An Account Of Charlotte Brontë’s Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past and present brought together
Past and present brought together

Thomas Tighe And The Importance Of Kindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drumballyroney church
Drumballyroney church, presided over by Thomas Tighe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fathers In Brontë Prose And Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death And Funeral Of Patrick Brontë

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

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

Anne Bronte handkerchief
Anne Bronte’s handkerchief at the exhibition

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

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

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

In Sickness And In Health

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

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

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