To Charlotte Brontë, From Mary Taylor In New Zealand

Today marks the 206th birthday of a woman who was a very close friend of Charlotte Brontë, and who was a remarkable person in her own right. Mary Taylor had been a school friend of Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey, friendships that lasted a lifetime. In today’s post we’re going to look at a remarkable letter sent by Mary from the other side of the world!

We’ve looked at Mary in this blog many times before. The daughter of a wealthy cloth manufacturer who lived in the Red House, Gomersal, it was she who persuaded Charlotte and Emily Brontë to follow her to Brussels. Mary later emigrated to New Zealand, returning to England to become an author in her own right, as well as a travel journalist and a pioneering mountaineer. In fact, Mary led the first ever all-woman ascent of Mont Blanc as we can see in this picture – Mary, by this time aged 57, is on the left.

Mary Taylor mountaineering 1874
Mary Taylor (far left) leading the first all woman team to climb Mont Blanc, in 1874

When Mary emigrated to New Zealand to set up her own business, Charlotte wrote that: “To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky. Yet unless she marries in New Zealand she will not stay there long.” Alas, by the time Mary did return to Yorkshire Charlotte and all her siblings were no more, but a slow, ship led, correspondence took place between England and New Zealand (you can see 19th century Wellington, where Mary lived, at the top of this post). It is thanks to this correspondence that we have a remarkable letter sent to Charlotte by Mary on 24th July 1848. We have previously looked at the section of the letter in which Mary gives her, typically forthright, views on Jane Eyre but I now reproduce the letter in full as it also gives a remarkable insight into Mary’s life in New Zealand.

We see, for example, that Mary Taylor was indeed proposed to in New Zealand, but it was never likely to succeed. As Mary writes in her letter, she intended to use the proposal from a rich cattle drover to visit his daughter and go sightseeing with her. In her old age, Mary lived with a succession of maids from Switzerland and there seems little doubt that she preferred the company of women to men.

We also read of the fate of the cow that Charlotte bought for Mary as a leaving present. Unfortunately for the cow and Charlotte, it wasn’t a pleasant one.

Even when separated by thousands of miles of water, the friendship between Cha rlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor endured, and she is pivotal in our understanding of the Brontës today. Happy birthday Mary Taylor, and to any of you who may have anniversaries approaching. I hope to see you all next week for another new Brontë blog post, and in the meantime I leave you with images of the actual letter itself (thanks to the Morgan Library & Museum of New York) and its transcription:

Dear Charlotte

About a month since I received & read Jane Eyre. It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book. Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence much as I do in Mr Rochester’s. In a believing mood I don’t doubt either of them. After I had read it I went on to the top of Mt. Victoria & looked for a ship to carry a letter to you. There was a little thing with one mast, & also H.M.S. Fly & nothing else. If a cattle vessel came from Sydney she would probably return in a few days & would take a mail, but we have had east wind for a month & nothing can come in.—July 1. The Harlequin has just come from Otago & is to sail for Singapore when the wind changes & by that road route (which I hope to take myself sometime) I send you this. Much good may it do you.

Your novel surprised me by being so perfect as a work of art. I expected something more changeable & unfinished. You have polished to some purpose. If I were to do so I should get tired & weary every one else in about two pages. No sign of this weariness is in your book—you must have had abundance, having kept it all to yourself!

You are very different from me in having no doctrine to preach. It is impossible to squeeze a moral out of your production. Has the world gone so well with you that you have no protest to make against its absurdities? Did you never sneer or declaim in your first sketches? I will scold you well when I see you.—I don’t believe in Mr Rivers. There are no good men of the Brocklehurst species. A missionary either goes into his office for a piece of bread, or he goes from enthusiasm, & that is both too good & too bad a quality for St. John. It’s a bit of your absurd charity to believe in such a man. You have done wisely in choosing to imagine a high class of readers. You never stop to explain or defend anything & never seem bothered with the idea—if Mrs. Fairfax or any other well intentioned fool gets hold of this what will she think? And yet you know the world is made up of such, & worse. Once more, how have you written through 3 vols. without declaring war to the knife against a few dozen absurd doctrines each of which is supported by “a large & respectable class of readers”? Emily seems to have had such a class in her eye when she wrote that strange thing Wuthering Heights. Ann[e] too stops repeatedly to preach commonplace truths. She has had a still lower class in her mind’s eye. Emily seems to have followed t[he] [b]ookseller’s advice. As to the price you got it [was] certainly Jewish. But what could the people do? lf they had asked you to fix it, how do you know yourself how many cyphers your sum would have had? And how should they know better? And if they did, that’s the knowledge they get their living by. If I were in your place the idea of being bound in the sale of 2! more would prevent [me]from ever writing again. Yet you are probably now busy with another. It is curious to me to see among the old letters one from A[unt] Sarah sending a copy of a whole article on the currency question written by Fonblanque! I exceedingly regret having burnt your letters in a fit of caution, & I’ve forgotten all the names. Was the reader Albert Smith? What do they all think of you?

I perceive I’ve betrayed my habit of writing only on one side of the paper. Go onto the next page.

I mention the book to no one & hear no opinions. I lend it a good deal because it’s a novel & it’s as good as another! They say “it makes them cry.” They are not literary enough to give an opinion. If ever I hear one I’ll embalm it for you.

As to my own affair I have written 100 pages & lately 50 more. It’s no use writing faster. I get so disgusted I can do nothing. I have sent 3 or 4 things to Joe for Tait. Troup (Ed.) never acknowledges them though he promised either to pay or send them back. Joe sent one to Chambers who thought it unsuitable in which I agree with them.

I think I told you I built a house. I get 12/– a week for it. Moreover I in accordance with a late letter of John’s I borrow money from him & Joe & buy cattle with it. I have already spent £100 or so & intend to buy some more as soon as War[ing] can pay me the money. —perhaps as much as by degrees as £400, or £500. As I only pay 5 per Ct. interest I expect [to] profit much by this. viz about 30 per Ct. a year—perhaps 40 or 50. Thus if I borrow £500 in two years’ time (I cannot have it quicker) I shall perhaps make £250 to £300. I am pretty certain of being able to pay principal & interest. If I could command £300 & £50 a year afterwards I would “hallock” about N.Z. for a twelvemonth then go home by way of India & write my travels which would prepare the way for my novel. With the benefit of your experience I should perhaps make a better bargain than you. I am most afraid of my health. Not that I should die but perhaps sink into state of betweenity, neither well nor ill, in which I should observe nothing & be very miserable besides. —My life here is not disagreeable. I have a great resource in the piano, & a little employment in teaching.

Then I go to Mrs. Taylor’s & astonish the poor girl with calling her favourite parson a spoon. She thinks I am astonishingly learned but rather wicked, & tries hard to persuade me to go to church chapel, though I tell her I only go for amusement. She would have sense but for her wretched health which is getting rapidly worse from her irrational mode of living.

[letter continues on a separate sheet in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library] I can hardly explain to you the queer feeling of living as I do in 2 places at once. One world containing books England & all the people with whom I can exchange an idea; the other all that I actually see & hear & speak to. The separation is as complete as between the things in a picture & the things in the room. The puzzle is that both move & act, & [I] must say my say as one of each. The result is that one world at least must think me crazy. I am just now in a sad mess. A drover who has got rich with cattle dealing wanted me to go & teach his daughter. As the man is a widower I astonished this world when I accepted his proposal, & still more because I asked too high a price (£70) a year. Now that I have begun the same people can’t conceive why I don’t go on & marry the man at once which they imagine must have been my original intention. For my part I shall possibly astonish them a little more for I feel a great inclination to make use of his interested civilities to visit his daughter & see the district of Porirua.

If I had a little more money & could afford a horse (she rides) I certainly would. But I can see nothing till I get a horse, which I shall have if I’m lucky in 2 or 3 years.

I have just made acquaintance with Dr & Mrs. Logan. He is a retired navy doctor & has more general knowledge than any one I have talked to here. For instance he had heard of Phillippe Egalite—of a camera obscura; of the resemblance the English language has to the German &c &c. Mrs. Taylor Miss Knox & Mrs. Logan sat in mute admiration while we mentioned these things, being employed in the meantime in making a patchwork quilt. Did you never notice that the women of the middle classes are generally too ignorant to talk to? & that you are thrown entirely on the men for conversation? There is no such feminine inferiority in the lower. The women go hand in hand with the men in the degree of cultivation they are able to reach. I can talk very well to a joiner’s wife, but seldom to a merchant’s.

I must now tell you the fate of your cow. The creature gave so little milk that she is doomed to be fatted & killed. In about 2 months she will fetch perhaps £15 with which I shall buy 3 heifers. Thus you have the chance of getting a calf sometime. My own thrive well & possibly I [shall] have a calf myself. Before this reaches England I shall have 3 or 4.

It’s a pity you don’t live in this world that I might entertain you about the price of meat. Do you know I bought 6 heifers the other day for £23? & now it is turned so cold I expect to hear one half of them are dead. One man bought 20 sheep for £8 & they are all dead but 1. Another bought £150 & has 40 left; and people have begun to drive cattle through a valley into the Wairau plains & thence across the straits of Wellington. &c &c. This is the only legitimate subject of conversation we have the rest is gos[sip] concerning our superiors in station who don’t know us on the road, but it is astonishing how well we know all their private affairs, making allowance always for the distortion in our own organs of vision.

I have now told you everything I can think of except that the cat’s on the table & that I’m going to borrow a new book to read. No less than an account of all the systems of philosophy of modern Europe. I have lately met with a wonder a man who thinks Jane Eyre would have done better [to] marry Mr Rivers! He gives no reasons—such people never do.

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor in old age after returning to England

The Amazing Secret Of The Brontë Tin Box

If you’re lucky enough to have been to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth you’ll know that it’s full of treasures large and small. Sometimes these have come from surprising sources – such as the toys the young Brontës played with which were found under the floorboards during renovation work. In today’s post we’re going to look at a seemingly unassuming tin box which held a very important secret for over half a century.

Bronte toys
These Bronte toys were discovered below floorboards

The outside of the box is unassuming indeed, it’s a simple rectangular tin of the kind that could be found anywhere at any time – but it’s provenance is the first thing which makes it special, for it was gifted from Branwell Brontë to his sister Emily Brontë.

Emily used it as a sewing box – inside it were found threads of various colours, bobbins, buttons and lace edges used on collars. A fascinating glimpse into the world of Emily Brontë, who like all her sisters was taught to sew from an early age by Aunt Branwell, but nothing surprising. The surprise came much later, and over 300 miles from Haworth – and it completely changed our understanding of the Brontës.

After the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 and of Patrick Brontë in 1861 the Brontë line had come to a tragic end. Many Brontë possessions were left to friends of the family such as long standing servant Martha Brown, but the majority came into the possession of Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls. He took them with him back to his childhood home of Banagher, Ireland (that’s it at the head of this post) and to his second wife Mary Bell. Their home became a shrine to Arthur’s enduring love of Charlotte Brontë – as Arthur’s great-niece Marjorie Gallop later recalled:

‘With generous loyalty, Mary Nicholls made every room in the house a Brontë shrine. The drawing room was hung with the sisters’ drawings, Mr. Brontë’s gun leaned up against the dining room wall, and Charlotte’s portrait overlooked the sofa on which Mary used to rest. One day it broke away from the wall, missed a table which stood below it, and fell on to Mary. Neither the portrait nor Mary was harmed. When Arthur died, Mary had his coffin placed beneath the portrait until it was carried from the house.’

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Arthur’s body was laid to rest beneath this portrait of Charlotte

In 1955, a century after Charlotte’s death, an even closer relative of Arthur, his niece (by then in her nineties) painted a similar picture:

‘Later on, Arthur Nicholls married my aunt, Mary, who made him a devoted wife, and treasured everything that had belonged to Charlotte. My grandmother and my aunt loved to tell me about her, and I loved to listen. Charlotte’s wedding dress, so tiny, and her tiny white gloves, buttoned at the wrist, my aunt gave to Allen Nicholls’ [Arthur’s brother] youngest daughter, who had been given the names of Charlotte Brontë at her christening. Later on she often stayed at the Hill House, and came to love Uncle Arthur, as did all the young people; and, after his death, feeling that these things were peculiarly sacred, she had them burned.

Half way up the stairs at the Hill House stood Mr. Brontë’s handsome old grandfather clock, and near it hung a plaque of Branwell; over the sideboard in the dining-room was the well-known photograph of Haworth Rectory and the graveyard, and in the corner near the door was Mr. Brontë’s old gun. In the drawing room was Charlotte’s portrait, and also one of Thackeray, as well as many framed drawings of the three Brontë sisters. In a glass-fronted case were all the books of the three sisters. The portraits of his sisters by Branwell, that now hang in the National Gallery, Arthur Nicholls disliked – he thought they were “such ugly representations of the girls.”’

One other thing that we know Arthur kept in Banagher was the tin sewing box of Emily Brontë. He must have loved to take out these items and hold them again, as if calling up visions of the Yorkshire family he had loved. Time didn’t diminish these memories or the pleasure obtained from them, for in 1895, 40 years after the passing of Charlotte, Arthur once again held Emily’s sewing box in his hand. Perhaps he was turning it over and over in his hand, or perhaps something made him look at it more closely than before. There was a click unheard for many decades, and a secret compartment flipped open – what was inside had not been seen for nearly half a century.

When I think of this event, words spoken 27 years later. Howard Carter looked into a tomb that for many centuries had been undiscovered – behind him Lord Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter’s reply (oft misquoted) was, “Yes, it is wonderful.” What Arthur saw was wonderful indeed – small, ageing scraps of paper with dense, untidy writing on them and scribbled illustrations; hidden away since 1845 they were the diary papers of Emily and Anne Brontë.

1834 diary paper front
The 1834 diary paper front page

These diary papers were written jointly by Emily and Anne in 1834 and 1837 and then separately by the sisters in 1841 and 1845.

These papers are small and short, but they vividly demonstrate everyday life in the parsonage and the inner thoughts of the two sisters who wrote them. Through these diary papers we hear of Charlotte making apple pudding, of Emily and Anne longing to play rather than doing home or housework, of their early Gondal compositions, of the careers of Charlotte, Branwell and Anne, of the Brontë pets and of a journey to York, of Anne’s despair at what she has seen at Thorp Green Hall, of Charlotte’s visit to Haworth – a visit that would lead to Jane Eyre.

Sketches by Emily from two of her diary papers, showing her with Anne and with Keeper

So many interesting facts and stories are contained within these tiny sheets of paper, but the insight into the character of the two writers is just as fascinating – and it gives us a different picture of Emily Brontë in particular. Emily’s writing is often dark and mysterious – her poems talk frequently of death and of a desire to leave this world, and yet her diary papers, in contrast to Anne’s later entries, are always cheery and optimistic. In the diary papers we see the real Emily Brontë, not the one she presented in her magnificent writing: we see the Emily that made an acquaintance say “Martha Brown loved her, she said she was so kind”, and the Emily that Ellen Nussey wrote of – the Emily that loved to laugh and play practical jokes; the Emily that family friend John Greenwood wrote of dancing down the garden and calling out in her sweet voice.

These diary papers are literary treasures, and yet they could easily have remained hidden and unseen for all time. Only a chance discovery brought them to light, so what other Brontë discoveries are still waiting to be found? At the close of their 1845 diary papers both Emily and Anne wrote of plans to compose a new entry on 30th July 1848 – no trace of those diary papers has yet been found, was it written and may it one day yield us a glimpse of the Brontës after they have become published authors?

Anne and Emily’s 1841 diary paper, now bound in a book but found in the tin box!

I hope to find you here next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, have a happy and healthy week ahead.

Three Love Poems By The Brontë Sisters

Valentine’s Day fast approaches. On this day in 1840, in a rather desolate moorside parsonage, three sisters and their best friend could have no idea what would happen next. These sisters were Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë of course, and they little suspected that in just two days they would receive their first ever Valentine’s cards! We’ve looked before at the story of these cards and the kindly person who sent them to the Brontës and their friend Ellen Nussey, so in today’s post we will look at fine examples of love poetry from our beloved Brontë sisters.

Victorian valentines card

The sender of the cards wrote personalised verse in each. Alas those verses have long since disappeared into the ether, but we can safely say that it would be hard for them to match up to the Brontë poetry. We shall commence with Charlotte Brontë. It’s fair to say that whilst her skills as a novelist were magnificent, she was less accomplished than her sisters as a poet. Her verse is often overly long and overwrought, but she was still capable of writing fabulous poetry.

Today we look at one of Charlotte’s finer poems: ‘Stanzas’. It was one of Charlotte’s selections in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the very first Brontë book to be published. Its composition came after Charlotte’s return from Brussels, so we can easily speculate that its inspiration was her great unrequited love Monsieur Constantin Heger (her ‘God divine’ as expressed in this poem):

“If thou be in a lonely place,
If one hour’s calm be thine,
As Evening bends her placid face
O’er this sweet day’s decline;
If all the earth and all the heaven
Now look serene to thee,
As o’er them shuts the summer even,
One moment – think of me!
Pause, in the lane, returning home;
‘Tis dusk, it will be still:
Pause near the elm, a sacred gloom
Its breezeless boughs will fill.
Look at that soft and golden light,
High in the unclouded sky;
Watch the last bird’s belated flight,
As it flits silent by.
Hark! for a sound upon the wind,
A step, a voice, a sigh;
If all be still, then yield thy mind,
Unchecked, to memory.
If thy love were like mine, how blest
That twilight hour would seem,
When, back from the regretted Past,
Returned our early dream!
If thy love were like mine, how wild
Thy longings, even to pain,
For sunset soft, and moonlight mild,
To bring that hour again!
But oft, when in thine arms I lay,
I’ve seen thy dark eyes shine,
And deeply felt, their changeful ray
Spoke other love than mine.
My love is almost anguish now,
It beats so strong and true;
‘Twere rapture, could I deem that thou
Such anguish ever knew.
I have been but thy transient flower,
Thou wert my god divine;
Till, checked by death’s congealing power,
This heart must throb for thine.
And well my dying hour were blest,
If life’s expiring breath
Should pass, as thy lips gently prest
My forehead, cold in death;
And sound my sleep would be, and sweet,
Beneath the churchyard tree,
If sometimes in thy heart should beat
One pulse, still true to me.”

Valentines cherub


We turn next to Emily Brontë. Undoubtedly the greatest Brontë poet, and one of the greatest poets of all time, her verse rarely turned to what we would think of as romantic love. The common themes of Emily’s poetry were nature, death and war but she did ponder the nature of love on one occasion.

Emily comes to the conclusion that love is transient and worthless compared to a great friendship, and this poem entitled ‘Love and Friendship’ reveals the true love of her life; despite the inventions of a certain recent film, Emily’s closest bond in life was with her younger sister Anne:

“Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree –
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild-rose briar is sweet in the spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He may still leave thy garland green.”

Valentine swans

So now we turn finally and fittingly to Anne Brontë, like Emily a poet of the first class. We can easily say that Charlotte’s poem was written for Monsieur Heger, and that Emily’s poem was written for Anne herself, but who was the subject of Anne Brontë’s poem, ‘To -’? It was the person mentioned at the head of this post: the man who sent the sisters their first Valentine’s cards – William Weightman.

Anne’s poem speaks evocatively of a lost love. It’s a powerful poem, one that is clearly written by someone who has experienced love, and loss. Anne dated this poem December 1842, just four months after Weightman’s sudden death:

“I will not mourn thee, lovely one,
Though thou art torn away.
‘Tis said that if the morning sun
Arise with dazzling ray
And shed a bright and burning beam
Athwart the glittering main,
‘Ere noon shall fade that laughing gleam
Engulfed in clouds and rain.
And if thy life as transient proved,
It hath been full as bright,
For thou wert hopeful and beloved;
Thy spirit knew no blight.
If few and short the joys of life
That thou on earth couldst know,
Little thou knew’st of sin and strife
Nor much of pain and woe.
If vain thy earthly hopes did prove,
Thou canst not mourn their flight;
Thy brightest hopes were fixed above
And they shall know no blight.
And yet I cannot check my sighs,
Thou wert so young and fair,
More bright than summer morning skies,
But stern death would not spare;
He would not pass our darling by
Nor grant one hour’s delay,
But rudely closed his shining eye
And frowned his smile away,
That angel smile that late so much
Could my fond heart rejoice;
And he has silenced by his touch
The music of thy voice.
I’ll weep no more thine early doom,
But O! I still must mourn
The pleasures buried in thy tomb,
For they will not return.”

Victorian Valentine

Apologies for the absence of a post last week – the technical gremlins struck, but I’m so pleased to be back today and, Deo volente, there will be another new Brontë blog post next Sunday. I hope you can join me then, and I hope that, however you spend it, you have a very happy Valentine’s day on Tuesday.