The Brontës And The Theatre

This weekend, the 27th of March to be precise, saw the advent of World Theatre Day. I love the theatre, and we know that Charlotte, at least, did too, so this week we’re going to look at theatre and the Brontës.

At the time of the Brontës theatres were not yet the mass entertainment centres they were to become during the twentieth century; the working class had neither the time nor money to attend them, and the transport infrastructure was only just appearing that would make it easy for theatre goers to reach the towns and cities that had a theatre. Attending the theatre was an upper class activity and an occasional treat to be savoured for middle class families like the Brontes, but we have records of two such occasions when Charlotte Brontë was in the audience.

The Lear Of Private Life
We know that Charlotte saw The Lear Of Private Life

Firstly, let us turn to an account given many years later by a Frank Peel of an encounter with Charlotte Brontë sometime in the early 1850s. Out of work and down on his luck, Peel had been promised a job in a travelling theatre show, but he had no shoes in which to attend an interview. Having been told of Charlotte’s reputation for philanthropy he made his way to the parsonage and, after reciting some Shakespeare which was rather less than well received, Frank was given a pair of boots which had belonged to Branwell along with advice to give up thoughts of a stage career. Nevertheless, Frank Peel obtained a job as a stage hand and general factotum, which leads us to this revelation:

‘I did go behind the scenes at night, and I am now getting at what I wish to tell you. The play was called ‘The Lear of Private Life’ – that is, a sort of domestic copy of ‘King Lear.’ I assisted in shifting the scenes, and before the last act began the ‘Lear’ sent me to the money-taker to get a shilling and fetch him some brandy in a pint-pot, for he was “nearly a croaker.” It was a ‘grand fashionable night,’ and there were about a hundred people in the pit, and in coming from the stage to the side-door I had to pass on one side to it, and there, only just within the garden enclosure, and close to where I had to pass, was Miss Brontë and the other lady I had seen the day before at Haworth parsonage! I now felt so guilty of having told Miss Brontë a falsehood about having got the engagement that I should not have ventured to pass her if the actor’s words “nearly a croaker” had not rung in my ears. In the walk for the brandy I had time to collect myself, and I decided to walk past the ladies as if I belonged to the establishment. I did so, and also made a very respectful bow to them, which they gracefully returned. I looked through the peep-hole in the wing and saw them leave soon after. It was some years after this before I learned that the lady who had given me the breakfast, the boots, and the scolding was the authoress of Jane Eyre. I was pleased the rascal stole my boots when I learnt I had had an interview with Charlotte Brontë.’

From this account we can tell that Charlotte Brontë, along with a companion whom we can assume to be Ellen Nussey on one of her visits to the parsonage, had travelled from Haworth to Keighley to see a play – perhaps this is something she was in the habit of doing, and perhaps Anne and Emily had shared that experience in happier times too?

St James’s Theatre, London, where Charlotte twice saw Rachel

We now come to an account from Charlotte Brontë herself, and of an altogether grander theatrical performance. In June 1851, Charlotte was in London where she visited the St. James Theatre on 7 June and saw a production of ‘Adrienne Lecouvrer’ – its chief attraction was that it starred the most famous, and infamous, actress of the day – Elisa Felix, known across Europe by her stage name of Rachel. Felix had risen from humble beginnings to become a hugely acclaimed, if melodramatic, actress, and she was also the mistress of a number of the leading figures in French society, including Emperor Napoleon III. Charlotte was so taken by Rachel’s performance that she returned to the same theatre to see her in Corneille’s ‘Horace’ two weeks later, and she gave fulsome descriptions of the actress in three letters. On 11th June 1851, Charlotte wrote to Amelia Ringrose:

‘I have seen Rachel – her acting was something apart from any other acting it has come in my way to witness; her soul was in it – and a strange soul she has. I shall not discuss it – it is my hope to see her again.’

See her again, and discuss her again, Charlotte did, for on the 24th of June she wrote to Ellen Nussey:

‘On Saturday I went to see & hear Rachel – a wonderful sight – terrible as if the earth had cracked deep at your feet and revealed a glimpse of hell. I shall never forget it – she made me shudder to the marrow of my bones; in her some fiend has certainly taken up an incarnate home. She is not a woman – she is a snake – she is the -’

Rachel by Auguste Charpentier
Rachel by Auguste Charpentier

Mademoiselle Rachel’s performances had certainly made a deep impression on Charlotte, so much so that she she was still telling people about them five months later. On 15th November 1851 she wrote to Joe Taylor:

‘Rachel’s Acting (sic) transfixed me with wonder, enchained me with interest and thrilled me with horror. The tremendous power with which she expresses the very worst passions in their strongest essence forms an exhibition as exciting as the bull-fights of Spain and the gladiatorial combats of old Rome – and (it seemed to me) not one whit more moral than these poisoned stimulants to popular ferocity. It is scarcely human nature that she shews you; it is something wilder and worse; the feelings and fury of a fiend. The great gift of Genius she undoubtedly has – but – I fear – she rather abuses than turns it to good account.’

If only we could see one of Rachel’s performances today – they certainly sound like something to behold. Charlotte wasn’t finished with her yet, for she clearly uses her memories of Rachel’s performances and immortalises her as the wild, hypnotic actress performing Vashti in Villette:

Vashti Villette

There can be no doubt at all then that Charlotte Brontë was passionate about the theatre, and the work of Charlotte and her sisters has inspired many plays and performances in the decades since their passing – from stage adaptations of their work, to dramatic biopics of their lives.

Opening night of Wild Decembers, The Tatler, 7th June 1933

So popular were plays about the Brontës (something which continues to this day on both stage and screen) that 1933 saw two plays about the Brontës open at neighbouring theatres. One of which, ‘Wild Decembers’ by Clemence Dane was covered extensively by The Tatler and other magazines of the time, and it’s from Tatler that we get these remarkable pictures above of the opening night. In attendance are Dodie Smith, author of The Hundred and One Dalmations and I Capture The Castle, and ‘Brontë descendants’ Charlotte Brontë Branwell and her son David, members in fact of the Branwell family of Penzance.

Diana Wynward as Charlotte Bronte in Wild Decembers
Diana Wynyard played Charlotte Bronte in Wild Decembers

Hopefully it won’t be too long until theatres of all sizes open their doors again, and we should all get along and support them if we can. Hopefully also there will be lots of Brontë related plays to watch. Those who live in the south may be able to see the acclaimed play ‘Bronte’ by William Luce, an award winner upon its release in 1979, as actress Bethany Goodman is currently raising funds to bring a new production to the stage this autumn. You can find more about that excellent endeavour, and back it if you so wish, at this link:

It’s a pity that the Brontës themselves never wrote for the stage, as their work is wonderfully dramatic – just imagine what Mademoiselle Rachel could have brought to the part of Catherine Earnshaw! I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Beatrix Lehmann played Emily Bronte in Wild Decembers

The Brontë Family’s Revealing Census Returns

Well today is Census Day here in the UK, a ten yearly event where people tell the government who they are, where they live, and what they do (it would probably be faster and cheaper for governments to simply look on Facebook now). Apparently they help shape social policies on national and local levels, so I do think it’s important to fill them in and I will be submitting mine after I’ve finished this blog post. Just as importantly, to me, they play a vital role when future generations look at the history of their family, famous people or life in general. In today’s new post we’re going to look at the Brontë family in census returns, and at the stories they tell.

I love family tree research and genealogy; if I could give one tip to aspiring researchers and biographers, it would be, ‘always look at genealogy records and the newspaper archives.’ The first census returns we can look at date from 1841; this was the fifth national census, but unfortunately the vast majority of records from the four preceding ones have been lost forever. Our first glimpse of the Brontës, then, comes in 1841, so let’s see what was happening at Haworth Parsonage on the 6th of June of that year:

At the head of the page, and head of the family, is Patrick Brontë, and with him is Elizabeth Branwell, his sister-in-law who was known as Aunt Branwell. Also in the parsonage are Emily and Anne, and the servant Martha Brown. At the next building is Martha’s father John Brown, the parish sexton, her mother Mary and her siblings. Note the ages too, Patrick and Elizabeth are both listed as being 60, but they were both 64 at the time – enumerators of the 1841 census often rounded ages down to a number ending in zero or five. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Anne Brontë had her age listed as 20 but then crossed out and written as 19 – she was in fact 21; unfortunately not the final time that Anne’s age would be recorded incorrectly. She is listed as a governess, but she was in her Parsonage home on a summer break from the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall; not all of her siblings were so lucky.

Also in 1841 we find Charlotte Brontë at Upperwood House in Rawdon near Guiseley. She is working at this time as governess to the White family, and we can see her charges listed: Sarah, 8, Jasper, 6, and one year old Arthur. Interestingly, Charlotte’s employers, John and Jane White, are not at home when the census was taken. Upperwood House was just a short walk from Woodhead Grove school, the place where Charlotte’s parents had first met 29 years earlier.

On June 6th 1841 we find Branwell Brontë (or Patrick Branwell Brontë to give him his full name) lodging with the Clayton family of Brearley Street, Midgley near Halifax. Branwell was working as the head clerk of Luddendenfoot railway station at the time, around three miles away from the Clayton’s home. His occupation is listed on the census as ‘CL’, an abbreviation used for clerk. Interestingly, when asked if he was from this county (which he was) the enumerator has put ‘no’, and instead listed him as being born in ‘I’ – Ireland. The only explanation for this is that Branwell spoke, as it has been said his sister Charlotte did, with an Irish accent.

Also absent from the parsonage in 1841 is Tabby Aykroyd, she is taking a break from parsonage life because of infirmity caused by her broken leg and is living nearby with Susanna Wood. It is usually said that Susanna is Tabitha’s sister, but as I explained in an earlier post I believe they were sisters-in-law.

Fast forward ten years and we get a very different picture at Haworth Parsonage. Patrick Brontë is still there, and Charlotte Brontë is at home now; she is by this time a successful author, but her profession is listed as ‘none’. Servant Martha Brown is still there, and Tabitha Aykroyd has returned, but the intervening ten years have seen the losses of Elizabeth Branwell, Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë, and of course there is no Patrick Branwell Brontë to find in Midgley or elsewhere. There is another addition to parsonage life, however, for we see that on this night, 30th March 1851, there was a visitor to the Brontë household: Charlotte’s best friend Ellen Nussey. There is a new addition in the next building as well – if we look at the foot of the Brown household we see that they have a lodger, Charlotte Brontë’s future husband Arthur B. Nicholls.

We get the final Brontë census return in 1861 – but by this date only Patrick remains, and he himself has just a year to live. Providing him support and companionship are, as always, the faithful Martha Brown, and Martha’s younger sister Eliza Brown. Also here is Patrick’s widowed son-in-law Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Census returns show us the relentless march of time, and their ten year intervals often reveal bluntly the withering effects of this passage on our fleeting lives. They can also reveal unexpected surprises, however, and I will leave you with one now. I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post; I’m now heading over to my own census return. Here we are in 1841 in Keighley, the nearest town to the Brontës and a location they often walked to. Perhaps they knew this family? The census reveals a 15 to 19 year old girl with a name that is especially appropriate for the period we are about to enter into: daughter of worsted hand loom weaver James Bunny, she is Miss Easter Bunny. Happy Census Day!

A Snapshot Of The Young Brontës’ World

The Brontë sisters are unique in the annals of great literature – after all, which other literary family had three siblings who all wrote great works of fiction? There are, however, some similarities between the Brontës and other writing greats – for example, whilst their juvenilia is astonishing, many other writers also created large bodies of youthful prose and poetry. John Ruskin, for one, produced his own ‘little books’, although they can’t match the power, beauty and brilliance of the tiny volumes created by the Brontë children.

1829 Bronte little book
This 1829 Bronte little book is just 5 inches high

This week marks the 192nd anniversary of an especially wonderful piece of Brontë juvenilia – written by Charlotte Brontë when she was just 12 years old, and dated by her on the 12th March 1829, she entitled it simply ‘The History of the Year.’ It tells us a lot about the lives of the young Brontës at the time, so I’ve reproduced it below:

‘Once Papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography and she wrote on its blank leaf, “Papa lent me this book.” The book is an hundred and twenty years old. It is at this moment lying before me while I write this. I am in the kitchen of the parsonage house, Haworth. Tabby the servant is washing up after breakfast and Anne, my youngest sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair looking at some cakes which Tabby has been baking for us. Emily is in the parlour brushing it. Papa and Branwell are gone to Keighley. Aunt is up stairs in her room and I am sitting by the table writing this in the kitchin. Keighley is a small town four miles from here. Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper, the Leeds Intelligencer, a most excellent Tory news paper edited by Mr Edward Wood for the proprietor Mr Hernaman. We take and 2 and see three newspapers a week. We take the Leeds Intelligencer, party Tory, and the Leeds Mercury, Whig, edited by Mr Baines and his brother, son in law and his 2 sons, Edward and Talbot. We see the John Bull; it is a High Tory, very violent. Mr Driver lends us it, likewise Blackwood’s Magazine, the most amiable periodical there is. The editor is Mr Christopher North, an old man, 74 years of age. The 1st of April is his birthday. His company are Thomas Tickler, Morgan O’Doherty, Macrabin, Mordecai Mullion, Warrell, and James Hogg, a man of most extraordinary genius, a Scottish shepherd.

The love for Blackwood’s Magazine is apparent

Our plays were established: Young Men, June 1826; Our Fellows, July 1827; Islanders, December 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret. Emily’s and my bed plays were established the 1st December 1827, the others March 1828. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The Young Men took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had, Our Fellows from Aesop’s Fables, and the Islanders from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origins of our plays more explicitly if I can. March 12, 1829.

Young Men’s

Papa brought Branwell some soldiers at Leeds. When Papa came home it was night and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed and I snatched up one and exclaimed: “This is the Duke of Wellington! It shall be mine!” when I had said this, Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him “Gravey”. Anne’s was a queer little thing, much like herself. He was called Waiting Boy. Branwell chose Bonaparte. March 12, 1829.

The origin of the O’Dears

The origin of the O’Dears was as follows. We pretended we had each a large island inhabited by people 6 miles high. The people we took out of Aesop’s Fables. Hay Man was my chief man, Boaster Branwell’s, Hunter Anne’s, and Clown Emily’s. Our chief men were 10 miles high except Emily’s who was only 4. March 12, 1829.

Aesop’s Fables have delighted children, including the Brontes, for over 2500 years

The origin of the Islanders

The origin of the Islanders was as follows. It was one wet night in December. We were all sitting round the fire and had been silent some time, and at last I said, ‘Suppose we each had an island of our own.’ Branwell chose the Isle of Man, Emily Isle of Arran and Bute Isle, Anne, Jersey, and I chose the Isle of Wight. We then chose who should live in our islands. The chief of Branwell’s were John Bull, Astley Cooper, Leigh Hunt, etc, etc. Emily’s Walter Scott, Mr Lockhart, Johnny Lockhart etc, etc. Anne’s Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, Henry Halford, etc, etc. And I chose Duke of Wellington & son, North & Co., 30 officers, Mr Abernethy, etc, etc. March 12, 1829.’

A sweet summary of a year from Charlotte, and it’s almost as if we were in that moorside parsonage with them. Even at this age, and with this brief description to examine, we get glimpses of the characters they would carry into adulthood.

Charlotte is incredibly perceptive and bright, with a great thirst for knowledge – she is clearly a voracious reader who knows not only the names of the newspaper proprietors and editors, but their birthdays; in those pre-Wikipedia days, that’s impressive knowledge. She is also taking a keen interest in politics, and in society in general.

Branwell is already cultivating a rebellious streak and a love of the anti-hero. When choosing his heroes he picks Napoleon Bonaparte, enemy of Charlotte’s beloved Duke of Wellington, and later chooses the jingoistic John Bull to man his island – perhaps inspired by the ‘very violent’ newspaper bearing this fictional character’s name.

Emily is idiosyncratic; rules are not for her, she will follow her own path – in childhood and adulthood. The O’Dears are ten miles high, but Emily’s is only four miles high, smaller than the general populace around them. The siblings pick an island each, but Emily decides that she will have two islands. There was obviously no arguing with Emily once she had made her mind up.

Lord Bentinck
Young Anne’s hero, Lord William Bentinck

What do we learn of Anne? First of all we see Anne kneeling on a chair looking longingly at some cakes. Perhaps kneeling on chairs was a habit of young Anne’s, and that explains Aunt Branwell’s question to her, “Where are your feet Anne?”, in the 1834 diary paper written by Anne and Emily. I believe Anne had a fondness for cakes and all things sweet, as we have also heard a Haworth villager, a young boy at the time, say how Anne always brought him a little cake when she saw him. We also see an incredibly precocious intelligence in young Anne: in December 1827, aged 7, Anne picks as her islander Lord Bentinck, a military leader and politician.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of history; I wonder what people two hundred years hence would make of our history if we wrote a History of the Year for 2021? We’d need more than a couple of pages, that’s for sure.

Thank you for joining me today, and I look forward to seeing you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. It’s a special day in the United Kingdom: Mother’s Day. To all the mothers and grandmothers out there, have a great day. Let’s also remember today the Brontës’ own mother – Maria Brontë, nee Branwell.

Maria Bronte
Maria Bronte – Happy Mother’s Day to all!

A Heartfelt Goodbye From Charlotte To Ellen

This weekend marked the anniversary of a letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey which contained my favourite drawing by Charlotte. It was sent from Brussels on 6th March 1843, and you can see a reproduction of it below. In today’s post we’re going to look at the significance of the picture, and what it tells us about Charlotte’s second year in the Belgian capital.

So what does this picture show us. Well to the left is a tiny little figure, with an oversized head and spindly arms, and Charlotte has helpfully identified this by putting her own name beneath it. On the right is a woman labelled Mrs O P and alongside her is a rather dandy looking chap given the title of the chosen – between them is the sea, and a steam ship chugging away into the distance. Charlotte is saying ‘good bye’; she also spells this out in the last words of the letter, with the addition of dashes to make it a drawn out ‘g-o-o-d b-y-e’, as if she can’t bear to leave the recipient. The recipient of the letter was, of course, Ellen Nussey, and her name is also given in the sketch to identify her as Mrs O P.

Charlotte is obviously missing her best friend Ellen, and feels that the gulf between them is not only the one caused by the sea – there is the foreboding prospect of a man. So who is this chosen one who Charlotte fears will take Ellen from her forever? We get a clue in an earlier letter, one that Charlotte had sent to Ellen on 20th November 1840, in which she writes:

‘In the first place, before I begin with thee, I have a word to whisper in the ear of Mr Vincent and I wish it could reach him… why does not that amiable young gentleman come forward like a man and say all that he has to say to yourself personally instead of trifling with kinsmen and kinswomen? Mr Vincent I say – walk or ride over to Brookroyd [the Nussey home in Birstall] some fine morning – where you will find Miss Ellen sitting in the drawing room… and say “Miss Ellen I want to speak to you”… Then begin in a clear, distinct, deferential but determined voice – “Miss Ellen I have a question to you, a very important question – will you take me as your husband, for better for worse? I am not a rich man, but I have sufficient to support us; I am not a great man but I love you honestly and truly – Miss Ellen if you knew the world better, you would see that this is an offer not to be despised – a kind, attached heart and a moderate competency.” Do this Mr Vincent and you may succeed – go on writing sentimental and love-sick letters to Henry and I would not give sixpence for your suit.

From what I know of your character – and I think I know it pretty well – I should say you will never love before marriage. After that ceremony is over, and after you have had some months to settle down, and to get accustomed to the creature you have taken for your worse half – you will probably make a most affectionate and happy wife – even if the individual should not prove all you should wish… I have told you so before, and I tell it you again. Mediocrity in all things is wisdom – mediocrity in the sensations is superlative wisdom.’

Ellen Nussey schoolgirl today
Ellen Nussey was Charlotte’s great friend and regular correspondent

Charlotte, as so often in her letters, paints a pretty picture which is almost the equal of her great books. When I think of this situation, Jane Austen novels come to mind, or, especially, Bridgerton. Mr. Vincent is obviously enamoured with Ellen, understandably so, but he is wooing her through the intermediary of her elder brother Henry Nussey, the vicar of Hathersage. It seems that Mr Vincent is still following regency conventions, whereas Charlotte prefers a more modern approach where the suitors talk to each other in person.

Did the potential betrothal fizzle out, as Charlotted predicted? Well, the answer is in the letter sent from Brussels two and a quarter years later. If we take another look at Mrs O P we see that a word has been scribbled out, a word still discernible as Vincent. This then is the chosen one – the Regency style, prim-and-proper, suitor, Reverend Osman Parke Vincent. The relationship is still slowly fizzing on then, and this must have brought mixed emotions for Charlotte Brontë. In her first months in Brussels she had sister Emily for company, but by 1843 she was all alone and increasingly prone to dark thoughts regarding Constantin Heger. We would expect Charlotte to turn, via letters, to Ellen for advice, but the same letter we’ve looked at above also includes the line, ‘You do not merit that I should prolong this letter. Good-bye to you dear Nell, when I say so it seems to me that you will hardly hear me.’

We have an amusing sketch at the bottom of this letter, undoubtedly, and one that expresses Charlotte’s feelings of inadequacy when comparing herself to Ellen in looks or character – something she expresses in her letters on a number of occasions. It is also a sad sketch, however, as Charlotte waves a despairing goodbye – perhaps Ellen has not been replying to her letters as fulsomely as she wanted, or at all, as she is too pre-occupied with the attentions of Reverend Vincent?

John Painter Vincent, father of Osman Parke Vincent

Ellen Nussey never married, but on May 19th 1844 Osman Parke Vincent married Elizabeth Hale Budd. Charlotte’s sixpence was safe after all, but dreams of romance and marriage for Ellen were over. It would have been, perhaps, a better match than Charlotte had supposed. Osman was the son of John Painter Vincent, one of the leading surgeons of the day who was twice elected President of the Royal College of Surgeons. The Vincents as a whole were a wealthy family of bankers and silk merchants.

Please excuse the lateness of today’s post, for reasons beyond my control. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.