Brontëdle

Bronte Remembrance

In my nine years of creating this blog my aim has always been to create a tribute to Anne Brontë and her family, a Brontë remembrance. In today’s post we’re going to look at two Brontë poems dealing with remembrance, as well as looking ahead to a new way in which I will be remembering the Brontës, their lives and the incredible literary legacy they’ve left.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
Anne and Emily Bronte by Branwell Bronte

First, let us look at one of Emily Brontë’s greatest poems – titled ‘Remembrance’ it has become known for its first words, ‘Cold in the earth’. F. R. Leavis, the legendary 20th century literary academic, gave it his unstinting praise saying: ‘Emily Brontë has hardly yet had her full justice as a poet… her Cold In The Earth is the finest poem in the 19th century part of The Oxford Book Of English Verse.’

“Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?
Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover,
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover,
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?
Cold in the earth – and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers,
After such years of change and suffering!
Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!
No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.
But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
Then did I check the tears of useless passion –
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten,
Down to that tomb already more than mine.
And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?”

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond

Remembrance was also on the mind of Charlotte Brontë in her poem entitled ‘Parting’:

“There’s no use in weeping,
Though we are condemned to part:
There’s such a thing as keeping
A remembrance in one’s heart:
There’s such a thing as dwelling
On the thought ourselves have nurs’d,
And with scorn and courage telling
The world to do its worst.
We’ll not let its follies grieve us,
We’ll just take them as they come;
And then every day will leave us
A merry laugh for home.
When we’ve left each friend and brother,
When we’re parted wide and far,
We will think of one another,
As even better than we are.
Every glorious sight above us,
Every pleasant sight beneath,
We’ll connect with those that love us,
Whom we truly love till death!
In the evening, when we’re sitting
By the fire perchance alone,
Then shall heart with warm heart meeting,
Give responsive tone for tone.
We can burst the bonds which chain us,
Which cold human hands have wrought,
And where none shall dare restrain us
We can meet again, in thought.
So there’s no use in weeping,
Bear a cheerful spirit still;
Never doubt that Fate is keeping
Future good for present ill!”

We don’t have a ‘remembrance’ from Anne Brontë, but we do have her mournful ‘A Reminiscence’:

“Yes, thou art gone ! and never more
Thy sunny smile shall gladden me ;
But I may pass the old church door,
And pace the floor that covers thee.
May stand upon the cold, damp stone,
And think that, frozen, lies below
The lightest heart that I have known,
The kindest I shall ever know.
Yet, though I cannot see thee more,
‘Tis still a comfort to have seen ;
And though thy transient life is o’er,
‘Tis sweet to think that thou hast been ;
To think a soul so near divine,
Within a form so angel fair,
United to a heart like thine,
Has gladdened once our humble sphere.”

The Brontës knew the importance of remembrance, and we know how important it is to remember the Brontës. They weren’t simply a collection of sublime novels and poems, they were a living, breathing family with an incredible story of their own. A family who faced a succession of challenges and heartaches, triumphed against all the odds, yet finally succumbed to the ultimate tragedy.

It is this incredible story that I will be telling in my new podcast ‘The House Of Brontë’, coming later this year. It will be available on Apple, Spotify, YouTube and more, and across a series of episodes I will tell the Brontë story from beginning to end – helped by some special guests who give unique insights into this endlessly fascinating family.

I first posted the above trailer on my Twitter feed yesterday, and was blown away by the positive response; in one day it’s had over 27,000 views and it’s clear that there’s still a lot of Brontë love out there!

If you have any suggestions for the podcast, or if you’d like to be a guest on the podcast, please do ­contact me.

If you run a business, or know a business, who would like to sponsor or support ‘The House Of Brontë’ podcast please drop me a line too – it would be great to hear from you.

I’ll bring you more news once launch day for the podcast approaches, but in the meantime I hope you will join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Earliest Poetry Of Anne Brontë

One of the greatest gifts you can give to a child, I feel, is encouraging their creativity. Whether they like painting, writing, or crafting, give their imaginations free reign and you’ll be amazed where it can lead. That’s one of the things we can thank Patrick Brontë for; unlike many fathers of the time he didn’t believe in censoring his daughter’s activities or reading matter – and, alongside his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell, he created an atmosphere within Haworth Parsonage where the children were free to play, to read, to learn, to create – and the results rock the world two centuries later.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte encouraged his daughters’ creativity

The first phase of Brontë creativity accompanied the invention of stories, then worlds, revolving around toy soldiers gifted to brother Branwell Brontë. They then invented plays, followed by the tiny books containing stories from their imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. Gondal was the domain favoured by twin-like sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, and the Gondalian output we still have exists in the form of poetry. In today’s new post we’re going to look at the earliest extant example of Anne Brontë’s poetry: “Verses By Lady Geralda.”

My poetry as a 7 year old was surprisingly, er, avant-garde

Yesterday, whilst looking through some of my own early school exercise books from the 1970s I found some of my own verse created aged 7 – including the rather freestyle example “Cat Cat” featured above. Perhaps it’s a good thing I eventually gravitated to the world of non-fiction rather than the world of poetry!

“Verses By Lady Geralda” is a rather accomplished poem, especially as Anne was just 16 at the time of its composition. It is set in the world of Gondal, and we can imagine Anne reading it to Emily as they discussed the latest developments in their kingdom. This then is the earliest writing we have of Anne Brontë, and from this little (if lengthy) acorn the mighty oaks of her mature poetry and novels grew!

Poetry is for everyone, whether they are seven or 107. It can bring calm at times of trouble, as Anne Brontë herself wrote, under the guise of Agnes Grey, when saying: “When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry.”

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
The love of poetry features within Agnes Grey

This ability of poetry to soothe the mind, or bring clarity to the mind, is also at the heart of a system called Restorative Creativity which encourages self-care through creative writing. I think that’s something the Brontës would have had great sympathy with, and I myself have found it insightful and helpful. Simply reading great poetry, as well as embracing your own creativity, is also a very valuable and rewarding function of course. With that in mind, and with the hope that I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, I leave you now with the young Anne Brontë’s “Verses By Lady Geralda”:

‘Why, when I hear the stormy breath
Of the wild winter wind
Rushing o’er the mountain heath,
Does sadness fill my mind?
For long ago I loved to lie
Upon the pathless moor,
To hear the wild wind rushing by
With never ceasing roar;
Its sound was music then to me;
Its wild and lofty voice
Made by heart beat exultingly
And my whole soul rejoice.
But now, how different is the sound?
It takes another tone,
And howls along the barren ground
With melancholy moan.
Why does the warm light of the sun
No longer cheer my eyes?
And why is all the beauty gone
From rosy morning skies?
Beneath this lone and dreary hill
There is a lovely vale;
The purling of a crystal rill,
The sighing of the gale,
The sweet voice of the singing bird,
The wind among the trees,
Are ever in that valley heard;
While every passing breeze
Is loaded with the pleasant scent
Of wild and lovely flowers.
To yonder vales I often went
To pass my evening hours.
Last evening when I wandered there
To soothe my weary heart,
Why did the unexpected tear
From my sad eyelid start?
Why did the trees, the buds, the stream
Sing forth so joylessly?
And why did all the valley seem
So sadly changed to me?
I plucked a primrose young and pale
That grew beneath a tree
And then I hastened from the vale
Silent and thoughtfully.
Soon I was near my lofty home,
But when I cast my eye
Upon that flower so fair and lone
Why did I heave a sigh?
I thought of taking it again
To the valley where it grew.
But soon I spurned that thought as vain
And weak and childish too.
And then I cast that flower away
To die and wither there;
But when I found it dead today
Why did I shed a tear?
O why are things so changed to me?
What gave me joy before
Now fills my heart with misery,
And nature smiles no more.
And why are all the beauties gone
From this my native hill?
Alas! my heart is changed alone:
Nature is constant still.
For when the heart is free from care,
Whatever meets the eye
Is bright, and every sound we hear
Is full of melody.
The sweetest strain, the wildest wind,
The murmur of a stream,
To the sad and weary mind
Like doleful death knells seem.
Father! thou hast long been dead,
Mother! thou art gone,
Brother! thou art far away,
And I am left alone.
Long before my mother died
I was sad and lone,
And when she departed too
Every joy was flown.
But the world’s before me now,
Why should I despair?
I will not spend my days in vain,
I will not linger here!
There is still a cherished hope
To cheer me on my way;
It is burning in my heart
With a feeble ray.
I will cheer the feeble spark
And raise it to a flame;
And it shall light me through the world,
And lead me on to fame.
I leave thee then, my childhood’s home,
For all thy joys are gone;
I leave thee through the world to roam
In search of fair renown,
From such a hopeless home to part
Is happiness to me,
For nought can charm my weary heart
Except activity.’

Brontë Depictions Of February

February is a month of change in the calendar year. It’s typically a cold month, and has (so the Met Office tells me) on average five days of snow per year. It has turbulent, stormy days and torrential downpours. It can also, however, produce mild days, like today in Yorkshire, when the promise of spring seems almost close enough to touch.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
We remember Tabby Aykroyd, whose anniversary was yesterday

It was often a month of change in the Brontë household within Haworth Parsonage too. It was the month in 1840, for example, when the Brontë sisters received their first ever Valentine’s cards. It was the month in 1855 when loyal servant Tabby Aykroyd died, with her beloved Charlotte Brontë moving ever closer to her own passing. It is a month of unpredictability, but it is a month of promise too – and that’s reflected by the appearance of February within the Brontë novels as we shall see in today’s blog post:

Villette

‘One February night – I remember it well – there came a voice near Miss Marchmont’s house, heard by every inmate, but translated, perhaps, only by one. After a calm winter, storms were ushering in the spring. I had put Miss Marchmont to bed; I sat at the fireside sewing. The wind was wailing at the windows; it had wailed all day; but, as night deepened, it took a new tone – an accent keen, piercing, almost articulate to the ear; a plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves, trilled in every gust.

“Oh, hush! hush!” I said in my disturbed mind, dropping my work, and making a vain effort to stop my ears against that subtle, searching cry. I had heard that very voice ere this, and compulsory observation had forced on me a theory as to what it boded. Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm – this restless, hopeless cry – denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life. Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind. Hence, I inferred, arose the legend of the Banshee. I fancied, too, I had noticed – but was not philosopher enough to know whether there was any connection between the circumstances – that we often at the same time hear of disturbed volcanic action in distant parts of the world; of rivers suddenly rushing above their banks; and of strange high tides flowing furiously in on low sea-coasts. “Our globe,” I had said to myself, “seems at such periods torn and disordered; the feeble amongst us wither in her distempered breath, rushing hot from steaming volcanoes.”’

Agnes Grey

‘One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather; for Miss Matilda had set out on her daily ride, and Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls. But it struck me that I ought to leave these selfish pleasures, and the park with its glorious canopy of bright blue sky, the west wind sounding through its yet leafless branches, the snow-wreaths still lingering in its hollows, but melting fast beneath the sun, and the graceful deer browsing on its moist herbage already assuming the freshness and verdure of spring – and go to the cottage of one Nancy Brown, a widow, whose son was at work all day in the fields, and who was afflicted with an inflammation in the eyes; which had for some time incapacitated her from reading: to her own great grief, for she was a woman of a serious, thoughtful turn of mind. I accordingly went, and found her alone, as usual, in her little, close, dark cottage, redolent of smoke and confined air, but as tidy and clean as she could make it. She was seated beside her little fire (consisting of a few red cinders and a bit of stick), busily knitting, with a small sackcloth cushion at her feet, placed for the accommodation of her gentle friend the cat, who was seated thereon, with her long tail half encircling her velvet paws, and her half-closed eyes dreamily gazing on the low, crooked fender.

“Well, Nancy, how are you to-day?”

“Why, middling, Miss, i’ myseln – my eyes is no better, but I’m a deal easier i’ my mind nor I have been,” replied she, rising to welcome me with a contented smile; which I was glad to see, for Nancy had been somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy. I congratulated her upon the change. She agreed that it was a great blessing, and expressed herself “right down thankful for it”; adding, “If it please God to spare my sight, and make me so as I can read my Bible again, I think I shall be as happy as a queen.”

“I hope He will, Nancy,” replied I; “and, meantime, I’ll come and read to you now and then, when I have a little time to spare.”

With expressions of grateful pleasure, the poor woman moved to get me a chair; but, as I saved her the trouble, she busied herself with stirring the fire, and adding a few more sticks to the decaying embers; and then, taking her well-used Bible from the shelf, dusted it carefully, and gave it me. On my asking if there was any particular part she should like me to read, she answered –

“Well, Miss Grey, if it’s all the same to you, I should like to hear that chapter in the First Epistle of St. John, that says, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’”

With a little searching, I found these words in the fourth chapter. When I came to the seventh verse she interrupted me, and, with needless apologies for such a liberty, desired me to read it very slowly, that she might take it all in, and dwell on every word; hoping I would excuse her, as she was but a “simple body.”

“The wisest person,” I replied, “might think over each of these verses for an hour, and be all the better for it; and I would rather read them slowly than not.”

Accordingly, I finished the chapter as slowly as need be, and at the same time as impressively as I could; my auditor listened most attentively all the while, and sincerely thanked me when I had done. I sat still about half a minute to give her time to reflect upon it; when, somewhat to my surprise, she broke the pause by asking me how I liked Mr. Weston?

“I don’t know,” I replied, a little startled by the suddenness of the question; “I think he preaches very well.”

“Ay, he does so; and talks well too.”’

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was the inspiration for Anne’s hero Weston

Jane Eyre

‘“I’m sure last winter (it was a very severe one, if you recollect, and when it did not snow, it rained and blew), not a creature but the butcher and postman came to the house, from November till February; and I really got quite melancholy with sitting night after night alone; I had Leah in to read to me sometimes; but I don’t think the poor girl liked the task much: she felt it confining. In spring and summer one got on better: sunshine and long days make such a difference; and then, just at the commencement of this autumn, little Adele Varens came and her nurse: a child makes a house alive all at once; and now you are here I shall be quite gay.”’

Wuthering Heights

‘Edgar sighed; and, walking to the window, looked out towards Gimmerton Kirk. It was a misty afternoon, but the February sun shone dimly, and we could just distinguish the two fir-trees in the yard, and the sparely-scattered gravestones.

“I’ve prayed often,” he half soliloquised, “for the approach of what is coming; and now I begin to shrink, and fear it. I thought the memory of the hour I came down that glen a bridegroom would be less sweet than the anticipation that I was soon, in a few months, or, possibly, weeks, to be carried up, and laid in its lonely hollow! Ellen, I’ve been very happy with my little Cathy: through winter nights and summer days she was a living hope at my side. But I’ve been as happy musing by myself among those stones, under that old church: lying, through the long June evenings, on the green mound of her mother’s grave, and wishing – yearning for the time when I might lie beneath it. What can I do for Cathy? How must I quit her? I’d not care one moment for Linton being Heathcliff’s son; nor for his taking her from me, if he could console her for my loss. I’d not care that Heathcliff gained his ends, and triumphed in robbing me of my last blessing! But should Linton be unworthy – only a feeble tool to his father – I cannot abandon her to him! And, hard though it be to crush her buoyant spirit, I must persevere.”’

Wuthering Heights

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘But sometimes, I believe, she really had some little gratification in conversing with me; and one bright February morning, during twenty minutes’ stroll along the moor, she laid aside her usual asperity and reserve, and fairly entered into conversation with me, discoursing with so much eloquence and depth of thought and feeling on a subject happily coinciding with my own ideas, and looking so beautiful withal, that I went home enchanted; and on the way (morally) started to find myself thinking that, after all, it would, perhaps, be better to spend one’s days with such a woman than with Eliza Millward; and then I (figuratively) blushed for my inconstancy.’

February, as the Brontë sisters well knew, is a month of ups and downs, but I hope the second half of your February brings more sunny days than rainy horizons. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Day Love Arrived At Haworth Parsonage

The day of love is here, so in today’s special post we’re heading back exactly 184 years to the day when love arrived at Haworth Parsonage interspersed with a selection of Victorian-era Valentine’s Day cards!

Valentines cherub

The giving of Valentine’s cards far predates the giving of Christmas cards that only became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Brontë sisters received their first cards on February 14th, 1840, and even though they eventually discovered the source was their father’s new assistant curate it must still have been a thrill for them – especially for 20 year old Anne.

What You Please Anne Bronte

The man was, of course, William Weightman, who had recently gained his Master of Arts degree from the newly founded Durham University and commenced life in the clergy. In the run up to February 14th he was astonished to find out that none of the sisters had ever received a Valentine’s day card, and characteristically he sprung into action. What he did next was a testament to his kind and good nature, although as we shall see Charlotte later took a different view of it. He not only bought four cards, not wanting the visiting Ellen Nussey to feel left out, but wrote personalised verses in each. His efforts didn’t end there, as he then walked more than ten miles across very rugged terrain in the height of winter to Bradford, where he posted them. He did this of course so the Brontë sisters wouldn’t guess he had sent them because of a local postmark, thereby adding to the excitement and intrigue.

Valentine swans

The titles of the poems on each card can be equally intriguing to us: with only one can we positively identify the target, as ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ was obviously meant for the great Brontë friend Miss Nussey. One title, sadly, has been lost in the intervening years, but two of the other three were called ‘Soul Divine’ and ‘Away Fond Love’. Could ‘Soul Divine’ have been for Emily, in tribute to her indomitable spirit, and could ‘Away Fond Love’ have been a reference to Anne, who was at that moment looking for a new situation as a governess that would take her away from Haworth? If so, then the missing title could have been for Charlotte, who may possibly have ripped it up in a fit of pique after falling spectacularly out with the young man she had once thought so highly of.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman drawn by Charlotte Bronte

Despite the Bradford subterfuge, Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Ellen soon worked out who their anonymous sender was, and they wrote him a collective poem in return:

“We cannot write or talk like you;
We’re plain folks every one;
You’ve played a clever trick on us,
We thank you for the fun.
Believe us frankly when we say
(Our words though blunt are true).
At home, abroad, by night or day,
We all wish well to you.”

Victorian Valentine

Were the sisters annoyed at being made fun of, or did they see it as an act of kindliness? I believe the latter, but either way we can easily imagine how delighted they must have been when their cards first arrived. These were young women who loved the romance of novels by Walter Scott and the poetry of Byron, and had created their own lands of Angria and Gondal full of the intrigues and mysteries of love, so this romantic gesture must have set their hearts a-flutter, if only for a moment or two. Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 17th March 1840 (her father’s birthday, a fact she fails to mention in her letter – but then Charlotte was never very good at remembering birthdays) told of how well received the cards had been, and what an impression they and their sender had made:

‘Walk up to Gomersal and tell her [Martha Taylor] forthwith every individual occurrence you can recollect, including Valentines, “Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen” – “Away Fond Love”, “Soul Divine” and all – likewise if you please the painting of Miss Celia Amelia Weightman’s portrait [Celia Amelia was Charlotte’s pet name for William] and that young lady’s frequent and agreeable visits.”

early Valentine's card

In February 1841, William Weightman once more sent Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë a Valentine’s day card, but this is how Charlotte viewed it now as revealed in another letter to Ellen:

“I knew better how to treat it than I did those we received a year ago. I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character, he knows I know him… for all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round.”

Charlotte had Weightman’s character correct the first time round. His kindness would eventually be his undoing as his passion for visiting sick parishioners led to his early demise from cholera just two years after sending the Brontës their first ever Valentine’s Day cards.

Early Valentine's Day card

If he had lived longer he may well have sent cards annually to Anne Brontë, for I like to think that they were an ideal match for each other. After all, it would not have been unusual for a young cleric to seek a wife among the daughters of a more senior clergyman, and affection at least certainly grew between them, until we hear of Charlotte complaining that Weightman spends his time in church sighing and gazing at Anne.

It was not to be, alas, but at least the sisters had that thrilling 14th of February in 1840 to remember. I hope that you have a very happy day, whether you’re with the love of your life, looking for that special person, or spending the day on your own with a good book. Please come back this Sunday for a completely new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë’s “Letter Out Of Nothing”

Charlotte Brontë, like her sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, was a consummate writer. Writing came easily to her, and as readers of her novels will know, she was almost incapable of writing a dull or badly-phrased sentence. Unlike her sisters, we have a large number of letters from Charlotte Brontë that showcase her writing skills, as well as providing a remarkable look at life within the Brontë family. In today’s post we look at a letter Charlotte sent on this day 1834, a letter which she ‘made out of nothing’.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte, was the recipient of this letter.

At the time of its composition Charlotte Brontë was seventeen years old, and this letter shows the maturing style of Charlotte between her juvenilia set in the imaginary kingdom of Angria and her mature masterpieces written in her thirties. The recipient was Ellen Nussey, a year (almost to the day) younger than Charlotte, and the great lifelong friend she had made at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head in Mirfield. It is a letter brimming with charm and youthful vigour, but with a tinge of characteristic melancholy too:

Charlotte Bronte's letter to Ellen Nussey, 11 February 1834
Charlotte Bronte’s letter to Ellen Nussey, 11 February 1834

It is clear that Charlotte loved Ellen Nussey very much, a love that endured throughout her life. She thinks of her daily, ‘nay almost hourly’, and considers herself a small, insignificant thing when compared to beautiful Ellen surrounded by Birstall society. She has not written to her for two months, because she thinks she has nothing worth saying – this is a theme Charlotte will return to in letters to Ellen for years and decades to come. In one later letter, to Elizabeth Gaskell, she also explained that on occasion she receives a letter that she loves so much that she thinks she will answer it on the next day when she has time to reflect more fully and come up with an adequate response, but instead finds she has nothing to say and the letter goes unanswered.

We also receive an update from Charlotte on the weather in Haworth across that winter of 1833 to 1834. Contemporary records show that it was an unusually severe one, in which the West Riding of Yorkshire saw unprecedented levels of wind and rain, as well as, on New Year’s Eve, ‘one of the most tremendous hurricanes ever remembered.’

Haworth moors snow
This winter was a particularly harsh one in Haworth

On the whole, it seems a cheery letter, but we read that Charlotte is concerned about Ellen’s health – and especially about the threat of consumption (what we now call tuberculosis): ‘I have seen enough of Consumption to dread it as one of the most insidious, and fatal diseases incident to humanity.’

Nine years earlier, a young Charlotte had seen her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth carried away by this terrible disease, but she could little have guessed that in the succeeding decade it would claim the lives of her three surviving siblings too. It is another recurring theme in Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey; she is often concerned about Ellen’s health and constitution, but whilst Charlotte died in her late thirties Ellen Nussey lived into her ninth decade. Charlotte Brontë has indeed cleverly contrived to make a letter out of nothing, but the hundreds of letters of such nothingness add up to an invaluable record of the life and times of the Brontë family.

I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and please do join me on Wednesday as well for a bonus post where we look once again at a Brontë Valentine’s Day.

Anne Brontë’s ‘Verses To A Child’

February is a month that can bring snow, but it also brings snowdrops and the first signs of spring. It’s a month that brings the romance of valentine’s day and new life springing forth all around us. It’s also a month that brings new life to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and in today’s new Brontë blog post we’re going to look at a new poem which is particularly appropriate to the new parsonage exhibition.

Bronte toys
These Bronte toys were discovered below floorboards

The Brontë Parsonage Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1928, although there had been an earlier museum above the Penny Bank Museum in Haworth as well as an even earlier independent Brontë-themed museum within a house in Blackpool!

The Brontë Society are constantly searching for new Brontë-related items and artifacts, so their collection grows every year, with only a small percentage actually on display within the parsonage the Brontës knew so well, and the rest stored in a secure vault. The Parsonage Museum closes its doors in January each year, but its staff are far from resting during this time. In fact, this is the month when the collection is cleared, inspected and restored, and when a new exhibition is assembled ready for the museum re-opening at the start of February. Incidentally, I think it would be even better if the museum closed instead for the month of November and re-opened at the start of December, as its current schedule means that it’s always closed on Anne Brontë’s birthday on 17th January. Just a suggestion!

Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928
The Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928

I once spoke to a museum volunteer who recalled, during one such January curation, opening a book which had once been in Charlotte Brontë’s collection. It had laid unopened, unseen for over a century yet within its pages she found a solitary hair – it seemed likely that this was the hair of Charlotte Brontë herself. What a simple everyday thing, and yet what a treasure to stumble across!

I’ve not yet been to the museum this year, but I certainly will be, and I look forward to bringing you a full report, with lots of pictures, then. I do know, however, that the theme of this year’s exhibition is ‘The Brontës’ Web Of Childhood’. It will explore their childhood, and the influences that led to their incredible outpourings of genius and creativity. This sounds like it will be a must-see exhibition, especially as it will contain items never before seen by the public.

In keeping with the current theme, I will leave you with one of Anne Brontë’s poems dealing with childhood. Anne was the youngest of six siblings, so she was the baby of the family receiving love and support from her sisters and brother. She was also, however, just a year old when her mother died, and so it was her aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Branwell, who became a de facto mother to her. Her poem ‘Verses To A Child’ is set firmly in the mythical land of Gondal she created alongside sister Emily Brontë, and it is even ‘signed’ by one of Gondal’s chief characters Alexandria Zenobia, but in it we see fragments of Anne’s views on children, childhood and her own infancy. 

Above is a portion of the poem which follows in Anne’s own handwriting from her poetry notebook. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post:

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 Villette Letters Of Charlotte Bronte

On this day in 1853 a remarkable piece of fiction was published: Villette. It was to be the final completed novel by Charlotte Brontë, and it was written at a time of intense personal struggle for her. Unlike during the composition of Jane Eyre and the first half of Shirley she was completely alone during Villette’s genesis, without her beloved sisters Emily and Anne to advise and inspire her. It was also a time when she was dealing with her father’s illnesses, and the aftermath of a failed proposal, as well as having to deal with her new found fame as a writer. We see all this and more in the subject of today’s post: five letters written around the time of the publication of Villette.

 

This letter to best friend Ellen Nussey from early December 1852 shows one of the recurring bones of contention that author and publisher had over Villette. Charlotte often liked to base her fictional characters upon people she knew well: so that the eponymous heroine of Shirley was based upon Emily Brontë and Caroline in the novel was based upon Anne Brontë. George Smith clearly recognised that he was the model for Graham Bretton – portrayed as a handsome yet selfish, and at times rather self-centred individual. Charlotte had once loved Smith, but her publisher’s engagement and marriage had placed a great strain on their relationship. This is also apparent in the earlier letter of 6th December to Smith himself – where once Charlotte would have been open with her publisher, she is now on the defensive.

 

 

By 19th January 1853, Charlotte was staying in London with George Smith’s mother and sisters, but she realises now that her tastes are not in accord with theirs. Charlotte has, as usual during her stays in the capital, been offered tours of the city’s sights, but she is more interested in the extremes of humanity than the trappings of fashion or high culture. During this period she has also received a charming letter from Flossy, once Anne’s beloved pet spaniel and now in its fifth year in Charlotte’s care. Written by Patrick Brontë, its purpose is to warn Charlotte against trusting men – and in particular against trusting Arthur Bell Nicholls who recently proposed to Charlotte and was soundly rebuffed.

In the 28th January 1853 letter to Ellen we see that Villette has finally been published, but she didn’t have to wait long to hear an unfavourable reception – as we see from the fragment of a letter sent by Harriet Martineau. Charlotte had earlier asked Harriet to give her forthright opinion on the book, saying: “I kneel to Truth. Let her smite me on the cheek – good! The tears may spring to my eyes; but courage! There is the other side – hit again – right sharply!”

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Bronte’s friend was a fierce critic of Villette

Nevertheless, Charlotte was dismayed by Harriet’s reaction to Villette, and in a later review written anonymously by Martineau which repeated the same criticism. The rebuke of Charlotte for being full of love (the book was clearly, after all, written heavily under the influence of her unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, her former teacher and colleague in Brussels) was too much for her to take – and the friendship between Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Martineau was at an end.

It was a book that Charlotte Brontë found difficult to write, and she found its reception hard to take at times, but Villette is a book that endures. It is an incredibly powerful book, incredibly moving in its still, silent power. It is a work of genius. 

Constantin Heger
Constantin Heger inspired Villette’s Paul Emanuel

I can’t promise you a blog of genius, but I hope you will join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. Incidentally, last week I failed to thank Vesna Armstrong for the incredible photo of Charlotte Brontë’s christening bonnet – my sincere apologies for that error on my part; Vesna is a fantastic photographer and Brontë enthusiast, so please do check out her work when you can.

Was Anne Brontë An Angelic Baby?

If we could travel back in time 204 years ago to the day to the parish parsonage at Thornton, Bradford what would we find? We would certainly find a hectic, crowded home – for in it are two parents, two servants and five children. No, make that six children, for by her mother in a cradle is a tiny baby – perhaps her older sisters are peering in at this gurgling infant – particularly the next youngest, one and a half year old Emily Jane who would become so close to her younger sister. The baby was of course Anne Brontë who was born in this week 1820, and in today’s post we’re going to look at just what kind of a baby she was.

17th January 1820 was the day that the sixth and final Brontë sibling was born. She was delivered by a local midwife or possibly by a local doctor known to the family called John Outhwaite, and her birth took place before the fireplace which still stands today inside Thornton Parsonage. Incidentally, the community plan to buy the parsonage and save it for the public is making great progress – so keep an eye on this blog for further details as their plans near fruition.

Thornton parsonage fireplace
Anne Bronte was born by this fireplace

The newly saved and renovated Thornton Parsonage will offer Brontë lovers the chance to live in the house in which those three famous Brontë sisters were born – but whilst many original features remain, it will be a very different building to the one that Patrick and Maria Brontë, and their six children, knew. Prior to Anne’s birth, her father had already written to the Bishop calling Thornton Parsonage wholly inadequate for his needs. Within four months of Anne’s nativity the family had moved to a new parish in a village which was forever transformed by their arrival: six miles away across the moors, Haworth.

Anne Brontë would not have had memories of Thornton like her siblings had, she would not have had memories of her mother – as tragically Maria died in 1821, probably from sepsis caused by complications after Anne’s birth. In many ways, therefore, she had a different shared experience to her four sisters and a brother, so just what was Anne like as a baby?

The 17th January 1820 was a Monday, so was Anne Brontë full of grace just like the famous rhyme says about Monday’s child? We can be sure that Anne grew up to be a very kind woman, one who thought seriously about society and about inequalities in it. She was a very shy, quiet and reflective woman, and a very religious woman too – perhaps she exhibited these qualities from a very early age, as there is a famous account that paints Anne as a truly angelic child.

Nancy Garrs
Nancy de Garrs, who gave this account of a young Anne

The account comes from Nancy de Garrs, one of the two Thornton servants (along with her sister Sarah de Garrs) who travelled with the Brontë family to Haworth. She described the incident as follows:

‘When Anne was a baby, Charlotte rushed into her Papa’s study to say that there was an angel standing by Anne’s cradle, but when they returned it was gone, though Charlotte was sure she had seen it.’

Above is the very cradle that held Anne and, presumably, her siblings before her – but was there really an angel standing by it? Young Charlotte certainly seemed to think so – although of course we all know how powerful her imagination was. We will never know just what Charlotte saw, or what made the five year old rush to her father so, but I wonder, I wonder?

I also wonder what treasures the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth will unveil for us when it opens its doors to the public again in February? Fittingly, in light of today’s post, the exhibits will place a particular emphasis on the childhood of the Brontë siblings. It will feature something very special never displayed before – the christening bonnet worn by Charlotte Brontë in 1816. Here it is in all its glory!

Charlotte bonnet
Charlotte Bronte’s christening bonnet, to be shown for the first time! Picture courtesy of Vesna Armstrong

I will bring you more news of the exhibit once I’ve visited it, but you don’t have to wait that long for another new Brontë blog post. I hope to see you here next Sunday.

Charlotte Brontë’s Cheery Farewell To Ellen Nussey

We saw in last week’s blog post how central Ellen Nussey was to the Brontë story – she was there at many of the most important events in the lives, and deaths, of the Brontë family. To Charlotte Brontë she was a lifelong best friend, and their relationship was summed up perfectly in a letter she wrote to her publisher:

It is another letter that Charlotte wrote, however, that we look at in today’s post – one in which she bids Ellen a fond farewell. It was sent on this day 1834 – 190 years ago to the day. A transcript of the letter follows below:

Charlotte is at her cheery best in this letter. She chides Ellen for buying her a gift – something Ellen often did; on this occasion it was a bustle. Charlotte’s threat to ‘smother’ her friend for the gift is delivered playfully, but it seems from this and other letters that Charlotte was all too painfully aware of the difference in social status, and finances, between herself and Ellen who came from a relatively wealthy manufacturing family. 

We also see Charlotte delivering fashion advice to Ellen, and chiding her over the possibility of one of the Taylor family of nearby Gomersal courting her – the family that produced their mutual friend Mary Taylor. Charlotte also promises to write an elegy for poor Mr Vincent. Reverend Vincent was not dead, but his romantic advances had recently been rebuffed by Ellen. 

Finally, we read Charlotte encouraging Ellen to write soon; the reason for this is that Charlotte is about to set sail for Brussels alongside her sister Emily Brontë (a picture of Victorian Brussels adorns the head of this post). This must have been an incredibly exciting time for Charlotte, a world of travel and adventure was about to open itself up for her – the sort of opportunity she had yearned for as a child when creating the imaginary kingdom of Angria. Alongside this happiness, though, there was a sadness – a sadness that she will have to wave goodbye to Ellen. We see this in a picture drawn by Charlotte at the foot of a subsequent letter – Charlotte has drawn herself in typical self-deprecating manner waving good-bye across the English Channel to Ellen, who has the ‘chosen’ alongside her – the aforementioned O. P. Vincent.

If Charlotte worried that Ellen would find a man in her absence, maybe that she would marry and have no more time for her friend, she was wrong. Ellen never married – it was the friendship and love she had for Charlotte that endured throughout her life.

The two years in Brussels were hugely important for Charlotte and for her subsequent writing, but she eventually realised there was no place like home and the people waiting for her there. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë’s Visit From Dr Teale

After the tragic end to 1848 for the Brontë family those in Haworth Parsonage must have been hoping for a less testing start to 1849 – alas it was not to be, as we will see in today’s post thanks to the testimony of the great family friend Ellen Nussey.

Emily Brontë died, aged 30, in the week before Christmas and her funeral was a particularly solemn affair, with her pet mastiff Keeper leading the funeral procession: ‘He never regained his cheerfulness’, as Ellen recalled in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell.

Ellen Nussey on Keeper
Ellen Nussey’s letter revealing Keeper’s presence at Emily’s funeral

Christmas 1848 was a black-bordered time of mourning in the parsonage then, but there were fears for the future as well as tears for the past. Anne Brontë, Emily’s beloved younger sister, was also now showing the signs of consumption, what we today call tuberculosis. Her handkerchiefs, which Anne embroidered with her own initials, were held to her mouth during coughing fits – when removed, they were splattered with blood, as we see from the blood stained example in the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection.

Ellen Nussey had arrived at the parsonage on 28th December 1848, at the request of her best friend Charlotte Brontë. Whenever Charlotte’s spirits were at their lowest, it was Ellen that she called upon. Ellen remained in the parsonage over the new year, and was there on 5th January when Dr. Teale came to visit.

Anne Bronte handkerchief
Anne Bronte’s blood stained handkerchief.

Teale had been called in by the Reverend Patrick Brontë. A renowned tuberculosis specialist, he had been asked to examine Patrick’s youngest daughter Anne – but by that time all in the family must have known what was coming.

Ellen described what happened next in her typical, and moving, understatement:

‘Anne was looking sweetly pretty and flushed, and in capital spirits for an invalid. While consultations were going on in Mr Brontë‘s study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking around the room surrounded by me. Mr Brontë joined us after Mr Teale’s departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards him and said, “My dear little Anne.” That was all – but it was understood.’

The diagnosis had confirmed their worst fears. Anne had terminal tuberculosis, there was no hope for her. A crushing blow to start the year in Haworth, but Anne dealt with it with her characteristic and stoicism. This was the beginning of her great trial, but she refused to be bowed, and her faith and love remained strong to the end. Teale’s diagnosis also brought an end to Ellen’s visit to the parsonage, as he gave strict instructions that Ellen must leave the parsonage and return home – an instruction that may well have saved her from the infection, and saved her life.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte, was a loyal friend to Anne too.

I hope that your new year has started in more cheerful fashion. Anne’s story, indeed the Brontë story as a whole, is a reminder to us all that we never know what is coming – so we must all make the most of our talents and our dreams. Let this year be the year that your dreams come true, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.