Patrick Brontë, Maria Branwell And A Triple Wedding

The new year rapidly approaches, and for many of us, let’s face it, this is a time to relax and recharge our batteries before the madness of New Year celebrations arrive. A time to curl up with a good book, hopefully with a nice warm fire (or radiator) nearby or a duvet pulled up tight. For one, or rather three, couples in 1812 however, this was a time of great activity, and one that would change their lives forever. It also changed literary history forever, for on this weekend 206 years ago, Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell.

On 29th December 1812 the farmer’s son from County Down and the merchant’s daughter from Cornwall were married in St. Oswald’s church in Guiseley, between Leeds and Bradford. It had been a whirlwind romance, as Patrick and Maria had only met that summer when Patrick took up a post as classics examiner at Woodhouse Grove school in Leeds. It was a Methodist school run by John and Jane Fennell, who had earlier met Patrick when they were all living in Shropshire. Their niece had arrived at the school, after a journey of over 400 miles, around the same time to work in an administrative position, although she may later have expected to take up a teaching role – this was, of course, Maria Branwell, as Jane was the sister of her father Thomas.

Woodhouse Grove School
Woodhouse Grove School where Maria met Patrick in the summer of 1812

Love and marriage came late for both of them, especially by early nineteenth century standards, as Maria was in her late 20s and Patrick in his mid 30s, but there can be no doubt at all that this was a love match and that they were both smitten with each other from the moment they met. We see plentiful evidence of this in Maria’s letters during her courtship to her ‘saucy Pat’. They are often amusing, always moving. By December 5th we can see that wedding arrangements were being finalised:

‘We intend to set about making the cakes here next week, but as fifteen or twenty persons whom you mention live probably in our neighbourhood, I think it will be most convenient for Mrs Bedford to make a small one for the purpose of distributing there, which will save us the difficulty of sending so far.’

Mrs Bedford was Patrick’s landlady, and of course just over three weeks after this letter, Maria would herself be living with Patrick in Hartshead as Mrs. Brontë. Patrick and Maria weren’t the only couple getting married on that day, as an advertisement placed in The Gentleman’s Magazine at the start of 1813 reveals:

‘Lately at Guiseley, near Bradford, by the Rev. William Morgan, minister of Bierley, Rev. P. Brontë, B.A., minister of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, to Maria, third daughter of the late T. Branwell, Esq., of Penzance. At the same time, by the Rev. P. Brontë, Rev. W. Morgan, to the only daughter of Mr. John Fennell, Headmaster of the Wesleyan Academy near Bradford.’

St. Oswald's Church, Guiseley
St. Oswald’s Church, Guiseley, site of Maria’s wedding to Patrick Bronte

Woodhouse Grove had seen a series of strange coincidences that summer, as Reverend William Morgan had also met the Fennells and Patrick Brontë during an earlier ministry in Shropshire before he too moved north to the burgeoning towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Originally from Wales, Morgan fell in love with the other young woman at the school, Jane Fennell junior – cousin to Maria Branwell.

Patrick and William were lifelong best friends, and Reverend Morgan presided over many important events in the lives of the Brontë sisters – from their christenings to, all too soon, their funerals. But wait – I mentioned three couples, so let’s turn to the third couple, as that leads us to a detailed account of what happened on that December day in Guiseley.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan, also married in Guiseley 206 years ago this week

Maria Branwell had a younger sister, Charlotte, who had fallen in love with their cousin Joseph Branwell. The two sisters, and their mutual cousin Jane (who was also a cousin, rather than sister, to Joseph Branwell), colluded with each other via correspondence that must have whizzed back and forth across the hundreds of miles separating Leeds and Penzance, and they arranged to get married at the same day and same time, despite the distance separating them. This was later recalled by Charlotte and Joseph’s daughter, another Charlotte Branwell (cousin to the Brontë sisters). On Christmas Day 1884, The Cornish Telegraph printed her story:

‘It was arranged that the two marriages [Patrick and Maria and William and Jane] should be solemnized on the same day as that of Miss Charlotte Branwell’s mother, fixed for 29th December in far off Penzance. And so, whilst the youngest sister of Mrs. Brontë was being married to her cousin, the late Mr Joseph Branwell, the double marriage, as already noted was taking place in Yorkshire. Miss Charlotte Branwell also adds that at Guiseley not only did the Rev. Mr Brontë and the Rev. Mr Morgan perform the marriage ceremony for one another, but the brides acted as bridesmaids for each other. Mr Fennell, who was a clergyman of the Church of England, would have united the young people, but he had to give both brides away. Miss Branwell notes these facts to prove that the arrangement for the three marriages on the same day was no caprice or eccentricity on the part of Mr Brontë, but was made entirely by the brides. She has many a time heard her mother speak of the circumstances. “It is but seldom,” continues Miss Branwell, “that two sisters and four cousins are united in holy matrimony on the same day. Those who were united on that day bore that relationship to each other. Mrs. Brontë (formerly Maria Branwell) and my mother, Charlotte Branwell, were sisters; my father was their cousin; and Jane Fennel was a cousin to them all, her father, the Rev. J. Fennell, having married a Miss Branwell of a former generation.

If the account I have given you is likely to be of any interest you are quite at liberty to use it as you think proper. I really think a deal of eccentricity has been ascribed to Mr Brontë which he never possessed, and from his letters to my dear mother, of which there are some still in existence, I should say he was a very worthy man, but one who had to pass through some great trials in the early death of a truly amiable wife and of a very gifted family.”’

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, third bride in the triple wedding

It is clear from Charlotte’s account above that Patrick and Maria had a very loving, if all too brief, marriage, and their wedding day must have been an exciting and joyous one. It is said that after the marriage in Guiseley, the two happy couples repaired to Woodhouse Grove school for their reception, cakes and all! Let us leave them there, and indeed leave 2018 on a note of love and promise. This has been the year of Emily Brontë, and I hope it has brought you closer to her and to her wonderful family, I certainly feel that it has done so for me. I wish you a Happy New Year, and I’ll have a new post out on the 1st of January 2019. Tempus fugit!

A Musical Christmas In The Brontë Parsonage

So here it is – Merry Christmas! I sit here on Christmas Day morning 2018 wondering whether it’s still too early to crack open a bottle of prosecco, thinking of turkey to come and with carols playing in the background – and of course there’s a plentiful supply of Brontë books within reach!

Haworth Christmas pillar portrait
Happy Christmas from me, Anne, Emily, Branwell and Charlotte – to you all!

Christmas should be a time of fun and joy, full of music and laughter, and it seems it was often like this at the Haworth parsonage we all know and love. Bands and singers would travel to the larger houses and the village inns, spreading festive cheer in return for a few coins, a drink and maybe a mince pie or two. We get a glimpse from Emily Brontë in her ‘Wuthering Heights‘ as the Gimmerton Band comes a-calling:

‘In the evening we had a dance. Cathy begged that he [Heathcliff] might be liberated then, as Isabella Linton had no partner; her entreaties were in vain, and I was appointed to supply the deficiency. We got rid of all gloom in the excitement of the exercise, and our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them. After the usual carols had been sung, we set them to songs and glees. Mrs Earnshaw loved the music, and so they gave us plenty.’

Bronte piano
The Bronte piano that Emily and Anne loved to play

Anne Brontë too loved music at Christmas, and we can imagine Anne standing by the piano on this special day and singing along with her sweet voice as Emily played a Christmas refrain. I wish you all, and your families a Happy Christmas and Yuletide – without you reading this blog it wouldn’t exist, so I thank you all! I leave you, as my tradition dictates, with Anne Brontë’s poem ‘Music On Christmas Morning’:

“Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.”

The Funeral Of Emily Brontë

The joyous feast of Christmas is nearly upon us, and I’ll be up with the elves producing a Christmas morning blog post on just that theme, but today we deal with more solemn emotions. Christmas can be a terrible time for those who are lonely, who are bereaved, who have lost the one they love. Celebrations, laughter and festivity are everywhere, but they feel excluded from it all because instead of light they live under a constant veil of darkened shadow. This was the cloak which enveloped Charlotte Brontë on this day 170 years ago, for on 23rd December 1848 she wrote to Ellen Nussey:

‘Emily suffers no more either from pain or weakness now. She never will suffer more in this world – she is gone after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible then she might be with us still for weeks and a few hours afterwards she was in Eternity. Yes – there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now – yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the Church pavement. We are very calm at present, why should we be otherwise? The anguish of seeing her suffer is over, the spectacle of the pains of Death is gone by, the funeral day is past, we feel she is at peace. No need now to tremble for the hard frost and keen wind – Emily does not feel them. She has died in a time of promise – we saw her torn from life in its prime.’

Parsonage dining room
This black sofa in the Bronte Parsonage was where Emily Bronte died

Charlotte was referring of course to the funeral of Emily Brontë, who was buried in the Brontë family vault in Haworth’s St. Michael and All Angels’ Church on 22nd December 1848 having died three days earlier. She joined her mother, her Aunt Elizabeth, her sisters Maria and Elizabeth and her brother Branwell in the vault, but there were two more spaces yet to be filled. After the church was rebuilt by Reverend Brontë’s successor, John Wade, a pillar was placed above the Brontë vault, a strange echo of the pillar that Branwell had placed between his sisters in his youthful painting of them.

Bronte family vault
A pillar marks the Bronte family vault

With Patrick acting as chief mourner, of course, the funeral service was conducted by his assistant, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Emily’s beloved dog Keeper also had a place of honour in the church and led the funeral procession, as reported by Ellen Nussey:

‘Keeper was a solemn mourner at Emily’s funeral and never recovered his cheerfulness.’

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

Ellen also wrote that Keeper ‘seemed to understand her [Emily] like a human being’ and even years later he would still long for the mistress he loved and missed. Writing after Anne Brontë’s death, which followed just six months after Emily’s, Charlotte wrote:

‘The ecstasy of these poor animals [Flossy and Keeper] when I came in was something singular… I am certain they thought that, as I was returned, my sisters were not far behind – but here my sisters will come no more. Keeper may visit Emily’s little bed-room, as he still does day by day, and Flossy may look wistfully round for Anne – they will never see them again – nor shall I.’

So, Christmas 1848 was a time of mourning. Charlotte had lost the sister she hero worshipped, Anne had lost her twin like sister and herself was now gravely ill, Patrick had lost the daughter he had called his right hand and the apple of his eye, and Keeper had lost the human who was the whole world to him.

For Charlotte life had to go on, but it was diminished, her sun had set. Perhaps as she walked the hills and moors the lines from one of Emily’s poems came into her head:

‘I dream of moor, and misty hill,
Where evening closes dark and chill;
For, lone, among the mountains cold,
Lie those that I have loved of old.’

Emily herself was not scared of death, and she wrote about it in many of her brilliant poems, perhaps recalling John Keats who wrote, ‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme.’ Nevertheless, Emily was not an invariably gloomy woman, for we have reports of her happy, cheerful voice and her love of practical jokes. No, to Emily death was simply a fact of life the same as any other.

It is perhaps fitting that Emily died and was buried around the time of the winter solstice. A time when death inevitably comes, when we reach the darkest point of the year, but that, as Emily knew, also heralds the beginning of a new light that will eventually bring new life, and the verdant beauty will return. Emily died, but the legend and legacy of Emily was just being born. I will leave you with ‘At Castle Wood’, a remarkable poem by Emily Brontë in which she looks ahead to her death and funeral. But this is the time of Yule, from the old Norse word for wheel; the wheel of the year and life turns and joy will come again, so on Christmas day I will have a much happier post for you all.

Emily Bronte, At Castle Wood

In Remembrance Of Emily Brontë

We are moving towards the end of a very special year for Emily Brontë, and for Brontë fans across the globe, because 2018 has marked the 200th anniversary of her birth, it has been in effect The Year of Emily.

A birthday party was held in Haworth on the 30th of July; I could not be there but I was instead at another birthday party given for Emily – over 400 miles away in Penzance, the home of Emily’s mother and her maternal relatives, the Branwells. I loved every minute of my visit to Penzance and Cornwall this summer, and despite the distance from Haworth I felt close to the woman I had loved since I first opened ‘Wuthering Heights’ as an 18 year old student.

Penzance mural
This Penzance mural shows notables of the town – fourth from left is Maria Branwell – mother of Emily Brontë

Nevertheless, on this day I felt I had to return to Haworth for it was on this day in 1848 that Emily Brontë took her last breath. All who had known her were distraught of course, with Charlotte writing a moving tribute containing the line, ‘yes, there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now. Yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the church pavement.’

Bronte Parsonage Museum 1929 by Kaye Sugden
The room where Emily Bronte died, photographed in 1929 by Kaye Sugden

Unfortunately, last minute circumstances have delayed my journey to Haworth until another day, but before Christmas I will have paused in silence by the couch on which Emily died, and have laid flowers by the pillar that marks the spot on the church pavement beneath which Emily’s mortal remains were laid. It is a mournful day for me, but not for Emily – she will always live on.

So, let us dwell not on her final illness, but on her genius and her brilliance that has never seen the like before or since. The unmistakable power and talent that led Ellen Nussey to declare: ‘I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no woman of greater or more incontestable genius.’

On this day then let us remember the brilliance of Emily Brontë contained within ‘Wuthering Heights’ and contained within her remarkable poetry. This particular poem was praised by F.R. Leavis, perhaps the greatest ever literary critic, as ‘the finest poem in the nineteenth century’. High praise indeed, so I shall leave you with ‘Remembrance’ as we remember Emily Jane Brontë, who left us 170 years ago today:

“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?”

The Kindness And Charity Of Charlotte Brontë

Today I’m going to relate a story that’s now very little known, indeed that had been lost within the tiny print amidst a mass of yellow tinged nineteenth century newspapers. It’s a tale full of charity and care for those less fortunate than yourself, so it’s perfect for this Christmas season. If you’re sitting comfortably I’ll begin the tale of Charlotte Brontë and the boots.

I can never stay away from the Brontë family for too long, so I may have news of two new Brontë related books next year – and that means my favourite thing of all, research! Some people might feel there’s nothing new to discover, but in fact you can sometimes find a new piece of documentary evidence that hits you right between the eyes, and illuminates further a character we know and love. That’s what happened to me yesterday as I read through some nineteenth century newspapers, and we find a story of Charlotte Brontë that is forgotten today, but which shows her studious side, her charitable side and her sense of fun.

From an 1893 copy of the Leeds Mercury comes this reminiscence from a Frank Peel of Huddersfield. He was down on his luck and quite literally down at heel, but then fate led him to a certain building in Haworth. I’ll let Frank tell the story in his own words, as he did 125 years ago:

Keighley Mechanics Institute
Keighley Mechanics Institute visited by Frank Peel, and also by the Brontes

“About the month of April, 1851 (I think), I found myself one evening at Keighley, without money or friends. The factory I worked at had broken down, and, like most lads, I wandered purposelessly about to kill time. After wandering about the town till nine o’clock at night, the question where should I sleep forced itself upon my attention. Now, I had had at the Mechanics’ Institute of a neighbouring town instruction and practice in reciting pieces, and, spurred by hunger and the night air, I resolved to turn my abilities in that way into account by going into the various public-houses and offering to recite to the companies I found there, and then going round with the hat (cap in this case). The first house I went into I got sixpence for once reciting, with an offer that if I would stand on my head and sing a song they would double it. I pocketed the copper and the insult and decamped. Yet, fearing I had not enough to pay for a bed, I plucked up courage and tried in another hotel with more success, for one or two of the company assured me that if I waited upon Mr. Sam Wild, whose company was then in the town, I should be able do better than pitching in pubs.

I then sought out lodgings in a common lodging-house. Being well-dressed – that is for such lodgings – the inmates treated me very respectfully; and one, a travelling glazier, paid for my supper. In doing this he asked me what I was doing there. I told him, and also the advice I had been given about applying to Wild, and then went to bed. In the morning I found a sad mishap had befallen me – some one had gone off with my boots. I told the landlady, but she said she could not help me, so in my perplexity I consulted the glazier, who, after listening to me went out and bought me a pair of ‘pushers’ – that is, boot fronts with the leg and back cut off. To interview the theatrical manager with these on was out of the question, and on naming my difficulty to the glazier he said, after a little consideration, that he would put me into the way of getting a pair of boots. He said he was going to ‘work’ Haworth that day, and if I would carry his glass crate he would see me all right.

Keighley hovels by John Bradley
‘Keighley Hovels’ by John Bradley, art tutor of the Brontes

We trudged up the famous village, and then he pointed out a house where there was a lady – ‘Miss Charlotte’ he called her – who was ‘good for a pair of boots’ if I told her all my story. He then left me to ‘call’ the village. I felt my painful position very keenly. I durst not meet the glazier again without having seen ‘ Charlotte’ and eventually I mustered courage to knock at the door and ask for the lady. By and by a lady came, accompanied by another, younger than herself. With some difficulty I managed to tell my tale as I stood at the door, and was then invited into the kitchen and a pot of coffee and some bread and butter were put before me. By the time I had finished my breakfast the lady had returned to the kitchen and put some old boots before me, bidding me to try to fit a pair on. I did so, and found a pair which fitted pretty well. By this time the younger lady also returned into the kitchen. Both sat down, and Miss Charlotte then said, ‘I have given you breakfast, found you boots, and I am now going to talk to you a bit.’ She did talk to me, and in a way that made me wish I had never gone.

She said that in nine cases out of ten people adopted my course of life from sheer idleness or gipsy instinct, and not because they had any special talent for theatricals. Did I think I had any talent? I told her I thought I had. Would I give her a specimen? Here was a dilemma! How could I refuse after the kindness with which I had been treated? In great pain, I said I would try to comply with her request. I gave, first, ‘Young Lochinvar,’ in my best style, and then her look of motherly severity seemed to relax a little.

She then began to ask a number of questions about my family and other matters, which I answered as well as I could. Amongst other things. I told her I had relations at Cleckheaton, and described it and the neighbourhood to her. The younger lady then asked me if I knew any more recitations, and I replied I could give one or two from Shakespeare. Feeling more at ease, I at once recited one or two selections from ‘Hamlet’, without any remark being made. Miss Charlotte then asked me if I would give the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother, where the Queen says, “Do not for ever with thy veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust; thou know’st ’tis common, all that live must die—passing through nature to eternity.’ I complied as well I could; gave the whole scene without the ladies displaying any special interest in it, until I came to the line where Hamlet says, “I have that within which passeth show; these, but the trappings and the suits of woe,” when they both burst out into good-humoured laughter. I dared not ask the cause of this, but I suppose my looks showed my anxiety, and Charlotte said, ‘I’ve seen Hamlet played at Bradford, and they made the same mistake you have made in the word ‘suite.’ Shakespeare never could have used it in that sense – namely, a dress – but in a wider sense, ‘suite,’ pronounced ‘sweet,’ meaning that the King, Queen, and all about them were only acting the part of mourners, making their conduct match or harmonise with their supposed recent bereavement – the death of Hamlet’s father.’ I did not venture on any opinion, but said I believed it was in the book. Miss Charlotte said it was, but only showed the ignorant, shortsightedness of those who tampered with Shakespeare’s works. Other criticisms followed in a similar strain, but I have a very vague recollection of them.

After advising me to return to work and leave playing to idlers, they showed me to the door, and bid me good-morning. I should state here, to account for what follows, that the persons in the second public-house in which had I the night before been reciting were members of Mr. Wild’s company, and that they assured me that I should get an engagement with them: so that when the string of questions which Miss Charlotte put after I preferred my request for the boots began to tighten, I said I had got the engagement, and only required the boots to enable me to enter upon it at once. On leaving the house I sought my friend the glazier, and found him repairing windows just in the hollow of the village. He advised me to return to Keighley at once, and see the manager. I did so, but he had as many as the business would allow of just then. In another week, however, when they commenced the tour of the fairs, he could give me a situation for building and parade business. Unasked, he kindly gave me half a crown, and said I could go behind at night if I wished.

The Lear Of Private Life
The Lear Of Private Life, a Victorian adaptation of Shakespeare

It was now getting late in the afternoon, and I sought out the members of the company, and told them the result of my application. I did go behind the scenes at night, and I am now getting at what I wish to tell you. The play was called ‘The Lear of Private Life’ – that is, a sort of domestic copy of ‘ King Lear.’ I assisted in shifting the scenes, and before the last act began the ‘ Lear’ sent me to the money-taker to get a shilling and fetch him some brandy in a pint-pot, for he was ‘nearly a croaker.’

It was a ‘grand fashionable night,’ and there were about a hundred people in the pit, and in coming from the stage to the side-door I had to pass on one side to it, and there, only just within the harden enclosure, and close to where I had to pass, was Miss Brontë and the other lady I had seen the day before at Haworth parsonage! I now felt so guilty of having told Miss Brontë a falsehood about having got the engagement that I should not have ventured to pass her if the actor’s words ‘nearly a croaker’ had not rung in my ears. In the walk for the brandy I had time to collect myself, and I decided to walk past the ladies as if I belonged to the establishment. I did so, and also made a very respectful bow to them, which they gracefully returned. I looked through the peep-hole in the wing and saw them leave soon after. It was some years after this before I learned that the lady who had given me the breakfast, the boots, and the scolding was the authoress of ‘Jane Eyre.’ I was pleased the rascal stole my boots when I learnt I had had an interview with Charlotte Brontë. – Frank Peel.”

Miss Charlotte Bronte
It seems that ‘Miss Charlotte’ was well known for her kindness

What a beautiful story, an encounter from two centuries ago that we can now see clearly again! It’s an interesting social document as well; we see a tale of men losing their jobs and having nowhere to sleep and no money to buy food with, but isn’t it fascinating that even a man of such a fate can still recite a whole host of passages of Shakespeare from memory, and that people would pay to hear them?

Two further questions jump out at me – just whose were the old boots fit for a young working man to wear? I can only think that Charlotte must have kept some of the boots and other belongings of her brother Branwell who had died three years previously. And then, who was the ‘younger woman’ who sat alongside Charlotte and later visited the travelling show with her? Martha Brown the servant lived in the parsonage at this time and was considerably younger, but it seems hardly likely that she would sit in on the interview as well, ask questions about Shakespeare and then laugh at the man’s interpretation of a particular word. No, it seems to me that this can only have been Charlotte’s great friend Ellen Nussey who often visited the parsonage. Ellen was almost exactly a year younger than Charlotte and would have been 34 at the time of this incident, but from Frank Peel’s account it seems that she looked visibly younger than her.

Above all, we see that Charlotte was at heart a very kind and charitable woman, so much so that her reputation for it had spread outside of Haworth and into Keighley and beyond – otherwise, why would the Keighley glazier have known to send Frank to her, and even to have known her name, when in need of help?

As Christmas approaches we should think of how we can do more to help those in need at this time of year, whether it be a lonely relative or neighbour, or those who have to turn to food banks – let’s all be a bit more loving, let’s all be a bit more Charlotte!

Jane Austen And Charlotte Brontë

On this day, 16th December 2018, we say a very happy birthday to a great woman writer, but on this occasion she lived not in Haworth but in Hampshire, and not in Bradford but in Bath. Yes, today we we mark the 243rd anniversary of the birth of Jane Austen.

As you know, this blog is normally a Brontë rich zone, but Jane Austen is often linked with the Brontës due simply to her being a woman writer of incredible brilliance, so that in the minds of some members of the public it seeks that Jane and Charlotte become confused and the brilliant volunteers at the Brontë Parsonage Museum have to get used to being asked if it was the house that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was written in.

Rice portrait
The ‘Rice portrait’ is believed by many to be of a 13 year old Jane Austen

Today we’re going to look at Charlotte Brontë’s changing opinion of Jane Austen. Jane, again erroneously, is often thought of, like the Brontës, as an early Victorian writer, but in fact she belongs to the generation before that and was very much a Georgian. Her birth year of 1775 was just a year before that of Elizabeth Branwell, who became known as Aunt Branwell after removing from Penzance to Haworth in 1821 to care for her sister Maria and, later, her children.
The world of balls and romantic intrigue so often portrayed by Austen must have been well known to Elizabeth Branwell in her younger years. Penzance, like Bath, had its own Assembly Rooms that held society dances, and as the Branwells were among the leading families of the town it is likely that their daughters would often have been in attendance, so that we can imagine the Branwell sisters being somewhat akin to the Bennett girls.

Nevertheless the world that Austen’s heroines, and to an extent Jane Austen herself and Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, grew up in was far elevated from that in which the Brontës were raised. Perhaps it is this, allied to the genius of their authors, that gives the Brontë novels a grit and realism that was controversial at the time. Certainly, at first, Charlotte Brontë seemed puzzled at the popularity of Jane Austen, as she confided to the critic G.H. Lewes:

‘Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written ‘Pride & Prejudice’ or ‘Tom Jones’ than any of the Waverley novels. I had not seen ‘Pride & Prejudice’ till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’

G.H. Lewes
G.H. Lewes, critic, Austen fan and Emily Bronte lookalike

This is perhaps not so much a criticism of Austen, however, as a staunch defence by Charlotte of the writer she loved more than any other, Sir Walter Scott, author of the Waverley novels. Lewes, by the way, was the lover of Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot. When Charlotte later met him she reported that she was moved to tears because he looked so much like her by then departed sister Emily.

Lewes wrote back to Charlotte in defence of Jane Austen, but she was not yet to be swayed:

‘You say I must familiarize my mind with the fact that “Jane Austen is not a poetess, has no ‘sentiment’ (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas) no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasms of poetry” – and then you add, I must “learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of a means to an end that ever lived.” The last point only will I acknowledge. Can there be a great artist without poetry?’

Two years later, however, in a letter of April 1850 to W.S.Williams, Charlotte reveals that she has now read more of Austen, and has found some good points:

‘I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s work’s ‘Emma’ – read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heart-felt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her ready by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death – this Miss Austen ignores.’

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

We see then that Charlotte Brontë praises Jane Austen for her writing ability, and her power to portray the wealthier classes, but still feels that she lacks passion. If she had known the sad story of Jane’s romances and losses she may have felt differently.

In my opinion, Jane Austen was undoubtedly a genius of the first rank. Her books move along with a lightning pace, each page a joy to turn, and yet they are also full of humour and satire. We can and should enjoy the Misses Brontë and Miss Austen, so let’s join together to say ‘Happy Birthday, Jane Austen’!

The Moving Stories Of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

Sometimes a name can be of vital importance – especially when it has been chosen by an individual rather than given to them. When the Bell brothers published their book of poetry ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘ in 1846 it seemed to be an act of little significance, reportedly selling just two copies (although one of this duo of readers was so impressed that he wrote to the publisher, Aylott & Jones, for the Bell’s autographs). Of course, we know now this was an act of incredible significance as it was actually the first book to reach print by the Brontë sisters (and, on a side note, every copy was eventually sold). The poetry is important of course, but the names are very important and significant too – so let’s look at why the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were chosen – for behind the names lie very touching tales of the sisters and what they cherished the most.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

All of the Brontë sisters were shy, to a lesser or greater degree, possibly as a result of the relative seclusion they were brought up in after the death of their mother Maria, thriving in their own company rather than in that of others. Emily Brontë above all prized anonymity and secrecy, so it is likely to be she rather than her sisters who pressed for the use of pseudonyms when presenting their work.

Charlotte, in the biographical notices of her sisters she composed after their death, explained why they had used ostensibly male names:

‘ We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’.

This is a sentiment that was echoed by Anne Brontë in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

‘All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.’

So we know why the sisters chose to hide behind the mask of the Bells, but just why did they choose the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? Firstly, it allowed them to retain their initials: Currer Bell was Charlotte Brontë, Ellis Bell was Emily Brontë, and Acton Bell was Anne Brontë.

The surname Bell could have been chosen simply because of the sound of the bells from their father’s St. Michael’s and All Angels church, a short stroll from the Parsonage in which they lived. It’s a sound they would have often heard – so could it be that they heard the bells peeling as they tried to conjure up a nom de plume for themselves?

Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls

Another option is that they may have borrowed part of the name of their father’s new assistant curate – Arthur Bell Nicholls. He arrived in Haworth in May 1845, not long before the sisters began to send their poems to prospective publishers. At the time they could not have guessed the importance that Arthur would have to their lives – he would become dog walker to Flossy and Keeper after the death of Anne and Emily, and he was later to marry Charlotte Brontë.

I suggest a third possibility, however. Could Bell be a shortened form of the maiden name of their mother, and more pertinently perhaps their brother? By removing the middle letters of the name they could disguise it so that B(ranw)ell becomes simply B’ell or Bell. Branwell Brontë was unable to be part of their writing venture, but he was still regarded fondly by his sisters and in this way he still could, somehow, be present.

Winifred Gerin, the brilliant biographer of the Brontës in the sixties and seventies, suggested the origins of two of the pen names.

Eshton Hall, home of Frances Currer
Eshton Hall, home of Frances Currer

Charlotte Brontë was for a short while a governess to the Sidgwick family of Stone Gappe at Lothersdale, North Yorkshire. The neighbouring property of Eshton Hall, a huge mansion near Skipton, belonged to a Miss Frances Mary Richardson Currer. She was famed for her large library, similar to the one Charlotte was familiar with at Ponden Hall near Haworth. Could it be that Frances Currer’s learning impressed Charlotte so much that she later adopted her name?

There is another, touching, reason why Charlotte may have prized Miss Currer so highly – she was renowned for her philanthropy, and especially for supporting members of the clergy in need. After Maria Brontë’s death in 1821 her husband Patrick was left distraught and almost destitute. He was rescued from the real possibility of penury by a very generous donation of £50 given to him by ‘a benevolent individual, a wealthy lady’. It seems that this lady who came to the rescue of the Brontë family was none other than Frances Mary Richardson Currer – and if Charlotte was later told this, she certainly never forgot it.

Acton Bell may have taken ‘his’ name from Eliza Acton. Largely forgotten now, she was a cookery writer and more importantly a poetess of note in the early to mid nineteenth century, and likely to have been read by Anne in the magazines that the sisters enjoyed, passed on from their father.

Eliza Acton 1803
Eliza Acton, drawn in 1803

Another possible source of the name is Acton Castle near to Penzance in Cornwall. It would have been well known by Anne’s mother Maria and by her Aunt Elizabeth, who was like a mother to Anne throughout her life. It could be that Anne heard her aunt talk of the castle (after all, we know that she liked nothing more than talking of her beloved Cornwall), liked the name, and decided to adopt it as a tribute to the land of her maternal forebears.

Acton Castle
Acton Castle near Penzance

Winifred Gerin is, however, unable to suggest an origin for Ellis Bell, but I believe I have not just one but two possible answers. Emily and Anne Brontë were incredibly close and loving sisters, and Emily was always longing to hear of Anne’s adventures as a governess. She would have known all about Mary Ingham, Anne’s employer at Blake Hall of Mirfield, recreated so searingly in Agnes Grey, and she would also have heard of Mary Ingham’s exalted father: Ellis Cunliffe Lister. Ellis was the member of Parliament for Bradford, in effect the Brontës’ parliamentary representative.

Alternatively it could be a tribute to Emily’s older sister Elizabeth, who tragically died of tuberculosis aged just 10 in 1825, a time when Emily was just six years old. Perhaps the young Emily found it hard to say the full name Elizabeth and so used a shortened form – Ellis? Elizabeth Brontë was, by all reports, a practical and loving sister and she would often lead her younger siblings across the moors. Emily Brontë would without doubt have loved these walks, and therefore she doubtless would have loved the sister who led them, and could have paid a touching tribute to her when selecting a pen name. This, I think, is the most likely origin of Ellis Bell.

So there we have the inspirations, possibly or even probably, of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell – three very different people yet all represented in the Brontës works – the solitary yet scholarly woman, the greatly missed sister, the female poet – and at the end of the name, a tribute to their brother. We can see then that each name was carefully chosen and that each has a touching story behind it. We adore Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë, of course, but we should also cherish the names of Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell.

The Publication And Reviews Of ‘Agnes Grey’

December 1847 saw the release of the debut novels of Acton Bell and Ellis Bell, published alongside each other in three volumes. We know them better as Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë, of course, and the novels were ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’.

This was an exciting period for Charlotte too, as her ‘Jane Eyre’, despite being written long after her sisters’ novels, had already been released two months earlier, and the siblings must, like all new authors, have been waiting excitedly for the reviews to roll in. Unfortunately, many of the opinions passed on the Brontës, or the Bells as they were known then, were highly unperceptive, and say more about the reviewers and the restrictive, often puritanical, nature of mid nineteenth century society than they do about the books.

Agnes Grey frontispiece
The Agnes Grey frontispiece from the first edition

Let’s take a look at what some of the leading publications had to say about Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’:

Agnes Grey is more level and more sunny [than Wuthering Heights which was also reviewed here]. Perhaps we shall best describe it as a somewhat coarse imitation of one of Miss Austin’s charming stories… The story, though lacking the power and originality of Wuthering Heights , is infinitely more agreeable. It leaves no painful impression on the mind – some may think it leaves no impression at all.’ (The Atlas)

This encapsulates one of the problems Anne had, her work was always compared with that of Ellis and Currer Bell – whose ‘Jane Eyre’ is also frequently mentioned in the review. The reviewer’s views are perhaps slightly undermined here by his inability to spell Jane Austen’s name correctly. The endless comparisons to ‘Jane Eyre’ can also be seen in the following review:

‘Of Agnes Grey, much need not be said, further than this, that it is the autobiography of a young lady during the time she was a governess in two different families; neither of which is a favourable specimen of the advantages of home education. We do not actually assert that the author must have been a governess himself, to describe as he does the minute torments and incessant tediums of her life, but he must have bribed some governess very largely, either with love or money, to reveal to him the secrets of her prison-house, or, he must have devoted extraordinary powers of observation and discovery to the elucidation of the subject. In either case, Agnes Grey is a tale well worth the writing and the reading. The heroine is a sort of younger sister to Jane Eyre, but inferior to her in every way.’ (Douglas Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper)

Agnes Grey header
The dispiriting nature of life as a governess is at the heart of Agnes Grey

Anne must have been frustrated by the insinuations that she had in effect copied, or at least taken inspiration from, Currer’s tale of a governess ‘Jane Eyre’. They’re very different books, except for the occupation of their protagonist, and of course if there was any inspiration it must have been Charlotte who took it from Anne’s book which she had already read when she commenced work on hers.

‘The three Bells, as we took occasion to observe when reviewing Wuthering Heights’ ring in a chime so harmonious as to prove that they have issued from the same mould. The resemblance borne by their novels to each other is curious.’ (The Athenaeum)

Whilst there are superficial similarities between the novels of Anne and Charlotte Brontë, it seems more difficult to see a resemblance between ‘Agnes Grey’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, except in their brilliance.

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
New imprints of Agnes Grey continue to appear today

Overall, the reviews for ‘Agnes Grey’ were not damning, but they compared it unfavourably to her sister Emily’s work, or damned it alongside it for a coarseness that in reality it doesn’t possess. What the reviewers saw as coarse and unsuited to a novel, especially one which might be read, shock horror, by women, Anne saw as the truth, and the dissemination of truth was the most important thing of all to her. She addressed this in her preface to the second edition of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, a book which had attracted large sales and fierce criticism alike:

‘When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear. To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? O Reader! if there were less of this delicate concealment of facts – this whispering of ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace, there would be less of sin and misery to the young of both sexes who are left to wring their bitter knowledge from experience.’

One particularly unperceptive review of the sisters’ work came at the worst possible time, as an American review arrived in the parsonage at the close of 1848, a time when Emily was dying and Anne too was gravely ill. Charlotte recounts the scene of tragic bathos as she read ‘The North American Review’ to her sisters:

‘What a bad set the Bells must be! What appalling books they write! Today as Emily appeared a little easier, I thought the Review would amuse her so I read it aloud to her and Anne. As I sat between them at our quiet but now somewhat melancholy fireside, I studied the two ferocious authors. Ellis, ‘the man of uncommon talents, but dogged, brutal, and morose’, sat leaning back in his easy chair drawing his impeded breath as best he could, and looking, alas! piteously pale and wasted; it is not his wont to laugh, but he smiled half-amused and half in scorn as he listened. Acton was sewing, no emotion ever stirs him to loquacity, so he only smiled too, dropping at the same time a single word of calm amazement to hear his character so darkly portrayed. I wonder what the reviewer would have thought of his own sagacity could he have beheld the pair as I did.’

Anne never lived to see the huge advance in the reputation of her books, and their author, that came later in the nineteenth century and on to today, but she would surely have been quietly satisfied that people now recognised and valued the truth of her words, and her powerful, moving way of expressing them.

George Moore by Edouard Manet
Anne’s great fan, George Moore, painted by Edouard Manet

I was very pleased to see ‘Agnes Grey’ feature in a list of the best Brontë books read this year by the fantastic Brontë blogger Nicola Friar (incidentally, I will be creating a links page soon detailing the very best Brontë related blogs, there are so many great ones out there now), and we should also remember the very favourable impression the book left on the early twentieth century novelist George Moore:

‘Agnes Grey is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature… a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress… We know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint… If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.’

Moore’s opinion is certainly worth taking notice of, after all he was an excellent novelist himself, and, unlike the Atlas reviewer, at least he knew how to spell the name Jane Austen!

If you’re thinking of writing a book review, on Amazon or elsewhere, please do remember that it will be there forever, and that somewhere there’s a flesh and blood author waiting to hear the verdict on the child born from their imagination; after all, a review is for life, not just for Christmas.