Happy 204th Birthday Emily Brontë – 5 Screen Emilys

This day in 1818, in a modest parsonage building in the middle of Thornton’s Market Street, must have been an exciting, and exhausting, one. Just a day earlier a new addition to the family had been born; the little girl squirming and crying would grow up to be famous for her quiet stoicism, and more famous as one of the greatest writers of all time: Emily Jane Brontë. Emily’s life and work continue to fascinate people across the world over 204 years after she was born; this fascination has also seen Emily Brontë depicted on screen many times, and in today’s new post we’re going to look at some screen Emily’s!

Ida Lupino Emily Bronte

Ida Lupino – Devotion (1946)

As I wrote in an earlier review of ‘Devotion’, it would be hard to find a Brontë biopic which strays further from the truth, but it’s still a very moving movie. One reason for this is the inspired casting of Ida Lupino as Emily Brontë. This English-born actress is involved in a tug of love with sister Charlotte (played by the legendary Olivia de Havilland) for the affections of Arthur Bell Nicholls – a preposterous take, but the scene where Ida’s Emily cradles a dying Branwell, her tears mingling with the rain, really hits home. Ida Lupino, like Emily, was also an artistic trailblazer – she became the first woman to direct a Hollywood movie, and went on to direct a further seven motion pictures.

Rosemary McHale – The Brontës Of Haworth (1973)

‘The Brontës Of Haworth’ was a very fine drama series made by Yorkshire Television in 1973, and well worth tracking down if you haven’t already seen it. It’s perhaps the closest of all biopics to the true Brontë story, although that might make it a little dark and slow in some places for some modern viewers. Rosemary McHale is an excellent Emily Brontë – we not only see a highly strung artistic genius, we also see her great kindness which is something that all who knew Emily commented on.

Isabelle Adjani Emily Bronte

Isabelle Adjani – Les Soeurs Brontë (1979)

This French take on the Brontë story has a fabulous cast – not least of whom is legendary French actress and Legion d’Honneur winner Isabelle Adjani as Emily Brontë. It’s a film which takes many liberties with the truth, although not quite as much as ‘Devotion’; Emily isn’t averse to a little cross dressing for example, but it’s hugely stylish and enjoyable.

Sinead O' Connor Emily Bronte

Sinead O’Connor – Wuthering Heights (1992)

Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche took top billing in the 1992 film version of Wuthering Heights but it was a bold and rather unusual piece of casting that caught my eye. Emily Brontë makes an appearance as a narrator (which I thought a nice touch, we can never have too much Emily) but director Peter Kosminsky cast Sinead O’Connor in the role – then most famous as a strong voiced and strong opinioned Irish singer with a shaven head. Nevertheless, it works – just about.

Chloe Pirrie To Walk Invisible

Chloe Pirrie – To Walk Invisible (2016)

‘To Walk Invisible’ is a brilliant Brontë biopic, partly because, in common with many of the dramatisations above, it has a superb cast. Perhaps the real scene stealer in this mini-series was Chloe Pirrie as Emily Brontë. Chloe is superbly believable as the tormented genius, especially in the memorable scene where she discovers that Charlotte Brontë has discovered her secret poetry collection. I particularly liked the close relationship between Emily and Anne (played by an excellent Charlie Murphy) in this version, as this reflects the ‘twin-like’ relationship that existed between the two youngest Brontë siblings.

So, which screen Emily was closest to the true Emily? It is, of course, impossible to say. Emily remains the most enigmatic of the writing Brontë sisters – which is exactly as she would have wanted it. To capture Emily completely would be like trying to catch a moorland breeze between your fingers, she was truly unique and truly brilliant. She was the woman who was so shy that she would stand still and silent in the presence of strangers, and yet she was also incredibly kind and someone who loved to play practical jokes; she mixed little with the villagers around her, and yet they loved her, and, as Charlotte herself wrote, she somehow ‘knew’ them. Above all, Emily was brilliant at whatever she turned her hand to – from baking bread to learning French, playing piano, art and of course writing. All who knew her were in awe of her genius, and if you were lucky enough to know Emily you loved Emily, as these quotes from first-person accounts show:

Let’s join together then and say, a day late, Happy 204th birthday Emily Brontë! I hope you’ll join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Mr Enoch, Graphology And The Brontë Handwriting

It’s my opinion that a person’s literary discernment tells you a lot about them. We all have different tastes in reading matter but if they’re not into books at all, or art or theatre or the things that make life bearable, then they’re not going to interest me. That’s why I’ve always felt gratified by the story of Mr Enoch and his love of the Brontës’ first literary outing – and that’s what we’re going to look at in today’s post before veering aside to look at what the sisters’ handwriting might say about their personalities!

Charlotte, Emily and Anne began their career as published writers in 1846 when Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell hit the shelves and circulating libraries. The story is well known of how this historic literary moment came about: Charlotte ‘accidentally’ discovered Emily Brontë’s secret poetry manuscript, realised how wonderful they were, and, after a blazing row, the sisters eventually decided to try to find a publisher for their joint poetic creations.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

A publisher was found in the shape of Aylott & Jones of Paternoster Row, but the Brontës had decided that they wanted to publish the work anonymously and took on the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The book gained good reviews, but sales were far from promising – in fact it initially sold only two copies (although every copy was eventually sold after Smith, Elder & Co bought the rights and relaunched it). This must have seemed a bit of a blow to Charlotte Brontë in particular, the driving force behind the decision to publish their poetry but their spirits must have lifted slightly on this very week in 1846 when word came from Aylott & Jones that one of the two purchasers had enjoyed the collection so much that he’d requested the autographs of its authors! That man was a Mr Enoch of Warwick, and we have Charlotte’s response to the request written on 23rd July 1846:

We see then that Messrs Bell, the versifying Bell brothers, were communicating with their publisher via a mysterious intermediary – one C. Brontë, whoever that could be? So desirous were they of remaining anonymous that they sent the autographs to Aylott and Jones and asked them to post it on, so that their postmark wouldn’t give any clues as to their location.

Mr Enoch must have been thrilled when the signatures came, and it was just reward for him in his discernment when it came to poetry, but just who was he? His full name was Frederick Enoch, and he was something of a wordsmith himself. The son of a cordwainer (boot maker) and auctioneer, from an early age Frederick took an interest in literature, and by 1851 the census described him as a ‘printer, stationer and shop assistant’.

It seems, however, that Frederick longed to be a writer himself rather than simply selling writing, and there was one particular area he specialised in: songs. A number of songs from the mid-nineteenth century are attributed to him, including ‘Sweet Vesper Hymn’ and ‘My Sweetheart When A Boy’, which gained some popularity in its time. This song was penned in 1870 when Enoch was 43, so too late for the Brontës to have known, but it still endures to this day. We not only know the name of the song and its words, we actually have a modern recording of it thanks to Professor Derek B. Scott of the University of Leeds. Here’s a link to the recording on the wonderful Victorian Web website, and it’s well worth listening to: https://victorianweb.org/mt/parlorsongs/42.html

Mr Enoch is best known today, however, for his autograph request to the Brontë sisters, as it was his letter and the subsequent reply which gives us the only existing signatures of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë using their pen names – and here they are:

Bell signatures
The Bell signatures sent to Mr Enoch

What do these signatures tell us about the Brontës, other than their great wish for anonymity? What does the handwriting of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë reveal? Perhaps the answer can be found in graphology? Graphology is a study which believes that handwriting reveals a lot about the person responsible for it. I feel this is something Charlotte Brontë would have been a fan of, as she was a great believer in phrenology, the reading of bumps on the head. Which leads me to a slight detour which may be of interest to American readers of this blog. I had great fun talking about Charlotte Brontë and phrenology with Gyles Brandreth for an excellent television documentary entitled ‘Brontë’s Britain With Gyles Brandreth’; I’m pleased to report that this documentary is now being shown Stateside on PBS, under the new name of ‘In The Footsteps Of The Brontës’, so do look out for it if you get the chance.

Me with Gyles, and a phrenology skull, on In The Footsteps Of The Brontes

Back to graphology. I had long been of the belief that a piece of writing in the archives of Brotherton Library, Leeds was by Anne Brontë – in fact that it was the last piece of writing she ever produced. At the time it was unattributed, but now it’s listed as being by Anne Brontë – and the essay and my views on it are contained in my book Craving The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200.

As part of my effort to prove it was by Anne I enlisted a handwriting expert called Jean Elliott and sent her a sample of the piece in question along with three handwriting samples known to be by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. The pieces were anonymised, but Jean had no hesitation in confirming what I knew – the article in question was by the author of sample A which I had submitted: it was Anne Brontë.

Jean is a handwriting expert who has often been called upon as a legal expert in court cases, but she is also a graphology specialist, and after I revealed the identities of the three subjects she gave the interesting analysis below:

‘The sisters handwriting show a strong right slant and a certain rigidity and discipline recorded in the production of the letter. Anne – Line construction is very rigid and her lines are so straight . (all three girls show elements of rigidity in their scripts but Anne’s seem more so.) Charlotte – Headline Author of line 5 word advise and line 7 word ‘renders’ letter ‘d’ over emotional nature – maybe loves singing. In my opinion she is more artistic than her sister. When a writer produces a small middle zone (this is the zone that records what is happening in the here and now- e.g. everyday affairs, i.e. Anne can cut off her personal needs and pour effort into aims and ambitions to achieve recognition and success. Letter f with a long lower zone Practical – self reliant. Interestingly both Charlotte and Anne show a small middle zone with an extended upper and lower zone. If we look at all the three girls samples all three share this syndrome.’

Anne Bronte handwriting
Anne Bronte’s handwriting in what I believe is her final work

So the graphology view is that Charlotte was the most artistic of the sisters, and that Anne was more capable of putting her personal needs to one side in order to achieve success. All three sisters are practical and self reliant. An interesting analysis, although of course we know much more about the sisters today than, for example, Frederick Enoch did when he unwittingly asked for their autographs.

I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post, and be thankful that you don’t have to see my handwriting – a scrawl which even I struggle to decipher at times!

Save Haworth Main Street Post Office!

A revered and invaluable Haworth institution is in grave danger: the post office at the summit of High Street. In fact, it has been given less than two weeks before it has to close down forever, which will be a huge loss to villagers and literary pilgrims alike. In today’s new post we look at the role Haworth’s post office played in the Brontë story, and at what we can do to register our disapproval at the cultural vandalism being foisted upon the village today.

Just last week we looked at the visit of Charlotte and Anne Brontë to London in July 1848; it was a journey where they finally revealed their true identities and changed literary history forever – and the sequence was set into motion by a letter. You may recall that Charlotte placed a letter addressed to Currer Bell in front of publisher George Smith. Here’s what happened next in Smith’s own words: ‘I noticed that the letter had been opened, and said, with some sharpness, “Where did you get this from?” “From the post-office”, was the reply; “it was addressed to me. We have both come that you might have ocular proof that there are at least two of us.”’

Bronte sisters portrait
Haworth Main Street Post Office was oft used by the Brontes

We see then that in these early days of the postal service as we know it today, Haworth Post Office was acting as an intermediary and taking letters arriving from London for one Currer Bell Esquire to the parsonage building where the Brontë family lived. This was carried out on behalf of the eldest daughter of the long serving village curate, a reserved yet formidable lady named Charlotte Brontë whose commands the Haworth villagers had already learnt to obey without question.

Charlotte also frequently sent parcels and letters in the opposite direction; from Currer Bell to various publishing houses of London. For many months it was one package which continuously made its way to and from London, with the address of one publishing house crossed out and replaced by another. Later the letters and parcels were sent to two specific publishers: Thomas Cautley Newby and Smith, Elder and Co. In this way Haworth Post Office played a vital role, in fact the vital role, which eventually led to the publication of Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and more.

The original post office stands opposite today’s

It should be noted at this point that today’s post office building near the church and parsonage is not the same one which the Brontës used, that building still stands and is directly opposite the present (for now) post office, but nevertheless the post office standing at the head of Main Street is a direct link to the Brontës. When we step up to the counter we can imagine Charlotte Brontë doing the exact same thing, and we don’t have to try too hard to imagine that as we have an eye witness account of that given by a Mr Feather to the Bradford Daily Telegraph on 26th November 1900:

‘During a recent visit to Haworth Miss Parry came across Mr Feather, who was postmaster there in the days of the Brontës, and through whose hands had passed so often the mysterious letters and parcels addressed to ‘Currer Bell.’ “Many and many a time,” he said, as he showed Miss Parry his little kitchen, “has Mr Brontë sat here, and often have I seen Patrick go staggering past this window on his way from the Black Bull.” “Yes, ma’am,” he said, in reply to a question, “it was I who sent off Miss Brontë’s manuscripts, and I used often to wonder at the bulky parcels which came to and fro.”’

Other postmasters at the time of the Brontës were the Hartley family, and it was one of the Hartleys, William, who finally let curiosity get the better of him and asked Patrick Brontë if Currer Bell and Charlotte Brontë were the same person. Patrick denied it emphatically, mainly because he himself had no idea of his daughters’ writing exploits at this time.

Picture courtesy of Help Keep Haworth Main Street Post Office Open !!

Charlotte knew that she could trust the honesty and discretion of all those connected with Haworth Post Office, as we see in a letter she wrote to W. S. Williams at her publishing house on 1st October 1849:

‘I am chagrined about the envelope being opened: I see it is the work of prying curiosity, and now it would be useless to make a stir – what mischief is to be apprehended is already done. It was not done at Haworth. I know the people of the post-office there, and am sure they would not venture on such a step; besides, the Haworth people have long since set me down as bookish and quiet, and trouble themselves no farther about me. But the gossiping inquisitiveness of small towns is rife at Keighley; there they are sadly puzzled to guess why I never visit, encourage no overtures to acquaintance, and always stay at home. Those packets passing backwards and forwards by the post have doubtless aggravated their curiosity.’

Charlotte placed her faith in the post office near the church Haworth – other post offices simply wouldn’t do. The people of Haworth today feel exactly the same, and rightly so. Haworth Post Office remains a hugely convenient place for people to post items large and small, connecting this moor-side village to the rest of the world. It’s also a community hub, a place where people feel comfortable, and one where they can feel the comfort of knowing that they are in a place whose work has carried on steadfastly since the time of the Brontës. Charlotte Brontë trusted them, and today’s villagers and visitors can too.

Picture courtesy of Help Keep Haworth Main Street Post Office Open !!

All that will change, as it stands, on 29th July 2022. The Post Office will be forced to close its doors for the last time, bringing to an end its continual service for the people of the village which stretches back to the Brontë era. In fact, this was one of the earliest post offices in the country, but uncaring automatons in London have decided to shut it down simply because they don’t wish to show any flexibility over a decision they made long ago. A large petition, backed by a local MP, was sent asking for the post office to be kept open, a consultation period was opened – but as usual, the consultation period’s sole purpose seemed to be to kick objections into the long grass until their original, poorly thought out, decision had been carried out.

Villagers and visitors will now be forced to use the soulless post counter at a supermarket at the foot of the hill, and anyone who has been to Haworth will appreciate how much of a trek that can be – especially for the elderly or infirm. A campaign group has worked tirelessly to fight the threat of closure, and you can find them on Facebook in the ‘Help Keep Haworth Main Street Post Office Open !!’ group (many of the pictures on this post are taken from their excellent group). They won’t give in, and they urge everyone to email laura.tarling@postoffice.co.uk to register their objection to the closure of the post office. I will be emailing and I urge you all to do the same. Please also copy your email to Nick Read, the CEO of the Post Office, at nick.read1@postoffice.co.uk and copy in savehaworthpostoffice@gmail.com.

Picture courtesy of Help Keep Haworth Main Street Post Office Open !!

I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, at which time that historic Haworth institution the Post Office will have less than a week to remain open – unless things change. The post office and all its supporters are in a time of adversity, but we must follow the advice of Anne Brontë and ‘take courage’. We must fight and we must hope, for as Charlotte Brontë herself says in her poem ‘Life’:

‘Yet Hope again elastic springs,
Unconquered, though she fell;
Still buoyant are her golden wings,
Still strong to bear us well.
Manfully, fearlessly,
The day of trial bear,
For gloriously, victoriously,
Can courage quell despair!’

George Smith’s Account Of The Brontës In London

On this weekend 174 years ago two small, shy women were making their first visit to London – and it was to change literary history forever. They were Charlotte and Anne Brontë (home loving Emily had remained in Haworth) and their visit to London lasted four days between 7th and 11th of July. In today’s new post we’re going to look at a first hand account of their visit to England’s capital city (by the way the image at the top of this post is an 1848 painting of London by Carl Haag), from one who was by their side throughout much of it.

In a previous post we’ve looked at a detailed account that Charlotte Brontë gave of the visit to her great friend Mary Taylor. One of the many remarkable things in that letter was Charlotte’s account of a snowstorm that greeted them as they set out from Haworth to Keighley on July 7th – the weather is rather different at the moment!

Euston 1839
Euston Station, London in 1839 – Anne and Charlotte Bronte arrived there in 1848

The reason for the hasty journey from Haworth to London is well known. Up until that point the Brontë sisters had been writing under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell but the typical machinations of Anne and Emily’s publisher Thomas Cautley Newby had led to suggestions that the Bells were in fact one person. To the Brontës integrity was everything (so who knows what they’d think of public life today?) so they determined to reveal their name in the only way they knew how – by finally revealing their true identities.

After arriving at Euston Station they made their way to lodgings at the Chapter Coffee House on Paternoster Row (the same location Charlotte had stayed in en route to Brussels six years earlier – it was the only place in London she knew), and from thence to Smith, Elder & Co at Cornhill. It was there they met Charlotte’s publisher George Smith, a young, wealthy, book loving man who had recently inherited the business from his father. It is Smith’s account, from the 1902 book A Memoir: With Some Pages Of Biography that we look at now:

“When we were about to publish Shirley – the work which, in the summer of 1848, succeeded Jane Eyre – we endeavoured to make an arrangement with an American publisher to sell him advance sheets of the book, in order to give him an advantage in regard to time over other American publishers. There was, of course, no copyright with America in those days. We were met daring the negotiations with’ our American correspondents by the statement that Mr. Newby had informed them that he was about to publish the next book by the author of Jane Eyre under her nom de plume of Acton Bell – Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell being in fact, according to him, one person. We wrote to ‘Currer Bell’ to say that we should be glad to be in a position to contradict the statement, adding at the same time we were quite sure Mr. Newby’s assertion was untrue.

George Smith
George Smith, who first met Charlotte and Anne Bronte on this week 1848

Charlotte Brontë has related how the letter affected her. She was persuaded that her honour was impugned. ‘With rapid decision’, says Mrs. Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Brontë,‘Charlotte and her sister Anne resolved that they should start for London that very day in order to prove their separate identity to Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co.’ With what haste and energy the sisters plunged into what was, for them, a serious expedition, how they reached London at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, took lodgings in the ‘Chapter’ coffee-house in Paternoster Row, and, after an agitated breakfast, set out on a pilgrimage to my office in Cornhill, is told at length in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë.

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 ; one of them came forward and presented me with a letter addressed, in my own handwriting, to ‘Currer Bell, Esq.’ T noticed that the letter had been opened, and said, with some sharpness, ‘Where did yon get this from?’ ‘From the post-office’, was the reply; ‘it was addressed to me. We have both come that you might have ocular proof that there are at least two of us.’ This then was Currer Bell in person. I need hardly say that I was at once keenly interested, not to say excited. Mr. Williams was called down and introduced, and I began to plan all sorts of attentions to our visitors. I tried to persuade them to come and stay at our house. This they positively declined to do, but they agreed that I should call with my sister and take them to the Opera in the evening.

The Chapter Coffee House in 1843
The Chapter Coffee House in 1843, Anne and Charlotte stayed there 5 years later

She has herself given an account of her own and her sister Anne’s sensations on that occasion: how they dressed for the Opera in their plain, high-necked dresses: ‘fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us, as we stood by the box-door, which was not yet opened, with a slight graceful superciliousness, quite warranted by the circumstances. Still I felt pleasurably excited in spite of headache, sickness, and conscious clownishness; and I saw Anne was calm and gentle, which she always is. The performance was Rossini’s Barber of Seville – very brilliant, though I fancy there are things I should like better. We got home after one o’clock. We had never been in bed the night before; had been in constant excitement for twenty-four hours; you may imagine we were tired.’

My mother called upon them the next day. The sisters, after barely three days in London, returned to Haworth. In what condition of mind and body those few days left them is graphically told by Charlotte Brontë herself: ‘On Tuesday morning we left London, laden with books Mr. Smith had given us, and got safely home. A more jaded wretch than I looked, it would be difficult to conceive. I was thin when I went, but I was meagre indeed when I returned, my face looking grey and very old, with strange deep lines ploughed in it – my eyes stared unnaturally. I was weak and yet restless.’

London 1848
Crutchley’s 1848 map of London

This 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. I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Bronte’s personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive. She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look. Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion. There was but little feminine charm about her; and of this fact she herself was uneasily and perpetually conscious. It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstance that she was not pretty.”

Charlotte and Anne visited the Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden with Smith.

George Smith became not only the publisher but a great friend of Charlotte Brontë, as did his assistant mentioned above W. S. Williams. Charlotte made many more visits to London in the years which followed, and which Smith also details in his fascinating biography. Anne Brontë, alas, would never see London again; in fact this was her one and only journey outside of Yorkshire. She had spent four days in London which transformed literary history for good – and bad. The Brontë name was finally known, and Charlotte and Anne at least got to enjoy some reward for their genius; on the other hand it seems likely that one of the sisters brought something else, other than books, back from London. Tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then known, was a disease spread in crowded places; it was rare in Haworth (Maria and Elizabeth Brontë had contracted it in the confines of a boarding school) but rife in London. Within a year of this four day visit to London, three of the four remaining Brontë siblings had died of tuberculosis.

I hope you enjoy this wonderfully hot and sunny day, no snowstorms expected today, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Sutcliffe Sowden And The Marriage Of Charlotte Brontë

This was a momentous week in 1854, for on 29th June of that year, in the parish of Haworth at 8 in the morning (the earliest time a wedding could legally be celebrated) the daughter of the long serving curate married the assistant curate. In other words, Charlotte Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls. In today’s new post we’ll look at someone who was central to the Brontë marriage, and who is also connected to a very popular television drama of the moment: Sutcliffe Sowden.

St James Hebden Bridge
St James The Great church, Hebden Bridge

By 1854 Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden was vicar of St. James’ church, Hebden Bridge. More importantly for his future role in the Brontë story, he was also by that time the best friend of Arthur Bell Nicholls. When Arthur left Haworth in 1853, after the abject failure of his proposal to Charlotte in 1852, it was Sutcliffe Sowden who stood by his side and it was he who persuaded Arthur not to give up on his dream of marrying Charlotte, and not to seek a new life as a missionary in Australia. Such was Arthur’s gratitude that he asked Sowden to conduct his wedding ceremony on this week 168 years ago, and thanks to local scholar James Robinson (whom Arthur was training to be a Sunday School teacher) we have this eye witness description of the wedding and Sutcliffe Sowden’s presence there:

‘They were married during my apprenticeship. It was not known in the neighbourhood that the marriage was coming off, and to my surprise, when going past the end of ‘Church Fields’ to my lessons one morning, old John Brown, the sexton, was waiting for me, and said: ‘We want tha to go to t’top of t’ ‘ill to watch for three parsons coming from t’other hill, coming from Oxenhope. Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls are going to be married, and when tha sees Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Sowden coming at t’ far hill, tha must get back to t’ Parsonage, so’s Charlotte and Ellen Nussey can get their things on to go down to t’ church.’

I returned with the message, and then was told to get the parish clerk. I found him just beginning to light his kitchen fire, and I had to rush him off, as I knew they would be at the church doors by the time we should get there. He seemed hard of belief. I said, ‘Come on, there’s no time to waste.’

On the way he said, ‘I must stop to lace my boots.’ He did so, and just as the clock was going to strike eight, the three clergymen walked into what they called the front door of the old church and Miss Brontë and Miss Nussey walked together in at the back door.

As far as I remember, the only persons present at the ceremony were those I have named [there was also Margaret Wooler of course]. Directly the ceremony was over, and the interested parties had gone to the parsonage, a carriage and pair drove up from Keighley. There was no station at Haworth then. I remember there was a bay horse and a grey one, and in a few moments Miss Brontë and Mr. Nicholls, now married, were away on their honeymoon.’

Sutcliffe Sowden watches Charlotte sign the register
Sutcliffe Sowden watches Charlotte sign the register in a 2004 reenactment. In fact Sowden was the same age as Charlotte.

The marriage register in Haworth Church still holds the record of this very day, and on it we see Reverend Sowden as the officiating minister. We know from letters of this time that Charlotte came to hold Arthur’s best friend in great esteem, and that he visited Haworth Parsonage on more than one occasion. On 9th August 1854, Charlotte Brontë Nicholls (as she now styled herself) wrote to Ellen Nussey:

‘I really like Mr. Sowden very well. He asked after you. Mr. Nicholls told him we expected you would be coming to stay with us in the course of 3 or 4 weeks – and that he should then invite him over again as he wished us to take sundry rather long walks – and as he should have his wife to look after – and she was trouble enough – it would be quite necessary to have a guardian for the other lady. Mr. S seemed perfectly acquiescent.’

This little paragraph is a clue to a plan that Charlotte and Arthur had seemingly hatched together – they were now happily married, so why shouldn’t their best friends be? They hoped that Sutcliffe and Ellen might marry each other, but it never came to pass and neither of them ever wed.

Charlotte Bronte's Wedding certificate
Charlotte Bronte’s Wedding certificate, bearing Sutcliffe’s signature

On 7th November 1854 we get another glimpse of Sutcliffe, thanks to another letter from Charlotte to Ellen:

‘Mr. Sowden and his brother were here yesterday – stayed all night and are but just gone. George Sowden is six or seven years the junior of Sutcliffe Sowden (the one you have seen) he looks very delicate and quiet – a good sincere man – I should think – ’Mr. S asked after ‘‘Miss Nussey.’’’

So we know that Charlotte thought well of Sutcliffe Sowden, but what did he think of Charlotte? The admiration was mutual, and it was Sutcliffe who gave us the famous description of Charlotte Brontë on her wedding day as looking like: ‘a snowdrop, a pale wintry flower’.

Alas, as so often in the Brontë story tragedy seemed to shadow all connected with it. The wedding ceremony of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls wasn’t the only ceremony he was asked to perform for the family. Less than a year after the wedding he was back in the same Haworth church, but this time he was officiating over the funeral service for Charlotte Brontë Nicholls. In June 1861, he was called upon once more – this time he was the officiating curate at the funeral of Patrick Brontë.

His service to the Brontë family over, it was now time for tragedy to strike for Sutcliffe Sowden himself. It had been noted that Sowden suffered from fainting fits from time to time, possibly he had epilepsy. On 8th August 1861, less than two months after presiding over Patrick Brontë’s funeral, Sutcliffe Sowden fell into a canal on a foggy night and drowned. He was 45 years old.

Bradford Observer, 15th August 1861

The Sowden association with Hebden Bridge was not over, however, for his younger brother George, mentioned by Charlotte in her earlier letter, took over the curacy of the parish, and served as its vicar until the 1890s. George too recollected Charlotte Brontë and remembered her as, ‘a thoroughly ladylike woman, and very self-possessed. I could imagine her somewhat reserved with strangers, though with us she was not so in the slightest degree. There was not a word of high-flown conversation. In fact, all was so simple. She showed me beautifully-illustrated volumes of French fables (La Fontaine’s) which she was evidently proud of, as the gift to her by W. M. Thackeray, whom she looked up to with veneration, and regarded as the regenerator of society. She was then as simple as the house she lived in, with its homely arrangements.’

The surname of Sowden was a clue to the origins of this family, as the two Church of England vicars came from a far from ecclesiastical background. In fact the family had long been pig farmers, and Sutcliffe’s father Samuel Sowden was in charge of Sutcliffe Wood Farm near Halifax. They were tenants of the farm, not owners, for it was the property of the estate of the nearby grand Shibden Hall: at that time under the control of a certain Miss Anne Lister.

Anne Lister, painted in 1830
Anne Lister, painted in 1830

If you’re a fan of the highly entertaining BBC drama Gentleman Jack, alarm bells may now be ringing. One of the sub-plots involves the farming Sowden family – and the fate of bullying Sam Sowden was to be killed and fed to the pigs by his own son Thomas Sowden. In real life these characters were the father and eldest brother of Sutcliffe, the man who conducted Charlotte Brontë’s wedding!

It’s safe to say then that the writers of this excellent series have used a little artistic license in their portrayal of the Sowden family. Far from living the lives of poverty and violence shown in the drama, they were relatively prosperous farmers who ensured their sons received an excellent education. Nevertheless it’s another link between the Brontës and the endlessly fascinating Anne Lister.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute for Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden came from his best friend Arthur Bell Nicholls. Sutcliffe had officiated at Arthur’s wedding and at the funeral of his beloved wife Charlotte. In 1861, in one of his last acts as a Church of England curate, Arthur officiated at the funeral of Sutcliffe Sowden. He also wrote his obituary for the Halifax Guardian, and in a letter before the funeral service Arthur wrote of the strain he would face:

‘It will be hard work for me to read the Service over one, whose intimate friendship I have enjoyed for many years, & whom I have looked upon more as a relation than a friend.’

Sutcliffe Sowden grave

Have a wonderful day, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.