The Infancy And Childhood Of Anne Brontë

Last week we marked the birth of Anne Brontë, sixth and last of the Brontë siblings. Life must have been crowded in Thornton Parsonage at the beginning of 1820 but it wouldn’t remain like that for long, for just three months later the Brontë family were heading across the moors to a new parish and a new life in Haworth. Haworth is where Anne Brontë spent her infancy, and its those formative years which we’re going to look at in today’s post.

It’s a particularly appropriate time to looking at babies, as it was also on this day in 1855 that Charlotte Brontë was diagnosed as being pregnant by doctors Amos Ingham and William MacTurk. MacTurk, a leading Bradford doctor, had said that Charlotte’s symptoms were symptomatic – by which he meant symptomatic of pregnancy. He also said that Charlotte was ‘in no immediate danger’, but alas he was wrong. The tragic loss of Charlotte at the close of March shows how dangerous pregnancy was at the time for mother and baby alike; it must have been a cause for rejoicing in the Brontë household in 1820, therefore, when 36 year old Maria was delivered of her sixth child, all of whom had been born healthy.

Charlotte Bronte baby bonnet
The baby bonnet made for Charlotte Bronte’s child by Margaret Wooler

As the youngest Anne would surely have been doted upon, but in a family such as the Brontës where money was often scarce shed would also have been given hand-me-downs from her older sisters and brother. This would have included toys, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum has a collection of Brontë toys in their collection. They were discovered under the floorboards during renovations, presumably placed there by Patrick Brontë. What we have are alphabet building blocks, still a staple for children today, a tiny doll with a hand made dress and a porcelain head, and a miniature iron so that the girls could prepare for a future life wielding the real thing. All of these are likely to have ended their useful career in the hands of the infant Anne Brontë.

Bronte toys
Bronte toys used by Anne and her siblings

We know that Anne must have had a liking for dolls for in June 1826 Patrick Brontë returned from a trip to Leeds with a gift for his six year old daughter: a dancing doll, a doll made of card or strong paper with jointed legs and arms secured by pins allowing it to dance.

Another hand-me-down utilised for Anne would surely have been the cradle, and this image from 1955 shows this Brontë crib on display. Positioned on rockers it would have allowed Anne to be rocked gently from side to side, and it probably housed her siblings before her. It has been many years since this wonderful item was last on display; presumably it’s now in too fragile a state?

Bronte cradle
The precious Bronte cradle

This is surely the cradle which features in the most famous story of Anne’s infancy. It was Nancy de Garrs, the servant who followed the family from Thornton to Haworth, who recalled the event: “When Anne was a baby, Charlotte rushed into her Papa’s study to say that there was an angel standing by Anne’s cradle, but when they returned it was gone, though Charlotte was sure she had seen it.”

This would have been shortly after the death of their mother, so the effect must have been dramatic upon Charlotte, but it’s perhaps also testimony to Anne’s angelic nature as a baby. A quiet child she became a quiet adult, albeit one who knew how to roar when she had to.

We get a hint of this reserved side of Anne’s nature, even during childhood, during another famous Brontë childhood scene. We saw how Patrick gifted Anne a dancing doll in the summer of 1826, and it was on this same journey that Patrick brought back another gift too – a dozen toy soldiers. The young Charlotte recounted what happened next:

“Papa bought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds. When Papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed: ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!’ when I had said this Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him ‘Gravey’. Anne’s was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him ‘Waiting-boy’.”

The moment captured in Isabel Greenberg’s brilliant Glass Town

Charlotte’s soldier was the prettiest and tallest of them all, which is perhaps wishful thinking given that she was self-conscious about her diminutive stature throughout her life. By this age, at just ten years old, Charlotte has had to take on the mantle of eldest sister and almost a mother to her siblings, so perhaps this is why she is dismissive of her six year old sister: Charlotte sees herself as a grown up far removed from the childhood things of Anne’s infancy. She perhaps sees Anne as the quiet one who is always waiting around but can’t yet fully join in with their games: a waiting girl.

So we see that patience and quiet reflection were characteristics of Anne from the earliest age, and they would remain her close companions throughout her life.

We could also speculate that it was Anne’s childhood charms that worked their magic on Elizabeth Branwell. Elizabeth came to Haworth from Penzance to nurse her dying sister, but after a suitable period of mourning had elapsed she could have returned. After all, she had previously visited Yorkshire in 1815, staying over a year in Thornton and taking in the christening of her god-daughter Elizabeth Brontë and the birth of Charlotte, but after that she took the 400 mile journey home to Cornwall again. What was different this time?

The attraction of Cornwall, with its warm climate and her well-to-do family near at hand, must have been great, but now the attraction of this windswept moorside parsonage was even greater. There lived six children who were the closest thing to her heart in the world; above all, there was the gentle baby Anne just one year old and in need of a mother; Elizabeth never saw Cornwall again, she stayed and became Aunt Branwell. From that moment and throughout her childhood, Anne shared a room in the parsonage with her aunt. It’s little surprise then that, as Ellen Nussey wrote, ‘Anne, dear, gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite.’

Bronte signpost Thornton
Bronte signpost at Thornton

In the infant and child Anne Brontë we can see the adult Anne Brontë, and by the time she put quill to paper on her two brilliant novels her waiting days were over. Thank you for sharing part of your Sunday with me, I hope you’re in good health and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë Birthday Week: Memories Of Anne

It was Anne Brontë’s 202nd birthday on Monday, as she was born in Thornton Parsonage on 17th January 1820. As it’s still Anne’s birthday week this week’s blog will continue our Anne Brontë celebrations.

Over the years we’ve looked at Anne’s remarkable talent as a writer, and the wonderful (if all too brief) body of work it produced. Early twentieth century author George Moore famously said, ‘If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’ Moore certainly knew and appreciated Anne’s writing, but he hadn’t known Anne herself. In this celebratory post we’re going to step away from Anne the writer and look at Anne Brontë the person, by examining the testimony of people who had met and known her. Let’s start with an obvious source: Anne’s elder sister Charlotte:

Charlotte Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Acton Bell, had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused: hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters, incidents, and situations), as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it. When reasoned with on the subject, she regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self-indulgence. She must be honest; she must not varnish, soften, nor conceal. This well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction, and some abuse, which she bore: as it was her custom to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life… Anne’s character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister [Emily], but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted. Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass. I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.’

In this biographical notice Charlotte intended to introduce the real Acton (Anne) and Ellis (Emily) Bell to the reading public for the first time. In doing so, however, she also sought to protect them against some of the criticism their work had faced, by portraying them as unworldly women with little education or knowledge of literature. This was far from the whole picture, as Anne was well educated, well read and hugely knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects (for example, she was the only Brontë sister who knew Latin and Greek to any extent). To get a true image of Charlotte’s view of Anne we need to turn to that concluding sentence: ‘genuinely good and truly great.’ Away from her over-protective defence of her youngest sibling, there can be no doubt that Charlotte loved Anne dearly. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in her moving elegy, Anne was ‘the darling of my life’ and ‘one I would have died to save.’

Anne Bronte 200

Ellen Nussey

‘Anne – dear, gentle Anne – was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite. Her hair was a very pretty light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent complexion.’

George Smith

‘That particular Saturday morning I was at work in my room, when a clerk reported that two ladies wished to see me. I was very busy and sent out to ask their names. The clerk returned to say that the ladies declined to give their names, but wished to see me on a private matter. After a moment’s hesitation I told him to show them in. I was in the midst of my correspondence, and my thoughts were far away from ‘Currer Bell’ and ‘Jane Eyre’. Two rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale-faced and anxious-looking, walked into my room… This [Charlotte and Anne’s 1848 visit to London] is the only occasion on which I saw Anne Brontë. She was a gentle, quiet, rather subdued person, by no means pretty, yet of a pleasing appearance. Her manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement, a kind of constant appeal which invited sympathy.’

Incidentally, from Smith’s memoirs we also get an account of Charlotte’s reaction upon first seeing her portrait by George Richmond. Richmond was renowned for ‘beautifying’ his subjects (which is perhaps why he was so in demand), and it seems that Charlotte was moved by how much her portrait actually looked like Anne: ‘Mr Richmond mentioned that when she saw the portrait (she was not allowed to see it before it was finished) she burst into tears, exclaiming that it was so like her sister Anne, who had died the year before.’

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte, by George Richmond – Charlotte thought this looked so much like Anne it moved her to tears

Nancy Garrs

‘When the family removed to Haworth she accompanied them, remaining with them many years as cook, her younger sister taking her place in the nursery. She has many stories to relate of the kindly disposition of Charlotte, the wilfulness of Branwell, the hot temper of Emily, and the tenderness of Anne.’

Now we have seen what some of those who knew Anne best thought of her, let’s turn to the thoughts of Haworth villagers who met Anne during the course of their everyday lives:

Tabitha Ratcliffe

‘Her most interesting relic is a photograph on glass of the three sisters. “I believe Charlotte was the lowest and the broadest, and Emily was the tallest. She’d bigger bones and was stronger looking and more masculine, but very nice in her ways,” she comments. “But I used to think Miss Anne looked the nicest and most serious like; she used to teach at Sunday school. I’ve been taught by her and by Charlotte and all.” And it is on Anne that her glance rests as she says, “I think that is a good face.” There is no doubt which of the sisters of Haworth was Mrs Ratcliffe’s favourite.’

What You Please Anne Bronte
‘What You Please’ by Anne Brontë

Sarah Wood

‘Miss Parry also visited Mrs Sarah Wood, who keeps a little clothier’s shop in the village, and has many souvenirs of the Brontë family. “Do I remember the Brontës?” was her greeting. “I should rather think I did. Miss Charlotte was my Sunday-school teacher. She was nice. But Miss Anne was my favourite: such a gentle creature.”’

Haworth church guide

‘Standing beside Charlotte’s last resting-place, I questioned my conductor respecting her, and found him at once ready and willing to oblige me with all the information in his possession. He had been but a little boy, he said, when all the family were living, but he remembered the three sisters well, and had often run errands for Mr Patrick. They used to take a great deal of notice of him when he was little; but Miss Annie was his favourite, perhaps because she always paid him so much attention. Baking-day never came round at the parsonage without her remembering to make a little cake or dumpling for him, and she seldom met him without having something good and sweet to bestow upon him.’

Anonymous Haworth villager

‘But it needed not the presence of the children and gossips of the village to people it; for the whole place seemed haunted with the faces and forms of those to whom this ‘long, unlovely street’ had once been so familiar. There was Charlotte Bronte herself – ‘a little woman, plainly dressed, and with nothing particular to notice in her appearance’, setting off bravely on a long walk to Keighley for the books which awaited her at the circulating library. There was Emily, with masculine gait, striding down towards the brook, followed by the dogs she loved so well. There was Anne, gentle and timid – ‘the loveliest of them all’, says one who knew them well – passing from house to house amongst the parishioners, with a kind word and a sweet smile for everyone.’

Now we have as complete a picture of Anne Brontë as a person and not just as a writer that we can get today. As Anne Brontë herself wrote at the conclusion of her brilliant debut novel Agnes Grey: ‘And now I think I have said sufficient.’

It is testimony to Anne’s character that we see a very uniform picture of Anne emerging. She is always described as tender, gentle and kind. When we walk the cobbled streets of Haworth we can picture Anne walking them, handing out buns to children and smiles to all. The Haworth villagers were seemingly of one opinion; Anne was ‘the loveliest of them all’ and their favourite. And, with no offence to her wonderful siblings, she is my favourite too.

Autumnal landscape by Anne Bronte
Autumnal landscape by Anne Bronte

I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and I hope you’ve enjoyed Anne Brontë’s birthday week.

Happy 202nd birthday Anne Brontë!

In yesterday’s post I revealed that next Sunday’s blog will be an Anne Brontë birthday special, but I couldn’t let the big day pass by unnoticed. Anne Brontë was born on this day in 1820 in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford. She was the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria Brontë, but she deserves to be remembered alongside her sisters Charlotte and Emily as one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.

Anne Brontë was a brilliant poet and (most importantly of all) a brilliant and kind person, and she wrote two of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. Agnes Grey was a partially autobiographical work about life as a governess in the first half of the nineteenth century; The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall shone a light upon coercive relationships, addiction and marital abuse: it has been called the first fully formed feminist novel, and is just as important and relevant today as it was when it was published in 1848.

Anne Bronte's baptism record
Anne Bronte’s baptism record, the baptism took place just over two months after her birth

Anne Brontë was an ordinary woman who created extraordinary things, so that can be an inspiration to us all. I’ll be baking a cake later and raising a glass to Anne’s memory, and of course the best way to remember Anne is to turn once more to one of Anne’s wonderful books. I hope to see you again next Sunday for a more in depth birthday post for Anne but for now I will leave you with one of her most beautiful poems and say: ‘Happy 202nd birthday Anne Brontë!’

The Student's Serenade Anne Bronte
‘The Student’s Serenade’ by Anne Bronte

The Brontës And Nineteenth Century Medicine

Advances in medicine really are one of the miracles of our age; after all, just think how much worse this pandemic would have been without vaccines. Our medics and scientists understand a lot about maladies, the human body, and which chemical combinations can combat which conditions, but we don’t have to go too far back to a time when things were very different indeed. In today’s post we’re going to look at medicine and the Brontës, and look ahead to a special day tomorrow.

Haworth Apothecary dispensed a wide range of medicines (me outside it with my mum in the late 1980s!)

It’s a particularly timely day to look at the medicine taken by the Brontës, for on this day in 1852 Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen Nussey regarding some medication which she’d been prescribed: and which we certainly wouldn’t dream of taking today. Before we take a look at that letter, however, let’s head back to the 14th January 1852 to another letter in which we get the first details of the complaint:

Ellen is clearly concerned because she hadn’t heard from Charlotte in a while, and wondered if she was ill? Charlotte was indeed under the weather, and Mr Ruddock the Haworth physician has prescribed an alterative medicine. This was a kind of medicine designed to alter the status of the digestive system: without putting too fine a point on it, Charlotte was suffering from an acute case of constipation. Left to itself she would doubtless have been fine in a day or two, but Ruddock’s medicine did more harm than good, for it was mercury.

Mercury was commonly prescribed for a wide range of conditions in the nineteenth century. It was infamously used to treat syphilis, with horrendous results, but ‘blue mercurial pills’ could be used as a purgative or to treat digestive complaints such as Charlotte’s.

Charlotte correctly surmised, however, that the pills were causing her malady rather than relieving it, and since taking them she has started to feel better. Nevertheless, by this day in 1852 the effects of this potentially deadly medicine were still being felt:

Ellen is desperate to see Charlotte again, and we can guess the tone of her correspondence by looking at Charlotte’s replies. On 14th January she urges Ellen to “be quite tranquil”, and two days later she is telling her, “Be quiet. Be tranquil.” Charlotte must be longing for that tranquillity herself, but the effects of her recent mercury medicine have made this a difficult task. As she says, “you can have little idea of the condition into which Mercury throws people to ask me to go from home anywhere in close or open carriage, and as to talking four days since I could not well have articulated three sentences – my mouth and tongue are ulcerated.”

These are classic symptoms of mercury poisoning; if Charlotte had not stopped taking Dr. Ruddock’s medicine at the dosage he prescribed it could have been the end of her. Thankfully for us all, Charlotte was soon better and by the end of January she was well enough to join Ellen at Brookroyd. Tranquillity was restored. There was to be no such happy outcome to the next medical letter we’re going to examine. On this occasion we head back to this week in 1849:

Less than a month after Emily’s death from consumption (tuberculosis), Anne Brontë is following the same terrible path. This must have been a dreadful ordeal for Charlotte, but at least Anne is willing to try medical solutions, something which Emily had always refused – calling it quackery. As we saw from Charlotte’s alterative medicine, prescriptions at this time were indeed often quackery, but people at the time believed them to be at least partially effective. Anne tried to take her cod-liver oil and carbonate of iron, but eventually found herself unable to swallow them without being sick, a counter-productive result with a wasting disease such as tuberculosis.

Nathaniel Godbold
Nathaniel Godbold, medical pioneer whose Vegetable Balsam was one of the medicine’s prescribed to Anne

Other medications of the time routinely contained opium and alcohol. Patrick Brontë was prescribed an eye solution which contained alcohol to treat his cataracts and failing eyesight, but this led to rumours that the parish priest (and founder of Haworth’s temperance society) had turned to drink.

On 4th October 1843 Patrick wrote to church trustee John Greenwood to explain the situation, stating: ‘They keep propagating false reports – I mean to single out one or two of these slanderers, and to prosecute them, as the Law directs. I have lately been using a lotion for my eyes, which are very weak – and they have ascribed the smell of that to a smell of a more objectionable character.’

In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily's, Thornton
The fireplace at Thornton Parsonage by which Anne Bronte was born

We saw earlier the approach of a sad moment in the Anne Brontë story, but let’s finish by looking ahead to a happier one. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Anne Brontë story, her two hundred and second birthday. We can imagine the excitement, not to say trepidation in Thornton Parsonage on this day in 1820 as the moment grew ever nearer. The Brontë children were sent to nearby Kipping House to be looked after by the Firth family, and Maria and Patrick prepared to welcome their sixth child. I hope you can join me next Sunday for an Anne Brontë birthday special. Cake isn’t compulsory but is recommended. When creating a filling do remember that jam and butter cream are excellent ideas, but mercury rather less so.

Charlotte Brontë’s Return From Brussels

Well, we’ve made it through a whole week of 2022. Have you noticed a difference yet? Charlotte Brontë certainly noticed a difference in the first week of 1844 for she began it in Belgium and ended it among her familiar Yorkshire moors. In today’s Brontë blog post we’re going to look at Charlotte Brontë’s return from Brussels, and what it meant for her writing.

Charlotte Brontë first arrived in Brussels in February 1842, alongside her sister Emily whilst Anne was sadly ensconced as a governess at Thorp Green Hall near York. They returned to Haworth in November of that year after the death of Aunt Branwell, unfortunately arriving too late for her funeral. Home loving Emily decided to remain in Haworth, but Charlotte insisted upon returning to Brussels. Ostensibly this was so she could continue honing her language skills prior to opening a school with her sisters, but in reality it had a lot to do with the fact that she had fallen in love with her French master Constantin Heger. Unfortunately, he was the husband of the school’s proprietor.

the Heger family by Ange Francois
The Heger family by Ange Francois, Constantin on the left and Clare central

It was never going to end well, even though after her return from Haworth Charlotte was elevated to the position of teacher rather than simply being a pupil. By the end of 1843, the atmosphere in the Brussels Pensionnat (school) had become rather strained. An 1896 obituary for Constantin Heger, written by his friend Albert Colin, gave an insight into Madame Heger’s feelings by late 1843:

‘At the end of two years [after Charlotte Brontë’s 1842 entrance into the Pensionnat], the future English novelist spoke and wrote correctly the language of Bossuet, Racine and Voltaire. Once this had been achieved, Madame Heger, considering that her part of the contract morally entered into between herself and Charlotte had been completely fulfilled, refused to receive Miss Brontë a third year in her school. According to the statements of her own schoolfellows, the daughter of the English clergyman [sic] was anything but popular. She was also older than the other pupils, among whom she perhaps felt herself to be in a somewhat undignified position. Madame Heger was, therefore, not sorry to put an end to the connection.’

It seems therefore that Charlotte had requested to stay in Brussels, and presumably continue her work as a teacher, but had been refused. She was left with no choice but to return to England, and on 29th December 1843 her time at the Pensionnat was drawn to an official end with the presentation to her of a diploma certifying that she had completed her studies. The diploma is lost, but not the envelope it came in, for Charlotte herself has written on the outside: ‘Diploma given to me by Monsieur Heger Decbr 29th 1843.’ It had come from Constantin Heger, it must be treasured.

This envelope contained Charlotte’s diploma from Brussels

A sad new year indeed it must have seemed for Charlotte, for on the first of January 1844 she turned and took a final look at the Pensionnat, her eyes perhaps moving one last time to the window of the study of Monsieur Heger. As her carriage took her away from the city and towards the coast, did she know that this would be the last time she would ever see Brussels, or did she think she would be returning again one day when Madame Heger’s heart had softened?

After two days of travelling, on 3rd January 1844, Charlotte Brontë arrived back in Haworth to find that Anne and Branwell were preparing to leave for York, her best friend Ellen was staying with her brother Henry in Sussex, and her father was nearly blind. But she was home, and she was loved.

In the days that followed Charlotte must have realised that her European adventure was over, and she was left “tamed down and broken”. On 23rd January Charlotte finally raised the energy to write to Ellen, and a fascinating yet melancholic letter it is:

It’s also interesting to note that before leaving for Brussels in 1842 she had to persuade her Aunt Elizabeth to pay for the travel and tuition for herself and Emily, but now she has enough money to open her own school if she wanted to. The reason, of course, is that she (along with sisters Emily and Anne and cousin Eliza Kingston of Penzance) has now inherited a considerable sum of money from her Aunt’s will.

The school idea was now possible, but it would never open. The money would eventually be put to even greater use: it funded the publication of the first Brontë book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and the entrance of the Brontës into the world of literature. Charlotte’s time in Brussels, and the manner of her return from it, also played a great role in those classic novels to come.

Charlotte had been in love with Constantin Heger, an unrequited love that seeped into her bones and played restlessly with her mind. There was no outlet in the despairing letters that she sent to Monsieur Heger as they went unacknowledged and unanswered; it must have another outlet.

In Charlotte’s letters sent from Brussels we see that Monsieur Heger was a stern man with a hard countenance, one who does not show emotions easily, and yet it was these qualities that won Charlotte’s esteem and then heart. In May 1842 she had written to Ellen:

‘There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken: Monsieur Heger the husband of Madame. He is professor of Rhetoric, a man of power as to mind but very choleric and irritable in temperament – a little, black, ugly being with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane Tom-cat – sometimes those of a delirious hyena – occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air not above a hundred degrees removed from what you would call mild and gentleman-like.’

Surely from this we see more than a hint of Edward Rochester? When Bessie asks Jane about her employer she replies:

‘She wanted to know if I was happy at Thornfield Hall, and what sort of a person the mistress was; and when I told her there was only a master, whether he was a nice gentleman, and if I liked him. I told her he was rather an ugly man, but quite a gentleman; and that he treated me kindly, and I was content.’

We get a similar portrait of Paul Emanuel in Villette, as in this scene at the Hotel Crecy party: ‘Amongst the gentlemen, I may incidentally observe, I had already noticed by glimpses, a severe, dark, professorial outline, hovering aloof in an inner saloon, seen only in vista. M. Emanuel knew many of the gentlemen present, but I think was a stranger to most of the ladies, excepting myself; in looking towards the hearth, he could not but see me, and naturally made a movement to approach; seeing, however, Dr. Bretton also, he changed his mind and held back. If that had been all, there would have been no cause for quarrel; but not satisfied with holding back, he puckered up his eyebrows, protruded his lip, and looked so ugly that I averted my eyes from the displeasing spectacle.’

In short there can be no doubt in my mind that without Brussels and Monsieur Heger there could have been no such brilliantly realised characters as Rochester and Monsieur Emanuel, and therefore neither Jane Eyre nor Villette. More specifically it seems to me that these characters, and the novels they loom over, could not have existed without the manner of Charlotte Brontë’s exit from Brussels at the dawn of 1844. If she had left contended and happy these images would not have continued to brood in her mind only to burst forth so dramatically onto paper in the years to come.

Bronte plaque in Brussels
The Brontes can still be found in Brussels if you look hard enough

We can never know what moments today which may seem sad and inauspicious may yet yield treasures of gold in the future, so whatever this new year throws at you keep going and keep believing in yourself. Charlotte Brontë did, and we can all be thankful for that.

Today also marks the anniversary of the death of Madame Clare Heger. She passed away on the 9th of January 1890. Madame Heger also played a vital role in the Brontë literary story, although neither she nor Charlotte could have known it at the time. There are plenty more stories to tell, so I hope you can join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post. A bientot!

Happy Brontë New Year: Welcome 2022!

Happy New Year (a day late, but the sentiment is still there) to you all. I’ve loved sharing my Brontë blog posts with you over the last year, and I’ve really appreciated all your support, kind words, suggestions, comments and emails. There’s a lot of Brontë love out there, and I know that’s going to continue into 2022, whatever the world throws at us.

In today’s new post we’re going to look at the Bronte’s and New Year, and you’ll see a smattering of typically idiosyncratic Victorian new year cards, like the one above. Just what was the new year celebration like in Haworth Parsonage? Well we know that Anne Brontë enjoyed playing Auld Lang Syne on the parsonage piano as we have here her hand written score and words to the song, copied out by her into her music book. We can easily imagine Anne playing it and singing along as the new year approached (Ellen Nussey testified how Anne loved to sing and that she had a quiet yet sweet voice); perhaps the Brontë family would have joined in, just as we still do nearly two hundred years later?

Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne, copied out by Anne Bronte

We can get another possible glimpse into what the coming of a new year in the Brontë novels, for it features in three of them. In Jane Eyre we see how New Year, along with Christmas, was a time for celebration, yet young Jane was excluded from the celebrations. Even so, Jane is happy in her own company as long as she had something to love – in this case her beloved doll.

Jane Eyre

‘November, December, and half of January passed away. Christmas and the New Year had been celebrated at Gateshead with the usual festive cheer; presents had been interchanged, dinners and evening parties given. From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded: my share of the gaiety consisted in witnessing the daily apparelling of Eliza and Georgiana, and seeing them descend to the drawing-room, dressed out in thin muslin frocks and scarlet sashes, with hair elaborately ringletted; and afterwards, in listening to the sound of the piano or the harp played below, to the passing to and fro of the butler and footman, to the jingling of glass and china as refreshments were handed, to the broken hum of conversation as the drawing-room door opened and closed. When tired of this occupation, I would retire from the stairhead to the solitary and silent nursery: there, though somewhat sad, I was not miserable. To speak truth, I had not the least wish to go into company, for in company I was very rarely noticed; and if Bessie had but been kind and companionable, I should have deemed it a treat to spend the evenings quietly with her, instead of passing them under the formidable eye of Mrs. Reed, in a room full of ladies and gentlemen. But Bessie, as soon as she had dressed her young ladies, used to take herself off to the lively regions of the kitchen and housekeeper’s room, generally bearing the candle along with her. I then sat with my doll on my knee till the fire got low, glancing round occasionally to make sure that nothing worse than myself haunted the shadowy room; and when the embers sank to a dull red, I undressed hastily, tugging at knots and strings as I best might, and sought shelter from cold and darkness in my crib. To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and, in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doated on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation. I could not sleep unless it was folded in my night-gown; and when it lay there safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise.’

In Wuthering Heights we see the new year mark two very different events. It falls at the very conclusion of the novel, with new beginnings springing from the close of this epic story. Heathcliff is buried and Hareton and Cathy are to be married on New Year’s Day:

Wuthering Heights

‘We buried him, to the scandal of the whole neighbourhood, as he wished. Earnshaw and I, the sexton, and six men to carry the coffin, comprehended the whole attendance. The six men departed when they had let it down into the grave: we stayed to see it covered. Hareton, with a streaming face, dug green sods, and laid them over the brown mould himself: at present it is as smooth and verdant as its companion mounds—and I hope its tenant sleeps as soundly. But the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen two on ’em looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since his death:—and an odd thing happened to me about a month ago. I was going to the Grange one evening—a dark evening, threatening thunder—and, just at the turn of the Heights, I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly; and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided.

“What is the matter, my little man?” I asked.

“There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’ nab,” he blubbered, “un’ I darnut pass ’em.”

I saw nothing; but neither the sheep nor he would go on so I bid him take the road lower down. He probably raised the phantoms from thinking, as he traversed the moors alone, on the nonsense he had heard his parents and companions repeat. Yet, still, I don’t like being out in the dark now; and I don’t like being left by myself in this grim house: I cannot help it; I shall be glad when they leave it, and shift to the Grange.

“They are going to the Grange, then?” I said.

“Yes,” answered Mrs. Dean, “as soon as they are married, and that will be on New Year’s Day.”

“And who will live here then?”

“Why, Joseph will take care of the house, and, perhaps, a lad to keep him company. They will live in the kitchen, and the rest will be shut up.”

“For the use of such ghosts as choose to inhabit it?” I observed.

“No, Mr. Lockwood,” said Nelly, shaking her head. “I believe the dead are at peace: but it is not right to speak of them with levity.”’

Another new year wedding is taking place in Charlotte Brontë’s first-written novel The Professor. Again it follows swiftly on the heels of a burial, with the circle of life replacing death with new hope and a new beginning, just as we see in the end of one year leading to the start of the next one. Frances seems strangely distraught at her wedding but I won’t give away how married life turns out for her!

The Professor

‘In two months more Frances had fulfilled the time of mourning for her aunt. One January morning – the first of the new year holidays – I went in a fiacre, accompanied only by M. Vandenhuten, to the Rue Notre Dame aux Neiges, and haying alighted alone and walked upstairs, I found Frances apparently waiting for me, dressed in a style scarcely appropriate to that cold, bright, frosty day. Never till now had I seen her attired in any other than black or sad-coloured stuff; and there she stood by the window, clad all in white, and white of a most diaphanous texture ; her array was very simple to be sure, but it looked imposing and festal because it was so clear, full, and floating; a veil shadowed her head, and hung below her knee; a little wreath of pink flowers fastened it to her thickly tressed Grecian plat, and thence it fell softly on each side of her face. Singular to state, she was, or had been crying; when I asked her if she were ready she said “Yes, monsieur,” with something very like a checked sob, and when I took a shawl, which lay on the table, and folded it round her, not only did tear after tear course unbidden down her cheek, but she shook to my ministration like a reed. I said I was sorry to see her in such low spirits, and requested to be allowed an insight into the origin thereof. She only said, “It was impossible to help it,” and then voluntarily though hurriedly putting her hand into mine, accompanied me out of the room, and ran downstairs with a quick, uncertain step, like one who was eager to get some formidable piece of business over. I put her into the fiacre. M. Vandenhuten received her, and seated her beside himself; we drove all together to the Protestant chapel, went through a certain service in the Common Prayer Book, and she and I came out married. M. Vandenhuten had given the bride away.’

Dulac The Professor
From a Dulac illustration from The Professor we see Frances and her future husband William Crimsworth

We also see more direct evidence of Brontë attitudes to the new year in two letters of Charlotte Brontë. The first is one of the earliest still known to exist, dated 1st January 1833 it was sent from Charlotte Brontë to her school friend Ellen Nussey. In it Charlotte reveals her thoughts at the start of every new year: how has she improved over the previous twelve months, and what can she do to improve herself in the next twelve?

Fast forward twenty years and we see Charlotte once again writing to her Nell. They are both now fully embarked upon adult life, but Charlotte still thinks of Ellen on new year’s night. Ellen has been at home at Brookroyd, Birstall charged with tea making duties – obviously an onerous task. A very different task has been occupying Charlotte as she sets about correcting the proofs of Villette whilst at the same time concerning herself with the fate of Arthur Bell Nicholls – she has rejected his recent proposal and now everyone has turned against him. Martha is bitter against him and her father John wants to shoot him!


Nevertheless, Charlotte married Arthur, and Martha became best friends with him, eventually living with Arthur and his second wife in Ireland. It goes to show that we never know what the year will bring when we embark upon it. My resolution for this year? Read even more books, and finally finish my Charlotte and Ellen book, I know that a lot of you have been waiting for it. Sorry, it won’t be long now.

Have a great 2022, and I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post. Happy new year to you and all you love!