Brontë Depictions Of February

February is a month of change in the calendar year. It’s typically a cold month, and has (so the Met Office tells me) on average five days of snow per year. It has turbulent, stormy days and torrential downpours. It can also, however, produce mild days, like today in Yorkshire, when the promise of spring seems almost close enough to touch.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
We remember Tabby Aykroyd, whose anniversary was yesterday

It was often a month of change in the Brontë household within Haworth Parsonage too. It was the month in 1840, for example, when the Brontë sisters received their first ever Valentine’s cards. It was the month in 1855 when loyal servant Tabby Aykroyd died, with her beloved Charlotte Brontë moving ever closer to her own passing. It is a month of unpredictability, but it is a month of promise too – and that’s reflected by the appearance of February within the Brontë novels as we shall see in today’s blog post:

Villette

‘One February night – I remember it well – there came a voice near Miss Marchmont’s house, heard by every inmate, but translated, perhaps, only by one. After a calm winter, storms were ushering in the spring. I had put Miss Marchmont to bed; I sat at the fireside sewing. The wind was wailing at the windows; it had wailed all day; but, as night deepened, it took a new tone – an accent keen, piercing, almost articulate to the ear; a plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves, trilled in every gust.

“Oh, hush! hush!” I said in my disturbed mind, dropping my work, and making a vain effort to stop my ears against that subtle, searching cry. I had heard that very voice ere this, and compulsory observation had forced on me a theory as to what it boded. Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm – this restless, hopeless cry – denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life. Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind. Hence, I inferred, arose the legend of the Banshee. I fancied, too, I had noticed – but was not philosopher enough to know whether there was any connection between the circumstances – that we often at the same time hear of disturbed volcanic action in distant parts of the world; of rivers suddenly rushing above their banks; and of strange high tides flowing furiously in on low sea-coasts. “Our globe,” I had said to myself, “seems at such periods torn and disordered; the feeble amongst us wither in her distempered breath, rushing hot from steaming volcanoes.”’

Agnes Grey

‘One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather; for Miss Matilda had set out on her daily ride, and Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls. But it struck me that I ought to leave these selfish pleasures, and the park with its glorious canopy of bright blue sky, the west wind sounding through its yet leafless branches, the snow-wreaths still lingering in its hollows, but melting fast beneath the sun, and the graceful deer browsing on its moist herbage already assuming the freshness and verdure of spring – and go to the cottage of one Nancy Brown, a widow, whose son was at work all day in the fields, and who was afflicted with an inflammation in the eyes; which had for some time incapacitated her from reading: to her own great grief, for she was a woman of a serious, thoughtful turn of mind. I accordingly went, and found her alone, as usual, in her little, close, dark cottage, redolent of smoke and confined air, but as tidy and clean as she could make it. She was seated beside her little fire (consisting of a few red cinders and a bit of stick), busily knitting, with a small sackcloth cushion at her feet, placed for the accommodation of her gentle friend the cat, who was seated thereon, with her long tail half encircling her velvet paws, and her half-closed eyes dreamily gazing on the low, crooked fender.

“Well, Nancy, how are you to-day?”

“Why, middling, Miss, i’ myseln – my eyes is no better, but I’m a deal easier i’ my mind nor I have been,” replied she, rising to welcome me with a contented smile; which I was glad to see, for Nancy had been somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy. I congratulated her upon the change. She agreed that it was a great blessing, and expressed herself “right down thankful for it”; adding, “If it please God to spare my sight, and make me so as I can read my Bible again, I think I shall be as happy as a queen.”

“I hope He will, Nancy,” replied I; “and, meantime, I’ll come and read to you now and then, when I have a little time to spare.”

With expressions of grateful pleasure, the poor woman moved to get me a chair; but, as I saved her the trouble, she busied herself with stirring the fire, and adding a few more sticks to the decaying embers; and then, taking her well-used Bible from the shelf, dusted it carefully, and gave it me. On my asking if there was any particular part she should like me to read, she answered –

“Well, Miss Grey, if it’s all the same to you, I should like to hear that chapter in the First Epistle of St. John, that says, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’”

With a little searching, I found these words in the fourth chapter. When I came to the seventh verse she interrupted me, and, with needless apologies for such a liberty, desired me to read it very slowly, that she might take it all in, and dwell on every word; hoping I would excuse her, as she was but a “simple body.”

“The wisest person,” I replied, “might think over each of these verses for an hour, and be all the better for it; and I would rather read them slowly than not.”

Accordingly, I finished the chapter as slowly as need be, and at the same time as impressively as I could; my auditor listened most attentively all the while, and sincerely thanked me when I had done. I sat still about half a minute to give her time to reflect upon it; when, somewhat to my surprise, she broke the pause by asking me how I liked Mr. Weston?

“I don’t know,” I replied, a little startled by the suddenness of the question; “I think he preaches very well.”

“Ay, he does so; and talks well too.”’

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was the inspiration for Anne’s hero Weston

Jane Eyre

‘“I’m sure last winter (it was a very severe one, if you recollect, and when it did not snow, it rained and blew), not a creature but the butcher and postman came to the house, from November till February; and I really got quite melancholy with sitting night after night alone; I had Leah in to read to me sometimes; but I don’t think the poor girl liked the task much: she felt it confining. In spring and summer one got on better: sunshine and long days make such a difference; and then, just at the commencement of this autumn, little Adele Varens came and her nurse: a child makes a house alive all at once; and now you are here I shall be quite gay.”’

Wuthering Heights

‘Edgar sighed; and, walking to the window, looked out towards Gimmerton Kirk. It was a misty afternoon, but the February sun shone dimly, and we could just distinguish the two fir-trees in the yard, and the sparely-scattered gravestones.

“I’ve prayed often,” he half soliloquised, “for the approach of what is coming; and now I begin to shrink, and fear it. I thought the memory of the hour I came down that glen a bridegroom would be less sweet than the anticipation that I was soon, in a few months, or, possibly, weeks, to be carried up, and laid in its lonely hollow! Ellen, I’ve been very happy with my little Cathy: through winter nights and summer days she was a living hope at my side. But I’ve been as happy musing by myself among those stones, under that old church: lying, through the long June evenings, on the green mound of her mother’s grave, and wishing – yearning for the time when I might lie beneath it. What can I do for Cathy? How must I quit her? I’d not care one moment for Linton being Heathcliff’s son; nor for his taking her from me, if he could console her for my loss. I’d not care that Heathcliff gained his ends, and triumphed in robbing me of my last blessing! But should Linton be unworthy – only a feeble tool to his father – I cannot abandon her to him! And, hard though it be to crush her buoyant spirit, I must persevere.”’

Wuthering Heights

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘But sometimes, I believe, she really had some little gratification in conversing with me; and one bright February morning, during twenty minutes’ stroll along the moor, she laid aside her usual asperity and reserve, and fairly entered into conversation with me, discoursing with so much eloquence and depth of thought and feeling on a subject happily coinciding with my own ideas, and looking so beautiful withal, that I went home enchanted; and on the way (morally) started to find myself thinking that, after all, it would, perhaps, be better to spend one’s days with such a woman than with Eliza Millward; and then I (figuratively) blushed for my inconstancy.’

February, as the Brontë sisters well knew, is a month of ups and downs, but I hope the second half of your February brings more sunny days than rainy horizons. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Day Love Arrived At Haworth Parsonage

The day of love is here, so in today’s special post we’re heading back exactly 184 years to the day when love arrived at Haworth Parsonage interspersed with a selection of Victorian-era Valentine’s Day cards!

Valentines cherub

The giving of Valentine’s cards far predates the giving of Christmas cards that only became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Brontë sisters received their first cards on February 14th, 1840, and even though they eventually discovered the source was their father’s new assistant curate it must still have been a thrill for them – especially for 20 year old Anne.

What You Please Anne Bronte

The man was, of course, William Weightman, who had recently gained his Master of Arts degree from the newly founded Durham University and commenced life in the clergy. In the run up to February 14th he was astonished to find out that none of the sisters had ever received a Valentine’s day card, and characteristically he sprung into action. What he did next was a testament to his kind and good nature, although as we shall see Charlotte later took a different view of it. He not only bought four cards, not wanting the visiting Ellen Nussey to feel left out, but wrote personalised verses in each. His efforts didn’t end there, as he then walked more than ten miles across very rugged terrain in the height of winter to Bradford, where he posted them. He did this of course so the Brontë sisters wouldn’t guess he had sent them because of a local postmark, thereby adding to the excitement and intrigue.

Valentine swans

The titles of the poems on each card can be equally intriguing to us: with only one can we positively identify the target, as ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ was obviously meant for the great Brontë friend Miss Nussey. One title, sadly, has been lost in the intervening years, but two of the other three were called ‘Soul Divine’ and ‘Away Fond Love’. Could ‘Soul Divine’ have been for Emily, in tribute to her indomitable spirit, and could ‘Away Fond Love’ have been a reference to Anne, who was at that moment looking for a new situation as a governess that would take her away from Haworth? If so, then the missing title could have been for Charlotte, who may possibly have ripped it up in a fit of pique after falling spectacularly out with the young man she had once thought so highly of.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman drawn by Charlotte Bronte

Despite the Bradford subterfuge, Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Ellen soon worked out who their anonymous sender was, and they wrote him a collective poem in return:

“We cannot write or talk like you;
We’re plain folks every one;
You’ve played a clever trick on us,
We thank you for the fun.
Believe us frankly when we say
(Our words though blunt are true).
At home, abroad, by night or day,
We all wish well to you.”

Victorian Valentine

Were the sisters annoyed at being made fun of, or did they see it as an act of kindliness? I believe the latter, but either way we can easily imagine how delighted they must have been when their cards first arrived. These were young women who loved the romance of novels by Walter Scott and the poetry of Byron, and had created their own lands of Angria and Gondal full of the intrigues and mysteries of love, so this romantic gesture must have set their hearts a-flutter, if only for a moment or two. Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 17th March 1840 (her father’s birthday, a fact she fails to mention in her letter – but then Charlotte was never very good at remembering birthdays) told of how well received the cards had been, and what an impression they and their sender had made:

‘Walk up to Gomersal and tell her [Martha Taylor] forthwith every individual occurrence you can recollect, including Valentines, “Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen” – “Away Fond Love”, “Soul Divine” and all – likewise if you please the painting of Miss Celia Amelia Weightman’s portrait [Celia Amelia was Charlotte’s pet name for William] and that young lady’s frequent and agreeable visits.”

early Valentine's card

In February 1841, William Weightman once more sent Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë a Valentine’s day card, but this is how Charlotte viewed it now as revealed in another letter to Ellen:

“I knew better how to treat it than I did those we received a year ago. I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character, he knows I know him… for all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round.”

Charlotte had Weightman’s character correct the first time round. His kindness would eventually be his undoing as his passion for visiting sick parishioners led to his early demise from cholera just two years after sending the Brontës their first ever Valentine’s Day cards.

Early Valentine's Day card

If he had lived longer he may well have sent cards annually to Anne Brontë, for I like to think that they were an ideal match for each other. After all, it would not have been unusual for a young cleric to seek a wife among the daughters of a more senior clergyman, and affection at least certainly grew between them, until we hear of Charlotte complaining that Weightman spends his time in church sighing and gazing at Anne.

It was not to be, alas, but at least the sisters had that thrilling 14th of February in 1840 to remember. I hope that you have a very happy day, whether you’re with the love of your life, looking for that special person, or spending the day on your own with a good book. Please come back this Sunday for a completely new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë’s “Letter Out Of Nothing”

Charlotte Brontë, like her sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, was a consummate writer. Writing came easily to her, and as readers of her novels will know, she was almost incapable of writing a dull or badly-phrased sentence. Unlike her sisters, we have a large number of letters from Charlotte Brontë that showcase her writing skills, as well as providing a remarkable look at life within the Brontë family. In today’s post we look at a letter Charlotte sent on this day 1834, a letter which she ‘made out of nothing’.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte, was the recipient of this letter.

At the time of its composition Charlotte Brontë was seventeen years old, and this letter shows the maturing style of Charlotte between her juvenilia set in the imaginary kingdom of Angria and her mature masterpieces written in her thirties. The recipient was Ellen Nussey, a year (almost to the day) younger than Charlotte, and the great lifelong friend she had made at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head in Mirfield. It is a letter brimming with charm and youthful vigour, but with a tinge of characteristic melancholy too:

Charlotte Bronte's letter to Ellen Nussey, 11 February 1834
Charlotte Bronte’s letter to Ellen Nussey, 11 February 1834

It is clear that Charlotte loved Ellen Nussey very much, a love that endured throughout her life. She thinks of her daily, ‘nay almost hourly’, and considers herself a small, insignificant thing when compared to beautiful Ellen surrounded by Birstall society. She has not written to her for two months, because she thinks she has nothing worth saying – this is a theme Charlotte will return to in letters to Ellen for years and decades to come. In one later letter, to Elizabeth Gaskell, she also explained that on occasion she receives a letter that she loves so much that she thinks she will answer it on the next day when she has time to reflect more fully and come up with an adequate response, but instead finds she has nothing to say and the letter goes unanswered.

We also receive an update from Charlotte on the weather in Haworth across that winter of 1833 to 1834. Contemporary records show that it was an unusually severe one, in which the West Riding of Yorkshire saw unprecedented levels of wind and rain, as well as, on New Year’s Eve, ‘one of the most tremendous hurricanes ever remembered.’

Haworth moors snow
This winter was a particularly harsh one in Haworth

On the whole, it seems a cheery letter, but we read that Charlotte is concerned about Ellen’s health – and especially about the threat of consumption (what we now call tuberculosis): ‘I have seen enough of Consumption to dread it as one of the most insidious, and fatal diseases incident to humanity.’

Nine years earlier, a young Charlotte had seen her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth carried away by this terrible disease, but she could little have guessed that in the succeeding decade it would claim the lives of her three surviving siblings too. It is another recurring theme in Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey; she is often concerned about Ellen’s health and constitution, but whilst Charlotte died in her late thirties Ellen Nussey lived into her ninth decade. Charlotte Brontë has indeed cleverly contrived to make a letter out of nothing, but the hundreds of letters of such nothingness add up to an invaluable record of the life and times of the Brontë family.

I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and please do join me on Wednesday as well for a bonus post where we look once again at a Brontë Valentine’s Day.

Anne Brontë’s ‘Verses To A Child’

February is a month that can bring snow, but it also brings snowdrops and the first signs of spring. It’s a month that brings the romance of valentine’s day and new life springing forth all around us. It’s also a month that brings new life to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and in today’s new Brontë blog post we’re going to look at a new poem which is particularly appropriate to the new parsonage exhibition.

Bronte toys
These Bronte toys were discovered below floorboards

The Brontë Parsonage Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1928, although there had been an earlier museum above the Penny Bank Museum in Haworth as well as an even earlier independent Brontë-themed museum within a house in Blackpool!

The Brontë Society are constantly searching for new Brontë-related items and artifacts, so their collection grows every year, with only a small percentage actually on display within the parsonage the Brontës knew so well, and the rest stored in a secure vault. The Parsonage Museum closes its doors in January each year, but its staff are far from resting during this time. In fact, this is the month when the collection is cleared, inspected and restored, and when a new exhibition is assembled ready for the museum re-opening at the start of February. Incidentally, I think it would be even better if the museum closed instead for the month of November and re-opened at the start of December, as its current schedule means that it’s always closed on Anne Brontë’s birthday on 17th January. Just a suggestion!

Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928
The Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928

I once spoke to a museum volunteer who recalled, during one such January curation, opening a book which had once been in Charlotte Brontë’s collection. It had laid unopened, unseen for over a century yet within its pages she found a solitary hair – it seemed likely that this was the hair of Charlotte Brontë herself. What a simple everyday thing, and yet what a treasure to stumble across!

I’ve not yet been to the museum this year, but I certainly will be, and I look forward to bringing you a full report, with lots of pictures, then. I do know, however, that the theme of this year’s exhibition is ‘The Brontës’ Web Of Childhood’. It will explore their childhood, and the influences that led to their incredible outpourings of genius and creativity. This sounds like it will be a must-see exhibition, especially as it will contain items never before seen by the public.

In keeping with the current theme, I will leave you with one of Anne Brontë’s poems dealing with childhood. Anne was the youngest of six siblings, so she was the baby of the family receiving love and support from her sisters and brother. She was also, however, just a year old when her mother died, and so it was her aunt Elizabeth, Aunt Branwell, who became a de facto mother to her. Her poem ‘Verses To A Child’ is set firmly in the mythical land of Gondal she created alongside sister Emily Brontë, and it is even ‘signed’ by one of Gondal’s chief characters Alexandria Zenobia, but in it we see fragments of Anne’s views on children, childhood and her own infancy. 

Above is a portion of the poem which follows in Anne’s own handwriting from her poetry notebook. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post:

O raise those eyes to me again
And smile again so joyously,
And fear not, love; it was not pain
Nor grief that drew these tears from me;
Beloved child, thou canst not tell
The thoughts that in my bosom dwell
Whene’er I look on thee!
Thou knowest not that a glance of thine
Can bring back long departed years
And that thy blue eyes’ magic shine
Can overflow my own with tears,
And that each feature soft and fair
And every curl of golden hair,
Some sweet remembrance bears.
Just then thou didst recall to me
A distant long forgotten scene,
One smile, and one sweet word from thee
Dispelled the years that rolled between;
I was a little child again,
And every after joy and pain
Seemed never to have been.
Tall forest trees waved over me,
To hide me from the heat of day,
And by my side a child like thee
Among the summer flowerets lay.
He was thy sire, thou merry child.
Like thee he spoke, like thee he smiled,
Like thee he used to play.
O those were calm and happy days,
We loved each other fondly then;
But human love too soon decays,
And ours can never bloom again.
I never thought to see the day
When Florian’s friendship would decay
Like those of colder men.
Now, Flora, thou hast but begun
To sail on life’s deceitful sea,
O do not err as I have done,
For I have trusted foolishly;
The faith of every friend I loved
I never doubted till I proved
Their heart’s inconstancy.
‘Tis mournful to look back upon
Those long departed joys and cares,
But I will weep since thou alone
Art witness to my streaming tears.
This lingering love will not depart,
I cannot banish from my heart
The friend of childish years.
But though thy father loves me not,
Yet I shall still be loved by thee,
And though I am by him forgot,
Say wilt thou not remember me!
I will not cause thy heart to ache;
For thy regretted father’s sake
I’ll love and cherish thee.