The Branwell Journeys To Yorkshire

This week marked the 238th birthday of a very special woman indeed – for on the 15th April 1783 Maria Branwell was born in Penzance; between 1814 and 1820 she became the mother of Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.

The story is well known of how Maria made her journey north to Yorkshire in the summer of 1812, where she had been offered a position at Woodhouse Grove School near Rawdon, a Methodist school recently opened by John and Jane Fennell, Maria’s uncle and aunt. The distance travelled between Penzance and Yorkshire was more than 400 miles; to put that into perspective it’s a greater distance, as the crow flies, than the journey Charlotte and Emily Brontë took from Haworth to Brussels.

Maria Bronte
Maria Branwell in 1799

It was also an arduous, and potentially dangerous, journey, as we shall see. There were two ways to travel from Penzance to Yorkshire at this time, well before the world changing 1825 opening of the rail line running between Stockton and Darlington of course; firstly, the passenger could sail from Cornwall, around the Welsh coast, and up to Liverpool, before taking a horse drawn coach from Liverpool across the Pennines; alternatively, passengers could travel by coach from Cornwall to Yorkshire – a long journey involving many changes, but it is likely that Maria Branwell opted for this more cost effective solution, with her possessions to be sent after her by ship.

This coach journey typically took around ten days, and brought with it such challenges that some passengers made wills before embarking upon such an endeavour. The dangers of travelling by sea, in particular, were brought home to Maria not long after her arrival in Yorkshire, as we see in one of the early letters that she sent to the beau in her life – Patrick Brontë:

‘I mentioned having sent for my books, clothes, etc. On Saturday evening about the time you were writing the description of your imaginary shipwreck, I was reading and feeling the effects of a real one, having then received a letter from my sister giving me an account of the vessel in which she had sent my box being stranded upon the coast of Devonshire, in consequence of which the box was dashed to pieces with the violence of the sea, and all my little property, with the exception of a very few articles, being swallowed up by the mighty deep.’

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – former home of Maria Branwell

It seems likely that Maria had entrusted the job of sending on her property to her elder sister Elizabeth, later famous as Aunt Branwell. The ship was wrecked, and most of Maria’s possessions ended up in ‘Davy Jones’s locker’. We get a clue to Maria’s priorities in life, and her character, by the order in which she lists her lost items – first and in the position of importance are her books. One book of Maria’s which was rescued from the sea was a religious biography called The Remains Of Henry Kirke White (that’s it at the head of this post). White was a popular poet at the time noted for his piety, whom had died at the young age of 21. Maria’s copy was recently sold at auction for the sum of £200,000 – largely thanks to the writing made within the book by her daughter Charlotte. Ironically, the author of the book was a man who had discouraged Charlotte Brontë from writing at all: Robert Southey.

Robert Southey
Robert Southey, whose book was dear to Maria Bronte

The aforementioned Elizabeth Branwell also followed in Maria’s carriage steps by travelling from Penzance to Yorkshire not once but twice – firstly she joined her sister, and brother-in-law Patrick, in Thornton for over a year in 1815 and 1816. Returning to Penzance she must have thought she would never see her sister and nieces again, but of course as Maria entered her final illness in 1821 Elizabeth Branwell answered the call once more; this time there would be no return, and Aunt Branwell remained in Haworth, far from her Cornish home, from 1821 until her death 21 years later.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell travelled to Yorkshire at least twice

It seems likely, however, that Maria and Elizabeth were not the only members of the Branwell family of Penzance who had made the long journey to the West Riding of Yorkshire. Benjamin Branwell was born in 1875, a year before his sister Elizabeth, and was the only son in the Branwell family who survived infancy. He became a successful local businessman, magistrate and politician – being made Mayor of Penzance in 1809. He was also a very pious man, and very loyal to the Methodist cause that was so popular in Cornwall, and it is that cause which seems to have brought Benjamin Branwell to another area of the country where Methodism had hold: Yorkshire.

In his 1898 book Thornton and the Brontës William Scruton asserted that Benjamin Branwell had travelled to Yorkshire to speak to Methodist ministers and theologians there, and that he met Patrick Brontë there prior to 1812. Scruton also says that Benjamin Branwell travelled with one of his sisters, although there is no evidence for this assertion: could this have been the moment when Patrick Brontë first met Elizabeth Branwell, or even his future wife Maria?

It’s an interesting speculation, but whenever it happened we can be very thankful that Maria did make the long journey northwards – setting in chain the events that changed literary history forever.

You may have noticed that this Anne Brontë blog has changed appearance lately, I felt it was a time for a spring freshen. I hope you will join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Six Proposals Of Charlotte Brontë

As the UK prepares to enter the next stage of its long walk to freedom and safety, many will reflect on the lessons they’ve learnt during this strange, often unsettling and sometimes tragic year. Many will have learnt what’s truly important to them: the people they love, those who have been there for them through the ups and downs of 2020. That’s why the year to come could see a surge in engagements, and a raft of weddings, which will be wonderful for all concerned. Rather fittingly today marks the 167th anniversary of the date on which Charlotte Brontë accepted the proposal of Arthur Bell Nicholls; as we shall see in this post, it was far from her first proposal of marriage.

As far as we can tell, and there may have been other proposals that have been lost to posterity, Charlotte’s first proposal of marriage came on 1st March 1839 from the Reverend Henry Nussey. This looked a promising match at first – Henry was elder brother to Charlotte’s best friend Ellen Nussey, and Charlotte knew and liked him. There was one crucial element missing however: romance.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen could have become Charlotte’s sister in law

Henry was looking for a wife, but he didn’t really care who that wife was. In fact, he wrote proposing marriage to Charlotte just a week after he had received a refusal from a proposal he had made to Margaret Lutwidge (whose nephew Charles later became famous as Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll). Ellen was obviously aware of Henry’s plans and had asked Charlotte about them, for on 12th March Charlotte wrote:

‘You ask me dear Ellen whether I have received a letter from Henry. I have about a week since, the contents I confess did a little surprise me, but I kept them to myself, and unless you had questioned me on the subject I would never have adverted to it. Henry says he is comfortably settled in Sussex, that his health is much improved & that it is his intention to take pupils after Easter – he then intimates that in due time he shall want a Wife to take care of his pupils and frankly asks me to be that Wife… I asked myself two questions – ‘Do I love Henry Nussey as much as a woman ought to love her husband? Am I the person best qualified to make him happy?’ Alas Ellen my Conscience answered no to both these questions. I felt that though I esteemed Henry, though I had a kindly leaning towards him because he is an amiable well-disposed man, yet I had not, and never could have that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him – and if ever I marry it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my Husband. Ten to one I shall never have the chance again but n’importe. Moreover, I was aware that Henry knew so little of me he could hardly be conscious to whom he was writing – why it would startle him to see me in my natural home-character, he would think me a wild, romantic enthusiast indeed. I could not sit all day long making a grave face before my husband – I would laugh and satirize and say whatever came into my head first – and if he were a clever man & loved me the whole world weighed in the balance against his smallest wish should be light as air. Could I, knowing my mind to be such as that, could I consciously say that I would take a grave quiet young man like Henry? No it would have been deceiving him.’

This grave young man was in search of a wife to help him in his ministerial duties, and whilst vicar of Hathersage he married Emily Prescott. Hathersage is the Morton of Jane Eyre and Henry Nussey undoubtedly inspired St. John Rivers. Alas, Henry could not defeat the illness Charlotte alluded to in her letter, and he died in an asylum in 1860.

Hathersage Vicarage, visited by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Brontë did not have to wait long for her next proposal of marriage, and once more it came out of the blue. On 4th August 1839, she was again writing to Ellen:

‘I have an odd circumstance to relate to you, prepare for a hearty laugh – the other day Mr Hodgson, Papa’s former curate, now a Vicar, came over to spend the day with us, bringing with him his own curate. The latter Gentleman by name Mr Price is a young Irish clergyman fresh from Dublin University – it was the first time we had any of us seen him, but however after the manner of his Countrymen he soon made himself at home. His character quickly appeared in his conversation – witty, lively, ardent, clever too – but deficient in the dignity & discretion of an Englishman. At home you know Ellen I talk with ease and am never shy – never weighed down & oppressed by that miserable mauvais honte which torments and constrains me elsewhere, so I conversed with this Irishman & laughed at his jests – & though I saw faults in his character excused them because of the amusement his originality afforded. I cooled a little indeed & drew in towards the latter part of the evening, because he began to season his conversation with something of Hibernian flattery which I did not quite relish, however they went away and no more was thought about them.

A few days after I got a letter the direction of which puzzled me, it being in a hand I was not accustomed to see. Evidently it was neither from you nor Mary Taylor, my only Correspondents. Having opened & read it, it proved to be a declaration of attachment & proposal of Matrimony expressed in the ardent language of the sapient young Irishman!

Well thought I – I’ve heard of love at first sight but this beats all… I hope you are laughing heartily… I’m certainly doomed to be an old maid Ellen – I can’t expect another chance – never mind I made up my mind to that fate ever since I was twelve years old.’

This article from Britannia and Eve of 1st May 1952 looked at Charlotte’s loves

It was Reverend David Pryce (not ‘Price’ as Charlotte spelled it) who was rebuffed in late 1839; he died suddenly less than a year later aged 28. Charlotte had resigned herself to receiving no further proposals, but she was quite wrong to do so.

In April 1851 it seems that Charlotte received her third proposal of marriage. By this time she had lost her siblings, and had also found great success as the writer Currer Bell. This time she had enchanted one of the management team at her publisher Smith, Elder & Co named Joe Taylor. It was Taylor who was sent to Haworth to collect the completed manuscript of Shirley from Charlotte in September 1849, and they met on a number of prior and subsequent occasions. Joe, like others before him, clearly fell head over heels for Charlotte, but Charlotte loved handsome men, and he didn’t fit the bill – as we can see from her letter to Ellen of 5th December 1849:

‘Mr Taylor – the little man – has again shewn his parts. Of him I have not yet come to a clear decision: abilities he has for he rules the firm – he keeps 40 young men under strict control by his iron will. His young superior [George Smith] likes him which, to speak the truth, is more than I do at present. In fact, I suspect he is of the Helstone order of men [the Reverend Helstone appears in Shirley] – rigid, despotic and self-willed. He tries to be very kind and even to express sympathy sometimes, and he does not manage it. He has a determined, dreadful nose in the middle of his face which when poked into my countenance cuts into my soul like iron. Still, he is horribly intelligent.’

Rejected by Charlotte, Joe Taylor started a new life in Mumbai

In the spring of 1851 Joe Taylor left England for India to expand the Smith publishing business there. He visited Charlotte before leaving on 9th April, and it is thought that he proposed marriage to her on this occasion. Charlotte met his proposal with anger, and he sailed away to Mumbai, where he died in 1874.

Once again marriage proposals followed hot on the heels of each other, and the next came via a visitor from the Brontë motherland – Penzance in Cornwall. Thomas Brontë Branwell arrived at Haworth Parsonage in September 1851, and remained there for a week. He was Charlotte’s cousin, the son of the woman after whom she had been named: Charlotte Branwell, younger sister of Maria. Why did Thomas make that 400 mile journey?

The most likely explanation seems to me that he intended to propose to Charlotte; after all his own mother and father, Charlotte and Joseph Branwell, were themselves cousins. Thomas too was rebuffed; he later married Sarah Hannah Jones. Thomas had failed to marry Charlotte Brontë, but his son did – in a way. In 1897 Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell married his cousin – one Charlotte Brontë Jones.

There is no doubt about Charlotte’s next proposal, in December 1852, and we all know how it turned out. Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s assistant curate, proposed twice. His first proposal was rather less than well received as we see in this letter to Ellen:

A rejected and dejected Arthur pledged to leave Haworth forever. In his final appearance at Haworth’s church he had to be led shaking from the pulpit, unable to speak, and Charlotte later found him ‘sobbing as women never sob.’ Arthur, however, continued to write to Charlotte and returned in triumph on this day in 1854 when the woman he loved accepted his second proposal.

Charlotte Brontë was not destined to be an ‘old maid’ after all, and love had won the day. I propose that you join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

An Easter Celebration With The Brontës

Easter Sunday is here, and it must have been both a joyous and tiring day for the Brontës of Haworth. As perpetual curate of Haworth, Patrick Brontë would have carried out a number of paschal services, and his daughters would also doubtless have been called upon at this time to assist in his duties, or at least to sit in their positions of prominence within St. Michael’s and All Angels church. For Anne Brontë this would have been far from a chore, as she was perhaps the most pious of the Brontë siblings, and the celebration of her faith was always something she welcomed.

There are many other things associated with Easter today, alongside its original religious significance. We may think of the advent of spring, of flowers, or of chocolates. In today’s Easter post we can all enjoy poems by Anne, Emily and Charlotte that have a suitably floral theme – interspersed by some Victorian Easter cards. As you may expect from Victorian cards, their choice of subject is really rather odd – it seems that in the nineteenth century, military themes were thought a more than suitable choice to mark Easter day:

Anne Brontë – The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
‘Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;
That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.
Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.
Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.
But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.
Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil —
Those bitter feelings rise?
O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,
Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.
I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others’ weal
With anxious toil and strife.
‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.

Emily Brontë – The Blue Bell

The blue bell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air;
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.
There is a spell in purple heath
Too wildly, sadly dear;
The violet has a fragrant breath
But fragrance will not cheer.
The trees are bare, the sun is cold;
And seldom, seldom seen;
The heavens have lost their zone of gold
The earth its robe of green;
And ice upon the glancing stream
Has cast its sombre shade
And distant hills and valleys seem
In frozen mist arrayed –
The blue bell cannot charm me now
The heath has lost its bloom,
The violets in the glen below
They yield no sweet perfume.
But though I mourn the heather-bell
‘Tis better far, away;
I know how fast my tears would swell
To see it smile today;
And that wood flower that hides so shy
Beneath the mossy stone
Its balmy scent and dewy eye:
‘Tis not for them I moan.
It is the slight and stately stem,
The blossom’s silvery blue,
The buds hid like a sapphire gem
In sheaths of emerald hue.
‘Tis these that breathe upon my heart
A calm and softening spell
That if it makes the tear-drop start
Has power to soothe as well.
For these I weep, so long divided
Through winter’s dreary day,
In longing weep – but most when guided
On withered banks to stray.
If chilly then the light should fall
Adown the dreary sky
And gild the dank and darkened wall
With transient brilliancy,
How do I yearn, how do I pine
For the time of flowers to come,
And turn me from that fading shine
To mourn the fields of home –

Charlotte Brontë – Life

Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
O why lament its fall?
Rapidly, merrily,
Life’s sunny hours flit by,
Gratefully, cheerily
Enjoy them as they fly!
What though Death at times steps in,
And calls our Best away?
What though sorrow seems to win,
O’er hope, a heavy sway?
Yet Hope again elastic springs,
Unconquered, though she fell;
Still buoyant are her golden wings,
Still strong to bear us well.
Manfully, fearlessly,
The day of trial bear,
For gloriously, victoriously,
Can courage quell despair!

We have finished with a particularly apt poem by Charlotte Brontë, as this week marked the anniversary of her death on the 31st March 1855. As she prophesied in this poem, however, the shower of that tragic event has not stopped the roses of her work blooming. It is a poem of courage and final triumph, which also lies at the heart of the Easter message.

Whatever your beliefs, whether this is a day for choirs or chocolates, I hope you have a very happy day, and I hope you can join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog.