Charlotte Brontë’s Enduring Opinion Of Robert Southey

In previous posts we have looked at the infamous letter that poet laureate Robert Southey sent to Charlotte Brontë in 1837, when she was just 20 years old, and at Charlotte’s response and a further reply from Southey. In short, the celebrated poet was telling Charlotte that poetry and literary creation could not and should not be a woman’s work. We know that Charlotte valued that advice highly at the time, but surely after she found success as a writer she looked upon it in a different light. Or did she? A letter sent on this weekend in 1850 gives us a clue to her thoughts, and to her initial 1837 letter which is now lost, so that’s what we will look at in today’s post.

The letter arrived during a momentous week for Charlotte Brontë, for she was staying at Briery Close near Lake Windermere at the time (that’s it, at the head of this post). This was the home or Sir James and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth, great admirers of Charlotte who regularly courted Charlotte’s company, often to her displeasure. As this letter sent to Ellen Nussey on 26th August 1850 shows, the day after her return, whilst at Briery Close she met Matthew Arnold, the family of the Prussian ambassador, and a certain someone whose name would become forever associated with her own: this was the first meeting between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell:

Whilst at the Lake District, Charlotte also received a letter from the Reverend Cuthbert Southey. He was the sole surviving son of Robert Southey, and was busily at work on a biography of his father. During the course of his research he had come across details of the between Charlotte and Southey and had contacted Miss Brontë asking if she would supply him with the letters in question. Charlotte sent her response upon her return to Haworth, when she’d had a chance to retrieve the letters, and so I produce Charlotte’s reply, once again sent on 26th August 1850 below:

This is a very interesting letter, for it shows that more than 13 years after receiving Robert Southey’s letter, and despite by then being a hugely successful writer herself, she still valued Southey’s advice and the memory of its author. She ‘needed the needed the benevolent and stern advice he gives me’, she wrote, but many would disagree.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Charlotte first met Elizabeth Gaskell at Briery Close

Cuthbert’s memoir of his father gives us a tantalising glimpse of the initial letter that Charlotte Brontë sent to him, especially in the passage that Charlotte marked for deletion from Cuthbert’s book. The passage, written by Robert Southey but containing quotes from Charlotte, is as follows:

‘What I am, you might have learnt by such of my publications as have come into your hands: but you live in a visionary world; & seem to imagine that this is my case also, when you speak of my “stooping from a throne of light & glory”. Had you happened to be acquainted with me, a little personal knowledge would have tempered your enthusiasm. You who so ardently desire “to be forever known” as a poetess, might have had your ardour in some degree abated, by seeing a poet in the decline of life.’

Robert Southey bust
Robert Southey bust, National Portrait Gallery

Despite what we may think of Robert Southey’s advice now, it seems clear that Charlotte’s ardour for it or the poet himself never abated, even if, thankfully for us all, the course of her life, and of the life of her fellow Briery Close guest Elizabeth Gaskell, disproved the advice he had given. I hope to see you all next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Baptism Of Emily Brontë, And The Mystery Of Her Name

On this day in 1818 a very special event was taking place in the parish church of Thornton, near Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It was the baptism of the fifth child of the parish curate Patrick and his wife Maria. In her lifetime this child was little known outside of her close, small circle of acquaintances but after her death she has become a legendary figure in the world of literature. She was Emily Brontë, and in today’s post we’re going to look at what we know about her baptism, and about her unusual choice of name.

The Bell Chapel, Thornton where Emily Bronte was baptised

Emily had been born on the 30th July 1818, the fourth daughter of five children born to Patrick and Maria Brontë. At the time the parsonage building on Market Street must have been rather crowded, for not only did it contain Patrick and Maria and their children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell and now Emily Jane, it was also home to the two servant sisters Nancy and Sarah de Garrs. It was perhaps this overcrowding which led Patrick to write to the Bishop calling the building wholly inadequate to his needs – he was in search of a larger parish and a larger parsonage, but of course he would have to wait until the birth of his sixth child, Anne Brontë, before he could finally leave Thornton for the parish he and his family became synonymous with: Haworth.

Emily Bronte's christening cup
Emily Bronte’s christening cup

We have two fascinating items which capture a frozen moment in time, exactly 205 years ago today. One is the baptism cup shown above; bearing the name Emily Jane Brontë it is also cracked and repaired – perhaps it was knocked from a shelf, but it was such a prized possession that it was pieced back together again? Replicas of this delicate cup can now be bought, without the crack, from the Brontë Parsonage Museum shop, but the original is often on display in the parsonage itself.

The second item is below, and it’s the original baptism entry showing the baptism of Emily Jane Brontë. The information it gives is scant but interesting. On the 20th August 1818 the parish celebrated the baptism of Emily Jane, daughter of Patrick and Maria Brontë, A. B. (Patrick must have been proud of the degree he had earnt at Cambridge). The father’s profession is ‘Minister of Thornton’, and the presiding minister was William Morgan, Minister of Christ Church, Bradford.

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

Welsh-born Morgan was a close friend of Patrick Brontë. They had first met when young curates in Shropshire, and their paths crossed again when Patrick moved to Yorkshire in 1812 – so close were they that they got married on the same day in a joint wedding ceremony in December of that year. We can safely say then that Reverend Morgan was very familiar with the Godmothers chosen for young Emily at that ceremony, for one was his wife and the other was his mother-in-law!

It was certainly a family affair in the Bell Chapel that day! As well as Patrick and Maria, and young Emily of course, and we can conjecture whether Emily’s siblings were there, there were Jane Morgan and Jane Fennell. Jane Fennel had originally been called Jane Branwell, and she was Maria Bronte’s aunt from Penzance in Cornwall. Jane Morgan was Jane Fennell’s daughter and therefore a cousin of Maria Brontë – she had married William Morgan at the same ceremony at which Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell. The two priests acted as best men for each other, while the two brides were also chief bridesmaids. Phew, that’s a confusing paragraph to write or read on a Sunday. Also present in all likelihood would have been Elizabeth Firth of nearby Kipping House. It was Elizabeth who recorded the birth of Emily Jane Brontë in her diary, and a year and a half later it was her turn to be Godmother – to Anne Brontë.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan presided over Emily’s baptism and, all too soon, her funeral

So it is clear why Emily Jane Brontë had the middle name she had – she was named after her mother’s Aunt Jane (or possibly her mother’s cousin Jane, or both). But now we come to the mystery of Emily’s name.

From Elizabeth Firth’s diary, we know that the child’s name had already been decided on the day of her birth, but even in the choice of name Emily differs from her other siblings, just as she was to prove to be different in many other ways as she grew into a strong willed, independent woman; a unique and powerful genius.

Emily Jane Brontë is the only Brontë daughter to be given a middle name, with, as we have seen, Jane presumably being chosen as a tribute to both Maria’s cousin and the aunt who had played a role in bringing her and her husband Patrick together. The choice of Emily for over two centuries remained a mystery, as there is no record of an Emily among either the Cornish or Irish relatives; this makes Emily the only Brontë not named after a parent, an aunt or an uncle. It seems fair to surmise that a woman named Emily must have been a friend known to Patrick and Maria, and a special one at that, whose name was given precedence over the Jane that would have been a more traditional choice in the family. I believe I may know who that friend was.

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – former home of Maria Branwell, Emily’s mother

In the spring of 1817, Maria Brontë was pregnant, and her only son Patrick Branwell Brontë would soon be born. Maria’s sister Elizabeth Branwell had returned to Penzance but another visitor had taken her place in the busy parsonage on Thornton’s Market Street. On 18 March of that year, Elizabeth Firth’s diary records that ‘Miss Thomas came to Mr Brontë’s’, and we see records of her visits alongside Patrick and Maria in the diary until 18 May, when mention of her abruptly stops.

It is shown then that Miss Thomas stayed with the Brontës for at least two months, and such an extended visit shows that she must have been very close to Patrick or Maria, and it also suggests that, like Elizabeth Branwell the previous year, she must have travelled a long distance to get there and that the visit isn’t one that could be repeated regularly. Juliet Barker, in her excellent biography of the Brontë family, suggests that Miss Thomas could be a family member, or a friend that had travelled from Hartshead or Penzance.

After consulting the family tree we can say with certainty that there are no Branwell family relatives by the name of Thomas, but there is an intriguing entry in the 1851 census of Penzance. Here we find a visitor at 6, North Parade, the home of Guillaume Thomazie, a Professor of French and Italian – aged 74 she is named Emmy Thomas, unmarried and listed as a ‘former servant’. The 1861 census shows her still travelling at the age of 87 (the ages in nineteenth century census returns can often jump around in this way) when she is in Newlyn, Cornwall and listed as a ‘retired housekeeper.’

The Branwells were a family of some wealth and status in Penzance, and would doubtless have had a number of servants including, at the head of them all, a housekeeper. Could it be that this Miss Thomas was once the head of the Branwell family household and that, being less than ten years older than Maria, she had formed a close friendship with her? Furthermore, Emmy was often used for people christened Emily, so could we finally have a plausible source of the name given to the fifth Brontë child in 1818? Emily Brontë is the only sibling not named after a relative, but could she instead be named after a loyal friend who had journeyed from Cornwall to Thornton at a time when the Brontë family was growing?

I think so, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. Now you must excuse me, I’m off to watch the Lionesses hopefully lift the World Cup for England!

Remembering John Brown (1804-1855)

1855 was a year of sorrow in Haworth, and especially in and around Haworth Parsonage. In February of that year, long standing servant of the Brontë family Tabby Aykroyd died, and a month and a half later the great Charlotte Brontë died whilst pregnant, bringing hopes of a continuation of the family line to an end. On this day in 1855 parish sexton and Brontë neighbour John Brown was buried, and in today’s post we take a look at his role in the Brontë story.

Born in 1804, John Brown came from a long line of sextons and stonemasons and he continued the family tradition, becoming sexton of St. Michael’s and All Angels church in Haworth. It was an important role in the parish, as he was responsible for creating the stone monuments in Haworth’s churchyard, as well as maintaining the graveyard and church itself. In a parish such as Haworth, where annual epidemics decimated the population, it was also a very busy occupation.

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s portrait of his friend John Brown

As sexton, Brown had to work very closely with the parish priest, and so the Brown family occupied a house in close proximity to the parsonage. If you walk to the Brontë Parsonage today you will pass Sexton House on the alleyway leading up to it, just prior to the old schoolhouse. In fact it was John Brown himself who built this house in 1832, when he was just 28 years old.

John Brown was clearly a very respected man in the village, for he was Master of its Three Graces masonic lodge – a position of honour. When Patrick Brontë were looking for a new servant for the parsonage in 1839 it was to John Brown that he turned – and his young daughter Martha made the short walk from Sexton House to the Parsonage to become the new live in servant, a role she would occupy until Patrick’s passing in 1861.

Martha Brown
Martha Brown, one of John’s six daughters

John Brown was clearly a hard working and well respected man, and he was a family man too, for he and his wife Mary had (just as Patrick and Maria Brontë had) six children. In John Brown’s case, all his children were daughters.

Thanks to his role and his proximity, John Brown would have become very well known to the Brontë family, but there was one member particularly that he became close to: Branwell Brontë. So close were they that John Brown secured Branwell a position within the Three Graces lodge even before he was old enough to officially be a Freemason. We also know that they were regular drinking partners, but Brown must have been more temperate in his habits than his friend, for in 1845 it was he who was entrusted to take Branwell to Liverpool in an attempt to take him away from his habitual drinking in Haworth. This was referred to by Anne Brontë in her diary paper of 31st July 1855:

“Branwell has left Luddendenfoot and been a Tutor at Thorp Green and had much tribulation and ill health. He was very ill on Tuesday but he went with John Brown to Liverpool where he now is I suppose, and we hope he will be better and do better in future.”

Anne continues in this diary paper to say “This is a dismal cloudy wet evening. We have had so far a very cold wet summer.” Tell us about it Anne!

Envelope from Branwell Bronte to John Brown
Envelope from Branwell Bronte to John Brown

Charlotte Brontë also refers to this trip in a letter she sent to Ellen Nussey on the same day that Anne was writing her diary paper: “It was ten o’ clock at night when I got home – I found Branwell ill – he is so very often owing to his own fault – I was not therefore shocked at first – but when Anne informed me of the immediate concern of his present illness I was greatly shocked. He had last Thursday received a note from Mr Robinson sternly dismissing him intimating that he had discovered his proceedings which he characterised as bad beyond expression and charging him on pain of exposure to break off instantly and for ever all communication with every member of his family. We have had sad work with Branwell since – he thought of nothing but stunning or drowsing his distress of mind – no one in the house could have rest – and at last we have been obliged to send him from home for a week with some one to look after him.”

How the week in Liverpool passed we do not know, other than that they took a steamer boat trip together along the Welsh coast from where Branwell drew Penmaenmawr mountain, but Brown was unable to curb Branwell’s excesses. Towards the end of Branwell’s life, when he was too ill to leave the house, he would write to Brown begging him to lend him money and send him drink.

letter from Branwell Bronte to John Brown
A letter from Branwell Bronte to John Brown

As Brown’s daughters left, like Martha, to take up positions elsewhere, Sexton House became a regular boarding house for Patrick Brontë’s assistant curates. One who stayed there was Arthur Bell Nicholls. They may have got on well initially, Arthur too was well liked in the village, but Arthur’s disastrous proposal to Charlotte Brontë at the close of 1852 saw John Brown take a furious dislike to the man. How dare this man, a mere assistant curate from Ireland, think he was worthy to marry Charlotte Brontë? On 2nd January 1853 Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey:

“I am sorry for one other person [Arthur] whom nobody pities but me. Martha is bitter against him: John Brown says he should like to shoot him.”

We know of course that in 1854 Charlotte and Arthur married. Martha’s bitterness had vanished for she and Arthur became great friends, so much so that she later left Haworth and went to live in Ireland with Arthur and his second wife. John Brown too must have buried the hatchet, for we know that he was instrumental in organising the wedding ceremony. We know this thanks to an amazing account given in later life by James Robinson, who as a teenage apprentice teacher back in 1854 was one of only a handful of people to witness the early morning ceremony that saw Charlotte and Arthur united. Thanks to his account we also get a first hand account of John Brown and how he spoke:

“They were married during my apprenticeship. It was not known in the neighbourhood that the marriage was coming off, and to my surprise, when going past the end of ‘Church Fields’ to my lessons one morning, old John Brown, the sexton, was waiting for me, and said: ‘We want tha to go to t’top of t’ ‘ill to watch for three parsons coming from t’other hill, coming from Oxenhope. Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls are going to be married, and when tha sees Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Sowden coming at t’ far hill, tha must get back to t’ Parsonage, so’s Charlotte and Ellen Nussey can get their things on to go down to t’ church.’”

When John Brown died just a year later, the cause of death was given as ‘dust on the lungs’. This was no doubt a result of his years making and carving gravestones. Now his own memorial lies just outside the garden wall of Haworth Parsonage.

Martha Brown grave
The Brown family grave, Haworth

On the day of his funeral, exactly 168 years ago today, we know that Patrick Brontë sat in the front pews, normally reserved for the Brontë family, alongside Mary Brown and Martha Brown. Poor Martha who in the space of a few months had lost the woman, Tabby, who had been alongside her all her working life, Charlotte, who had become a great friend, and finally her father John. Presiding over the funeral service was the man John had threatened to shoot less than three years earlier, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

John Brown was friend to the Brontës and to the village of Haworth as a whole. When we look at Sexton House today, or at the vast array of monuments in Haworth’s churchyard, let us remember the man responsible for them. A man at the heart of the Brontë’s daily lives, at the heart of the Brontë story.
Let me finish by apologising for last week’s blog no show. Once again, the WordPress blogging platform defeated me, but a move to a new platform is imminent. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.