Elizabeth Gaskell In Haworth And On Haworth

This year has been a strange one in many ways, and one result is that not as many people have been able to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth as in previous years. Whenever we visit however it still thrills the soul; we can almost step back in time and imagine what these same cobbled streets would have seen at the time that the Brontës lived in Haworth. If we could have stepped back to this week 167 years ago we would have seen a very special visitor climb out of a carriage at Main Street’s summit, for it was in this week in 1853 that Elizabeth Gaskell began a six day visit to her friend Charlotte Brontë. In today’s Brontë blog post we’re going to look at Elizabeth Gaskell in Haworth, and at what she thought of the people who lived there.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte was a great fan of Elizabeth’s writing even before they met in person, an event which took place in late August 1850 at Briery Close, one of the Lake District properties belonging to Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth and his wife. Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey describing her first impressions of her fellow author:

‘Fortunately there was Mrs. Gaskell (the authoress of “Mary Barton”) who came to the Briery the day after me – I was truly glad of her companionship. She is a woman of the most genuine talent – of cheerful, pleasing and cordial manners, and – I believe – of a kind and good heart.”

We have a rather more fulsome description of Charlotte’s appearance and character from Elizabeth Gaskell’s point of view after this initial meeting, thanks to two remarkable letters that Elizabeth wrote shortly after their meeting. To Catherine Winkworth she wrote:

‘She is, (as she calls herself) undeveloped; thin and more than half a head shorter than I, soft brown hair, not so dark as mine; eyes (very good and expressive looking straight & open at you) of the same colour, a reddish face; large mouth & many teeth gone; altogether plain; the forehead square, broad and rather overhanging. She has a very sweet voice, rather hesitates in choosing her expressions, but when chosen they seem without an effort, admirable and just befitting the occasion. There is nothing overstrained but perfectly simple… Such a life as Miss B.’s I never heard of before.’

Briery Close
Briery Close near Lake Windermere, where Charlotte and Elizabeth first met

To a friend and fellow writer named Charlotte Froude, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote:

‘Miss Brontë I like. Her faults are the faults of the peculiar circumstances in which she has been placed; and she possesses a charming union of simplicity and power; and a strong feeling of responsibility for the Gift, which she has given her. She is very little & very plain. Her stunted person she ascribes to the scanty supply of food she had as a growing girl, when at that school of the Daughters of the Clergy… She is truth itself – and of a very noble sterling nature, – which has never been called out by anything kind or genial… She is very silent & very shy; and when she speaks chiefly remarkable for the admirable use she makes of simple words, & the way in which she makes language express her ideas. She and I quarrelled and differed about almost every thing, – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but we like each other heartily I think & I hope we shall ripen into friends.’

These remarkable letters show a kindred spirit between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell; Elizabeth too was very forthright in her opinions, and would always be at pains to describe a person as they really were, both good and bad. From this initial encounter friendship did indeed ripen, and Charlotte visited Elizabeth in Manchester on a number of occasions after this.

By June 1853 Elizabeth Gaskell was preparing to make her first visit to Haworth, but an illness of Charlotte’s meant that it was delayed until September. Unfortunately we only have a small fragment of a letter from Charlotte to Elizabeth describing the aftermath of the visit:

‘After you left, the house felt very much as if the shutters had been suddenly closed and the blinds let down. One was sensible during the remainder of the day of a depressing silence, shadow, loss and want. However, if the going away was sad, the stay was very pleasant and did permanent good. Papa, I am sure, derived real benefit from your visit; he has been better ever since.’

We see, then, that Patrick Brontë enjoyed the company of Elizabeth Gaskell, but she seems to have been less enamoured of him, writing of him to John Forster:

‘He was very polite & agreeable to me; paying rather elaborate old-fashioned compliments, but I was sadly afraid of him in my inmost soul; for I caught a glare of his stern eyes over his spectacles at Miss Brontë once or twice which made me know my man.’

This seems a rather harsh snap judgement of Patrick. He used old-fashioned compliments because he was an old man, by then in his mid-seventies and a man very much of the eighteenth rather than nineteenth century. He ‘glared’ because he was once again nearly blind, and had trouble seeing what was in front of him. This harsh view endured in Elizabeth Gaskell’s mind and helped produce the unfair portrait of him in her later biography of Charlotte Brontë, particularly as she had by then also heard harsh words against him spoken by a still bitter Martha Wright, a servant he’d had to dismiss.

Elizabeth Gaskell's letter to John Forster
Elizabeth Gaskell’s letter to John Forster

From The Life Of Charlotte Brontë we can also discern what Elizabeth Gaskell thought about Haworth and the people who lived there:

‘For a right understanding of the life of my dear friend, Charlotte Brontë, it appears to me more necessary in her case than in most others, that the reader should be made acquainted with the peculiar forms of population and society amidst which her earliest years were passed, and from which both her own and her sisters’ first impressions of human life must have been received. I shall endeavour, therefore, before proceeding further with my work, to present some idea of the character of the people of Haworth, and the surrounding districts.

Even an inhabitant of the neighbouring county of Lancaster is struck by the peculiar force of character which the Yorkshiremen display. This makes them interesting as a race; while, at the same time, as individuals, the remarkable degree of self-sufficiency they possess gives them an air of independence rather apt to repel a stranger. I use this expression “self-sufficiency” in the largest sense. Conscious of the strong sagacity and the dogged power of will which seem almost the birthright of the natives of the West Riding, each man relies upon himself, and seeks no help at the hands of his neighbour. From rarely requiring the assistance of others, he comes to doubt the power of bestowing it: from the general success of his efforts, he grows to depend upon them, and to over-esteem his own energy and power. He belongs to that keen, yet short-sighted class, who consider suspicion of all whose honesty is not proved as a sign of wisdom. The practical qualities of a man are held in great respect; but the want of faith in strangers and untried modes of action, extends itself even to the manner in which the virtues are regarded; and if they produce no immediate and tangible result, they are rather put aside as unfit for this busy, striving world; especially if they are more of a passive than an active character. The affections are strong and their foundations lie deep: but they are not – such affections seldom are – wide-spreading; nor do they show themselves on the surface. Indeed, there is little display of any of the amenities of life among this wild, rough population. Their accost is curt; their accent and tone of speech blunt and harsh. Something of this may, probably, be attributed to the freedom of mountain air and of isolated hill-side life; something be derived from their rough Norse ancestry. They have a quick perception of character, and a keen sense of humour; the dwellers among them must be prepared for certain uncomplimentary, though most likely true, observations, pithily expressed. Their feelings are not easily roused, but their duration is lasting. Hence there is much close friendship and faithful service; and for a correct exemplification of the form in which the latter frequently appears, I need only refer the reader of “Wuthering Heights” to the character of “Joseph.”

Haworth Parsonage

From the same cause come also enduring grudges, in some cases amounting to hatred, which occasionally has been bequeathed from generation to generation. I remember Miss Brontë once telling me that it was a saying round about Haworth, “Keep a stone in thy pocket seven year; turn it, and keep it seven year longer, that it may be ever ready to thine hand when thine enemy draws near.”

The West Riding men are sleuth-hounds in pursuit of money. Miss Brontë related to my husband a curious instance illustrative of this eager desire for riches. A man that she knew, who was a small manufacturer, had engaged in many local speculations which had always turned out well, and thereby rendered him a person of some wealth. He was rather past middle age, when he bethought him of insuring his life; and he had only just taken out his policy, when he fell ill of an acute disease which was certain to end fatally in a very few days. The doctor, half-hesitatingly, revealed to him his hopeless state. “By jingo!” cried he, rousing up at once into the old energy, “I shall do the insurance company! I always was a lucky fellow!”‘

These men are keen and shrewd; faithful and persevering in following out a good purpose, fell in tracking an evil one. They are not emotional; they are not easily made into either friends or enemies; but once lovers or haters, it is difficult to change their feeling. They are a powerful race both in mind and body, both for good and for evil.’

One thing for certain is that the week that Elizabeth Gaskell spent in Haworth was an important one for English literature, it cemented her friendship with Charlotte Brontë and it paved the way for her biography of the woman she had known and come to love. It’s not a flawless biography, such a book has never been written after all, but it is an essential read for it is beautifully written, and by a fellow genius who knew and understood Charlotte better than almost anyone else.

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester, often visited by Charlotte Bronte

Elizabeth Gaskell spoke and wrote with unflinching honesty and openness, just as Charlotte did, but her aim was a simple one, as she reveals at the incredibly moving close of her biography:

‘I have little more to say. If my readers find that I have not said enough, I have said too much. I cannot measure or judge a character such as hers. I cannot map out vices, and virtues, and debatable land… But I turn from the critical, unsympathetic public, – inclined to judge harshly because they have only seen superficially and not thought deeply. I appeal to that larger and more solemn public, who know how to look with tender humility at faults and errors; how to admire generously extraordinary genius, and how to reverence with warm, full hearts all noble virtue. To that Public I commit the memory of Charlotte Brontë.’

I must go now. As a man born in the West Riding of Yorkshire myself I’m off to turn the stone in my pocket. Stay safe and happy, and I will see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Old Apothecary, Laudanum And The Brontës

As I type this I’ve just returned from my favourite place on earth: Haworth, home of the Brontës (you’ll see some of the pictures I took scattered throughout this post). It’s nearly eight months since I was last there, but that octet of months has been unlike any other. Our world has changed, and some things about Haworth have changed, but I’m pleased to report that it still retains its beauty and its unique atmosphere. It might be a little quieter, there may be more social distancing, but visitors can still walk in the footsteps of the Brontës. We can follow their footsteps to the parsonage, to the church and the old school rooms, and to shops such as the old apothecary they knew, and it’s this latter shop that I’m going to look at today.

The old apothecary shop is situated at the top of Main Street, opposite the Brontë church of St. Michael and All Angels. It has undergone a number of transformations and name changes since the mid-nineteenth century, and today it is known as The Cabinet Of Curiosities. It really is a must see shop for visitors to Haworth, and inside you’ll find a wide variety of unique and fabulous items, from replica phrenology skulls and witchy items to hand crafted wax melts, bath salts and toiletries.

It is a shop at once both ancient and modern, and one which still proudly displays its Brontë heritage thanks to a long-standing plaque outside which reads: ‘When the Brontë family lived in Haworth this was the druggist’s house and shop. The pharmacist at the time was Bessy Hardacre & it was she who dispensed laudenum [sic], an opium derived drug, to Branwell Brontë in the years leading up to his death in September 1848, aged 31.’

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

For decades this sign has proudly proclaimed Betty Hardacre as the woman who ran the apothecary (an old name for a chemist’s or pharmacist’s shop) in Haworth. It is this woman whom Elizabeth Gaskell, in her biography of Charlotte Brontë, referred to as ‘s good neighbour of the Brontës – a clever, intelligent Yorkshire woman, who keeps a druggist’s shop in Haworth, and from her occupation, her experience, and excellent sense, holds the position of village doctress and nurse, and, as such, has been a friend, in many a time of trial, and sickness, and death, in the households round.’

In other books on the Brontës we find this woman referred to as Betty Hardaker. We find that she was a woman who was very respected in Haworth society, and yet her wares were instrumental in the downfall and death of Branwell Brontë. Thanks to the sign and the books, Betty Hardacre the apothecary has gone down in Haworth history, but in fact the story is completely wrong. I always advise would be biographers to delve into genealogy records and newspaper archives as a main primary source, and once again they’re very revealing. Betty Hardaker is not the apothecary living at the top of Main Street, but a woolcomber and farmer’s wife living outside of the village itself. As the census records for 1841, 1851 and 1861 show, the actual apothecary, or druggist, for Haworth was Robert Lambert, who ran his Main Street store with the help of his wife Betty. It seems then that over time the names of the two Bettys have become mixed up; the name on the plaque should be that of Robert Lambert, and it was Betty Lambert who acted as village nurse and as a confidante to Elizabeth Gaskell.

This 1851 census records shows Betty Lambert, not Hardacre, in the apothecary

Just what did the Lamberts prescribe in their old apothecary shop? Medical knowledge came on leaps and bounds in the nineteenth century, but at the time of the Brontës there were still many treatments that we would find laughable or shocking. Arsenic, for example, was freely available and was even used as an aphrodisiac or as a treatment for men with erectile dysfunction (two words I never thought I’d find myself typing in my Brontë blog). Cough medicines given to children would often contain a range of potentially hazardous ingredients, including opiates which are closely related to today’s heroin. Laudanum itself was a tincture of opium, meaning that it contained around ten percent powdered opiate dissolved in alcohol. It was extremely addictive, but also available freely without prescription from apothecaries such as the one on Haworth’s Main Street.

Laudanum was used extensively to treat a wide range of conditions, but its most common medical usage was for pain relief, to suppress coughing and to treat restlessness and insomnia. It was also used, however, for its narcotic properties, making it the drug of choice for many people right across the British Isles, and it was these properties that Branwell sought.

One of the most famous laudanum users of the nineteenth century was the author and essayist Thomas de Quincey, and he gave a frank and often harrowing account of his relation with the drug in his 1821 masterpiece Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater. De Quincey consumed a huge amount of opium and laudanum on a daily basis (whilst many opium addicts used about ten drops a day he at one point was using eight thousand drops a day), and he described the effect it had upon his sleep and dreams:

‘For this and all other changes in my dreams were accompanied by deep-seated anxiety and gloomy melancholy, such as are wholly incommunicable by words. I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever reascend. Nor did I, by waking, feel that I had reascended. This I do not dwell upon; because the state of gloom which attended these gorgeous spectacles, amounting at last to utter darkness, as of some suicidal despondency, cannot be approached by words. The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. Buildings, landscapes, &c., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay; sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.’

This powerful passage seemed to chime with one Brontë particularly – not Branwell, but Emily Brontë. The unending nightmarish dream is reminiscent of the one Lockwood experiences at Wuthering Heights, where he hears the interminable preaching of Jabes Branderham, where each sermon has 490 parts, each as long as a sermon itself. De Quincey talks about being trapped in the ‘depths below depths’ at night that he cannot reascend from, and that reminds one of Emily’s seminal poem The Night Is Darkening Round Me:

‘The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.’

De Quincey also outlined one reason that laudanum was the drug of choice for so many in the nineteenth century – it was cheap, and so it cost less to enter an oblivion through opium than it would through the purchase of alcohol.

Thomas De Quincey

The Brontës were fans of De Quincey’s work, and sent him a copy of Poems By Currer, Ellis And Acton Bell, but it could be that Emily learnt personally about the effect of laudanum and opiates by watching the impact it had on her brother Branwell or through conversations with him. We also see evidence of the knowledge of how opium works, and the effect it produced, in Charlotte’s Roe Head Journal written whilst she was a teacher in the Mirfield school run by Margaret Wooler:

‘The toil of the day, succeeded by this moment of divine leisure, had acted on me like opium & was coiling about me a disturbed but fascinating spell, such as I never felt before. What I imagined grew morbidly vivid. I remember I quite seemed to see, with my bodily eyes, a lady standing in the hall of a gentleman’s house, as if waiting for some one.’

Branwell Brontë took solace in laudanum, alcohol and opium to forget his anxieties and troubles. He had a troubled life, and yet we must also remember that he was very talented too, and could be kind and loving. Nevertheless, he would often have entered the doors of the Lambert Apothecary at the top of Main Street and purchased bottles of laudanum, as must many other Haworth locals. Thankfully, you won’t find anything like that in the Cabinet Of Curiosities today, although you can find a vast range of treasures within its mirrored and evocative interior. The wonderful television presenter Gyles Brandreth was in the shop today, along with a film crew, so it seems that the story of the Brontës, Haworth and its old apothecary is still one that fascinates us all.

Gyles Brandreth in the Cabinet Of Curiosities

Unfortunately this was rather a whistle stop tour of Haworth for me, albeit still a lovely one, so I haven’t yet been to the Anne Brontë 200 exhibition inside the parsonage itself. I will be returning in a couple of weeks, at which point I will be visiting the exhibition itself and I’ll bring you all a full report after that. In the meantime, keep happy and healthy, and remember this important slogan: Hands – put a Brontë book in your hands; Face – place it in front of your face; Space – find a quiet space to enjoy reading your Brontë book. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Bronte Parsonage museum
It was great to see the Bronte Parsonage museum open once more, I’ll be visiting again soon

September In The Writing Of The Brontës

Is it just me, or is this year, for all its strangeness and unpredictability, racing by with wicked speed? In the blink of an eye we are now in September, the start of meteorological autumn and a month when we see nature change around us. Leaves start to turn golden, then brown, and then fall; nights grow darker and longer, even sunny days, suddenly scared to walk alone as they had done throughout summer, are accompanied by a growing chill. It can also, however, be a month filled with beauty, so which aspects did the Brontës of Haworth feel most vividly? In today’s post we’re going to look at September in the writing of the Brontës.


“The examination passed over well; M. Paul was as good as his word, and did his best to make my part easy. The next day came the distribution of prizes; that also passed; the school broke up; the pupils went home, and now began the long vacation.

That vacation! Shall I ever forget it? I think not. Madame Beck went, the first day of the holidays, to join her children at the sea-side; all the three teachers had parents or friends with whom they took refuge; every professor quitted the city; some went to Paris, some to Boue-Marine; M. Paul set forth on a pilgrimage to Rome; the house was left quite empty, but for me, a servant, and a poor deformed and imbecile pupil, a sort of crétin, whom her stepmother in a distant province would not allow to return home.

My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its chords. How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless! How vast and void seemed the desolate premises! How gloomy the forsaken garden—grey now with the dust of a town summer departed. Looking forward at the commencement of those eight weeks, I hardly knew how I was to live to the end. My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me—a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green fields, no palm-tree, no well in view. The hopes which are dear to youth, which bear it up and lead it on, I knew not and dared not know. If they knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. When they turned away thus rejected, tears sad enough sometimes flowed: but it could not be helped: I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption.

Religious reader, you will preach to me a long sermon about what I have just written, and so will you, moralist: and you, stern sage: you, stoic, will frown; you, cynic, sneer; you, epicure, laugh. Well, each and all, take it your own way. I accept the sermon, frown, sneer, and laugh; perhaps you are all right: and perhaps, circumstanced like me, you would have been, like me, wrong. The first month was, indeed, a long, black, heavy month to me.”

Pensionnat Heger
The Pensionnat Heger seemed lonely and desolate to Charlotte in September 1843

Today, parents across the UK and beyond are seeing their children return to school, but in Charlotte’s day September saw the start of an eight week holiday between academic years. Lucy is left almost alone in the pensionnat, a prospect that fills her with dread, and of course we can read into this the feelings that Charlotte herself must have experienced when left alone in the Pensionnat Heger in September 1843.

Wuthering Heights

“Not to grieve a kind master, I learned to be less touchy; and, for the space of half a year, the gunpowder lay as harmless as sand, because no fire came near to explode it. Catherine had seasons of gloom and silence now and then: they were respected with sympathising silence by her husband, who ascribed them to an alteration in her constitution, produced by her perilous illness; as she was never subject to depression of spirits before. The return of sunshine was welcomed by answering sunshine from him. I believe I may assert that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness. It ended. Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering; and it ended when circumstances caused each to feel that the one’s interest was not the chief consideration in the other’s thoughts. On a mellow evening in September, I was coming from the garden with a heavy basket of apples which I had been gathering. It had got dusk, and the moon looked over the high wall of the court, causing undefined shadows to lurk in the corners of the numerous projecting portions of the building. I set my burden on the house-steps by the kitchen-door, and lingered to rest, and drew in a few more breaths of the soft, sweet air; my eyes were on the moon, and my back to the entrance, when I heard a voice behind me say,—‘Nelly, is that you?’

It was a deep voice, and foreign in tone; yet there was something in the manner of pronouncing my name which made it sound familiar. I turned about to discover who spoke, fearfully; for the doors were shut, and I had seen nobody on approaching the steps. Something stirred in the porch; and, moving nearer, I distinguished a tall man dressed in dark clothes, with dark face and hair. He leant against the side, and held his fingers on the latch as if intending to open for himself. ‘Who can it be?’ I thought. ‘Mr. Earnshaw? Oh, no! The voice has no resemblance to his.’

‘I have waited here an hour,’ he resumed, while I continued staring; ‘and the whole of that time all round has been as still as death. I dared not enter. You do not know me? Look, I’m not a stranger!’

A ray fell on his features; the cheeks were sallow, and half covered with black whiskers; the brows lowering, the eyes deep-set and singular. I remembered the eyes.

‘What!’ I cried, uncertain whether to regard him as a worldly visitor, and I raised my hands in amazement. ‘What! you come back? Is it really you? Is it?’”

Tom Hardy Heathcliff
Tom Hardy as a returning Heathcliff about to wreak havoc

Emily Brontë, more than any of her siblings, was acutely attuned to nature, and she knew how the changes of months and seasons affected all around them. September is a month of change in nature, and as humans, to Emily, are simply another part of the natural world then it must bring change to them too, as we see in this extract. Catherine and her new husband Edgar Linton have enjoyed blissful, sunny months of marriage, but as September arrives so too does a returned Heathcliff, and storm clouds will soon be gathering overhead.

Agnes Grey

“As we drove along, my spirits revived again, and I turned, with pleasure, to the contemplation of the new life upon which I was entering. But though it was not far past the middle of September, the heavy clouds and strong north-easterly wind combined to render the day extremely cold and dreary; and the journey seemed a very long one, for, as Smith observed, the roads were ‘very heavy’; and certainly, his horse was very heavy too: it crawled up the hills, and crept down them, and only condescended to shake its sides in a trot where the road was at a dead level or a very gentle slope, which was rarely the case in those rugged regions; so that it was nearly one o’clock before we reached the place of our destination. Yet, after all, when we entered the lofty iron gateway, when we drove softly up the smooth, well-rolled carriage-road, with the green lawn on each side, studded with young trees, and approached the new but stately mansion of Wellwood, rising above its mushroom poplar-groves, my heart failed me, and I wished it were a mile or two farther off. For the first time in my life I must stand alone: there was no retreating now. I must enter that house, and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants. But how was it to be done? True, I was near nineteen; but, thanks to my retired life and the protecting care of my mother and sister, I well knew that many a girl of fifteen, or under, was gifted with a more womanly address, and greater ease and self-possession, than I was. Yet, if Mrs. Bloomfield were a kind, motherly woman, I might do very well, after all; and the children, of course, I should soon be at ease with them—and Mr. Bloomfield, I hoped, I should have but little to do with.”

Blake Hall, Mirfield
Blake Hall, Mirfield is the model for Wellwood

We see here that September is used to represent change by Anne Brontë also. This is the opening of chapter two of Agnes Grey; our eponymous heroine has left her home behind and set out for Wellwood, where she will begin life as a governess to the Bloomfield family. She is full of hope, but of course we who have read the book know that those hopes will be dashed as the Bloomfields prove to be a very different family to the one Agnes had pictured. Just as in the Villette extract this is surely based on the author’s own experience, as young Anne must have been excited and hopeful en route to her first job as governess, but she too found her position with the Inghams of Blake Hall in Mirfield to be far from idyllic.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

“In September, quiet Grassdale was again alive with a party of ladies and gentlemen (so called), consisting of the same individuals as those invited the year before last, with the addition of two or three others, among whom were Mrs. Hargrave and her younger daughter. The gentlemen and Lady Lowborough were invited for the pleasure and convenience of the host; the other ladies, I suppose, for the sake of appearances, and to keep me in check, and make me discreet and civil in my demeanour. But the ladies stayed only three weeks; the gentlemen, with two exceptions, above two months: for their hospitable entertainer was loth to part with them and be left alone with his bright intellect, his stainless conscience, and his loved and loving wife.”

When Helen wed Arthur she had been looking forward to entertaining his friends and hosting grand parties, but after five years of marriage she dreads these events. September is the month when Huntingdon’s friends arrive at Grassdale, and his lover Lady Lowborough, and for Helen it is a month when new tortures begin.

There can be little doubt then that September in the writing of the Brontës represents change, and often a change from light into darkness or hope into reality. On the other hand, it’s a testing time that most of the Brontë protagonists eventually come through. Agnes finds love with Weston, Heathcliff’s villainy is eventually triumphed over by love, Helen escapes her abusive husband and finds happiness with the person she was always destined for. September was also the month when Charlotte Brontë discovered the hidden poetry of Emily Brontë, and this discovery led directly to the very first Brontë book: Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

A September discovery led to the first Bronte book

We have all been through trying times in our lives, and on a global scale especially this year, but hope and love are still triumphing up and down this land. Let us then enjoy the unique beauty that September and autumn can bring, especially if we can do so with a good book close to hand. I return to Haworth myself next week for the first time since January, so that’s certainly a September event that I’m looking forward to. Thank you for your company again, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Shirley’s Influence On North And South

This week has seen the 171st anniversary of the completion of Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, the third of her novels to be finished and the second to be published (as her first book The Professor was only released posthumously). I love Shirley because it’s a riveting read but also because it features people and places Charlotte knew, disguised under different names, so that the protagonists Shirley and Caroline are clearly inspired by Emily and Anne Brontë. I also believe that it was an influential book, and today we’re going to look at a classic Victorian novel that I feel owes a debt of gratitude to Shirley: Elizabeth Gaskell’s North And South.

We’re all Brontë lovers, so many of us may know Elizabeth best for her biography of her friend and fellow writing great The Life Of Charlotte Brontë. She was also, however the author of eight full length novels and numerous short stories, including many dealing with horror and the supernatural. Perhaps the books that Gaskell is most famous for today are Cranford, Wives And Daughters and North And South, and the Brontë influence can clearly be seen on this latter work.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Was Elizabeth Gaskell influenced by her friend Charlotte Bronte in North And South?

North And South was first published by Chapman And Hall in 1855, although its serialisation in Household Words magazine had begun in September 1854 – five years after the publication of Shirley. Household Words is famous today for serialising many of the novels of Charles Dickens prior to their appearance in book form, and indeed Dickens was also the owner and editor of the magazine. Perhaps for this reason, North And South is sometimes compared to Dickens’ Hard Times, as well as to Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, but I think Shirley was just as important in the novel’s genesis.

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

North And South centres around Margaret Hale, a nineteen year old woman who has been used to a genteel and relatively wealthy existence in the South of England. After her father, a Church of England vicar, resigns his position over a matter of conscience the Hale family are forced to give up this comfortable way of living and start a new life in Milton in the industrial county of Darkshire in the north of England.

On one level Gaskell’s novel utilises elements of Austen-like romance, but it is also a moving and brilliant portrayal of the social divide in England at that time (and which still exists, to a lesser degree today). The South is affluent, bucolic, whereas the North has nouveau riche industrialists lording it over workers who exist in extreme poverty, and for whom starvation can be a real threat. Simultaneously we see the South representing the old England, languid and stuck in its ways, whereas the North is fast moving and forward looking. It is dark and dangerous in the North, but for a select few smiled on by good fortune it can also be a land of great opportunity.

Elizabeth Gaskell knew these contrasts intimately; she herself had been born Elizabeth Stevenson in Chelsea but after a tragic change in her family circumstances she moved north to be raised by her aunt in Knutsford in Cheshire. This was an affluent little town, but Elizabeth saw the darker side of northern life after she married the Unitarian minister William Gaskell and moved to Manchester amidst the beating heart of the industrial revolution.

Gaskell tower
The Gaskell tower in Knutsford bears the title of all her books

Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley sees the titular heroine arrive in a northern mill town after coming into her inheritance, and coming into contact with the local mill owner Robert Moore and his tutor brother Louis. There are huge similarities in temperament and circumstances between Robert Moore and the mill owning John Thornton of North And South; both men seem outwardly to care purely for money and industry, paying scant regard to their workers and the appalling conditions they endure. When Thornton’s men go on strike he brings in Irish workers to take their places, whilst Robert Moore installs the latest machinery in his mill, leading to Luddite action and a pitched battle watched over by Shirley and Caroline. Illness also plays a striking part in both novels, with Caroline Helstone almost dying of tuberculosis in Shirley and in North And South we see Bessy Higgins die of byssinosis, a consumption-like disease of the lungs caused by the inhalation of cotton dust.

Industrial unrest, then, is at the heart of both novels, but surprisingly in both books the seemingly cold hearted and uncaring mill owner is also the love interest. It is testament to the power of both Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Brontë as writers that we can witness the dispassionate attitude of the industrialists to their workers, and yet still be happy when their love story is fulfilled. They are fully rounded characters, and therefore like all human beings they are also complex, filled with weaknesses as well as strengths.

At the time that Elizabeth was writing North And South her friendship with Charlotte was growing, and there can be no doubt that she was a great admirer of Shirley, and that it, and its writer, was at the forefront of her mind as she wrote the saga of Margaret Hale. Both stylistically and in regards to its subject it is close to Shirley, but perhaps the greatest sign of the influence of Charlotte’s novel can be found in the names within Elizabeth Gaskell’s masterpiece.

First, we have the name of the mill owner, Mr Thornton: Thornton as we know, and as Elizabeth certainly knew, was the birthplace of Charlotte Brontë. Next, we come to the village where Margaret Hale grew up before she became acquainted with Milton’s soot stained streets: Helstone. Whilst Charlotte’s second published novel is named after its character Shirley Keeldar, its true heroine (featuring across hundreds of pages before Shirley first appears) is Caroline Helstone. We also have the evidence of Margaret Hale’s godfather Mr Bell, the pen name used by Charlotte when writing Shirley.

North And South is not only a brilliant book, and a searing indictment of societal inequality in the nineteenth century, it is also a tribute by Elizabeth Gaskell to Charlotte Brontë. It certainly is a brilliant book however, and deserves to be read by all who love classic fiction. There’s also an excellent BBC adaptation from 2004 starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage. Now, if only we could get the BBC to dramatise Shirley, or even Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey! Whatever book you’re reading in the coming week, enjoy it and let the turn of the pages take your troubles away. Whether you’re in the north or south, I hope to see you here again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale bear more than a resemblance to Robert Moore and Caroline Helstone

Brontë Music: The Bluebell by Charlie Rauh

The Brontës loved to write, we all know that and we’re all thankful for it, but they also loved art and music too. Emily Brontë in particular was a highly gifted pianist, at one point teaching her fellow pupils at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, and Ellen Nussey stated that: ‘Anne also played, but preferred soft melodies and vocal music. She sang a little; her voice was weak, but very sweet in tone.’ We also know that Branwell could play the flute, as well as the church organ, so we can be sure that the parsonage was often full of sweet melodies and moving music – which is why I’m so pleased to be reviewing The Bluebell by Charlie Rauh in today’s Brontë blog post.

The Bluebell by Charlie Rauh

Charlie Rauh is an accomplished and acclaimed musician and composer who lives in New York city, and his previous album Hiraeth was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. As we shall see, his latest work is based upon the poetry of Anne and Emily Brontë, so I was delighted when I was sent a digital copy of the album to review. I must say here that whilst I received a free copy of The Bluebell I was not given any financial incentive nor am I connected to it in any way, so you can be sure that my review which follows will be my full and honest opinion.

Charlie is an excellent acoustic guitarist, and this album showcases his talents to the full. The nine tracks create a series of modern lullabies, full of gentle pleasures which are both relaxing and stirring. As in the Brontë poetry which inspired the album, these are vignettes which make you think, so that the pauses and silences are as important as the notes you hear played.

Charlie Rauh has long been a Brontë enthusiast, and his deep love and understanding of their work shines through in this album. Each of the nine tracks is based upon an individual poem by either Anne or Emily, and the album both closes and finishes with a track entitled The Bluebell – the first being based upon Anne’s poem of that name, and the last based upon Emily Brontë’s poem of that name.

Charlie Rauh
Charlie Rauh, photographed by Alice Teeple

In his compositions, Charlie has not simply taken the words of the sisters and set them to music, but rather he has taken the feel and theme of the poems and created a short piece of acoustic guitar music that represents a musical representation of the work. In short, he has transformed words and stanzas into crochets and bars, and I found that this worked extremely well. The standout tracks for me were the two eponymous songs, and ‘Faith Shines Equal Arming Me From Fear’, inspired by Emily’s brilliant ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’. This is a complex, thought provoking track, perfectly in keeping with Emily’s treatise upon the power and nature of her personal faith and beliefs.

On one level, you could simply pour yourself your favourite drink, kick off your shoes, and listen indulgently to Charlie Rauh’s sublime guitar playing – it often reminded me of classical guitar legend John Williams at his best, and I can’t give it higher praise than that. I think this album works even better, however, if you play it alongside the Brontë poetry which has inspired it – by reading ‘Last Lines’ by Anne Brontë, for example, and then listening to ‘With Purpose Pure And High’ from The Bluebell you can’t help but feel moved as its last note fades into silence.

The Blubell by Charlie Rauh is released by Destiny Records on August 28th, and will be available as a digital download from all the usual music download channels. There was also a special limited edition version available from Destiny Records themselves, and I plan on buying a copy myself if they release more copies of this limited edition because it really is something very special. Charlie Rauh has embraced the sibling power which was so important to the Brontës, and enlisted the help of his brother Christopher and sister Christina to create their own versions of Anne and Emily’s diary papers. Christopher has written a series of poems which Christina has then embellished with exquisite watercolours along with pressed flowers including bluebells. These modern diary papers are then placed within a wooden box, and the end result is absolutely stunning.

The Bluebell diary papers
The Bluebell diary papers by the Rauh siblings

In summary then, this is a very fitting and very well executed tribute to the poetry of Anne and Emily and to the enduring power of the Brontës. It should make perfect listening as the dark nights of autumn draw in, and I think this is a great addition to any Brontë lover’s collection. This isn’t the first time that the Brontës have inspired music of course, as we have everything from Kate Bush’s take on ‘Wuthering Heights’ to Bernard Herrmann’s opera of the same name. Charlie Rauh’s guitar driven, Brontë-inspired lullabies have a universal appeal, and are a welcome addition to this cannon. I think that Anne and Emily themselves would have enjoyed and approved of this album, and we can’t ask for more than that. We know, after all, that Emily Brontë loved guitar music, as one of her poems is entitled ‘The Lady To Her Guitar’, as we see here in my book Emily Brontë: A Life In 20 Poems:

There’s more than a hint of a magic tone in The Bluebell by Charlie Rauh, so I wish it every success as we enter its launch week. Whatever you’re listening to or reading at the moment, enjoy it! I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Hathersage/Morton In Words And Pictures

It’s certainly been a busy few days, but one of the most joyous and moving elements of it has been listening to the new album ‘ The Bluebell’, by Charlie Rauh. It takes some of the greatest poems by Anne and Emily Brontë and sets them to sublime guitar music. I’ll be reviewing it fully in a special post on Wednesday, but for now let’s take a look at a place I visited once more yesterday, Hathersage in words and pictures – you may know it better as Morton in Jane Eyre.

Hathersage is a picturesque village in the Derbyshire Peak District, and like just about everywhere associated with the Brontës it’s rather hilly and a test for the knees. I say associated with the Brontës because Charlotte Brontë visited here in the summer of 1845, spending three weeks with her great friend Ellen Nussey. These weeks were happy but fleeting but their influence has marked English literature for ever, as we shall see when we examine some of Hathersage’s attractions in words and in actuality.

Hathersage Moor

Hathersage Moor is at the northern portion of the Peak District, around ten miles south of South Yorkshire’s largest city Sheffield. Indeed Charlotte caught the train to Sheffield, before taking a coach to Hathersage itself (although it now has its own train station). En route she passed through stunning yet bleak moorland, which must have reminded her of the similar vistas around Haworth. If anything the Peak District moors are bleaker, wilder and more powerful, and it is here that a distraught Jane finds herself after leaving Thornfield Hall and the would-be bigamist Rochester:

‘From the well-known names of these towns I learn in what county I have lighted; a north-midland shire, dusk with moorland, ridged with mountain: this I see. There are great moors behind and on each hand of me; there are waves of mountains far beyond that deep valley at my feet. The population here must be thin, and I see no passengers on these roads: they stretch out east, west, north, and south – white, broad, lonely; they are all cut in the moor, and the heather grows deep and wild to their very verge. Yet a chance traveller might pass by; and I wish no eye to see me now: strangers would wonder what I am doing, lingering here at the sign-post, evidently objectless and lost. I might be questioned: I could give no answer but what would sound incredible and excite suspicion. Not a tie holds me to human society at this moment – not a charm or hope calls me where my fellow-creatures are – none that saw me would have a kind thought or a good wish for me. I have no relative but the universal mother, Nature: I will seek her breast and ask repose. I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that.’

The George Hotel

George Hotel, Hathersage
The George Hotel, Hathersage is the George Inn of Jane Eyre

One of the first thing that visitors to Hathersage often encounter, now and then, is the George Hotel. Now it’s a rather salubrious location to rest one’s head, and they also serve a fabulous afternoon tea. In 1845 it was the coaching stop for the village, and so it was here that Charlotte alighted. In Jane Eyre Charlotte transports the George Inn (as she calls it) from Hathersage (Morton) to Millcote as her protagonist prepares to return to Thornfield Hall. Portraits of George III still hold a position of prominence in the hotel:

‘A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day: I left Lowton at four o’clock a.m., and the Millcote town clock is now just striking eight.’

Hathersage Vicarage

The reason for Charlotte’s visit to Hathersage was that Ellen Nussey’s brother had been made vicar of the parish. Whilst Charlotte was there, Henry was on honeymoon with his new bride Emily Prescott (he had previously had a proposal rejected by Charlotte of course). Charlotte and Ellen were overseeing some renovations that Henry had ordered, and the beautiful parsonage building they stayed in was recreated as the home of the Rivers family in Morton:

‘I could not bear to return to the sordid village, where, besides, no prospect of aid was visible. I should have longed rather to deviate to a wood I saw not far off, which appeared in its thick shade to offer inviting shelter; but I was so sick, so weak, so gnawed with nature’s cravings, instinct kept me roaming round abodes where there was a chance of food. Solitude would be no solitude—rest no rest—while the vulture, hunger, thus sank beak and talons in my side.

I drew near houses; I left them, and came back again, and again I wandered away: always repelled by the consciousness of having no claim to ask—no right to expect interest in my isolated lot. Meantime, the afternoon advanced, while I thus wandered about like a lost and starving dog. In crossing a field, I saw the church spire before me: I hastened towards it. Near the churchyard, and in the middle of a garden, stood a well-built though small house, which I had no doubt was the parsonage. I remembered that strangers who arrive at a place where they have no friends, and who want employment, sometimes apply to the clergyman for introduction and aid. It is the clergyman’s function to help—at least with advice—those who wished to help themselves. I seemed to have something like a right to seek counsel here. Renewing then my courage, and gathering my feeble remains of strength, I pushed on. I reached the house, and knocked at the kitchen-door. An old woman opened: I asked was this the parsonage?’

Eyre family grave, Hathersage

Eyre Family Graves

As described in Jane Eyre, the parsonage with its lovely garden is in the shadow of the spired church of St. Michael and All Angels, and in the graveyard are a number of graves for members of the leading family of the area: the Eyres. Other common names in the churchyard include Higginbottom and Gulliver, so the nation’s favourite heroine could have had a very different name.

North Lees Hall

Charlotte not only saw the Eyre family graves in 1845, she also met the Eyre family themselves at their family seat of North Lees Hall, just over a mile to the north of Hathersage. It’s castellated ramparts are very reminiscent of a famous literary building – Thornfield Hall.

Hathersage trail

Charlotte was obviously greatly impressed by Hathersage, for its influence upon Jane Eyre cannot be overstated. If you get the opportunity I thoroughly recommend that you visit it and follow in the footsteps of Charlotte and Ellen. In the meantime, stay safe and happy and join me next Sunday for a new Brontë blog post, as well as on Wednesday to hear more about the brilliant album ‘The Bluebell’ by Charlie Rauh.

August In The Brontë Prose And Poetry

We are now well into the month of August, progressing through a summer unlike any other. The Brontë novels, and adaptations of them, continue to provide solace and entertainment in these strange times, so in today’s post we’re going to take a look at what the Brontës had to say about this pivotal month when the year changes from its waxing to its waning form.

St. John Rivers
St. John Rivers tells Jane of her inheritance in a life changing August for her

Jane Eyre

‘“You are not, perhaps, aware that I am your namesake? – that I was christened St. John Eyre Rivers?”

“No, indeed!  I remember now seeing the letter E. comprised in your initials written in books you have at different times lent me; but I never asked for what name it stood.  But what then?  Surely—”

I stopped: I could not trust myself to entertain, much less to express, the thought that rushed upon me—that embodied itself, – that, in a second, stood out a strong, solid probability.  Circumstances knit themselves, fitted themselves, shot into order: the chain that had been lying hitherto a formless lump of links was drawn out straight, – every ring was perfect, the connection complete.  I knew, by instinct, how the matter stood, before St. John had said another word; but I cannot expect the reader to have the same intuitive perception, so I must repeat his explanation.

“My mother’s name was Eyre; she had two brothers; one a clergyman, who married Miss Jane Reed, of Gateshead; the other, John Eyre, Esq., merchant, late of Funchal, Madeira.  Mr. Briggs, being Mr. Eyre’s solicitor, wrote to us last August to inform us of our uncle’s death, and to say that he had left his property to his brother the clergyman’s orphan daughter, overlooking us, in consequence of a quarrel, never forgiven, between him and my father.  He wrote again a few weeks since, to intimate that the heiress was lost, and asking if we knew anything of her.  A name casually written on a slip of paper has enabled me to find her out.  You know the rest.” Again he was going, but I set my back against the door.’

August has certainly proved to be a pivotal month for Jane, for by a strange twist of fate she finds out that she is related to her erstwhile rescuers the Rivers family and that she has become a wealthy heiress, thanks to the passing of her Madeira uncle John. Typically for Jane her subsequent ecstasy comes not because of her new found riches but because of her new found cousins.

Wuthering Heights

‘He had a fixed idea, I guessed by several observations he let fall, that, as his nephew resembled him in person, he would resemble him in mind; for Linton’s letters bore few or no indications of his defective character.  And I, through pardonable weakness, refrained from correcting the error; asking myself what good there would be in disturbing his last moments with information that he had neither power nor opportunity to turn to account.

Wuthering Heights moors

We deferred our excursion till the afternoon; a golden afternoon of August: every breath from the hills so full of life, that it seemed whoever respired it, though dying, might revive.  Catherine’s face was just like the landscape—shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient; and her poor little heart reproached itself for even that passing forgetfulness of its cares.

We discerned Linton watching at the same spot he had selected before.  My young mistress alighted, and told me that, as she was resolved to stay a very little while, I had better hold the pony and remain on horseback; but I dissented: I wouldn’t risk losing sight of the charge committed to me a minute; so we climbed the slope of heath together.  Master Heathcliff received us with greater animation on this occasion: not the animation of high spirits though, nor yet of joy; it looked more like fear.’

The warm days and evenings of August are leading to love for young Catherine and Linton, or are they? As usual in Emily Brontë’s brilliant novel, all is not as it seems, and Linton is just a pawn in Heathcliff’s unending lust for revenge.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘To return, however, to my own affairs: I was married in summer, on a glorious August morning.  It took the whole eight months, and all Helen’s kindness and goodness to boot, to overcome my mother’s prejudices against my bride-elect, and to reconcile her to the idea of my leaving Linden Grange and living so far away.  Yet she was gratified at her son’s good fortune after all, and proudly attributed it all to his own superior merits and endowments.  I bequeathed the farm to Fergus, with better hopes of its prosperity than I should have had a year ago under similar circumstances; for he had lately fallen in love with the Vicar of L—’s eldest daughter—a lady whose superiority had roused his latent virtues, and stimulated him to the most surprising exertions, not only to gain her affection and esteem, and to obtain a fortune sufficient to aspire to her hand, but to render himself worthy of her, in his own eyes, as well as in those of her parents; and in the end he was successful, as you already know.  As for myself, I need not tell you how happily my Helen and I have lived together, and how blessed we still are in each other’s society, and in the promising young scions that are growing up about us.  We are just now looking forward to the advent of you and Rose, for the time of your annual visit draws nigh, when you must leave your dusty, smoky, noisy, toiling, striving city for a season of invigorating relaxation and social retirement with us. Till then, farewell, GILBERT MARKHAM’

Markham and Helen
Gilbert finally weds Helen on a glorious August day

August is mentioned many times in Anne Brontë’s second novel, and in many of these occurrences we find Helen bemoaning the fact that her husband Arthur Huntingdon is away carousing with friends during this month. It’s good to see, then, that the final mention of August is in the much more positive paragraph above. Gilbert and Helen are finally married, and August love has conquered August cruelty. This is also one of the overriding messages of the novel as a whole, so it’s also fitting that this is the very last paragraph in the book.


Anne Brontë wrote a number of her poems in August, perhaps reflecting the greater freedoms that she had in this month during summer breaks from her role as governess. One such poem is Fluctuations, dated by Anne on the 2nd August 1844. She talks of the fluctuations that she sees in the natural world, reflecting fluctuations in her own life and emotions. August is a month of fluctuations after all, but it can also be a month of warmth, love and hope. I will leave  you with Anne’s poem now, and I hope to see you all for next Sunday’s new Brontë blog post, when I will be reviewing a very special new work of music inspired by the Brontës: Bluebells by Charlie Rauh. Stay happy and healthy!

‘What though the sun had left my sky;
To save me from despair
The blessed moon arose on high
And shone serenely there.
I watched her with a tearful gaze
Rise slowly o’er the hill;
While through the dim horizon’s haze
Her light gleamed faint and chill.
I thought such wan and lifeless beams
Could ne’er my heart repay
For the bright sun’s most transient gleams
That cheered me through the day.
But as above that mist’s control
She rose and brighter shone
I felt her light upon my soul,
But now – that light is gone!
Thick vapours snatched her from my sight
And I was darkling left,
All in the cold and gloomy night
Of light and hope bereft.
Until methought a little star
Shone forth with trembling ray
To cheer me with its light afar,
But that too passed away.
Anon an earthly meteor blazed
The gloomy darkness through.
I smiled yet trembled while I gazed,
But that soon vanished too.
And darker, drearier fell the night
Upon my spirit then;
But what is that faint struggling light –
Is it the moon again?
Kind Heaven, increase that silvery gleam
And bid these clouds depart;
And let her kind and holy beam
Restore my fainting heart.’

Three Of The Greatest Jane Eyre Adaptations

In last week’s post we looked at the life of Jack Kay, the fortune teller of Haworth who inspired the fortune telling scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Included in the post was a picture of Timothy Dalton as Rochester in his fortune teller’s guise, and I was asked why that scene is so rarely included in television and film adaptations of this great novel? It’s an excellent question, so that’s something we’re going to look at today, as well as assessing three of the greatest recent Jane Eyre adaptations.

I will also be calling upon some expert help today in the form of my wonderful girlfriend Emma Langan. We were in Scarborough this week to visit Anne Brontë’s resting place, and we also celebrated Emily Brontë’s 202nd birthday on Thursday with some lovely Victoria Sponge cake at the appropriately named Bonnets cafe. Emma is passionate about the Brontës, Jane Eyre and its adaptations, so I was thrilled when she agreed to helping me with this post.

With my fellow contributor Emma Langan in Anne’s beloved Scarborough this week

After reading my post last week, Amy Louise Maris commented, ‘It’s always been a source of great disappointment to me that most (all but one?) adaptations in film omit this great scene in Jane Eyre. It is one of my favourites. Interesting post!’ Thanks Amy, and thanks to everyone who comments on my posts, they’re always welcome.

I’ve always found the fortune telling scene to be a very interesting one, and one that serves well to move the plot forward – Rochester is becoming ever more enamoured of Jane, despite the attractions of Blanche Ingram, and this odd ruse is his attempt to discover if his feelings are reciprocated. It shows Rochester in a more playful light than he had hitherto been seen, but it also shows his capacity for self-interest as it is, after all, rather a cruel trick to play. Why then isn’t this pivotal scene in many adaptations, other than the 1983 series starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke? Emma Langan takes a look:

As much as it pains me to highlight a flaw in the timeless masterpiece that is ‘Jane Eyre’, it is worth noting that the fortune telling scene seems a little far fetched even for someone as imaginative and filled with genius as Charlotte. With fortune telling and interest in the supernatural being extremely popular in the 19th century, a fortune teller at a party would not have gone amiss. Premonition games were heavily included at Halloween and Christmas parties in the rural countryside (where Thornfield Hall appears to be set). Whilst claimed professional experts of the supernatural laid the cards for the most rich and accomplished ladies and gentlemen in some of the most superb drawing rooms across the country.

The issue I find is that Charlotte felt Rochester had to secretly pose as the fortune teller rather than just hiring a real one, and how this segment in the story passes without anyone seeming to notice any familiarity until Jane Eyre herself is called. Could this be because a genuine fortune teller would not have been able to sense Jane’s presence and would not have been so pushy as to have called Jane to have her fortune told? Or was it to slightly hint at the fact that Charlotte herself may have been a cynic when it came to the habits of self-proclaimed mystics? Would a real fortune teller have been as detailed in telling the stories as Rochester was?

This could be a possible explanation as to why the fortune teller scene is cut out in most of the film adaptations of Jane Eyre regardless to how well the rest of the film is true to the novel. In 1846-47 when Jane Eyre was written, fortune tellers were criminalised under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, as the following excerpt explains: “every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects…shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond.” Could Charlotte have used a fake fortune teller to avoid breaking any laws in her novel unlike her trailblazing sister Anne in the Tenant of Wildfell Hall? And is the fortune telling scenes often cut out of the movie adaptations because supernatural abilities are often a cause of controversy across the world and because the 1824 Vagrancy Act is still an official act of parliament even 196 years later?

A fascinating theory from Emma, and it could well be that Charlotte was influenced by a cynicism when it came to supernatural phenomena and psychic abilities. Whilst society in general is much more open to the possibility of some psychic phenomena, it’s still true that a healthy cynicism remains prevalent and that some people find the possibility of such phenomena to be contrary to their religious beliefs. With that in mind, film and television producers may be tempted to consign this interesting scene to the dustbin.

There is another scene which is often overlooked when it comes to adaptations. In the aftermath of her supposed wedding day to Rochester, the ever proud Jane determines to leave Thornfield Hall, and the man she still loves, forever. She eventually finds herself on the desolate moors of the Peak District, but most adaptations show Jane wandering dejectedly around the moors and then finding herself, hungry and bedraggled, at the home of the Rivers family in Morton (based upon the real life Derbyshire village of Hathersage visited by Charlotte and Ellen Nussey).

Jane begs for the pigs’ porridge

In choosing this route, the adaptations miss a very moving scene in which a starving Jane is forced to beg for scraps of food that were intended for pigs. I believe this scene is important because it shows the physical and emotional nadir that Jane had reached, but it also shows her finally overcoming her pride that until then had been an unconquerable, controlling emotion. I believe that Charlotte is showing us that both Jane and Rochester have to overcome their pride before they can finally find a lasting love together – Jane’s epiphany comes as a result of her sudden poverty and hunger and Rochester’s as a result of his sudden blindness and disability. Charlotte is saying that despite their different social backgrounds, Jane and Rochester are the same emotionally and spiritually, with the same frailties – they are indeed equal, just as they affirm so powerfully in the beautifully and moving proposal scene.

In my opinion, Jane Eyre adaptations would be even better with these two scenes included, but there are still some brilliant adaptations out there. Three of the most modern adaptations have to be among the very best, so let’s take a brief look at them now:

1983: We’ve already encountered the 1983 adaptation by the BBC, and it was one that did show Rochester’s fortune telling farce. Against very fierce competition, this has to be my favourite adaptation and that’s down to three things – the first two being its leads, Zelah Clarke as the eponymous heroine and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester. For me, these two will forever epitomise these roles.

Zelah is small, determined and pronounces her words very clearly and deliberately, which I think is perfectly fitting for the determined and proud governess. Her Jane is often reserved, but the strength of Zelah’s portrayal is that you are never in any doubt about her hidden passions and fire within.

Some have commented that Timothy Dalton is just too handsome to play Rochester, as the protagonist is described as plain, even ugly, by Charlotte. These adjectives could clearly never be applied to Timothy, famous now as a James Bond, and yet I find him entirely convincing. This Welsh actor delivers a very convincing northern accent throughout, but once again we can see his inner emotions despite a bluff, uncompromising exterior.

Jane and Rochester 1983
Zelah and Timothy as Jane and Rochester

The third positive for me in this adaptation is that it remains incredibly faithful to Charlotte Brontë’s original text, which surely has to be a positive. I think this trilogy of factors reaches its zenith in the proposal scene – Rochester looks troubled and feverish, Jane looks angry at first, but the denouement of this scene is entirely romantic and entirely believable. I’d also like to take a moment to praise the gentle, yearning theme music by Paul Reade, which is entirely in keeping with this loving and loveable adaptation.

2006: The BBC returned to Jane Eyre in 2006 for a four part adaptation which is many people’s favourite version, and which gives the 1983 adaptation above a real run for its money in my opinion. Our protagonists are played this time by Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. They handle the roles with aplomb and the only real criticism is the one levelled against Timothy Dalton: namely that they’re just too good looking to play Charlotte’s characters. That we soon forget this, however, is testimony to their acting and the directing by Susanna White.

Rochester and Jane Eyre finally find love and happiness
Toby and Ruth are brilliant in this adaptation

This is a very stylish and lavishly filmed production, with a series of almost cinematic scenes that hold great visual appeal. Even so, it never fails to engage the heart and mind as well as the eyes, and there’s real chemistry between the main characters. Toby already had a fine Brontë pedigree when he stepped into Rochester’s shoes, as he had played Gilbert Markham in the BBC’s 1996 adaptation of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Starring as Helen alongside him on that occasion was the brilliant Tara Fitzgerald who can also be seen here as Jane’s wicked aunt Mrs. Reed.

There are some differences from the original novel, however. Firstly, Rochester doesn’t disguise himself as a fortune teller but hires one, which as Emma has explained above may be a more realistic interpretation of what was happening in country houses at the time. Secondly, Jane’s flight across the moors is condensed, although Ruth Wilson still does an excellent job in portraying Jane’s despair and vulnerability at this time. Finally, Emma will take a look at what is arguably the greatest film adaptation of Jane Eyre:

2011: Director Cary Fukunaga’s and script writer Moira Buffini’s 2011 film adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ is my favourite adaptation of Jane Eyre because, despite the unconventional start to the film, I feel that it is excellently cast and true to Charlotte Brontë’s original narrative. It does the novel justice and lingers in the memory, which is difficult considering how many adaptations there are.

The beginning of the film starts with Mia Wasikowska’s perfectly parted Jane Eyre running away from Thornfield Hall and being rescued by Jamie Bell’s St John Rivers and his sisters. Then the film carries on in the same sequence as in the novel revealed in a series of flashbacks. Jane adjusts to her new life with the Rivers siblings until she comes into unexpected fortune and makes her way back to Thornfield triggered by the haunting voice of Rochester calling her.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Some scenes that you would not find in the novel have been subtly added, such as Rochester emerging from a snowstorm and somehow finding Jane at her pokey school mistress lodgings and embracing her. The film is excellently cast throughout except for Rochester’s faithful and energetic companion Pilot who is played by a lovely cross breed rather than a Newfoundland, but that is easily forgiven. The connection between the solicitor Mr Briggs, Mason, St John Rivers and Jane is a little non-descript compared to how it is made evident in the novel but I found this only a minor error.

As someone who does not judge others by their looks and believes looks can fade very quickly, it’s almost impossible for me to describe any actress who has played Jane in any adaptation as ugly or even plain as Charlotte and Jane both describe themselves and the same applies to Mia Wasikowska who portrays Jane as quiet, pious, virtuous, self-assured and strong willed to the point that the actress emanates Jane herself, as if Jane has stepped directly onto the big screen straight from the novel. Michael Fassbender’s Edward Rochester is neither dark nor ugly but perfectly balances out the combination of secret hopeless romantic and his broody aloofness and handsome arrogance. Judy Dench is as iconic as ever as the talkative housekeeper Mrs Fairfax to the extent where once you’ve seen her in the role, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else portraying Mrs Fairfax. Sally Hawkins is almost unrecognisable in her portrayal as the menacing Mrs Reed especially as only four years before this adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’, she portrayed the quiet and sweet Anne Eliot in the 2007 adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’. Freya Parks is excellent in portraying the positivity and wisdom of Helen Burns in such a way that we see the closest we have ever come to seeing her inspiration of Maria Brontë brought to life. With this brilliant cast and an emphasis on passion, this is the greatest big screen ‘Jane Eyre’.

All three of these adaptations are well worth watching, and there are many other Jane Eyre adaptations to try too, including the recent National Theatre adaptation with the very first version being filmed in 1910. If you have a spare hour or so, why not watch this 1934 film version right here, but be warned that it’s not quite as, er, sophisticated as some later adaptations:

There’s a Jane Eyre for everyone, which is a fitting tribute to the power of Charlotte’s work. Join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, thank you to the wonderful Emma Langan for her hard work and her contribution, and thank you all for reading it. Stay happy and healthy, keep reading the novels and watching the films.

The Real Life Fortune Teller Of Jane Eyre

As we all know, the Brontë novels are full of great scenes and great characters, which is why we can read them time and time again and never tire of them. Some of these characters and scenes were drawn from real life, which is why researching the Brontës’ life and times can be as rewarding and fascinating. In today’s post we’re going to look at the Haworth fortune teller and their influence on Jane Eyre.

Who can forget the mysterious fortune teller who appears at Thornfield Hall and proceeds to tell the fortunes of first Blanche Ingram and finally Jane Eyre herself:

‘The library looked tranquil enough as I entered it, and the Sibyl – if Sibyl she were – was seated snugly enough in an easy-chair at the chimney-corner. She had on a red cloak and a black bonnet: or rather, a broad-brimmed gipsy hat, tied down with a striped handkerchief under her chin. An extinguished candle stood on the table; she was bending over the fire, and seemed reading in a little black book, like a prayer-book, by the light of the blaze: she muttered the words to herself, as most old women do, while she read; she did not desist immediately on my entrance: it appeared she wished to finish a paragraph.

I stood on the rug and warmed my hands, which were rather cold with sitting at a distance from the drawing-room fire. I felt now as composed as ever I did in my life: there was nothing indeed in the gipsy’s appearance to trouble one’s calm. She shut her book and slowly looked up; her hat-brim partially shaded her face, yet I could see, as she raised it, that it was a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks, or rather jaws: her eye confronted me at once, with a bold and direct gaze.

“Well, and you want your fortune told?” she said, in a voice as decided as her glance, as harsh as her features.

“I don’t care about it, mother; you may please yourself: but I ought to warn you, I have no faith.”

“It’s like your impudence to say so: I expected it of you; I heard it in your step as you crossed the threshold.”

“Did you? You’ve a quick ear.”

“I have; and a quick eye and a quick brain.”

“You need them all in your trade.”

“I do; especially when I’ve customers like you to deal with. Why don’t you tremble?”

“I’m not cold.”

“Why don’t you turn pale?”

“I am not sick.”

“Why don’t you consult my art?”

“I’m not silly.”

The old crone “nichered” a laugh under her bonnet and bandage; she then drew out a short black pipe, and lighting it began to smoke. Having indulged a while in this sedative, she raised her bent body, took the pipe from her lips, and while gazing steadily at the fire, said very deliberately—“You are cold; you are sick; and you are silly.”

“Prove it,” I rejoined.

“I will, in few words. You are cold, because you are alone: no contact strikes the fire from you that is in you. You are sick; because the best of feelings, the highest and the sweetest given to man, keeps far away from you. You are silly, because, suffer as you may, you will not beckon it to approach, nor will you stir one step to meet it where it waits you.”’

Of course this fortune teller turns out to be Rochester in disguise, but we get a good description of the art of those whose palms were crossed with silver. How did Charlotte Brontë know so much about fortune tellers? The truth is that there was a celebrated example in her own village of Haworth.

Timothy Dalton fortune teller
Timothy Dalton as a fortune telling Rochester

Whilst Charlotte, Emily and Anne may or may not have visited the wise person of Haworth we can be sure that their brother Branwell did, and for evidence of this we turn to two biographies that we also looked at in last week’s post about Branwell Brontë and the Royal Academy. In Pictures Of The Past his great friend Francis Grundy gave the following account of their visit to the fortune teller:

‘There was an old fortune-teller at Haworth, ninety-five years of age, and Branwell and the “three curates” [his friends] used often to go and consult her. She was a wonderful old soul, and, I think, believed thoroughly in her arts. At any rate, she was visited, either in jest or earnest, by the “carriage people” of two counties; and we often took our day’s spree on horseback or in “trap” thitherward. Nay, she entirely altered the life of a friend of mine, a draughtsman, who was so impressed by her wonderful knowledge of him and his doings, that he went home from an interview with her and carried out all she had told him, even to marrying a girl.’

Francis Leyland, who had also known his subject personally, in The Brontë Family: With Special Reference To Patrick Branwell Brontë also remarks upon Haworth’s fortune teller:

‘At times, during his stay with the railway company, Branwell would drive over from Luddenden Foot to visit his family at the Haworth parsonage, having hired a gig for the purpose. Mr. Grundy sometimes accompanied him, and they would escape to the moors together, or pay curious visits to the old fortune-teller, with the curates. Then, says his friend, he was ‘at his best, and would be eloquent and amusing, though, on returning sometimes, he would burst into tears, and swear he meant to mend.’ This last statement is favourable to Branwell’s calm judgment upon himself. Few – and Branwell was one of the last – drift deliberately into wrong-doing.’

Can we get any more information on this mysterious personage consulted by Branwell Brontë, and revered by the leading personages of two counties? Once again, a plunge into the newspaper and genealogical archives can be revealing. Let’s start at the end and work backwards; the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper of 30th January 1847 carries the obituary of a Jack Kaye, ‘the celebrated Haworth astrologer’. Perhaps astrology was just one of his talents, or perhaps it was deemed a more suitable title than fortune teller? We find that he lives at Town End, Haworth and is very old, ‘probably not less than eighty-five years’. We also learn that he is consulted by the great and the good of two counties, just as Francis Grundy had said, and is held in respect by his Haworth neighbours – there can be little doubt that this is the person we’re looking for.

Obituary for Jack Kay(e) in the Leeds Intelligencer, 30th January 1847

We also learn that his given name was John Kaye, but genealogy records reveal that he was actually born John Kay. He was buried, presumably by Patrick Brontë, in St. Michael and All Angels Church in Haworth on 28th January 1847. He was not 95 as Francis Grundy claimed, nor even 85 as the Leeds Intelligencer claimed, but was in fact born in 1767, putting him in his 80th year at the time of his passing (he was actually 79, as we shall see).

The 1841 census shows John Kay living, as his obituary said, at Town End in Haworth, just off what is now North Street. We get further confirmation of his year of birth being 1767 (unusually, as census enumerators in 1841 were told to round ages off to the nearest five years), and we see five further members of the Kay family living with him, presumably his son and grandchildren.

Heading back into the eighteenth century we can discover what our fortune teller did before following that vocation – he was a soldier in the King’s army. This fascinating record from 1795 is very revealing – originally born in Manchester (as we shall see) the 28 year old Private John Kay was previously a silk weaver, but has served for seven years in Captain John Picton’s company of the Twelfth Regiment of Foot of the Suffolk Regiment. He has served with honour but is being discharged because he is blind in his right eye and the sight in his left eye is now defective, possibly due to an injury sustained in combat? On the reverse side of this document we find that Kay has marked his signature with an X as he is unable to write.

Finally, I found John Kay’s baptismal record. On 7th June 1767 he was baptised in the parish church of Gorton, Lancashire – a southern suburb of Manchester. His father was Thomas Kay and his mother was named Ellin (which makes me think of Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished supernatural tinged novel Willie Ellin).

So now we know quite a lot more about the Wise Man of Haworth. Born in Manchester he was trained as a silk weaver but joined the army. He is partially blinded and after his discharge he makes his way to Haworth, a source of ready employment for skilled weavers. Perhaps his eyesight or the increasing industrialisation of the industry puts paid to Jack’s trade, so he turns to something else he has a skill for: telling fortunes. He is a great success, visited by people from across Yorkshire and Lancashire, including Branwell Brontë. It may even be thought likely that he was visited by Charlotte Brontë too when we read Jane Eyre and remember her love for phrenology – especially as his home in Town End was just a short walk from Haworth’s parsonage.

Certainly I think Jack Kay is the source of Rochester’s fortune telling endeavour. Only one mystery remains, Francis Grundy not only gets his age wrong but also his gender. It’s clear that Kay looked even older than his years, and perhaps when dressed in his fortune teller’s garbs he looked like a woman, or even affected that guise just as Rochester did?

Spooks of Haworth
You can still buy all the fortune telling equipment you need (and more) at Spooks of Haworth

You won’t find John Kay in Haworth today but it’s still a village where magic and the more arcane arts hang heavy in the air, and it’s all the better for that in my opinion. Have a great weekend, stay happy and healthy and remember to celebrate Emily Brontë’s birthday next Thursday. Please join me again for another new Brontë blog post next Sunday.

Did Branwell Brontë Visit London And The Royal Academy?

With lockdown restrictions being eased, many museums and art galleries are opening their doors to the public once more, and beautiful cities such as York and London are welcoming tourists once more (as is Haworth of course, although there’s no date for the reopening of the Brontë Parsonage Museum as yet). One London attraction that is always worth visiting is the Royal Academy of Arts which has re-opened to the public again, although its famous Summer Exhibition has been moved to October of this year. Controversy still reigns over whether Branwell Brontë ever attended the Royal Academy of Arts, or whether he made it to London at all, so that’s what we’re going to look at in today’s post.

Two Brontës who we can be sure visited the Royal Academy are Charlotte and Anne Brontë. In July 1848 they travelled to London with the utmost haste in order to prove their true identity to Charlotte’s publisher George Smith. They then remained in London for four days, and among the places visited was the Royal Academy as Charlotte Brontë revealed in a letter to W.S. Williams after her return to Haworth:

‘I have just read your article in the John Bull; it very clearly and fully explains the cause of the difference obvious between ancient and modern paintings. I wish you had been with us when we went over the Exhibition and the National Gallery – a little explanation from a judge of Art would doubtless have enabled us to understand better what we saw; perhaps, one day, we may have this pleasure.’

Royal Academy exhibitions were popular then and now

The Royal Academy is now housed in a beautiful building called Burlington House in Piccadilly, its home since 1868. At the time that Anne and Charlotte visited in 1848, however, it occupied a wing of the recently opened National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (that’s it at the head of this post, in the days before Nelson’s Column and the lions arrived). It was a place where the greatest artists of the land could exhibit their work to a discerning public, and also a place where promising young artists, for a fee, could learn their craft. It was for this reason that Branwell Brontë may have been sent to London in 1835. Certainly there is in existence a letter from Branwell to the Royal Academy in which he asks when he can attend and present samples of his work, but did he send the letter and did he even journey to London? Let’s examine the cases for the prosecution and the defence.

The prosecution would have it that Branwell Brontë never sent this draft letter and never travelled to London, and these people are invariably also of the camp that Branwell was not an artist of any talent or ability. This is the view expressed by Juliet Barker in her weighty tome The Brontës which has helped it become the prevailing opinion:

‘The Royal Academy has no record of this letter, a reply or any other correspondence with or about him.’

Juliet Barker then dismisses the testimony of Francis Grundy or Joseph Leyland that he had been to London (which we will come to presently), saying that they didn’t know him then. I would take issue with that, and other dismissive claims within this brilliant biography about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Brontë. These people knew the subjects well and were friends with them, which is more than any present day biographer can say, so it seems to me folly to dismiss outright their opinions and stories which will have come from the mouths of the Brontës themselves.

The Brontë Society also now dismiss Branwell’s possible attendance at the Royal Academy outright, based on the same grounds, but surely this lack of proof nearly 200 years later is not proof that the event never happened? I believe that there is a significant amount of material that can be used in Branwell’s defence.

First, let’s look at the testimonies, beginning with that of Francis Grundy in Pictures Of The Past: Memories Of Men I Have Met. Would that everyone had a friend as kind and unbending as Francis Grundy, as his chapter on Branwell Brontë is a brilliant defence against the charges frequently laid against him then and now, including his touching conclusion that: ‘Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.’

He also confirmed that Branwell had been in London: ‘Brontë drew a finished elevation of Westminster Abbey from memory, having been but once in London some years before. It was no mean achievement, for the sketch was correct in every particular.’

Westminster Abbey, once sketched by Branwell Bronte, was a short walk from Trafalgar Square and the Royal Academy

We next come to Francis Leyland, who had also been a friend of Branwell in his Halifax and Bradford days, and who was brother of the acclaimed sculptor Joseph Leyland. In his The Brontë Family, With Special Reference To Patrick Branwell Brontë he writes:

‘Branwell, in fact, designed to become himself a portrait-painter, and he conceived that a course of instruction at the Royal Academy afforded the best means of preparation for that profession. Being gifted with a keen and distinct observation, combined with the faculty of retaining impressions once formed, and being an excellent draughtsman, he could with ease produce admirable representations of the persons he portrayed on canvas. But it is quite clear that he never had been instructed either in the right mode of mixing his pigments, or how to use them when properly prepared, or, perhaps, he had not been an apt scholar. He was, therefore, unable to obtain the necessary flesh tints, which require so much delicacy in handling, or the gradations of light and shade so requisite in the painting of a good portrait or picture. Had Branwell possessed this knowledge, the portraits he painted would have been valuable works from his hand; but the colours he used have all but vanished, and scarcely any tint, beyond that of the boiled oil with which they appear to have been mixed, remains. Yet, even if Branwell had been fortunate in his work, he would only have attained the position, probably, of a moderate portrait-painter. His ambition, however, took a higher range, and he prepared himself for the venture, hoping that the desiderata which Haworth could not supply would be amply provided for him in London, when the long-desired opportunity arrived…

To London Branwell, however, went, where, without doubt, his object was to draw from the Elgin Marbles, and to study the pictures at the Royal Academy and other galleries, with a perfectly honest intention. Whatever impression he may have received of his own powers as an artist, when he saw those of the great painters of the time, we have no certain knowledge; but it does not exceed belief that he was discouraged when he looked upon the brilliant chef d’oeuvres of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough, Sir Thomas Lawrence, and others; and that, when he reflected on the immeasurable distance between his own works and theirs, his hopes of a brilliant artistic career were partially dissipated. Whether it was due to these circumstances, or that he had become more fully aware of the early struggles that meet all who attempt art as a profession, or that his courage failed him at the contemplation of the unhappy lot which falls to those who, either from lack of talent or through misfortune, fail to make their mark in the artistic world; or whether it was because his father was unable to support him in London during the years of preparation and study for the professional career,—the requirements of which had not been sufficiently considered,—is not now accurately known. Branwell, during his short stay in London, visited most of the public institutions; and, among other places, Westminster Abbey, the western façade of which he some time afterwards sketched from memory with an accuracy that astonished his acquaintance, Mr. Grundy.

Patrick Reid Turned Off
‘Patrick Reid Turned Off’ by Branwell Bronte, includes a sketch of a fight

Before he left the metropolis, Branwell could not resist a visit to the Castle Tavern, Holborn, then kept by the veteran prize-fighter, Tom Spring, a place frequented by the principal sporting characters of the time. A gentleman named Woolven, who was present through the same curiosity which led Branwell there, noticed the young man, whose unusual flow of language and strength of memory had so attracted the attention of the spectators that they had made him umpire in some dispute arising about the dates of certain celebrated battles. Branwell and he became personal friends in after-years.’

Leyland knew Branwell Brontë well, and especially his artistic skills and ambitions as he met him in company with his artist brother. I believe he has hit the nail on the head when he talks of Branwell’s lofty ambitions as an artist. Branwell Brontë had great self-confidence in whatever he did, especially in his younger days, as we can see from the likes of his letters to William Wordsworth and Blackwood’s Magazine. To think that a lack of confidence in his own artistic ability would stop him from even sending a letter to the Royal Academy, or attempting to make his way there, surely goes against all we know of his character, just as it went against all that those who knew him best, Grundy and Leyland, knew?

We also have a letter from Charlotte Brontë dated 6 July 1835:

‘We are all about to divide, break up, separate. Emily is going to school, Branwell is going to London, and I am going to be a governess. This last determination I formed myself, knowing that I should have to take the step sometime, “and better sune as syne,” to use the Scotch proverb; and knowing well that papa would have enough to do with his limited income, should Branwell be placed at the Royal Academy, and Emily at Roe Head.’

Royal academy
The Royal Academy in its current location

Further evidence of this plan can be found in a July 1835 letter from the man whose job it was to finance this plan, Patrick Brontë:

‘It is my design to send my son to the Royal Academy for Artists in London, and my dear little Anne, I intend to keep at home, for another year.’

Juliet Barker and others have dismissed the testimony of Grundy and Leyland because they were written many years after the events, but if that were a valid argument in itself we would have to dismiss just about every autobiography ever written. Leyland in particular is detailed in what he writes, and he is clearly a methodical and reliable narrator. What are we to make of this Thomas Woolven who it is claimed saw Branwell Brontë in a Holborn tavern? If we look further into this, we find further points for the defence.

Attending an inn to meet famous prize fighters, bare knuckle boxers by any other name, sounds just the sort of thing Branwell Brontë would do when alone in the capital for the first time. Branwell did indeed love boxing, and was once a member of the Haworth Boxing Club. Who, though, was this mysterious Woolven? Leyland mentions him once more, later in his biography:

‘The Manchester and Leeds Railway was, at the time, in course of construction below Littleborough, passing through the picturesque and romantic vale of Todmorden. Branwell became greatly interested in the work; and as stores, and other things for the completion of the line to Hebden Bridge, were forwarded from Littleborough by canal, having been previously sent to that place from Manchester by train, he soon ingratiated himself with the boatmen, and was frequently seen in their boats. It was on one of these occasions that Mr. Woolven, previously mentioned, who was officially employed on the works, recognized at once the clever young man who had surprised the company at the ‘Castle Tavern,’ Holborn, and entered into conversation with him. These incidents led to a friendly intercourse between them, which continued for some years.’

So we hear that Thomas Woolven, like Branwell, worked on the railway and became a friend of his, having first met him in London. When I delved into the newspaper archives two stories caught my eye. From 12 May 1860, reported in multiple papers including the Leeds Intelligencer we have a Thomas Woolven who is a station master who has absconded with two cheques worth more than two hundred pounds (then a huge sum).

Six years later, on 16th August 1866, we hear another, final, development via the Brighton Gazette:

‘On Friday afternoon, as the 3.30pm train from Brighton to Portsmouth was nearing the Hove station, the driver saw a man walking between the up and down lines. The whistle of the engine was immediately blown, to warn him of danger, when, instead of stepping on to the up-line he stepped on the down-line, and before the train could be stopped the engine knocked him down. The driver succeeded in pulling up the train at the Cliftonville station, and information being given there of what had occurred, search was made, and the body was found on the line shockingly mutilated and quite dead. The deceased, whose name was Thomas Woolven, was a servant of Mr Corral, coal merchant.’

Let’s imagine a scenario. Thomas Woolven has the itinerant life of a railway worker and later manager, he meets Branwell in London and again at Luddendenfoot near Halifax. Woolven is also an opportune thief, and when employed at Round Oak he steals two cheques worth many a large sum of money. He has to leave the area, but eventually finds his money is once more spent or, quite possibly, that it is too risky to catch the cheques. By 1866 his past and his demons are catching up on him so he takes his own life on what had been his life – the railway. Could it be then that Thomas Woolven, this friend of Branwell, was also involved in the theft from Luddendenfoot Station that cost Branwell Brontë his job there (simply because in his supervisory role he should have prevented it)?

What seems for sure now is that there was indeed a Thomas Woolven railway worker, and Francis Leyland’s story has some corroboration. So let’s look at the evidence for the defence: Patrick wrote to say he was sending Branwell to the Royal Academy, Charlotte wrote that Patrick was going to try to enter the Royal Academy, and Branwell wrote at the very least a draft letter to the academy. His self-confidence makes it entirely in keeping with his personality that he would at least have tried to enter the academy. His great friends Grundy and Leyland have talked with Branwell about his time in London, and a witness called Thomas Woolven, who certainly existed and whose testimony rings true, says that he saw Branwell Brontë in London.

Whether Branwell Brontë finally entered the Royal Academy admittedly has to be in grave doubt – perhaps lack of money was the deciding factor? In my mind, however, there is no doubt that Branwell Brontë did travel to London, and he did make the attempt. And I also have to say that I very much like Branwell’s portraits and think that he was a very talented artist, and no official naysaying will make me change my opinion on either of those two things.

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

I rest my case, and prepare for days of rest, sunshine and happiness with great company and great books, as tomorrow is my birthday. Another year, and more Brontë-related books to read and Brontë blog posts to write. Stay healthy and happy, and I hope you can join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë post.