Kirkstall Abbey, Central To The Brontë Story

On a certain day last month I felt in need of reflection and a recharging of my spirit’s batteries – and so I travelled to somewhere absolutely perfect for it, Kirkstall Abbey on the outskirts of Leeds. It’s an incredibly beautiful building (so warning – this is a picture heavy post, my phone camera was in high demand,) a ruin but a magnificent ruin and on that day I’ve never felt an atmosphere like it in any other building I’ve ever been in. Perhaps that was because I was acutely aware that the day I was there saw a very important event in the Brontë story take place exactly 206 years earlier.

Kirkstall Abbey from the entrance
Kirkstall Abbey from the entrance to the grounds
Prior's house
The Abbot’s lodging

Kirkstall Abbey was the very spot on which Patrick Brontë proposed to Maria Branwell. A series of strange events had brought them to that day in October 1812, and things could have been very different for them. Maria was then in her late 20s and Patrick in his mid 30s, perhaps beyond the first flush of youth but still searching for love – they met in the summer of 1812 and within six months they were married, leading to the family of six children that we all know and love: Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë, Emily Jane Brontë, Anne Brontë.

Kirkstall Abbey arches

They could have met others and married earlier. If as a child Patrick had not been spotted reading ‘Paradise Lost’ aloud by County Down vicar Andrew Harshaw he would not have been awarded a place in school, he would not have become a teenage teacher, he would not have been given a scholarship to Cambridge, he would not have served as an assistant curate in Shropshire and would not have met local teacher John Fennell there, he would not have moved to Yorkshire to become a priest in Dewsbury and then Hartshead. By coincidence he would not have found that his Shropshire friends the Fennells had also moved to Yorkshire and opened a school in nearby Woodhouse Grove, near Leeds, and they would not have heard of his arrival and invited him to examine the children in classics there. By another coincidence the Fennel’s niece Maria Branwell had that summer made an arduous journey to Yorkshire from Cornwall to Woodhouse Grove to act as an assistant at the school. They would never have met, never felt their souls connect, never have married and had the Brontë children. So many coincidences, but in life are there really any coincidences?

Kirkstall Abbey window view

Kirkstall face
Pareidolia is seeing faces in things – Kirkstall Abbey is looking at you!

It was these circumstances, this chain that could have had an impediment at any time which would have irrevocably have changed literary history, that led Patrick to take to his knee in the magnificent grounds of Kirkstall Abbey and ask Maria Branwell to be his wife. Although they had known each other less than a handful of months, thankfully she had no hesitation in accepting. They married in December 1812, and a year later Patrick published his collection of poetry ‘The Rural Minstrel‘ within which was a tribute to the place they had cemented their love. His poem ‘Kirkstall Abbey’ is long, but here’s an extract:

“’Hail ruined tower! That like a learned sage,
With lofty brow, looks thoughtful on the night;
The sable ebony, and silver white,
Thy ragged sides from age to age,
With charming art inlays,
When Luna’s lovely rays,
Fall trembling on the night,
And round the smiling landscape, throw,
And on the ruined walls below,
Their mild uncertain light.
How heavenly fair, the arches ivy-crowned,
Look forth on all around!

Kirkstall exterior
Enchant the heart, and charm the sight,
And give the soul serene delight!
Whilst, here and there,
The shapeless openings spread a solemn gloom,
Recall the thoughtful mind, down to the silent tomb,
And bid us for another world prepare.
Who would be solemn, and not sad,
Who would be cheerful, and not glad,
Who would have all his heart’s desire,
And yet feel as his soul on fire,
To gain the realms of his eternal rest,
Who would be happy, yet not truly blest,
Who in the world, would yet forget his worldly care,
With hope fast anchored in the sands above,
And heart attuned by sacred love,
Let him by moonlight pale, to this sweet scene repair.”

Kirkstall Abbey chapel
Kirkstall Abbey chapel, with its ruined tower

It was to the sweet scene of Kirkstall Abbey, perhaps by the softly flowing brook alongside it, that Patrick and Maria repaired, doubly blessed with hearts attuned by sacred love. Doubtless as they grew older the Brontë children were told of the importance of Kirkstall Abbey to the Brontë story, for we know that Charlotte Brontë visited it and indeed sketched it herself.

Kirkstall Abbey by Charlotte Bronte
Kirkstall Abbey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

So, it is accepted that Kirkstall Abbey marked the spot where Patrick proposed to Maria, but the date is unknown. Or is it? I travelled to Kirkstall Abbey on 23rd October, and I believe this is the date that Patrick and Maria pledged their love to one another in the abbey grounds and agreed to marry. I think the clue to this can be found in Maria Branwell’s letter to Patrick dated 24th October 1812:

Kirkstall Abbey archway

‘Unless my love for you were very great how could I so contentedly give up my home and all my friends?… Yet these have lost their weight… the anticipation of sharing with you all the pleasures and pains, the cares and anxieties of life, of contributing to your comfort and becoming the companion of your pilgrimage, is more delightful to me than any other prospect which this world can possibly present.’

Kirkstall riverbank
Kirkstall Abbey’s riverbank – was this the proposal site?

This, to me, is clearly the letter of a woman writing to her new fiance on the day after they became engaged, and now looking ahead to their married life together. A happy letter, full of love, and indeed I found Kirkstall Abbey today to be a magnificent building full of peace and an atmosphere of love. The Abbey itself doesn’t mark its place in the Brontë story, alas, but in the Kirkstall Abbey shop I found that Emily Brontë was present there after all – another coincidence?

Emily in shop
An Emily Bronte quote, fittingly found in Kirkstall Abbey’s shop

We Will Remember Them: Remembrance Sunday 2018

We are in the middle of a period known as the Brontë 200, marking the 200th anniversaries of the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, but today is a special day of an altogether different kind – the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the armistice came into place and the guns of the western front fell as silent as the men who lay buried beneath it; it was the war to end all wars, they said, but of course they were wrong.

The Brontës grew up in a time of relative peace on the international stage for Britain, although their parents’ generation had grown up when we were embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, so they heard story after story of legendary military leaders like Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose Brontë fiefdom in Sicily had inspired their own surname.

Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The Duke became a particular hero of Charlotte Brontë, and it was with some awe that she later met him, then in his eighties, in London’s Chapel Royal in 1850, describing him as a ‘real grand old man’.

The love of Wellington and military stories is also apparent in the Brontë juvenilia, and helped fuel the ‘scribblomania’ which later led to the Brontë novels we so love.

Ellen Nussey, the great friend of the siblings, gave an interesting description of Patrick Brontë, when she said that: ‘he simply had missed his vocation: he should have been a soldier, and circumstances made him a priest.’

There was another Brontë who found themselves compared to a soldier, as this touching recollection of Emily by Haworth stationer and family friend John Greenwood shows:

“Patrick had such unbounded confidence in his daughter Emily that he resolved to learn her to shoot too. They used to practice with pistols. Let her be ever so busy in her domestic duties, whether in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand, or at her studies, rapt in a world of her own creating – it mattered not; if he called upon her to take a lesson, she would put all down. His tender and affectionate ‘Now, my dear girl, let me see how well you can shoot today’, was irresistible to her filial nature and her most winning and musical voice would be heard to ring through the house in response, ‘Yes, papa’ and away she would run with such a hearty good will taking the board from him, and tripping like a fairy to the bottom of the garden, putting it in its proper position, then returning to her dear revered parent, take the pistol which he had primed and loaded for her… She would take the weapon with as firm a hand, and as steady an eye as any veteran of the camp, and fire. Then she would run to fetch the board for him to see how she had succeeded. And she did get so proficient, that she was rarely far from the mark. His ‘how cleverly you have done, my dear girl’, was all she cared for. ‘Oh!’ He would exclaim, ‘she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!’”

Perhaps it was Emily’s prowess with a pistol, as well as her strong, unbending nature, that earned her the nickname ‘The Major’? There were, however, two military relatives among the extended Brontë-Branwell family and their descendants.

Lieutenant Branwell
Lieutenant Thomas Branwell, tragic navy hero

Lieutenant Thomas Branwell was a cousin of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, and his closeness to them is shown by the fact that he features with them in a series of miniature portraits painted by James Tonkin of Penzance, alongside pictures of Brontë grandparents Thomas and Anne Branwell, and their youngest aunt Charlotte Branwell. He is pictured in all his navy finery, and looks every inch an early nineteenth century military man. He must have been the pride of the Branwell’s but terrible news came at the end of 1811, as reported by the Navy Chronicle of January 1812:

‘The St. George, Defence, and Cressey, kept the North Sea five days, in a dreadful gale from the W.N.W. west and south; but, at length, had to combat with a terrible tempest from the N.W. until they were lost. The following is a list of the principal officers who were on board the St. George and Defence when those vessels were wrecked – In the St. George Admiral Reynolds, Captain Guion, Lieutenants Napier, Place, Thompson, Brannel, Dance, Tristram, Riches, and Rogers.’

Brannel was of course Thomas Branwell, who died at sea on board HMS George off the coast of Denmark. It was a naval tragedy on a horrendous scale, with 731 of the 738 man crew losing their lives and many hundreds more dying on board the Defence. The place where the bodies washed up at Thorsminde, Denmark is now known as ‘Dead Men’s Dunes’.

When we think of the dead today our minds will turn, understandably to those who perished in World War One, but many lost their lives, like Lieutenant Branwell, during the Napoleonic Wars and earlier conflicts too. It is rumoured that he and his cousin Elizabeth were in love, and that he it was that had bought her the elaborately decorated box which she later left to her nephew Branwell. If so this may explain why Aunt Branwell remained resolutely single for the rest of his life.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Unit: 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Copyright: © IWM.

Another Branwell served a long career in the military and survived, Captain Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell. He was a veteran of the army who had been recalled at the start of World War 1, and had fought in the Boer War among other conflicts. We may think that a soldier in ‘The Great War’ must be a very distant relative of the Brontës, but in fact he was a very close one. Born in 1862, he was a first cousin once removed of the Brontë sisters – his father Thomas Brontë Branwell was the Brontë cousin who visited Charlotte and Patrick in Haworth in 1851, and his grandmother was Charlotte Branwell, after whom Charlotte Brontë was named.

During World War One he was a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s 4th Brigade. The following picture appeared in The Tatler of 23rd August 1916 when fighting on the Western Front was approaching its fiercest. As the senior officer, the grand looking Captain Branwell is seated at the centre, but as noted by the caption many of the officers around him were by then dead.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1
Arthur Branwell in World War One

Captain Branwell himself escaped the horrors of the trenches however, as the 4th Brigade was the Royal Warwickshire’s Extra Reserve, and in fact it never left England during the duration of the war. He was heavily involved in training new recruits, and was ready and willing to fight in France if called upon, despite being then in his mid fifties; as the Tatler picture shows, Captain Branwell did arrive in France himself during the conflict, where he would have again taken a training role, passing on his wealth of experience on military matters.

Thomas Branwell paid the ultimate price, and Arthur Branwell was willing to do so, because they believed in their country, and they believed in the importance of freedom from tyranny – many millions then and since have followed a similar path, and today, and all days, we should and will remember them.

The Death, Will and Burial of Aunt Branwell

This weekend and on Monday people across the country will be gathering around bonfires – and it is likely that on the 5th November a certain Haworth family did the same: the Brontës. In fact, until the Observation of 5th November 1605 Act was repealed in 1859 all churches had to hold a thanksgiving service, accompanied by bonfire, to celebrate the foiling of Catesby and Fawkes’ plot to blow up parliament, and attendance was compulsory by law. The 1842 celebrations would have been rather more muted for the Brontës, however, as the previous week had seen the death and burial of an integral part of the family: Aunt Elizabeth Branwell.

Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, painted in 1799
Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, painted in 1799

In previous blogs we’ve looked at how Aunt Branwell became a second mother to the Brontës, and how she was especially close to Anne. In short, Elizabeth left behind a life of ease and sunshine in Penzance, Cornwall when in 1821 she travelled over 400 miles to Haworth to nurse her dying sister Maria. After Maria’s death she could have returned to Cornwall but stayed to raise her nephew and five nieces as best she could. It was a huge sacrifice in many ways, and my latest book ‘Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy‘ looks at how without Elizabeth’s emotional and financial support we wouldn’t have any of the Brontë books we love today.

In today’s blog we look at Aunt Branwell’s passing and burial, and what it says about this woman who deserves to be remembered and respected. There is much evidence to say that Aunt Branwell was far from the austere, humourless woman that she is sometimes portrayed as, but we need look no further than the tribute from her nephew Branwell Brontë to show her true character and worth. If Elizabeth really was strict we could have expected her to be at loggerheads with the independent spirited Branwell, but the truth was very different.

On 25th October 1842, Branwell wrote a moving, despairing letter to his friend Francis Grundy:

‘I have had a long attendance at the deathbed of the Rev. William Weightman, one of my dearest friends, and now I am attending at the deathbed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours… excuse this scrawl, my eyes are too dim with sorrow to see well.’

Branwell remained faithfully by his Aunt’s side day and night, until she passed from this world on 28th October 1842, after which he again wrote to Grundy:

‘I am incoherent, I fear, but I have been waking two nights witnessing such agonising suffering as I would not wish my worst enemy to endure; and I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

We need no better tribute than this, the facts are plain to see: Elizabeth Branwell, whatever Elizabeth Gaskell may later write, was loved by her nephew and nieces. She was not only there while they had a happy childhood, she was the person who gave them a happy childhood, against all the odds. Incidentally, of course, this also shows another side of Branwell Brontë’s character often overlooked – he could be loyal and loving.

Bronte family vault
Elizabeth Branwell also lies in Haworth’s Bronte family vault

Aunt Branwell died of a blockage of the bowel, and her dreadful torment must have been reminiscent to her brother in law Patrick of the final illness and death of his beloved wife Maria. It must have been another huge blow to Patrick as he and Elizabeth had been close since her arrival in Haworth, and had become like brother and sister themselves. Patrick’s great admiration for her was revealed in a letter to his friend Reverend Buckworth when he wrote of the aftermath of Maria’s death:

‘Her sister, Miss Branwell, arrived, and afforded great comfort to my mind, which has been the case ever since, by sharing my labours and sorrows, and behaving as an affectionate mother to my children.’

Elizabeth Branwell’s final illness, thankfully, was not as prolonged as her sister’s had been, and it had come on suddenly, as she had enjoyed robust health until that point, but nevertheless she had made preparations for after her death. She had made a will on 20th April 1833, and her legacy gave four of her nieces the liberty and support they needed to become writers. The Branwells were a relatively wealthy family, and the substantial amounts Elizabeth left to Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë allowed them to pay for the publication of ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, and also for the publication of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’; without the money from their aunt’s will, there is simply no way they could have afforded these sums, and the Brontë story as we know it today would have remained untold.

I say four nieces, because in her will Elizabeth supported another niece – and one whose story was even more tragic than that of her Haworth cousins.
Elizabeth Branwell had many nieces still in Cornwall, but she chose only one other to support in her will: Eliza Kingston, daughter of Elizabeth and Maria’s elder sister Jane. Jane had emigrated to America with her husband John Kingston, but their marriage was not a happy one. She left America to return to England having to leave three children behind with John, but with her she brought a baby born in Baltimore, Maryland – Eliza. Surely in Jane we can see a prototype of Helen, the tenant of Wildfell Hall?

Early 19th century Baltimore, where Eliza Kingston was born
Early 19th century Baltimore, where Eliza Kingston was born

Elizabeth Branwell supported both Jane and her daughter through their struggles, and realised that her American born niece needed help more than her Cornish brethren – and so it was that Eliza Kingston was left an equal quarter share along with Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

We have a number of letters by Eliza, and they are a fascinating correspondence. They show that she read the novels of her Haworth cousins, and also that Patrick Brontë wrote to her in Penzance until the last year of his life. They also show her terrible, tragic decline. Eliza invested her inheritance in Cornish tin mine shares, and at first they did well, but we read of her descent into unimaginable poverty as her fortune diminished and vanished. In a letter painful to read she writes:

‘I feel very weak at times, if I over-exert myself or do not take sufficient nourishment; I require (if I could have it) animal food every day… I cannot live so low as I used to. I was informed that it was a case of nervous debility which I knew before… there is often a cobweb (or something like it) floating before my left eye… I live in constant dread of the future… I have no prospect of a home or rooms or indeed any money to pay rent… God only knows how it will end… I sometimes feel as if my heart would break.’

It was the last letter Eliza wrote, she could no longer afford stamps; she died in an asylum in 1878 but we hear one further story of her from a distant cousin who knew her:

‘I think my mother asked Miss Kingston about Charlotte Brontë on more than one occasion. They talked about her together, and Miss Kingston spoke a good deal about what Charlotte Brontë had brought out in her works, and how she depicted characters. I have a vivid recollection of wonder that our poor cousin Eliza Jane could say such beautiful things and see so much in books, and yet look so plain and prosper so badly. Is there any record of the book she wrote, or was it only a part? Perhaps she destroyed it. She said no one would publish it.’

Here then we see that Aunt Branwell’s will helped not three, but four nieces have the financial freedom to do what they wished to do more than anything else – write a book. If only we still had Eliza’s it would surely be something special, as her letters are vivid and very reminiscent of her cousin Charlotte’s.

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – former home of Aunt Branwell

At the start of her will, Elizabeth Branwell left an important and very telling provision – that she wished to be buried: ‘as near as convenient to the remains of my dear sister.’

Thus it was that on the 2nd of November 1842 she was buried in the Brontë family vault at Haworth’s St. Michael’s and All Angels church, alongside her sister Maria and her nieces Maria and Elizabeth. Family meant everything to Elizabeth Branwell, and by family I mean the Brontë family. Yes, the sacrifice Elizabeth made in 1821 and in the 21 years subsequent was immense, but we must remember that she profited hugely from it.

Aunt Branwell was in her mid forties when she came to Haworth; she had money, books to read, fine weather all year round, but she had no prospects of marriage or a family of her own – she had no prospect of love, only a lonely life ahead of her. The stone floors of Haworth parsonage were so cold to her that she always wore pattens indoors, but her heart glowed. She found a family to love and who loved her back, children she could watch grow up and guide through life; it was a blessing she could never have expected to have, and it was worth much more to her than any other treasures.

Aunt Branwell display case
Aunt Branwell display case, Bronte Parsonage Museum, showing her pattens

So, Aunt Branwell’s legacy enriched the Brontës, but the Brontë children enriched Aunt Branwell too; as she stood by the Haworth bonfires with them she would have felt the warmth of love in her blood as well as the warmth of the flames, and what after all is more important than that? The Observation of 5th November 1605 Act is also known as The Thanksgiving Act, and so today let us give thanks to Aunt Elizabeth Branwell – we have so much to thank her for.

Halloween In Penzance And Haworth

Halloween in Haworth is a wonderful time, with the village decorating itself out in spooky garb before the weekend culminates in its famous dragon parade. Once again, there’s a similarity between Haworth and Penzance, as the Cornish town from which mother of the siblings Maria Brontë hailed also loves to hold parades that pay tribute to a more esoteric side of life – like the spectacular Montol festival held to celebrate the Winter Solstice.

Haworth Halloween
Haworth at Halloween

Aunt Branwell, a second mother to the Brontës in all but name after arriving at Haworth parsonage in 1821, loved to tell stories of her native Penzance, and one such story must have been that of Mrs. Baines – a ghostly tale fit for any Halloween! Incidentally, I was lucky enough to give a talk in Penzance earlier this year (I have wonderful memories of that week, although it seems a world away now that its warmth has been replaced by cold, dark nights), and the audience all knew the story of the Baines ghost; they could even pinpoint the location on which it took place! If you’re not too scared of ghosts, on one day at least, gird your loins, pull your shawl round your shoulders and read on:

Let us stroll back to Penzance in 1803 and examine the tragic tale of Mrs. Baines, the rich widow of a Captain Baines, who lived at 20 Chapel Street. I will let the nineteenth century Cornish chronicler William Bottrell relate what happened next:

‘Mrs. Baines’s orchard, a pleasant spot, in which the lady took great delight, was stocked with the choicest apple, pear, plum, and other fruit trees then known. The town boys soon found out the fine flavour of Mrs. Baines’s fruit, which was to them all the sweeter for being stolen. When the apples were ripe and most tempting, the mistress and her serving-man watched the garden by turns – the man during the first part of the night, and madam would descend in her night-dress, every now and then, to see that all was right, in the small hours of morning. One night Mrs. Barnes, suspecting that man John was rather careless in keeping guard, sallied forth to see if he was attending to his duty; and, not finding him anywhere about the garden, she went to a tree of highly-prized apples and shook down a good quantity, intending to take them away, and thus prove to John that, through his remissness, the fruit was stolen. But her man Jan, armed with an old blunderbus, charged with peas and small shot, was at no great distance dozing under a hedge. The rustling of shaken branches, and noise of falling apples, awoke him, and, seeing somebody, as he thought, stealing apples from their favourite tree, he up with his gun and let fly at his mistress, exclaiming, at the same time, ” Now you thief, I’ve paid ‘e off’ for keeping me out of bed to watch ‘e! I know ‘e, I do, and will bring ‘e before his worship the mayor to-morrow!” “Lord help me, I’m killed!” cried the lady, as she fell on the ground.’

Maria Bronte keeping an eye on me in Penzance
Maria Bronte keeping an eye on me in Penzance

Mrs. Baines died of her wounds, and before long things took a sinister turn as locals reported seeing her ghost in the garden:

‘A short time after the old lady got shot, she died; and then she kept such ward and watch over her orchard that few were so bold as to enter, after day-down, into the haunted ground, where the ghost of Mrs. Baines was often seen under the tree where she was shot, or walking the grounds of her garden. Everybody knew the old lady by her upturned and powdered grey hair under a lace cap of antique pattern ; by the long lace ruffles hanging from her elbows ; her short silk mantle, gold-headed cane, and other trappings of old-fashioned pomp. There are many still living in Penzance who remember the time when they wouldn’t venture on any account to pass through Vounderveor-lane after night-fall, for fear of Mrs. Baines’ ghost. Sometimes she would flutter up from the garden or yard (just like an old hen flying before the wind), and perch herself on the wall: then, for an instant, one might get a glance of her spindle legs and high-heeled shoes before she vanished. Her walking in the garden might have been put up with, but she soon haunted all parts of the premises, and was often seen where least expected both by night and at noon. The ghost became so troublesome, at last, that no person could be found to occupy the house, where she was all night long tramping about from room to room, slamming the doors, rattling the furniture, and often making a fearful crash amongst glass and crockery.’

The new owners of the property called in a priest named Singleton to exorcise this property, giving the story of Mrs. Baines its truly bizarre end:

‘They sent for a parson, who was much famed in this neighbourhood as an exorcist that he might remove and lay the unresting spirit ; and he succeeded (by what means our informant knoweth not) in getting her away down to the sand-banks on the Western Green, which were then spread over many acres of land where the waves now roll. Here, this powerful parson, single-handed, bound her to spin from the banks ropes of sand for the term of a thousand years, unless she, before that time, spun a sufficiently long and strong one to reach from St. Michael’s Mount to St. Clement’s Isle. The encroaching sea having swept away the sandbanks, Mrs. Baines’ ghost is probably gone with them, as she hasn’t been heard of for some years, and, if she returns, the present occupiers of the old abode wouldn’t mind her.’

Montol
The Montol parade in Penzance is spectacular

It is a fascinating story to us today, but to the Branwells of Penzance it must have seemed very real – after all, they may have been involved in it themselves. The widow Baines and her orchard were at 20 Chapel Street, whereas Elizabeth and her family lived at 62 Chapel Street, which was almost opposite the property. Certainly we can imagine the head of the household Thomas Branwell racing to his neighbour when he heard the night time gunshot, but what of the local children who liked to take the old woman’s sweet apples? Could they in earlier days have included Maria Branwell, who went on to become mother of the Brontës, or younger sister Charlotte Branwell, just 14 at the time of the tragedy, after whom Charlotte Brontë was named?

The locals avoided the Baines property in fear of seeing her hen like ghost, but Elizabeth and Maria Branwell would have often had no choice but to walk past it. In later years, Aunt Branwell related this story to her enthralled nieces and nephew. Parsonage servant Tabby Ayckroyd‘s storytelling is often credited for its influence on the Brontës, but equally important were the stories from Aunt Branwell – in the ghost of Mrs. Baines, for example, we can see a prototype of the ghostly nun of Villette:

‘A sudden bell rang in the house—the prayer-bell. Instantly into our alley there came, out of the berceau, an apparition, all black and white. With a sort of angry rush—close, close past our faces—swept swiftly the very NUN herself! Never had I seen her so clearly. She looked tall of stature, and fierce of gesture. As she went, the wind rose sobbing; the rain poured wild and cold; the whole night seemed to feel her’

Ghost nun
Was the ghost nun of Villette inspired by Mrs. Baines?

When you turn off your light tonight, or blow out the last candle in the last pumpkin, don’t look out of the corner of your eyes, don’t listen to that strange door – and whatever you do, don’t step onto the landing! The veil between our world and previous worlds is thin tonight, but when you read Brontë novels it’s never a trick, and always a treat!

Without The Veil Between, An Interview With DM Denton

Earlier in the week I marked World Sight Day by looking at Patrick Brontë’s sight saving operation, and the impact it had on the Brontës, but today’s post is something different – an interview with DM Denton, the American author of acclaimed novel ‘Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine And Subtle Spirit’.

There have been several attempts down the years to portray members of the Brontë family in a fictional form, and it can be a dangerous undertaking as I feel you really have to have a love of the family to be able to pull it off. Thankfully, Diane Denton certainly has that, and it’s a quality that was also evident in another excellent recent piece of Brontë related fiction, SR Whitehead’s ‘The Last Brontë’.

Veil Between cover
Without The Veil Between, DM Denton’s Anne Bronte novel

Diane is obviously very familiar with Anne’s novels and poems, and as she lived in the UK for sixteen years she understands the landscape the Brontë siblings looked upon as well. Here, then, are DM Denton’s answers to the questions I set her:

Diane, you’ve become noted for your historical fiction, but what made you pick Anne Brontë for a subject?

First, let me thank you, Nick, for having me as a guest on your blog. My interest in the Brontës began in my youth, through my mother’s prized 1943 Fritz Eichenberg illustrated editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Emily dominated my Brontë consciousness for a long time, while I enjoyed Charlotte’s writing but wasn’t so impassioned about her. Anne tugged patiently at my awareness and curiosity, until, over decades, the combination of visiting Scarborough and standing in front of her grave in St. Mary’s churchyard, coming upon a miniature edition of Agnes Grey my mother had bought in Oxford that serendipitously opened to Chapter XXIV, The Sands, and having the idea for a series of novellas about undervalued women authors, set me to write about Anne. Sometimes the closest thing to ourselves takes a long time to reach. A friend of mine insisted it should be a full length novel. I resisted the suggestion, mainly because I didn’t think there was enough material, but my research and writing of a few chapters convinced me she was absolutely right. All those “little things” about Anne’s character, life and writing too often ignored, rushed over, or put in the context of her sisters and brother, offered more than enough.

The book’s title is ‘Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit’. What was the inspiration for the title?

Without the Veil Between is the last line from Anne’s poem In Memory of a Happy Day in February (1842), referring to the veil between her and God, earthly and eternal life. In choosing that phrase as the title, I realized, as well as representing Anne’s piety, it could symbolize the veil that had obscured Anne from consideration and appreciation, one I wanted to respectfully lift. When the poem was published posthumously in 1850, Charlotte made some edits to it, including the second to last line that leads up to without the veil between, changing To see the glories of his face to Like Moses, I would see His face. At the end of the novel, I chose to use Anne’s version, because I felt it was her way of implying it wasn’t just God she was looking forward to being reunited with after death.

As I neared the novel’s completion, I needed a subtitle that would identify it as being about Anne. The first line from her poem The Bluebell, suggested by the same friend who insisted the book be a novel, offered the perfect solution.

The book features your own illustrations. Did Anne Brontë’s drawing skills inspire you, as well as her writing skills?

Certainly. All the Brontë siblings were very artistic, their artwork giving an intimate view into their lives. I have always loved the way 19th century novels were illustrated. I had already done cover artwork for my own and others’ publications and interior illustrations for another author. When I asked my publisher if I could add some, she said: “I was hoping you would want to!”

DM Denton Profile Pic
New York author, DM Denton

Your book looks at Anne Brontë’s time at Thorp Green Hall and at her relationship with William Weightman. Do you think she loved Weightman and did he love her?

I do think love was budding between them, probably, at that early stage, more seriously for Anne. Although William did enjoy being a flirt, he might have soon realized, because of Anne’s patience and faith and his own maturing, what a loving, constant companion and excellent curate’s wife she would have made him. As I wrote her reaction to the news of William’s death, I certainly experienced the romantic tragedy that had been inflicted upon her, but, also, how her resolve to do something positive and purposeful with her life was strengthened. I think the happier ending she gave Agnes Grey reflected, not only what she had hoped for, but, also, how she might find a satisfying and productive way to go on in the Mr. Weston-less version of her real-life story.

What is your favourite Anne Brontë poem and why?

The Bluebell, as it is beautifully written, features one of my favourite flowers that evokes special memories from my own life and symbolizes Anne herself. A bluebell seems insignificant and vulnerable, even a little sad, until one realizes its lovely pervasive colour and fragrance, and buoyancy that gives it the ability to bend without breaking. Its silent eloquence appealed to Anne, how it ‘understood’ it had more or less of power. I also love the way the poem looks backwards and forwards, acknowledging, as Anne often does, how bliss and melancholy, hope and disappointment are often part of the same experience or reflection. Not least, I love this poem because it introduces others to my labour of love about her!

What message does Anne have for people today?

I think Anne’s own words can answer that better than any I might come up with. There are so many I could quote that are still relevant. As a life lesson, a wise and compassionate alternative to the self-interest and fear-mongering we see infecting society today, I often go back to this one: But no generous mind delights to oppress the weak, but rather to cherish and protect.

Another quote, from Anne’s preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, speaks to the present in terms of how important honesty, integrity, courage, and activism is: I wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it. But as the priceless treasure too frequently hides at the bottom of a well, it needs some courage to dive for it, especially as he that does so will be likely to incur more scorn and obloquy for the mud and water into which he has ventured to plunge, than thanks for the jewel he procures …

Your book has, quite rightly, had some great reviews – do you think you’ll return to the Brontë family for future books?

I haven’t any plans to at this time, but one never knows. Of course, I hope my book about Anne will be read by more and more for a long time, for, in terms of my life and writing style and standards, I never want to move too far away from her.

What do you think Anne and her sisters would have thought of the worldwide fame they’ve achieved two hundred years after their births?

Just going by her reaction to celebrity in her lifetime, I think Charlotte would have loved and hated it, the former when she felt she could control it and the latter when she couldn’t. It’s tempting to assume Emily would have scoffed at it, tried to avoid it and her life being changed by it, and even been very distressed by it. But there might have been a glimmer of satisfaction in it for her. I’m not sure any of them would have been comfortable with fame for themselves, other than its effect of offering them a living through writing. Certainly Anne would have seen the chance to be more charitable. I do believe she would have been pleased her voice, her message was finally being heard, while remaining vigilant to it being misconstrued. She would have realized the providence and explored the potential of the platform fame had given her.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m about 10K into another biographical novel, this one about Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894), Victorian poetess and the youngest sister of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder, artist and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Rossetti siblings (including another brother William and sister Maria) were like the Brontës in terms of their personal and creative closeness, their loyalty to and support of each other holding up through thick and thin. The novel is just beginning to take shape in terms of its form, covering Christina’s life from childhood to, at least, middle-age, if not beyond.”

*****

Thanks to Diane for some very illuminating answers there. The book can be purchased from Amazon in the UK here and in America here, and you can find out more about DM Denton and her historical novels at her website here.

The Brontës And World Sight Day 2018

Today, the 11th of October 2018, is World Sight Day. Held on the second Thursday of every October it helps to draw awareness to blindness and vision impairment. Statistics show that around 250 people start to lose their vision every day in the UK alone. That’s a grim fact, but the reality of blindness and impaired vision was well known to the Brontës of Haworth.

Patrick Brontë lived until he was 84 years old, a grand age for somebody in the nineteenth century, especially in a parish as disease ridden as Haworth. It is testimony to his overall fitness and good health, but as he grew older his eyesight faded rapidly.

Photograph of Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte in old age

He was approaching 43 by the time Anne Brontë, his sixth and final child, was born, and so as the Brontë siblings grew up they had to deal with the fact of their father’s diminishing eyesight. This put pressure on the whole family, but especially the only son Branwell, as if their father’s eyesight failed to the extent where he could no longer do his job it would be expected that he would become the family’s main breadwinner.

The cause of Patrick’s vision problem was cataracts, and the extent of his problem was a newspaper report into a grand concert in Haworth on 20th July 1846. Eighty musicians participated, along with numerous singers, and the Leeds Intelligencer newspaper reported that St. Michael’s and All Angels church was ‘crowded to suffocation’. It also reported that the venerable parish priest Patrick Brontë was also in attendance but it reported, tellingly, that he was ‘now totally blind.’

Patrick was understandably frustrated at his loss of vision. He had to rely increasingly on his assistant curates; he had been a voracious reader, and now his own daughters, and earlier his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell, had to read the newspaper to him. In a later letter Charlotte remembered how, ‘Papa’s vision was completely obscured – he could do nothing for himself and sat all day-long in darkness and inertion’.

It could not go on, and so they sought expert, and at the time revolutionary, medical aid. In February 1846, Charlotte consulted an eye surgeon, William Carr, a relation through marriage of Brontë friend Ellen Nussey. Carr advised that Patrick’s cataracts would need to harden before they could be operated on.

Manchester Royal Eye Hospital
Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, originally the Manchester Institution for Curing of the Diseases of the Eye

In July 1846, not long before the concert mentioned above, Charlotte sought further advice, this time from one of the country’s leading eye surgeons, William James Wilson of Manchester. Emily travelled to Manchester with her, a remarkable fact in itself as by this time she rarely left Haworth and revealing of the loving bond Emily felt for her father. Wilson had founded the Manchester Institution for Curing of the Diseases of the Eye in 1814, but he advised that he could not give a definitive prognosis without seeing Patrick himself.

Charlotte wrote to Ellen explaining how she was going to take her father to the surgeon: ‘Papa must therefore necessarily take a journey to Manchester to consult him – if he judges the cataract ripe we shall remain, if on the contrary he thinks it not sufficiently hardened we shall have to return, and papa must remain in darkness a little while longer.’

On Wednesday 19th August 1846, Charlotte was back in Manchester, this time with Patrick instead of Emily. Dr. Wilson pronounced him a fit subject for surgery, and the operation was performed on August 24th. Charlotte had expected ‘couching’ to be carried out, where the cataract is pushed down allowing some vision to return, but in fact Dr. Wilson cut away the cataracts – without the use of any anaesthetic.

Patrick later wrote in detail what happened during the operation:

‘Belladonna, a virulent poison, prepared from the deadly nightshade, was first applied, twice, in order to expand the pupil. This occasioned very acute pain for only about five seconds. The feeling, under the operation, which lasted 15 minutes, was of a burning nature – but not intolerable – as I have read is generally the case, in surgical operations. My lens was extracted so that cataract can never return in that eye… I was confined on my back a month in a dark room, with bandages over my eyes for the greater part of the time, and had a careful nurse, to attend me both night and day. I was bled with 8 leeches, at one time, and 6, in another, (these caused me little pain) in order to prevent inflammation.’

The Salutation
The site of Charlotte and Patrick’s stay in Manchester is now The Salutation pub

Poison applied to the eyes, cataracts cut away without anaesthetic, leeches applied to the eyes – all may sound ridiculously primitive to us, but it was cutting edge surgery in more ways than one – and it worked. Patrick regained his eyesight to the extent that he could read again. The month after the operation was a particularly trying one for Charlotte, alone in Manchester with her bandaged father. She must also have been thinking of her own eyesight, which like her father’s had never been strong. Would she too, one day, by lying with bandages over her eyes like this? Would her father ever see again? If not, how would she cope, how would they all cope?

It was at a time when Charlotte was already at a low ebb, as her novel ‘The Professor’ had been rejected by all the publishers she knew of. She could have failed and crumbled, but that wasn’t Charlotte’s way. Her eyesight may have been poor, but her vision was always strong. What happened in that drear apartment at 83 Mount Pleasant Street was described movingly by Charlotte’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell:

‘She had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did ‘The Professor’ return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude – in those grey, weary, uniform streets, where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, – there and then, did the genius begin “Jane Eyre”.’

Bronte plaque at The Salutation, Manchester
Bronte plaque at The Salutation, Manchester

On World Sight Day let us be thankful for Dr. Wilson, and for countless eye specialists in the health profession in the decades since then. Let us also be thankful for our own sight, that allows us to enjoy the great works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.

Anne Brontë and National Poetry Day 2018

This week saw the 2018 renewal of National Poetry Day, and it even encouraged me to write my first poems in many years. I discovered what I had long forgot, that writing poetry can be fun, but it can also be empowering. Some people turn to the writing of poetry to look deep inside themselves, using it as a journal to express powerful thoughts and painful memories, and through the writing of verse they achieve understanding or peace, and this is how it was to Anne Brontë too, as she revealed in ‘Agnes Grey‘:

“When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry.”

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
Agnes Grey, in which Anne speaks of the power of poetry to her

Anne knew all about long oppressing powerful feelings which she kept to herself, and it’s for that reason that she wrote poetry from her earliest days until her last. Anne was especially close to her sister Emily Brontë, and in their childhood they created a fantasy world known as Gondal, writing huge amounts of prose and poetry on the subject, and creating a complex web of characters and events. Alas, none of the prose remains but we do still have a large number of their Gondal poems. They are incredibly accomplished for young minds, and often talk of grand adventures, romances thwarted, and prisoners locked in dark dungeons.

When away from the influence of Emily, for example when at Roe Head school in Mirfield or as governess to the Ingham or Robinson families, Anne wrote poetry that was much more personal to her. Occasionally she wrote poetry that was ostensibly said by Gondal characters, but which really spoke of her own feelings, as in the beautiful yearning of ‘Home’:

“How brightly glistening in the sun
The woodland ivy plays!
While yonder beeches from their barks
Reflect his silver rays.
That sun surveys a lovely scene
From softly smiling skies;
And wildly through unnumbered trees
The wind of winter sighs:
Now loud, it thunders o’er my head,
And now in distance dies.
But give me back my barren hills
Where colder breezes rise;
Where scarce the scattered, stunted trees
Can yield an answering swell,
But where a wilderness of heath
Returns the sound as well.
For yonder garden, fair and wide,
With groves of evergreen,
Long winding walks, and borders trim,
And velvet lawns between;
Restore to me that little spot,
With grey walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.
Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within –
Oh, give me back my HOME!”

Here we read, so often repeated in Anne’s writings, the desire to be back in the rugged country she so loved.

Haworth moors snow
The weather beaten moors of Haworth feature often in Anne’s poetry

It was a chance discovery of Emily’s poetry by Charlotte that launched the literary career of the sisters and changed our world forever. Here is how Charlotte later remembered the discovery:

“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating. Meantime, my younger sister (Anne) quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.”

Emily, predictably, was furious at this discovery. An intensely private woman, she hated the thought of people reading her words and seeing into her soul. It took two days of arguing to win her round, and it was then that the sisters agreed to publish a collection of their poetry: “Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.”

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

The book received some pleasing reviews but failed to sell, but the sisters had caught the publishing book and embarked on a new project to write novels. We all know what happened after that. Emily is often regarded as the premier Brontë poet, but it was Anne who enjoyed commercial success, being the only sister to have her poetry published in periodicals. Friend of the family Ellen Nussey recalled one such incident:

“I observed a slow smile spreading across Anne’s face as she sat reading before the fire. I asked her why she was smiling, and she replied: ‘Only because I see they have inserted one of my poems.'”

There is one large section of Anne’s poetry that we cannot overlook, her love poems. From the date William Weightman arrived as curate at Haworth, the formulaic Gondal love poetry became something very different, something real. After his untimely death, she wrote poem after poem about loss and mourning. A coincidence or something much deeper? Was this the poetry that reveals those ‘powerful feelings we must keep to ourselves’? I think if we look at Anne’s words, and look into our own hearts, we can find an answer. So whether you’re feeling happy or sad in the week to come, perhaps you could follow Anne’s example and let it inspire you into the creation of poetry!

What’s In a Name? From Branty To Brontë

What’s in a name, as a famous writer once said? On this day, the 3rd of October, in 1802 a 25 year old Irishman was recorded in the register of St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he’d arrived two days earlier. He was named ‘Patrick Bronte‘ but that was the first, but certainly not the last, time that would be used.

Patrick was born on the 17th March 1777 in Drumballyroney, County Down, and named after the patron saint whose feast fell on that same day, but at that time his family name was Brunty, or possibly Prunty or even O’Pronntaigh, and his parents Hugh and Alice could never have imagined the life that lay ahead of him.

Patrick Bronte's cottage
The Bronte cottage, County Down where Patrick was born in 1777

The expected course of Patrick’s life would have seen him become a farmer or a labourer on the land (although he had also been taking weaving lessons) but from his earliest days he displayed remarkable talents and, most importantly, a love of reading and learning. The story goes that a local minister, Andrew Harshaw, heard the young child Patrick reading aloud ‘Paradise Lost’ by John Milton, and was so impressed that he offered to provide the boy with free tuition in the early hours of the morning, so that he could continue his weaving work as before.

Patrick was a rapid learner and a brilliant scholar, so much so that, whilst still in his teens, he was made head teacher of Glascar Hill Presbyterian Church School thanks again to Harshaw’s auspices. His time at Glascar, however, soon came to an end when the school was disbanded, but Harshaw then secured his protege a job at Drumballyroney school and the post of tutor to another local priest, Thomas Tighe.

Drumballyroney church
Drumballyroney church, presided over by Thomas Tighe

In our lives moments happen that seem insignificant at the time: we go somewhere, do something, or meet somebody, and only later do we realise with hindsight that it was that second which changed our life forever. This was such a moment in Patrick’s life. Thomas Tighe was not only a priest, he was from a very wealthy family, and he too was impressed by Patrick’s abilities and passion for education and the scriptures.

Tighe himself had been educated at St. John’s, Cambridge and had also been a fellow of Peterhouse College, and it was under his tuition that Patrick learnt the Greek and Latin he would need to pass the Cambridge entrance exams. By 1802 he was ready and able to take that step, and Tighe himself recommended Patrick to his old college, St. John’s, as well as subsiding his entry. Tighe, then, was a philanthropist who was willing to spend his own money to help the church secure what he knew would be a fine new minister. He also, of course, secured a future that would lead to the Brontë novels we know and love today.

So why do we not laud Charlotte, Emily and Anne Prunty today? We have to return to the register of St. John’s from 216 years ago. On 1st October, the Admissions Register recorded:

“1235 Patrick Branty Ireland Sizar Tutors: Wood & Smith”

It seems that Patrick’s accent had led the registrar to hear Branty, and so it was recorded (a sizar, by the way, was a student who was being sponsored or paying reduced fees). Two days later, Patrick appears again as he takes up his official residence at the college. Once again he is recorded as ‘Branty’ but this is crossed out and it then reads “Patrick Bronte’; Patrick has obviously corrected the registrant, but in so doing has invented a new surname for himself.

St John's College, Cambridge
St John’s College, Cambridge

It could be that Patrick thought that ‘Branty’ sounded too obviously Irish at a time when anti-Irish sentiment ran high in England. It may also be that he thought its Irishness would bring with it Catholic connotations, hardly ideal for a man taking his first steps towards a Church of England career.

Brontë is also a rather grand sounding name, and helped to mask the bearer’s humble origins. The name became grander when it eventually acquired the diaeresis, the two dots above the letter e, with which we are all familiar today. Patrick often used a plain ‘e’, and in their early years the surname frequently used the French accented ‘é’. Only later in their lives was the ‘Brontë’ we know today uniformly adopted by his children.

His excellent knowledge of Latin, thanks to Reverend Tighe, meant that Patrick was well aware that ‘bronte’ means thunder in that ancient language, which is sure to have impressed his fellow students who all spoke Latin as well as they spoke English. Patrick was also aware that one of his heroes, Admiral Horatio Nelson had been made Duke of Brontë in 1799, a castle and village on Sicily, by King Ferdinand III of the Two Sicilies in thanks for his valiant actions against Napoleon and his fleet.

Union Hotel Nelson
This statue of Nelson is at the Union Hotel, Penzance – uniting both sides of the Bronte family

It was a noble name, a grand sounding name, a thunderous name, and Patrick adopted and then wore it for the rest of his days like a suit of the finest cloth, cut from his own imagination.

By a strange coincidence, a similar change of surname happened with the Brontë siblings’ maternal forebears, the Branwell family of Penzance, Cornwall. It was only in the generation of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell that this surname was adopted, as before that they had been the Bramwells, and before that the Brammels and Brambles.

I’m off now to read a book by one of the Branty sisters. It doesn’t have the same ring does it? ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ said William Shakespeare, but a certain Reverend knew that names can have much more import than that. Well done Patrick on your wise choice!

Aunt Branwell And The Brontë Legacy

As you know, I’m passionate about the writing of the Brontë sisters. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë produced some of the greatest novels of all time, along with some sublime poetry, but I feel it’s important to remember others in their story as well, from their parents Patrick and Maria, to their brother Branwell who led their childhood scribblemania, and their eldest siblings Maria and Elizabeth Brontë, who would always be remembered.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell, painted by James Tonkin in 1799

One person I feel that particularly deserves to be remembered is Aunt Branwell, and yet she is often relegated to the shadows of Brontë history (although a cabinet of her belongings can be seen in the Brontë Parsonage Museum (as shown in the header of this post), or remembered as a dour woman who had little effect on her nieces – something I believe to be completely untrue.

Aunt Branwell and the Bronte Legacy cover
Aunt Branwell and the Bronte Legacy, out now in paperback!

That’s why I’m so proud that my new book, ‘Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy’ is available right now from the publisher Pen & Sword, all good bookstores, and at Amazon via this link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Aunt-Branwell-Bront%C3%AF%C2%BF%C2%BD-Legacy-Holland/dp/1526722232

This is the first ever biography of Elizabeth Branwell, the woman who made a huge sacrifice in 1821 when she left the warmth and familiarity of Cornwall to travel to Haworth, firstly to nurse her dying sister Maria and then staying on to raise her nephew and five nieces. She made financial sacrifices as well to aid her sister’s children, and without her legacy there simply wouldn’t be any of the Brontë books we know and love today.

In my new biography we look at:

• The extended Branwell family of Cornwall who produced Maria and Elizabeth

• The Brontë aunt who emigrated to America but returned with her baby, and in so doing became a prototype of Helen in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’

• Why Elizabeth Branwell came to Haworth, and why she stayed

• Why Elizabeth is portrayed negatively by Elizabeth Gaskell

• A family tragedy that could have led to the death of Elizabeth’s only love

• How Aunt Branwell’s stories of Cornwall can be found echoed in Brontë novels

• Why Aunt Branwell’s will was so central to the Brontë story

• The Brontë cousin who also benefitted from the will, and how she too turned to writing before enduring an end even more tragic than that of her Haworth relatives

• The Branwell descendants still living, on another continent, today as the closest Brontë relations in the world

I’m thrilled to say the book has already had great reviews, with one reader saying:

“This is the third book about the Brontë family that I have read this year and it was by far the most enjoyable. Breathing new life into the well-trodden area of biographies about this amazing family, the author has done a wonderful job in bringing Elizabeth Branwell to life from the scant information available. The book is well-researched and the author has an engaging writing style which draws the reader in.”

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – birthplace of Aunt Branwell

I will also be doing an official book launch at the end of this year in Penzance in Cornwall, the birthplace of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell – and therefore where the Brontë story began. There will be more news on that as the date approaches, but for now thank you for listening to me promote my own book – normal service will be resumed next week!

Hathersage, Jane Eyre and the Brontës

A couple of years ago I changed hosts for my Anne Brontë blog, and subsequently had to reload my older posts. It was a large but fun task, but some posts got lost in the change over. It’s come to my attention that my post on Hathersage was one of these, so apologies if you’ve seen it before but here it is again, slightly revamped, as we head back into the Peaks:

In recent posts we’ve taken a look at some of the locations, other than Haworth, that played a part in the light of Anne Brontë and her sisters, including last week’s recreation of the walk that she and Charlotte took through central London. In today’s blog we’re heading into the Peak district of Derbyshire, to the charming village of Hathersage.

Eyre family grave, Hathersage
A familiar name on an Eyre family grave, Hathersage

The Peak District is an area in the north of Derbyshire, to the south of Sheffield across the Yorkshire border. It is a wild, undulating and rugged place, full of valleys, hills, caverns and moors that were carved out during the ice age. It also has many villages and small towns that draw in tourists, such as Castleton, famed for its caverns full of the Blue John gemstone, Bakewell, home of the tart, and the ‘plague village’ of Eyam. Hathersage has one special attraction all of its own however: it features heavily in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre‘.

Spoiler alert: after Jane discovers, on her wedding day, that Rochester is already married to a mad woman in the tower, she flees Thornfield Hall. She wanders penniless and heartbroken across a harsh landscape based upon the Peak District, before eventually reaching the village of Morton and begging to be given food and shelter. It is here that she meets St. John Rivers and the incredible ending to the novel takes shape.

Hathersage became a familiar haunt of Charlotte’s as she often visited it in company with her friend Ellen Nussey, who would also play a pivotal role in Anne Brontë’s life too of course. The reason for their visits was that Ellen’s brother Henry had been made vicar of St. Michael’s church in Hathersage. He served in that position from 1845 until 1847, during which time Charlotte discovered the places, and people, who would be pivotal to the novel.

The leading family in the Hathersage area at that time was the Eyre family. In the church, Charlotte would have seen the Eyre memorial, and in the graveyard she would have found the Eyre graves, including one for a Jane Eyre herself.

The Eyre family resided at the grand North Lees Hall, just over a mile north of the village. Charlotte must have visited them here, or at least seen the hall, as it is unmistakably the inspiration for Rochester’s Thornfield Hall. Thus in real life, as opposed to the book, Jane Eyre and her family were in fact not the servants but the owners of Thornfield.

Apostle's cabinet
The Apostle’s cabinet, originally in North Lees Hall

In the Hall, Charlotte also saw the incredible, if intimidating, apostle’s cabinet that she reproduced in Bertha’s chamber:

‘I must see the light of the unsnuffed candle wane on my employment; the shadows darken on the wrought, antique tapestry round me, and grow black under the hangings of the vast old bed, and quiver strangely over the doors of a great cabinet opposite — whose front, divided into twelve panels, bore, in grim design, the heads of the twelve apostles, each enclosed in its separate panel as in a frame; while above them at the top rose an ebony crucifix and a dying Christ.’

This very cabinet is now in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, just as Charlotte described it, presented to them by North Lees Hall.

Also of interest to Brontë lovers in Hathersage is the George Hotel, as it too features as the George Inn in Jane Eyre, the coaching inn employed by Jane and the stop at which Charlotte Brontë would have alighted on her visits to the village.

George Hotel, Hathersage
The George Hotel, Hathersage

Hathersage’s church has become famous for its Eyre and Brontë connections, but it also has another remarkable claim to fame. At the foot of its churchyard is a very long grave, which is always beautifully kept. This, so legend states, is the final resting place of Little John, the faithful lieutenant of Robin Hood. Robin Hood is closely connected with the area, and is often claimed to be from Loxley, to the north of Hathersage near the city of Sheffield.

It is said that in 1780, a man named James Shuttleworth dug up a thigh bone there, and measured it at over twenty-eight inches. This would have made Little John more than eight feet tall. It’s also said that John’s bow and chainmail once hung in the church, although no trace of them now remains.

Little John's grave
Little John’s grave, Hathersage

Robin Hood has another connection to Charlotte and Anne Brontë. On the outskirts of Mirfield stands Kirklees Hall. Legend states that it is here that Robin Hood died, having been treacherously poisoned. In his dying moment he shot an arrow out of his window and was buried where he fell, somewhere in the woodland around the Hall. This legend would have been very well known to Charlotte and Anne Brontë, as Kirklees Hall is close to the Roe Head School at which they studied.

Hathersage was certainly a huge influence on Charlotte Brontë, and we can surmise that she must have enjoyed her time there. It may also have been a little strained at times, however. In 1839, Henry Nussey had proposed to Charlotte, and been summarily rejected. It is thought that he could have been a forebear of the pious yet overbearing St. John Rivers of Jane Eyre. By the time he became a vicar he had married Emily Prescott, but Henry’s life was to have a tragic ending.

St. Michael's, Hathersage
Henry Nussey was vicar at St. Michael’s, Hathersage

After leaving Hathersage, he left the church altogether. Throughout the rest of his life he suffered from mental illness, and was interred in a succession of mental asylums. It was in such a place, Arden House, that he eventually took his own life in January, 1860. His condition had earlier been described as: ‘violent and dangerous to himself and others.’

Setting such a dark moment aside, there is plenty for Brontë fans to see and do in Hathersage, and in its stunning Peak District surroundings.

Hathersage trail
The Jane Eyre trail courtesy of www.peak-experience.org.uk