Mothers And Motherhood In The Brontë Novels

Here in the United Kingdom we’re celebrating mother’s day. At first Mothering Sunday wasn’t about maternal parents at all, it was a day when domestic servants were given a day off to return to their mother parish. Today, of course, it’s a celebration of wonderful mothers so it seems a perfect day to look at mothers, and the absence of mothers, in Brontë novels.

A Victorian 'Mother's Day' card
A Victorian ‘Mother’s Day’ card

The first thing that jumps out at us when considering protagonists’ mothers in these great books is that they are completely absent in the novels of Charlotte Brontë. From Jane Eyre to Lucy Snowe and Shirley Keeldar there’s not a mother to be found. William Crimsworth, the eponymous Professor, is also an orphan at the start of Charlotte’s posthumously published novel.

Why should this be? We shall see that both Anne and Emily Brontë included mothers and motherhood in their novels, so could it be that the memory of an actual mother was too painful for Charlotte to set down in ink? As a one year old baby and a three year old infant at the time of their mother’s death Anne and Emily would have had little recollection of Maria, but the blow to five year old Charlotte in 1821 must have been one that remained with her forever. In her novels, therefore, we see the protagonists being raised by uncles and aunts of varying degrees of benevolence, just as Charlotte and her siblings were raised by their Aunt Branwell. Do we get a portrait of Elizabeth Branwell in Charlotte’s novels? We’ll return to that later, but first let’s look at mothers in the novels of Anne and Emily after a SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet read any of the books below you may want to avoid that particular section!

Wuthering Heights

Emily’s epic novel is all encompassing when it comes to family relationships and human emotions, which is probably why some people (myself included) think it’s the greatest book ever written. At the start of Nelly’s recollection we find the Earnshaw family as a happy family unit, one into which Mr Earnshaw brings an orphan he has found on a journey to Liverpool: the orphan is of course Heathcliff. This brings about a cataclysmic chain of events which has its roots in the blossoming love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. My own opinion is that Heathcliff is actually the illegitimate son of Earnshaw; why else would he bring him back across the Pennines and raise him as his own son (we can similarly surmise that Adele is Rochester’s illegitimate daughter, such events were far from rare in the moneyed classes of the time).

In this light, the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff takes on a rather darker hue than the one it already has. Catherine briefly becomes a mother, but she is not to experience the joys and tribulations of motherhood. By then Catherine Linton she dies after giving birth to Cathy, and another chapter in Heathcliff’s quest for revenge is born.

Catherine and Heathcliff
Catherine and Heathcliff at Penistone Crag

Catherine had received a divine punishment, but why? Was it because she had not been faithful to Heathcliff, or because she had fallen in love (unknowingly) with her half-brother? Emily Brontë gave us another reason, and it was rooted in the folklore she loved. From her Aunt Branwell, Emily would have heard tales of the Cornwall which had been home to her aunt and mother. On the outskirts of Penzance is an ancient ringed stone called the Men-an-Tol. Local legend says that if a woman crawls backwards through the stone by moonlight she will fall pregnant within a year. There’s a similar legend on the outskirts itself relating to an ancient outcrop called Ponden Kirk. It is said that if two lovers wander through its opening, known as the fairy cave, together they must marry in a year and the woman will have a child – if they do not marry within a year, the woman will die and her spirit will be confined in the kirk forever. In the novel, Catherine and Heathcliff went through this very same opening on the moors (called Penistone Crag in the book); they did not marry, and so Catherine has to die. She acknowledges as much to Nelly as she approaches her moment of duality, the moment that will bring new life and end her own:

‘This bed is the fairy cave under Penistone Crag, and you are gathering elf-bolts to hurt our heifers; pretending, while I am near, that they are only locks of wool. That’s what you’ll come to fifty years hence: I know you are not so now. I’m not wandering, you’re mistaken, or I should believe you really were that withered hag, and I should think I was under Penistone Crag.’

Agnes Grey

Unlike other Brontë heroes and heroines it is the father who Agnes loses early in the novel, and her mother remains a strong, loving, supportive mother throughout. This may be because of the strong bond that Anne had formed with Elizabeth Branwell; they shared a room, and Anne was acknowledged as her aunt’s favourite – in effect, Aunt Branwell had become a mother to Anne Brontë.

Agnes’s mother comes from a wealthy background, just as Anne’s mother and aunt had, and after the tribulations of life as a governess for Agnes she later returns to her mother’s side and they form a school together. Finally, of course, Agnes Grey, or Agnes Weston as she now is, herself becomes a mother, which we are told at the very climax of the novel:

‘Our children, Edward, Agnes, and little Mary, promise well; their education, for the time being, is chiefly committed to me; and they shall want no good thing that a mother’s care can give. Our modest income is amply sufficient for our requirements: and by practising the economy we learnt in harder times, and never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage not only to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves, but to have every year something to lay by for our children, and something to give to those who need it. And now I think I have said sufficient.’

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë was a brilliant novelist, and both her books present images of the ideal of motherhood as Anne saw it. In Agnes Grey we see motherhood as perhaps Anne herself dreamed of living it one day: raising her children with love and compassion in a happy family unit. In The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall we see a very different portrait of motherhood.

Helen, the tenant of the title, has endured a loveless and abusive marriage, but she is determined to protect her son Arthur at any cost. She takes the momentous decision to leave her husband, change her name, and make her own way in life through her artistic endeavours.

Helen and Arthur
Helen and Arthur in the BBC’s brilliant Tenant adaptation

To many readers this would have been a scandalous decision, and yet it became a runaway success which resonated with readers. Anne wasn’t bound by religious and social conventions of the time, she was saying that Helen was a perfect example of motherhood: someone who put love of her child above all other things, and who would protect them at any cost. Helen also delivers a powerful manifesto of how to raise a son, to the horror of those who hear it:

‘“I will lead him by the hand, Mr. Markham, till he has strength to go alone; and I will clear as many stones from his path as I can, and teach him to avoid the rest – or walk firmly over them, as you say;—for when I have done my utmost, in the way of clearance, there will still be plenty left to exercise all the agility, steadiness, and circumspection he will ever have. – It is all very well to talk about noble resistance, and trials of virtue; but for fifty – or five hundred men that have yielded to temptation, show me one that has had virtue to resist. And why should I take it for granted that my son will be one in a thousand? – and not rather prepare for the worst, and suppose he will be like his – like the rest of mankind, unless I take care to prevent it?… Well, then, it must be that you think they are both weak and prone to err, and the slightest error, the merest shadow of pollution, will ruin the one, while the character of the other will be strengthened and embellished – his education properly finished by a little practical acquaintance with forbidden things. Such experience, to him (to use a trite simile), will be like the storm to the oak, which, though it may scatter the leaves, and snap the smaller branches, serves but to rivet the roots, and to harden and condense the fibres of the tree. You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters must not even profit by the experience of others. Now I would have both so to benefit by the experience of others, and the precepts of a higher authority, that they should know beforehand to refuse the evil and choose the good, and require no experimental proofs to teach them the evil of transgression. I would not send a poor girl into the world, unarmed against her foes, and ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself; – and as for my son – if I thought he would grow up to be what you call a man of the world – one that has ‘seen life,’ and glories in his experience, even though he should so far profit by it as to sober down, at length, into a useful and respected member of society – I would rather that he died to-morrow! – rather a thousand times!” she earnestly repeated, pressing her darling to her side and kissing his forehead with intense affection.’

After a long series of trials, Helen finally finds the contentment and happiness she deserves.


At the start of this post I claimed that none of Charlotte’s protagonists had a mother, but to be fair that isn’t completely true. Shirley Keeldar may be the titular heroine, but Caroline Helstone (who is in many ways based upon Anne Brontë) is the real heroine in the novel and appears in it to a much greater extent.

At the opening it appears that Caroline too is an orphan, but as she lies seemingly on her deathbed we receive the moving revelation that Mrs Pryor is actually her mother:

‘”I believe grief is, and always has been, my worst ailment. I sometimes think if an abundant gush of happiness came on me I could revive yet.”

“Do you wish to live?”

“I have no object in life.”

“You love me, Caroline?”

“Very much – very truly – inexpressibly sometimes. Just now I feel as if I could almost grow to your heart.

“I will return directly, dear,” remarked Mrs. Pryor, as she laid Caroline down.

Quitting her, she glided to the door, softly turned the key in the lock, ascertained that it was fast, and came back. She bent over her. She threw back the curtain to admit the moonlight more freely. She gazed intently on her face.

“Then, if you love me,” said she, speaking quickly, with an altered voice; “if you feel as if, to use your own words, you could ‘grow to my heart,’ it will be neither shock nor pain for you to know that that heart is the source whence yours was filled; that from my veins issued the tide which flows in yours; that you are mine – my daughter – my own child.”

“Mrs. Pryor – ”

“My own child!”

“That is – that means – you have adopted me?”

“It means that, if I have given you nothing else, I at least gave you life; that I bore you, nursed you; that I am your true mother. No other woman can claim the title; it is mine.”

“But Mrs. James Helstone – but my father’s wife, whom I do not remember ever to have seen, she is my mother?”

“She is your mother. James Helstone was my husband. I say you are mine. I have proved it. I thought perhaps you were all his, which would have been a cruel dispensation for me. I find it is not so. God permitted me to be the parent of my child’s mind. It belongs to me; it is my property—my right. These features are James’s own. He had a fine face when he was young, and not altered by error. Papa, my darling, gave you your blue eyes and soft brown hair; he gave you the oval of your face and the regularity of your lineaments – the outside he conferred; but the heart and the brain are mine. The germs are from me, and they are improved, they are developed to excellence. I esteem and approve my child as highly as I do most fondly love her.”

“Is what I hear true? Is it no dream?”

“I wish it were as true that the substance and colour of health were restored to your cheek.”

“My own mother! is she one I can be so fond of as I can of you? People generally did not like her – so I have been given to understand.”

“They told you that? Well, your mother now tells you that, not having the gift to please people generally, for their approbation she does not care. Her thoughts are centred in her child. Does that child welcome or reject her?”

“But if you are my mother, the world is all changed to me. Surely I can live. I should like to recover -”

“You must recover. You drew life and strength from my breast when you were a tiny, fair infant, over whose blue eyes I used to weep, fearing I beheld in your very beauty the sign of qualities that had entered my heart like iron, and pierced through my soul like a sword. Daughter! we have been long parted; I return now to cherish you again.”

She held her to her bosom; she cradled her in her arms; she rocked her softly, as if lulling a young child to sleep.

“My mother – my own mother!”’

Caroline and Mrs Pryor by Edmund Dulac
Caroline and Mrs Pryor by Edmund Dulac

This section of the novel was written after the tragic death of Anne Brontë. Charlotte gives Mrs Pryor as mother to Caroline just as Aunt Branwell had been a mother to Anne: this is Charlotte’s portrait of Aunt Branwell, and in it we see the love and respect she had for her. Aunt Branwell was often ridiculed (by Mary Taylor for example) for the outdated black dress that she habitually wore, but she gave freely of her own money to help her nieces and nephews rather than spending it on herself. In Shirley we see Charlotte acknowledging this as she describes similar actions by Mrs Pryor:

‘”Mamma, I am determined you shall not wear that old gown any more. Its fashion is not becoming; it is too strait in the skirt. You shall put on your black silk every afternoon. In that you look nice; it suits you. And you shall have a black satin dress for Sundays – a real satin, not a satinet or any of the shams. And, mamma, when you get the new one, mind you must wear it.”

“My dear, I thought of the black silk serving me as a best dress for many years yet, and I wished to buy you several things.”

“Nonsense, mamma. My uncle gives me cash to get what I want. You know he is generous enough; and I have set my heart on seeing you in a black satin. Get it soon, and let it be made by a dressmaker of my recommending. Let me choose the pattern. You always want to disguise yourself like a grandmother. You would persuade one that you are old and ugly. Not at all! On the contrary, when well dressed and cheerful you are very comely indeed; your smile is so pleasant, your teeth are so white, your hair is still such a pretty light colour. And then you speak like a young lady, with such a clear, fine tone, and you sing better than any young lady I ever heard. Why do you wear such dresses and bonnets, mamma, such as nobody else ever wears?”

“Does it annoy you, Caroline?”

“Very much; it vexes me even. People say you are miserly; and yet you are not, for you give liberally to the poor and to religious societies – though your gifts are conveyed so secretly and quietly that they are known to few except the receivers.”’

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Charlotte paid tribute to Elizabeth Branwell (above) as Mrs Pryor

We see mothers of all kinds in the Brontë novels, but above all else we see love. Whether you are a mother, have a mother, or especially if you are missing your mother today, I send you my love and gratitude for all the good things you have done in your life, all the happiness you have spread – perhaps without even realising it. Have a great day, and I will see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

March: A Time Of Change In The Brontë Novels

March, as is befitting to its name, is marching on rapidly. This is a time of year when change is most visible. We can witness the year in a day; mornings begun with frost and ice merge into warm, sun filled days before a cold dusk descends once more. Above all others, perhaps, it is a liminal month, one betwixt and between the challenges of winter and the hope of spring.

Living on the very border of nature, the Brontës saw this month of change in all its majesty enacted upon the moors which flowed from the parsonage on three sides. It was also apparent to them that this month often marks a change in people, in their circumstances, and these changes found their way into their brilliant books. In today’s new post we’re going to look at March in the novels of the Brontë sisters.

March brings change to Haworth’s moors

Jane Eyre

‘It had been a mild, serene spring day – one of those days which, towards the end of March or the beginning of April, rise shining over the earth as heralds of summer. It was drawing to an end now; but the evening was even warm, and I sat at work in the schoolroom with the window open.

“It gets late,” said Mrs. Fairfax, entering in rustling state. “I am glad I ordered dinner an hour after the time Mr. Rochester mentioned; for it is past six now. I have sent John down to the gates to see if there is anything on the road: one can see a long way from thence in the direction of Millcote.” She went to the window. “Here he is!” said she. “Well, John” (leaning out), “any news?”

“They’re coming, ma’am,” was the answer. “They’ll be here in ten minutes.”

Adèle flew to the window. I followed, taking care to stand on one side, so that, screened by the curtain, I could see without being seen.

The ten minutes John had given seemed very long, but at last wheels were heard; four equestrians galloped up the drive, and after them came two open carriages. Fluttering veils and waving plumes filled the vehicles; two of the cavaliers were young, dashing-looking gentlemen; the third was Mr. Rochester, on his black horse, Mesrour, Pilot bounding before him; at his side rode a lady, and he and she were the first of the party. Her purple riding-habit almost swept the ground, her veil streamed long on the breeze; mingling with its transparent folds, and gleaming through them, shone rich raven ringlets.

“Miss Ingram!” exclaimed Mrs. Fairfax, and away she hurried to her post below.’

Jane is now settled into life as a governess at Thornfield Hall, but this March day is bringing the first of two changes which will test her resilience to the limit. The arrival of Miss Ingram brings the first pang of jealousy to Jane’s heart, and perhaps the first realisation that she truly loves Rochester. The second change and challenge, of course, would come later on her supposed wedding day.

Adèle dancing in Jane Eyre
Adèle dancing in Jane Eyre; she at least was delighted to see Miss Ingram

Wuthering Heights

‘Time wore on at the Grange in its former pleasant way till Miss Cathy reached sixteen. On the anniversary of her birth we never manifested any signs of rejoicing, because it was also the anniversary of my late mistress’s death. Her father invariably spent that day alone in the library; and walked, at dusk, as far as Gimmerton kirkyard, where he would frequently prolong his stay beyond midnight. Therefore Catherine was thrown on her own resources for amusement. This twentieth of March was a beautiful spring day, and when her father had retired, my young lady came down dressed for going out, and said she asked to have a ramble on the edge of the moor with me: Mr. Linton had given her leave, if we went only a short distance and were back within the hour.

“So make haste, Ellen!” she cried. “I know where I wish to go; where a colony of moor-game are settled: I want to see whether they have made their nests yet.”

“That must be a good distance up,” I answered; “they don’t breed on the edge of the moor.”

“No, it’s not,” she said. “I’ve gone very near with papa.”

I put on my bonnet and sallied out, thinking nothing more of the matter. She bounded before me, and returned to my side, and was off again like a young greyhound; and, at first, I found plenty of entertainment in listening to the larks singing far and near, and enjoying the sweet, warm sunshine; and watching her, my pet and my delight, with her golden ringlets flying loose behind, and her bright cheek, as soft and pure in its bloom as a wild rose, and her eyes radiant with cloudless pleasure. She was a happy creature, and an angel, in those days. It’s a pity she could not be content.

“Well,” said I, “where are your moor-game, Miss Cathy? We should be at them: the Grange park-fence is a great way off now.”

“Oh, a little further – only a little further, Ellen,” was her answer, continually. “Climb to that hillock, pass that bank, and by the time you reach the other side I shall have raised the birds.”

But there were so many hillocks and banks to climb and pass, that, at length, I began to be weary, and told her we must halt, and retrace our steps. I shouted to her, as she had outstripped me a long way; she either did not hear or did not regard, for she still sprang on, and I was compelled to follow. Finally, she dived into a hollow; and before I came in sight of her again, she was two miles nearer Wuthering Heights than her own home; and I beheld a couple of persons arrest her, one of whom I felt convinced was Mr. Heathcliff himself.’

Linton and Cathy have a less than happy marriage
Linton and Cathy have a less than happy marriage

Emily Brontë chose today, the 20th of March, to mark the point at which young Cathy’s life would be changed forever. It is on this day that she meets Heathcliff, on this day that she is caught inevitably in his web of intrigue. This is the day at which her fate will be sealed and she will soon find herself a prisoner of Heathcliff and wife of his insipid son Linton. It’s surely no coincidence that Emily chose to name this specific date, the eve of the spring equinox when day and night are of equal strength, a time traditionally associated with change and a breaking with the past.

Agnes Grey

‘One such occasion I particularly well remember; it was a lovely afternoon about the close of March; Mr. Green and his sisters had sent their carriage back empty, in order to enjoy the bright sunshine and balmy air in a sociable walk home along with their visitors, Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops), and the Misses Murray, who, of course, contrived to join them. Such a party was highly agreeable to Rosalie; but not finding it equally suitable to my taste, I presently fell back, and began to botanise and entomologise along the green banks and budding hedges, till the company was considerably in advance of me, and I could hear the sweet song of the happy lark; then my spirit of misanthropy began to melt away beneath the soft, pure air and genial sunshine; but sad thoughts of early childhood, and yearnings for departed joys, or for a brighter future lot, arose instead. As my eyes wandered over the steep banks covered with young grass and green-leaved plants, and surmounted by budding hedges, I longed intensely for some familiar flower that might recall the woody dales or green hill-sides of home: the brown moorlands, of course, were out of the question. Such a discovery would make my eyes gush out with water, no doubt; but that was one of my greatest enjoyments now. At length I descried, high up between the twisted roots of an oak, three lovely primroses, peeping so sweetly from their hiding-place that the tears already started at the sight; but they grew so high above me, that I tried in vain to gather one or two, to dream over and to carry with me: I could not reach them unless I climbed the bank, which I was deterred from doing by hearing a footstep at that moment behind me, and was, therefore, about to turn away, when I was startled by the words, “Allow me to gather them for you, Miss Grey,” spoken in the grave, low tones of a well-known voice. Immediately the flowers were gathered, and in my hand. It was Mr. Weston, of course—who else would trouble himself to do so much for me?

“I thanked him; whether warmly or coldly, I cannot tell: but certain I am that I did not express half the gratitude I felt. It was foolish, perhaps, to feel any gratitude at all; but it seemed to me, at that moment, as if this were a remarkable instance of his good-nature: an act of kindness, which I could not repay, but never should forget: so utterly unaccustomed was I to receive such civilities, so little prepared to expect them from anyone within fifty miles of Horton Lodge. Yet this did not prevent me from feeling a little uncomfortable in his presence; and I proceeded to follow my pupils at a much quicker pace than before; though, perhaps, if Mr. Weston had taken the hint, and let me pass without another word, I might have repeated it an hour after: but he did not. A somewhat rapid walk for me was but an ordinary pace for him.

“Your young ladies have left you alone,” said he.

“Yes, they are occupied with more agreeable company.”

“Then don’t trouble yourself to overtake them.” I slackened my pace; but next moment regretted having done so: my companion did not speak; and I had nothing in the world to say, and feared he might be in the same predicament. At length, however, he broke the pause by asking, with a certain quiet abruptness peculiar to himself, if I liked flowers.

“Yes; very much,” I answered, “wild-flowers especially.”

“I like wild-flowers,” said he; “others I don’t care about, because I have no particular associations connected with them—except one or two. What are your favourite flowers?”

“Primroses, bluebells, and heath-blossoms.”’

Primroses were special flowers for Agnes and Anne

March for Agnes brings an encounter which utilises the symbolism of the month to the full. It shows the strengthening of the, as yet unacknowledged, love between Agnes and Weston and at the heart of this effortlessly romantic encounter is a love of wild flowers. For the Murray girls the things that matter most are society and riches, but the simple joys of nature are far greater treasures for the young governess and the assistant curate.

As so often in this novel, Anne Brontë uses the character of Agnes to express her own opinions and feelings. We know for certain that they both loved primroses and bluebells, for example, for in Anne’s poem ‘Memory’ she writes:

‘I closed my eyes against the day,
And called my willing soul away,
From earth, and air, and sky;
That I might simply fancy there
One little flower – a primrose fair,
Just opening into sight;
As in the days of infancy,
An opening primrose seemed to me
A source of strange delight.
Sweet Memory! ever smile on me;
Nature’s chief beauties spring from thee;
Oh, still thy tribute bring
Still make the golden crocus shine
Among the flowers the most divine,
The glory of the spring.
Still in the wallflower’s fragrance dwell;
And hover round the slight bluebell,
My childhood’s darling flower.’

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘“I suppose it is no use asking you to fix a day for your return?” said I.

“Why, no; I hardly can, under the circumstances; but be assured, love, I shall not be long away.”

“I don’t wish to keep you a prisoner at home,” I replied; “I should not grumble at your staying whole months away—if you can be happy so long without me – provided I knew you were safe; but I don’t like the idea of your being there among your friends, as you call them.”

“Pooh, pooh, you silly girl! Do you think I can’t take care of myself?”

“You didn’t last time. But THIS time, Arthur,” I added, earnestly, “show me that you can, and teach me that I need not fear to trust you!”

He promised fair, but in such a manner as we seek to soothe a child. And did he keep his promise? No; and henceforth I can never trust his word. Bitter, bitter confession! Tears blind me while I write. It was early in March that he went, and he did not return till July. This time he did not trouble himself to make excuses as before, and his letters were less frequent, and shorter and less affectionate, especially after the first few weeks: they came slower and slower, and more terse and careless every time. But still, when I omitted writing, he complained of my neglect. When I wrote sternly and coldly, as I confess I frequently did at the last, he blamed my harshness, and said it was enough to scare him from his home: when I tried mild persuasion, he was a little more gentle in his replies, and promised to return; but I had learnt, at last, to disregard his promises.’

Huntingdon Rupert Graves
March annually saw the exit of Huntingdon to the despair of Helen

If March for Agnes Grey marked a time of hope springing forth, the month sees hope crushed for Helen Huntingdon. Arthur has strayed before, but it is this March exit that sees her trust and faith in her husband finally extinguished.


‘The next day was the first of March, and when I awoke, rose, and opened my curtain, I saw the risen sun struggling through fog. Above my head, above the house-tops, co-elevate almost with the clouds, I saw a solemn, orbed mass, dark blue and dim – THE DOME. While I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life. In that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.

“I did well to come,” I said, proceeding to dress with speed and care. “I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and for ever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?”

Being dressed, I went down; not travel-worn and exhausted, but tidy and refreshed. When the waiter came in with my breakfast, I managed to accost him sedately, yet cheerfully; we had ten minutes’ discourse, in the course of which we became usefully known to each other.

He was a grey-haired, elderly man; and, it seemed, had lived in his present place twenty years. Having ascertained this, I was sure he must remember my two uncles, Charles and Wilmot, who, fifteen, years ago, were frequent visitors here. I mentioned their names; he recalled them perfectly, and with respect. Having intimated my connection, my position in his eyes was henceforth clear, and on a right footing. He said I was like my uncle Charles: I suppose he spoke truth, because Mrs. Barrett was accustomed to say the same thing. A ready and obliging courtesy now replaced his former uncomfortably doubtful manner; henceforth I need no longer be at a loss for a civil answer to a sensible question.

The street on which my little sitting-room window looked was narrow, perfectly quiet, and not dirty: the few passengers were just such as one sees in provincial towns: here was nothing formidable; I felt sure I might venture out alone.

Having breakfasted, out I went. Elation and pleasure were in my heart: to walk alone in London seemed of itself an adventure. Presently I found myself in Paternoster Row – classic ground this. I entered a bookseller’s shop, kept by one Jones: I bought a little book – a piece of extravagance I could ill afford; but I thought I would one day give or send it to Mrs. Barrett. Mr. Jones, a dried-in man of business, stood behind his desk: he seemed one of the greatest, and I one of the happiest of beings.’

Paternoster Row
Paternoster Row, London (now gone), home of Aylott and Jones

Just as March marks a turning point in the year, the start of a journey into spring and then summer, so too Lucy Snowe’s life takes on new life in this month. On the very first day she has left her old life behind and arrived in London, from whence she will travel to the Belgian city of Villette – in reality the Brussels which Charlotte Brontë knew so well.

Lucy’s journey was well known to Charlotte, for it mirrors the one that she herself took in 1842. It is interesting too to see that Charlotte takes time to name one particular shop: the bookseller’s shop owned by Jones, the dried-in man of business. Perhaps this is an account of a very real person: Mr Jones of Aylott & Jones, the publisher of the first Brontë book Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? Aylott & Jones were indeed based on Paternoster Row. This passage is a vital clue which indicates that Charlotte and Anne Brontë did visit this publisher during their fateful visit to London in 1848, even though it’s not mentioned in any of Charlotte’s letters.

We can sum up March in the Brontë novels in one word: change. The change of hope to despair and despair to hope, of loneliness to love. The Brontës knew that above all other months, March was the one which changed the year like no other. In the traditional saying it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, and the Latin for lamb is agnes. I hope that the progression of this month is suitably lamb-like for you all, there is a promise of sunnier, gentler times ahead. I must march on, but I will see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Two Brontë Anniversaries And A Love Of Cats

This week has seen two special Brontë anniversaries, and one special event for myself – one that I’m sure the Brontës would have approved of for one simple reason: it’s related to cats. The Brontës loved animals of all kinds (although Charlotte had a phobia about wild animals) so in today’s post we’re going to look at the Brontës and cats.

Before we head over to look at our four-legged friends let’s take a brief look at the two Brontë anniversaries I mentioned a moment ago. In fact, they both fell on the same date (in different years) and they both relate to the genesis of the Brontës as writers.

It was on the 12th of March 1829 that Charlotte Brontë wrote The History Of The Year. In it, a 12 year old Charlotte gave us a glimpse into the lives of the Brontës of Haworth Parsonage, and a fascinating glimpse it is too. Despite her young age, and a spelling error or two typical of youthful writing, it is full of hope and pathos, of dreams and losses. In short, it gives us a glimpse into the everyday life of the Brontë siblings at this time like nothing else.

The short account opens with the news that once an old geography book had been presented to Charlotte’s sister Maria. Charlotte has the book open in front of her as she writes, but it soon becomes clear that Maria is no longer there to read it herself: ‘Anne, my youngest sister, Maria was my eldest.’ That sad word ‘was’ references the fact that Maria, along with Elizabeth Brontë, had died four years earlier.

By the close of the account of the year 1829 we read that the Brontë siblings, especially Charlotte and Emily, are now creating their own stories and we hear details of the plays that they were writing and enacting. It captures the moment when the young Brontës had ventured into the world of creativity, of writing, and we get a clue as to the progress of that endeavour exactly eight years later. It was on the 12th of March 1837 that the then 20 year old Charlotte received a letter from poet laureate Robert Southey. He stated categorically that the literature cannot and should not be the business of women, as their role in life was to be wives and mothers.

Southey was horrifically wrong, if a product of his age, and thankfully Charlotte, Emily and Anne would prove him spectacularly wrong. Nevertheless we see that in the eight years since Charlotte and Emily had commenced their secret ‘bed plays’ and had dreamt up stories about islands for their toy soldiers to populate, Charlotte is now writing poetry of such quality that even the stuffy poet laureate is replying to her about them. He had in fact, despite ruining the praise with his comments later in the letter, said, ‘You evidently possess & in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls “the faculty of verse”.’

By 1837 therefore Charlotte Brontë, followed closely by her younger sisters, was well on the path to literary success. Through all their trials and tribulations they found solace in each other and support from family, as well as love from another source: their pets. This brings me, rather clunkily perhaps, to my own special event. After many years of being a self-employed writer I have now re-entered the world of being an employee. I’ll still be writing and Brontë-ing, but I’ll also be working full time in a dream job that was too good to turn down: for The Sheffield Cats Shelter!

More on the wonderful Sheffield Cats Shelter later, but first let’s look at cats in the Brontë lives and works. We know that the Brontës had at least two cats (there may have been more that we just don’t have records of). Emily Brontë drew their ginger and white cat Tiger, although he is rather camouflaged against the flanks of her big mastiff Keeper. Keeper of course was renowned for his ferocity, so it’s lovely to see him sleeping gently beside Tiger the cat.

Keeper, Flossy and Tiger
A picture of three Bronte pets by Emily – Keeper, Tiger and Flossy

A striped cat was also the subject of Branwell Brontë’s earliest extant drawing – sketched in 1828, just one year before Charlotte recorded in her ‘history’! It seems likely that this was an earlier Brontë pet cat whose name is now unknown.

It’s clear that the Brontës loved all their pets, but according to close family friend Ellen Nussey there was one in particular that was loved by the Brontë children: their black cat named Tom. Here is Ellen’s account:

‘Black ‘Tom’, the tabby, was everybody’s favourite. It received such gentle treatment it seemed to have lost cat’s nature, and subsided into luxurious amiability and contentment. The Brontës’ love of dumb creatures made them very sensitive of the treatment bestowed upon them. For any one to offend in this respect was with them an infallible bad sign, and a blot on the disposition.’

Tom was much loved, and a love of cats can be found throughout the Brontë work, including in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall and is introduced to Mrs Fairfax:

‘A snug small room; a round table by a cheerful fire; an arm-chair high-backed and old-fashioned, wherein sat the neatest imaginable little elderly lady, in widow’s cap, black silk gown, and snowy muslin apron; exactly like what I had fancied Mrs. Fairfax, only less stately and milder looking. She was occupied in knitting; a large cat sat demurely at her feet; nothing in short was wanting to complete the beau-ideal of domestic comfort.’

For Charlotte, then, we see that at the heart of domestic perfection, the beautiful ideal, there has to be a cat. One Brontë in particular cherished a love of cats throughout her life: our own beloved Anne Brontë.

Haworth cat
This much loved Haworth cat can often be seen there.

Anne’s début novel Agnes Grey contains frequent autobiographical hints, and it also reveals many of Anne’s own beliefs and opinions. Early in the novel Agnes, after the death of her father, has to leave home and seek out life as a governess; there is one parting which is particularly painful for our young heroine:

‘I rose, washed, dressed, swallowed a hasty breakfast, received the fond embraces of my father, mother, and sister, kissed the cat – to the great scandal of Sally, the maid – shook hands with her, mounted the gig, drew the veil over my face, and then, but not til then, burst into a flood of tears.’

Branwell Bronte cat
Branwell drew this cat when he was just 11!

Spoiler alert ahead: Agnes eventually finds love with the saintly Reverend Weston (based on William Weightman) and one ineffable sign of his goodness is his love of cats, as parishioner Nancy related to Agnes:

‘“So I sat me down anent him. He was quite a stranger, you know, Miss Grey, and even younger nor Maister Hatfield, I believe; and I had thought him not so pleasant-looking as him, and rather a bit crossish, at first, to look at; but he spake so civil like – and when th’ cat, poor thing, jumped on to his knee, he only stroked her, and gave a bit of a smile: so I thought that was a good sign.”

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Agnes Grey is filled with love for cats.

Later on, Weston comes to the dramatic rescue of this very same cat:

‘But this time I was pretty sure of an hour or two to myself; for Matilda was preparing for a long ride, and Rosalie was dressing for a dinner-party at Lady Ashby’s: so I took the opportunity of repairing to the widow’s cottage, where I found her in some anxiety about her cat, which had been absent all day. I comforted her with as many anecdotes of that animal’s roving propensities as I could recollect. “I’m feared o’ th’ gamekeepers,” said she: “that’s all ’at I think on. If th’ young gentlemen had been at home, I should a’ thought they’d been setting their dogs at her, an’ worried her, poor thing, as they did many a poor thing’s cat; but I haven’t that to be feared on now.” Nancy’s eyes were better, but still far from well: she had been trying to make a Sunday shirt for her son, but told me she could only bear to do a little bit at it now and then, so that it progressed but slowly, though the poor lad wanted it sadly. So I proposed to help her a little, after I had read to her, for I had plenty of time that evening, and need not return till dusk. She thankfully accepted the offer.

“An’ you’ll be a bit o’ company for me too, Miss,” said she; “I like as I feel lonesome without my cat.” But when I had finished reading, and done the half of a seam, with Nancy’s capacious brass thimble fitted on to my finger by means of a roll of paper, I was disturbed by the entrance of Mr. Weston, with the identical cat in his arms. I now saw that he could smile, and very pleasantly too.

“I’ve done you a piece of good service, Nancy,” he began: then seeing me, he acknowledged my presence by a slight bow. I should have been invisible to Hatfield, or any other gentleman of those parts. “I’ve delivered your cat,” he continued, “from the hands, or rather the gun, of Mr. Murray’s gamekeeper.”

“God bless you, sir!” cried the grateful old woman, ready to weep for joy as she received her favourite from his arms.

“Take care of it,” said he, “and don’t let it go near the rabbit-warren, for the gamekeeper swears he’ll shoot it if he sees it there again: he would have done so to-day, if I had not been in time to stop him.”’

Weston was a cat lover and a cat rescuer, and in the eyes of Agnes, and the author Anne, there was no surer way of assessing a person’s worth. Talking of cat rescues that’s at the heart of what The Sheffield Cats Shelter does, which is why it really is a dream job for me (especially as I’m also in the company of beautiful cats and kittens all day).

Jiggy is just one of the beautiful cats who can be adopted from The Sheffield Cats Shelter!

The Sheffield Cats Shelter has a long history of being there for the cats of South Yorkshire. In fact, it’s 125 years old this year! The first shelter was opened in 1897 by the local cat-loving philanthropist Jane Barker (rather ironic that the woman whose legacy for cats is so huge should be called Barker, but then I suppose that Meower just isn’t a surname!). The shelter has since moved location a couple of times, but through world wars, social change and pandemics it has never stopped helping cats and kitties in need!

Today the shelter takes in cats in need of a loving new home, for a plethora of reasons, and we strive to find the perfect person to foster or adopt them. It’s a joyous moment when we see a cat start a new life with a new owner: a new life full of love and happiness for both of them. To continue to help cats for the next 125 years, and beyond, we need the help of the public. If you’re in the Sheffield area and can donate cat food, toys or goodies then our Travis Place shelter will be hugely grateful for them; alternatively monetary donations will always make a positive difference. You can find out more at the Sheffield Cats Shelter donations page, and I’m also placing a link on the side bar of this website. I know that there is so much happening in the world today, and so much pressure on our finances, but here is a brilliant cause where every single pound really does make a big difference. I’d be very grateful, our cats and kittens will certainly be very grateful, and I like to think that the Brontës would approve too!

I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post, and may your week ahead be a purr-fect one!

In Remembrance Of The Brontë Pillar Portrait

In today’s new Brontë blog post we’re going to look at two rather different artistic endeavours which both had their anniversaries this week. Firstly we have the anniversary of a very special Brontë portrait, and we’ll round things off by looking at the anniversary of a very special Brontë poem.

One of the questions that Brontë lovers find themselves asking over and over again is, ‘just what did the Brontës look like?’. We don’t have nearly enough portraits of the Brontës (although we have some splendid images of Anne Brontë drawn by Charlotte), and the question of possible photographs remains a very contentious, not to say divisive, one. There is one picture above all, however, that remains the definitive image of the Brontës. It may not be the best, but it is the one which has captured the public consciousness, yet until 108 years ago this week it had been thought lost forever. Here it is:

Bronte sisters portrait

This, of course, is what has become known as the ‘pillar portrait’, although the National Portrait Gallery prefers to call it ‘The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë.’It was painted in around 1834 and measures 90 centimetres by 75 centimetres (35 and a half inches by 29 and a half inches in old money. From left to right we see Anne Brontë next to Emily Brontë (close as always) followed by a mysterious pillar with Charlotte Brontë on the right.

If we take 1834 to be the date of its composition that would make Anne 14, Emily around 16 and Charlotte probably 18 at the time it was painted. The detail in the picture may not be too intricate, but it gives us an idea of what these three legendary siblings looked like in their teen years, and it was produced by another sibling: brother Branwell.

It’s commonly thought of course that the figure which seems to be painted out by a pillar is Branwell himself, and that he covered himself because he was unhappy at his attempt at a self-portrait. In this reading, Branwell has painted himself out of the Brontë picture just as his challenging life would later paint himself out of the Brontë literary story. That may well be true, but there is an alternative possibility. From the positioning of the sisters it looks as if the artist was facing them as he painted, so could it be that the mystery figure was someone else present at the time: could it be his father, Patrick Brontë? If we look at the faint image of a man it seems to be wearing something around his neck, something resembling the snood-like ‘Wellington’ which Reverend Brontë was mocked for wearing habitually. Perhaps the image is Branwell, but perhaps it’s his father who was painted out at a later date? We shall never know, or maybe we shall for the white paint of the pillar is fading and year by year the image behind it is coming back to the forefront.

Young Patrick Brontë
A young Patrick Brontë wearing, as ever, his Wellington neck scarf.

The world was thrilled to see this painting when it was unveiled on the 5th of March 1914, for the picture had been thought lost forever. In fact, it had been in the possession of Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls, but after his death and the death of his second wife Mary his family sold the painting into the public domain.

The painting may not be Branwell’s best work, but to me it has a captivating charm and is undeserving of some of the criticism often thrown its way. It has lines across it however and is in far from good condition, and that’s because Arthur had kept it folded up on top of his wardrobe in Banagher, Ireland.

It’s often been said that it was because Arthur had disliked Branwell Brontë, but we can dispel that myth. In 1955 Arthur’s niece, by then an old woman herself, recalled: ‘The portraits of his sisters by Branwell, that now hang in the National Gallery, Arthur Nicholls disliked – he though they were “such ugly representations of the girls.”

Branwell Bronte medallion by Joseph Leyland
This Branwell Bronte medallion hung on Arthur’s wall

So we see that Arthur simply disliked the painting he’d inherited, not the artist. In fact the evidence suggests that Arthur had been fond of Branwell, for all his difficulties, for he displayed the large medallion of Branwell, sculpted by Joseph Leyland, on his living room wall.

The National Gallery must have been happy at the plaudits that their 1914 acquisition garnered, for a very different reception had greeted a Brontë painting they’d displayed eight years earlier in 1906. They had proudly hung the image above a caption stating it had been painted by Paul Heger in Brussels in 1850. As many people pointed out to the gallery, Charlotte had long since left Belgium by that time and the portrait looked nothing like her: they had bought and displayed a poor fake, and it was soon removed.

The fake Charlotte portrait reported in The Sphere, 27th October 1906

The pillar portrait will always be important for it shows the three writing Brontë sisters together as a family unit, but its merits will always divide opinion. It’s since been used on a plethora of merchandise and appeared in many different forms; I myself made a pancake version of it for Pancake Day on Tuesday, but it’s not for sale and can’t be placed on a wardrobe as I subsequently ate it.

My pancake take on the pillar portrait – apologies to Branwell.

One thing the unites critical opinion is Emily Bronte’s brilliant poem ‘Remembrance’ written on the 3rd of March 1845. Seminal twentieth century literary critic Professor F. R. Leavis gave it the highest praise of all when he wrote:

‘There is, too, Emily Brontë, who has hardly yet had full justice as a poet; I will record, without offering it as a checked and deliberate critical judgement, that her Cold in the earth is the finest poem in the nineteenth-century part of the Oxford Book of English Verse.’

“Cold in the earth” are the opening words of ‘Remembrance’, Emily’s powerful poem of love and loss drawn, as ever, from her incredible imagination. I leave you with it now, and hope that you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

remembrance Emily Bronte