Jane Eyre, The 1983 TV Adaptation

This weekend I visited Halifax to see their Gentleman Jack weekend celebrations. Suffice to say they did this excellent series proud, and Shibden Hall was filled with fans from across the world. I’ve reported previously on Emily Brontë’s possible visit to Shibden, the once home of Anne Lister, and of the many Brontë connections to the beautiful town of Halifax, but I was pleased to see that one of Shibden Hall’s very knowledgeable guides is also a guide at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth; now there’s a woman who goes the extra mile to support Yorkshire’s cultural and literary heritage!

For reasons of time, today’s post may be a little shorter than usual but I’ve decided to dedicate it to a review of a series that I’ve just finished watching: ‘Jane Eyre’, produced by the BBC in 1983. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we can now watch many different versions of Charlotte Brontë’s brilliant tale and I’d been given this particular version as a well selected Christmas present.

I’m a huge fan of the BBC’s 2006 version of ‘Jane Eyre’ starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens (who has fine form as a Brontë actor, as he also played Gilbert with aplomb in an earlier ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘), so when I first sat down to watch 1983’s offering, it had a lot to live up to.

Young Jane Eyre 1983
Robert James is a particularly chilling Mr. Brocklehurst

The first thing that caught the attention was the theme music, slow, melodic, plaintive and beautiful it perfectly prepares us for the drama ahead. The second thing a modern viewer can’t help but notice is that many of the sets look ‘stagey’ in a way that we wouldn’t expect today, so that it has an air of a theatrical production rather than relying on special effects or big budget location shots.

Another thing that grabs the viewer from the off is how faithful the script is to the words that Charlotte Brontë herself set down on the page, with the dialogue lifted almost entirely from the original novel. I’m very much in favour of this, as after all a screenwriter would have to be superb at their craft to be able to write as well as Charlotte did – although it has to be pointed out that the screenwriter on this occasion, Alexander Baron, was a master of his craft!

Two characters above all others dominate ‘Jane Eyre’ in both book and dramatised form; we are, of course, talking of Jane herself and Rochester, so these have to be correct. Some have found fault in key aspects of both of these characters in the 1983 adaptation, saying that Zelah Clarke is too old to play Jane, and that Timothy Dalton is too handsome to play Rochester. Certainly, we can scoff when Zela’s Jane keeps saying that she is in her late teens (when the actress was ten years older) or when Rochester says that he is twenty years older than Jane, or when it is pointed out that he is ugly – the two characters appear to be the same age, and nobody in fairness could say that the future James Bond was lacking in the looks department.

Jane and Rochester 1983
Zelah and Timothy as Jane and Rochester

These could be faults that hole this adaptation below the water line, but they don’t because of the superb directing and superb acting constantly on display. Even when he’s supposedly disfigured from the fire at Thornfield Hall (oops, spoiler alert), Dalton still looks like he’s been carved very effectively and rather flawlessly out of a lump of granite, and yet when he opens his mouth I was completely taken in by his portrayal of Rochester. Gruff, bluff, argumentative, and hugely charismatic, at times frightening and at others fragile – if you’ve only seen Dalton as Bond, you’ll be amazed at the power of his performance on display here.

Jane Eyre 1983 wedding
Jane’s wedding doesn’t go to plan

Zelah on the other hand, may look less like an unworldly teen than Charlotte intended, but yet again this fails to detract from her excellent performance. She delivers her words with precise pronunciation, but in her pauses we can feel the pounding passion and fierce intelligence within Jane. By the end of the series I completely believed in this Jane and rooted for her, and it is easy to see why Rochester would become so enraptured by her.

Here are all the scenes you would expect to see in a TV ‘Jane Eyre’; the cruelty at Lowood, Jane extinguishing the fire, the halted wedding and the death of Bertha. These are all done faithfully and well, but there are two scenes in particular that stand out, both of which simply see Jane and Rochester sat side by side. Firstly we see Jane’s protestations to Rochester when she thinks she is being dismissed from his service (of course he actually proposes to her): “Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain and little that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you!”. The tension in the night air is palpable at the start of this same scene, as Rochester proclaims, “Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane? I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you, especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”

Rochester feverish
A feverish Rochester prepares to propose in the scene above

Finally, as the eleven part series ticks into its last minutes we see Jane agree to marry Rochester once more:

“Jane, will you marry me?”
“Yes sir.”
“A poor blind man, whom you will have to lead about by the hand?”
“Yes, sir.”
“A crippled man, twenty years older older than you, whom you will have to wait on?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Truly, Jane?”
“Most truly, sir.”

These scenes have practically no scenery, little action, but a profusion of beauty that still tugs at the heartstrings long after you’ve seen them – it is at these moments that you realise that Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke are actually perfect for their roles.

disfigured Rochester
Jane tends the blind and disfigured Rochester

Zelah is more than suitable physically in one aspect as she is diminutive in stature, with others on screen towering over her, which is maybe why I found myself thinking she would have been perfect to portray Charlotte Brontë herself in a drama of her life. For all the fine acting, and the supporting cast is excellent as well, with particular credit I feel going to Andrew Bicknell as the obsessive St. John Rivers, it is Charlotte Brontë’s words that take centre stage and hold the spotlight brilliantly. That’s how it should be, which is why this has now firmly taken its place as my very favourite ‘Jane Eyre’ adaptation and I recommend it to you all.

Thomas Newby, Brontë Publisher And Con Man

This week was a particularly exciting one for two members of the Brontë household in 1847, for on 4th July of that year Emily and Anne Brontë sent the manuscripts of their first novels to their publisher. The novels were ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and ‘Agnes Grey‘ respectively, and the publisher was the London firm of Thomas Cautley Newby, but just who was he and was he reputable?

Agnes Grey frontispiece
The Newby published first edition of Agnes Grey

Anne and Emily must have been delighted to receive an offer from Newby, after receiving a succession of terse rejection notes from other publishers, but their immediate joy would have been tempered for two reasons: firstly, Charlotte had failed to find a publisher for her work, ‘The Professor’, and secondly Newby had stated that the sisters would have to pay him an upfront sum of £50. This was a considerable amount of money, two years salary on a typical governess wage, but, using money left to them by their Aunt Branwell, they paid and on that July day sent the completed and corrected manuscript proofs to him.

After this they waited, and waited, but there seemed little sign of the books actually being released. So slow was the process that Charlotte not only managed to write another book but have it published before the works of ‘Ellis’ and ‘Acton’ Bell saw the light of day. It seems that it was the success of Charlotte’s book, Jane Eyre of course, that spurred Newby into finally releasing the novels that he held, realising that he could cash in on the overnight success of what he presumed was a brother of the two authors he’d signed up. Newby was a shrewd marketer with an eye for a profit, for himself at least, but what else was he?

Founding his firm in 1843, Newby became known for discovering and publishing debut novels by new authors, and the Brontës weren’t the only ‘find’ of his that has gone on to take a place in the literary pantheon, as in this same year 1847 he also published a first novel called ‘The Macdermots of Ballycloran’; its author? Anthony Trollope.

Anthony Trollope and his family had less than happy dealings with Newby

Newby finally published ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ in December 1847, but when they received their six author copies, Emily and Anne were dismayed to see that the errors they had diligently corrected in the proofing process had remained in the finished and printed works.

By November 1847 it was already clear that all three sisters were concerned about Newby’s methods as we see in a letter from Charlotte to W. S. Williams who worked for her publisher:

‘A prose work by Ellis and Acton will soon appear: it should have been out, indeed, long since; for the first proof sheets were already in the press at the commencement of last August, before Currer Bell had placed the M.S. [manuscript] of ‘Jane Eyre’ in your hands. Mr. Newby, however, does not do business like Messrs. Smith and Elder, a different spirit seems to preside at 72 Mortimer Street to that which guides the helm at 65 Cornhill. Mr. Newby shuffles, gives his word and breaks it… my relatives have suffered from exhausting delay and procrastination… I should like to know if Mr. Newby often acts as he has done to my relatives, or whether this is an exceptional instance of his method?’

The ever perceptive Charlotte already had the measure of her sisters’ publisher, for this was indeed his method – along with his other favoured tactic of obfuscation and downright lies, as the family were to find out to their cost in July 1848.

The story is now well known of how Newby had been telling an American publisher that all three ‘Bell’ brothers were the same person, and that his new work for sale, Anne’s second novel ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ was actually by the author of the acclaimed ‘Jane Eyre’. When Charlotte’s publisher Smith, Elder & Co. heard of this they wrote to ‘Currer’ for clarification and this led to Charlotte and Anne travelling to London to clear up the mystery, finally revealing their true identity. The terrible downside of this was that on their return to Haworth it seems likely that one of them brought back a strain of tuberculosis then endemic in London, and which would reduce the four siblings to one within a year.

George Eliot 1849
George Eliot fought back against Newby’s methods

Newby’s other con tricks involved bringing out sub standard ‘sequels’ to best selling books, fooling the public into wrongly thinking the original author had produced a new work. One such author insulted in this way was George Eliot who protested strongly when Newby announced that he was about to publish ‘Adam Bede, Junior, A Sequel’. Newby, in the manner of habitual liars before and since, broke out in indignant anger, writing to the Evening Mail of London to defend his name on 5th December 1859. This letter is particularly interesting to us, for in it he gives direct comments on his relations with Anne Brontë, as he saw them at least:

‘Sir – my attention has just been called to a letter in your paper to-day, signed “George Eliot”, which charges me, untruly, with asserting and desiring to have it thought that Adam Bede, Jun., a Sequel, is the work of the individual bearing that name. My announcement contains no such suggestion, nor have I wished that “George Eliot” should be supposed to be the author of the work.

With respect to “George Eliot”s’ allusion to the Life Of Miss Brontë, the misrepresentation made there was quite as great as some others in the same work which became more notorious. I published all the novels of Acton and Ellis Bell. No disagreement ever took place between those ladies and me, and long after the publication of Jane Eyre, Miss Anne Brontë brought me a work, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, which I published in due course. If “George Eliot” had confined himself to describing truly the terms of of my announcement of Adam Bede, Jun., a Sequel, he would neither have required to trouble you with a protest against what never happened, nor to reproduce a most palpable misrepresentation levelled at a publisher whose name the author of Miss Brontë’s life [Elizabeth Gaskell] declined to give, but whom “George Eliot” for the first time identifies with me. I am, Sir, your obedient servant, Thomas Cautley Newby, 30, Welbeck-Street, Cavendish-square’

As always we do well not to take Newby at his word, especially as he seems to labour under the impression that George Eliot, real name Mary Anne Evans, is a man. I think it’s fair to say that his dealings with Anne and Emily were rather less honest than he implies too, although it remains a mystery as to why Anne published her second novel with him rather than switching to Charlotte’s exemplary publisher, as the elder sister had suggested.

Trollope received no money from Newby for his debut novel, and that fate would surely have befallen Emily and Anne too, if Charlotte’s publisher George Smith hadn’t spoken directly to Newby about it, resulting in him finally sending a cheque of £90 for royalties – alas too late, the authors by that time were dead.

Thomas Cautley Newby letter
Newby defended himself in the Evening Mail

Despite his protestations of innocence, Newby also had to admit defeat in his battle against George Eliot, and the Adam Bede sequel was never published. He continued to follow the same antics with other big names, however, including Anthony Trollope, and he was as notorious and untrustworthy a publisher as could be found until he finally stopped his presses in 1874. Anthony’s mother Fanny Trollope was a hugely popular novelist at the time (although Charlotte once called her books a ‘ridiculous mess’) and she too fell victim to Newby’s ways after he brought out a series of books by an in house novelist called simply ‘F. Trollope’ – no doubt, as in his letter addressing George Eliot above, Newby would have protested that he was making no suggestion that the books were by Fanny.

He was a scoundrel and a cad, but it seems to me that if he hadn’t decided to make an easy fifty pounds from Ellis and Acton Bell, the likelihood is that the sisters would have exhausted all of their contacts and become finally discouraged; without Thomas Cautley Newby, then, and all his insincerities, cons and tricks, it seems highly possible that there would be none of the Brontë novels we love today.

An Account Of Charlotte Brontë’s Wedding

If only we could have stepped back in time and arrived back in Haworth in 1854, we would have witnessed a magical event yesterday, for on 29th June the assistant curate of the parish married the parson’s daughter- the happy couple were, of course, Arthur Bell Nicholls and Charlotte Brontë.

I was lucky enough to witness a re-enactment of this wedding a few years ago (that’s it at the head of this post), but there was an earlier re-enactment in 2004 also and, thanks to the Haworth Village website we can enjoy pictures of that grand day, some of which I will use to illustrate this post.

Charlotte. Margaret Wooler and Ellen in the background
Charlotte, Margaret Wooler and Ellen in the background

We know quite a bit about the wedding day – how Charlotte was married at eight in the morning, the earliest time a marriage could legally take place, and how soon after the ceremony was completed the bride and groom set off across the moors for a honeymoon in Wales and Ireland. We know how her father Patrick wasn’t feeling well enough to make the short journey to the church, and how Charlotte’s friend and former teacher Margaret Wooler instead took the role of father of the bride and gave Charlotte away. Her bridesmaid was Ellen Nussey, finally reconciled after news of the impending wedding had earlier caused a rare rift between the two great friends.

Arthur was accompanied by his two closest clerical friends, the Reverends Sutcliffe Sowden and James Grant. Sowden conducted the wedding ceremony; Grant had preceded Arthur as assistant curate to Patrick Brontë, and by the time of the wedding had become curate of neighbouring Oxenhope parish. Charlotte was not a fan of Grant and had written to Ellen saying that he would be invited to the wedding breakfast (reception) but not the ceremony itself. I believe, however, that she must have relented and that Grant served as best man, as he accompanied Arthur into the church.

Arthur places the ring on Charlotte
Arthur places the ring on Charlotte

How do I know this? Well yesterday, while thinking about the marriage, I chanced upon a report hidden in a 1913 newspaper. It was with a man who had, as we shall see, played a vital role in the ceremony, although his presence and name have been forgotten in the intervening century. The man, James Robinson, was at the time of the interview a retired headteacher in Wombwell, Barnsley, but in 1854 he had been a 17 year old in Haworth who was being trained to be a teacher by Arthur Bell Nicholls, and he knew the couple well. Robinson gives Arthur a glowing tribute before the account of the wedding, saying ‘I never saw a man feel more than he did’, and ‘no kinder-hearted man or one more anxious to see others improve their position in life, ever lived, and I myself – I might say scores besides – have him to thank for putting us in the way to make a way in life instead of remaining where we had been born.’ This is the side of Arthur those who knew him saw, but one we don’t often think of today.

Robinson’s recollection of the wedding day itself is illuminating and, I think, very moving, and we learn, for one thing, that the Haworth villagers knew nothing of the wedding until it happened. I leave you with his account now, and as we read it we can almost step back in time to that June morning 165 years and a day ago:

Sutcliffe Sowden watches Charlotte sign the register
Sutcliffe Sowden watches Charlotte sign the register

“They were married during my apprenticeship. It was not known in the neighbourhood that the marriage was coming off, and to my surprise, when going past the end of ‘Church Fields’ to my lessons one morning, old John Brown, the sexton, was waiting for me, and said: ‘We want tha to go to t’top of t’ ‘ill to watch for three parsons coming from t’other hill, coming from Oxenhope. Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls are going to be married, and when tha sees Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Sowden coming at t’ far hill, tha must get back to t’ Parsonage, so’s Charlotte and Ellen Nussey can get their things on to go down to t’ church.’

I returned with the message, and then was told to get the parish clerk. I found him just beginning to light his kitchen fire, and I had to rush him off, as I knew they would be at the church doors by the time we should get there. He seemed hard of belief. I said, ‘Come on, there’s no time to waste.’

On the way he said, ‘I must stop to lace my boots.’ He did so, and just as the clock was going to strike eight, the three clergymen walked into what they called the front door of the old church and Miss Brontë and Miss Nussey walked together in at the back door.

As far as I remember, the only persons present at the ceremony were those I have named [there was also Margaret Wooler of course]. Directly the ceremony was over, and the interested parties had gone to the parsonage, a carriage and pair drove up from Keighley. There was no station at Haworth then. I remember there was a bay horse and a grey one, and in a few moments Miss Brontë and Mr. Nicholls, now married, were away on their honeymoon. A message came to me to go to the parsonage for breakfast, and I went.”

Past and present brought together
Past and present brought together

Thomas Tighe And The Importance Of Kindness

In this world, whatever politicians tell us, there’s one thing more important than any other: kindness. We should all strive to be kind to others, and to help others whenever we can. It’s not always easy of course, and I’ve failed in this endeavour as much as the next person, but I’ll keep on trying because, although we may not always see them, an act of kindness done today can bear great results in the future – for proof of that we only have to look at the Brontës.

The Brontës themselves often exhibited kindness, such as the story we saw about Charlotte Brontë providing boots to a shoeless man, or the time that Patrick Brontë had to advise the wife of a fellow clergyman who had ill treated her and her children; many years later the woman, Mrs Collins, returned to Haworth Parsonage to thank him, and Charlotte Brontë reported how much better she looked, and how she’d started her own business and achieved a better life for herself.

Frances Richardson Currer
Frances Richardson Currer came to the aid of the Brontes and others

Patrick and his family not only gave kindness, they benefited greatly from it. After the death of his wife, Patrick was left with large debts from medical bills, but his friends rallied round and saved him from the threat of bankruptcy – and he was especially thankful to a ‘benevolent woman’ who sent him £50. This woman was the renowned philanthropist Frances Mary Richardson Currer, and Charlotte’s choice of the lady of Eshton Hall’s name as her pen name may have been a tribute to her. Without an earlier act of kindness, there wouldn’t have been any Brontë family at all.

Patrick was a gifted child, but from a poor background, and one with seemingly no future prospects other than helping to run the family farm, subsidising it by working as a weaver. One day, after finishing his weaving tuition, the young boy was sat outside reading aloud from Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. It was auspicious timing, for a person passing by was about to change his world, and ours, for ever.

The man was the Reverend Thomas Tighe, parish priest of Drumgooland, and he recognised instantly that here was a young boy of huge promise, and that it would be unfair if a poor background preventing him reaching that potential; luckily for us all, he was in a position to do something about it.

Drumballyroney church
Drumballyroney church, presided over by Thomas Tighe

Tighe was from a wealthy family, and was not above acts of philanthropy himself, even though he was very much a Wesleyan and lived a very simple life. Tighe immediately arranged for the young boy to receive schooling alongside his weaving tuition, and so excellent was the young scholar that within a few years he had appointed the now teenage Patrick as a teacher at Drumballyroney School, and even made him a tutor to his own children.

Patrick had now entered a different way of life, but Reverend Tighe was to take this even further by eventually securing Patrick a place at his old Cambridge college, St. John’s, and sponsoring his studies and travel (Patrick was known as a sizar, a student from a poorer background who was given a bursary).

St John's College, Cambridge
St John’s College, Cambridge, alma mater of Patrick Bronte and Thomas Tighe

These acts of kindness by Thomas Tighe changed Patrick’s life completely – gone was a future as a subsistence farmer, and in its place came a life of respectability and security as an educated man and a Church of England minister. Tighe was certainly an enlightened minister; in an earlier post in Bath, he had founded a ‘Charitable Institution for the Release or Support of Imprisoned Debtors’.

Incidentally, it may have been the good reverend who was responsible for the name change Patrick took, as well as for the change in the course of life he entered upon. An article in the Morning Post from 23rd October 1877, reports:

“The readers of Mrs. Gaskell’s ‘Life of Charlotte Brontë‘ are aware that her father was the son of a small farmer in the county of Down, but it is not so generally known that his real name was Patrick Prunty, and that when he proceeded to study divinity at Oxford [sic] he exchanged it, at the suggestion of his friend and patron, the Rev. Mr. Tighe, for the name which his daughter subsequently made famous.”

Was, then, Thomas Tighe the real cause of Patrick’s name change, perhaps realising that this too would help his career in the church at a time when anti-Irish sentiment was high? Whether that’s true or not, we can all follow Tighe’s example, and act as disseminators of kindness and catalysts for positive change, even if we do still let out a curse or two when we’re cut up on our morning commute.

Fathers In Brontë Prose And Poetry

Today is Father’s Day where we remember the men who did so much to smooth our path through life, whether they’re still with us or not. The Telegraph and Argus newspaper of Bradford, the home city of the Brontë siblings of course, published an interesting and apt pre-Father’s Day post yesterday about Patrick Brontë; unfortunately it repeated the base accusation in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë that he only fed his children potatoes. This is plainly untrue, and has been disproved by many people who knew the Brontës and by Emily and Anne Brontë themselves who in their diary papers write of a varied and nutritious diet.

Patrick Brontë was in many ways a unique individual and a unique and enlightened father, but there can be no doubt that without his influence we wouldn’t have the Brontë books we love today. He allowed his daughters free reign to read what they would, including works by the likes of Shelley and Byron that would have been considered scandalous by many nineteenth century fathers. He also allowed them to develop their own characters and follow their own paths, and for that we can all be grateful.

The Brontes Of Haworth
Patrick Bronte portrayed in the 1973 series ‘The Brontes Of Haworth’

It seems strange then that fathers don’t figure at all in the Brontë novels, except as a plot device to cause a dramatic change at their passing. Take a look at all seven Brontë novels (Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, The Professor) and in every single one the heroine is either fatherless or loses her father at an early stage of the book. This isn’t any slight on Patrick, the sisters, great writers that they were of course, realised how effective this was as a plot device, meaning that their protagonists could go out into the world without any encumbrance, and without the familial chains that Victorian society would have expected to bind young women.

In Anne’s poems too, the father is absent, explicitly so in two of them. I leave you with one of them now, and say Happy Father’s Day to all fathers out there, and yet another Happy Sunday to every one of you! Here is Anne Brontë’s poem accredited to her Gondal heroine Alexandrina Zenobia, ‘Verses To A Child’:

“O raise those eyes to me again
And smile again so joyously,
And fear not, love; it was not pain
Nor grief that drew these tears from me;
Beloved child, thou canst not tell
The thoughts that in my bosom dwell
Whene’er I look on thee!
Thou knowest not that a glance of thine
Can bring back long departed years
And that thy blue eyes’ magic shine
Can overflow my own with tears,
And that each feature soft and fair
And every curl of golden hair,
Some sweet remembrance bears.
Just then thou didst recall to me
A distant long forgotten scene,
One smile, and one sweet word from thee
Dispelled the years that rolled between;
I was a little child again,
And every after joy and pain
Seemed never to have been.
Tall forest trees waved over me,
To hide me from the heat of day,
And by my side a child like thee
Among the summer flowerets lay.
He was thy sire, thou merry child.
Like thee he spoke, like thee he smiled,
Like thee he used to play.
O those were calm and happy days,
We loved each other fondly then;
But human love too soon decays,
And ours can never bloom again.
I never thought to see the day
When Florian’s friendship would decay
Like those of colder men.
Now, Flora, thou hast but begun
To sail on life’s deceitful sea,
O do not err as I have done,
For I have trusted foolishly;
The faith of every friend I loved
I never doubted till I proved
Their heart’s inconstancy.
‘Tis mournful to look back upon
Those long departed joys and cares,
But I will weep since thou alone
Art witness to my streaming tears.
This lingering love will not depart,
I cannot banish from my heart
The friend of childish years.
But though thy father loves me not,
Yet I shall still be loved by thee,
And though I am by him forgot,
Say wilt thou not remember me!
I will not cause thy heart to ache;
For thy regretted father’s sake
I’ll love and cherish thee.”

The Death And Funeral Of Patrick Brontë

This week I visited the ‘Patrick Brontë: In Sickness And In Health’ exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. As always, it’s well worth a visit, and it was good to see lots of people in attendance even on a midweek day.

The section on Patrick is contained in the exhibition room at the side of the shop, and here you’ll find a fascinating range of items, including Anne Brontë‘s bloodstained handkerchief and Patrick’s own medical books, complete with his own notes and additions. In those days when healthcare was little understood and often little available to the ordinary families of villages like Haworth, the village priest was often expected to be able to dispense medical advice. This was a task that Patrick took very seriously, and of course it was largely thanks to his efforts that reservoirs were built near Haworth and sanitation was improved, saving thousands of lives in the years that followed.

Anne Bronte handkerchief
Anne Bronte’s handkerchief at the exhibition

It was a particularly fitting time to visit, because this week marked the anniversary of the death of the Reverend Patrick Brontë.

Patrick died in the mid afternoon of 7th June 1861, aged 84. He had served as parish priest of Haworth for over 41 years, and his venerable age was both a blessing and a curse. He had achieved a huge amount, rising from very humble beginnings to Cambridge University and then a life of service to the church, and he’d also published a novel and poetry collections. Of course, he also had to witness the death of his wife and all six of his children.

Being curate of Haworth wasn’t an easy task at these tumultuous times (just ask his predecessor Reverend Redhead who had to quit the post after his parishioners tried to bury him alive), but through his unwavering commitment and genuine goodness, Patrick won the village over. Perhaps the greatest mark of the respect that he was held in can be found in the fulsome report of his death and funeral contained in the Bradford Observer of Thursday, 13th June 1861. He was loved by his children, and by his parishioners, and without his guidance would we have any of the Brontë novels we love today? I leave you with the Bradford Observer’s report:

In Sickness And In Health

“The last link connecting the Brontë family with the living has snapt asunder. The father of Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell died at the Parsonage of Haworth, on Friday last, at the age of 83. He went down to the grave in the ripeness of years, and as the last of his race, his gifted children having all died before their father. Mrs. Gaskell, in her “Life of Charlotte Brontë’,” has given a sketch of the life of Mr. Brontë, from which, and other sources, we give a few particulars, reserving for another opportunity some interesting particulars respecting the Brontë family, kindly to be supplied by an intimate friend of the deceased. The Rev. Patrick Brontë was born in the parish of Ahellerergh, County Down, Ireland, on the 17th March, 1777. His father was a farmer, and had a large family, remarkable for physical strength and personal beauty. Patrick Brontë gave early tokens of extraordinary quickness and intelligence. He had also his full share of ambition; and of his strong sense and forethought there is a proof in the fact that, knowing that his father could afford him no pecuniary aid, and that he must depend upon his own exertions, he opened a public school, at the early age of sixteen: and this mode of living he continued to follow for five or six years. He then became a tutor in the family of the Rev. Mr. Tighe, rector of Drumgooland parish. Thence he proceeded to St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he was entered in July 1802, being at the time five-and-twenty years of age. After nearly four years’ residence, he obtained his B.A. degree, and was ordained to a curacy in Essex; from Essex he removed about the beginning of this century to Hartshead cum Clifton, near Cleckheaton. Whilst incumbent of this place he married Miss Maria Branwell, a native of Penzance, who was reputed a woman of an excellent disposition and cultivated mind. At Hartshead two of his children, Maria and Elizabeth were born, after which Mr. Brontë removed to Thornton, near Bradford, where Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily June, and Anne were born. On the 29th February, 1820, he removed to Haworth, where he remained until his death. He was ever on kind and friendly terms with each denominational body; but from individuals in the village the family stood aloof, unless some direct service was required from the first. He was, however, faithful in visiting the sick, and all who sent for him, and diligent in attendance at the schools. He was of a strong passionate nature, which, however, he compressed down with resolute stoicism. He was universally esteemed by the people among whom he lived, and his demise is deeply lamented.

The Rev. Mr. Nicholls, the husband of the late Charlotte Brontë, better known as Currer Bell, was with the deceased in his last hours. He did not speak after six o’clock on Friday morning, and died between two and three o’clock that afternoon. The vacant living is in the gift of the Rev. Dr. Barnet, Vicar of Bradford. Mr. Brontë was, like his more celebrated children, addicted to literary pursuits. At least four works of his were published, viz., “Cottage Poems,” printed by P. K. Holden, Halifax, 1811; “The Rural Minstrel,” published in 1813, same printer; “The Maid of Killarney, or Albion and Flora,” printed by T. Inkersley, Bradford, 1818; and ” The Cottage in a wood, or the Art of becoming Rich and Happy,” same printer as the last, published in 1818. His compositions have some characteristics in common with those of his children, and at times display deep observation and vigorous power of expression. It is said that, when correcting the proofs of a sermon published in 1824, in the office of Mr. Inkersley, Bradford, he was assisted in his labors by a little daughter about eight years old, probably Charlotte, who learned thus early to manage proofs.

Yesterday, the remains of the venerable man were consigned to the tomb. By the authority of the Secretary of State, the grave of Charlotte Brontë was again opened, and the coffin of the father was placed beside that of the daughter. The old town of Haworth was full of mourners. The shops were closed, and business was entirely suspended. The old graveyard was crowded with a sorrowful stricken concourse. The Rev. A. Nicholls was the chief mourner. The Rev, Dr. Barnet, vicar of Bradford, and the Rev. Dr. Cartman, vicar of Skipton, preceded the coffin, which was borne from the parsonage to the church, and thence to the grave, by six clergymen resident in the immediate district, and close friends of the deceased – namely, the Rev. Joseph Grant, incumbent of Oxenhope; the Rev. Joseph Mitchell, incumbent of Cullingworth; the Rev. J. Taylor incumbent of Newsome; the Rev. William Fawcett, incumbent of Morton; the Rev. John Smith, incumbent of Oakworth; and the Rev. W. G. Mayne, incumbent of St. John’s, Keighley. The sublime and touching burial service of the Church of England was read, amidst the audible sobs of the surrounding crowd, by the Vicar of Bradford. The Rev. A. Nicholls appeared to be deeply affected, and was supported from the grave to the parsonage by the Vicar of Skipton. The day of mourning and woe will be long remembered in Haworth and the surrounding district.”

Following In The Footsteps Of Anne Brontë

At the start of this week I was in Scarborough to mark the 170th anniversary of Anne Brontë’s death. At 2pm, the moment of her passing, a large group of students from Sweden arrived and were stood by her grave, I’m sure it’s something that Anne would have loved. Anne certainly loved Scarborough, and that’s something I share too. The town has changed of course in the decades since Anne was an annual visitor to the resort, but if you know where to look you can still enjoy the sights that she did. That’s why I’ve created this guide (a little picture heavy, sorry) to help others who want to follow in Anne Brontë’s east coast footsteps.

Anne Bronte grave visitors
Anne Bronte had plenty of visitors on her anniversary

The Grand Hotel

The Grand Hotel opened in 1861, so of course Anne Brontë never stayed there, but it’s still an important location for any Anne pilgrimage, as it was on this very spot that Anne Brontë died in May 1849. The Grand is on the site of Wood’s Lodgings, which was itself an imposing building in its own right, and was once an exclusive place for the well off to stay. A plaque outside the main entrance to today’s hotel pays tribute to Anne.

The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel, on the site of Wood’s Lodgings

Of course, Anne enjoyed happier times on this spot too, as she would also have stayed in Wood’s Lodgings with the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, York, during their yearly sojourns to the resort. These were among the most joyous times of Anne Brontë’s life, and the reason why she fell in love with Scarborough.

Grand Hotel plaque
Anne Bronte’s Grand Hotel plaque

The Spa

Scarborough was once one of England’s first and most fashionable seaside resorts, and the reason so many wealthy people came was because of its Spa. The natural spa waters of Scarborough were believed to be able to cure a wide range of ailments, or at least alleviate their conditions. Anne obviously had these properties in mind in 1849 when she insisted upon visiting the town, despite her increasingly frail condition. We know that Anne visited the spa alone during her final days, and took to the waters, but that she collapsed outside her lodgings and had to be carried back in. In previous years, Anne would have delighted in the numerous concerts held at the Spa complex, and these still persist to this day, with daily concerts held in the summer months.

Scarborough Spa
At the foot of this photo is Scarborough Spa

Spa Bridge

In 1827 a fantastic engineering achievement was opened that made it much easier to access the Spa – the Spa Bridge. It then linked the complex with Wood’s Lodgings and St. Nicholas Cliff, and today it stands adjacent to the Grand Hotel and offers the same magnificent views across the North Sea.

Spa Bridge
Anne walked the spa bridge many times

Scarborough Beach

Scarborough is blessed with two beaches, the North and South Bays, but it’s the South Bay that still draws huge crowds of tourists on a sunny day. The backdrop may be different, thanks to the profusion of amusement arcades and rock emporiums, but we can still walk the same sand that Anne trod. We also know that Anne took a donkey ride during her final visit, and presumably during previous ones as well. Little ones can still enjoy donkey rides today, and every day they are led down from their home near Oliver’s Mount to the golden sands, bells jangling at each step. On a quiet morning on the beach we can also imagine the beautiful scene from Agnes Grey, set on the very same spot:

“In another minute or two, the distant bathing machines would begin to move, and then the elderly gentlemen of regular habits and sober quaker ladies would be coming to take their salutary morning walks. But however interesting such a scene might be, I could not wait to witness it, for the sun and the sea so dazzled my eyes in that direction, that I could but afford one glance; and then I turned again to delight myself with the sight and the sound of the sea, dashing against my promontory—with no prodigious force, for the swell was broken by the tangled sea-weed and the unseen rocks beneath; otherwise I should soon have been deluged with spray. But the tide was coming in; the water was rising; the gulfs and lakes were filling; the straits were widening: it was time to seek some safer footing; so I walked, skipped, and stumbled back to the smooth, wide sands, and resolved to proceed to a certain bold projection in the cliffs, and then return.

Presently, I heard a snuffling sound behind me and then a dog came frisking and wriggling to my feet. It was my own Snap—the little dark, wire-haired terrier! When I spoke his name, he leapt up in my face and yelled for joy. Almost as much delighted as himself, I caught the little creature in my arms, and kissed him repeatedly. But how came he to be there? He could not have dropped from the sky, or come all that way alone: it must be either his master, the rat-catcher, or somebody else that had brought him; so, repressing my extravagant caresses, and endeavouring to repress his likewise, I looked round, and beheld—Mr. Weston!

‘Your dog remembers you well, Miss Grey,’ said he, warmly grasping the hand I offered him without clearly knowing what I was about.”

Scarborough beach
Scarborough beach, beloved by Anne and Agnes

Scarborough Castle

Dominating the town in a most beautiful fashion is Scarborough Castle. It has a rich history, and a beautiful facade, as well as a fascinating interior managed by English Heritage. Anne Brontë would have loved the glorious climb up the verdant hill to the castle, and it’s this spot that she chose for the moving proposal of Weston to Agnes Grey:

“When we had got about half-way up the hill, we fell into silence again; which, as usual, he was the first to break.

‘My house is desolate yet, Miss Grey,’ he smilingly observed, ‘and I am acquainted now with all the ladies in my parish, and several in this town too; and many others I know by sight and by report; but not one of them will suit me for a companion; in fact, there is only one person in the world that will: and that is yourself; and I want to know your decision?’”

Scarborough Castle
Stunning Scarborough Castle


What’s a humble Iceland store doing in this guide? Look at the name on the building – Christchurch House. This Iceland store on Vernon Road today stands where once Christ Church stood – the church where Anne Brontë’s funeral was held on 30th May 1849.

Iceland, Vernon Road
This Iceland store is on the site of Anne’s funeral service

St. Mary’s Church

The funeral service was held in Christ Church on Vernon Road because St. Mary’s Church was being renovated at the time, but she was still buried in its churchyard. This is the church that Anne loved more than any other in Scarborough, and which Agnes Grey calls ‘the venerable old church’. It is ancient indeed, and very beautiful. Inside you can find the church’s own guide book on Anne Brontë, as well as pictures of her. By the side altar is a magnificent screen or reredos; it was brought here when Christ Church was demolished, and is the screen that would have been in place during Anne’s funeral service.

St. Mary's, Scarborough
St. Mary’s, Scarborough, to the left is the Christ Church reredos

Anne Brontë’s Grave

We end our journey in Anne’s footsteps by her grave. If you’re looking for it, be aware that it’s not in the main churchyard but at the top of the auxiliary churchyard next to it. Anne is not alone here, she has visitors every day, people leave her flowers, badges, sometimes notes. Below is the sea she loved, look up and you see the castle where she wrote of Agnes’ happiest moment with Weston (and perhaps wished she could have shared a similar moment with Weightman there). I’m adding here a tweet with a little video I made on Tuesday at this spot, if you click the play button you should be able to hear my tribute to the writer we all love. I hope you enjoy it and if you ever get the chance to visit Scarborough I hope you enjoy that too, I’m sure you will:

170 Years Ago Today – Anne Brontë’s Glorious Sunset

This is always a sad day for Anne Brontë fans, for we remember that Anne took her last breath at 2pm on 28th May 1849 – 170 years ago today. Her last night was spent at Wood’s Lodgings, a very fashionable hotel that Anne had stayed at during summer holidays with the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, in company with her sister Charlotte and their always loyal friend Ellen Nussey.

Wood's Lodgings, Scarborough
Wood’s Lodgings, Scarborough

Wood’s Lodgings was replaced later in the nineteenth century by the Grand Hotel. Opened in 1867, it was at the time the largest hotel in Europe, and a tribute to how fashionable a resort Scarborough had become. I stayed there myself last night. It still has a grand facade and grand dimensions; inside it is a little faded perhaps, but it still offered me the view that Charlotte, Ellen and Anne enjoyed on her final night; a view down and across the eternal sea, seagulls wheeling overhead; a view Anne Brontë loved. Ellen Nussey described that final night in Scarborough:

“It closed with the most glorious sunset ever witnessed. The castle on the cliff stood in proud glory gilded by the rays of the declining sun. The distant ships glittered like burnished gold; the little boats near the beach heaved on the ebbing tide, inviting occupants. The view was grand beyond description. Anne was drawn in her easy chair to the window to enjoy the scene with us. Her face became illuminated almost as much as the glorious sun she gazed upon. Little was said, for it was plain that her thoughts were driven by the imposing view before her to penetrate forwards to the region of unfading glory.”

I have always loved this description, until a good friend from Scarborough itself observed that this can’t have been correct, as being on the east coast the sun rises over the sea but sets inland there. I at first wondered if Ellen had misremembered Anne’s final night, or embellished it (although this wouldn’t have been in line with her usual truth loving character), but then I read a letter from Meta Gaskell, and all became clear.

Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough
Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough

Meta was Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughter, and although we don’t have Ellen’s letter, it seems she had written to Meta offering condolences after the sudden death of her mother (Ellen had got to know both Gaskell’s while helping them write Elizabeth’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. Here is Meta Gaskell’s reply, dated 22nd January 1866:

“My dear Miss Nussey, I am afraid that my delay in answering your kind note of sympathy must have seemed strangely ungrateful; but, indeed, the case has been very different. For some weeks I have been feeling so ill that I have had to abstain from writing numbers and numbers of letters that I wished to write. You ask me for some particulars of darling mama’s death… When we had all come in we had tea, and then were sitting around the fire in the drawing-room, so cozily and happily, when quite suddenly, without a moment’s warning, in the middle of a sentence, she fell forwards – dead… I cannot tell you how beautiful a “sunset” it was, though we did not know it was that at the time; all mama’s last days had been full of loving thought and tender help for others. She was so sweet and dear and noble beyond words.”

Meta has put the word sunset in quotation marks, as Ellen has obviously asked how Elizabeth Gaskell’s own sunset was. It seems clear now that this is a term that Ellen uses as a metaphor for the hours leading up to death. The glorious sunset was not a natural one then, but a metaphorical one, the glorious last hours of Anne Brontë’s life which were passed 170 years ago today.

Anne Brontë's final resting place at Scarborough
Anne Brontë’s gravestone underneath Scarborough Castle

I’m off to lay some flowers by her graveside. Time and nature have eroded the inscription, but nothing can efface the words she has left us all, words which will be cherished for as long as humankind remains. When you see the sunset tonight, take a moment to think of Anne Brontë.

Sunrise Over Sea

The Brontës And Queen Victoria

As you know, we’re in the four year ‘Brontë 200 period‘; a time when we can pay tribute to the 200th birthdays of Charlotte Brontë (2016), Branwell Brontë (2017), Emily Brontë (2018) and last but certainly not least Anne Brontë (2020). As with any celebration however, there’s always someone who tries to gatecrash it! We’ll let this particular gatecrasher off, however, as this week saw the 200th birthday of a woman who was loved by the Brontës and who had a huge impact on history: Alexandrina Victoria Hannover.

Queen Victoria (as she came to be known, of course) was born on 24th May 1819. Like many famous rulers of this country, she certainly wasn’t expected to one day wear the crown (Henry VIII was second in line, and Elizabeth I third in line at one point, as well as being declared illegitimate and barred from the official succession). Victoria was the daughter of the Duke of Kent and Strathearn, who was only the fourth son of the long serving George III. None of the elder brothers had children so on the death of the last surviving brother, William IV, in June 1837 the teenage Victoria ascended to the throne.

Princess Victoria, aged 4
Princess Victoria, aged four

Whether from school lessons, history books or the hit television series, or simply because it has seeped into our national consciousness, everyone in Britain knows the broad story of Queen Victoria: how she reigned for over 60 years during which time (for good or bad) she became the figurehead of a huge empire, how she married the German Prince Albert and had a large family, and how after Albert’s death she became a mournful figure, the large woman always in black who was ‘not amused’.

Of course there is so much more to Queen Victoria than that. She was monarch during a time of incredible scientific advancement and a time of a brilliant flowering of the arts and literature. She survived eight assassination attempts, the first by a man named Edward Oxford in 1840; he fired two shots from close range at the Queen, but missed both times. Surprisingly, perhaps, he wasn’t hanged and later lived out his life in Australia, surviving into the twentieth century as did the woman he had tried to kill.

Edward Oxford assassination attempt
A contemporary painting of Edward Oxford’s assassination attempt

Nevertheless, Victoria was on the whole an immensely popular figure, and she certainly found favour with the children of a certain parsonage in Hathersage. The Brontës childhoods occurred in the reigns of Georges III and IV and William IV, but as they grew older they would have taken a keen interest in the royal princess who now seemed increasingly likely to become Queen one day. What made her especially interesting was that she was the same age as them, being 10 months younger than Emily Brontë and just eight months older than Anne.

We know from Charlotte that the young Brontës read, via their father, the fiercely patriotic ‘John Bull’ paper, and this will have helped fire their staunch royalism. When they decided to keep two geese as pets the choice of names is very telling: Victoria and Adelaide. Queen Adelaide was Victoria’s aunt, the wife of the late King William IV.

Queen Adelaide 1836
Queen Adelaide in 1836, paid tribute by a Bronte goose

As Victoria’s coronation drew nearer, Emily and Anne began to incorporate it, and events surrounding the British royal family, into their tales of Gondal. In Emily and Anne’s joint diary paper of 26th June 1837, they write:

“Tabby in the kitchin – the Emprerors and Empresses of Gondal and Gaaldine preparing to depart from Gaaldine to Gondal for the coranation which will be on the 12th of July. Queen Victoria ascended the throne this month.”

Obviously reading of the spectacular coronation that their contemporary had enjoyed fired their imaginations so much that they had to recreate one in Gondal. In November 1843 one of the Brontës saw the Queen, but it wasn’t in England. Charlotte Brontë was then in Brussels approaching the end of her tenure there, when Queen Victoria made an official state visit to the young country (Belgium’s existence as an independent nation was only recognised in 1839). Charlotte reported her impressions of the monarch in a letter home to Emily:

“You ask about Queen Victoria’s visit to Brussels. I saw for her an instant flashing through the Rue Royale in a carriage and six, surrounded by soldiers. She was laughing and talking very gaily. She looked a little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed, not much dignity or pretension about her. The Belgians liked her very much on the whole. They say she enlivened the sombre court of King Leopold, which is usually as gloomy as a conventicle.”

We know that the Brontës appreciation of Queen Victoria was reciprocated, or at least one of their books was appreciated. It’s on record that Victoria read ‘Jane Eyre’ in both 1858 and 1880. Her diary entries from 1858 show how much she loved it; calling it ‘that melancholy, interesting book ‘Jane Eyre’. On May 21st of that year she had reached a pivotal point in the story, “We remained up reading ‘Jane Eyre’ til half past 11. Quite creepy from the awful account of what happened the night before the marriage, which was interrupted in the church.”

Queen Victoria 1882
‘Jane Eyre’ fan Queen Victoria in 1882

The Queen’s diary of November 23rd 1880 reveals that she has read, and loved it, again:

“Finished ‘Jane Eyre’, which is really a wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully and admirably written, such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, and such beautiful writings. The description of the mysterious maniac’s nightly appearances awfully thrilling. Mr Rochester’s character a very remarkable one, and Jane Eyre’s herself a beautiful one. The end is very touching, when Jane Eyre returns to him and finds him blind, with one hand gone from injuries during the fire in his house, which was caused by his mad wife.”

Here we see the real Alexandrina Victoria – not the stern woman of a million statues, but a person just like us who gets simple pleasures from reading a Brontë novel. Let’s remember the human behind the monarchic mask, and say ‘Happy 200th birthday Queen Victoria!’

Of course, there’s a rather less happy anniversary approaching. On this day in 1849, Anne Brontë was in Scarborough with Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey. This Tuesday marks the 170th anniversary of her death. I will be there in Scarborough myself to take some flowers to her graveside. I’m staying at the Grand Hotel, on the spot of Wood’s Lodgings where Anne herself stayed, and I’ll be sending a special post from there on Tuesday morning to mark her ‘glorious sunset’; I hope you’ll join me on that day in thinking of dear Anne.

Gentleman Jack: Anne Lister And The Brontës

Nineteenth century England was a very strict, staid place wasn’t it – after all its restrictive corsets are where we get the expression ‘straight laced’ from? In fact, one of the fascinating things about the period is that it’s often much more daring and exciting than that cliché suggests. The Brontës weren’t afraid to break free from the norm in their writing, and many other women challenged societal norms in their lives – women such as Mary Anne Evans, better known as the great novelist George Eliot, who for most of her life enjoyed a common law marriage to George Henry Lewes, who himself was already in an open marriage solemnised by the church. In Yorkshire, there was the great Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax, and we’re going to take a brief look at her incredible story today.

Anne Lister is the real life heroine of a new drama coming to BBC One tonight, ‘Gentleman Jack’ starring the brilliant Suranne Jones, but just who was she, and what, if any, Brontë connections did she have?

Anne Lister, painted in 1830
Anne Lister, painted in 1830

Anne was born into a wealthy Yorkshire family in 1791, the eldest daughter of James Lister, a landowner and former army officer. Anne had four brothers, but none of them outlived their father, and so it was that she came to inherit her family fortune, including the splendid Shibden Hall in 1836, although she had in effect been given the building, and the large estates that came with it, ten years earlier, allowing her a life of ease and independence.

She possessed a brilliant mind, and a love of literature and the arts, and she left a series of diaries that add up to more than four million words. In these she details the expansion of Shibden Hall that she carried out, and how her astute financial mind increased her fortune through investments in mining and railway shares, as well as detailing her life in Halifax and beyond.

The diaries would have proved a brilliant historical document in themselves, but what makes them especially fascinating is that approaching a million of the words are in a secret code that wasn’t cracked until the 1930s. Anne’s secret cypher was a mixture of ancient Greek with algebraic formulations thrown in to conceal things still further. What was Anne hiding that needed such secrecy? When the code was finally cracked it laid bare a series of conquests, sexual and amorous, with other women.

Shibden Hall, Halifax is open to the public

The fact that Anne Lister was a lesbian was well known at the time, she lived quite freely with a woman she considered her wife for many years, and she always wore black, male clothing. This led to her being nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘Fred’ by Halifax locals, but the sheer scale of her love life and the frankness with which she wrote about it behind the protective code still came as a surprise to some, considering the reputation that the first half of the nineteenth century had, and still has. I won’t go too much into Anne’s story, as I don’t want to spoil what should be an excellent drama series that’s about to burst forth onto our screens, but was Anne Lister known to the Brontës, and could they even have been known to her?

In September 1838, Emily Brontë surprised her family by taking the post of a teacher at Law Hill school in Southowram, in the hills above Halifax. She served under the head teacher Miss Elizabeth Patchett, who believed in giving her girls (it was an all girl’s school) a comprehensive education, taking them to museums and concerts, as well as giving them more traditional lessons. We know that whilst Emily served at the school as a teacher, the pupils were also taken to the grand home of a woman who had been known to Miss Patchett since childhood – the home was Shibden Hall and the woman, of course, was Anne Lister.

Would Emily Brontë have been expected to accompany her pupils on the two mile walk to visit Miss Lister? It seems likely, especially as Charlotte had written how Emily was never allowed any time on her own during her service at Law Hill: “I have had one letter from her [Charlotte wrote of Emily] since her departure, it gives an appalling account of her duties – Hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half-hour of exercise between – this is slavery, I fear she will never stand it.”

One of the most remarkable scenes in Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre‘ comes when the young protagonist is locked in the ‘red room’ of Gateshead Hall by her cruel aunt, Mrs Reed. Shibden Hall really is one of the delights of Yorkshire, and I urge you all to visit if you get the chance; thanks to Anne Lister it is splendid inside and out, and one of its many rooms was known as the red room. We know that Anne Lister’s wife, an Anne Walker, barricaded herself into the room at one point, and also that it was reputed to be haunted by Anne Lister’s uncle, just as the red room of Gateshead Hall is haunted by Jane Eyre’s uncle. It seems clear to me that the fictional red room of ‘Jane Eyre’ is modelled upon the real red room of Shibden Hall; and that leads me to think it probable that Emily Brontë had herself been inside the room during a visit as a teacher, and been so impressed by it and its ghostly reputation that she later told the story to Charlotte, who stored it away for later use.

Shibden Hall
Shibden Hall has a haunted red room – sound familiar?

Charlotte would doubtless have been impressed by the story, by the grand hall, and by Anne Lister herself, for she was in many ways a grander version of Charlotte’s great friend Mary Taylor – Anne, like Mary, travelled extensively across Europe and was a pioneering female mountaineer, and in later life Mary Taylor too lived with a succession of women, young maids who travelled to Gomersal from Switzerland.

When we say the name Anne Lister, we find an Ellis at its heart; could Emily have been so impressed by this powerful, free living woman that she inspired the pen name of Ellis Bell? We can never know for sure, but one certain Brontë connection is that tonight’s new drama series comes from the brilliant pen and mind of Sally Wainwright, who hit all the right notes with her Brontë drama ‘To Walk Invisible’. We won’t see the Brontës in ‘Gentleman Jack’ but it will show us a side of West Riding life at the time they lived there, that we don’t often see. I can’t wait to watch it!