I’m busy editing my new Anne Brontë book to mark her 200th birthday, more news of which will be with you soon, so unfortunately I haven’t had time to write a completely new post, as I like to do on Sundays. As today is once more International Black Cat Day however, it seems apt to re-visit a post on that subject from a couple of years ago. I love black cats, and the magical air about them, but apparently they’re the least likely cats to be adopted. Let’s give black cats the love they deserve, after all, as this revisited post shows, the Brontës were full of love for their very own black cat:
Today is International Cat Day, so it seems a perfect opportunity to take a look at the cat in the lives of the Brontë sisters! The wet nosed four legged friends of the Brontës are well known, and visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum can still see the collars of Grasper, Keeper and Anne Brontë’s beloved spaniel Flossy, a gift from her pupils in the Robinson household. Their cat, Tom, however is not as well known.
Tom was a black cat that was doted upon by the Brontë siblings, and it seems that he certainly knew how to charm visitors to the Parsonage, probably with the intention of gaining a cuddle or even a tasty morsel or two. The world may change, but cats never change!
We have three pieces of evidence for the Brontës love of cats. First is this picture that Emily Brontë painted, with their cat Tiger taking centre stage along with Keeper and Flossy:
We also see two cats taking centre stage in the early part of Agnes Grey, the début novel of Anne Brontë that was heavily influenced by her real life experiences. Agnes wants to be given more to do in the northern Parsonage where she lives, but her over protective family tell her:
‘Go and practice your music, or play with the kitten.’
When Agnes leaves home to become a governess for the first time, she seeks out this kitten for special attention:
‘I rose, washed, dressed, swallowed a hasty breakfast, received the fond embraces of my father, mother, and sister, kissed the cat – to the great scandal of Sally, the maid – shook hands with her, mounted the gig, drew the veil over my face, and then, but not til then, burst into a flood of tears.’
It’s easy to imagine Anne painting this season from memory, with Aunt Branwell playing the part of mother, and Tabby Aykroyd as Sally.
There’s another sign of Anne’s fondness for cats later in the book. In a moving and tender section, the poor old woman Nancy is worried because her cat has gone missing, and she fears the local gamekeeper will have shot it. Indeed that would have been its fate, but Reverend Weston rescues it and returns it to Nancy.
We also have an eyewitness account of the Brontë cat from Ellen Nussey’s report of 1833:
‘Black ‘Tom’, the tabby, was everybody’s favourite. It received such gentle treatment it seemed to have lost its cat’s nature, and subsided into luxurious amiability and contentment.’
It’s important to note here that Ellen, always a careful and fastidious writer, has put ‘Tom’ in quotation marks, meaning that this was the name that the Brontës had given it, rather than it being simply a tom cat.
Ellen goes on to explain that Aunt Branwell was rather less fond of pets, but on this particular point the Brontë girls would not be lectured to. We’ll return to our second part of the Aunt Branwell blog this weekend, looking at her relationship with Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, but as an animal lover myself I couldn’t let International Cat Day go by uncelebrated.
By the way, if you’re lucky enough to visit Haworth today, you’re sure to see a cat or two. One in particular hangs around the graveyard in front of the parsonage, its bright eyes gleaming out of the dark. As it was in the 1840s, so it is today.
I woke to the sound of my smoke detectors beeping angrily at six this morning. It’s never the perfect alarm call, and it sent me scurrying around the house in search of smoke or fire. None could be found thankfully, but as it then started beeping again there was no chance of further sleep. On the plus side, it’s provided me an ideal opportunity to write this week’s blog on the subject of fire and the Brontës.
There were no smoke detectors or fire alarms in the early nineteenth century of course, but if there were then you can be sure that Patrick Brontë would have filled the parsonage with them. Ellen Nussey, in her ‘Reminiscences’, recalled Patrick’s acute awareness of the dangers fire posed, and the actions he took to alleviate the risks:
‘Mr. Brontë’s horror of fire forbade curtains to the windows; they never had these accessories to comfort and appearance till long after Charlotte was the only inmate of the family sitting room, – she then ventured on her innovation when her friend was with her; it did not please her father but it was not forbidden.’
Ellen elucidated further on his fear, and the effect it had on his daughters:
‘The only dread he had was of fire [Ellen’s italics], and this dread was so intense it caused him to prohibit all but silk or woollen dresses for his daughters; indeed, for any one to wear any other kind of fabric was almost to forfeit his respect.’
Patrick’s fear was not an unfounded phobia, however, but based on the very real threats that were around him and his family. These were the days of open fireplaces and candle light, as well as the days of increasingly voluminous women’s clothing often made from highly flammable fabrics. As a parish priest Patrick would have had to bury many people, often girls, whose dress had fluttered across a flame and caught light. With many layers of clothing also worn, the effects of an encounter with fire in this way would often prove fatal.
Patrick’s response, as we have seen, was to ban curtains that could be ignited by a candle’s flame, and to insist that his daughters wore wool or silk as these were less immediately flammable. If we take a look through nineteenth century archives, or watch the excellent documentary ‘Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home’, we soon see that many families were not so fortunate as the Brontës, and deaths by fire happened across the country on a daily basis.
I say ‘not so fortunate’ as, despite Patrick’s precautions, there was eventually a fire in Haworth Parsonage but thanks to the quick actions of Anne and Emily the consequences were less serious than they could so easily have been.
John Greenwood, the Haworth stationer who was a close family friend, recalled the story of how Anne, as was her wont, stopped to look in upon her brother on her way to bed one night, and found that Branwell had fallen asleep while trying to read by candlelight and his room was on fire. With the help of Emily, the tallest and strongest in the house, she dragged Branwell from the room and they doused the flames with pitchers of water. Without their quick thinking and quick actions it could have been so much worse.
This scene remained, quite understandably, on their minds, and Charlotte must have been well aware of it as well, because she used it for a powerful moment in ‘Jane Eyre’:
‘Something creaked: it was a door ajar; and that door was Mr. Rochester’s, and the smoke rushed in a cloud from thence. I thought no more of Mrs. Fairfax; I thought no more of Grace Poole, or the laugh: in an instant, I was within the chamber. Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep. “Wake! wake!” I cried. I shook him, but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him. Not a moment could be lost: the very sheets were kindling, I rushed to his basin and ewer; fortunately, one was wide and the other deep, and both were filled with water. I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug, baptised the couch afresh, and, by God’s aid, succeeded in extinguishing the flames which were devouring it.’
Branwell has inspired Rochester and Bertha in this scene, he is the inadvertent fire starter and its potential victim, but thankfully Anne had been on hand to be the rescuing Jane. Later in Charlotte’s novel we find that Bertha has succeeded and burnt down Thornfield Hall, destroying herself, but not quite Rochester, in the process.
In Anne’s novels we see fire represent something very different – it is not danger, but passion, love. In the first section ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’, Gilbert calls upon Helen:
‘”How dismal you are, Helen! Why have you no fire?” I said, looking round on the gloomy apartment.
“It is summer yet,” she replied.
“But we always have a fire in the evenings, if we can bear it; and you especially require one in this cold house and dreary room.”
“You should have come a little sooner, and I would have had one lighted for you: but it is not worth while now.”’
Helen has no fire, metaphorically, because she has no love and at that point, no hope; her hearth and heart are cold, but as we see later, like the winter rose with snow upon its leaves it can still be rekindled.
In ‘Agnes Grey‘, Agnes is cheered by a chance encounter with Reverend Weston that to some may seem insignificant, but to Agnes it has warmed her world:
‘Well! what is there remarkable in all this? Why have I recorded it? Because, reader, it was important enough to give me a cheerful evening, a night of pleasing dreams, and a morning of felicitous hopes. Shallow-brained cheerfulness, foolish dreams, unfounded hopes, you would say; and I will not venture to deny it: suspicions to that effect arose too frequently in my own mind. But our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment.’
Whatever our dreams, let us all keep the flame of hope alive, and let us all bask in the warm glow that comes from a Brontë book. Oh, and let’s all make sure that our smoke detectors are in good working order and not likely to wake us at an altogether unholy hour on a Sunday morning.
This is a special day for many in Britain, as today in the Vatican Pope Francis I is canonising John Henry Newman – better known as Cardinal Newman, but from today called Saint John Henry Newman. It’s particularly historic as he is the first British person to be made a Saint in 43 years, and he is the first ‘modern’ Brit to gain that honour as our previous most recent saint lived in the 17th century. He is of interest to this blog for his connection to Charlotte Brontë, so we’ll take a brief look at St. John (no, not St. John Rivers on this occasion), at how Charlotte knew him and why it’s strange that Charlotte should have felt such an affinity to his teachings.
Part of Newman’s great appeal is that he in many ways seems an ordinary person, for a saint. He is a man that it’s easy to relate to, and also one that unites faiths. He was born in 1801 in London and was to become a towering figure in nineteenth century theology. For a Catholic Saint, however, it is perhaps surprising that he was born into a Protestant family and his mother Jemima (formerly Jemima Fourdrinier) was of a Huguenot refugee family who, like many other Huguenots (French Protestants) had had to flee France in fear of their lives and after persecution from the Catholic church there.
As a child Newman impressed as a scholar, and he particularly loved to read the novels of Walter Scott – just as the Brontës did. At age 15, another strange event occurred for a man who would be canonised, as he became a convert not to Catholicism but to Calvinism. Calvinism was the hardline branch of Protestantism, whose proponents believed in the elect and the damned. If you were elect, you would be pre-destined to heaven, whatever you did on earth. All others, however, were destined to the eternal torments of hell if they sinned once. Unsurprisingly, most Calvinist preachers recognised themselves as the elect and their parishioners as the damned.
It was a harsh doctrine that despised Catholicism and denounced the Pope as the anti-Christ. They preached of punishment and hellfire, and a perfect example of a Calvinist was Reverend William Carus Wilson, who ran the Clergy Daughter’s School which tragically claimed the lives of the two eldest Brontë sisters Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte revenged herself upon Wilson, and Calvinists in general, by depicting him as the cruel Mr. Brocklehurst in ‘Jane Eyre‘, and Anne Brontë also attacked them in a poem which she entitled, ‘A Word To The Calvinists’ and which was later changed to ‘A Word To The Elect’. In its opening we see Anne take aim at their hypocrisy and hit the target:
‘You may rejoice to think yourselves secure;
You may be grateful for the gift divine –
That grace unsought, which made your black hearts pure,
And fits your earth-born souls in Heaven to shine.
But, is it sweet to look around, and view
Thousands excluded from that happiness,
Which they deserved, at least, as much as you, –
Their faults not greater, nor their virtues less?’
Newman, then, had become a proponent of the most fervently anti-Catholic sect of them all, and in 1825 he took holy orders and was ordained a priest in the Church of England, one who still held Calvinist views. Rather than becoming a parish priest, however, he became an Oxford academic (and de facto priest of the University’s St. Mary’s church), preacher and theologian and gradually over the next decade his views began to change. He wrote on the need to find common ground between Anglicanism and Catholicism, the ‘middle way’ that he gave a series of popular lectures on.
By 1842, with his views causing increasing controversy in the church, Newman had retreated from University life and created an Anglican monastery (it’s now Oxford’s Newman College), but he had embarked upon a path that would change his life.
In 1843 he resigned from his post at St. Mary’s and published an advertisement in an Oxford paper retracting and apologising for his previously stated views on Catholicism. In 1845 the progression was completed as Newman was formally received into the Roman Catholic church, and a year later was ordained a Catholic priest. He now embarked on a further series of lectures in London and Birmingham called ‘The Present Position of Catholics in England’. In these lectures he denounced the anti-Catholic sentiment that was high in the country at that time, and the aggressive measures taken against Catholics.
During one such lecture Newman was said to have libelled a former Catholic who now vehemently preached against the faith, and he was arrested and expected to receive a prison sentence. Newman was found guilty, but escaped prison with a £100 fine and an admonishment from the judge about his ‘moral deterioration’ after his conversion to Catholicism. Newman’s response was ‘posterity shall be my judge’.
Newman’s notoriety increased, and he produced a series of works which sold in large numbers, as well as addressing large crowds wherever he went. In 1879 he was made a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, but as always he defied convention by not being a Bishop first and by refusing to be a Bishop once elevated to the Cardinal rank. It was also usual then for Cardinals to live in Rome, but the now Cardinal Newman insisted on remaining in Birmingham.
When Newman died in 1890 the nation mourned, and in the century and more that has followed increasingly people saw him as a figure of devotion. Miracles were attributed to him, and it is this that led to his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. I was one of many tens of thousands of people who filled Hyde Park to see the Pope celebrate this beatification, and it was an incredibly moving event. Nine years later, after a further miracle was officially recognised by the church, he has been given the ultimate accolade of Sainthood.
Newman was known across Britain and beyond throughout the nineteenth century. He was a passionate and brilliant speaker, and we know that one person who attended his lectures was none other than Charlotte Brontë. The lectures she saw were in London in 1850, and were tellingly entitled ‘Certain Difficulties Felt By Anglicans In Submitting To The Catholic Church’. She later told Elizabeth Gaskell about them, who reported in a letter to Catherine Winkworth:
‘Miss Brontë agreed with me in liking Mr. Newman’s Soul, and in liking Modern Painters, and the idea of the Seven Lamps; and she told me about Father Newman’s lectures at the Oratory in a very quiet, concise, graphic way.’
It at first seems strange that Charlotte should profess such an admiration for Newman, and to attend his lectures, as some of her works express profound anti-Catholic sentiment. This was merely in common with many of the people at the time, but it can still be hard to read ‘The Professor’ particularly, with its passages such as:
‘I long to live once more among Protestants; they are more honest than Catholics; a Romish school is a building with porous walls, a hollow floor, a false ceiling; every room in this house, monsieur, has eyeholes and ear-holes, and what the house is, the inhabitants are, very treacherous; they all think it lawful to tell lies; they all call it politeness to profess friendship where they feel hatred.’
Nevertheless, Charlotte was attracted to Newman, and possibly even to Catholicism itself. One startling scene in ‘Villette’ sees Lucy Snowe heading in despair to a confessional in the Roman Catholic cathedral, and we know that Charlotte, in despair at her unrequited love for M. Heger, followed exactly the same course on 1st September 1843 in the grand St. Gudule’s Cathedral. She disclosed this to Emily, her confessor of a different kind:
‘An odd whim came into my head. In a solitary part of the Cathedral six or seven people still remained kneeling by the confessionals. In two confessionals I saw a priest. I felt as if I did not care what I did, provided it was not absolutely wrong, and that it served to vary my life and yield a moment’s interest. I took a fancy to change myself into a Catholic and go and make a real confession to see what it was like. Knowing me as you do, you will think this odd, but when people are by themselves they have singular fancies… I actually did confess – a real confession… I think you had better not tell Papa of this. He will not understand that it was only a freak, and will perhaps think I am going to turn Catholic.’
Was this a ‘freak’ as she called it, or was it something that deep down she had considered for a while and continued to consider? Was she considering it when she went to watch John Henry Newman deliver his lecture about Anglicans submitting to the Catholic church? I think it shows that Charlotte was at heart not bigoted against Catholics, and in fact not bigoted in any way at all. She was always looking to understand people, to find a Newman-like ‘middle way’.
Newman, like the Brontës, was also a keen poet. His most famous work is ‘The Dream Of Gerontius’. That’s a long, complex poem so I leave you with his poem ‘The Trance Of Time’, as we say thank you Saint John Henry Newman for showing us the importance of loving and understanding one another, whether we have faith, of any kind, or not:
‘In childhood, when with eager eyes
The season-measured year I view’d,
All garb’d in fairy guise,
Pledged constancy of good.
Spring sang of heaven; the summer flowers
Bade me gaze on, and did not fade;
Even suns o’er autumn’s bowers
Heard my strong wish, and stay’d.
They came and went, the short-lived four;
Yet, as their varying dance they wove,
To my young heart each bore
Its own sure claim of love.
Far different now; – the whirling year
Vainly my dizzy eyes pursue;
And its fair tints appear
All blent in one dusk hue.
Why dwell on rich autumnal lights,
Spring-time, or winter’s social ring?
Long days are fire-side nights,
Brown autumn is fresh spring.
Then what this world to thee, my heart?
Its gifts nor feed thee nor can bless.
Thou hast no owner’s part
In all its fleetingness.
The flame, the storm, the quaking ground,
Earth’s joy, earth’s terror, nought is thine,
Thou must but hear the sound
Of the still voice divine.
O priceless art! O princely state!
E’en while by sense of change opprest,
Within to antedate
Heaven’s Age of fearless rest.’