Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you all. It has long been tradition in Ireland to name boys born on this day after the great snake scaring saint, and so it came to pass that on 17th March 1777 a baby born in Emdale, County Down was named Patrick. We would come to know him as Patrick Brontë, father of the greatest writing family the world has ever seen.
In my opinion Patrick’s influence for the good on his children, and therefore on their later work, cannot be underestimated, so it’s good to see special tribute being paid to him in the Brontë Parsonage Museum this year. Thanks to reports contained within Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë (originating from the testimony of one former and short serving maid Martha Wright), however, some may still think of him as being strict, bad tempered or cold emotionally.
In today’s post, I’m simply going to let others speak about Patrick Brontë – those who knew him, and who saw a very different man to the one that Gaskell portrayed.
Ellen Nussey on Patrick Brontë
‘The anecdote of the little coloured shoes produced a mental sting that no time would obliterate and I felt that all commonplace readers would fail to see the Spartan nature of the act unless you [Ellen was here writing to Elizabeth Gaskell after seeing a draft of the biography] pointed it out to them, and I was intending to ask you to make very clear and distinct comments on Mr. B’s character – I do not wish anything you have said suppressed, only I think your readers will have to be taught to think kindly of Mr. B’
Nancy Garrs on Patrick Brontë
‘”Mr. Brontë was one the kindest husbands I ever knew, except my own, and an Irishman, as you will know Mr. Brontë was. When one of the young ladies told him I was going to be married he came into the kitchen and said, in his pleasantest way, ‘Why, Nancy, it true you are going to marry a Pat?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ I replied, ‘it is, and if he only proves a tenth as kind a husband as you are, I shall think myself very happy in having made a Pat my choice.’ And I have been happy,” she added to us [former Brontë servant Nancy de Garrs was here talking to a Leeds Mercury reporter]. “My husband is just one of the best men that ever lived; we never have had a word!” “Not one, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “No, not one,” she answered, in her positive way. “Then you think Mr. Brontë was not hot-tempered as represented by Mrs. Gaskell,” we said. “Passionate!” exclaimed Nancy; “why he was just the opposite. I well remember one summer morning came into the kitchen and he asked me to clean his boots, as he was going to Thornton. Being bothered about some other matters, I forgot. So when Mr. Brontë called for his boots they were not touched; but he did not fly into a passion: in fact, he did not say a word, he just put on his hat and walked all the way to Thornton and back in his slippers!”‘
‘A kinder man than Mr. Brontë never drew breath.’ [from an interview in the Pall Mall Gazette]
Leeds Intelligencer reporter, February 1837
‘Though he is far advanced in years, and has suffered much from ill health, he displayed his pristine energies and faithfulness. That his life and service in his place may be long continued, is the fervent prayer of every churchman.’
Eliza Kingston on Patrick Brontë
‘I had a letter from my Uncle Brontë last June. He says he was in his 83rd year, but, though feeble, was still able to preach once on Sunday, and sometimes to take occasional duty; his son-in-law, Mr. Nicholls will continue with him. He says strangers still continue to call, but he converses little with them, but keeps himself as quiet as he can. I understand the Brontës were beloved in their own neighbourhood.’ [Eliza was his niece in Cornwall, who Patrick was in correspondence with long after the death of his family in Haworth]
The respect that Patrick was held in is also shown in a report into his funeral in 1862. Patrick had left clear instructions that he wanted neither pomp nor ceremony, but he left this world surrounded by the simplicity of love:
‘Our correspondent informs us that on his early arrival at the village the shops were universally closed, and the silence and solemnity that reigned around showed the deep estimation in which the venerable incumbent was held. At the time the procession was formed hundreds of people were congregated in the church-yard from distant villages around, and upon the arrival at the church ut was found that every pew and available space within that venerable edifice was occupied by an orderly and well-conducted and apparently sorrow-stricken concourse… Not a bell was tolled nor a psalm sung. Everything connected with the funeral was truly simple and unostentatious… The sublime and touching burial service was read amid the audible sobs of the surrounding crowd, by the vicar of Bradford. The Rev A.B. Nicholls appeared to be deeply affected and was supported from the grave to the parsonage by the Rev Dr Cartman.’
If you’re in the mood to read more on Patrick, then I recommend this superb blog post by Nicola Friar that takes an in depth look at his background and his importance in the Brontë story. Also this week, I recommend you take a look at this excellent and informative video blog which gives us a fresh, and important, new look at Anne Brontë’s ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.’
Having done that we have time to relax, or to jig about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, but we also have time to say, ‘Happy 242nd birthday, Patrick Brontë!’
I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that I will have a new book out in 2020. Provisionally titled ‘Charlotte & Ellen’ it will be published by The History Press, and it will look at the fascinating life of Ellen Nussey, and particularly at her friendship with Charlotte and the rest of the Brontës. Research is going well, and I’m looking forward to travelling to Birstall, Gomersal, Haworth and Hathersage in the next few weeks – I’ve already uncovered some fascinating facts about both Ellen and Charlotte that aren’t in any other book. With this in mind, today is a great day to look at some famous literary friendships, from Johnson to Austen and from Brontë to, er, Brontë.
Samuel Johnson and James Boswell
Samuel Johnson is most famous as the Dr. Johnson who wrote his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. It wasn’t the first dictionary, as is often thought, but it was certainly the most comprehensive at the time. Johnson spent seven years working on it (is it just me that thinks of Baldrick burning the dictionary in Blackadder at this point?), but he wasn’t always such a methodical worker – he wrote his most celebrated novel ‘Raselas’ in just one week to raise money for his mother’s funeral. He also wrote plays, poetry, literary criticism, works of philosophy, religious sermons and travel books before his death aged 75 in 1784.
In 1763 he met the 9th Laird of Auchinleck and instantly formed a strong friendship that would be instrumental to his work in the last two decades of his life. Auchinleck is better known as James Boswell, and his journey with Johnson a year later was the subject of the latter’s book ‘A Journey To The Western Islands Of Scotland’. Boswell later wrote about his great friend in ‘The Life Of Samuel Johnson’, which many people have claimed is the greatest biography ever penned.
Jane Austen and Cassandra Austen
Cassandra Austen was Jane Austen’s lifelong companion, as well as her elder sister. Cassandra was a talented artist specialising in water colours, but of course she could be in little doubt as to where the great talent and genius in her family lay. Cassandra and Jane were incredibly close to each other, possibly because they were the only girls among six brothers. It’s thanks to Cassandra that Jane went to school in 1785, as she was so heartbroken at the potential loss of her big sister that their parents had to let both go together. Their mother commented that, ‘if Cassandra’s head had been going to be cut off, Jane would have hers cut off too.’
In adult life Jane and Cassandra were equally inseparable, and from 1809 until Jane’s death in 1817 they lived together in a cottage on the beautiful Chawton estate which had been gifted to their brother Edward. Cassandra’s emotional support was always there, and it was this that helped Jane conquer setbacks in her personal and writing life, enabling her to claim a position as one of the world’s most loved creators of fiction.
Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë
Anne and Emily were the two youngest of the six Brontë siblings, and just like Jane and Cassandra Austen these two sisters would also become the closest of friends. Ellen Nussey, who we will come to in a moment, described their closeness more than once, and in one particularly lovely description (typical of Ellen’s fluid and romantic writing style) she said: ‘She [Emily Brontë] and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’
Anne and Emily fuelled each other’s creativity from their earliest days, creating their own fictional land of Gondal and later, fittingly, having their books ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ published together.
Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey
As you now know, I’ll be saying much more about these two next year – but it’s safe to say that Ellen Nussey played a huge role in Charlotte’s life, and the stability that Ellen’s friendship brought to her life helped give Charlotte the courage and indefatigability she has become renowned for – the courage to create works of incredible genius. Charlotte herself summed up perfectly what Ellen Nussey meant to her in a letter to W.S. Williams on 3rd January 1850. I will leave you with her words, and raise a toast to Samuel and James, Jane and Cassandra, Emily and Anne, Charlotte and Ellen, and to friends the world over:
‘Friendship however is a plant which cannot be forced – true friendship is no gourd springing in a night and withering in a day. When I first saw Ellen I did not care for her – we were schoolfellows – in the course of time we learnt each others faults and good points. We were contrasts, still we suited – affection was first a germ, then a sapling, then a strong tree: now, no new friend, however lofty or profound in intellect, not even Miss Martineau herself, could be to me what Ellen is, yet she is no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She 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. But she is good – she is true – she is faithful and I love her.’
This has been a momentous week of anniversaries for Mary Taylor, for the 26th of February 1817 marked her birth, whilst the 1st of March 1893 saw her death. It was a long life for the times, and a very eventful one – she is most known today as one of the two great friends of Charlotte Brontë (along with Ellen Nussey), but she also became a businesswoman, a travel writer, an ardent feminist and a novelist in her own right. This, then, seems the perfect time to remember the real Mary Taylor.
Mary was born in Gomersal in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and her family the Taylors were on the rise. They were heavily involved in the production of red cloth that was used in British military uniforms, and as the Napoleonic wars and subsequent conflicts raged, this proved to be very lucrative indeed. The family lived in the Red House, which was until recently a wonderful museum (that’s a picture from inside it at the head of this post), and they even operated their own bank there.
In January 1831, Mary Taylor was sent to Roe Head School, recently opened in the nearby town of Mirfield. She found there a fellow pupil she already knew, from the neighbouring village of Birstall, and from a similar mercantile family: Ellen Nussey. These two soon formed a close bond with another pupil there who was from a very different background; this young woman was a year older than them, small, painfully shy and from a considerably less wealthy background – there was something about her, however, that grabbed your attention; even aged 15 it was obvious that here was a woman of truly unique character and talents, it was of course Charlotte Brontë.
Mary was always honest and a plain talker, and this showed in her description of Charlotte upon her arrival at Roe Head:
“She looked a little, old woman, so short-sighted that she always appeared to be seeking something, and moving her head from side to side to catch sight of it. She was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.”
Nevertheless, she and Charlotte soon became firm friends, and Mary often visited the Brontë parsonage in Haworth, after which she famously gave this description of the Brontë sisters:
“I told her [Charlotte] sometimes they were like growing potatoes in a cellar.”
A far better analogy in my mind is that they were mining for diamonds in the dark, but this comment should not be taken as a slight on Mary’s part, who loved the sisters dearly, but rather the difference in their personalities. Mary was not a home lover, never content to simply sit and read, she was a woman who from an early age was in search of adventure. It was this that took her, in the company of her younger sister Martha, to Europe after the sudden death of her father in December 1840. It was found at this point that his wealth had been built on promises, and he left a series of debts behind him, but Mary and Martha still had enough to install them in the prestigious Chateau de Koekelberg finishing school in Brussels.
Mary’s letters to Charlotte at this time fired Charlotte’s imagination, and were the driving force behind her decision to strike out for Brussels herself, in company with Emily Brontë, ostensibly to learn skills that would allow her to form their own school after their return to Haworth. Charlotte was delighted to see the Taylor sisters again, but tragedy struck when Martha Taylor suddenly sickened and died. Charlotte loved Martha greatly, as we can see from the affectionate portrait of her in ‘Shirley’ as Jessie Yorke. Mary herself is Rose Yorke in ‘Shirley‘. Martha’s funeral service, attended by Mary, Charlotte and Emily is remembered very movingly within this novel:
“Certain people who had that day performed a pilgrimage to a grave new-made in a heretic cemetery, sat near a wood-fire on the hearth of a foreign dwelling. They were merry and social, but they each knew that a gap, never to be filled, had been made in their circle. They knew they had lost something whose absence could never be quite atoned for so long as they lived; and they knew that heavy falling rain was soaking into the wet earth which covered their lost darling; and that the sad, sighing gale was mourning above her buried head. The fire warmed them; Life and Friendship yet blessed them; but Jessie lay cold, confined, solitary – only the sod screening her from the storm.”
Charlotte’s tribute to Martha can be seen at the foot of the grave in Gomersal churchyard that serves for both Mary and Martha Taylor; it reads, ‘Martha Taylor – much loved she was, much loving. C Brontë.’
Martha’s death was devastating for both Charlotte and Mary, who after Brussels continued her travels by becoming a teacher in Germany. Mary could not yet return home to live in Yorkshire, it was full of memories of her father’s fall, of her dead sister. In 1845 Mary made the decision to emigrate to Wellington, New Zealand, where her brother Waring Taylor had moved three years later. This was another terrible blow for Charlotte who realised that her chances of seeing her friend again were now very slim. With her usual brilliance at finding the right words, Charlotte wrote of this loss in words that many of us can feel empathy with:
“To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky.”
Charlotte sent Mary ten pounds (worth well in excess of a thousand pounds in today’s money) to buy a cow, and in 1849 she founded her own business. Mary’s cousin Ellen Taylor had by this time emigrated to Wellington too, and they founded a draper’s shop together that proved to be highly successful. In 1851, however, Ellen Taylor died from tuberculosis, and towards the end of that decade Mary sold the business and returned to Gomersal, having first endured the terrible Wellington earthquake of 1855 that destroyed so much of the growing city. It was too late to see her old friend again however, as by the time Mary landed back on English soil in 1859, all of the Brontë siblings were dead.
Mary returned to Gomersal a woman of independent wealth, and she lived in High Royd, a grand building owned by her brother Joseph. She travelled extensively across Europe again over the next few years, and took particular delight in Switzerland, where she often went climbing in the Alps.
She ‘adopted’ a series of Swiss sisters who came to work as maids for her in Gomersal, and she also formed a close bond with a woman called Grace Hirst who many saw as a kind of daughter to her (although others thought their closeness was scandalous). Mary loved nothing more than being in female company, and became regarded as an eccentric, although one with a brilliant mind.
In the 1860s she began to write journalism, and she was passionate about social inequality and particularly about the rights of women. It was this subject that formed the basis of a series of articles published by ‘Victoria Magazine’ between 1866 and 1877. Collected together as ‘The First Duty Of Women’ they place Mary as a Victorian pioneer of feminism.
Even in later life, Mary Taylor showed no signs of slowing down. In 1890, at the age of 73, she had her own novel published: ‘Miss Miles, Or A Tale Of Yorkshire Life 60 Years Ago.’ It was not reviewed kindly, with many reviewers saying it was far too slow for contemporary tastes, but I think it’s well worth a read. In common with ‘Wuthering Heights’ it has sections written in the Yorkshire dialect that may prove hard to read and understand for those outside the county; it also, however, has passages of beauty, light and wit, and it is very well written. Mary’s three key concerns in life are well represented here: the poor conditions in which the working class lived in, religious hyprocrisy, and the importance for women to make their own way in life, rather than submitting to the marital drudgery expected of them.
In 1850, Mary had stated (in a letter to Charlotte Brontë) that she was ‘obstinately lazy’, but she certainly overcame this trait. In her life she supported with friendship one of the greatest writers of them all, she became an excellent scholar and taught in Germany and Belgium, she wrote brilliant articles, completed a novel and stood up for the downtrodden at every opportunity; she climbed mountains, and she knocked down barriers.
Her death in 1893 brought a number of glowing obituaries from publications nationwide, but I will leave you with this one from the Whitstable Times And Herne Bay Herald. It includes perhaps the most beautiful tribute of them all, paid to her many decades previously by her great friend Charlotte Brontë: “She was full of feelings, noble, warm, generous, devoted, and profound. God bless her! I never hope to see in this world a character more truly noble. She would die willingly for one she loved. Her intellect and attainments are of the very highest standard.”
The last week in February witnessed some of the most momentous events in Reverend Patrick Brontë’s professional life. We know him, of course, as the father of Charlotte, Anne and Branwell Brontë, genius writers all and three of the six Brontë siblings. His nature could be idiosyncratic at times, and he freely admitted:
‘I do not deny that I am somewhat eccentric. If I had been numbered among the calm, sedate, concentric men of the world I should not have been as I now am. And I should in all probability never have had such children as mine have been.’
We must thank him for having the courage to bring up his children as he did, and allowing them to become the towering figures that they did. He was much more than that as well, though, so let’s take a look at three late February events that bookended his remarkable career within the Church of England.
On the 25th of February 1820, little more than a month after Anne Brontë’s birth, Patrick Brontë was officially granted the perpetual curacy of Haworth, leaving behind his previous parish of Thornton. He was entering a parish made famous by a previous incumbent William Grimshaw, but also one where the villagers could be vociferous, and who weren’t afraid to stand up to their priest.
It had been a long road to Haworth for Patrick, as he had been offered the post a year earlier but declined it when locals opposed his appointment, as reported in the Leeds Intelligencer of 14th June 1819:
‘We hear that the Rev. P. Brontë, curate of Thornton, has been nominated by the vicar of Bradford, to the valuable perpetual curacy of Haworth, vacated by the death of the Rev. James Charnock; but that the inhabitants of the chapelry intend to resist the presentation, and have entered a caveat accordingly.’
It is well known now that the Haworth elders were objecting to the Vicar of Bradford appointing their priest without consulting them first, contrary to an ancient right they had. This was shown by the appalling treatment meted out to Samuel Redhead when he was appointed by Henry Heap, Bradford’s vicar, after Patrick’s retreat. Elizabeth Gaskell tells with some drama how Redhead was received, but the truth was even more incredible, as we see from a letter that the Bishop of Ripon, and later Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Longley wrote to his wife:
‘There is an ancient feud between Bradford and Haworth… the people of Haworth can by the trust deed of the living, prevent the person appointed by the vicar [of Bradford] from entering the Parsonage or receiving any of the emoluments, if he does not please them… in the case of Mr. Redhead, the inhabitants exercised their right of resistance and opposition and to such a point did they carry it, that they actually brought a Donkey into the church while Mr. Redhead was officiating and held up its head to stare him in the face – they then laid a plan to crush him to death in the vestry, by pushing a table against him as he was taking off his surplice and hanging it up, foiled in this for some reason or other they then turned out into the Churchyard where Mr. Redhead was going to perform a funeral and were determined to throw him into the grave and bury him alive.’
Redhead managed to flee, but could obviously no longer continue in his post. A compromise was reached in which the Haworth elders would nominate a curate who would then be rubber stamped by Heap, and it was this compromise that saw Patrick appointed to the post after all in February 1820.
Patrick Brontë was entering a parish where the congregation had tried to murder the previous incumbent, how long would he endure? The answer to that is testimony to his resilience, his courage and the good standing he rapidly achieved among the people of Haworth.
The next event from this week occurred on the 22nd February 1837, when we find, once again via a report in the Leeds Intelligencer, that Patrick is chairing a meeting to protest against the introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act. This cruel act introduced workhouses in which to house those who needed benefits to survive, but the conditions inside were appalling, with husbands separated from wives, mothers from children.
Patrick was opposed to workhouses, and he chaired what could have been a fiery meeting with aplomb, leading the newspaper report to conclude:
It is worth noting of course that whilst the reporter states that Reverend Brontë is ‘far advanced in years’, he would serve the parish for another 24 years after this date, despite the ill health alluded to (primarily his increasing blindness). The meeting was held in the school rooms that Patrick himself had had built, next to the church and the parsonage he called home. It was another of the many socially aware acts carried out in Haworth by Patrick Brontë; perhaps the greatest of all was his work in securing improvements to the water supply of Haworth. It was largely thanks to Haworth that a reservoir was built on the moors near Haworth, lavatories were installed, and that sanitation in general was greatly improved. There can be no doubts that Patrick’s tireless efforts in this cause saved thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost to diseases such as cholera.
This last week in February also marked an end to one of Patrick Brontë’s duties as parish priest, for on this day, the 24th of February, in 1857 he carried out his final marriage service. Now approaching his 80th birthday he turned for the final time to a bride and groom and asked if they would take each other in sickness and in health. Patrick had certainly served Haworth in sickness and in health, and so it is fitting that these words he would have said hundreds upon hundreds of times throughout his decades in the parish form the title of the new exhibition in his memory at the Brontë Parsonage Museum – I look forward to visiting it next month.
After 1857, Patrick was no longer able to carry out the daily duties demanded of a parish priest, and these were instead undertaken by Charlotte Brontë’s widow, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Nevertheless, he did from time to time take or assist in a service at the church until his well earned rest came in June 1861, meaning that he had served Haworth with distinction for more than 40 years. We know this from the last report of him, and fittingly it comes in a letter sent by his niece Eliza Kingston in Penzance, Cornwall. This letter dated March 1860 is proof of Patrick’s loyalty to the church, but also of the lifelong fidelity of his love for his wife Maria. It was nearly four decades since she had died, and yet he still cherished his memory so much that he obviously continued to write to members of her family over 400 miles away, perhaps because when doing so he felt close to her once more. I will leave you with Eliza’s words, the last words we have on Patrick Brontë, and say thank you to a great father, a great priest and a great man:
‘I had a letter from my Uncle Brontë last June. He says he was in his 83rd year, but, though feeble, was still able to preach once on Sunday, and sometimes to take occasional duty; his son-in-law, Mr. Nicholls will continue with him. He says strangers still continue to call, but he converses little with them, but keeps himself as quiet as he can. I understand the Brontës were beloved in their own neighbourhood.’
In 1855 Charlotte Brontë Nicholls (as she termed herself) was celebrating her first Valentine’s Day as a married woman. On the 15th February she wrote to her friend Laetitia Wheelwright, saying:
“At present I am confined to my bed with illness and have been so for 3 weeks. Up to this period since my marriage I have had excellent health. My Husband and I live at home with my Father… no kinder better husband than mine it seems to me can there be in the world. I do not want now for kind companionship and the tenderest nursing in sickness… I cannot write more now for I am much reduced and very weak.”
It was to be the first and last Valentine’s Day as a married woman for Charlotte, she was to find, as Anne and William Weightman had before her, that tragedy often followed close on love’s heels in that Haworth parsonage. As she blotted the letter she could not have known this, nor that death was already waiting in those familiar rooms, for just three days later, on this day in 1855, the long standing Brontë servant and friend Tabby Aykroyd died.
Tabitha Aykroyd, always known by the children as Tabby, had taken up her role as servant more than three decades earlier in late 1824, as a cost-cutting replacement for the sisters Nancy and Sarah Garrs. She would fulfil the roles of cook, cleaner, and crucially storyteller, from that day on. Little is known of her life before she entered the Haworth Parsonage, except that she was unmarried and had no children but two sisters Rose and Susanna. She was born in approximately 1771, putting her in her early fifties when she moved in with the Brontës. For many years she was the only live in servant, although in later years the younger servant Martha Brown, daughter of the sexton John, also moved in.
Patrick and Aunt Branwell would have given careful consideration to their choice of housekeeper, and so we can certainly assume that Tabby already had experience in a similar role, and she was probably well known to them as a frequenter of St. Michael and All Angels church. Patrick alluded to Tabby’s appointment in a letter to his bank on 10th November 1824:
‘I am going to send another of my little girls to school [Emily], which at the first will cost me some little – but in the end I shall not lose – as I now keep two servants but am only to keep one elderly woman now, who, when my other little girl is at school will be able to wait I think on my remaining children [Anne and Branwell] and myself’
This ‘elderly woman’ as Patrick described her, was in fact just six years older than himself. She seems to have been a forthright no-nonsense Yorkshire woman of the type still readily found today, but behind a bluff exterior she could also be very warm and loving, which is another Yorkshire trait which endures. This is confirmed by Elizabeth Gaskell, who had met Tabby:
‘She abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded.’
A strong bond formed between Tabby and the children, although we have a story of how the young Brontës delighted in frightening her on one occasion. They were acting out a play, as they liked to do, and in this particular one they must have been pretending to be demons or monsters. So good were they at this role that Tabby fled the Parsonage in terror and ran to her nephew William Wood, a coffin maker. Branwell’s friend and biographer Francis Leyland described what she said:
‘William! William! Yah mun goa up to Mr Brontë’s for aw’m sure yon chiller’s all gooin mad, and I dar’nt stop ith house ony longer wi’em; and aw’ll stay here woll yah come back!’
William went to the Parsonage and was greeted with a great cackle of laughter from the Brontë children, delighted at how successful their trick had been. This shows that Tabby was a central part of the Brontë children’s development and play time, and it also reveals the Pennine Yorkshire dialect that she and many others in the Haworth area spoke, and which Emily Brontë later put into the mouth of Wuthering Heights’ Joseph, much to the confusion of non-Yorkshire based readers ever since.
In December 1836, Tabby suffered a terrible accident which could have changed the course of her life. Haworth’s steep main street can be treacherous in winter, then and now, and Tabby slipped on ice, badly breaking her leg and leaving her with a walking impediment for the rest of her life. Aunt Branwell recommended that Tabby should be let go, not merely because she could no longer perform all her duties but so that Tabby could be looked after by her sister. The Brontë siblings, however, were having none of it. They insisted that they would look after her just as she had looked after them when they were young, and they even refused to eat until the decision was reversed, and under these circumstances Tabby was allowed to stay. It is clear that to the Brontë siblings, Tabby was an essential part of the family.
Nevertheless, Tabby’s leg injury flared up from time to time, and in 1839 she moved into the house of her sister Susanna Wood. It must have been a lengthy convalescence for she was still there when the 1841 census was taken (that’s it at the top of this page, can you find her?), but by 1842 she had returned to the parsonage. Emily Brontë had become fiercely loyal to Tabby, and she took on many of the household duties that were now a struggle for her; a far cry from Emily’s diary paper of 1834 when she had to be cajoled into helping in the kitchen:
‘Tabby said on my putting a pen into her face, “Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate”’.
Tabby of course would outlive Emily, and she and Martha provided comfort to Charlotte after the death of her sisters and brother, but a letter to Ellen Nussey of 14th September 1849 revealed a particularly distressing day for Charlotte and Tabby:
‘Both Tabby and Martha are ill in bed. Martha’s illness has been most serious, she was seized with internal inflammation ten days ago; Tabby’s lame leg has broken out – she cannot stand or walk – I have one of Martha’s sisters to help me and her mother comes up sometimes. There was one day last week when I fairly broke down for ten minutes – sat and cried like a fool. Martha’s illness was at its height, a cry from Tabby had called me into the kitchen and I had found her laid on the floor – her head under the kitchen-grate – she had fallen from her chair in attempting to rise. Papa had just been declaring that Martha was in imminent danger, I was myself depressed with head-ache and sickness – that day I hardly knew what to do or where to turn… Life is a battle May we all be enabled to fight it well.’
Martha and Tabby both recovered, and Tabby also recovered from a bout of ‘English cholera’ that Charlotte reported in 1852 (this was the less serious, less usually fatal, form of the disease). We have final news of Tabby however in a simple line from Charlotte to Ellen of 21st February 1855:
‘Write and tell me about Mrs. Hewitt’s case, how long she was ill and in what way. Papa thank God! is better. Our poor old Tabby is dead and buried. Give my truest love to Miss Wooler. May God comfort and help you.’
This letter shows both sides of life at the Parsonage. Mrs. Hewitt was a mutual friend who had suffered morning sickness when pregnant, so this line and a later letter in response to Mrs. Hewitt’s reply, is proof that Charlotte too was pregnant. And then we have a simple brief tribute to Tabby Akyroyd who had taken her final breath four days earlier. Charlotte was herself, although she didn’t know it, rapidly approaching her final day, she would have been too weak to hold the hand of the woman who had loved her so much for more than thirty years, and who had been loved back in return. Nevertheless, Tabby doubtless could feel the love around her as she left this world, and she still deserves and receives our love today.
Tabby Aykroyd brought practical and emotional support to the Brontë siblings whenever they needed it, she could always be relied upon, and it is her tales of Yorkshire folklore that helped shape the sisters’ writings. On this day, as we remember the life of Tabby Aykroyd, I can’t help but bring to mind the words from Matthew that Patrick must have read in many a sermon:
If only we knew the content of the Valentine’s Day cards that William Weightman sent to the Brontë sisters on this day in 1840! What we do know for sure is that Weightman had arrived in Haworth the previous year to serve as Assistant Curate to Reverend Patrick Brontë, and he quickly charmed all in the village, including the three young women resident in the parsonage: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.
Weightman was astonished to find that none of the sisters (then aged between 20 and 23) had ever received a Valentine’s card and so he decided to put that right. He sent four cards, because faithful friend Ellen Nussey was also in the parsonage at the time, and he walked from Haworth to Bradford to post them so the postmark wouldn’t give the sender’s identity away too easily. From a letter from Charlotte Brontë we also know the title of three of the poems. ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ is obviously for Ellen Nussey. ‘Soul Divine’, I conjecture, is surely fitting for Emily Brontë who would later write ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine.’ ‘Away Fond Love’ must be for Anne Brontë, as she was at that moment trying to secure a new position as a governess that would take her away from Haworth – and that two months later would see her begin a new post at Thorp Green Hall. I believe William and Anne were already smitten by each other, and the sending of the cards allowed him to express his true feelings for Anne without rousing suspicion.
One card title we do not know, and I believe that’s because Charlotte was too modest to reveal the title of the card sent to her. We also, of course, don’t know the wording of the verses themselves, so what could they have been? We hear that Weightman was an excellent scholar, and he knew the poetry loving Brontës would be hard to impress, so maybe he took inspiration from some of the poems he knew and loved and adapted them to his needs? That’s just what I’ve done below, and so I apologise in advance to Messrs Spenser, Marvell and Keats (and Weightman) as I try to conjure up the kind of verse that could have charmed the Brontës and Ellen Nussey on that cold February day:
Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen
Men call you fair, Ellen, and you deserve it,
For that yourself you daily do see:
But the greater fair of a gentle wit,
And virtuous mind’s more praised by me.
For all the rest, how ever fair it be,
Shall turn to nothing and lose its hue:
But your soul is permanent and free
From failures which with time ensue.
That is true beauty: that does show you,
To be divine, and born of heavenly seed:
Born of that fair Spirit, from whom all true,
And perfect beauty did at first proceed.
He only is fair, and fair Ellen He has made,
All other fair, like flowers, untimely fade.
Oh soul divine, now learn to wield,
The weight of your immortal shield.
Place on your head thy helmet bright.
Ready your sword against the fight.
For see – an army, strong as fair,
With silken banners breaks the air.
Now, if you beat that thing divine,
In this day’s combat let it shine:
And show that you have all the art,
To conquer this resolvèd heart.
Away Fond Love
Away fond love, would I were steadfast as you are –
Not in lone splendour hung awake the night,
And watching, with eternal lids afar,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless hermite,
The moving waters at their silent task,
Washing these all too human shores,
Or gazing anew on a soft-fallen mask,
Of snow upon those oft trod moors.
No, stay – my steadfast unchangeable guest,
Could I but gaze upon my love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever by thy side and well,
Still, still to hear so near her tender breath,
And by a word live on – or swoon to death.
Well that’s my light hearted take on the Brontë Valentine’s cards, but in all seriousness we can thank Weightman for bringing some joy into the sister’s lives. Whether you have a dozen cards and two dozen red roses on your mantelpiece, or look upon a card from the Dog’s Trust dog you sponsor, have a good day and remember – you’re never completely alone when you have a good book or poem within reach.
This week 177 years ago saw the commencement of a major Brontë journey in a physical and a metaphorical sense, as on 8th February 1842 Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë embarked upon a voyage from Haworth to Brussels – but Anne Brontë was left behind.
It was a journey, travelling first to London as they did, of around 430 miles – a major undertaking in the first half of the nineteenth century, although it’s easy to forget that this journey was still shorter than the one from Penzance to Haworth that their mother and Aunt Branwell had taken.
It was, in fact, Aunt Branwell that made the journey, and Charlotte and Emily’s stay in the Belgian capital, possible, but just what was it for? We gain a clue from Anne’s diary paper of 30th July 1841:
“We are thinking of setting up a school of our own but nothing definite is settled about it yet and we do not know whether we shall be able to or not – nothing is settled about it yet.”
At the time Anne wrote this she was in her second year of employment with the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, and Charlotte was in Rawdon serving as governess to the White family; a year earlier Emily had left her short held, but later influential, position as a teacher in Law Hill near Halifax. It seemed obvious to all three sisters that their only hope of making a living for themselves was as governesses or teachers, but they all, to a lesser or greater extent, found the demands of working in these roles difficult. It seemed obvious that they would fare better if they set up their own school and worked for each other, and by the middle of 1841 plans had begun to be made in earnest.
At this point fate seemed to be smiling on them, for Margaret Wooler, former teacher of the Brontës and employer of Charlotte, had decided to retire from teaching, and she offered Charlotte the chance to take over the running of her school in Dewsbury Moor. Heald’s House, as it was known, would have been furnished and ready to put into action, and pupils were already in place, but Charlotte was never keen on the idea, possibly because of painful memories of her own teaching days there after the school had relocated from Roe Head. By November 1841, Charlotte was writing to Ellen Nussey describing it as ‘an obscure and dreary place – not adapted for a school.’
It is clear that Charlotte had another thought developing in her mind, and she laid out her new plans in a letter sent to Aunt Branwell from Rawdon in September of that year:
“Dear Aunt, I have heard nothing of Miss Wooler yet since I wrote to her intimating that I would accept her offer. I cannot conjecture the reason of this long silence, unless some unforeseen impediment has occurred in concluding the bargain. Meantime, a plan has been suggested and approved by Mr. and Mrs. White, and others, which I now wish to impart to you. My friends recommend me, if I desire to secure permanent success, to delay commencing the school for six months longer, and by all means to contrive, by hook or by crook, to spend the intervening time in some school on the continent. They say schools in England are so numerous, competition so great, that without some such step towards attaining superiority we shall probably have a very hard struggle, and may fail in the end. They say, moreover, that the loan of £100, which you have been so kind as to offer us, will, perhaps, not all be required now, as Miss Wooler will lend us the furniture; and that, if the speculation is intended to be a good and successful one, half the sum, at least, ought to be laid out in the manner I have mentioned, thereby insuring a more speedy repayment both of interest and principal. I would not go to France or to Paris. I would go to Brussels, in Belgium. The cost of the journey there, at the dearest rate of travelling, would be £5; living is there little more than half as dear as in England, and the facilities for education are equal to or superior to, any school in Europe… These are advantages which would turn to vast account, when we actually commenced a school – and, if Emily could share them with me, only for a single half-year, we could take a footing in the world afterwards which we can never do now. I say Emily instead of Anne; for Anne might take her turn at some future period, if our school answered. I feel certain, while I am writing, that you will see the propriety of what I say; you always like to use your money to the best advantage; you are not fond of making shabby purchases; when you do confer a favour, it is often done in style; and depend upon it £50, or £100, thus laid out, would be well employed. Of course, I know no other friend in the world to whom I could apply on the subject except yourself. I feel an absolute conviction that, if this advantage were allowed to us, it would be the making of us for life. Papa will perhaps think it a wild and ambitious scheme; but who ever rose in the world without ambition? When he left Ireland to go to Cambridge University, he was as ambitious as I am now. I want us all to go on.I know we have talents, and I want them to be turned to account. I look to you, aunt, to help us. I think you will not refuse… Believe me, dear aunt, your affectionate niece, C. Brontë”
This was a masterful letter, but then again Charlotte Brontë was a consummate letter writer. Charlotte had been receiving letters from her great friends Mary and Martha Taylor who were already at school in Brussels, and her lust for travel, exploration and adventure, first evident in her juvenilia, was aflame once more. She needed a significant sum to turn this dream into a reality, but she also knew that her aunt had access to that kind of money.
The letter is also evidence of what Ellen Nussey had earlier reported, that Anne Brontë was her aunt’s favourite, and so Charlotte knew that she would have to explain why it was her aim to take Emily with her rather than Anne.
On the face of it, it might seem a strange choice – Emily’s time as a pupil at Roe Head had been a complete disaster, as she became so homesick that she was sent home within three months in fear of her life. It would not be so easy for her to return home from Brussels if the same problems recurred.
Charlotte knew however that Emily had become a different woman in the intervening seven years, and she also knew that she herself would be in need of Emily’s strength, fortitude and dependability in Belgium. Some have seen the decision as a snub to Anne, but in fact I believe Charlotte was being pragmatic and sensible. Anne had already received a longer education than either of her sisters, and she was an accomplished scholar who already knew the languages they wished to learn. Emily, on the other hand, whilst possessing a brilliant mind still had little formal education, and this could make it harder to attract pupils to a school at which she was to teach.
Charlotte’s letter, which carefully appealed to both her aunt and father, did the trick. She secured funding and best wishes, and thus it was that they climbed into a carriage for the first leg of their journey on that early February morning. Patrick was alongside them, for his innate sense of adventure had also been fired up, and he’d decided to accompany his daughters on their journey. He carried with him a little notebook in which he’d written phrases in English and French, along with a guide on how to pronounce them, so that one entry read: “Demain = de mang – tomorrow”
We can be sure that Aunt Branwell, and the friends and servants Tabby and Martha waved them au revoir, but Anne was only there in her mind. She was now entering a sad and lonely period, where the daily grind of a governess became ever more of a drudge. Doubtless she received letters from Brussels that must have seemed endlessly exciting when compared to the life she was compelled to live.
We will turn to what happened next in another post – but Charlotte finally returned from Brussels in January 1844 clutching a certificate from the Pensionnat Heger (that’s it at the top of this post) and a terrible burning unrequited love in her heart. It would haunt her for the rest of her life, it must find release – it did find release in the only way Charlotte knew how, in her writing. Thus it was that the pain of Brussels drove Charlotte on to write more than anything else, and this is why that February morning was the start of a journey that would change everything for Emily and Anne too, and for readers across the globe until the end of time.
We all love Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and thankfully there are many good, or at least good intentioned, biographies that expand our knowledge of them. There are many others, however, who had a huge impact on the Brontë sisters about whom relatively little is known. That’s why we should always remember the influence of the servants who were around the children day by day, such as the Garrs sisters.
Nancy Garrs joined the Brontë family in July 1816, at the age of 12 or 13, arriving at Thornton Parsonage to help the day to day running of the building which had just seen the addition of baby Charlotte. By August 1818 two further Brontë children, Patrick Branwell and Emily Jane, had arrived and a further nurse was taken on. Nancy must have impressed in her role, because her sister Sarah, aged 12 was chosen. Both remained in the service of the Brontë family until 1824. That much is known, but little else. However, many mists are clearing and once hidden figures are coming again into the light. Trawling through the newspaper archives recently, I found many articles about, and interviews with, Nancy. They are revelatory, fascinating, and give first hand accounts of Patrick and Branwell that show them rather differently to how they’re often portrayed, and we also see yet another now forgotten tale of Charlotte Brontë’s generosity. So, let’s no longer look through a glass darkly but instead find out more about Nancy Garrs.
One other thing widely known about Nancy Garrs is that she attended the Bradford School of Industry, a school that trained girls from poorer families to become domestic servants. It may be thought, then, that she was from a very poor background, but in fact previously hidden 19th century reports show that this isn’t so – and, indeed, that she wasn’t called Nancy Garrs at all.
Nancy and Sarah were children of Richard Degarrs, who owned a shoemaker’s shop in Westgate, Bradford. Richard was himself the son of a French man, and the Bradford locals had trouble pronouncing his surname, so he became known as Dicky Garrs instead. Therefore, like a mirror image of the Bruntys becoming the Brontës, the cordwainer’s daughter Nancy Degarrs became Nancy Garrs.
Nancy married twice, her first marriage was to a Pat Wainwright who was a foreman, and after his death she became Nancy Malone after marrying John Malone who worked in a wool warehouse in Bradford’s cheapside. After his death she lived firstly at Cheapside, but she was rarely lonely as she was often visited by Brontë lovers who wanted to hear first hand tales of the family she had known and still loved. In a way, the Brontës never left Nancy, and she had a number of possessions relating to them. Prized chiefly among them was a letter from Patrick Brontë that she showed to a reporter from the Leeds Mercury in the 1870s:
‘Continuing her pleasant chat, Nancy then brought out her Brontë relics. First she took down from the wall and laid before me a letter, framed and glazed like a picture. It was dated 1857, and at the foot was the signature of Mr. Brontë. In Mrs. Gaskell’s book, Nancy and her sister are spoken of as wasteful. In her next conversation with Mr. Brontë, Nancy complained of the charge, whereupon the kindly old gentleman comforted his servant’s heart by writing the document which she had suspended against the wall for the confusion of all gainsayers. The letter runs as follows:—” Haworth, August, 1857. I leave to state to all whom it may concern that Nancy and Sarah Garrs, during the time they were in service, were kind to my children, honest, and not wasteful, but sufficiently careful in regard to food and all other things entrusted to their care. P. Brontë, A.B., Incumbent of Haworth.”‘
After John Malone’s death, Nancy found herself in increasing difficulty financially, and she spent the last years of her life at the Bradford Workhouse – that’s it at the top of this post. Workhouses could be a terrible place for those who have been abandoned by society or who have no means of supporting themselves, a place to be punished for being poor, a place to be hidden away and to die. Her fate was discovered and on December 12th 1884 it led the Pall Mall Gazette of London to contend:
“A few months ago there was received into the Bradford Workhouse an old woman who, for the sake of the precious memories she cherishes, and the associations with which she is the last remaining link, ought to have been saved from such a fate. Her name is Nancy Wainwright, and her claim to public sympathy rests on the fact that she was the nurse of Charlotte Brontë, her sisters Emily and Anne, and the intractable Branwell.”
This story was noticed worldwide, and the New York Times ran a similar article saying that a fund should be raised for her. In fact, Nancy Malone as she was then (although for some reason she was known by her former known of Wainwright) received a number of offers of accommodation and help, but turned them all down because she enjoyed living in the workhouse. Nancy’s workhouse experience was not the same as most others met; she was given her own room, a comfortable life, good food and treated deferentially because of her Brontë connection, and was allowed to receive visitors who still came to see the former Brontë servant.
Her death was reported in a fulsome obituary in the Bradford Daily Telegraph of 27th March 1886:
“This morning Mrs Nancy Malone, better known as Nancy Wainwright, died at the Bradford Workhouse at twenty minutes to one o’clock. The old lady, who was in her eighty-third year, enjoyed a considerable amount of notoriety amongst admirers of the Brontë family from the fact that in her younger days she acted as nurse for Charlotte and her talented sisters, with whom for the whole of their lifetime she continued on terms of intimacy… Admirers of the Brontës, not only local but from distant parts of the country, visited her at the workhouse, and she had repeated offers of a home outside of the workhouse gates, but she declined to avail herself of them… Notwithstanding her great age she enjoyed fairly good health up to a fortnight ago, but from that period has failed rapidly. Her condition during the past few days was seen to be hopeless, and she expired peaceably and quietly at the hour named.”
The article then goes on to mention her sister Sarah who had emigrated to Crawfordsville, Iowa, and who had a son who was a doctor in the American army (Sarah died in 1899, aged 93), and that Nancy had a brother still living who was a master tradesman in Sheffield. As we shall see, he perhaps had another ambition.
The most remarkable tribute to Nancy was made two years earlier in the Pall Mall Gazette article. It is a long interview containing a delightful picture of Nancy at this time. The article is incredibly moving, not least for a description of a scene playing out in the workhouse that could have come straight from Dickens, but was in fact from real life:
“The cry of a baby drew my attention to a pale-faced woman who sat on one of the beds. I inquired about her, and was informed that she had been forced there to taste life’s bitterness because a worthless husband had deserted her for a worthless woman, leaving her to bring her child into the world within the walls of the poorhouse. The woman had been rendering return for shelter by scrubbing the floors, and now, as she pressed her infant to her breast, I sat and talked with Charlotte Brontë’s nurse. I shook the hands which had fondled and caressed the Brontë children in their infancy.”
In the interview, Nancy waxes lyrical about many members of the Brontë family:
“Nancy never tires of talking of the Brontës. The remembrance of them is as sunshine to her declining years… She has many stories to relate of the kindly disposition of Charlotte, the wilfulness of Branwell, the hot temper of Emily, and the tenderness of Anne.”
The article is long and fascinating with too many tales to relate here, but I am happy to send a PDF copy of it to anyone who emails me as I think it’s an article that deserves to be remembered. Let’s take a look at some highlights.
On Charlotte, Nancy says:
“When distinguished visitors came, it was always a matter of difficulty to stop Charlotte from silently-stealing into the drawing room, and when they had gone she would criticise their appearance, manner and speech with such cleverness that her father would often laugh heartily in spite of the utmost efforts to restrain himself.”
On Branwell, we hear:
‘”Branwell was a good lad enough until the serpent beguiled him”, and she thinks he has been “made out to be a good deal worse than he really was.” Nancy could “manage him” better than any one else when his fits of fury were upon him, and Branwell seemed to have a real affection for his old nurse. He often wanted to paint her portrait, but she declined on the score that she did not consider herself good looking enough.”’
Nancy’s affection for Patrick is clear:
“A kinder man than Mr. Brontë never drew breath.”
In an earlier interview, Nancy had also said “Mr. Brontë was one of the kindest husbands I ever knew, except my own.”
Nancy was the chief mourner at Patrick’s funeral, alongside Arthur Bell Nicholls, and was by his side as he died. The Pall Mall Gazette says that the reverend presented her with a final gift, a roasting jack, on his deathbed.
We can now see a rounder picture of Nancy Garrs, or I should say Nancy Degarrs. From a mercantile family of French origin, she was an intensely kind, loving and fiercely loyal woman. There are doubtless many more contemporary tales of Nancy and others in the Brontë story, and I’ll keep looking for them. We’ll close by turning to a man mentioned earlier, Nancy’s brother in Sheffield. You may recall an earlier post that brought to light Charlotte’s generosity to a man who had no boots. Well, Charlotte is at it again – it seems that she was quite a philanthropist, even if she was also characteristically honest with people too. Sorry, Charlotte, whilst this story has remained hidden within for over 130 years within pages of the Pall Mall Gazette that have long since been unturned. I’m going to reveal it once more and leave you all today with the story of Charlotte Brontë, the poet and the Earl of Carlisle!:
‘Nancy tells a story which shows Charlotte’s goodness of heart in a strong light. Nancy had a brother who had literary aspirations. He wrote some poems, and went over to Haworth to to submit them to the author of ‘Jane Eyre’. This was in the summer of 1853, when she was at the height of her fame. Immediately she saw the young man she said, “Why, you are Nancy’s brother”, although she had never seen him before. She read his poems, heard all his plans, and after telling him how she and her sisters had published poems at a loss, did her best to dissuade him from this project. The next day she sent him a letter, again urging him not to publish. A few weeks later, the young man received a letter bearing the crest of the Earl of Carlisle, an earnest patron of literature. The letter contained an enclosure of £5. The connection between the visit of Nancy’s brother to Haworth and that letter was not far to seek.’
According to the Measuring Worth website that £5 has a purely inflationary value of £500 today but an actual income equivalent value of £5,317. A very generous gesture from the Earl (by the way if any modern Earls want to repeat the gesture I can let you have my address), a typically kind gesture from Charlotte, and another enlightening revelation from Nancy Garrs. Have a good day, and let’s all try to spread a little kindness ourselves.
Whether life gives us lemons or lemonades, it’s always better when you have a friend to share your ups and downs with – and that applied to the Brontës too. Of course Anne, Emily and Charlotte themselves were close and loving sisters, but they wouldn’t be human if they hadn’t also experienced sibling rivalries or arguments from time to time. Although these sororal relationships understandably command our attention, it’s nice to know that they had friends from outside the parsonage as well, and that point was brought into a sharp, and lovely, focus as I scoured a newspaper archive recently.
The Manchester Evening News of 23rd October 1895 carried a story on a ‘Brontë relic’:
“The Brontë Society have just acquired by gift a small but interesting article in the shape of a needlecase presented to a relative of Miss Dixon, of Lancaster, by Maria Brontë, the eldest sister of the Brontës. The relative, a school-girl named Margaret, was a fellow scholar at Casterton-School with Maria Brontë, and the little gift bears an inscription by Maria Brontë. This is the only known specimen of her handwriting. Maria Brontë, who died young, will be remembered as the original of ‘Helen Burns.’”
The article is incorrect in that Maria had tragically died before the school moved from Cowan Bridge to Casterton, and there was no picture of the artefact, but I’ve tracked it down and here it is, very touching proof that even at the deadly Cowan Bridge, maltreated Maria had a friend by her side. Made of ivory coloured cardboard, with a ribbon seen here across the centre, it has an embossed design in a classic Greek style, and more importantly Maria’s loving words: ‘To my dear Margaret from her affectionate schoolfellow Maria Brontë.’
It was at a later school that Charlotte made her great lifelong friends in Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. Roe Head was thankfully very different to Cowan Bridge, and whilst Charlotte had at first to struggle to defeat her shyness, she eventually made other friends as well as the two mentioned above who will always be associated with her. Perhaps foremost among these was Leah Brooke of Aldam’s House, Dewsbury. Like Mary Taylor, Leah was the daughter of a wealthy wool merchant, but also like Mary the family fortunes were reversed by bankruptcy, showing the precarious nature of business at this time. Like Charlotte, Leah also died in 1855.
There was intense speculation a few years ago that Charlotte Brontë had formed a close friendship with a pupil of hers after returning to Roe Head as a teacher, but I believe we can now clear up that misunderstanding. A page of Charlotte Brontë’s prayerbook was found to contain a pencilled inscription from an Ann Cook, reading: ‘Pray don’t forget me my sweet little thing, A.C.’
The discovery of this loving inscription sent the rumour mill, unfairly in my opinion, into overdrive, but I believe a letter sent from Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell after Charlotte’s death clears the matter up. Ellen writes:
”I enclose also a notice which dear C. made in a letter on the death of a young lady who was a pupil at the time Anne Brontë was at school, a pupil who attached herself to Anne B. and Anne bestowed upon her a great deal of quiet affection and genial notice. I think the young ladies friends would most probably be gratified if dear C.’s comments on the deceased were inserted. They are monied and influential people in the neighbourhood, some of them not very friendly to Currer Bell’s emanations. Would they not be won by her kindly thought of one of their own?”
This wealthy young lady who died tragically young was Ann Cook, and so it seems clear that the message in the prayerbook was not for Charlotte but another who she knew would use and see it – her beloved school friend Anne Brontë.
Anne, like all the Brontë siblings, was fiercely intelligent and a brilliant communicator, but also painfully shy, and yet the close friendship with Ann Cook shows that she could overcome this and make friends. This was later repeated during her five year stint as governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall near York, as she made a friend in yet another Ann, Ann (possibly with or without an ‘e’) Marshall. She was the personal maid of the matriarch of the family, Lydia Robinson. Branwell famously wrote that Marshall ‘saw him do enough to hang him’, and we also know that Ann wrote to Branwell after Mr Robinson’s death, advising him that her mistress said he must stay away. Nevertheless, she must have been on friendly terms with Anne Brontë, for Anne presented her with a painting she’d made, dated September 12th 1843, that is presumably a Robinson child. With it was a note, ‘You may do what you please, Miss Brontë.’
The Brontë’s novels are full of powerful friendships – perhaps the greatest of all being that between Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Brontë’s second published novel ‘Shirley’. These characters are at least partly based upon Emily and Anne Brontë, and their friendship was a strong one. It was the closest bond in Emily’s life, and summed up perfectly in the greatest tribute to friendship in any work by the Brontës. I leave you with Emily Brontë’s poem ‘Love And Friendship’:
‘Devotion’ was made in Hollywood in 1946, and believe me it’s a Brontë sisters biopic unlike any other that you’ve seen! The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth closes its doors in January every year as it prepares a new display. This year it will re-open on 4th February with an exhibition entitled ‘Patrick Brontë: In Sickness And In Health’. I will of course be going along to see that at the earliest possible opportunity, but that doesn’t mean that Haworth is quiet at the moment for this week the West Lane Baptist Centre gave a special showing of ‘Devotion’.
I couldn’t be at Haworth on the day, nor on Anne Brontë’s birthday on Thursday (although it was lovely to see such an outpouring of love for her on the day), but a ‘benevolent individual’ (as Patrick famously called Frances Mary Richardson Currer) very kindly sent me a copy in the post! I watched it last night, and I here review the film that gave the Brontës a very Hollywood makeover, with more than a slice of ham on the side.
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, it features some of the greatest stars in the world of the day. Olivia de Havilland plays Charlotte Brontë, Ida Lupino stars as Emily Brontë, and Nancy Coleman plays Anne Brontë. Paul Heinreid plays Arthur Bell Nicholls and Sidney Greenstreet, a Hollywood heavyweight in more ways than one, plays William Makepeace Thackeray. The latter two are one of the major flaws in the film.
Heinreid and Greenstreet are two of the stars in what is, to my mind, the greatest film ever made: 1942’s ‘Casablanca’. In that film, Heinreid is perfectly cast as Victor Laszlo, the resistance leader who has escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and is the most wanted man in the world, while Greenstreet is excellent in his usual slightly menacing role as Ferrari. Heinreid had himself fled from the Nazis in 1935, and he here plays Irish priest Arthur Bell Nicholls with his own strong Austrian accent. The film makers seemed to realise the absurdity of this by having Patrick say to him ‘I understand from the Bishop you were educated abroad?’
Greenstreet fares little better. He had by this time a ‘catchphrase’, of sorts, of a sinister laugh. It served him perfectly in ‘Casablanca’ and in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (another incredible film) but is totally out of place in this role as a jovial Thackeray. He laughs in every sentence he delivers, and it soon becomes wearing.
The central premise of the plot is that Charlotte and Emily both fall in love with the same man: Nicholls, but it soon becomes apparent that the curate only has eyes for the fiery Charlotte. It’s a rather strange twist to take in a Brontë biopic, but of course Hollywood knew that sex and romance sells. The trailer has the rather sensational line: “They called them FREE SOULS! Now Warner Bros bring you the exciting story of TWO EXCITING WOMEN WHOSE AFFAIRS WERE WHISPERED ACROSS AN ERA!”
From the very start we get confirmation that no attempt whatsoever has been made to give this any historical or literary accuracy, as a wealthy lady stops to present a large package to Aunt Branwell – she is introduced as Lady Thornton, and the sisters later attend a grand ball at Thornton House.
It’s a nice touch, in a strange way, that a nod has been given to the birth village of the Brontës, Thornton near Bradford, in this way. It seems clear that the writers did have some knowledge of the Brontë story, they simply decide to mash it all up and put it back together in a totally different way: deconstructed Brontës.
So we see a stern yet loving Patrick Brontë, Aunt Branwell takes a central role in the story which I was glad to see, and she is portrayed in a much kinder way than I might have expected. The Hegers feature (wait for it, I’m coming to that), as does publisher George Smith, and Keeper is here – although for some reason he is not a fierce mastiff but a fluffy Old English Sheepdog who could have come straight from a Dulux paint advert.
The Brontë timeline as we know it has little impact on ‘Devotion’. It is Branwell who pays to send his sisters to Brussels (after Arthur buys a painting from him with this purpose), and his illness that brings them back to England. Arthur’s arrival actually coincides with that of William Weightman in reality, and he seems to have been given much of Weightman’s charm. Aunt Branwell outlives them all, so she has to witness the death of her nephew and niece.
Another problem is that the film starts with all three sisters taking an equal footing, indeed Anne is the first sister we see – as she wrestles playfully with Branwell by the Brontë falls. But, for some reason, Anne disappears half way through only to reappear at the very end. Charlotte is portrayed as a femme fatale, with Arthur, Heger and Thackeray rapidly falling under her spell. It has to be said that all three sisters are very beautiful in this film, and some of their dresses are rather more spectacular than they may have enjoyed in real life. Coleman, as Anne, is strikingly beautiful, which won’t please a certain other Anne Brontë biographer who chose Anne’s birthday to declare, with no evidence at all and in contravention of eye witness accounts of Anne, that Charlotte had ‘prettified’ her drawings of her youngest sister. That wasn’t Charlotte’s style, but it certainly is Ellis’ style, anyway, back to the film.
Arthur first makes his move on Charlotte at the grand ball thrown by Lady Thornton. There is a dance sequence that I could watch over and over again, it’s highly comical, especially as it’s followed by a fist fight between Arthur and Branwell that could have come straight from a ‘Zorro’ movie.
In Brussels things, historically, take a turn for the worse. Heger falls in love with Charlotte, rather than the other way round, and rather than the dashing young man that he was he is instead a portly middle aged man who is almost a caricature of a Frenchman. He takes Charlotte, or Carlotta as he insists on calling her, on a fairground ride through ‘the tunnel of mystery’. She asks him what the mystery is, after which the screen goes black until we see Charlotte rearranging her bonnet and hair as they emerge from the tunnel; ‘now there is no mystery’ says Heger.
Another caricature comes in Tabby Ayckroyd who has been to the ‘ee bah gum’ school of Yorkshire dialogue. Her first line comes when she is asked where the children are: “Oop yonder aah reckon, oop on’t moor!”
‘Jane Eyre’ becomes such a success that Charlotte travels to London not, as in real life, to prove her identity, but because she relishes fame. Thackeray quickly falls under her spell, and he takes her to the ballet. She looks down at the crowd and says she is impressed by all the people looking up at him, ‘My dear, they are looking at you!’ he replies. I thought this, and the London episode as a whole was nice, but of course in reality it was Anne that shared London with her not Thackeray, whom she only met on subsequent visits. Charlotte also finds time to have dinner with the Prime Minister and, quill in hand, she signs books for a long queue of fans that could have come straight from a Waterstones.
Whilst in London she drops in on Arthur, who for some unexplained reason is now living and working in the East End (if you expect lots of street urchins here, you won’t be disappointed). He finally declares his love for her, but Charlotte has to dash back to Haworth as Emily is gravely ill. The two sisters are reconciled on her death bed, and the last scene shows Charlotte on the moors once more, with Arthur by her side.
So this is all hokum, right? It’s a tragic interpretation of the Brontës that is only worth watching to laugh at, right? Well, no. By the end of the film I knew that what could have been tragic is actually something rather magic. I loved it more than any other Brontë biopic I’ve seen, despite its huge multitude of fallacies, so I will try to explain why.
Lupino and de Havilland are great actors, and they portray Emily and Charlotte brilliantly. I think Emily may well have approved of the choice of Ida Lupino to play her, because not only was she fantastic at what she did, she was a pioneer for women’s rights in the movies – in the 1950 she became the first woman to set up her own independent production company.
Anne, whilst not appearing nearly enough, is kind and empathic and shows a particular tenderness towards Branwell. Branwell’s frailties are shown, yes, but he is portrayed very sympathetically and we can see why his sisters love him. Branwell’s death scene is incredibly touching, and very well done. Emily dashes out in the rain looking for him and finds him collapsed in the street, where he dies cradled in her arms. It moved me to tears, it was so tenderly written and acted as Emily simply says, ‘he’s gone Charlotte.’
Arthur’s accent is ridiculous, yes, and he is an amalgam of himself and Weightman, and yet he has some good lines to deliver, and does it well. When Charlotte finally confronts him in London and asks why he paid for her and Emily to go to Brussels and later left Haworth altogether he admits, “I’m not a big enough man to live side by side with such greatness, nor am I so small that I can witness its torment.”
We see a rounded Emily; she is a brilliant genius, she loves the moors and her family, she is strong and powerful, and we also see her visionary side. Arthur asks if she really believes in ghosts, and Emily replies “Oh yes, I’ve both seen and heard them.”
Emily dies in Charlotte’s arms, but after Charlotte leaves the room a strange scene is played out. We see Emily sit bolt upright, her eyes open and then we see her ghost walking the moor until a horse comes to take her away. It could have been ridiculous, but in fact it’s very moving.
That line describes the film as a whole. I think that somebody connected with the film loved the Brontës, and somehow it shows. It lacks historical accuracy, or accuracy of any kind, it has farcical sets, squashes time to suit its purpose, and rewrites characters and events; but it does not lack heart, and it does not lack beauty and when it comes to art of any kind I always tend to agree with Keats who (quoting Theophile Gauthier) said “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.
‘Devotion’ is a warm, loving tribute to the Brontë sisters and a moving portrayal of tormented genius and I commend it to you all.