The Discovery Of The Brontë Diary Papers

A lot of us have had a lot of extra time on our hands this year, for better or worse. It’s been an anxious year at times, of course, but it’s also provided the opportunity for many to learn new skills or spend time doing the things they love – like reading a good book. It has also provided opportunities for reflection, so it may be that you’ve started a journal or diary. If so, then you’re in good company for this week was the 186th anniversary of the first diary paper written by Emily and Anne Brontë, so in today’s post we’re going to look at it and how it came to be discovered.

Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls made an astonishing discovery in 1895

After the tragic early death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 the majority of her possessions went to her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, although some items were left to her friend and faithful parsonage servant Martha Brown. Without doubt Arthur continued to love Charlotte until the end of his days, although he did later marry his cousin Mary Bell after returning to Ireland (Mary’s father was a priest, so Arthur had married both Currer Bell and the daughter of Curate Bell). Charlotte’s legacy was painful to look at, and for that reason many of Charlotte’s items went untouched by Arthur for many years. It was forty years after Charlotte’s passing that Arthur took a look at one particular item and made an incredible discovery.

The item was a plain tin cash box which Branwell Brontë had at one point gifted to his sister Emily. Emily Brontë had used it as a sewing box, so upon opening it Arthur found a collection of bobbins, needles, thimbles and thread. Turning it over in his hands however he found something else, a hidden compartment secreted at the base of the box.

This box kept the secret of the Bronte diary papers!

Opening this compartment, Arthur found something completely unexpected, and completely remarkable. It held a collection of tiny folded pieces of paper, placed there by Emily before her death in 1848. These papers were what we now call the ‘diary papers’ written by Emily and Anne Brontë in the years 1834, 1837, 1841 and 1845 and they give a remarkable insight into life in the Brontë household, and in their lives, at these times. The first diary paper was written jointly by Emily and Anne on 24th November 1834, and is reproduced in full below:

“November the 24, 1834 Monday, Emily Jane Brontë, Anne Brontë,

I fed Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake, Jasper, pheasant this morning. Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to stand for Leeds. Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make an apple pudding and for Aunt’s nuts and apples. Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but limited intellect. Tabby said just now come Anne pilloputate (ie pill a potato). Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said, ‘where are your feet Anne?’ Anne answered, ‘on the floor Aunt’. Papa opened the parlour door and gave Branwell a letter saying, ‘here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte’. The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine, Sally Mosley is washing in the back kitchen.

It is past twelve o’clock Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play. We are going to have for dinner boiled beef, turnips, potatoes and apple pudding; the kitchen is in a very untidy state. Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major. Tabby said, on my putting a pen in her face, ‘ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate’, I answered, ‘oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, I will directly’. With that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished pilling the potatoes). Papa going to walk. Mr Sunderland expected.

Anne and I say I wonder what we shall be like and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874 – in which year I shall be in my 57th year, Anne will be going in her 55th year, Branwell will be going in his 58th year, and Charlotte in her 59th year; hoping we shall all be well at that time, we close our paper.

Emily and Anne, November the 24 1834”

1834 diary paper front
The 1834 diary paper front page includes a drawing of a lock of hair by Anne Bronte
1834 diary paper
Back page of Emily and Anne Bronte’s 1834 diary paper

In its mundanity is its brilliance. It shows teenage girls in 1834 (Anne and Emily were 14 and 16 at the time) being much like teenagers today – they haven’t done their homework, haven’t tidied their rooms and want to go out to play. The handwriting is messy and punctuation and spelling an afterthought, typical of Emily at this time but she would grow up to be one of the greatest, some might say the greatest, novelist of all time. Emily also loved to draw and doodle, as we see in subsequent diary papers, but in the 1834 entry it is Anne who has drawn long flowing hair down the left hand side of the front page.

This is also a very moving piece of writing, particulary as Emily and Anne wonder what they will all be doing in 1874. Arthur first saw this diary paper 21 years after that date, so he knew as we do that by 1874 they were all, alas, long dead.

It was an incredible yet chance discovery that has given us lots of valuable and fascinating information on the Brontës. Above all, it shows them as humans like you and I, rather than the towering genii they are often encountered as. What a lucky discovery, and who knows what other discoveries may yet be made?

Perhaps today could be a good day to start your own journal, after all future generations are sure to be fascinated, and possibly bemused, by how we live our lives today? I hope you can join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post; hoping we shall all be well at that time, I close my post.

Past Days: Anne Brontë’s Isolation Message

Let’s face it, this has been a strange year. At the dawn of January I was looking forward to a year spent celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë, but 2020 had other plans. Many of us have found ourselves separated from the ones we love, and unable to do those everyday things we enjoy so much and perhaps took for granted. It’s been challenging for us all, and this isolation and a longing for a return to the past is something that Anne Brontë was familiar with too, as we can see from a poem that she wrote on this day in 1843.

Anne Bronte’s 200th anniversary year has been very different to how I expected it to be

Anne originally called the poem ‘’Tis Strange To Think’, but it was later given the title of ‘Past Days’ for its inclusion in the very first Brontë book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. By the time of its writing, and it was dated by Anne on the 22nd of November 1843, Anne was coming to the close of her fourth year in the service of the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall; it is just over a year since the love of her life, William Weightman, died of cholera, and a month until she can return to her beloved home in Haworth for the Christmas holiday. Anne’s feelings of despair and alienation can clearly be seen in her poem which follows:

“’Tis strange to think there was a time
When mirth was not an empty name,
When laughter really cheered the heart
And frequent smiles unbidden came,
And tears of grief would only flow
In sympathy for others’ woe;
When speech expressed the inward thought
And heart to kindred heart was bare,
And Summer days were far too short
For all the pleasures crowded there,
And silence, solitude and rest,
Now welcome to the weary breast,
Were all unprized, uncourted then,
And all the joy one spirit showed
The other deeply felt again,
And friendship like a river flowed,
Constant and strong its silent course,
For nought withstood its gentle force;
When night, the holy time of peace,
Was dreaded as the parting hour
When friendly intercourse must cease
And silence must resume her power,
Though ever free from pains and woes
She only brought us calm repose;
And when the blessed dawn again
Brought daylight to the blushing skies
We woke, and not reluctant then
To joyless labour did we rise,
But full of hope and glad and gay
We welcomed the returning day.”

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne was governess at the time she wrote ‘Past Days’

In one sense this is an understandably mournful poem, but in another sense it’s a joyous poem too, even if the joys are only remembered ones. Anne gives us a snapshot of life in Haworth Parsonage at the turn of the 1840s, with the kindred hearts of the Brontë sisters revelling in their nascent creativity and laughing out loud at their shared happiness.

It particularly gives us an insight into the closest and most important friendship of Anne’s life – that with her sister Emily Brontë. The closeness of Anne and Emily was remarked upon on more than one occasion by family friend Ellen Nussey:

‘She [Emily Brontë] and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’

In her poem Anne Brontë recalls this sororal symbiosis with happiness, remembering long summer days together walking the moors. Only night time can temporarily break their friendship, so the welcome the rising of the sun and the return of a new day which would see them side by side again. Alas, in November 1843 that joy has been eclipsed, and the sun only brings another day away from Emily and her family.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
A close friendship was the driving force in the lives of Anne and Emily Bronte

It’s a situation that many of us in lockdown can easily sympathise with. We find ourselves away from family and loved ones, and the rising sun only brings another day where they are distant. Nevertheless this isolation and despair passed. Anne returned to Haworth a month later and spent a happy Christmas with her family, and a year and a half later she was back home in Haworth permanently. Our isolation too will pass, and this dreadful virus will pass and be defeated, so until then we need to take solace, like Anne, in happy memories and the knowledge that we will be with our loved ones again. It also helps if we have a good book or two to read as well, of course.

Once again, we find the writing of Anne Brontë to be remarkably prescient, she truly is a writer for our time and for all times. In the version published within Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell we find the stamp of another genius too: Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte had taken on the task of editor for their poetry project, and it was surely she who gave Anne’s poem the title of ‘Past Days’ by which it’s now known. She also changed one line in the poem; Anne’s wrote about ‘when friendly intercourse must cease’, but Charlotte changed it to ‘when speech and mirth at once must cease’, emphasing even more powerfully the joyous nature of the relationship the sisters enjoyed.

Many people think of the Brontës as an endlessly tragic, gloomy bunch, but it seems to me that they were often very happy, carefree and loving siblings and that the walls of their parsonage often rang with laughter. I hope you find something to smile and laugh about today, because better times are drawing ever nearer and whilst past days may be good, future days could be even better. I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Aftermath Of The Life Of Charlotte Brontë

Other than the Brontë novels themselves, it’s hard to beat a good Brontë biography. Contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life Of Charlotte Brontë wasn’t the first Brontë biography (that was by the mysterious W. P. P. and you can read about it here) but it was certainly the first officially sanctioned biography, and it helped to cement Charlotte Brontë’s reputation which endures to this day. Gaskell herself died on this week in 1865, so in today’s work we will take a look at the torrid history of her Brontë biography, and at why she wished she’d never written it.

The young Elizabeth Gaskell
A young Elizabeth Gaskell

The first thing we should say is that The Life Of Charlotte Brontë was a huge success upon its publication by Smith, Elder & Co. in March 1857. This success, sales wise and acclaim wise, has continued: Woman At Home magazine in 1896 said, ‘in the whole of English literature there is no book that can compare in widespread interest with The Life Of Charlotte Brontë by Mrs. Gaskell’, and in 2017 it featured in The Guardian’s list of the hundred best non-fiction books of all time.

By 16th June 1857 however, just three months after its publication, Gaskell wrote to Ellen Nussey (Charlotte’s great friend who had been the major source for the biography): ‘I am in the Hornet’s nest with a vengeance… I have cried more since I came home than I ever did in the same space of time before; and never needed kind words so much – & no one gives me them.’

What had happened? By May 1857 the first edition had completely sold out and a second edition had been released, but a month later the book was removed from sale, and we get a clue why in this edition of the Yorkshire Gazette dated 30th May 1857 (and which appeared in other papers across the country:

A certain lady, carefully not mentioned by name in either The Life Of Charlotte Brontë nor in these letters has threatened to sue Gaskell and her publishers after the book ‘impute to the lady in question a guilty intercourse with the late Branwell Brontë.’

The passage of time, of course, allows us to identify the lady as the former Lydia Robinson of Thorp Green Hall, by 1857 the rather grander Lady Scott. It is interesting to note that the solicitor acting on behalf of Lady Scott was a W. Shaen of Newton & Robinson solicitors of London, and the person acting on behalf of the Gaskells was William Shaen of Newton & Robinson solicitors of York. At least somebody must have done well out of the matter, as they wrote legal letters to themselves. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if it had ended up in court.

Gaskell was forced to apologise and rewrite the chapters involving Branwell and Lydia Robinson and the injunction was lifted, but her troubles didn’t end there. On 24th April 1857, W. W. Carus Wilson, having read The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, wrote to The London Evening Standard:

The letter writer is the son of the Reverend William Carus Wilson, founder of the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge, who insisted that his father ‘has spent a life solely for the good of others.’

This seems in rather bad taste when you consider that Maria and Elizabeth Brontë were just two of the many children who had died in (or after being sent home from) Wilson’s harsh schools – with large numbers of deaths recorded both in the time of the Brontës and in succeeding decades. Wilson junior attributes the stories within the biography to Elizabeth Gaskell’s dislike of the ‘evangelical’ wing of the church. The Wilson family and friends launched a prolonged campaign against the book and its author, and they too threatened legal action meaning that once again the book had to be re-written. Thankfully no amount of threatening letters and legal action can remove the character of Mr. Brocklehurst from Jane Eyre nor will it stop readers from knowing that, as Charlotte herself had asserted, that this was a facsimile portrait of the cruel Carus Wilson.

Sources closer to the Brontë family also found cause to complain to Elizabeth Gaskell. Patrick Brontë, the man who had originally commissioned Gaskell to write the biography of his daughter, was unhappy at his portrayal within it, and especially the statement (which we know to be untrue) that he had denied his children meat. It was for this reason that Patrick spoke to The Daily News England in August 1857, who reported:

‘With regard to the statement that Mr Brontë, in his desire to bring up his children simply and heartily, refused to permit them to eat flesh meat he asserts that Nancy Garrs alleges that the children had meat daily, and as much of the food as they chose. The early article from which they were restrained was butter, but its want was compensated for by what is known in Yorkshire as ‘spice-cake,’ a description of bread which is the staple food at Christmas for all meals but dinner.

“I did not know that I had an enemy in the world, much less one who would traduce me before my death. Everything in that book [The Life Of Charlotte Brontë] which relates to my conduct to my family is either false or distorted. I never did commit such acts as are ascribed to me. I stated this in a letter which I sent to Mrs Gaskell, requesting her at the same time to cancel the false statements made about me in her next edition of her book. To this I received no answer than that Mrs Gaskell was unwell, and unable to write.”’

Already the strain brought on by the book, and an almost constant stream of letters from solicitors and unhappy individuals, is making Elizabeth Gaskell unwell. Ellen Nussey, too, had cause to write to Elizabeth. One sad aspect of the book’s publication is that Patrick and Arthur blamed Ellen for the sections of the book they were unhappy with, although again we now know that she was not the source for those parts of the biography. They cut off the woman who had been Charlotte’s best friend, and a lifelong animosity grew between Ellen and Arthur. With a moving plea, she too wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell:

Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell

By November 1857 a third edition of The Life Of Charlotte Brontë was published. It bore the legend ‘revised and corrected’ it should really have read ‘censored’. Elizabeth Gaskell had tried to portray her great friend Charlotte Brontë as she knew her, a woman of genius and a woman with a huge heart, but although her efforts sold well they brought her grief and anxiety. She later wrote to her publisher George Smith to lament that ‘every one who has been harmed in this unlucky book complains of some thing.’

These complaints continued over the next decade until on 12th November 1865, eight years after the publication of the biography, Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in the middle of a sentence. We know this thanks to a letter sent by her daughter Meta to Ellen Nussey in January 1866:

Meta’s letter to Ellen was published in The Sphere, 25th May 1918

The postscript is interesting here, as although we don’t have her letter it is clear that Ellen has asked about Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘sunset’. This brings to mind her description of the last night of Anne Brontë’s life; Ellen wrote that Anne was looking out of the window across Scarborough’s South Bay, and that she witnessed the most ‘glorious sunset’ ever seen. Some have pointed out that the sun rises over the South Bay rather than setting in it, but it seems clear to me now that Ellen habitually used the phrase ‘sunset’ to refer to the closing of a life.

Did the stress caused by the aftermath of the publication of The Life Of Charlotte Brontë hasten the end of Elizabeth Gaskell’s life? We shall never know, but we can be sure that she regretted its publication. We can’t regret its publication however because, for all its flaws, it is a brilliant biography that reveals so much of what we know about the Brontës today.

Elizabeth Gaskell's grave
Elizabeth Gaskell’s final resting place in Knutsford, Cheshire

Thank you to all who supported the Kickstarter project for Hanover Press after last week’s post – with your help we will be rescuing some neglected classics of Victorian literature in 2021. Stay well, stay happy, and I will see you here for another Brontë blog post next Sunday.

Charlotte Brontë, Julia Kavanagh And Hanover Press

Today I want to talk to you about a project that’s very special to me, and if you love nineteenth century books then you might love it too!

Earlier this week I launched Hanover Press via a Kickstarter appeal, with the aim of raising enough support to rescue and re-publish neglected classics of Victorian fiction. We all love the works of the Brontës of course, and novels by the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy are still read and loved across the globe. There are other novelists however, like Julia Kavanagh, Maria Correlli, Jean Ingelow, James Payn and many more, who sold well and were acclaimed in their day, and yet their work is little known now. Some of these authors can be read via overpriced badly scanned copies which are hard to read and often error-strewn, copies which pay no respect to the book, author or reader.

Julia Kavanagh, painted by Henri Chanet

I want to change that, which is why Hanover Press will publish some of these lost and neglected Victorian novels in high quality new editions complete with introductions and notes. They will look great, and they’ll be a pleasure to read too, and very reasonably priced. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I’ll tell you how to back this project and order the first books soon, but first we’ll look at Charlotte Brontë and Julia Kavanagh – the unfairly neglected author who will be the first to be published by Hanover Press.

Julia Kavanagh was born in Thurles in Ireland’s County Tipperary in 1824, but whose writing life was spent largely in Paris and London. Kavanagh wrote out of necessity as a way to avoid poverty, and the money she made was spent largely on the cost of looking after her blind mother; her father Brendan had abandoned his wife and child, although he later attempted to exploit his daughter’s name to promote his own writing.

Kavanagh was a prolific writer, and her novels such as Madeleine, A Tale Of Auvergne, Nathalie and Daisy Burns brought her to the attention of the public and to writers such as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. After Charlotte met Julia Kavanagh, she wrote to a friend: “Do you remember my speaking of Miss Kavanagh – a young authoress who supported her mother by her writings? I called on her yesterday – I found a little, almost dwarfish figure to which even I had to look down – not deformed, that is, not hunchbacked but long-armed and with a large head and (at first sight) a strange face. She met me half-frankly, half-tremblingly… she lives in a poor but clean and neat little lodging – her mother seems a somewhat weak-minded woman who can be no companion to her – her father has quite deserted his wife and child – and this poor little feeble, intelligent, cordial thing wastes her brain to gain a living. She is twenty-five years old.”

You can order Rachel Gray by Hanover Press now

The first Hanover Press release will be Rachel Gray, first published in 1856, is a brilliant novel which is as relevant today as it has ever been, as it looks at the importance of family and love, and at social inequalities that were driving working class families apart. At its heart is the tale of a young woman who has been abandoned by her father, and who now spends her days under the control of an uncaring mother, dreaming of an escape from a life of a drudgery and a chance to find her father once again – it’s a story that Julia Kavanagh knew all too well.

Charlotte decided to visit Julia Kavanagh after hearing of her parlous state from W. S. Williams, the Smith, Elder & Co reader who had first discovered Jane Eyre. Despite her own frailty and ill health she continued to write to stave off poverty until her death in 1877. She died after falling from bed, and her tragic last words were ‘Oh Mama! How silly I am to have fallen.’

Julia Kavanagh deserves a better legacy than this. Her books are often excellent, and were well received by the critics of the day. They deserve to be counted among the best that the nineteenth century has to offer, which is why I’m pleased that Rachel Gray is available to order now on our Kickstarter page. If you’re not familiar with the Kickstarter concept you simply make a pledge to buy a book or books (different ‘rewards’ are available) but you don’t pay until the end of the project – which for Hanover Press is December 2nd. Backers only pay if the project reaches its target, but I’m thrilled to say that Hanover Press has already reached and exceeded our target.

We have some excellent neglected Victorian classics lined up for next year too, and right now we are also making The Hanover Press Language Of Flowers exclusively available through the Kickstarter page. It’s a fun little book which draws on the Victorian tradition of assigning secret meanings to each flower, and it also includes a selection of floral themed poems from the era. Poets include Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë, but also, in the Hanover Press way, some excellent poets you may not be familiar with.

You can also order The Hanover Press Language Of Flowers via the Kickstarter page

Victorian literature is rich, diverse and great to read, so with your help I look forward to rescuing and republishing some neglected books which are excellent page turners. You can back the project now at this link: In effect, it’s a way to pre-order the books.

Whether you order a book or books, or simply pass on your best wishes, I’ll be grateful as always for your brilliant support. Don’t worry, I’ll still be keeping on the Brontë path in this blog and in my own writing, and my book on Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey will be published by The History Press next year.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain Arthur M Branwell (HU 114269) Unit: 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Copyright: © IWM.

Today, of course, is also Remembrance Sunday. As always, at 11 o’clock I will take a moment to remember all who fought in wars, and their families, such as Brontë relative Captain Arthur Branwell who served in France in World War One. We will remember them. Thank you for your time today, please join me next week for a Brontë blog post.

The Strange Tale Of Charlotte Brontë’s Ghost

Halloween comes but once a year, but that’s why I like to make it last all weekend, meaning that today it’s time for this year’s Brontë Halloween blog post! In previous years we’ve looked at the Long Island staircase said to be haunted by Anne Brontë, at the Gytrash of Ponden Hall, and at the ghost of Mrs Baines which haunted Penzance at the time that the Brontës’ mother Maria and their Aunt Branwell lived there. Today we’re going to look at ghosts in the writing of Charlotte Brontë, and a spooky report of Charlotte being a ghost herself.

Emily’s Wuthering Heights, of course, is a book full of superstition and gothic tones, and yet it is Charlotte Brontë who most consistently wrote about the supernatural and otherworldly. Her unfinished book Willie Ellin sees an unnamed spirit taking up residence in the human world, and even when a teacher at Roe Head school it seemed that Charlotte was experiencing phenomena that can’t easily be explained away, as we see from this excerpt from her journal:

‘The toil of the day, succeeded by this moment of divine leisure, had acted on me like opium & was coiling about me a disturbed but fascinating spell, such as I never felt before. What I imagined grew morbidly vivid. I remember I quite seemed to see, with my bodily eyes, a lady standing in the hall of a gentleman’s house, as if waiting for some one.’

Roe Head by Anne Bronte
Roe Head, where Charlotte taught, drawn by Anne Bronte

Could this vision have been waiting in the hall of a gentleman’s house, waiting for Charlotte to take up her pen ten years later and write her story in Jane Eyre? This novel too is full of hauntings, of past spectres being made all too real, and it contains one of the most famous ghost scenes of them all as the young Jane is banished to the red-room:

‘This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchen; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered. The house-maid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and the furniture a week’s quiet dust: and Mrs. Reed herself, at far intervals, visited it to review the contents of a certain secret drawer in the wardrobe, where were stored divers parchments, her jewel-casket, and a miniature of her deceased husband; and in those last words lies the secret of the red-room—the spell which kept it so lonely in spite of its grandeur.

Mr. Reed had been dead nine years: it was in this chamber he breathed his last; here he lay in state; hence his coffin was borne by the undertaker’s men; and, since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion.

Shibden Hall
The red-room of Jane Eyre may have been inspired by Shibden Hall in Halifax which had a haunted Red Room.

My seat, to which Bessie and the bitter Miss Abbot had left me riveted, was a low ottoman near the marble chimney-piece; the bed rose before me; to my right hand there was the high, dark wardrobe, with subdued, broken reflections varying the gloss of its panels; to my left were the muffled windows; a great looking-glass between them repeated the vacant majesty of the bed and room. I was not quite sure whether they had locked the door; and when I dared move, I got up and went to see. Alas! yes: no jail was ever more secure. Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers. I returned to my stool.

Superstition was with me at that moment; but it was not yet her hour for complete victory: my blood was still warm; the mood of the revolted slave was still bracing me with its bitter vigour; I had to stem a rapid rush of retrospective thought before I quailed to the dismal present… Shaking my hair from my eyes, I lifted my head and tried to look boldly round the dark room; at this moment a light gleamed on the wall. Was it, I asked myself, a ray from the moon penetrating some aperture in the blind? No; moonlight was still, and this stirred; while I gazed, it glided up to the ceiling and quivered over my head. I can now conjecture readily that this streak of light was, in all likelihood, a gleam from a lantern carried by some one across the lawn: but then, prepared as my mind was for horror, shaken as my nerves were by agitation, I thought the swift darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world. My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort.’

The heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, also finds herself beguiled and besieged by dread of the supernatural, thanks to the recurring presence of a ghost nun:

The Brontës had been brought up on ghostly folkore and tales of the supernatural, thanks to the Pennine tales of their loyal servant Tabby Aykroyd and the Cornish tales regaled by their Aunt Branwell. It’s easy to imagine them telling each other spooky stories by candlelight on All Hallow’s Eve, but perhaps more surprising were the stories that circulated in the 1920s of Charlotte Brontë herself appearing as a ghost!

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 February 1927

It is reported here in February 1927 that Charlotte’s ghost has been appearing on an annual basis at the beautiful Hathersage Parsonage where she stayed with Ellen Nussey in 1845. The incumbent vicar’s children often see her ghost, and her appearance is said to terrify the dog. The article also conjectures that her phantom returns to this spot because she was in love with the man who lived there, Reverend Henry Nussey whose proposal she rejected and who at least partially inspired St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre, and because she had found calm at Hathersage in contrast to the misery of Haworth. The article also points out that the ghost of Thomas Eyre, who had lived at nearby North Lees Hall, also haunted the building and that the Psychic Society had offered to help investigate the matter, but their request was not being entertained.

Did Charlotte visit this building, Hathersage Parsonage, again in the 1920s?

A month later, however, Hathersage’s vicar the Reverend J. H. Brookbank took to the press to deny these claims, saying that the idea that he and his family had seen Charlotte’s ghost was absurd – but perhaps it’s telling that there was no comment from the family dog!

Charleston Gazette, 13 March 1927

We’ve had a little bit of Halloween fun today, and I think we could all do with that as another lockdown looms. Once again, Brontë books will prove invaluable in the weeks ahead, so please join me next Sunday for another new post. Next Sunday will be the special one that I hinted at in last week’s post, so I hope you can join me for it. Stay safe and if you have a terrified pet today don’t panic, it’s probably just Charlotte Brontë popping by to say hello.

The Month Of October In The Brontë Novels

Thank you so much for all the kind words about my recent posts taking you on a virtual tour of the new Anne Brontë exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, it was a pleasure to share it with you. With new lockdown restrictions appearing across the country we once again turn to books for solace; after all, they never let us down. The clocks have gone backwards, some might say to the fourteenth century, and the dark nights are here. Late October is certainly making her presence felt, so in today’s post let’s take a look at October in the Brontë novels.

My beautiful new copy of Jane Eyre by Chiltern Publishing, it has golden pages too!

Jane Eyre

A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day: I left Lowton at four o’clock a.m., and the Millcote town clock is now just striking eight. Reader, though I look comfortably accommodated, I am not very tranquil in my mind.’

George Hotel, Hathersage
The George Hotel, Hathersage is the George Inn of Jane Eyre

October brings new opportunities for Jane after leaving her position as a teacher at Lowood school, and we see her now preparing to enter her life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. The George Inn at Millcote is clearly modelled on the George Inn (now the George Hotel) at Hathersage, the Derbyshire village visited by Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey. You can still visit the George Inn today and see the portraits of George III and the Prince of Wales on its walls.

The matching Wuthering Heights, also with a beautiful embossed cover

Wuthering Heights

But the hour came, at last, that ended Mr. Earnshaw’s troubles on earth. He died quietly in his chair one October evening, seated by the fire-side. A high wind blustered round the house, and roared in the chimney: it sounded wild and stormy, yet it was not cold, and we were all together—I, a little removed from the hearth, busy at my knitting, and Joseph reading his Bible near the table (for the servants generally sat in the house then, after their work was done). Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee, and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair—it pleased him rarely to see her gentle—and saying, “Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand, and said she would sing him to sleep. She began singing very low, till his fingers dropped from hers, and his head sank on his breast. Then I told her to hush, and not stir, for fear she should wake him. We all kept as mute as mice a full half-hour, and should have done so longer, only Joseph, having finished his chapter, got up and said that he must rouse the master for prayers and bed. He stepped forward, and called him by name, and touched his shoulder; but he would not move: so he took the candle and looked at him. I thought there was something wrong as he set down the light; and seizing the children each by an arm, whispered them to “frame upstairs, and make little din—they might pray alone that evening—he had summut to do.”

I shall bid father good-night first,” said Catherine, putting her arms round his neck, before we could hinder her. The poor thing discovered her loss directly—she screamed out—“Oh, he’s dead, Heathcliff! he’s dead!” And they both set up a heart-breaking cry.’

October is a time for change in the Earnshaw household too, but this time we are bathed in tragedy. This is the end of childhood happiness and innocence for Catherine and Heathcliff, their roles will now change forever, setting in sequence the often violent and tragic action to come.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

October 1st.—All is settled now. My father has given his consent, and the time is fixed for Christmas, by a sort of compromise between the respective advocates for hurry and delay. Milicent Hargrave is to be one bridesmaid and Annabella Wilmot the other—not that I am particularly fond of the latter, but she is an intimate of the family, and I have not another friend.’

Helen is happy with her marriage to Arthur – but it won’t last

October 9th.—It was on the night of the 4th, a little after tea, that Annabella had been singing and playing, with Arthur as usual at her side: she had ended her song, but still she sat at the instrument; and he stood leaning on the back of her chair, conversing in scarcely audible tones, with his face in very close proximity with hers. I looked at Lord Lowborough. He was at the other end of the room, talking with Messrs. Hargrave and Grimsby; but I saw him dart towards his lady and his host a quick, impatient glance, expressive of intense disquietude, at which Grimsby smiled. Determined to interrupt the tête-à-tête, I rose, and, selecting a piece of music from the music stand, stepped up to the piano, intending to ask the lady to play it; but I stood transfixed and speechless on seeing her seated there, listening, with what seemed an exultant smile on her flushed face to his soft murmurings, with her hand quietly surrendered to his clasp. The blood rushed first to my heart, and then to my head; for there was more than this: almost at the moment of my approach, he cast a hurried glance over his shoulder towards the other occupants of the room, and then ardently pressed the unresisting hand to his lips. On raising his eyes, he beheld me, and dropped them again, confounded and dismayed. She saw me too, and confronted me with a look of hard defiance. I laid the music on the piano, and retired. I felt ill; but I did not leave the room: happily, it was getting late, and could not be long before the company dispersed.’

October 24th.—Thank heaven, I am free and safe at last. Early we rose, swiftly and quietly dressed, slowly and stealthily descended to the hall, where Benson stood ready with a light, to open the door and fasten it after us. We were obliged to let one man into our secret on account of the boxes, &c. All the servants were but too well acquainted with their master’s conduct, and either Benson or John would have been willing to serve me; but as the former was more staid and elderly, and a crony of Rachel’s besides, I of course directed her to make choice of him as her assistant and confidant on the occasion, as far as necessity demanded, I only hope he may not be brought into trouble thereby, and only wish I could reward him for the perilous service he was so ready to undertake. I slipped two guineas into his hand, by way of remembrance, as he stood in the doorway, holding the candle to light our departure, with a tear in his honest grey eye, and a host of good wishes depicted on his solemn countenance. Alas! I could offer no more: I had barely sufficient remaining for the probable expenses of the journey.’

No Brontë book mentions October more than Anne Brontë’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. This is perhaps understandable given that the middle section of the book takes the form of a diary written by Helen, but by following the October entries, just some of which are given above, we see the progression of Helen’s marriage and life. At first we have hope, followed by despair as she sees her husband Arthur’s behaviour and character, Finally, however, there is hope again as Helen finally escapes for a new life at Wildfell Hall. October can often seem a dark and challenging month, never more so by now, but as we see in Anne’s great novel it can end with hope and light – even if that light is caused by candles flickering inside pumpkins.

Haworth Halloween
Haworth at Halloween

Wrap up warm, grab a nice drink and a great book, and I hope to see you next week, in November, for what I hope will be a very special post. Thank you, as always, for your company.

A Virtual Tour Of The Anne Brontë Exhibition: Part II

Last week we embarked upon part one of a virtual tour of the Anne Bronte exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. We looked at Anne items and ephemera within the old Brontë parsonage itself, but today we will look at the main body of the Anne Brontë exhibition, contained in a series of display cases in the Bonnell Room next to the museum shop.

Sadly, on my latest visit I didn’t manage to get a close up picture of the first display case, but here’s an image from my earlier visit in January. It’s a stunning start to the ‘Amid The Brave And Strong’ exhibition because it contains two fine examples from Anne Bronte’s necklace collection, made of carnelian and turquoise:

Amid The Brave And Strong exhibition

Here we see examples of Anne’s precocity, including a sampler created at just eight years of age, and a sketch of Roe Head in Mirfield, the school she entered aged 15.

In last week’s post we saw three images of Anne’s beloved spaniel, two by Anne herself and one by Emily. Centre stage here is another image of Flossy, along with his collar. Note that I call Flossy a ‘he’: sometimes the spaniel is referred to as female due to a puppy called Flossy Junior being given to Ellen Nussey, but there are no references to any other puppies around the parsonage so it seems likely that Anne’s four legged friend was the father rather than the mother. Here also we have Anne’s German language textbook; Anne was an excellent linguist, and the only Brontë sister who could read Latin and Greek.


Here we see the only signature of Anne Brontë under her pseudonym Acton Bell. According to Charlotte (whose ‘Currer Bell’ signature can also be seen here) their first book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, sold only two copies. One of the purchasers, however, a Mr Enoch, was so impressed that he wrote via the publisher to ask for their autographs.


Anne was a wonderful artist, as indeed were all the siblings, and perhaps her most popular artwork is ‘Woman gazing at a sunrise over the sea’ shown in the display case above. It’s easy to think that this represents Anne herself at her beloved Scarborough, but in fact had seen neither Scarborough nor the sea at the time she drew this in 1839.

My personal favourite artwork of Anne’s is ‘What You Please’ pictured below, as I believe it’s an Anne Brontë self-portrait. This case also contains a first edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, published together in 1847. It was perhaps fitting that the two sisters, Anne and Emily Brontë, who were so close to one another, and whose arms were to be seen constantly entwined in their childhood, should find their remarkable novels published side by side in adulthood.

Another beautiful drawing by Anne, along with her groundbreaking novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall which is still relevant and powerful today. This is a particularly moving copy of the book as it was Anne’s own copy which she presented to her friend Ellen Nussey in January 1849. It was just a month after Emily’s death from consumption, and Ellen walked Anne around the room as she waited for the verdict of a doctor’s consultation: the verdict when it came was a terrible one, Anne had just weeks or months to live. Ellen remembered the visit at which she was presented this book: ‘Anne was looking sweetly pretty and flushed, and in capital spirits for an invalid. While consultations were going on in Mr Brontë’s study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking around the room supported by me. Mr Brontë joined us after Mr Teale’s departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards him and said, “My dear little Anne.” That was all – but it was understood.’

Contemporary critics were extremely harsh about the writing of Anne and her sisters, but she faced up to them and hit back in her famous preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Her message was, and is, a simple one: truth is all that matters. We also see a Brontë inkwell and one of Anne’s quills – it’s incredible to think that they wrote their novels using these instruments, and often by candlelight.

In this very moving display case we see Anne’s handkerchief bearing her hand stitched initials and stained by her blood, a symbol of the bloody coughing associated with tuberculosis. Here also is Anne’s last letter, to Ellen Nussey asking her to accompany her to Scarborough. Even at this time, when she had little need to preserve paper or money, Anne writes using the frugal ‘crossed letter’ style, meaning that you had to read the letter both vertically and horizontally. The paper is black bordered as Anne is still in mourning for Emily.

‘Last Lines’ was the title given by Charlotte Brontë to this, Anne’s final poem, after her sister’s passing. I believe, however, that Anne had also been working on a philosophical essay, one that is published for the first time in book form in my book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200and that those were her actual last lines.

The exhibition closes, as all such retrospectives must, on a sad note of finality, and yet we can still remember the joy that Anne Brontë brought to so many people and which she will continue to bring, whatever challenges our little planet faces. I hope you’ve enjoyed my virtual tour of the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s exhibition, ‘Amid The Brave And Strong’ is a fine and fitting tribute to Anne Brontë in her 200th birthday year. I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour, and don’t forget that, if you wish to do so, you can donate to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth via this link. I hope to see you all again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

A Virtual Tour Of The Anne Brontë Exhibition: Part I

This time last week I was in Haworth having a whale of a time, whilst also social distancing and keeping to all the rules and regulations of course. I finally had the opportunity to see the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s Anne Brontë exhibition entitled ‘Amid The Brave And Strong’, and I have to say that they have done Anne proud in her 200th birthday year.

I visited the Parsonage on her birthday in January, but at that time visitors were only allowed into the Bonnell Room (named after the museum’s great benefactor) adjacent to the shop. I had planned on visiting again much sooner than this, but of course this world wide pandemic had other ideas. The good news is that Anne’s bicentenary celebrations have been extended into 2021, but I know that for multiple reasons many of you will be unable to see this exhibition. I’ve therefore created this post showing pictures of Anne items on display throughout the main museum and within the special Anne Brontë exhibition in the Bonnell Room.

The Parsonage now allows visitors to take pictures within the museum, without the use of flash, so I’m delighted to be able to share my pictures with you, allowing you to take a virtual tour of ‘Anne Brontë: Amid The Brave And Strong.’ At the end of this post you’ll also find a link that will enable you to make a donation to the Brontë Parsonage Museum at this challenging time, after all every little helps. There are so many items to show that I’ve decided to split this ‘tour’ into two separate posts, so without further ado let’s commence the first part.

We’ll be taking a look purely at Anne Brontë items on display in Haworth’s Brontë Parsonage Museum at the moment, but of course there are treasures relating to all the family there. The first room that visitors enter is the Brontë dining room. It contains the couch upon which Emily took her final breath, but it also contains this magnificent dining table, around which Anne and her siblings walked as they shared ideas and plotlines and composed their works.

Let’s head upstairs now, passed the striking grandfather clock. One item that always grabs the attention on the first floor is Charlotte Brontë’s dress (different ones are displayed in different years), but take a look at the beautiful seashell necklace around the neckline – it was Anne’s. Anne loved to collect seashells and, as we shall see, she loved colourful, eye catching necklaces. The stockings on display here were also worn by Anne.

In this display case we have a selection of Anne’s art, with five of her drawings on show. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind Emily’s colourful portrait of Flossy, on the bottom left here, also being included.

Charlotte made three extant drawings of her youngest sister Anne (and there were possibly many more) but this one is my favourite.

Needlecraft was an essential skill for the Brontë sisters, both for the making and repair of their own apparel and so that they could teach it to others during service as governesses. Here we have Anne’s needlework kit, and the results of her labours – a beautifully crafted lace collar which she made for Charlotte.

Bobbins, buttons and bits of lace were in this tin box owned by Emily Brontë. Not the most exciting tin, you may think, but it held an exciting secret. In 1895 Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte Brontë’s widow of course, found that it had a hidden compartment. When this was opened he found tiny scraps of paper with writing and drawing on them – these were the diary papers which Emily and Anne had written between 1834 and 1845 and then hidden away from the world. They were nearly lost for ever, so could more Brontë treasures still be hidden from sight, waiting to be discovered?

Here we have portraits made by Anne Brontë. The image on the right entitled ‘A very bad picture’ is, I believe, a self-portrait composed using the aid of a mirror. On the left we have a delightful portrait of one of Anne’s Robinson charges while she was a governess at Thorp Green Hall.

We now leave the parsonage that Anne and her family knew and enter the extension added to the building by Patrick Brontë’s successor Reverend Wade. At the bottom right is a first edition of Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey, published alongside Wuthering Heights by Thomas Cautley Newby. He was an unscrupulous publisher who treated his authors appallingly, but without him we might have had no Brontë novels today.

This wooden lion was obviously much loved by the Brontës, and as the youngest sibling Anne would have been the last to play with it. Also, just how delightful is this tea set used by the sisters, showing three young women enjoying a cuppa?

Anne’s needlework prowess is on show again, as this sampler was made by her just a month after her tenth birthday.

From the first time she encountered it in July 1840, Scarborough was a place that Anne Brontë loved. She collected pebbles and shells from its beach, and here are some of them. It’s fitting that Anne now lies at rest in Scarborough, overlooking the sea and sand that she adored.

The brooch on the left was Anne Brontë’s and the brooch on the right was Charlotte’s, and within the centres are locks of their hair.

We finish this portion of the parsonage tour with Anne and Charlotte’s hair once again. The bracelet at the back was fashioned from Anne Brontë’s locks, and the white bracelet at the front was made from Charlotte Brontë’s hair.

Next week we will head down the stairs and into the Bonnell Room which contains the main exhibition devoted solely to Anne in this, her special year. I will be bringing you each individual case in detail, and talking about what the items within tell us about Anne and her family. I hope you’ve enjoyed part one of this virtual tour of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and if you wish to donate directly to the Brontë Parsonage Museum itself you can do so via this link:

I hope you can join me next Sunday for part two of our virtual tour and our Anne Brontë celebration, and the good news is that there is no 10 PM curfew on reading this blog.

National Poetry Day And The Brontës

Today’s new Brontë blog post is light on my words but heavy on those all important Brontë words, apologies in advance, although that may well be a good thing! The reason for this somewhat truncated post is that I’m back in my beloved Haworth for the weekend, sans laptop, but the good news is that I’m finally about to visit the Anne Brontë 200 exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and I’ll bring you a full report on that next week.

Friday of this week was National Poetry Day, so here are some of my favourite poems by the Brontës, along with some pictures I’ve taken in a rather rainy and wuthering Haworth this week.

Perhaps the most famous Bronte poem of them all

Branwell Northangerland
Branwell wrote poetry under a Northangerland pseudonym

Anne Bronte’s poignant yearning for her Haworth home

Linnet poem Emily Bronte
The Linnet In The Rocky Dells by Emily Bronte

Life by Charlotte Bronte


This week in 1842 saw William Weightman’s funeral service, so it’s fitting to close with one of Anne’s eulogies to him.







Normal service will be resumed in next week’s blog, so until then stay healthy and happy and don’t forget to stock up on good books before the next lockdown arrives.

There are many ways to get to Haworth, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum within it, but surely one of the most special ways to arrive is to take a ride on an authentic steam train. The Keighley and Worth Valley Railways runs daily from Keighley, a town well known to the Brontës around five miles from their parsonage home, to Oxenhope, with a station conveniently situated at the foot of Haworth’s hill. It’s a beautiful station, and it was also used in the famous 1970 film The Railway Children.

The Railway Children
The village used in The Railway Children was actually Haworth

Railway invention and expansion changed the Victorian world, and it certainly played a large part in the lives of the Brontës. Branwell Brontë found employment as a railway clerk, and as the trains opened up the country it allowed Charlotte, Anne and Emily to traverse England in an ease and style that previous generations could never have dreamed of. It also brought the Brontës money and lost the Brontës money, thanks to a man known as ‘The Railway King’: George Hudson.

Hudson was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1800, and apprenticed as a draper. After marrying the owner of the business he worked for he eventually became a partner in it, leading it to become the largest single business in the city of York. In 1827 his great uncle died and left a fortune to Hudson, but it was a chance meeting in 1834 that really changed the course of his life.

George Hudson
George Hudson, aka The Railway King

In the beautiful Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby, now famous for its Dracula connection, Hudson bumped into George Stephenson, who told him of his plans to create a railway that would run from London to the north of England. Hudson became a business partner of Stephenson, and then a railway pioneer in his own right, founding the York and North Midland Railway and opening lines across the north of England, including the line that carried Charlotte Bronte, along with her friend Ellen Nussey, to her first view of the sea at Burlington.

Hudson served as Lord Mayor of York on three occasions, and also became a long serving Tory MP for Sunderland. He was by this time the head of a sprawling business empire encompassing a large number of individual railway companies, but it seemed that everything he touched turned to gold, which was very attractive to investors – investors such as the Brontë sisters.

The railway revolution in the 1830s and 1840s was as dramatic and transformational at the time as the internet and social media revolution is today, and lines were being opened at a furious pace. With a rapid rise in passenger numbers year upon year, as well as in its freight operations, there were large potential profits to be made. The Brontës were not a particularly wealthy family, but in 1842 their monetary position changed considerably when Anne, Emily and Charlotte (along with their Penzance cousin Eliza Kingston) were each left around £300 each, the equivalent of around six years wage for a governess. This money would eventually help pay for the publication of some of the Brontë books we love today, but in 1842 the sisters had to decide how to save or invest it. The decision was taken to let Emily manage their joint funds, and she invested it in the then booming railway stock of George Hudson’s companies.

Steam trains still run in Haworth today, although the station was built after the time of the Brontes

From surviving fragments of Emily Brontë’s account book we can see that she took this duty seriously, and that she was often to be found re-investing their profits and buying more railway shares. In 1845 Emily records that she has made a ‘speculation’, but it must have been a lucrative one for her accounts for 1846 show that she had an income of £305 in that year, compared to £110 in the previous one.

Perhaps the success of this speculation and others was the reason that the Brontës contributed to a subscription being made for George Hudson, as shown in an article within the Yorkshire Gazette on 27th September 1845. The newspaper urges people who have profited from Hudson’s railway expansion to pledge money to be given to the man himself, and amidst a list of often exalted people who have already pledge to do so can be found ‘Miss Ann Brontë’, ‘Miss Emily Jane Brontë’ and ‘Miss Charlotte Brontë’ of Haworth, Bradford, who have all given a pound each.

Can you see the names of Ann(e), Emily and Charlotte?

A letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to Margaret Wooler on 30th January 1846, however, indicates that she was concerned by the bullish nature of Emily’s investments:

‘I thought you would wonder how we were getting on, when you heard of the railway panic, and you may be sure that I am very glad to be able to answer your kind inquiries by an assurance that our small capital is as yet undiminished. The York and Midland is, as you say, a very good line; yet, I confess to you, I should wish, for my own part, to be wise in time. I cannot think that even the very best lines will continue for many years at their present premiums; and I have been most anxious for us to sell our shares ere it be too late, and to secure the proceeds in some safer, if, for the present, less profitable investment. I cannot, however, persuade my sisters to regard the affair precisely from my point of view; and I feel as if I would rather run the risk of loss than hurt Emily’s feelings by acting in direct opposition to her opinion. She managed in a most handsome and able manner for me, when I was in Brussels, and prevented by distance from looking after my own interests; therefore, I will let her manage still, and take the consequences. Disinterested and energetic she certainly is; and if she be not quite so tractable or open to conviction as I could wish, I must remember perfection is not the lot of humanity; and as long as we can regard those we love and to whom we are closely allied, with profound and never-shaken esteem, it is a small thing that they should vex us occasionally by what appear to us unreasonable and headstrong notions. You, my dear Miss Wooler, know full as well as I do, the value of sisters’ affection to each other; there is nothing like it in this world, I believe, when they are nearly equal in age, and similar in education, tastes, and sentiments.’

As we can see, by 1846 there are already hints that the railway boom is over, and many small lines and businesses had already closed or been taken over by bigger competitors. These fledgling railways were a series of highly competitive franchises, and yet Hudson still seemed to outperform his business rivals. His tactics sound all too familiar in today’s world, as he aimed to maximise profits for his shareholders by cutting his workforce to a minimum and cutting back on safety measures, often with fatal consequences for employees and passengers alike.

By 1845, he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in England, with a newspaper praising his ‘penetration more than human, and a genius comprehensive, lofty and intuitive.’ It also, however, went on to paint a less than flattering picture of his physical appearance, noting a sinister leer of the eyes, an ungainly frame, a short bull-neck and an unharmonious voice.

The railway shares of the Brontës continued to prosper during the lifetimes of Anne and Emily, the driving force, behind the investment but all was not well in the world of George Hudson and the Midland Railway. We get a clue to this in a letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to George Smith on this very day in 1849:

‘My shares are in the York & North Midland Railway. It was one of Mr. Hudson’s pet lines and the full benefit of his peculiar management – or mis-management. The original price of shares in the railway was £50; at one time they rose to 120; and for some years gave a dividend of 10 percent; they are now down at 20, and it is doubtful whether any dividend will be declared this half-year.’

As Charlotte had predicted, the shares had soon become worthless, and George Hudson himself received a fall from grace as meteoric as his rise had been. It was eventually discovered that Hudson and his railways were operating via a system of smoke and mirrors, his profits having been grossly over-exaggerated and with shareholders such as Charlotte, Emily and Anne paid out of the company’s capital rather than the money they were earning.

Hudson lost his hold on his business empire and it was found that his debts ran into the hundreds of thousands of pounds (tens of millions of pounds today). After losing his seat as Sunderland’s MP in 1865 he lost immunity from imprisonment and was incarcerated in York gaol. A local colliery owner paid off enough of Hudson’s debts for him to be released on remand, after which he promptly fled the country to live in France. In 1870 a new law put an end to imprisonment for debts, and Hudson returned from his exile, but he died in London in 1871. The Railway King was dead. His machinations had ruined many of his investors, and Charlotte Brontë lost much of her savings including, it’s believed, an initial payment of £500 that she received for Jane Eyre. Nonetheless, he had left a lasting legacy, and his stations and railway lines are still a central part of our transport infrastructure today. Huge crowds turned out at George Hudson’s funeral, and to see his coffin loaded onto a train that would carry him from London to York – the station he had had built. Few people can encapsulate the boom and bust of Victorian railway expansion more than George Hudson, but he changed the Brontës lives and the world that we live in today.

“The individual perishes but the world is more and more”

Here’s a safer investment that I can always recommend: a good book, and if you stay in your armchair you don’t even need to wear a mask to read it. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.