounces, and the Brontës’ manuscript must have exceeded this limit, as Charlotte had to send it in two parcels. It was written by hand of course, and the weight of the parcel makes it likely that they had invested in high quality paper, and written their manuscript out in their best hand, rather than the tiny writing which they habitually employed.

Things moved rapidly once the manuscript was received; what an exciting time it must have been for the three sisters in that moorside parsonage. Alas, the general public weren’t interested in poetry and it sold very poorly. In June 1847, Charlotte famously wrote to a number of writers the sisters admired, sending a free copy:

‘My relatives, Ellis and Acton Bell and myself, heedless of the repeated warnings of various respectable publishers, have committed the rash act of publishing a volume of poems. The consequences predicted have, of course, overtaken us; our book is found to be a drug; no man needs it or heeds it; in the space of a year our publisher has disposed of but two copies, and by what painful efforts he succeeded in disposing of those two, himself only knows. Before transferring the edition to the trunk-makers, we have decided on distributing as presents a few copies of what we cannot sell – we beg to offer you one in acknowledgment of the pleasure and profit we have often and long derived from your works. I am Sir, Yours very respectfully, Currer Bell.’

Thomas De Quincey was just one of the book’s recipients

These letters, with accompanying book, were sent to a number of writers including William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Hartley Coleridge, Ebenezer Elliott the Chartist poet of Sheffield, and Thomas de Quincey, who must have perked up when reading the line, ‘our book is found to be a drug’.

Whether only two copies were sold, or whether Charlotte exaggerated the poor sales, is open to question, but undoubtedly it hadn’t yet achieved the sales it deserved. I say ‘yet’ because eventually Smith, Elder & Co (publishers of Jane Eyre) bought up all the unsold copies, re-bound them, and sold every copy, sending Charlotte £24 in royalties at the close of 1848.

Smith Elder’s re-release of the book (although they forgot to change the date)

There’s a lesson in perseverance, and in having faith in yourself here. Publishers, and readers, weren’t initially interested in the writing of the Brontë sisters, but the Brontës knew that their work was worthy of interest; from the little acorn of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell soon sprang the mighty oaks of their novels. Whatever you’re good at, keep at it – be your own biggest fan, and never let setbacks deter you. Better times came for the Brontës, and better times will come for us all.

I leave you now with the first contribution of Anne Brontë to the collection – ‘A Reminiscence’ (along with the end of Emily Brontë’s ‘Faith and Despondency’ and the opening of Charlotte’s ‘Mementos’). It was the first time that Acton Bell was seen in print, thankfully it wasn’t to be the last. Stay safe and happy, and I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

‘A Reminiscence’ from ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’