Charlotte Brontë And Her Winter Illnesses

January is the longest month, but it can sometimes feel as if it lasts 31 weeks not 31 days. The nights are long and the days are cold and icy. It’s a time of year when people often feel ill or ‘under the weather’, and this was the certainly the case for Charlotte Brontë. In today’s post we’re going to look at two letters she sent on this day in 1852; two letters that lay bare the physical and psychological pressure under which she was living in the years that followed, in rapid succession, the deaths of her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.

Villette was published 170 years (and a day) ago

The letters, sent on the same day exactly 171 years ago, were sent to two members of the same family. Her publisher and friend (and some have speculated another unrequited love) George Smith, and his mother Elizabeth. Charlotte had visited the Smiths in London in June 1851, and it could be that they were expecting her to visit again soon – but she informs them that illness prevents her now and that she feels unable to return to London until certain conditions are fulfilled. It seems likely that Charlotte is referring to the completion of her novel Villette. Yesterday, the 28th of January, marked the anniversary of the novels publication in 1853. Let us turn now to the letters:

Charlotte is staying at Brookroyd in Birstall, the home of her great friend Ellen Nussey, but mental as well as physical torments continue to plague her. With the frankness typical of her letters, Charlotte reveals that she has suffered terribly from depression of spirits in the autumn, followed by “the solitude of life I have felt very keenly this winter.” It makes us think of another letter of Charlotte in which she talks of walking the moors alone, and seeing Anne and Emily everywhere. She loved to read their poetry but now she dare not, because to do so makes her long for her own death.

This must have been a terrifying time for Charlotte, because the physical symptoms she now suffered from were all too familiar to her. The wasting and inability to eat, a shooting pain in her side. Charlotte writes that “my own conclusion was that my lungs were affected.” Charlotte had seen these same symptoms before in all her siblings shortly before they died – she thought that she too had now contracted consumption. Thankfully Charlotte did not have tuberculosis, her lungs and chest were fine, but it is easy to imagine her terror as she waited for a diagnosis.

George Smith
George Smith

In her letter to George Smith, Charlotte writes, “You would find me thin but not exactly ill now”. Despite some of the representations of Charlotte on screen throughout the years, Charlotte was not only small she was very thin too – she is often described as ‘frail’ in appearance by those who knew her. Charlotte called herself, ‘the weakest, puniest, least promising of his [Patrick Brontë’s] six children’, and yet she outlived all her siblings.

Charlotte found herself challenged by mental and physical illness throughout much of her adult life, but she battled on and produced some of the greatest works of fiction the world has ever seen. The dark nights of winter were especially hard for her, but they passed. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Coping With The Cold In The Brontë Parsonage

One thing I find wonderful is that there are readers of this blog, Brontë lovers, from all corners of the globe. I hope wherever you are, you’re enjoying a happy and healthy start to the year. Those of us in the United Kingdom are certainly ‘enjoying’ a very cold start to the year, and due to huge rises in energy costs many of us are living in colder homes than ever before. Spare a thought for the Brontës – how did they cope with the cold conditions in Haworth Parsonage? We’re going to look at that in today’s post.

As all who are fortunate enough to have visited Haworth in West Yorkshire know, it’s a village that clings to the north west tip of the county, surrounded on three sides by bleakly dramatic Pennine moorland. The Parsonage itself, which was home to the Brontë family for so long, is at the very summit of the village, and the moors sweep away from its very walls. The result is often very beautiful, but even more often extremely cold.

Haworth moors snow
Haworth moorland leading from the Bronte parsonage

The Brontës would have become used to driving rain, heavy snow and howling winds – and its presence finds a way into many Brontë novels and poems. The ‘wuthering’ of Wuthering Heights, for example, references a local dialect word for a particularly icy wind which blows across bleak, open landscapes.

Aunt Branwell must have felt the cold more than most, having spent most of her life in the far warmer climes of Penzance in Cornwall, 400 miles to the south. Ellen Nussey described one way in which she coped with the cold Parsonage: “She had a horror of the climate so far north, and of the stone floors in the parsonage. She amused us by clicking about in pattens whenever she had to go into the kitchen or look after household operations.”

Aunt Branwell display case
Aunt Branwell display case, Bronte Parsonage Museum, showing her pattens

Pattens are metal soles fastened to the bottom of shoes; typically used outside to provide grip in snow or ice, Aunt Elizabeth used them indoors to protect her feet from the freezing stone floor. As can be seen from pairs of boots which still remain part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection, early nineteenth century shoes were very different to those we wear today. They were much thinner, and yet the Brontës, especially Emily, would think nothing of walking long distances in them, whatever the weather.

Bronte Shawls

It’s also hard to imagine how they coped with the bitter cold without today’s thermal clothing and quilted coats. One way they coped was to layer up, and to wrap shawls tightly around them. The collection of shawls in the Brontë museum is one of its most beautiful treasures, but they were highly practical and necessary items too.

The harsh winter climate of Haworth contributed to continuous colds and illness, but two letters sent on this day in 1849 deal with a far more serious complaint. Anne Brontë had by this time been diagnosed with terminal consumption, tuberculosis as we would call it today, and Charlotte’s publisher George Smith had offered to pay for leading London specialist Dr. Forbes to visit Haworth Parsonage to see if anything could be done for Anne. Charlotte and her father declined this offer, but instead said they would listen to any advice Dr. Forbes could offer. Alas, Dr. Forbes concurred with Dr. Teale of Leeds, there was nothing more to be done.

The second letter sent by Charlotte on this day 174 years ago shows that Ellen Nussey, ever practical and kind, had also offered help. On Anne’s behalf, Ellen purchased a respirator and pairs of cork soles for both Anne and Charlotte. These soles were placed inside shoes, and once again were used to provide some respite from the cold stone floors of Haworth Parsonage. We know from a subsequent letter that the respirator cost Ellen 30 shillings, and the cork sales ten pence each. Charlotte sent Ellen a postal order for two pounds as payment, along with a review of the cork soles: ‘which I find extremely comfortable’.

Warmer weather will soon return as the wheel of the year spins round, but until then let’s all be thankful that we don’t have to cope with winter as the Brontës and so many others did – without the aid of central heating, warm modern clothing, or winter footwear. Keep warm and I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Ellen Nussey’s Memories Of Anne Brontë

As you read this, and as I sit typing, a cup of coffee never far from my hand, we are just two days away from the 203rd birthday of our beloved Anne Brontë. I have written two books on Anne, thousands of tweets and hundreds of blog posts, and it’s fair to say that my love of Anne Brontë and her work is well documented, and that it has completely changed the course of my life. In today’s post we’re going to look at Anne Brontë in the words and recollections of someone who knew her better than almost anyone else: Ellen Nussey.

Anne, like her sisters, was very shy, although she battled to overcome this shyness and did forge a successful career as a governess. We know that she did make friends outside of her family, friends such as Ann Marshall of Thorp Green Hall for example, Ellen Cook the schoolgirl who doted upon her at Roe Head, and the Robinson girls – Anne’s charges who loved and respected their governess so much that they continued to seek her advice, and visit her at Haworth, long after Anne had left the employ of their mother.

Nobody outside the Brontë family itself, however, had as long a connection to Anne as Ellen Nussey. Ellen became the best friend of Charlotte Brontë whilst they were at school together at the aforementioned Roe Head School, but the lifelong friendship that developed meant that Ellen was often at Haworth.

The Roe Head School, Scribner's 1871
The Roe Head School, Scribner’s 1871

The kind and personable Ellen soon made friendships with Emily and Anne Brontë too, and she was one of the main sources of information on them for Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life Of Charlotte Brontë (Gaskell herself had never met Emily, Anne or Branwell). Ellen Nussey also remembered Anne during a long article she wrote for Scribner’s Magazine in 1871 and it is from that article that the following information is taken from. Here are the words of Ellen Nussey as she reminisced on her early visits:

“Emily and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption. Anne -dear, gentle Anne – was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favorite. Her hair was a very pretty, light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely, violet-blue eyes, fine penciled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent complexion. She still pursued her studies, and especially her sewing, under the surveillance of her aunt…

In fine and suitable weather delightful rambles were made over the moors, and down into the glens and ravines that here and there broke the monotony of the moorland. The rugged bank and rippling brook were treasures of delight. Emily, Anne, and Branwell used to ford the streams, and sometimes placed stepping-stones for the other two; there was always a lingering delight in these spots, every moss, every flower, every tint and form, were noted and enjoyed. Emily especially had a gleesome delight in these nooks of beauty, – her reserve for the time vanished. One long ramble made in these early days was far away over the moors to a spot familiar to Emily and Anne. which they called “The Meeting of the Waters.” It was a small oasis of emerald green turf, broken here and there by small clear springs; a few large stones served as resting-places; seated here, we were hidden from all the world, nothing appearing in view but miles and miles of heather, a glorious blue sky, and brightening sun. A fresh breeze wafted on us its exhilarating influence; we laughed and made mirth of each other, and settled we would call ourselves the quartette. Emily, half reclining on a slab of stone, played like a young child with the tadpoles in the water, making them swim about, and then fell to moralizing on the strong and the weak. the brave and the cowardly, as she chased them with her hand. No serious care or sorrow had so far cast its gloom on nature’s youth and buoyancy, and nature’s simplest offerings were fountains of pleasure and enjoyment.”

Haworth Parsonage
Haworth Parsonage, Scribner’s 1871

Ellen later remembered the musical evenings spent in Haworth Parsonage, and mused upon the changes she had seen in Haworth since the departure of the Brontës:

“A little later on, there was the addition of a piano. Emily, after some application, played with precision and brilliancy. Anne played also, but she preferred soft harmonies and vocal music. She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone…

Haworth of the present day. like many other secluded places, has made a step onwards, in that it has now its railway station and its institutions for the easy acquirement of learning, politics, and literature. The parsonage is quite another habitation from the parsonage of former days.

The garden, which was nearly all grass, and possessed only a few stunted thorns and shrubs, and a few currant bushes which Emily and Anne treasured as their own bit of fruit-garden, is now a perfect Arcadia of floral culture and beauty. At first the alteration, in spite of its improvement,strikes one with heart-ache and regret; for it is quite impossible, even in imagination, to people those rooms with their former inhabitants.

But after-thought shows one the folly of such regret; for what the Brontës cared for and lived in most were the surroundings of nature, the free expanse of hill and mountain, the purple heather, the dells, and glens, and brooks, the broad sky view, the whistling winds, the snowy expanse, the starry heavens, and the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.”

Haworth Village, Scribner's 1871
Haworth Village, Scribner’s 1871

Ellen later made a very detailed account of the last days of Anne Brontë’s life, but as we are celebrating the birth of Anne we will leave that sad but beautiful document to another time. For now, thanks to Ellen, we can picture Anne by the piano with her sweet face and sweet voice, knitting by the side of the aunt who loved her dearly, or laughing as she leapt from stone to stone at ‘the meeting of the waters’,with Emily and Branwell leading the way. A fitting portrait, I think, to remember Anne by as her special day approaches.

What You Please Anne Bronte

I hope you will join me in thinking of Anne Brontë on Tuesday, and I hope you’ll join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë, The Hegers, And Art From Suffering

The early days of a year are often a time for reflection. This can be a positive exercise, but for many it can lead to sad introspection and a longing for times that have gone. That certainly seemed to be the case at the start of 1845, as we see from a letter written on this day in that year and which we will examine in today’s new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte had returned from Brussels to Haworth just over a year earlier but she wasted no time in writing letters to Constantin Heger, her former Professor and then colleague at the Pensionnat Heger school. The picture at the top of this post shows Brussels in the nineteenth century. From this letter, below, and others there can be no doubt at all that Charlotte held a passionate love for Monsieur Heger – unfortunately for her it was an unrequited love, as Constantin was married to the proprietor of the school Claire Heger.

Claire Heger-Parent, proprietor of the Pensionnat Heger

I present the letter in both its original and translated forms below. The images are taken from my very well thumbed copy of Selected Letters Of Charlotte Brontë edited by Margaret Smith and they can also be found in volume one of the Collected Letters – both books I hugely recommend to Brontë lovers.

This is undoubtedly a sad, mournful letter – especially with hindsight as we know that Constantin Heger never responded to Charlotte. The fact that this letter was cut into pieces and then stitched back together by an unknown hand (usually presumed to be Clare Heger) adds to its mystery and its pathos. This was a terrible, heartbreaking time for Charlotte and yet it played a huge part in the great works of literature which were to come. Less than a year later Charlotte was writing her first novel, The Professor about an English teacher in Brussels who falls in love with his pupil; shortly after she wrote Jane Eyre, and surely Constantin Heger is writ large across the character of Rochester? In both these novels the heroine manages to overcome social divides and marries the man who holds a position of power. An ending denied Charlotte in real life, but one she immortalised on the page.

Was Constantin Heger the villain of this story – did he lead Charlotte on, or was he an unwilling source of her affection? We can never know, although we have conflicting testimonies on this matter.

Constantin Heger
Constantin Heger inspired some of Charlotte’s greatest work

After Heger’s death, family friend Albert Colis wrote a glowing testimony to Constantin – and one in which he took aim at Charlotte Brontë. According to Colis, Charlotte had begged to remain at the Pensionnat and when Clare Heger refused, Charlotte ‘warned Madame Heger that she would take her revenge, and this threat was soon carried out… M. Heger felt deeply the ingratitude of his former pupil, with whom, it need hardly be added, he never afterwards held any conversation.’

In 1915, however, a Mrs O’Brien wrote to the Carluke and Lanark Gazette to recollect a conversation she had once held with an employee of the Pensionnat Heger many years after Charlotte’s sojourn there.

This young woman painted a very different picture of Constantin Heger: ‘In those days Mme. Heger was still ruling, and her husband, when questioned as to his famous pupil, replied with insufferable vanity that he had liked his English élevé [a famous, elevated person], and she had responded with a warmer feeling. The tone of his reply disgusted my friend, both with the speaker and with her surroundings. Her heart ached at the thought of what Charlotte Brontë had suffered in that place, at the hands of those people, who had prospered and done well.’

Charlotte and Heger
Charlotte and Monsieur Heger emerge from the tunnel of mystery in ‘Devotion’ – possibly not the most accurate portrayal

The Hegers will always remain an enigma, but what is undoubted is their influence upon Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte suffered greatly, but from her suffering came greatness which endures.

I hope that your start to the year has been a happy one, and I hope you can join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post – à bientôt.

Happy New Year: A Day Of Change For The Brontës

Happy new year! So we have made it through another year – and what a year it was! Three Prime Ministers, an Olympics and a World Cup, an Emily Brontë biopic which was rather not to my liking and the passing of the crown from mother to son. It was certainly a year of uncertainty, so thank goodness that we had the certainty of great books by the Brontës to turn to in times of need.

This very date also marked momentous changes for two members of the Brontë family. The 1st of January 1809 saw Patrick Brontë conduct his final service as an Assistant Curate in Wethersfield, Essex, before heading to a new parish in Shropshire. It was there he would meet William Morgan and the Fennels who would later persuade him to follow them north to Yorkshire. The rest is literary history.

St Mary Magdalene Wethersfield
St Mary Magdalene, Wethersfield – Patrick Bronte left here on New Year’s Day 1809

Patrick arrived at his parish of Dewsbury, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in the summer of 1812. He supplemented his income by becoming an examiner at Woodhouse Grove school which had been newly founded by the Fennels he had known in Shropshire. Also arriving at the school at this time was a new assistant – their niece from Cornwall, Maria Branwell. Within five months of their first meeting Patrick and Maria were married – in fact this week marked the 210th anniversary of their wedding on 29th December 1812. At the same ceremony at St. Oswald’s church, Guiseley near Leeds, Maria’s cousin Jane Fennel married Patrick’s best friend William Morgan, whilst at the same time in Penzance, Cornwall, Maria’s younger sister Charlotte married her (and Maria and Jane’s) cousin Joseph Branwell. At Guiseley, Patrick officiated at William’s wedding and William at Patrick’s, and the two brides were also bridesmaids. Phew! Thankfully, Charlotte Branwell’s daughter, another Charlotte, later recalled the event to a local newspaper to clarify this triple celebration!

Within seven years and a month of this wedding, Patrick and Maria had a family of six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and baby Anne.

Fast forward 32 years and third child Charlotte Brontë was making a big change of her own. On 1st January 1844 Charlotte left the Pensionnat Heger school in Brussels and started her journey back to her Haworth home – she would never leave England again.

Happy New Year card

Charlotte had arrived nearly two years earlier with Emily Brontë by her side. After a year as a pupil she then spent a year as a teacher and her experiences in Belgium would greatly influence her novels The Professor and Villette. Held in her hand as she left Brussels was a diploma from Monsieur Constantin Heger that she intended to use to set up her own school alongside her sisters; held in her heart, however, was something far more enduring: the unrequited love for the self same Constantin Heger – it would dominate her thoughts and feelings for years to come, and eventually influence her great literary protagonists from Edward Rochester to Paul Emanuel.

Pensionnat Heger
The Pensionnat Heger. Charlotte Bronte left here on New Year’s Day 1844

The start of a new year was a time for major change for the Brontës and it can be for us too. After the unpredictability of recent times, who knows what this new year will bring? All we can do is carpe diem until we can carpe diem no more! Seize the day and take actions today to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do. As a great philosopher said, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think. And I hope you will continue to enjoy my Brontë blogs – I’ll have another one for you right here next Sunday. Thank you so much for all your support, kindness and encouragement throughout 2022, it meant the world to me. Let me finish by wishing you and your loved ones a very happy new year, and by leaving this image of Auld Lang Syne, a musical score copied by hand by Anne Brontë herself and surely the subject of communal sing-alongs in Haworth Parsonage on new year’s long ago.