Jane Austen 200: Brilliance Like The Brontës

A representative of her Majesty’s Government this week declared Jane Austen ‘one of our greatest living writers’. Andrea Leadsom’s faux pas rightly earned her derision, as after all this week also marked the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death. On July 18th 1817, in a rented house in Winchester, Jane drew her last breath aged 41, but in her all too short life she had revolutionised the world of writing for ever. Jane not only helped secure the popularity of the novel as an art form, often seen as subservient to poetry at the time she wrote her first work, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, in 1811, she also paved the way for new generations of women writers who would follow her – and of course, chief among these to my eyes are Charlotte, Emily and Anne – the Brontë sisters.

Anne Bronte and Jane Austen
Anne Bronte and Jane Austen

Leadsom’s comments have caused debate not only because she seems to think that Jane Austen is ready to produce Pride and Prejudice too at the age of 241, but also because of the supremacy she gave to her writing. Some say that Jane is without a doubt our finest novelist, whereas others say that she cannot be considered as great as the Brontës. In my opinion, they are very different writers, but all four of them are worthy of veneration and admiration. In both Jane’s life and writing there are comparisons with the Brontë sisters, and startling contrasts.

Jane was after all an early nineteenth century writer who never married and lived with her family throughout her life. So far, so similar to our favourite siblings Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who, admittedly, did marry aged 38, only to succumb to the effects of excessive morning sickness and die less than a year later).

Another striking similarity between Jane Austen and the Brontës stands out: sisterly love. Emily and Anne Brontë in particular were very close, being referred to as being like inseparable twins and often seen with their arms entwined with each others, despite their two year age difference. A similar relationship existed between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, two years older than Jane and always by her side throughout her triumphs and set backs, and also through her final illness.

Cassandra Austen
A possible portrait of Cassandra Austen

There may also be a similarity between Jane and Anne Brontë in matters of love. Anne’s writing gives us a strong hint that she was in love with her father’s assistant curate William Weightman, but his early death from cholera put an end to any hopes Anne may have held of a future for them. Jane Austen too knew love, but found it thwarted. Tom Lefroy was the prototype of Mr. Darcy, just as Weightman was the prototype of Rev. Weston in Anne’s first novel ‘Agnes Grey‘. In Jane’s case the prospect of love was ended not by death, but by a drifting apart. It seems that in both cases, Anne and Jane never loved again.

In other ways, however, Jane Austen differed markedly from the Brontës. Jane was writing earlier in the century than Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and in a century that changed so radically as the decades advanced, this made a huge difference. Jane Austen was very much a regency woman, familiar with the values and traditions of the late eighteenth century, whereas the Brontës grew up at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, and witnessed the huge social impact brought by the industrial revolution in a way that Jane never did. As an example of this, Jane Austen travelled to London from Chawton, in Hampshire, in 1815 by horse drawn carriage. In 1848, Charlotte and Anne Brontë travelled from Keighley to London via train.

The purpose of these two meetings reveals another important difference between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters: Jane was travelling to meet the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was a huge fan of his work; Charlotte and Anne Brontë were travelling to meet the publisher George Smith, where they would finally reveal their true identity away from the masks of Currer and Acton Bell that they had hidden behind.

Jane Austen’s writing made her famous in her lifetime, a success that Anne and Emily would never know or desire. The Brontë sisters needed money in a way that Jane never did, but they eschewed fame and preferred public anonymity, although after the death of her younger sisters Charlotte did, reluctantly, step into the limelight.

Austen Chawton
Edward Austen’s Chawton House

Another important distinction between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters was their social position. Whilst the Brontës were respectable, thanks to their father Patrick’s position as a long established priest in the Church of England, they were never rich, and were solidly lower middle class, whereas Jane was from an upper middle class background. Her financial position, and her position in society, became even more secure when her brother Edward was adopted by the very wealthy Thomas Knight. Knight had no children of his own, and in 1783 chose his distant relative the 15 year old Edward Austen, afterwards Edward Austen Knight, to be his legal heir. Edward adopted a number of grand properties, including the beautiful Chawton House. He also obtained a nearby property at Chawton for Jane to live in, and it was there that she worked on some of her greatest masterpieces.

The contrast between Jane’s brother Edward and the Brontës’ brother Branwell could not be greater: Branwell seemed to be a promising talent in his own right, but there would be no wealthy patronage for him, and he died at the age of 31 after a long addiction to drink and opium.

Some have said that Jane Austen was obsessed with ‘marriage-ability’ in her novels, and obtaining or escaping matrimony is certainly her most central theme, but this was of incredible import to middle class women in Jane’s day, especially if, like the Bennets of Longbourn, they have been ‘entailed’ out of any prospect of coming into an inheritance.

I was watching a newspaper reviewer on Sky News this week discuss the use of Jane Austen’s appearance on the new ten pound note. He said that she was a Victorian Mills & Boon writer, her works are nothing but Love Actually written a hundred years ago. I was fuming at this level of ignorance and buffoonery, from the smirking buffoon on the sofa, and I feel sorry for people who share this view and haven’t discovered the brilliance of her work. Thankfully, as the unveiling of the first ever lifesize statue of Jane in Basingstoke this week showed, there are still huge numbers of people who are moved and exhilarated by her work:

Jane Austen statue
The Jane Austen statue unveiled this week

Jane Austen was, above all things, a spectacularly good writer. The pages of her novels seem to turn themselves, and they are joyous reads, even though they can also be emotional rollercoasters. They are also incredibly humorous, and contain much more comedy than you find in Brontë novels. They are also highly satirical in a way that is absent from the Brontë novels. Austen novels are set in a world of high incomes, and grand stately homes filled with servants, but Jane clinically dissects this world and often holds it up for ridicule.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the then celebrated Irish author George Moore wrote:

“If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.”

We can equally lament that Jane Austen did not live another ten years. Her novels will always be read and always be loved. While ever this planet of ours continues its restless orbit around the sun, readers will still swoon over Fitzwilliam Darcy, and his ten thousand a year, and root for Emma to put her matchmaking to one side find her Knightley. Times will change, but the novels of Jane Austen will remain timeless. For me, of course, Anne Brontë and her sisters will always occupy a position of supremacy in the writing pantheon, but there’s certainly room for Jane Austen and her novels in my affection too. It’s been wonderful to see the events in Hampshire, Bath, and beyond this week – Jane rightly being remembered, and celebrated.

Jane Austen banknote
The new Jane Austen £10 banknote

I like the new bank note, even if Jane has been airbrushed a little. The quote used on the note has attracted some mockery: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.’ This is said by Miss Bingley in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, in order to win the approval of book loving Mr Darcy. On seeing it has little effect on him, she dashes her book onto the couch and looks for something ‘more interesting’ to do. I think it’s an excellent quote for the note, even if its meaning may have passed by the Bank of England commissioners: it is, after all, an excellent example of the irony and humour that runs like a vein of gold through Jane Austen’s writing. I do think, however, that the next note should feature the Brontë sisters – after all in this age when we all strive for equality we would then have three more women on bank notes for the price of one. We have a perfect ready made quote from Anne Brontë as well, this time delivered without a hint of irony:

‘Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.’

Thornton, Where The Brontë Story Began

As we enter the latter half of July 2017 we can think back to a day 199 years ago, when a Cornish woman and an Irish man were awaiting the birth of their fifth child – Emily Jane Brontë. This waiting, and on the 30th of July the birth, didn’t happen in Haworth however, but in a moorside village seven miles away: the birthplace of the Brontës, Thornton.

Patrick and Maria Brontë moved to Thornton in May 1815. Reverend Brontë had moved to Thornton because the curacy came with its own parsonage, something he hadn’t had at his previous parish of Hartshead, where he instead rented a property at Lousy Thorn Farm. It’s hardly a name that inspires confidence in a property, so the Brontës would surely have welcomed the opportunity to move on.

Thornton signpost
Thornton signpost

There was another factor that made the move so important – the Brontë family was growing by the year. By the time Patrick and Maria arrived in Thornton they already had two daughters, Maria junior and Elizabeth, who were both to meet a tragically early end after being sent to the notorious school at Cowan Bridge – later recreated as the infamous Lowood in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’.

Further children arrived at regular intervals. Charlotte was born in April 1816, and in June 1817 she was followed by what her parents would have viewed as a particularly happy event: the birth of a son Patrick, who would be forever known by his middle name Branwell. In July 1818, another daughter was born and she was christened Emily Jane. Finally, on January 17th 1820 the final Brontë child was born, a sweetly smiling little baby who would be named Anne after her maternal grandmother Anne Branwell (formerly Anne Carne) of Penzance.

Thornton Parsonage had served its purpose for a while, but it was by now increasingly unsuitable. As well as being a brisk walk away from Patrick’s chapel itself, the chapel that became known as the Bell Chapel after Patrick had a bell tower erected, the mid-terraced house was now home to Patrick and his wife, their six young children, and two servants. It was clear that somewhere larger was needed, and Patrick, never a man shy of writing a letter, wrote to his Bishop to let him know.

Kipping House
Kipping House, home to Anne Bronte’s godmother Elizabeth Firth

In his letter he referred to the parsonage as a “very ill constructed and inconvenient building.” Fortune was soon to play its hand again, and just three months after the birth of Anne Brontë, the family was to move again, to their final location of Haworth. As Patrick walked alongside the carriages ferrying his family across the moors on 20th April 1820, often with Anne or Emily on his shoulders, he must have been full of hope, and full of love for his young family. Little did he know that less than 35 years later he would be the only Brontë left alive.

So what became of that ‘ill constructed and inconvenient building’? Happily, it is still standing today, on the middle of Market Street looking out onto the moors around Thornton, and it’s well worth a visit.

What was once the parsonage is now a beautiful café and delicatessen called ‘Emily’s’ offering high quality local food as well as specialising in the flavours of Italy. I’m also told that they serve scones to savour on Sundays. A sign outside the parsonage turned delicatessen rightly proclaims it as the ‘birthplace of the Brontës’, and a plaque on the wall gives the dates that the four children were born there.

Inside are portraits of the family, alongside the books they wrote, and Brontë memorabilia. One particular treasure is the actual fireplace that stood at the time, and by which the children themselves were born. Imagine how thrilled I was to see my own book, In Search of Anne Bronte, atop the very fireplace by which Anne came into this world. The proprietor, Mark de Luca, told me that upstairs in a bedroom is also a desk that belonged to the children.

In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily's, Thornton
In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily’s, Thornton

On taking a picture outside, a group of young Thornton-ites asked me why I was photographing the building. I explained that it was because it was the home of the Brontës. ‘Oh’, said one of the group, ‘ just wondered because everyone takes pictures of it’. Anne would have been proud.

Thornton is an essential part of the Brontë story, but it’s a fascinating and beautiful village in its own right. In this post you’ll see pictures of the rather confusing signpost showing where the Brontës moved to (I’m not sure if the distances are correct, and I’m certain the apostrophe is out of place), and Kipping House in Thornton, home to the Firth family and Anne’s kind godmother Elizabeth Firth. Later Elizabeth Franks, Patrick unsuccessfully proposed to her after the death of his wife Maria. Another fascinating building is the narrow house pictured below, at the very end of Market Street where the Brontës were born. Now called Coffin End, it was once an inn that on occasion had men wrestling bears. Don’t worry if you visit Thornton today, the bears are long since gone.

Coffin End
Coffin End, Thornton

Anne Brontë, Sunday School Teacher Par Excellence

As the end of term approaches at schools across the UK, it has become customary for pupils to present their teachers with little presents, and quite right too. Teaching is one of the most important professions of them all – as Anne Brontë understood all too well. Many people know that Anne Brontë was a governess with the Ingham and Robinson families, but her time as a teacher is less well known. In fact, Anne was a popular, if reluctant, teacher from a young age and her classroom lay just a stones throw from the house she called home – Haworth Parsonage.

Schooling in England wasn’t made compulsory until 1880, so before that time whether a child received an education was largely dependent upon their class and background. The upper classes had governesses, a profession well known to Anne and which she dissected in her brilliant first novel ‘Agnes Grey‘, and then finishing schools or private schools. The middle classes had access to schools if they could afford them, and the working class had no education at all unless it was provided by their local church in the form of a Sunday school.

Victorian school
Children playing at a modern recreation of a Victorian school

Patrick Brontë was a great supporter of education for the poor; after all he himself was from a poor County Down family, and his own education had completely changed the course of his life, taking him to Cambridge University and then on to a life as an Anglican priest. When Patrick arrived at Haworth in April of 1820 one of his first goals was to open a Sunday school – this was also something he had done at his previous parish of Thornton, where the three writing Brontë  sisters were born between 1816 and 1820. To achieve his aim of founding a Haworth school he set about obtaining subscriptions locally and from national charities, and after 11 years his goal was achieved and the school was opened. Patrick himself chose the words that can still be seen on the foundation stone:

“This National Sunday School… was erected AD 1832 by Voluntary Subscription and by a grant from the National Society in London. Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it. Prov.xxii.6”

Sunday was the perfect day for educating children, not only because of its religious connotations but because on other days they would be working in mills or at the many weaving houses in Haworth, even from a very early age. Years later, Patrick would secure funding for a full time teacher and introduced early morning classes but at first, as was often the case at Sunday schools nationwide, the role of teacher would fall on the parish priest’s wife or children. Mrs. Brontë was long dead by this time, so the role of teacher fell upon three of Patrick’s children: Charlotte, Branwell, and Anne Brontë. Emily’s great reserve made her unsuitable for the role of teacher, and she was excused the duty. Years later Emily’s reserve would again make her unsuitable for a role as teacher in their proposed school, the Misses Brontë  Establishment that never came to fruition, as Charlotte admitted in a letter to her former Professor and amour Constantin Heger:

‘Emily does not like teaching much, but she would always do the housekeeping and, although she is a little reclusive, she has too good a heart not to do everything for the wellbeing of the children.’

Educationally they were more than capable of carrying out the role. Anne was only twelve at this time, and yet thanks to the teaching of her father and aunt she was very learned in everything from art, music and needlework to composition, reading the scriptures, arithmetic, geography and even languages. It seems, indeed, that Anne was possibly the most gifted of them all from an intellectual point of view, and she was the only one of the children who became fluent in Latin.

So, at just twelve years old, the young and very shy Anne, who preferred spending hours walking the moors in company with her beloved sister Emily to mixing with people outside of the family, found herself taking her turn teaching the village children.

We can wonder how Anne’s nerves held up to this first test, but we get a big clue in the text of Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece ‘Shirley‘. The character of Caroline Helstone in that novel is based upon Anne, and Caroline too is a parson’s daughter who has to teach at Sunday school from the age of twelve. In the novel, a friendly neighbouring priest Mr. Hall describes Caroline’s first day as a teacher, and it’s not a great leap to conjecture that this is really Charlotte remembering what happened to Anne on the identical occasion:

“‘They made her a Sunday-school teacher when she was a little girl of twelve. She is not particularly self-confident by nature, as you may have observed; and the first time she had to ‘take a tray’, as the phrase is, and make tea in public, there was some piteous trembling and flushing. I observed the speechless panic, the cups shaking in the little hand, and the overflowing teapot filled too full from the urn.'”

Nevertheless, later in the same novel, we see how much Caroline, by which we can read Anne, was loved and respected by her pupils when they keep her company and treat her with kindness at a May Day gathering:

“Miss Helstone knew these girls liked her, yet she was shy even with them out of school… They did not take advantage of it… They stood round her still, civil, friendly, receiving her slight smiles and rather hurried efforts to converse with a good feeling and a good breeding – the last quality being the result of the first – which soon set her at her ease.”

We also have the testimony of some of Anne’s former pupils at the Haworth school itself. One young boy by the name of Binns later recalled that he liked Anne best of all the teachers because she ‘looked the nicest and most serious like’.

Anne was also a very popular teacher with the upper class Robinson children in later life, as shown by them gifting her Flossy the spaniel, and their correspondence with her and a visit to Anne in Haworth after she had finished her role as governess at Thorp Green Hall.

Despite her natural timidity Anne succeeded as a teacher, whether at Sunday school or as a private governess, because of her determination, her intellect, and above all her kindness which although hidden behind a veil of seriousness and propriety invariably led to people liking her. This is characteristic of Anne’s life as a whole: she would not allow her shyness to stop her achieving what she wanted to achieve; she would struggle against it, and eventually she would overcome.

What became of the school itself? If you’ve been lucky enough to visit the Brontë  Parsonage Museum in Haworth then you’re sure to have seen it: it’s the low, long building at a right angle to the Parsonage itself – that’s it at the top of this post. Now under new management and called ‘The Old School Rooms’, it is used for functions and events throughout the year. This is not a new role for the building, as it was after all the venue for Charlotte’s wedding reception in 1854.

Anne Bronte plaque Haworth old school rooms
Anne Bronte plaque at the Haworth old school rooms

I was pleased to see that Anne isn’t forgotten inside the school. On a wall is this beautifully hand crafted and painted wooden plaque, containing words from Anne’s poem of faith ‘The Narrow Way’, itself often used as a hymn today. A fitting and lasting tribute to the woman who went from being a shy young girl to a popular and well respected Sunday school teacher. If you’re thinking of buying a present for your child’s teacher this summer, then I can think of a perfect gift: ‘Agnes Grey’ by our dear Anne Brontë .

The Brontës And The Cornwall Connection

As a man of Yorkshire myself I couldn’t be prouder that my home county gave birth to three of the greatest writers of all time – Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. There was another county, however, that can also be proud of their Brontë connections, and its as far from Yorkshire as its possible to get in England: Cornwall. (By the way, I should say at this point that the wonderful map above is courtesy of Cornwall 365, with illustrations by Keith Sparrow).

In many ways the Cornish landscape is similar to the Yorkshire the Brontës knew, with the West Penwith moors mirroring the moors of the West Riding, but that, a rich history and a rugged coastline is not all the counties have in common as the Brontë sisters’ roots are in west Cornwall, and without two special women of Penzance there would be no Brontë books to read.

Penzance in the 19th century
Penzance in the 19th century

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were born not in Haworth, but in Thornton, a village on the outskirts of Bradford in West Yorkshire. In April 1820, when Anne was just four months old, the family moved to a new home in Haworth, a place where magic and history was made. Their father, Reverend Patrick Brontë, was a Church of England minister who had become Haworth’s parish priest, a post he held for the next 40 years. Originally from County Down, it was while he was acting as an examiner at a Leeds school that he met another solitary heart a long way from home – Maria Branwell. Maria had made the arduous journey from Penzance to Yorkshire in 1812 to work for her uncle and aunt John and Jane Fennell who ran Woodhouse Grove School. It was at love at first sight when Maria and Patrick met and they married in December 1812.

Things looked rosy for the Brontë family when they arrived in Haworth in 1820, but the following year Maria Brontë was dead after months of agony. Her last words were said to be ‘Oh, my poor children!’, and the person she said them to was one who would sacrifice everything to become a second mother to the Brontës: Elizabeth Branwell.

Maria and Elizabeth were sisters, two of eleven children of Thomas and Anne Branwell, not all of whom survived childhood. Thomas Branwell came from a successful Penzance family of merchants. As well as being a tea merchant, he ran a grocer’s shop and owned a number of properties across the town, including the Golden Lion Inn and Tremenheere House. He also served as a councillor and his son Benjamin Carne Branwell, brother to Maria and Elizabeth, served as Mayor of Penzance in 1809.

The Branwell House in Penzance, Cornwall
The Branwell House in Penzance, Cornwall

Thomas and Anne died suddenly within a year of each other in 1810 and 1811, and it was this that precipitated the break up of the Branwell family and led Maria to seek employment in Yorkshire. Elizabeth remained in Penzance, living with her sister Charlotte and brother-in-law Joseph, but in 1821 when she heard of the severity of Maria’s sickness she knew her place was at her side.

Elizabeth nursed Maria until her death, and then made the life changing decision to remain in Haworth and raise her sister’s children alongside Patrick. Elizabeth, forever known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontës, was 45 when she arrived in Haworth, and she would never see Cornwall again.

It was a huge move, as she was swapping a comfortable existence in Penzance, and any lingering hope she had of finding a husband, for an uncertain life in Haworth surrounded by people whose accents were unintelligible and amidst a climate she found intolerable. Nevertheless she endured, and became a second mother to the children.

Her influence can clearly be seen on the Brontë’s works and lives. Aunt Branwell encouraged them to read and bought them books, later she paid for Charlotte and Emily to attend school in Brussels, and after her death in 1842 it was her legacy that paid for the first Brontë appearance in print. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was a collection of poetry under the pen names used by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. They had to pay £31 (a substantial sum then) to have the book published, but the funds came from Elizabeth Branwell’s will. It was a smart move, as the poetry led to the novels so loved today.

Aunt Branwell made more than a financial contribution to their lives, she gave the Brontë children the spirit and self-belief that enabled their incredible creativity. Perhaps the most touching tribute to her after her death came from an unlikely source – her nephew Branwell, who wrote:

I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

Aunt Branwell silhouette
The only portrait of Aunt Branwell – a tiny silhouette

Elizabeth was intensely proud of Cornwall, and Ellen Nussey recalled how she often regaled her nephew and nieces with tales of her old county – and echoes of these too can be found in the Brontë novels. The Brontë sisters were very aware of their Cornish roots, as seen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; the hero Markham is casually looking over his love’s book collection when his eye is caught by a particular volume:

I took it up. It was Sir Humphrey Davy’s ‘Last days of a Philosopher.’”

Why did Anne Brontë choose to name this particular book? Humphrey Davy, as Anne knew, was from Penzance. She was paying a tribute to Davy, and by extension a tribute to the town of Penzance that had given her two mothers.

I’m incredibly excited to be making my own Brontë pilgrimage to Penzance next week, reversing the route taken by Maria and Elizabeth two centuries earlier. I’m proud to have been asked to do a talk on Anne Brontë and her family at the Penzance Literary Festival next Thursday 6th July at 1pm. at St. John’s Hall. It would be lovely to see some of you there, and you can buy tickets here: http://www.crbo.co.uk/eventDetail.php?evGrp=125&evId=14791

In Cornwall I’ll be walking golden sands, eating a cornish cream tea and maybe a pasty or two, and having a drink in the historical smuggler’s inn The Admiral Benbow, but of course I’ll also be visiting 25 Market Street, Penzance,which bears a plaque announcing: ‘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

The Marriage of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls

163 years ago to this day a happy event was taking place at St. Michael and All Angels’ church in Haworth -the marriage of Charlotte Brontë to the church’s assistant curate Arthur Bell Nicholls. It almost seems like I can picture that event of Thursday 29th June 1854, but that’s because I was lucky enough to be present at a re-enactment of the wedding carried out at the same location two years ago. It was being filmed as part of a two part BBC documentary, and it was a rather wet, yet magical, day that will live long in my memory.

Whilst the re-enactment of the wedding was great fun, and the actress playing Charlotte (the talented Sophie Trott) captured her look and spirit perfectly, just what do we know about the marriage and the events leading up to it? Let’s also ask another marriage related question – if she had lived longer would Anne Brontë herself have married?

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet
This is Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

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”.

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.

Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls
Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls, the happy couple

The wedding took place at eight o’clock in the morning, and one important man was not to be there. At the last moment Patrick said that he felt too ill to attend, although of course 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 conducting the ceremony.

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 31st 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.

It will remain one of the Bronte mysteries that keep us all so enthralled by this incredible family of geniuses. Watching ‘Charlotte’, ‘Arthur’ and their wedding party leave the church, as I did in 2015, was like stepping back into the mid 19th century, and the BBC kindly gave us these wonderful confetti cones to throw:

A happy reminder of Charlotte Bronte’s big day

On this day we should remember the happy moments the Bronte sisters enjoyed, after all it wasn’t all doom and gloom at that famous moorside parsonage.

Branwell Brontë: 200 Today

The years 2016 to 2020 are a four year ‘Brontë 200’ period that marks the 200th anniversaries of the births of all the writing Brontë children, with dear Anne being celebrated in the last year of the cycle. Today sees Branwell Brontë take centre stage, as on 26th June 2017 he was born to Patrick and Maria Brontë in the parsonage on Market Street, Thornton.

His birth would undoubtedly have been seen as a blessing, being the first son after three daughters (in order of birth Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte). Here at last was the child who would become the man to take the Brontë name forward into the world. He would also be expected to be a breadwinner and to be able to support his sisters if they should fail to marry or if his father became ill or worse. It didn’t work out like that.

Branwell Bronte, self portrait
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

Branwell Brontë certainly divides opinions today. Some see him as a talented writer in his own right, unfairly overshadowed by his sisters, whereas others see him as the devil incarnate – but the truth is that he was neither of these things. To find the true Branwell we have to take a more nuanced look at this very complex, very troubled man.

Let us turn first to Branwell as a writer. He was the first Brontë to appear in print, under the pseudonym of Northangerland, a character from the imaginary land of Angria that he created with Charlotte, but while his poems have a charm and an intelligence they don’t match the poetic creations of Anne, and fall far behind the poetry of genius crafted by Emily. The worst calumny is that some people still think that Branwell Brontë wrote some or all of ‘Wuthering Heights‘. This theory gained popularity in Victorian times because some people had difficulty believing a reclusive parson’s daughter could have written a work of such brutality, power and brilliance, but surely we’ve moved on from that now? Branwell was already a hopeless case by the time of the novel’s creation, and his talent never approached the level of the writer of ‘Wuthering Heights’. This claim was summed up by the 1929 Brontë biographer Kaye Sugden as follows:

‘[Francis Leyland’s 19th century biography of Branwell] attempts to maintain that his achievements as an author were such that he might easily have written all, or at least a part, of ‘Wuthering Heights’. We know, of course, for a fact that he did nothing of the sort; but even if we did not, the productions which Mr. Leyland prints in wearisome profusion are almost without exception so mediocre that we are quite convinced of his incapability… He was no genius, and all his sisters’ fame will never make him one.’

Branwell Brontë certainly was no genius, and yet today he is frequently treated as though he is the equal of his sisters. This does not mean that he should be overlooked, however, and he was a man with great potential. I’m a fan of his paintings, although I know that some are less so, and feel that he could have made a success of life as a portrait painter if he had endured, but it was this quality that he severely lacked. Both Emily and Anne were models of patience and endurance, but they had taken their brothers share. When problems occurred, Branwell would flee from them – as we see from his record in adult life: he failed possibly to even turn up at the Royal Academy, where his father expected him to study art; he abandoned his role as a portrait painter in Bradford after a year, having run up debts and gained few commissions; he began a short lived job as a tutor with a mammoth drinking session in Kendal; his promising and well paid job as a railway clerk was ended when he failed to watch a subordinate who stole money, having instead spent his days drinking, sketching and writing.

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown

Most disastrous of all, of course, was his stint as a governor to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, a post that Anne had obtained for him, an action she would come to regret. The story is well known of how Branwell fell in love with Mrs Lydia Robinson, but did she love him back? It’s entirely possible as at this time he could be exquisitely charming, and Charlotte admitted that he had fair looks that had eluded his sisters.

Branwell was dismissed in disgrace, and he later learned that whilst his beloved Lydia’s husband had died, the terms of the will forbid him to make contact with Lydia. This was a lie of course, but Branwell was so unworldly-wise that he believed it just as much as he initially believed that he had a chance of marrying the widow Robinson. Branwell was already a heavy drinker and this mortal blow accelerated his descent into an alcohol-fuel hell, he also turned increasingly to opium that he bought from the nearby apothecary.

Branwell did not always drink simply because he could not afford it (which is why he often chose opium which was cheaper and left no trace on the breath), but when he did there should be no doubt that he drank to a terrifying excess. Towards the end of his life we hear of him collapsing in a fit on the floor or public houses, a sure sign of delirium tremens. He also suffered from the haunting visions that come with DT; on one of the last days of his life he met his friend Francis Grundy at the Black Bull Inn. Grundy reported his horrifying appearance, with wild unkempt hair and constantly quivering lips; he also wrote of how Branwell produced a knife from his sleeve – he had thought Grundy was the devil and was going to kill him.

Jacob's Dream Branwell Bronte
Jacob’s Dream by Branwell Bronte

Branwell was incredibly disruptive to his family at this time, as on the occasion when he fell asleep while trying to read by candle light; Anne discovered his room on fire, and the strong Emily had to carry him from his bed as they threw water to put the flames out – an episode that Charlotte would later recreate in ‘Jane Eyre‘ of course. His father Patrick, by then ageing and half-blind, insisted that Branwell share a bedroom with himself for his own safety. It was an act of bravery, as Branwell often cried out that in the morning at least one of them would be dead.

It is even more incredible that the Brontë sisters managed to create their great work in what must have been a terribly strained environment. Nevertheless, we should not condemn Branwell out of hand: he was not a bad man at heart, he was a troubled man who had fallen victim to an addiction and could find no way out. In a sad letter to his great friend J.B. Leyland he reveals not only his love and respect for his father but his despair at his own life:

‘I know only that it is time for me to be something when I am nothing. That my father cannot have long to live, and that when he dies my evening, which is already twilight, will become night – that I shall have then a constitution still so strong that it will keep me years in torture and despair when I should every hour pray that I might die.’

A year after writing this letter Branwell was dead. A major cause of Branwell’s despair was of course his thwarted love for Mrs Robinson, a love that fuelled the sense of injustice that readily burned within him. The real root of his problems, however, go back much further – the loss of his mother when he was an infant and then of his eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth when he was a child caused him great damage. It led to lifelong depression for both Branwell and Charlotte, but in the brother and sister who were once inseparable it took on different appearances. He received a further blow in 1842 with the loss of Aunt Elizabeth Branwell. She could be both stern and kind, but she had shown him love when he needed it and had helped to curb his wildest excesses. He revealed his love for his Aunt in two anguished letters:

‘I am attending at the death-bed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours… I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

No, we should not judge Branwell; we would not want to walk a mile in his shoes. Rather today let’s look at the good things he did. It was he who led the childhood walks across the moors and started a lifelong obsession for Emily and Anne; it was he who painted the only portrait of the three Brontë sisters together; it was he who drew drawings of castles and rustic scenes to please his little sister Anne; it was the sharing of his toy soldiers that led to the Brontë children creating their first stories, and it was he who took charge of the writing of their first little books: entitled ‘Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine’. It has to be said that without Branwell there would probably be no Brontë books at all.

Bronte sisters portrait
(R-L) Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë by Patrick Branwell Brontë, 1834

Grundy’s aforementioned views on Branwell and Wuthering Heights cannot be allowed, yet his final judgement on his former friend is a very fair one:

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

Let us remember what he could have been on this day. He was an essential part of the Brontë story, if not altogether good he was not bad. Let’s raise a glass (he’d like that) and say ‘Happy 200th birthday, Branwell Brontë!’

The Brontës and the Taylors of Gomersal

Anne Brontë spent much of her life at the famous Parsonage in Haworth, although it should be pointed out of course that she spent nearly six years in total as a governess, meaning she held down a job in the ‘real world’ for far longer than any of her siblings. When in residence at the parsonage she would have met visitors, one of the most frequent being Charlotte Bronte’s great friend Ellen Nussey who would stay for days or weeks at a time. Another visitor who would have met Anne is Charlotte’s other lifelong friend Mary Taylor – and she and Ellen were very different people.

Ellen Nussey was a kind, loving and pious woman who saw tragedies in her own family that mirrored that of the Brontës. Mary Taylor was a fiercely independent woman, full of opinions, and a woman who refused to be bound by the constricting norms of nineteenth century society.

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor in old age, she was described as being beautiful when young

Mary, like Ellen, was born in Birstall in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but the Taylor family moved to the imposing Red House in nearby Gomersal (that’s it at the top of this post). Until recently the Red House was a fabulous museum run by knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers, but alas it was closed by the philistine Kirklees Council in a cost cutting measure. Hopefully it will one day open its doors to the public again but as it’s up for sale its future looks far from certain.

The Taylor family were very successful cloth merchants, and a measure of their wealth is that they had their own bank adjacent to the Red House. They made their wealth from producing the material that was used to make the red uniforms for the British army. The economic situation in the country was very volatile, however, and by the late 1830s the Taylors were on the verge of bankruptcy, especially as a period of peace in Europe was doing little for the trade in military uniforms. By the time of Joshua Taylor’s sudden death in 1840 however the family fortunes had revived a little, although he still left large debts.

Red House bedroom
A bedroom in the former Red House museum

The Taylor family as a whole left such an impression on Charlotte that she recreated them as the unconventional Yorke family in her second novel ‘Shirley’, with Mary as Rose Yorke and her sister Martha as tragic little Jessie Yorke.

Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey were a year younger than Charlotte and met her at Roe Head School, Mirfield, forging relationships that would last a lifetime. It was Mary who gave a memorable description of her first impressions of the young Charlotte:

‘She looked a little, old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.’

You might think that was a sorry start to a relationship, but they were soon firm friends, and it was that which brought her into contact with Anne. We know that Charlotte often visited Mary at the Red House, but could Anne Brontë have done so as well? It was, after all, only a relatively short journey from the Roe Head school that Anne attended as a pupil whilst her sister Charlotte was a teacher there. There’s no record of such a visit, but Anne is likely to have met Mary Taylor on one of her sojourns to the Haworth Parsonage. On one such visit, in June 1840, we hear about Mary playing chess against William Weightman, and also that her behaviour during the visit was sometimes ‘mad’. She was certainly not a run-of-the-mill Victorian lady.

The fiscal uncertainty that engulfed her family helped to make Mary a very self-sufficient woman. She was sent to Brussels to study along with her sister Martha, and it was her letters to Haworth that encouraged Charlotte and Emily Brontë to join her there (Anne was left out of the adventure, being ensconced in Thorp Green Hall at the time as governess to the Robinson family). Whilst the Taylors were at the exclusive Chateau de Koekelburg school, Charlotte and Emily had to settle for the respectable, yet cheaper, Pensionnat Heger. Nevertheless the Brontës would make frequent journeys to see the Taylors, until tragedy struck as we shall see later.

Red House main bedroom
The Red House main bedroom when it was open to the public

Travel was in Mary Taylor’s blood. In 1845 she emigrated to New Zealand, leaving a woeful Charlotte saying, ‘to me it is something as if a great planet has fallen out of the sky’. She later sent her friend a gift of £10 to buy a cow.

In Wellington, Mary Taylor founded a shop and then a wool trading business. It was very successful, but in 1860 she returned to England and Gomersal. In later life, Mary often travelled to Switzerland, and contributed articles to journals and newspapers, often with a stridently feminist bent. In 1890 she published her only novel ‘Miss Miles, or a Tale of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago’. It is a neglected book, but you can still find copies online and it’s well worth a read as it paints a picture of the world that Charlotte and Mary, and therefore Anne and Emily as well, knew during their formative years.

Mary Taylor died in 1893 aged 76. She is buried in St. Mary’s Church, Gomersal. Below her monument lies a tribute to Martha Taylor. She died suddenly in Brussels aged 22, and it was a huge blow to Mary and to Charlotte who held strong feelings for her. Some have hinted that a love relationship may have formed between Charlotte and Martha, but this is something we will never know – and even great writers have to be allowed their secrets. All we do know is that it left Charlotte devastated, and is an event referred to in three of her novels. She pays a particularly poignant tribute to Jessie York (who is of course Martha Taylor) in chapter nine of ‘Shirley’:

‘Do you know this place? No, you never saw it; but you recognise the nature of the trees, this foliage – the cypress, the willow, the yew. Stone crosses like these are not unfamiliar to you, nor are these dim garlands of everlasting flowers. Here is the place – green sod and a gray marble headstone. Jessy sleeps below. She lived through an April day; much loved she was, much loving. She often, in her brief life, shed tears, she had frequent sorrows; she smiled between, gladdening whatever saw her… The dying and the watching English girls were at that hour alone in a foreign country, and the soil of that country gave Jessy a grave.’

The fact that Martha remained on Charlotte’s mind can be seen in that Charlotte remembers this scene, one she had seen played out for real in Brussels seven years before writing ‘Shirley’, once again in chapter 23. We can also see that Charlotte is distracted because she now spells the name ‘Jessie’ rather than ‘Jessy’ as earlier in the novel. It is a vision she could never eradicate:

‘Certain people who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new-made in a heretic cemetery, sat near a wood-fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling; and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; Life and Friendship yet blessed them; but Jessie lay cold, confined, solitary – only the sod screening her from the storm.’

Taylor grave, Gomersal
The Taylor grave, Gomersal

The Belgian graveyard that Martha Taylor was buried in has been dug up and built upon. Now all that is left is a stone beneath Mary’s memorial in Gomersal, reading: ‘Martha Taylor sister of Mary. 1819-1842. Buried in Brussels. Much loved she was, much loving. C. Brontë’

The Taylors made a huge impact on Charlotte Brontë, and were also known to Emily and Anne, but tomorrow in a special post we will look at someone who perhaps had the greatest impact of them all, for good and ill, as we wish a happy 200th birthday to Branwell Brontë.

Brontë Treasures In The Ellen Nussey Archive

Leeds is a large, vibrant city just 20 miles to the east of Haworth. It is home to some exceptional bars and restaurants, the world famous Leeds United football team, and Victorian shopping arcades nestling near modern malls. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in the north of England, and this week I visited Leeds University’s Brotherton Library where I found some real Brontë treasure.

The Brotherton Library Special Collections room houses many old and valuable manuscripts, but there was one set in particular I was looking for: referenced ‘BC MS 19thC Brontë/07’ it is the Ellen Nussey archives. Collated inside the pages of a leather bound book are hand written letters and extracts written by Charlotte Brontë’s best friend Ellen Nussey, and they give startling insights into the Brontë sisters as a whole.

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey in old age, painted by Frederic Yates

We have Ellen to thank for much of what we know about the Brontës, thanks to the hundreds of letters from Charlotte that she kept, as well as the reminiscences that she shared with early biographers including Elizabeth Gaskell and Clement King Shorter. The Brotherton archive, however, expands upon much of the information the biographers used, giving us a sometimes very different view on Anne, Emily and Charlotte. For example we find that Emily had a wicked sense of humour, Charlotte was terrified of wild animals, and Anne made a very close friend at school. Here are some extracts:

On Charlotte Bronte’s love for Constantin Heger:

‘M. Heger wasn’t proud of having made this involuntary conquest.’

On Anne Bronte’s close friendship with Ann Cook:

‘I enclose also a notice [in a letter sent to Elizabeth Gaskell] which dear C. made in a letter on the death of a young lady who was a pupil at the time Anne Brontë was at school, a pupil who attached herself to Anne B. and Anne bestowed upon her a great deal of quiet affection and genial notice. I think the young ladies friends would most probably be gratified if dear C.’s comments on her decease were inserted. They are monied and influential people in the neighbourhood, some of them not very friendly to Currer Bell‘s emanations. Would they not be won by her kindly thought of one of their own?’

On Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrait of Patrick:

‘The anecdote of the little coloured shoes produced a mental sting that no time would obliterate and I felt that all commonplace readers would fail to see the Spartan nature of the act unless you pointed it out to them, and I was intending to ask you to make very clear and distinct comments on Mr. B’s character – I do not wish anything you have said suppressed, only I think your readers will have to be taught to think kindly of Mr. B’

On Emily’s treatment of guests, and her peculiarities:

‘It used to be a matter of surprise to Charlotte that she [Emily] made an exception in my favour – she used to wish for my visits and was always kind and polite in her behaviour which was not often the case to other guests. Charlotte said she liked me because I never seemed to mark her peculiarities and I never pained her by treating her as a peculiar person.’

Ellen Nussey's account of Emily & Anne Bronte
Ellen Nussey’s account of Emily & Anne Bronte

On Anne and Emily’s love for each other:

‘She and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’

On Keeper’s sadness:

Poor old Keeper! Emily’s faithful friend and worshipper – he seemed to understand her like a human being… Keeper was a solemn mourner at Emily’s funeral and never recovered his cheerfulness.’

On Emily’s sense of humour, and teasing of Charlotte:

‘She [Emily] could be really vivacious in conversation… feeling pleasure in giving pleasure. A spell of mischief also lurked in her on occasions, when out on the moors – she enjoyed leading Charlotte where she would not dare to go of her own free will. C. had a mortal dread of unknown animals and it was Emily’s pleasure to lead her into close vicinity and then to tell her of what she had done, laughing at her horror with great amusement.’

Vivacious Emily with a sense of mischief
Vivacious Emily with a sense of mischief

I was visiting the archive not only as a Brontë lover, but also as part of research into my biography of Emily, ‘Emily Brontë: A Life in 20 Poems’ that will be published by The History Press in 2018. It is moments like this that make all the work worthwhile. I found the archive exhilarating, but often sad and mournful too. Perhaps the saddest letter of all was one to Elizabeth Gaskell, after a proof copy of her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë’ had been sent to Patrick Brontë and Charlotte’s widow Arthur Bell Nicholls. They believed, wrongly of course, that Ellen had been responsible for unfavourable comments about them in the book. Here, Ellen pleads with Mrs Gaskell to clear her name:

Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell
Ellen Nussey’s plea to Elizabeth Gaskell

There is further rare and wonderful Brontë related material in the beautiful Brotherton Library (that’s it at the top of this post) as well; it’s open to the public and free to use, although you do have to tell them what you want to see at least two days in advance. I heartily recommend it to you all, and I came away knowing more about Anne, Emily and Charlotte, and once more filled with admiration for the kind Ellen Nussey.

The Brontës and the Haworth Music Scene

We know the Brontës as a brilliant writing family, and one who loved nothing more than reading novels or books of poetry or composing their own. Whilst that much is certainly true, we should not forget the joy that Anne Brontë and her siblings got from another of the great arts: music.

Branwell was the first of the children to show a musical bent, as we know that he became a proficient flute player at an early age. In late 1833 or early 1844 Haworth parsonage gained a new arrival that would transform the daily lives of its inhabitants: an upright cabinet piano.

Bronte piano
The Bronte piano in the Haworth parsonage

The piano, originally sold by Green’s of Soho Square, London, was second hand and very much an economy model, but it was still a significant purchase for a man of Patrick Brontë’s often strained means so it’s likely that he received some financial assistance in the purchase from his childrens’ godparents such as Mrs Firth, and Mrs Francks and Miss Outhwaite.

Patrick knew it was a gift his children would love, but also that it had a practical value. An ability to play and therefore teach music was a valued skill for a future governess, the likely career of his daughters, to have. There was also another reason, as a letter that Patrick sent to many of his parishioners in September 1833 revealed:

I have spoken to several people concerning the organ. All seem desirous of having one if the money can be procured. Miss Branwell says she will subscribe five pounds, and some others have promised to give liberally. Mr Sunderland, the Keighley organist, says he will give his services gratis on the day of the opening of the organ, and, in general, the real friends of the church are desirous of having one. A player can also be readily procured.’

Patrick had sent up a fund to buy a grand organ for his church. On 23rd March 1834 it was unveiled alongside a spectacular production of Handel’s suitably themed oratorio ‘Messiah’. The children must have been spellbound at this performance, but it was soon to be their brother playing that self same organ. When Patrick had said that ‘a player can readily be procured’ he had his own son in mind.

The Keighley organist Sunderland was hired to teach Branwell the organ and piano, but Emily and Anne were soon added to the lessons too, with extra lessons provided by a local teacher named William Summerscale. Whilst Branwell proved to be proficient at the keyboard, and did indeed fulfill the role of church organist for a number of years, the enthusiasm of his younger sisters meant that Emily and Anne soon surpassed him in ability. Alas, Charlotte’s poor eyesight meant that she was not allowed to take music lessons for fear that reading the music would strain her eyes.

Ellen Nussey gave a first hand account of listening to music from the sisters:

‘Emily, after some application, played with precision and brilliancy. Anne played also, but she preferred soft harmonies and vocal music. She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.’

We still have much of the sheet music bought by Emily and Anne, and it is a prodigious collection. Much of it is copied out in the sisters’ own handwriting, or with fingering marks added to the scores to guide their hands when playing (the image at the top of this post is ‘Auld Lang Syne’ copied by Anne into one of her music books.) From these we can see that Anne loved light, melodic pieces and comic operas by the likes of Rossini and Mozart, whereas Emily preferred complex pieces by Beethoven, Liszt, Dussek and Clementi.

We know that Anne saw a performance of Rossini’s brilliant opera The Barber of Seville when she went to London with Charlotte Brontë in the summer of 1848, an evening that she surely treasured. Emily may have bettered this by meeting one of her musical heroes in person: Franz Liszt gave a concert in Halifax, eight miles from Haworth and a place Emily knew well from her time as a teacher, in 1841, and he also conducted a concert in Brussels during the time she was there.

Franz Liszt
Franz Liszt

The Brontës didn’t always have to travel far, however, to hear beautiful music, as Haworth itself was a hotbed of musical perfomance. Their father’s church sometimes held musical concerts, such as one particularly grand event on 20th July 1846 featuring celebrated tenors. It was covered by the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper who reported that the church was ‘crowded to suffocation’, and also that taking pride of place in the church was the organiser, the Reverend Patrick Brontë who it noted was ‘now totally blind.’

This grand yet sacred music would have been a delight to Anne, but she and her siblings may have loved the secular music that was also frequently available in their village even more. The Haworth Philharmonic Society was formed in the 18th century and it gave a spectacular concert every year, as well as smaller events on occasion. These concerts were held in the function room of the Black Bull Inn, and it is a time when the girls would have been allowed into the public house chaperoned by their Aunt Branwell (Patrick was a man of habit and always insisted on leaving at nine o’clock which was when he retired to bed).

These concerts were loud, raucous and full of fun as this report of the 1834 annual concert in the Bradford Observer shows:

‘The Philharmonic Society in this place, held a concert in the Large Room of the Black Bull Inn, on Tuesday evening, April 1st. The songs, catches, and glees were well selected. Miss Parker sung with much sweetness, and was highly applauded. Mr. Parker was in fine voice, and sang with his usual effect. Mr. Clark sung several comic songs with much taste, and was often encored, particularly in the song of “Miss Levi,” which kept the audience in continual laughter. The concert was very numerously and respectably attended, and the company went away highly gratified.’

Black Bull Kate Bush
The Black Bull still has live music; I saw a Kate Bush tribute sing Wuthering Heights there!

It is pleasing to think of this as a joyous family event: Patrick and Aunt Branwell remaining dignified, whilst Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Branwell laughed along in front of them. Music became a central delight of Anne Brontë’s life, referred to in her poetry such as ‘Music On Christmas Morning’, and she loved her music scores just as much as any teenage girl loves the latest hits today.

General Election 2017 – How Would The Brontës Have Voted?

After what seems like years of interminable campaigning, the day of the General Election has at last arrived. As I type this I don’t of course know the result, but it’s fair to say that whilst Theresa May is still hot favourite to remain in number ten, a buoyed Jeremy Corbyn has been seen taking measurements for a new red carpet. There have been many big issues, but of course the really big question is this: just who would the Brontë sisters have voted for?

It is commonly stated that the sisters were ‘high Tory’, but before Labour supporting Brontë fans go red in the face it’s important to remember that voters at this time had only two choices: Tory, equivalent to the modern day Conservatives, or Whig, who evolved into the current Liberal Democrats.

It’s also important of course to remember that large sections of the country were completely disenfranchised. Women over 21 wouldn’t be allowed the vote until 108 years after Anne was born. The vast majority of men, including Patrick and Branwell Brontë, were also barred from voting by the archaic system then in place. By 1832 around 1 in 1000 people had the vote in England. Cities that were growing rapidly such as Leeds and Manchester had no MPs at all while Dunwich, with a recorded population of 32, was represented by two Members of Parliament.

This was a source of great unrest, with the Chartist movement calling for large scale reforms, including votes for men. The area around Haworth was said to be a hotbed of Chartist activity, with the threat of a violent uprising hanging in the air. This was an inspiration for Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, as well as a reason that Patrick slept with loaded pistols by his bed every night.

female chartists
A contemporary cartoon on female chartists

Although they couldn’t vote, the Brontës were firm supporters of the Tory cause. Patrick had been at University with Henry Temple, later Lord Palmerston. Palmerston was a Tory grandee and would serve twice as Prime Minister, although he later became a Liberal. The undoubted hero of the family was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. He was not only a famous war veteran, he was also a Tory politician who would serve as Prime Minister.

The children took a keen personal interest in politics, and would gain a real grasp of the issues of the day from the newspapers and periodicals that they read. Charlotte described them thus: ‘Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper the Leeds Intelligencer – a most excellent Tory newspaper edited by Mr Wood the proprietor Mr Hennaman. We take 2 and see 3 Newspapers as such we take the Leeds Intelligencer Tory and the Leeds Mercury Whig Edited by Mr Bains and his Brother Soninlaw and his two sons Edward and Talbot – we see the John Bull it is a High Tory very violent’.

Her friend Mary Taylor of the Red House at Gomersal was later to reveal how interested Charlotte was in politics: “We used to be furious politicians, as one could hardly help being in 1832. She [Charlotte] knew the names of the two Ministries; the one that resigned and the one that succeeded and passed the Reform Bill. She worshipped the Duke of Wellington, but said that Sir Robert Peel was not to be trusted; he did not act from principle like the rest, but from expediency… She said she had taken an interest in politics ever since she was five years old. She did not get her opinions from her father – that is, not directly, but from the papers he preferred.”

The Reform Act of 1832 led to some major cities including Leeds getting their own MP. Emily and Anne’s jointly written diary paper of 1834 reveals their excitement that Sir Robert Peel had been chosen to stand as MP for nearby Leeds:

‘Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to stand for Leeds’

We can only imagine what Charlotte thought of that!

If Anne Brontë was alive today, would she have voted Conservative? It’s an intriguing question, and one that’s impossible to answer, but we can look at what would have been important to her and draw our own conclusions. Anne, following the example of her father, was very keen on the power of education to improve people’s lives. She took a keen interest in the conditions of the poor. She cared greatly about animals and animal welfare, and it’s safe to assume that she would also have been passionate about modern environmental concerns. It seems fair to wonder whether Anne’s political persuasions today would be of the red, or even green, variety rather than blue.

There’s another option at this election that Anne Brontë and her siblings may have found intriguing: there’s now a Yorkshire Party. The central tenet of its manifesto is that Yorkshire should have a devolved parliament similar to that in Scotland and Wales (both of which have smaller populations than Yorkshire). Unfortunately there is no mention of them making it compulsory to read Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in schools, but maybe that will make it into their next manifesto!

Vote Bronte

Whatever the outcome of the General Election, it always makes sense to vote Brontë when you’re choosing a new book to read – they’re a strong and stable reading choice, and they certainly provide entertainment for the many, not the few.