Charlotte Bronte: Brussels Friendships And Enmity

Summer has finally arrived, so make the most of the sunny weather while you can. Of course, wherever you are, on a patio or beach, it’s always improved if you have a good book to hand. On this day in 1852 we know that Charlotte Brontë was walking the fine sands of Filey on the Yorkshire coast, and she wrote from there to her friend Laetitia Wheelwright about an old schoolmate Maria Miller. We’ll take a look at that letter in today’s post, for it also gives us an insight into the Brontës’ time in Brussels, and to Charlotte’s magnificent novel Villette.

Laetitia Wheelwright was a pupil at the Pensionnat Heger in 1843, at the time that Charlotte Brontë had changed from being a pupil there to being a teacher. She was perhaps the only real friendship that Charlotte made in Brussels (if we discount Monsieur Heger) and it was a lasting one, as we see from the fact that Charlotte is writing to her nearly ten years later.

A drawing by Laetitia Wheelwright

Laetitia’s father was an English doctor, and his four daughters attended the Pensionnat Heger school in Brussels. Laetitia, born in 1828, was the oldest of the four daughters, and she quickly became Charlotte’s favourite pupil. Frances Wheelwright later recalled how Charlotte was first attracted to Laetitia after seeing her standing on a stool watching misbehaving Belgian pupils ‘with an expression of contempt and disgust’. As anyone who has read Villette, or especially The Professor, knows this was a view shared by Charlotte herself. Many years later Charlotte often visited the Wheelwright family at their London home when she was in the city, so let us turn to a letter Charlotte Brontë sent there exactly 172 years ago today:

It seems that Laetitia has forwarded a letter from Maria Miller, seeking their advice. Charlotte knew Maria too from their time in Brussels, and we can read between the lines to see why Maria had been in correspondence with Charlotte. The Miller family have sought help from their present abode in Boulogne, France. Charlotte warns that “it is the asylum of a not very respectable class.” In fact, it was a place where many British families fled to hide from their creditors, just as Becky Sharp does in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Maria has presumably been writing to Laetitia to seek funds to escape her debts, but Charlotte tells Laetitia in no uncertain terms to wash her hands of her. Charlotte twice calls Maria selfish, as well as impudent and worldly – it’s fair to say that Charlotte was not a fan of Maria Miller, and in fact it is believed that she based the character of the shallow, preening Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette upon Maria.

Maria Miller was the inspiration for Ginevra Fanshawe

Charlotte’s dislike for Maria Miller lasted, just as her affection for the Wheelwright family lasted. Nevertheless when she visited the family in London she never let them know the reason for her visits to the capital, and even her close friend Laetitia never knew that Charlotte was a writer. As she confessed in an 1849 letter to publisher George Smith: “they [the Wheelwrights] are of the class, perfectly worthy but in no sort remarkable – to whom I should feel it quite superfluous to introduce Currer Bell [Charlotte’s pen name]; I know they would not understand the author.”

Incidentally, when Charlotte sympathises with Laetitia about her father’s ‘gradual darkening’, she was speaking quite literally – Laetitia’s father, like Charlotte’s, was going blind.

A letter sent to Laetitia by Charlotte from Filey earlier in the month.

Brussels changed Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Laetitia Wheelwright forever, so I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been asked to give a talk to the Brussels Brontë Group in May next year. I’ll bring you more details closer to the date. You can also buy tickets to see me talking all things Anne Brontë and Agnes Grey at the Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 7th July. Tickets are available right now at this link: https://www.bradfordlitfest.co.uk/event/anne-Brontë-and-agnes-grey-parallels-of-resilience-and-reality/

Whether you’re in Brussels, Bradford or anywhere in between I wish you a happy Sunday and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.     

Bronte Wedding Preparations And A Diamond Anniversary

What links today’s date, wedding preparations and a diamond wedding anniversary? Why, the Brontës of course as we shall see in today’s blog post. We’ll begin by taking a look at a letter sent by Charlotte Brontë to best friend Ellen Nussey on this day 1854:

The wedding of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls was less than two weeks ago – they were married first thing in the morning on the 29th of June 1854 and the wedding went much as Charlotte had planned. It was a small affair with very few people in attendance, and, incredible as it may seem today, it was kept a secret from the village of Haworth as a whole. 

Only a select group of people knew in advance, and a young man named John Robinson found out on the day. He was an apprentice teacher being taught his craft by the village’s assistant curate, and Charlotte’s fiance, Arthur Bell Nicholls. By being in the right place at the right time he became one of only nine people at the wedding ceremony.

Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls
Charlotte Bronte and Arthur Bell Nicholls, at a wedding re-enactment in Haworth

We have looked before at one account Robinson gave of this special day, but he gave another account to the Keighley News on 27th October 1923, as he was approaching his own diamond wedding anniversary! It is another fascinating and illuminating account, so I have reproduced it below:

HAWORTH MAN’S DIAMOND WEDDING   

 the sixtieth anniversary of the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. John Robinson, which was celebrated at Wombwell, interesting memories of Charlotte Brontë are revived. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson are both 86 years old. Mr. Robinson was   born near Haworth, where Mr. Patrick Brontë, the father of the famous writer,   was incumbent, and he used every Sunday morning to receive instruction from   Mr. Nicholls, who afterwards married Charlotte Brontë.   Mr. Robinson was one of the few persons who attended the early morning   wedding of Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls. ‘‘I owe a lot to the Brontë family,’’ said Mr. Robinson to a representative of ‘‘The Sheffield Independent,’’ who called upon him to offer him and his wife congratulations on reaching the sixtieth anniversary of their wedding, which they were then celebrating. ‘

I come from Stanbury, where Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father, was incumbent, and   Mr. Nicholls, whom she married, used to have me up to his lodgings every Saturday morning to give me lessons,’’ he said. ‘‘It was Mr. Nicholls who taught me what love-sickness means. I have heard him moan with anguish when things did not run smoothly.   

OPPOSITION TO THE MARRIAGE   

‘‘Charlotte’s father was, I think, against the marriage, because, as fame came to her, she, of course, became comparatively well off, and her father seemed to think that Mr. Nicholls was after her money. Charlotte, however, appears to have given him some encouragement. The   Brontës had an old and faithful servant, Martha Brown, who was as familiar with her employers as a servant very well can be, and she told me that once when the young couple had had to part, she found Mr. Nicholls with his head against the garden door sobbing as though his heart would break. However, after this separation things seemed to improve for them, and one morning I met the sexton, John Brown, the father of Martha Brown, who said that he had been   waiting for me. He told me that Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls were going to get   married, and my instructions were to go to the top of a hill and look for the appach of three men. When I saw them I was to run back to the parsonage and tell the folk there that they were coming.

I went to my place and watched, and presently I saw in the distance three   persons – Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Grant, and Mr. Sowden. Then I went back to the parsonage, and was told to go as fast as I could for Josh Redman, the old parish clerk. I found him, and told him he had to come to   church as quickly as possible. He came immediately. On the way he stopped and said, ‘I’d better lace up my boots,’ and he went to the wall and did so. We hurried to the church. and on the stroke of eight Charlotte entered with her two women friends. There were thus in the church Charlotte, her two friends, the  clerk, the sexton, and myself – nine persons in all. I don’t think Mr. Brontë  was there.   

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet
Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet

THE WEDDING BREAKFAST   ‘

The ceremony was gone through quickly, and, passing out of the vestry, they left the church as they came – by the back door leading into Church Lane, close to the Vicarage. They went to the Vicarage, and then I remember seeing a   carriage and pair drive off to the nearest station – Keighley. I went back to the school for my lessons, but I had not been there many minutes when a message came from the Parsonage to say that I was to go for some breakfast. I went and remember having boiled ham, so that you see I had some of Charlotte Brontë’s wedding breakfast, although, of course, not with them. When Charlotte Brontë and her husband returned a lumber room was cleared out at the Parsonage and fitted up as a study for him. He was then   curate, and each Saturday morning I went for my lessons as usual. My apprenticeship continued until I was 18. When I said good-bye, Mr. Brontë held my hand for a long time and gave me some good advice. Remember, all this was a long time ago, and we were in a village where we knew little and heard little, and he told me how different I should find things elsewhere. As a parting gift he gave me a portrait of himself, bearing his autograph. The officials of the Brontë Museum at Haworth have begged long and earnestly for that, but I shall not part with it, although I have given them his snuffbox.’   

The card Patrick Bronte gave to John Robinson

A WONDERFUL WOMAN   

Mr. Robinson said that Charlotte Brontë was a wonderful little woman. He had watched her often from the church tower, from whence he could see into the room where she was writing. She was very short-sighted, and when she came into the school to inspect the children’s needlework she had to hold it very close to her eyes.

‘‘I have seen it sometimes suggested that she and her husband were not altogether happy together,’’ went on Mr. Robinson. ‘‘There never was a bigger lie than that. To see them together, arm-in-arm, walking over the moors, and to see the way in which he assisted her in the difficult places, was to be convinced that there never was a couple more completely in love with each other.   

Charlotte and Arthur

Charlotte’s brother Branwell was different from the rest of the family, being of a more gay disposition. In the local inn he always used to occupy the same chair, and entertain the company, and I remember once that a stranger tried to take a rise out of him. There was on the wall a picture of a man riding a donkey, and the stranger, turning to Branwell, remarked, pointing to the picture: ‘That reminds me of you.’ In a moment Branwell had jumped on to the stranger’s back, and remarked: ‘The likeness is now complete.’’’

Charlotte Bronte's Wedding certificate
Charlotte Bronte’s Wedding certificate, bearing Sutcliffe’s signature

It is lovely to hear a first hand account of how happy Charlotte and Arthur were in their marriage. If you have an anniversary of your own approaching I wish you many happy returns, and I hope to see you next week for another Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Bronte, Stone Gappe And Jane Eyre

There were some similarities in both the life and work of Charlotte and Anne Brontë, beyond the fact that they were sisters of course. Both wrote books whose eponymous heroine was a governess: Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, and both worked as a governess – although Anne’s nearly six years in service to the Robinson and Ingham families was much longer than the brief periods Charlotte spent as a governess to the White family of Rawdon and the Sidgwick family of Stone Gappe. Charlotte stayed in that job for less than two months, but as we shall see in today’s post it was a time which greatly influenced her most acclaimed novel.

Stone Gappe
Stone Gappe

Stone Gappe is an early 18th century mansion near Lothersdale in North Yorkshire, ten miles from Haworth. Charlotte became governess there in May 1839, her first attempt at being a governess. Her employees were the Sidgwick family who employed Charlotte to teach their young children, but she found this a far from enjoyable role – as we see in a letter she wrote exactly 185 years ago this weekend. The letter, sent by Charlotte to sister Emily Brontë (referred to affectionately by Charlotte as ‘Lavinia’), is reproduced below:

The letter starts promisingly, the hall is divine and the grounds are divine – and still are, by the way, if you ever get the chance to visit this Grade II* listed building. It is an area which delights Charlotte’s senses, but she has not a moment to enjoy it and her time is spent endlessly sewing and darning and looking after the children from hell. Alack-a-day indeed, as Charlotte so charmingly puts it! There is one portion of the letter which is particularly striking to one who is reading it with nearly two centuries worth of hindsight:

“I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil.”

Adèle dancing in Jane Eyre
Jane found it hard being a governess to Adèle

Surely we see a glimpse of Jane here, and in the only solace that Charlotte gets from her despondency – time spent with the taciturn, yet kind, master of the house. He is a vision of Charlotte’s ideal, older, plain speaking, wealthy – a man who strides ahead with a great big dog by his side: “It is very seldom that he speaks to me, but when he does I always feel happier and more settled.”

The master of Stone Gappe was John Benson Sidgwick, a wealthy mill owner. Born in 1800 he was sixteen years older than Charlotte, and had made vast sums of money from owning High Mills in Skipton at a time when the industrial revolution was beginning to boom. He and his family spent summers at Stone Gappe and wintered at Skipton Castle.

At this very same time Anne Brontë too was working as a governess to the family of a wealthy industrialist – to the Ingham family of Blake Hall in Mirfield. Anne found that her charges were ill educated, unruly and often downright violent – but she turned this experience to good use by recreating the family as the monstrous Bloomfield family. 

Charlotte too found that her children had a tendency towards spontaneity of the violent kind. Although not mentioned in her letter we know, very revealingly, that one of the children – a Benson Sidgwick threw a Bible at Charlotte’s head! We know this from a memoir by an A. C. Benson of his father Archbishop Edward Benson of Canterbury – who was in turn a cousin of John Benson Sidgwick. In it, he tells the story of Charlotte’s Stone Gappe sojourn from the Sidgwick point of view:

“Charlotte Brontë acted as governess to my cousins at Stone Gappe for a few months in 1839. Few traditions of her connection with the Sidgwicks survive. She was, according to her own account, very unkindly treated, but it is clear that she had no gifts for the management of children, and was also in a very morbid condition the whole time. My cousin Benson Sidgwick, now vicar of Ashby Parva, certainly on one occasion threw a Bible at Miss Brontë! and all that another cousin can recollect of her is that if she was invited to walk to church with them, she thought she was being ordered about like a slave; if she was not invited, she imagined she was excluded from the family circle. Both Mr. and Mrs. John Sidgwick were extraordinarily benevolent people, much beloved, and would not wittingly have given pain to any one connected with them.”

An interesting but not unbiased account from A. C. Benson there; perhaps his most lasting legacy is a rather different piece of writing – he was the man who wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgars ‘Land Of Hope And Glory.’ His brother Edward also found fame, as author of the Mapp and Lucia novels.

A. C. Benson
A. C. Benson who reported on Charlotte’s time at Stone Gappe

Charlotte was governess at Stone Gappe for a few short weeks, but the repercussions are still being felt by readers across the globe today. It is said that the Stone Gappe building is the model for Gateshead Hall where young Jane Eyre is raised. Jane has a book thrown at her by her cousin, just as Charlotte had a book thrown at her during her time there. And in Charlotte’s depiction of John Benson Sidgwick we get an early glimpse of a Rochester-like character.

Charlotte used her time as a governess to great effect in her writing – and Anne Brontë did exactly the same, which is why her novel Agnes Grey is so autobiographical in many places – this is exactly the topic I will be discussing at the Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 7th July at 1 pm. You can buy tickets at this link, and it would be great to see you there!

It would also be great to see you right here next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post – may the week ahead be a sunnier one for you.

Charlotte Bronte, Alone In Filey

June is here (if only someone would tell the weather!), so it may be that your thoughts are turning to summer holidays! Perhaps you’re thinking about sneaking away early and beating the crowds! That’s just what Charlotte Brontë did in 1852, as we can see in today’s new Brontë blog post as we look at Charlotte Brontë in Filey.

Filey beach
Filey beach

It’s the perfect day to examine this subject as it was on this day in 1852 that Charlotte Brontë wrote to her father Patrick Brontë in Haworth. Her letter was written from Cliff House, Filey and as we shall see later the building is still standing, and still remembering Charlotte. First, let’s take a look at her letter:

Even in 1852 Filey became busy in the hustle and bustle of mid-summer, as the east coast resorts of Yorkshire were becoming central to a new concept in English society, a concept made possible by the advent of railway travel: the seaside holiday. At this early point in June however Charlotte is free to enjoy the beach and panoramas on her own, which was much more to this very private woman’s taste.

The sea always had a powerful effect on Charlotte Brontë. On this occasion we hear that the sea is ‘very grand’ and Charlotte had stood for an hour simply watching them. Ellen Nussey gave us of an account of the first time Charlotte ever saw the sea, on an 1839 trip the two great friends had made to Burlington (now called Bridlington):

“‘The day but one after their capture they walked to the sea, and as soon as they were near enough for Charlotte to see it in its expanse, she was quite over-powered, she could not speak till she had shed some tears she signed to her friend to leave her and walk on; this she did for a few steps, knowing full well what Charlotte was passing through, and the stern efforts she was making to subdue her emotions her friend turned to her as soon as she thought she might without inflicting pain; her eyes were red and swollen, she was still trembling, but submitted to be led onwards where the view was less impressive; for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued, and exhausted. Distant glimpses of the German Ocean had been visible as the two friends neared the coast on the day of their arrival, but Charlotte being without her glasses, could not see them, and when they were described to her, she said, “Don’t tell me any more. Let me wait.”’

13 years later and Charlotte was at the Yorkshire coast for a much more sombre reason. She had returned to Scarborough, 8 miles north of Filey, to visit the grave of her beloved sister Anne Brontë for the first time since her death in 1849. Charlotte was horrified to see a succession of errors on Anne’s headstone, and paid to have them corrected but one still remains: the stone still declares that Anne was 28 at the time of her death, when she was actually 29.

Anne Brontë's final resting place at Scarborough
Anne Brontë’s headstone underneath Scarborough Castle

Retreating from Scarborough to Filey, Charlotte was alone with the sea, with the seagulls, with the crashing waves, with her memories of those awful days exactly three years earlier. The days when she had travelled from Haworth to Scarborough with Anne (joined by Ellen Nussey en route) but returned to Haworth alone and broken-hearted. Nevertheless, it is telling that there is something, or someone, who has lifted her spirits.

After encountering a farcical little church where congregation, singers and ministers turned their backs on one another (it seems likely to me that this was the tiny Speeton church between Filey and Flamborough) she wishes that Arthur Bell Nicholls could have seen it – and how he would laugh! This is perhaps the only time that we hear of Arthur being humorous and fond of laughing, and the first time we get a glimpse of a growing affection between Charlotte and Arthur. Perhaps it was this that led to Arthur proposing to Charlotte at the close of that year? He was soundly rejected, but in 1854 they were married.

Speeton church
St. Leonard’s church, Speeton

The east coast resorts made a huge impact on Charlotte’s life, and we can see the impact the sea had on her in her brilliant final novel Villette. The sea is almost a character in itself – it is wild, it is life-affirming, it is powerful, it is deadly. Charlotte Brontë would not forget Filey and Filey has not forgotten her. Cliff House, the place where Charlotte stayed in 1852 and from where she wrote the above letter to her father, is now called “Charlotte’s”.

Charlotte's of Filey

I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.