The Childhood of Anne Brontë

Just what was Anne Brontë’s childhood like? We have the image of it being a bleak time filled with tragedy, but was this a fair reflection? There were, of course, terrible moments during her childhood, but at other times Anne was as happy and contented an infant as any that we would recognise today.

Anne Brontë was born in the village of Thornton near Bradford on January 17th 1820, the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria Brontë. Within three months of her birth there was upheaval, as the Brontë family moved from Thornton to their new home at Haworth, with Patrick taking up his new position as the curate of St. Michael and All Angels church – one he would hold for the next 41 years.

Haworth church at the time of the Brontes
Haworth church at the time of the Brontes

She couldn’t have known, of course, but this was an auspicious move for the baby Anne, as her new parsonage was larger and surrounded on three sides by the moors that she found a fascinating wilderness all year round.

Little more than a year after the move a tragedy struck, as Anne’s mother Maria fell suddenly ill. Anne herself, and all her siblings, were desperately ill at the time as well and there was a real possibility that seven of the Brontës could die within days, as Patrick recalled in a letter to his friend Reverend Buckworth:

‘I was at Haworth, a stranger in a strange land. It was under these circumstances, after every earthly prop was removed, that I was called on to bear the weight of the greatest load of sorrows that ever pressed upon me. One day, I remember it well; it was a gloomy day, a day of clouds and darkness, three of my little children were taken ill of scarlet fever; and, the day after, the remaining three were in the same condition. Just at that time death seemed to have laid his hand on my dear wife in a manner which threatened her speedy dissolution. She was cold and silent and seemed hardly to notice what was passing around her.’

All the children recovered, but their mother died after a terrible stuggle on 15th September 1821. Anne was just a year and a half old at the time, and this protected her from the grief and sorrow around her. She would never know her mother, except from the stories told by her family, but another woman took her place in the form of her mother’s sister Elizabeth Branwell who gave up her life in Cornwall to spend the rest of her days in Haworth. Aunt Branwell and Anne were very close and shared a room together throughout her childhood. A loving bond grew between them, so that her aunt became a mother to her in every way. It is something Ellen Nussey noticed when she said of Anne that ‘she was her aunt’s favourite’, and we also see a reflection of it in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’.

The novel features a range of people well know to Charlotte, hiding beneath fictional names, so that Mary Taylor is Rose Yorke and Emily Brontë is Shirley Keeldar for example – even Emily’s dog Keeper becomes the fiercely loyal Tartar. Anne is recreated as Caroline Helstone who is being raised by her uncle, and we see Aunt Branwell as the seemingly cold Mrs Pryor. It is later revealed that Miss Pryor is really Caroline’s long lost mother, and the relationship between the two is an echo of that Charlotte saw between Anne and her Aunt:

‘The evening restored Caroline entirely to her mother, and Mrs. Pryor liked the evening; for then, alone with her daughter, no human shadow came between her and what she loved.’

Caroline and Mrs Pryor by Edmund Dulac
Caroline and Mrs Pryor by Edmund Dulac

It seems that Anne was a quiet almost angelic child, and maybe this was behind the fantastical tale that a young Charlotte related to her father one day. She burst into Patrick’s study and urged him to come quick, because there was an angel standing next to Anne’s cot. Patrick humoured his daughter and followed her, but Charlotte admonished him that he’d been too slow and now the angel was gone.

We know that Anne enjoyed her childhood toys just as much as children do today, for on 5th June 1826, her father fetched his five year old daughter a special present from Leeds – a dancing doll with pins through its joints so you could make the arms and legs move. It was another present that Patrick fetched back from this trip that is better known however, the set of twelve wooden soldiers for Branwell that led to the Brontës creating childhood tales, and then imaginary lands, and eventually the novels that we love so much today.

Anne Brontë had a happy childhood, with a loving aunt as mother, a supply of toys, and above all a close twin-like friendship with her sister Emily that would become the defining relationship in her life. The two youngest Brontës were never seen apart in their childhood, arms entwined within each others whenever possible. It is heart warming to think that Anne enjoyed such happy days as a child, for of course later years would prove much more trying.

Remembrance Sunday and the Brontë Heroes

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a time not to glorify war but to remember them, and the people who lost their lives in them and who were willing to risk everything for a cause they believed in. Of course, British people have been involved in conflicts of one kind or another for century after century, and so in today’s post we’ll look at the Brontë’s attitudes to war, and at a couple of heroes within their own family – one of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Brontë children were born as the era of the Napoleonic wars was coming to an end, with Charlotte Brontë born a year after the pivotal battle of Waterloo that on 18th of June 1815 saw the forces of the Duke of Wellington, and his Prussian allies under Blucher, defeat once and for all the tyrannical Napoleon Bonaparte. Today it is a fascinating piece of history, but for the Brontës it was also a part of their present.

At the time of the battle, the Brontë family had four members: Patrick and Maria and their two daughters Maria and Elizabeth. They were followed by Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Throughout their lives the children would read stories about the heroism displayed on that Belgian battlefield, hanging on every word carried by jingoistic papers they read such as ‘John Bull’.

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

Their father, Patrick, was a great admirer of his fellow Irishman Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and would often talk of his exploits and his genius when it came to war. The children were enthralled by these tales, and soon began to worship Wellington themselves. On 5th June 1826 Patrick, realising how keen his children were on Waterloo and military matters in general, brought a set of wooden soldiers for them. A few years later Charlotte recounted the story:

“Papa bought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds. When Papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed: ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!’ when I had said this Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him ‘Gravey’. Anne’s was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him ‘Waiting-boy’. Branwell chose his, and called him Buonaparte.”

The Brontë children could now re-enact the Battle of Waterloo in their own home, and did so at every opportunity. It wasn’t long, however, until they were dreaming up new adventures for their soldiers, the ‘Young Men’ as they were now called. This invented land was called The Glass Town Confederacy, which later led to Angria and Gondal. From this early play they developed what they called a ‘scribblomania’, writing stories and poems about the exploits of their soldiers. This passion for writing would never leave them, and of course resulted in the books the world so loves today.

The love that Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell had for military stories may have resulted from stories told by their Aunt Branwell. Penzance, where she and their mother Maria grew up, was an important naval centre at the time – and indeed it was Penzance that first heard the news that Admiral Horatio Nelson had died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The returning warship HMS Pickle passed the news to a fishing boat who headed straight back to port, where the news was then broadcast from the balcony of the Union Hotel on Chapel Street – an event that is re-enacted annually. Nelson, of course, was responsible for the name of the famous writing family of Haworth. In recognition of his exploits he was given Bronte castle in Sicily. This fact was uppermost in the mind of Patrick Prunty, who adored Nelson,  when he chose to anglicise his name upon attending Cambridge University.

Arthur Branwell
Captain Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell

Of course, at the moment our minds are particularly focused on the terrible conflict that was World War 1 – and Brontë relatives were represented here too in the shape of Captain Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell. During the war he was a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s 4th Brigade. The following picture appeared in The Tatler of 23rd August 1916 when fighting on the Western Front was approaching its fiercest. As the senior officer, the grand looking Captain Branwell is seated at the centre, but as noted by the caption many of the officers around him were by then dead.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1
Arthur Branwell in World War 1

Captain Branwell himself escaped the horrors of the trenches however, as the 4th Brigade was the Royal Warwickshire’s Extra Reserve, and in fact it never left England during the duration of the war. He was heavily involved in training new recruits, and was ready and willing to fight in France if called upon, despite being then in his mid fifties.

He was a veteran of the army who had been recalled at the start of World War 1, and had fought in the Boer War among other conflicts – it was here probably that he met the soldier Edgar Wallace. Wallace turned his hand to writing, and became so prolific that his agent famously claimed that one in four books published in England were by him. He had over 170 novels and 957 short stories published, and was also the author of 18 stage plays and countless film scripts – he was working on an adaptation of his own King Kong when he died. Wallace was particularly popular for his army stories about a private called Smithy – and one copy of Smithy preserved today includes a two page dedication to his former comrade in arms Arthur Branwell.

Smithy by Edgar Wallace
Smithy by Edgar Wallace

We may think that a soldier in ‘The Great War’ must be a distant relative of the Brontës, but not so. Born in 1862, he was in fact a first cousin once removed of the Brontë sisters – his father Thomas Brontë Branwell was the Brontë cousin who visited Charlotte and Patrick in Haworth in 1851.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Copyright: © IWM.

Another Brontë relative, via the Branwell family, served in the navy, as did many in Penzance, but paid the ultimate price.

Lieutenant Thomas Branwell was a cousin of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, and his closeness to them is shown by the fact that he had his miniature portrait painted at the same time as Maria and Elizabeth, in all his navy finery. He must have been the pride of the Branwells but terrible news came at the end of 1811, as reported by the Navy Chronicle of January 1812:

‘The St. George, Defence, and Cressey, kept the North Sea five days, in a dreadful gale from the W.N.W. west and south; but, at length, had to combat with a terrible tempest from the N.W. until they were lost. The following is a list of the principal officers who were on board the St. George and Defence when those vessels were wrecked – In the St. George Admiral Reynolds, Captain Guion, Lieutenants Napier, Place, Thompson, Brannel, Dance, Tristram, Riches, and Rogers.’

Lieutenant Branwell
Lieutenant Thomas Branwell

Brannel was of course Thomas Branwell, who died at sea onboard HMS George off the coast of Denmark. It was a naval tragedy on a horrendous scale, with 731 of the 738 man crew losing their lives and many hundreds more dying on board the Defence. It is rumoured that he and his cousin Elizabeth were in love, and if so this may explain why Aunt Branwell remained resolutely single for the rest of her life.

Lieutenant Branwell died during the Napoleonic Wars, Captain Branwell served with honour during the first World War. On this weekend we should remember them, and other brave souls who were ready to give their today for our tomorrow.

Anne Brontë Infographic: A Beginner’s Guide

Just what would Anne Brontë and her sisters have thought about the technological age that we live in today? As we near the end of 2017 (how that’s flown!) we are entering the age of driverless cars, and discussing the future threats to job security and more that could come from thinking humanoid robots.

It’s a far world of course from the one that Anne knew in the first half of the nineteenth century, but even then things were changing rapidly. Haworth, the village she grew up in, was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. It brought positive and negative changes, and resulted in Luddite risings across the north of England, where men who had lost their jobs to increasing automation took their anger out on the machines and on the mill owners who used them. It was a dangerous time, as shown in Charlotte Brontë’s second published novel Shirley.

The railway also transformed the nation during Anne’s lifetime. It was as great a leap forward then as the internet has proved to be in recent years. Prior to the railway it took Maria Branwell, Anne’s mother, around ten days to travel from Cornwall to Yorkshire by road; a journey so fraught with danger, not to say tiring, that many travellers wrote their wills before embarking upon it. By 1848, Anne and Charlotte travelled from Yorkshire to London by train in a matter of hours.

Charlotte Bronte's writing desk
Charlotte Bronte’s writing desk

The sisters’ means of writing was changing as well – in their childhood days they used the traditional quills made from bird feathers, but by their maturity they were using pens and nibs very similar to the fountain pens of today. Above all else, the Brontë sisters, especially Anne, were open to new possibilities and able to adapt to new challenges and opportunities, so I feel they would have embraced today’s technology and become bloggers, tweeters and instagrammers as well as writers. Using this technology to the full, ahem, I’ve created this infographic giving a beginner’s guide to Anne Brontë – I hope she would have approved!

Anne Bronte infographic
A beginner’s guide to Anne Bronte

A Brontë Halloween: Mrs Baines’ Ghost

Halloween is a special time in Haworth as the village decks itself out in spooky regalia and people come from far and wide to watch its Parade of Ghouls and Parade of the Dragon. We all love a scary story, and of course three women who bring all the tourists to Haworth, the Brontë sisters, were no exception.

Haworth halloween 2017
Haworth halloween parade

On previous Halloween weekends this blog has looked at the Gytrash that haunted Ponden Hall, and which had a cameo in Villette, the ghost of Anne Brontë supposedly seen on a staircase in New York, and even the theory that Anne was a vampire who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In this year’s post we’re going to look at a ghostly story that came from another resident of the Haworth Parsonage: Aunt Elizabeth Branwell.

Aunt Branwell, as she came to be known to the nieces she raised as a second mother, was born in Penzance, Cornwall and didn’t move to Yorkshire until 1821 when she was in her mid-forties (although she had spent over a year at the Brontë birthplace in Thornton earlier). Prior to that she had lived in Penzance and it was there that she heard a tale of tragedy that befell one of her neighbours, and which turned into a tale of horror worthy of any Halloween.

The story dates from 1803 and concerns a Mrs Baines, the wealthy widow of a Captain Baines, who lived at 25 Chapel Street. I will let the nineteenth century Cornish chronicler William Bottrell relate what happened next:

‘Mrs. Baines’s orchard, a pleasant spot, in which the lady took great delight, was stocked with the choicest apple, pear, plum, and other fruit trees then known. The town boys soon found out the fine flavour of Mrs. Baines’s fruit, which was to them all the sweeter for being stolen. When the apples were ripe and most tempting, the mistress and her serving-man watched the garden by turns – the man during the first part of the night, and madam would descend in her night-dress, every now and then, to see that all was right, in the small hours of morning. One night Mrs. Baines, suspecting that her man John was rather careless in keeping guard, sallied forth to see if he was attending to his duty; and, not finding him anywhere about the garden, she went to a tree of highly-prized apples and shook down a good quantity, intending to take them away, and thus prove to John that, through his remissness, the fruit was stolen. But her man John, armed with an old blunderbus, charged with peas and small shot, was at no great distance dozing under a hedge. The rustling of shaken branches, and noise of falling apples, awoke him, and, seeing somebody, as he thought, stealing apples from their favourite tree, he up with his gun and let fly at his mistress, exclaiming, at the same time, ” Now you thief, I’ve paid ‘e off’ for keeping me out of bed to watch ‘e! I know ‘e, I do, and will bring ‘e before his worship the mayor to-morrow!” “Lord help me, I’m killed!” cried the lady, as she fell on the ground.’

Chapel Street Penzance
Chapel Street Penzance today

Mrs. Baines died of her wounds, and before long things took a sinister turn as locals reported seeing her ghost in the garden:

‘A short time after the old lady got shot, she died; and then she kept such ward and watch over her orchard that few were so bold as to enter, after day-down, into the haunted ground, where the ghost of Mrs. Baines was often seen under the tree where she was shot, or walking the grounds of her garden. Everybody knew the old lady by her upturned and powdered grey hair under a lace cap of antique pattern ; by the long lace ruffles hanging from her elbows ; her short silk mantle, gold-headed cane, and other trappings of old-fashioned pomp. There are many still living in Penzance who remember the time when they wouldn’t venture on any account to pass through Vounderveor-lane after night-fall, for fear of Mrs. Baines’ ghost. Sometimes she would flutter up from the garden or yard (just like an old hen flying before the wind), and perch herself on the wall: then, for an instant, one might get a glance of her spindle legs and high-heeled shoes before she vanished. Her walking in the garden might have been put up with, but she soon haunted all parts of the premises, and was often seen where least expected both by night and at noon. The ghost became so troublesome, at last, that no person could be found to occupy the house, where she was all night long tramping about from room to room, slamming the doors, rattling the furniture, and often making a fearful crash amongst glass and crockery.’

The new owners of the house called in a priest named Singleton to exorcise this property, giving the story of Mrs. Baines its truly bizarre end:

‘They sent for a parson, who was much famed in this neighbourhood as an exorcist that he might remove and lay the unresting spirit ; and he succeeded (by what means our informant knoweth not) in getting her away down to the sand-banks on the Western Green, which were then spread over many acres of land where the waves now roll. Here, this powerful parson, single-handed, bound her to spin from the banks ropes of sand for the term of a thousand years, unless she, before that time, spun a sufficiently long and strong one to reach from St. Michael’s Mount to St. Clement’s Isle. The encroaching sea having swept away the sandbanks, Mrs. Baines’ ghost is probably gone with them, as she hasn’t been heard of for some years, and, if she returns, the present occupiers of the old abode wouldn’t mind her.’

This is a fascinating story and one well known to Aunt Branwell as the widow Baines and her orchard were at 25 Chapel Street, whereas Elizabeth and her family lived at 62 Chapel Street, which was almost opposite the property. Certainly we can imagine the head of the household Thomas Branwell racing to his neighbour when he heard the night time gunshot, but what of the local children who liked to take the old woman’s sweet apples? Could they in earlier days have included Maria Branwell, who went on to become mother of the Brontës, or younger sister Charlotte Branwell, just 14 at the time of the tragedy, after whom Charlotte Brontë was named?

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, was she an apple scrumper?

The locals avoided the Baines property in fear of seeing her hen like ghost, but Elizabeth and Maria Branwell would have often had no choice but to walk past it. In later years, Aunt Branwell related this story to her enthralled nieces and nephew. Parsonage servant Tabby Ayckroyd‘s storytelling is often credited for its influence on the Brontës, but equally important were the stories from Aunt Branwell: in the ghost of Mrs. Baines, for example, we can see a prototype of the ghostly nun of Villette.

If you walk past some old trees tonight and hear a rustling in the leaves, don’t look round – you don’t know who might be fluttering up to take her perch on the wall. Happy Halloween!

The Brontës And The Art Of Writing

We all know, of course, that the Brontë sisters were masters of the art of writing, and their books tell us a lot about the world we live in and the authors themselves. This is particularly true of Anne Brontë’s novels, as Agnes Grey is highly autobiographical and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall touches upon usually taboo subjects she had encountered in her own family and in the wider world. Could we also find out more about the Brontës not from their written work, but from their handwriting itself.

With this question in mind I contacted one of the foremost experts in this field, Jean Elliott, MBIGDip, handwriting expert, graphologist and forensic document analyst. Jean has a quarter of a century’s experience in this field, and is often called upon to analyse handwriting in legal cases. She is also an expert graphologist, meaning that she can interpret the character of a person from their handwriting. With this in mind I sent Jean two samples of Anne Brontë’s handwriting and two of Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting, without revealing the writer’s identities. The results are illuminating.

Anne Brontë letter
One of the Anne Bronte samples used – note the cross writing style popular at the time

Charlotte’s writing was looked at first. Her letter ‘d’ caught Jean’s eye, as it reveals Charlotte to have an over emotional nature. The handwriting also shows that she is very artistic, and in Jean’s opinion she would have loved to sing, which is interesting as I’ve never heard of Charlotte singing before.

Charlotte Bronte letter
One of the Charlotte Bronte samples analysed

Anne’s writing was seen as much more rigid and with a small middle zone (apparently this means the zone that records what is happening in the here and now); this indicates that Anne could disconnect from her personal needs and instead pour her efforts into ambitions of achieving recognition and success. Anne’s handwriting also shows that she was particularly practical and self-reliant.

I’m sure Charlotte Brontë in particular would have been interested in this graphological analysis, as although the concept was unknown to Charlotte she herself was fascinated by phrenology – that is analysis of a person’s character by looking at the shape and measurements of their head. A fascination in, and belief in, phrenology is easily seen in Jane Eyre. Rochester is pretending to be a fortune teller, and he makes Jane kneel in front of him as he examines her head:

“’I see no enemy to a fortunate issue but in the brow; and that brow professes to say, – ‘I can live alone’… the forehead declares, ‘Reasons sits firm and holds the reins.’”

Phrenology was very popular in the 19th century

On whatever level we study the Brontës’ writing, we can certainly all enjoy it. The sisters, and their brother Branwell, loved to write as much as they loved reading, and as in all things with practice comes improvement. That’s why I’m delighted to announce that I have been asked to lead the creative writing group at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Plymouth Grove, Manchester.

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester

This is the house that Elizabeth Gaskell lived in as she wrote her masterpieces, including her biography of Charlotte Brontë. We know that Charlotte often visited and on one occasion hid behind the curtains there as she was too shy to meet a stranger who arrived.

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
What better place for a writing group than Elizabeth Gaskell House?

It’s an absolutely beautiful building that allows us to see the house as it was when the Gaskells lived there, and so I’m thrilled to be invited to be a part of it. I’ll be taking writing classes there on the fourth Thursday of each month. The first session is this coming Thursday, the 26th from 2 until 3pm. It’s for writers of all experience or none, and all abilities, and the emphasis will be upon fun in a supportive and encouraging environment. It only costs a pound, and you don’t need to book in advance so if you’re near Manchester next Thursday please do come along. Don’t worry, we won’t be analysing your handwriting!

Smelling Salts: A Link Between Anne and Maria Bronte

Anne Brontë was just 18 months old when her mother Maria died after a prolonged and painful illness, so of course she would have had no memories of her mother from Cornwall. Another Cornish woman, Maria’s sister Elizabeth Branwell, took her place in the parsonage and in Anne’s life, becoming in effect a surrogate mother to her.

Anne and her Aunt Branwell shared a room throughout her childhood and they became very close to each other, but one of the things Anne must have loved most of all was tales of her mother. This natural longing for a woman she had never really known was the reason why one of Anne’s treasured possessions was a tiny yet beautiful object that had belonged to her mother: her smelling salts bottle.

Maria Bronte salts bottle
Maria Bronte’s salts bottle on display at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

Smelling salts were commonly kept by fashionable women throughout the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, and their primary purpose was to revive fainting women. For this reason they were even carried by police constables in Victorian times as an essential first aid item. The smelling salts themselves were made up of ammonium carbonate and water, so that when the bottle was unstoppered ammonia was released. Wafting this ammonia under the nose of a fainted or fainting women would cause her to breathe rapidly, which introduces more oxygen into the system and revives the poor unfortunate.

Why they should have become such an essential item is a little bit of a mystery. Tight corsetry could certainly encourage fainting, but the truly impractical corsets didn’t become de rigueur until after Anne Brontë’s death, and clothing was much looser fitting during the Georgian period when Maria Branwell acquired her salts bottle. It is very lucky that Maria had the bottle at all that later became Anne’s possession, as it is one of her few items from Cornwall that made it to Yorkshire in one piece.

Maria Branwell first travelled from Penzance to Woodhouse Grove School near Leeds in 1812, to work for her Aunt Jane and Uncle John Fennell who had recently founded the school. This was an auspicious move as it was there that Maria met an Irish clergyman who had been hired as a classics examiner: he was, of course, Patrick Brontë, and by the end of the year they were married.

Bronte salts bottles
Maria and Elizabeth’s salts bottles side by side

Shortly after arriving in Yorkshire, Maria contacted her eldest sister Elizabeth in Penzance and asked her to arrange for her belongings to be sent on to her. They were accordingly packed into a large crate and loaded onto a ship, but the ship didn’t get far, as Maria revealed in a letter to her then suitor Patrick:

‘I mentioned having sent for my books, clothes, etc. On Saturday evening about the time you were writing the description of your imaginary shipwreck, I was reading and feeling the effects of a real one, having then received a letter from my sister giving me an account of the vessel in which she had sent my box being stranded upon the coast of Devonshire, in consequence of which the box was dashed to pieces with the violence of the sea, and all my little property, with the exception of a very few articles, being swallowed up by the mighty deep.’

The smelling salts bottle was one of these few articles saved from the mighty deep, and it is an exquisite and beautiful item. Small and tear shaped it is made of white porcelain with a floral pattern on the front; on the reverse in gold gilt are her initials M.B. We know that it was something Maria brought from Cornwall, rather than purchased in Yorkshire, as it is very similar to another smelling salts bottle that belonged to Elizabeth Branwell, and which has E.B. in gilt decoration on its reverse.

This is a clue as to the smelling salts bottles. They were not used to revive a fainting Maria or Elizabeth, they were instead an item of beauty to be seen with, and an indication of the exalted place within Penzance society that the Branwell family occupied. The bottles the sisters had are far more ornate than most bottles of this period, and it seems likely that their younger sister Charlotte would have had a similar bottle of her own.

Elizabeth Branwell smelling salts bottle
Elizabeth Branwell’s smelling salts bottle on display in Haworth (note that it has EB on the reverse not MB as the sign says)

When it came into Anne’s possession it may have been filled with perfume, which she could then dab onto the monogrammed handkerchief that she liked to carry. Both Maria and Elizabeth’s smelling salts bottles can be seen at the Brontë Parsonage Museum today, but whilst we can delight in looking upon them we will never feel the thrill that Anne did whenever she drew it out: here after all was a connection to the two women she loved most, her aunt who was always there for her, and her mother who would only ever be in her dreams.

Branwell Brontë -The Death of the Penitent

Anne’s brother Branwell Brontë was the great hope of the family – from his birth in June 1817 there was a weight of expectation on his shoulders: he it was who would take the family name into the world, he also who would help to provide for his sisters after his father’s death, if they themselves had not started a family of their own by that time. Of course, things didn’t quite work out like that.

Branwell is a man who strongly divides opinion today: some see him as an unrecognised genius, whereas to others he is the villain of the Brontë story who cared about nothing but his won gratification. The truth lies in neither of these extremes; he was a human being with frailties like all of us, but his frailties overpowered him. Francis Leyland, who knew him well and became his chief post-mortem defence counsel, perhaps put it best when he wrote:

‘Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.’

On the other hand, Leyland did not see Branwell’s daily life at Haworth Parsonage, where he could indeed wreak havoc, and frequently did: inadvertently setting his bed on fire, having screaming fits at night, and threatening to kill his father are just some of his actions.

Branwell Bronte apothecary
Branwell Bronte frequented the apothecary, now Haworth’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

It is easy to judge Branwell harshly, but he was fighting demons from a young age. The death of his mother and beloved eldest sisters had a profound impact upon him in his early years, and his later actions speak of one who was suffering from a mental illness. Certainly, his addictions to alchohol and then opium did little to create much needed equilibrium in his life.

Towards the end of his life, aged just 31, he cut an increasingly pathetic figure, so that he we see him hunched over in the street sobbing pitifully and unable to raise his leg to climb a single step, and we witness him brandishing a knife, mouth quivering uncontrollably, because he thought he was going to meet not his friend Francis Grundy, but Satan.

Nevertheless, his death on 24 September 1848 came suddenly, and suprisingly he died not as a result of his addictions but of chronic marasmus (wasting) due to tuberculosis. It was the forerunner of the disease’s eight months reign of terror that would also snatch Emily and then Anne.

Charlotte Brontë was particularly devastated by her brother’s death. They had been incredibly close in childhood, inventing the kingdom of Angria together and producing the first of the Brontë’s little books that are marvelled at today. She was unable to accept his failings however, and in his last two years they did not speak. Now it was all too late.

Her letter to W.S. Williams after Branwell’s death revealed that she did at least find some comfort in the manner of her brother’s death:

‘I myself, with painful, mournful joy, heard him praying softly in his dying moments, and to the last prayer which my father offered up at his bedside, he added “amen”. How unusual that word appeared from his lips – of course you who did not know him, cannot conceive. Akin to this alteration was that in his feelings towards his relatives – all bitterness seemed gone… all his vices seemed nothing to me in that moment; every wrong he had done, every pain he had caused, vanished… He is at rest, and that comforts us all – long before he quitted this world, life had no happiness for him.’

In his dying moments Branwell became a penitent, and this comforted Charlotte who in turn was herself now penitent. Anne Brontë, on the other hand, had always loved her brother, even finding him a job as governor at Thorp Green Hall when his prospects seemed bleak. That move, of course, went disastrously wrong, but Anne would never judge Branwell harshly. She believed in forgiveness, and forgiveness time after time if needed. This view was expressed long before Branwell’s death, as if in a presentiment of it, in her poem ‘The Penitent’, with which we close today’s post:

‘I mourn with thee, and yet rejoice
That thou shouldst sorrow so;
With angel choirs I join my voice
To bless the sinners woe.
Though friends and kindred turn away,
And laugh thy grief to scorn;
I hear the great Redeemer say,
“Blessed are ye that mourn.”
Hold on thy course, nor deem it strange
That earthly cords are riven:
Man may lament the wondrous change,
But ‘there is joy in heaven!’

Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day

This week saw National Poetry Day celebrated in the UK, and we can be proud in this country to have contributed some of the world’s greatest poets: from the sonnets of Shakespeare, through the pastoral perfection of Wordsworth to the genial genius of Betjeman. To that number we can also add the absolutely beautiful poetry of Anne Brontë.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

It was poetry that first set the Brontë sisters on the publishing route, as their first creative endeavour to hit the bookshelves was their collaborative ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’ of 1836. It is well known how this sold only two copies initially (although not so well known is that it eventually sold out its run of 1000 copies, after a relaunch by Smith, Elder & Co.,) but the sisters were not disheartened, as Charlotte Brontë revealed:

‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued.’

This zest for writing, a return to the ‘scribblemania’ of their childhood, turned now to the prose form and resulted in the Brontë novels we know so well.

To celebrate poetry week (as I’m now dubbing it) I finish with one of Anne’s finest poems, ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day’, one of Anne’s 21 poems selected for inclusion within ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’. Written in December, 1842 Anne was seized by the poetic muse as she walked through the Long Plantation woods to the north of Thorp Green Hall where she was then governess (that’s a picture of them at the top of this post). With the autumnal weather really making itself felt here in Yorkshire, it seems particularly apposite:

“My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves, beneath them, are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.
I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today!”

Four Women Writers Known by the Brontës

This weekend saw the Festival of Women’s Writing at Haworth welcome a string of celebrated writers, including Sarah Perry, author of recent hit novel ‘The Essex Serpent.’ Of course, you can guess who my favourite women writes are, but today we’ll take a look at some other women writers who were connected with the Brontës – some famous, some less so.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell is perhaps the writer most associated with the Brontës, thanks to her seminal biography of Charlotte Brontë, written at the request of Patrick Brontë, in 1857. It is a brilliant work and cannot be discounted by Brontë lovers; yes, some of the information within it has been shown to be untrue with further discoveries and the passage of time (for example her portrayal of Patrick as a cruel man who wouldn’t let his children eat meat), but it is the only biography from a woman who actually knew many of the protagonists (not, unfortunately, Anne and Emily who were dead by the time she made Charlotte’s acquaintance). It is also brilliantly written, as you should expect from the woman who wrote such classic novels as Cranford and North and South.

The young Elizabeth Gaskell
the young Elizabeth Gaskell

There are also similarities between Gaskell’s life and that of Anne Bronte. She was the son of a clergyman (although her father William Stevenson gave up the cloth four years before her birth), and lost her mother at an early age. Anne was just 17 months old when Maria Brontë died, whereas Elizabeth was even younger, just 13 months, when her mother Elizabeth died. Anne, and her siblings, were then raised largely by their mother’s sister Elizabeth Branwell, whilst Elizabeth Gaskell, on account of her father’s mental breakdown, was sent to live with her mother’s sister Hannah Lumb, nee Holland, in Knutsford. She later, like Charlotte, married a clergyman, William Gaskell, and is buried in Knutsford, where she was raised by her aunt. The town now has a fabulous Gaskell Tower bearing the names of all her books, you can see it at the top of this post.

Harriet Martineau was a friend of Elizabeth Gaskell, as the Holland and Martineau families were leaders in the Unitarian movement that was particularly strong in the midlands and northwest. Harriet later became a great friend of Charlotte Brontë, but it was a friendship that some considered scandalous as Harriet was a prominent atheist. She became famous worldwide for her political writings, and for works including ‘Household Education’, attacking the poor standard of women’s education and gender inequality in general.

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau

Charlotte called her ‘a very noble and genial being’, and said that ‘without being able to share all her opinions philosophical, political or religious, I yet find a worth and greatness in herself.’ Nevertheless, Harriet’s forthright nature led to a break in their friendship, after she told Charlotte that her mind was too full of love ‘and, speaking with the frankness you desire, I do not like its kind.’

Eliza Acton is often hailed as the inspirations for Anne Brontë’s chosen pen-name of Acton Bell. She was an immensely popular writer in the early nineteenth century, but is little known today. Her writing was in marked contrast to Harriet Martineau’s, as she was most famous for her cookbooks, including ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ in 1845. It is to Eliza that we have to lay the blame for the first published recipe for brussels sprouts. She was also a poet whose verse was widely published in the periodicals that the Brontës read from time to time, so this may have appealed to Anne.

Eliza Acton 1803
Eliza Acton, drawn in 1803

There is another possible origin of Anne’s pseudonym, however. During their childhood the Brontës often read about, talked about and wrote about castles. On these occasions, it is easy to imagine Aunt Branwell telling them about a castle she saw every day in her younger years when she entered the garden of her home in Penzance. The name of this Cornish castle that the Branwells had a clear view of? Acton Castle.

Acton Castle
Acton Castle near Penzance

Julia Kavanagh is even less known today, but she made a striking impression on Charlotte. She was born in Thurles, Ireland but moved to London in 1844 after a period spent living in France. Her parents separated and Julia lived thereafter with her invalid mother, supporting both of them with her writing. It was at times a perilous support, as although her novel ‘Madeleine, A Tale of Auvergne’ was successful, money was always short. Remarkably, she was even shorter than Charlotte, as she recalled in a letter to Ellen Nussey after her first meeting with Julia in London:

‘Another likeness I have seen too that touched me sorrowfully. Do you remember my speaking of Miss Kavanagh – a young authoress who supported her mother by her writings? I called on her yesterday – I found a little, almost dwarfish figure to which even I had to look down – not deformed, that is, not hunchbacked but long-armed and with a large head and (at first sight) a strange face. She met me half-frankly, half-tremblingly… she lives in a poor but clean and neat little lodging – her mother seems a somewhat weak-minded woman who can be no companion to her – her father has quite deserted his wife and child – and this poor little feeble, intelligent, cordial thing wastes her brain to gain a living. She is twenty-five years old.’

Julia Kavanagh
              Julia Kavanagh

Despite Charlotte’s obvious fears Julia Kavanagh continued to make a living from writing, and indeed outlived Charlotte by 22 years.

Four intriguing women writers, very different, but all worthy of acclaim and all worthy of being remembered and being read. By the way, in last week’s post I mentioned a visit to the archives – it was incredibly fruitful, and what I found was something very special indeed. It will take me some time to analyse it all but look out for a special post in mid October!

The Brontës On Film, Television and in Fiction

This week marked the 196th anniversary of  the death of Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, mother of the Brontë sisters. She was a loving mother, an intelligent woman, pious (as we see from her article ‘The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns’) and humorous as well (as we see in her courting letters to ‘saucy Pat’), but the great tragedy is that she died before she could see the fantastic contribution her daughters Anne, Emily and Charlotte would make. Their works of literature are loved across the world, and they have also been remembered on film and in fiction, and that’s what we’re going to look at today.

From the earliest days of film, the novels of the Brontë sisters have been adapted for the world of movie theatres. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights first hit the silver, yet silent, screen in 1920, and just look at the huge crowds that gathered in Haworth to see it filmed:

Wuthering Heights film 1920
The 1920 Wuthering Heights captured the public imagination

Despite that, in my opinion there has never been a truly classic Wuthering Heights movie. Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon brought true star quality, but I feel that Olivier was far too posh and refined as Heathcliff. Maybe things will change next year, as a new independently made version of Wuthering Heights is due to be released? It may lack the big budget, but if it has a big heart it should be well worth seeing.

Jane Eyre has fared better with its adaptations, and I particularly enjoyed the 2006 series starring Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester. Stephens has form in the Brontë stakes, as he turned in a great performance as Markham in the BBC’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1996, with the brilliant Tara Fitzgerald as Helen. It’s a series I watch again and again, and I like to think Anne Brontë would have approved of the series.

Tenant Of Wildfell Hall DVD
The excellent 1996 adaptation of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Of course it’s not just the books that have inspired film and TV producers but the lives of the Brontës themselves. Yorkshire Television, those were the days, paid tribute to the queens of their county with the 1973 series ‘The Brontës of Haworth’. Over five hours, its a superb in-depth and moving telling of the Brontë story that is well worth looking up.

It does focus rather too much on the Branwell element, however, and this can be levelled even more at last year’s To Walk Invisible. I really enjoyed Sally Wainwright’s show, it had great acting and the recreation of 19th century Haworth was incredible, but it had some faults: I didn’t mind the ending, as we headed into the modern day Brontë Parsonage Museum shop, but a friend went apoplectic at it; I certainly didn’t like the repeated use of the F-bomb, no matter how much people try to say otherwise, there was no way this particular word would have been used in conversation, it puzzles me as to why it was used when it added nothing to the story? Also, again, I didn’t like the way the story ended after Branwell’s death, Emily and Anne’s demise was mentioned in a caption at the end and Charlotte’s was ignored completely; the character of Arthur Bell Nicholls was introduced and then no further mention was made of him – it seemed to me that they had run out of time filming it, and that they would have been better extending it to another hour or a mini-series. Nevertheless, I did very much enjoy it.

Emily Bronte with Anne in To Walk Invisible
Emily Bronte with Anne in To Walk Invisible

We are endlessly fascinated by the Brontë’s lives, something I certainly have to hold my hand up to, so it’s not surprising that there have been a number of fictional treatments of them in novels. The best of them can be very good, so I’m particularly looking forward to reading (once I’ve finished editing my forthcoming Aunt Branwell biography) two new editions to the canon. Firstly, we have ‘The Last Brontë: The Intimate Memoirs of Arthur Bell Nicholls‘ by S.R. Whitehead. Released at the start of this month it tells a story seldom heard: that of Charlotte’s husband Arthur. It already has excellent reviews.

Last Bronte
The Last Bronte by S.R. Whitehead and Without The Veil Between by D.M. Denton

Crossing the Atlantic later this year we have D.M. Denton’s ‘Without The Veil Between – Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit’. It will be great to see Anne get the fictional treatment, and as Diane is both a Brontë enthusiast and a fine novelist I have high hopes for it.

Tomorrow I’m heading back to the archives to see a little known and very special piece of work by Anne Brontë, which I’m highly excited about, but today I’m going to relax in front of the television – now where’s that Tenant Of Wildfell Hall DVD again?