Mother’s Day has arrived here in the UK, allowing us all to pay tribute to the woman who shaped our lives forever. The Brontë children had little chance to know their mother Maria, who died in 1821 when the oldest sibling was seven and the youngest just one. Charlotte Brontë was later presented with a selection of her mother’s letters, which led her to say:
‘It was strange now to peruse, for the first time, the records of a mind whence my own sprang; and most strange, and at once sad and sweet, to find that mind of a truly fine, pure, and elevated order… There is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wish she had lived, and that I had known her.’
‘In my childhood I could not imagine a more afflictive punishment than for my mother to refuse to kiss me at night: the very idea was terrible.’ (AG)
A Mother Should Be Loved By Her Child
‘“Even at his age, he ought not to be always tied to his mother’s apron string; he should learn to be ashamed of it.”
“Mrs. Markham, I beg you will not say such things in his presence, at least. I trust my son will never be ashamed to love his mother!” said Mrs. Graham, with a serious energy that startled the company.’ (TTOWH)
A Mother Should Tell Stories To Amuse Her Children
‘Sometimes our mother would amuse us with stories and anecdotes of her younger days, which, while they entertained us amazingly, frequently awoke – in me, at least – a secret wish to see a little more of the world.’ (AG)
A Mother Should Be Financially Astute
‘In vain my mother assured him she was quite satisfied; and if he would but lay by a little for the children, we should all have plenty; both for time present and to come: but saving was not my father’s forte. He would not run into debt (at least my mother took good care he should not).’ (AG)
A Mother’s First Duty Is To Do Good For Her Child
‘“By what I have done for you, you may judge of what I will do – if it be not incompatible with the higher duty I owe my son (higher, because he never forfeited his claims, and because I hope to do more good to him than I can ever do for you)”’ (TTOWH)
A Mother Should Not Spoil Her Child
‘I must beware of my own weakness too, for I never knew till now how strong are a parent’s temptations to spoil an only child.’ (TTOWH)
A Mother’s Love Is All A Child Needs
‘But this should not continue; my child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far than he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence with such a father.’ (TTOWH)
A Mother Should Risk Everything For Her Child
‘But I trust these trials are now over: I have laid him in my bed for better security, and never more, I trust, shall his innocent lips be defiled by their contaminating kisses, or his young ears be polluted by their words. But shall we escape in safety? Oh, that the morning were come, and we were on our way at last!’ (TTOWH)
Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall, is to us a perfect mother – she risks everything, and is prepared to withstand scorn, poverty and scandal to protect the one thing she loves more than anything in the world – her son Arthur. Anne did not have far to look for an example of a woman like that – for she had one in her very own family, a woman who escaped her husband’s clutches and started a new life as a single mother with her daughter. That’s a tale for another day and another post!
As we can see from her writings, Anne Brontë would have been a loving and affectionate mother, and she also had practical experience of raising children thanks to her governess roles. It’s the most important job of them all, so to mothers everywhere, I wish you a very happy and healthy Mothering Sunday!
8th March 2018 is a very special International Women’s Day, when we remember the contribution that women have made throughout history, as well as the continuing fight for the equality they deserve. What makes this particular day so special here in Great Britain is that this year marks the centenary of the first votes being awarded to women, although universal suffrage was still some years away. Nearly a hundred years after the Brontës were born, working class women of the West Riding of Yorkshire, like Annie Kenney, were at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement, something the sisters in Haworth would surely have been proud of.
The move to equality is still under way, but as the revelations over unfair gender gaps in pay at the BBC and other institutions, and the ‘Me Too’ movement shows, there’s still a long road to travel. Women have made, and continue to make, incredible contributions to modern life. Few women have contributed more to the world of literature than the Brontë sisters, and yet they wrote under male pseudonyms. Let’s take a look why.
The names of Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë are now globally famous, but at the time they were all writing together, they remained unknown. The sisters had chosen to adopt seemingly male pseudonyms, with Charlotte choosing Currer Bell, Emily choosing Ellis Bell, and Anne choosing Acton Bell. As Charlotte herself was to explain, in her ‘Biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ of 1850, the prejudices against women in Britain at this time meant that only men could be taken seriously as writers:
“We veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; we did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are likely to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
Charlotte Brontë herself had encountered this prejudice. From her late teenage years onwards she sent some of her early poems to famous writers of the day, little expecting a reply. One who did reply was the poet laureate Robert Southey, and his answer is illuminating of the attitudes of the time. He wrote:
“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.”
Despite the pen names, there was to be some speculation over the identity of the Bells, with some critics suggesting that they may, scandalously, be a woman or women. Anne Brontë, under her guise as Acton, addressed this in her courageous and defiant preface to the second edition of ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’:
“Little can it matter whether the writer is a man, or a woman as one or two of my critics profess to have discovered. I make no effort to refute it, because, in my own mind, 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.”
This enlightened attitude, and refusal to be bound by convention, is typical of Anne Brontë, and is borne out by ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ itself. The book was seen as shocking in its time, not just because of the frank depictions of alcoholism and cruelty, but because the heroine, Helen, is a free thinking woman who considers herself the equal of any man. She leaves her husband, and takes on a new identity unencumbered by society’s expectation that she should be married and subjugated to a man.
Anne Brontë has been seen as one of the first proto-feminist writers, and in 1913 the writer and suffragist May Sinclair wrote that the noise of Helen slamming the bedroom door in Arthur’s face had reverberated throughout Victorian England. At the end of the twentieth century, Anne’s feminist credentials were again examined, this time by Elizabeth Langland in her brilliant book ‘Anne Brontë: The Other One.’ In it she declaims that: ‘Thematic innovations place her in the forefront of feminist thought in the nineteenth century even as her formal and technical innovations demand that we look again at her contribution to the English novel.’
Today is a day when we celebrate everyday women and women of genius and Anne Brontë, more so even than her sisters, is a fitting icon for International Women’s Day 2018.
There are many places associated with Anne Brontë and her sisters: Haworth, of course, where they lived the majority of their lives and which is now a place of literary pilgrimage; Thornton near Bradford, where the last three Brontë sisters, and their brother Branwell, were born; Scarborough, the coastal resort where Anne Brontë lies buried; Mirfield, where Charlotte, Emily and Anne went to school, and where Anne gained her first job as governess; Penzance, home of the Branwells, and of the Brontës’ mother and aunt. There is another location that is particularly worth visiting: the capital city of the Brontës’ home county, York.
York is a beautiful and historic city, full of Roman walls and Viking artefacts, not to mention more museums than you can shake a stick at. Today it draws tourists from across the world, and streets like the higgledy-piggledy Shambles are thronged with camera snapping folk, but in the 1840s those same cobbled streets were often walked by the feet of Anne Brontë.
In May 1840 Anne took her second governess position, to the Robinson family who owned the grand Thorp Green Hall at Little Ouseburn. The Robinson family were very different to the Inghams of Mirfield near Huddersfield who Anne had originally worked for, and they are represented in ‘Agnes Grey’ as the Murrays. Anne, despite bouts of homesickness and some may say love sickness in her early days there when William Weightman was in Haworth, by and large enjoyed her time at Thorp Green Hall. It came to an acrimonious end of course, as did so much in Anne’s life.
Recent research shows the original hall was demolished by its then owner in the early 20th century, rather than being destroyed by a fire as is commonly thought, and only a building known as ‘The Monk’s Lodge’ now remains of what once stood. This lodge was for a time home to Branwell Brontë after his sister had found a position there for him that was to prove less than propitious. It was Branwell’s behaviour with mistress of the house Lydia Robinson that led to Anne quitting the post she had held for over five years, reporting later that ‘during my stay I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt-of experiences of human nature.’
Little Ouseburn itself is around a dozen miles from York itself, and Anne would occasionally travel there in company with her charges the Robinson girls. She fell in love with it’s even then ancient and haphazard architecture, and she would also enjoy visiting the shops where she sometimes spent her spare money on sheet music that she delighted in playing upon the piano, whether at Thorp Green or on her returns to Haworth.
There was one York building in particular that she was drawn to as if by some magnetic force: York Minster. Home to the Archbishop of York, in Anne’s time the aristocratic octogenarian Edward Venables-Vernon-Harcourt, it was first built in the 11th century, and expanded upon greatly in the centuries that followed.
York Minster remains an awe inspiring building today, one of the largest cathedrals in Europe and with beautiful façades whichever side you approach it from. The interior is even more breathtaking, with its intricate bosses and ornate carvings, and spectacular stained glass windows. It would always be a building that Anne Brontë cherished above all others, and she saw fit to name it as one of the two highlights in her diary paper of 1841:
‘Four years ago I was at school, since then I have been a governess at Blake hall, left it, come to Thorp Green and seen the sea and York minster.’
By May 1849 Anne was dying of tuberculosis, and about to embark on her final voyage to Scarborough, the coastal town she loved so much and where she lies now. This also gave her one last chance to see York, and she, Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey arrived there on May 24th. They stayed at the George Hotel on Coney Street, across the River Ouse from the railway station. The hotel is now gone, but in its place is a mobile phone repair shop, and the original archway and bay window of the hotel can still be seen.
In York, at Anne’s insistence, they did some shopping to buy the clothes they would need for Scarborough, and Charlotte noted down the acquisition of items including bonnets and ‘ribbon for neck’.
There was one place above all that Anne wanted to see one last time; York Minster was drawing her back again. By that time too weak to walk any distance, Charlotte and Anne pushed her there in a bath chair they’d hired. Seated in a back pew Anne gazed up silently and lovingly at the magnificent surroundings. She whispered one half finished sentence: ‘If finite power can do this, what is the…’, before Charlotte wheeled her back to the hotel, worried that this rush of emotions might finish her sister off forever. It was clear what Anne was thinking – if weak man’s powers can create something so magnificent, how magnificent will be the creation of God that I am soon to see?
This was indeed Anne’s last visit to York, but the city today, despite the ever present throng of tourists, retains much of its old world charm. It is a timeless city, effortlessly beautiful. A city walked by Romans, vikings, later the birthplace of infamous Guy Fawkes, and now our generation walks its streets in awe and wonder. As we do say, we may imagine we see the shade of a bonnet wearing women walking ahead of us; small and diminutive, she is yet a literary giant to those who know and love her.
John Keats is one of the greatest poets of all time, and yet his lifespan was even shorter than that of the Brontë Sisters. He died 197 years ago this week, on 23rd February 1821, aged just 25. Keats did not achieve great success in his lifetime, although he was revered among his contemporaries like Byron and Shelley, but he quickly gained popular appeal after his death so although not mentioned explicitly in Charlotte’s letters, as many other Romantic poets were, it is likely that the Brontë sisters would have encountered his work throughout their youth and adulthood.
Keats, in his life and poetry, chimes with the Brontës. He loved nature, and was a romantic at heart as well as in poetry, and yet time was to deny him the chance of lasting love with his beloved Fanny Brawne. Like five of the Brontë siblings he was struck down with tuberculosis, and the terrible debilitating pain of the disease is heard in his masterpiece ‘Ode To A Nightingale’, in my opinion the greatest poem ever written, when he longs to drink a draught of poison and leave the world unseen (just as Charlotte would write of longing for a final draught of oblivion after the deaths of her sisters), and when he writes: ‘For many a time, I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain.’
Keats’ dread of the pain of tuberculosis was one that Anne Brontë too had to come to terms with 28 years later. Like Anne, he sought some comfort in his final days by moving with a friend to a warmer climate, and while Anne went to Scarborough with Charlotte and Ellen Nussey, Keats travelled to Rome with his faithful companion Joseph Hunt. He left England at the urging of Leigh Hunt, his publisher and mentor who had nursed him in London, but it was to no avail. Keats is buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, like Anne his resting place is far from his home and family. His final instructions contained a self-penned epitaph, his instruction were that his gravestone should read simply ‘Here lies one, Whose name was writ in water.’ Keats died in poverty and unheeded, certain that his genius would forever remain undiscovered, but he was wrong. In fact, he was closer to the truth when he had earlier written ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth, Ye have left your souls on Earth! Ye have souls in heaven too, Double-lived in regions new!’
Keats then suspected that his words would live on and find an audience after his death, so that in that sense his soul would never really perish. He gained immense fame after his death, like his talents deserved, in the same way that we can celebrate the real Acton and Ellis Bell today, although they lived in obscurity.
In a strange postscript to Keats’ tragic life, given his watery epitaph, his death inspired Percy Shelley to write his brilliant poem ‘Adonais’. Shelley was also living in Italy then, and he invited Keats’ friend Leigh Hunt to join him there to discuss founding a magazine together. On 8th July 1822, sailing across the Gulf of Spezia after meeting Hunt, Shelley was caught in a storm and drowned. Shelley’s body was identified thanks to a book of Keats’ poetry that was found upon him when he was fished out of the water.
Anne Brontë never had a chance to meet John Keats, of course, but they did meet someone with a close connection to him. During the ill fated trip to London with Charlotte Brontë in July 1848, Anne and her sister dined at the house of W.S. Williams, the reader who had first discerned the brilliance of Jane Eyre. One of Williams’ daughters was a talented singer and after the meal she regaled the guests with a few areas alongside one of her friends who was also there called Julia. Charlotte wrote of her that she was a ‘girl with sparkling black eyes and the fine soprano’. Julia was also the daughter of Keats’ celebrated friend Leigh Hunt. We can imagine Charlotte and Anne discussing her famous father, and his by then even more famous former compatriot.
The nineteenth century was certainly a golden time for English literature, even though in the Romantic poets it often looked yearningly back to an earlier age. I’ll close today’s post with John Keats’ hymn to the power of art and beauty – ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’:
‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”’
The adult writing of the Brontë sisters that we so love today have their roots in the youthful writings of four siblings that centred upon two imaginary universes – Angria and Gondal.
Angria was the first land to be created and it flowed from childhood games and tales that had developed from a set of twelve soldiers bought for Branwell in 1826. These early Angrian adventures form the bulk of material into the incredible little books that can be seen at the Brontë Parsonage Museum today. Belying the tender years of their creators, the Angrian adventures are complex, full of spies, passion, double dealings and bloodshed, but they also contain a welcome streak of humour, with mock adverts in the style of those they found in their father’s literary magazines.
The Angrian writing was done exclusively by the older siblings Charlotte and Branwell, but Emily and Anne Brontë were encouraged to make verbal suggestions from the sidelines, and their contributions appear in the tales under the guises of the Genius Emmii and the Genius Annii.
Being a genie and listening to their adventures in a far off land was great fun for the youngest sisters, particularly as Tales From The Arabian Knights was one of their favourite books, but soon they wanted to take a more active role. Their opportunity came in 1831, when Charlotte left Haworth to become a pupil at Roe Head School in Mirfield. By now Anne and Emily were 11 and 13 respectively, and it wasn’t long before they decided to create a world of their own – the world of Gondal. This was an island kingdom of their own imagining that was frequently at war with the neighbouring state of Gaaldine.
Gondal helped to cement the twin like bond between Anne and Emily. They would take long walks on the moors together discussing the next development in the Gondal saga. They would spend hours in the Parsonage whispering plots into each others ears. Gondal was their land – and it was a land full of even more intrigue and passion than Angria had been. One of the major recurring characters in Gondal is Alexandria Zenobia, and the choice of name in this instance is very telling for they had encountered a real life Zenobia in the periodicals they loved to read – and even more excitingly, the tales of this flesh and blood Zenobia were related by a man who was known by their Aunt Branwell – and who was related to her and the mother who had tragically died during their infancy.
John Carne of Penzance was a second cousin of Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, whose mother’s maiden name had been Anne Carne. He was a well travelled man who write books about his journeys across what were then, to the people of England, largely unknown countries and continents. John’s 1826 book ‘Letters from the East’ was a great success and excerpts were printed in a number of publications including The Quarterly Review. It contains lurid descriptions and fantastical tales that had the young Brontë’s gasping with excitement, including his description of the British explorer and archaeologist Lady Hester Stanhope, niece of former Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Frequently crossing hostile territories she was feted by locals and hailed as ‘Zenobia, Queen of Syria’ in memory of an earlier Queen who is pictured at the top of this post:
‘Her restless and romantic mind dwelt with pleasure on the idea of a power to be established in the East, of which she was to be the mistress: – a large fleet was to come from afar to aid this conquest, and her sceptre was to wave with equal glory to that of Zenobia who defended Palmyra.’
Did Emily or Anne see themselves as a Lady Hester Stanhope as they gazed upon their own territory, the moors of Haworth? Did they dream of becoming a writer like their relative John Carne? Their names have deservedly survived much longer of course, and the name Zenobia itself is now most famous for its association with a poem Anne Brontë wrote when she was just 17. Entitled ‘Alexander and Zenobia’, I leave you with an extract from it now:
‘Fair was the evening and brightly the sun,
Was shining on desert and grove,
Sweet were the breezes and balmy the flowers,
And cloudless the heavens above.
It was Arabia’s distant land,
And peaceful was the hour;
Two youthful figures lay reclined,
Deep in a shady bower.
One was a boy of just fourteen,
Bold beautiful and bright;
Soft raven curls hung clustering round,
A brow of marble white.
The fair brow and ruddy cheek,
Spoke of less burning skies;
Words cannot paint the look that beamed,
In his dark lustrous eyes.
The other was a slender girl,
Blooming and young and fair,
The snowy neck was shaded with,
The long bright sunny hair,
And those deep eyes of watery blue,
So sweetly sad they seem’d,
And every feature in her face,
With pensive sorrow teem’d.
The youth beheld her saddened air,
And smiling cheerfully,
He said “How pleasant is the land,
Of sunny Araby!
Zenobia, I never saw,
A lovelier eye than this;
I never felt my spirit raised with more unbroken bliss!..
So pleasant are the scents that rise,
From flowers of loveliest hue,
And more than all – Zenobia,
I am alone with you!’
This is the week when postal workers really earn their pay, in most of the country backs groaning from the weight of Valentine’s Day cards and at my house from the weight of the hefty winter fuel bills about to pop through my letterbox.
We often think of Valentine’s Day as a modern phenomena, something to help shops sell cards and merchandise between Christmas and Easter (or is that just me?) but in fact the giving of Valentine’s cards far predates the giving of Christmas cards that only became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Brontë sisters received their first cards on February 14th, 1840, and even though they eventually discovered the source was their father’s new assistant curate it must still have been a thrill for them – especially for Anne.
The man was, of course, William Weightman, who had recently gained his Master of Arts degree from the newly founded Durham University and commenced life in the clergy. In the run up to February 14th he was astonished to find out that none of the sisters had ever received a Valentine’s day card, and characteristically he sprung into action. What he did next was a testament to his kind and good nature, although as we shall see Charlotte later took a different view of it. He not only bought four cards, not wanting the visiting Ellen Nussey to feel left out, but wrote personalised verses in each. His efforts didn’t end there, as he then walked more than ten miles across very rugged terrain in the height of winter to Bradford, where he posted them. He did this of course so the Brontë sisters wouldn’t guess he had sent them because of a local postmark, thereby adding to the excitement and intrigue.
The titles of the poems on each card can be equally intriguing to us: with only one can we positively identify the target, as ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ was obviously meant for the great Brontë friend Miss Nussey. One title, sadly, has been lost in the intervening years, but two of the other three were called ‘Soul Divine’ and ‘Away Fond Love’. Could ‘Soul Divine’ have been for Emily, in tribute to her indomitable spirit, and could ‘Away Fond Love’ have been a reference to Anne, who was at that moment looking for a new situation as a governess that would take her away from Haworth? If so, then the missing title could have been for Charlotte, who may possibly have ripped it up in a fit of pique after falling spectacularly out with the young man she had once thought so highly of.
Despite the Bradford subterfuge, Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Ellen soon worked out who their anonymous sender was, and they wrote him a collective poem in return:
“We cannot write or talk like you;
We’re plain folks every one;
You’ve played a clever trick on us,
We thank you for the fun.
Believe us frankly when we say
(Our words though blunt are true).
At home, abroad, by night or day,
We all wish well to you.”
Were the sisters annoyed at being made fun of, or did they see it as an act of kindliness? Either way we can imagine how delighted they were when their cards first arrived. These were young women who loved the romance of novels by Walter Scott and the poetry of Byron, and had created their own lands of Angria and Gondal full of the intrigues of love, so this romantic gesture must have set their hearts a-flutter, if only for a moment or two. Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 17th March 1840 (her father’s birthday, a fact she doesn’t mention in her letter) told of how well received the cards had been, and what an impression they and their sender had made:
‘Walk up to Gomersal and tell her [Martha Taylor] forthwith every individual occurrence you can recollect, including Valentines, “Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen” – “Away Fond Love”, “Soul Divine” and all – likewise if you please the painting of Miss Celia Amelia Weightman’s portrait [Celia Amelia was Charlotte’s pet name for William] and that young lady’s frequent and agreeable visits.”
In February 1841, William Weightman once more sent Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë a Valentine’s day card, but this is how Charlotte viewed it now as revealed in another letter to Ellen:
“I knew better how to treat it than I did those we received a year ago. I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character, he knows I know him… for all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round.”
Charlotte had Weightman’s character correct the first time round. His kindness would eventually be his undoing as his passion for visiting sick parishioners led to his early demise from cholera just two years after sending the Brontës their first ever Valentine’s Day cards.
If he had lived longer he may well have sent cards annually to Anne Brontë, for I like to think that they were an ideal match for each other. It was not to be, but at least the sisters had that thrilling 14th of February in 1840 to remember. Whether you get one card or a dozen cards next Wednesday, I hope you have a great day. And if, like me, you will look be looking at an empty and cardless hearth don’t worry, cheer yourself up with an extra pancake on Tuesday instead!
This week saw the launch of ‘Making Thunder Roar’, the year long exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum that aims to celebrate the life of Emily Brontë. I was in Glasgow at the time, taking in celebrations of Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday, but I hope to make it up to the parsonage in the near future – and of course I hope they’ve done Emily proud by putting her front and centre of the exhibition as her great talent deserves. Muriel Spark was an excellent writer herself, of course, with ‘The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie’ just one of her brilliant books. She was also a huge Brontë enthusiast, leading her to write her own book on the subject: ‘The Essence of the Brontës.’
Muriel Spark also spoke on the subject in a 1961 BBC interview, recorded in Haworth, as she paid special tribute to the effect that Emily Brontë had on her writing and her life. She said that: ‘I was fascinated by her creative mind because it was so entirely alien to my own.’
The Brontës and their world seemed alien to Muriel Spark in 1961, so how much more alien can they seem to us over half a century later? That’s part of their fascination, we want to know the everyday details of their lives – how they dressed, what they read, what they ate. A fellow Brontë lover that I met in Glasgow brought this particular question up this week, so today I will take a look at what constituted the Brontë diet.
This has been a subject of some controversy, because the earliest Brontë biography gave a less than truthful appraisal of their daily meals. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her brilliant but occasionally flawed biography of Charlotte, carried a report from ‘ a good old woman’ who nursed Maria Brontë in her final illness, that: ‘I used to think them spiritless, they were so different to any children I had ever seen. In part I set it down to a fancy Mr. Brontë had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat… he thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner; but they never seemed to wish for anything else.’
Unfortunately Elizabeth had misread the veracity of her witness, as the woman in question, Martha Wright, was less than trustworthy when it came to her opinions of Patrick Brontë. She had been dismissed from his service shortly after his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell arrived at the parsonage, with the woman who would become known as Aunt Branwell taking over the duty of nursing the dying Maria. This seems to have tainted her views of the Brontës, and her assertion about their diet is provably untrue.
Emily and Anne Brontë, inseparable friends as well as sisters, came into the habit of writing diary papers together. In the diary paper of 24th November 1834, the earliest we have, the sisters paint a picture of domestic life in the Parsonage on that day. Emily writes (with the haphazard spelling then so typical of her): ‘we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding the kitchin is in a very untidy state’. She also says that she is peeling apples, and that family servant Tabby Aykroyd later makes her peel potatoes, as Charlotte is making an apple pudding: ‘Charlotte said that she made puddings perfectly and was of a quick but limted intellect.’
We can guess that Charlotte was talking about Tabby here, rather than making such a judgement about herself. This reveals a very tasty meal being prepared, a far cry from the spartan dining suggested by Martha Wright.
Charlotte was not particularly skilled at cooking or baking. In August 1846 she was lodging temporarily in Manchester with her father, as he recovered from cataract surgery – surgery that was undertaken upon him without any anaesthetic, and that he reported didn’t hurt other than a slight burning sensation as the cataracts were cut away. On 21st August of that year she wrote to her great friend Ellen Nussey to say that one of her greatest difficulties was that she ‘was somewhat puzzled in managing about provisions.’
Emily, on the other hand, turned out to be a master of the domestic scene. As Tabby became older and infirm, as the result of a slip on the icy Haworth street that broke her leg and left her with a permanent limp, Emily took over many of the cooking and baking duties that Tabby had formerly held. It was a task that she loved, and like much that she turned her hand to, from piano playing to novel writing, she possessed a brilliance at it. Emily became famed for the quality of the bread that she made, and people said that it was the best in the village. Haworth stationer John Greenwood, who knew the family well, said that Emily could often be found: ‘in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand.’
We also hear of Emily learning German from a book propped up on the table where she was kneading and preparing the day’s loaves.
Bread was the cornerstone of the Brontë diet, and of the diet of early Victorian society in general, but was we’ve seen they also enjoyed potatoes and other vegetables, and beef and mutton, this was sheep farming country after all, would also have been regularly eaten. Pigeon pie was a delicacy to be savoured, and we also know that Emily made bannock, a traditional variety of flatbread. Fish dishes on a Friday would have been a reminder of their Irish heritage, but what else did they eat? A 1981 book called ‘Haworth Kitchen: Recipes From the Home of the Brontës’ reveals a varied and often appealing diet, so whilst many of their meals may of course seem a little jaded to our modern tastes, we can be sure that the Brontës enjoyed nutritious meals that were tasty as well. It was the fuel that powered their imaginations and creative genius, and we can all, from Muriel Spark to myself in my South Yorkshire study, be thankful of that.
They say that money makes the world go around, although others would contend that it’s love that makes everything tick – both these things continue to elude me, but even I am fascinated by the love lives of the Brontës: did Charlotte’s loves infuse her writings, did Anne really fall for her father’s assistant, and did Emily love anyone at all? It’s time to brighten up this grey January morning by looking at the Brontës in love.
As a young girl Charlotte Brontë developed a crush on the Duke of Wellington. He was to her what Harry Styles might be to a girl today. Of course she didn’t have a poster on her wall, so instead she had to make do with reading of his exploits in books and the newspapers of the day. This also helped to fuel her amazing creativity; as a young child she, in cahoots with Branwell, Emily and Anne, would act out and write intricate stories set in a land of their making called Angria, and in these early days Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was always sure to be the hero. Do you remember what Charlotte said when her father brought them a set of toy soldiers? She snatched one up and shouted, ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!’
In real life it was hard for anyone to live up to the example of the Duke, and Charlotte wasn’t a woman who would put up with second best. She turned down at least three marriage proposals that we know of, despite being a less than prepossessing woman herself – she was around four and a half feet tall with bad eyesight and missing teeth. The first proposal she turned down was from Henry Nussey, brother of her best friend Ellen, saying that she could never marry someone she didn’t find attractive. He later married a woman called Emily Prescott and become a Church of England vicar in Hathersage, Derbyshire.
Hathersage today has a particular claim to fame – it’s recreated as Morton in Jane Eyre. Charlotte occasionally stayed with Ellen there, and she would have met the richest local family – the Eyre family of North Lees Hall. What’s not as well known is that Henry Nussey didn’t stay in Hathersage long. Within two years he gave up his life as a clergyman, suffering from some form of mental illness. By 1860 he was incarcerated in Arden House Lunatic Asylum, where he tragically hanged himself.
Perhaps Charlotte’s greatest love of all was for a man named Constantin Heger. Aged 25 she travelled to Belgium in company with her sister Emily, and she remained there for two years, with a return to Haworth in the middle after the death of her aunt. She had gone ostensibly to learn French and German, so that the three sisters could set up their own school on their return; but the truth was that she wanted to see something of the world outside Yorkshire, and her other great friend Mary Taylor was already staying in Brussels.
Monsieur Heger was a professor at the school attended by Charlotte and Emily. He was a proud, strong man, somewhat aloof and exacting, a bit cold and mysterious, a man who dominated all around him. Sound familiar? Charlotte had met her Mr Rochester, she loved being ordered around by him, while she submissively followed his orders. There were two problems – one, he was married to the school’s headmistress, and two he didn’t share her strong feelings.
After returning permanently to Haworth, Charlotte wrote M. Heger a string of yearning love letters. Her passion, as so often with Charlotte, was out of control. One such epistle ended ‘I cannot – I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart lacerated by searing regrets.’
He never replied to any of her letters, and indeed cut them up. For some reason however his wife stitched them back together again, which is why we now have them in the British library. There must have been a frosty atmosphere around the Heger dining table on the days that yet another letter arrived from England.
It seems that Constantin soon forgot Charlotte, if indeed he’d ever thought of her, but she would never forget him. He was not only the inspiration for Rochester but also for her Belgium based novels The Professor and Villette.
There was another man that Charlotte had esteemed, her father’s good looking assistant curate William Weightman. To be fair he seemed to charm all the women he met, and it was he who in 1840 had sent the sisters their first ever Valentine’s day card. To hide the fact the cards had come from him he walked from Haworth to Bradford to post them, sending one for each with a personalised verse inside – one for Charlotte, Emily and Anne and another for Ellen Nussey who was on one of her visits to the Parsonage at the time.
The sisters, then aged between 20 and 24, must have been delirious with excitement, although they soon worked out who had sent them. It was an act of kindness from Weightman that was typical of the man, but Charlotte once more took it all too much to heart. She spent weeks drawing his portrait, and being roundly teased for it, and lauding him in her letters, but that was soon to change dramatically.
By February 1841 when Weightman again sends the girls a set of Valentine’s cards, it gets a very different reception from Charlotte. She writes to Ellen:
“I knew better how to treat it than I did those we received a year ago. I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character, he knows I know him… for all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round.”
What has caused this change? It seems to me that Charlotte was jealous that Weightman had overlooked her love for him, and instead turned his eye on to somebody else – someone who to Charlotte would represent the greatest betrayal of them all. The clues are there.
In another letter of this time she writes that Weightman sits opposite Anne at church, sighing softly to gain her attention. ‘And Anne is so quiet, her looks so downcast – they are a picture.’
Could this be the truth – that Weightman had passed over Charlotte for her youngest sister? Was he the one and only love of Anne Brontë’s all too brief life, a love that would only find fruition in Anne’s writings after Weightman’s untimely death.
Despite Charlotte’s portrayal of him, Weightman was a very kind hearted and sincere man, which is why after his death the Haworth parishioners dipped into their own pockets to have a large tribute to him erected in their church. He often visited sick parishioners, taking them food and drink and reading to them, but in a village as disease ridden as Haworth that was like playing Russian roulette. In August 1842 he contracted cholera from a parishioner he was visiting, and died 2 weeks later aged just 28.
Anne was away on governess duties near York at the time, but her grieving would last for the rest of her life. Had they had an agreement with each other in real life, did they harbour hopes that they could one day be married? It certainly wouldn’t be unusual for a young curate to seek a wife from the daughters of another clergyman, and Anne was described by contemporaries as the prettiest of the Brontë sisters, as well as being the most pious. We’ll never know whether they did acknowledge their love for each other, although I hope so – it’s the old romantic in me.
What we can say for sure is that after Weightman’s death, Anne created a series of poems mourning the death of a loved one. Poems with opening lines such as ‘I will not mourn thee lovely one, though thou art torn away’ and later ‘Severed and gone so many years! And art thou still so dear to me.’ She also chose to portray Weightman as Reverend Weston in her first novel, the wonderful ‘Agnes Grey‘ – to me the most underrated book ever written. She shows Weston visiting the sick, taking them food and fuel, rescuing their pets, all things she had witnessed Weightman do in real life. At the end of the novel, spoiler alert, Agnes, who is very closely modelled on Anne herself, marries Weston. In print at least Anne is giving herself the happy ending she was denied in real life – that’s my opinion, but others may disagree with my conclusion. That’s one of the great things about the Brontës, we can all create our own theories, each as valid as the other.
So we’ve seen Anne’s possible love, but what about Emily? Could the creator of Cathy and Heathcliff really have never had a love of her own, not even an unrequited love of her own? It’s something we’ll never know, unfortunately – certainly there is no record in diaries or letters of Emily forming an attachment to anyone except her mastiff Keeper and her sister Anne, with whom she was so close that they were talked of as being like twins. It would be nice to think that she did have a love for someone, but it seems very unlikely. One early twentieth century biographer, Virginia Moore, discerned a faint name in pencil on an Emily Brontë manuscript, and announced excitedly to the world that she had discovered Emily’s secret love – Louis Parensell! Unfortunately a closer examination of the manuscript in question showed that the pencil marks actually read ‘Love’s Farewell’, an alternative title to the poem below it.
We’ll finish on a happier note, and return to Charlotte again. She had a suitor who had been taking an interest in her for many years, and once again it was an assistant curate to her father – Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls.
After Branwell, Emily and Anne died within nine months of each other in 1848 and 1849, Charlotte felt bereft and alone, frequently suffering from attacks of depression and writing that she was ‘driven often to wish I could taste one draught of oblivion and forget much that, while mind remains, I shall never forget.’
In these darkest moments, Arthur acted as a friend to her, and he even took up the duty of walking the dogs Keeper and Flossy that had belonged to Emily and Anne. Charlotte was seemingly unaware of his real feelings towards her however, so it came as a big shock to all concerned when in December 1852 he asked her father for her hand in marriage. Patrick was furious; this was a man who had been a great help in his church, and was a fellow Irishman, yet Charlotte was by now a successful writer, and he thought his daughter could do better for herself. Patrick was also by then an old man, and worried how he could cope if Charlotte wasn’t there to look after him. Charlotte was just as angry, professing that she didn’t and couldn’t love him.
The spurned Arthur suddenly found himself persona non grata in the Parsonage, and announced he was leaving Haworth to become a missionary in Australia. Charlotte recorded what happened at the last service he officiated at. He mounted the steps to the pulpit, and then stood there shaking, unable to speak. Eventually some of the congregation helped him down and led him outside, with many of the parishioners in tears. Charlotte later found him by a wall, ‘sobbing as no man has ever sobbed.’
Arthur didn’t go to Australia, he went somewhere less exotic – Kirk Smeaton near Selby. From there he continued to write to Charlotte, and his persistence won her round, as did his promise that they would continue to live at Haworth and look after her father if they wed.
On 29th June 1854, they married in Haworth. Patrick said that he was too ill to attend, so Charlotte’s old headmistress Miss Wooler had to give her away instead. Even at this point Charlotte professed little liking for her new husband, but this rapidly changed. To her great surprise Charlotte found that she loved married life and she loved Arthur. Now at last, after 38 years of loss and sadness, Charlotte Brontë was truly happy. Let us end on that uplifting note, after all what the world needs now is love, sweet love – even if only taken vicariously through the great novels of the Brontë sisters.
This coming Thursday, the 25th of January, will be marked across Scotland and on far flung shores across the world, as Burns Night. The reason for this, of course, is that it is the day that Robbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire, was born on in the year 1759. He was a magnificent poet but his fame has transcended the world of literature until he has become seen as a national emblem of Scotland itself. With this special night in mind, and as in just over a week I will be making my first journey to Scotland in over thirty years, I thought it a good time to look at the huge influence that Scotland had on the Brontës.
The Brontës were passionate about all things Scottish. This is partly because of their youthful reading of Blackwood’s magazine – produced in Edinburgh it featured essays and literary extracts from many great writers, including another Scottish writer, James Hogg. Hogg was a fascinating man, born into a poor life as a shepherd he became feted as a great writer and produced the sensational, and scandalous, novel ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’. This novel was a clear influence upon ‘Wuthering Heights‘, and all the Brontë siblings must have been distraught to hear of his death in 1835. This was the catalyst for Branwell to write to Blackwood’s magazine and offer his own services to replace Hogg:
‘You have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ambitious young writer received no reply to his letter, and to subsequent follow ups. One Scottish writer fascinated the Brontës even more than the Ettrick Shepherd (as Hogg was known), and that was Walter Scott. We have Aunt Branwell to thank for the Brontës’ love of Scott, for it was she that ignited their passion with her gift of his new book ‘Tales of a Grandfather’ at Christmas 1828.
‘Tales of a Grandfather’ is a stirring rendition of some of Scotland’s greatest legends, such as the tales of Robert the Bruce, and it certainly fired the young Brontës’ imagination. Scott’s influence would never leave the sisters and it can be seen especially in Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ – even more so than the influence of Hogg and of other books such as ‘The Bridegroom of Barna’, first published by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1840.
One reason the young Brontës loved all things Scottish was that the moorland landscapes covered with heather, the wild wuthering weather that swept through the valleys, were shared by Scotland and Haworth alike. On their childhood jaunts across the moors, we can easily imagine Emily and Anne re-enacting some of their favourite moments from Scott’s tales, and the sight of a mouse or vole would surely recall to their minds Burns’s famous depiction of a ‘wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie.’
Charlotte Brontë was the only sibling who ever made it to Scotland, visiting there in the company of George Smith and his sister in July 1850, and she was mightily impressed. She fell in love with Edinburgh, recalling as it did the happy times she had spent reading about it and dreaming about it with her now gone sisters Emily and Anne. Charlotte declared that: ‘Edinburgh compared to London is like a vivid page of history compared to a huge dull treatise on Political Economy.’
Scott’s supremacy as a writer was also attested to by Charlotte in a letter to her great friend Ellen Nussey in July 1834 when she said:
‘Scott’s sweet, wild, romantic Poetry can do you no harm… for Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.’
There was another great Scottish writer who was familiar to the Brontës – the man himself, Rabbie Burns. Burn’s poetry, and particularly those such as ‘The Battle Of Sheramuir’ that deal with conflict and intrigue, can be heard echoing in the Gondal poems of Emily and Anne Brontë. Perhaps fittingly, however, in this his anniversary year, it was Branwell Brontë who exhibited the greatest influence from Robbie Burns, writing a poem, or rather a fragment of a poem, entitled ‘Robert Burns’.
Happy Burns Night to one and all, whether you’re in Scotland, England, America or anywhere else. It’s traditional, of course, at a Burns Supper on 25th January to read Burns’ wonderful poem ‘Address To A Haggis’ as pipe music plays in the background. Imagine the pipes wailing out, a glass of finest Scotch by your hand, as that great national meal the haggis solemnly approaches. Now to complete the ceremony (in our minds) we can recite Branwell’s fragmentary tribute to the great Rab Burns himself:
‘He little knows – whose life has smoothly passed
Unharmed by storm or strife, undimmed by care
Who – clad in purple laughs at every blast
Wrapped up contented in the joys that are
He little knows the long and truceless war
Of one on poverty’s rough waters cast
With eyes fixed forward on the glorious Star
That from fames temple beams – alas! How far
Til backward buffeted o’er ocean’s waste.’
Happy Burns Night/Week to you all – or as Burns himself said: ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, great chieftain o the puddin’-race!’
The Sheffield University archives contain a series of diaries from a woman whose grandson became a Professor there, and who then gifted them to the institution. The entry from exactly a hundred and ninety eight years ago today reads as follows: ‘Ann [sic] Brontë born – the other children spent the day here.’
The writer of the diary was Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House in Thornton, near Bradford, and on that cold January day, her home was filled with the five children of the local minister: Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë and the little Emily Jane Brontë, then just a year and a half old. Just a few hundred metres away, a climb up to the centre of the moorside village of Thornton, a rather different scenario was being played out as Maria Brontë, once Maria Branwell of Penzance, was giving birth to her sixth and final child. This child of course is much loved by me and many others, for in adult life under the guise of Acton Bell she would give us the masterpieces ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘.
Looking out of my window I see that snow is now covering the ground of South Yorkshire, and I know that the hills and moors around Thornton and Haworth in West Yorkshire are buried under an even thicker white blanket. This is appropriate as records show that it was also snowing on the day that Anne was born 198 years ago. As was the customary in those days, it’s likely that a local midwife would have helped with the birth and it would have taken place in front of the large fireplace that still forms the centre point of the building today – now the excellent Emily’s bistro!
The other Brontës, as we have seen, were under the eagle eye of Elizabeth Firth, then only 22 herself. She is a central figure in Anne’s story as she was chosen to be Anne’s godmother, along with her school friend Fanny Outhwaite. These kind hearted women never forgot their goddaughter. Just 29 years later, on 14th February 1849, Fanny Outhwaite died, and left Anne the considerable sum of £200 in her will. It was from this money that Anne, by then herself dying, paid for her final journey to Scarborough in the company of Charlotte and their kind, loyal friend Ellen Nussey.
Elizabeth could have had an even more pivotal role to play in the Brontë story, as just months after the death of Maria Brontë senior in 1822, Patrick proposed marriage to the young woman of Kipping Hall. Elizabeth was horrified at the timing of this and considered the match entirely unsuitable. She later married Reverend James Franks, and eventually she and Patrick rekindled their former friendship.
If we could travel back to the January day in 1820 and take a look at the baby Anne at Thornton Parsonage or the Brontë children at Kipping House just what would we see? We would see children just like any others, for when we look upon any infant in its cradle who can say what they will turn out to be or do? Baby Anne would grow up to be a very special woman indeed, one whose achievements are only now starting to be recognised. Wherever you are, stop to raise a glass of something cold or warm and say ‘Happy 198th birthday, Anne Brontë!’