Charlotte Brontë’s Guide To Writing A Novel

The first draft of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette was finished on this day in 1852, and it would become Charlotte’s final, and many say greatest, completed novel. At these times of self-isolation, and anxiety, reading a great book like Villette can be a source of comfort and entertainment, but writing can be just as rewarding as reading. Many people now find themselves with more time on their hands than they know what to do with, so it’s a good time to do these things we’ve always wanted to – that could include writing a book. If you’re looking for inspiration let’s take a look at just how Charlotte Brontë wrote Villette.

Villette frontispiece
Frontispiece to the first edition of Villette

Villette was the third novel of Charlotte’s to be published, after Jane Eyre and Shirley but it was the fourth to be written. Her first completed novel The Professor wasn’t published until after Charlotte’s death, and was rejected by publisher after publisher. In her biographical notice of her sisters Emily and Anne, Charlotte described how the attempt to get published was long, drawn out and ultimately fruitless:

‘These manuscripts were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.’

Throughout this post you’ll see illustrations, like this, from Villette

Here’s Charlotte’s first writing tip. All writers who don’t already have contacts in the industry, even those as great as the Brontës, are rejected by publishers and agents – many time and time again, getting simple one line letters back saying that it isn’t what they’re looking for. It’s easy to be downcast at this, but Charlotte shows the importance of believing in yourself, not giving up, and trying again.

This leads us onto Charlotte’s second writing tip – don’t be afraid to recycle your work, or adapt it into something else. Villette is a unique masterpiece as we follow Lucy Snowe’s life changing journey to Brussels, or Villette as it’s called in the novel – but it clearly borrows from Charlotte’s earlier, unpublished, work The Professor.

Both are set in Belgium with an English protagonist who arrives at a Brussels school, both deal with a love affair, but the roles are reversed. In her first novel, the main protagonist is the English professor who falls in love with a Swiss pupil, but in Villette the protagonist is the English pupil who falls in love with her Belgian professor. The Professor is well written, with a happy ending, but it occasionally lacks drive and drama. Charlotte took some of the book’s plot, many of its settings and much of its atmosphere and made it into something much darker – there is to be no happy ending in Villette; it is more powerful, more obviously a work of genius, but it owes a lot to the earlier novel and Charlotte’s reworking of it.

The third writing tip from Villette, and indeed all of Charlotte’s novels, is don’t be afraid to draw on real life. It is clear that Paul Emanuel of Villette has much in common with Charlotte’s real life unrequited love Constantin Heger. We also see his wife Clare in the role of Madame Beck, who does all she can to separate Paul and Lucy. This was a very painful episode in Charlotte’s life, and yet she turned that pain into literary gold by setting it down on the page. We all have life experiences, both bad and good, to draw upon, so don’t be afraid to use them in your writing. If you’re worried about people reading your reflections upon them then follow the example of Agnes Grey at the start of Anne Brontë’s first novel: ‘Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture.’

Finally, we learn the importance of editing, and in trusting your own gut instinct. In a letter to W. S. Williams in November 1852, she writes: ‘I fear they [readers] must be satisfied with what is offered: my palette affords no brighter tints – were I to attempt to deepen the reds or burnish the yellows I should but botch. Unless I am mistaken, the emotion of the book will be found to be kept throughout in tolerable subjection. As to the name of the heroine – I can hardly express what subtility of thought made me decide upon giving her a cold name; but, at first, I called her “Lucy Snowe” (spelt with an e) which “Snowe” I afterward changed to “Frost”. I rather regretted the change and wished it “Snowe” again: if not too late, I should like the alteration to be made now throughout the manuscript. A cold name she must have… for she has about her an external coldness.’

Charlotte has clearly taken a lot of time in getting the book exactly as she wants it to be. All published authors have to submit to the rigours of being edited, never the most exciting part of being published, but at the end of the day it’s the author’s opinion that must take precedence. At the very last moment, before the book was about to head to the printers, Charlotte changed the name of her heroine from Lucy Frost to Lucy Snowe, and I think we can all agree now that it was a good choice.

So there we have Charlotte’s helpful hints on how to write a book: persevere and don’t let criticism or rejection stop you; don’t be afraid to use previous work or real life in your book; work on your book until you feel it’s just right – and at the end of the day, your opinion is the one that matters.

Of course, Charlotte also had what very few people can be blessed with: genius of the highest order. We may not be able to write a Villette ourselves, but we can still write a book that will entertain ourselves and others. These strange times give us the opportunity to do things we wouldn’t normally have the time to do – so why not make this the year that you finally write the book you’ve always wanted to?

Writing a book, and reading books, can be a great distraction – and that’s a very positive thing at this time when the news seems invariably to be distressing. Distraction, and a celebration of books, is also at the heart of a new project I’ve launched this week – an online literature festival. Real life literature festivals are great fun for participants and audiences, but they’re being cancelled, so my online literature festival will allow you to listen to authors talk about the books and subjects they love, in the comfort of your own home. You can find out more at onlinelitfest.co.uk. Stay safe, stay home, and health and happiness to you and your loved ones.

Three Mothers In The Brontë Story

As we embark upon a rather surreal Mother’s Day here in the United Kingdom, let’s take a break from all illness and viruses and take a look at three very different mothers in the Brontë story.

Let us first look at the actual mother of the Brontës – Maria Brontë, born Maria Branwell in Penzance in April 1883. Maria had a very comfortable life growing up in this picturesque Cornish town: her father was a wealthy merchant and a pillar of society, her brother Benjamin was made Mayor of the town, and she had close friendships with her sisters, especially Elizabeth and Charlotte. As a Branwell she was spared the hardships of life that many Penzance dwellers endured, being reliant upon fishing or tin mining (sometimes with a little piracy and smuggling on the side). She would surely have been seen in the town’s beautiful Assembly Rooms, modelled on those of Bath, and there was also a women’s library for women who, like Maria, could afford it. So why did she give it up all up for a new life of uncertainty amidst the cold northern climes of Yorkshire?

The Branwell House in Penzance, Cornwall
The home of Maria Branwell, mother to the Brontes – Chapel Street, Penzance

We know that what kept Maria in Yorkshire was love – within months of her arrival at Woodhouse Grove, where she had arrived to help her aunt and uncle run a new Wesleyan school, she had married someone else who had newly arrived in the county – Patrick Brontë. Anne Brontë was surely recalling stories of her mother in her opening to Agnes Grey:

“My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire’s daughter, and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her, that if she became the poor parson’s wife, she must relinquish her carriage and her lady’s-maid, and all the luxuries and elegancies of affluence; which to her were little less than the necessities of life. A carriage and a lady’s-maid were great conveniences; but, thank Heaven, she had feet to carry her, and hands to minister to her own necessities. An elegant house and spacious grounds were not to be despised; but she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any man in the world.”

Anne was only one when her mother died, but she would have found a woman whose beliefs were very much aligned with her own. The greatest clue to this was Maria’s essay ‘The Advantages Of Poverty In Religious Concerns’ in which she spells out her own belief in the importance of faith whatever fate has allotted us, and her belief in a caring God. These were themes that are also central to Anne’s work, especially The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

The Advantages of Poverty In Religious Concern, manuscript
The Advantages of Poverty In Religious Concern, page one in Maria’s handwriting, Brotherton Library, Leeds

Maria Brontë was clearly a remarkable woman in many ways, and a fabulous mother, but it is perhaps strange that Anne, the sibling who could have no knowledge of her mother, is the only Brontë who had mothers in her own novels. Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall, is herself a mother of course, and Agnes Grey’s mother eventually forms a school with her. By contrast, in Wuthering Heights Catherine dies in the moment of becoming a mother, and both Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe are motherless and being brought up by less than loving members of their extended family. Similarly Shirley Keeldar is a motherless child, as is the real heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley, Caroline Helstone – or is she?

I should perhaps say ‘spoiler alert’ here, for in fact we discover well into the novel that Caroline does have a long-lost mother after all, as Mrs Pryor becomes the only mother figure in Charlotte’s novels. Until that point Mrs Pryor has been merely Shirley’s governess, but with Caroline seemingly on her death bed Mrs Pryor reveals that she was actually born Agnes Grey (a rather striking choice of name by Charlotte) and that she had given Caroline away as a baby. Buoyed by this news, Caroline miraculously recovers and mother and child are reunited at last.

Dulac Shirley
The truth is revealed as Caroline and her mother are reunited

This is a touching, if possibly last minute, device plot from Charlotte. At the time of her commencing the novel, her sister Anne was in good health, but by the time she was writing this scene Anne (and Emily and Branwell before her) had died. I believe that Caroline Helstone is Charlotte’s portrait of Anne Brontë, and that the use of the name Agnes Grey is a tribute from Charlotte to her dead youngest sister. I also believe that Mrs Pryor is Charlotte’s tribute to Aunt Branwell, who had been like a mother to Anne particularly.

Aunt Branwell is often thought of as being stuffy and old fashioned – this was certainly Mary Taylor’s opinion who commented on how Aunt Branwell always wore old fashioned clothing and a plain black silk dress. Ellen Nussey, on the other hand, revealed that the aunt loved nothing more than to talk of her youth in Penzance, and of how she’d been a belle in the town – so what changed?The answer is that Aunt Branwell sacrificed everything for her nieces and nephew – she went without so that they wouldn’t. It is this attribute that Charlotte also gives to Mrs Pryor, and the following passage is Charlotte acknowledging this in print and giving thanks to her aunt, by then also deceased:

“People say you are miserly; and yet you are not, for you give liberally to the poor and to religious societies – though your gifts are conveyed so secretly and quietly that they are known to few except the receivers.”

Aunt Branwell silhouette
A tiny silhouette showing Elizabeth Branwell

So we have looked at the Brontë’s real mother, Maria, and at Agnes Pryor, a fictional mother with more than a hint of real life to her. Our third and final mother was all too real, but her circumstances were very shocking.

Charlotte Brontë visited London with Anne Brontë in the summer of 1848, but she later visited it on her own on a number of occasions, as the guest of her publisher and friend George Smith. In his memoirs Smith recollected one particularly unique encounter that Charlotte had with a young mother:

“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.’”

Fry Buxton Newgate
Prison reformers Elizabeth Fry and Anna Buxton in Newgate – Charlotte followed in their footsteps

At Newgate, a brutal jail in Victorian times, Charlotte was brought face to face with a baby killer, a woman who may have been suffering mental illness at the time and who had certainly suffered since. Charlotte didn’t spurn her, but instead reached out and held her hand, whispering words of comfort until stopped – comfort wasn’t allowed in Newgate. This simple act of love and humanity takes us right to the heart of who Charlotte Brontë was.

Charlotte would have been a great mother, but fate took that away from us. We never know what fate has in store, as this year is undoubtedly showing, but all we can do is be the best person that we are capable of, every day. Happy Mother’s Day.

The Brontës, Manchester And Isolation

In the Brontë story, Brussels and Manchester have a lot in common – they were both visited by Patrick, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, but not by Anne. Nevertheless, they both played a big part in the life of Anne Brontë and her family, and have left an immortal mark on world literature. This week I travelled to Manchester to the Salutation Inn, a location that’s easy to miss and yet which deserves to be on every Brontë lover’s list.

Salutation Inn exterior
The Salutation Inn, Manchester – important in the Bronte story

The Salutation Inn is easy to reach as it’s in the heart of Manchester, just around the corner from the green space in front of Manchester Metropolitan University, and within walking distance of Manchester’s Piccadilly and Oxford Road train stations. Manchester is a city of great contrasts, with ugly modern buildings (or dynamic, if you like that sort of thing) rubbing shoulders with Victorian architecture which is by turns brutal and beautiful. Much of what was once Mount Pleasant has been demolished – but one lone Victorian outlier remains. What is now 59 Boundary Street West was once 83 Mount Pleasant – and by happy coincidence that’s the address we can see atop Charlotte Brontë’s letter to Ellen Nussey dated 21st August 1846:

“Dear Ellen, I just scribble a line to you to let you know where I am – in order that you may write to me here for it seems to me that a letter from you would relieve me from the feeling of strangeness I have in this town. Papa came here on Wednesday, we saw Mr Wilson the Oculist the same day, he pronounced papa’s eyes quite ready for an operation and has fixed next Monday for the performance of it. Think of us on that day dear Nell. We got into our lodgings yesterday – I think we shall be comfortable, at least our rooms are very good, but there is no Mistress of the house (she is very ill and gone out into the country) and I am somewhat puzzled in managing about provisions. We board ourselves – I find myself excessively ignorant, I can’t tell what the deuce to order in the way of meat etc.”

Patrick Brontë was by this time approaching his 70th birthday, and his eyesight had been deteriorating rapidly for many years due to cataracts. Indeed, he may by this time have been completely blind, as reported in the Leeds Intelligencer a month earlier, when Patrick was in attendance at a grand concert held at Haworth’s church.

The Salutation

Emily Brontë had accompanied Charlotte to Manchester earlier in the year where they had consulted the eminent eye surgeon Dr Wilson, and Charlotte returned with her father in August for the operation to be carried out. Patrick had his cataracts cut away without any anaesthetic, a procedure which he described as not painful although he reported a slight burning sensation. It was a success, allowing him to read again, although in his final years his eyesight deteriorated once more. Post-operation, Charlotte took on the role of comforter and maid to her father, as they spent a long period in what is now The Salutation Inn. We find an update from Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 26th August 1846:

“Dear Ellen, the operation is over – it took place yesterday, Mr Wilson performed it, two other surgeons assisted. Mr Wilson says he considers it quite successful but papa cannot yet see anything… Papa displayed extraordinary patience and firmness – the surgeons seemed surprised. I was in the room all the time, as it was his wish that I should be there. Of course I neither spoke nor moved till the thing was done, and then I felt that the less I said either to papa or the surgeons, the better. Papa is now confined to his bed in a dark room and is not to be stirred for four days – he is to speak and be spoken to as little as possible.”

Salutation Inn ceiling
This beautiful ceiling matches the one Charlotte saw

The Salutation Inn is a perfectly lovely Victorian pub, serving fine food and drinks, and when we walk its floors we know our footsteps tread the spot once trodden by Charlotte in this time of trial for her and her beloved father. It is a moving location too, and whilst much has changed, of course, since it was a boarding house for the Brontës the beautiful ceiling catches the eye. That too is more modern, but it has been reproduced from a plaster cast of the original ceiling that Charlotte would have seen – and it is vibrant and exquisite.

Of course this is an important part of the Brontë story already, but a blue plaque outside reveals its added significance, and in her Life Of Charlotte Brontë Elizabeth Gaskell explained just why the Salutation is so important:

“Among the dispiriting circumstances connected with her anxious visit to Manchester, Charlotte told me that her tale came back upon the hearts, curtly rejected by some publisher, on the very day when her father was to submit to his operation. But she had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did The Professor return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude – in those grey, weary, uniform streets, where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, – there and then, did the genius begin Jane Eyre

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

Incidentally, Elizabeth Gaskell’s home on Plymouth Grove, now a lovely museum, is just a mile from The Salutation Inn, so if you get the chance you could visit both on one day. Charlotte herself stayed at Plymouth Grove on three occasions, and one famous incident reveals that she could be just as shy as her sisters Emily and Anne:

“Mrs Sidney Potter, author of Lancashire Memories, called at Plymouth Grove, during Charlotte Brontë’s stay. As she was announced, Mrs Gaskell rose to welcome her friend, and turned round to the chair near the window to present Miss Brontë. To her astonishment the chair was vacant, and apparently Charlotte Brontë had fled by the door which led to the dining-room. Mrs Gaskell apologised for her absence, hoping it would only be temporary, but Mrs Potter left without seeing the famous writer. Immediately Mrs Gaskell had said ‘good-bye’ to her visitor, Charlotte Brontë appeared from behind a heavy curtain, which hung from the window. Her explanation was that she was not able to face a stranger.”

Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester
Elizabeth Gaskell House, Manchester

The purpose of my visit to Manchester was to talk to the wonderful Pamela Nash, organiser of ‘A Fine And Subtle Spirit‘ – a celebratory concert to mark Anne Brontë’s 200th birthday. Pamela has put a lot of work and love into organising what should be a remarkable and very fitting tribute to Anne at Manchester’s Cross Street Chapel on March 28th. Of course, very sadly, external factors may yet play a part but this is scheduled to take place as planned. I very much hope it does take place at some point in the calendar at least because it will be a magical evening.

Coronovirus may also affect the Anne Brontë celebrations due to be held on Wednesday at Huddersfield University, another programme that should have been well worth attending. Keep an eye out online for up to the minute information on these and other events.

COVID-19 will disrupt and change many things, but we can take inspiration from Charlotte and Patrick Brontë isolated within that boarding house in Manchester. They were faced with darkness and silence, all looked bleak – but the light returned, life resumed and triumphs awaited that courageous and brilliant woman. In her initial letter to Ellen, Charlotte finished by writing:

“Mr Wilson says we will have to stay here for a month at least – it will be dreary. I wonder how poor Emily and Anne will get on at home with Branwell – they too will have their troubles. What would I not give to have you here! One is forced step by step to get experience in the world Ellen – but the learning is so disagreeable. Write very soon – remember me kindly.”

Many of us may be forced to share Charlotte’s despair soon – separated from those we love, in isolation from the life and places we knew. Temporarily. Like Charlotte, remain strong, keep love in your hearts, face whatever fate throws at you like Robert The Bruce. Conquer every obstacle through your strength, patience and endurance. Better days are coming, and until then we can find solace in the brilliant books of the Brontës and others – with that, let us all find courage to endure.

The Old Stoic, Emily Bronte

IWD: May Sinclair And The Three Brontës

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day, so today we’re going to look at a woman who achieved a lot in many different fields. We’re also going to see how she was influenced by the Brontës, and by Anne Brontë in particular. Born Mary Amelia St. Clair on the Wirral in 1863, she became better known as May Sinclair.

May Sinclair was one of the great polymaths of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and her talents deserve to be recognised as much now as they were then. Her early life echoed the Brontës, in that it started full of promise but encountered early tragedy. May’s father was a wealthy shipping magnate, but he was also an alcoholic and eventually lost all his money. Her mother was a strict and religious woman, but May was never one to blindly follow the rules of the day.

May Sinclair
May Sinclair pictured in 1898

Her father’s downfall meant that May had to earn the money to look after herself and her mother, and she turned to her great passion: writing. In her writing as in life she was an innovator, and many of her works are seen as precursors of twentieth century modernism – she not only used stream of consciousness narratives, she is credited with inventing the term. May became popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and was hugely prolific. As well as writing 23 novels, 29 short stories, and a raft of excellent poetry, she also wrote essays, literary criticism and was a translator.

Other than two very special works as far as we’re concerned, which I will come to shortly, perhaps her most acclaimed novel was ‘The Combined Maze’, published in 1913, which takes a frank yet sympathetic look at an ordinary man who loves two women. The great thriller writer Agatha Christie called it one of the greatest of all novels, which is high praise indeed. May wasn’t averse to genre fiction herself, and became regarded as a master of supernatural and horror fiction. Like Arthur Conan-Doyle, she became very interested in spiritualism after the advent of the First World War and the horrors it brought with it, and was a member of The Society For Psychical Research.

May Sinclair 1910
May in 1910 entering the Kensington Women’s Social & Political Union shop

Perhaps May Sinclair is equally well known today for her activities as a suffragette. She was a friend of Sylvia Pankhurst, and was a vigorous supporter of the Suffrage movement, both on marches and at meetings, and in letters that she sent to newspapers. Famously, May also dressed up as Jane Austen for a suffragette fundraising event. The Suffragettes were quick to recognise the positive impact that women writers had had, as we can see from this photograph:

Charlotte Bronte suffragette banner

May was a great believer in equal rights for women, and she was also renowned for many other laudable acts, including being a founder of London’s Medico-Psychological Clinic (she was a great believer in psychology and the teachings of Sigmund Freud). At the outbreak of war in 1914, it was inevitable that a woman of action such as May was would play her part. She volunteered to serve with the Munro Ambulance Corps, and spent time on the Western Front in Flanders. It was during this time that she wrote incredibly powerful war poetry, such as ‘After The Retreat’:

“If I could only see again
The house we passed on the long Flemish road
That day
When the Army went from Antwerp, through Bruges, to the sea;
The house with the slender door,
And the one thin row of shutters, grey as dust on the white wall.
It stood low and alone in the flat Flemish land,
And behind it the high slender trees were small under the sky.
It looked
Through windows blurred like women’s eyes that have cried too long.
There is not anyone there whom I know,
I have never sat by its hearth, I have never crossed its threshold, I have never opened its door,
I have never stood by its windows looking in;
Yet its eyes said: ‘You have seen four cities of Flanders:
Ostend, and Bruges, and Antwerp under her doom,
And the dear city of Ghent;
And there is none of them that you shall remember
As you remember me.’
I remember so well,
That at night, at night I cannot sleep in England here;
But I get up, and I go:
Not to the cities of Flanders,
Not to Ostend and the sea,
Not to the city of Bruges, or the city of Antwerp, or the city of Ghent,
But somewhere
In the fields
Where the high slender trees are small under the sky –
If I could only see again
The house we passed that day.”

May personally witnessed the horrors of war, and saw vast numbers of men wounded and killed – yet she sees too the cost that brought to women, so that the windows of a house are burned forever in her mind – they ‘look like women’s eyes that have cried too long’.

Women WWI
May Sinclair was one of many women serving with front line ambulance corps

May Sinclair was a first class poet, a writer of brilliance, possessor of an incredibly powerful mind and a burning passion for making society better and fairer, and throughout it all she took inspiration from the Brontës, and especially from Anne’s ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall‘. In an essay appraising Anne’s second novel, it was May who famously wrote that ‘the slamming of Helen’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England.’

May Sinclair’s great love for the Brontës of Haworth can also be clearly seen in two of her books, both very different but bearing very similar titles. ‘The Three Brontës’ was May’s biography of the sisters, published in 1912. It is beautifully written and in many ways important, because May redresses some of the claims made against Patrick Brontë, and reveals him as a good father. She also emphasises the huge influence that Haworth and its moors had upon the Brontës’ writing, as we can see from this exquisitely crafted opening:

‘It is impossible to write of the three Brontës and forget the place they lived in, the black-grey, naked village, bristling like a rampart on the clean edge of the moor; the street, dark and steep as a gully, climbing the hill to the Parsonage at the top; the small oblong house, naked and grey, hemmed in on two sides by the graveyard, its five windows flush with the wall, staring at the graveyard where the tombstones, grey and naked, are set so close that the grass hardly grows between. The church itself is a burying ground; its walls are tombstones, and its floor roofs the forgotten and the unforgotten dead. A low wall and a few feet of barren garden divide the Parsonage from the graveyard, a few feet between the door of the house and the door in the wall where its dead were carried through. But a path leads beyond the graveyard to “a little and a lone green lane”, Emily Brontë’s lane that leads to the open moors. It is the genius of the Brontës that made their place immortal; but it is the soul of the place that made their genius what it is.’

May Sinclair The Three Brontes
A first edition of ‘The Three Brontes’

This eminently readable biography was neither the first or last time time that May Sinclair turned to the Brontës in her writing, but she later did so in disguise. Just as Patrick had made the young Brontës wear masks as he questioned them, and as they later wore the masks of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell to write their novels, May Sinclair wrote a novel about them – obscuring them with masks of her own creation.

‘The Three Sisters’ was published in 1914. In it, May tells the story of three sisters, Mary, Gwendolen and Alice Cartaret. They live in a parsonage at the moorside village of Garth, where there father is the aging curate. Over the course of the novel they all fall in love with the same man, and this brings about the fall of their sororal bonds and a break up of their family.

The sisters are not facsimiles of Charlotte, Emily and Anne – the youngest Alice, for example, is a sensualist. Even so, we can see from the description of the sisters more than a hint of the Brontës of Haworth:

‘Mary, the eldest, sat in a low chair by the fireside. Her hands were clasped loosely on the black woolen socks she had ceased to darn. She was staring into the fire with her gray eyes, the thick gray eyes that never let you know what she was thinking. The firelight woke the flame in her reddish-tawny hair. The red of her lips was turned back and crushed against the white. Mary was shorter than her sisters, but she was the one that had the colour. And with it she had a stillness that was not theirs. Mary’s face brooded more deeply than their faces, but it was untroubled in its brooding. She had learned to darn socks for her own amusement on her eleventh birthday, and she was twenty-seven now.

Alice, the youngest girl (she was twenty-three) lay stretched out on the sofa. She departed in no way from her sister’s type but that her body was slender and small boned, that her face was lightly finished, that her gray eyes were clear and her lips pale against the honey-white of her face, and that her hair was colorless as dust except where the edge of the wave showed a dull gold. Alice had spent the whole evening lying on the sofa. And now she raised her arms and bent them, pressing the backs of her hands against her eyes. And now she lowered them and lifted one sleeve of her thin blouse, and turned up the milk-white under surface of her arm and lay staring at it and feeling its smooth texture with her fingers.

Gwendolen, the second sister, sat leaning over the table with her arms flung out on it as they had tossed from her the book she had been reading. She was the tallest and the darkest of the three. Her face followed the type obscurely; and vividly and emphatically it left it. There was dusk in her honey-whiteness, and dark blue in the gray of her eyes. The bridge of her nose and the arch of her upper lip were higher, lifted as it were in a decided and defiant manner of their own. About Gwenda there was something alert and impatient. Her very supineness was alive. It had distinction, the savage grace of a creature utterly abandoned to a sane fatigue. Gwenda had gone fifteen miles over the moors that evening. She had run and walked and run again in the riotous energy of her youth.’

These physical and mental characteristics, and the ages, align with the Brontës – as does the location they find themselves in. It is clear that May Sinclair has taken her beloved Brontës as the basis for her characters, but then put them in a situation very different to the one they found themselves in. The novel is long, complex but fascinating. May’s love of psychology can clearly be seen, as can her fascination with what humans are capable of if society was fairer and allowed them to achieve their full potential.

May Sinclair quote

May Sinclair was a trailblazer, a brilliant writer and a brilliant woman, so today is a perfect day to remember her. Thank you May Sinclair, and thank you all for your lovely reaction to last week’s post – I’ve had so many great suggestions for future posts, so keep your eyes peeled.

Today is International Women’s Day but of course the truth is that this isn’t merely a day for women to celebrate, it’s a day for everyone to celebrate. Have a great day, and a great Women’s History Month.

Pictures And Stories Of The Brontë Parsonage

There’s little I like more than searching through archives to find out more about the Brontës and the time and places they knew. That’s why my favourite section of my new book, ‘Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200‘ is the one which contains a series of first person encounters with the Brontës, rescued from the archives and old newspapers. I’ve had lots of people tell me how much they love that section too, and the book as a whole – thank you.

I was reminded this week, however, that I also have lots of archive pictures and stories relating to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth itself. Thanks go to Paul Mellen who emailed me the link to a story on the British Newspapers Archive blog looking at the history of the parsonage. It seems a perfect time then to share some of these pictures that I’ve collected over the years – some incredibly atmospheric, some fascinating glimpses into social history, and all great fun to look at.

Bronte Parsonage Museum opening, 1928

Let’s begin with the beginning of the Brontë Parsonage Museum itself. In this picture we see the huge crowds of people queueing to enter the parsonage when it first opened its doors in August 1928. I love the cloche hats worn by many of the women, so typical of the 1920s in Yorkshire, as well as in Jazz Age New York.

Haworth Parsonage Museum opening
Keighley News, 11 August 1928

In this picture we see Sir James Roberts addressing the crowd on this momentous day – it was he who had very generously bought the parsonage from the Church of England and then gifted it to the Brontë Society to house their museum. A lovely report of this time reveals that after Sir James handed the title deeds over his wife, Lady Roberts, was handed a bouquet of white moorland heather by a young girl – Lady Roberts stooped to kiss the girl and “this little human touch called forth enthusiastic hurrahs, and even cheers.” I particularly like the end of that article too, detailing some more of the special guests in attendance: “The interest of the occasion was not a little heightened by the announcement that Captain Arthur Branwell, and Mr. and Mrs. Branwell, relatives of the Brontë family, as well as Mr. Holland, grandson of Mrs. Gaskell, were present, and they were invited by Sir James to ascend the platform, to say a few words.”

Bronte Parsonage Museum 1929 by Kaye Sugden

This picture shows us what the Brontë Parsonage Museum looked like in the months after its opening – it comes from the 1929 biography A Short History Of The Brontës by K. A. R. Sugden. Entitled ‘The room where Emily Brontë died’ we can see that the actual couch where she took her final breath, now a very moving highlight of the museum, was not yet in the museum’s collection, and the upright piano marked the spot.

James Roosevelt Bronte Parsonage Museum
Leeds Mercury 25 April 1939

Sir James Roberts was the first of many illustrious visitors to the museum throughout the decades (Virginia Woolf visited Haworth before the parsonage became a museum), from Charlie Chaplin to Orson Welles, Sylvia Plath, Daphne du Maurier and Patti Smith. Perhaps unique in its history, however, was the visit in April 1939 of James Roosevelt – the son of the President of the United States of America! Roosevelt, the son of FDR, was in Brontë country in his capacity as an employee of Samuel Goldwyn Productions who were about to release their ‘Wuthering Heights’ movie starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Officially he was an ‘administrative assistant’ for the movie company, but in reality of course he was one of Goldwyn’s right hand men.

Roosevelt in Haworth
Yorkshire Post 25 April 1939

Roosevelt’s arrival in England (he also went to Manchester) was looked on almost as a Presidential visit in its own right, as his father was paralysed and unable to travel (this was kept a closely guarded secret from the American electorate, as was the fact that it was his wife Eleanor who carried out many of his Presidential duties). I love this picture of James Roosevelt meeting an old Haworth woman – two very different worlds brought together by the Brontës.

Bronte parsonage and hallway
Illustrated London News 04 March 1944

James Roosevelt served with distinction in the Second World War after his father led the United States decisively into the fray. The Parsonage Museum remained open throughout the war, and was also used as a cinema that showed films to soldiers stationed nearby. Here we see the Parsonage and its hallway in 1944, note that Patrick Brontë’s grandfather clock has not yet taken up its position on the middle landing of the stairs.

Britannia And Eve 01051952
Britannia And Eve 01 May 1952

From Britannia And Eve magazine eight years later comes this, perhaps the most atmospheric picture inside the parsonage I’ve ever seen. It could almost be a portrait, but in fact its a photograph by Bill Brandt, dark and evocative – Emily’s sofa is now in place illuminated by candlelight. Charlotte’s shoes are on the floor next to her trunk, as if she is about to return at any moment.

Heger granddaughter BronteParsonage Museum
Yorkshire Post 27 August 1953

In 1953 we see another very special guest being shown around the Parsonage Museum – Madame Beckers, who has travelled from Belgium. She was the granddaughter of Clare and Constantin Heger, founders of the Brussels Pensionnat graced by Charlotte and Emily Brontë. We learn that Mme. Beckers, then in her 80s, forgave Charlotte for the less than flattering way that she’d portrayed her grandmother as Madame Beck in Villette – published a hundred years earlier. The report also states that when younger Mme. Beckers looked so much like her grandmother Clare that a former pupil of the Pensionnat had burst into tears upon seeing her. What would Charlotte have made of this visit?

Russian cultural delegation Haworth
Yorkshire Post 18 November 1954

In 1954 we see yet more guests being given the VIP treatment as they are shown around the Brontë Parsonage Museum. As the cold war really starts to take a grip, a Russian cultural delegation has come to Haworth – showing how much Russians love the Brontës, a love which still continues to this day. We may be tempted to think that these three are spies of one sort or another; they may well be, but the man on the left is actually Leonid Leonov, one of the greatest Russian novelists and playwrights of his time and a man who was awarded the Order of Lenin on six occasions.

Charlotte Bronte centenary
Illustrated London News 26 March 1955

1955 at the Brontë Parsonage Museum was devoted to the marking of the centenary of the passing of Charlotte Brontë, and here we see six pictures from inside the museum during this special year. One item shown here is very rarely displayed now, but I find it an incredibly moving piece of history – the wooden cradle in which the infant Brontës slept.

looking out from the Bronte Parsonage Museum
Illustrated London News 011180

Finally we come much closer to our present time and the Brontë Parsonage Museum as we now know it – from 1980 we get a rare photographic view from inside the parsonage hallway looking out towards the church, a view the Brontës must have seen every day. It’s from this same edition of the Illustrated London News that we get this image of Haworth graveyard.

Haworth Graveyard Bronte

We finish this post then with a burst of colour; the Brontës continue to bring colour into our lives, and always will do. By the way, any emails, comments and suggestions are always welcome – I’m currently thinking of ways to allow you to become even more engaged with my blog, as I value the input of every one of my readers so much – thank you! I hope you’ve enjoyed this dip into the archives of this magical building!

Edmund Dulac And Beautiful Brontë Illustrations

As we all know, the Brontë novels are all things of beauty, but that can beauty can be enhanced still further when they are accompanied by wonderful illustrations too. In today’s post we’re going to be looking at perhaps the most beautiful set of Brontë books of them all, illustrated by a master of the genre – Edmund Dulac.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were masters of writing about the human condition and how our minds work, which is why their books are as relevant today as they’ve ever been, but they were also masters of descriptive writing. That’s why their novels are so easily turned into magnificent adaptations on the big and little screens. We can all argue about which is our favourite adaptation of Jane Eyre, and we can all argue about which are the greatest illustrated editions too – which is why I added ‘perhaps’ in the last paragraph. All I can say for certain is that this set of ten books covering all seven Brontë novels (some occupying more than one volume) are among the greatest treasures in my own collection.

Edmund Dulac gave up law books for pen, paper and ink

What makes the Brontë story so incredible, if we leave aside their incredible works of genius, is that their background was very different to so many writers of the time. Edmund Dulac too had a rather different career in mind to the one that saw him become one of the greatest book illustrators of all time. Born in Toulouse, France in 1882 he was at first a practising lawyer, but found that his love for art was his real passion even above the riches that a career in law could bring. After leaving law behind and training at a Paris art school, Dulac moved to England in 1904 and was quickly recognised for his mastery of the art nouveau style. His illustrations for The Arabian Nights and Stories From Hans Christian Andersen are recognised as works of genius in their own right, but his first commissioned work was illustrating the novels of the Brontë sisters for J. M. Dent in London.

The beautiful covers are a sign of what’s to come inside

These books are incredibly beautiful, from their elaborate covers with gold relief lettering to the ribbon page marker integrated within them. Each volume contains six illustrations, so I’m now going to introduce you to one picture from each Brontë novel and look at what it tells us about the story:

Edmund Dulac

The Professor

Dulac The Professor

The Professor was Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, but it remained unpublished in her lifetime. She borrowed and improved on the central theme in Villette, but in this picture we see a familiar image from all Charlotte’s works – the young woman who has fallen in love with the older man, but whose social position makes it seemingly impossible for that love to flourish. Where could Charlotte have got that idea from?

Agnes Grey

Dulac Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey by our beloved Anne Brontë is largely biographical in parts, dealing with the heroines two stints as a governess, just as Anne had herself served at Blake Hall and Thorp Green Hall. She allows herself, however, to imagine a happy, love filled ending for Agnes with Reverend Weston – for which we can surely read Anne and Reverend Weightman. In real life, Weightman’s untimely death denied her this love, but nothing could deny Anne’s writing. We know that Weightman was a kindly man who was renowned for helping the Haworth parishioners, and here we see Weston returning a cat he has saved from being shot, with a grateful owner and a besotted Agnes looking on.

Wuthering Heights

Dulac Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights is a book full of power, energy and magic – and Emily Brontë’s opening is one of the most memorable of them all. This illustration sees Dulac eschew his usual vibrancy, and create a moody, atmospheric image as Heathcliff flies to the window to bid the ghost of Catherine to return and haunt him, after Lockwood’s nocturnal encounter.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Dulac The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë used The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall to turn a spotlight on many of society’s ills, and especially on the abusive marriages that many women at that time were locked into. Among the outrages that Helen has to suffer, is the growing knowledge that her husband Arthur Huntingdon is having an affair with the haughty Annabella Wilmot, who later marries his best friend Lord Lowborough. Dulac here shows Helen catching Annabella in her room, but worse is to come.

Jane Eyre

Dulac Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë could have given up after failing to find a publisher for The Professor, but giving up was never in Charlotte’s nature. Undaunted, she created an overnight sensation when her second novel Jane Eyre was published. One reason for its success, then and today, is that we can all sympathise with Jane, we can all see ourselves in her. She is downtrodden, underestimated, ignored and seemingly beset by ill fortune at every turn – but like her creator she has a mighty heart and a mighty soul, and eventually she will prevail. Here Dulac reveals Jane being browbeaten by her cousin St. John Rivers as he tries to convince her to marry him and leave for India. Her heart is mute because Rochester occupies it, and we all know what happens next.

Shirley

Dulac Shirley

I love Charlotte’s second novel Shirley because, disguised in name, she includes portraits of many of the people and places she has known – including her sister Anne under the guise of Caroline Helstone. Caroline is the real heroin of the novel (Shirley herself, based upon Emily, only appears many chapters in) and here we find Caroline at an emotional moment – she has discovered that Shirley’s governess Mrs Pryor’s real name is Agnes Helstone – she is her long lost mother. With those knowledge Caroline recovers from the illness that had taken her to the verge of death. Anne herself died whilst Charlotte was writing this novel, and she seems determined to save Anne on the page in a way that real life had denied her.

Villette

Dulac Villette

We return to Brussels for Villette, and this brilliant novel shows how far Charlotte’s powers had progressed since she was on similar territory with The Professor. Dulac’s illustration shows Lucy’s first love Dr. John rescuing a young woman after a theatre fire causes a stampede. She is the young Countess de Bassompierre, but in one of the novels many twists we discover that she is someone who Lucy had once known in very different circumstances (I won’t give this away, as it, like the novel as a whole, deserves to be read and enjoyed). The words are a perfect summary of Charlotte’s novel – Lucy wants someone she can rely on and fasten on to, but her hopes of love seem always adrift and then wrecked.

Edmund Dulac became a British citizen in 1914, and a pillar of the establishment who shortly before his death designed some of the most iconic stamps of Queen Elizabeth II. Like so many of us, however, his heart and mind was captured by those ladies of Haworth Parsonage.

How Brussels Changed The Brontës Forever

On this day in 1842 two British girls were settling down to a life that was completely alien to the one they had known. They were four hundred miles from home, in a country where the language was alien to them and the Catholic atmosphere just as foreign. They were of course Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, who arrived at the Pensionnat Heger school in Brussels on 15th February 178 years ago. Today we’ll look at how this Belgian adventure affected Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

Pensionnat Heger
Charlotte and Emily Bronte arrived here in February 1842

Let’s begin, appropriately for this blog and especially in this year, with Anne. Of course, Anne never made it to Brussels, indeed never travelled outside of England, but why did Charlotte choose Emily to accompany her to Belgium and not her youngest sister? On one hand, Anne would have seemed a more obvious choice for two reasons: Emily had lasted only a brief time at her previous school, Roe Head, before she was sent home suffering from such severe home sickness that Charlotte was worried she would die – it would not be so easy to return from Brussels as it had been from Mirfield should the same symptoms recur. Secondly, Emily was proving of huge value in Haworth Parsonage because of her domestic skills.

A clue to Charlotte’s choice comes in a letter that she sent to Aunt Branwell in August 1841 (from Rawdon where she was then a governess) in an effort to secure the funds she and Emily would need:

‘Dear Aunt… 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… 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.’

Of course we know that in the end the school did not answer, but the generous aunt did, and she provided the money that allowed Charlotte and Emily to leave for the continent. Anne was always Aunt Branwell’s favourite niece, as attested to by Ellen Nussey, so Charlotte was careful to explain the possibility that Anne could also travel to Belgium at a later date. I believe that this was indeed Charlotte’s plan, rather than being in any way a snub to Anne. Anne Brontë was at that time a governess at Thorp Green Hall near York, and highly valued in her job, so it would have seemed more expedient to let Anne continue to hone these skills, and earn her salary, and take Emily to Brussels instead. Nevertheless, we can imagine Anne’s heart sinking as she thought of her sisters starting their continental adventure whilst she remained in a daily routine which she found a drudgery.

the Heger family by Ange Francois
The Heger family by Ange Francois, Constantin on the left and Clare central

Charlotte’s years in Belgium (she spent almost two years there whereas Emily returned for Aunt Branwell’s funeral in the autumn of 1842 and remained in Haworth thereafter) were turbulent yet formative ones. She found love with Monsieur Constantin Heger, who was first her teacher and then her colleague, but it was not reciprocated, and she also lost her beloved friend Martha Taylor who was also in Brussels at the time.

These events were searingly painful for Charlotte; they changed her life for ever, and yet they changed her writing too. We see Martha as Jessy Yorke in Shirley, and her Belgian funeral is referenced twice in Villette. Heger casts an even larger shadow, as he can be seen in all Charlotte’s heroes and anti-heroes, most notably as Rochester and Paul Emanuel.

Charlotte’s letters to Constantin after she has left Belgium are difficult to read, and not only because they were at one point cut into pieces before being stitched back together again. For those of us who love Charlotte and her writing it is terrible to witness her heart in such turmoil, but as always her letters are brutally honest. We see her begging her love to write back to her, as on 8th June 1845:

‘I know that you will lose patience when you read this letter. You will say that I am over-excited – that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur. I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches – all I know is that I cannot – I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets.’

Charlotte begged for reproaches, even they would be better than the terrible silence which she had then endured for a year and a half, but reply came there none. We know, of course, that Charlotte Brontë had nothing to reproach herself for, other than a heart encountering the torments of love for the first time. Monsieur Heger, however, may not have been completely blame-free. 1915 saw a Scottish newspaper, the Carluke and Lanark Gazette, print a letter from a correspondent whose friend served as a teacher at the Heger school many years after Charlotte had. Her friend had found Heger’s vain and unfeeling attitude towards his conquest of Charlotte so distasteful, that she left her job:

Finally, we come to Emily Brontë. The months that Emily spent in Brussels were a struggle, and yet she conquered her demons in a way that she had been unable to when younger in Mirfield. Emily’s skills as a pianist were soon noted, and the Hegers not only arranged for her to receive tuition from a leading Brussels musician Monsieur Chapelle, they also hired Emily to teach the piano to other pupils.

Charlotte’s letters from Brussels to Ellen Nussey back in England at first revealed her worry that Emily would struggle as she knew not a word of French, and lessons were conducted solely in that language. She also wrote that Emily and Constantin Heger didn’t get on, and yet she soon won the hard hearted tutor over with her brilliance. He said of Emily that: ‘She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.’

Perhaps in her strength of character he found a kindred spirit in Emily, but he could never hope to match her brilliant mind. Wuthering Heights is not the only prose writing we have from Emily, for we also have a selection of her French language essays, or devoirs. When reading them now, translated into English by Sue Lonoff, it is incredible to think that she wrote them without any access to a dictionary, and within weeks of starting to learn the language.

Bronte plaque in Brussels
The Brontes can still be found in Brussels if you look hard enough

They are miniature masterpieces that always take a philosophical turn. For example, when she was asked to write a devoir on ‘the butterfly’, she wrote:

‘During my soliloquy I picked a flower at my side; it was fair and freshly opened, but an ugly caterpillar had hidden itself among the petals and already they were shrivelling and fading. “Sad image of the earth and its inhabitants!” I exclaimed. “This worm lives only to injure the plant that protects it. Why was it created, and why was man created? He torments, he kills, he devours; he suffers, dies, is devoured – there you have his whole story.”’

We see a similar theme when Emily is asked to write about a cat. Her essay ‘Le chat’ was written again within weeks of her first encounter with the French language; not for Emily are platitudes such as ‘the cat has whiskers’ or ‘the cat is black with four legs’. Emily eschews the bland and instead produces sheer brilliance:

‘A cat, in its own interest, sometimes hides its misanthropy under the guise of amiable gentleness; instead of tearing what it desires from its master’s hand it approaches with a caressing air, rubs its pretty little head against him, and advances a paw whose touch is as soft as down. When it has gained its end, it resumes its character of Timon; and that artfulness in it is called hypocrisy. In ourselves, we give it another name, politeness, and he who did not use it to hide his real feelings would soon be driven from society. “But,” says some delicate lady, who has murdered half a dozen lap-dogs through pure affection, “the cat is such a cruel beast, he is not content to kill his prey, he torments it before its death; you cannot make that accusation against us.” More or less, Madam. Your husband, for example, likes hunting very much, but foxes being rare on his land, he would not have the means to pursue this amusement often, if he did not manage his supplies thus: once he has run an animal to its last breath, he snatches it from the jaws of the hounds and saves it to suffer the same infliction two or three more times, ending finally in death. You yourself avoid the bloody spectacle because it wounds your weak nerves. But I have seen you embrace your child it transports, when he came to show you a beautiful butterfly crushed between his cruel fingers; and at that moment, I really wanted to have a cat, with the tail of a half-devoured rat hanging from its mouth to present as the image, the true copying of your angel.’

Keeper, Flossy and Tiger
Emily’s own cat Tiger can be found in this picture by her, alongside Keeper and Flossy

It is incredible to think that Emily wrote all this in perfect French, so there is little wonder that Constantin Heger soon became awed by her abilities. We think also of Charlotte explaining that whilst Emily mixed little with the people in the outside world, somehow she knew them. It also brings to mind Ellen Nussey’s assertion that Emily was to her without doubt the greatest genius of the first half of the century.

Emily Brontë had a unique and powerful mind, if only she had lived to write other novels than Wuthering Heights there can be little doubt that they would all have been masterpieces. Like her sister Charlotte her time in Brussels changed her life forever, and those changes would find their way onto the pages of the books the whole world now loves.

Stormy Weather In The Brontë Writing

Storm Ciara is battering the United Kingdom and Ireland this weekend, so it seems a perfect time to look at storms and wind in the Brontë’s writing and lives. As visitors on Brontë pilgrimages soon find out, Haworth is in an elevated position, surrounded on three sides by moorland. Situated at the top of the steep Main Street, the Brontë Parsonage itself is particularly exposed, so it can often be subjected to severe winds and heavy rain.

Haworth Parsonage
Haworth Parsonage was, and still is, exposed to the elements

For visitors today this only adds to its beauty and atmosphere, but for its Brontë inhabitants it could also bring problems, as Charlotte Brontë made clear in a letter to Ellen Nussey in December 1846: ‘the wind is as keen as a two-edged blade. We have all had severe colds and coughs in consequence of the weather. Poor Anne has suffered greatly from asthma, but is now, we are glad to say, rather better. She had two nights last week when her cough and difficulty of breathing were painful indeed to hear and witness, and must have been most distressing to suffer; she bore it, as she bears all affliction, without one complaint, only sighing now and then when nearly worn out. She has an extraordinary heroism of endurance. I admire, but I certainly could not imitate her.’

Nevertheless, Anne and Emily Brontë especially loved the wild, windy weather. Perhaps this is even more remarkable when we consider that we wouldn’t head out today without thick, waterproof coats on and sturdy boots, but nothing of the sort would have been available to the Brontës. Stormy weather wouldn’t stop Emily and Anne from taking a walk across the moors, the solution for them was to put on an extra layer or wrap another shawl tightly around themselves.

Their love of stormy weather can be seen plainly in their work. One of Anne’s earliest extant poems is even called ‘The North Wind’ and in it, under the disguise of a Gondal setting, she reveals how much she adores hearing the wild wind:

‘That wind is from the North, I know it well;
No other breeze could have so wild a swell.
Now deep and loud it thunders round my cell,
The faintly dies,
And softly sighs,
And moans and murmurs mournfully.
I know its language; thus is speaks to me —
‘I have passed over thy own mountains dear,
Thy northern mountains – and they still are free,
Still lonely, wild, majestic, bleak and drear,
And stern and lovely, as they used to be
When thou, a young enthusiast,
As wild and free as they,
O’er rocks and glens and snowy heights
Didst often love to stray.’

Autumnal landscape by Anne Bronte
Autumnal landscape by Anne Bronte – showing wind blown trees

Emily was also inclined to praise stormy weather in her poetry, on more than one occasion. It often personifies a longing for, or love of, home as in this extract from Emily’s brilliant ‘F. De Samara To A.G.A.’ – more commonly known by its opening words, ‘light up thy halls!’:

‘How gloomy grows the Night! ‘Tis Gondal’s wind that blows,
I shall not tread again the deep glens where it rose –
I feel it on my face – Where, wild blast, dost thou roam?
What do we, wanderer, here, so far away from home?
I do not need thy breath to cool my death-cold brow,
But go to that far land, where she is shining now;’

Of course, the most well known reference to stormy winds in all the Brontë canon can be found in the title of Emily’s only novel Wuthering Heights wuthering being a Yorkshire dialect word for a cold, howling wind of the kind that would be familiar to those living out on the moors like the Earnshaws and the Lintons (or the Brontës). Wild weather is almost a character in this novel, with the word ‘wind’ occurring 29 times and ‘storm’ featuring on a dozen occasions.

David Niven snowstorm
David Niven as Lockwood braves a Wuthering Heights storm

I will leave you with Anne’s brilliantly evocative poem, ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day’. This poem expresses Anne’s joy at wild weather, whether it be at Haworth, Thorp Green (where she composed this poem in 1842) or at her beloved Scarborough, watching waves crash against rocks. Even so, I don’t think Anne would have been wise to take a walk in conditions such as those that Ciara is bringing us – my advice to you all is take care, keep indoors, and settle down with a good book and a cup of something warm (whether that be tea, coffee, cocoa or whiskey I leave down to you). Let the storm do its worst!

‘My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves, beneath them, are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.
I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today!’

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg – A Review

Today I’m going to be reviewing a new Brontë book – Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg. As the name suggests it tells the story of the Brontë juvenilia, but it does so much more than this too. Before I begin my review it’s only fair to say that I was sent a copy of this book free of charge by the publisher Jonathan Cape – but regardless of that fact I’m going to give my honest and full opinion of this book.

I’ve read many books on the Brontës, from the sublime, such as the weighty fact filled biography by Juliet Barker and the series of books by Winifred Gerin, to the ridiculous where pages are spent describing the author’s car problems. Nevertheless, I’ve never before read a Brontë related book like Glass Town. In part that’s because of the format – this is a graphic novel; not a genre I’m overly familiar with, but I know they’re very popular, and to be frank if they’re all up to this standard I can see why.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot, or the ending, away, but the title places this firmly in the early days of the Brontë writing – the days when the ‘scribblemania’, as Charlotte called it, took hold, resulting in the tiny little books that we can still marvel at within the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

The earliest incarnation of the, by then, four Brontë siblings’ creative world was Glass Town, which later expanded into the world of Angria. At this point the writing was carried out by Charlotte and Branwell Brontë only. It took Charlotte’s voyage to Roe Head School in Mirfield to liberate Emily and Anne Brontë, at which point they created their own fictional worlds of Gondal and Gaaldine – one that Emily in particular found solace within throughout her life.

The action takes place in both Haworth and Glass Town

This is all contained within this marvellous book. I said ‘by then’ in the preceding paragraph because the eldest Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, had tragically died from tuberculosis before the writing adventures had begun. I was pleased to see that this was referenced by the author, and emphasis was placed upon how the eldest sisters were always remembered.

We also see the catalyst for this early creativity – the present of twelve toy soldiers that Patrick Brontë made to Branwell Brontë in July 1826, and which he then shared with his sisters. I found it very moving how reference is also made to Anne’s soldier being named ‘waiting boy’, as we learnt from Charlotte’s later account of this incident – in this year especially, Anne need wait no longer for the love and acclaim she deserves.

Anne with her soldier

This is a large, thick book that is an absolute pleasure to look upon and hold, with a beautiful red ribbon incorporated as a page marker. Each page turn is a sheer delight, and I love the way that each pair of pages are different – some are monochrome, some bold and colourful; some consist of a single image, some of many individual boxes. It is simply beautiful, and I found that it had a very cinematic quality too, particularly when Greenberg utilises moments of silence, and lets the emotion so inherent in the pictures do the talking.

In Glass Town a picture can be worth a thousand words

Is this then simply a telling of how the Brontë children became such powerful and proficient writers? In fact, it’s far more than this. It is three stories in one novel, woven together immaculately. Yes, we see the young Brontës as they grow up, and there’s a lot of biographical information included – the author is clearly a Brontë enthusiast who has revelled in her research. We also see a telling of these early writings themselves, so we enter Glass Town and see how the devilish Zamorna becomes locked in a deadly power struggle with Northangerland and others. We also see Charlotte herself dragged by Zamorna into Glass Town – she is not only the writer, she has become a character.

I found this particularly magical – it is a look at the power of the creative process, and how Charlotte in particular as a youth, and Emily in adulthood, became obsessed by the worlds and people they created. In this, it has almost a Magic Realism touch to it, as the lines between reality and the imagination become blurred. Glass Town asks us which is more real, our day to day lives, or the words we speak and the ideas we conjure up? Can Charlotte ever escape her Glass Town world – does she even want to? Is it better sometimes to live in our own imaginary kingdoms rather than face what can be sad, painful realities? This is a deep question that this book addresses, but I will leave you to discover the answer for yourself.

Glass Town asks what is more important – dreams or reality?

It is clear that Isabel Greenberg is a master of this genre; an excellent artist, a wonderful wordsmith, and, above all, this is a book with a mighty soul. I found it incredibly moving in places, and it has certainly brought me solace when I needed it. In short, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It could be a quick read, but I found myself lingering over each page – it’s certainly an object of beauty as well, that would enliven any shelf or coffee table. If I was giving marks I would have no hesitation in giving this ten out of ten. If you want an in depth look at the large and varied juvenile output of the Brontës I would always recommend Nicola Friar’s remarkable blog on that matter – but this serves as a fascinating introduction to what can be a complex subject. Is it a graphic novel, a biography, a work of fiction? It’s all three, and it’s also a book that I have no hesitation in recommending. I found it a very worthy addition to the canon of Brontë related books in Anne’s special year.

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg is available in hard back and Kindle editions, and is published by Jonathan Cape on 6th February.

Beautiful Anne Brontë Birthday Celebrations

It’s been a busy ten days for literary anniversaries. Yesterday was the birthday of Virginia Woolf, who visited Haworth Parsonage in 1904 and wrote about Emily and Charlotte Brontë in ‘A Room Of One’s Own’, and Robbie Burns, much loved by the Brontës. Of course, they were both trumped by the 200th birthday of our much loved Anne Brontë just nine days ago, so today we’re going to look back at last weekend’s Anne Brontë celebrations in Haworth and Scarborough.

Anne’s big day was last Friday, the 17th of January, and I myself marked the day by travelling to the place she and her family are most associated with: Haworth. Clouds were overhead but, rarely for a winter’s day, there was no rain as I climbed that famous steep hill once more. Now called Main Street it had been called Kirkgate as Anne made her first voyage along it aged just three months in April 1820.

My first port of call was the Brontë Parsonage Museum itself, or rather it’s shop annex. The Parsonage building is out of action throughout January as this is the time when the year’s new display is installed and essential cleaning and conservation work is carried out. Thankfully, however, the museum had opened its Bonnell Room especially for Anne’s birthday celebrations, and what a treat it was.

Henry Houston Bonnell was a major donor to the museum collection. A wealthy American from Philadelphia who loved all things Brontë, his generous bequest has seen part of the museum named after him. Unfortunately he never got to see this recognition, for he died in 1926, two years before the parsonage museum was opened to the public. For those familiar with the museum, it’s the room at the far end of the shop, or alternatively the final room that you enter as you walk down the stairs after visiting the parsonage itself.

This year it has been dedicated to Anne, and after kindly partaking of a glass of bubbly I was offered, I walked with excitement into it. Anne’s exhibition, entitled ‘Amid The Brave And Strong’ opens in full to the public next month, and I can’t wait to see it and report back on its treasure, but if the Bonnell Room is anything to go by, we’re in for a real treat.

The numerous cabinets contain a wide selection of Anne Brontë items that tell her story from beginning to end. Thus we have her pebble collection, one of her drawings of her spaniel Flossy, and a large and varied selection of her poetry and art. We also have the blood stained handkerchief with her initials in the corner, and the walls themselves are beautifully decorated with the cross-written letter which she sent to Ellen Nussey in the last weeks of her life.

Amid The Brave And Strong exhibition

Above is a photograph of the first pair of display cases, containing Anne’s stunning turquoise and carnelian necklaces, as well as the small round portrait of Anne wearing that very same carnelian necklace aged around 12 or 13, drawn by Charlotte Brontë.

From the moment of seeing that first case I was incredibly moved. At last, Anne Brontë was centre stage. As a child she had been called ‘waiting boy’, but now Anne has to wait no longer for the love and recognition she deserves. The attendant asked what I thought of the exhibition at which point I promptly burst into tears – maybe the bubbly had gone to my head, but I think I was overcome with how wonderful the exhibition was, how fitting and tastefully done – there is no doubt now that this is Anne Brontë’s year, and I found seeing that an incredibly emotional experience. When I visit the full exhibition next month I aim to be more in control of my emotions, but I’ll take a hanky or ten along just in case.

After leaving the parsonage, I made my way to the neighbouring church where Anne’s father served so well for more than 40 years. From there, it was a short stroll to the Old School Rooms, the building founded by Patrick Brontë and in which Anne spent many hours as a much loved and respected Sunday School teacher. A talk was given on Anne Brontë there which was informative and well presented – there was one little error in which a picture of Anne by Charlotte was described as being a ‘fantasy figure of a woman’ drawn by Anne, but otherwise it was a fitting tribute to Anne on her special day and hit exactly the right tone.

Old School Rooms Haworth
The Old School Rooms, where Anne was a teacher

I headed home to South Yorkshire full of love and delight at how Anne was being remembered – well done to all who have been involved in the exhibition, including Brontë Society supremo Kitty Wright who I was pleased to bump into again in Haworth.

Sunday saw the celebrations switch to Scarborough, but unfortunately I was struck down by manflu at this most inappropriate time and was unable to attend. Thankfully I received a number of reports of the weekend, all of which praised it fulsomely. The ‘Anne Brontë p.200’ art exhibition organised by Lindsey Tyson was a huge hit, and the book that accompanies it, containing 200 images created from ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, has delighted everyone lucky enough to have a copy. The exhibition itself will soon be moving to Haworth, giving everyone another chance to see it.

Venerable Brontë biographer Edward Chitham gave a talk which was very well received. Now in his mid-eighties he has lost none of his passion for Anne Brontë and her sisters, nor his ability to convey that to an audience.

A large group of people then made their way to the South Bay beach, where they each wrote a phrase or word onto a pebble relating to Anne before throwing them into the sea. I think this was a lovely idea, as this beach was walked by Anne many times; she even crossed it in a donkey drawn cart (you can still get donkey rides here in summer) and chose it as the setting for the reunion between Agnes Grey and Reverend Weston. I couldn’t be there in person but I was there in spirit, so I was absolutely delighted to see that I was represented on the pebbles thanks to two very special Brontë enthusiasts. Rachel Maria Bell wrote ‘Crave The Rose‘ on a pebble to represent my latest book, whilst Pamela Nash, organiser of the Anne Brontë event in Manchester in March, wrote ‘In Search’ (after my first Bronte biography, ‘In Search Of Anne Brontë‘) and ‘Spirit’ on her pebbles. I was really happy to see this, so thank you very much to Rachel and Pamela.

Crave pebble
Picture courtesy of Rachel Maria Bell – thank you!
In Search Of Anne Bronte pebble
Picture courtesy of Pamela Nash – thank you!

There was then a procession up the steep hill (steep hills seemed to follow the Brontës wherever they went) to Anne’s final resting place at St. Mary’s Church beneath Scarborough Castle. I have to give great thanks here too to Eileen Prunty Hynes, who had not only travelled from Ireland to pay tribute to Anne Brontë but who sent me a picture of my book on Anne’s memorial. A huge honour for me, and Eileen also brought me a present all the way from the Brontë fatherland of Drumballyroney in County Down – thank you very much! I was thrilled beyond measure at these kind thoughts and actions, and even more thrilled to see how wonderfully Anne had been remembered in Scarborough – as represented by the candles and white roses around her memorial.

Crave The Rose on Anne's grave
Picture courtesy of Eileen Prunty Hynes – thank you!

Anne’s immortal creation Helen, the tenant of Wildfell Hall, famously plucks a white winter rose and uses it to represent her own courage and resilience. It also, of course, perfectly represents the courage and resilience of Anne Brontë.

Next week I will be reviewing a new Brontë graphic novel called ‘Glass Town’ by Isabel Greenberg – is it a fitting book to mark Anne’s special year? (Spoiler alert: yes it is, but more on that next week). For now I just want to thank all who have remembered Anne in the last ten days, wherever in the world they are. We are in the year of Anne Brontë, and it’s about time.

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall