Charlotte Brontë On The Death Of Branwell Brontë

Firstly, apologies for both the brevity and belated appearance of today’s new Brontë blog post. As I’ve mentioned previously I now work for a cat charity called The Sheffield Cats Shelter; it’s a dream job really and today was our 125th anniversary party which meant that most of my day has been spent organising that event. All went well, and we raised funds and awareness for our cats in need, which I’m sure the cat loving Brontës would have approved of.

This week, however, witnessed a sad anniversary in the Brontë story, for yesterday, the 24th of September, marked 174 years to the day since the death of Branwell Brontë. In today’s post we’re going to look at Charlotte Brontë’s account of the passing of her brother in 1848, contained in two letters to W. S. Williams of her publisher Smith, Elder & Co:

The depth of Charlotte’s grief is plain to see. Branwell had been closer to her than anyone during her childhood, but in recent years his struggles had seen them become estranged and we can easily imagine the guilt Charlotte now felt. Worse was to come of course, for none in Haworth Parsonage could have foreseen that Branwell’s death from consumption (tuberculosis) was the precursor to the deaths of Emily and Anne Brontë from the same disease within eight months.

Branwell Bronte death picture
‘A Parody’ by Branwell Bronte

Whatever his faults and struggles, Branwell Brontë was talented and he was loving, and his loss was keenly felt by his sisters. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë And “The Doubter’s Prayer”

In last week’s post we paid tribute to Her Majesty the Queen, but we would otherwise have looked at an Anne Brontë poem which had the anniversary of its composition last week. It’s a very fitting poem for this time of mourning, and of hope for the future, so we’ll share it today: ‘The Doubter’s Prayer.’

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell included Anne’s poem

Anne Brontë wrote this poem on September 10th 1843, and she initially gave it the simple title ‘A Hymn’. The poem was renamed ‘The Doubter’s Prayer’ for its inclusion in the 1846 collection Poems By Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – the book which launched the literary career of the Brontë sisters. The only other change between the manuscript version and the printed version was the addition of two Oxford commas, which the current Health Secretary Therese Coffey would certainly not approve of! At the time of its writing Anne was three years into her service as governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, a position which she excelled at but which she found far from enjoyable.

The poem looks at Anne’s fears about her faith; she was a woman who was deeply religious, more so than any of her sisters, and yet she was beset by doubts from time to time: was there really a God, was there an eternal heaven waiting for her? These doubts are often called ‘the dark night of the soul’ and have beset some of history’s most deeply devout people, including Saint Teresa of Calcutta, of whom it was revealed after her death that she doubted her faith for the last fifty years of her life – but pressed on with her work and life of prayer regardless.

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne composed this poem in 1843

Anne too would be beset by doubts periodically, and it is likely such a period of doubt that contributed to her mental and physical collapse while a pupil at Roe Head school. The priest sent to tend to her at this time was a Moravian minister named James la Trobe. He later became a Bishop in the church and recalled his meetings with the young Anne Brontë: ‘‘She was suffering from a severe attack of gastric fever [what we would now call typhoid] which brought her very low, and her voice was barely a whisper; her life hung on a slender thread. She soon got over the shyness natural on seeing a perfect stranger. The words of love, from Jesus, opened her ear to my words, and she was very grateful for my visits. I found her well acquainted with the main truths of the Bible respecting our salvation, but seeing them more through the law than the gospel, more as a requirement from God than His gift in His Son, but her heart opened to the sweet views of salvation, pardon, and peace in the blood of Christ, and, had she died then, I would have counted her His redeemed and ransomed child. It was not til I read Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Life’ [he refers to the biography of Charlotte written by Elizabeth Gaskell] that I recognised my interesting patient at Roe Head.”

Roe Head by Anne Bronte
Roe Head, drawn by Anne Bronte

In Anne’s poem we see these doubts resurfacing, but eventually she finds a ‘shield of safety’ in her faith and puts her trust in ‘peace and hope and love’. Many people will find similar solace over the next two days as they reflect on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her funeral, or as they think of their own loved ones they have lost. These are times that can often cause us to question our faith, whatever form it takes, but like Anne Brontë and Mother Teresa we must simply carry on, continue to hope and live our lives to the best of our abilities. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post, and I love you now with Anne Brontë’s hymnal poem, ‘The Doubter’s Prayer’:

‘Eternal power of earth and air,
Unseen, yet seen in all around,
Remote, but dwelling everywhere,
Though silent, heard in every sound.
If e’er thine ear in mercy bent
When wretched mortals cried to thee,
And if indeed thy Son was sent
To save lost sinners such as me.
Then hear me now, while kneeling here;
I lift to thee my heart and eye
And all my soul ascends in prayer;
O give me – give me Faith I cry.
Without some glimmering in my heart,
I could not raise this fervent prayer;
But O a stronger light impart,
And in thy mercy fix it there!
While Faith is with me I am blest;
It turns my darkest night to day;
But while I clasp it to my breast
I often feel it slide away.
Then cold and dark my spirit sinks,
To see my light of life depart,
And every fiend of Hell methinks
Enjoys the anguish of my heart.
What shall I do if all my love,
My hopes, my toil, are cast away,
And if there be no God above
To hear and bless me when I pray?
If this be vain delusion all,
If death be an eternal sleep,
And none can hear my secret call,
Or see the silent tears I weep.
O help me God! for thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve;
Forsake it not – it is thine own,
Though weak yet longing to believe.
O drive these cruel doubts away
And make me know that thou art God;
A Faith that shines by night and day
Will lighten every earthly load.
If I believe that Jesus died
And waking rose to reign above,
Then surely Sorrow, Sin and Pride
Must yield to peace and hope and love.
And all the blessed words he said
Will strength and holy joy impart,
A shield of safety o’er my head,
A spring of comfort in my heart.’

In Memory Of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In this blog we’re usually looking back two hundred years or so to the lives of Anne Brontë and the Brontë family, but this week brought us all too tangible evidence that history is a living thing happening right now rather than something which stopped somewhere in the annals of time. I have to use today’s post to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and to look at expressions of loss and royalty in the Brontë works and letters.

As we’ve seen before, Queen Victoria was an ardent reader, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was among her very favourite reads – a book she returned to again and again, as recorded in her diaries. We don’t know whether her great-great-granddaughter, our late Queen Elizabeth II, was a fan of books or the Brontës, but we know that there was one quality that she definitely shared with those remarkable siblings from Haworth: duty.

On her 21st birthday in 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth made a solemn vow: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’ Duty was everything and all to Her Majesty, and the same could equally be said of one Brontë in particular: Charlotte.

We read time and again in Charlotte’s letters of her wanting to travel places and meet people but she cannot because she feels her duty was to remain at home to look after her elderly, and practically blind, father Patrick. It was not something that presented a tricky dilemma to Charlotte, for the answer was clear: duty to her father, and adherence to the role she had as daughter always had to come first.

Charlotte’s depiction of the Queen in Villette was inspired by her own sight of Queen Victoria in Brussels

We are now in a period of official national mourning, and it is one in which we can pause for reflection and think of loved ones we have known and lost. Being royal, or being a genius author, does nothing to shield one from the same terrible pains of separation, and King Charles in particular has now to display tremendous strength and dignity now: in public he has had to step seamlessly into the role of monarch and figurehead, in private he has lost the mother who has been by his side for over 70 years. It is a heavy burden he has been forced to carry, and that is something that those who are making disrespectful comments and ‘jokes’ on social media should pause and reflect upon.

All the Brontës had to deal with loss and extreme tragedy in their lives, but Patrick and Charlotte had more to bear than most. We hear this in Charlotte’s plaintive cry after the death of her youngest sibling Anne Brontë: ‘I let Anne go to God, and felt He had a right to her. I could hardly let Emily go. I wanted to hold her back then, and I want her back now. Anne, from her childhood, seemed preparing for an early death. Emily’s spirit seemed strong enough to bear her to the fullness of years. They are both gone, and so is poor Branwell, and Papa has now me only – the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children. Consumption has taken the whole five… Friends and acquaintance seem to think this the worst time of suffering – they are sorely mistaken.’

Charlotte Brontë, as we see throughout her novels, had the ability to sum complex situations up perfectly in just a few words. The following quote perfectly sums up the feeling of loss that the Royal family must be feeling now, and which all of us have felt at some moment in our lives. It was written not after a bereavement, but after the emigration of her great friend Mary Taylor to New Zealand. Although Mary had promised to return to the West Riding of Yorkshire, Charlotte seemed to know that she would never see her again. Mary’s return to Gomersal in 1860 came five years after Charlotte’s death.

Whatever your views on the Royal Family, there can be little doubt of the huge impact that Queen Elizabeth II made on the United Kingdom, and of the great change that her passing has now caused. She certainly lived up to that promise she made as a young Princess, and that is something which is worthy of all our respect. I hope to see you next Sunday when normal service will be resumed with another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë: A Word To ‘The Quarterly’

1849 was a sad, tumultuous year in the Brontë parsonage at Haworth. Anne Brontë died in May of that year, just a short few months since the passing of her siblings. Charlotte Brontë was now left alone, the last surviving sibling, and as she revealed in a letter to W. S. Williams, it was a heavy burden to bear: ‘They [Emily and Anne] are both gone, and so is poor Branwell – and Papa has now me only – the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children. Consumption has taken the whole five.’

Charlotte needed something to distract her mind from the terrible year she had endured, and she turned again to writing. By the close of August she had more or less completed her novel Shirley and she had also composed a preface to it. This preface is a remarkable piece of writing as it gives a great insight into Charlotte’s mind at the time, so we’re going to look at it in today’s post.

What we see from the preface that has come to be known as ‘A Word To “The Quarterly”’, is that Charlotte was angry about some of the reviews she and her sister had received. Emily and Anne could no longer defend themselves from the critic’s opprobrium, but she would take their barbs no longer. There was one particular review which particularly irked Charlotte, and it was a review which was particularly lacking in sagacity and insight. It’s one we’ve examined in a previous post, and it was written by one Elizabeth Rigby for ‘The Quarterly’ magazine.

Elizabeth Rigby
Charlotte Bronte’s fiercest critic Elizabeth Rigby

Rigby later became Lady Eastlake after her husband was knighted for his services to arts administration. She had very strong views, some might say snobbish views, many of which would seem more than puzzling to us today. As well as Charlotte, for example, she also voiced strong criticism of the likes of Wordsworth. For balance, however, it has to be said that she was a supportive friend of Effie Gray during her divorce from John Ruskin. Elizabeth’s long review of Jane Eyre attacked it on many fronts, attacking its vulgarity in its use of language, and suggesting that it must have been written by a lower class woman, probably a governess to William Makepeace Thackeray. These insults burned within Charlotte, so she, under her persona of Currer Bell, provided a witty and considered response in her preface to Shirley. Nevertheless, she did not fail to let Elizabeth Rigby have it with both barrels, as we can see now in the preface:


The public is respectfully informed that with this Preface it has no manner of concern, the same being a private and confidential letter to a friend, and – what is more – a “lady-friend.”

Currer Bell can have no hesitation as to the mode in which he ought to commence his epistle: he feels assured – his heart tells him that the individual who did him the honour of a small notice in the “Quarterly” – if not a woman, properly so called – is that yet more venerable character – an Old Woman. His ground then is clear and he falls to work upon it with much heart and comfort.

Dear Madam, I daresay I should have written you before but at the time your favour reached me I was engrossed with matters whereof I am dispensed from giving you the faintest outline of an account. It is not my intention to go through your article from beginning to end: I merely wish to have a little quiet chat with you on one or two paragraphs.

In the first place, you appear alarmed with an idea that “the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code, human and divine – abroad – and fostered Chartism and Rebellion – at home – is the same which has also written ‘Jane Eyre’.”

Charlotte’s novel Shirley was set in the land she knew well

Let us not dwell on this subject: let us pass it lightly: if we trod with audacious emphasis, or if we confidingly sat down, both of us might fly abroad on the wings of sudden explosion. Any man’s nose may here wind a Gunpowder Plot; the very savour and odour of the thing is traitorous. Permit me but to whisper – as you and I glide off, arm-in-arm and on tip-toe – Don’t be too uneasy, dear Madam; take not on to any serious extent; be persuaded to keep as cal as may be. I am not at liberty to say more: we live in strange times – muffled in Mystery. Hush!

In the second place, you breathe a suspicion that Currer Bell, “for some sufficient reason” (Ah! Madam: Skilled by a touch to deepen Scandal’s tints, with all the kind mendacity of hints.) “for some sufficient reason” has long forfeited the society of your sex. In this passage – Madam – we discover an undoubted Mare’s nest: here is the cracked shell of the equine egg: there the colt making its escape á toutes jambes and alas! yonder – Truth scouring after it, catching it and finding the empty phantom vanish in her grasp. You should see – Ma’am, the figure Currer Bell can cut at a small party: you should watch him assisting at a tea-table; you should behold him holding skeins of silk or Berlin wool for the young ladies about whom he innocuously philanders, and who, in return, knit him comforters for winter-wear, or work him slippers for his invalid-member (he considers that rather an elegant expression – a nice substitute for – gouty foot; it was manufactured expressly for your refinement) you should see these things, for seeing is believing. Currer Bell forfeit the society of the better half of the human race? Heaven avert such a calamity – ! The idiot (inspired or otherwise) Samuel Richardson, could better have borne such a doom than he.

The idea by you propagated, if not by you conceived, that my book proceeded from the pen of Mr. Thackeray’s governess caught my fancy singularly: I felt a little puzzled with it, at first, as – I make no doubt – did Mr. Thackeray – but, on the whole, it struck me as being in my line – in the line of any novel-wright – something boldly imaginative, – cunningly inventive, the reverse of trite. You say, you see no great interest in the question; I do: a very comical interest. What other “romantic rumours” have been current in Mayfair? You set my curiosity on edge. I have but a very vague notion of the occupations and manner of life of the inhabitants of Mayfair, but I rather suspect them of resembling the old Athenians who spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to her some new thing. Who invents the new things for their consumption? Who manufactures fictions to supply their cravings? I need not ask who vends them: you, Madam, are an active saleswoman; the pages of your “Quarterly” form a notable advertising medium.

Thackeray by Frank Stone
Thackeray by Frank Stone, Rigby had suggested Currer Bell was his governess

Attentive to your stricture, I have made a point of ascertaining what that garment is which ladies, “roused in the night”, assume in preference to “frock” or gown, as being at once “more convenient and more becoming”. Candid – as I am sure you are, you will cheerfully allow that I have mastered it, and mastered it triumphantly; in proof whereof I point – not without exultation, to Mrs. Yorke in her Flannel Wrapper: chaste! simple! grand! severe! At this moment I recall another species of drapery whose dignity may be considered yet more recondite and impressive – the camisole or short night-jacket. On mature reflection however – it is my own unbiased opinion that the Wrapper – the Flannel Wrapper harmonises best with the genius of the British Nation to the folds of the Wrapper therefore I cling – and from that patriotic motives – the French – the Belgian women wear camisoles – and pretty figures they cut in them!

For the rest my accuracy is no novelty. Recollect, ma’am, it was only the happy little governess whom I represented as putting on her “frock” and shawl – and as she possessed but three “frocks” (that class of persons often use the word “frock” where a lady would say “dress”, if you observe, ma’am, as does also the domestic servant; – I like to put them on a level) in the world – a personage of your sagacity will have no difficulty in inferring that she was unlikely to boast any choice of garments more convenient and becoming; it may be questioned, indeed, whether it would not have been a piece of impertinent presumption in her to aspire to any such; at the same time two dowager ladies of quality, “roused in the night,” are exhibited as “bearing down on Mr. Rochester in vast white wrappers”. Here, ma’am, is both a fitness of things and a concatenation accordingly. I discuss these points at length under the satisfactory condition that I am writing to one who feels all their profound importance.

The other day I took the train down to Ingram Park to make personal inquiry of Miss Blanch Ingram’s maid about the material of her lady’s morning-dress. I am bound to confess that she shared your righteous indignation. “Crape!” she cried “her mistress never put on crape in a morning in her life, nor gauze neither!”. I petitioned to be informed – She told me “Barége” and proceeded to give a minute description of the pattern: you will have pleasure in hearing it repeated: A light blue ground, barred across with faint stripes of a deeper colour, figured with a pattern of small leaves mixed with zigzags, finished with a narrow silk stripe, straight down. “Very neat” I pronounced it.

You will perhaps say, Ma’am, that “barége” is a fabric of more recent invention than the days of Miss Ingram’s youth; in that case I can only answer, as the young ladies of a foreign establishment where I once taught English were wont briefly to answer when but too clearly convicted of fiction: “Tant pis!”

This preface was intended for Shirley

I had some thoughts on concluding my letter by a tender reproof of that rather coarse observation of yours relative to dessert-dishes and game – but I forbear – warning you only not to indulge too freely in the latter dish when very “high” – in that state it is not wholesome.

What a nice, pleasant gossip you and I have had together, Madam. How agreeable it is to twaddle at ones ease unmolested by a too fastidious public! Hoping to meet you one day again – and offering you such platonic homage as it becomes an old bachelor to pay. I am yours very devotedly, CURRER BELL

Allow me to add my address: Hay-lane Cottage, Hay, Millcote. Should you ever come down to the North – pray do not forget this modest indication. N.B. I read all you said about governesses. My dear Madam – just turn out and be a governess yourself for a couple of years: the experiment would do you good: a little irksome toil – a little unpitied suffering – two years of uncheered solitude might perhaps teach you that to be callous, harsh and unsympathizing is not to be firm, superior, and magnanimous. It was a twinge of the gout which dictated that postscript.”

As we can see, Charlotte has invented a complete persona for Currer Bell – a gout riddled man who lives in Millcote, a fictional location well known to readers of Jane Eyre. Why have I chosen this fascinating preface for today’s post? It is because it was on this day in 1849 that Charlotte Brontë received a letter from her publisher saying that they would not publish the preface, and asking her to supply a different one. To this day, you won’t find this preface in any edition of Shirley. Presumably, George Smith felt that attacking critics, however deserving of it they may be, was not a wise commercial decision, or possibly he was worried that they could be opening themselves up to legal action? Whatever the reason, Charlotte’s idea of taking revenge against Elizabeth Rigby through her novels would never come to fruition. Or would it?

Does this Villette cover star ring any bells?

Here is the cover to a 1973 Pan Classics edition of Villette. As we can clearly see by comparing it to the photograph above, they have used Elizabeth Rigby herself as the cover star: whatever would she have made of that? A word to the wise: there will be another new Brontë blog post here next Sunday, and I hope you can join me then. Have a great day, and a great week to follow.