I journeyed from Yorkshire to London and back again this weekend, and so forgive me if today’s post is a little shorter than usual. Of course, it’s a voyage that Anne Brontë herself made in July 1848, on her one and only journey outside Yorkshire. As we’ve looked at in previous posts, it’s likely that either Anne or Charlotte inadvertently brought tuberculosis bacillus back with them, starting a chain of events that would see Branwell, Emily and finally Anne herself die of the disease within a year of their visit to the capital.
London was as beautiful as ever yesterday, although the north winds of Storm Hannah were rushing through its streets and sending grass cuttings flying everywhere. It was an inconvenience, but for the Brontës of Haworth the north winds could be much worse as they often presaged periods of illness. Charlotte also spoke of how melancholy the sound of the wind made her; in a letter of October 1836 to her beloved friend Ellen Nussey, she wrote:
“Excuse me if I say nothing but nonsense, for my mind is exhausted, and dispirited. It is a Stormy evening and the wind is uttering a continual moaning sound that makes me feel very melancholy. At such times, in such moods as these Ellen it is my nature to seek repose in some calm, tranquil idea and I have now summoned up your image to give me rest. There you sit, upright and still in your black dress and white scarf – your pale, marble-like face, looking so serene and kind – just like reality. I wish you would speak to me.”
For Anne Brontë, however, the sound of wind was one she associated with home, and it inspired two poems by her, her wonderful nature poem ‘Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day‘, and the altogether different ‘North Wind’. Anne was just 18 when she wrote this poem, and like many of her youthful works it is based in the kingdom of Gondal that she created with Emily Brontë. Like many of these Gondal verses it is set in a dungeon, as the narrator, Alexandrina Zenobia in this case, finds solace in her solitary despair from a breeze that reminds her of home. It’s a lovely poem, and I leave you with it now:
“That wind is from the North, I know it well;
No other breeze could have so wild a swell.
Now deep and loud it thunders round my cell,
The faintly dies,
And softly sighs,
And moans and murmurs mournfully.
I know its language; thus is speaks to me —
‘I have passed over thy own mountains dear,
Thy northern mountains — and they still are free,
Still lonely, wild, majestic, bleak and drear,
And stern and lovely, as they used to be
When thou, a young enthusiast,
As wild and free as they,
O’er rocks and glens and snowy heights
Didst often love to stray.
I’ve blown the wild untrodden snows
In whirling eddies from their brows,
And I have howled in caverns wild
Where thou, a joyous mountain child,
Didst dearly love to be.
The sweet world is not changed, but thou
Art pining in a dungeon now,
Where thou must ever be;
No voice but mine can reach thine ear,
And Heaven has kindly sent me here,
To mourn and sigh with thee,
And tell thee of the cherished land
Of thy nativity.’
Blow on, wild wind, thy solemn voice,
However sad and drear,
Is nothing to the gloomy silence
I have had to bear.
Hot tears are streaming from my eyes,
But these are better far
Than that dull gnawing tearless void
The stupor of despair.
Confined and hopeless as I am,
O speak of liberty,
O tell me of my mountain home,
And I will welcome thee.
I know that many people today will be laying out egg hunts in their beautiful gardens, cooking a roast and spending quality time with the people they love – to those I say Happy Easter. There’s another cause for joy, and in fact it’s not only a double celebration but a triple celebration!
On this day in 1816 a very special event had taken place in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford, as it was on this day that a girl we would all come to know and love was born: Charlotte Brontë. Almost exactly a year later, on the 20th April 1817 a special event of a similar kind was taking place in Birstall, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, for the day before Charlotte’s first birthday saw the birth of Ellen Nussey.
Charlotte and Ellen became the closest of friends after they met at Roe Head School in January 1831, and so doubtless in subsequent years they would have delighted in celebrating each others birthday jointly with their own. That’s what I’m going to do today. Ellen it was, more than anyone, who preserved the Brontë legacy, and who ensured that people throughout the centuries to come could understand what this remarkable family was truly like. She deserves to be remembered, which is one reason I’m delighted to be working on a book about Charlotte and Ellen at the moment, so today let’s take a look at what Charlotte and Ellen had to say about each other:
Charlotte On First Seeing Ellen
“When I first saw Ellen I did not care for her. We were schoolfellows – in the course of time we learnt each others faults and good points. We were contrasts, still we suited – affection was first a germ, then a sapling, then a strong tree: now, no new friend, however lofty or profound in intellect, not even Miss Martineau herself, could be to me what Ellen is, yet she is no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She is without romance – if she attempts to read poetry or poetic prose aloud I am irritated and deprive her of the book; if she talks of it I stop my ears. But she is good – she is true – she is faithful and I love her.”
Ellen On First Seeing Charlotte
“Turning to the window to observe the look-out I became aware for the first that I was not alone; there was a silent, weeping, dark little figure in the large bay window; she must, I thought, have risen from the floor. As soon as I had recovered from my surprise, I went from the far end of the room, where the book-shelves were, the contents of which I must have contemplated with a little awe in anticipation of coming studies. A crimson cloth covered the long table down the centre of the room, which helped, no doubt, to hide the shrinking little figure from my view. I was touched and troubled at once to see her so sad and tearful.”
Charlotte On Ellen
“If I like people it is my nature to tell them so and I am not afraid of offering incense to your vanity. It is from religion that you derive your chief charm and may its influence always preserve you as pure, as unassuming and as benevolent in thought and deed as you are now. What am I compared to you? I feel my own utter worthlessness when I make the comparison. I’m a very coarse common-place wretch!”
Ellen On Charlotte
“She never shirked a duty because it was irksome, or advised another to do what she herself did not fully count the cost of doing, above all, when her goodness was not of the stand-still order, when there was new beauty, when there were new developments and growths of goodness to admire and attract in every succeeding renewal of intercourse, when daily she was a Christian heroine, who bore her cross with the firmness of a martyr-saint.”
Charlotte On Ellen
“My darling if I were like you I should have my face Zion-ward though prejudice and mist might occasionally fling a mist over the glorious vision before me, for with all your single-hearted sincerity you have your faults. But I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up and makes me feel Society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I dare say despise me.”
Ellen On Charlotte
“She was so painfully shy she could not bear any special notice. One day, on being led into dinner by a stranger, she trembled and nearly burst into tears; but not withstanding her excessive shyness, which was often painful to others as well as to herself, she won the respect and affection of all who had opportunity enough to become acquainted with her. Charlotte’s shyness did not arise, I am sure, either from vanity or self-consciousness, as some suppose shyness to arise; its source was in her not being understood. She felt herself apart from others; they did not understand her, and she keenly felt the distance.”
Charlotte On Ellen’s Appearance
“To her had not been denied the gift of beauty. It was not absolutely necessary to know her in order to like her; she was fair enough to please, even at the first view. Her shape suited her age: it was girlish, light, and pliant; every curve was neat, every limb proportionate; her face was expressive and gentle; her eyes were handsome, and gifted at times with a winning beam that stole into the heart, with a language that spoke softly to the affections. Her mouth was very pretty; she had a delicate skin, and a fine flow of brown hair, which she knew how to arrange with taste; curls became her, and she possessed them in picturesque profusion.”[This description is of Caroline Helstone in ‘Shirley‘, a character based upon both Ellen Nussey and Anne Brontë]
Ellen On Visiting Haworth After The Time Of The Brontës
“Haworth of the present day, like many other secluded places, has made a step onwards, in that it has now its railway station and its institutions for the easy acquirement of learning, politics, and literature. The parsonage is quite another habitation from the parsonage of former days. The garden, which was nearly all grass, and possessed only a few stunted thorns and shrubs, and a few current bushes which Emily and Anne treasured as their own bit of fruit-garden, is now a perfect Arcadia of floral culture and beauty. At first the alteration, in spite of its improvement, strikes one with heart-ache and regret; for it is quite impossible, even in imagination, to people those rooms with their former inhabitants. But after-thought shows one the folly of such regret; for what the Brontës cared for and lived in most were the surroundings of nature, the free expanse of hill and mountain, the purple heather, the dells, and glens, and brooks, the starry heavens, and the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create. For it was not the seclusion of a solitary person, such as Charlotte endured in after days, and which in time becomes awfully oppressive and injurious. It was solitude and seclusion shared and enjoyed with intelligent companionship, and intense family affection.”
We can all enjoy the intelligent companionship of the Brontës today, partly thanks to the support and championing of their cause by Ellen, long after they had shuffled off this mortal coil. So let’s put down our chocolate, raise a glass, and say ‘Happy birthday, Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey.’
Anne Brontë was a lover of truth above all else, she did after all write that, ‘If I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.’
That’s one reason that Anne’s novels feel so vital and relevant today, she was throwing a spotlight on the society and times that she lived in, and fighting for equality and tolerance. Social justice, in its broadest sense, is something we associate more with Anne’s work than that of her sisters, and yet there is one other Brontë novel that squares up to some of the social problems of their day: ‘Shirley‘ by Charlotte Brontë.
‘Shirley’ is a long and complex novel; it’s my favourite Charlotte Brontë work, a view that the author herself shared, although I know not everyone agrees. At its heart is a love story, or two love stories to be precise, but it’s also a novel in which Charlotte looks at some of the inequalities of her time. The Luddite unrest portrayed in her novel was well known to her father Patrick who was in situ in Hartshead at the time of the attack on nearby Rawfolds Mill (that’s it at the top of this post), but Charlotte also uses the Luddite cause as a symbol of the Chartist unrest that was tangible at the time that she was writing ‘Shirley’. The north of England felt like a tinderbox, and a sudden spark could have set a working class revolution ablaze.
With political uncertainty of a different kind engulfing the UK at the moment (don’t worry, I’m steering clear of discussing that), ‘Shirley’ really is a novel for our times. I know that lots of people are reading it at this very moment, and one such reader contacted me lately with a question which we will look at in today’s post. They had visited the beautiful Hewenden Mill near Haworth; it’s now a luxurious place to stay, and they also host a number of retreats and events there, but as we shall see it was once very different.
They had been told that the mill may have connections to ‘Shirley’, and that Charlotte Brontë had once talked to the owner, a Mr Butterfield, there. That’s an intriguing suggestion which I hadn’t hear before, and although the mill and Butterfield were well known to Charlotte, it can’t be said that they were on friendly terms.
The woolen industry completely transformed the West Riding of Yorkshire, and neighbouring Lancashire, in the first half of the nineteenth century, and at the time the Brontës lived there, the population of Haworth was rapidly expanding. Many of the populace worked as hand loom weavers and spinners in infernally hot rooms within their own homes, with one property often housing multiple factories. Others, however, worked long, punishing hours at the local mills, and Hewenden Mill was among the largest.
The growing population, poor working conditions and lack of a clean water supply combined to make Haworth one of the unhealthiest places in England, comparable to Whitechapel and other inner London slums. Patrick Brontë realised this, and it was his persistent lobbying that led the government to send an official inspector to Haworth, Benjamin Herschel Babbage, in October 1849. The findings were shocking, something had to change. Nevertheless, Patrick still had to lobby for the recommended changes to be implemented, including better sanitation and the building of a reservoir on the moors outside the village.
This saved thousands of lives over the years and decades to come, but one man in particular opposed Patrick’s philanthropy: the mill owner Richard Shackleton Butterfield. Butterfield was, in short, almost a caricature of a wicked Victorian industrialist. Immensely wealthy, he paid his workers the lowest wage possible, and vehemently opposed any moves to improve the quality of life of mill workers. His mill was staffed by the bare minimum number of workers, which he achieved by making them work two looms each at a time, a very dangerous practise.
On 18th May 1852 his workers downed tools and went on strike. When they refused to return, Butterfield, who was also a magistrate, had eight ringleaders arrested, and two were sentenced to do two months’ hard labour. A third man, Robert Redman declared in court that he had evidence which would prove Butterfield’s malpractice and law breaking. We don’t know the nature of this evidence, but it was enough to make the mill owner throw up his hands and admit that he was at fault. The men were freed, and Butterfield was ordered by the court to pay the mens’ wages.
Many in Haworth delighted at this defeat for the unpopular mill owner, and we know that Patrick, who’d had many a run in with him, and his daughter Charlotte were among them. On 2nd June 1853, Charlotte Brontë wrote to her father from Filey, stating:
‘I cannot help enjoying Mr. Butterfield’s defeat – and yet in one sense this is a bad state of things, calculated to make working class people both discontented and insubordinate’
Charlotte was clearly conflicted. Earlier posts have shown how Charlotte herself had become known around the Haworth area for her philanthropy and her kindness towards the poor, and yet at heart she was also a believer in many of the social systems that were in place at the time. This conflict of the author is also evident in ‘Shirley’, are we supposed to side with Moore the mill owner, who is the romantic hero after all, or his downtrodden workers?
One thing seems clear to me, if Charlotte Brontë had indeed walked and talked with Richard Butterfield, it would only have been to mediate in some sort of dispute between him and her father. Both Richard Butterfield and Patrick Brontë were among the most influential and powerful men in the Haworth district at the time, but there the similarity ended.
“The heavy, walnut door creaked on its hinges in the Paternoster Row office, and candles flickered around a room that was as gloomy within as the fog drenched street without.
‘A letter for you, Mr Aylott’, a shy, quiet voice intoned before placing the missive on the wax stained table before him as proof of his assertion.
‘Thank you, Mr Jones’, replied the older man who looked as if the red leather chair around him had fitted itself to his form over a succession of sedentary years. He took the letter by one corner and opened it carefully, as carefully as if he were negotiating a deal with a prospective new writer. The paper inside the envelope was tiny, the writing upon it tidier with words cut short to save on space. This was not a letter with a prosperous origin. He read:
‘C. E. & A. Bell are now preparing for the Press a work of fiction – consisting of three distinct and unconnected tales which may be published either together as a work of 3 vols. of the ordinary novel-size, or separately as single vols – as shall be deemed most advisable. It is not their intention to publish these tales on their own account.’
‘It is a letter from Currer Bell, of that northern family whose poetry we recently published, Mr Jones – they propose novels to us.’
‘But we do not publish novels, Mr Aylott?’
‘No, we haven’t sunk quite that far yet, Mr Jones. This Bell is clearly a chap in need of money, in need of help. I will send them a list of publishers of novels – it may be of no use to them, but when means are scarce, hope can be a welcome dish.’”
Forgive me my momentary reverie there; I was imagining a scene that might have played out on this very week 173 years ago, for on 6th April 1846 Charlotte Brontë, still using her pen name of Currer Bell, sent the letter mentioned above to Messrs Aylott and Jones of London. It was a letter that went unheralded at first, but it was to change literary history forever, as it showed that the Bell brothers, by which of course we mean the Brontë sisters, had turned their attention from poetry to novels.
Aylott & Jones had recently published the sisters’ brilliant collection of poetry, ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘; it had gained positive reviews, where it had been reviewed at all, but sales had been poor, and the sisters seemingly had little hope of recouping the £35 or so they had paid the publisher to see their work in print.
Many people would have given up in despair at this point, or at least been greatly discouraged, but thankfully for us all, our favourite Haworth family were made of sterner stuff. They realised that their writing was good, but the form they had placed before the public was wrong. The early decades of the 19th century was the golden era of the Romantic Poetry movement, and sales of verse had been strong, but by the time the Brontës were writing they were already in steep decline. The slump was so pronounced that even legendary poets such as Elizabeth Barret Browning and William Wordsworth were finding it hard to persuade great poetry publishers such as Edward Moxon to publish new volumes of their work.
With this in mind, Charlotte, Emily and Anne decided to return to an old love: prose. Their juvenilia is full of sparkling prose (although sadly Anne and Emily’s Gondal prose is now lost) and was a prodigious output, and these years spent honing the craft of novel writing in childhood and youth were to pay dividends.
In her ‘Biographical Notice’ of her sisters, Charlotte Brontë explained what happened next:
‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given us a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced ‘Wuthering Heights’, Acton Bell, ‘Agnes Grey’, and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume. These MSS. [manuscripts] were perseveringly obtruded among various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.’
Did Emily and Anne set to work on their ‘prose tales’ after the failure of their poetry enterprise as indicated above? The evidence seems to suggest they may already have been working on them for some time. ‘Wuthering Heights’ appears highly influenced by the strange but true story of Law Hill school in Halifax, where Emily taught in 1838, and the nearby High Sunderland Hall is often thought of as an inspiration for the titular building of the novel.
In her diary paper of July 1845, Anne Brontë wrote:
‘I have begun the third volume of passages in the life of an Individual. I wish I had finished it.’
It seems to me that this ‘life of an Individual’ is likely to be a prototype of ‘Agnes Grey’. Emily and Anne may have long been working on their novels then, and eventually they found favour with the publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, although, just as Aylott & Jones had done, he asked for the writers to pay a fee to enable publication.
Charlotte’s letter had stated that they would not be prepared to pay any such fee this time, but after a year and a half of rejections, their stance had softened somewhat. The fee was paid and these brilliant books were accepted. If we look at Charlotte’s biographical notice again, we see that she refers to her own contribution to the scheme with the dismissive words, ‘Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume.’
Charlotte’s ‘The Professor’ found no takers until after her death, but once again she didn’t give up and wrote a further novel in great haste, starting in the gloom bestrewn streets of Manchester (some things never change) while she nursed her father after his eye operation. Written at great speed, but full of genius. Elizabeth Gaskell explained what happened:
‘She had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did ‘The Professor’ return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude – in those grey, weary, uniform streets, where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, – there and then, did the genius begin Jane Eyre‘.
That letter of April 1846 then is one we should all cherish, for from it came immortal works of beauty and power. What was unheralded and unloved has become adored the world over, and will be while the sands of time still run.