The Brontës And War

We can always turn to the Brontës and classic novels in troubled or uncertain times. Let’s be thankful for that, for the world has certainly thrown us all a curve ball since last Sunday’s Brontë blog post. In Yorkshire, or wherever you are reading this, it’s easy to feel isolated from all that’s going on, but the people of Ukraine are facing a very real struggle at this moment from which I sincerely hope they prevail. In today’s post we’re going to look at the Brontës and war.

Britain had a very recent history of warfare at the time that the Brontë siblings were born and grew up, for we had just emerged from the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, the pivotal Battle of Waterloo took place less than a year before the birth of Charlotte Brontë and after the birth of her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth. The Brontës grew up with the threat of war diminished, but the country remained on its guard and the newspapers and magazines the Brontës loved to read were full of tales of war and heroism.

Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte
Map of Angria, a war torn kingdom, drawn by a young Branwell Bronte

Young minds then, just like young minds today, were easily fired by such tales, and it led to a pivotal moment in the Brontë story and the story of English literature. We’ve looked before at how Patrick Brontë’s 1826 gift of twelve toy soldiers to his son Branwell led to a series of games based around ‘the twelve’ and then on to stories and tiny books about them. The Brontë imagination was in top gear, and the rest is history. Here’s how a young Charlotte Brontë remembered the event:

“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’. Branwell chose his, and called him Buonaparte.”

Charlotte hero worshipped the great military leader, and later Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and thanks to the machinations of her publisher George Smith she finally met him in June 1850 after which she excitedly wrote to Ellen Nussey calling him, “a real grand old man.”

Charlotte Bronte’s hero The Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence

The Brontës’ fascination with all things military was also inspired, no doubt, by their father’s own leanings. He was a patriotic man who took great pride and interest in Britain’s military activities; so much so that Charlotte’s friend Ellen once said of him:

“Mr Brontë’s tastes led him to delight in the perusal of battle-scenes, and in following the artifice of war, had he entered on military service instead of ecclesiastical he would probably have had a very distinguished career.”

War, and especially the cessation of it, also touched greatly upon the life of another great friend of Charlotte Brontë: Mary Taylor (whose 205th birthday was yesterday the 26th February, by the by). Charlotte met Mary and Ellen at Roe Head school near Mirfield, but Mary was from a far more comfortable background than the curate’s daughter from Haworth. The Taylors lived at the large and attractive Red House in Gomersal, and their finances seemed to be so sound that they even had their own bank. The source of the Taylor riches was cloth, and one particular variety of it, for Mary’s father Joshua (immortalised by Charlotte as Hiram Yorke in Shirley) had a hugely lucrative contract to manufacture the red fabric used to make uniforms for the British army. Unfortunately as peace descended, at least temporarily across Europe, the demand for this cloth collapsed and Joshua Taylor died bankrupt in 1840.

The Brontë juvenilia, in particular, is full of stories of intrigue, betrayal and war. From Glasstown to Angria and then onto Gondal, the domain of Emily and Anne Bronte’s earliest writing, the influence of those toy soldiers and the tales they inspired can still be seen.

Wellington iron
This iron miniature of the Duke of Wellington was owned by Charlotte Bronte

For Emily Brontë especially Gondal was not confined to childhood, it was a lifelong passion, so we see war-inspired poetry throughout her life. In 1837 Emily wrote this typically boisterous poem of Gondalian conflict, ‘Song by Julius Angora’:

‘Awake! awake! how loud the stormy morning
Calls up to life the nations resting round;
Arise! arise! is it the voice of mourning
That breaks our slumber with so wild a sound?
The voice of mourning? Listen to its pealing;
That shout of triumph drowns the sigh of woe.
Each tortured heart forgets its wonted feeling;
Each faded cheek resumes its long-lost glow.
Our souls are full of gladness; God has given
Our arms to victory, our foes to death;
The crimson ensign waves its sheet in heaven,
The sea-green Standard lies in dust beneath.
Patriots, no stain is on your country’s glory;
Soldiers, preserve that glory bright and free.
Let Almedore, in peace, and battle gory,
Be still a nobler name for victory!’

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

By 1843, however, Emily’s ‘On The Fall Of Zalona’ shows a very different side of war, with lines including:

‘What do those brazen tongues proclaim?
What joyous fête begun –
What offerings to our country’s fame –
What noble victory won?
Go, ask that solitary sire
Laid in his house alone;
His silent hearth without a fire –
His sons and daughters gone – Go, ask those children in the street
Beside their mother’s door;
Waiting to hear the lingering feet
That they shall hear no more.
Ask those pale soldiers round the gates
With famine-kindled eye –
They’ll say, “Zalona celebrates
The day that she must die!”…
Heaven help us in this awful hour!
For now might faith decay –
Now might we doubt God’s guardian power
And curse, instead of pray.’

Charlotte Brontë too turned away from her earlier jingoistic view of war. By 1853 Britain was at war once more, this time fighting Russia in the Crimean War. Charlotte and Patrick both helped to raise funds for the Patriotic Fund, which gave money to wounded soldiers and to the families of dead soldiers. In the postscript of a letter to Margaret Wooler dated 6th December 1854, in the aftermath of the charge of the Light Brigade (which heads this post) Charlotte gives this moving account of her attitude to war, and why it has changed:

Let us hope for better news from Ukraine soon. In the meantime, we can find solace in the books we love so much. I hope you’ve been enjoying the daily Brontëdles, and I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

A Mournful Letter From Charlotte Brontë

One reason that the novels of Charlotte Brontë, and those of her sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, still resonate today is that they cover something timeless: human emotions. Fashions change, technology changes, the way we spend our work and leisure time changes, the way we talk changes, but throughout the millennia of humanity the driving force of our emotions has remained the same. Charlotte’s novels covers the complete gamut of emotions brilliantly, so that they move a reader today just as much as they did in the mid-nineteenth century. Charlotte could describe these emotional highs and lows so brilliantly because she had experienced them herself, and it’s one particular aspect of this, and one particular letter, which we’re going to look at in today’s post.

Charlotte discovers Emily's poems
Charlotte Bronte, played here by Finn Atkins in To Walk Invisible, was a master at portraying emotions.

Some people wonder how the Brontës wrote such powerful work when their own lives, on the surface, were quite reserved and insular. Charlotte herself gave a clue when she described Emily Bronte’s innate ability to get to the heart of people, their lives and emotions:

‘My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them.’

The Brontës had a complete mastery of writing about the human condition, with all its ups and downs, and Charlotte in particular had experienced these peaks and troughs in her own life. From the early losses of her mother and sisters Maria and Elizabeth, through the pain of unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, to the eventual triumph of her genius, and her marriage to Arthur Bell Nicholls. All too often, however, her life carried a melancholy tinge. Throughout her life Charlotte Brontë suffered from depression, and was often laid low by what she called bilious attacks, an attack on her mental and physical health that could leave her confined to bed for days at a time. As we have seen frequently on this blog, Charlotte was a brilliant letter writer, and in these letters she often talks frankly of her depression. This is the case in this moving yet mournful letter written to her best friend Ellen Nussey on this day, 20th February, 1845:


Charlotte has been visiting Hunsworth, a mill and house owned by the Taylor family. It was to Hunsworth that the Taylors decamped from the Red House of Gomersal after the death of cloth magnate Joshua Taylor. By 1845 it was therefore the home of Mary Taylor, Charlotte’s closest friend after Ellen.

Even the company of Mary Taylor, a brilliant woman who went on to achieve great things in her life, could not allay the black dog on this occasion. Charlotte is beset by worries: worries about her father’s failing eyesight, worries about Ellen’s family, particularly her brother George Nussey who has recently been placed in a York asylum – a worry which has strengthened because a delay in Ellen’s response to an earlier letter has led Charlotte to fear the worst about a man she was fond of. Worries about what she will do with her life now that she has returned to Haworth from Brussels, and an overpowering loneliness at the thought of the man, Constantin Heger, she had left behind there. It is that makes Charlotte so anxious to read French newspapers; simply reading the language spoken by Heger reminds her of the man who had once spoken it to her.

Hunsworth Mill
Hunsworth Mill was portrayed as Hollows Mill in Shirley

Charlotte attributes her increasingly frequent bouts of melancholy to her age, a theme she returns to in other letters as she approached the age of 30 – a figure which to Charlotte seemed to mark the end of youth and the onset of old age. She had always thought that by thirty a person should have achieved something in life or at least be on the path to something, yet she found herself as adrift and uncertain of her future as ever. She could not know, of course, that her greatest achievements and successes were still waiting for her and growing closer by the day.

Whether in her letters or her books, Charlotte Brontë was a brilliant writer; it is thanks to her superb skills that we feel empathy for herself, in her letters, and with her characters in her books. Quite simply, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were masters of understanding and reporting the human condition, and masters of words. Talking of which…

Important News For Wordle Lovers

Wordle is everywhere. If you don’t yet know and love it, it’s a simple yet challenging game where you have to guess a five letter word in six attempts or fewer – one of the things which makes it so great is that everyone across the world has the same word to solve.

I love Wordle so I’ve decided to launch my very own Brontë-inspired wordle: a Brontëdle! We now have a dedicated Brontëdle page and there will be a new Brontë themed wordle for you to guess every day. The simple rules are explained more fully on the page where you’ll also find today’s all new Brontëdle. As with everything on this website, it will always be advert free and free of charge. Please feel free to bookmark it and tell any wordle-loving friends about it.

I hope you enjoy the Brontëdles, and I hope you enjoyed today’s post. Charlotte Brontë had to fight against her depression and bilious attacks throughout her adult life, and yet she emerged triumphant. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

In Memory Of A Happy Day In February

Anne Brontë was a supremely talented poet from a family full of poetry lovers. Her poetry often gives us tantalising clues to moments in her life, as Anne herself admitted in Agnes Grey: ‘When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry – and often find it, too.’ In today’s post we’re going to take a look at one such, very timely, poem: ‘In Memory of a Happy Day in February’ by Anne Brontë.

Anne Bronte 200
Anne Bronte loved to read and write poetry

Unusually it was written in two sections written a long time apart, and these two parts feel distinctly different to each other, so even if we didn’t know we could guess when the poem had been set aside and then taken up again. This was certainly unusual but not unique for Anne for there is one other famous example of it, and it came right at the end of her all too brief life. Her final poem, which she left untitled but was posthumously titled ‘Last Lines’ by sister Charlotte Brontë, was begun on 7th January 1849 and completed on 28th January 1849 and charts the voyage from despair to acceptance after Anne Brontë was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the start of the year.

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte gave Anne’s final poem its title

Let’s now take a look at a very different poem by Anne and remember that happy February day with her:

‘Blessed be Thou for all the joy
My soul has felt today!
O let its memory stay with me
And never pass away!
I was alone, for those I loved
Were far away from me,
The sun shone on the withered grass,
The wind blew fresh and free.
Was it the smile of early spring
That made my bosom glow?
‘Twas sweet, but neither sun nor wind
Could raise my spirit so.
Was it some feeling of delight,
All vague and undefined?
No, ’twas a rapture deep and strong,
Expanding in the mind!
Was it a sanguine view of life
And all its transient bliss –
A hope of bright prosperity?
O no, it was not this!
It was a glimpse of truth divine
Unto my spirit given
Illumined by a ray of light
That shone direct from heaven!

I felt there was a God on high
By whom all things were made.
I saw His wisdom and his power
In all his works displayed.
But most throughout the moral world
I saw his glory shine;
I saw His wisdom infinite,
His mercy all divine.
Deep secrets of his providence
In darkness long concealed
Were brought to my delighted eyes
And graciously revealed.
But while I wondered and adored
His wisdom so divine,
I did not tremble at his power,
I felt that God was mine.
I knew that my Redeemer lived,
I did not fear to die;
Full sure that I should rise again
To immortality.
I longed to view that bliss divine
Which eye hath never seen,
To see the glories of his face
Without the veil between.’

The first section of this powerful poem, up to the line ‘that shone direct from heaven!’ was written in February 1842, but the final section from ‘I felt there was a God on high’ was dated by Anne Brontë on November 10th 1842. Why the nine month gap, and why the change from a cheerful poem about a happy day to one about God’s power in the face of darkness and adversity?

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne composed the first section of this poem.

It seems likely that when Anne Brontë started this composition she felt herself alone and far from loved her, but that some event occurred that lifted her spirits. The reason for this first feeling of isolation is easily discerned. At this time Anne had returned to her role of governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall near York, but her sisters Emily and Charlotte had just embarked on their voyage to Brussels. It must have seemed to Anne that she would not see her beloved siblings again all year – this vital cord of communion which she shared with Emily and Charlotte was now broken.

We can easily imagine the despondency this must have produced, and yet something in the poem has produced a positive effect which has turned the day into a happy one she has remembered forever – what could it be which has produced the metaphor of a ray of sunlight direct from heaven which has enraptured her mind? Perhaps the date of the composition of this poem is a clue?

All that we know for sure is that this poem was started in February of 1842, but it could well be that it was written at this time of February, perhaps on this very day or the one succeeding it? Let’s roll away the clouds – by this time, as far as I’m concerned and whatever some proof-burdened academics may say, Anne Brontë had fallen in love with William Weightman, assistant curate to her father back in Haworth.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was inspiration for Edward Weston in Agnes Grey and for many of Anne’s poems

We know that in 1840 and 1841 he had sent Valentine’s Day cards to the Brontë sisters, so it doesn’t stretch the imagination too much to think that he had sent one to Anne, the sister whose feelings he reciprocated, at Thorp Green in 1842. It is the receipt of this card, I feel, which has swept the trial of loneliness away and replaced it with the warming glow of love and remembrance.

The last line of the first section was surely intended by Anne to be the final line of a happy, uplifting poem, so why did she return to it and change its style from a secular poem to a religious poem? Once again the clue is in the date; by November 1842, alas, Anne’s circumstances were very different. William Weightman died of cholera contracted from a parishioner on 6th September 1842, and on 29th October 1842 Elizabeth Branwell, the aunt who was like a mother to Anne Brontë, followed him to the grave. It is in the direct aftermath of these two huge losses for Anne, and exactly a week after Aunt Branwell’s funeral, that Anne returned to her earlier verse. Just like her eponymous heroine Agnes, Anne has sought relief in poetry at a time when she is harassed by sorrows and anxiety.

Now we see Anne’s thoughts elevated skywards, to the loving rest that she now felt Weightman and her aunt were enjoying; to the compassion and goodness of God, to the faith which, even more than poetry, she could turn to in this dark time. With these two central figures in her life snatched away so suddenly, Anne now longs for immortality in Heaven herself, to see God, Weightman and her aunt face to face once more, without the veil of death between them.

The brilliance of this poem lies in its two separate sections, and the two separate stories it tells us. 1842 was a year of joys and sorrows for Anne, but she always had a happy day in February to look back on.

Valentines cherub
A Victorian Valentine’s Day cherub


I hope you all have many happy days in this February, and that, unlike me, you will get something more exciting in the post than bills and flyers on Valentine’s Day tomorrow. May you have a great day full of love, happiness and good books to read. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

When Currer Bell Became Charlotte Brontë

We’ve looked previously at the possible reasons for the choice of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell as the pen names of the Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and the possible reasons for them deciding to use pseudonyms at all. In today’s post we’re going to look at two letters written on this week in 1850 and 1852 which gave an insight into the separation that Charlotte Brontë made between herself and her alter ego Currer Bell.

We’ve also previously looked at the story from the Brontë childhood when Patrick made his children wear a mask and answer a question, thus allowing him to get an insight into their character free of their usual reserve. It seems to me that after the passing of her sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte clung on to Currer Bell as another mask.

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

Since the summer of 1849 the true identity of Currer Bell had been known to a select few. It was then that Currer and Acton visited the publisher George Smith and revealed that they were really Charlotte and Anne Brontë, daughters of a curate from a moorside Yorkshire parish. Charlotte also accidentally revealed Emily’s identity to Smith, despite having been sworn to keep it a secret. We know that by this time their father Patrick knew of their writing identity, but that brother Branwell died without ever knowing his sisters had had a word published. We see this in Charlotte Brontë’s letter to W. S. Williams of 2nd October 1848:

‘My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature – he was not aware that they had ever published a line… Now he will never know.’

He was not the only one for whom the secret of Currer Bell remained, long after the publication of Jane Eyre had made such a huge and immediate impact on the world of literature. This mask of secrecy remained even for one of those closest to Charlotte: Martha Brown, the long time servant at Haworth Parsonage who had become increasingly close to Charlotte after the passing of Emily and Anne. By the start of 1850 however the mask was slipping, as we see in Charlotte’s letter to Ellen Nussey of the 5th of February:

Charlotte breaks into a cold sweat at the revelation that the true identity of Currer Bell has been guessed at in her corner of Yorkshire, and that some of those she knows well will soon know her as the author of Jane Eyre. It is not this novel which has led to the discovery, however, but its successor Shirley. Charlotte had set the book in the Spen Valley district around Mirfield and Dewsbury that she knew well, and many of its characters were thinly disguised portraits of local people, from her own sisters to the Taylors of Gomersal and local curates including Arthur Bell Nicholls. It seems that some of the book lovers of the area had looked at the clues within the book, considered its predecessor as well, and concluded that the bookish daughter of the curate of Haworth had to be the author.

The Red House
The Taylor home, the Red House in Gomersal, became Briarmains in Shirley

One of the biggest sources of clues came in the opening chapter of Shirley, where a series of curates engage in ecclesiastical arguments. These curates were all based on those known by Charlotte, including Reverend Joseph Grant who was portrayed as Reverend Donne (‘donne’ being French for give, or grant). It’s a rather brutal portrait of a man who had served as Patrick Brontë’s assistant curate in 1844 and 1845, and by 3rd April 1850 (in a letter to W. S. Williams) we see that he and the other curates know of their role in Currer Bell’s novel:

‘While I have heard little condemnation of Shirley – more than once have I been deeply moved by manifestations of even enthusiastic approbation. I deem it unwise to dwell much on these matters, but for once I must permit myself to remark that the generous pride many of the Yorkshire people have taken in the matter has been such as to awaken and claim my gratitude – especially since it has afforded a source of reviving pleasure to my Father in his old age. The very Curates – poor fellows! shew no resentment; each characteristically finds solace for his own wounds in crowing over his brethren. Mr. Donne was – at first, a little disturbed; for a week or two he fidgeted about the neighbourhood in some disquietude – but he is now soothed down, only yesterday I had the pleasure of making him a comfortable cup of tea and seeing him sip it with revived complacency. It is a curious fact that since he read Shirley he has come to the house oftener than ever and been remarkably assiduous and eager to please. Some people’s natures are veritable enigmas. I quite expected to have one good scene at the least with him, but as yet nothing of the sort has occurred – and if the other curates do not tease him into irritation, he will remain quiet now.’

Shirley Keeldar by Edmund Dulac
In the novel Donne is dismissed by Shirley because of his coarse manner

We see then that by April 1850 the identity of Charlotte Brontë as Currer Bell was fully known in her locale and amongst her acquaintances, so how did Charlotte deal with that? We get an insight into this in a mournful letter which Charlotte wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell on 6th February 1852, 170 years ago today:

In this letter Charlotte details the horrors of a winter in which she has suffered from a severe bout of depression which frequently haunted her, and from a physical illness which she and her father had suspected was tuberculosis. It is a winter she never wants to experience again, but there has been one solace; Charlotte writes the letter from Brookroyd, the home of Ellen Nussey. She has turned for comfort to the people who ‘do not care for me a pin as Currer Bell but who have known me for years as C. Brontë.’

In Charlotte’s mind there was always the distinction between Currer Bell the writer and Charlotte Brontë the person – and it was the latter which would always take precedence. She was not merely the author of Jane Eyre she was the curate’s daughter from Haworth, and it was that side of her personality which she prized most highly, and the people who loved her as Charlotte Brontë were the people who she loved most in return.

Like all authors, Charlotte Brontë was not her work – she was an ordinary person who created extraordinary things, and in the works of Charlotte and her sisters rarely the creative magic led to works of true genius. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.