Happy 202nd birthday Anne Brontë!

In yesterday’s post I revealed that next Sunday’s blog will be an Anne Brontë birthday special, but I couldn’t let the big day pass by unnoticed. Anne Brontë was born on this day in 1820 in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford. She was the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria Brontë, but she deserves to be remembered alongside her sisters Charlotte and Emily as one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.

Anne Brontë was a brilliant poet and (most importantly of all) a brilliant and kind person, and she wrote two of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. Agnes Grey was a partially autobiographical work about life as a governess in the first half of the nineteenth century; The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall shone a light upon coercive relationships, addiction and marital abuse: it has been called the first fully formed feminist novel, and is just as important and relevant today as it was when it was published in 1848.

Anne Bronte's baptism record
Anne Bronte’s baptism record, the baptism took place just over two months after her birth

Anne Brontë was an ordinary woman who created extraordinary things, so that can be an inspiration to us all. I’ll be baking a cake later and raising a glass to Anne’s memory, and of course the best way to remember Anne is to turn once more to one of Anne’s wonderful books. I hope to see you again next Sunday for a more in depth birthday post for Anne but for now I will leave you with one of her most beautiful poems and say: ‘Happy 202nd birthday Anne Brontë!’

The Student's Serenade Anne Bronte
‘The Student’s Serenade’ by Anne Bronte

The Brontës And Nineteenth Century Medicine

Advances in medicine really are one of the miracles of our age; after all, just think how much worse this pandemic would have been without vaccines. Our medics and scientists understand a lot about maladies, the human body, and which chemical combinations can combat which conditions, but we don’t have to go too far back to a time when things were very different indeed. In today’s post we’re going to look at medicine and the Brontës, and look ahead to a special day tomorrow.

Haworth Apothecary dispensed a wide range of medicines (me outside it with my mum in the late 1980s!)

It’s a particularly timely day to look at the medicine taken by the Brontës, for on this day in 1852 Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen Nussey regarding some medication which she’d been prescribed: and which we certainly wouldn’t dream of taking today. Before we take a look at that letter, however, let’s head back to the 14th January 1852 to another letter in which we get the first details of the complaint:

Ellen is clearly concerned because she hadn’t heard from Charlotte in a while, and wondered if she was ill? Charlotte was indeed under the weather, and Mr Ruddock the Haworth physician has prescribed an alterative medicine. This was a kind of medicine designed to alter the status of the digestive system: without putting too fine a point on it, Charlotte was suffering from an acute case of constipation. Left to itself she would doubtless have been fine in a day or two, but Ruddock’s medicine did more harm than good, for it was mercury.

Mercury was commonly prescribed for a wide range of conditions in the nineteenth century. It was infamously used to treat syphilis, with horrendous results, but ‘blue mercurial pills’ could be used as a purgative or to treat digestive complaints such as Charlotte’s.

Charlotte correctly surmised, however, that the pills were causing her malady rather than relieving it, and since taking them she has started to feel better. Nevertheless, by this day in 1852 the effects of this potentially deadly medicine were still being felt:

Ellen is desperate to see Charlotte again, and we can guess the tone of her correspondence by looking at Charlotte’s replies. On 14th January she urges Ellen to “be quite tranquil”, and two days later she is telling her, “Be quiet. Be tranquil.” Charlotte must be longing for that tranquillity herself, but the effects of her recent mercury medicine have made this a difficult task. As she says, “you can have little idea of the condition into which Mercury throws people to ask me to go from home anywhere in close or open carriage, and as to talking four days since I could not well have articulated three sentences – my mouth and tongue are ulcerated.”

These are classic symptoms of mercury poisoning; if Charlotte had not stopped taking Dr. Ruddock’s medicine at the dosage he prescribed it could have been the end of her. Thankfully for us all, Charlotte was soon better and by the end of January she was well enough to join Ellen at Brookroyd. Tranquillity was restored. There was to be no such happy outcome to the next medical letter we’re going to examine. On this occasion we head back to this week in 1849:

Less than a month after Emily’s death from consumption (tuberculosis), Anne Brontë is following the same terrible path. This must have been a dreadful ordeal for Charlotte, but at least Anne is willing to try medical solutions, something which Emily had always refused – calling it quackery. As we saw from Charlotte’s alterative medicine, prescriptions at this time were indeed often quackery, but people at the time believed them to be at least partially effective. Anne tried to take her cod-liver oil and carbonate of iron, but eventually found herself unable to swallow them without being sick, a counter-productive result with a wasting disease such as tuberculosis.

Nathaniel Godbold
Nathaniel Godbold, medical pioneer whose Vegetable Balsam was one of the medicine’s prescribed to Anne

Other medications of the time routinely contained opium and alcohol. Patrick Brontë was prescribed an eye solution which contained alcohol to treat his cataracts and failing eyesight, but this led to rumours that the parish priest (and founder of Haworth’s temperance society) had turned to drink.

On 4th October 1843 Patrick wrote to church trustee John Greenwood to explain the situation, stating: ‘They keep propagating false reports – I mean to single out one or two of these slanderers, and to prosecute them, as the Law directs. I have lately been using a lotion for my eyes, which are very weak – and they have ascribed the smell of that to a smell of a more objectionable character.’

In Search of Anne Bronte at Emily's, Thornton
The fireplace at Thornton Parsonage by which Anne Bronte was born

We saw earlier the approach of a sad moment in the Anne Brontë story, but let’s finish by looking ahead to a happier one. Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Anne Brontë story, her two hundred and second birthday. We can imagine the excitement, not to say trepidation in Thornton Parsonage on this day in 1820 as the moment grew ever nearer. The Brontë children were sent to nearby Kipping House to be looked after by the Firth family, and Maria and Patrick prepared to welcome their sixth child. I hope you can join me next Sunday for an Anne Brontë birthday special. Cake isn’t compulsory but is recommended. When creating a filling do remember that jam and butter cream are excellent ideas, but mercury rather less so.

Charlotte Brontë’s Return From Brussels

Well, we’ve made it through a whole week of 2022. Have you noticed a difference yet? Charlotte Brontë certainly noticed a difference in the first week of 1844 for she began it in Belgium and ended it among her familiar Yorkshire moors. In today’s Brontë blog post we’re going to look at Charlotte Brontë’s return from Brussels, and what it meant for her writing.

Charlotte Brontë first arrived in Brussels in February 1842, alongside her sister Emily whilst Anne was sadly ensconced as a governess at Thorp Green Hall near York. They returned to Haworth in November of that year after the death of Aunt Branwell, unfortunately arriving too late for her funeral. Home loving Emily decided to remain in Haworth, but Charlotte insisted upon returning to Brussels. Ostensibly this was so she could continue honing her language skills prior to opening a school with her sisters, but in reality it had a lot to do with the fact that she had fallen in love with her French master Constantin Heger. Unfortunately, he was the husband of the school’s proprietor.

the Heger family by Ange Francois
The Heger family by Ange Francois, Constantin on the left and Clare central

It was never going to end well, even though after her return from Haworth Charlotte was elevated to the position of teacher rather than simply being a pupil. By the end of 1843, the atmosphere in the Brussels Pensionnat (school) had become rather strained. An 1896 obituary for Constantin Heger, written by his friend Albert Colin, gave an insight into Madame Heger’s feelings by late 1843:

‘At the end of two years [after Charlotte Brontë’s 1842 entrance into the Pensionnat], the future English novelist spoke and wrote correctly the language of Bossuet, Racine and Voltaire. Once this had been achieved, Madame Heger, considering that her part of the contract morally entered into between herself and Charlotte had been completely fulfilled, refused to receive Miss Brontë a third year in her school. According to the statements of her own schoolfellows, the daughter of the English clergyman [sic] was anything but popular. She was also older than the other pupils, among whom she perhaps felt herself to be in a somewhat undignified position. Madame Heger was, therefore, not sorry to put an end to the connection.’

It seems therefore that Charlotte had requested to stay in Brussels, and presumably continue her work as a teacher, but had been refused. She was left with no choice but to return to England, and on 29th December 1843 her time at the Pensionnat was drawn to an official end with the presentation to her of a diploma certifying that she had completed her studies. The diploma is lost, but not the envelope it came in, for Charlotte herself has written on the outside: ‘Diploma given to me by Monsieur Heger Decbr 29th 1843.’ It had come from Constantin Heger, it must be treasured.

This envelope contained Charlotte’s diploma from Brussels

A sad new year indeed it must have seemed for Charlotte, for on the first of January 1844 she turned and took a final look at the Pensionnat, her eyes perhaps moving one last time to the window of the study of Monsieur Heger. As her carriage took her away from the city and towards the coast, did she know that this would be the last time she would ever see Brussels, or did she think she would be returning again one day when Madame Heger’s heart had softened?

After two days of travelling, on 3rd January 1844, Charlotte Brontë arrived back in Haworth to find that Anne and Branwell were preparing to leave for York, her best friend Ellen was staying with her brother Henry in Sussex, and her father was nearly blind. But she was home, and she was loved.

In the days that followed Charlotte must have realised that her European adventure was over, and she was left “tamed down and broken”. On 23rd January Charlotte finally raised the energy to write to Ellen, and a fascinating yet melancholic letter it is:

It’s also interesting to note that before leaving for Brussels in 1842 she had to persuade her Aunt Elizabeth to pay for the travel and tuition for herself and Emily, but now she has enough money to open her own school if she wanted to. The reason, of course, is that she (along with sisters Emily and Anne and cousin Eliza Kingston of Penzance) has now inherited a considerable sum of money from her Aunt’s will.

The school idea was now possible, but it would never open. The money would eventually be put to even greater use: it funded the publication of the first Brontë book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell and the entrance of the Brontës into the world of literature. Charlotte’s time in Brussels, and the manner of her return from it, also played a great role in those classic novels to come.

Charlotte had been in love with Constantin Heger, an unrequited love that seeped into her bones and played restlessly with her mind. There was no outlet in the despairing letters that she sent to Monsieur Heger as they went unacknowledged and unanswered; it must have another outlet.

In Charlotte’s letters sent from Brussels we see that Monsieur Heger was a stern man with a hard countenance, one who does not show emotions easily, and yet it was these qualities that won Charlotte’s esteem and then heart. In May 1842 she had written to Ellen:

‘There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken: Monsieur Heger the husband of Madame. He is professor of Rhetoric, a man of power as to mind but very choleric and irritable in temperament – a little, black, ugly being with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane Tom-cat – sometimes those of a delirious hyena – occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air not above a hundred degrees removed from what you would call mild and gentleman-like.’

Surely from this we see more than a hint of Edward Rochester? When Bessie asks Jane about her employer she replies:

‘She wanted to know if I was happy at Thornfield Hall, and what sort of a person the mistress was; and when I told her there was only a master, whether he was a nice gentleman, and if I liked him. I told her he was rather an ugly man, but quite a gentleman; and that he treated me kindly, and I was content.’

We get a similar portrait of Paul Emanuel in Villette, as in this scene at the Hotel Crecy party: ‘Amongst the gentlemen, I may incidentally observe, I had already noticed by glimpses, a severe, dark, professorial outline, hovering aloof in an inner saloon, seen only in vista. M. Emanuel knew many of the gentlemen present, but I think was a stranger to most of the ladies, excepting myself; in looking towards the hearth, he could not but see me, and naturally made a movement to approach; seeing, however, Dr. Bretton also, he changed his mind and held back. If that had been all, there would have been no cause for quarrel; but not satisfied with holding back, he puckered up his eyebrows, protruded his lip, and looked so ugly that I averted my eyes from the displeasing spectacle.’

In short there can be no doubt in my mind that without Brussels and Monsieur Heger there could have been no such brilliantly realised characters as Rochester and Monsieur Emanuel, and therefore neither Jane Eyre nor Villette. More specifically it seems to me that these characters, and the novels they loom over, could not have existed without the manner of Charlotte Brontë’s exit from Brussels at the dawn of 1844. If she had left contended and happy these images would not have continued to brood in her mind only to burst forth so dramatically onto paper in the years to come.

Bronte plaque in Brussels
The Brontes can still be found in Brussels if you look hard enough

We can never know what moments today which may seem sad and inauspicious may yet yield treasures of gold in the future, so whatever this new year throws at you keep going and keep believing in yourself. Charlotte Brontë did, and we can all be thankful for that.

Today also marks the anniversary of the death of Madame Clare Heger. She passed away on the 9th of January 1890. Madame Heger also played a vital role in the Brontë literary story, although neither she nor Charlotte could have known it at the time. There are plenty more stories to tell, so I hope you can join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post. A bientot!

Happy Brontë New Year: Welcome 2022!

Happy New Year (a day late, but the sentiment is still there) to you all. I’ve loved sharing my Brontë blog posts with you over the last year, and I’ve really appreciated all your support, kind words, suggestions, comments and emails. There’s a lot of Brontë love out there, and I know that’s going to continue into 2022, whatever the world throws at us.

In today’s new post we’re going to look at the Bronte’s and New Year, and you’ll see a smattering of typically idiosyncratic Victorian new year cards, like the one above. Just what was the new year celebration like in Haworth Parsonage? Well we know that Anne Brontë enjoyed playing Auld Lang Syne on the parsonage piano as we have here her hand written score and words to the song, copied out by her into her music book. We can easily imagine Anne playing it and singing along as the new year approached (Ellen Nussey testified how Anne loved to sing and that she had a quiet yet sweet voice); perhaps the Brontë family would have joined in, just as we still do nearly two hundred years later?

Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne, copied out by Anne Bronte

We can get another possible glimpse into what the coming of a new year in the Brontë novels, for it features in three of them. In Jane Eyre we see how New Year, along with Christmas, was a time for celebration, yet young Jane was excluded from the celebrations. Even so, Jane is happy in her own company as long as she had something to love – in this case her beloved doll.

Jane Eyre

‘November, December, and half of January passed away. Christmas and the New Year had been celebrated at Gateshead with the usual festive cheer; presents had been interchanged, dinners and evening parties given. From every enjoyment I was, of course, excluded: my share of the gaiety consisted in witnessing the daily apparelling of Eliza and Georgiana, and seeing them descend to the drawing-room, dressed out in thin muslin frocks and scarlet sashes, with hair elaborately ringletted; and afterwards, in listening to the sound of the piano or the harp played below, to the passing to and fro of the butler and footman, to the jingling of glass and china as refreshments were handed, to the broken hum of conversation as the drawing-room door opened and closed. When tired of this occupation, I would retire from the stairhead to the solitary and silent nursery: there, though somewhat sad, I was not miserable. To speak truth, I had not the least wish to go into company, for in company I was very rarely noticed; and if Bessie had but been kind and companionable, I should have deemed it a treat to spend the evenings quietly with her, instead of passing them under the formidable eye of Mrs. Reed, in a room full of ladies and gentlemen. But Bessie, as soon as she had dressed her young ladies, used to take herself off to the lively regions of the kitchen and housekeeper’s room, generally bearing the candle along with her. I then sat with my doll on my knee till the fire got low, glancing round occasionally to make sure that nothing worse than myself haunted the shadowy room; and when the embers sank to a dull red, I undressed hastily, tugging at knots and strings as I best might, and sought shelter from cold and darkness in my crib. To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and, in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow. It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doated on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation. I could not sleep unless it was folded in my night-gown; and when it lay there safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise.’

In Wuthering Heights we see the new year mark two very different events. It falls at the very conclusion of the novel, with new beginnings springing from the close of this epic story. Heathcliff is buried and Hareton and Cathy are to be married on New Year’s Day:

Wuthering Heights

‘We buried him, to the scandal of the whole neighbourhood, as he wished. Earnshaw and I, the sexton, and six men to carry the coffin, comprehended the whole attendance. The six men departed when they had let it down into the grave: we stayed to see it covered. Hareton, with a streaming face, dug green sods, and laid them over the brown mould himself: at present it is as smooth and verdant as its companion mounds—and I hope its tenant sleeps as soundly. But the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen two on ’em looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since his death:—and an odd thing happened to me about a month ago. I was going to the Grange one evening—a dark evening, threatening thunder—and, just at the turn of the Heights, I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly; and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided.

“What is the matter, my little man?” I asked.

“There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’ nab,” he blubbered, “un’ I darnut pass ’em.”

I saw nothing; but neither the sheep nor he would go on so I bid him take the road lower down. He probably raised the phantoms from thinking, as he traversed the moors alone, on the nonsense he had heard his parents and companions repeat. Yet, still, I don’t like being out in the dark now; and I don’t like being left by myself in this grim house: I cannot help it; I shall be glad when they leave it, and shift to the Grange.

“They are going to the Grange, then?” I said.

“Yes,” answered Mrs. Dean, “as soon as they are married, and that will be on New Year’s Day.”

“And who will live here then?”

“Why, Joseph will take care of the house, and, perhaps, a lad to keep him company. They will live in the kitchen, and the rest will be shut up.”

“For the use of such ghosts as choose to inhabit it?” I observed.

“No, Mr. Lockwood,” said Nelly, shaking her head. “I believe the dead are at peace: but it is not right to speak of them with levity.”’

Another new year wedding is taking place in Charlotte Brontë’s first-written novel The Professor. Again it follows swiftly on the heels of a burial, with the circle of life replacing death with new hope and a new beginning, just as we see in the end of one year leading to the start of the next one. Frances seems strangely distraught at her wedding but I won’t give away how married life turns out for her!

The Professor

‘In two months more Frances had fulfilled the time of mourning for her aunt. One January morning – the first of the new year holidays – I went in a fiacre, accompanied only by M. Vandenhuten, to the Rue Notre Dame aux Neiges, and haying alighted alone and walked upstairs, I found Frances apparently waiting for me, dressed in a style scarcely appropriate to that cold, bright, frosty day. Never till now had I seen her attired in any other than black or sad-coloured stuff; and there she stood by the window, clad all in white, and white of a most diaphanous texture ; her array was very simple to be sure, but it looked imposing and festal because it was so clear, full, and floating; a veil shadowed her head, and hung below her knee; a little wreath of pink flowers fastened it to her thickly tressed Grecian plat, and thence it fell softly on each side of her face. Singular to state, she was, or had been crying; when I asked her if she were ready she said “Yes, monsieur,” with something very like a checked sob, and when I took a shawl, which lay on the table, and folded it round her, not only did tear after tear course unbidden down her cheek, but she shook to my ministration like a reed. I said I was sorry to see her in such low spirits, and requested to be allowed an insight into the origin thereof. She only said, “It was impossible to help it,” and then voluntarily though hurriedly putting her hand into mine, accompanied me out of the room, and ran downstairs with a quick, uncertain step, like one who was eager to get some formidable piece of business over. I put her into the fiacre. M. Vandenhuten received her, and seated her beside himself; we drove all together to the Protestant chapel, went through a certain service in the Common Prayer Book, and she and I came out married. M. Vandenhuten had given the bride away.’

Dulac The Professor
From a Dulac illustration from The Professor we see Frances and her future husband William Crimsworth

We also see more direct evidence of Brontë attitudes to the new year in two letters of Charlotte Brontë. The first is one of the earliest still known to exist, dated 1st January 1833 it was sent from Charlotte Brontë to her school friend Ellen Nussey. In it Charlotte reveals her thoughts at the start of every new year: how has she improved over the previous twelve months, and what can she do to improve herself in the next twelve?

Fast forward twenty years and we see Charlotte once again writing to her Nell. They are both now fully embarked upon adult life, but Charlotte still thinks of Ellen on new year’s night. Ellen has been at home at Brookroyd, Birstall charged with tea making duties – obviously an onerous task. A very different task has been occupying Charlotte as she sets about correcting the proofs of Villette whilst at the same time concerning herself with the fate of Arthur Bell Nicholls – she has rejected his recent proposal and now everyone has turned against him. Martha is bitter against him and her father John wants to shoot him!

 

Nevertheless, Charlotte married Arthur, and Martha became best friends with him, eventually living with Arthur and his second wife in Ireland. It goes to show that we never know what the year will bring when we embark upon it. My resolution for this year? Read even more books, and finally finish my Charlotte and Ellen book, I know that a lot of you have been waiting for it. Sorry, it won’t be long now.

Have a great 2022, and I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post. Happy new year to you and all you love!