This week marked the 196th anniversary of the death of Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, mother of the Brontë sisters. She was a loving mother, an intelligent woman, pious (as we see from her article ‘The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns’) and humorous as well (as we see in her courting letters to ‘saucy Pat’), but the great tragedy is that she died before she could see the fantastic contribution her daughters Anne, Emily and Charlotte would make. Their works of literature are loved across the world, and they have also been remembered on film and in fiction, and that’s what we’re going to look at today.
From the earliest days of film, the novels of the Brontë sisters have been adapted for the world of movie theatres. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights first hit the silver, yet silent, screen in 1920, and just look at the huge crowds that gathered in Haworth to see it filmed:
Despite that, in my opinion there has never been a truly classic Wuthering Heights movie. Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon brought true star quality, but I feel that Olivier was far too posh and refined as Heathcliff. Maybe things will change next year, as a new independently made version of Wuthering Heights is due to be released? It may lack the big budget, but if it has a big heart it should be well worth seeing.
Jane Eyre has fared better with its adaptations, and I particularly enjoyed the 2006 series starring Ruth Wilson as Jane and Toby Stephens as Rochester. Stephens has form in the Brontë stakes, as he turned in a great performance as Markham in the BBC’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1996, with the brilliant Tara Fitzgerald as Helen. It’s a series I watch again and again, and I like to think Anne Brontë would have approved of the series.
Of course it’s not just the books that have inspired film and TV producers but the lives of the Brontës themselves. Yorkshire Television, those were the days, paid tribute to the queens of their county with the 1973 series ‘The Brontës of Haworth’. Over five hours, its a superb in-depth and moving telling of the Brontë story that is well worth looking up.
It does focus rather too much on the Branwell element, however, and this can be levelled even more at last year’s To Walk Invisible. I really enjoyed Sally Wainwright’s show, it had great acting and the recreation of 19th century Haworth was incredible, but it had some faults: I didn’t mind the ending, as we headed into the modern day Brontë Parsonage Museum shop, but a friend went apoplectic at it; I certainly didn’t like the repeated use of the F-bomb, no matter how much people try to say otherwise, there was no way this particular word would have been used in conversation, it puzzles me as to why it was used when it added nothing to the story? Also, again, I didn’t like the way the story ended after Branwell’s death, Emily and Anne’s demise was mentioned in a caption at the end and Charlotte’s was ignored completely; the character of Arthur Bell Nicholls was introduced and then no further mention was made of him – it seemed to me that they had run out of time filming it, and that they would have been better extending it to another hour or a mini-series. Nevertheless, I did very much enjoy it.
We are endlessly fascinated by the Brontë’s lives, something I certainly have to hold my hand up to, so it’s not surprising that there have been a number of fictional treatments of them in novels. The best of them can be very good, so I’m particularly looking forward to reading (once I’ve finished editing my forthcoming Aunt Branwell biography) two new editions to the canon. Firstly, we have ‘The Last Brontë: The Intimate Memoirs of Arthur Bell Nicholls‘ by S.R. Whitehead. Released at the start of this month it tells a story seldom heard: that of Charlotte’s husband Arthur. It already has excellent reviews.
Crossing the Atlantic later this year we have D.M. Denton’s ‘Without The Veil Between – Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit’. It will be great to see Anne get the fictional treatment, and as Diane is both a Brontë enthusiast and a fine novelist I have high hopes for it.
Tomorrow I’m heading back to the archives to see a little known and very special piece of work by Anne Brontë, which I’m highly excited about, but today I’m going to relax in front of the television – now where’s that Tenant Of Wildfell Hall DVD again?
Yesterday I attended an Exploring the Brontë’s event at the newly opened Halifax Central Library. It’s a wonderful building, and right next to the spectacular Halifax Piece Hall which has just been re-opened to great success. The event featured a talk on the Brontë connections to Calderdale by Simon Zonenblick followed by a monologue by talented actress and writer Caroline Lamb of the Dangerous To Know theatre company (they’re producing a stage version of Charlotte’s ‘Shirley’ next week, and it should be a must see). She played Charlotte’s great friend Mary Taylor during her time as a shop owner in New Zealand, opening a succession of letters that reveal… well, I’ll leave you to find out, as there are further Exploring The Brontë events planned for Gildersome, London, Manchester, and then who knows? If you get the chance to catch one I highly recommend it.
I found Caroline’s monologue to be beautifully constructed and acted, and very moving too. At one point she mentions Anne Brontë’s life saving encounter with the Moravian church, and as the church is little known I’ll be looking at it in today’s blog. By the way, Mary Taylor herself was probably also a Moravian – athough she and her sister Martha are buried in the cemetery of the Anglican St. Mary’s church. We know, however, that her family often attended the Moravian church in Gomersal. It still stands and if you want to know what it looks like take a look at the head of this post.
In late 1837 Anne Brontë was a pupil at Roe Head School in Mirfield, where her older sister Charlotte Brontë was at that time a teacher. Things were going well for Anne; she was bright and studious, had made good friends despite her natural shyness, especially Ann Cook who we looked at last week, and had been presented with a certificate for good conduct, but in fact things were going very wrong. As she lay on her bed listening to the wintry wind howl around the hills surrounding Roe Head, seventeen year old Anne was close to death. She had suffered a mental and physical breakdown that would change her life for ever.
Charlotte herself was undergoing deep mental torment at this time, as revealed in her vituperative Roe Head journal, and hadn’t noticed the changes taking place in Anne. She had become more withdrawn, was eating less, and by stages becoming weaker and weaker until she became bed ridden and almost unable to talk, to breathe. The physical reason for this was described as ‘gastric fever’, which we would today call typhoid. The patient starts off with a flu like condition, followed by gastric problems and an inability to eat, followed by a fever and delirium. After this comes either recovery or death. This physical malaise was a sign of the mental anguish that had consumed Anne, and she knew that it was this that needed curing if she was to have any chance of surviving. The man that Anne turned to for help would have shocked her family, for when this daughter of a Church of England curate asked to see a priest she asked for James la Trobe, of the Moravian church.
The Moravian church, as the name suggests, had its origins in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. After increasing persecution in the church fled to Germany in 1722, and then spread into western Europe. In the early eighteenth century two Church of England preachers were making waves in their own establishment, the Wesleys, and they invited the Moravians, who they saw as kindred evangelical spirits, to England. John Wesley himself then joined a Moravian group, before later striking out on his own path that eventually led to what we know today as Methodism.
One particular Moravian stronghold was the West Riding of Yorkshire. They had a church in Mirfield, and another at nearby Gomersal . Anne may have heard about La Trobe, the local Moravian priest, through Charlotte or she may have met him previously at the school, but why did she choose him to hear what could have been her last words?
The Church of England was undergoing a schism. The Methodists founded by the Wesleys had recently split from the official church, leaving Calvinists as the dominant faction. This was a very hard line brand of Protestantism, full of damnation and hell fire. They believed that once a person had sinned they were doomed to everlasting torment, except for a predestined few known as ‘the elect’ who would attain paradise whatever their actions were. This world, according to the Calvinists, was destined to be hard and full of pain, rather than one of hope and love.
Whilst Patrick Brontë was certainly not of this Calvinist bend, his daughter Anne heard of their teachings constantly, and they began to eat into her peace of mind. She spent sleepless nights thinking of how her soul was surely already doomed, and worrying for the souls of her beloved family too. It may sound strange to many today, but to Anne the eternal torments of hell were very real, she feared that she really would be thrown into a fiery pit that never dies. It was this that began to consume her thoughts by day and night until her mental torment brought on her physical collapse.
The Moravians, however, had a very different belief system. They believed that all sins could and would be forgiven, that no sinner was lost for ever. Some saw elements of mysticism in the faith and distrusted it, but their idea of forming a personal relationship with a loving God sang to Anne’s heart and her hopes. Writing in 1897, James la Trobe, by then a bishop in the Moravian church, recalled what happened next:
‘She [Anne Brontë] was suffering from a severe attack of gastric fever which brought her very low, and her voice was barely a whisper; her life hung on a slender thread. She soon got over the shyness natural on seeing a perfect stranger. The words of love, from Jesus, opened her ear to my words, and she was very grateful for my visits. I found her well acquainted with the main truths of the Bible respecting our salvation, but seeing them more through the law than the gospel, more as a requirement from God than His gift in His Son, but her heart opened to the sweet views of salvation, pardon, and peace in the blood of Christ, and, had she died then, I would have counted her His redeemed and ransomed child. It was not til I read Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Life’ [he refers to the biography of Charlotte written by Elizabeth Gaskell] that I recognised my interesting patient at Roe Head.’
Anne had found hope, she had found a new form of faith, and her health rallied until she could return home to Haworth. She was now sure of the doctrine, very controversial at the time, of Universal Salvation, whereby every one would eventually find Heaven thanks to a loving and forgiving God. This would be a ray of light in the dark days and years to come to Anne, and it is also at the heart of Helen’s beliefs expressed in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.
The Moravian church didn’t forget Anne Brontë either. Her beautiful poem of faith, The Three Guides written as a dark cloud loomed over her family in 1848, has now become a part of the Moravian hymn book used in her services today. The poem finishes:
‘Spirit of Faith! I’ll go with thee;
Thou, if I hold thee fast,
Wilt guide, defend, and strengthen me,
And bring me home at last.
By thy help, all things I can do;
In thy strength all things bear.
Teach me, for thou art just and true,
Smile on me, – thou art fair!’
Within a year of writing this hymn her strong faith would be put to the ultimate test as first her brother Branwell, then her beloved twin-like sister Emily died, until finally she had to face her own mortality. Tested by fire, her faith did not let her down.
The start of September witnesses a collective sigh (of relief or sadness, you decide) of parents across the United Kingdom as their children head back to school. This was a feeling that Patrick Brontë and de facto mother Aunt Elizabeth Branwell would have known as their children returned to their schools from summer or winter breaks – and especially in the case of Anne Brontë, as she, after all, spent more time at school than any of her siblings, remaining at Roe Head near Mirfield from the late summer of 1835 until the close of 1837.
When we think of the Brontës’ school days we inevitably think of tragedy. Cowan Bridge is the first thing that springs to mind, recreated viscerally as Lowood in Jane Eyre, and where elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë contracted the tuberculosis that killed them. Roe Head was a very different school, run by the kindly Miss Margaret Wooler, but even here we may bring to mind Emily Brontë’s return from homesickness after just a few weeks, Charlotte’s mental anguish as recorded in her ‘Roe Head diaries’ and the mental and physical breakdown that nearly killed Anne at the end of her tenure at the school. In this post, however, I want to look at a more positive aspect (it is the start of a new term after all) and see how Roe Head was often a happy environment for Anne Brontë, and one in which she thrived.
Anne was initially not destined for Roe Head at all. Charlotte gained a position as a teacher at the school in 1835, having been a pupil there four years earlier, and as part of her contract she was able to take a sister with here for a free education. This was a huge boon to the Brontë family, who although respectable in social terms were never wealthy; as the next eldest sister, Emily was understandably selected to go. During her brief time at Cowan Bridge Emily had, perhaps surprisingly, thrived. Just six years old, she impressed the staff with her ability as a pupil, and perhaps because of her tender age she was spared some of the hardships faced by other pupils. One teacher, Miss Evans, recalled of Emily at Cowan Bridge:
‘A darling child, under five years of age [sic], was quite the pet nursling of the school.’
The intervening years between Cowan Bridge and Roe Head had seen a great change in Emily. She had become reserved, and was already retreating into her fantasy world of Gondal. Charlotte soon saw that Emily was pining away in Mirfield, and that thoughts of the Haworth moors were always in her mind; she told Patrick to call Emily home or she would surely die, and remembering Maria and Elizabeth he acted immediately.
Even so it was not at first his intention to send Anne in his place, as he wrote in a letter to her godmother Elizabeth Francks:
‘My dear little Anne I intend to keep at home for another year under her Aunt’s tuition and my own.’
The offer was still too good to resist, however, and soon after Emily’s arrival in Haworth, Anne was on her way to Roe Head to take her place.
Anne was far more suited to school than her beloved sister Emily. She had a calm nature, and was obedient when given instructions. She was also a quick learner, and loved to gain knowledge. It was these qualities that led her to receiving a special award from Miss Wooler at the end of 1836. Along with a copy of a book by Isaac Watts, she was presented with a certificate that read: ‘A prize for good conduct presented to Miss A. Brontë with Miss Wooler’s kind love, Roe Head, Dec. 14th 1836.’
Anne was thriving educationally (it is her picture of Roe Head that tops this post), but as she was such a shy girl how did she cope with the demands of living among so many people unknown to her? A piece of evidence hidden away in a Leeds library shows that she handled this remarkably well, and formed a close bond with a pupil that is little known about.
Ann Cook is known today for an inscription that has caused controversy in the world of Brontë. In Charlotte Bronte’s book of common prayer there has recently been found an inscription saying:
‘Pray don’t forget me my sweet little thing.’
A further inscription reads ‘My dear, dear Miss Brontë pray remember me.’
These inscriptions were found by Gail Turley Houston who examined the prayer book at the J.P.Morgan library in New York. From the initials ‘A.C.’ the handwriting and the context, it is clear that these were written by Ann Cook at Roe Head. These facts were presented in a paper in 2011, and taken along with a letter from Charlotte to Ellen Nussey describing Ann Cook as ‘warm-hearted, prejudiced, affectionate and handsome’ it has led many to believe that there was some sort of affair between Charlotte and Ann, teacher and pupil. By taking evidence from a letter held in the archives at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library, however, we can get a very different reading.
Tragically, within a year of leaving Roe Head, Ann Cook was dead. The former classmate of Anne Brontë came from a very wealthy family, and it is clearly Ann Cook that Ellen Nussey is referring to in a letter she sent to Elizabeth Gaskell on November 15th 1855 at the time she was preparing to write her biography on Charlotte Brontë:
‘I enclose also a notice which dear C. made in a letter of the death of a young lady who was a pupil at the time Anne Brontë was at school, a pupil who attached herself strongly to Anne B. and Anne bestowed upon her a great deal of quiet affection and genial notice. I think the young ladies friends would most probably be gratified if dear C.’s comments on her decease were inserted. They are monied and influential people in the neighbourhood, some of them not very friendly to Currer Bell’s emanations. Would they not be won by her kindly thought of one of their own?’
We see here that Anne Brontë had a very strong friendship with a fellow pupil, Ann Cook. Ellen’s assertion that she attached herself strongly to Anne Brontë corresponds with Charlotte’s views on Ann as warm hearted, affectionate and prejudiced – prejudiced not to Charlotte, but to her sister Anne. It seems to me that Ann Cook’s inscriptions, though they were in Charlotte’s prayer book were intended for Anne Brontë who may also have used it. Anne Brontë was her great friend at school, it is she who is the sweet little thing, and she who is ‘my dear Miss Brontë’ (echoing her father’s description of her as ‘my dear little Anne’).
There is no scandal here, no love between teacher and pupil, just a deep and true friendship between Anne Brontë and her fellow pupil Ann Cook – and one that, until her nervous collapse in late 1837, would have made Anne Brontë happy at the thought of returning to school.
There are two buildings that all Brontë fans should, if they get the chance, visit. One is the Haworth Parsonage that the Brontë children grew up in, and the place where they wrote their masterpieces. Now of course known as the Brontë Parsonage Museum it has become a place of pilgrimage for visitors from across the globe, but many fail to realise that a journey of just a handful of miles would take them to another parsonage and another must see location: Thornton Parsonage, four miles from the centre of Bradford. The picture at the top of this post uses a mirror image of the left side of the building to show how it would have looked in Patrick’s time, before the extension currently to the right of the entrance was built.
Anne Brontë was born in Thornton Parsonage in January 1820, and it had also been the location for the earlier births of Charlotte, Patrick Branwell and Emily Brontë (the elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë were born in Hartshead near Mirfield). The family moved from Thornton to Haworth in April 1820 so whilst Anne would have no recollection of it, it was an essential part in the childhood of her elder sisters and brother.
Thornton Parsonage was bought by local businessman Mark de Luca in 2013, an act that all Brontë lovers should be thankful for. It is now a fine delicatessen named Emily’s, but before being bought it had been running into disrepair as a series of bedsit flats before being repossessed, and its future looked bleak. Visitors to Emily’s today will not only be assured of excellent coffee and food, they can also see the original fireplace by which the Brontë children were born, and there are other tributes to the sisters throughout the café.
Now, thanks to photographs taken by Mark, we can see parts of the building normally out of bounds to the public, and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce some of them here.
I urge everyone who has the chance to visit Emily’s in Thornton, for they may not always have the opportunity to do so. Family commitments and a successful hair salon business means that Mark has had to make a big decision – Thornton Parsonage is now on the market again.
This really will be a fantastic opportunity for somebody, whether to keep the business going or simply to live in the building the Brontës lived in, and hopefully they will treat the building with the same deference and sensitivity that Mark has. This building really is a building like no other, and of huge historical and literary importance – now, I just need to check what’s in my piggy bank and down the back of my sofa! In the meantime if you know somebody who may be interested in purchasing the business or property, or both, you can find more information and Mark’s contact details here.
199 years and one day ago, the 19th of August 1818, witnessed a special event at St. James’ Church, Thornton: the baptism of the parish priest’s fourth daughter, Emily Jane Brontë. Presiding over the ceremony was a man who was a great friend of Emily’s father, the Reverend William Morgan. Morgan would be present at many Brontë family events, some happy and some not so happy, and to Charlotte Brontë he would be known as Uncle Morgan to his face and the ‘Welsh windbag’ behind his back.
The beautiful Christening cup created for this auspicious event of 1818 can still be seen in the Brontë Parsonage Museum today, and you can also buy a replica of it in the shop. A year and a half after Emily’s christening he also presided over the christening of the final child in the family, Anne Brontë. This event took place in Thornton’s church on 25th March 1820, with Morgan presiding and Elizabeth Firth and Fanny Outhwaite acting as godmothers – a month later the family would leave Thornton behind and head to their new parish of Haworth. There would be no more christenings for Morgan to preside over in Haworth, but, alas, he was all too soon and all too frequently called upon to carry out the funeral services of the children he had christened.
William Morgan was born in Wales in 1782 and entered the priesthood at the same time as Patrick Brontë. Their paths first crossed in 1809, when they were both assistant curates in the town of Wellington, Shropshire in the English Midlands. When Patrick later moved to Yorkshire to become assistant curate in Dewsbury he found there were already two of his friends from Shropshire in the vicinity. Morgan was already a curate in Bierley, near Bradford, and John Fennell, who they had both known from Wellington, was now running Woodhouse Grove School.
This was an auspicious event, as Patrick, probably at Morgan’s suggestion was employed at the school as an examiner in the classics. Morgan already had an interest in the school as he was in love with John Fennell’s daughter Jane who worked there. Patrick himself soon fell in love with another member of the school’s staff – Jane’s cousin and John’s niece Maria Branwell who had recently arrived in Yorkshire from Cornwall.
On 29th December 1812 a triple wedding took place. Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell at St. Oswald’s church Guiseley (that’s it at the top of this post), with William Morgan officiating, and at the same ceremony William Morgan married Jane Fennel, with Patrick officiating. John Fennel, who himself had taken holy orders and could have carried out the ceremony, gave both brides away. This unusual, yet very happy, event was reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine at the start of 1813:
‘Lately at Guiseley, near Bradford, by the Rev. William Morgan, minister of Bierley, Rev. P. Brontë, B.A., minister of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, to Maria, third daughter of the late T. Branwell, Esq., of Penzance. At the same time , by the Rev. P. Brontë, Rev. W. Morgan, to the only daughter of Mr. John Fennell, Headmaster of the Wesleyan Academy near Bradford.’
As you can imagine, this dual ceremony cemented bonds of friendship that lasted a lifetime. I mentioned a triple wedding, for the joining together of these two couples was also linked to another wedding taking place 400 miles away. On the same day, 29th December 1812, Maria’s younger sister Charlotte Branwell married her cousin Joseph Branwell in Penzance. Acting as witness to the marriage in Cornwall was the elder sister of Charlotte, Elizabeth Branwell, who would later play a huge role in the Brontë story. This triple wedding at two locations was no coincidence. Charlotte’s daughter, also called Charlotte Branwell, later recollected her mother telling her how the three women had corresponded with each other on the subject and arranged it so that the two ceremonies, and three weddings, coincided.
William Morgan was a stout, in more ways than one, and reliable friend to Patrick, and it is likely that he was among the people who cleared Patrick’s debts after the death of his wife Maria, debts that had been incurred in a fruitless attempt to find a cure for the woman he loved. To the Brontë children however he became something of a figure of fun. This may have been because of his sing-song Welsh accent, or his increasingly rotund figure, but it was most likely because of his reputation for preaching sermons that went on, and on, and on.
It was not only in church that he liked to talk interminably, as the Leeds Intelligencer of 12th March 1836 noted his presence at a meeting to discuss the Factory Act, at which ‘Rev. William Morgan spoke at considerable length.’
Charlotte Brontë especially had little time for a man who had done so much for her family. Never the most patient woman, nor one to hide her true feelings, she wrote to Ellen Nussey on 17th March 1840, discussing William Weightman listening to William Morgan:
‘It was amazing to see with what patience and good temper the innocent creature endure that fat Welshman’s prosing.’
Thirteen years later, in another letter to Ellen from 1853, we see that time had not made Charlotte feel any kindlier towards her father’s best friend:
‘My visit to Manchester is for the present put off by Mr. Morgan having written to say that since Papa will not go to Buckingham to see him he will come to Yorkshire to see Papa – when I don’t know yet – and I trust in goodness he will not stay long… I must wait however till the infliction is over.’
Morgan’s wife Jane, cousin of Maria Brontë of course, died in 1827, and in 1836 he married again to a woman called Mary Gibson. William himself died in 1858, and we should not let Charlotte’s opinion of him cloud ours. When Patrick needed a friend he was there, and he was present at some of the most vital moments of Brontë family life, the christenings and funerals.
In 1854 Charlotte Brontë visited the homeland of William Morgan, as she travelled through Wales on her honeymoon en route to Ireland, the land of her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls. She loved the country’s rugged landscapes and its magnificent castles, as we can see from this drawing that she made of Conwy Castle. Maybe at last her thoughts turned with some fondness to her Uncle Morgan?
I am in London at the moment, a city that Anne Brontë visited in July 1848, in the company of her sister Charlotte. It was the only occasion that Anne ever travelled outside of Yorkshire, and she quickly fell in love with the city’s magnificent architecture and the beautiful music that she heard on a visit to the opera house in Covent Garden.
This was the occasion on which Anne and Charlotte abandoned their facade of Acton and Currer Bell to disprove the suggestion, spread by Anne and Emily’s unscrupulous publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, that the Bell brothers were one and the same person. It was a stressful time for the shy sisters, but it led to some of the happiest days of Anne Brontë’s all too short life.
The sights and sounds of London were far removed from those she knew so well at Haworth, although that too was a place she loved. I also visited Haworth this week to undertake further research on Aunt Branwell, a pivotal figure in the Brontë story. The Parsonage Museum was enchanting as ever, but I also witnessed a delightful scene on the moors that surround the Parsonage, as it is at this time of year that the often bleak moors take on a royally purple hue.
Heather season is starting in Haworth, a time that would have seemed magical to the nature loving Anne and Emily. She looked back fondly at her childhood moors in her poem ‘Memory’, written in 1844. Next week’s blog will look at one particular London building that Anne Brontë visited, but for now I leave you with the joyous, yet at the same time melancholic, ‘Memory’:
Brightly the sun of summer shone
Green fields and waving woods upon
And soft winds wandered by.
Above, a sky of purest blue,
Around, bright flowers of loveliest hue
Allured the gazer’s eye.
But what were all these charms to me
When one sweet breath of memory
Came gently wafting by?
I closed my eyes against the day
And called my willing soul away
From earth and air and sky;
That I might simply fancy there
One little flower – a primrose fair
Just opening into sight.
As in the days of infancy,
An opening primrose seemed to me
A source of strange delight.
Sweet Memory, ever smile on me;
Nature’s chief beauties spring from thee,
O, still thy tribute bring.
Still make the golden crocus shine
Among the flowers the most divine,
The glory of the spring.
Still in the wall-flower’s fragrance dwell,
And hover round the slight blue bell,
My childhood’s darling flower.
Smile on the little daisy still,
The buttercup’s bright goblet fill
With all thy former power.
For ever hang thy dreamy spell
Round mountain star and heatherbell,
And do not pass away
From sparkling frost, or wreathed snow,
And whisper when the wild winds blow
Or rippling waters play.
Is childhood then so all divine?
Or, Memory, is the glory thine
That haloes thus the past?
Not all divine; its pangs of grief
Although perchance their stay be brief,
Are bitter while they last.
Nor is the glory all thine own,
For on our earliest joys alone
That holy light is cast.
With such a ray no spell of thine
Can make our later pleasures shine,
Though long ago they passed.
Anne Brontë and her sisters lived in a very different society to ours, and yet they had pressures and strains that we would recognise today. Like us, they needed on occasion to get away from the demands and mundanity of everyday life, an escape to a place of joy and relaxation – a holiday:
‘A little while, a little while,
The noisy crowd are barred away;
And I can sing and I can smile,
A little while I’ve holiday!
Where wilt thou go my harassed heart?
Full many a land invites thee now;
And places near, and far apart,
Have rest for thee, my weary brow –
There is a spot ‘mid barren hills,
Where winter howls and driving rain;
But, if the dreary tempest chills,
There is a light that warms again.
The house is old, the trees are bare,
And moonless bends the misty dome;
But what on earth is half so dear –
So longed for as the hearth of home?
The mute bird sitting on the stone,
The dank moss dripping from the wall,
The garden-walk with weeds o’ergrown,
I love them – how I love them all!
Shall I go there? or shall I seek,
Another clime, another sky,
Where tongues familiar music speak,
In accents dear to memory?
Yes, as I mused, the naked room,
The flickering firelight died away;
And from the midst of cheerless gloom,
I passed to bright, unclouded day –
A little and a lone green lane,
That opened on a common wide;
A distant, dreamy, dim blue chain,
Of mountains circling every side –
A heaven so clear, an earth so calm,
So sweet, so soft, so hushed an air;
And, deepening still the dream-like charm,
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere –
That was the scene – I knew it well;
I knew the pathways far and near,
That winding o’er each billowy swell,
Marked out the tracks of wandering deer.
Could I have lingered but an hour,
It well had paid a week of toil;
But truth has banished fancy’s power:
I hear my dungeon bars recoil –
Even as I stood with raptured eye,
Absorbed in bliss so deep and dear,
My hour of rest had fleeted by,
And given me back to weary care.’
Emily Brontë wrote this poem in December 1838, during her brief spell as a teacher at Law Hill near Halifax. It shows that for her there was only one place for a holiday – the old, familiar Haworth. Whilst Emily would become increasingly attached to the Parsonage and its surrounds, becoming a virtual recluse after her return from a year in Brussels, she could find relaxation and stimulation whenever she needed it, simply by walking across the moors she knew so well.
Out of all the Brontë sisters it was Charlotte who had the greatest yearning to travel. Even during the months and years that she resided at Haworth she would often journey to spend time with her friend Ellen Nussey at Birstall or at Hathersage, where her brother had been made vicar. These last sojourns proved particularly fruitful, as Hathersage was later recreated on paper as the Morton of ‘Jane Eyre’.
Charlotte’s love of travel developed in childhood. All of the Brontë siblings were fascinated by the tales of exploration and adventure that they read about in their father’s newspapers and magazines – this after all was a time of great exploration, led by people like Mungo Jerry and Hugh Clapperton. These tales were the catalyst for the creation of the imaginary lands of Angria and then Gondal, whose little books were the result of a ‘scribblemania’, as Charlotte put it, that would later find release in the novels we love so much today.
Whilst the other Brontës were happy to confine their adventures to the page, Charlotte wanted to explore in real life. This wanderlust was the reason that Charlotte jumped at the opportunity to head to Belgium at the beginning of 1842. Ostensibly travelling, with Emily beside her, to learn languages that would help attract pupils to their proposed school, she was really journeying to fulfill her dream of seeing new faces and places in a new country.
Charlotte’s Belgian adventure did not end well, returning to England with little more than a broken heart. She later found holiday-like enjoyment in her visits to London. After the death of her sisters, Charlotte began to appear within the London literary scene, and this gave her the chance to experience sights and events that were far removed from those she knew in Yorkshire. One event that had a particular impact on her was the Great Exhibition which ran in London’s Hyde Park from May to October of 1851. The huge structure in which it was held was christened the Crystal Palace, and within it were held treasures of science, art and culture from around the world. To Charlotte, and the millions of others who attended, it was a magical experience. She visited on numerous occasions, and gave a vivid description of what she saw:
‘Yesterday I went for the second time to the Crystal Palace. We remained in it about three hours, and I must say I was more struck with it on this occasion than at my first visit. It is a wonderful place – vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there, from the great compartments filled with railway engines and boilers, with mill machinery in full work, with splendid carriages of all kinds, with harness of every description, to the glass-covered and velvet-spread stands loaded with the most gorgeous work of the goldsmith and silversmith, and the carefully guarded caskets full of real diamonds and pearls worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. It may be called a bazaar or a fair, but it is such a bazaar or fair as Eastern genii might have created. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth – as if none but supernatural hands could have arranged it this, with such a blaze and contrast of colours and marvellous power of effect. The multitude filling the great aisles seems ruled and subdued by some invisible influence. Amongst the thirty thousand souls that peopled it the day I was there not one loud noise was to be heard, not one irregular movement seen; the living tide rolls on quietly, with a deep hum like the sea heard from the distance.’
This was one of the greatest moments of Charlotte’s life, and a perfect holiday experience for her. Whilst she was captivated by the living tide, the sea of humanity, it was a very different tide that charmed her youngest sister Anne Brontë. From her earliest days, Anne loved the sea. The crashing, roaring waves with their white topped sprays held the same place in her heart that the wild purple moors held in Emily’s. We get a glimpse of Anne’s love of the sea in her 1839 picture ‘Sunrise Over Sea’. In this picture the sea is a vision of beauty, gilded by the golden rays of the sun, and at its centre is a woman with her back to us. With her characteristic long curled hair, it seems that this is a picture of Anne herself.
What is remarkable about this picture is that it was created before Anne had ever seen the sea, but a year later that would change. In June 1840 she made her first visit to Scarborough on the east coast of Yorkshire, spending around a month in Wood’s Lodgings in company with the Robinson family of Thorp Green, for whom she was working as a governess. She would make five such visits in all, and then one further visit in company with Charlotte and their friend Ellen Nussey in May 1849 – this was of course Anne’s final journey, as she had chosen to die in the place that meant so much to her.
Just what did Anne Brontë love so much about Scarborough? She liked the exciting new spa building and the grand bridge crossing to it, she loved the regular musical concerts given in the town, but most of all she loved to walk the sands and look out to the vast expanse of the sea. As she did so, she imagined two other women looking out to the sea from a similar beach in their childhood: her Aunt Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, the mother she had never known. Aunt Branwell was immensely proud of Penzance, and we know that she often talked about it. For Anne, who shared a room with her aunt throughout her childhood, these tales were magical, and they gave her a glimpse into the happy childhood her mother had spent by the Cornish coast. Anne would never travel to Penzance, it was after all further from Haworth than Brussels was, but Scarborough became her own substitute for it. Anne’s love of Scarborough, then, was a symbol of her love for her aunt and of her longing to have known her mother.
Anne Brontë’s idea of a holiday coincides with what many of us think ideal today – sand, sun and entertainment. August is the month when many of us take a holiday, and next week I will be taking a few days break myself. I’m not going to the coast, London is my destination. As I walk the streets I’ll be thinking of the journey Anne herself made there in July 1848. The noisy crowds may not be barred away in the capital’s bustling streets, but I’ll certainly find time to relax and smile (if not sing).
August 1st 2017 is Yorkshire Day, and so of course it’s the ideal day to remember the Queens of Yorkshire: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë! This Yorkshire Day is of special significance in Halifax, as it marks the grand re-opening of one of the county’s most beautiful, and historically important buildings, the Halifax Piece Hall.
The Piece Hall dominates the West Yorkshire town of Halifax, but for years it has lain unused, a ghostly reminder of the past. After an extensive refurbishment it re-opens today, and will be home to food stalls, artisan craft shops, and independent traders of all kinds. The picture at the top of this post is actually of the crowds waiting to enter this morning. First opened to the public in 1779 it was a grand symbol of municipal pride, and an imposing reminder of how much the town of Halifax was growing. It was the woollen industry that was making the towns of Halifax and nearby Huddersfield wealthy, and the hall’s initial function was as a place for hand loom weavers to sell pieces of cloth.
This connects the Piece Hall with Haworth, ten miles to the north, as the village’s growth at the turn of the 19th century was largely thanks to an influx of hand loom weavers and woolcombers. It was hot and laborious work, and contributed to Haworth’s unsanitary conditions, as the government inspector Charles Herschel Babbage found when he inspected Haworth, at Patrick Brontë’s request, in April 1850:
‘In order to obtain the proper temperatures for the operation [woolcombing] iron stoves are fixed in the rooms where it is carried on, which are kept alight day and night and the windows are seldom, if ever, opened excepting in the height of summer. In some cases, I found that this business was carried out in bedrooms, which consequently became very close and unhealthy from the high temperatures maintained by the stoves and want of ventilation.’
The Piece Hall has another link to the Brontës, as it would certainly have been well known to both Emily and Branwell Brontë. In 1840 Branwell became assistant clerk at Luddendon Foot Railway Station, and Halifax became his regular drinking haunt – often alongside his sculptor friend Joseph Bentley Leyland and his brother Francis. One pub known to be frequented by Branwell was the Old Cock Inn, and it stands in the shadows of the Piece Hall.
Halifax was also the haunt of Emily Brontë between the autumn of 1838 and the spring of 1839, a time when she served as a teacher at Miss Patchett’s school known as Law Hill at Southowram. The village of Southowram is on the outskirts of Halifax, and as it’s surrounded by moors it was surely to Emily’s liking. It is also at a significant elevation, and the road leading up to it is far steeper and longer than the famous climb of Haworth’s Main Street. It offers a fine view down into the valley of Halifax itself, and the building that stands out above all others is the Piece Hall.
It is hard to give a precise end date to Emily’s time as a teacher, but it is generally accepted now that she lasted little more than half a year in the role. Nevertheless, these were pivotal months – both the building known as High Sunderland, a short walk from Law Hill, and the bizarre history of Law Hill itself would remain imprinted in Emily Brontë’s memory until they came to play central parts in ‘Wuthering Heights‘.
Celebrations will be going on all day and night at the Piece Hall today, and part of the celebrations involves brass band music that we know Anne Brontë and her siblings enjoyed at Haworth. Celebrations will also be taking place across the county of the Brontës, and of course my own county as well, to mark Yorkshire Day. You don’t have to know what ‘Ee bah gum, has tha put wood in t’oil?’ means (answer: ‘excuse me, have you closed the door?’) to celebrate Yorkshire Day – if you love the works of the Brontë sisters then you can count yourself as an honorary Yorkshire person (though I can’t guarantee you’ll get a Yorkshire passport).
199 years ago today, a very special girl was born in the parish of Thornton near Bradford. She was the fifth child of the parish priest and his Cornish wife, and as they looked down on their new baby they could little have guessed the impact she would have on the world of literature. She was no ordinary baby, she was Emily Jane Brontë.
When you think of the impact that she has made on readers it’s astonishing to think that Emily Brontë wrote just one novel, the supremely powerful Wuthering Heights before being struck down by tuberculosis aged just thirty. Less than two years after Emily’s own birth she gained a younger sister in the form of Anne Brontë and just a few months later the family would move to a new parish, the nearby village of Haworth.
Emily lost her mother Maria when she was just three years old. She and Anne being the youngest in the family, they clung to each other for comfort and support throughout their childhood and into their adult lives. Both girls were extremely shy, often hugging each other for comfort when in the company of strangers and hiding away together, and they shared many of the same interests: from walking the moors, to playing the piano, from looking after their ever expanding collection of pets to reading the exciting adventure stories of Walter Scott.
As Emily and Anne grew up together their love for each other strengthened, and became almost twin like. Family friend Ellen Nussey saw this first hand, and as well as noting how they walked with their arms entwined with each others whenever possible, she said: “She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.”
It was Ellen who also gave us a description of the teenage Emily: “Emily had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little.”
Emily was by far the tallest of the Brontë sisters, and was generally of strong and robust health as well, and yet she couldn’t master her shyness. When she went to Roe Head school, where her sister Charlotte was teaching, she became so homesick that she had to be sent home for fear of her life itself, as Charlotte relates: “Every morning when she woke the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me – I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home.”
It was Anne who took Emily’s place, although also suffering from shyness throughout her life she mastered it in a way that her elder sister never could. As children Emily and Anne wrote a vast array of poetry and prose about their imagined kingdom of Gondal, and soon the lines between Gondal reality and Haworth reality became blurred for Emily. She retreated further and further into her world of make belief, and was never happier than when alone on the moors – occasions that took on a spiritual and mystical aspect for her.
It was Emily’s poetry that was responsible for the wonderful work of the Brontë sisters that we know and love today. It was well known to her sisters that Emily still wrote Gondal poetry, but she also had a secret book in which she wrote non-Gondal poetry. When Charlotte ‘accidentally’ discovered this book the course of literary history was changed forever:
“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they also had a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating.”
A terrible argument ensued as Charlotte tried to persuade Emily to have her poetry published, but her reserve was finally defeated when Anne and Charlotte agreed to contribute their poems as well. The result was ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’. It sold only two copies, but the sisters had now got the writing bug and decided that for their next venture they would each attempt a prose volume that they could have published jointly. Charlotte’s contribution, ‘The Professor’, was rejected but Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’ were published together by Thomas Cautley Newby & Co in 1847.
Emily was disdainful of literary success, and of the criticism that her novel received. It was as if she had lain pearls before swine, and she would not make that mistake again. The publication of ‘Wuthering Heights’ marked the end of Emily’s writing life completely, with just one poem written subsequent to it; her prodigious output of poetry is amongst the best written in the English language, and often has a visionary quality that reveals to us the inner world Emily was living in. Outwardly calm and quiet, by the candlelight of nigh she would be visited by incredible and elating visions that would power and inform her writing.
I personally have a lot to be thankful to Emily for. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was the first novel on my reading list at University, and within a few sentences I was hooked. My love of the Brontës was formed, and it has brought untold joy into my life ever since. That very weekend I made my first journey to the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and bought a portrait claimed to be of Emily Brontë (although I now feel that it is actually of Anne); it hung on my wall as a student for three years.
Next year will be a very special year indeed as we mark the 200th anniversary of Emily’s birth, and I’m proud that my biography of Emily will be released to mark the occasion. For now, we can all celebrate by reading some of Emily’s poetry, her astonishing novel, or watching a film version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as we say ‘Happy 199th Birthday, Emily Brontë’!
A representative of her Majesty’s Government this week declared Jane Austen ‘one of our greatest living writers’. Andrea Leadsom’s faux pas rightly earned her derision, as after all this week also marked the 200th anniversary of Jane’s death. On July 18th 1817, in a rented house in Winchester, Jane drew her last breath aged 41, but in her all too short life she had revolutionised the world of writing for ever. Jane not only helped secure the popularity of the novel as an art form, often seen as subservient to poetry at the time she wrote her first work, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, in 1811, she also paved the way for new generations of women writers who would follow her – and of course, chief among these to my eyes are Charlotte, Emily and Anne – the Brontë sisters.
Leadsom’s comments have caused debate not only because she seems to think that Jane Austen is ready to produce Pride and Prejudice too at the age of 241, but also because of the supremacy she gave to her writing. Some say that Jane is without a doubt our finest novelist, whereas others say that she cannot be considered as great as the Brontës. In my opinion, they are very different writers, but all four of them are worthy of veneration and admiration. In both Jane’s life and writing there are comparisons with the Brontë sisters, and startling contrasts.
Jane was after all an early nineteenth century writer who never married and lived with her family throughout her life. So far, so similar to our favourite siblings Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who, admittedly, did marry aged 38, only to succumb to the effects of excessive morning sickness and die less than a year later).
Another striking similarity between Jane Austen and the Brontës stands out: sisterly love. Emily and Anne Brontë in particular were very close, being referred to as being like inseparable twins and often seen with their arms entwined with each others, despite their two year age difference. A similar relationship existed between Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra, two years older than Jane and always by her side throughout her triumphs and set backs, and also through her final illness.
There may also be a similarity between Jane and Anne Brontë in matters of love. Anne’s writing gives us a strong hint that she was in love with her father’s assistant curate William Weightman, but his early death from cholera put an end to any hopes Anne may have held of a future for them. Jane Austen too knew love, but found it thwarted. Tom Lefroy was the prototype of Mr. Darcy, just as Weightman was the prototype of Rev. Weston in Anne’s first novel ‘Agnes Grey‘. In Jane’s case the prospect of love was ended not by death, but by a drifting apart. It seems that in both cases, Anne and Jane never loved again.
In other ways, however, Jane Austen differed markedly from the Brontës. Jane was writing earlier in the century than Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and in a century that changed so radically as the decades advanced, this made a huge difference. Jane Austen was very much a regency woman, familiar with the values and traditions of the late eighteenth century, whereas the Brontës grew up at the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, and witnessed the huge social impact brought by the industrial revolution in a way that Jane never did. As an example of this, Jane Austen travelled to London from Chawton, in Hampshire, in 1815 by horse drawn carriage. In 1848, Charlotte and Anne Brontë travelled from Keighley to London via train.
The purpose of these two meetings reveals another important difference between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters: Jane was travelling to meet the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was a huge fan of his work; Charlotte and Anne Brontë were travelling to meet the publisher George Smith, where they would finally reveal their true identity away from the masks of Currer and Acton Bell that they had hidden behind.
Jane Austen’s writing made her famous in her lifetime, a success that Anne and Emily would never know or desire. The Brontë sisters needed money in a way that Jane never did, but they eschewed fame and preferred public anonymity, although after the death of her younger sisters Charlotte did, reluctantly, step into the limelight.
Another important distinction between Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters was their social position. Whilst the Brontës were respectable, thanks to their father Patrick’s position as a long established priest in the Church of England, they were never rich, and were solidly lower middle class, whereas Jane was from an upper middle class background. Her financial position, and her position in society, became even more secure when her brother Edward was adopted by the very wealthy Thomas Knight. Knight had no children of his own, and in 1783 chose his distant relative the 15 year old Edward Austen, afterwards Edward Austen Knight, to be his legal heir. Edward adopted a number of grand properties, including the beautiful Chawton House. He also obtained a nearby property at Chawton for Jane to live in, and it was there that she worked on some of her greatest masterpieces.
The contrast between Jane’s brother Edward and the Brontës’ brother Branwell could not be greater: Branwell seemed to be a promising talent in his own right, but there would be no wealthy patronage for him, and he died at the age of 31 after a long addiction to drink and opium.
Some have said that Jane Austen was obsessed with ‘marriage-ability’ in her novels, and obtaining or escaping matrimony is certainly her most central theme, but this was of incredible import to middle class women in Jane’s day, especially if, like the Bennets of Longbourn, they have been ‘entailed’ out of any prospect of coming into an inheritance.
I was watching a newspaper reviewer on Sky News this week discuss the use of Jane Austen’s appearance on the new ten pound note. He said that she was a Victorian Mills & Boon writer, her works are nothing but Love Actually written a hundred years ago. I was fuming at this level of ignorance and buffoonery, from the smirking buffoon on the sofa, and I feel sorry for people who share this view and haven’t discovered the brilliance of her work. Thankfully, as the unveiling of the first ever lifesize statue of Jane in Basingstoke this week showed, there are still huge numbers of people who are moved and exhilarated by her work:
Jane Austen was, above all things, a spectacularly good writer. The pages of her novels seem to turn themselves, and they are joyous reads, even though they can also be emotional rollercoasters. They are also incredibly humorous, and contain much more comedy than you find in Brontë novels. They are also highly satirical in a way that is absent from the Brontë novels. Austen novels are set in a world of high incomes, and grand stately homes filled with servants, but Jane clinically dissects this world and often holds it up for ridicule.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the then celebrated Irish author George Moore wrote:
“If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.”
We can equally lament that Jane Austen did not live another ten years. Her novels will always be read and always be loved. While ever this planet of ours continues its restless orbit around the sun, readers will still swoon over Fitzwilliam Darcy, and his ten thousand a year, and root for Emma to put her matchmaking to one side find her Knightley. Times will change, but the novels of Jane Austen will remain timeless. For me, of course, Anne Brontë and her sisters will always occupy a position of supremacy in the writing pantheon, but there’s certainly room for Jane Austen and her novels in my affection too. It’s been wonderful to see the events in Hampshire, Bath, and beyond this week – Jane rightly being remembered, and celebrated.
I like the new bank note, even if Jane has been airbrushed a little. The quote used on the note has attracted some mockery: ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.’ This is said by Miss Bingley in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, in order to win the approval of book loving Mr Darcy. On seeing it has little effect on him, she dashes her book onto the couch and looks for something ‘more interesting’ to do. I think it’s an excellent quote for the note, even if its meaning may have passed by the Bank of England commissioners: it is, after all, an excellent example of the irony and humour that runs like a vein of gold through Jane Austen’s writing. I do think, however, that the next note should feature the Brontë sisters – after all in this age when we all strive for equality we would then have three more women on bank notes for the price of one. We have a perfect ready made quote from Anne Brontë as well, this time delivered without a hint of irony:
‘Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.’