The Sunset And Death Of Anne Brontë

I always like to provide something new in my blogs looking at Anne Brontë and her remarkable family, but there are some events that we simply have to return to an annual basis. Today is one such day, for in today’s post we are looking at the sad death of Anne Brontë – which occurred exactly 174 years ago today.

Anne, as you may well know, is the only Brontë sibling not buried below the flooring of Haworth church – although she is mentioned in the memorials there. On May 24th Anne Brontë set off from Haworth, with sister Charlotte Brontë and friend Ellen Nussey beside her. Their destination: Scarborough, a resort Anne knew and loved from her time as governess to the Robinson family, and one that was reputed to have healing waters in its spa. Anne, of course, knew there was no prospect of a cure after being diagnosed with terminal consumption (tuberculosis) but she clung to a hope that she could regain some of her health and live a little longer. Alas, it was a forlorn hope.

The site of the George Hotel, York

On the 24th they arrived at their overnight stop of York, staying at the George Hotel on Coney Street – what is left of the hotel now houses a Waterstones bookshop. Whilst in York Anne also bought ribbons and bonnets, ready for the fashionable resort of Scarborough, and visited the huge and imposing York Minster – another site familiar to her from her five years with the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall, not far from York.

On the 25th, they arrived in Scarborough and Anne bought a season ticket for the spa and the newly opened Cliff Bridge leading to it. From Charlotte’s records, we know that they also enjoyed cups of dandelion coffee.

On the 26th of May, Anne took the waters of the spa on her own, but she collapses on her way back to her lodgings and has to be carried inside by the housekeeper. The end is rapidly approaching. In the afternoon, however, Anne drives a donkey cart along the beach on her own, having eschewed the services of the usual driver in case he mistreated the donkey. Donkeys are still a feature of Scarborough’s south beach today.

Donkeys on the Scarborough beach

The next day, the 27th, sees Anne head back to the beach, and she asks Charlotte and Ellen to wait on a bench as she walks on alone. Perhaps Anne’s mind was drawn back to a scene she had set on that very same beach in Agnes Grey just three years earlier. In the scene Agnes is reunited with Weston, and of course they themselves are clearly modelled on Anne and her lost love William Weightman.

Anne is now in no doubt that her end is near, and she asks Charlotte whether they should return to Haworth. It’s too late, and both sisters knew that it would be too painful for their father to bury another child so soon after the deaths of Branwell and Emily Brontë. Anne spent her final night in Wood’s Lodgings looking out of the window at the sea, at the horizon she loved. Ellen Nussey later movingly described this as Anne’s glorious sunset:

“It [the night of the 27th May] closed with the most glorious sunset ever witnessed. The castle on the cliff stood in proud glory gilded by the rays of the declining sun. The distant ships glittered like burnished gold; the little boats near the beach heaved on the ebbing tide, inviting occupants. The view was grand beyond description. Anne was drawn in her easy chair to the window to enjoy the scene with us. Her face became illuminated almost as much as the glorious sun she gazed upon. Little was said, for it was plain that her thoughts were driven by the imposing view before her to penetrate forwards to the region of unfading glory.”

We know, in fact, that this was not an actual physical sunset they witnessed, for the sun sets over Scarborough’s North Bay, not the South Bay where they lived. A sentence in a letter that Meta Gaskell sent to Ellen Nussey after the death of her mother Elizabeth Gaskell, however, provides the key to understanding Ellen’s description:

“When we had all come in we had tea, and then were sitting around the fire in the drawing-room, so cozily and happily, when quite suddenly, without a moment’s warning, in the middle of a sentence, she fell forwards – dead… I cannot tell you how beautiful a “sunset” it was, though we did not know it was that at the time; all mama’s last days had been full of loving thought and tender help for others.”

In asking about the death of Elizabeth Gaskell, Ellen has referred to it as a ‘sunset’ – this then is the phrase Ellen uses to describe the last hours of a person’s life. On the morning of the 28th Anne is too weak to walk down the stairs, but Ellen carries her down. On the way they bump heads and Ellen apologises instantly, but Anne tells her she has nothing to apologise for. Anne is then placed in a chair looking out to sea again. This act of kindness by Ellen Nussey, so typical of her, is at the heart of a painful letter she later sent to Elizabeth Gaskell after the publication of her biography of Charlotte Brontë. It seems that both Patrick Brontë and Arthur Bell-Nicholls (who had a long running, and mutual, enmity towards Ellen) thought that she was the source of unflattering comments within the biography. They were wrong, and a distressed Ellen wrote:

Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell

Anne clearly had little time left to live, a doctor was called for but said he could do nothing and return later. Anne continued to look out of the window, absorbed in her thoughts. Once again we turn to Ellen for a full and moving account of Anne’s last moments:

“She still occupied her easy chair, looking so serene, so reliant: there was no opening for grief as yet, though all knew the separation was at hand. She clasped her hands, and reverently invoked a blessing from on high ; first upon her sister, then upon her friend, to whom she said, ‘Be a sister in my stead. Give Charlotte as much of your company as you can.’ She then thanked each for her kindness and attention. Ere long the restlessness of approaching death appeared, and she was borne to the sofa ; on being asked if she were easier, she looked gratefully at her questioner, and said, ‘It is not you who can give me ease, but soon all will be well through the merits of our Redeemer.’ Shortly after this, seeing that her sister could hardly restrain her grief, she said, ‘Take courage, Charlotte; take courage.’ Her faith never failed, and her eye never dimmed till about two o’clock, when she calmly and without a sigh passed from the temporal to the eternal. So still, and so hallowed were her last hours and moments. There was no thought of assistance or of dread. The doctor came and went two or three times. The hostess knew that death was near, yet so little was the house disturbed by the presence of the dying, and the sorrow of those so nearly bereaved, that dinner was announced as ready, through the half-opened door, as the living sister was closing the eyes of the dead one.”

Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough
Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough

This is a very sad day for fans of Anne Brontë, but we must all take courage. Anne was not scared of death, she had unwavering faith at the moment she needed it most. What she could not have known is that she would still be remembered, still be loved, nearly two centuries later. Keep Anne Brontë, and the sister and friend she left behind, in your thoughts at 2pm today. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë, If This Be All

Anne Brontë was a brilliant writer and a kind, caring woman – and she was also a deeply contemplative person. Charlotte Brontë alluded to this in her biographical notice of her youngest sister, when she wrote: “Hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it.”

Whether Anne’s contemplative nature really did her harm is open to question, of course, but in today’s post we look at a poem written by Anne Brontë almost exactly 178 years ago that demonstrates her powerful thinking – featured in the début Brontë book Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell it is entitled ‘If This Be All.’

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was the first Bronte book

“O GOD! if this indeed be all
That Life can show to me;
If on my aching brow may fall
No freshening dew from Thee, –
If with no brighter light than this
The lamp of hope may glow,
And I may only dream of bliss,
And wake to weary woe;
If friendship’s solace must decay,
When other joys are gone,
And love must keep so far away,
While I go wandering on, –
Wandering and toiling without gain,
The slave of others’ will,
With constant care, and frequent pain,
Despised, forgotten still;
Grieving to look on vice and sin,
Yet powerless to quell
The silent current from within,
The outward torrent’s swell:
While all the good I would impart,
The feelings I would share,
Are driven backward to my heart,
And turned to wormwood, there;
If clouds must ever keep from sight
The glories of the Sun,
And I must suffer Winter’s blight,
Ere Summer is begun;
If Life must be so full of care,
Then call me soon to Thee;
Or give me strength enough to bear
My load of misery.”

This poem was written by Anne Brontë on the 20th of May 1845, so what was causing her gloomy state of mind at this time? Just three weeks later, on June 11th, Anne resigned from her position as governess to the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall (that’s it at the top of this post, it has since been demolished). Less than two months later, without Anne to watch over him, Branwell Brontë was dismissed from his position as tutor there. It’s not difficult to perceive that it was the events Anne was witnessing at Thorp Green, where Branwell was conducting a liaison with mistress of the house Lydia Robinson, that forced her resignation and which forced her to seek refuge in poetry.

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson, Anne’s employer at Thorp Green

This indeed is all for my blog post for this week. Sorry for its late nature – I’ve been working all weekend long at events to raise money for the cats in need at The Sheffield Cats Shelter. It’s a cause close to my heart and one I think Anne and the Brontës would have approved of. If you’d like to help these beautiful kitties find better lives and new homes, you can donate to the charity at this link:!/

I hope to see you next week, at the usual earlier time, for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë And A Real Life Gradgrind

The nineteenth century could be a harsh time, diseases were rife and medical knowledge low, infant mortality was high, and the biggest killer of all was the poverty that gripped a large proportion of the population – a poverty that forced children into mines, up chimneys, and between the deadly machinery of automated looms. Even for those born into the lower middle class, life was unpredictable and dangerous, as we see in the Brontë novels. When we think of middle class Victorian patriarchs today we picture stern, hard hearted men. Not all were like that; Patrick Brontë was a kind, enlightened man (although prone to eccentricity and holder of a fiery temper), but there were real life Gradgrinds to be found – one who was well known to the Brontës, as we shall see in today’s post.

Thomas Gradgrind is the central character of Hard Times, a seminal novel by Charles Dickens first published in 1854 having been serialised throughout that year. He is a school board superintendent who sees profit as his primary concern in the running of schools, and life in general. Cold, hard facts are his currency, and emotions are an alien thing to him – at least at the beginning of the novel. With that in mind, we turn to an extract from a letter sent by Elizabeth Gaskell to John Forster on this day in 1854, in which we hear of Charlotte Brontë’s encounter with a real life Gradgrind:

Letter from Elizabeth Gaskell to John Forster, 14th May 1854

Who could this awful man be? The clues are there. There was one young man very well known to Charlotte Brontë whose wife was in ill health and whose daughter was very sickly – his daughter named Emily. The man was Joseph Taylor, brother of her great friend Mary Taylor.

Members of the Taylor family are reproduced as the Yorkes of Briarmains in Charlotte’s second published novel Shirley, where Joe (Joseph) is the inspiration for Martin Yorke. The Taylors of Red House, Gomersal (that’s it at the head of this post) were once spectacularly wealthy as they held a monopoly on the production of red fabric used in military uniforms, and they even had their own bank. Peacetime brought a sudden cessation to their income, however, and the family dispersed – Mary herself emigrated to New Zealand and travelled widely across Europe.

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor, sister of Joseph

Joe became a chemist, and he appears frequently in Charlotte Brontë’s correspondence, and there can be no doubt that she found him both fascinating and, at first, charming. In June 1843 Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey (who also knew the Taylors well) calling Joe, ‘worthy of being liked and admired also’. As she grew to know him better, however, she saw his cold, selfish side and her opinion of him became more moderated. By July 1852 she was referring to his (again in a letter to Ellen Nussey), ‘organ of combativeness and contradiction.’

Joe Taylor became engaged to Amelia Ringrose, who had earlier been engaged to Ellen Nussey’s brother George. Charlotte immediately expressed sadness for Amelia whom she said was ‘caught between a coarse father and a cold, unsuiting lover.’ Charlotte commented further on this when she wrote that Joe was ‘imbued with selfishness and with a sort of unmanly absence of true value for the woman whose hand he seeks.’

Letter from Charlotte Bronte to Amelia Ringrose, a regular correspondent of hers

They married in 1850 and had one child – a daughter they named Emily, although she was always called by her nickname of ‘Tim’. Tim was prone to frequent bouts of illness, something that the Gradgrind-ish Taylor saw as a weakness and a drain on his resources. In Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is forced to re-evaluate his ideals by the challenges faced by his children – their harsh, fact-centred upbringing has not made them better citizens, it has left them unable to cope with the real world they faced. So what happened to Joe Taylor?

Gradgrind by Harry Furniss
Gradgrind by Harry Furniss

As far as we know there was no such Damascene conversion for him. In fact, despite his reported contempt for the illnesses of his wife and daughter, they both outlived him. Joe Taylor died in 1857, and little Tim died a year later at the age of five. Amelia Taylor died in 1867, aged 48, and is buried in Wyke, a village near Bradford.

Joe Taylor was a complex person. Was he an outright villain, or was he, like Gradgrind, a man ground down by the conventions of his time and too determined to subdue his emotions. Despite his faults and his callous exterior, Charlotte after all described him as an essentially kindly man, and in 1854, the year of Elizabeth Gaskell’s letter, it was Joe Taylor whom Charlotte Brontë turned to to witness the marriage settlement between herself and Arthur Bell Nicholls.

I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post, and that times are not too hard for you and those you love.

The Brontës And The Royal Coronation

Whether you festooned your home in union flags or hid under the duvet, yesterday’s coronation of King Charles III was hard to avoid. In today’s new Brontë blog post we’re going to look at what the Brontës may have thought of the grand coronation in Westminster Abbey.

Firstly, however, I want to address the technical gremlins which beset my blog post last week. Those who subscribe to this site (thank you!) will have had no problem reading about the Thackeray’s accounts of Charlotte Brontë and her blue dress, but it simply didn’t show up on the website itself. Having investigated this thoroughly I can reveal that I have absolutely no idea why this happened – although it did happen once last year as well. If it happens again then I will migrate this site to a new system – it will have a slightly different look, but you’ll still be able to access the old posts from the last 8 years, and there will still be a new Brontë blog post every Sunday.

Assuming/hoping that people will be able to read this, I continue. Would the Brontë family have been fans of the coronation? As always, of course, until we invent the time machine we cannot say with complete certainty. By looking at their writing, letters and diaries, however, we get clues to what their beliefs were, allowing us to indulge in a little educated speculation.

The Brontës, perhaps alongside Charles Dickens, are often thought of as the quintessentially Victorian authors, just as Jane Austen is often seen as a representative of the earlier Regency period. In fact none of the Brontë sisters were born during the reign of Queen Victoria, they were all born during the Regency period when the future King George IV was ruling as Prince Regent in lieu of his ill father George III. Queen Victoria, niece of George IV and William IV, whose short reign came between them, was born in 1819 making her younger than all but one of the Brontë siblings – only Anne Brontë, born in 1820, was born after Victoria.

Princess Victoria, aged 4
Princess Victoria, aged four – A year younger than Emily Bronte, a year older than Anne

By the time Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 Charlotte Brontë was twenty and her younger siblings were in their teens. By a happy coincidence, this was also the time that Emily and Anne Brontë composed their first jointly written diary paper, and we know from this that Victoria’s coronation had grabbed their attention, as we see from this extract:

“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.”

The coronation had so interested Emily and Anne that they created one of their very own in their youthful writings centred upon their imaginary kingdoms of Gondal and Gaaldine. These writings were always full of royal intrigue, of rebellions launched and thwarted, but these two youngest Brontë sisters never saw royalty themselves. The same cannot be said of their elder sister Charlotte.

Victoria coronation
The coronation of Queen Victoria inspired Bronte writings

Charlotte Brontë was in Brussels in 1842 and 1843 (with a brief return to Haworth in the former year after the death of her Aunt Elizabeth Branwell), and it was here that she saw Queen Victoria herself!

On 1st October 1843 Charlotte wrote from Brussels to her sister Emily Brontë in Haworth. In this letter Charlotte writes: “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.”

When she later came to write her magnificent Belgian-set novel Villette it is surely this impression of Queen Victoria which inspired Charlotte’s description of the Queen of Labassecour?

“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.”

Victoria inspired Villette’s Queen

There was certainly plenty of elegance in the coronation of King Charles yesterday, and plenty of pomp and circumstance too, and in my opinion the Brontës would have loved every minute of it. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post (whatever platform it’s on). Enjoy your bank holiday!