The Brontës: Explorations Of The Sea And Of The Soul

This weekend witnessed a special festival in Whitby to mark the 250th anniversary of a voyage of discovery by one of North Yorkshire’s most famous sons, Captain James Cook. The voyage was aboard his ship Endeavour, and left England in 1768. During two long voyages on HMS Endeavour he became the first European to map much of the South Sea and to discover New Zealand and Australia.

Cook was doubtless an inspiration to his fellow Yorkshire natives the Brontës as it was their love of tales of exploration that had a huge influence on their childhood tales of Angria and Gondal. These tales, in tiny, intricate books led of course to the adult novels of the Brontë sisters that we love so much.

Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook

The sea features heavily in Anne Brontë’s work, mainly in the form of the Scarborough coastline that she adored and which filled her soul in the same way the Haworth moors did for Emily. It is in Charlotte’s work, however, that we get glimpses of the perilous voyages that explorers like Cook embarked upon.

Jane Eyre’s uncle dies in far off Madeira and leaves her a fortune that transforms her life, whilst Rochester has brought more than gold back from the Caribbean. In ‘Villette’, the heroine Lucy Snowe’s love Paul Emmanuel is hinted to have died in a shipwreck, although in a brilliant plot device the reader is left to determine for themselves whether this was his end or not.

James Cook moved to Whitby in his late teens, and embarked upon a naval career that would see him achieve legendary status. Whitby itself is around 20 miles north of Scarborough, but there is no record of Anne or the Robinson family she worked for as a governess, visiting it during her annual sojourns to the 19th century’s most fashionable seaside resort.

I, however, visited it this weekend and was lucky enough to visit a replica of Cook’s Endeavour. There were other ships to see as well, including a sailing replica of HMS Pickle, a small top sail schooner that was part of the vast Battle of Trafalgar fleet that saw the death of Admiral Lord Nelson in October 1805.

HMS Pickle
HMS Pickle replica in Whitby

The Pickle was small but speedy, and nearing the English coast it spotted a fishing boat and passed on the news of the great war heroes death. The boat turned around and headed back into its port, and soon the whole of the town knew. A solemn crowd gathered to hear the news proclaimed from the Union Hotel on Chapel Street, and they then marched to nearby Madron Church. This was the first town in England to hear of Nelson’s death, and it was the Cornish town of Penzance. The Chapel Street proclamation, still re-enacted annually, was just doors from a home in which lived, among others, Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, who would raise the Brontë children as mother and aunt. Given the prominence of the Branwells in Penzance society, it is certain that these two women would have taken part in the march of 1805.

One member of the Branwell family had an even closer connection to the sea. Thomas Branwell was cousin to Maria and Elizabeth and rose rapidly in the ranks after joining the Royal Navy. By 1811 he had reached the heights of First Lieutenant on board the HMS St. George but in December of that year tragedy struck, as recorded in the Navy Chronicle:

‘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, Branwell, Dance, Tristram, Riches, and Rogers.’

Thomas Branwell’s body was one of many smashed upon the rocks of Thorsminde, Norway – now known as ‘Dead Men’s Dunes.’

Lieutenant Branwell
Lieutenant Thomas Branwell

Could it be that one Branwell in particular was heartbroken by this? Rumour has long said that Thomas and his cousin Elizabeth had been in love, (and after all Thomas’ brother Joseph and Elizabeth’s sister Charlotte married) and this may be why she then remained unmarried all her years. Could, years later, Aunt Branwell, in a tearful recollection, have told her nieces of how her love was killed in a shipwreck, and could this have inspired Charlotte Brontë’s ending to ‘Villette’?

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë never suffered death at sea like Nelson or Lieutenant Branwell, nor suffered the privations endured by the crew of HMS Pickle, nor encountered a grisly end at the hands of angry Hawaiian islanders (Captain Cook’s fate). No, sea exploration was not for them – they took on a deeper exploration, an exploration of the very depths of the human heart, the unbreakable strength of the soul, the incredible heights of love, the anguish of pain and loss; when we open their books, we can embark on the same incredible discoveries, and with all their tragedies and triumphs it’s an endeavour greatly to be desired.

Anne And Emily Brontë’s ‘Long Journey’

We saw earlier this week how June 29th was a momentous day for Charlotte Brontë, as it was the date on which she was baptised and married, with a 38 year gap in between. Unfortunately many of the exact dates in the Brontë story are unknown, so that we don’t know, for example, the exact date of birth of the eldest Brontë sibling Maria Brontë, nor the joint publication date of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’.

One event we do know the exact date of, however, happened on June 30th 1845 – it was a journey to York undertaken by Emily and Anne Brontë, and the two sisters viewed it rather differently, as can be seen in references to it, and absences of references to it, within their individual diary papers of that year.

The huge, imposing York Minster
The majestic York Minster would have been visited by Anne and Emily in 1845

There are six diary papers in existence, the 1834 and 1837 papers are written jointly by Emily and Anne, whilst in 1841 and 1845 they each write one separately, with the intention that they are opened on Emily’s birthday three or four years later. In her 1845 diary paper, dated 30th July (her 27th birthday) she writes that the papers are intended to be opened in 1848, but we have no new diary papers for that year – they could now be lost, or it could be an external factor such as Branwell’s deteriorating health prevented them from ever being penned.

Emily also writes:

‘Anne and I went on our first long journey by ourselves together – leaving home on the 30th of June – Monday sleeping at York – returning to Keighley Tuesday evening, sleeping there and walking home on Wednesday morning – though the weather was broken, we enjoyed ourselves very much except during a few hours at Bradford and during our excursion we were Ronald Macelgin, Henry Angorra, Juliet Angusteena, Roseabelle, Ella and Julian Egramont, Catherine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the palace of instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans. The Gondals still flourish bright as ever. I am at present writing a work on the First Wars – Anne has been writing some articles on this and a book by Henry Sophona. We intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us which I am glad to say they do at present.’

This is a very upbeat recollection of a happy few days by Emily, spent in the company of the sister she loved more than anything in the world. It is also in contrast to the image many have of Emily as being relentlessly dour, and in support of a cheerful Emily we also have Ellen Nussey’s account of how she liked to play tricks on people and then laugh uproariously.

York Castle Museum Victorian Street
York Castle Museum’s recreation of a Victorian Street (see also the header image)

Nevertheless, questions arise from Emily’s account – what was the problem with Bradford for example, and is Anne really still obsessed with the land of Gondal, invented in their youth and which the characters named in the above diary paper all populated, as Emily so plainly is? Anne’s corresponding diary paper doesn’t mention the expedition at all, and it seems that she is still suffering after escaping an all too real ‘palace of instruction’. Here is Anne Brontë’s account of that summer:

‘This is a dismal cloudy wet evening, we have had so far a very cold wet summer… The Gondals are in general not in first rate playing condition… I for my part cannot well be flatter or older in mind than I am now. Hoping for the best I conclude, Anne Brontë.’

Why is Anne so despondent here? Simply because June, the month of the trip to York with Emily, also saw Anne resign her post as governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, after more than five years of excellent service to them. In this same 1845 paper, Anne hints why she left:

‘I was then at Thorp Green and now I am only just escaped from it. I was wishing to leave then and if I had known that I had four years longer to stay how wretched I should have been too. I was writing my fourth volume of Sophala, but during my stay I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature.’

Undoubtedly, Anne is at least partly here hinting at flirtations, if not necessarily a full blown love affair, between her mistress Lydia Robinson and Branwell, whom she had secured a job there in 1843. Anne was also doubtless ruing that she would not see Scarborough that summer, or as far as she knew ever again, the east coast resort she loved and that she usually travelled to in July with the Robinson family.

This was a time of transition for Anne Brontë, but with the ever faithful and ever loving Emily Brontë by her side to cheer her up, it would eventually become an incredibly creative one. The girls, with older sister Charlotte, were about to embark upon writing some of the greatest books the world has ever seen.

29th June: A Life Changing Date For Charlotte Brontë

June the 29th was a momentous day for Charlotte Brontë at both ends of her life – and for two very different reasons. In 1816 it was the day that she was baptised, whilst in 1854, sadly just a year before her untimely death, it was the day she married.

Charlotte’s baptism took place in the village of Thornton, just over two months after her birth – and there often seems to be a gap between the birth of the Brontë children and their baptisms. It was not at the grand church of St. James that can now be seen at the Thornton but directly opposite it, at what is now known as the Bell Chapel. It is now a ruin, but thanks to local activists a beautiful one.

Bell Chapel
The Bronte Bell Chapel, where Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were baptised

Presiding over the baptism was Patrick Brontë’s great friend William Morgan, and acting as Charlotte’s godparents were Reverend Thomas Atkinson and his fiance Frances Walker of Lascelles Hall. These two were very instrumental in the Brontë story, as Atkinson was the former curate of Thornton who had suggested to Patrick that they swap parishes (leaving Atkinson with the smaller and less remunerative parish of Hartshead) so that he could be closer to Frances, the woman he loved.

It has been conjectured that Charlotte’s other godmother could have been her aunt Charlotte Branwell, Maria’s younger sister still living in Penzance, for after all another sister was made godmother to the second Brontë sibling who was given her name – Elizabeth. Charlotte Branwell certainly didn’t travel to the ceremony, but Elizabeth Branwell did make the long journey from Penzance to Thornton for the baptism of her niece Elizabeth, and stayed on at Thorton for a year afterwards. She would make another, final, journey north and re-enter the lives of the siblings in 1821 as Aunt Branwell.

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, possibly an absent godmother

None present on that June day in 1816, of course, could have known what the future would hold for the baby in front of them, one of tragedy but also of incredible achievement and triumph, and nor could they have known that another momentous day in Charlotte’s life would come exactly 38 years later.

By 1853, Charlotte was the last Brontë sibling left alive, and she lived at home with her ageing father and their servants Martha Brown and Tabby Aykyroyd. She was 37 that year, and although she was by now a literary success it seemed that she would remain a spinster forever. It was in that year, however, that Arthur Bell Nicholls proposed to her. Nicholls was, like Charlotte’s father, an Irish priest in the Church of England, and he’d served Patrick as assistant curate since May 1845. Over eight years he had fallen in love with the tiny, tormented Charlotte, and one of the duties he now loved to perform was to walk the dogs Keeper and Flossy that Emily and Anne had had to leave behind forever.

His proposal, however, was not well received on either side. Patrick was furious that his assistant had dared to propose marriage to his daughter who he now felt could do much better, and he was also worried about what would happen to him if the daughter he was so reliant upon left. Charlotte herself professed herself not in love with him at all, and said that she barely liked him. Arthur had been building up the courage to make the proposal for months, maybe years, and the rejection hit him hard. He announced that he had applied to become a missionary in Australia and resigned his position at Haworth. On the last but one service he conducted, Charlotte records how he started shaking at the pulpit and then became unable to speak. The congregation had to lead him outside, many of them in tears, and Charlotte herself admits that she herself wept a little. The whole village knew why he was leaving, and on the following week the spectacle happened again. Charlotte writes how she later found him near the church “sobbing as women never sob”.

Arthur Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls

At this, what they supposed, final meeting Charlotte tried to console him a little, but this seems to have reignited Arthur’s hopes. Instead of going to Australia he moved to another church in Yorkshire, and continued to write to Charlotte. Eventually, his persistence and obvious dedication began to wear Charlotte down, and a year later he returned to Haworth where his second proposal was accepted on the proviso that they would remain at the Haworth Parsonage and continue to look after Patrick.

This acceptance of an engagement now outraged Ellen Nussey, Charlotte’s lifelong friend, as it seems that they had some sort of pact to grow old as spinsters together. Ellen herself would never marry, and nor would her other great friend from her school days Mary Taylor, or her former teacher, employer and now friend Margaret Wooler. For the first time in their lives they ceased writing to each other, but somehow the rift was healed in time for Ellen to act as Charlotte’s bridesmaid.

Charlotte, typically, didn’t want any fuss or extravagance to be made regarding her nuptials, although Ellen eventually forced her to go shopping for bridal wear and made her select a white dress. The beautiful bonnet the bride wore is on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and locals said that she looked ‘like a snowdrop’ as she, Ellen, and Margaret walked the short distance from the Parsonage to the church.

The wedding took place at eight o’clock in the morning on 29th June 1854, and one important man was not to be there. At the last moment Patrick said that he felt too ill to attend, although we’ll never know if this was true or if he was still harbouring some resentment at the marriage itself. Margaret Wooler stepped into the breach and it was she who gave Charlotte away, with Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden, a great friend of Arthur, conducting the ceremony.

They may not have had confetti cones exactly like this in 1854

Also present at the church were Joseph Grant, a friend of Nicholls, and his wife, Sutcliffe Sowden, the vicar of Hebden Bridge, the sexton John Brown and his daughter Martha, Joseph Redman, the parish clerk, and John Robinson, a local boy and former pupil of Charlotte’s. We can also assume that the by now aged and infirm Tabby Aykroyd would also have been there if she was well enough on the day. It was a low key affair, as Charlotte wanted, and they held a reception afterwards at the Sunday school building that lay between the church and the Parsonage.

To Charlotte’s great surprise she fell in love with her new husband, and on Christmas Day 1854 wrote to Ellen of how happy they were together. It was not to last. Charlotte fell pregnant, but was struck down by extreme morning sickness, then a frequently fatal condition in those days before drips, and died on March 1st 1855.

As Charlotte Brontë married in her late thirties, we can ask whether Emily and Anne may have done the same if they had lived to see those years. I once put this question to a famous Brontë expert, who shall remain nameless although they are in my opinion today’s greatest authority on the Brontës, and they opined that Emily would never have married, as she was in their opinion a little odd and so would never have found a suitor. Anne Brontë, however, they felt may one day have found a husband, if she had ever regained health and overcome her mourning for her one love William Weightman.

Happy Birthday Branwell Brontë, 201 Today

Today, the 26th of June 2018, marks the 201st birthday of Patrick Branwell Brontë, fourth born of the six Brontë siblings and a man who would have a huge influence on the lives of his three famous writing sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.

We have looked at this complex man before, and discovered that there’s far more to him than the two dimensional drunkard often portrayed. He was hugely talented, being able to write a letter in Greek and Latin simultaneously using both hands was just one of his incredible feats. He was a promising painter and a keen poet, but fate decreed that his talents in these areas would never reach their zenith. Branwell it was who shared his soldiers and created the world of Angria, events that would lead directly to the Brontë books we love so much today, and Branwell it was who drew pictures for his little sister Anne as she sat adoringly on his knee.

Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte
Map of Angria drawn by Branwell Bronte

His later troubles are well known, and while his thwarted love affair with Mrs Lydia Robinson is the famous catalyst, their true origins are much more earlier and much more profound: the early losses of his mother and his beloved sisters Maria and Elizabeth were events he could never forget, and from those sad days onward the outcome was inevitable.

Branwell head
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

But, it’s Branwell Brontë’s birthday, so let’s celebrate as he would have wanted – the sun is blazing down, the moors look incredible, and there are plenty of cooling draughts being served in inns across Yorkshire and beyond. On this day let’s charge a glass to Branwell, and do what perhaps he would most have wanted, remember that he was at heart a good man and a loving sibling, and remember that he was indeed a poet. Here is The Epicurean’s Song of 1842 when the deaths of his much loved Aunt Branwell and his friend William Weightman had awakened visions of earlier losses:

‘The visits of Sorrow
Say, why should we mourn?
Since the sun of to-morrow
May shine on its urn;
And all that we think such pain
Will have departed – then
Bear for a moment what cannot return.
For past time has taken
Each hour that it gave,
And they never awaken
From yesterday’s grave;
So surely we may defy
Shadows, like memory,
Feeble and fleeting as midsummer wave.
From the depths where they’re falling
Nor pleasure, nor pain,
Despite our recalling,
Can reach us again;
Though we brood over them,
Naught can recover them,
Where they are laid they must ever remain.
So seize we the present,
And gather its flowers,
For – mournful or pleasant –
‘Tis all that is ours;
While daylight we’re wasting.
The evening is hasting,
And night follows fast on vanishing hours.
Yes – and we, when night comes,
Whatever betide,
Must die as our fate dooms,
And sleep by their side;
For change is the only thing
Always continuing;
And it sweeps creation away with its tide.’

Wellington, Waterloo and the Brontës

Visitors to Haworth at certain times of the year may be lucky enough to see men and women in nineteenth century clothing, but in a certain corner of Belgium this week there was an opportunity to see nineteenth century attire of a very different kind. That’s because this week marked the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. June 18th 1815 saw Arthur Wellesley, more famously known today as the Duke of Wellington, and his Prussian allies under the leadership of General Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, inflicted a decisive defeat on the increasingly tyrannical Napoleon Bonaparte. It is a fascinating piece of history, but for the Brontës it was very much part of their present.

Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

At the time of the battle, the Brontë family had four members: Patrick and Maria and their two daughters Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte was born less than a year after the battle, followed by 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’.

Their father, Patrick, was a great admirer of his fellow Irishman Arthur Wellesley, the Iron Duke, 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 an event occurred which would change the course of literary history forever.

Patrick, realising how keen his four surviving children (Maria and Elizabeth by this time having succumbed tragically to tuberculosis contracted at Cowan Bridge’s Clergy Daughters School) were on Waterloo and the associated tales of heroism, 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.”

Branwell also remembered this day, but his recollection of how the soldiers were distributed is slightly different to that of his sister:

“I carried them to Emily, Charlotte and Anne. They each took up a soldier, gave them names, which I consented to, and I gave Charlotte Twemy, to Emily Pare, to Anne Trot to take care of them, although they were to be mine and I to have the disposal of them as I would.”

It is no surprise that Charlotte named her soldier Wellington, she worshipped him in the same way that a young girl today would worship the latest boy band. In Branwell’s choice of Napoleon, we also get an early glimpse of the rebellious streak that was later to become so painfully apparent.

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.

There is one particularly fascinating object belonging to the Brontë Parsonage collection – a fragment of Napoleon’s coffin! It was presented to Charlotte by Constantin Heger, her Belgian tutor and the unrequited target of her affections.

the Heger family by Ange Francois
The Heger family by Ange Francois, Constantin on the left gave Charlotte a piece of Napoleon’s coffin

The voyage of Charlotte and Emily to Brussels in 1842, to study at the Pensionnat Heger with a view to later setting up their own school with Anne in Haworth, brought them close to the Waterloo battlefield, and indeed Brussels at this time was home to many British ex-servicemen and their families who had fought in the battle. It is believed that Patrick, who travelled to Brussels with his two daughters, took the opportunity of visiting Waterloo before returning to England. Years later, Charlotte finally met her hero. On 12th June 1850 she, by then a successful author but the last surviving of the six Brontë siblings, wrote to Ellen Nussey to say that she had seen the Duke of Wellington, by then in his eighties, in London’s Chapel Royal. Charlotte’s childhood adoration resurfaced, her mind went back to the soldier she had snatched up, and she wrote that he was ‘a real grand old man’.

If the Iron Duke had not defeated Napoleon on that June day more than two hundred years ago, the course of history could be very different. Wellington may not have been worshipped in that Yorkshire parsonage, the soldiers may never have been bought, and we may never have had those seven magnificent Brontë novels. That’s why lovers of Anne Brontë and her sisters should this weekend raise a glass and toast the soldiers of Waterloo, and their courage to face head on tyranny and evil, to face it and defeat it.

Father’s Day: Remembering the Brontë Grandfathers

Firstly, my apologies for not uploading a post last Sunday! I was in Haworth enjoying a weekend that was beautiful in every way, so whilst I may not have been able to commit the Brontës to my blog as I like to do they felt close to me in every other way. It was my first chance to see the new Emily Brontë exhibition, ‘Making Thunder Roar’, and one part that I did like was a video installation featuring actress Chloe Pirie reading Emily’s poetry to a background of hawks and moorland scenery.

Haworth Moors, June 2018
One of the many beautiful sights from my walk across Haworth moors last weekend.

The idyllic Haworth days are now stored to memory to bring a smile and peaceful thoughts whenever I need them. Normal service is now resumed, and in today’s post we’re going to take a Brontë inspired look at Father’s Day. We’ve examined the role of Reverend Patrick Brontë a number of times recently, but it’s worth saying again that in my opinion his contribution to the Brontë story is huge. He was a poet and inspiration, a man who gave all he had to help his children and his community, one who encouraged his daughters in their creative endeavours and allowed them free access to whatever books they liked – something which would have been anathema to many other early 19th century parents.

Yes, we should certainly say ‘Happy Father’s Day, Patrick Brontë’ but today we are looking at two other dads – the grandfathers of the Brontë siblings. Whilst Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne never met either of their grandparents they would have heard stories of them, and very inspirational stories they would have been too.

Hugh Prunty (or Brunty) was Patrick’s father. Hugh was born in Ireland into a Protestant family in the mid eighteenth century, and Patrick himself gave Elizabeth Gaskell this remembrance of his father:

‘He was left an orphan at an early age. It was said that he was of ancient family… He came to the north of Ireland and made an early but suitable marriage. His pecuniary means were small – but renting a few acres of land, he and my mother by dint of application and industry managed to bring up a family of ten children in a respectable manner.’

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Bronte cottage, County Down

If Hugh was left an orphan at an early age, who raised him? It’s here that the story gets particularly interesting as a 19th century biography relates a tale of a man called Welsh Brunty raising the child as his own. Welsh himself was rather a cuckoo in the nest, and the story of how he came to the Brunty family is told thus:

‘On one of his [Patrick’s great grandfather, a farmer and merchant from County Louth] return journeys from Liverpool a strange child was found in a bundle in the hold of the vessel. It was very young, very black, very dirty, and almost without clothing of any kind. No one on board knew whence it had come, and no one seemed to care what became of it. There was no doctor in the ship, and no woman except Mrs. Brontë, who had accompanied her husband to Liverpool. The child was thrown on the deck. Some one said, “Toss it overboard”; but no one would touch it, and its cries were distressing. From sheer pity Mrs. Brontë was obliged to succour the abandoned infant… When the little foundling was carried up out of the hold of the vessel, it was supposed to be a Welsh child on account of its colour. It might doubtless have laid claim to a more Oriental descent, but when it became a member of the Brontë family they called it “Welsh”.’

Later in this tale the adult Welsh takes the young Hugh from his family, and in this we can see a clear precursor of the mysterious foundling Heathcliff and his treatment of his adoptive family.

What we know for sure about Hugh is that he fell in love with a Catholic girl named Alice McClory from County Down – this crossing of religious lines was dangerous, yet Patrick and Alice eloped together and were married in Magherally church. They then settled down to married life in Drumballyroney, where in 1777 they had the first of twelve children: christened after the patron saint of his birthday, he became of course Patrick Brontë.

We have one more memory of Brontë grandfather Hugh, and it comes from his daughter, and Patrick’s sister, Alice. Reminiscing in 1891, at the grand old age of 95, she recalled:

‘My father came originally from Drogheda. He was not very tall but purty stout; he was sandy-haired and my mother fair-haired. He was very fond to his children and worked to the last for them.’

Let us now turn to the other Brontë grandfather, their maternal grandpa Thomas Branwell of Penzance. We all know how Patrick changed his name from Prunty or Brunty to Brontë, well, the same process occurred in Cornwall too, for Thomas Branwell had been born Thomas Bramwell and a couple of generations earlier they were the Bramble family.

Thomas Branwell b J. Tonkin
Maria’s father Thomas Branwell by James Tonkin

The change of name may reflect Thomas’ changing status, for he became an extremely successful business man and a leading figure in Penzance politics. His will, dated March 26th 1808, lists a magnificent array of property and wealth, including houses across Penzance, the largest mansion in the area Tremenheere House, shops, a quayside warehouse, a pub called The Golden Lion and his own brewery (these last two perhaps rather strange acquisitions for a committed Methodist and teetotaller).

Thomas married into another wealthy Penzance family, when he wed Anne Carne, for her family founded Penzance’s first bank ‘Batten, Carne & Carne’ in 1797. It seems likely that Anne Brontë knew of the wealth and status of her grandparents when she wrote at the beginning of ‘Agnes Grey’:

‘My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire’s daughter, and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her, that if she became the poor parson’s wife, she must relinquish her carriage and her lady’s-maid, and all the luxuries and elegancies of affluence.’

Thomas Branwell was never a squire, he was new money after all rather than landed gentry, but his son Benjamin did rise to become Mayor of Penzance in 1809.

Thomas and Anne, like Hugh and Alice, had twelve children, although again not all survived childhood. Benjamin Branwell became mayor, but it is two more of his children that are remembered on a plaque on their former residence in Chapel Street, Penzance; Elizabeth, born in 1776, and Maria, born 1783. The plaque proudly proclaims:

‘This was the home of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, the mother and aunt of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë.’

Penzance plaque
A tribute to Maria Bronte and Aunt Branwell by their family home in Penzance

Thomas and Hugh must have been good fathers, for they certainly produced two wonderful children in Patrick and Maria, who in turn were good and loving parents. To Patrick, Hugh, Thomas and fathers across the world I say ‘Happy Father’s Day’ (and God bless the women who do all the work behind the scenes as well!)

The Brontë Society Summer Festival 2018

Two hundred years ago today, in the village of Thornton near Bradford, a happy event was growing ever closer. A Cornish woman in her thirties and her forty something Irish husband were looking forward to the birth of their fifth child, now less than two months away. That woman, of course, was Maria Brontë and the child to come was the enigmatic genius Emily Jane Brontë.

Back in our present day, that occasion will be marked joyously on July 30th, but this weekend another summer occasion will be dominating Haworth: the annual summer festival of the Brontë Society.

Many of the events are open to members and non-members of the society alike, and there’s a real variety of events that should appeal to all tastes: a sibling fused smorgasbord. The Brontë Society annual lecture is being given by author and historian Carol Dyhouse who will examine ‘The Eccentricities of ‘Woman’s Fantasy’… And Heathcliff’. According to the promotional material Carol will start the lecture by asking why Heathcliff is looked upon as a romantic figure when the author herself explicitly warned against this. It’s an interesting and oft asked question, although of course in truth Emily made no comment on this whatsoever, or on her masterpiece as a whole, other than what’s contained within its pages. It should certainly be a thought provoking lecture from a foremost expert in her field.

Friday night sees ‘History Wardrobe: Gothic For Girls’ take a look at the evolution of gothic literature and fashion from the 18th century to the present day, calling at Charlotte and Emily’s work en route. Also on Friday, Ann Dinsdale, head curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum and a woman who probably knows more about the museum and the people who lived there than anyone else, looks at the Brontë Parsonage Museum at 90. It’s certainly changed a lot since then, so it should make for an informative and enlightening tale.

Summer Of Impossible Things
Summer Of Impossible Things author Rowan Coleman will be in Haworth

Saturday night is quiz night in Haworth, as celebrated journalist, presenter and self professed Anne Brontë fan Lucy Mangan hosts ‘The Great Who Wants To Be A Brontë Mastermind Challenge’. Quizzes are always lots of fun (says the man who won Thornton’s Brontë quiz and still has the beer tokens to prove it, ahem – I don’t like to boast) but the competition should be fierce at this one! Brilliant author Rowan Coleman, of ‘The Summer Of Impossible Things’ fame, is just one of the team leaders who will be pitting their wits.

Of course there will also be the perennial delights available to visitors to Haworth this weekend and beyond, not least of which are the wide stretching moors so loved by Anne and Emily, and the Parsonage itself which now has Branwell’s portrait of his three sisters on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.

Bronte sisters portrait
The pillar portrait is back home and on display!

I’m very much looking forward to returning to Haworth this weekend, but if you’re a little further afield there’s also an exciting event approaching in South Wales. Brontë expert Catherine Paula Han and others are part of a panel discussing Wuthering Heights on 11th June at Cardiff University and it should be an absolutely fascinating talk.

The Inspiring Poetry Of Branwell Brontë

June 1848 saw the publication of Anne Brontë’s brilliant, if at the time controversial, second novel, ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘, but she wasn’t the first Brontë sibling to be published in this month. That honour goes to her often maligned and misunderstood brother, Branwell.

Patrick Branwell Brontë was a complex man who undoubtedly had some issues that contributed to his decline and death later in the year 1848, but he also undoubtedly was a man of talent. Branwell’s addictions were in all probability linked to issues relating to the childhood losses he suffered – the devastating early deaths of his mother and then his eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth; we should not, however, let the form of his end cloud our impression of his life as a whole.

Branwell head
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

Branwell could be a happy, generous brother – it was he after all who shared the gift of twelve toy soldiers with Charlotte, Emily and Anne in July 1826, a gift that was to prove pivotal in unlocking the childhood creativity within the Brontës. Patrick had brought other gifts for his daughters, including a paper doll for Anne, but the soldiers he bought for his son were shared immediately among his siblings as a young Branwell himself remembered:

‘I carried them [the soldiers] to Emily, Charlotte and Anne. They each took up a soldier, gave them names, which I consented to, and I gave Charlotte Twemy, to Emily Pare, to Anne Trot to take care of them, although they were to be mine and I to have the disposal of them as I would.’

These twelve soldiers became the young men who populated their childhood world of the Great Glasstown Confederacy, which in turn became Angria. This is the land behind the incredibly tiny and intricate little books that can still be seen at Harvard University and in the Brontë Parsonage Museum today. It is Branwell that took the lead role in this early creative outburst, as evidenced by the initial name of their books being ‘Branwell’s Blackwood Magazine.’

Branwell was possibly the most enthusiastic early poet of the four remaining siblings, and he was not lacking in ambition, as the conclusion to his letter to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh in December 1837 showed:

‘Now, sir, do not act like a commonplace person, but like a man willing to examine for himself. Do not turn from the naked truth of my letters, but prove me – and if I do not stand the proof, I will not further press myself upon you. If I do stand it, why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë’

Branwell was also not lacking in talent as a poet, and we do well to remember that Branwell was the first of the Brontë siblings to find themselves in print (Anne was the only other sibling who had her poetry published without paying for it). His verse appeared in a number of local publications under the pseudonym of ‘Northangerland’, a complex character from the Angrian saga, one readily identified with by his creator. Under this guise his work appeared in publications ranging from the Yorkshire Gazette and Leeds Intelligencer to the Halifax Guardian which on June 5th 1841 published his poem ‘Heaven and Earth’.

Adam Nagaitis
Branwell Bronte played by Adam Nagaitis in ‘To Walk Invisible’

Branwell had twelve poems published by the Halifax Guardian alone, and this was no mean feat as they took their poetry very seriously, and the standard was very high. Reading Branwell’s poetry today reinforces the impression of a good poet with a real love of verse. It is sad, therefore, that by 1846 his addictions made him unable to be considered for inclusion within ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘.

Branwell was a talented man in many areas; a skilled musician from an early age, a fine artist (his painting ‘The Lonely Shepherd’ adorns this post), and a loving brother who drew sketches for his baby sister Anne – a kindness she never forgot. He could write with both hands at once, composing a Greek letter with his left hand and a Latin letter with his right – an incredible testimony to the talents that lay within him. If Branwell had reached creative maturity I have little doubt that the results would have been brilliant, but certainly for much of his life he was a loving and positive influence on his sisters and on their work.

Branwell drawing for Anne
A sketch by Branwell for Anne Bronte

I will leave you with an extract from Branwell Brontë’s long, moving and brilliant poem ‘Caroline’, in which many see a tribute to the eldest sister he loved, Maria, whose loss cast a life long shadow over his years to come:

‘I stooped to pluck a rose that grew
Beside this window, waving then;
But back my little hand withdrew,
From some reproof of inward pain;
For she who loved it was not there
To check me with her dove-like eye,
And something bid my heart forbear
Her favourite rosebud to destroy.
Was it that bell — that funeral bell,
Sullenly sounding on the wind?
Was it that melancholy knell
Which first to sorrow woke my mind?
I looked upon my mourning dress,
Till my heart beat with childish fear,
And frightened at my loneliness,
I watched, some well-known sound to hear.
But all without lay silent in
The sunny hush of afternoon,
And only muffled steps within
Passed slowly and sedately on.
There lay she then, as now she lies —
For not a limb has moved since then —
In dreamless slumber closed, those eyes
That never more might wake again.
She lay, as I had seen her lie
On many a happy night before,
When I was humbly kneeling by —
Whom she was teaching to adore:
Oh, just as when by her I prayed,
And she to heaven sent up my prayer,
She lay with flower about her head —
Though formal grave-clothes hid her hair!
Still did her lips the smile retain
Which parted them when hope was high,
Still seemed her brow as smoothed from pain
As when all thought she could not die.
And, though her bed looked cramped and strange,
Her too bright cheek all faded now,
My young eyes scarcely saw a change
From hours when moonlight paled her brow.
And yet I felt — and scarce could speak —
A chilly face, a faltering breath,
When my hand touched the marble cheek
Which lay so passively beneath.
And thus it brought me back the hours
When we, at rest together,
Used to lie listening to the showers
Of wild December weather;
Which, when, as oft, they woke in her
The chords of inward thought,
Would fill with pictures that wild air,
From far-off memories brought ;
So, while I lay, I heard again
Her silver-sounding tongue,
Rehearsing some remembered strain
Of old times long agone!’

The Last Days Of Dear Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë died on 28th May 1849, 169 years ago to this day. Her resting place still brings literary pilgrims from across Britain and beyond to the auxiliary churchyard of St. Mary’s Church and in many ways its location is perfect.

Anne Brontë loved Scarborough, the sea air, the sound of seagulls, the crashing of wave upon rock, the sand beneath her feet; these were the very essence of life to her; now they surround her physical form in its rest.

She lies below Scarborough Castle, where Reverend Weston proposed to Agnes Grey, and above the sea that she had dreamed of since childhood stories of Penzance told to her by Aunt Branwell.

Scarborough Castle
The majestic Scarborough Castle that forever guards Anne Bronte below.

Yes, Anne Brontë will forever be associated with Haworth, like her sisters, but it was to Scarborough that she chose to travel in her final days. We have a very moving record of these final days thanks to a woman who was alongside her, the great Brontë friend Ellen Nussey. Ellen wrote a short description of these days for Elizabeth Gaskell. She entitled it, ‘A Short Account Of The Last Days Of Dear A.B.’

I leave you with it now, but whether you remember Anne in Scarborough, Haworth or in your home, we will miss her, and mourn what she could have achieved given time, but we don’t mourn Anne, for in a very real sense she is still among us.

‘She left her home May 24th, I849 – died May 28th. Her life was calm, quiet, spiritual such was her end. Through the trials and fatigues of the journey, she evinced the pious courage and fortitude of a martyr. Dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain.

The first stage of our journey was to York; and here the dear invalid was so revived, so cheerful, and so happy, we drew consolation, and trusted that at least temporary improvement was to be derived from the change which she had so longed for, and her friends had so dreaded for her.

By her request we went to the Minster, and to her it was an overpowering pleasure; not for its own imposing and impressive grandeur only, but because it brought to her susceptible nature a vital and overwhelming sense of omnipotence. She said, while gazing at the structure, ‘If finite power can do this, what is the…?’ and here emotion stayed her speech, and she was hastened to a less exciting scene. Her weakness of body was great, but her gratitude for every mercy was greater. After such an exertion as walking to her bed-room, she would clasp her hands and raise her eyes in silent thanks, and she did this not to the exclusion of wonted prayer, for that too was performed on bended knee, ere she accepted the rest of her couch.

On the 25th we arrived at Scarborough; our dear invalid having, during the journey, directed our attention to every prospect worthy of notice.

On the 26th she drove on the sands for an hour; and lest the poor donkey should be urged by its driver to a greater speed than her tender heart thought right, she took the reins, and drove herself. When joined by her friend, she was charging the boy-master of the donkey to treat the poor animal well. She was ever fond of dumb things, and would give up her own comfort for them.

The Spa Bridge, Scarborough walked by Anne Bronte in 1849
The Spa Bridge, Scarborough walked by Anne Bronte in 1849

On Sunday, the 27th, she wished to go to church, and her eye brightened with the thought of once more worshipping her God amongst her fellow-creatures. We thought it prudent to dissuade her from the attempt, though it was evident her heart was longing to join in the public act of devotion and praise. She walked a little in the afternoon, and meeting with a sheltered and comfortable seat near the beach, she begged we would leave her, and enjoy the various scenes near at hand, which were new to us but familiar to her. She loved the place, and wished us to share her preference.It closed with the most glorious sunset ever witnessed. The castle on the cliff stood in proud glory gilded by the rays of the declining sun. The distant ships glittered like burnished gold; the little boats near the beach heaved on the ebbing tide, inviting occupants. The view was grand beyond description. Anne was drawn in her easy chair to the window to enjoy the scene with us. Her face became illuminated almost as much as the glorious sun she gazed upon. Little was said, for it was plain that her thoughts were driven by the imposing view before her to penetrate forwards to the region of unfading glory.

The night was passed without any apparent accession of illness. She rose at seven o’clock, and performed most of her toilet herself, by her expressed wish. Her sister always yielded such points, believing it was the truest kindness not to press inability when it was not acknowledged. Nothing occurred to excite alarm till about 11 a.m. She then spoke of feeling a change. She believed she had not long to live. Could she reach home alive, if we prepared immediately for departure? A physician was sent for. Her address to him was made with perfect composure. She begged him to say how long he thought she might live ; not to fear speaking the truth, for she was not afraid to die. The doctor reluctantly admitted that the angel of death was already arrived, and that life was ebbing fast. She thanked him for his truthfulness, and he departed to come again very soon. She still occupied her easy chair, looking so serene, so reliant: there was no opening for grief as yet, though all knew the separation was at hand. She clasped her hands, and reverently invoked a blessing from on high ; first upon her sister, then upon her friend, to whom she said, ‘ Be a sister in my stead. Give

Charlotte as much of your company as you can.’ She then thanked each for her kindness and attention. Ere long the restlessness of approaching death appeared, and she was borne to the sofa ; on being asked if she were easier, she looked gratefully at her questioner, and said, ‘It is not you who can give me ease, but soon all will be well through the merits of our Redeemer.’ Shortly after this, seeing that her sister could hardly restrain her grief, she said, ‘Take courage, Charlotte; take courage.’ Her faith never failed, and her eye never dimmed till about two o’clock, when she calmly and without a sigh passed from the temporal to the eternal. So still, and so hallowed were her last hours and moments. There was no thought of assistance or of dread. The doctor came and went two or three times. The hostess knew that death was near, yet so little was the house disturbed by the presence of the dying, and the sorrow of those so nearly bereaved, that dinner was announced as ready, through the half-opened door, as the living sister was closing the eyes of the dead one.

She could now no more stay the welled-up grief of her sister with her emphatic and dying ‘ Take courage,’ and it burst forth in brief but agonising strength. Charlotte’s affection, however, had another channel, and there it turned in thought, in care, and in tenderness. There was bereavement, but there was not solitude; – sympathy was at hand, and it was accepted. With calmness, came the consideration of the removal of the dear remains to their home resting-place. This melancholy task, however, was never performed; for the afflicted sister decided to lay the flower in the place where it had fallen. She believed that to do so would accord with the wishes of the departed. She had no preference for place. She thought not of the grave, for that is but the body’s goal, but of all that is beyond it.

“Her remains rest,
Where the south sun warms the now dear sod,
Where the ocean billows lave and strike the steep and turf-covered rock.'”

A Tale Of Two Emilys: Brontë and Dickinson

Emily was a brilliant and prolific poet, a genius born in the early nineteenth century. Her writing dazzled with invention and soaring thoughts, but it also often dealt with themes of death. Emily never had a lover and as she grew older she became increasingly reclusive, often refusing to meet or talk to guests, and spending most of her later years confined to her bedroom with only pen and paper for company. She kept her poems to herself, and it was only after the accidental discovery of them by her sister that they came to the world’s attention. You may think I’m talking about Emily Brontë, but in fact this is Emily Dickinson – in my opinion America’s greatest ever poet, and a woman who died 132 years ago this week, aged 55.

Emilia, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson in 1840
Emily, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson in 1840

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in December 1810 into a comfortable, if not overly wealthy, family and had one brother William Austin (always known by his middle name) and a sister Lavinia. At age nine she was sent to the Amherst Academy, where she stayed for seven years, and she excelled at her learning. She particularly loved to play the piano, which she was proficient at from an early age. Even at this age, however, Emily knew that she did not fit in with the regimented life others followed:

‘They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still” –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –’

In 1844 a tragedy struck that changed Emily’s life for ever. Her cousin and best friend Sophia Holland contracted typhoid and died. From that moment melancholia settled upon Emily Dickinson, and she was often consumed by thoughts of death, illness and dying; thoughts that inevitably found their way onto the page.

Wild Nights
Emily Dickinson’s handwritten ‘Wild Nights, Wild Nights’

By 1858 Emily had become a recluse, and in the privacy of her own room she began to edit and collect the poems she had been writing over the years into four notebooks. They contained over 800 poems, many of them as brilliant as anything written that century and stylistically way ahead of their time as Emily often cut up her poetry with dashes or a strange use of capitalisation. These books were discovered by Lavinia after Emily Dickinson’s death, and it was only then that it was realised what she had truly been. Emily never wanted fame or even recognition, as her poem ‘Fame Is A Fickle Food’ shows:

‘Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set
Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the
Farmer’s corn
Men eat of it and die.’

Emily’s faith was unique to herself, she attended church for but a few years, but she believed in a universal power and in the immortal, unbreakable soul. By 1867 her isolation was complete, so that she would only talk to people on the opposite side of her door. In these last 20 years she continued to write incredible poems that became darker and darker, like ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’:

‘Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –’

Emily Dickinson grave
Emily Dickinson’s grave, Amherst

On May 15th 1886, Emily Dickinson died suddenly with her brother by her side. She had imagined her own funeral many times,and featured it in her verse:

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then -‘

Emily Dickinson found immense fame after her death, as Emily Brontë did, and the poems of both Emilys have astonished the world ever since. There are huge, some would say strange, similarities between the two women, but did Emily Dickinson know of the Brontës? She certainly knew, and loved, their work. In 1849 we know that Emily Dickinson read the first American edition of ‘Jane Eyre‘. It made such an impact on her that she later named her new puppy ‘Carlo’, after St. John’s dog in Charlotte Brontë’s great novel. At Emily Dickinson’s funeral a solitary poem was read; it had been specifically requested by her: it was ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ by Emily Brontë!