Remembering Anne Brontë On Her 175th Anniversary

Today is a sad anniversary for Brontë lovers, as it marks the 175th anniversary of the death of Anne Brontë. The youngest of the six Brontë siblings was just 29 years old. Ellen Nussey recalled Anne’s final moments:

“She [Anne] 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.”

Sunrise Over Sea
Sunrise Over Sea by Anne Bronte

Anne Brontë died on 28th May 1849 on the site of what is now the Grand Hotel, Scarborough. It was a location she loved, and she rests eternally in the churchyard of St. Mary’s church, in the shadow of Scarborough Castle. She will be remembered today in a memorial service at the self same church, and by literature lovers across the globe. Anne could never have imagined that her name would live on 175 years after her passing, but she was always a modest woman more concerned with the message she was imparting than in any fame or reward for herself.

I’m often asked just why Anne Brontë is my favourite Brontë sister. I love Charlotte and Emily too, of course, but for me it will always be Anne that holds a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is because she is the underdog, with her work unfairly neglected when compared to her more famous older sisters? I was once asked in a pub quiz ‘Who is the least famous Brontë sister?’ and, because I wanted to win, I had to give the answer I knew they would be looking for: Anne. Of course, the correct answer would be Maria or Elizabeth. The good news is that I think Anne is finally starting to get the reputation she deserves. More and more people are acknowledging that Anne Brontë deserves to be counted amongst the very top tier of British writers.

I also love Anne because her work manages to be both serious and humorous. Anne herself put it perfectly in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

“I love to give innocent pleasure. Yet, be it understood, I shall not limit my ambition to this or even to producing a perfect work of art: time and talents so spent, I should consider wasted and misapplied. Such humble talents as God has given me I will endeavour to put to their greatest use; if I am able to amuse, I will try to benefit too; and when I feel it my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own.”

Anne Bronte 200
Anne Bronte drawn by Charlotte

Anne succeeded admirably in creating important works of literature that convey important messages. The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall was perhaps the first novel to set before readers the horrors of abusive marriages, the terror of addiction, the inequality between sexes and social classes, and the hypocrisy of organised religion and society at the time. This was an incredibly brave thing for Anne to do, and her incredible novel is as powerful and relevant today as it was in 1848. And yet, it still manages to entertain, to provide innocent pleasure – just as her wonderful debut novel Agnes Grey does.

Above all, it’s clear when we look at Anne’s life, as I have been privileged to do in two biographies and within this blog, that she was a kind, loving and compassionate woman. She adored animals, loved nature, and was religious without ever being judgmental. Anne was incredibly shy, yet she overcame this and made her way in life: she did, after all, hold down a job for more than five years, which was a far greater period than any of her siblings managed. She was a genius writer and a first class human being who had all the tools she needed to succeed in life – except one. She didn’t have time.

The grave of Anne Bronte

Anne died far too young, and her passing has surely left us without what would have been a succession of wonderful books. We can and should, therefore, treasure the novels and poetry Anne has loved us.We should also look at Anne’s life, and her passing, and remember that life is short, we never know what is waiting for us, so we must do all we can to use the talents we have to their fullest.

I leave you with Charlotte Brontë’s tribute to her youngest sister Anne, written during her time of mourning. Anne Brontë left this world 175 years ago today, but in a way she will never leave us whilst her books are still being read and enjoyed. Thank God for Anne Brontë.

“There’s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I’ve lived the parting hour to see
Of one I would have died to save.
Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O’er those belovèd features cast.
The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank Him well and fervently;
Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.”


What You Please, by Anne Bronte
What You Please, by Anne Bronte

First Person Accounts Of Arthur Bell Nicholls

The WordPress gremlins played up again last week, and the post I had written vanished into the ether. I think I’ve found the solution now, so fingers crossed for this weekend and beyond! Last week marked an important anniversary in the life of a man who played a central role in the Brontë story – so in today’s post we are looking at first person accounts of Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today
Arthur Bell Nicholls

In my opinion, it is easy today to get a misleading picture of Arthur. We can see him as the man who led to the death of Charlotte Brontë – that’s certainly what her best friend Ellen Nussey thought. She laid the blame for Charlotte’s death squarely at Arthur’s feet, saying he should have known she was too frail to become a mother. In this unflinching letter to Clement Shorter, Ellen calls Arthur:

“The selfish man who certainly shortened C.B.’s life, none of the sisters liked him, least of all Emily, who probably saw deeper into character than C[harlotte] and A[nne].”

It is very sad, in my opinion, that the two people who were closest to Charlotte, Ellen and Arthur, should have had such enmity for each other and in the years following Charlotte’s death their mutual dislike and distrust only grew. We should not take Ellen’s view here as gospel, however, for in fact Arthur was very popular with the Haworth parishioners who grew to know him.

Ellen and Arthur were on less than friendly terms

An example of this came with the conduct of long time Haworth Parsonage servant Martha Brown. Martha was the daughter of John Brown, who was the Haworth sexton and friend of Branwell Brontë. Martha entered service of the Brontë family at an early age and remained until the death of Patrick Brontë in 1861.

In December 1852 Arthur Bell Nicholls made his first proposal of marriage to Charlotte Brontë, but his heartfelt plea fell on stony ground. Charlotte rejected him, and her father (who was also his employer) Patrick was furious that this assistant curate should think himself a fair match for Charlotte Brontë. A month later, amidst a bitter aftermath, Charlotte wrote to Ellen saying: “I am sorry for one other person [Arthur] whom nobody pities but me. Martha is bitter against him: John Brown says he should like to shoot him.”

Martha then was bitter also at Arthur for having had the audacity to propose to Charlotte, but they later became firm friends – so much so that when the widowed Arthur left to start a new life in Ireland, Martha followed him and became a servant in his new home. Arthur’s great niece Marjorie Gallop recalled:

“Arthur had brought the faithful maid, Martha Brown, from Haworth, and the smell of her sponge cake was generally the first thing that met visitors at the door of that hospitable house. She had not lost her Yorkshire austerity in the more easygoing Irish atmosphere and once, when she found her master making up a four at whist, she exclaimed: ‘The minister playing cards! What would the people of Haworth say!”

Martha Brown
Martha Brown, who became a close friend of Arthur

It is clear that Arthur has been popular not just with Martha Brown, but with the Haworth parishioners in general – a group of people not always easily pleased. After Patrick Brontë’s death in 1861, Arthur was a firm favourite amongst parishioners to succeed him as the parish curate. Indeed they gathered a petition after a service one Sunday, and within 24 hours it received over 500 signatures asking for him to be made minister. In spite of this the parish council, showing their traditional stubbornness, vetoed Arthur’s appointment. It seems that they wanted the parish to move away from its association with the Brontës – a decision which seems very shortsighted today, and more than cruel to Arthur.

Another measure of just how popular Arthur was with the Haworth Parishioners came seven years earlier. After Arthur’s rejection by Charlotte he left Haworth with the plan of becoming a missionary in Australia. During one of his final services Arthur broke down and stood there silent and motionless. Eventually he was led away from the pulpit with many of the congregation in tears. After his ‘final’ service on 25th May 1853 he was presented with this beautiful pocket watch. The inscription beneath its cover reads: “”Presented to the Revd. A. B. Nicholls by the teachers, scholars and congregation of St. MIchael’s Haworth Yorkshire May 25th 1853″

It is fitting that the watch was presented by the teachers and scholars of Haworth, for in fact Arthur Bell Nicholls was much more than simply the assistant curate to the parish priest – he was in charge of the Sunday school, of the church school which had been founded by Patrick Brontë, and he also trained promising local scholars to become teachers. One such scholar, who went on to have a long and successful career in education, was James Robinson. He had been training under Arthur when he learnt of his surprise wedding to Charlotte Brontë – it had been kept secret from all but a select few, and in fact James was one of only a handful of people present in the church for the ceremony. In 1913, as an old man, James gave an account of Charlotte and Arthur’s wedding, and he also paid this heartfelt tribute to his mentor:

“I never saw a man feel more than he [Arthur Bell Nicholls] did… no kinder-hearted man or one more anxious to see others improve their position in life, ever lived, and I myself – I might say scores besides – have him to thank for putting us in the way to make a way in life instead of remaining where we had been born, which was undoubtedly at one time one of the poorest places in England.”

As I said earlier, it is sad that a wide division grew between Arthur and Ellen Nussey after Charlotte’s death, so we should really discount their opinions on one another. Both Arthur and Ellen loved Charlotte greatly and were loved by Charlotte in return [even if that did take a little while to come to fruition in Arthur’s case.] Both worked tirelessly to protect the reputation of Charlotte Brontë after her death, but they could not work together. It seems clear to me that Arthur was a very kind man, who was treated shabbily by the parish elders of Haworth. Those who knew him, discounting Ellen, spoke universally of a large yet gentle man, an honourable man, and one who worked hard to improve the lives of the people around him.

Our thoughts now turn to Anne Brontë. Next week marks the 175th anniversary of her death, and on Tuesday I will bring you a special post to commemorate the occasion. If you are in Scarborough, Anne’s final resting place, then the newly formed Anne Brontë Association is holding a number of special events there to mark the occasion. From 2 until 3.30 Scarborough’s St. Mary’s Church is hosting a series of works celebrating Ann’s life, including, at 2.40, excerpts from a new play (by local poet and playwright Wendy Pratt) about Anne Brontë entitled ‘To Be Undone: The Last Days Of Anne Brontë’. From 4 until 5 on the 28th there is a special memorial service to Anne Brontë within the church. I wish I could have been there.

I can be there at another event to mark Anne Brontë’s life on 7th July. I’m thrilled to announce that I’m appearing at the Bradford Literary Festival alongside fellow Brontë biographer Adelle Hay and we’ll be talking all things Anne Brontë and Agnes Grey. You can find more information and buy tickets at this link:ë-and-agnes-grey-parallels-of-resilience-and-reality

It would be lovely to see you there!

Charlotte Bronte On The Role Of A Teacher

Charlotte Brontë spent periods of her life as a teacher at Roe Head school near Mirfield and at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, and she also served as a governess to the White family of Upperwood House in Rawdon. Charlotte was far from happy during these employments, and in today’s post we will look at a very revealing letter she sent on this day 1848 in which she looks at the roles of teachers and governesses.

Roe Head
This was the classroom where Charlotte Bronte taught at Roe Head

The letter was sent to W. S. Williams of her publisher Smith, Elder & Co. It touches upon Charlotte’s hit novel Jane Eyre, the portrayal of a governess within it and the reality of life as a governess or teacher:

In this letter Charlotte Brontë has laid down the essential qualifications for being a teacher: a fondness of children, a sympathy for them, and a desire to impart knowledge to them. In her series of letters known as the Roe Head journals we see that Charlotte Brontë had very little patience with her pupils or sympathy for them. Charlotte also argues against government plans to bring in minimum educational standards for governesses, arguing that to be successful it is not more knowledge that they need but “self-control, endurance, fortitude, firmness.’
Perhaps the most remarkable section of this long letter by Charlotte Brontë comes in its final section. In this we see an echo of the letter poet laureate Robert Southey had sent many years before; this time it is Charlotte herself who asks if there is room for more female doctors, lawyers, artists and authoresses when many men are struggling to find a role in those professions? Charlotte’s sentence “when a woman has a little family to rear and educate and a household to conduct, her hands are full”, could have come straight from Southey’s quill. We have to rememver that whilst Charlotte was a literary genius of the first order she was also a woman of her time.

WS Williams
W. S. Williams. the recipient of this letter

I’m not sure if my posts impart knowledge or “influence young minds”, but I hope you enjoy them and I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Reading Charlotte Bronte’s Handwriting

I’m lucky enough to live in what we locals call God’s Own Country – the county of Yorkshire in the north of England. It has beautiful cities like York, and stunning and contrasting scenery, from the moorlands of the Pennines to the east coast and beautiful resorts like Scarborough that Anne Brontë loved so much. I’m in Scarborough as I type this, and have paid a visit to Anne’s final resting place of course. It also means that I’m in the county the Brontës called home, which means that I can easily make literary pilgrimages to the Brontë birthplace in Thornton and to the village which has become synonymous with them – Haworth.

Visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum are always thrilled most by the things that had a physical connection to the Brontës – such as the toys they played with, the table they ate at and the clothes they wore – such as the stunning dress Charlotte Brontë wore to meet William Makepeace Thackeray; an offcut from it is produced below:

Perhaps the most incredible thing of all however is the work of the Brontës themselves – and by visiting the museum you can see a carefully curated section of their poetry, letters and manuscripts. Charlotte Brontë, like her sisters Anne and Emily, was a writer of genius, of course, and her books tell us so much, but what does her handwriting tell us?

I have reproduced her handwriting below, with thanks to the Oxford University Press ‘Letters Of Charlotte Brontë’ (a series of three books which I hugely recommend to all). At one point I enlisted the help of a leading graphologist , Jean Elliott, to examine Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting. Her opinion was that Charlotte was practical and self reliant, but also over-emotional, and possibly loved singing (there’s an interesting thought!).

Extracts from four letters to Ellen Nussey and one to W. S. Williams

This seems to fit in well with what we know about Charlotte’s life and character – she was certainly a deep feeling and emotional woman. It also fits in with what expert phrenologist T. E. Browne said after feeling Charlotte’s head in 1851! Phrenology is the ‘art’ of determining someone’s character by examining the unique landscape of their head. Charlotte Brontë was a big fan of phrenology, and so her publisher George Smith arranged for her to have her bumps felt by someone who had no idea who she was (indeed, Smith told Dr. Brown that Charlotte was his sister). Here is Browne’s analysis:

‘Temperament for the most part nervous. Brain large, the anterior and superior part remarkably salient. In her domestic relations this lady will be warm and affectionate. In the care of children she will evince judicious kindness, but she is not pleased at seeing them spoiled by over-indulgence. Her fondness for any particular locality would chiefly rest upon the associations connected with it. Her attachments are strong and enduring — indeed, this is a leading element of her character; she is rather circumspect, however, in the choice of her friends, and it is well that she is so, for she will seldom meet with persons whose dispositions approach the standard of excellence with which she can entirely sympathise. Her sense of truth and justice would be offended by any dereliction of duty, and she would in such cases express her disapprobation with warmth and energy; she would not, however, be precipitate in acting thus, and rather than live in a state of hostility with those she could wish to love she would depart from them, although the breaking-off of friendship would be to her a source of great unhappiness.

The careless and unreflecting, whom she would labour to amend, might deem her punctilious and perhaps exacting; not considering that their amendment and not her own gratification prompted her to admonish. She is sensitive and is very anxious to succeed in her undertakings, but is not so sanguine as to the probability of success. She is occasionally inclined to take a gloomier view of things than perhaps the facts of the case justify; she should guard against the effect of this where her affection is engaged, for her sense of her own importance is moderate and not strong enough to steel her heart against disappointment; she has more firmness than self-reliance, and her sense of justice is of a very high order. She is deferential to the aged and those she deems worthy of respect, and possesses much devotional feeling, but dislikes fanaticism and is not given to a belief in supernatural things without questioning the probability of their existence. Money is not her idol : she values it merely for its uses; she would be liberal to the poor and compassionate to the afflicted, and when friendship calls for aid she would struggle even against her own interest to impart the required assistance – indeed, sympathy is a marked characteristic of this organisation.

Is fond of symmetry and proportion, and possesses a good perception of form, and is a good judge of colour. She is endowed with a keen perception of melody and rhythm. Her imitative powers are good, and the faculty which gives manual dexterity is well developed. These powers might have been cultivated with advantage. Is a fair calculator, and her sense of order and arrangement is remarkably good. Whatever this lady has to settle or arrange will be done with precision and taste. She is endowed with an exalted sense of the beautiful and ideal, and longs for perfection. If not a poet her sentiments are poetical, or are at least imbued with that enthusiastic glow which is characteristic of poetical feeling. She is fond of dramatic literature and the drama, especially if it be combined with music.

In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. It is highly philosophical. It exhibits the presence of an intellect at once perspicacious and perspicuous. There is much critical sagacity and fertility in devising resources in situations of difficulty, much originality, with a tendency to speculate and generalise. Possibly this speculative bias may sometimes interfere with the practical efficiency of some of her projects. Yet since she has scarcely an adequate share of self-reliance, and is not sanguine as to the success of her plans, there is reason to suppose that she would attend more closely to particulars, and thereby present the unsatisfactory results of hasty generalisation.

This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force – sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. The character of the German language would be well adapted to such an organisation. In analysing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power; but in her mode of investigating mental science she would naturally be imbued with a metaphysical bias; she would perhaps be sceptical as to the truth of Qale’s doctrine. But the study of this doctrine, this new system of mental philosophy, would give additional strength to her excellent understanding by rendering it more practical, more attentive to particulars and contribute to her happiness by imparting to her more correct notions of the dispositions of those whose acquaintance She may wish to cultivate.’

Phrenology was very popular in the 19th century

Perhaps, then, Charlotte Brontë did like music, and did like to sing, as both her handwriting and head bumps suggest this? Of course, we can all make up our own minds as to whether graphology or phrenology are exact sciences, but they’re certainly fun! I am heading off for a stroll on Scarborough South Bay beach now, following in the footsteps of Anne Brontë. I hope to see you all next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.