Charlotte Brontë’s Long Letter To Margaret Wooler

I spent the first part of this week in the wonderful city of London. When we walk its streets we tread upon the same ground walked by Kings and Queens, by the great of history and by the condemned – by the likes of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen – and by the Brontës. Charlotte and Anne Brontë came to the city in July 1848 after a letter from publisher Smith, Elder & Co – and I always like to visit the beautifully carved door in Cornhill which depicts their visit to the street: a visit which changed literary history forever!

The bottom right panel of the Cornhill door showing Charlotte and Anne Bronte

It is to Charlotte Brontë that I turn in today’s new post, for on this day in 1848 she wrote a letter to Margaret Wooler, her former teacher, then employer, and finally friend. Charlotte described this letter as ‘a long letter… but I fear you will not find it very amusing.’ This is typical of the self-deprecating style found in Charlotte’s letters, and which she doubtless employed in her conversation too. Whilst the letter may not be amusing it’s certainly both fascinating and informative.

In it we hear Charlotte’s opinion of the clergy daughters school at Casterton (that’s it at the top of this post) which had succeeded the one she had attended at Cowan Bridge, and which was reproduced as the deadly Lowood of Jane Eyre. It’s a surprisingly benevolent review, although she still gives a chilling glimpse of what Cowan Bridge had earlier been like. We also hear a literary story which clearly fascinated Charlotte: that of Mary Lamb and her brother Charles, a real life tale of mental illness and tragedy which surpassed anything in nineteenth century fiction. Let us take a look at this letter now:

Mary and Charles Lamb by Francis Cary
Mary and Charles Lamb by Francis Cary, 1834

Finally, at the close of the letter, Charlotte reports to Margaret that her father’s eyesight is improving and that her sisters Emily and Anne are well. Alas, at the time this letter was sent the train of tragedy at Haworth Parsonage had already been set into motion. Her brother Branwell had entered the last month of his life, and soon Emily, and then Anne, would also be showing the signs of incurable consumption.

On a happier note, I’m delighted to say that the fundraiser for the Brontë birthplace in Thornton has already exceeded its target. That means the community group can press on with their plans to save the parsonage for the public, and to maintain it as a place for the arts and education, as well as allowing people to stay in the very building in which the Brontë sisters were born! I’ll bring you further updates on this exciting development once I have them.

To readers in the United Kingdom I hope you have a lovely Bank Holiday Monday ahead of you (I’ll be working hard at Sheffield Fayre, raising funds for The Sheffield Cats Shelter), and wherever you are I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Saving The Brontë Birthplace In Thornton

One place of great interest to Brontë lovers links a special event which took place 204 years ago this week and a special event taking place right now: the Brontë birthplace, Thornton. In today’s post I’m going to bring you news of a campaign which will save and protect the parsonage in which four of the six Brontë siblings were born – but it needs your help!

Anne Brontë's birthplace
The Bronte birthplace needs our help!

Patrick Brontë, his wife Maria and their two young daughters Maria and Elizabeth moved to Thornton Parsonage in May 1815. Patrick was taking up a new position as curate of Thornton’s church, a role he would hold for nearly five years. During this time he saw his family grow significantly, for in the year after their arrival in Thornton his third daughter was born – Charlotte Brontë. A year later a son was born, Patrick Branwell, followed a year later by another daughter Emily Jane. Finally, in January 1820 the sixth and final Brontë sibling was born: our beloved Anne Brontë. All of these births took place within Thornton Parsonage on Market Street – so it holds a hugely important role in the Brontë story. But it’s under threat.

In recent years the parsonage has been host to a lovely cafe and delicatessen called, rather fittingly, Emily, but it has been up for sale for a while now. There are very real fears that the parsonage could imminently be sold to speculators or developers who care nothing for the building’s important literary and historical heritage – meaning that access to it could be lost to Brontë fans and the general public forever.

Thankfully, a group of Thornton residents and Brontë enthusiasts have sprung into action and have formed the Brontë Birthplace Community Ownership Campaign. Their plan is to buy the parsonage and turn it into a community asset that can never be sold privately and lost to the nation again. Instead, it will host artistic, literary and community events, as well as continuing to host a cafe – and perhaps even more excitingly for Brontë fans the upstairs rooms of the parsonage will be available to let via Air B’n’B – meaning that you can actually stay and sleep in the rooms that the Brontë family themselves stayed and slept in over 200 years ago!

Thornton Parsonage fireplace
The historic fireplace that witnessed the birth of the Brontes

As the Brontës found when the family moved to Patrick’s next parish in 1820 it’s just a short journey from Thornton to Haworth, so what could be better than staying at the Brontë birthplace in Thornton while you explore the literary pilgrimage hotspot of Haworth?

If you think this sounds like a dream it’s very close to becoming a reality, but this could be our very last chance to secure this property. The community group have negotiated a period of exclusivity with current owner Mark de Luca, but they need to secure £20,000 via a crowdfunding campaign by 12th September. Once this target has been hit it will generate further funds from grants which are dependent upon the success of this initial crowdfunder, and the community group are very confident that if they reach £20,000 by September 12th they will then be able to complete the purchase and put their plans into action.

front of Thornton Parsonage
Thornton Parsonage without the modern frontage

I’ll certainly be backing the campaign – and if you can too I know it would be much appreciated, because every pound counts. The campaign has got off to a steady start but it needs to keep momentum going – how terrible would it be if we, as Brontë lovers, fell at this final hurdle? I appreciate, of course, how tight money is for just about everyone at the moment so sharing the link to the crowdfunder can be a great help too. Here is the link for the campaign’s fundraising page so please feel free to share it far and wide:

Steven Stanworth of the campaign, and one of the guardians of the nearby Brontë Bell Chapel, says: “The house purchase will raise the profile of Market Street and enhance the area. The priority is to bring art and literary events to the house and provide educational facilities for schools.”

Original wardrobe in the bedroom which once housed the Bronte children!

In short, the purchase of Thornton Parsonage for the community will benefit Thornton itself and benefit the country as a whole, as well as providing a wonderful facility for Brontë lovers from across the globe. What’s not to like?

I mentioned an important event in Thornton 204 years ago. Well, 20th August 1818 was the date of baptism of one Emily Jane Brontë, and here’s the baptismal entry to prove it. Emily was the only Brontë sibling not named after a relative – I wonder who the original Emily who inspired the name was?

Emily Bronte’s baptism record can still be seen at Thornton’s church

Let’s hope that the community purchase of Emily Brontë’s birthplace succeeds. I’ll see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë On The First Duty Of An Author

On this day in 1848 Charlotte Brontë was writing a letter. Nothing unusual about that; Charlotte Brontë was a prolific letter writer, and it’s thanks to the hundreds of letters that we still have of hers, largely to her best friend Ellen Nussey but also to others such as W. S. Williams of her publisher Smith, Elder and Co, that we know so much about her life and the lives of the Brontë family in general. The letter that Charlotte wrote exactly 174 years ago today, however, was a truly special one, and so we’re going to look at it in today’s new Brontë blog post.

In this letter Charlotte looks at ‘the first duty of an author’, but that’s a lot more exciting than it sounds for it leads to a long digression which looks at her opinion on her sisters’ work and on the nature of her protagonist Rochester. Here is the letter in full:

WS Williams
W. S. Williams. the recipient of this and many other letters

“TO W. S. WILLIAMS, August 14th, 1848.
My Dear Sir, My sister Anne thanks you, as well as myself, for your just critique on Wildfell Hall. It appears to me that your observations exactly hit both the strong and weak points of the book, and the advice which accompanies them is worthy of, and shall receive, our most careful attention.

The first duty of an author is, I conceive, a faithful allegiance to Truth and Nature; his second, such a conscientious study of Art as shall enable him to interpret eloquently and effectively the oracles delivered by those two great deities. The Bells are very sincere in their worship of Truth, and they hope to apply themselves to the consideration of Art, so as to attain one day the power of speaking the language of conviction in the accents of persuasion; though they rather apprehend that whatever pains they take to modify and soften, an abrupt word or vehement tone will now and then occur to startle ears polite, whenever the subject shall chance to be such as moves their spirits within them.

I have already told you, I believe, that I regard Mr. Thackeray as the first of modern masters, and as the legitimate high priest of Truth; I study him accordingly with reverence. He, I see, keeps the mermaid’s tail below water, and only hints at the dead men’s bones and noxious slime amidst which it wriggles; but, his hint is more vivid than other men’s elaborate explanations, and never is his satire whetted to so keen an edge as when with quiet mocking irony he modestly recommends to the approbation of the public his own exemplary discretion and forbearance. The world begins to know Thackeray rather better than it did two years or even a year ago, but as yet it only half knows him. His mind seems to me a fabric as simple and unpretending as it is deep-founded and enduring there is no meretricious ornament to attract or fix a superficial glance; his great distinction of the genuine is one that can only be fully appreciated with time.

William Makepeace Thackery by Eyre Crowe, 1845
William Makepeace Thackery painted in 1845

There is something, a sort of ‘still profound,’ revealed in the concluding part of Vanity Fair which the discernment of one generation will not suffice to fathom. A hundred years hence, if he only lives to do justice to himself, he will be better known than he is now. A hundred years hence, some thoughtful critic, standing and looking down on the deep waters, will see shining through them the pearl without price of a purely original mind such a mind as the Bulwers, etc., his contemporaries have not, not acquirements gained from study, but the thing that came into the world with him his inherent genius: the thing that made him, I doubt not, different as a child from other children, that caused him, perhaps, peculiar griefs and struggles in life, and that now makes him as a writer unlike other writers. Excuse me for recurring to this theme, I do not wish to bore you.

You say Mr. Huntingdon reminds you of Mr. Rochester. Does he? Yet there is no likeness between the two; the foundation of each character is entirely different Huntingdon is a specimen of the naturally selfish, sensual, superficial man, whose one merit of a joyous temperament only avails him while he is young and healthy, whose best days are his earliest, who never profits by experience, who is sure to grow worse the older he grows. Mr. Rochester has a thoughtful nature and a very feeling heart; he is neither selfish nor self-indulgent; he is ill-educated, misguided; errs, when he does err, through rashness and inexperience: he lives for a time as too many other men live, but being radically better than most men, he docs not like that degraded life, and is never happy in it. He is taught the severe lessons of experience and has sense to learn wisdom from them, Years improve him; the effervescence of youth foamed away, what is really good in him still remains. His nature is like wine of a good vintage, time cannot sour, but only mellows him. Such at least was the character I meant to portray.

Rochester feverish
Rochester was, to Charlotte, a grand hero of her novel

Heathcliffe [sic], again, of Wuthering Heights is quite another creation. He exemplifies the effects which a life of continued injustice and hard usage may produce on a naturally perverse, vindictive, and inexorable disposition. Carefully trained and kindly treated, the black gipsy-cub might possibly have been reared into a human being, but tyranny and ignorance made of him a mere demon. The worst of it is, some of his spirit seems breathed through the whole narrative in which he figures: it haunts every moor and glen, and beckons in every fir-tree of the Heights.

I must not forget to thank you for the Examiner and Atlas newspapers. Poor Mr. Newby! It is not enough that the Examiner nails him by both ears to the pillory, but the Atlas brands a token of disgrace on his forehead. This is a deplorable plight, and he makes all matters worse by his foolish little answers to his assailants. It is a pity that he has no kind friend to suggest to him that he had better not bandy words with the Examiner. His plea about the ‘ printer’ was too ludicrous, and his second note is pitiable. I only regret that the names of Ellis and Acton Bell should perforce be mixed up with his proceedings. My sister Anne wishes me to say that should she ever write another work, Mr. Smith will certainly have the first offer of the copyright.

I hope Mrs. Williams’s health is more satisfactory than when you last wrote. With every good wish to yourself and your family, Believe me, my dear sir, yours sincerely, C. BRONTË”

So what does this fascinating letter tell us? Charlotte believes that the purpose of writing above all is to tell the truth, which is a view shared completely by her sister Anne; we know this from Anne Brontë’s preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall in which she writes: “I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it”. Even before that, in Agnes Grey Anne, writing as Agnes (a largely semi-autobiographical heroine) opens the novel with the following five words: “All true histories contain instruction.”

Anne Bronte 200
Anne Bronte drawn by Charlotte

It leads on to a discussion on Thackeray, always a literary idol of Charlotte Brontë. She states that in a hundred years he will be better known than he is now; but she could never have guessed that now, nearly two hundred years later, she herself is surely far better known than Thackeray.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the letter is Charlotte’s stout and wholehearted defence of the character of Edward Rochester. He is a protagonist who divides opinion today (much as Heathcliff does, to be fair) – to some he is a romantic hero, to others a villain who uses and discards women. It is clear, however, that Charlotte herself intended him to be seen as a heroic figure – just as she herself saw the man who inspired Rochester: her unrequited love from Brussels, Monsieur Constantin Heger.

We also see that Thomas Newby, publisher of Anne and Emily Brontë, is up to his old duplicitous tricks including arguments conducted through the letters pages of newspapers. Charlotte makes clear that Anne has decided to publish future books with Smith, Elder – but alas, of course, tuberculosis would all too soon ensure that there were no future books from her. It’s interesting, however, that Charlotte makes no such claim for Emily – whilst Williams had met Anne but had not met Emily, he was aware of Emily’s existence and that it was she who wrote under the name of Ellis Bell. Perhaps this is another indication, then, that Emily Brontë had no intention of writing another novel after Wuthering Heights?

Charlotte Brontë was a brilliant, fascinating letter writer, so I hope you enjoy delving into her letters as much as I do: they give us a real insight into the mind of this genius within a family of genii. I hope you are bearing up in this heatwave and that you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Reports Of The Brontë Parsonage Museum Opening

Step this way, put your cloche hat or tweed jacket on and follow me back in time 94 years. A rather scandalous, so it is said, book is just hitting the newspaper reviews: Radclyffe Hall’s The Well Of Loneliness; the Olympic Games are taking place in Amsterdam, and for the first time ever there are events for women athletes; John Logie Baird has just demonstrated an electric box called a ‘television’ which can show moving pictures – surely it will never catch on, and nor will another new invention which has made its début in the United States: sliced bread. All these things happened within the last month in 1928, but there was another event happening this very week: the opening of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire!

Unfortunately we can’t actually travel back in time, but in today’s new Brontë blog post we do the next best thing by reproducing two reports from August 1928, backed up by some rather wonderful pictures!

Bronte Parsonage Museum 1929 by Kaye Sugden
Inside the Bronte Parsonage Museum in 1929, a year after it opened

Burnley News, 8th August 1928

“The little Yorkshire village of Haworth, where the Brontë sisters had their home, was thronged on Saturday with visitors from all parts of the country and even from America. They came to attend the opening ceremony of the old Parsonage, which has been converted into the Brontë Society’s museum and library. Sir James Roberts, of Strathallan Castle, who purchased the property, handed over the deeds to Sir Edward Brotherton, the president of the Brontë Society.

Sir James said he was returning to well remembered events of his childhood and youth. He was born in the parish in the week the unhappy Branwell died. He had heard old Mr. Brontë preach, had seen Mr. Nicholls visiting the schoolhouse, and recalled Martha Brown. But most memorable of all was the frail and unforgettable figure of Charlotte Brontë, who more than once stopped to speak a kindly word to him. As for his admiration of the writings and those of her sister Emily, he humbly ranked himself with that multitude which had found not only delight but inspiration in them. It seemed to him that the Parsonage, where the family had its hearth and home for forty years, alone was the true resting place for the Brontë treasures.”

An earlier photo of Bronte benefactor Sir Edward Brotherton

Hastings and St. Leonards Observer, 18th August 1928

“The first time, we are told, never comes back, and the present writer will not soon forget his sensations on seeing for the first time, and so suddenly, the home of the Brontës. The experience was, at once, strange – and familiar. It was familiar because – in pictures, photographs, even on postcards, Haworth Parsonage is known to most of us. It was strange, because there is always something of strangeness on seeing for the first time a face, a scene, or an historic building, the pictured presentation of which is familiar to us. And, in the case of the Haworth Parsonage, the sense of strangeness was heightened by the fact that the old Brontë home struck one as more grimly grey-black, more bleakly-haggard, and more ghost-haunted, even than one had expected…

Before some of us had breakfasted, on the morning of August 4th, visitors all parts of the country, all parts of the Kingdom, all parts of the Empire – for one lady had come specially from Rhodesia, and one heard of folk who had journeyed from Canada, America, and the Antipodes – were pouring in by train, by car, by charabanc, motor cycle, push cycle, and not a few of the poorer classes, on foot. Haworth was, in fact, en fête, its streets fluttering with flags, and with Union Jacks floating from flagstaffs, or run out of windows of the more important buildings. At 2.45, Colonel Sir Edward Brotherton, who was to preside at the ceremony, arrived. Like Sir James and Lady Roberts, Sir Edward Brotherton has done great things for patriotic causes, raising at his own expense a battalion of the 15th West Yorkshire regiment during the War. His being in the chair was, thus, more than appropriate, for August 4th was an “historic” occasion, apart from the Brontë celebration [it was the 14th anniversary of the commencement of World War One]…

Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928
Crowds flocked to the Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928

The arrival of Sir Edward at 2.45 was followed at 2.55 by that of Sir James and Lady Roberts, who were received by Sir Edward, supported by the Lord Mayor of Bradford, and a very distinguished company. Within the gates of the Parsonage, and far without those gates, some thousands of persons were gathered. After Sir James had handed the title deeds of the Parsonage to Sir Edward, and the latter had eloquently, and gracefully made acknowledgement, little Catherine Butler Wood (daughter of the accomplished scholar and author, who is editor of the Brontë Society publications) presented Lady Roberts with a bouquet of white moorland heather. When Lady Roberts, in her gentle and gracious way, stooped to kiss the child (as did Sir James), this little “human touch” called forth enthusiastic hurras, and even cheers. The applause was no less enthusiastic when Sir Edward Brotherton claimed that the Brontë Society now had a museum which would bear comparison with those established in honour of Victor Hugo, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

Haworth Parsonage Museum opening

Next Sir Edward invited Lady Roberts to open the Parsonage, which she did with a golden key presented by the architect, Mr W. A. Ledgard, who, later, made a speech which, next to that of Sir Edward Brotherton and Sir James Roberts, was by far the most memorable oration from anyone present. Lord Haldane, who intended to be present at the ceremony, but was prevented by illness [a former Lord Chancellor, Haldane died suddenly two weeks later], sent a written and very striking tribute to the Brontës, which was read by Canon Egerton Leigh. Then came the vote of thanks to Sir James and Lady Roberts, which after it had been proposed, seconded, and supported, was enthusiastically and unanimously carried. Other speakers were Dr. J. B. Baillie and Dr. J. Hambley Rowe, both prominent members of the Brontë Society, but one regretted that so eminent an authority on the Brontës as Mr. Jonas Bradley, could not be persuaded to say a few words. The interest of the occasion was, however, not a little heightened by the announcement that Captain Arthur Branwell, and Mr. and Mrs. Branwell, relatives of the Brontë family, as well as Mr. Holland, grandson of Mrs. Gaskell, were present, and were invited by Sir James to ascend the platform, to say a few words…

Sir James said: “It is my first, and particularly pleasant, duty to place in the hands of Sir Edward Brotherton, the honoured president of the Brontë Society, the title deeds of the property of the Haworth Parsonage, which from today becomes, as the Brontë Parsonage Museum, the permanent home of the memorials of the Brontë family. My pleasure is enhanced by the fact that in performing this duty I am returning to the well-remembered scenes of my childhood and youth and to-day is an occasion when, standing on the verge of fourscore years, these early memories are vividly reproduced.

I was born in this parish in the same week in which the unhappy Branwell Brontë died: an event followed at intervals of distressing brevity by the deaths of Emily and Anne. Haworth has seen more than a few progressive changes since those far off times. Her people have moved into closer touch with a wider world life, and a good many of her children have achieved success in commercial and other pursuits. Were this occasion less important, and less impressive, I could revive many quaint recollections of Haworth folk, and Haworth ways, as I remember them in those mid-Victorian days – a people and manners now immortalised by the writings of those whose memories we are met to honour.

It is to me a somewhat melancholy reflection that I am one of the fast narrowing circle of Haworth veterans who remember the Parsonage family. I heard Mr. Brontë preach in the pathetic blindness of his old age. Mr. Nicholls frequently visited the schoolhouse we as children ate the mid-day meal in the interval of our elementary studies, while Martha Brown, the faithful servant to whom Mr. Brontë gave the money box, the contents of which she was “to keep ready for a time of need,” is still to me a well-remembered figure…

I remember Mr. Brontë as a man most tolerant to divergencies of religious conviction. Above all these memorabilia there rises before me the frail and unforgettable figure of Charlotte Brontë, who more than once stopped to speak a kindly word to the little lad who now stands a patriarch before you. I remember her funeral one Easter-tide, and some six years afterwards that of her father. These early associations, still very dear to me, were followed in after years by exceeding delight in those creations of imaginative genius which Charlotte and her sisters have left to us. Read, and many times re-read, they have often delighted the leisure hour and released the mind from the embarrassing and strenuous labours of a protracted and industrial career…

I am no authority in literary criticism but I do think, and I have always thought, that the realistic art of the Brontës makes unique appeal, and interprets itself with peculiar vividness to those whose nativity was amongst the scenes they have so graphically portrayed. I humbly stand in the ranks of the unnumbered and world-wide multitude who have found not only delight but inspiration from these sisters, who, encumbered with many adversities, rose to such great and shining heights of endeavour and discovered to the world their extraordinary literary powers. Those gifts, matured within these walls, and under the wide horizon of the Haworth Moor, have made of our little moorland village a shrine to which pilgrims from many lands wend every year their way”…

Out of these solitudes, far removed, from the vigorous and inspiring lives of the cities, there shone forth the luminous genius of three illustrious women. The presentation of these title deeds is to me an act of homage, alike to their genius, and to the nobility of their courageous lives.’

It is this genius and courage that still draws so many back to Haworth year after year. The Brontë story, like their novels, will continue to fascinate and enthral us while-soever our little rock we call home continues to turn. It’s sadly time to return to 2022, but I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.