There are many ways to get to Haworth, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum within it, but surely one of the most special ways to arrive is to take a ride on an authentic steam train. The Keighley and Worth Valley Railways runs daily from Keighley, a town well known to the Brontës around five miles from their parsonage home, to Oxenhope, with a station conveniently situated at the foot of Haworth’s hill. It’s a beautiful station, and it was also used in the famous 1970 film The Railway Children.

The Railway Children
The village used in The Railway Children was actually Haworth

Railway invention and expansion changed the Victorian world, and it certainly played a large part in the lives of the Brontës. Branwell Brontë found employment as a railway clerk, and as the trains opened up the country it allowed Charlotte, Anne and Emily to traverse England in an ease and style that previous generations could never have dreamed of. It also brought the Brontës money and lost the Brontës money, thanks to a man known as ‘The Railway King’: George Hudson.

Hudson was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1800, and apprenticed as a draper. After marrying the owner of the business he worked for he eventually became a partner in it, leading it to become the largest single business in the city of York. In 1827 his great uncle died and left a fortune to Hudson, but it was a chance meeting in 1834 that really changed the course of his life.

George Hudson
George Hudson, aka The Railway King

In the beautiful Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby, now famous for its Dracula connection, Hudson bumped into George Stephenson, who told him of his plans to create a railway that would run from London to the north of England. Hudson became a business partner of Stephenson, and then a railway pioneer in his own right, founding the York and North Midland Railway and opening lines across the north of England, including the line that carried Charlotte Bronte, along with her friend Ellen Nussey, to her first view of the sea at Burlington.

Hudson served as Lord Mayor of York on three occasions, and also became a long serving Tory MP for Sunderland. He was by this time the head of a sprawling business empire encompassing a large number of individual railway companies, but it seemed that everything he touched turned to gold, which was very attractive to investors – investors such as the Brontë sisters.

The railway revolution in the 1830s and 1840s was as dramatic and transformational at the time as the internet and social media revolution is today, and lines were being opened at a furious pace. With a rapid rise in passenger numbers year upon year, as well as in its freight operations, there were large potential profits to be made. The Brontës were not a particularly wealthy family, but in 1842 their monetary position changed considerably when Anne, Emily and Charlotte (along with their Penzance cousin Eliza Kingston) were each left around £300 each, the equivalent of around six years wage for a governess. This money would eventually help pay for the publication of some of the Brontë books we love today, but in 1842 the sisters had to decide how to save or invest it. The decision was taken to let Emily manage their joint funds, and she invested it in the then booming railway stock of George Hudson’s companies.

Steam trains still run in Haworth today, although the station was built after the time of the Brontes

From surviving fragments of Emily Brontë’s account book we can see that she took this duty seriously, and that she was often to be found re-investing their profits and buying more railway shares. In 1845 Emily records that she has made a ‘speculation’, but it must have been a lucrative one for her accounts for 1846 show that she had an income of £305 in that year, compared to £110 in the previous one.

Perhaps the success of this speculation and others was the reason that the Brontës contributed to a subscription being made for George Hudson, as shown in an article within the Yorkshire Gazette on 27th September 1845. The newspaper urges people who have profited from Hudson’s railway expansion to pledge money to be given to the man himself, and amidst a list of often exalted people who have already pledge to do so can be found ‘Miss Ann Brontë’, ‘Miss Emily Jane Brontë’ and ‘Miss Charlotte Brontë’ of Haworth, Bradford, who have all given a pound each.

Can you see the names of Ann(e), Emily and Charlotte?

A letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to Margaret Wooler on 30th January 1846, however, indicates that she was concerned by the bullish nature of Emily’s investments:

‘I thought you would wonder how we were getting on, when you heard of the railway panic, and you may be sure that I am very glad to be able to answer your kind inquiries by an assurance that our small capital is as yet undiminished. The York and Midland is, as you say, a very good line; yet, I confess to you, I should wish, for my own part, to be wise in time. I cannot think that even the very best lines will continue for many years at their present premiums; and I have been most anxious for us to sell our shares ere it be too late, and to secure the proceeds in some safer, if, for the present, less profitable investment. I cannot, however, persuade my sisters to regard the affair precisely from my point of view; and I feel as if I would rather run the risk of loss than hurt Emily’s feelings by acting in direct opposition to her opinion. She managed in a most handsome and able manner for me, when I was in Brussels, and prevented by distance from looking after my own interests; therefore, I will let her manage still, and take the consequences. Disinterested and energetic she certainly is; and if she be not quite so tractable or open to conviction as I could wish, I must remember perfection is not the lot of humanity; and as long as we can regard those we love and to whom we are closely allied, with profound and never-shaken esteem, it is a small thing that they should vex us occasionally by what appear to us unreasonable and headstrong notions. You, my dear Miss Wooler, know full as well as I do, the value of sisters’ affection to each other; there is nothing like it in this world, I believe, when they are nearly equal in age, and similar in education, tastes, and sentiments.’

As we can see, by 1846 there are already hints that the railway boom is over, and many small lines and businesses had already closed or been taken over by bigger competitors. These fledgling railways were a series of highly competitive franchises, and yet Hudson still seemed to outperform his business rivals. His tactics sound all too familiar in today’s world, as he aimed to maximise profits for his shareholders by cutting his workforce to a minimum and cutting back on safety measures, often with fatal consequences for employees and passengers alike.

By 1845, he was one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in England, with a newspaper praising his ‘penetration more than human, and a genius comprehensive, lofty and intuitive.’ It also, however, went on to paint a less than flattering picture of his physical appearance, noting a sinister leer of the eyes, an ungainly frame, a short bull-neck and an unharmonious voice.

The railway shares of the Brontës continued to prosper during the lifetimes of Anne and Emily, the driving force, behind the investment but all was not well in the world of George Hudson and the Midland Railway. We get a clue to this in a letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to George Smith on this very day in 1849:

‘My shares are in the York & North Midland Railway. It was one of Mr. Hudson’s pet lines and the full benefit of his peculiar management – or mis-management. The original price of shares in the railway was £50; at one time they rose to 120; and for some years gave a dividend of 10 percent; they are now down at 20, and it is doubtful whether any dividend will be declared this half-year.’

As Charlotte had predicted, the shares had soon become worthless, and George Hudson himself received a fall from grace as meteoric as his rise had been. It was eventually discovered that Hudson and his railways were operating via a system of smoke and mirrors, his profits having been grossly over-exaggerated and with shareholders such as Charlotte, Emily and Anne paid out of the company’s capital rather than the money they were earning.

Hudson lost his hold on his business empire and it was found that his debts ran into the hundreds of thousands of pounds (tens of millions of pounds today). After losing his seat as Sunderland’s MP in 1865 he lost immunity from imprisonment and was incarcerated in York gaol. A local colliery owner paid off enough of Hudson’s debts for him to be released on remand, after which he promptly fled the country to live in France. In 1870 a new law put an end to imprisonment for debts, and Hudson returned from his exile, but he died in London in 1871. The Railway King was dead. His machinations had ruined many of his investors, and Charlotte Brontë lost much of her savings including, it’s believed, an initial payment of £500 that she received for Jane Eyre. Nonetheless, he had left a lasting legacy, and his stations and railway lines are still a central part of our transport infrastructure today. Huge crowds turned out at George Hudson’s funeral, and to see his coffin loaded onto a train that would carry him from London to York – the station he had had built. Few people can encapsulate the boom and bust of Victorian railway expansion more than George Hudson, but he changed the Brontës lives and the world that we live in today.

“The individual perishes but the world is more and more”

Here’s a safer investment that I can always recommend: a good book, and if you stay in your armchair you don’t even need to wear a mask to read it. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Elizabeth Gaskell In Haworth And On Haworth

This year has been a strange one in many ways, and one result is that not as many people have been able to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth as in previous years. Whenever we visit however it still thrills the soul; we can almost step back in time and imagine what these same cobbled streets would have seen at the time that the Brontës lived in Haworth. If we could have stepped back to this week 167 years ago we would have seen a very special visitor climb out of a carriage at Main Street’s summit, for it was in this week in 1853 that Elizabeth Gaskell began a six day visit to her friend Charlotte Brontë. In today’s Brontë blog post we’re going to look at Elizabeth Gaskell in Haworth, and at what she thought of the people who lived there.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte was a great fan of Elizabeth’s writing even before they met in person, an event which took place in late August 1850 at Briery Close, one of the Lake District properties belonging to Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth and his wife. Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey describing her first impressions of her fellow author:

‘Fortunately there was Mrs. Gaskell (the authoress of “Mary Barton”) who came to the Briery the day after me – I was truly glad of her companionship. She is a woman of the most genuine talent – of cheerful, pleasing and cordial manners, and – I believe – of a kind and good heart.”

We have a rather more fulsome description of Charlotte’s appearance and character from Elizabeth Gaskell’s point of view after this initial meeting, thanks to two remarkable letters that Elizabeth wrote shortly after their meeting. To Catherine Winkworth she wrote:

‘She is, (as she calls herself) undeveloped; thin and more than half a head shorter than I, soft brown hair, not so dark as mine; eyes (very good and expressive looking straight & open at you) of the same colour, a reddish face; large mouth & many teeth gone; altogether plain; the forehead square, broad and rather overhanging. She has a very sweet voice, rather hesitates in choosing her expressions, but when chosen they seem without an effort, admirable and just befitting the occasion. There is nothing overstrained but perfectly simple… Such a life as Miss B.’s I never heard of before.’

Briery Close
Briery Close near Lake Windermere, where Charlotte and Elizabeth first met

To a friend and fellow writer named Charlotte Froude, Elizabeth Gaskell wrote:

‘Miss Brontë I like. Her faults are the faults of the peculiar circumstances in which she has been placed; and she possesses a charming union of simplicity and power; and a strong feeling of responsibility for the Gift, which she has given her. She is very little & very plain. Her stunted person she ascribes to the scanty supply of food she had as a growing girl, when at that school of the Daughters of the Clergy… She is truth itself – and of a very noble sterling nature, – which has never been called out by anything kind or genial… She is very silent & very shy; and when she speaks chiefly remarkable for the admirable use she makes of simple words, & the way in which she makes language express her ideas. She and I quarrelled and differed about almost every thing, – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but we like each other heartily I think & I hope we shall ripen into friends.’

These remarkable letters show a kindred spirit between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell; Elizabeth too was very forthright in her opinions, and would always be at pains to describe a person as they really were, both good and bad. From this initial encounter friendship did indeed ripen, and Charlotte visited Elizabeth in Manchester on a number of occasions after this.

By June 1853 Elizabeth Gaskell was preparing to make her first visit to Haworth, but an illness of Charlotte’s meant that it was delayed until September. Unfortunately we only have a small fragment of a letter from Charlotte to Elizabeth describing the aftermath of the visit:

‘After you left, the house felt very much as if the shutters had been suddenly closed and the blinds let down. One was sensible during the remainder of the day of a depressing silence, shadow, loss and want. However, if the going away was sad, the stay was very pleasant and did permanent good. Papa, I am sure, derived real benefit from your visit; he has been better ever since.’

We see, then, that Patrick Brontë enjoyed the company of Elizabeth Gaskell, but she seems to have been less enamoured of him, writing of him to John Forster:

‘He was very polite & agreeable to me; paying rather elaborate old-fashioned compliments, but I was sadly afraid of him in my inmost soul; for I caught a glare of his stern eyes over his spectacles at Miss Brontë once or twice which made me know my man.’

This seems a rather harsh snap judgement of Patrick. He used old-fashioned compliments because he was an old man, by then in his mid-seventies and a man very much of the eighteenth rather than nineteenth century. He ‘glared’ because he was once again nearly blind, and had trouble seeing what was in front of him. This harsh view endured in Elizabeth Gaskell’s mind and helped produce the unfair portrait of him in her later biography of Charlotte Brontë, particularly as she had by then also heard harsh words against him spoken by a still bitter Martha Wright, a servant he’d had to dismiss.

Elizabeth Gaskell's letter to John Forster
Elizabeth Gaskell’s letter to John Forster

From The Life Of Charlotte Brontë we can also discern what Elizabeth Gaskell thought about Haworth and the people who lived there:

‘For a right understanding of the life of my dear friend, Charlotte Brontë, it appears to me more necessary in her case than in most others, that the reader should be made acquainted with the peculiar forms of population and society amidst which her earliest years were passed, and from which both her own and her sisters’ first impressions of human life must have been received. I shall endeavour, therefore, before proceeding further with my work, to present some idea of the character of the people of Haworth, and the surrounding districts.

Even an inhabitant of the neighbouring county of Lancaster is struck by the peculiar force of character which the Yorkshiremen display. This makes them interesting as a race; while, at the same time, as individuals, the remarkable degree of self-sufficiency they possess gives them an air of independence rather apt to repel a stranger. I use this expression “self-sufficiency” in the largest sense. Conscious of the strong sagacity and the dogged power of will which seem almost the birthright of the natives of the West Riding, each man relies upon himself, and seeks no help at the hands of his neighbour. From rarely requiring the assistance of others, he comes to doubt the power of bestowing it: from the general success of his efforts, he grows to depend upon them, and to over-esteem his own energy and power. He belongs to that keen, yet short-sighted class, who consider suspicion of all whose honesty is not proved as a sign of wisdom. The practical qualities of a man are held in great respect; but the want of faith in strangers and untried modes of action, extends itself even to the manner in which the virtues are regarded; and if they produce no immediate and tangible result, they are rather put aside as unfit for this busy, striving world; especially if they are more of a passive than an active character. The affections are strong and their foundations lie deep: but they are not – such affections seldom are – wide-spreading; nor do they show themselves on the surface. Indeed, there is little display of any of the amenities of life among this wild, rough population. Their accost is curt; their accent and tone of speech blunt and harsh. Something of this may, probably, be attributed to the freedom of mountain air and of isolated hill-side life; something be derived from their rough Norse ancestry. They have a quick perception of character, and a keen sense of humour; the dwellers among them must be prepared for certain uncomplimentary, though most likely true, observations, pithily expressed. Their feelings are not easily roused, but their duration is lasting. Hence there is much close friendship and faithful service; and for a correct exemplification of the form in which the latter frequently appears, I need only refer the reader of “Wuthering Heights” to the character of “Joseph.”

Haworth Parsonage

From the same cause come also enduring grudges, in some cases amounting to hatred, which occasionally has been bequeathed from generation to generation. I remember Miss Brontë once telling me that it was a saying round about Haworth, “Keep a stone in thy pocket seven year; turn it, and keep it seven year longer, that it may be ever ready to thine hand when thine enemy draws near.”

The West Riding men are sleuth-hounds in pursuit of money. Miss Brontë related to my husband a curious instance illustrative of this eager desire for riches. A man that she knew, who was a small manufacturer, had engaged in many local speculations which had always turned out well, and thereby rendered him a person of some wealth. He was rather past middle age, when he bethought him of insuring his life; and he had only just taken out his policy, when he fell ill of an acute disease which was certain to end fatally in a very few days. The doctor, half-hesitatingly, revealed to him his hopeless state. “By jingo!” cried he, rousing up at once into the old energy, “I shall do the insurance company! I always was a lucky fellow!”‘

These men are keen and shrewd; faithful and persevering in following out a good purpose, fell in tracking an evil one. They are not emotional; they are not easily made into either friends or enemies; but once lovers or haters, it is difficult to change their feeling. They are a powerful race both in mind and body, both for good and for evil.’

One thing for certain is that the week that Elizabeth Gaskell spent in Haworth was an important one for English literature, it cemented her friendship with Charlotte Brontë and it paved the way for her biography of the woman she had known and come to love. It’s not a flawless biography, such a book has never been written after all, but it is an essential read for it is beautifully written, and by a fellow genius who knew and understood Charlotte better than almost anyone else.

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester, often visited by Charlotte Bronte

Elizabeth Gaskell spoke and wrote with unflinching honesty and openness, just as Charlotte did, but her aim was a simple one, as she reveals at the incredibly moving close of her biography:

‘I have little more to say. If my readers find that I have not said enough, I have said too much. I cannot measure or judge a character such as hers. I cannot map out vices, and virtues, and debatable land… But I turn from the critical, unsympathetic public, – inclined to judge harshly because they have only seen superficially and not thought deeply. I appeal to that larger and more solemn public, who know how to look with tender humility at faults and errors; how to admire generously extraordinary genius, and how to reverence with warm, full hearts all noble virtue. To that Public I commit the memory of Charlotte Brontë.’

I must go now. As a man born in the West Riding of Yorkshire myself I’m off to turn the stone in my pocket. Stay safe and happy, and I will see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Old Apothecary, Laudanum And The Brontës

As I type this I’ve just returned from my favourite place on earth: Haworth, home of the Brontës (you’ll see some of the pictures I took scattered throughout this post). It’s nearly eight months since I was last there, but that octet of months has been unlike any other. Our world has changed, and some things about Haworth have changed, but I’m pleased to report that it still retains its beauty and its unique atmosphere. It might be a little quieter, there may be more social distancing, but visitors can still walk in the footsteps of the Brontës. We can follow their footsteps to the parsonage, to the church and the old school rooms, and to shops such as the old apothecary they knew, and it’s this latter shop that I’m going to look at today.

The old apothecary shop is situated at the top of Main Street, opposite the Brontë church of St. Michael and All Angels. It has undergone a number of transformations and name changes since the mid-nineteenth century, and today it is known as The Cabinet Of Curiosities. It really is a must see shop for visitors to Haworth, and inside you’ll find a wide variety of unique and fabulous items, from replica phrenology skulls and witchy items to hand crafted wax melts, bath salts and toiletries.

It is a shop at once both ancient and modern, and one which still proudly displays its Brontë heritage thanks to a long-standing plaque outside which reads: ‘When the Brontë family lived in Haworth this was the druggist’s house and shop. The pharmacist at the time was Bessy Hardacre & it was she who dispensed laudenum [sic], an opium derived drug, to Branwell Brontë in the years leading up to his death in September 1848, aged 31.’

Branwell Bronte apothecary
Branwell Bronte frequented the apothecary, now Haworth’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’

For decades this sign has proudly proclaimed Betty Hardacre as the woman who ran the apothecary (an old name for a chemist’s or pharmacist’s shop) in Haworth. It is this woman whom Elizabeth Gaskell, in her biography of Charlotte Brontë, referred to as ‘s good neighbour of the Brontës – a clever, intelligent Yorkshire woman, who keeps a druggist’s shop in Haworth, and from her occupation, her experience, and excellent sense, holds the position of village doctress and nurse, and, as such, has been a friend, in many a time of trial, and sickness, and death, in the households round.’

In other books on the Brontës we find this woman referred to as Betty Hardaker. We find that she was a woman who was very respected in Haworth society, and yet her wares were instrumental in the downfall and death of Branwell Brontë. Thanks to the sign and the books, Betty Hardacre the apothecary has gone down in Haworth history, but in fact the story is completely wrong. I always advise would be biographers to delve into genealogy records and newspaper archives as a main primary source, and once again they’re very revealing. Betty Hardaker is not the apothecary living at the top of Main Street, but a woolcomber and farmer’s wife living outside of the village itself. As the census records for 1841, 1851 and 1861 show, the actual apothecary, or druggist, for Haworth was Robert Lambert, who ran his Main Street store with the help of his wife Betty. It seems then that over time the names of the two Bettys have become mixed up; the name on the plaque should be that of Robert Lambert, and it was Betty Lambert who acted as village nurse and as a confidante to Elizabeth Gaskell.

This 1851 census records shows Betty Lambert, not Hardacre, in the apothecary

Just what did the Lamberts prescribe in their old apothecary shop? Medical knowledge came on leaps and bounds in the nineteenth century, but at the time of the Brontës there were still many treatments that we would find laughable or shocking. Arsenic, for example, was freely available and was even used as an aphrodisiac or as a treatment for men with erectile dysfunction (two words I never thought I’d find myself typing in my Brontë blog). Cough medicines given to children would often contain a range of potentially hazardous ingredients, including opiates which are closely related to today’s heroin. Laudanum itself was a tincture of opium, meaning that it contained around ten percent powdered opiate dissolved in alcohol. It was extremely addictive, but also available freely without prescription from apothecaries such as the one on Haworth’s Main Street.

Laudanum was used extensively to treat a wide range of conditions, but its most common medical usage was for pain relief, to suppress coughing and to treat restlessness and insomnia. It was also used, however, for its narcotic properties, making it the drug of choice for many people right across the British Isles, and it was these properties that Branwell sought.

One of the most famous laudanum users of the nineteenth century was the author and essayist Thomas de Quincey, and he gave a frank and often harrowing account of his relation with the drug in his 1821 masterpiece Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater. De Quincey consumed a huge amount of opium and laudanum on a daily basis (whilst many opium addicts used about ten drops a day he at one point was using eight thousand drops a day), and he described the effect it had upon his sleep and dreams:

‘For this and all other changes in my dreams were accompanied by deep-seated anxiety and gloomy melancholy, such as are wholly incommunicable by words. I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever reascend. Nor did I, by waking, feel that I had reascended. This I do not dwell upon; because the state of gloom which attended these gorgeous spectacles, amounting at last to utter darkness, as of some suicidal despondency, cannot be approached by words. The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. Buildings, landscapes, &c., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay; sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.’

This powerful passage seemed to chime with one Brontë particularly – not Branwell, but Emily Brontë. The unending nightmarish dream is reminiscent of the one Lockwood experiences at Wuthering Heights, where he hears the interminable preaching of Jabes Branderham, where each sermon has 490 parts, each as long as a sermon itself. De Quincey talks about being trapped in the ‘depths below depths’ at night that he cannot reascend from, and that reminds one of Emily’s seminal poem The Night Is Darkening Round Me:

‘The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me;
I will not, cannot go.’

De Quincey also outlined one reason that laudanum was the drug of choice for so many in the nineteenth century – it was cheap, and so it cost less to enter an oblivion through opium than it would through the purchase of alcohol.

Thomas De Quincey

The Brontës were fans of De Quincey’s work, and sent him a copy of Poems By Currer, Ellis And Acton Bell, but it could be that Emily learnt personally about the effect of laudanum and opiates by watching the impact it had on her brother Branwell or through conversations with him. We also see evidence of the knowledge of how opium works, and the effect it produced, in Charlotte’s Roe Head Journal written whilst she was a teacher in the Mirfield school run by Margaret Wooler:

‘The toil of the day, succeeded by this moment of divine leisure, had acted on me like opium & was coiling about me a disturbed but fascinating spell, such as I never felt before. What I imagined grew morbidly vivid. I remember I quite seemed to see, with my bodily eyes, a lady standing in the hall of a gentleman’s house, as if waiting for some one.’

Branwell Brontë took solace in laudanum, alcohol and opium to forget his anxieties and troubles. He had a troubled life, and yet we must also remember that he was very talented too, and could be kind and loving. Nevertheless, he would often have entered the doors of the Lambert Apothecary at the top of Main Street and purchased bottles of laudanum, as must many other Haworth locals. Thankfully, you won’t find anything like that in the Cabinet Of Curiosities today, although you can find a vast range of treasures within its mirrored and evocative interior. The wonderful television presenter Gyles Brandreth was in the shop today, along with a film crew, so it seems that the story of the Brontës, Haworth and its old apothecary is still one that fascinates us all.

Gyles Brandreth in the Cabinet Of Curiosities

Unfortunately this was rather a whistle stop tour of Haworth for me, albeit still a lovely one, so I haven’t yet been to the Anne Brontë 200 exhibition inside the parsonage itself. I will be returning in a couple of weeks, at which point I will be visiting the exhibition itself and I’ll bring you all a full report after that. In the meantime, keep happy and healthy, and remember this important slogan: Hands – put a Brontë book in your hands; Face – place it in front of your face; Space – find a quiet space to enjoy reading your Brontë book. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Bronte Parsonage museum
It was great to see the Bronte Parsonage museum open once more, I’ll be visiting again soon

September In The Writing Of The Brontës

Is it just me, or is this year, for all its strangeness and unpredictability, racing by with wicked speed? In the blink of an eye we are now in September, the start of meteorological autumn and a month when we see nature change around us. Leaves start to turn golden, then brown, and then fall; nights grow darker and longer, even sunny days, suddenly scared to walk alone as they had done throughout summer, are accompanied by a growing chill. It can also, however, be a month filled with beauty, so which aspects did the Brontës of Haworth feel most vividly? In today’s post we’re going to look at September in the writing of the Brontës.


“The examination passed over well; M. Paul was as good as his word, and did his best to make my part easy. The next day came the distribution of prizes; that also passed; the school broke up; the pupils went home, and now began the long vacation.

That vacation! Shall I ever forget it? I think not. Madame Beck went, the first day of the holidays, to join her children at the sea-side; all the three teachers had parents or friends with whom they took refuge; every professor quitted the city; some went to Paris, some to Boue-Marine; M. Paul set forth on a pilgrimage to Rome; the house was left quite empty, but for me, a servant, and a poor deformed and imbecile pupil, a sort of crétin, whom her stepmother in a distant province would not allow to return home.

My heart almost died within me; miserable longings strained its chords. How long were the September days! How silent, how lifeless! How vast and void seemed the desolate premises! How gloomy the forsaken garden—grey now with the dust of a town summer departed. Looking forward at the commencement of those eight weeks, I hardly knew how I was to live to the end. My spirits had long been gradually sinking; now that the prop of employment was withdrawn, they went down fast. Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me—a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly. Alas! When I had full leisure to look on life as life must be looked on by such as me, I found it but a hopeless desert: tawny sands, with no green fields, no palm-tree, no well in view. The hopes which are dear to youth, which bear it up and lead it on, I knew not and dared not know. If they knocked at my heart sometimes, an inhospitable bar to admission must be inwardly drawn. When they turned away thus rejected, tears sad enough sometimes flowed: but it could not be helped: I dared not give such guests lodging. So mortally did I fear the sin and weakness of presumption.

Religious reader, you will preach to me a long sermon about what I have just written, and so will you, moralist: and you, stern sage: you, stoic, will frown; you, cynic, sneer; you, epicure, laugh. Well, each and all, take it your own way. I accept the sermon, frown, sneer, and laugh; perhaps you are all right: and perhaps, circumstanced like me, you would have been, like me, wrong. The first month was, indeed, a long, black, heavy month to me.”

Pensionnat Heger
The Pensionnat Heger seemed lonely and desolate to Charlotte in September 1843

Today, parents across the UK and beyond are seeing their children return to school, but in Charlotte’s day September saw the start of an eight week holiday between academic years. Lucy is left almost alone in the pensionnat, a prospect that fills her with dread, and of course we can read into this the feelings that Charlotte herself must have experienced when left alone in the Pensionnat Heger in September 1843.

Wuthering Heights

“Not to grieve a kind master, I learned to be less touchy; and, for the space of half a year, the gunpowder lay as harmless as sand, because no fire came near to explode it. Catherine had seasons of gloom and silence now and then: they were respected with sympathising silence by her husband, who ascribed them to an alteration in her constitution, produced by her perilous illness; as she was never subject to depression of spirits before. The return of sunshine was welcomed by answering sunshine from him. I believe I may assert that they were really in possession of deep and growing happiness. It ended. Well, we must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering; and it ended when circumstances caused each to feel that the one’s interest was not the chief consideration in the other’s thoughts. On a mellow evening in September, I was coming from the garden with a heavy basket of apples which I had been gathering. It had got dusk, and the moon looked over the high wall of the court, causing undefined shadows to lurk in the corners of the numerous projecting portions of the building. I set my burden on the house-steps by the kitchen-door, and lingered to rest, and drew in a few more breaths of the soft, sweet air; my eyes were on the moon, and my back to the entrance, when I heard a voice behind me say,—‘Nelly, is that you?’

It was a deep voice, and foreign in tone; yet there was something in the manner of pronouncing my name which made it sound familiar. I turned about to discover who spoke, fearfully; for the doors were shut, and I had seen nobody on approaching the steps. Something stirred in the porch; and, moving nearer, I distinguished a tall man dressed in dark clothes, with dark face and hair. He leant against the side, and held his fingers on the latch as if intending to open for himself. ‘Who can it be?’ I thought. ‘Mr. Earnshaw? Oh, no! The voice has no resemblance to his.’

‘I have waited here an hour,’ he resumed, while I continued staring; ‘and the whole of that time all round has been as still as death. I dared not enter. You do not know me? Look, I’m not a stranger!’

A ray fell on his features; the cheeks were sallow, and half covered with black whiskers; the brows lowering, the eyes deep-set and singular. I remembered the eyes.

‘What!’ I cried, uncertain whether to regard him as a worldly visitor, and I raised my hands in amazement. ‘What! you come back? Is it really you? Is it?’”

Tom Hardy Heathcliff
Tom Hardy as a returning Heathcliff about to wreak havoc

Emily Brontë, more than any of her siblings, was acutely attuned to nature, and she knew how the changes of months and seasons affected all around them. September is a month of change in nature, and as humans, to Emily, are simply another part of the natural world then it must bring change to them too, as we see in this extract. Catherine and her new husband Edgar Linton have enjoyed blissful, sunny months of marriage, but as September arrives so too does a returned Heathcliff, and storm clouds will soon be gathering overhead.

Agnes Grey

“As we drove along, my spirits revived again, and I turned, with pleasure, to the contemplation of the new life upon which I was entering. But though it was not far past the middle of September, the heavy clouds and strong north-easterly wind combined to render the day extremely cold and dreary; and the journey seemed a very long one, for, as Smith observed, the roads were ‘very heavy’; and certainly, his horse was very heavy too: it crawled up the hills, and crept down them, and only condescended to shake its sides in a trot where the road was at a dead level or a very gentle slope, which was rarely the case in those rugged regions; so that it was nearly one o’clock before we reached the place of our destination. Yet, after all, when we entered the lofty iron gateway, when we drove softly up the smooth, well-rolled carriage-road, with the green lawn on each side, studded with young trees, and approached the new but stately mansion of Wellwood, rising above its mushroom poplar-groves, my heart failed me, and I wished it were a mile or two farther off. For the first time in my life I must stand alone: there was no retreating now. I must enter that house, and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants. But how was it to be done? True, I was near nineteen; but, thanks to my retired life and the protecting care of my mother and sister, I well knew that many a girl of fifteen, or under, was gifted with a more womanly address, and greater ease and self-possession, than I was. Yet, if Mrs. Bloomfield were a kind, motherly woman, I might do very well, after all; and the children, of course, I should soon be at ease with them—and Mr. Bloomfield, I hoped, I should have but little to do with.”

Blake Hall, Mirfield
Blake Hall, Mirfield is the model for Wellwood

We see here that September is used to represent change by Anne Brontë also. This is the opening of chapter two of Agnes Grey; our eponymous heroine has left her home behind and set out for Wellwood, where she will begin life as a governess to the Bloomfield family. She is full of hope, but of course we who have read the book know that those hopes will be dashed as the Bloomfields prove to be a very different family to the one Agnes had pictured. Just as in the Villette extract this is surely based on the author’s own experience, as young Anne must have been excited and hopeful en route to her first job as governess, but she too found her position with the Inghams of Blake Hall in Mirfield to be far from idyllic.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

“In September, quiet Grassdale was again alive with a party of ladies and gentlemen (so called), consisting of the same individuals as those invited the year before last, with the addition of two or three others, among whom were Mrs. Hargrave and her younger daughter. The gentlemen and Lady Lowborough were invited for the pleasure and convenience of the host; the other ladies, I suppose, for the sake of appearances, and to keep me in check, and make me discreet and civil in my demeanour. But the ladies stayed only three weeks; the gentlemen, with two exceptions, above two months: for their hospitable entertainer was loth to part with them and be left alone with his bright intellect, his stainless conscience, and his loved and loving wife.”

When Helen wed Arthur she had been looking forward to entertaining his friends and hosting grand parties, but after five years of marriage she dreads these events. September is the month when Huntingdon’s friends arrive at Grassdale, and his lover Lady Lowborough, and for Helen it is a month when new tortures begin.

There can be little doubt then that September in the writing of the Brontës represents change, and often a change from light into darkness or hope into reality. On the other hand, it’s a testing time that most of the Brontë protagonists eventually come through. Agnes finds love with Weston, Heathcliff’s villainy is eventually triumphed over by love, Helen escapes her abusive husband and finds happiness with the person she was always destined for. September was also the month when Charlotte Brontë discovered the hidden poetry of Emily Brontë, and this discovery led directly to the very first Brontë book: Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

A September discovery led to the first Bronte book

We have all been through trying times in our lives, and on a global scale especially this year, but hope and love are still triumphing up and down this land. Let us then enjoy the unique beauty that September and autumn can bring, especially if we can do so with a good book close to hand. I return to Haworth myself next week for the first time since January, so that’s certainly a September event that I’m looking forward to. Thank you for your company again, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.