Southey And Charlotte Brontë: Part Two

Last week we looked at the infamous letter that Robert Southey, the then poet laureate, sent to a 19 year old Charlotte Brontë on 12th March 1837. Alas we don’t have the initial letter which Charlotte sent to her poetic hero, but that doesn’t mean that was the end of the correspondence. Rather lesser known is what happened after that initial exchange, and it shines a light on Charlotte and Southey, and on Branwell Brontë and William Wordsworth. We’re going to examine this in today’s Brontë blog post.

Robert Southey memorial Westminster Abbey
Robert Southey’s memorial in Westminster Abbey

You may remember that Charlotte had written to Southey at the start of the year 1837; although we don’t have her letter she had clearly sent him some of her verse, and asked his opinion of it – expressing all the while her desire to follow in his footsteps and become a poet. Alas, Robert Southey’s response was very much of his time: he wrote back to say that poetry was not and could not be a woman’s work, for when she was married and had children she would have no time for it nor would she lack for excitement.

We know from her novels and letters that Charlotte was a very forthright woman, unafraid of expressing her opinions and of standing up for her rights, so what happened next may seem surprising. She wrote straight back to Southey to let him know how delighted she was with his response! Charlotte’s letter of 16th March seems full of both joy and sadness, but it’s a fascinating glimpse of her life and thoughts at this time:

Charlotte has now ‘realised’ that her work is a ‘crude rhapsody’ and ‘senseless trash’, but she is only grateful that Southey has kindly allowed her to continue writing verse for its own sake. If only ‘Word’ allowed me to insert an angry faced emoji here! Charlotte kept both Southey’s first letter and the envelope it came in, upon which she has written: ‘Southey’s advice, to be kept forever’. Above it, however, is a faint pencilled annotation which was perhaps added at a later date, when Charlotte was beginning to have second thoughts about the impact of his advice. It simply reads ‘melpomene’ – the name of the Greek Muse of tragedies!

I say Southey’s ‘first letter’ in the paragraph above, because the communications didn’t stop there. In fact, on 22nd March 1837 he wrote again to Charlotte Brontë, as we can see below:

It seems the poet laureate was so delighted with Charlotte’s response that he actually invited her to visit him at his grand home Greta Hall in the Lake District (that’s it at the head of this post)! He declares afterwards that she will think of him with more goodwill, for he only offered kindly advice and is neither severe nor morose. Whether people today would think of him with anything approaching goodwill is probably another matter.

Charlotte never got the chance to visit Southey. She made her first journey to the Lakes in 1850, by which time Robert Southey had been dead for seven years, but it seems likely to me that he would have been on her mind as she passed through the streets and hills he had known so well.

There is further, fascinating, evidence of the impact Charlotte’s letters made on Southey. On 27th March 1837 he wrote to Caroline Bowles, the artist and poet. Strangely enough, considering the advice he had given to Charlotte, Southey had actually encouraged Caroline to write poetry and suggested that they write together. In 1839, Caroline became Robert Southey’s second wife.

Caroline Bowles became Caroline Southey

The letter from Robert to Caroline mentioned above has a section of great interest to us, so I reproduce it below:

‘I sent a dose of cooling admonition to the poor girl whose flighty letter reached me at Buckland. It was well taken, and she thanked me for it. It seems she is the eldest daughter of a clergyman, has been expensively educated, and is laudably employed as a governess in some private family. About the same time that she wrote to me, her brother wrote to Wordsworth, who was disgusted with the letter, for it contained gross flattery to him, and plenty of abuse of other poets, including me. I think well of the sister from her second letter, and probably she will think kindly of me as long as she lives.’

From this we can deduce that Southey had also discussed Charlotte with William Wordsworth himself who, recognising the name, produced a letter that he had recently received from her brother Branwell Brontë. As Branwell wrote to Wordsworth at around the same time as Charlotte wrote to Southey, perhaps Charlotte and Branwell, at that time very close, had resolved together to write to their favourite poets for feedback on their youthful work?

Wordsworth was discombobulated by Branwell’s letter

Of course, undoubtedly Charlotte has had the last laugh, for she is now far more famous and celebrated than Robert Southey. Like her sisters, she was a writer of vast talent, of genius, and yet in her case it was a genius always beset with self-doubt, and perhaps this is why she so readily accepted Southey’s advice to give up her dream of becoming a writer.

By a coincidence this very weekend marks the anniversary of a further letter which shows that even in adulthood, at the height of her fame, Charlotte could not think highly of her own poetry. She had received a letter from a Miss Alexander of Lupset Hall near Wakefield. Somehow, Miss Alexander had deduced that Currer Bell, celebrated author of Jane Eyre, was actually the unassuming Charlotte Brontë of Haworth. On 18th March 1850, Charlotte wrote back to Miss Alexander saying that she had hoped to keep her identity a secret, but she also gives her opinion of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the first Brontë book to be published and one which Miss Alexander had clearly asked for an opinion on. Charlotte writes:

‘As to the little book of rhymes it has no other title than Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell published by Smith, Elder & Co. 65 Cornhill. Let me warn you that it is scarcely worth your while to send for it. It is a collection of short fugitive pieces; my own share are chiefly juvenile productions written several years ago, before taste was chastened or judgment matured – accordingly they now appear to me very crude.’

There are great similarities in the self-critique of 1850 and of 1837. Thirteen years had passed since Charlotte’s reply to Robert Southey, but it seems that his pronouncement on her work was still very much on her mind. Thankfully it didn’t stop her writing, but it is time for me to stop writing today’s post, but not before we pay a quick Mother’s Day tribute to Maria Branwell, mother of the Brontës, and to all of you who are mothers or grandmothers. Have a great day, and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Maria Branwell by Tonkins
Happy Mother’s Day Maria Branwell

A Brontë Year And A Letter From Southey

Two rather interesting anniversaries in the Brontë story have their anniversaries on this day, and they both tell us a lot about the development of the young Brontës as writers. On this day 1829, Charlotte Brontë wrote ‘The History Of The Year’, and on this day in 1837 Charlotte received a letter from poet laureate Robert Southey telling her that literature could not and should not be a woman’s work. We’ve looked at both of these things in previous years, but as this is their anniversary day we’re going to look back at both these incidents in today’s new post.

Let’s begin chronologically and head back nearly two hundred years to 1829. Aged 12 Charlotte is now head of the siblings, their elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë having died tragically four years earlier. Charlotte’s ‘history’ gives us great insight into the Brontë family at this time, and we see a tight knit community, one who loves to play together, and crucially one who loves to create together. Here is the document in full:

‘Once Papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography and she wrote on its blank leaf, “Papa lent me this book.” The book is an hundred and twenty years old. It is at this moment lying before me while I write this. I am in the kitchen of the parsonage house, Haworth. Tabby the servant is washing up after breakfast and Anne, my youngest sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair looking at some cakes which Tabby has been baking for us. Emily is in the parlour brushing it. Papa and Branwell are gone to Keighley. Aunt is up stairs in her room and I am sitting by the table writing this in the kitchin. Keighley is a small town four miles from here. Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper, the Leeds Intelligencer, a most excellent Tory news paper edited by Mr Edward Wood for the proprietor Mr Hernaman. We take and 2 and see three newspapers a week. We take the Leeds Intelligencer, party Tory, and the Leeds Mercury, Whig, edited by Mr Baines and his brother, son in law and his 2 sons, Edward and Talbot. We see the John Bull; it is a High Tory, very violent. Mr Driver lends us it, likewise Blackwood’s Magazine, the most amiable periodical there is. The editor is Mr Christopher North, an old man, 74 years of age. The 1st of April is his birthday. His company are Thomas Tickler, Morgan O’Doherty, Macrabin, Mordecai Mullion, Warrell, and James Hogg, a man of most extraordinary genius, a Scottish shepherd.

Our plays were established: Young Men, June 1826; Our Fellows, July 1827; Islanders, December 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret. Emily’s and my bed plays were established the 1st December 1827, the others March 1828. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The Young Men took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had, Our Fellows from Aesop’s Fables, and the Islanders from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origins of our plays more explicitly if I can. March 12, 1829.

Young Men’s

Papa brought Branwell some soldiers at Leeds. When Papa came home it was night and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed and I snatched up one and exclaimed: “This is the Duke of Wellington! It shall be mine!” when I had said this, Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him “Gravey”. Anne’s was a queer little thing, much like herself. He was called Waiting Boy. Branwell chose Bonaparte. March 12, 1829.

The Origin Of The O’Dears

The origin of the O’Dears was as follows. We pretended we had each a large island inhabited by people 6 miles high. The people we took out of Aesop’s Fables. Hay Man was my chief man, Boaster Branwell’s, Hunter Anne’s, and Clown Emily’s. Our chief men were 10 miles high except Emily’s who was only 4. March 12, 1829.

The Origin Of The Islanders

The origin of the Islanders was as follows. It was one wet night in December. We were all sitting round the fire and had been silent some time, and at last I said, ‘Suppose we each had an island of our own.’ Branwell chose the Isle of Man, Emily Isle of Arran and Bute Isle, Anne, Jersey, and I chose the Isle of Wight. We then chose who should live in our islands. The chief of Branwell’s were John Bull, Astley Cooper, Leigh Hunt, etc, etc. Emily’s Walter Scott, Mr Lockhart, Johnny Lockhart etc, etc. Anne’s Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, Henry Halford, etc, etc. And I chose Duke of Wellington & son, North & Co., 30 officers, Mr Abernethy, etc, etc. March 12, 1829.’

1829 Bronte little book
This 1829 little book is just 5 inches high.

By 1829 we can see that the Brontë sisters, and brother, were fierce creators, conjuring lands and characters out of their imaginations – and by this time they were already putting them into print, as some of the tiny books written by the Brontës (by Charlotte and Branwell at this date) date from this year – like the 1829 manuscript above, only readable under a powerful magnifying glass.

Fast forward eight years and, thankfully, the Brontë love of writing has not diminished. By 1837 they were all in love with poetry and forthright Charlotte had sent some of her verse for appraisal by the most exalted poet in the land (alongside his friend William Wordsworth): poet laureate Robert Southey. Alas, we don’t have her original letter to Southey, but we do have his reply, and it’s a less than perceptive one as you can read below:

Charlotte treasured the letter and kept the original envelope, upon which she wrote: ‘Southey’s advice. To be kept forever.’ She also wrote back to Southey, but rather than giving it to him with both barrels, she wrote:

‘Once more allow me to thank you, with sincere gratitude. I trust I shall never more be ambitious to see my name in print – if the wish should rise I’ll look at Southey’s autograph and suppress it. It is honour enough for me that I have written to him and received an answer. The letter is consecrated; no one shall ever see it but Papa and my brother and sisters. Again I thank you – this incident I suppose will be renewed no more. If I live to be an old woman I shall remember it thirty years hence as a bright dream.’

Robert Southey, Charlotte’s correspondent

Thank goodness that Charlotte and her sisters didn’t, after all, allow this letter to stop them writing. – how surprised would Southey be to see Charlotte and her sisters remembered alongside him in Westminster Abbey’s ‘Poet’s Corner’ at the head of this post? In this we see the value of persistence and the value of following your dream. If you dream of writing a book go ahead and do, and don’t let anyone or anything tell you to stop. I won’t stop writing about the remarkable Brontës while I have breath in my body, so have a great day and I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Unveiling Of The Brontë Pillar Portrait

There is one iconic image of the Brontë sisters. In fact, there is only one complete and authentic portrait of the three writing sisters together. It divides opinion still, and it could be said that it’s far from ideal as it shows Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë in their youth but it still caused a stir when it was exhibited for the first time on this day in 1914 at the National Portrait Gallery (pictured above). In today’s post we’re going to look at the unveiling of the Brontë pillar portrait.

The painting of the sisters was completed by their brother Branwell Brontë in 1834, although there is no certainty over the date. That would make Charlotte 17 or 18 at the time of the portrait, Emily 15 or 16 and Anne 14. The painter himself would have been 16 or 17, and so whilst Branwell went on to be a fine portrait painter this is hardly one of his more accomplished works.

Bronte sisters portrait
Bronte sisters portait by Branwell Bronte, NPG175, courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

It is, however, in my opinion by far his most important work as it is the only completed portrait of the sisters together (there is an unfinished sketch which has become known as the ‘gun portrait’ as it shows a seated Branwell holding a shotgun.) I also love the way that Anne and Emily are shown side by side, as these inseparable sisters habitually were at this time.

In between Anne and Emily and Charlotte is the feature which gives this portrait its common nomenclature – a pillar. It is commonly thought that Branwell painted himself in this position, but that he disliked his attempt at self-portraiture so much that he painted a large pillar over himself, but is this true? Over time the pillar is fading and the figure beneath it is becoming more prominent – it’s certainly a male figure but it seems to be wearing a neckerchief of the kind always worn by his father Patrick Brontë. Could it be then that Patrick was originally pictured in a portrait with his daughters, and that Branwell painted over him at a later date (possibly when he was in one of his rages against his father)? Time, and its affect on the obscuring pillar, may one day yield the answer, but for now the pillar keeps its secret.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte wearing, as ever, his Wellington neckerchief

This is a picture used to keeping its secret, for until 1914 it was well known but presumed lost. I bring you below two contemporary reports which detail its amazing discovery:

The Sphere, 7th March 1914

The text reads: “The ROMANTIC DISCOVERY of BRONTE PORTRAITS. CHARLOTTE, EMILY, AND ANNE BRONTE– PAINTED BY BRANWELL BRONTE Charlotte to the right, Emily in centre, Anne to the left Photograph by Emery Walker MRS. GASKELL’S DESCRIPTION OF THIS PICTURE I have seen an oil painting of his, done I know not when, but probably about this time. It was a group of his sisters, life-size, three-quarters length not much better than sign-painting as to manipulation, but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable. I could only Judge of the fidelity with which the other two were depicted from the striking resemblance which Charlotte, upholding the great frame of canvas, and consequently standing right behind It, bore to her own representation, though It must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. The picture was divided, almost In the middle, by a great pillar. On the side of the column which was lighted by the sun stood Charlotte in the womanly dress of that day of gigot sleeves and large collars. On the deeply-shadowed side was Emily, with Anne’s gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily’s countenance struck me as full of power, Charlotte’s of solicitude, Anne’s of tenderness. The two younger seemed hardly to have attained their full growth, though Emily was taller than Charlotte; they had cropped hair and a more girlish dress. I remember looking on those two sad, earnest, shadowed faces, and wondering whether I could trace the mysterious expression which Is said to foretell an early death. I had some fond, superstitious hope that the column divided their fates from hers, who stood apart In the canvas, as in life she survived. I liked to see that the bright side of the pillar was towards her that the light in the picture fell on her; I might more truly have sought in her presentment nay, in her living face for the sign of death in her prime. They were good likenesses, however badly executed.” The Life of Charlotte Bronte. By Mrs. Gaskell”

We can also see from the image of the portrait in 1914 and of it now, earlier in the post, that the National Portrait Gallery have carried out some restoration on the piece. We now turn to a report from the day of the portrait’s unveiling:

Yorkshire Evening Post, 5th March 1914

The Yorkshire Evening Post comments that the picture had been folded by Charlotte’s widower Arthur and had remained unseen since it came into his possession, adding the comment: “Oh the barbarism of Charlotte’s husband!”
It is often thought that Arthur folded the picture because he disliked Branwell (the brother was at loggerheads with sister Charlotte throughout the time that Arthur knew them), but in fact that’s far from the truth. Arthur must have valued Branwell because he kept a portrait of him by Joseph Leyland on his wall, and we also hear, from a niece of Arthur, why he hid the pillar portrait away:

‘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.”’

To be fair, Arthur had never seen the sisters in their youth, so it could be, whether he thought it ugly or not, that it was a good representation. I personally think it’s a beautiful portrait because it is clearly painted with love, and it’s certainly a historically beautiful portrait.

The Brontë sisters themselves were all skilled artists in their own rights, of course, but it is with their pens that they painted portraits that will lost as long as our world keeps turning. I hope you can join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.