Charlotte Bronte: Brussels Friendships And Enmity

Summer has finally arrived, so make the most of the sunny weather while you can. Of course, wherever you are, on a patio or beach, it’s always improved if you have a good book to hand. On this day in 1852 we know that Charlotte Brontë was walking the fine sands of Filey on the Yorkshire coast, and she wrote from there to her friend Laetitia Wheelwright about an old schoolmate Maria Miller. We’ll take a look at that letter in today’s post, for it also gives us an insight into the Brontës’ time in Brussels, and to Charlotte’s magnificent novel Villette.

Laetitia Wheelwright was a pupil at the Pensionnat Heger in 1843, at the time that Charlotte Brontë had changed from being a pupil there to being a teacher. She was perhaps the only real friendship that Charlotte made in Brussels (if we discount Monsieur Heger) and it was a lasting one, as we see from the fact that Charlotte is writing to her nearly ten years later.

A drawing by Laetitia Wheelwright

Laetitia’s father was an English doctor, and his four daughters attended the Pensionnat Heger school in Brussels. Laetitia, born in 1828, was the oldest of the four daughters, and she quickly became Charlotte’s favourite pupil. Frances Wheelwright later recalled how Charlotte was first attracted to Laetitia after seeing her standing on a stool watching misbehaving Belgian pupils ‘with an expression of contempt and disgust’. As anyone who has read Villette, or especially The Professor, knows this was a view shared by Charlotte herself. Many years later Charlotte often visited the Wheelwright family at their London home when she was in the city, so let us turn to a letter Charlotte Brontë sent there exactly 172 years ago today:

It seems that Laetitia has forwarded a letter from Maria Miller, seeking their advice. Charlotte knew Maria too from their time in Brussels, and we can read between the lines to see why Maria had been in correspondence with Charlotte. The Miller family have sought help from their present abode in Boulogne, France. Charlotte warns that “it is the asylum of a not very respectable class.” In fact, it was a place where many British families fled to hide from their creditors, just as Becky Sharp does in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Maria has presumably been writing to Laetitia to seek funds to escape her debts, but Charlotte tells Laetitia in no uncertain terms to wash her hands of her. Charlotte twice calls Maria selfish, as well as impudent and worldly – it’s fair to say that Charlotte was not a fan of Maria Miller, and in fact it is believed that she based the character of the shallow, preening Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette upon Maria.

Maria Miller was the inspiration for Ginevra Fanshawe

Charlotte’s dislike for Maria Miller lasted, just as her affection for the Wheelwright family lasted. Nevertheless when she visited the family in London she never let them know the reason for her visits to the capital, and even her close friend Laetitia never knew that Charlotte was a writer. As she confessed in an 1849 letter to publisher George Smith: “they [the Wheelwrights] are of the class, perfectly worthy but in no sort remarkable – to whom I should feel it quite superfluous to introduce Currer Bell [Charlotte’s pen name]; I know they would not understand the author.”

Incidentally, when Charlotte sympathises with Laetitia about her father’s ‘gradual darkening’, she was speaking quite literally – Laetitia’s father, like Charlotte’s, was going blind.

A letter sent to Laetitia by Charlotte from Filey earlier in the month.

Brussels changed Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Laetitia Wheelwright forever, so I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been asked to give a talk to the Brussels Brontë Group in May next year. I’ll bring you more details closer to the date. You can also buy tickets to see me talking all things Anne Brontë and Agnes Grey at the Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 7th July. Tickets are available right now at this link:ë-and-agnes-grey-parallels-of-resilience-and-reality/

Whether you’re in Brussels, Bradford or anywhere in between I wish you a happy Sunday and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.     

Bronte Wedding Preparations And A Diamond Anniversary

What links today’s date, wedding preparations and a diamond wedding anniversary? Why, the Brontës of course as we shall see in today’s blog post. We’ll begin by taking a look at a letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to best friend Ellen Nussey on this day 1854:

The wedding of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls was less than two weeks ago – they were married first thing in the morning on the 29th of June 1854 and the wedding went much as Charlotte had planned. It was a small affair with very few people in attendance, and, incredible as it may seem today, it was kept a secret from the village of Haworth as a whole. 

Only a select group of people knew in advance, and a young man named John Robinson found out on the day. He was an apprentice teacher being taught his craft by the village’s assistant curate, and Charlotte’s fiance, Arthur Bell Nicholls. By being in the right place at the right time he became one of only nine people at the wedding ceremony.

Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls
Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls, at a wedding re-enactment in Haworth

We have looked before at one account Robinson gave of this special day, but he gave another account to the Keighley News on 27th October 1923, as he was approaching his own diamond wedding anniversary! It is another fascinating and illuminating account, so I have reproduced it below:


 the sixtieth anniversary of the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. John Robinson, which was celebrated at Wombwell, interesting memories of Charlotte Brontë are revived. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson are both 86 years old. Mr. Robinson was   born near Haworth, where Mr. Patrick Brontë, the father of the famous writer,   was incumbent, and he used every Sunday morning to receive instruction from   Mr. Nicholls, who afterwards married Charlotte Brontë.   Mr. Robinson was one of the few persons who attended the early morning   wedding of Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls. ‘‘I owe a lot to the Brontë family,’’ said Mr. Robinson to a representative of ‘‘The Sheffield Independent,’’ who called upon him to offer him and his wife congratulations on reaching the sixtieth anniversary of their wedding, which they were then celebrating. ‘

I come from Stanbury, where Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father, was incumbent, and   Mr. Nicholls, whom she married, used to have me up to his lodgings every Saturday morning to give me lessons,’’ he said. ‘‘It was Mr. Nicholls who taught me what love-sickness means. I have heard him moan with anguish when things did not run smoothly.   


‘‘Charlotte’s father was, I think, against the marriage, because, as fame came to her, she, of course, became comparatively well off, and her father seemed to think that Mr. Nicholls was after her money. Charlotte, however, appears to have given him some encouragement. The   Brontës had an old and faithful servant, Martha Brown, who was as familiar with her employers as a servant very well can be, and she told me that once when the young couple had had to part, she found Mr. Nicholls with his head against the garden door sobbing as though his heart would break. However, after this separation things seemed to improve for them, and one morning I met the sexton, John Brown, the father of Martha Brown, who said that he had been   waiting for me. He told me that Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls were going to get   married, and my instructions were to go to the top of a hill and look for the appach of three men. When I saw them I was to run back to the parsonage and tell the folk there that they were coming.

I went to my place and watched, and presently I saw in the distance three   persons – Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Sowden. Then I went back to the parsonage, and was told to go as fast as I could for Josh Redman, the old parish clerk. I found him, and told him he had to come to   church as quickly as possible. He came immediately. On the way he stopped and said, ‘I’d better lace up my boots,’ and he went to the wall and did so. We hurried to the church. and on the stroke of eight Charlotte entered with her two women friends. There were thus in the church Charlotte, her two friends, the  clerk, the sexton, and myself – nine persons in all. I don’t think Mr. Brontë  was there.   

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet
Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet


The ceremony was gone through quickly, and, passing out of the vestry, they left the church as they came – by the back door leading into Church Lane, close to the Vicarage. They went to the Vicarage, and then I remember seeing a   carriage and pair drive off to the nearest station – Keighley. I went back to the school for my lessons, but I had not been there many minutes when a message came from the Parsonage to say that I was to go for some breakfast. I went and remember having boiled ham, so that you see I had some of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding breakfast, although, of course, not with them. When Charlotte Brontë and her husband returned a lumber room was cleared out at the Parsonage and fitted up as a study for him. He was then   curate, and each Saturday morning I went for my lessons as usual. My apprenticeship continued until I was 18. When I said good-bye, Mr. Brontë held my hand for a long time and gave me some good advice. Remember, all this was a long time ago, and we were in a village where we knew little and heard little, and he told me how different I should find things elsewhere. As a parting gift he gave me a portrait of himself, bearing his autograph. The officials of the Brontë Museum at Haworth have begged long and earnestly for that, but I shall not part with it, although I have given them his snuffbox.’   

The card Patrick Bronte gave to John Robinson


Mr. Robinson said that Charlotte Brontë was a wonderful little woman. He had watched her often from the church tower, from whence he could see into the room where she was writing. She was very short-sighted, and when she came into the school to inspect the children’s needlework she had to hold it very close to her eyes.

‘‘I have seen it sometimes suggested that she and her husband were not altogether happy together,’’ went on Mr. Robinson. ‘‘There never was a bigger lie than that. To see them together, arm-in-arm, walking over the moors, and to see the way in which he assisted her in the difficult places, was to be convinced that there never was a couple more completely in love with each other.   

Charlotte and Arthur

Charlotte’s brother Branwell was different from the rest of the family, being of a more gay disposition. In the local inn he always used to occupy the same chair, and entertain the company, and I remember once that a stranger tried to take a rise out of him. There was on the wall a picture of a man riding a donkey, and the stranger, turning to Branwell, remarked, pointing to the picture: ‘That reminds me of you.’ In a moment Branwell had jumped on to the stranger’s back, and remarked: ‘The likeness is now complete.’’’

Charlotte Bronte's Wedding certificate
Charlotte Bronte’s Wedding certificate, bearing Sutcliffe’s signature

It is lovely to hear a first hand account of how happy Charlotte and Arthur were in their marriage. If you have an anniversary of your own approaching I wish you many happy returns, and I hope to see you next week for another Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Bronte, Stone Gappe And Jane Eyre

There were some similarities in both the life and work of Charlotte and Anne Brontë, beyond the fact that they were sisters of course. Both wrote books whose eponymous heroine was a governess: Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, and both worked as a governess – although Anne’s nearly six years in service to the Robinson and Ingham families was much longer than the brief periods Charlotte spent as a governess to the White family of Rawdon and the Sidgwick family of Stone Gappe. Charlotte stayed in that job for less than two months, but as we shall see in today’s post it was a time which greatly influenced her most acclaimed novel.

Stone Gappe
Stone Gappe

Stone Gappe is an early 18th century mansion near Lothersdale in North Yorkshire, ten miles from Haworth. Charlotte became governess there in May 1839, her first attempt at being a governess. Her employees were the Sidgwick family who employed Charlotte to teach their young children, but she found this a far from enjoyable role – as we see in a letter she wrote exactly 185 years ago this weekend. The letter, sent by Charlotte to sister Emily Brontë (referred to affectionately by Charlotte as ‘Lavinia’), is reproduced below:

The letter starts promisingly, the hall is divine and the grounds are divine – and still are, by the way, if you ever get the chance to visit this Grade II* listed building. It is an area which delights Charlotte’s senses, but she has not a moment to enjoy it and her time is spent endlessly sewing and darning and looking after the children from hell. Alack-a-day indeed, as Charlotte so charmingly puts it! There is one portion of the letter which is particularly striking to one who is reading it with nearly two centuries worth of hindsight:

“I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil.”

Adèle dancing in Jane Eyre
Jane found it hard being a governess to Adèle

Surely we see a glimpse of Jane here, and in the only solace that Charlotte gets from her despondency – time spent with the taciturn, yet kind, master of the house. He is a vision of Charlotte’s ideal, older, plain speaking, wealthy – a man who strides ahead with a great big dog by his side: “It is very seldom that he speaks to me, but when he does I always feel happier and more settled.”

The master of Stone Gappe was John Benson Sidgwick, a wealthy mill owner. Born in 1800 he was sixteen years older than Charlotte, and had made vast sums of money from owning High Mills in Skipton at a time when the industrial revolution was beginning to boom. He and his family spent summers at Stone Gappe and wintered at Skipton Castle.

At this very same time Anne Brontë too was working as a governess to the family of a wealthy industrialist – to the Ingham family of Blake Hall in Mirfield. Anne found that her charges were ill educated, unruly and often downright violent – but she turned this experience to good use by recreating the family as the monstrous Bloomfield family. 

Charlotte too found that her children had a tendency towards spontaneity of the violent kind. Although not mentioned in her letter we know, very revealingly, that one of the children – a Benson Sidgwick threw a Bible at Charlotte’s head! We know this from a memoir by an A. C. Benson of his father Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury – who was in turn a cousin of John Benson Sidgwick. In it, he tells the story of Charlotte’s Stone Gappe sojourn from the Sidgwick point of view:

“Charlotte Brontë acted as governess to my cousins at Stone Gappe for a few months in 1839. Few traditions of her connection with the Sidgwicks survive. She was, according to her own account, very unkindly treated, but it is clear that she had no gifts for the management of children, and was also in a very morbid condition the whole time. My cousin Benson Sidgwick, now vicar of Ashby Parva, certainly on one occasion threw a Bible at Miss Brontë! and all that another cousin can recollect of her is that if she was invited to walk to church with them, she thought she was being ordered about like a slave; if she was not invited, she imagined she was excluded from the family circle. Both Mr. and Mrs. John Sidgwick were extraordinarily benevolent people, much beloved, and would not wittingly have given pain to any one connected with them.”

An interesting but not unbiased account from A. C. Benson there; perhaps his most lasting legacy is a rather different piece of writing – he was the man who wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgars ‘Land Of Hope And Glory.’ His brother Edward also found fame, as author of the Mapp and Lucia novels.

A. C. Benson
A. C. Benson who reported on Charlotte’s time at Stone Gappe

Charlotte was governess at Stone Gappe for a few short weeks, but the repercussions are still being felt by readers across the globe today. It is said that the Stone Gappe building is the model for Gateshead Hall where young Jane Eyre is raised. Jane has a book thrown at her by her cousin, just as Charlotte had a book thrown at her during her time there. And in Charlotte’s depiction of John Benson Sidgwick we get an early glimpse of a Rochester-like character.

Charlotte used her time as a governess to great effect in her writing – and Anne Brontë did exactly the same, which is why her novel Agnes Grey is so autobiographical in many places – this is exactly the topic I will be discussing at the Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 7th July at 1 pm. You can buy tickets at this link, and it would be great to see you there!

It would also be great to see you right here next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post – may the week ahead be a sunnier one for you.

Charlotte Bronte, Alone In Filey

June is here (if only someone would tell the weather!), so it may be that your thoughts are turning to summer holidays! Perhaps you’re thinking about sneaking away early and beating the crowds! That’s just what Charlotte Brontë did in 1852, as we can see in today’s new Brontë blog post as we look at Charlotte Brontë in Filey.

Filey beach
Filey beach

It’s the perfect day to examine this subject as it was on this day in 1852 that Charlotte Brontë wrote to her father Patrick Brontë in Haworth. Her letter was written from Cliff House, Filey and as we shall see later the building is still standing, and still remembering Charlotte. First, let’s take a look at her letter:

Even in 1852 Filey became busy in the hustle and bustle of mid-summer, as the east coast resorts of Yorkshire were becoming central to a new concept in English society, a concept made possible by the advent of railway travel: the seaside holiday. At this early point in June however Charlotte is free to enjoy the beach and panoramas on her own, which was much more to this very private woman’s taste.

The sea always had a powerful effect on Charlotte Brontë. On this occasion we hear that the sea is ‘very grand’ and Charlotte had stood for an hour simply watching them. Ellen Nussey gave us of an account of the first time Charlotte ever saw the sea, on an 1839 trip the two great friends had made to Burlington (now called Bridlington):

“‘The day but one after their capture they walked to the sea, and as soon as they were near enough for Charlotte to see it in its expanse, she was quite over-powered, she could not speak till she had shed some tears she signed to her friend to leave her and walk on; this she did for a few steps, knowing full well what Charlotte was passing through, and the stern efforts she was making to subdue her emotions her friend turned to her as soon as she thought she might without inflicting pain; her eyes were red and swollen, she was still trembling, but submitted to be led onwards where the view was less impressive; for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued, and exhausted. Distant glimpses of the German Ocean had been visible as the two friends neared the coast on the day of their arrival, but Charlotte being without her glasses, could not see them, and when they were described to her, she said, “Don’t tell me any more. Let me wait.”’

13 years later and Charlotte was at the Yorkshire coast for a much more sombre reason. She had returned to Scarborough, 8 miles north of Filey, to visit the grave of her beloved sister Anne Brontë for the first time since her death in 1849. Charlotte was horrified to see a succession of errors on Anne’s headstone, and paid to have them corrected but one still remains: the stone still declares that Anne was 28 at the time of her death, when she was actually 29.

Anne Brontë's final resting place at Scarborough
Anne Brontë’s headstone underneath Scarborough Castle

Retreating from Scarborough to Filey, Charlotte was alone with the sea, with the seagulls, with the crashing waves, with her memories of those awful days exactly three years earlier. The days when she had travelled from Haworth to Scarborough with Anne (joined by Ellen Nussey en route) but returned to Haworth alone and broken-hearted. Nevertheless, it is telling that there is something, or someone, who has lifted her spirits.

After encountering a farcical little church where congregation, singers and ministers turned their backs on one another (it seems likely to me that this was the tiny Speeton church between Filey and Flamborough) she wishes that Arthur Bell Nicholls could have seen it – and how he would laugh! This is perhaps the only time that we hear of Arthur being humorous and fond of laughing, and the first time we get a glimpse of a growing affection between Charlotte and Arthur. Perhaps it was this that led to Arthur proposing to Charlotte at the close of that year? He was soundly rejected, but in 1854 they were married.

Speeton church
St. Leonard’s church, Speeton

The east coast resorts made a huge impact on Charlotte’s life, and we can see the impact the sea had on her in her brilliant final novel Villette. The sea is almost a character in itself – it is wild, it is life-affirming, it is powerful, it is deadly. Charlotte Brontë would not forget Filey and Filey has not forgotten her. Cliff House, the place where Charlotte stayed in 1852 and from where she wrote the above letter to her father, is now called “Charlotte’s”.

Charlotte's of Filey

I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

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.

Anne Bronte’s ‘Night’: A Poetic Snapshot

Anne Brontë was one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century; her books Agnes Grey and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall deserve to be ranked alongside those of her sisters Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Poetry was her first creative love however, and in her verse we often get a snapshot into her thoughts and life at the time she was putting quill to paper. We’re going to look at one such poem in today’s post: ‘Night’.

As we have seen in previous posts, Anne’s debut novel was autobiographical in many parts, and Agnes can be seen as a representation of Anne herself. Therefore we can really hear Anne’s thoughts when Agnes reveals: “When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry.”

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach

There is no better example of this than in the poem entitled ‘Night’ which Anne Brontë wrote in early 1845 (she gives no more precise date). We know that in the early part of this year, Anne was in her last few months of employment as governess at Thorp Green Hall. By the summer she had left the job she had held for over five years. On July 31st 1845 Anne wrote a diary paper giving us this commentary on her years at Thorp Green and especially at her last months there:

“Yet I was then at Thorp Green, and now I am only just escaped from it. I was wishing to leave it then and if I had known that I had four years longer to stay how wretched I should have been; but during my stay I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature… Branwell has left Luddenden Foot, and been a tutor at Thorp Green, and had much tribulation and ill health.”

In fact it was Anne, whose service was highly regarded by the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall, who had found her brother Branwell a position as governor there – a move she was to regret deeply. By the opening of 1845, it was clear to Anne that Branwell had not only returned to heavy drinking, he was also deeply in love with the mistress of the house Lydia Robinson. Fearing a scandal, Anne resigned her position on 11th June 1845 and returned to Haworth. A month later Branwell repeated that journey having been dismissed from his post.

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

It is against this background that Anne Brontë wrote her poem. It is only 12 lines long, yet it reveals the torment Anne was experiencing. Her days are filled with ‘solitude and woe’, despite the presence in the house of her brother. Only at night can she escape her torment and return instead to a world of bliss: the world of dreams she shares with the darling of her heart, her lifelong love who, alas, lies cold in the grave. This is, of course, the love she wrote of all her life after his 1842 death, the man who was reconstructed as hero Edward Weston in Agnes Grey and who appears in poem after poem: William Weightman.

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

I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post, for now I leave you with Anne Brontë’s ‘Night’:

“I love the silent hour of night,
For blissful dreams may then arise,
Revealing to my charmed sight
What may not bless my waking eyes!
And then a voice may meet my ear
That death has silenced long ago;
And hope and rapture may appear
Instead of solitude and woe.
Cold in the grave for years has lain
The form it was my bliss to see,
And only dreams can bring again
The darling of my heart to me.”

Celebrating Charlotte’s Birthday In The Bronte Birthplace

Yesterday was the 208th anniversary of a very special person indeed. They were the third of six children of a couple who had moved to Yorkshire from Ireland and Cornwall. A clergyman’s daughter who described herself as: “the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children.” She was so shy that she once hid behind curtains all morning when an unexpected visitor arrived, and those who met her repeatedly commented on her small, frail appearance. Yet, she grew up to be fierce spirited, hugely intelligent, and with a creative mind that few could equal, she grew up to change the world of literature forever, she grew up to be Charlotte Brontë.

Charlotte Bronte

It was very fitting therefore that yesterday was the open day for the newly community-owned Brontë birthplace in Thornton. People had the first chance in five years to step into what was in 1816 Thornton Parsonage, to stand in the very room that had witnessed the birth of Charlotte Brontë exactly 208 years earlier. People were understandably excited, and before the door was officially opened a queue was already snaking down Thornton’s Market Street. Over 700 people attended the open day, as the organisers stopped counting at that point – the day had been successful beyond their dreams, and showed the love for the Brontës and their project.

With the open day completed the Brontë birthplace will now be closed until 2025 as renovation work is undertaken. I can’t wait to see the finished result, but the open day showed just what a magical building this is, as shown in the photographs throughout this post. The picture at the head of this post, by the way, is a postcard of the Brontë sisters outside Thornton Parsonage specially commissioned by the Brontë Birthplace.

The fireplace by which the Bronte sisters were born

Huge congratulations must go to all involved in this project, and its prime movers Christa Ackroyd and Steve Stanworth were at the open door talking, meeting and greeting. Another highlight was a fabulous actress playing Nancy de Garrs and displaying a fine way with accents, as well as bringing Nancy and the young Brontës to life! 

Christa Ackroyd with a young Bronte fan

It was also thrilling to see the scullery turned for the day into an educational activity centre for children. The youngsters seemed to love creating bonnets, Brontë inspired word wheels and more and this educational aspect will be a key feature of the reopened Brontë Birthplace – as well as giving people the incredible opportunity of staying in rooms once lived in by the Brontës!

Nancy de Garrs was brought brilliantly to life

It is clear that the Brontë Birthplace will be a very special place indeed, and a necessary place of pilgrimage for all Brontë fans. It’s also, of course, close to Haworth so people will be able to visit both parsonages in one day or weekend. I’m so happy at all that has been achieved, so well done to all who put in so much hard work, who bought shares and who did their bit to bring this campaign to fruition. Charlotte Brontë, on her birthday, would be very proud. Oh, and of course it was good to see Anne Brontë remembered too, both in the lovely mural across from the parsonage (the initials below the figures are AB, CB, C and H, and EB – I’m sure you can decipher the code) and on this lovely plate on display.

I got to experience the Bronte birthplace with the love of my life by my side, which made it even more special. I hope you all have a special week ahead of you, and I hope to see you on Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.