The Sheffield University archives contain a series of diaries from a woman whose grandson became a Professor there, and who then gifted them to the institution. The entry from exactly a hundred and ninety eight years ago today reads as follows: ‘Ann [sic] Brontë born – the other children spent the day here.’
The writer of the diary was Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House in Thornton, near Bradford, and on that cold January day, her home was filled with the five children of the local minister: Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë and the little Emily Jane Brontë, then just a year and a half old. Just a few hundred metres away, a climb up to the centre of the moorside village of Thornton, a rather different scenario was being played out as Maria Brontë, once Maria Branwell of Penzance, was giving birth to her sixth and final child. This child of course is much loved by me and many others, for in adult life under the guise of Acton Bell she would give us the masterpieces ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘.
Looking out of my window I see that snow is now covering the ground of South Yorkshire, and I know that the hills and moors around Thornton and Haworth in West Yorkshire are buried under an even thicker white blanket. This is appropriate as records show that it was also snowing on the day that Anne was born 198 years ago. As was the customary in those days, it’s likely that a local midwife would have helped with the birth and it would have taken place in front of the large fireplace that still forms the centre point of the building today – now the excellent Emily’s bistro!
The other Brontës, as we have seen, were under the eagle eye of Elizabeth Firth, then only 22 herself. She is a central figure in Anne’s story as she was chosen to be Anne’s godmother, along with her school friend Fanny Outhwaite. These kind hearted women never forgot their goddaughter. Just 29 years later, on 14th February 1849, Fanny Outhwaite died, and left Anne the considerable sum of £200 in her will. It was from this money that Anne, by then herself dying, paid for her final journey to Scarborough in the company of Charlotte and their kind, loyal friend Ellen Nussey.
Elizabeth could have had an even more pivotal role to play in the Brontë story, as just months after the death of Maria Brontë senior in 1822, Patrick proposed marriage to the young woman of Kipping Hall. Elizabeth was horrified at the timing of this and considered the match entirely unsuitable. She later married Reverend James Franks, and eventually she and Patrick rekindled their former friendship.
If we could travel back to the January day in 1820 and take a look at the baby Anne at Thornton Parsonage or the Brontë children at Kipping House just what would we see? We would see children just like any others, for when we look upon any infant in its cradle who can say what they will turn out to be or do? Baby Anne would grow up to be a very special woman indeed, one whose achievements are only now starting to be recognised. Wherever you are, stop to raise a glass of something cold or warm and say ‘Happy 198th birthday, Anne Brontë!’
We are now half way through the first month of 2018 (tempus fugit), which is of course the year above all other years that we remember the brilliant Emily Brontë. Her writing has captured the imagination of the world for a hundred and seventy years, but in many ways she remains an enigma. She didn’t make pronouncements on politics or the society of her time, she wasn’t a letter writer, she hardly interacted with other people at all when she could avoid it – to Emily Brontë, writing was everything. One of the greatest mysteries surrounding her life is why she only wrote one novel, the brilliant Wuthering Heights, and there has long been speculation over whether she had commenced or completed a second novel?
The evidence for a second prose work by Emily is found in a letter from Thomas Cautley Newby dated 15th February 1848. The letter, now part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection, is addressed to Ellis Bell and reads:
‘I am much obliged by your kind note & shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your next novel. I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your new work if it be an improvement on your first you will have established yourself as a first rate novelist, but if it falls short the Critics will be too apt to say that you have expended your talent in your first novel.’
Newby was the man who had published both Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, although he believed the writers to be called Ellis and Acton Bell. It is often said that Newby may have meant to address this letter to Anne Brontë, Acton Bell as he knew her, as she went on to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for him. This seems unlikely to me, however, as although he deliberately caused confusion about the Bell’s names when trying to sell rights to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in America (causing Anne and Charlotte Brontë to make their ill fated journey to London in the summer of 1848) he was above all else a businessman focused on making money and therefore unlikely to mix his authors up. The greatest proof is that the letter was found within Emily Brontë’s writing desk after her death, so it seems clear that it was intended for her, and that she had at least considered writing another novel.
If Emily Brontë did write at least some part of a second novel, what happened to it? We know that Charlotte Brontë burnt much of her sisters’ writings after their deaths, including juvenilia and letters. This was a common practice in those times, and Charlotte admitted to ‘pruning’ their work. It seems most likely to me that any work on this second novel by Emily was one of the selections consigned to the flames, but just how much progress on it is Emily likely to have made?
It seems to me there are two possibilities. One is that Newby sent an earlier letter to Emily, now lost, asking her for an update on a second novel that she had already agreed to (as we can surmise from Newby’s publication of Anne’s second book, despite his earlier shabby treatment of her); Emily sends a terse response to his letter saying that she is taking her time with it (having not actually contemplated writing one at all) which in turn leads to Newby’s letter quoted above.
Another possibility is that Emily, in an effort to raise her own spirits, had sent a letter to her publisher stating that she was thinking of writing another novel if he would be interested in taking it. Emily was an intensely private woman who was distraught at the reception her work had received from the public: she was called coarse and brutal, misunderstood and condemned. If she did begin work on a second novel it is likely that these harsh and unfair judgements on her previous work would have continued to trouble her, resulting in slow progress if there was any progress at all. In either scenario that Newby’s letter throws up it seems unlikely to me that Emily ever commenced any meaningful work on the book.
Of course, this is just conjecture on my part – like so many things in the Brontë story it will have to remain a mystery. Conjecture itself can be rewarding, however, as trying to get closer to the sisters’ lives is always enjoyable. The bottom line is that Emily Brontë left us just one novel, but as it’s the greatest novel ever written I don’t think we should complain too much.
We have entered the last moments of 2017, and as 2018 looms it’s time to make New Year resolutions. I never know what to resolve to do, so I thought that this year I’d take inspiration from my very favourite people – the Brontës. Here is a light hearted, and not so light hearted, look at what I think the Brontë resolutions may have been, based upon extracts from their own letters and writings.
Anne Brontë: I will speak my mind more in 2018.
“Oh, reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience… When I feel it is my duty to speak an unpalatable truth, with the help of God, I will speak it, though it be to the prejudice of my name and to the detriment of my reader’s immediate pleasure as well as my own.”
(Preface to the second edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’)
Branwell Brontë: I will believe in myself more in 2018
“Now, sir, do not act like a commonplace person, but like a man willing to examine for himself. Do not turn from the naked truth of my letters, but prove me – and if I do not stand the proof, I will not further press myself upon you. If I do stand it, why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë.”
(Letter to Blackwood’s magazine, 1837)
Whatever Branwell‘s faults were, he certainly didn’t lack self-belief. This is one of the letters he wrote to Blackwood’s, a magazine the Brontë siblings loved, pointing out that they should hire hime as a writer. He never received a reply, although they did keep his letters.
Patrick Brontë: I will not care what others think of me in 2018
“I do not deny that I am somewhat eccentrick. Had I been numbered among the calm, concentric men of the world, I should not have been as now I am, and I should in all probability never have had such children as mine have been.”
(Letter to Elizabeth Gaskell, 30th July 1856, after her less than flattering portrait of him in her ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë‘)
Elizabeth Gaskell, believing the testimony of a sacked servant, unfairly portrayed Patrick as a cruel man. His riposte proves the opposite, and he went on to say that her biography of his daughter Charlotte was ‘every way worthy of what one Great Woman, should have written of Another, and that it ought to stand, and will stand in the first rank of Biographies, till the end of time.’
Charlotte Brontë: I will see more of the world in 2018
“Mary’s letter spoke of some of the pictures & cathedrals she had seen – pictures the most exquisite & cathedrals the most venerable. I hardly know what swelled to my throat as I read her letter – such a vehement impatience of restraint & steady work, such a strong wish for wings – wings such as wealth can furnish, such an urgent thirst to see, to know, to learn. Something internal seemed to expand boldly for a minute – I was tantalized with the consciousness of faculties unexercised – then all collapsed and I despaired.”
(Letter to Ellen Nussey, 7th August 1841)
Letters from Brussels, via her other great friend Mary Taylor, had awakened Charlotte Brontë’s wanderlust. With the help of Aunt Branwell‘s money she did eventually make it to Brussels, as a pupil and then teacher, but it led to a doomed unrequited love affair with the Professor Constantin Heger. From this turmoil came Charlotte’s great characters of Rochester and Paul Emanuel.
Emily Brontë: I will keep in touch with my friends more in 2018.
“All here are in good health, so was Anne according to the last accounts – the holydays will be here in a week or two and then if ‘she’ be willing I will get her to write you a proper letter – a feat that I have never performed.”
(Letter to Ellen Nussey, May 22nd 1843)
Ellen was one of Emily’s very few friends, and the two surviving letters of Emily Brontë are both addressed to her. Both, however, are only a few lines long. Emily, as she acknowledged, was not a letter writer as her sisters were. What she was, however, was a poet and novelist of the very finest order, and it is that which we will celebrate in 2018 on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of her birth. We are about to enter the year of Emily Jane Brontë, so may I wish you all a very Happy New Year!
As you may know, this Anne Brontë blog switched hosts earlier this year and in the process some previous posts were lost, including a Christmas post from yesteryear. As we celebrate this joyous day in 2017, I felt it was time to re-load it to the site – this is, after all, a time for repeats. Once again then, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, thank you for your continued support, especially recently, and present this beautiful poem that Anne Brontë wrote on Christmas Day 1843 – Music On Christmas Morning:
‘Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.’
With just hours to go until the dawn of Christmas Day, excitement and anticipation is growing around the land, and a similar feeling could be felt in a remote moorside parsonage nearly two hundred years ago. The Brontë’s Christmas celebrations were much less commercially oriented than the ones we know today, but they still enjoyed the joyous day – as evidence of this, we find many references to Christmas within the Brontë novels.
Christmas features most of all within Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, and we get a glimpse of what Christmas would have been like not only at Thrushcross Grange and the Heights, but also in Haworth. After a Christmas cake and a ‘fragrant feast’ the revels begin:
‘In the evening we had a dance. Cathy begged that he [Heathcliff] might be liberated then, as Isabella Linton had no partner; her entreaties were in vain, and I was appointed to supply the deficiency. We got rid of all gloom in the excitement of the exercise, and our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them. After the usual carols had been sung, we set them to songs and glees. Mrs Earnshaw loved the music, and so they gave us plenty.’
I remember carol singers knocking on the door every Christmas in my childhood, but now it seems that the tradition has been forgotten and allowed to die away – I’d better not get started on that! Back to ‘Wuthering Heights’, where the dour manservant Joseph is less than enamoured of the festivities, however, and indeed of festivities of any kind:
‘After playing lady’s maid to the new comer, and putting my cakes in the oven, and making the house and kitchen cheerful with great fires, befitting Christmas eve, I prepared to sit down and amuse myself by singing carols, all alone; regardless of Joseph’s affirmation that he considered the merry tunes I chose as next door to songs.’
To Joseph, singing cheery songs is a great sin, and in him we see a representation of the hardline Calvinists that were becoming more influential within the Church of England at this time – men such as the fire and damnation preacher William Carus Wilson who founded the dread school at Cowan Bridge recreated by Charlotte Brontë as Lowood.
‘Jane Eyre’ also allows Charlotte to reveal what a typical Christmas was like at the time, on this occasion at the Gateshead estate where the young Jane is being lovelessly brought up:
‘Christmas and the New Year had been celebrated at Gateshead with the usual festive cheer; presents had been interchanged, dinners and evening parties given. From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded; my share of the gaiety consisted in witnessing the daily apparelling of Eliza and Georgiana, and seeing them descend to the drawing-room, dress out in thin muslin frocks and scarlet sashes, with hair elaborately ringletted; and afterwards, in listening to the sound of the piano or the harp played below.’
By the way a prototype of Jane’s cousin Eliza may well be Eliza Williams, a second cousin who visited the Haworth Parsonage in 1840, leading Charlotte to write in a letter to Ellen Nussey:
‘My cousin Eliza is a young lady intended by nature to be a bouncing, good-looking girl. Art has trained her to be a languishing affected piece of goods. I would have been friendly with her, but I could get no talk except about the Low Church, Evangelical clergy, the Millennium, Baptist Noel, botany, and her own conversion. A mistaken education has utterly spoiled ‘the lass’.
‘Mary offered to lend the little she possessed; but my mother declined it, saying, that we must begin on an economical plan; and she hoped that the whole or part of mine, added to what we could get by the sale of the furniture, and what little our dear papa had contrived to lay aside for her since the debts were paid, would be sufficient to last us till Christmas; when, it was hoped, something would accrue from our united labours.’
Agnes is very much a representation of Anne herself, and so here we see a representation of what we undoubtedly know by looking at their employment history – that Anne was the most practical of the Brontë sisters.
We see a very different side to Christmas in Anne’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, as the heroine Helen’s diary entry reveals a day far removed from happy celebrations:
‘DECEMBER 25th. – Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future, though not unmingled with foreboding fears. Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered, but not destroyed; my hoped diminished, but not departed; my fears increased, but not yet thoroughly confirmed.’
There then follows an incredibly moving passage, as Helen looks down upon her infant child Arthur, full of fears that he will grow up to be like his father – leading her to pray that God should snatch him away from her now if that was to be his fate. Christmas features in another powerful and moving passage near to the book’s close, wrapped in the symbolism of a Christmas rose:
‘Without waiting for an answer, she turned away her glistening eye and crimson cheek, and threw up her window and looked out, whether to calm her own excited feelings or to relieve her embarrassment, or only to pluck that beautiful half-blown christmas rose that grew upon the upon the little shrub without, just peeping from the snow that had hitherto, no doubt, defended it from the frost, and was now melting away in the sun. Pluck it, however, she did, and having gently dashed the glittering powder from its leaves, approached it to her lips and said – “This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, Gilbert, it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals – Will you have it?”’
These two beautiful passages referred to above are more than enough, in my opinion, to confirm Anne Brontë as one of the greatest writers of all time. I’ll certainly be thinking of Anne at Christmas time, and also all of you wonderful people who read my blog – have a very merry Christmas!
It’s December 19th, a happy day when Christmas is around the corner – but for one family on the western extremity of Yorkshire 169 years ago it was very different. Death had come to the Haworth Parsonage, and on December 19th 1848 it was to claim Anne Brontë’s beloved sister, Emily.
As children Anne and Emily Brontë, the youngest members of the family had been inseparable and although they were very different in appearance Ellen Nussey had described them as being like twins. As they grew older they often walked the moors together, created the fictional land of Gondal together, and wrote together, but at last a journey was coming that Emily must walk alone.
1848 had started triumphantly for the Brontës, as Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey had been published jointly a month earlier and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre had become an overnight sensation. It was to end very differently. Their brother Branwell had sunk further into his drink and opium addiction, but his condition suddenly worsened and on September 24th he died. Whilst the official cause of death was put as ‘marasmus’ this chronic wasting had in fact been a sign of tuberculosis. At Branwell’s funeral, Emily started to cough too – it is thought that this was the last time she ever left the Parsonage.
It soon became apparent to all that Emily was gravely ill. She was becoming very thin and coughing violently, but refused any medical help and said that all doctors had was ‘quackery’. In vain, Charlotte consulted leading homeopaths, but Emily refused to take their medicines or followed their advice. It was dreadful for Anne and Charlotte to watch their sister carry on as if nothing was wrong with her, but as always once Emily had made up her mind she could not be dissuaded. Emily still insisted as always on feeding the dogs Keeper and Flossy from scraps of bread and meat held in her palm. A sudden draught blew underneath the Parsonage door and swept Emily off her feet blowing her against a wall. Refusing help even now, she slowly regained as if nothing had happened.
On the following morning, she had trouble rising but insisted on walking down the stairs and doing the household duties she had been carrying out as before. It is likely, however, that by now Emily had gone blind. ‘I’ll see the doctor now’, she finally said, but it was far too late. At two o’ clock in the afternoon of 19th December, 1848, Emily Brontë, the great solitary genius of the Yorkshire moors, died. We can imagine that her hand was held by Anne, the sister she loved more than anything else in the world. Six months later, tuberculosis would come back to claim her as well.
Death was not something Emily Brontë was afraid of, indeed she had often addressed it in some of her most powerful poetry, as shown here at the conclusion of her great poem ‘A Death-Scene’:
One long look, that sore reproved me For the woe I could not bear – One mute look of suffering moved me To repent my useless prayer: And, with sudden check, the heaving Of distraction passed away; Not a sign of further grieving Stirred my soul that awful day. Paled, at length, the sweet sun setting; Sunk to peace the twilight breeze: Summer dews fell softly, wetting Glen, and glade, and silent trees. Then his eyes began to weary, Weighed beneath a mortal sleep; And their orbs grew strangely dreary, Clouded, even as they would weep. But they wept not, but they changed not, Never moved, and never closed; Troubled still, and still they ranged not – Wandered not, nor yet reposed! So I knew that he was dying – Stooped, and raised his languid head; Felt no breath, and heard no sighing, So I knew that he was dead.
In a moving letter to Ellen Nussey, two days before Christmas 1848 Charlotte revealed the aftermath of Emily’s passing:
‘Emily suffers no more either from pain or weakness now. She never will suffer more in this world – she is gone after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible then she might be with us still for weeks and a few hours afterwards she was in Eternity – yes, there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now. Yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the church pavement’
Yes, indeed there is no Emily in Time or on Earth, but to all those who read her words and love her she will live on in our hearts forever. And on that point, a big thanks to those who have provided me with support after my post last Sunday about the insulting selection of Lily Cole as Emily’s creative partner in the pivotal year of 2018. I was surprised by how much my words seem to have touched a chord, and I’m very grateful. The organisers of this calumny will not admit any fault, of course, and they even contacted me on Twitter to ‘clarify that there have been no consultants in the Bronte Society’, seemingly oblivious to their 2015 external consultants Rowie Shaw and Sue Charteris, not to mention the appointment of Kitty Wright as Chief Executive, whose LinkedIn profile begins: ”I’m a strategically focused communications and arts management professional, who has also worked in the legal sector. I have a record of leadership, change management, policy development and project delivery.’
Ah well, they certainly can’t prevent us all from taking down a favourite book and having a great Brontë Christmas!
In life and in this blog I try to be positive whenever possible, but on very rare occasions I find myself in sympathy with Charlotte Brontë when she wrote after a confrontation with Miss Wooler that set her employer crying for two days: ‘I was in a regular passion, my “warm temper” quite got the better of me – of which I don’t boast for it was a weakness, nor am I ashamed of it.’
Charlotte was renowned for her fiery temper, so we can only imagine how angry she would have been with the Brontë Society’s plans for Emily Brontë’s celebrations in 2018, announced this week.
July 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Jane Brontë, author of, in my opinion, the greatest novel ever written – Wuthering Heights. She was a reclusive woman who increasingly retreated into her fantasy world of Gondal – and yet you couldn’t meet Emily without feeling in awe of her, and knowing you were in the presence of someone very special. Ellen Nussey, for example, was Charlotte Brontë’s best friend and yet she felt that even Charlotte could not match Emily’s achievements, as she wrote in a letter to Meta Gaskell, Elizabeth‘s daughter:
‘I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no women of greater or more incontestable genius.’
I have Emily to thank for my love of the Brontës. Wuthering Heights was the first book on my list when I commenced my English degree in 1989 – I was instantly hooked, and made my first visit to the Brontë Parsonage museum that weekend. From that moment also I was counting down the days to my 21st birthday so that I could take life membership of the Brontë Society. Alas, the actions of the Brontë Society now mean that I can longer continue being a member.
This week the Brontë Society announced some of their plans for their year of celebrations for Emily Brontë. At first I was dismayed, now I am angry – what should have been a joyous year with genius at its centre has instead become a rank farce with the news that their Creative Partner for 2018 is Lily Cole.
If you don’t know Lily Cole, and you’d be in the majority, she is described as ‘a model and social entrepreneur’ (whatever that is). I am unfortunate enough to have encountered Lily before as a few years ago I had a front row seat of a new play about Helen of Troy at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Lily had the title role, and the play was so bad that it is the only one I have ever walked out of at the interval. If the acting was bad, and believe me it was, the dialogue was even worse – one line in particular was of such clunking ineptitude that it has remained with me forever: ‘women smell my power, men smell like sex’. It was when Lily delivered this line with all the passion of the announcer at Piccadilly station that I began longing for the train home.
This was, quite simply, the worst play I have ever seen, and the writer of it? Simon Armitage, the incumbent creative partner at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. So here we see one of the many problems with Lily’s appointment – nepotism. Nepotism is a disease particularly rampant in literature, so that the best way to get a book deal is to be a journalist, a celebrity, or a friend or relative of one. This is particularly evident at this time of year, when newspaper’s lists of the ‘books of the year’ feature writers bigging up those who share the same agent or publisher – an act known as ‘log rolling’. We now have a Brontë log roll, as Simon Armitage passes on the baton to his friend Lily Cole.
Lily’s acting career has since encompassed Marks & Spencer adverts, a role in the St. Trinian’s movie, and a risible star turn in a documentary about Elizabeth I this year. How can anyone have thought that this made her a suitable choice to be in charge of Emily Brontë’s celebration year? I have nothing against Lily herself, other than her terrible acting, but against the people who selected her.
Over the last few years it has become increasingly apparent that something is rotten in the state of Haworth’s Brontë Society. Annual General Meetings have descended into open warfare between modernisers and traditionalists, but it seems now that the council is being run along the lines of BBC farce W1A. For the last two years or so, a consultancy has been advising the Brontë Society on what to do – with pathetic results.
The drive now is for one thing – attracting a young audience. Being trendy is the ultimate aim, with the Brontës themselves relegated to the sidelines. The museum has a wealth of Brontë treasures, but they are now favouring the display of artificial items they feel will appeal to a modern audience. For this reason rather than seeing Branwell’s items in his anniversary year, we see a mock up, TV style, guess of what his studio would have looked like. In 2016, Charlotte’s year, a large display area was given up to a modern artwork of miniature pieces that had been fabricated in some sort of bizarre tributes – including a miniscule pair of shoes with a sign underneath saying that Charlotte had sewn them together using hair from her sisters. From what I heard at the time, and what I’ve seen shared on social media, many people believed these ridiculous items were authentic, when the fact was the authentic items were locked away in storage. The rot had set in.
The drive to attract younger members to the Brontë Society is a pointless one. We hear people say, echoing the consultants, that the membership is too old – ‘look at the events, look at the meetings, everyone is old!’ In today’s society it has become a crime to be old.
Where is the problem in the majority of members being middle aged or older? Yes they will eventually wither and fade from this world, but they will then be succeeded by another generation if middle aged and old society members. It is the way it always has been and always will be, unless they drive loyal members away, as they have done with me.
There is talk of increasing multimedia presentations at the parsonage – this is complete anathema to me. The Brontë’s works and belongings should be at the very centre of the museum. Why watch a film about the Brontë items when you could be looking at the items themselves? Museums should be places of quiet and contemplation, awe inspiring places where the imagination is aloud to take flight free of bombardment from artificial sights and sounds.
This idea would make the consultants, and board of the Brontë Society, choke – how could I have such silly, outmoded ideas? Whoever appointed Lily Cole as creative director, no doubt at the nudging of Simon Armitage, needs to look in the mirror and step aside. The central question should be, what would Emily Brontë think if she found that the role of chief ‘artist’ and organiser in her celebratory year was a supermodel? We all know the answer to that, and anyone who doesn’t isn’t fit to make the decision or have any role in the governance of the Brontë Society. The very basic rule should have been that the person chosen for such an important role as creative partner is a writer.
This is in no way a denigration of many of the brilliant staff at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, and their wonderful volunteers who give up their time not to attract a certain demographic but because of their passion for the Brontës. They are heroes, but it brings to mind the fate of our World War One soldiers who were lions led by donkeys.
There are other long standing problems with the actions of the society – not least in their failure to interact with many of the brilliant businesses and shops in Haworth – the shops who often invite representatives of the Society to their meetings, but are left waiting in vain. Equally dismaying is their downplaying of Thornton in the Brontë story when they should be creating stronger ties with the fabulous village where the Brontë story began.
I am obviously completely out of kilter with the Brontë Society and it’s aims, but I am afraid I shall stay in my old fashioned world where I can continue to gain immense pleasure from the words of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë – and it is their words above all else that are their true museum and testimonial. I will certainly still continue to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum, it is a place I love more than any other, but I can no longer continue to be a member of the Brontë Society whose leaders’ views are so opposed to my own. It’s best that I leave the society now, before they announce James Corden as the creative partner for 2019, a year in which Patrick Brontë is being remembered, and Rita Ora as organiser for Anne Brontë’s celebrations in 2020.
My rant is over, normal service will be resumed next week – but as Charlotte Brontë knew all too well, sometimes you just have to write because you can’t help it.
Haworth never looks more beautiful than when it’s under a coating of snow, with the white expanse of moorland stretching away beyond it in rises and falls – as shown in the picture at the head of this post, which is thanks to the wonderful Haworth shop Hathaways. As snow is general all over England today (to borrow a line from James Joyce) I thought we should look at the Brontë’s attitudes to snow in their lives and writing.
The freezing temperatures that Haworth has in December must have been even more fierce for Anne Brontë and her sisters, without any form of automated heating and without the thick layers of clothing that we take for granted today. The best they could do would be to pull another shawl around their shoulders, and place metal pattens over their shoes to protect against the damp and ice.
As anyone who has visited knows, Haworth Main Street is very steep, as are many of the streets running off it, so it can be especially treacherous in winter. It is for this reason that the road is cobbled, giving extra traction to human boots and horse hooves.
Tabby Ayckroyd, the loyal and much loved servant of the Brontës, found out how dangerous it could be in the winter of 1836 when she slipped on ice and sustained a broken leg. This caused pain and discomfort for Tabby for the rest of her life, and Patrick Brontë and Aunt Branwell suggested that it would be better for her to leave their employ to be looked after by her sister Susannah. The Brontë sisters, however, would hear none of this and threatened to go on hunger strike unless Tabby was allowed to stay – they won the day, but as Tabby was no longer able to carry out all her previous tasks it marked the start of Emily’s years as Haworth Parsonage’s very own domestic goddess.
Snow would not have stopped Emily walking upon the moors she loved, though it may have prevented Anne from accompanying her as she liked to do. Worse even than the snow were the cold winter winds that blew, rattling window panes and creeping under doors. They often brought ill health with them, as Anne Brontë revealed in an 1848 letter to Ellen Nussey:
‘We are all cut up by this cruel east wind, most of us i.e. Charlotte, Emily, and I have had the influenza or a bad cold instead, twice over within the space of a few weeks; Papa has had it once, Tabby has hitherto escaped it altogether.’
Snow features in all the sisters’ books, but it is almost a character itself in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – gone is the white purity normally associated with snow; it is instead dark, blinding, incredibly dangerous – snow is in effect nature’s Heathcliff.
We see Lockwood losing his way in an incredible snow storm, and of course we see Cathy’s ghost appear surrounded by snow as well, snow that Heathcliff is oblivious to in his state of anguish:
‘“Come in! Come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! My heart’s darling! Hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice; it gave no sign of being; but the snow and wind whirled wildly through, even reaching my station, and blowing out the light.’
Heathcliff is often seen covered in snow, but it does little to hide his true nature:
‘His hair and clothes were whitened with snow, and his sharp cannibal teeth, revealed by cold and wrath, gleamed through the dark.’
Snow is also found in Anne Brontë’s debut novel Agnes Grey, but once again it is a troubling presence as Agnes has to chase the wicked Bloomfield children through it:
‘All three escaped me, and ran out of the house into the garden, where they plunged about in the snow, shouting and screaming in exultant glee. What must I do? If I followed them, I should probably be unable to capture one, and only drive them farther away, if I did not, how was I to get them in? And what would their parents think of me, if they saw or heard their children rioting, hatless, bonnetless, gloveless, and bootless, in the deep, soft, snow?’
Much of Agnes Grey is based upon Anne’s own experiences as a governess, and we can surely see hear a reflection of a real life dilemma Anne experienced when in charge of the unruly Ingham children of Blake Hall in Mirfield.
Snow features heavily in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre too, and once again it signifies danger or despair, as when Jane returns to her room after the terrible truth of Rochester and Bertha has been revealed on what should have been her wedding day:
‘A Christmas frost had come at midsummer: a white December storm had whirled over June; on hayfield and corn-field lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and fragrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway.’
Snow is also used as a metaphor in Charlotte’s final finished novel Villette, as it is used in the surname of the heroine Lucy Snowe. We know that in original drafts she was called Lucy Frost, but both surnames sum up the cold hearted despair that Charlotte herself felt when rejected by Constantin Heger in Belgium, the real life catalyst for her brilliant novel.
If you’re going out today wrap up warm – and don’t forget your winter bonnet and pattens!
We are now into the series of Advent and many of us are gearing up for Christmas – and of course this is a time that would have excited Anne Brontë and her family too, even though the concept of Christmas in the first half of the nineteenth century is very different to the one we have today.
Christmas, for good or bad, has become a commercially driven festival, but the giving of presents was done on a much smaller scale in the Brontë’s time, and the exchanging of Christmas cards was completely unheard of.
Anne Brontë was undoubtedly the most devout of the Brontë siblings, so she in particular would have loved the Advent celebrations advancing week by week in her father’s church a short walk from the parsonage she called home – such as the lighting of advent carols and the singing of hymns. Christmas music was a particular delight to Anne – so much so that she wrote a poem called ‘Music on Christmas Morning’, which begins:
‘Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.’
The village of Haworth also loves music at Christmas – and indeed the Advent Christmas period as a whole is one of particular joy in this beautiful moorside village. In recent decades the modern tradition of ‘scroggling the holly’ has drawn the crowds, but there is no scroggling this year – fear not, for there are lots of other exciting activities coming that are great for Brontë lovers and families alike. This weekend is ‘choral weekend’ – one the whole Brontë family would surely have enjoyed. The 9th of December is the night of the torchlight procession, a moving spectacle as folks in Victorian attire process up the steep and picturesque Main Street. Sunday the 10th is even more spectacular, as a there is a candelit carol procession from 4.30 which culminates in a traditional carol service at St. Michael and All Angels’ Church.
The following weekend is brass band music – and there really are few sounds more magical than brass bands playing the carols and songs we all love. There are a number of top quality bands playing around Haworth all weekend – and I’ll be there myself on the 17th (don’t worry I’m only listening in, not playing a tuba!).
The Brontë Parsonage Museum is also particularly magical throughout December – particularly on Thursday 8th December – as there’s a chance to experience the parsonage by candlelight and then look at some of the Brontë treasures including manuscripts by Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It’s a tour I’ve done myself, and it truly is thrilling. Places are limited but you can find out more at the Brontë Society website here – where you’ll also find details of other events including Christmas wreath making workshops.
It’s certainly beginning to feel a lot like Christmas here in Yorkshire, by which I mean that it’s absolutely freezing of course, but life feels good when you wrap up warm and read a Brontë book with a warm drink near to hand!
Anne Brontë, the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria Brontë, was born not in Haworth but in Thornton – another moorside village of Bradford, around six miles distant. She was just three months old when her family moved to Haworth, the village that would become forever associated with the Brontë sisters, but the story of why they moved is a fascinating and surprising one in its own right.
Patrick was a clergyman in the Church of England from County Down in what is now Northern Ireland. He had enjoyed a number of assistant curateships before becoming vicar of Thornton, and he was delighted at first to find that the post gave him a parsonage to live in free of charge, the building which is now the wonderful Emily’s on Market Street. The Brontë family was growing, however, and Patrick soon wrote to his Bishop to say it was inadequate for him.
It was perhaps with this in mind that in mid-1819 the Vicar of Bradford offered him the opportunity to become Curate of Haworth after the death of its long time incumbent James Charnock. Haworth was a strange parish in many ways, as it was a sub-parish of Bradford meaning that the Vicar of Bradford, Henry Heap, received a percentage of the money it raised. Heap also thought that meant he had the right to select Haworth’s curate, but an ancient tradition stated that the parish elders were allowed to select their own priest. This caused a stand off reported in The Leeds Intelligencer newspaper in June 1819:
‘We hear that the Rev. P. Brontë, curate of Thornton, has been nominated by the vicar of Bradford, to the valuable perpetual curacy of Haworth, vacated by the death of the Rev. James Charnock; but that the inhabitants of the chapelry intend to resist the presentation, and have entered a caveat accordingly.’
Made aware of the strength of the villager’s complaint, Patrick informed Heap that he no longer wished to be considered for the post. The Vicar of Bradford then installed Reverend Samuel Redhead in the position; he had stood in for Reverend Charnock throughout his illness, so was surely a safe choice – in this belief, Reverend Heap was badly mistaken.
The Haworth elders were even more incensed that they had been snubbed twice and reacted furiously to Redhead’s appointment. There are two accounts of what happened next. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her brilliant biography of Charlotte Brontë, describes the Haworth villagers stamping on the church floor with their clogs until Redhead could not be heard at his first service. They later send a drunken chimney sweep on the back of a donkey to confront him, and then chase him out of the church with such threats of violence that he has to flee on horseback.
This sounds a wild account, but the actuality may have been even worse as there is one other account, and it comes from the Bishop of Ripon, a man who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Charles Longley stayed at Haworth in March 1853. Patrick Bronte’s account of how he came to be curate of Haworth amazed him so much that he immediately wrote to his wife, and this letter is now part of the archives at Lambeth Palace. What he describes is nothing less than an attempt to murder their priest Samuel Redhead:
‘There is an ancient feud between Bradford and Haworth… the people of Haworth can by the trust deed of the living, prevent the person appointed by the vicar [of Bradford] from entering the Parsonage or receiving any of the emoluments, if he does not please them… in the case of Mr. Redhead, the inhabitants exercised their right of resistance and opposition and to such a point did they carry it, that they actually brought a Donkey into the church while Mr. Redhead was officiating and held up its head to stare him in the face – they then laid a plan to crush him to death in the vestry, by pushing a table against him as he was taking off his surplice and hanging it up, foiled in this for some reason or other they then turned out into the Churchyard where Mr. Redhead was going to perform a funeral and were determined to throw him into the grave and bury him alive.’
Following this there was no way that Redhead could officiate there again, so at last a compromise was reached. Henry Heap met the villagers who agreed to accept his original choice, Patrick Brontë, as long as they could officially nominate him rather than the vicar – keeping their old rights alive. This is how Anne Brontë came to travel, cradled in her mother’s arms, across the moors on April 20th 1820. It was an auspicious move, for although Haworth brought terrible tragedies to the Brontë family, with Maria Brontë dying just a year after her husband had taken up his new position, it also provided the stimulus and inspiration for a series of books that changed the literary world.