The Quartette

This week marks an important anniversary in the Brontë story, for it was on July 19th 1833 that Ellen Nussey made her first visit to Haworth Parsonage. Why is this so important? Well, Ellen was there at important moments throughout the Brontë lives, from Anne’s death to Charlotte’s marriage, and it’s thanks to Ellen that we know so much about the Brontë family. In today’s post we’re going to look at Ellen’s account of that first visit, a time when the very best fab four came together, a group who called themselves ‘The Quartette.’

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

After the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855, the last of the six Brontë siblings, Ellen rapidly became famous for her Brontë connection. Literary pilgrims from across the UK and beyond made their way to Ellen’s humble home in search of information about this incredible family – and often they would leave with a Brontë fragment or even a letter. One such visitor, American artist Frederic Yates, even painted this wonderful oil painting of Ellen in old age.

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey in old age, painted by Frederic Yates

In 1871 Scribner’s Magazine asked Ellen to provide her “Reminiscences Of Charlotte Brontë.” Ellen did not disappoint, and demonstrated that she herself had a wonderful way with words. Amidst this long article Ellen gave a fulsome, and at times very moving, description of her first visit to Haworth, so I reproduce it below:

 

Just think, exactly 191 years ago today that loving, fun filled quartette could have been making their way across the moors to the meeting of the waters – it’s now better known as the Brontë Falls. It’s important to remember that, amidst their literary triumphs and personal tragedies, the Brontës had happy, carefree moments too. If only they could have been granted more of them.

Haworth Parsonage, from Scribner’s 1871

I hope to meet you all again next Sunday, not at the waters but right here for another new Brontë blog post.

Three Lions In The Bronte Writing

Thanks to all who came to see me discuss Anne Brontë at the Bradford Literature Festival last Sunday – it was great to see how many Anne fans there are out there, and it was lovely, as always, to hear people say how much they enjoy this blog! It’s a real labour of love for me, so I’m glad that people enjoy reading it just as much as I enjoy writing it.

At the Bradford Literature Festival with Adelle Hay and Helen Meller. Photo by Rose Dawn Gant

I apologise in advance to some of you for the subject matter of today’s post. I’m a football fan and Euro fever has me in its grasp as I look forward to the big final tonight! I promise there will be no 4-4-2 or VAR discussions to follow, but we are going to look at three lions on a shirt, er I mean three lions in Brontë writing.

Jane Eyre

“No – no – Jane; you must not go. No – I have touched you, heard you, felt the comfort of your presence – the sweetness of your consolation: I cannot give up these joys. I have little left in myself – I must have you. The world may laugh – may call me absurd, selfish – but it does not signify. My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.”

“Well, sir, I will stay with you: I have said so.”

“Yes – but you understand one thing by staying with me; and I understand another. You, perhaps, could make up your mind to be about my hand and chair – to wait on me as a kind little nurse (for you have an affectionate heart and a generous spirit, which prompt you to make sacrifices for those you pity), and that ought to suffice for me no doubt. I suppose I should now entertain none but fatherly feelings for you: do you think so? Come – tell me.”

“I will think what you like, sir: I am content to be only your nurse, if you think it better.”

“But you cannot always be my nurse, Janet: you are young – you must marry one day.”

“I don’t care about being married.”

“You should care, Janet: if I were what I once was, I would try to make you care – but – a sightless block!”

He relapsed again into gloom. I, on the contrary, became more cheerful, and took fresh courage: these last words gave me an insight as to where the difficulty lay; and as it was no difficulty with me, I felt quite relieved from my previous embarrassment. I resumed a livelier vein of conversation.

“It is time some one undertook to rehumanise you,” said I, parting his thick and long uncut locks; “for I see you are being metamorphosed into a lion, or something of that sort. You have a ‘faux air’ of Nebuchadnezzar in the fields about you, that is certain: your hair reminds me of eagles’ feathers; whether your nails are grown like birds’ claws or not, I have not yet noticed.”

“On this arm, I have neither hand nor nails,” he said, drawing the mutilated limb from his breast, and showing it to me. “It is a mere stump – a ghastly sight! Don’t you think so, Jane?”

“It is a pity to see it; and a pity to see your eyes – and the scar of fire on your forehead: and the worst of it is, one is in danger of loving you too well for all this; and making too much of you.”

“I thought you would be revolted, Jane, when you saw my arm, and my cicatrised visage.”

“Did you? Don’t tell me so – lest I should say something disparaging to your judgment. Now, let me leave you an instant, to make a better fire, and have the hearth swept up.

disfigured Rochester
Jane tends the blind and disfigured Rochester

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Near the top of this hill, about two miles from Linden-Car, stood Wildfell Hall, a superannuated mansion of the Elizabethan era, built of dark grey stone, venerable and picturesque to look at, but doubtless, cold and gloomy enough to inhabit, with its thick stone mullions and little latticed panes, its time-eaten air-holes, and its too lonely, too unsheltered situation, – only shielded from the war of wind and weather by a group of Scotch firs, themselves half blighted with storms, and looking as stern and gloomy as the Hall itself. Behind it lay a few desolate fields, and then the brown heath-clad summit of the hill; before it (enclosed by stone walls, and entered by an iron gate, with large balls of grey granite – similar to those which decorated the roof and gables – surmounting the gate-posts) was a garden, – once stocked with such hard plants and flowers as could best brook the soil and climate, and such trees and shrubs as could best endure the gardener’s torturing shears, and most readily assume the shapes he chose to give them, – now, having been left so many years untilled and untrimmed, abandoned to the weeds and the grass, to the frost and the wind, the rain and the drought, it presented a very singular appearance indeed. The close green walls of privet, that had bordered the principal walk, were two-thirds withered away, and the rest grown beyond all reasonable bounds; the old boxwood swan, that sat beside the scraper, had lost its neck and half its body: the castellated towers of laurel in the middle of the garden, the gigantic warrior that stood on one side of the gateway, and the lion that guarded the other, were sprouted into such fantastic shapes as resembled nothing either in heaven or earth, or in the waters under the earth; but, to my young imagination, they presented all of them a goblinish appearance, that harmonised well with the ghostly legions and dark traditions our old nurse had told us respecting the haunted hall and its departed occupants.

I had succeeded in killing a hawk and two crows when I came within sight of the mansion; and then, relinquishing further depredations, I sauntered on, to have a look at the old place, and see what changes had been wrought in it by its new inhabitant. I did not like to go quite to the front and stare in at the gate; but I paused beside the garden wall, and looked, and saw no change – except in one wing, where the broken windows and dilapidated roof had evidently been repaired, and where a thin wreath of smoke was curling up from the stack of chimneys.

While I thus stood, leaning on my gun, and looking up at the dark gables, sunk in an idle reverie, weaving a tissue of wayward fancies, in which old associations and the fair young hermit, now within those walls, bore a nearly equal part, I heard a slight rustling and scrambling just within the garden; and, glancing in the direction whence the sound proceeded, I beheld a tiny hand elevated above the wall: it clung to the topmost stone, and then another little hand was raised to take a firmer hold, and then appeared a small white forehead, surmounted with wreaths of light brown hair, with a pair of deep blue eyes beneath, and the upper portion of a diminutive ivory nose.

The eyes did not notice me, but sparkled with glee on beholding Sancho, my beautiful black and white setter, that was coursing about the field with its muzzle to the ground. The little creature raised its face and called aloud to the dog. The good-natured animal paused, looked up, and wagged his tail, but made no further advances. The child (a little boy, apparently about five years old) scrambled up to the top of the wall, and called again and again; but finding this of no avail, apparently made up his mind, like Mahomet, to go to the mountain, since the mountain would not come to him, and attempted to get over; but a crabbed old cherry-tree, that grew hard by, caught him by the frock in one of its crooked scraggy arms that stretched over the wall. In attempting to disengage himself his foot slipped, and down he tumbled – but not to the earth; – the tree still kept him suspended. There was a silent struggle, and then a piercing shriek; – but, in an instant, I had dropped my gun on the grass, and caught the little fellow in my arms.

I wiped his eyes with his frock, told him he was all right and called Sancho to pacify him. He was just putting a little hand on the dog’s neck and beginning to smile through his tears, when I heard behind me a click of the iron gate, and a rustle of female garments, and lo! Mrs. Graham darted upon me – her neck uncovered, her black locks streaming in the wind.

“Give me the child!” she said, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper, but with a tone of startling vehemence, and, seizing the boy, she snatched him from me, as if some dire contamination were in my touch, and then stood with one hand firmly clasping his, the other on his shoulder, fixing upon me her large, luminous dark eyes – pale, breathless, quivering with agitation.

Helen and Arthur
Helen and Arthur in the BBC’s brilliant Tenant adaptation

Charlotte Brontë, Letter to Francis Bennoch

So there we have three lions in the Brontë writing. In one we see a disfigured Rochester find hope, then love, with Jane Eyre; in the next we see Gilbert meeting Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall, for the first time, and get a first clue as to her story. Finally, we see the ever humble Charlotte say that, at 37, she is too old for praise – too old to be a lion.

Francis Bennoch

It (a national football trophy) could be coming home for the mens’ team tonight for the first time in 58 years, but let’s not forget that it came home for the lionesses just two years ago when they won Euro 22 for England’s women. Ellen Nussey, loyal friend of the Brontës, called herself a lioness in her very final interview in 1897:

In connection with her correspondence with Charlotte, Miss Nussey said she had often been badly treated, and I quite agreed with her when she informed me of the circumstances. This led me to tell her I had heard something of the kind before, and that I had felt diffident about seeking an interview, but that at last I had yielded, the suggestion being that I should ‘beard the lioness in her den.’ She laughed heartily, and exclaimed, ‘That’s exactly what I am, a lioness. I have to be, because of the way I have been treated.’ To me she was all kindness, and the interview throughout seemed to be mutually satisfactory. We parted, but she called me again to the house door, and then with a nervous air said, ‘Remember! All who have anything to do with the Brontës have had great trouble.’

I promise there will be no football next week and lots of Brontës, but tonight, whatever our nationality and whatever we think of sport, let’s get behind Gareth Southgate and the gang. After all, he lives in Swinsty Hall in Yorkshire just 20 miles from Haworth – which surely makes him an honourary Brontë fan for one night. Whatever the result for England against Spain I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Truth And Fiction In Agnes Grey

My latest Brontë blog post is a day earlier than usual, so don’t worry – you haven’t slept in and missed the England football match, Wimbledon tennis or Michael McIntyre’s ‘The Wheel’. I’m writing and posting on Saturday this week because on Sunday I’m appearing at the Bradford Literature Festival, at 1pm at the grand Midland Hotel – a location once known to Branwell Brontë.

You can buy tickets by clicking on this link, and it would be lovely to see you there. It’s a question and answer session, and no doubt we’ll also have time to mention Charlotte, Emily and other Brontë-related subjects. The main subject however, is Anne Brontë and her first novel Agnes Grey, and the parallels between Anne’s fiction and her life. We will look at a few brief examples in today’s post.

Agnes Grey was the debut novel of Anne Brontë – published in December 1847 (alongside her beloved sister Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights), it is believed that Anne may have been referring to an early iteration of the book in her diary paper of July 1845, in which she wrote: “I have begun the third volume of passages in the life of an individual. I wish I had finished it.” If this is an indeed an early draft, then it would make it the earliest of the Brontë novels now in print.

Agnes Grey frontispiece
Original frontispiece to Agnes Grey

The book as it is today is in three distinct sections, so it would suit a three volume treatment as mentioned in the diary paper, although it is a short book. It is very clearly, in my opinion, autobiographical in nature in many instances. When I was re-reading the book whilst writing my Anne biography In Search Of Anne Brontë, I got a cheap edition and highlighted passages which seemed to be at least partly autobiographical in nature (please note that I don’t generally approve of writing in books, or of turning page corners down); I found sixty such passages. Looking back through the self same edition this week I find that I’m not quite as confident on some of the highlighted passages, but that there are other sections I didn’t highlight which seem to me be based on Anne’s life and experiences.

We don’t have to look far for instances of autobiographical information; on the very first page Agnes, the eponymous narrator, tell us: “My father was a clergyman of the north of England.” If we take ‘of’ to mean living in, rather than born in, then this also describes Anne Brontë herself of course.

Blake Hall, Mirfield
Blake Hall is Wellwood House in the novel

In that same opening chapter, Agnes describes how her mother had come from much wealthier stock, and how she is one of six children. Both of these match the Brontë facts precisely. Agnes decides to become a governess, but because she is the youngest sibling her parents do not think her capable of looking after others – she will always be the baby of the family to them. We can easily imagine that Anne faced the same problems when she two announced her decision to become a governess.

This book is not only full of autobiographical signposts, it also paints a vivid portrait of life as a governess. Agnes has two positions, in the first she has children who are unruly and whose parents treat her with disdain. In the second, the children are much less vicious, but Agnes is dismayed at the way their mother is preparing them for society weddings without considering love.

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson, the model for Mrs Murray

These two episodes seem very closely related to Anne’s time as governess to the Ingham family of Blake Hall and the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall. Indeed, I believe writing the first section may have been a cathartic experience for Anne as it allowed her to get revenge, on paper, on the horrors that she had experienced as governess to the Inghams. Agnes lasts a matter of months as governess to the Bloomfields; in real life Anne was dismissed mere months after becoming governess to the Ingham family – her position deemed untenable after the parents entered the schoolroom and found that Anne had tied one of her charges to a table leg so she could write poetry in peace.

The most moving element of the novel to me is the ever so sweet romance between Agnes and Edward Weston, the assistant curate near Horton Lodge, based upon Thorp Green Hall. I have no doubt that Weston is a near facsimile, in character and actions, of William Weightman – Anne’s eternal love who was ripped from life far too soon.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was the inspiration for Anne’s hero Weston

Weightman’s death had destroyed Anne’s dreams – she could have enjoyed a mutual love with him, have married him – after all what could be more natural for an assistant curate than to marry the daughter of the more senior clergyman he assisted? Real life killed the dream Anne dreamed, but she resurrected it on paper and gave herself the happy ending she had always wanted. 

I will be talking about this and much more tomorrow at the Bradford Literature Festival. If you can’t make it, do pick up a copy of Agnes Grey – it’s a fabulous read. I’m firmly in the camp of the great Irish novelist George Moore who said of it: “Agnes Grey is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature… a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress… We know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint.”

Anne herself is quite candid about the nature of her novel right at its beginning: “All true histories contain instruction… shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture; and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.”

We can all be grateful that Anne did exactly that. I’m off now to watch the England match, er I mean to prepare for my talk, but I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

 

The Brontes And Politics

After a campaign that started in a downpour and ends with a hurricane, at last the day of judgement has arrived for the UK and its politicians. Who will be Prime Minister tomorrow – Sunak or Starmer? The polls suggest that’s the biggest foregone conclusion since Rochester wondered if it was safe to marry again now that his wife was safely in the attic. It’s election day 2024, but what did the Brontës think of politics?

It is commonly stated that the sisters were ‘high Tory’, but before Labour, Reform or Lib Dem supporting Brontë fans go red, yellow or blue in the face it’s important to remember that voters at this time had only two choices: Tory, equivalent to the modern day Conservatives, or Whig, who evolved into the current Liberal Democrats.

A punch cartoon depicting Robert Peel as Pecksniff, the hypocritical Dickens character

It’s also important of course to remember that large sections of the country were completely disenfranchised. Women over 21 wouldn’t be allowed the vote until 108 years after Anne was born. The vast majority of men, including Patrick and Branwell Brontë, were also barred from voting by the archaic system then in place. By 1832 around 1 in 1000 people had the vote in England. Cities that were growing rapidly such as Leeds and Manchester had no MPs at all while Dunwich, with a recorded population of 32, was represented by two Members of Parliament.

This was a source of great unrest, with the Chartist movement calling for large scale reforms, including votes for men. The area around Haworth was said to be a hotbed of Chartist activity, with the threat of a violent uprising hanging in the air. This was an inspiration for Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, as well as a reason that Patrick slept with loaded pistols by his bed every night.

female chartists
A contemporary cartoon on female chartists

Although they couldn’t vote, the Brontës were firm supporters of the Tory cause. Patrick had been at University with Henry Temple, later Lord Palmerston. Palmerston was a Tory grandee and would serve twice as Prime Minister, although he later became a Liberal. The undoubted hero of the family was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. He was not only a famous war veteran, he was also a Tory politician who would serve as Prime Minister. 

Thanks to her publisher Charlotte finally met Wellington in 1850, as George Smith described in his memoirs: “Miss Brontë and her father had a passionate admiration for the Duke of Wellington, and I took her to the Chapel Royal, St. James’s, which he generally attended on Sunday, in order that she might see him. We followed him out of the Chapel, and I indulged Miss Brontë by so arranging our walk that she met him twice on his way to Apsley House.” In a letter sent after this event Charlotte wrote excitedly that Wellington, by then aged 80, was ‘a real grand old man.’

Wellington iron
This iron miniature of the Duke of Wellington was a prized possession of Charlotte Bronte

The children took a keen personal interest in politics, and would gain a real grasp of the issues of the day from the newspapers and periodicals that they read. Charlotte described them thus: ‘Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper the Leeds Intelligencer – a most excellent Tory newspaper edited by Mr Wood the proprietor Mr Hennaman. We take 2 and see 3 Newspapers as such we take the Leeds Intelligencer Tory and the Leeds Mercury Whig Edited by Mr Bains and his Brother Soninlaw and his two sons Edward and Talbot – we see the John Bull it is a High Tory very violent’.

Her friend Mary Taylor of the Red House at Gomersal was later to reveal how interested Charlotte was in politics: “We used to be furious politicians, as one could hardly help being in 1832. She [Charlotte] knew the names of the two Ministries; the one that resigned and the one that succeeded and passed the Reform Bill. She worshipped the Duke of Wellington, but said that Sir Robert Peel was not to be trusted; he did not act from principle like the rest, but from expediency… She said she had taken an interest in politics ever since she was five years old. She did not get her opinions from her father – that is, not directly, but from the papers he preferred.”

The Reform Act of 1832 led to some major cities including Leeds getting their own MP. Emily and Anne’s jointly written diary paper of 1834 reveals their excitement that Sir Robert Peel had been chosen to stand as MP for nearby Leeds: ‘Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to stand for Leeds.’ We can only imagine what Charlotte thought of that!

Henry Temple, Viscount Palmerston, was at University with Patrick Bronte

If Anne Brontë was alive today, would she have voted Conservative? It’s an intriguing question, and one that’s impossible to answer, but we can look at what would have been important to her and draw our own conclusions. Anne, following the example of her father, was very keen on the power of education to improve people’s lives. She took a keen interest in the conditions of the poor. She cared greatly about animals and animal welfare, and it’s safe to assume that she would also have been passionate about modern environmental concerns. I would hazard a guess as to which party Anne would be giving her cross to today, but I will keep it to myself!

I’ll see you this weekend for another new Brontë blog post, and I promise it will be a politics (and football) free zone!

Vote Bronte