Charlotte Brontë was not a woman who was content to sit and do nothing; rather, she was a woman of action who liked to occupy her time in the best possible way. This day in 1850 must have been difficult for her, because it was on this day, the 13th of June, that she sat, for the first time, for the portrait artist George Richmond. In today’s post we’re going to look at that portrait of Charlotte Brontë, and at others she had done.
As I said, this is the 171st anniversary of Charlotte’s first sitting for Richmond at the home of her London publisher George Smith, she also sat for him on the 15th June and 24th June before her portrait was complete. We can imagine the thoughts whizzing through Charlotte’s mind as she sat in stillness and silence; perhaps her mind turned to future works, to her father in Haworth, or to her recently departed siblings? At least she would have found some comfort in the fact that she was being drawn by one of the leading society portraitists of his day.
Richmond, born in 1809, was known for his portraits in chalk, and he was so much in demand that he often had three or four subjects sitting for him in one day. After three sittings, two at the Smith house near Hyde Park, and the final one at the Phillimore Gardens home of Charlotte’s friend Laetitia Wheelwright, the portrait was complete, and it remains the definitive image of Charlotte Brontë to this day.
What did people who knew Charlotte well think of the portrait? In a letter to Ellen Nussey of 1st August 1850, Charlotte made these comments:
‘My portrait is come from London – and the Duke of Wellington’s and kind letters enough. Papa thinks the portrait looks older than I do: he says the features are far from flattered, but acknowledges that the expression is wonderfully good and life-like.’
On the other hand the ever frank Mary Taylor said that the portrait was ‘too much flattered’, whilst Ellen Nussey herself remarked that ‘there would always have been regret for its painful expression to be perpetuated.’ It’s said that faithful servant Tabby Aykroyd didn’t like the picture at all, although it has to be said that Tabby was only partially sighted by this time. Perhaps the problem was that George Richmond created so many portraits, and stuck rigidly to his own style, that many people said that his portraits all looked similar.
This rather lovely portrait of Charlotte Brontë was painted by John Hunter Thompson, but if Mary Taylor thought the Richmond portrait was flattering, who knows what she would have thought of Thompson’s? This portrait is now part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection, but it was one that Charlotte never sat for.
We don’t know the exact date of this composition, so does the fact that it was not painted from life make it worthless? Not necessarily, for Thompson was a great friend of Branwell Brontë, and it’s likely that he had met Charlotte Brontë too.
In fact, J.H. Thompson was not only a friend of Branwell’s, but a colleague too. He was a fellow portrait artist in Bradford at the time Branwell was painting there, and we know that Thompson was occasionally called upon by Branwell to put the finishing touches to paintings he’d worked on. Painted from memory it may be, but Thompson certainly gives Charlotte Brontë a happier, more vibrant, disposition than Richmond managed.
Talking of Branwell, we have his teenage portrait of his sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë of course. It’s less complete than the other portraits we have of Charlotte, but it’s also surely the most important as it was painted by someone who was part of her daily life.
The story is well known of how he painted himself into the portrait but was so dissatisfied at this part of the portrait that he painted himself out by placing a large pillar over his own image. It’s a great metaphor for the impression that Branwell would make on life compared to his sisters, but is it true? Certainly someone was painted out, but the man in the faded image seems to be wearing a large neck warmer known as a Wellington. These were habitually worn by Patrick Brontë, as we see in all his pictures, so could the ghostly figure behind the pillar actually have been Branwell’s father? After all, if Branwell was looking at the quartet as he painted it, he couldn’t also have been part of it.
There is another portrait to look at. This beautiful image was once believed to be of Charlotte Brontë, painted in Belgium in 1843 by her friend Mary Dixon, a cousin of Mary Taylor. Dixon became a great friend of Charlotte’s in Brussels, although she was in such ill health that Charlotte referred to her as ‘a piteous case’, and said that it was ‘grievous to think of her.’ Despite her illness, however, Mary Dixon died in 1897 aged 88.
The picture was bought by the Brontë Society in 2002, but it’s subject matter is now thought not to be Charlotte Brontë. Just as with its initial attribution, however, that is unproven, so could it be Charlotte after all? In addition to this we have the Edwin Landseer portrait which is believed by some to be a portrait of the Brontë sisters.
We almost had another Charlotte Brontë portrait, by an artist whose name is still renowned across the world: John Everett Millais, the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A young Millais was struck by Charlotte Brontë after meeting her in London at a party hosted by Thackeray. Millais later told his daughter that Charlotte forever represented in his mind the ideal of a woman genius, and that she had remarkable eyes; he also stated that Charlotte, ‘looked tired with her own brains.’ Millais offered to paint Charlotte’s portrait, but stepped aside when he learned that Richmond was already underway with a portrait of her.
Perhaps the greatest portraits of all are those of the characters which Charlotte and her family brought to life in her books. I shall see you again next Sunday for another sitting, er, I mean another new Brontë blog post.
The Bronte Parsonage Museum has successfully opened to the public, but now the eyes of Bronte fans worldwide turn to another location: Sotheby’s Auction House on New Bond Street, London. In today’s post we’re going to look at perhaps the most eagerly anticipated literary auction of the century: the auction of the Honresfield Library at Sotheby’s on 13th July, with online bids accepted from 2pm on the 2nd.
Special thanks go to Dr. Gabriel Heaton and Melica Khansari of Sotheby’s who have supplied me with lots of details and images of the items to be auctioned so that I can share them with you. This, in fact, is the first of three Honresfield auctions which are taking place ion 2021 and 2022, so what is the Honresfield Library and why is it of such interest to Bronte lovers?
The Honresfield Library was founded by William and Alfred Law, two self-made mill owners who used their vast fortune to satiate their love of literature at their grand home Honresfield House near Rochdale – much like another Lancashire-born mill owner, Sir Edward Brotherton. Like Brotherton, who gifted many priceless manuscripts to the Leeds University library which bears his name, the Laws were huge Bronte fans. In 1939 the Laws’ heir, their nephew Sir Alfred Law, died without issue and the spectacular Honresfield Library collection vanished from view – until now.
The collection, large parts of which are now being auctioned, featured first editions, letters and manuscripts from leading writers including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Robert Burns. Also appearing in this first auction is the manuscript of Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lay Of The Last Minstrel.
The Scott manuscript would certainly have interested the Brontes, who were great fans of the writer. In an early letter to Ellen Nussey, Charlotte Bronte stated: ‘‘Scott’s sweet, wild, romantic Poetry can do you no harm… for Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.’
What has captured the interest of the world, however, is items from the Laws’ Bronte collection which are soon to go under the hammer. We have letters from Branwell Bronte, first editions of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Emily and Anne Bronte’s 1841 diary paper, and, perhaps most astonishingly, the manuscript book of Emily Bronte’s poetry which Charlotte Bronte ‘accidentally’ discovered in late 1845:
“One day, in the autumn of 1845, I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verse in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course, I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verse: I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music – wild, melancholy, and elevating. Meantime, my younger sister (Anne) quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure, I might like to look at hers. I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own.”
It is this very manuscript volume which is the highlight of the Honresfield auction in July, and although it has been given an auction estimate of £800,000 to £1,200,000 it would be unsurprising to see it fetch even more. Rather more affordable, to some, is the beautiful copy of Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds. Dating from 1816, the year Charlotte was born, it was the Bronte family copy, and we can tell how much the young Brontes loved it for two reasons: it features in both Jane Eyre and in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and this edition is full of their notes. If the estimate is correct, it can be yours for between thirty and fifty thousand pounds.
In one delightful annotation, Patrick Bronte has described a Bewick illustration of branches as being suggestive of, ‘those imaginary ghosts, that often excite the fears of weak, superstitious people, who are deceived by the uncertainty of darkness.’
So what will become of this magnificent collection next month? The high value of the items for sale makes it seem likely that they will once again become the property of a wealthy, private investor –much in the way that multi-million pound artworks are often bought by city traders to be locked away as a safe investment. Will these items disappear once more, or will a kindly benefactor gift them to the nation?
The Bronte Society has rightly called for the collection to be saved for the nation and has written to MPs. Unfortunately, the vast value of the Honresfield collection is too much for them to hope to raise without governmental help, and this government has shown no inclination to support literary heritage and the arts, before or during the pandemic. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, and you can read their response, and find out how to support it, here. If you are in the UK you can also download a template letter to send to your own Member of Parliament.
What is for sure is that a fabulous collection will be sold by Sotheby’s next month and that this has brought them to light once again – even if only fleetingly. I’m off to look down the back of my sofa for some spare pennies, if any of you have a million or two to spare, please get in touch. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Bronte blog post but I leave you with this thought: how astonished would the Bronte sisters have been if they could have known that their work would be so valued, and create such excitement, two centuries after their births?
Some Brontë memories and anniversaries are happy, some not so happy; unfortunately this week has marked the anniversary of a particularly tragic event in the Anne Brontë story, for Anne Brontë died in Scarborough on 28th May 1849.
Today is the 172nd anniversary of the funeral and interment of Anne, as she was buried on 30th May in the churchyard of St. Mary’s churchyard in Scarborough – above her final resting place looms the castle hill topped by fortified ruins; below it the road runs down to the sands, with the pebbles and shells Anne loved to collect, and the ever ebbing sea.
We have also just passed another sad anniversary, for on the 28th May 1852 Charlotte Brontë returned to Scarborough for the first time since her sister’s death there exactly three years earlier. It was the first time that she’d seen Anne’s headstone, and what she saw appalled her: we’re going to take a look at that in today’s post.
We get our initial information of both the visit and the errors in a letter Charlotte sent from Filey on 6th June 1852 to her great friend Ellen Nussey:
‘Dear Ellen, I am at Filey utterly alone. Do not be angry. The step is right. I considered it and resolved on it with due deliberation. Change of air was necessary; there were reasons why I should not go to the South and why I should come here. On Friday I went to Scarboro’, visited the church-yard and stone – it must be refaced and re-lettered – there are 5 errors. I gave the necessary directions – that duty then is done – long has it lain heavy on my mind – and that was a pilgrimage I felt I could only make alone.’
One error still remains today; the original headstone is greatly eroded now, but on the ground nearby is a plinth bearing the inscription, placed there by the Brontë Society in 2011: ‘Here lie the remains of Anne Brontë, Daughter of the Revd P Brontë, Incumbent of Haworth, Yorkshire, She died Aged 28 May 28th 1849.’
Anne was, of course, 29 at the time of her death, but Charlotte Brontë was never good at remembering ages or birthdays (including her own). A monument to Anne that was placed in Haworth church, no longer extant, read: ‘This stone is also dedicated to the memory of Anne Brontë, youngest daughter of the Rev. P. Brontë, A.B. She died, aged 27 years, May 28th, 1849, and was buried at the old church, Scarboro’
So we know that the stonemasons recorded Anne’s age incorrectly, but what were the other four errors (or, more probably, five errors as Charlotte didn’t seem to have spotted the age error)? There is no record of them, so we shall never know. Obvious possibilities include the spellings of Anne (perhaps the ‘e’ was ommitted), Brontë and Haworth. With little else remaining on the inscription it seems they must have recorded the date of death incorrectly too. Indeed, with five or six errors out of a total of 24 words, it is probable that every fact recorded on the stone was wrong in some way.
Returning to Scarborough and seeing Anne’s headstone for the first time in three years must have been incredibly tough for Charlotte, so we can easily imagine her heartache upon seeing a headstone full of errors.
Unfortunately, time and the saline air of Scarborough have taken their toll on Anne’s headstone. Year by year it becomes less legible, and further scraps of its facing break away. Even in the 1870s, however, people were noticing the erosion of the inscription and poor condition of the headstone, as this extract from the ‘Dundee Evening Telegraph’ of 28th August 1878 shows:
As we see from this letter in the Leeds Mercury of 3rd June 1895, the council took steps to improve the headstone – by painting it. It was less than successful:
The inscription on Anne Bronte’s headstone will soon be completely lost to the elements, but her true memorial is her novels and poems, and they will endure forever. Let us look then not with sadness at these tragic anniversaries, but with happiness and gratitude for all Anne left us.
I will see you next Sunday for a special Brontë blog post, as thanks to Sotheby’s I can share with you some of the treasures of their Brontë auction taking place this summer.
I had a long and fulsome post planned for today’s Brontë blog, but unfortunately life throws us curve balls sometimes. A family emergency has thrown my plans, hopefully temporarily, into turmoil, and so today’s post will be shorter than usual – I hope you don’t mind too much and that you still find it interesting; in today’s post we look at a steadfast defence of the Brontës from a man who knew them well: William Dearden.
The account of the Brontë family also appears in my recent book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë at 200 published by Valley Press. The book features a concise biography of Anne Brontë, along with a never before published in book form essay which I believe is Anne’s final written work, and then a selection of first person accounts of meetings with the Brontës – the section I particularly love, as it lets us see the Brontës as they were in everyday life. Valley Press, based in Anne’s beloved Scarborough, have found times tough during the pandemic, as have many small publishers, so if you head over to their website and make a purchase from them (it doesn’t have to be my book of course) I’m sure they would be grateful.
Before we look at this particular account, let’s look briefly at who William Dearden was. Dearden was a schoolmaster whose long career had seen him take charge at schools in Huddersfield, Bradford, Keighley and Halifax, where he was for 28 years master of the Grammar School. He was also a poet who received some acclaim in his day, with his works ‘The Vale of Caldene’ (1844) and ‘The Star-Seer’ (1837) particularly well received. It has to be said that the style of the latter is a little over-wrought, but his ambition can’t be doubted in this epic fantasy poem spanning well over a hundred pages followed by seventy pages of notes. Here’s a typical extract:
‘The MAGIAN waves his hand: the elf retires:
Now, while above him, play the livid fires.
And roars the hollow thunder, from its home
Of adamant, the SEER the Fatal Tome
Lifts high in air; then, with his bloody blade.
Severs the curse-denouncing, golden braid;
And thus, erect, with upturned gaze, he cries.
While from the last leaf’s awful mysteries
He tears the final seal, “Dark fiends! let fall
Your utmost vengeance! I will brave it all!”
Dread sight! from out the north, whose swarthy brow
Begins to show an ashy paleness now.
Descends a flash, which, like an arm of fire,
Launched from the riven clouds, with thunderings dire.
Smites down the SEER, and, in his blasted hand.
Consumes the Book of Fate! As from a land
Of everlasting winter, issue forth
From the oped portal of the gleaming north,
Cloud-charioted, and fast-careering on.
Two shapes, on whom no summer ever shone!
Their visages are thin, and ghastly pale;
Dim are their eyes, as ne’er to close, yet fail
Through infinite watching; and their lips are sealed
Close, as for ages they had not revealed
Aught save a sigh!’
More pertinently for us, Dearden became a close friend of Branwell Brontë and then of the family as a whole. He was nothing if not loyal to their memory; after the publication of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë he wrote a string of letters to local newspapers attempting to correct some of the errors he saw in it. So regular and strident were these letters that at one point Patrick Brontë himself wrote to Dearden asking him to stop writing them.
William Dearden was undeterred however, as this extract from his letter published in the Bradford Observer on 27th June 1861 shows. Written less than a month after Patrick Brontë’s death, it’s a very interesting account of the Brontë family, if a partial one:
‘It is a duty I owe to the memory of my late venerable friend, and in fulfilment of a sacred promise, to place his character in a true light before the world; and this is the more imperatively necessary, because – though Mrs Gaskell has, in her later editions of Charlotte Brontë’s life, toned down some of its harsher features in obedience to conviction of their distortion and untruthfulness – it still stands prominently forth in repulsive stoical sternness and misanthropical gloom. My acquaintance with Mr Brontë extends over a long series of years. In the early portion of that acquaintanceship, I had frequent opportunities of seeing him surrounded by his young family at the fireside of his solitary abode, in his wanderings on the hills, and in his visits to Keighley friends. On these occasions, he invariably displayed the greatest kindness and affability, and a most anxious desire to promote the happiness and improvement of his children. This testimony, it is presumed, will have some weight, especially with whose who wish to form a correct estimate of human character.
It will be remembered that Mr Brontë’s children were deprived of their mother when they were at a very tender age. We are led to infer from Mrs Gaskell’s narrative, that their father – if he felt – at least did not manifest much anxiety about their physical and mental welfare; and we are told that the eldest of the motherless group, then at home, by a sort of premature inspiration, under the feeble wing of a maiden aunt, undertook their almost entire supervision. Branwell – with whom I was on terms of literary intimacy long before his fatal lapse – told me, when accidentally alluding to this painful period of in the history of his family, that his father watched over his little bereaved flock with truly paternal solicitude and affection – that he was their constant guardian and instructor – and that he took a lively interest in all their innocent amusements. Such – before the blight of disgrace fell upon him – is the testimony of Branwell to the domestic conduct of his father. “Alas!” said he to me, many years after that sad event, “had I been what my father earnestly wished and strove to make me, I should not have been the wreck you see me now!” Poor Branwell! May his sad example prove a warning to others to shun the gulf of misery into which he was prematurely plunged! If Mr Brontë had been the cold indifferent stoic he has been represented, the perpetual outflow of love and tenderness in regard to him from the hearts of his children, could not have been naturally expected. An unfeeling father ought not to complain, if he reaps but a scanty harvest of filial duty and affection in return for what he has sown. Love begets love – a saying not the less true, because it is trite.
As Mr Brontë’s children grew up, he afforded them every opportunity his limited means would allow of gratifying their tastes either in literature or the fine arts; and many times do I remember meeting him, little Charlotte, and Branwell, in the studio of the late John Bradley, at Keighley, where they hung with close-gazing inspection and silent admiration over some fresh production of the artist’s genius. Branwell was a pupil of Bradley’s, and, though some of his drawings were creditable and displayed good taste, he would never, I think, on account of his defective vision, have become a first-rate artist. In some departments of literature, and especially in poetry of a highly imaginative kind, he would have excelled…
The cold stoicism attributed to Mr Brontë was apparent only to those who knew him least; beneath this “seeming cloud” beat a heart of the deepest emotions, the effects of whose outflowings, like the waters of a placid hidden brook, were more perceptible in the verdure that marked their course than in the voice they uttered. God, and the objects to whom that good heart swelled forth in loving kindness – and the latter only, perhaps, very imperfectly – know the depth and intensity of its emotions. He was not a prater of good words, but a doer of them, for God’s inspection, not man’s approbation. Every honest appeal to his sympathy met a ready response. The needy never went empty away from his presence, nor the broken in spirit without consolation.’
May we all have friends like William Dearden to defend us when the hour comes. And, may I see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
There are many things that bring tourists to Haworth, but the main attraction, of course, continues to be the legacy and legend of the Brontë sisters and their family. Soon, fingers crossed, people will once again come from all over the world to see the home of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, but they will find plenty more to interest them too.
One of the other great attractions is the railway station at Haworth, for not only is it preserved in gloriously vintage style it also runs steam trains on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway line. There’s an enduring fascination about steam trains, a beauty that simply can’t be found in modern locomotives, which is why Haworth and its station were ideal settings for the 1970 film ‘The Railway Children’.
The Railway Children is one of the greatest, and most moving, children’s films of all time, based upon a 1906 novel by E. (for Edith) Nesbit. Haworth has been a hive of excitement in the past week, as a new version of The Railway Children is currently being filmed – and it saw Haworth once again being transported back in time! In today’s post we’re going to look at images of a transformed Haworth from the recent filming, courtesy of the Yorkshire Live website, and at the Brontës and the railway.
Haworth's shop fronts have been transformed again this week as filming begins on a remake of classic film The Railway Children! There's something magical about watching the steam trains pull out of Haworth Station – here's a video I took of exactly that last year. pic.twitter.com/J0Slgef9PG
The advent of the railway transformed Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. Anne and Charlotte Brontë travelled to London by train; Charlotte first saw the sea after travelling to Burlington (now Bridlington) with Ellen Nussey by train; Branwell Brontë got a job as a clerk on the railways.
Francis Grundy later recalled Branwell during his employment with the railway: ‘This plain specimen of humanity, who died unhonoured, might have made the world of literature and art ring with the name of which he was so proud. When I first met him he was station-master at a small roadside place on the Manchester and Leeds Railway, Luddendenfoot by name. The line was only just opened. This station was a rude wooden hut, and there was no village near at hand. Had a position been chosen for this strange creature for the express purpose of driving him several steps to the bad, this must have been it. Alone in the wilds of Yorkshire, with few books, little to do, no prospects, and wretched pay, with no society congenial to his better tastes, but plenty of wild, rollicking, hard-headed, half-educated manufacturers, who would welcome him to their houses, and drink with him as often as he chose to come, – what was this morbid man, who couldn’t bear to be alone, to do?… After a long time something went wrong. How could it be otherwise? It was never the special forte of a genius to manage sixpences. He left the railway.’
The railway station at Haworth was not built until after the time of the Brontës; they had to walk, or take a horse drawn carriage, to Keighley to catch this remarkable new form of transport. Nevertheless, the Brontës knew the potential of the railway and they invested some of their inheritance from Aunt Branwell in railway stock. So pleased were they with the initial performance of their shares that they are listed among investors who gave money to railway founder George Hudson, to say ‘thank you’ for his efforts. Alas, Hudson was a crooked man and their investment was eventually lost.
Back to ‘The Railway Children’. The original film is faithful to the book, and involves a tale of espionage and wrongful arrest; above all it’s a tale of hope, courage and love, set against a beautiful backdrop provided by Haworth. The original novel, however, was set in London and was based on real life stories and people known to Nesbit, including Russian emigre Peter Kropotkin.
What do we know about this new version? As always, the story is being kept closely under wraps for now, but we know that it is a sequel entitled ‘The Railway Children Return’, and from some of the images I’ve seen it seems to be set in or around the time of the second world war. We also know that as well as starring the brilliant Sheridan Smith, the legendary Jenny Agutter is back and reprising the role of Roberta which she made her own over half a century ago!
I certainly look forward to seeing more of the film and seeing Haworth in it (even though it’s being rebranded as the neighbouring village of Oakworth). Next week is an important week when many of us will once more be able to see the people and places we love, and amidst much good news is the confimation that the Brontë Parsonage Museum is opening its doors once again on Wednesday, 19th May – pre-booking is needed. I look forward to being back there soon, and I hope to see you all here for another new Brontë blog post next Sunday.
This week marks the 196th anniversary of the death of the eldest Brontë sibling, Maria Brontë, aged just 11. It was a great tragedy for the Brontë family, and we know from an account by Ellen Nussey that it was a loss Charlotte especially never got over: given the chance, she loved to talk of her sisters Maria and Elizabeth.
We should always remember Maria and Elizabeth when we think of the Brontë family, but today we look at a more cheerful subject: voting. Before you all get worked up about the results of your local elections this week, I’m talking about a vote of an altogether different kind: today we have the chance to name a new raven in the Tower of London, and one of the five options is Brontë!
The Tower of London themselves give this explanation as to why Brontë is one of the choices for the public to vote on: ‘Brontë: Named after 19th century literary-legends the Brontë sisters, who authored some of Britain’s best loved Gothic novels including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights’.
I’m never altogether sure about the categorising of these novels as Gothic, but I am sure that Brontë is a great name for a raven, and of course the Tower of London ravens are very special birds indeed. Legend says that if six ravens leave the Tower then London itself will fall, which is why they currently have seven ravens in residence – it’s always good to have a spare. This tradition was apparently started by King Charles II, and as his father had had his head chopped off outside Westminster he probably thought it was better to be safe than sorry. Today, chief Ravenmaster Chris Skaife is in charge of these important birds, but what will the new addition be called?
Other naming options include Matilda, Branwen, Winifred and Florence. The latter option is sure to be popular as it’s been inspired by Florence Nightingale, ‘the lady with the lamp.’ Florence was born, in Florence, Italy, in 1820, the same year as Anne Brontë, and her story was well known to Charlotte. Florence came from a Unitarian family, and through this community became friends with the Unitarian minister William Gaskell, and his wife the writer Elizabeth.
In a letter to Catherine Winkworth of 1st February 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell considers how these two great women would get along:
‘What would Miss B[rontë] say to Florence Nightingale? I can’t imagine! For there is intellect such as I never came in contact with before in woman! Great beauty, and of her holy goodness, who is fit to speak?’
Elizabeth was even more fulsome in her praise for Florence in a letter written to the same Catherine a year earlier:
‘Florence is tall, very slight and willowy in figure; thick shortish rich brown hair very delicate complexion grey eyes which are generally pensive and drooping, but when they chose can be the merriest eyes I’ve ever saw; and perfect teeth making her smile the sweetest I ever saw. Put a long piece of soft net round this beautiful shaped head, so as to form a soft white framework for the full oval of her face and dress her up in black glace silk up to the long round white throat – and a black lace shawl on and you may get near an idea of her perfect grace and lovely appearance. She is like a saint.’
Florence then is obviously a strong contender for a raven name, but the good news is that two raven chicks have been born and so two names will be chosen from the shortlist of five. As Ravens feature in the following Brontë books it’s surely time that the favour was returned?
‘“My strength is quite failing me,” I said in a soliloquy. “I feel I cannot go much further. Shall I be an outcast again this night? While the rain descends so, must I lay my head on the cold, drenched ground? I fear I cannot do otherwise: for who will receive me? But it will be very dreadful, with this feeling of hunger, faintness, chill, and this sense of desolation – this total prostration of hope. In all likelihood, though, I should die before morning. And why cannot I reconcile myself to the prospect of death? Why do I struggle to retain a valueless life? Because I know, or believe, Mr. Rochester is living; and then, to die of want and cold is a fate to which nature cannot submit passively. Oh, Providence! sustain me a little longer! Aid! – direct me!”
My glazed eye wandered over the dim and misty landscape. I saw I had strayed far from the village: it was quite out of sight. The very cultivation surrounding it had disappeared. I had, by cross-ways and by-paths, once more drawn near the tract of moorland; and now, only a few fields, almost as wild and unproductive as the heath from which they were scarcely reclaimed, lay between me and the dusky hill.
“Well, I would rather die younder than in a street or on a frequented road,” I reflected. “And far better that crows and ravens – if any ravens there be in these regions – should pick my flesh from my bones, than that they should be prisoned in a workhouse coffin and moulder in a pauper’s grave.”’
The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall
‘And there I beheld a tall, lady-like figure, clad in black. Her face was towards me, and there was something in it which, once seen, invited me to look again. Her hair was raven black, and disposed in long glossy ringlets, a style of coiffure rather unusual in those days, but always graceful and becoming; her complexion was clear and pale; her eyes I could not see, for, being bent upon her prayer-book, they were concealed by their drooping lids and long black lashes, but the brows above were expressive and well defined; the forehead was lofty and intellectual, the nose, a perfect aquiline and the features, in general, unexceptionable – only there was a slight hollowness about the cheeks and eyes, and the lips, though finely formed, were a little too thin, a little too firmly compressed, and had something about them that betokened, I thought, no very soft or amiable temper; and I said in my heart – “I would rather admire you from this distance, fair lady, than be the partner of your home.”’
‘”To avow before what altar I now kneel—to reveal the present idol of my soul – “
“You will make haste about it, if you please. It is near luncheon time, and confess you shall.”
“Confess I must. My heart is full of the secret. It must be spoken. I only wish you were Mr. Helstone instead of Mr. Sympson; you would sympathize with me better.”
“Madam, it is a question of common sense and common prudence, not of sympathy and sentiment, and so on. Did you say it was Mr. Helstone?”
“Not precisely, but as near as may be; they are rather alike.”
“I will know the name; I will have particulars.”
“They positively are rather alike. Their very faces are not dissimilar – a pair of human falcons – and dry, direct, decided both. But my hero is the mightier of the two. His mind has the clearness of the deep sea, the patience of its rocks, the force of its billows.”
“Rant and fustian!”
“I dare say he can be harsh as a saw-edge and gruff as a hungry raven.”’
So we read here that ravens are hungry, that they are carrion pluckers, but that they also represent a rare beauty. Power and a rare beauty can be found in all Brontë writing, so surely it’s time to vote Brontë in the raven naming stakes? Head over to the Historic Royal Palaces website and do your democratic duty today – the winning names will be announced on the 19th of May.
I will see you next week for another new Brontë blog post. Will I be mentioning ravens again? Nevermore.
The start of May has always been seen as a magical time of the year. It is said that our ancient ancestors danced amidst the fields, hoping that the Goddess Bel would bless their crops, or jumped over Bel fires to increase the fertility of their land, livestock, and themselves. Echoes of these traditions and rituals can still be seen in Morris and May Pole celebrations. Whether we call it May Day, International Worker’s Day, or simply say ‘white rabbit’ for the start of a new month, there is little doubt that the opening of May continues to be loved and celebrated – and it was also the day on which Emily Brontë wrote one of her most beautiful poems. In today’s post we’re going to look at ‘The Linnet In The Rocky Dells’.
Emily Brontë, like many people of the time, was not bound by a date on a calendar, but by what she saw around her. The reason that the start of May is so revered is because it is a gateway to warmer weather, and to the rebirth of nature that it brings. If we take a stroll in the countryside today we can see trees filling with blossom, hear birds singing as they build and tend their nests, we can glance upon flowers in a beautiful abundance of colour where a month earlier had been nothing but bare earth. The oft-barren moors around Haworth have delights of their own too, and witness a similar, if sometimes more muted, rebirth, and we see this vividly in Emily’s verse written on the 1st of May 1844:
‘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, by the lonely mound,
And murmur, summer streams –
There is no need of other sound
To soothe my Lady’s dreams.’
Here we see linnets and moor-larks, wild birds, grazing deer, and winds that sigh with the promise of summer, and yet this is a poem with a melancholy air, as so often with Emily’s verse. Nearby, below the ground, is a lady loved by the poet, sleeping tranquilly forevermore. It could be seen as a summation of Emily’s views on life and faith: why fear the passage of time or the final sleep it brings, because nature dies but is reborn; it was a stoicism she demonstrated to perfection in her own final weeks at the close of 1848.
I have been asked who the ‘Lady’ referred to in this poem actually was? Was it a supernatural figure, a deity, or is Emily thinking of her mother, aunt, or her sisters Maria and Elizabeth? Emily’s manuscript contain the letters ‘E.W.’ above the poem, and this indicates that this is a Gondal poem, in which Lord Eldred W. is addressing his departed friend A.G.A – Augusta Geraldine Almeida, beautiful but ruthless Queen of Gondal.
As always, however, Emily’s poems placed in the imaginary land of Gondal, the setting for much verse by both Emily and Anne Brontë, are inspired by people and places that she knew in real life. There is much of Emily Brontë in this poem, and it’s this power and honesty which makes it such a brilliant poem. It seems that it was much loved by Charlotte Brontë as well, for it is surely this poem which she was trying to keep from her mind when, in May 1850, she wrote:
‘I am free to walk on the moors – but when I go out there alone everything reminds me of the time when others were with me and then the moors seem a wilderness, featureless, solitary, saddening. My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf not a fluttering lark or linnet but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon. In the hill-country silence their poetry comes by lines and stanzas into my mind: once I loved it – now I dare not read it – and am driven often to wish I could taste one draught of oblivion and forget much that, while mind remains, I never shall forget.’
Melancholy beauty can often be found in the poetry of Emily Brontë, but the enduring message of this poem is one of optimism: life is returning, nature is opening up once again. As our world opens up once again, we too can look ahead with stoicism but also a degree of optimism. I hope that May brings you a plethora of blessings, and I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.
The last week or so has seen a plethora of Brontë related births and baptisms. As we saw in the previous post, it was Maria Branwell’s birthday on 15th April. 20th April saw the birthday of Ellen Nussey, born in 1817, whilst 22nd April was the birthday of longtime Brontë servant Martha Brown, born in 1828. The 23rd April was the anniversary of the 1814 baptism of Maria Brontë, the eldest Brontë sibling, although her date of birth is unknown. In today’s post, however, we take a special birthday look at a woman whose special day was sandwiched by that of Ellen and Martha: Charlotte Brontë, whose 205th birthday fell on Wednesday of this week.
What can we say about Charlotte Brontë? She is one of the leading novelists of all time, a fine poet and a great letter writer. What did those who knew Charlotte Brontë say about her? Let’s take a look:
‘I talked to Miss Brontë (past thirty and plain, with expressive grey eyes, though) of her curates, of French novels, and her education a school at Brussels.’
Arnold was a poet and critic who later wrote an elegy to the Brontes, ‘Haworth Churchyard’.
‘Charlotte Brontë stayed with us several times. The utmost was, of course, done to entertain and please her. We arranged for dinner-parties, at which artistic and literary notabilities, whom she wished to meet, were present. We took her to places which we thought would interest her – The Times office, the General Post Office, the Bank of England, Newgate, Bedlam. At Newgate she rapidly fixed her attention on an individual prisoner. This was a poor girl with an interesting face, and an expression of the deepest misery. She had, I believe, killed her illegitimate child. Miss Brontë walked up to her, took her hand, and began to talk to her. She was, of course, quickly interrupted by the prison warder with the formula, ‘Visitors are not allowed to speak to the prisoners.’ Sir David Brewster took her round the Great Exhibition, and made the visit a very interesting one to her. One thing which impressed her very much was the lighted rooms of the newspaper offices in Fleet Street and the Strand, as we drove home in the middle of the night from some City expedition.
On one occasion I took Miss Brontë to the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons. The Ladies’ Gallery of those days was behind the Strangers’ Gallery, and from it one could see the eyes of the ladies above, nothing more. I told Miss Brontë that if she felt tired and wished to go away, she had only to look at me – I should know by the expression of her eyes what she meant – and that I would come round for her. After a time I looked and looked. There were many eyes, they all seemed to be flashing signals to me, but much as I admired Miss Brontë’s eyes I could not distinguish them from the others. I looked so earnestly from one pair of eyes to another that I am afraid that more than one lady must have regarded me as a rather impudent fellow. At length I went round and took my lady away. I expressed my hope that I did not keep her long waiting, and said something about the difficulty of getting out after I saw her signal. ‘I made no signal,’ she said. ‘I did not wish to come away. Perhaps there were other signals from the Gallery.’
Miss Brontë and her father had a passionate admiration for the Duke of Wellington, and I took her to the Chapel Royal, St. James’s, which he generally attended on Sunday, in order that she might see him. We followed him out of the Chapel, and I indulged Miss Brontë by so arranging our walk that she met him twice on his way to Apsley House. I also took her to a Friends’ meeting-house in St. Martin’s Court, Leicester Square. I am afraid this form of worship afforded her more amusement than edification.’
Smith, although Charlotte’s publisher and a successful businessman, was eight years younger than Charlotte Brontë. They became great friends, and it’s believed that the character of Graham Bretton in Villette is based on him.
‘As to Miss Charlotte Brontë, I never saw to her to speak to but once. It was in the summer of 1853. I had sometime before returned from a sixteen years’ absence from home, and, while residing in the souther part of the United States, I met with and read her ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Shirley.’ So, led by curiosity, I one Sunday went to Haworth, with the desire to see the author of such remarkable works. I was late in arriving at the church, and found a pale young man reading the morning service – I think it was Mr G. de Renzy. Mr Brontë was also in the pulpit, for I knew him at once, having seen him before during my childhood at Thornton Church. The sexton, Mr Brown, had given me a very good place for seeing every one in the lower part of the church, and during the singing of the hymn before the sermon, my eyes wandered off in search of the person I had come to see. Face after face I scanned, until at length, in a large square pew near the communion table and under the organ, I saw ‘Jane Eyre,’ or, rather, I should say, Charlotte Brontë. I had not a doubt of it, for there was not such another face in the whole church; and I called to mind the following conversation in the novel where ‘Jane Eyre’ lies in a state of prostration at Mr St. John’s:-
“She is so ill, St. John.”
“Ill or well, she would always be plain. The grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting in those features.”
And yet there was great breadth and volume in her forehead; some resemblance to the portraits of Miss Harriet Martineau, I thought, might also be traced. The cheek-bones appeared to me rather prominent, but the entire face gave me the idea that she had much goodness and gentleness of disposition, and possibly great power over those with whom she might come in contact. Her dress was very plain. It was a gown without any flounce, and had plain narrow sleeves. Over her shoulders was thrown a velvet cape – also very plain. Her bonnet was neat in appearance, but not in the fashion.’
Abraham Holroyd was a local historian of some repute in Bradford in the late ninenteenth century, and he also ran a bookshop in Thornton.
Richard Hengist Horne
‘A fragile form is now before my minds eye as distinctly as it was in reality more than twenty years ago! The slender figure is seated by a fire in the drawing-room of Mr G. S., the publisher of a novel which had brought the authoress at one bound to the top of popular admiration. There has been a dinner-party, and all the literary men whom the lady had expressed a wish to meet, had been requested to respect the Publisher’s desire, and the lady’s desire that she should remain ‘unknown’ as to her public position. Nobody was to know that this was the authoress of ‘Jane Eyre’. She was simply Miss Brontë on a visit to the family of her host. The dinner-party went off as gaily as could be expected where several people are afraid of each other without knowing why, and Miss Brontë sat very modestly and rather on her guard, but quietly taking measure of les monstres de talent, who were talking and taking wine, and sometimes bantering each other. Once only she issued from her shell, with brightening looks, when somebody made a slightly disparaging remark concerning the Duke of Wellington, for whom Miss Brontë declared she had the highest admiration; and she appeared quite ready to do battle with one gentleman who smilingly suggested that perhaps it was “because the Duke was an Irishman”….
‘A very gentle, brave, and noble spirited woman was Charlotte Brontë. Fragile of form, and tremulous as an aspen leaf, she had an energy of mind, and a heroism of character capable of real things in private life, as admirable as any of the fine delineations in her works of fiction.’
Richard Hengist Horne, a one time mercenary, was a popular writer of the time, most noted for his long poem Orion which was much admired by Charlotte.
James Chesterton Bradley
‘All the three sisters were very shy, but perhaps Emily and Anne were worse than Charlotte in that respect. The latter, as I remember her, was a lively talker when once drawn out, a girl of about ordinary stature, or perhaps below it, with features neither very dark nor fair, but with striking expressive eyes and mouth. She had a particular way of suddenly lifting her eyes and looking straight at you with a quick, searching glance whilst you spoke to her.’
Reverend Bradley was curate of nearby Oakworth; noted for playing a flute, he was immortalised by Charlotte as the flute playing Reverend David Sweeting in Shirley.
‘Miss Brontë I like… She is very little & very plain. Her stunted appearance she ascribes to the scanty supply of food she had as a growing girl, when at that school of the Daughters of the Clergy… She is truth itself, and of a very noble sterling nature, which has never been called out by anything kind or genial… She is very silent & very shy; and when she speaks chiefly remarkable for the admirable use she makes of simple words, & the way in which she makes language express her ideas. She and I quarrelled and differed about almost every thing, – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but we like each other heartily I think & I hope we shall ripen into friends.’
This was Gaskell’s opinion after her first meeting with Charlotte in August 1850. They did indeed become friends, and Elizabeth paid tribute to Charlotte in her The Life Of Charlotte Brontë.
‘Charlotte Brontë also took an interest in the needlework of the school, and was the principal support of the girls’ Sunday school, and so much was she beloved by those in her class that many remained in attendance at the Sunday school long after their marriage, even when they had children attending the lower classes at the school… I often watched Miss Brontë when examining the work of the girls in the needlework classes, and also watched her from the Church tower when she was sitting at her writing-desk in the little room over the top of the front door at the parsonage. It was always necessary for her, on account of her short-sightedness, to have her face within a very few inches of the paper.’
John Robinson of Haworth was being trained to be a teacher by Arthur Bell Nicholls at the time of his marriage to Charlotte Brontë. He was present at their wedding, and gave a very moving and fulsome account of it.
Sir James Roberts BT
‘I heard Mr Brontë preach, and remember him as a man most tolerant to divergencies of religious conviction. Above all these memorabilia there rises before me the frail and unforgettable figure of Charlotte Brontë, who more than once stopped to speak a kindly word to the little lad who now stands a patriarch before you. These early associations, still very dear to me, were followed in after years by exceeding delight in those creations of imaginative genius which Charlotte and her sisters have left to us.’
James Roberts vividly remembered his encounters with Charlotte Brontë when he was a young Haworth boy; little could she have known what a part he would play in preserving her legacy. Roberts became a successful and wealthy businessman, and was made a Baronet. It was he who purchased Haworth Parsonage from the Church of England and gifted it to the Brontë Society to house their museum in.
Finally let’s close with the accounts of a person who knew Charlotte perhaps better than anyone, and who, but for a few hours, almost shared a birthday with her:
‘Turning to the window to observe the look-out I became aware for the first that I was not alone; there was a silent, weeping, dark little figure in the large bay window; she must, I thought, have risen from the floor. As soon as I had recovered from my surprise, I went from the far end of the room, where the book-shelves were, the contents of which I must have contemplated with a little awe in anticipation of coming studies. A crimson cloth covered the long table down the centre of the room, which helped, no doubt, to hide the shrinking little figure from my view. I was touched and troubled at once to see her so sad and tearful…
‘She never shirked a duty because it was irksome, or advised another to do what she herself did not fully count the cost of doing, above all, when her goodness was not of the stand-still order, when there was new beauty, when there were new developments and growths of goodness to admire and attract in every succeeding renewal of intercourse, when daily she was a Christian heroine, who bore her cross with the firmness of a martyr-saint…
‘She was so painfully shy she could not bear any special notice. One day, on being led into dinner by a stranger, she trembled and nearly burst into tears; but not withstanding her excessive shyness, which was often painful to others as well as to herself, she won the respect and affection of all who had opportunity enough to become acquainted with her. Charlotte’s shyness did not arise, I am sure, either from vanity or self-consciousness, as some suppose shyness to arise; its source was in her not being understood. She felt herself apart from others; they did not understand her, and she keenly felt the distance.’
What is clear is that Charlotte Brontë was small, she was shy, but above all she was kind and loving, and much loved in return by people of all social classes. You can find many more first person encounters with Charlotte and her sisters on this blog and in my book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200. I hope you can join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and in the meantime let’s say a belated Happy Birthday, Charlotte Brontë!
This week marked the 238th birthday of a very special woman indeed – for on the 15th April 1783 Maria Branwell was born in Penzance; between 1814 and 1820 she became the mother of Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.
The story is well known of how Maria made her journey north to Yorkshire in the summer of 1812, where she had been offered a position at Woodhouse Grove School near Rawdon, a Methodist school recently opened by John and Jane Fennell, Maria’s uncle and aunt. The distance travelled between Penzance and Yorkshire was more than 400 miles; to put that into perspective it’s a greater distance, as the crow flies, than the journey Charlotte and Emily Brontë took from Haworth to Brussels.
It was also an arduous, and potentially dangerous, journey, as we shall see. There were two ways to travel from Penzance to Yorkshire at this time, well before the world changing 1825 opening of the rail line running between Stockton and Darlington of course; firstly, the passenger could sail from Cornwall, around the Welsh coast, and up to Liverpool, before taking a horse drawn coach from Liverpool across the Pennines; alternatively, passengers could travel by coach from Cornwall to Yorkshire – a long journey involving many changes, but it is likely that Maria Branwell opted for this more cost effective solution, with her possessions to be sent after her by ship.
This coach journey typically took around ten days, and brought with it such challenges that some passengers made wills before embarking upon such an endeavour. The dangers of travelling by sea, in particular, were brought home to Maria not long after her arrival in Yorkshire, as we see in one of the early letters that she sent to the beau in her life – Patrick Brontë:
‘I mentioned having sent for my books, clothes, etc. On Saturday evening about the time you were writing the description of your imaginary shipwreck, I was reading and feeling the effects of a real one, having then received a letter from my sister giving me an account of the vessel in which she had sent my box being stranded upon the coast of Devonshire, in consequence of which the box was dashed to pieces with the violence of the sea, and all my little property, with the exception of a very few articles, being swallowed up by the mighty deep.’
It seems likely that Maria had entrusted the job of sending on her property to her elder sister Elizabeth, later famous as Aunt Branwell. The ship was wrecked, and most of Maria’s possessions ended up in ‘Davy Jones’s locker’. We get a clue to Maria’s priorities in life, and her character, by the order in which she lists her lost items – first and in the position of importance are her books. One book of Maria’s which was rescued from the sea was a religious biography called The Remains Of Henry Kirke White (that’s it at the head of this post). White was a popular poet at the time noted for his piety, whom had died at the young age of 21. Maria’s copy was recently sold at auction for the sum of £200,000 – largely thanks to the writing made within the book by her daughter Charlotte. Ironically, the author of the book was a man who had discouraged Charlotte Brontë from writing at all: Robert Southey.
The aforementioned Elizabeth Branwell also followed in Maria’s carriage steps by travelling from Penzance to Yorkshire not once but twice – firstly she joined her sister, and brother-in-law Patrick, in Thornton for over a year in 1815 and 1816. Returning to Penzance she must have thought she would never see her sister and nieces again, but of course as Maria entered her final illness in 1821 Elizabeth Branwell answered the call once more; this time there would be no return, and Aunt Branwell remained in Haworth, far from her Cornish home, from 1821 until her death 21 years later.
It seems likely, however, that Maria and Elizabeth were not the only members of the Branwell family of Penzance who had made the long journey to the West Riding of Yorkshire. Benjamin Branwell was born in 1775, a year before his sister Elizabeth, and was the only son in the Branwell family who survived infancy. He became a successful local businessman, magistrate and politician – being made Mayor of Penzance in 1809. He was also a very pious man, and very loyal to the Methodist cause that was so popular in Cornwall, and it is that cause which seems to have brought Benjamin Branwell to another area of the country where Methodism had hold: Yorkshire.
In his 1898 book Thornton and the Brontës William Scruton asserted that Benjamin Branwell had travelled to Yorkshire to speak to Methodist ministers and theologians there, and that he met Patrick Brontë there prior to 1812. Scruton also says that Benjamin Branwell travelled with one of his sisters, although there is no evidence for this assertion: could this have been the moment when Patrick Brontë first met Elizabeth Branwell, or even his future wife Maria?
It’s an interesting speculation, but whenever it happened we can be very thankful that Maria did make the long journey northwards – setting in chain the events that changed literary history forever.
You may have noticed that this Anne Brontë blog has changed appearance lately, I felt it was a time for a spring freshen. I hope you will join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.
As the UK prepares to enter the next stage of its long walk to freedom and safety, many will reflect on the lessons they’ve learnt during this strange, often unsettling and sometimes tragic year. Many will have learnt what’s truly important to them: the people they love, those who have been there for them through the ups and downs of 2020. That’s why the year to come could see a surge in engagements, and a raft of weddings, which will be wonderful for all concerned. Rather fittingly today marks the 167th anniversary of the date on which Charlotte Brontë accepted the proposal of Arthur Bell Nicholls; as we shall see in this post, it was far from her first proposal of marriage.
As far as we can tell, and there may have been other proposals that have been lost to posterity, Charlotte’s first proposal of marriage came on 1st March 1839 from the Reverend Henry Nussey. This looked a promising match at first – Henry was elder brother to Charlotte’s best friend Ellen Nussey, and Charlotte knew and liked him. There was one crucial element missing however: romance.
Henry was looking for a wife, but he didn’t really care who that wife was. In fact, he wrote proposing marriage to Charlotte just a week after he had received a refusal from a proposal he had made to Margaret Lutwidge (whose nephew Charles later became famous as Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll). Ellen was obviously aware of Henry’s plans and had asked Charlotte about them, for on 12th March Charlotte wrote:
‘You ask me dear Ellen whether I have received a letter from Henry. I have about a week since, the contents I confess did a little surprise me, but I kept them to myself, and unless you had questioned me on the subject I would never have adverted to it. Henry says he is comfortably settled in Sussex, that his health is much improved & that it is his intention to take pupils after Easter – he then intimates that in due time he shall want a Wife to take care of his pupils and frankly asks me to be that Wife… I asked myself two questions – ‘Do I love Henry Nussey as much as a woman ought to love her husband? Am I the person best qualified to make him happy?’ Alas Ellen my Conscience answered no to both these questions. I felt that though I esteemed Henry, though I had a kindly leaning towards him because he is an amiable well-disposed man, yet I had not, and never could have that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him – and if ever I marry it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my Husband. Ten to one I shall never have the chance again but n’importe. Moreover, I was aware that Henry knew so little of me he could hardly be conscious to whom he was writing – why it would startle him to see me in my natural home-character, he would think me a wild, romantic enthusiast indeed. I could not sit all day long making a grave face before my husband – I would laugh and satirize and say whatever came into my head first – and if he were a clever man & loved me the whole world weighed in the balance against his smallest wish should be light as air. Could I, knowing my mind to be such as that, could I consciously say that I would take a grave quiet young man like Henry? No it would have been deceiving him.’
This grave young man was in search of a wife to help him in his ministerial duties, and whilst vicar of Hathersage he married Emily Prescott. Hathersage is the Morton of Jane Eyre and Henry Nussey undoubtedly inspired St. John Rivers. Alas, Henry could not defeat the illness Charlotte alluded to in her letter, and he died in an asylum in 1860.
Charlotte Brontë did not have to wait long for her next proposal of marriage, and once more it came out of the blue. On 4th August 1839, she was again writing to Ellen:
‘I have an odd circumstance to relate to you, prepare for a hearty laugh – the other day Mr Hodgson, Papa’s former curate, now a Vicar, came over to spend the day with us, bringing with him his own curate. The latter Gentleman by name Mr Price is a young Irish clergyman fresh from Dublin University – it was the first time we had any of us seen him, but however after the manner of his Countrymen he soon made himself at home. His character quickly appeared in his conversation – witty, lively, ardent, clever too – but deficient in the dignity & discretion of an Englishman. At home you know Ellen I talk with ease and am never shy – never weighed down & oppressed by that miserable mauvais honte which torments and constrains me elsewhere, so I conversed with this Irishman & laughed at his jests – & though I saw faults in his character excused them because of the amusement his originality afforded. I cooled a little indeed & drew in towards the latter part of the evening, because he began to season his conversation with something of Hibernian flattery which I did not quite relish, however they went away and no more was thought about them.
A few days after I got a letter the direction of which puzzled me, it being in a hand I was not accustomed to see. Evidently it was neither from you nor Mary Taylor, my only Correspondents. Having opened & read it, it proved to be a declaration of attachment & proposal of Matrimony expressed in the ardent language of the sapient young Irishman!
Well thought I – I’ve heard of love at first sight but this beats all… I hope you are laughing heartily… I’m certainly doomed to be an old maid Ellen – I can’t expect another chance – never mind I made up my mind to that fate ever since I was twelve years old.’
It was Reverend David Pryce (not ‘Price’ as Charlotte spelled it) who was rebuffed in late 1839; he died suddenly less than a year later aged 28. Charlotte had resigned herself to receiving no further proposals, but she was quite wrong to do so.
In April 1851 it seems that Charlotte received her third proposal of marriage. By this time she had lost her siblings, and had also found great success as the writer Currer Bell. This time she had enchanted one of the management team at her publisher Smith, Elder & Co named Joe Taylor. It was Taylor who was sent to Haworth to collect the completed manuscript of Shirley from Charlotte in September 1849, and they met on a number of prior and subsequent occasions. Joe, like others before him, clearly fell head over heels for Charlotte, but Charlotte loved handsome men, and he didn’t fit the bill – as we can see from her letter to Ellen of 5th December 1849:
‘Mr Taylor – the little man – has again shewn his parts. Of him I have not yet come to a clear decision: abilities he has for he rules the firm – he keeps 40 young men under strict control by his iron will. His young superior [George Smith] likes him which, to speak the truth, is more than I do at present. In fact, I suspect he is of the Helstone order of men [the Reverend Helstone appears in Shirley] – rigid, despotic and self-willed. He tries to be very kind and even to express sympathy sometimes, and he does not manage it. He has a determined, dreadful nose in the middle of his face which when poked into my countenance cuts into my soul like iron. Still, he is horribly intelligent.’
In the spring of 1851 Joe Taylor left England for India to expand the Smith publishing business there. He visited Charlotte before leaving on 9th April, and it is thought that he proposed marriage to her on this occasion. Charlotte met his proposal with anger, and he sailed away to Mumbai, where he died in 1874.
Once again marriage proposals followed hot on the heels of each other, and the next came via a visitor from the Brontë motherland – Penzance in Cornwall. Thomas Brontë Branwell arrived at Haworth Parsonage in September 1851, and remained there for a week. He was Charlotte’s cousin, the son of the woman after whom she had been named: Charlotte Branwell, younger sister of Maria. Why did Thomas make that 400 mile journey?
The most likely explanation seems to me that he intended to propose to Charlotte; after all his own mother and father, Charlotte and Joseph Branwell, were themselves cousins. Thomas too was rebuffed; he later married Sarah Hannah Jones. Thomas had failed to marry Charlotte Brontë, but his son did – in a way. In 1897 Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell married his cousin – one Charlotte Brontë Jones.
There is no doubt about Charlotte’s next proposal, in December 1852, and we all know how it turned out. Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s assistant curate, proposed twice. His first proposal was rather less than well received as we see in this letter to Ellen:
A rejected and dejected Arthur pledged to leave Haworth forever. In his final appearance at Haworth’s church he had to be led shaking from the pulpit, unable to speak, and Charlotte later found him ‘sobbing as women never sob.’ Arthur, however, continued to write to Charlotte and returned in triumph on this day in 1854 when the woman he loved accepted his second proposal.
Charlotte Brontë was not destined to be an ‘old maid’ after all, and love had won the day. I propose that you join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.