As we approach the start of a new year it’s always a good time to reflect on the past and take stock on our lives. It’s a time when we can make positive steps for the future, or even map out a completely new direction, and that’s just what one couple did as 1812 turned into 1813 – in a move that would change the world of literature forever.
You may have guessed that the couple I’m talking about were Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell. The dawn of 1813 must have been an incredibly exciting time for them, for just three days earlier, on 29th December 1812, they married at St. Oswald’s parish church in Guiseley, between Leeds and Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Within eight years they had six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane, and Anne Brontë.
As surviving letters show, there can be no doubt that this was a love match. Love had come late into their lives, by Victorian standards; Patrick was then 35 and Maria 29. It came quickly into their lives, they first met in the summer of the year in which they were married. But the twist of fate that led this man from Northern Ireland and this woman from Cornwall to meet in a Yorkshire school led to great happiness, and it led to the children and then to the incredible novels that we love so much today.
It was far from a conventional wedding, by Victorian or modern standards. Why have one festive wedding when you can have three? At the same ceremony at which Patrick married Marie, his best friend William Morgan married Marie’s cousin Jane Fennell, with Marie’s uncle (Jane’s father) presiding over the ceremony. By prior arrangement (which would have been made so much easier if they’d had WhatsApp in the nineteenth century), on the same day and at the same time but 400 miles away in Penzance, Charlotte Branwell, Maria’s younger sister and cousin to Jane Fennell, was marrying another cousin Joseph Branwell. Phew! Thankfully, many years later another Charlotte Branwell, the daughter of Charlotte senior and Joseph, gave a summary of this triple wedding to the Cornish Telegraph:
St. Oswald’s church today pays fitting tribute to their part in this special event, and in the Brontë story. Brontë enthusiast Joanne Wilcock recently attended a service at the Guiseley church and has very kindly given me permission to use these pictures she took from inside St. Oswald’s.
Whether you plan on getting engaged or married next year, on reading more books, or simply enjoying each day as it comes, I wish you and your loved ones a very happy and healthy new year! In 2024 I aim to start producing YouTube videos about the Brontës and other literary and historical subjects, so I’ll let you know when that’s all up and running. But, as always, I’ll be here blogging about those three sisters from Bradford who hold such a special place in my heart – I hope you’ll join me next Sunday, next year, for another new Brontë blog post.
Christmas Day is here, so let us put all sorrows to one side and celebrate a day when people simply feel happy with themselves and the world around them.
It’s not seasonal weather, as I type this on Christmas morning 2023 it feels more like March or April, and rain rather than snow is forecast for later. I love Christmas traditions however, so I will keep to the tradition of this page and festoon it with examples of Victorian Christmas cards.
Most of these examples are from the late Victorian period, as the concept of sending Christmas cards didn’t begin until 1843 thanks to Sir Henry Cole. Did the Brontë family send Christmas cards? We know they received one thanks to this example sent to Charlotte Brontë by Ellen Nussey; as you can see it’s rather less flamboyant, and weird, than the ones that came in succeeding decades.
Christmas in Haworth Parsonage was obviously a deeply meaningful one, a spiritual one, for the daughters of a Church of England priest. There would have been music at church and at home, with the brilliant pianist Emily Brontë at the keys, and Anne by her shoulder providing accompaniment in the singing voice described by Ellen Nussey as ‘weak, but very sweet’.
I leave you now with my other blogging tradition, the Anne Brontë poem written on, and about, Christmas Day itself. May I wish you all, your family and friends, a very happy Christmas and I hope you will return next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. As you know, I have been writing these blog posts for eight years now, simply because I like to share my love of this wonderful family with fellow literature fans. You’re support means the world to me – thank you! I leave you now with Anne Brontë and her ‘Music On Christmas Morning’:
‘Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.’
The big day is fast approaching, so I hope you have everything in hand and can look forward to a relaxed Christmas Eve evening? Tomorrow I will bring you my traditional festive post, but today we turn to something very much sadder.
Christmas should be time for love, a time for joy, but in one household in particular the Christmas of 1848 was a mournful one: Haworth Parsonage. Emily Brontë died aged 30 on December 19th of that year, and was buried in the Brontë family tomb, beneath the church floor, just three days before Christmas.
To us, Emily Brontë was a towering genius. A brilliant poet and author of just one novel – but in my opinion it, Wuthering Heights, is the greatest book ever written. To those who knew her, however, it was a deeply personal loss. She ‘died in a time of promise’, as Charlotte said. She knew how great her younger sister was, and knew that she had the talent to achieve anything in the world of literature, yet at the time of Emily’s death her work had received little praise and her name was unknown. Charlotte, and Emily’s younger sister Anne Brontë, could never have guessed how Emily’s name would endure, how she would be loved the world over more than two centuries after her birth.
To Anne this was the greatest loss of all. She and Emily had been ferociously close throughout their childhood and youth, in a twin-like sympathy as friend Ellen Nussey said. They would walk through the parsonage, around Haworth and across the moors arm in arm, but now those walks were at an end. Anne herself had little time left to live, within weeks of Emily’s passing she too was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis) and just over six months later Anne too would be laid to rest.
There was one other who was especially devastated by Emily’s passing, her beloved and loyal mastiff dog Keeper. In a letter Ellen Nussey sent to Elizabeth Gaskell, who had asked for an account of Emily’s character whilst she was writing her brilliant biography of Charlotte Brontë, she gave an account of Emily’s funeral on 22nd December 1848. Ellen was present, she had been one of the few, perhaps the only, friends the fiercely shy Emily made outside her own family. In the letter Ellen gives this moving account of another who was present:
‘Keeper was a solemn mourner at Emily’s funeral & never regained his cheerfulness.’
Charlotte later recalled how both Keeper and Flossy, Anne’s devoted spaniel, would thereafter wait mournfully outside their departed mistresses’ rooms, but became excited when Charlotte returned from visits. They thought that others would be returning with her, but Charlotte noted they would never see them again, ‘and nor will I.’
On the 23rd December Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen to tell her the dreadful news, in an understated, quiet, moving letter:
‘Emily suffers no more either from pain or weakness now. She never will suffer more in this world – she is gone after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible then she might be with us still for weeks and a few hours afterwards she was in Eternity – yes, there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now. Yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the church pavement. We are very calm at present, why should we be otherwise? The anguish of seeing her suffer – the spectacle of the pains of Death is gone by – the funeral day is past – we feel she is at peace – no need now to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind – Emily does not feel them. She has died in a time of promise – we saw her torn from life in its prime – but it is God’s will, and the place where she is gone is better than that she has left.’
I know that Christmas is a hard time for many, as we think of loved ones no longer here. May you find peace and the hope of everlasting love. Emily was indeed torn from life in her prime, so we must all live every day to the best, and let those we love know just how much they mean to us. I hope to see you tomorrow for a Christmas Day post, a rather more joyful one as we look at music on Christmas morning.
There’s just one week and a day until Santa pulls up his slay and Christmas joy arrives for 24 glorious hours. At this time of year many of us are looking forward to the big day (or frantically wrapping presents) but Emily Brontë was already looking forward to Spring and the new life it heralds.
We know this because it was on the 18th of December 1838 that a 20 year old Emily wrote her poem ‘The Blue Bell’. Here it is:
The blue bell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air;
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit’s care.
There is a spell in purple heath
Too wildly, sadly dear;
The violet has a fragrant breath
But fragrance will not cheer.
The trees are bare, the sun is cold;
And seldom, seldom seen;
The heavens have lost their zone of gold
The earth its robe of green;
And ice upon the glancing stream
Has cast its sombre shade
And distant hills and valleys seem
In frozen mist arrayed —
The blue bell cannot charm me now
The heath has lost its bloom,
The violets in the glen below
They yield no sweet perfume.
But though I mourn the heather—bell
‘Tis better far, away;
I know how fast my tears would swell
To see it smile today;
And that wood flower that hides so shy
Beneath the mossy stone
Its balmy scent and dewy eye:
’Tis not for them I moan.
It is the slight and stately stem,
The blossom’s silvery blue,
The buds hid like a sapphire gem
In sheaths of emerald hue.
‘Tis these that breathe upon my heart
A calm and softening spell
That if it makes the tear—drop start
Has power to soothe as well.
For these I weep, so long divided
Through winter’s dreary day,
In longing weep—but most when guided
On withered banks to stray.
If chilly then the light should fall
Adown the dreary sky
And gild the dank and darkened wall
With transient brilliancy,
How do I yearn, how do I pine
For the time of flowers to come,
And turn me from that fading shine
To mourn the fields of home —”
Through winter’s dreary day Emily longs for this most fragrant and colourful of wild flowers. We can imagine Emily and Anne, forever by each other’s side when together in Haworth, heading out to see the local bluebells, for Anne Brontë too wrote a poem dedicated to this flower. Here is her ‘The Bluebell’:
“A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.
There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.
Yet I recall not long ago
A bright and sunny day,
‘Twas when I led a toilsome life
So many leagues away;
That day along a sunny road
All carelessly I strayed,
Between two banks where smiling flowers
Their varied hues displayed.
Before me rose a lofty hill,
Behind me lay the sea,
My heart was not so heavy then
As it was wont to be.
Less harassed than at other times
I saw the scene was fair,
And spoke and laughed to those around,
As if I knew no care.
But when I looked upon the bank
My wandering glances fell
Upon a little trembling flower,
A single sweet bluebell.
Whence came that rising in my throat,
That dimness in my eye?
Why did those burning drops distil —
Those bitter feelings rise?
O, that lone flower recalled to me
My happy childhood’s hours
When bluebells seemed like fairy gifts
A prize among the flowers,
Those sunny days of merriment
When heart and soul were free,
And when I dwelt with kindred hearts
That loved and cared for me.
I had not then mid heartless crowds
To spend a thankless life
In seeking after others’ weal
With anxious toil and strife.
‘Sad wanderer, weep those blissful times
That never may return!’
The lovely floweret seemed to say,
And thus it made me mourn.”
Whose poetic offering to the bluebell (or blue bell) do you like best? Let me know, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. There will also of course, as long term readers and subscribers of my blog, be a special post on Christmas Day itself. May the week to come be a happy and stress-free one for you and your loved ones!
In previous posts we looked at how a young Charlotte Brontë sent her poetry to poet laureate Robert Southey, who gave it short shrift and insisted that literature could not and should not be a woman’s work. At the same time, Charlotte was sending samples of her prose to another person associated with the romantic poetry movement: Hartley Coleridge. In today’s post we’ll look at a letter she sent to him on this day 1840, and what it tells us about her dreams of writing at the time.
Hartley Coleridge was a son of famed poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but that proved to be an albatross around his neck. Whilst he himself wrote poetry, he could never match his father’s fame or talents, although he did inherit a taste for alcohol and opiates – it was this intemperance that led to Hartley being dismissed from a position as a fellow of Oxford University. Nevertheless, William Wordsworth, a close friend of his father, took a keen, avuncular interest in Hartley, and the Brontës were great fans of his work. In later years, Branwell shared his own poetry with Hartley and received encouraged from him, but it seems that Charlotte’s early prose received less encouragement, as we can see in the letter sent in return by Charlotte Brontë 183 years ago today:
“Sir, I was almost as much pleased to get your letter as if it had been one from Professor Wilson containing a passport of admission to Blackwood — You do not certainly flatter me very much nor suggest very brilliant hopes to my imagination — but on the whole I can perceive that you write like an honest man and a gentleman — and I am very much obliged to you both for the candour and civility of your reply. It seems then Messrs Percy and West are not gentlemen likely to make an impression upon the heart of any Editor in Christendom? wellI commit them to oblivion with several tears and much affliction but I hope I Can get over it.
Your calculation that the affair might have extended to three Vols is very moderate — I felt myself actuated by the pith and perseverance of a Richardson and could have held the distaff and spun day and night till I had lengthened the thread to thrice that extent — but you, like a most pitiless Atropos, have cut it short in its very commencement — I do not think you would have hesitated to do the same to the immortal Sir Charles Grandison if Samuel Richardson Esqr. had sent you the first letters of Miss Harriet Byron—and Miss Lucy Selby for inspection — very good letters they are Sir, Miss Harriet sings her own praises as sweetly as a dying swan — and her friends all join in the chorus, like a Company of wild asses of the desert.
It is very edifying and profitable to create a world out of one’s own brain and people it with inhabitants who are like so many Melchisedecs — ‘‘Without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life’’. By conversing daily with such beings and accustoming your eyes to their glaring attire and fantastic features — you acquire a tone of mind admirably calculated to enable you to cut a respectable figure in practical life — If you have ever been accustomed to such society Sir you will be aware how distinctly and vividly their forms and features fix themselves on the retina of that ‘‘inward eye’’ which is said to be ‘‘the bliss of solitude’’. Some of them are so ugly — you can liken them to nothing but the grotesque things carved by a besotted pagan for his temple — and some of them so preternaturally beautiful that their aspect startles you as much as Pygmalion’s Statue must have startled him — when life began to animate its chiselled features and kindle up its blind, marble eyes. I am sorry Sir I did not exist forty or fifty years ago when the Lady’s magazine was flourishing like a green bay tree — in that case I make no doubt my aspirations after literary fame would have met with due encouragement — Messrs Percy and West should have stepped forward like heroes upon a stage worthy of their pretensions and I would have contested the palm with the Authors of Derwent Priory — of the Abbey and of Ethelinda. — You see Sir I have read the Lady’s Magazine and know something of its contents — though I am not quite certain of the correctness of the titles I have quoted for it is long, very long since I perused the antiquated print in which those tales were given forth — I read them before I knew how to criticize or object — they were old books belonging to my mother or my Aunt; they had crossed the Sea, had suffered ship-wreck and were discoloured with brine— I read them as a treat on holiday afternoons or by stealth when I should have been minding my lessons — I shall never see anything which will interest me so much again — One black day my father burnt them because they contained foolish love-stories. With all my heart I wish I had been born in time to contribute to the Lady’s magazine.The idea of applying to a regular Novel-publisher — and seeing all my characters at length in three Vols, is very tempting — but I think on the whole I had better lock up this precious manuscript — wait till I get sense to produce something which shall at least aim at an object of some kind and meantime bind myself apprentice to a chemist and druggist if I am a young gentleman or to a Milliner and Dressmaker if I am a young lady.
You say a few words about my politics intimating that you suppose me to be a high Tory belonging to that party which claims for its head his Serene highness the Prince of the Powers of the Air. I would have proved that to perfection if I had gone on with the tale — I would have made old Thornton a just representative of all the senseless, frigid prejudices of conservatism — I think I would have introduced a Puseyite too and polished-off the High Church with the best of Warren’s jet blacking. I am pleased that you cannot quite decide whether I belong to the soft or the hard sex — and though at first I had no intention of being enigmatical on the subject — yet as I accidentally omitted to give the clue at first, I will venture purposely to withhold it now — as to my handwriting, or the ladylike tricks you mention in my style and imagery — you must not draw any conclusion from those — Several young gentlemen curl their hair and wear corsets — Richardson and Rousseau — often write exactly like old women — and Bulwer and Cooper and Dickens and Warren like boarding-school misses.
Seriously Sir, I am very much obliged to you for your kind and candid letter — and on the whole I wonder you took the trouble to read and notice the demi-semi novelette of an anonymous scribe who had not even the manners to tell you whether he was a man or woman or whether his common-place ‘‘C T’’ meant Charles Tims or Charlotte Tomkins.You ask how I came to hear of you — or of your place of residence or to think of applying to you for advice — These things are all a mystery Sir — It is very pleasant to have something in one’s power — and to be able to give a Lord Burleigh shake of the head and to look wise and important even in a letter. I did not suspect you were your Father.”
It is clear to see that Hartley was not over-enamoured with Charlotte’s early work, but he must have seen some promise as he advised her to write longer works – the fashion at the time, especially as most book sales were sold by volume to circulating libraries – meaning a three volume book made three times as much money. Also fascinating is Charlotte’s reference to Lady’s Magazine.
This clearly was a great favourite of her mother Maria, for it was her possessions that were shipwrecked in 1812 en route from Cornwall to a new home in Yorkshire. It was these magazines, then, that Charlotte devoured in her teens and in her youth, and which eventually led to the monumental genius of her novels.
Charlotte Brontë was not only a brilliant and fascinating novelist, she was also a brilliant and fascinating letter writer, and every epistle that dripped from her quill gives us a fascinating insight into her life, family and times. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.
This weekend marks the anniversary of what could in effect be said to be the last chapter of the Brontë story, yet the year in which it occurred is much nearer than you might imagine: 1906. On 2nd December of that year, Arthur Bell Nicholls died in Banagher, County Offally. He was the widower of Charlotte Brontë, and Arthur’s death marked the last passing of one who was central to the Brontë legend. He remarried faithful to the memory of his wife long after her passing, and his Hill House home became almost a shrine to Charlotte and her family, as we shall see in today’s post.
After Charlotte’s untimely and tragic death in 1855, Arthur returned to his Irish homeland – to Banagher, the town in which he had been raised by his uncle Dr. Alan Bell alongside his younger cousin Mary Anna. Arthur and Mary, 11 years his junior, were very close, and Charlotte sang her praises after meeting her during her 1854 honeymoon:
‘The other cousin [Mary Anna] was a pretty lady-like girl with gentle English manners. They accompanied us last Friday down to Banagher – his Aunt’s – Mrs. Bell’s residence, where we are now… In this house Mr. Nicholls was brought up by his uncle Dr. Bell… The male members of this family – such as I have seen seem thoroughly educated gentlemen. Mrs. Bell is like an English or Scottish matron quiet, kind and well-bred – it seems she was brought up in London. Both her daughters are strikingly pretty in appearance – and their manners are very amiable and pleasing. I must say I like my new relations.’
After his return to Ireland Arthur found solace in the company of Mary, and in 1864 they married. It seems to me that this was a marriage of convenience; they had been brought up, in effect, as brother and sister, and Arthur remained devoted to Charlotte throughout his life, seemingly without a hint of jealousy from his second wife. We know this from a number of accounts from people who visited Arthur in Banagher, including from Clement King Shorter, the Brontë biographer who became President of the Brontë Society, but was in fact a con man who defrauded Ellen Nussey in particular out of numerous Bronte treasures.
I will give an account now, however, of one who knew Arthur and his second wife Mary well – their niece Harriett Bell. In 1927 she gave the following account to Cornhill Magazine:
‘My uncle had very definite and rigid views. I remember as a child hearing a deep groan of disapproval issuing from the Hill House pew when something that was said by the preacher (not my father!) excited his displeasure. Though he retired from the church on account of throat trouble, he was a healthy man. But in his youth a doctor had told him that he had a weak heart, and for the rest of his long life his wife used to detect him every now and then surreptitiously feeling his pulse, much to her quiet amusement!
The Hill House was full of Brontë relics. The drawing-room walls were hung with their wonderful pencil drawings. Old Mr Brontë’s rifle leaned against a corner in the dining-room.
Upstairs was the chair at which Charlotte always kneeled to pray, as did her husband after her death. In a drawer, carefully treasured by my aunt, were the little muslin wedding-dress, small one-buttoned gloves, and the sandalled shoes, just as they had been placed together by Charlotte herself many years before.
The store-room was fragrant with the smell of sponge-cake, made from the recipe of Martha, the maid from Haworth Vicarage, who accompanied Mr Nicholls to Ireland after the death of old Mr Brontë.
The picture of Charlotte Brontë which was left by my uncle to the National Portrait Gallery used to hang in the centre of the drawing room wall, with a table underneath. My aunt’s sofa was beyond the table. Once the portrait fell from the wall, skipped the table, and in some mysterious way fell on Aunt Mary. Luckily, neither she nor the picture suffered, but she thought it a curious incident.
After my uncle died she had his coffin brought down and placed beneath the picture. A rough sketch by Branwell Brontë of his sisters was stowed away on the top of an old cupboard. My aunt attached no value to it, as she said it was ‘so bad of the girls’, and was reluctant to its being sent to London after her husband’s death, but it now also hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.’
A fascinating first-hand account that reveals why Arthur quit the church, and what happened to what is now one of the most famous literary portraits of them all: the pillar portrait of the Bronte sisters made by their brother Branwell.
Another relative of Arthur, his great-niece Marjorie Gallop gave the following account of Arthur and his passing:
‘‘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.’
It took a long time for Charlotte Brontë to find the love of her life: Arthur Bell Nicholls. They were married for far too little a time, a cruel curtailing of the joy Charlotte had yearned for all her life. But it was thanks to Arthur that she knew this happiness. She loved Arthur briefly but deeply, but Arthur’s love for her was going strong into the twentieth century. Let us remember him today. I am thrilled to say that Arthur and Charlotte are being remembered in Banagher. Hill House is now the stunning Charlotte’s Way guesthouse, and yesterday it held the inaugural meeting of a new Irish Brontë Society dedicated to the memory of Charlotte and Arthur. I wish it all the luck in the world, and I wish you to join me here next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.