Five Brontë Anniversaries With Five Pictures

On the face of it the Brontës lived ordinary lives in an ordinary, if ecclesiastical, lower middle class home in the first half of the nineteenth century – and yet, of course, they achieved extraordinary things. Throughout the year we see Brontë anniversaries occurring, some are some life milestones and dramatic events, others are more mundane, but together they all help to shape our understanding and appreciation of this wonderful family.

This week has been more full of Brontëversaries (apologies for the portmanteau) than most, so in today’s new post we’re going to look at five events which happened in this week on various years, and we’re also going to look at five pictures which shed light on these events.

‘Convolvulus’ by Charlotte Bronte – because why not?

20th April 1820

Literary history was made on 20th April 1820, although the family concerned could have had no idea of what lay ahead. It was on that day that Reverend Patrick Brontë left Thornton, Bradford to start his new job as parish priest for Haworth, six miles away across the moors. The Brontës had arrived in Haworth and things would never be the same again, for them and the village.

The journey was made in six carriages and one covered wagon which held all their worldly goods – including their most precious cargo of all, three month old baby Anne Brontë. Today people come to Haworth from across the world on a literary pilgrimage, but the village they see has changed greatly from the one they knew. Of course there are no photographs from the time of the Brontë move, there was no photography at all. I like this picture from later in the century of Haworth’s steep and famous Main Street – it was called Kirkgate at the time the Brontës arrived there.

20th April 1817

This particular date holds a double anniversary for in 1817 it witnessed the birth of a woman who would become central to the Brontë story: Ellen Nussey. Ellen was born just one day before the first birthday of the person who became her best friend forever – Charlotte Brontë of course. Despite this Charlotte forgot Ellen’s birthday as she reveals in a letter of 1846:

‘You said I was to think of you on Monday – why? The 20th is not your birthday is it? I thought it was the 22nd.’

Ellen remained loyal to the Brontës to the end, even though she lived for over four decades longer than Charlotte. It was her preservation of the hundreds of letters Charlotte sent to her that means we know so much about the family today, although in Ellen’s later years this also made her vulnerable to conmen who took many of her beloved treasures from her. We have many photographs of Ellen Nussey, mostly from her later years, but I have chosen this one as it was for a long time thought to be of Charlotte Brontë and even appeared centre stage on Charlotte’s Wikipedia page – comparison to other photographs of Ellen however can leave us in no doubt who it really is.

21st April 1816

We’ve already touched on this above, but the 21st April marks the anniversary of the birth of one of the towering genii of English literature: Charlotte Brontë. If only she had lived to write more than the four novels we have, what further masterpieces would we now be enjoying?

Charlotte’s life was far from an easy one, losing her mother and then her two eldest sisters in her formative years meaning that she was forced to grow up quickly. In her adult life too she suffered disappointments in work and in love, but it was these personal challenges and tragedies which gave such powerful impetus to her writing. Her friend and fellow literary genius Elizabeth Gaskell was correct when she said that Charlotte ‘had the heart of Robert [the] Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him.’

We have two portraits of Charlotte that were more of less contemporaneous (as well as the portraits made by her brother Branwell Brontë). George Richmond’s portrait was an official one for which Charlotte sat on a number of occasions, but I’ve chosen this portrait by J. H. Thompson. It was made after Charlotte’s death, but Thompson was a friend of Branwell and had met Charlotte. It is such a pretty portrait, which I feel that Charlotte would have appreciated, and kindness radiates from it, just as it did from Charlotte herself.

Charlotte Bronte by J.H. Thompson

22nd April 1828

Yes, it’s three birthday Brontëversaries in a row, as the 22nd April 1828 was the birthday of Martha Brown. Martha was daughter of Haworth sexton John Brown who lived a short hop from the parsonage. When the Brontës needed a young servant to assist the infirm Tabby Aykroyd, it was to Martha that they turned. She entered the parsonage aged 12 and remained there for over 20 years, until the passing of Reverend Patrick Brontë, the first and last of the Brontës.

Martha was not only a reliable servant and maid, she also became a friend of Charlotte Brontë and a confidante and comfort after the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne in rapid succession during 1848 and 1849. Martha later left Haworth to live with Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls and his second wife in Banagher, Ireland (although she visited her family in Yorkshire again at intervals). A Nicholls family relative later recalled Martha’s arrival in Ireland, and said that Arthur brought her across because he and she had witnessed much sorrow and a short-lived happiness together, and he wanted her to have security in her old age. Having said that, Martha was only in her mid thirties, and younger than Arthur, when she joined him across the Irish Sea. Here is a photograph of Martha Brown, and what character it captures in her!

Servant and friend Martha Brown

23rd April 1814

The 23rd of April 1814 can be said to mark the recorded beginning of the Brontë siblings, for it was the date of baptism of Maria Brontë, the first of five sisters and a brother. There is no record of her birthday, in those days before registering a birth became compulsory, so this is the first appearance we have of a girl who would have such a lasting influence on her writing siblings.

There are many tales of what a precocious talent young Maria was, and Charlotte paid tribute to her under the guise of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. Alas, that talent did not have the chance to flourish into adulthood, and there are no images of her. What we do have, however, is this: an extremely touching needle case that Maria Brontë gave as a gift to a classmate called Margaret Dixon and which contains the only example we have of her handwriting.

Maria Bronte needlecase

Five Brontëversaries in five images and they all remind us of something very important: we see them today as names on the fronts of books, or names which appear in Brontë biographies, but they were living, breathing people facing the same emotions, challenges and triumphs as we do today. Times and fashions change, but the Brontës weren’t too different from you and I, with one difference – their incredible genius and writing talent.

I will leave you with a bonus image today for it was on this very day in 1939 that James Roosevelt, son of the American President FDR, made his own literary pilgrimage to Haworth Parsonage. This image of him with an old Haworth villager is like two world’s colliding and yet they too probably had more in common than they had differences. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Roosevelt in Haworth

Easter In The Lives And Works Of The Brontës

At last warmer mornings and sunnier days have arrived; nature’s colours are springing forth in abundance and bees begin their lazy dance from flower to flower. It seems that Easter has timed her entrance perfectly this year, and on this most traditional of celebrations (if we ignore a chocolate egg or four) it’s easy to imagine how the Brontë family must have enjoyed their paschal celebrations two centuries earlier. In today’s new post we’re going to look at Easter and the Brontës.

As we looked at in last year’s Easter post, the Brontë sisters wrote many poems perfect for this time of year, but they also featured Easter in their books too, revealing the impact it had on their lives. Here are some of those occasions:

Jane Eyre

‘“You said it was not likely they should think of being married,” said I, “but you see Mr. Rochester evidently prefers her to any of the other ladies.”

“Yes, I daresay: no doubt he admires her.”

“And she him,” I added; “look how she leans her head towards him as if she were conversing confidentially; I wish I could see her face; I have never had a glimpse of it yet.”

“You will see her this evening,” answered Mrs. Fairfax. “I happened to remark to Mr. Rochester how much Adèle wished to be introduced to the ladies, and he said: ‘Oh! let her come into the drawing-room after dinner; and request Miss Eyre to accompany her.’”

“Yes; he said that from mere politeness: I need not go, I am sure,” I answered.

“Well, I observed to him that as you were unused to company, I did not think you would like appearing before so gay a party—all strangers; and he replied, in his quick way—‘Nonsense! If she objects, tell her it is my particular wish; and if she resists, say I shall come and fetch her in case of contumacy.’”

“I will not give him that trouble,” I answered. “I will go, if no better may be; but I don’t like it. Shall you be there, Mrs. Fairfax?”

“No; I pleaded off, and he admitted my plea. I’ll tell you how to manage so as to avoid the embarrassment of making a formal entrance, which is the most disagreeable part of the business. You must go into the drawing-room while it is empty, before the ladies leave the dinner-table; choose your seat in any quiet nook you like; you need not stay long after the gentlemen come in, unless you please: just let Mr. Rochester see you are there and then slip away—nobody will notice you.”

“Will these people remain long, do you think?”

“Perhaps two or three weeks, certainly not more. After the Easter recess, Sir George Lynn, who was lately elected member for Millcote, will have to go up to town and take his seat; I daresay Mr. Rochester will accompany him: it surprises me that he has already made so protracted a stay at Thornfield.”

It was with some trepidation that I perceived the hour approach when I was to repair with my charge to the drawing-room. Adèle had been in a state of ecstasy all day, after hearing she was to be presented to the ladies in the evening; and it was not till Sophie commenced the operation of dressing her that she sobered down. Then the importance of the process quickly steadied her, and by the time she had her curls arranged in well-smoothed, drooping clusters, her pink satin frock put on, her long sash tied, and her lace mittens adjusted, she looked as grave as any judge. No need to warn her not to disarrange her attire: when she was dressed, she sat demurely down in her little chair, taking care previously to lift up the satin skirt for fear she should crease it, and assured me she would not stir thence till I was ready. This I quickly was: my best dress (the silver-grey one, purchased for Miss Temple’s wedding, and never worn since) was soon put on; my hair was soon smoothed; my sole ornament, the pearl brooch, soon assumed. We descended.’

Blanche Ingram inspires Easter jealousy in Jane

Easter at Thornfield Hall is the occasion for a grand ball, one where Rochester and Miss Ingram will court each other. We can already feel the despair this brings in Jane’s questioning, little can she dare dream that she will triumph over this society beauty.

Wuthering Heights

‘On Easter Monday, Joseph went to Gimmerton fair with some cattle; and, in the afternoon, I was busy getting up linen in the kitchen. Earnshaw sat, morose as usual, at the chimney corner, and my little mistress was beguiling an idle hour with drawing pictures on the window-panes, varying her amusement by smothered bursts of songs, and whispered ejaculations, and quick glances of annoyance and impatience in the direction of her cousin, who steadfastly smoked, and looked into the grate. At a notice that I could do with her no longer intercepting my light, she removed to the hearthstone. I bestowed little attention on her proceedings, but, presently, I heard her begin—“I’ve found out, Hareton, that I want—that I’m glad—that I should like you to be my cousin now, if you had not grown so cross to me, and so rough.”

Hareton returned no answer.

“Hareton, Hareton, Hareton! do you hear?” she continued.

“Get off wi’ ye!” he growled, with uncompromising gruffness.

“Let me take that pipe,” she said, cautiously advancing her hand and abstracting it from his mouth.

Before he could attempt to recover it, it was broken, and behind the fire. He swore at her and seized another.

“Stop,” she cried, “you must listen to me first; and I can’t speak while those clouds are floating in my face.”

“Will you go to the devil!” he exclaimed, ferociously, “and let me be!”

“No,” she persisted, “I won’t: I can’t tell what to do to make you talk to me; and you are determined not to understand. When I call you stupid, I don’t mean anything: I don’t mean that I despise you. Come, you shall take notice of me, Hareton: you are my cousin, and you shall own me.”

“I shall have naught to do wi’ you and your mucky pride, and your damned mocking tricks!” he answered. “I’ll go to hell, body and soul, before I look sideways after you again. Side out o’ t’ gate, now, this minute!”

Catherine frowned, and retreated to the window-seat chewing her lip, and endeavouring, by humming an eccentric tune, to conceal a growing tendency to sob.

“You should be friends with your cousin, Mr. Hareton,” I interrupted, “since she repents of her sauciness. It would do you a great deal of good: it would make you another man to have her for a companion.”

“A companion!” he cried; “when she hates me, and does not think me fit to wipe her shoon! Nay, if it made me a king, I’d not be scorned for seeking her good-will any more.”’

Hareton and Cathy
Cathy and Hareton are at Easter loggerheads, but Heathcliff’s death will release them

Hareton and Catherine are both still clearly under the influence of their far from benign upbringings. Heathcliff, in his endless generational quest for revenge, has turned them against each other, but just like the spring flowers that reappear year after year there is no stopping fate, and by the following Easter their love will blossom and their lives will change.

Agnes Grey

‘“Agnes, this sea air and change of scene do you no good, I think: I never saw you look so wretched. It must be that you sit too much, and allow the cares of the schoolroom to worry you. You must learn to take things easy, and to be more active and cheerful; you must take exercise whenever you can get it, and leave the most tiresome duties to me: they will only serve to exercise my patience, and, perhaps, try my temper a little.”

So said my mother, as we sat at work one morning during the Easter holidays. I assured her that my employments were not at all oppressive; that I was well; or, if there was anything amiss, it would be gone as soon as the trying months of spring were over: when summer came I should be as strong and hearty as she could wish to see me: but inwardly her observation startled me. I knew my strength was declining, my appetite had failed, and I was grown listless and desponding; – and if, indeed, he could never care for me, and I could never see him more – if I was forbidden to minister to his happiness – forbidden, for ever, to taste the joys of love, to bless, and to be blessed – then, life must be a burden, and if my heavenly Father would call me away, I should be glad to rest. But it would not do to die and leave my mother. Selfish, unworthy daughter, to forget her for a moment! Was not her happiness committed in a great measure to my charge? – and the welfare of our young pupils too? Should I shrink from the work that God had set before me, because it was not fitted to my taste? Did not He know best what I should do, and where I ought to labour? – and should I long to quit His service before I had finished my task, and expect to enter into His rest without having laboured to earn it? “No; by His help I will arise and address myself diligently to my appointed duty. If happiness in this world is not for me, I will endeavour to promote the welfare of those around me, and my reward shall be hereafter.” So said I in my heart; and from that hour I only permitted my thoughts to wander to Edward Weston – or at least to dwell upon him now and then -as a treat for rare occasions: and, whether it was really the approach of summer or the effect of these good resolutions, or the lapse of time, or all together, tranquillity of mind was soon restored; and bodily health and vigour began likewise, slowly, but surely, to return.’

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
A surprise meeting on a beach will eventually raise Agnes’ spirits

Easter has arrived and the thoughts of Agnes, just like the thoughts of her creator Anne Brontë, are turned to God and His will. Even so, Agnes is despondent at the thought of her lost love Weston – perhaps Anne was still mourning the loss of her love Weightman? Anne could never more see William Weightman, cruelly taken in his prime by cholera, but she would design a different fate for Agnes.

So what do we see from these three depictions of Easter by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë? They not only help to move these magnificent novels on, they also tell us about Brontë celebrations of this holiday. We see Easter as a time for reflection upon God’s will (Agnes Grey), as a time when fairs and markets were held (Wuthering Heights) and as a time when family and friends came together to rejoice and celebrate (Jane Eyre).

Maria Branwell by Tonkins
Maria Branwell in 1799, she was born this week in 1783

For an all too brief period this time of year held another reason to celebrate for the Brontë family, as just two days ago we passed the 239th anniversary of the birth of Maria Branwell, mother of the Brontës, in Penzance. She was born on 15th April 1783 in Holy Week, just five days before the Easter Sunday of that year and two days after Palm, or Passion, Sunday. Happy birthday Maria, the passion your daughters’ great genius ignites in readers will never be extinguished.

I finish now with my own message urbi et orbi: to the city (village of Haworth) and the world; whatever your religion, faith or creed, the Easter message can be a powerful one for all – at its heart is the triumph of light over darkness, and the unquenchable power of hope. Let’s keep that hope going. If the world or personal circumstances is pressing hard upon you, keep going, keep hope in your heart, and keep reading the novels you love, for lighter days will come again like wheat that springeth green. I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë post, and I wish you all a very Happy Easter!

Easter Victorian

Emily Brontë And Her Poems On Death

Emily Brontë was a brilliant wordsmith; not only did she write possibly the greatest novel ever, Wuthering Heights, she was also a first class poet. There can be little doubt that Emily was consistently the best poet of the Brontë siblings, and she was also one of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century – full stop. Her verse encompasses a broad range of subjects, but there is one subject she returned to again and again. In fact it’s the title of a poem that Emily composed on this day in 1845: ‘Death’.

Before we go any further I will say that this post contains some depictions of death, in Emily’s own words, that some people may find distressing. If you think they may upset you then please give this post a miss and return next week. We’ll reproduce the poem in full at the end of this post, and it’s well worth waiting for; the manuscript is still extant, and we see it dated 10th April 1845 in Emily’s own hand. You may be able to see it yourself before too long, because it was one of the poems in Emily’s poetry manuscript book which formed the highlight of the Honresfield Library collection recently saved for the nation.

Emily Bronte's poetry manuscript
Emily Bronte’s poetry manuscript which contained her poem ‘Death’

It’s a complex and yet easy to read poem, but it’s far from the only time that Emily considered the subject matter. We also have, for example, ‘A Death-Scene’ in which Emily describes in moving simplicity the final moments of a man, Edward, ending with:

‘Then his eyes began to weary,
Weighed beneath a mortal sleep;
And their orbs grew strangely dreary,
Clouded, even as they would weep.
But they wept not, but they changed not,
Never moved, and never closed;
Troubled still, and still they ranged not –
Wandered not, nor yet reposed!
So I knew that he was dying –
Stooped, and raised his languid head;
Felt no breath, and heard no sighing,
So I knew that he was dead.’

Emily Bronte or Anne
Often thought to be Emily Bronte by Branwell, but probably Anne

We also have Emily’s long, epic poem ‘The Death of A.G.A.’ which ends:

‘That death, has wronged us more than thee!
Thy passionate youth was nearly past
The opening sea seemed smooth at last
Yet vainly flowed the calmer wave
Since fate had not decreed to save –
And vain too must the sorrow be
Of those who live to mourn for thee;
But Gondal’s foes shall not complain
That thy dear blood was poured in vain!’

This poem also features the words ‘cold as the earth’ which reminds us of the start of another poem dealing with the aftermath of death, the brilliant ‘Remembrance’ with its opening lines of:

‘Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!’

remembrance Emily Bronte

This poem is often considered one of Emily’s very best, alongside ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’ – another poem which ponders the mystery of life, death, and what comes next. This then, especially when we also consider the mortality rate in Wuthering Heights, was a subject that clearly exercised Emily’s mind, but why, and what do her words reveal about her beliefs?

I think the most common view of Emily as a poet, and as a person, is that she was a gloomy, very serious person. Someone who lingered upon the notion of death just as John Keats did when he wrote: ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death/ Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme.’

Was Emily Brontë really like that? I don’t think so.

We hear from Ellen Nussey, as close to her as anyone outside her family, that Emily loved to play practical jokes and laugh out loud. We hear from family friend John Greenwood that Emily had a sweet voice and a lovely nature. We hear that long time servant Martha Brown loved Emily especially because ‘she was so kind’.

Chloe Pirrie To Walk Invisible
Chloe Pirrie as Emily Bronte in To Walk Invisible

One reason that Emily wrote about death is because it was a dramatic denouement to her tales of Gondal. The two poems quoted above are both poems of Gondal, the imaginary kingdom which dominated so much of Emily’s creative output. The seminal Brontë biographer Juliet Barker also places ‘Death’ as a Gondal poem, and yet it was in the Honresfield manuscript. This book contained Emily’s private verse, poems which were not set in Gondal and which were kept secret even from elder sister Charlotte until her accidental discovery of them set the Brontë publishing venture in full motion. It seems to me then that the following poem is not set in Gondal at all, but was something very personal to Emily.

Death touched the lives of all the young Brontës to an extent, although Anne’s youth perhaps saved her from too sharp a memory of the loss of her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth, and meant that she would have had no recollection of the mother who died when she was just one. Emily was two years older, however, and she had been at the Cowan Bridge school which sealed the fates of Maria and Elizabeth.

The record of Emily Bronte’s 1848 death

Emily Brontë was approaching her seventh birthday when her two eldest sisters died of tuberculosis, but she was a brilliant, precocious child and this tragedy stayed with her forever. She pondered deeply on the nature of life and death for the rest of her life, but this wasn’t a morbid study for her because she became convinced that death was not the end.

We see this in all her poetic musings on death, and in the closing scene of her only novel. Emily believed that whilst graves contained mortal remains it was vain to weep over them because the spirit lived on. In what form she believed it to live on is open to interpretation. Certainly her poems show a belief in an everlasting spirit and in a deity, but it doesn’t necessarily align with orthodox Christian belief. Perhaps Emily, so attuned with the natural world and its constant cycle of birth, death and rebirth, believed in rebirth of the human spirit too, a belief in reincarnation that is hinted at in some of her greatest work?

As with so much of the very best literature, the reader is left to place their own interpretation on it. I leave you now with this poem written 177 years ago today, and I hope you can join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

‘Death! that struck when I was most confiding.
In my certain faith of joy to be –
Strike again, Time’s withered branch dividing
From the fresh root of Eternity!
Leaves, upon Time’s branch, were growing brightly,
Full of sap, and full of silver dew;
Birds beneath its shelter gathered nightly;
Daily round its flowers the wild bees flew.
Sorrow passed, and plucked the golden blossom;
Guilt stripped off the foliage in its pride
But, within its parent’s kindly bosom,
Flowed for ever Life’s restoring tide.
Little mourned I for the parted gladness,
For the vacant nest and silent song –
Hope was there, and laughed me out of sadness;
Whispering, “Winter will not linger long!”
And, behold! with tenfold increase blessing,
Spring adorned the beauty-burdened spray;
Wind and rain and fervent heat, caressing,
Lavished glory on that second May!
High it rose – no winged grief could sweep it;
Sin was scared to distance with its shine;
Love, and its own life, had power to keep it
From all wrong – from every blight but thine!
Cruel Death! The young leaves droop and languish;
Evening’s gentle air may still restore –
No! the morning sunshine mocks my anguish –
Time, for me, must never blossom more!
Strike it down, that other boughs may flourish
Where that perished sapling used to be;
Thus, at least, its mouldering corpse will nourish
That from which it sprung – Eternity.’

Brontë Discovery! A Book Of Rhymes Is Found

This week marked a very sad anniversary in the Brontë story, the death of Charlotte Brontë on 31st March 1855. In some ways it marked the end of the Brontë sisters story, especially as Charlotte was pregnant at the time meaning that her tragic end precluded future generations of this brilliant family we all love. In other ways, however, their story is very much alive, as we saw this week with the discover of ‘A Book Of Rhymes’. We’re going to look at this discover, and this book, in today’s post.

The story of the tiny Brontë books, the Brontë juvenilia, is one that has been told many times before, but it’s certainly a fascinating one. Inspired by the gift of twelve toy soldiers from Patrick Brontë to his son Branwell the siblings began to invent and act out stories, which eventually evolved into written stories and poems about the imaginary lands of Glass Town and (later) Angria. Later still, Emily and Anne Brontë composed stories of the kingdom of Gondal, an obsession which remained with Emily Brontë throughout her life.

Some of the tiny books of the Honresfield collection

These stories were captured in tiny little books which can only be read today with the use of a powerful magnifying glass. Why was the writing so tiny? It is thought this was so the toy soldiers could read them, but it also meant that their short-sighted father couldn’t. The pages were bound together between hand stitched covers made by the sisters, and alongside the stories and verse are humorous adverts and asides. Some other 19th century writers, notably Ruskin, also created tiny books in their youth, but none of their productions are touched with the humour, excitement and seeds of genius so evident in the Brontë marvels.

Marvel is perhaps a good word to use; when I tweeted about the recent discovery (which we’re coming to, patience dear reader) it caused a stir and received several thousand likes and shares. One man responded with, ‘the Brontës wrote zines!’ and I think that’s a rather nice, and very good, way to look at it. The young siblings were really doing what children ever since, children today, love to do: creating their own comics or ‘zines; and they were very good at it.

So, onto ‘A Book Of Rhymes’. The first thing we should say, seeing that a discovery has been heralded, is that it had been thought lost for over a hundred years. The news was first broke by Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times earlier this week, and I’m thankful to that publication for the images of the book which appear below.

copyright Clark Hodgin of The New York Times

The existence of this book had been documented by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of her friend The Life Of Charlotte Brontë. In chapter five of this book, Gaskell talks of having ‘had a curious packet confided to me [it was given her by Ellen Nussey], containing an immense amount of manuscript, in an inconceivably small space… written principally by Charlotte, in a hand which it is almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass… Among these papers, there is list of her works, which I copy, as a curious proof of how early the rage for literature composition had seized upon her:’

Following in Elizabeth’s footsteps, I too now produce that list:

So there we have it, ‘A Book Of Rhymes’ containing ten poems with many an intriguing title, but if you head to our old friend Google and look for ‘Meditations while Journeying in a Canadian Forest’ or head to a museum to read ‘A Song of an Exile’ you won’t find a single word. Unlike much of the Brontë juvenilia the actual content of this book written by a 13 year old Charlotte Brontë remains untranscribed and unknown.

The last known sighting of this book was in 1916 when it sold in an auction in New York for $520 to a private collector who bid and won anonymously. As nothing was heard of it in the succeeding century it had been thought lost or destroyed (the books are very fragile, after all), until an envelope was found recently, by persons undisclosed, within a 19th century schoolbook. The envelope was marked ‘Brontë manuscript’ with the addition of ‘most valuable’ for good, and sensible, measure. Once opened a tiny hand stitched book of 16 pages was found which contained 10 poems of which the author acknowledges, ‘the following are attempts at rhyming of an inferior nature it must be acknowledged but they are nevertheless my best’. After 106 years ‘A Book Of Rhymes’ had risen like a phoenix, and what a valuable bird it is.

copyright Clark Hodgin of The New York Times

What happened next is a sign of the incredible inflationary effect that Brontë works and relics have had, and a tribute to the life that the Brontës now enjoy: the truth is that Charlotte and her sisters will never really die, for as long as this watery planet turns and as long as humans are still around to read (for however much the world changes humans will always want to read), they will be reading the works of the Brontës.

On the first page of her tiny book, 13 year old Charlotte has penned, ‘A Book Of Rhymes by Charlotte Brontë, sold by nobody and printed by herself’. They were not to remain ‘sold by nobody’. As we have seen, they were sold in New York in 1916 for $520 – that equated to approximately £109 at the time. There is a record of it being sold in England just two years earlier, as reported here by The Yorkshire Post (it’s a pity that Yorkshire’s leading newspaper couldn’t spell Haworth correctly, but that’s another matter):

Yorkshire Post, 20th June 1914

We learn now that this tiny book, along with many others, had been in the treasured collection of Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls in Ireland. They have been auctioned after his death, and singled out for especial notice in the article is ‘A Book Of Rhymes’. It has been bought by a Mr Maggs for £34. For whatever reason, this Mr Maggs did not give the book to the Brontë Society as many purchasers did, but instead put it up for sale again two years later in the Unite States, where he quickly tripled his money.

It has to be pointed out that even these sums were not the insignificant amounts they may seem. If we eschew purely inflationary calculations and instead turn to to get a true representation of how much the sums were worth we find that $520 or £109 in 1916 is worth between 34 and 67 thousand pounds today. Nevertheless, the Brontë magic has made that figure seem a pittance.

The book is now in the experienced hands of James Cummins Booksellers of Manhattan and will be put up for sale at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair on April 21st ( a previous year’s fair is at the head of this page). It’s asking price is a cool 1.25 million dollars – just over £953,000 at today’s exchange rate. It’s time to dip into our pockets again – after all for that price we can have this magnificent piece of Brontë history or ten litres of petrol.

In all seriousness what has made this particular book, a slim volume compared to much of the Brontë juvenilia, so incredibly valuable? The rules of supply and demand are playing their part. Unlike items in the Honresfield Library sale the contents of these pages remain completely unknown – and people are desperate to know what is on those tiny pages covered with minuscule writing.

copyright Clark Hodgin of The New York Times

What happens next? The book fair is only three weeks away, there is no time for institutions to raise funds and can we expect Leonard Blavatnik to make yet another brilliant, generous gesture so soon after he helped secure the Honresfield collection for the nation? At this stage it seems likely it will once again pass to an anonymous, private bidder – the best we can hope for is that they then place scans or transcriptions of the work into the public domain. That could all change however; hope springs eternal, and I hope to speak to James Cummins Booksellers on this issue, so watch this space!

In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying a happy, healthy start to April. I will see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.