The Brontë Hair Bracelets and Mourning Jewellery

Take a look at the beautiful bracelet at the top of our latest Brontë blog; it’s one that was especially precious to Charlotte Brontë, and she wore it wherever she went, but what is it made of? At the centre is a sparkling amethyst but the strap around it is made of the intertwined hair of her dead sisters, Emily and Anne Brontë.

It may sound a little macabre, or even odd, to us, but jewellery made from the hair of deceased relatives and friends was all the rage amongst the middle and upper classes in the early Victorian era, and there’s a good reason why.

Photography was in its infancy in the 1840s, and a photograph was a luxurious rather than commonplace item. In short, people had no way of looking back at the faces of those they had loved and lost, so they did the next best thing – by keeping locks of their hair, sometimes arranged in a band and sometimes in ornate jewellery, they could always have a piece of their loved one near to them. Charlotte could no longer see her sisters, for example, but she could touch them, she could have them with her always by wearing their hair against her wrist.

Hairworkers, the people who crafted these objects from the tresses that had been lovingly cut from a person in the hours after their passing, were much in demand as it was also common to send these memento mori, reminders of death and therefore reminders of your own mortality, to friends of the deceased. Thus it was that Charlotte presented Ellen Nussey with this reminder of the quiet, gentle friend, Anne Brontë, she had grown to love:

These items are among a number that are displayed at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth from time to time, and they have the hair of all three of the famous Brontë sisters. They have faded over time, and are now very delicate, but behind their glass case they are incredibly beautiful and moving too. We can not only read the great novels and poems of the Brontës, we can actually see their hair before us looking as vibrant as if it had been cut that day.

Bronte hair collection
A collection of cuttings of the hair of the Brontes, at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

This Brontë hair jewellery also helps us lay aside one popular misconception of the Brontë: that they had red hair. There are two reasons, I feel, for this misconception. One is that they were of Irish descent, which has a higher than average proportion of redheads, and that Branwell Brontë‘s self-portraits show that he did indeed have red hair. The other is this description given by Francis Grundy, a close friend and drinking companion of Branwell:

“Branwell, like his sisters, was small, red-haired, large of nose, prominent of spectacles, with eyes cast down.”

Some have taken this to mean that all his sisters had red hair too, but this isn’t necessarily the correct reading of course. The description may simply mean that the first part relates to his sisters, that he was small. Anne and especially Charlotte were diminutive, although Emily was somewhat taller than average. Charlotte certainly did were spectacles, and had the exceedingly poor eyesight which dogged her father, but there is no evidence of Anne or Emily wearing them. It seems, therefore, that Grundy’s description is meant merely to illustrate that Branwell shared some of his physical characteristics with some of his sisters.

In the pictures of Anne, by Branwell and Charlotte, she clearly has brown hair, and indeed she is described as having chestnut brown hair that was somewhat lighter than her sisters. The hair jewellery too, although it has now become lighter than it was, displays brown hair. As a redhead myself I’d love to claim the Brontës for the titian team, but alas it wasn’t so. Nevertheless, the Brontë hair bands and bracelets remain a true treasure of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and a tangible link to the three young women we all know and love.

Patrick Brontë – Poet, Novelist and Influence

Every writer of talent is inspired, to a greater or lesser degree, by the literature they read during their formative years. In her childhood, Anne Brontë would be thrilled by the Tales of The Arabian Nights, and later by books such as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In their early teenage years the Brontës would thrill to poetry by the likes of Wordsworth, Southey, Cowper (Anne wrote a poem in tribute to him) and Byron. The novels of Walter Scott were also important to the development of the Brontës, and his influence can most clearly be seen in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Arabian Nights
Tales from The Arabian Nights were loved by the young Brontes

There was one other important literary influence on them; one closer to home and often overlooked: their father Patrick Brontë. The love of poetry and writing that flowed through Anne, Emily and Charlotte was found just as powerfully, if not as profitably, in their father, and it was he that became the first Brontë to be published.

Patrick Brontë’s first foray into poetry was entitled ‘Cottage Poems’, and like much of his writing it centres upon the importance of faith and religion. Published in 1811, it contains a lengthy introduction by Patrick in which he explains that his poetry is intended for those who would not normally read verse:

‘For the convenience of the unlearned and poor, the Author has not written much, and has endeavoured not to burthen his subjects with matter, and as much as he well could, has aimed at simplicity, plainness, and perspicuity, both in manner and style.’

Even in this early collection there are hints of themes that would later be brought to greater fulfilment by his youngest daughters Emily and Anne. The religious allegories in his verse have an echo in poems by Anne such as The Three Guides, and his poem ‘The Rainbow’ revels in the beauty of nature, in a manner that Emily would raise to a crescendo decades later.

Rainbow Patrick Bronte
From The Rainbow, by Patrick Bronte

Emboldened by his first book of verse, in 1813 Patrick followed this up with his second collection entitled ‘The Rural Minstrel’. By this time he had met, fallen in love with, and married Maria Branwell, and this influence too can be seen on Patrick’s poetry.

There now comes another similarity between Patrick’s writing and that of his daughters, as he abandoned poetry and turned instead to prose – just as Charlotte, Emily and Anne would do after the initial failure of ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.’

In 1815 Patrick had an extended short story published in a magazine called ‘The Pastoral Visitor’. Patrick’s tale was called ‘The Cottage In The Wood or The Art Of Becoming Rich And Happy.’ It is perhaps hardly surprising that the magazine published Patrick, as it was run by his best friend Reverend William Morgan, the man who would later preside over the baptisms of the Brontë children, and most of their funerals.

The title of Patrick’s work makes it sound like an early self-help manual, but it’s easy to guess what Patrick’s solution is to find riches and happiness: turn to God and secure an education for yourself. It also shows the importance of Sunday Schools, something that Patrick was passionate about in real life; he built Sunday schools in both Thornton and Haworth, and Anne, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë were regularly called upon to teach at the Haworth School.

Patrick’s story was well received, and so he next turned to a novel. In 1818, the year that Emily Brontë was born, the company of Baldwin, Cradock & Joy published: ‘The Maid Of Killarney; or Flora and Albion; A Modern Tale.’ This time Patrick delves into political allegory, as an englishman called Albion falls in love with the Irish girl Albion, but their cultural and religious differences drive them apart. Albion disappears for many years, but returns a changed and wealthy man and in a happy ending he marries Flora.

There is a clear similarity here between Patrick’s Albion and Emily’s Heathcliff who also disappears and returns a rich and changed man. Where Emily’s greater genius and literary talent is apparent is that she makes her hero return a worse, not better, man, and she eschews the niceties of a happy ending and a loving marriage.

Patrick Brontë’s poetry and prose are very interesting to read simply because of what we know came next from his daughters; they could never be said to be of great literary value, but on the other hand they do have a charm, and are not badly written. Their importance comes because of their influence upon the Brontë sisters. From their earliest days they would have looked at their father’s bookshelf and seen his own books there. This must certainly have encouraged their own love of writing, their ‘scribblemania’ as Charlotte referred to it, and it must also have encouraged them in the dark days when they struggled to find a publisher: ‘our father did it, and so can we’ they would say, and thankfully they were right!

Kirkstall Abbey by Charlotte Bronte
Kirkstall Abbey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

I leave you with an extract from the long poem ‘Kirskstall Abbey’, part of Patrick’s collection The Rural Minstrel. It was a sight that Patrick knew well, for he often courted his love Maria there. It is believed to be the sight of his proposal, around the time that he wrote this poem:

‘Hail ruined tower! That like a learned sage,
With lofty brow, looks thoughtful on the night;
The sable ebony, and silver white,
Thy ragged sides from age to age,
With charming art inlays,
When Luna’s lovely rays,
Fall trembling on the night,
And round the smiling landscape, throw,
And on the ruined walls below,
Their mild uncertain light.
How heavenly fair, the arches ivy-crowned,
Look forth on all around!
Enchant the heart, and charm the sight,
And give the soul serene delight!
Whilst, here and there,
The shapeless openings spread a solemn gloom,
Recall the thoughtful mind, down to the silent tomb,
And bid us for another world prepare.
Who would be solemn, and not sad,
Who would be cheerful, and not glad,
Who would have all his heart’s desire,
And yet feel as his soul on fire,
To gain the realms of his eternal rest,
Who would be happy, yet not truly blest,
Who in the world, would yet forget his worldly care,
With hope fast anchored in the sands above,
And heart attuned by sacred love,
Let him by moonlight pale, to this sweet scene repair.’

Anne Brontë’s Lesson To The Robinsons – And Us

When Anne Brontë was writing her brace of great novels in the 1840s, she surely never imagined how many lives she would touch nearly two centuries later, how the power of her mind, the words she put onto a page, would bring pleasure to so many and make their days that much better.

Anne was acutely aware, however, of the opportunity to touch the lives of those she had close contact with – especially the charges that she was governess over. The children of the first family she served, the Inghams of Mirfield, were a lost cause. Barely educated and full of self-importance, they were, as Charlotte Brontë called them, ‘desperate little dunces.’The children of the second family Anne served were much more promising.

The Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall near York are depicted, with a little artistic license, as the Murrays of Agnes Grey, and while Anne finds fault with some of their behaviour she gives them a much more sympathetic portrayal than the Bloomfields who were based on the Inghams. They are most famous today because of Mrs Robinson, and the impact that she had upon Branwell after Anne obtained him a job at Thorp Green Hall. It was a disastrous move, but then when a young man falls for a middle aged woman named Mrs Robinson things are surely going to graduate!

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson, mistress of Thorp Green Hall

We know, then, the impact the Robinsons had on the Brontës, but what impact did Anne Brontë have on the Robinsons? We can judge this both through clues within Agnes Grey, and by looking at what happened to the Robinsons after Anne Brontë left her post with them.

Anne Brontë spent five years as governess to the Robinson family, from 1840 until 1845, meaning that she held down a job for far longer than any of her siblings. This gave her time to teach the children, Lydia junior, Elizabeth and Mary, the things that she believed really mattered: honesty, truth and respect for themselves and others. These lessons may have taken a while to sink in, but it is clear that the Robinson girls really grew to love Anne, seeing her almost as a mother figure, even though she was in fact only a few years older than them. An indication as to why they liked her so much is given at the end of Chapter 7 of Agnes Grey. It is a strange end to the chapter, as it bears no relation to what comes before or after, and there is no indication of who is speaking. In truth, these are the words that Anne had heard the Robinson girls say about her:

‘Miss Grey was a queer creature. She never flattered, and did not praise them half enough; but whenever she did speak favourably of them, or anything belonging to them, they could be quite sure her approbation was sincere. She was very obliging, quiet, and peaceable in the main, but there were some things that put her out of temper: they did not care much for that, to be sure, but still it was better to keep her in tune; as when she was in a good humour she would talk to them, and be very agreeable and amusing sometimes, in her way; which was quite different to mamma’s, but still very well for a change. She had her own opinions on every subject, and kept steadily to them – very tiresome opinions they often were; as she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion, and an unaccountable liking to good people.’

Anne was the first person to instil discipline into the girls lives, and they grew to appreciate this as a great treasure. It was this respect that led the girls to buy Anne a very special gift – the cavalier spaniel puppy that she named Flossy. The girls must have been distraught when Anne left suddenly in the summer of 1845, but this was far from the end of her involvement in their lives.

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall in the nineteenth century

One of the themes relating to the Bloomfield section of Agnes Grey is the importance of love in marriage. The Robinsons were a wealthy and well connected family, and Mrs Robinson tried to arrange exalted marriages for them based upon social standing rather than upon any idea of romance or partiality. This was perfectly normal for the time, but to Anne it was anathema. We hear from Charlotte how the Robinsons would write to Anne with their problems and worries, and she would write back offering them advice. This continued until the end of Anne’s life, as two of the girls Elizabeth (known as Bessie) and Mary made an arduous journey to see Anne in Haworth in December of 1848. Charlotte was amazed at the obvious love and respect between the girls and Anne, writing of it to Ellen Nussey:

‘The Robinsons were here about a week ago – they are attractive and stylish looking girls – they seemed overjoyed to see Anne; when I went into the room they were clinging around her like two little children – she, meantime, looking perfectly quiet and passive. Their manners evinced more levity and giddiness than pretension or pomposity.’

It should be noted that the oldest child, Lydia, did not make the journey, but by this time she had broken off contact with her mother of the same name, and perhaps we can see Anne’s hand in this event too. The young Lydia travelled to the fashionable resort of Scarborough every year, and Anne went along with them. It was a place to see and be seen for Lydia, and it was hoped and expected that she would pick up a suitably wealthy husband. Lydia had other plans. She fell in love with Henry Roxby, a circus and stage performer whose father Robert, a comedian and performer himself, owned Scarborough’s Theatre Royal. It seems reasonable, in light of the letters her sisters sent, to presume that Lydia opened up to Anne about her feelings. There is no doubt that Anne would have impressed upon her the importance of following her heart and marrying for love, just as Agnes Grey does to the oldest Bloomfield girl in Anne’s first novel. One night, Lydia Robinson and Henry Roxby eloped and married.

The Misalliance Cost Lydia her Inheritance
‘The Misalliance Cost Lydia Her Inheritance’, a portrait of Lydia Robinson junior by wonderful artist Amanda White

Mrs Robinson was outraged, and her eldest daughter became a persona non grata. She now turned her eyes onto her next child Bessie Robinson, and arranged a marriage to a rich mill owner named Milner. Bessie wrote despairingly to Anne, and we can be certain that Anne implored her to be firm with her mother, to follow her heart just as her eldest sister had.

An emboldened Bessie protested fiercely to her mother, and the engagement was broken off. It was a scandal that went to court, and Lydia Robinson had to pay substantial compensation of £90 (around ten thousand pounds today) to the Milners. When Bessie did marry it was to the factory owner William Jessop of Butterley Hall in Ripley, Derbyshire (that’s it at the top of this post). Anne’s influence could be seen here as well, as Bessie Jessop became known for her compassion and kindness to the poor. Every year she invited 200 local people to tea at Christmas, and gave them a shilling each. When she died in 1882 she left the equivalent of over two million pounds to her own daughters, and the local paper reported that ‘the poor people of Ripley had lost a true friend’. Factories closed for the day, and flags flew at half mast.

This was the true measure of Anne Brontë as a person. She is loved by us today from a distance, we see her through a glass darkly and still we are impressed, but to those who knew her closely she was adored. Anne Brontë gave Lydia and Bessie Robinson the courage to be true to themselves, to do what they knew was right rather than what was expected of them. It is a lesson we can all learn from today.

Robert Southey and the Infamous Letter

When Anne Brontë and her sisters Charlotte and Emily made their first foray into print, they decided to do so under the male pen names of Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. Charlotte later said they took this decision as: ‘We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’

Perhaps the sisters were thinking back to one particular example of this when they made their decision, and one that involved one of the greatest literary figures of his day – Robert Southey.

Southey was born in Bristol in 1774, and was one of the leading figures of the Romantic era of poetry. He is most particularly associated with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge as the three ‘Lake Poets’. He served as Poet Laureate for thirty years, from 1813 until his death in 1843 (when he was succeeded by Wordsworth).

Grasmere in the Lake District that inspired Southey and others

The Brontë sisters had been writing poetry since a very early age. Their teenage poetry was often concentrated on the imaginary lands of Angria, created by Charlotte and Branwell, and Gondal, created by Anne and Emily Brontë. As they grew older, however, they began to write about the things that touched them in real life too: nature, love, despair.

Charlotte Brontë was never one to sit on her laurels, so she determined to seek an expert opinion on whether her poetry was good or not, and whether she should persevere with it. She turned to the top expert she could think of, the poet laureate Robert Southey.

We know that Charlotte wrote to Southey on 29 December 1836, when she was twenty years old and serving as a teacher at Roe Head School. Alas, we don’t have her original letter or the poem it contained within it, but we certainly have Southey’s reply, and it’s become infamous.

Southey starts by apologising for a three month delay in sending his reply, and then praises Charlotte’s work, saying that:

‘You evidently possess & in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls “the faculty of verse”. I am not depreciating it when I say that in these times it is not rare.’

Charlotte must have been delighted with this pronouncement, even though she would characteristically try to dampen her enthusiasm a little. It may also be seen as rather a generous judgement from the poet laureate: Charlotte is of course a brilliant novelist of the first order, but her poetry is often very long, and lacking the sparkle of the verse produced by Anne and especially by Emily.

It is later in the letter, however, that we reach the truly contentious point, as Southey counsels:

‘There is a danger of which I would with all kindness & earnestness warn you. The daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind, & in proportion as all the “ordinary uses of the world” seem to you “flat & unprofitable”, you will be unfitted for them, without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not then seek in imagination for excitement.’

Southey here is stating that once Charlotte marries, and after all marriage is the reason d’etre for a woman’s life, she will no longer want to write poetry: she will have all the excitement she needs in darning her husband’s socks, washing his clothes and cooking his meals.

There are a couple of other surprising things about this letter. One is that Southey says that he believes the writer has sent the letter under an assumed name, when in fact she had used her real name in contrast to her later actions as a writer. Perhaps most surprising of all, however, is Charlotte’s reaction to it – she was not angry, but elated.

Robert Southey memorial Westminster Abbey
Robert Southey’s memorial
at Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey – the Bronte memorial is nearby

Charlotte wrote straight back to Southey, saying: ‘I had not ventured to hope for such a reply; so considerate in its tone, so noble in its spirit. I must suppress what I feel, or you will think me foolishly enthusiastic.’

She treasured the letter and kept the original envelope, upon which she wrote: ‘Southey’s advice. To be kept forever.’

Southey has become castigated for his views expressed in the letter. Of course it seems laughable at best, if not downright offensive, to believe that literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life. The poet laureate was, however, a product of his time, and his views would have been widely agreed with, as they even were by Charlotte at first.

Just what changed Charlotte’s viewpoint in the time between receiving this letter and becoming Currer Bell to escape prejudice? She certainly became more worldly-wise in the intervening nine or so years, but perhaps she was also influenced by Emily and Anne.

There is no doubt that Charlotte would have read Southey’s letter to her sisters, possibly to Anne on the day she received it, as she was then a pupil at the school Charlotte was teaching in. There is also little doubt that they may have been less impressed with the letter.

Anne Brontë formed her own opinions on matters ranging from religion to equality of the sexes, and she cared not if she was at odds with the prevailing opinions of the day. Her brilliant second novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall has been hailed by many as an early work of feminist fiction, and Anne leaves the reader in little doubt that she sees no difference between a man and a woman, and in what they should do with their lives. It is a theme that she returned defiantly to in her preface to the second edition of the Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, when she writes:

‘I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’

There is no better rebuttal to Robert Southey’s opinion than the poetry novels of Anne Brontë, and of her sisters Charlotte and Emily.

In Search Of Anne Brontë – Now In Paperback!

As you know, I use this blog to talk about Anne Brontë and her family, posting at least one new post every week (and I still have lots of the old posts from the previous site to upload, so please bear with me on that). I don’t like to use this Anne Brontë website for promotional reasons, but I hope today you’ll grant me one indulgence, as I wanted to say that my biography of Anne is now out in paperback.

In Search Of Anne Bronte paperback
I celebrated getting the first copy of In Search of Anne Bronte with coffee and shortbread!

When ‘In Search Of Anne Brontë’ was released in hard back form by The History Press it was the culmination of a labour of love that stretched back over two decades. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve been blown away by the reception it’s had – gaining me a glowing two page review in The Mail On Sunday and appearances at literary festivals. The thing that has meant most to me is the kind words I’ve had from people like you – fellow Brontë lovers!

In Search Of Anne Bronte paperback front cover
In Search Of Anne Bronte paperback front cover

The History Press must be happy as well – as they’ve now released it in a paperback version! You can buy it on Amazon here: and it should soon be in bookshops too. It’s a little cheaper than the hardback, of course, and I absolutely love the cover design (which had nothing to do with me, so I don’t mind saying that!). I may also call it a new and improved version, as a few typos and errors that came to light in the earlier version have now been corrected.

Thank you so much again to you all for your continued support – it’s thanks to you and all the help you’ve given me that I will have books on both Emily Bronte and Elizabeth ‘Aunt’ Branwell published next year! Thank you for listening to my advert, I hope I haven’t been too self-promoting, but I like the look of it so much that I had to let you know!

Back to normal tomorrow, with a new post on a literary giant who tried to put an end to the Brontës writing career before it began!

Anne Brontë On World Asthma Day

As it’s World Asthma Day, my thoughts have turned to Anne Brontë and the illnesses she had to endure. Often thought of as being weak and permanently unwell, was that really the case and was asthma actually the cause of her complaints?

Anne was the last of the six Brontë children to be born, and her mother Maria died just a year later. It’s easy to imagine how this could lead to her siblings, father and Aunt Elizabeth spoiling her and being extra protective of her. It seems as well that Anne suffered from asthma and was thought of as a fragile child, as it’s referred to in letters from Charlotte and from Anne herself.

A particularly bad attack occurred in late 1846, and it was to leave Anne in a weakened state for all of the coming year. Charlotte wrote of it to Ellen Nussey:

‘She had two nights last week when her cough and difficulty of breathing were painful indeed to hear and witness, and must have been most distressing to suffer; she bore it, as she does all affliction, without one complaint, only sighing now and then when nearly worn out.’

Asthma is a condition that results in a constructing of the airways, making it very hard to breathe when an asthma ‘attack’ occurs. The air struggling through the narrow passageway often produces a characteristic wheezing sound, and coughing. Like large numbers of other people today, I myself suffer from asthma, and it can be controlled through the use of preventative and relieving inhalers that allow the sufferer to live a relatively normal and active life. I can hardly imagine how awful and debilitating an attack of asthma would be without any medication to control or remove it.

Of course, medicine in the 1820s, 30s and 40s was very different to that of the present day. One treatment that was believed to help was crab cheese, and Anne thanks Ellen for sending her a jar of it in a letter dated 4th October 1847. It sounds unappetising to us today, even though it is made of sour crab apples rather than the crustaceans, but Anne ate it dutifully; she was always willing to try a remedy if it offered hope to her and the people who cared for her.

crab cheese
Crab cheese, as used by Anne Bronte

It’s easy to imagine Anne being housebound by this complaint, and being at death’s door throughout her life, but that wasn’t really so. Even though at some periods in her life, particularly when the cold east wind blew through the parsonage, she would often be ill and struggling to breathe, at other times she could be very active. She was a regular walking partner of her beloved sister Emily, and their excursions across the rugged moors could take in 20 miles or more in a day, distances that most people in modern society would think twice about attempting.

Is there another misconception about Anne’s recurring illness and breathing difficulties, could it be that asthma wasn’t the underlying cause at all, but something even deadlier? Leading medic Professor Philip Rhodes wrote in 1972:

‘In the winter of 1846 everyone at the Parsonage suffered from repeated colds and influenza. All except Anne seemed to recover, but her vitality was still impaired by the spring of 1847, and she suffered from asthma. She was then 27. Asthma is a wheezy type of breathing, which when it is of relatively late onset, as in Anne’s case, is usually due to some underlying disorder of the lungs. This could have been tuberculosis.’

Professor Rhodes also opines that Anne could have caught tuberculosis from her older sisters Maria and Elizabeth who succumbed to it when she was a child, or from her time as a teenager at Roe Head School, the first time she had spent time away from her home and family. Since that initial infection, Anne had lived with tuberculosis without realising it, and the coughing and breathing difficulties were one of its symptoms. When exposed to an even larger dose of consumption in London in 1848, then a hotbed of the disease, her sad end was inevitable.

The fact that Anne Brontë bore all this ‘without one complaint’ is testament to her fortitude and incredible character.

Elizabeth Brontë – More Than A Footnote

I was once asked in a pub quiz: ‘Who is the least famous Brontë sister?’ Of course I had to swallow my anger at the injustice of it all and write down Anne Brontë, as I knew that was the answer they were looking for – but it isn’t correct. Less well known is Maria Brontë, the tragic genius of the family, but the least known of all the Brontë sisters is the second sister: Elizabeth Brontë. Isn’t it time that we recognised her as a flesh and blood human, and not just a footnote?

Whilst all of the six Brontë siblings died young, Elizabeth’s life ended earlier than any of them – dying aged just ten. It is perhaps this that leads to her being excluded from the Brontë story, along with a suspicion that she lacked the talents of her other siblings, but this is unfair on Elizabeth. Given time her own artistic or literary talents may have flourished – and she would certainly have made positive contributions to the lives of her sisters and brother.

Elizabeth Brontë was born in February 1815, in the village of Hartshead where her father Patrick was then the Church of England curate. Hartshead is a small village in the hills above Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and a short if steep walk from the Roe Head School that would later be attended by her three younger sisters.

It is not at Hartshead that Elizabeth was baptised, however, but at her father’s next parish of Thornton. She was baptised on 26 August 1815, and named after her Aunt Elizabeth who was at that time also in Thornton on an extended visit from Cornwall (and who would later become an integral part of the family in Haworth as Aunt Branwell). Elizabeth’s baptism is the first mystery in her life – as a minister in the church, Patrick would have believed firmly in the importance of baptism, so why did he wait over six months to have his own daughter baptised? Could it have been some illness the young child was suffering from that caused the delay? We will never know.

Throughout her ten years we get brief glimpses of Elizabeth Brontë’s life, but although brief they are illuminating. We first encounter her during the story of the masks. Patrick knew how reserved his children were, so decided to overcome this by asking them questions from behind the anonymity of a mask. Each question was carefully tailored to the child, and to Elizabeth he asked what the best mode of education was for a woman, to which she replied: ‘that which would make her rule the house well.’

This is one clue that Elizabeth had different priorities to her siblings. While they loved to play and read and invent stories, Elizabeth liked order and tidiness, and the more practical things in life. This is also confirmed by her admission entry in the records of the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge.

Elizabeth went to the school in the company of her eldest sister Maria on the 1st July, 1823 and in the following months she would also be joined there by Charlotte and Emily (thankfully for Anne Brontë in the light of what we now know about the school, she was too young to attend). They were all assessed as to their academic abilities upon arrival, and it is also noted what they were to be schooled for, i.e. what occupation they were expected to attain in later life. Maria, Charlotte and Emily Brontë are all listed as future governesses, but Elizabeth is recorded as being schooled to be a housekeeper. We know that she was not given French, music or drawing lessons, as her sisters at the school were. Her accomplishments are summed up as:

‘Reads little. Writes pretty well. Ciphers none. Works very badly. Knows nothing of grammar, history, geography or accomplishments.’

Elizabeth Bronte sampler
Elizabeth Bronte’s sampler, completed at 7, belies her record of ‘working very badly’

It should be noted however that nearly all the pupils have similarly harsh judgements against their name (other than Emily who was given a uniquely glowing report when she arrived), and the pronouncement that she ‘writes pretty well’ is better than most of her contemporaries at the school.

We have another report of Elizabeth Brontë at Cowan Bridge and it’s rather a sad one. Miss Evans, the Superintendent at the school, recalled:

‘The second, Elizabeth, is the only one of the [Brontë] family of whom I have a vivid recollection, from her meeting with a rather alarming accident, in consequence of which I had her for some days and nights in my bed-room, not only for the sake of her greater quiet, but that I might watch over her myself. Her head was severely cut, but she bore all the consequent suffering with exemplary patience, and by it won much upon my esteem.’

Of course, worse was to come for Elizabeth at Cowan Bridge. In that terrible establishment she, like her sister Maria and many others, contracted tuberculosis. She was sent home to Haworth in May 1825, and died on 15th June, just six weeks after her eldest sister.

So what do we know of Elizabeth Brontë? She was patient, she bore misfortune, she enjoyed housework, and also that her writing was better than most girls of her age. But there is more to Elizabeth than that.

Patrick Brontë said that his second daughter had ‘sound common sense’, and perhaps the best tribute came from Charlotte Brontë, who would have looked up to the sister closest to her in age. Elizabeth Gaskell, friend and biographer of Charlotte, remembered that she spoke often of both Maria and Elizabeth, and from Charlotte’s pronouncements she ‘used to believe them to have been wonders of talent and kindness.’

Nancy Garrs, family servant, recalls how the young Elizabeth would lead her younger sisters by the hand on their walks across the moors, and that she was ‘very thoughtful’ in her treatment of them. Could it be that Emily, who never forgot a good deed done for her, chose her pen name of Ellis partly as a tribute to her lost sister Elizabeth?

Bronte family vault
Elizabeth Bronte lies in Haworth’s Bronte family vault

If Elizabeth had lived longer, this combination of kindness and common sense would have proved invaluable to her sisters and to her brother Branwell. We see signs that she was the most practical of the Brontës, and therefore it seems likely that she would have been better equipped to cope with the outside world than her sisters, in general, were.

What we can tell is that those who knew Elizabeth, her family, loved her, missed her, and remembered her fondly, and for that Elizabeth Brontë deserves to be thought of as more than just a footnote.

Anne and Emily Brontë And The Crow Hill Explosion

Yesterday was World Earth Day, an important day in which we are encouraged to think about the impact our actions have upon the environment. It is also a time when we can contemplate the wonders of nature, and appreciate the power and majesty of the natural world around us – something that Anne Brontë and her sisters took great delight in.

The Brontës grew up at a time when the industrial revolution was coming to the fore, a time that would lead to the highly industrialised world that we live in today. As such, the Brontës were free from many of the environmental concerns we now have, yet there was one occasion when they witnessed the devastating effect that an imbalance in nature can bring – and it nearly cost the young girls their lives.

On the second of September 1824 Anne and Emily Brontë were keeping themselves company, as they were often want to do, while their three eldest sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were away at Cowan Bridge school. There had been heavy rain for a week, and combined with the colds that both Anne and Emily had been suffering from, they had been confined to the four walls of the Parsonage for a week. This could mean only one thing for four year old Anne and six year old Emily, who had already discovered their love of nature but were as yet too young to have found their love of reading – they were bored.

Finally the rains ceased and a weak autumnal sun broke through the obscuring clouds. Their father Patrick, who himself was a keen walker, gave in to his girls’ pleas and allowed them to go outside in the fresh post-deluge air. Accompanying them was their older brother Branwell, and their leaders were Nancy and Sarah Garrs, hired hands at the Parsonage. Branwell strode on ahead, as the oldest sibling present, as if he was now the man of the party and must therefore protect them. He was soon to find that there are some things that can’t be protected against.

After walking for around two miles, which must have been about the limit for young Anne at the time, the weather and light suddenly changed. The sky darkened and an ominous rumble sounded. The earth shook violently after which large hail stones fell from the sky. It had now become very dark, and Nancy and Sarah realised that something was very wrong. In the distance was the large Ponden Hall, and gathering the children up they ran towards it, with a voice from within the Hall urging them on. They had just reached the shelter of a porch when a huge torrent of water and mud flooded across the landscape they had been walking in.

The scarred moorlands of Crow Hill
The scarred moorlands of Crow Hill

At its peak this torrent was seven feet high and large boulders were picked up and hurled through the air. The devastation can still be seen on the scarred and cratered moors today, and the sound of the explosion taking place was reported as far away as Leeds. For weeks afterwards, the streams were full of dead fish.

Patrick Brontë had sensed something was wrong, and had been watching from the window of the Parsonage with a sense of dread as the sky above turned black transforming daytime into an instant night. When his family failed to return and the tidal wave of mud had stopped, he set out to find them. We can imagine the relief on both sides as they met on the moors, all covered in muds.

We know of this not only from the physical evidence apparent in today’s landscape, but from two other sources. Firstly, Patrick preached a sermon about the event, and he also wrote to the local newspapers describing the dreadful earthquake that he feared had claimed his children:

“I had sent my little children, who were indisposed, accompanied by the servants, to take an airing on the common, and as they stayed rather longer than I expected, I went to an upper chamber to look for their return… My little family had escaped to a place of shelter, but I did not know it. I consequently watched every movement of the coming tempest with a painful degree of interest.”

In fact, the damage not caused by an earthquake but by a rare event that has become known as the Crow Hill bog burst. Constant rain had eroded the soil until a land slip occurred, and this gathered force and momentum until mud and water broke free with an explosive force.

The Leeds Mercury newspaper reported how the tsunami of mud had reached seven feet high, and revealed how lucky Anne Brontë and her companions were:

“Somebody gave alarm, and thereby saved the lives of some children who would otherwise have been swept away.”

This very near brush with death must have made on impact on Anne and Emily’s young minds, but if anything they gained an even greater love and respect for nature and the landscape around it. They had seen how powerful nature could be, and one day through their writing they would reveal how powerful they could be as well. Emily and Anne Brontë had encountered their very own earth day, but it increased their love of nature and the landscape – a love that would become apparent in their prose and poetry for the rest of their lives.

Wuthering Heights moors
Heathcliff, Cathy and the moors – the three protagonists of Wuthering Heights

In Wuthering Heights particularly, the landscape is almost a character in itself – its dark presence brooding over the pages. We see Anne’s love of the environment in her evocations of seaside landscapes, but also in her words that pay tribute to bluebells, snowdrops and primroses.

As we think about World Earth Day, we only have to look at our beloved Brontës, and to remember their desperate escape from Crow Hill, to realise the power that the environment still has over us. We must respect it; we must preserve it.

Tiger And Tom: The Cats Of The Bronte Sisters

Today is International Cat Day, so it seems a perfect opportunity to take a look at the cat in the lives of the Brontë sisters! The wet nosed four legged friends of the Brontës are well known, and visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum can still see the collars of Grasper, Keeper and Anne Brontë’s beloved spaniel Flossy, a gift from her pupils in the Robinson household. Their cat, Tom, however is not as well known.

Tom was a black cat that was doted upon by the Brontë siblings, and it seems that he certainly knew how to charm visitors to the Parsonage, probably with the intention of gaining a cuddle or even a tasty morsel or two. The world may change, but cats never change!

We have three pieces of evidence for the Brontës love of cats. First is this picture that Emily Brontë painted, with their tabby cat Tiger taking centre stage along with Keeper and Flossy:

Keeper, Flossy and Tiger
Keeper, Flossy and Tiger by Emily Bronte

We also see a cat taking a major role in the early part of Agnes Grey, the début novel of Anne Brontë that was heavily influenced by her real life experiences. Agnes wants to be given more to do in the northern Parsonage where she lives, but her over protective family tell her:

‘Go and practice your music, or play with the kitten.’

When Agnes leaves home to become a governess for the first time, she seeks out this kitten for special attention:

‘I rose, washed, dressed, swallowed a hasty breakfast, received the fond embraces of my father, mother, and sister, kissed the cat – to the great scandal of Sally, the maid – shook hands with her, mounted the gig, drew the veil over my face, and then, but not til then, burst into a flood of tears.’

It’s easy to imagine Anne painting this season from memory, with Aunt Branwell playing the part of mother, and Tabby Aykroyd as Sally.

There’s another sign of Anne’s fondness for cats later in the book. In a moving and tender section, the poor old woman Nancy is worried because her cat has gone missing, and she fears the local gamekeeper will have shot it. Indeed that would have been its fate, but Reverend Weston rescues it and returns it to Nancy.

We also have an eyewitness account of the Brontë cat from Ellen Nussey’s report of 1833:

‘Black ‘Tom’, the tabby, was everybody’s favourite. It received such gentle treatment it seemed to have lost its cat’s nature, and subsided into luxurious amiability and contentment.’

It’s important to note here that Ellen, always a careful and fastidious writer, has put ‘Tom’ in quotation marks, meaning that this was the name that the Brontës had given it, rather than it being simply a tom cat.

Ellen goes on to explain that Aunt Branwell was rather less fond of pets, but on this particular point the Brontë girls would not be lectured to. We’ll return to our second part of the Aunt Branwell blog this weekend, looking at her relationship with Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, but as an animal lover myself I couldn’t let International Cat Day go by uncelebrated.

By the way, if you’re lucky enough to visit Haworth today, you’re sure to see a cat or two. One in particular hangs around the graveyard in front of the parsonage, its bright eyes gleaming out of the dark. That’s it at the top of this post. As it was in the 1840s, so it is today.

201 Not Out: Happy Birthday Charlotte Brontë

Two hundred and one years ago today a remarkable event was occurring in front of a fireplace in a small parsonage building in Thornton, on the outskirts of Bradford. It was the birth of Charlotte Brontë, a woman who would change the world of literature forever.

I am, of course, a champion of Anne Brontë, in my opinion the most unfairly neglected writer of them all, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not a huge fan of Charlotte Brontë as well. Charlotte is an incredibly complex character, and any biographer or student of the Brontë has to accept that she played a part in damaging the reputation of her younger sister Anne by suppressing her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after her death. We also know, from Charlotte’s own words, that she destroyed works of Anne and Emily Brontë after their death, although we don’t know how much or whether she had been asked to do so by her sisters. It’s also inescapable that Charlotte truly loved her sisters, as her elegy to Anne after her death shows.

Fireplace Charlotte Bronte
The fireplace by which Charlotte Bronte was born, Emily’s at Thornton

Charlotte is our main access point to the Brontë story, not only because she wrote more novels than her sisters combined, but also because of her huge collection of letters. Charlotte’s letters are a pleasure to read, by turns vituperative, angry, loving and hilarious – it is little wonder that her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls called them ‘as dangerous as lucifer matches’, although thankfully Ellen Nussey, the recipient of the majority that we have left, denied his instructions to burn them.

Charlotte give us an insight into the woman that readers of her great books can miss; put to one side is the genius author, and instead we often see the despairing, damaged, uncertain woman who had to cope with the loss of her mother at too early an age, quickly followed by the deaths of her two eldest sisters.

Charlotte, aged just nine, put her childhood aside and instead, as the eldest surviving child, acted as a mother to her siblings. She was later to write that writing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall ‘did her [Anne] harm’, but it was these childhood losses that did Charlotte harm. Throughout her life she would suffer from what she called ‘bilious attacks’, in reality bouts of depression that left her unable to leave her bed or even write a letter. We can see how far the depths she descended were in her moving account of the effect the moors have on her after Anne and Emily’s deaths:

‘I am free to walk on the moors – but when I go out there alone everything reminds me of the time when others were with me and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening. My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf not a fluttering lark or linnet but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon. In the hill-country silence their poetry comes by lines and stanzas into my mind: once I loved it – now I dare not read it – and am driven often to wish I could taste one draught of oblivion and forget much that, while mind remains, I never shall forget.’

These dark moments that punctuated her life would have destroyed most people’s creativity, but Charlotte Brontë had the incredible strength and power to overcome them. She had, as Elizabeth Gaskell quite rightly said when recalling how Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre as she was nursing her father Patrick as he recovered from an eye operation, the heart of Robert the Bruce within her.

She lost all that were dear to her, the poet laureate Robert Southey told her not to write as it wasn’t a fit occupation for a woman, her first novel was rejected by every publisher in the land – and yet she didn’t give in. She couldn’t give in – writing was all she had left.

Charlotte Bronte 1843
Charlotte Bronte, 1843, painted by Mary Dixon

I recently came upon a picture that I had never really noticed before, in a book I hadn’t consulted in a while – ‘A Brontë Encyclopedia’ by Robert and Louise Barnard. The book describes the picture as ‘Image of Charlotte about 1843. This newly discovered chalk drawing of Charlotte may be the portrait painted by Mary Dixon in Brussels.’

If this is indeed Charlotte Brontë, it is very different to the one we normally see. Here she is not a child, but a woman with the experience of life etched on her face. It is also not airbrushed or idealised like Charlotte’s portraits by Richmond and Thompson, and yet to my mind it is a beautiful picture and belies the stories told about Charlotte’s plainness and longing to be pretty.

On this special day I will be raising a glass to Charlotte Brontë, at peace at last, a beautiful soul and a beautiful writer. She will live on forever while there are still people to turn pages. Happy birthday, Charlotte Brontë!