Sutcliffe Sowden And The Marriage Of Charlotte Brontë

This was a momentous week in 1854, for on 29th June of that year, in the parish of Haworth at 8 in the morning (the earliest time a wedding could legally be celebrated) the daughter of the long serving curate married the assistant curate. In other words, Charlotte Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls. In today’s new post we’ll look at someone who was central to the Brontë marriage, and who is also connected to a very popular television drama of the moment: Sutcliffe Sowden.

St James Hebden Bridge
St James The Great church, Hebden Bridge

By 1854 Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden was vicar of St. James’ church, Hebden Bridge. More importantly for his future role in the Brontë story, he was also by that time the best friend of Arthur Bell Nicholls. When Arthur left Haworth in 1853, after the abject failure of his proposal to Charlotte in 1852, it was Sutcliffe Sowden who stood by his side and it was he who persuaded Arthur not to give up on his dream of marrying Charlotte, and not to seek a new life as a missionary in Australia. Such was Arthur’s gratitude that he asked Sowden to conduct his wedding ceremony on this week 168 years ago, and thanks to local scholar James Robinson (whom Arthur was training to be a Sunday School teacher) we have this eye witness description of the wedding and Sutcliffe Sowden’s presence there:

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

I returned with the message, and then was told to get the parish clerk. I found him just beginning to light his kitchen fire, and I had to rush him off, as I knew they would be at the church doors by the time we should get there. He seemed hard of belief. I said, ‘Come on, there’s no time to waste.’

On the way he said, ‘I must stop to lace my boots.’ He did so, and just as the clock was going to strike eight, the three clergymen walked into what they called the front door of the old church and Miss Brontë and Miss Nussey walked together in at the back door.

As far as I remember, the only persons present at the ceremony were those I have named [there was also Margaret Wooler of course]. Directly the ceremony was over, and the interested parties had gone to the parsonage, a carriage and pair drove up from Keighley. There was no station at Haworth then. I remember there was a bay horse and a grey one, and in a few moments Miss Brontë and Mr. Nicholls, now married, were away on their honeymoon.’

Sutcliffe Sowden watches Charlotte sign the register
Sutcliffe Sowden watches Charlotte sign the register in a 2004 reenactment. In fact Sowden was the same age as Charlotte.

The marriage register in Haworth Church still holds the record of this very day, and on it we see Reverend Sowden as the officiating minister. We know from letters of this time that Charlotte came to hold Arthur’s best friend in great esteem, and that he visited Haworth Parsonage on more than one occasion. On 9th August 1854, Charlotte Brontë Nicholls (as she now styled herself) wrote to Ellen Nussey:

‘I really like Mr. Sowden very well. He asked after you. Mr. Nicholls told him we expected you would be coming to stay with us in the course of 3 or 4 weeks – and that he should then invite him over again as he wished us to take sundry rather long walks – and as he should have his wife to look after – and she was trouble enough – it would be quite necessary to have a guardian for the other lady. Mr. S seemed perfectly acquiescent.’

This little paragraph is a clue to a plan that Charlotte and Arthur had seemingly hatched together – they were now happily married, so why shouldn’t their best friends be? They hoped that Sutcliffe and Ellen might marry each other, but it never came to pass and neither of them ever wed.

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

On 7th November 1854 we get another glimpse of Sutcliffe, thanks to another letter from Charlotte to Ellen:

‘Mr. Sowden and his brother were here yesterday – stayed all night and are but just gone. George Sowden is six or seven years the junior of Sutcliffe Sowden (the one you have seen) he looks very delicate and quiet – a good sincere man – I should think – ’Mr. S asked after ‘‘Miss Nussey.’’’

So we know that Charlotte thought well of Sutcliffe Sowden, but what did he think of Charlotte? The admiration was mutual, and it was Sutcliffe who gave us the famous description of Charlotte Brontë on her wedding day as looking like: ‘a snowdrop, a pale wintry flower’.

Alas, as so often in the Brontë story tragedy seemed to shadow all connected with it. The wedding ceremony of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nicholls wasn’t the only ceremony he was asked to perform for the family. Less than a year after the wedding he was back in the same Haworth church, but this time he was officiating over the funeral service for Charlotte Brontë Nicholls. In June 1861, he was called upon once more – this time he was the officiating curate at the funeral of Patrick Brontë.

His service to the Brontë family over, it was now time for tragedy to strike for Sutcliffe Sowden himself. It had been noted that Sowden suffered from fainting fits from time to time, possibly he had epilepsy. On 8th August 1861, less than two months after presiding over Patrick Brontë’s funeral, Sutcliffe Sowden fell into a canal on a foggy night and drowned. He was 45 years old.

Bradford Observer, 15th August 1861

The Sowden association with Hebden Bridge was not over, however, for his younger brother George, mentioned by Charlotte in her earlier letter, took over the curacy of the parish, and served as its vicar until the 1890s. George too recollected Charlotte Brontë and remembered her as, ‘a thoroughly ladylike woman, and very self-possessed. I could imagine her somewhat reserved with strangers, though with us she was not so in the slightest degree. There was not a word of high-flown conversation. In fact, all was so simple. She showed me beautifully-illustrated volumes of French fables (La Fontaine’s) which she was evidently proud of, as the gift to her by W. M. Thackeray, whom she looked up to with veneration, and regarded as the regenerator of society. She was then as simple as the house she lived in, with its homely arrangements.’

The surname of Sowden was a clue to the origins of this family, as the two Church of England vicars came from a far from ecclesiastical background. In fact the family had long been pig farmers, and Sutcliffe’s father Samuel Sowden was in charge of Sutcliffe Wood Farm near Halifax. They were tenants of the farm, not owners, for it was the property of the estate of the nearby grand Shibden Hall: at that time under the control of a certain Miss Anne Lister.

Anne Lister, painted in 1830
Anne Lister, painted in 1830

If you’re a fan of the highly entertaining BBC drama Gentleman Jack, alarm bells may now be ringing. One of the sub-plots involves the farming Sowden family – and the fate of bullying Sam Sowden was to be killed and fed to the pigs by his own son Thomas Sowden. In real life these characters were the father and eldest brother of Sutcliffe, the man who conducted Charlotte Brontë’s wedding!

It’s safe to say then that the writers of this excellent series have used a little artistic license in their portrayal of the Sowden family. Far from living the lives of poverty and violence shown in the drama, they were relatively prosperous farmers who ensured their sons received an excellent education. Nevertheless it’s another link between the Brontës and the endlessly fascinating Anne Lister.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute for Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden came from his best friend Arthur Bell Nicholls. Sutcliffe had officiated at Arthur’s wedding and at the funeral of his beloved wife Charlotte. In 1861, in one of his last acts as a Church of England curate, Arthur officiated at the funeral of Sutcliffe Sowden. He also wrote his obituary for the Halifax Guardian, and in a letter before the funeral service Arthur wrote of the strain he would face:

‘It will be hard work for me to read the Service over one, whose intimate friendship I have enjoyed for many years, & whom I have looked upon more as a relation than a friend.’

Sutcliffe Sowden grave

Have a wonderful day, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Branwell Brontë, 205 Today, In His Own Words

This day in 1817 was surely a day of celebration for Patrick and Maria Brontë. After three girls, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, Maria had given birth to a boy. In the patriarchal society of the time it would have been expected that he would grow up to continue the family name and be the bread winner for the family. He it would be who would bring income to the household and look after his sisters until they could find husbands and homes of their own. He was named after his father, Patrick Brontë, but he became better known by his middle name. Following another tradition of the time, this eldest son was given his mother’s maiden name as a middle name in tribute to her family: Branwell.

Patrick Branwell Brontë grew up somewhat differently to how his parents may have expected on that auspicious day in Thornton, Bradford 205 years ago. For many years Branwell has lived in the shadows of Charlotte and his two younger sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, or has been depicted as a monstrous figure, an addict who brought misery to his family. Recent years however have seen a re-assessment of Branwell’s life. It was undoubtedly a life of struggle, at least in part because of the terrible early losses of his mother and two eldest sisters. These losses sunk deeply into Branwell and may at least in part have contributed to his troubled adult life. Nevertheless Branwell was not a man without talents; he was a fine poet in his own right, could potentially have become a portrait artist, and was a great raconteur popular with those who knew him in Haworth and beyond. There are now lots of words written about him, but in today’s birthday post we’re going to look at Branwell Brontë in his own words.

Letter to Blackwood’s Magazine of Edinburgh, December 1837

‘SIR, – Read what I write. And would to Heaven you could believe it true, for then you would attend to and act upon it.

I have addressed you twice before, and now I do it again. But it is not from affected hypocrisy that I commence my letter with the name of James Hogg; for the writings of that man in your numbers, his speeches in your ‘Noctes’, when I was a child, laid a hold on my mind which succeeding years have consecrated into a most sacred feeling. I cannot express, though you can understand, the heavenliness of associations connected with such articles as Professor Wilson’s, read and re-read while a little child, with all their poetry of language and divine flights into that visionary region of imagination which one very young would believe reality, and which one entering into manhood would look back on as a glorious dream.

James Hogg
James Hogg, much admired by Branwell Bronte

I speak so, sir, because while a child ‘Blackwood’ formed my chief delight, and I feel certain that no child before enjoyed reading as I did, because none ever had such works as ‘The Noctes’, ‘Christmas Dreams’, ‘Christopher in his Sporting Jacket’ to read. And even now, ‘Millions 0′ reasonable creatures at this hour – na’, no at this hour’, etc. or ‘Long, long ago seems the time when we danced hand in hand with our golden-haired sister, whom all that looked on loved. Long, long ago, the day on which she died. That hour so far more dreadful than any hour that now can darken us on this earth, when she, her coffin and that velvet pall descended, – and descended deathlike, and wishing to die, out of the churchyard that from that moment we thought we could never enter more.’ Passages like these, sir (and when that last was written my sister died) – passages like these, read then and remembered now, afford feelings which, I repeat, I cannot describe. But – one of those who roused those feelings is dead, and neither from himself nor yourself shall I hear him speak again. I grieve for his death, because to me he was a portion of feelings which I suppose nothing can arouse hereafter: because to you he was a contributor of sterling originality, and in the ‘Noctes’ a subject for your unequalled writing. He and others like him gave your Magazine the peculiar character which made it famous; as these men die it will decay unless their places be supplied by others like them.

Now, sir, to you I appear writing with conceited assurance: but I am not; for I know myself so far as to believe in my own originality, and on that ground I desire of you admittance into your ranks. And do not wonder that I apply so determinedly: for the remembrances I spoke of have fixed you and your Magazine in such a manner upon my mind that the idea of striving to aid another periodical is horribly repulsive. My resolution is to devote my ability to you, and for God’s sake, till you see whether or not I can serve you, do not so coldly refuse my aid. All, sir, that I desire of you is – that you would in answer to this letter request a specimen or specimens of my writing, and I even wish that you would name the subject on which you would wish me to write. In letters previous to this I have perhaps spoken too openly respecting the extent of my powers. But I did so because I determined to say what I believed. I know that I am not one of the wretched writers of the day. I know that I possess strength to assist you beyond some of your own contributors; but I wish to make you the judge in this case and give you the benefit of its decision.

Now, sir, do not act like a commonplace person, but like a man willing to examine for himself. Do not turn from the naked truth of my letters, but prove me – and if I do not stand the proof, I will not further press myself upon you. If I do stand it, why, you have lost an able writer in James Hogg, and God grant you may gain one in Patrick Branwell Brontë’

Letter to Joseph Bentley Leyland, June 29th 1842

‘Dear Sir,

I think it is my duty to send to you a copy of the inscription intended for Mr Andrew’s monument.

If it is not such an one as would have best pleased myself, but I was compelled to frame it so as to please others; as to whose taste and judgement you will some time since have formed a tolerably correct opinion. I have not often felt more heartily ashamed than when you left the committee at Haworth; but I did not like to speak on the subject then, and I trusted that you would make that allowance which you have perhaps often ere now had to do, for gothic ignorance and ill breeding; and one or two of the persons present, afterwards felt that they had left by no means an enviable impression on your mind.

Though it is but a poor compliment – I long much to see you again at Haworth, and forget for half a day the amiable society in which I am placed, where I never hear a word more musical than an asses bray; When you come over bring with you Mr Constable, but leave behind Father Matthews; as his conversation is too cold and freezing for the comfort among the moors of Yorkshire.

Trusting soon to see you; I remain, Dear Sir, Yours respectfully and sincerely, P. B. Brontë.’

Letter to Joseph Bentley Leyland, August 4th 1845

My dear Sir,

John Brown wishes to know whether the payment due for the monument will be most acceptable this week, as, if so he can get it from the parties before Saturday and give it into your hands.

They had not the required sum in the house or he would have received it to day. The Tablet has satisfied all who have seen it.

As to my own affairs I only wish I could see one gleam of light amid their gloom. You I hope are well and cheerful. Yours sincerely, P. B. Brontë’

Letter to Joseph Bentley Leyland, June 1846

‘Dear Sir,

I should have sent you “Morley Hall” ere now, but I am unable to finish it at present from agony to which the grave would be far preferable.

Mr Robinson of Thorp Green is dead, and he has left his widow in a dreadful state of health, she sent the Coachman to me yesterday, and the account which he gave of her sufferings was enough to burst my heart. Through the will she is left quite powerless, and her eldest daughter who married independently, is cut off without a shilling.

The Executing Trustees detest me, and one declares that if he sees me he will shoot me. These things I do not care about, but I do care for the life of the one who suffers even more than I do. Her Coachman said that it was a pity to see her, for she was only able to kneel in her bedroom in bitter tears and prayers. She has worn herself out in attendance on him, and his conduct during the few days before his death, was exceedingly mild and repentant, but that only distressed her doubly. Her conscience has helped to agonize her, and that misery I am saved from.

You, though not much older than myself, have known life. I now know it was a vengeance – for four nights I have not slept – for three days I have not tasted food – and when I think of the state of her I love best on earth, I could wish that my head was as cold and stupid as the medallion that lies in your studio.

Branwell Bronte medallion by Joseph Leyland
The Branwell Bronte medallion sculpted by Leyland

I write very egotistically but it is because my mind is crowded with one set of thoughts, and I long for one sentence from a friend. What I shall do I know not – I am too hard to die, and too wretched to live. My wretchedness is not about castles in the air, but about stern realities; my hardihood lies in bodily vigour; but, Dear Sir, my mind sees only a dreary future which I as little wish to enter on, as could a martyr to be bound to the stake.

I sincerely trust that you are well, and hope that this wretched scrawl will not make me appear to you a worthless fool, or a thorough bore.

Believe me, Yours, most sincerely, P B Brontë.’

Myself - Branwell Bronte
This image, by Branwell Bronte, was enclosed with the letter above.

Branwell Brontë to Joseph Bentley Leyland, 16th July 1847 (sent from the Old Cock Inn, Halifax)

‘For mercies sake come and see me, for I have sought for you till I dare not risk my knee and my eyesight any more this evening, I shall have a bad evening and night if I do not see you but I hardly know where to send the bearer of this note, so as to enable him to catch you.

NORTHANGERLAND.’

Letter to Francis Grundy, 1848

‘Dear Sir,

I fear you will burn my present letter on recognizing the handwriting, but if you will read it through you will perhaps rather pity than spurn the distress of mind which could prompt my communication after a silence of nearly three (to me) eventful years.

While very ill, and confined to my room, I wrote to you, two months ago, directing my letter to either the principal Inn in Bingley or Keighley, because I did not know your proper address; and as I heard you were engaged on the Bradford extension line I concluded that in your surveys you would have occasion to take your quarters at times in either of the two houses. I never heard from you in reply and as my letter only asked for one day with you to ease a very wearied mind in the company of a gentleman who use to have what I wanted always, but most want now – cheerfulness – I am sure you never received my letter or your generous heart would have prompted an answer.

When I say that since I last shook hands with you in Halifax two summers ago my life till lately has been one of apparent happiness and indulgence you will ask why should I now complain? And I can only reply by shewing the under current of distress that bore my bark toward a whirlpool despite the surface waves of life that seemed wafting me toward peace.

In a letter begun in the spring of 1848 and never finished owing to incessant attacks of illness I tried to tell you how I was situated. As Tutor to the only son of a wealthy gentleman whose wife was sister to Mr Thomas Gisborne M.P. for Nottingham, Mrs Evans the wife of the member for one division of Derbyshire and the cousin of Mr. Macaulay. This lady (though her husband detested me) shewed toward me a degree of kindness which;when I was deeply grieved one day at her husband’s conduct towards me; opened into an unexpected declaration of more than ordinary feeling. My admiration of her mental and personal attractions which, though she is 17 years older than myself, are both very great, my knowledge of her totally unselfish generosity, sweet temper and unwearied care for all others with ill requital in return. My horror at the heartless and unmanly manner in which she was treated by an eunuch like fellow who though possessed of such a treasure never even occupied the same apartment with her. All combined to make me reciprocate an attachment I had little dared to look for. During nearly three years I had daily “Troubled pleasure soon chastised by fear” in the society of one whom I must, till death, call my wife.

Lydia Robinson
Lydia Robinson, daughter of Thomas Gisborne, M.P.

Three months since, while at home, I received a furious letter from my Employer threatening to shoot me if I returned from the vacation- and letters from her ladies maid and her physician informed me of the outbreak and threatened proceedings only checked by her firm courage and resolution that come what might harm might to her none should come to me. The wretchedly broken health and want of energy in her bloodless mock husband made him put up with the simple joy of daily torturing her while I was left uninjured.

Had I strength to return and meet him the results would be serious to one or both, but providence has hitherto denied me this power for I have lain during nine long weeks utterly shattered in body and broken down with mental despair. The probability of his state of health ere long leaving her free to give me herself and her estate as was her hearts resolve never rose to drive off the prospect of her decline under her present grief and sufferings and I dreaded too the wreck of my mind and body which God knows have both during a short life been severely tried.

Eleven continued nights of sleepless horrors reduced me to almost blindness and while taken into Wales to rouse me the sweet scenery, the sea, the sound of music only caused fits of unspeakable distress and irrepressible tears. I implored for society and comfort but could neither be pleasant to one or pleased by the other, and wine or other stimulants only caused not exhilaration but deeper dejection.

You will say “What a fool!” but if you knew the many causes I have had for sorrow which I cannot hint at here you would pity as well as blame. I am better now but though at the kind request of Mr Macaulay and Mr Baines I have striven to rouse my mind by writing something that I ought to make deserving of being read, I find I really cannot yet do so with effect for one line of poetry like one note of music produces in my frame a sickening thrill of despair.

I know you will – if you read it at all – despise this letter and its writer, but I can only answer the writer does the same, and he would not wish to live if he did not hope that active exertion and change of scene may yet restore him to the by past manhood which used to boast of unconquerable health, where for 3 year he has known no interval of one week from agonizing sickness, and latterly not even one day.

I should indeed be gratified if I knew that you would soon be anywhere where an hours visit to you would not be forbidden. The crumpled appearance of the sheet is owing to my having kept it unfinished for days in my pocket.

Apologising sincerely for what will seem whining egotism and hardly daring to hint about days when in your company I could sometimes laugh or smile the thoughts of which “Remind me of departed times” but, I would fain hope, not “Departed never to return.”

I remain, Dear Sir, Yours most sincerely, P.B.Brontë.’

These letters show the sad journey of Branwell Brontë from confidence and hope to complete and utter despair, but through it all he had friends. Despite this latter letter, Grundy did not in fact despise the letter and its writer; from his biography ‘Pictures of the Past’ it is clear that Grundy loved and esteemed Branwell Brontë. Upon receiving the letter Grundy made his way to Haworth and met Branwell at the Black Bull Inn, giving a terrible picture of Branwell in his ultimate decline. He found him shaking and stooped, and Branwell drew out a knife revealing that he was worried that it was Satan coming to visit him, and he’d intended to run him through.

Branwell Northangerland
Branwell wrote poetry under a Northangerland pseudonym

We cannot help but be moved by Branwell Brontë’s letters and the terrible progression they show. Yet those who knew him well, from sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland to railway surveyor Francis Grundy held him always in the highest regard, and there can be no doubt that for all his troubles his sisters loved him dearly too. We’ve seen Branwell Brontë through his own words today, but let’s leave the final word to Francis Grundy who summed him up very neatly: “Patrick Branwell Brontë was no domestic demon – he was just a man moving in a mist, who lost his way.”

On his 205th anniversary let’s remember the loving brother, the man devoted to the woman he had loved, the skilful poet and artist, the kind friend, the man who could write two separate letters with both hands at the same time. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post. Happy birthday Branwell Brontë.

Patrick Brontë’s Letter From Flossy To Charlotte

On this Father’s Day our minds turn, as far as the Brontë story is concerned at least, to Patrick Brontë. A lot has been said and written about Patrick Brontë, which we’ll briefly look at in a moment, but he also had a playful side, and there can be no doubt that love for his children was the primary concern in his life. This is demonstrated in a rather unique letter he sent to his daughter Charlotte from an unexpected source: her dog.

Patrick Brontë had what was surely the misfortune of outliving his wife and all six of his children. That was an onerous fate, as Charlotte Brontë acknowledged after choosing to have youngest sister Anne Brontë buried in Scarborough rather than returning to Haworth with her body. In a letter of 4th June, less than a week after her sister’s passing, she wrote: ‘For the present Anne’s ashes rest apart from the others – I have buried her here at Scarbro’ to save papa the anguish of a return and a third funeral [within a year].’

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte’s influence on his daughters was huge

Charlotte could not have known that there was yet one more funeral that her father would have to endure – that of his final child, Charlotte herself, six years later. In many ways, Patrick’s long life was punctuated by moments of intense sorrow, and yet I think if one word sums him up it is this: duty.

Patrick did his duty by Haworth and the church: serving as its minister for over 40 years, even when blind and in ill health. His final marriage ceremony was carried out towards the close of his life and ministry, and was recalled in 1900 by the groom Richard Briggs: ‘At that time Mr Brontë was childless, blind, and feeble; and the bride and bridegroom had to wait in the vestry for three hours on a Shrove Tuesday morning before the venerable clergyman, then over eighty years of age, was seen coming along the path from the parsonage, supported on one side by his son-in-law, Mr Nicholls, and on the other by the faithful servant of the family, Martha Brown. Mr Brontë recited the marriage ceremony from memory, and at the close, kneeling with the communion rail, he offered a brief extempore prayer, invoking the Divine blessing on the young couple.’

Patrick took a deep interest in the life of his parishioners, especially when it came to their education. He had risen from very humble beginnings thanks to an education at Cambridge paid for largely by his mentor Thomas Tighe, and wherever he went in his life as a minister he insisted on church schools being opened to provide at least a rudimentary education to working class children. Patrick was also instrumental in the building of reservoirs near Haworth and improvements in sanitation to the village, acts which saved tens of thousands of lives in the decades which followed. Above all, he believed in fairness and equality, and it was this that led him to allow his daughters to read books which would normally have been forbidden them: works by writers such as Byron and Shelley. This enlightened attitude did much to open the minds and potential of the Brontë sisters: something we can all be grateful for.

Another influence can clearly be seen in his love of walking and poetry: two traits that Emily Brontë in particular took to her heart; little wonder that it was Emily of whom Patrick said: ‘she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!’ Incidentally, it’s Emily’s drawing of Flossy in full flight which heads this post, and she sketched him again in the drawing below.

Keeper, Flossy and Tiger
A picture of three Bronte pets by Emily – Keeper, Tiger and Flossy

Patrick’s life was a serious one, one of service and duty, but he also had a playful side and nowhere is this more evident than in a letter that he wrote at some date before the 19th of January 1853. The letter was sent to Charlotte Brontë, at the time on a visit to London, and contained a letter from Flossy: the spaniel who had originally been the pet of Anne Brontë, after being given to her by her Thorp Green charges the Robinson girls. Flossy was now ageing, and his original owner Anne was long gone, but he still found time (with a little help from Patrick) to write the following letter to new owner Charlotte:

A playful letter which is in some ways reminiscent of a poem that William Cowper, a poetic hero of the Brontës and Anne in particular, once composed as if written by his own pet spaniel Beau. It does, however, have a serious message, which shows that even in such a frivolous mood, Patrick’s concern for his children was never far away. The manuscript of the letter contains a handwritten note added by Ellen Nussey, into whose hands it came after Charlotte’s death. Ellen has written, rather sagaciously: ‘Written to C. in The Dog’s name—Mr. B. dare not encounter again face to face C’s sense of justice & Godly integrity—so he took this method of undermining Mr N.’

Flossy by Anne Bronte
Flossy by Anne Bronte

 

This letter dates from the month succeeding Arthur Bell Nicholls’ failed proposal to Charlotte Brontë. Patrick Brontë was furious that his assistant curate had proposed to his daughter, clearly thinking the match unworthy of his by then successful, and increasingly wealthy, daughter. We know that he expressed this anger to Arthur, and to Charlotte, but from Ellen’s note we get a clue that Charlotte, who also had a fine temper when roused, had verbally fought back on Arthur’s behalf. Patrick dare not broach the subject to his daughter again, in his own name, but perhaps his daughter would heed the advice of her dog Flossy?

The former travelling partner who Flossy laments now fails to take him for a walk is in fact Arthur Bell Nicholls, who in his love for Charlotte had taken it upon himself to be chief dog walker. It is not hard, therefore, to understand the true message of Flossy’s closing warning: ‘Ah! my dear Mistress, trust dogs rather than men – They are very selfish, and when they have the power, (which no wise person will readily give them) very tyrannical.’

Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte
Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte

Whether you’re a father, celebrating a father, or missing a father, I hope this Sunday goes as well for you as it can, and I hope you can join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. Woof!

Defying Expectations: 5 Treasures Of The Exhibition

This week I finally paid my first visit of 2022 to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. Their latest exhibition is entitled ‘Defying Expectations’ and it takes a particular look at clothing and accessories used by the Brontë sisters, as well as showcasing some old favourite items from the museum’s extensive collections, and some items which are less frequently seen. Despite it’s title this exhibition very much lived up to my high expectations, so in today’s post I bring you five treasures from this year’s parsonage collection!

Charlotte Bronte Moccasin slippers

Mohawk Moccasin Slippers

Do you like putting on a favourite pair of slippers and settling down beside the fire with a good book? I do, and I’m sure that Charlotte Brontë did too – and what a spectacular pair of slippers she wore!

Expert analysis has been able to pinpoint the precise location that these moccasin slippers came from. They were made by members of the Mohawk tribe to the south of St. Lawrence River in Canada. From on early age, the Brontës loved to hear news of exploration and discovery, and the tales of adventure these lands formed in their minds inspired much of their youthful writing. It’s easy to imagine, then, how excited Charlotte would have been to receive a pair of genuine moccasins all the way from North America!

Charlotte Bronte Berlin work bag

Berlin Work Bag

The Mohawk moccasin slippers were undoubtedly a gift to Charlotte Brontë from a well wisher, but she was also capable of making her own clothing and accessories – as we see from this rather fine Berlin work bag that she made from a pattern contained in a magazine.

The most popular patterns came from the city of Berlin, and so this style came to be known as a Berlin bag. It would have been used to hold the needlework and sewing equipment which was so important to all but the wealthiest of families at this time, and Charlotte obviously knew how to put them to good use. Even so, it must have taken some time to perfect the pattern and stitching on show here (especially when we consider Charlotte’s myopia which was so severe that she was advised to give up playing piano because of the strain it placed on her eyes). It’s testimony to the strength of her feelings for her friend Laetitia Wheelwright, then, that Charlotte gifted it to the Wheelwright family. Laetitia, who first met Charlotte at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, lived until 1911.

Also on show in this cabinet are a pair of Charlotte’s glasses and a lovely pair of work (needlework) scissors with handles shaped like a stork.

Bronte Shawls

Shawls

When we think of fashion from the time of the Brontës two items immediately spring to mind: bonnets and shawls (the ultra restrictive corsets came later in the century, although corsetry was starting to take hold even at this time). Once again there’s a display of Brontë bonnets on show in the museum, but there’s also this lovely display of shawls which are seen rather less often.

Shawls were an essential, not to say sensible, item of clothing in the moorside village of Haworth, where the weather could often be cold and windy: wuthering, you might say. There are three splendid shawls here, but my very favourite is the one on the right with the shiny silk inserts. Why? This is the very shawl that Charlotte Brontë wore on her wedding day in 1854.

Charlotte Bronte striped dress

Luxurious Dress

Perhaps the greatest item of all, among many great items, in this year’s exhibition is this dress. Charlotte’s Room, as the museum hails it, always contains a Brontë dress within a carefully sealed glass case. They are always very moving, but this year the dress is particularly spectacular – and it really does defy general expectations around Charlotte Brontë’s apparel.

We often think of Charlotte Brontë as rather dowdy, and she may have been so by necessity throughout much of her life. The Brontës were not wealthy, and had to repair, improvise and recycle much of their clothing. By the end of Charlotte’s life, however, things had changed dramatically for her. The royalties she earned from her writing were far greater than anything she could have hoped to earn from careers as a teacher or governess, and the legacy she left in 1855 was worth more than a million pounds in today’s money.

This dress dates from this period of Charlotte’s life. It was one where she often had to mix in high society, difficult as that must have been for someone as shy as she was, and she dressed accordingly. This striped silk dress was one of three found holed up behind a wall during renovations at the parsonage in 1936. It has been a cause of speculation for some time, but the museum has finally proven that it did belong to Charlotte meaning that it can finally go on display. With floral adornments it’s an item of real beauty, and evidence of the elevation in status and wealth that Charlotte’s literary genius finally brought her. Also displayed her are an ornate fan, and a pair of black stockings worn by Charlotte Brontë.

Anne Bronte hair bracelet

Hair Brooch and Bracelet

From triumph to tragedy, this exhibition has it all. After witnessing the fruits of Charlotte Brontë’s success we now come to one of the great tragedies of her life. In this week in 1849 Charlotte was still travelling along the east coast of Yorkshire, looking for ‘lonely places’ as she said in a letter to W. S. Williams, in the aftermath of the death of her sister Anne.

One of the tasks that awaited Charlotte, and which may seem rather macabre to our modern world, was to turn Anne’s hair into jewellery. In the days before photography was widely available, these keepsakes were often the only tangible thing which people had to remember their lost loved ones by. Here we see a beautiful brooch containing a lock of Anne’s hair; it was obviously of special value to Charlotte because she left it to her best friend Ellen Nussey in her will. Alongside the ring we find a necklace made from braided strands of Anne’s hair taken after her passing.

Once again, the Brontë Parsonage Museum has curated a wonderful exhibition, where items both large and small can take your breath away and make you feel closer to the Brontës themselves. If you can get to Haworth at some point this year I highly recommend that you visit the Defying Expectations exhibition – the items shown here are just a small portion of the treasures on display. If you’ve already been, please do let me know your thoughts. I look forward to seeing you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Brontës, Monarchy And The Platinum Jubilee

Jubilee fever has gripped the United Kingdom this weekend, as large swathes of the nation celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s seventy years on the throne! A remarkable achievement, and a remarkable record of duty and loyalty from our monarch. Duty and loyalty were also hugely important to the Brontë sisters of course, and in today’s post we’re going to look at royalty in the Brontë lives and writing.

The Brontës are classed, quite rightly, as some of the greatest writers of the Victorian period, but Victoria wasn’t on the throne at the time of their birth. In fact, the Brontë siblings were all born in the reign of George III, the longest serving King of Great Britain. Mostly known today for his bouts of ‘madness’, probably caused by porphyria, he reigned for sixty years, although his reign also saw his son George take official, yet temporary, control of the kingdom in what became known as ‘the Regency’.

George III
George III was on the throne when the Brontes were born.

George III was our longest serving King, but of course we have two Queens who surpassed him. Our very own Elizabeth II is the first monarch to enjoy a platinum jubilee, after which we come to Queen Victoria who reigned for nearly 64 years from 1837 to 1901. It was Victoria, then, who dominated the adult lives of the Brontës, and the century they lived in. We’ll soon see what the Brontës thought of their queen, but what did she think of them?

Queen Victoria (named Lady Alexandrina Victoria at the time) was born in May 1819, making her three years younger than Charlotte Brontë, a year younger than Emily Brontë, and eight months older than Anne Brontë. Victoria was an avid reader, and from her diaries we know that one book which particularly caught her attention was Jane Eyre, which she called ‘that melancholy, interesting book.’ On May 21st 1858, Victoria wrote of Charlotte’s novel: ‘We remained up reading ‘Jane Eyre’ til half past 11. Quite creepy from the awful account of what happened the night before the marriage, which was interrupted in the church.’

Princess Victoria, aged 4
Princess Alexandrina Victoria, aged four. Anne Bronte was three at the time.

This could be the famous ‘royal we’ in action, or it could be that the Queen was reading Jane Eyre to her beloved husband Prince Albert (as she herself said she was doing in an earlier diary entry. If so, perhaps they were thinking of their own wedding at St. James’ Palace 18 years earlier as they read of Jane’s impending nuptials – little wonder that the sudden cessation of the ceremony had them gripped, just as it had with so many of their subjects.

It may be that the royal couple were reading other books at the same time, for it was on August 4th that Queen Victoria neared the end of the novel, writing: ‘At near 10 we went below and nearly finished reading that most interesting book Jane Eyre. A peaceful, happy evening.’ The Queen returned to Charlotte’s novel in very different circumstances in 1880. By then she had been mourning her husband for nearly two decades, but she still found solace in this great book. On November 23rd of that year, her diary entry reads: ‘Finished Jane Eyre, which is really a wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully and admirably written, such a fine tone in it, such fine religious feeling, and such beautiful writings. The description of the mysterious maniac’s nightly appearances awfully thrilling. Mr Rochester’s character a very remarkable one, and Jane Eyre’s herself a beautiful one. The end is very touching, when Jane Eyre returns to him and finds him blind, with one hand gone from injuries during the fire in his house, which was caused by his mad wife.’

Queen Victoria was a fan of Charlotte Brontë, at least, and it seems that the admiration was reciprocated: the young Brontës even named one of their pet geese after her. We also hear of their interest in Victoria’s pending coronation in the 1837 diary paper of Emily and Anne Brontë: ‘Tabby in the kitchin – the Emprerors and Empresses of Gondal and Gaaldine preparing to depart from Gaaldine to Gondal for the coranation which will be on the 12th of July. Queen Victoria ascended the throne this month.’

Victoria coronation
The coronation of Queen Victoria inspired Bronte writings

The real world Victoria had already inspired a fictional queen in the Brontë writing, and this wouldn’t be the last occasion. Charlotte herself saw Queen Victoria in 1843, whilst she was in Brussels, as she recorded in a letter to Emily Brontë:

‘You ask about Queen Victoria’s visit to Brussels. I saw for her an instant flashing through the Rue Royale in a carriage and six, surrounded by soldiers. She was laughing and talking very gaily. She looked a little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed, not much dignity or pretension about her. The Belgians liked her very much on the whole. They say she enlivened the sombre court of King Leopold, which is usually as gloomy as a conventicle.’

Like so much of Charlotte’s sojourn in the Belgian capital it later influenced another of her brilliant novels: Villette. Surely we can see Charlotte’s memories of the Queen of England in Lucy Snowe’s impressions upon meeting the Queen of Labassecour?

Did Victoria inspire Villette’s Queen?

‘A signal was given, the doors rolled back, the assembly stood up, the orchestra burst out, and, to the welcome of a choral burst, enter the King, the Queen, the Court of Labassecour.

Till then, I had never set eyes on living king or queen; it may consequently be conjectured how I strained my powers of vision to take in these specimens of European royalty. By whomsoever majesty is beheld for the first time, there will always be experienced a vague surprise bordering on disappointment, that the same does not appear seated, en permanence, on a throne, bonneted with a crown, and furnished, as to the hand, with a sceptre. Looking out for a king and queen, and seeing only a middle-aged soldier and a rather young lady, I felt half cheated, half pleased.

Well do I recall that King – a man of fifty, a little bowed, a little grey: there was no face in all that assembly which resembled his. I had never read, never been told anything of his nature or his habits; and at first the strong hieroglyphics graven as with iron stylet on his brow, round his eyes, beside his mouth, puzzled and baffled instinct. Ere long, however, if I did not know, at least I felt, the meaning of those characters written without hand. There sat a silent sufferer – a nervous, melancholy man. Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost – had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria. Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng. Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands – dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death. Her comrade and victim thinks to be happy one moment – “Not so,” says she; “I come.” And she freezes the blood in his heart, and beclouds the light in his eye.

Some might say it was the foreign crown pressing the King’s brows which bent them to that peculiar and painful fold; some might quote the effects of early bereavement. Something there might be of both these; but these are embittered by that darkest foe of humanity – constitutional melancholy. The Queen, his wife, knew this: it seemed to me, the reflection of her husband’s grief lay, a subduing shadow, on her own benignant face. A mild, thoughtful, graceful woman that princess seemed; not beautiful, not at all like the women of solid charms and marble feelings described a page or two since. Hers was a somewhat slender shape; her features, though distinguished enough, were too suggestive of reigning dynasties and royal lines to give unqualified pleasure. The expression clothing that profile was agreeable in the present instance; but you could not avoid connecting it with remembered effigies, where similar lines appeared, under phase ignoble; feeble, or sensual, or cunning, as the case might be. The Queen’s eye, however, was her own; and pity, goodness, sweet sympathy, blessed it with divinest light. She moved no sovereign, but a lady – kind, loving, elegant.’

Whether Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has read a Brontë book or two we simply do not know, but we know that her sister did. In 1997, Princess Margaret visited Bradford, and became the first member of the Royal Family to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. Here’s an account of her visit from the Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Princess Margaret Haworth

The Princess spent some time reading Jane Eyre in silence: it can have that effect on all of us. The Platinum Jubilee celebrations are drawing to our end, but our celebration of the lives and works of the Brontë sisters of Haworth will never end. I hope you can join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Bronte sisters portrait
The undoubted Queens of Yorkshire

The Last Days Of Anne Brontë

As a great fan of Anne Brontë, as I know you all are, this week is a difficult one. It’s the week in which Anne left this life, but even in her dying days she left lessons for us all: lessons in faith, humility, kindness and charity. These are four elements which summed up Anne’s life in many ways, and thanks to a detailed and very moving account of her last days, we know that they were still at the forefront of Anne’s character even as her death rapidly approved. In today’s post we’re going to look at this very special account: ‘The Last Days Of Dear A.B.’

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey wrote this account of Anne’s last days

Whilst writing her biography of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell had asked Ellen Nussey, who was helping her with the book, to provide some details of Charlotte’s journey to Scarborough with Ellen and Anne in May 1849. Those days must still have been vivid in Ellen’s mind, for she gave a thorough, and thoroughly beautiful, account of the final six days of Anne Brontë’s life. The original manuscript is now in the collection of King’s College, Canterbury, but I reproduce it in full below.

‘She left her home May 24th, 1849 – died May 28th. Her life was calm, quiet, spiritual such was her end. Through the trials and fatigues of the journey, she evinced the pious courage and fortitude of a martyr. Dependence and helplessness were ever with her a far sorer trial than hard, racking pain.

The first stage of our journey was to York; and here the dear invalid was so revived, so cheerful, and so happy, we drew consolation, and trusted that at least temporary improvement was to be derived from the change which she had so longed for, and her friends had so dreaded for her.

The huge, imposing York Minster
York Minster

By her request we went to the Minster, and to her it was an overpowering pleasure; not for its own imposing and impressive grandeur only, but because it brought to her susceptible nature a vital and overwhelming sense of omnipotence. She said, while gazing at the structure, ‘If finite power can do this, what is the…?’ and here emotion stayed her speech, and she was hastened to a less exciting scene. Her weakness of body was great, but her gratitude for every mercy was greater. After such an exertion as walking to her bed-room, she would clasp her hands and raise her eyes in silent thanks, and she did this not to the exclusion of wonted prayer, for that too was performed on bended knee, ere she accepted the rest of her couch.

On the 25th we arrived at Scarborough; our dear invalid having, during the journey, directed our attention to every prospect worthy of notice.

On the 26th she drove on the sands for an hour; and lest the poor donkey should be urged by its driver to a greater speed than her tender heart thought right, she took the reins, and drove herself. When joined by her friend, she was charging the boy-master of the donkey to treat the poor animal well. She was ever fond of dumb things, and would give up her own comfort for them.

Scarborough beach
Scarborough’s South Bay

On Sunday, the 27th, she wished to go to church, and her eye brightened with the thought of once more worshipping her God amongst her fellow-creatures. We thought it prudent to dissuade her from the attempt, though it was evident her heart was longing to join in the public act of devotion and praise. She walked a little in the afternoon, and meeting with a sheltered and comfortable seat near the beach, she begged we would leave her, and enjoy the various scenes near at hand, which were new to us but familiar to her. She loved the place, and wished us to share her preference.It closed with the most glorious sunset ever witnessed. The castle on the cliff stood in proud glory gilded by the rays of the declining sun. The distant ships glittered like burnished gold; the little boats near the beach heaved on the ebbing tide, inviting occupants. The view was grand beyond description. Anne was drawn in her easy chair to the window to enjoy the scene with us. Her face became illuminated almost as much as the glorious sun she gazed upon. Little was said, for it was plain that her thoughts were driven by the imposing view before her to penetrate forwards to the region of unfading glory.

The night was passed without any apparent accession of illness. She rose at seven o’clock, and performed most of her toilet herself, by her expressed wish. Her sister always yielded such points, believing it was the truest kindness not to press inability when it was not acknowledged. Nothing occurred to excite alarm till about 11 a.m. She then spoke of feeling a change. She believed she had not long to live. Could she reach home alive, if we prepared immediately for departure? A physician was sent for. Her address to him was made with perfect composure. She begged him to say how long he thought she might live ; not to fear speaking the truth, for she was not afraid to die. The doctor reluctantly admitted that the angel of death was already arrived, and that life was ebbing fast. She thanked him for his truthfulness, and he departed to come again very soon. She still occupied her easy chair, looking so serene, so reliant: there was no opening for grief as yet, though all knew the separation was at hand. She clasped her hands, and reverently invoked a blessing from on high ; first upon her sister, then upon her friend, to whom she said, ‘ Be a sister in my stead. Give Charlotte as much of your company as you can.’ She then thanked each for her kindness and attention. Ere long the restlessness of approaching death appeared, and she was borne to the sofa ; on being asked if she were easier, she looked gratefully at her questioner, and said, ‘It is not you who can give me ease, but soon all will be well through the merits of our Redeemer.’ Shortly after this, seeing that her sister could hardly restrain her grief, she said, ‘Take courage, Charlotte; take courage.’ Her faith never failed, and her eye never dimmed till about two o’clock, when she calmly and without a sigh passed from the temporal to the eternal. So still, and so hallowed were her last hours and moments. There was no thought of assistance or of dread. The doctor came and went two or three times. The hostess knew that death was near, yet so little was the house disturbed by the presence of the dying, and the sorrow of those so nearly bereaved, that dinner was announced as ready, through the half-opened door, as the living sister was closing the eyes of the dead one.

She could now no more stay the welled-up grief of her sister with her emphatic and dying ‘ Take courage,’ and it burst forth in brief but agonising strength. Charlotte’s affection, however, had another channel, and there it turned in thought, in care, and in tenderness. There was bereavement, but there was not solitude; – sympathy was at hand, and it was accepted. With calmness, came the consideration of the removal of the dear remains to their home resting-place. This melancholy task, however, was never performed; for the afflicted sister decided to lay the flower in the place where it had fallen. She believed that to do so would accord with the wishes of the departed. She had no preference for place. She thought not of the grave, for that is but the body’s goal, but of all that is beyond it.

“Her remains rest,
Where the south sun warms the now dear sod,
Where the ocean billows lave and strike the steep and turf-covered rock.’”

Anne Bronte’s plaque at The Grand Hotel, Scarborough

Charlotte Brontë once said that her best friend Ellen Nussey lacked any sense of poetry in her life, but from this account and other writing of Ellen’s I would have to disagree. It is clear that Ellen loved the quiet, kind, brilliant Anne Brontë and mourned her loss, and we continue to do so today.

The loss of Anne Brontë in such untimely fashion was a huge blow to Charlotte Brontë, and she could little have known how remembered and revered her sister would be nearly two centuries after her death.

Anne Brontë changed my life; it was my decision to write a biography of Anne in 2015 that completely changed the direction of my life, and which has introduced me to so many wonderful people, through this blog and on my social media accounts, and in the ‘real’ world too. I know that Anne continues to touch, transform and improve other lives too through her wonderful writing which is as relevant and powerful today as it was when her quill first touched paper all those years ago.

Today we remember the late, great Anne Brontë but above all we say ‘thank you Anne’ for a life which was short but which was lived so courageously and to such great purpose. I hope you’ll join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë, Walking On Alone

Charlotte Brontë was a masterful novelist, as we all know, but she was also a master of letter writing. Charlotte was simply incapable of writing dull or poorly executed sentences; in her hand, the mundane became the magnificent. Her letters could be witty, they could be enthralling, but they could often be mournful and moving too. On this day in 1850 Charlotte wrote perhaps her most moving letter of them all, and it’s phrases and emotions still resonate with so many. In today’s post we’re going to look at this letter, and at Charlotte Brontë walking on alone.

Charlotte Brontë, like Emily (especially) and Anne Brontë, was an introvert. When surprised by an unexpected visitor at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house she hid behind curtains, when forced into polite society during her visit to London in 1848 she was beset by doubts and by headaches. Charlotte was perfectly happy alone, but at times, as all introverts know, that loneliness can still be painful – especially when the loneliness is completed because of the absence of those people whose company they do enjoy.

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond drawn in the months after the letter below

Charlotte was perfectly happy when in the company of Anne and Emily (and of brother Branwell during their childhood and youth), but it was the sudden and tragic loss of these dear companions in 1848 and 1849 that left her truly alone. It was a terrible blow.

The traditions which the three sisters had enjoyed together were now carried out in solitary fashion by the sole surviving sibling. In 1853 loyal Brontë servant Martha Brown confided to parsonage visitor John Forster how Charlotte had continued the evening perambulations around the dining table that that sisters had used to discuss their tales, and how heartbreaking it was to witness it:

‘For as long as I can remember Miss Brontë [Charlotte], Miss Emily and Miss Anne used to put away their sewing after prayers and walk all three one after the other round the table in the parlour till near eleven o’ clock. Miss Emily walked as long as she could, and when she died Miss Anne and Miss Brontë took it up – and now my heart aches to hear Miss Brontë walking, walking, on alone.’

Bronte Dining Table
The dining table around which the Brontes walked

Charlotte could not give up walking, and she could not give up thinking about the siblings she had loved and lost. It was a thing of wonder to her that only she was left, a thing of horrible wonder, as she revealed in a letter to W. S. Williams of 4th June 1849, just a week after Anne’s passing:

‘They [Emily and Anne] are both gone, and so is poor Branwell – and Papa has now me only – the weakest, puniest, least promising of his six children. Consumption has taken the whole five.’

Grief is dealt with in different ways by different people, but once it has arrived it never really leaves does it? These feelings so raw in the letter above only gained in intensity in the years that lay ahead for Charlotte, as we see clearly in this letter written, again to W. S. Williams, 172 years ago today:

Charlotte still walks around the table, but she finds it hard to walk across the moors; she can write poetry, but she can no longer read her sister’s poetry for if she does she longs too eagerly to join them.

A mournful day but a powerful insight into the daily struggle Charlotte lived with in the six years after the death of Anne Brontë. There’s a mournful week ahead too, as we have reached the anniversary of Anne’s final struggle. In two days time, May 24th, we reach the date at which Anne Brontë set off with Charlotte Brontë to Scarborough – it would be the last time she would ever see Haworth. Painful memories of that approaching week must surely have been in Charlotte’s mind when she wrote her letter almost a year later.

Happier Brontë anniversaries are approaching, and whatever tests they faced, we still have their ultimate triumphs to revel in: their books. I will see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post in which we remember the anniversary of Anne Brontë.

Arthur Bell Nicholls – Lover Or ‘Unmanly Driveller’?

Charlotte Brontë lived a life that had remarkable triumphs but which was on all too many occasions remarkably full of tragedy. One thing we can be thankful for is that she, if all too briefly, found love, so in today’s post we’re going to look at the love of Arthur Bell Nicholls for Charlotte Brontë.

Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today
Arthur Bell Nicholls

Physically they may have seemed an odd couple, despite being roughly the same age (Arthur was a little younger). Charlotte Brontë is renowned for being very small and is often described as looking frail, whereas contemporary reports depict Arthur as a tall, well built man. I often get asked if Arthur really did love Charlotte Brontë or if he was in love with her fame, or new found wealth. Ellen Nussey was never convinced by him, but there was a long running enmity between the two. Haworth villagers, however, had a very high opinion of him and were in no doubt of the assistant curate’s love for the curate’s brilliant daughter. Many years later, Haworth resident Charles E. Hall recalled:

‘Mr Nicholls, the curate whom Miss Brontë married, stayed in our house for about eighteen months. They formed a great contrast physically. He was a big, dark, burly Irishman; she a slender twig that you could almost have snapped with one hand. I could never really understand why she married him; for, though she used to come to our house to inquire about him and the other curates, she did it, I feel convinced, from a sense of duty, in order to find out whether they were all that they should be in the parish. She certainly never manifested any particular interest in Mr Nicholls. That, anybody would say. And I believe the idea that she was marrying the natural successor to her father at the parsonage had some weight with her. There was no doubt, mind you, that Mr Nicholls was very fond of her.’

We get further evidence from a service undertaken on this very Sunday in 1853, and reported on in a letter to Ellen Nussey dated 16th May 1853:

‘Dear Ellen, Habituated by this time to Mrs. Upjohn’s fluctuations – I received the news of this fresh put-off without the slightest sentiment of wonder. Indeed I keep all my powers of surprise for the intelligence that you are safely arrived at Gorleston – and still more for the desired but very moderately expected tidings that you are happy there.

The east-winds about which you inquire have spared me wonderfully till today, when I feel somewhat sick physically, and not very blithe morally. I am not sure that the east winds are entirely to blame for this ailment – yesterday was a strange sort of day at church. It seems as if I were to be punished for my doubts about the nature and truth of poor Mr. Nicholls’ regard. Having ventured on

Whitsunday to stay the sacrament, I got a lesson not to be repeated. He struggled – faltered – then lost command over himself – stood before my eyes and in the sight of all the communicants white, shaking, voiceless. Papa was not there – thank God! Joseph Redman spoke some words to him—he made a great effort—but could only with difficulty whisper and falter through the service. I suppose he thought; this would be the last time; he goes either this week or the next. I heard the women sobbing round – and I could not quite check my own tears.

What had happened was reported to Papa either by Joseph Redman [the parish clerk] or John Brown [the sexton who was no fan of Arthur’s after his proposal] – it excited only anger – and such expressions as ‘‘unmanly driveller’’. Compassion or relenting is no more to be looked for than sap from firewood.

I never saw a battle more sternly fought with the feelings than Mr. Nicholls fights with his – and when he yields momentarily you are almost sickened by the sense of the strain upon him. However he is to go – and I cannot speak to him or look at him or comfort him a whit – and I must submit. Providence is over all – that is the only consolation

Yrs faithfully

C Brontë’

Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls in later life

After what was thought to be his very last service at Haworth on 27th May 1853 (he was by then officiating at most services due to Patrick Brontë’s health and age), Charlotte encountered Arthur for what they presumed would be the last time, as she again revealed in a letter to Ellen:

‘As to the last Sunday – it was a cruel struggle. Mr. Nicholls ought not to have had to take any duty. He left Haworth this morning at 6 o’clock. Yesterday evening he called to render into Papa’s hands the deeds of the National School [which Arthur ran on behalf of the church] – and to say good bye. They were busy cleaning – washing the paint &c. in the dining-room so he did not find me there. I would not go into the parlour to speak to him in Papa’s presence. He went out thinking he was not to see me – and indeed till the very

last moment I thought it best not – but perceiving that he stayed long before going out at the gate – and remembering his long grief I took courage and went out trembling and miserable. I found him leaning against the garden-door in a paroxysm of anguish – sobbing as women never sob. Of course I went straight to him. Very few words were interchanged – those few barely articulate: several things I should have liked to ask him were swept entirely from my memory. Poor fellow! but he wanted such hope and such encouragement as I could not give him.’

Of course, things worked out rather differently than both parties would have expected at that time. Perhaps Charlotte remembered the advice Anne Brontë had given her on her deathbed, and which are repeated in the letter above: ‘take courage.’ Little over a year later Charlotte was styling herself Charlotte Brontë Nicholls in her letters to Ellen.

Arthur places the ring on Charlotte
Arthur places the ring on Charlotte’s finger in a wedding re-enactment at Haworth church

It was perhaps this first, intensely private, letter especially that Arthur was thinking of when he asked Ellen to burn Charlotte’s correspondence. He was mortified in February 1896 to find the letter listed for sale in an upcoming auction. He believed that Ellen Nussey was trying to profiteer from the correspondence, but nothing could be further from the truth. She had in fact entrusted the letter temporarily to T. J. Wise and Clement Shorter who she believed were preparing a biography of Charlotte Brontë. Instead they placed this letter and many others on the open market.

Wise and Shorter were considered respectable figures in literature at the time, and indeed Shorter was made head of the Brontë Society, but they were little more than forgers and fraudsters. Nevertheless, without their illegal intervention we would not have this vital clue to the feelings of Arthur Bell Nicholls for Charlotte Brontë – there can be no doubt that he was deeply in love with her, and had been long before she became known as a writer.

They say money makes the world go round, but love is a better driving force I think – I personally have to make do with books, but that’s better than nothing! I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Local Discovery Of Jane Eyre’s Author

Do you remember how old you were when you first discovered a Brontë novel? Quite possibly it was Jane Eyre, a book which has captivated readers of all ages for well over 170 years now. Despite other great works to her name it remains Jane Eyre which has made its author a literary legend across the world, but at the time of its publication the author remained purposefully secluded. In today’s post we’re going to look at the discovery of Jane Eyre in the local area, and the author’s response to that discovery.

Jane Eyre was published by Smith, Elder & Co on 16th October 1847, with the subtitle ‘An Autobiography’. The author, as far as the world and the publisher knew, was a mysterious Currer Bell, who had previously written a book of poetry with his brothers Ellis and Acton Bell. Of course, we know that Currer Bell was a pseudonym of Charlotte Brontë, but this fact was kept hidden, even from those closest to her, for a long time.

Other than Emily and Anne, who were also involved in this pseudonymous publishing venture, who did Charlotte confide in? We know that Branwell Brontë was kept out of the loop, as Charlotte wrote: ‘My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature – he was not aware that they had ever published a line.’

Surely, however, Charlotte would have told her best friend Ellen Nussey that she was the author of a hugely successful novel, or surely Ellen would have known this anyway, as we know that Charlotte corrected proofs of Jane Eyre whilst she was a guest in the Nussey house at Brookroyd? It seems not.

In late April 1848 Charlotte received a letter from Ellen Nussey; unfortunately no copy of this letter remains but we can guess its subject matter from this angry reply that Charlotte sent on 28th April 1848:

Ellen has heard rumours about Charlotte that has left her feeling hurt (or ‘chagrined’ as Charlotte rather wonderfully puts it), and we get further clues as to the nature of these rumours in a further letter sent from Charlotte to Ellen on 3rd May 1848 (once again we don’t have Ellen’s letter that this is in reply to):

Now we see without any doubt that Ellen Nussey has heard a report that Charlotte Brontë was in fact Currer Bell, author of Jane Eyre. Nearly seven months after its publication Charlotte had kept this hidden from her best friend, but nothing could stop the rumours that were now circulating in the polite society of Birstall and Gomersal where she lived.

Charlotte could hardly be stronger in her denial. She has not written any books, and if anyone says that she has they are no friend of hers. In a conciliatory touch at the foot of the letter Charlotte says that she remains faithfully Ellen’s, even though she has calumniated her.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

This makes me think that Charlotte Brontë would have made a good politician, so forceful is her denial of something that she knew to be true. Before we look at why she did this, let’s ponder on how the ‘Birstalians’ and ‘Gomersalians’ came to realise the true identity of Currer Bell.

Jane Eyre was an overnight success and it was rapidly read across the country by those who were literate and wealthy enough to be book readers. It’s no surprise then that it was read widely in the West Riding of Yorkshire where Ellen Nussey, and the Brontës themselves, lived. Despite its subtitle the novel is not remotely as autobiographical as another book about life as a governess, Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, and yet there was one clue within it which continued to be problematic, both for the author and for her later biographer Elizabeth Gaskell: Jane’s sojourn at Lowood School.

Lowood was quickly recognised as Cowan Bridge school, above

The portion of the novel dealing with this cruel, deadly school and the death of schoolgirls within it, including Jane’s best friend Helen Burns, resonated deeply with certain of its readers. There were many in the area who knew the story of Patrick Brontë, the curate of Haworth, who lost two of his daughters to consumption caught at Cowan Bridge school. Helen Burns was closely modelled on Maria Brontë, whose anniversary of her death aged 11 occurred this week, and so those who knew Maria’s tragic tale began to speculate that the author must have known of it too.

Speculation then turned to the eldest surviving daughter of Reverend Patrick Brontë. She was known for her intelligence and her bookish nature, and she herself had been a pupil at Cowan Bridge School and had to watch her sister Maria catch consumption and then die of it. That was why the depiction of Lowood was such a powerful one, such an angry one. The more the local readership pondered on it, the more it made sense: the celebrated author Currer Bell must in fact be the unassuming curate’s daughter Charlotte Brontë!

Helen Burns with Jane Eyre

As it was well known that Ellen Nussey was Charlotte’s best friend people began to ask her to confirm or deny the rumours. Surely at first she would have denied the rumours, thinking it impossible that Charlotte had written this great book without telling her. As the rumours gathered in force and number, however, even Ellen must have suspected they were true, which must have been a devastating moment for her and which then led to her letters of April and May 1848.

We have looked before at why the Brontës chose to use pen names, and the pen names of Bell in particular. Emily Brontë in particular, an intensely shy genius, was vehemently opposed to their true identities ever being revealed. Charlotte Brontë had promised her that she would never reveal her identity as Currer Bell, and so steadfastly did she keep this promise that even Ellen Nussey was kept in the dark.

Eventually, of course, the truth could be kept hidden no longer and Ellen was finally told that Charlotte was an author. Doubtless she too was told the reason for the secrecy, of the vow she had made to Emily and her own wish for privacy at all costs; apologies would have been made and accepted. Nobody had been told that Currer Bell was Charlotte Brontë; except, that wouldn’t have been true either.

Charlotte had in fact revealed the truth to her other great friend, Mary Taylor. Indeed, she even sent an early copy of Jane Eyre to Mary in New Zealand as we know from a letter which Mary sent back to Charlotte. Perhaps Charlotte was so excited that she simply had to tell someone. She chose Mary rather than Ellen because of the distance between them, and the safety that implied, but also perhaps she valued Mary’s intellect whereas she said of Ellen, ‘Ellen is without romance – if she attempts to read poetry or poetic prose aloud I am irritated and deprive her of the book; if she talks of it I stop my ears.’

If Ellen had known that, she really would have been chagrined!

Thank you for all your kind words after last week’s post. Well over a week later I’m still testing positive for Covid, but I’m plodding on. I hope you are all happy and healthy, and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

A Poetic Anniversary And Brontë Good News

Sometimes when life throws you a curve-ball or slips a banana skin under your socks you have to turn to the things you love to lift your spirits again; with me, of course, that’s the Brontës, so in today’s post we’ll be looking at a very special poem written on this day 178 years ago!

This weekend I should have been holding a meeting to put in place an events team to raise much needed funds for The Sheffield Cats Shelter. Unfortunately I’ve tested positive for Covid. It’s finally got me, and whilst I feel okay I’m hugely disappointed that the fundraising meeting has had to be postponed – if you can help our cats and kittens in need please click here, where every pound is put to good use! I was also supposed to be heading to Formentera on holiday next week, so that’s off too. I obviously needed some good news to cheer me up, and thankfully that’s exactly what Brontë lovers got this week!

Zelda was left in a box on a vet’s doorstep. She’s now getting love and care at The Sheffield Cats Shelter

You may remember my recent post about ‘A Book Of Rhymes’, the tiny book of poetry by a young Charlotte Brontë which had been thought lost for over a hundred years until it recently surfaced again? It was announced that the book was sold for its full asking price of $1.25 million at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last week, but it was reported that it was sold to an anonymous source, giving rise to fears that this precious little book would disappear from view once more.

This week, the identity of the winning bidder was revealed, and it was a great relief to hear that it was the wonderful organisation Friends Of The National Libraries who have in turn gifted it to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. ‘A Book Of Rhymes’ will be coming home at last!

I had been invited to talk about this great news on Irish radio this week but the producer and presenter both came down with Covid, so take care, dear reader, it’s rife out there at the moment.

A Book Of Rhymes will be heading home to Haworth! Copyright Clark Hodgin of The New York Times

Friends Of The National Libraries raise funds through their many supporters, but there were nine large supporters for this particular bid, one of which was the estate of the late, great Thomas Stearns Eliot.

T. S. Eliot was undoubtedly one of the greatest poets of all time and a towering figure in twentieth century literature, and his estate’s use of his money to secure Charlotte Brontë’s little book certainly wasn’t a waste(land). Alongside his rather serious, if brilliant, work, Eliot also wrote the children’s book of poetry upon which the musical ‘Cats’ was based of course, which is a nice link in more ways than one: in 2020 the same estate donated £20,000 from its ‘Cats’ royalties to the Brontë Parsonage Museum to help its coronavirus relief fund.

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf
T. S. Eliot with another Bronte fan, Virginia Woolf, in 1924

Although their style of writing was very different, Eliot would surely have appreciated the poetic genius of Emily Brontë. On this day in 1845 Emily Brontë wrote one of her finest pieces of poetry, a May Day look at nature in all her beauty and the endless cycle of life, death and renewal. As with all great Brontë poetry that too elevates my spirits, and I hope it will with yours too. I also hope you can join me next week when Deo volente (as Charlotte often said) I will bring you a new plague-free Bronte blog post. I leave you now with Emily Brontë and a certain linnet amidst the rocky dells where a lady sleeps forevermore:

‘The linnet in the rocky dells,
The moor-lark in the air,
The bee among the heather-bells
That hide my lady fair:
The wild deer browse above her breast;
The wild birds raise their brood;
And they, her smiles of love caressed,
Have left their solitude!
I ween, that when the grave’s dark wall
Did first her form retain,
They thought their hearts could ne’er recall
The light of joy again.
They thought the tide of grief would flow
Unchecked through future years,
But where is all their anguish now,
And where are all their tears?
Well, let them fight for Honour’s breath,
Or Pleasure’s shade pursue –
The Dweller in the land of Death
Is changed and careless too.
And if their eyes should watch and weep
Till sorrow’s source were dry
She would not, in her tranquil sleep,
Return a single sigh!
Blow, west wind, pass by the lonely mound,
And murmur, summer streams –
There is no need of other sound
To soothe my Lady’s dreams.’

A linnet in a rocky dell