Branwell Brontë, 205 Today, In His Own Words

This day in 1817 was surely a day of celebration for Patrick and Maria Brontë. After three girls, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, Maria had given birth to a boy. In the patriarchal society of the time it would have been expected that he would grow up to continue the family name and be the bread winner for the family. He it would be who would bring income to the household and look after his sisters until they could find husbands and homes of their own. He was named after his father, Patrick Brontë, but he became better known by his middle name. Following another tradition of the time, this eldest son was given his mother’s maiden name as a middle name in tribute to her family: Branwell.

Patrick Branwell Brontë grew up somewhat differently to how his parents may have expected on that auspicious day in Thornton, Bradford 205 years ago. For many years Branwell has lived in the shadows of Charlotte and his two younger sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, or has been depicted as a monstrous figure, an addict who brought misery to his family. Recent years however have seen a re-assessment of Branwell’s life. It was undoubtedly a life of struggle, at least in part because of the terrible early losses of his mother and two eldest sisters. These losses sunk deeply into Branwell and may at least in part have contributed to his troubled adult life. Nevertheless Branwell was not a man without talents; he was a fine poet in his own right, could potentially have become a portrait artist, and was a great raconteur popular with those who knew him in Haworth and beyond. There are now lots of words written about him, but in today’s birthday post we’re going to look at Branwell Brontë in his own words.

Letter to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh, December 1837

‘SIR, – Read what I write. And would to Heaven you could believe it true, for then you would attend to and act upon it.

I have addressed you twice before, and now I do it again. But it is not from affected hypocrisy that I commence my letter with the name of James Hogg; for the writings of that man in your numbers, his speeches in your ‘Noctes’, when I was a child, laid a hold on my mind which succeeding years have consecrated into a most sacred feeling. I cannot express, though you can understand, the heavenliness of associations connected with such articles as Professor Wilson’s, read and re-read while a little child, with all their poetry of language and divine flights into that visionary region of imagination which one very young would believe reality, and which one entering into manhood would look back on as a glorious dream.

James Hogg
James Hogg, much admired by Branwell Bronte

I speak so, sir, because while a child ‘Blackwood’ formed my chief delight, and I feel certain that no child before enjoyed reading as I did, because none ever had such works as ‘The Noctes’, ‘Christmas Dreams’, ‘Christopher in his Sporting Jacket’ to read. And even now, ‘Millions 0′ reasonable creatures at this hour – na’, no at this hour’, etc. or ‘Long, long ago seems the time when we danced hand in hand with our golden-haired sister, whom all that looked on loved. Long, long ago, the day on which she died. That hour so far more dreadful than any hour that now can darken us on this earth, when she, her coffin and that velvet pall descended, – and descended deathlike, and wishing to die, out of the churchyard that from that moment we thought we could never enter more.’ Passages like these, sir (and when that last was written my sister died) – passages like these, read then and remembered now, afford feelings which, I repeat, I cannot describe. But – one of those who roused those feelings is dead, and neither from himself nor yourself shall I hear him speak again. I grieve for his death, because to me he was a portion of feelings which I suppose nothing can arouse hereafter: because to you he was a contributor of sterling originality, and in the ‘Noctes’ a subject for your unequalled writing. He and others like him gave your Magazine the peculiar character which made it famous; as these men die it will decay unless their places be supplied by others like them.

Now, sir, to you I appear writing with conceited assurance: but I am not; for I know myself so far as to believe in my own originality, and on that ground I desire of you admittance into your ranks. And do not wonder that I apply so determinedly: for the remembrances I spoke of have fixed you and your Magazine in such a manner upon my mind that the idea of striving to aid another periodical is horribly repulsive. My resolution is to devote my ability to you, and for God’s sake, till you see whether or not I can serve you, do not so coldly refuse my aid. All, sir, that I desire of you is – that you would in answer to this letter request a specimen or specimens of my writing, and I even wish that you would name the subject on which you would wish me to write. In letters previous to this I have perhaps spoken too openly respecting the extent of my powers. But I did so because I determined to say what I believed. I know that I am not one of the wretched writers of the day. I know that I possess strength to assist you beyond some of your own contributors; but I wish to make you the judge in this case and give you the benefit of its decision.

Now, sir, do not act like a commonplace person, but like a man willing to examine for himself. Do not turn from the naked truth of my letters, but prove me – and if I do not stand the proof, I will not further press myself upon you. If I do stand it, why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë’

Letter to Joseph Bentley Leyland, June 29th 1842

‘Dear Sir,

I think it is my duty to send to you a copy of the inscription intended for Mr Andrew’s monument.

If it is not such an one as would have best pleased myself, but I was compelled to frame it so as to please others; as to whose taste and judgement you will some time since have formed a tolerably correct opinion. I have not often felt more heartily ashamed than when you left the committee at Haworth; but I did not like to speak on the subject then, and I trusted that you would make that allowance which you have perhaps often ere now had to do, for gothic ignorance and ill breeding; and one or two of the persons present, afterwards felt that they had left by no means an enviable impression on your mind.

Though it is but a poor compliment – I long much to see you again at Haworth, and forget for half a day the amiable society in which I am placed, where I never hear a word more musical than an asses bray; When you come over bring with you Mr Constable, but leave behind Father Matthews; as his conversation is too cold and freezing for the comfort among the moors of Yorkshire.

Trusting soon to see you; I remain, Dear Sir, Yours respectfully and sincerely, P. B. Brontë.’

Letter to Joseph Bentley Leyland, August 4th 1845

My dear Sir,

John Brown wishes to know whether the payment due for the monument will be most acceptable this week, as, if so he can get it from the parties before Saturday and give it into your hands.

They had not the required sum in the house or he would have received it to day. The Tablet has satisfied all who have seen it.

As to my own affairs I only wish I could see one gleam of light amid their gloom. You I hope are well and cheerful. Yours sincerely, P. B. Brontë’

Letter to Joseph Bentley Leyland, June 1846

‘Dear Sir,

I should have sent you “Morley Hall” ere now, but I am unable to finish it at present from agony to which the grave would be far preferable.

Mr Robinson of Thorp Green is dead, and he has left his widow in a dreadful state of health, she sent the Coachman to me yesterday, and the account which he gave of her sufferings was enough to burst my heart. Through the will she is left quite powerless, and her eldest daughter who married independently, is cut off without a shilling.

The Executing Trustees detest me, and one declares that if he sees me he will shoot me. These things I do not care about, but I do care for the life of the one who suffers even more than I do. Her Coachman said that it was a pity to see her, for she was only able to kneel in her bedroom in bitter tears and prayers. She has worn herself out in attendance on him, and his conduct during the few days before his death, was exceedingly mild and repentant, but that only distressed her doubly. Her conscience has helped to agonize her, and that misery I am saved from.

You, though not much older than myself, have known life. I now know it was a vengeance – for four nights I have not slept – for three days I have not tasted food – and when I think of the state of her I love best on earth, I could wish that my head was as cold and stupid as the medallion that lies in your studio.

Branwell Bronte medallion by Joseph Leyland
The Branwell Bronte medallion sculpted by Leyland

I write very egotistically but it is because my mind is crowded with one set of thoughts, and I long for one sentence from a friend. What I shall do I know not – I am too hard to die, and too wretched to live. My wretchedness is not about castles in the air, but about stern realities; my hardihood lies in bodily vigour; but, Dear Sir, my mind sees only a dreary future which I as little wish to enter on, as could a martyr to be bound to the stake.

I sincerely trust that you are well, and hope that this wretched scrawl will not make me appear to you a worthless fool, or a thorough bore.

Believe me, Yours, most sincerely, P B Brontë.’

Myself - Branwell Bronte
This image, by Branwell Bronte, was enclosed with the letter above.

Branwell Brontë to Joseph Bentley Leyland, 16th July 1847 (sent from the Old Cock Inn, Halifax)

‘For mercies sake come and see me, for I have sought for you till I dare not risk my knee and my eyesight any more this evening, I shall have a bad evening and night if I do not see you but I hardly know where to send the bearer of this note, so as to enable him to catch you.


Letter to Francis Grundy, 1848

‘Dear Sir,

I fear you will burn my present letter on recognizing the handwriting, but if you will read it through you will perhaps rather pity than spurn the distress of mind which could prompt my communication after a silence of nearly three (to me) eventful years.

While very ill, and confined to my room, I wrote to you, two months ago, directing my letter to either the principal Inn in Bingley or Keighley, because I did not know your proper address; and as I heard you were engaged on the Bradford extension line I concluded that in your surveys you would have occasion to take your quarters at times in either of the two houses. I never heard from you in reply and as my letter only asked for one day with you to ease a very wearied mind in the company of a gentleman who use to have what I wanted always, but most want now – cheerfulness – I am sure you never received my letter or your generous heart would have prompted an answer.

When I say that since I last shook hands with you in Halifax two summers ago my life till lately has been one of apparent happiness and indulgence you will ask why should I now complain? And I can only reply by shewing the under current of distress that bore my bark toward a whirlpool despite the surface waves of life that seemed wafting me toward peace.

In a letter begun in the spring of 1848 and never finished owing to incessant attacks of illness I tried to tell you how I was situated. As Tutor to the only son of a wealthy gentleman whose wife was sister to Mr Thomas Gisborne M.P. for Nottingham, Mrs Evans the wife of the member for one division of Derbyshire and the cousin of Mr. Macaulay. This lady (though her husband detested me) shewed toward me a degree of kindness which;when I was deeply grieved one day at her husband’s conduct towards me; opened into an unexpected declaration of more than ordinary feeling. My admiration of her mental and personal attractions which, though she is 17 years older than myself, are both very great, my knowledge of her totally unselfish generosity, sweet temper and unwearied care for all others with ill requital in return. My horror at the heartless and unmanly manner in which she was treated by an eunuch like fellow who though possessed of such a treasure never even occupied the same apartment with her. All combined to make me reciprocate an attachment I had little dared to look for. During nearly three years I had daily “Troubled pleasure soon chastised by fear” in the society of one whom I must, till death, call my wife.

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson, daughter of Thomas Gisborne, M.P.

Three months since, while at home, I received a furious letter from my Employer threatening to shoot me if I returned from the vacation- and letters from her ladies maid and her physician informed me of the outbreak and threatened proceedings only checked by her firm courage and resolution that come what might harm might to her none should come to me. The wretchedly broken health and want of energy in her bloodless mock husband made him put up with the simple joy of daily torturing her while I was left uninjured.

Had I strength to return and meet him the results would be serious to one or both, but providence has hitherto denied me this power for I have lain during nine long weeks utterly shattered in body and broken down with mental despair. The probability of his state of health ere long leaving her free to give me herself and her estate as was her hearts resolve never rose to drive off the prospect of her decline under her present grief and sufferings and I dreaded too the wreck of my mind and body which God knows have both during a short life been severely tried.

Eleven continued nights of sleepless horrors reduced me to almost blindness and while taken into Wales to rouse me the sweet scenery, the sea, the sound of music only caused fits of unspeakable distress and irrepressible tears. I implored for society and comfort but could neither be pleasant to one or pleased by the other, and wine or other stimulants only caused not exhilaration but deeper dejection.

You will say “What a fool!” but if you knew the many causes I have had for sorrow which I cannot hint at here you would pity as well as blame. I am better now but though at the kind request of Mr Macaulay and Mr Baines I have striven to rouse my mind by writing something that I ought to make deserving of being read, I find I really cannot yet do so with effect for one line of poetry like one note of music produces in my frame a sickening thrill of despair.

I know you will – if you read it at all – despise this letter and its writer, but I can only answer the writer does the same, and he would not wish to live if he did not hope that active exertion and change of scene may yet restore him to the by past manhood which used to boast of unconquerable health, where for 3 year he has known no interval of one week from agonizing sickness, and latterly not even one day.

I should indeed be gratified if I knew that you would soon be anywhere where an hours visit to you would not be forbidden. The crumpled appearance of the sheet is owing to my having kept it unfinished for days in my pocket.

Apologising sincerely for what will seem whining egotism and hardly daring to hint about days when in your company I could sometimes laugh or smile the thoughts of which “Remind me of departed times” but, I would fain hope, not “Departed never to return.”

I remain, Dear Sir, Yours most sincerely, P.B.Brontë.’

These letters show the sad journey of Branwell Brontë from confidence and hope to complete and utter despair, but through it all he had friends. Despite this latter letter, Grundy did not in fact despise the letter and its writer; from his biography ‘Pictures of the Past’ it is clear that Grundy loved and esteemed Branwell Brontë. Upon receiving the letter Grundy made his way to Haworth and met Branwell at the Black Bull Inn, giving a terrible picture of Branwell in his ultimate decline. He found him shaking and stooped, and Branwell drew out a knife revealing that he was worried that it was Satan coming to visit him, and he’d intended to run him through.

Branwell Northangerland
Branwell wrote poetry under a Northangerland pseudonym

We cannot help but be moved by Branwell Brontë’s letters and the terrible progression they show. Yet those who knew him well, from sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland to railway surveyor Francis Grundy held him always in the highest regard, and there can be no doubt that for all his troubles his sisters loved him dearly too. We’ve seen Branwell Brontë through his own words today, but let’s leave the final word to Francis Grundy who summed him up very neatly: “Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.”

On his 205th anniversary let’s remember the loving brother, the man devoted to the woman he had loved, the skilful poet and artist, the kind friend, the man who could write two separate letters with both hands at the same time. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post. Happy birthday Branwell Brontë.

Patrick Brontë’s Letter From Flossy To Charlotte

On this Father’s Day our minds turn, as far as the Brontë story is concerned at least, to Patrick Brontë. A lot has been said and written about Patrick Brontë, which we’ll briefly look at in a moment, but he also had a playful side, and there can be no doubt that love for his children was the primary concern in his life. This is demonstrated in a rather unique letter he sent to his daughter Charlotte from an unexpected source: her dog.

Patrick Brontë had what was surely the misfortune of outliving his wife and all six of his children. That was an onerous fate, as Charlotte Brontë acknowledged after choosing to have youngest sister Anne Brontë buried in Scarborough rather than returning to Haworth with her body. In a letter of 4th June, less than a week after her sister’s passing, she wrote: ‘For the present Anne’s ashes rest apart from the others – I have buried her here at Scarbro’ to save papa the anguish of a return and a third funeral [within a year].’

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte’s influence on his daughters was huge

Charlotte could not have known that there was yet one more funeral that her father would have to endure – that of his final child, Charlotte herself, six years later. In many ways, Patrick’s long life was punctuated by moments of intense sorrow, and yet I think if one word sums him up it is this: duty.

Patrick did his duty by Haworth and the church: serving as its minister for over 40 years, even when blind and in ill health. His final marriage ceremony was carried out towards the close of his life and ministry, and was recalled in 1900 by the groom Richard Briggs: ‘At that time Mr Brontë was childless, blind, and feeble; and the bride and bridegroom had to wait in the vestry for three hours on a Shrove Tuesday morning before the venerable clergyman, then over eighty years of age, was seen coming along the path from the parsonage, supported on one side by his son-in-law, Mr Nicholls, and on the other by the faithful servant of the family, Martha Brown. Mr Brontë recited the marriage ceremony from memory, and at the close, kneeling with the communion rail, he offered a brief extempore prayer, invoking the Divine blessing on the young couple.’

Patrick took a deep interest in the life of his parishioners, especially when it came to their education. He had risen from very humble beginnings thanks to an education at Cambridge paid for largely by his mentor Thomas Tighe, and wherever he went in his life as a minister he insisted on church schools being opened to provide at least a rudimentary education to working class children. Patrick was also instrumental in the building of reservoirs near Haworth and improvements in sanitation to the village, acts which saved tens of thousands of lives in the decades which followed. Above all, he believed in fairness and equality, and it was this that led him to allow his daughters to read books which would normally have been forbidden them: works by writers such as Byron and Shelley. This enlightened attitude did much to open the minds and potential of the Brontë sisters: something we can all be grateful for.

Another influence can clearly be seen in his love of walking and poetry: two traits that Emily Brontë in particular took to her heart; little wonder that it was Emily of whom Patrick said: ‘she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!’ Incidentally, it’s Emily’s drawing of Flossy in full flight which heads this post, and she sketched him again in the drawing below.

Keeper, Flossy and Tiger
A picture of three Bronte pets by Emily – Keeper, Tiger and Flossy

Patrick’s life was a serious one, one of service and duty, but he also had a playful side and nowhere is this more evident than in a letter that he wrote at some date before the 19th of January 1853. The letter was sent to Charlotte Brontë, at the time on a visit to London, and contained a letter from Flossy: the spaniel who had originally been the pet of Anne Brontë, after being given to her by her Thorp Green charges the Robinson girls. Flossy was now ageing, and his original owner Anne was long gone, but he still found time (with a little help from Patrick) to write the following letter to new owner Charlotte:

A playful letter which is in some ways reminiscent of a poem that William Cowper, a poetic hero of the Brontës and Anne in particular, once composed as if written by his own pet spaniel Beau. It does, however, have a serious message, which shows that even in such a frivolous mood, Patrick’s concern for his children was never far away. The manuscript of the letter contains a handwritten note added by Ellen Nussey, into whose hands it came after Charlotte’s death. Ellen has written, rather sagaciously: ‘Written to C. in The Dog’s name—Mr. B. dare not encounter again face to face C’s sense of justice & Godly integrity—so he took this method of undermining Mr N.’

Flossy by Anne Bronte
Flossy by Anne Bronte


This letter dates from the month succeeding Arthur Bell Nicholls’ failed proposal to Charlotte Brontë. Patrick Brontë was furious that his assistant curate had proposed to his daughter, clearly thinking the match unworthy of his by then successful, and increasingly wealthy, daughter. We know that he expressed this anger to Arthur, and to Charlotte, but from Ellen’s note we get a clue that Charlotte, who also had a fine temper when roused, had verbally fought back on Arthur’s behalf. Patrick dare not broach the subject to his daughter again, in his own name, but perhaps his daughter would heed the advice of her dog Flossy?

The former travelling partner who Flossy laments now fails to take him for a walk is in fact Arthur Bell Nicholls, who in his love for Charlotte had taken it upon himself to be chief dog walker. It is not hard, therefore, to understand the true message of Flossy’s closing warning: ‘Ah! my dear Mistress, trust dogs rather than men – They are very selfish, and when they have the power, (which no wise person will readily give them) very tyrannical.’

Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte
Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte

Whether you’re a father, celebrating a father, or missing a father, I hope this Sunday goes as well for you as it can, and I hope you can join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. Woof!

Defying Expectations: 5 Treasures Of The Exhibition

This week I finally paid my first visit of 2022 to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. Their latest exhibition is entitled ‘Defying Expectations’ and it takes a particular look at clothing and accessories used by the Brontë sisters, as well as showcasing some old favourite items from the museum’s extensive collections, and some items which are less frequently seen. Despite it’s title this exhibition very much lived up to my high expectations, so in today’s post I bring you five treasures from this year’s parsonage collection!

Charlotte Bronte Moccasin slippers

Mohawk Moccasin Slippers

Do you like putting on a favourite pair of slippers and settling down beside the fire with a good book? I do, and I’m sure that Charlotte Brontë did too – and what a spectacular pair of slippers she wore!

Expert analysis has been able to pinpoint the precise location that these moccasin slippers came from. They were made by members of the Mohawk tribe to the south of St. Lawrence River in Canada. From on early age, the Brontës loved to hear news of exploration and discovery, and the tales of adventure these lands formed in their minds inspired much of their youthful writing. It’s easy to imagine, then, how excited Charlotte would have been to receive a pair of genuine moccasins all the way from North America!

Charlotte Bronte Berlin work bag

Berlin Work Bag

The Mohawk moccasin slippers were undoubtedly a gift to Charlotte Brontë from a well wisher, but she was also capable of making her own clothing and accessories – as we see from this rather fine Berlin work bag that she made from a pattern contained in a magazine.

The most popular patterns came from the city of Berlin, and so this style came to be known as a Berlin bag. It would have been used to hold the needlework and sewing equipment which was so important to all but the wealthiest of families at this time, and Charlotte obviously knew how to put them to good use. Even so, it must have taken some time to perfect the pattern and stitching on show here (especially when we consider Charlotte’s myopia which was so severe that she was advised to give up playing piano because of the strain it placed on her eyes). It’s testimony to the strength of her feelings for her friend Laetitia Wheelwright, then, that Charlotte gifted it to the Wheelwright family. Laetitia, who first met Charlotte at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, lived until 1911.

Also on show in this cabinet are a pair of Charlotte’s glasses and a lovely pair of work (needlework) scissors with handles shaped like a stork.

Bronte Shawls


When we think of fashion from the time of the Brontës two items immediately spring to mind: bonnets and shawls (the ultra restrictive corsets came later in the century, although corsetry was starting to take hold even at this time). Once again there’s a display of Brontë bonnets on show in the museum, but there’s also this lovely display of shawls which are seen rather less often.

Shawls were an essential, not to say sensible, item of clothing in the moorside village of Haworth, where the weather could often be cold and windy: wuthering, you might say. There are three splendid shawls here, but my very favourite is the one on the right with the shiny silk inserts. Why? This is the very shawl that Charlotte Brontë wore on her wedding day in 1854.

Charlotte Bronte striped dress

Luxurious Dress

Perhaps the greatest item of all, among many great items, in this year’s exhibition is this dress. Charlotte’s Room, as the museum hails it, always contains a Brontë dress within a carefully sealed glass case. They are always very moving, but this year the dress is particularly spectacular – and it really does defy general expectations around Charlotte Brontë’s apparel.

We often think of Charlotte Brontë as rather dowdy, and she may have been so by necessity throughout much of her life. The Brontës were not wealthy, and had to repair, improvise and recycle much of their clothing. By the end of Charlotte’s life, however, things had changed dramatically for her. The royalties she earned from her writing were far greater than anything she could have hoped to earn from careers as a teacher or governess, and the legacy she left in 1855 was worth more than a million pounds in today’s money.

This dress dates from this period of Charlotte’s life. It was one where she often had to mix in high society, difficult as that must have been for someone as shy as she was, and she dressed accordingly. This striped silk dress was one of three found holed up behind a wall during renovations at the parsonage in 1936. It has been a cause of speculation for some time, but the museum has finally proven that it did belong to Charlotte meaning that it can finally go on display. With floral adornments it’s an item of real beauty, and evidence of the elevation in status and wealth that Charlotte’s literary genius finally brought her. Also displayed her are an ornate fan, and a pair of black stockings worn by Charlotte Brontë.

Anne Bronte hair bracelet

Hair Brooch and Bracelet

From triumph to tragedy, this exhibition has it all. After witnessing the fruits of Charlotte Brontë’s success we now come to one of the great tragedies of her life. In this week in 1849 Charlotte was still travelling along the east coast of Yorkshire, looking for ‘lonely places’ as she said in a letter to W. S. Williams, in the aftermath of the death of her sister Anne.

One of the tasks that awaited Charlotte, and which may seem rather macabre to our modern world, was to turn Anne’s hair into jewellery. In the days before photography was widely available, these keepsakes were often the only tangible thing which people had to remember their lost loved ones by. Here we see a beautiful brooch containing a lock of Anne’s hair; it was obviously of special value to Charlotte because she left it to her best friend Ellen Nussey in her will. Alongside the ring we find a necklace made from braided strands of Anne’s hair taken after her passing.

Once again, the Brontë Parsonage Museum has curated a wonderful exhibition, where items both large and small can take your breath away and make you feel closer to the Brontës themselves. If you can get to Haworth at some point this year I highly recommend that you visit the Defying Expectations exhibition – the items shown here are just a small portion of the treasures on display. If you’ve already been, please do let me know your thoughts. I look forward to seeing you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Brontës, Monarchy And The Platinum Jubilee

Jubilee fever has gripped the United Kingdom this weekend, as large swathes of the nation celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s seventy years on the throne! A remarkable achievement, and a remarkable record of duty and loyalty from our monarch. Duty and loyalty were also hugely important to the Brontë sisters of course, and in today’s post we’re going to look at royalty in the Brontë lives and writing.

The Brontës are classed, quite rightly, as some of the greatest writers of the Victorian period, but Victoria wasn’t on the throne at the time of their birth. In fact, the Brontë siblings were all born in the reign of George III, the longest serving King of Great Britain. Mostly known today for his bouts of ‘madness’, probably caused by porphyria, he reigned for sixty years, although his reign also saw his son George take official, yet temporary, control of the kingdom in what became known as ‘the Regency’.

George III
George III was on the throne when the Brontes were born.

George III was our longest serving King, but of course we have two Queens who surpassed him. Our very own Elizabeth II is the first monarch to enjoy a platinum jubilee, after which we come to Queen Victoria who reigned for nearly 64 years from 1837 to 1901. It was Victoria, then, who dominated the adult lives of the Brontës, and the century they lived in. We’ll soon see what the Brontës thought of their queen, but what did she think of them?

Queen Victoria (named Lady Alexandrina Victoria at the time) was born in May 1819, making her three years younger than Charlotte Brontë, a year younger than Emily Brontë, and eight months older than Anne Brontë. Victoria was an avid reader, and from her diaries we know that one book which particularly caught her attention was Jane Eyre, which she called ‘that melancholy, interesting book.’ On May 21st 1858, Victoria wrote of Charlotte’s novel: ‘We remained up reading ‘Jane Eyre’ til half past 11. Quite creepy from the awful account of what happened the night before the marriage, which was interrupted in the church.’

Princess Victoria, aged 4
Princess Alexandrina Victoria, aged four. Anne Bronte was three at the time.

This could be the famous ‘royal we’ in action, or it could be that the Queen was reading Jane Eyre to her beloved husband Prince Albert (as she herself said she was doing in an earlier diary entry. If so, perhaps they were thinking of their own wedding at St. James’ Palace 18 years earlier as they read of Jane’s impending nuptials – little wonder that the sudden cessation of the ceremony had them gripped, just as it had with so many of their subjects.

It may be that the royal couple were reading other books at the same time, for it was on August 4th that Queen Victoria neared the end of the novel, writing: ‘At near 10 we went below and nearly finished reading that most interesting book Jane Eyre. A peaceful, happy evening.’ The Queen returned to Charlotte’s novel in very different circumstances in 1880. By then she had been mourning her husband for nearly two decades, but she still found solace in this great book. On November 23rd of that year, her diary entry reads: ‘Finished Jane Eyre, which is really a wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully and admirably written, such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, and such beautiful writings. The description of the mysterious maniac’s nightly appearances awfully thrilling. Mr Rochester’s character a very remarkable one, and Jane Eyre’s herself a beautiful one. The end is very touching, when Jane Eyre returns to him and finds him blind, with one hand gone from injuries during the fire in his house, which was caused by his mad wife.’

Queen Victoria was a fan of Charlotte Brontë, at least, and it seems that the admiration was reciprocated: the young Brontës even named one of their pet geese after her. We also hear of their interest in Victoria’s pending coronation in the 1837 diary paper of Emily and Anne Brontë: ‘Tabby in the kitchin – the Emprerors and Empresses of Gondal and Gaaldine preparing to depart from Gaaldine to Gondal for the coranation which will be on the 12th of July. Queen Victoria ascended the throne this month.’

Victoria coronation
The coronation of Queen Victoria inspired Bronte writings

The real world Victoria had already inspired a fictional queen in the Brontë writing, and this wouldn’t be the last occasion. Charlotte herself saw Queen Victoria in 1843, whilst she was in Brussels, as she recorded in a letter to Emily Brontë:

‘You ask about Queen Victoria’s visit to Brussels. I saw for her an instant flashing through the Rue Royale in a carriage and six, surrounded by soldiers. She was laughing and talking very gaily. She looked a little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed, not much dignity or pretension about her. The Belgians liked her very much on the whole. They say she enlivened the sombre court of King Leopold, which is usually as gloomy as a conventicle.’

Like so much of Charlotte’s sojourn in the Belgian capital it later influenced another of her brilliant novels: Villette. Surely we can see Charlotte’s memories of the Queen of England in Lucy Snowe’s impressions upon meeting the Queen of Labassecour?

Did Victoria inspire Villette’s Queen?

‘A signal was given, the doors rolled back, the assembly stood up, the orchestra burst out, and, to the welcome of a choral burst, enter the King, the Queen, the Court of Labassecour.

Till then, I had never set eyes on living king or queen; it may consequently be conjectured how I strained my powers of vision to take in these specimens of European royalty. By whomsoever majesty is beheld for the first time, there will always be experienced a vague surprise bordering on disappointment, that the same does not appear seated, en permanence, on a throne, bonneted with a crown, and furnished, as to the hand, with a sceptre. Looking out for a king and queen, and seeing only a middle-aged soldier and a rather young lady, I felt half cheated, half pleased.

Well do I recall that King – a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little grey: there was no face in all that assembly which resembled his. I had never read, never been told anything of his nature or his habits; and at first the strong hieroglyphics graven as with iron stylet on his brow, round his eyes, beside his mouth, puzzled and baffled instinct. Ere long, however, if I did not know, at least I felt, the meaning of those characters written without hand. There sat a silent sufferer – a nervous, melancholy man. Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost – had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria. Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng. Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands – dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death. Her comrade and victim thinks to be happy one moment – “Not so,” says she; “I come.” And she freezes the blood in his heart, and beclouds the light in his eye.

Some might say it was the foreign crown pressing the King’s brows which bent them to that peculiar and painful fold; some might quote the effects of early bereavement. Something there might be of both these; but these are embittered by that darkest foe of humanity – constitutional melancholy. The Queen, his wife, knew this: it seemed to me, the reflection of her husband’s grief lay, a subduing shadow, on her own benignant face. A mild, thoughtful, graceful woman that princess seemed; not beautiful, not at all like the women of solid charms and marble feelings described a page or two since. Hers was a somewhat slender shape; her features, though distinguished enough, were too suggestive of reigning dynasties and royal lines to give unqualified pleasure. The expression clothing that profile was agreeable in the present instance; but you could not avoid connecting it with remembered effigies, where similar lines appeared, under phase ignoble; feeble, or sensual, or cunning, as the case might be. The Queen’s eye, however, was her own; and pity, goodness, sweet sympathy, blessed it with divinest light. She moved no sovereign, but a lady – kind, loving, elegant.’

Whether Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has read a Brontë book or two we simply do not know, but we know that her sister did. In 1997, Princess Margaret visited Bradford, and became the first member of the Royal Family to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. Here’s an account of her visit from the Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Princess Margaret Haworth

The Princess spent some time reading Jane Eyre in silence: it can have that effect on all of us. The Platinum Jubilee celebrations are drawing to our end, but our celebration of the lives and works of the Brontë sisters of Haworth will never end. I hope you can join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Bronte sisters portrait
The undoubted Queens of Yorkshire