‘Devotion’ – The Brontës In Hollywood

‘Devotion’ was made in Hollywood in 1946, and believe me it’s a Brontë sisters biopic unlike any other that you’ve seen! The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth closes its doors in January every year as it prepares a new display. This year it will re-open on 4th February with an exhibition entitled ‘Patrick Brontë: In Sickness And In Health’. I will of course be going along to see that at the earliest possible opportunity, but that doesn’t mean that Haworth is quiet at the moment for this week the West Lane Baptist Centre gave a special showing of ‘Devotion’.

I couldn’t be at Haworth on the day, nor on Anne Brontë’s birthday on Thursday (although it was lovely to see such an outpouring of love for her on the day), but a ‘benevolent individual’ (as Patrick famously called Frances Mary Richardson Currer) very kindly sent me a copy in the post! I watched it last night, and I here review the film that gave the Brontës a very Hollywood makeover, with more than a slice of ham on the side.

Devotion portrait
Branwell paints, from l to r, Emily, Charlotte and Anne (and Keeper)

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt, it features some of the greatest stars in the world of the day. Olivia de Havilland plays Charlotte Brontë, Ida Lupino stars as Emily Brontë, and Nancy Coleman plays Anne Brontë. Paul Heinreid plays Arthur Bell Nicholls and Sidney Greenstreet, a Hollywood heavyweight in more ways than one, plays William Makepeace Thackeray. The latter two are one of the major flaws in the film.

bedroom Devotion
The Bronte sisters share a rather spacious bedroom in Devotion

Heinreid and Greenstreet are two of the stars in what is, to my mind, the greatest film ever made: 1942’s ‘Casablanca’. In that film, Heinreid is perfectly cast as Victor Laszlo, the resistance leader who has escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and is the most wanted man in the world, while Greenstreet is excellent in his usual slightly menacing role as Ferrari. Heinreid had himself fled from the Nazis in 1935, and he here plays Irish priest Arthur Bell Nicholls with his own strong Austrian accent. The film makers seemed to realise the absurdity of this by having Patrick say to him ‘I understand from the Bishop you were educated abroad?’

Greenstreet fares little better. He had by this time a ‘catchphrase’, of sorts, of a sinister laugh. It served him perfectly in ‘Casablanca’ and in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (another incredible film) but is totally out of place in this role as a jovial Thackeray. He laughs in every sentence he delivers, and it soon becomes wearing.

The central premise of the plot is that Charlotte and Emily both fall in love with the same man: Nicholls, but it soon becomes apparent that the curate only has eyes for the fiery Charlotte. It’s a rather strange twist to take in a Brontë biopic, but of course Hollywood knew that sex and romance sells. The trailer has the rather sensational line: “They called them FREE SOULS! Now Warner Bros bring you the exciting story of TWO EXCITING WOMEN WHOSE AFFAIRS WERE WHISPERED ACROSS AN ERA!”

Devotion dance scene
Charlotte and Anne enjoy a dance at Lady Thornton’s ball

From the very start we get confirmation that no attempt whatsoever has been made to give this any historical or literary accuracy, as a wealthy lady stops to present a large package to Aunt Branwell – she is introduced as Lady Thornton, and the sisters later attend a grand ball at Thornton House.

It’s a nice touch, in a strange way, that a nod has been given to the birth village of the Brontës, Thornton near Bradford, in this way. It seems clear that the writers did have some knowledge of the Brontë story, they simply decide to mash it all up and put it back together in a totally different way: deconstructed Brontës.

Emily Arthur on moors
Emily and Arthur walk the moors

So we see a stern yet loving Patrick Brontë, Aunt Branwell takes a central role in the story which I was glad to see, and she is portrayed in a much kinder way than I might have expected. The Hegers feature (wait for it, I’m coming to that), as does publisher George Smith, and Keeper is here – although for some reason he is not a fierce mastiff but a fluffy Old English Sheepdog who could have come straight from a Dulux paint advert.

The Brontë timeline as we know it has little impact on ‘Devotion’. It is Branwell who pays to send his sisters to Brussels (after Arthur buys a painting from him with this purpose), and his illness that brings them back to England. Arthur’s arrival actually coincides with that of William Weightman in reality, and he seems to have been given much of Weightman’s charm. Aunt Branwell outlives them all, so she has to witness the death of her nephew and niece.

Bronte falls Devotion
Branwell gets ready to dunk Anne in the Bronte falls

Another problem is that the film starts with all three sisters taking an equal footing, indeed Anne is the first sister we see – as she wrestles playfully with Branwell by the Brontë falls. But, for some reason, Anne disappears half way through only to reappear at the very end. Charlotte is portrayed as a femme fatale, with Arthur, Heger and Thackeray rapidly falling under her spell. It has to be said that all three sisters are very beautiful in this film, and some of their dresses are rather more spectacular than they may have enjoyed in real life. Coleman, as Anne, is strikingly beautiful, which won’t please a certain other Anne Brontë biographer who chose Anne’s birthday to declare, with no evidence at all and in contravention of eye witness accounts of Anne, that Charlotte had ‘prettified’ her drawings of her youngest sister. That wasn’t Charlotte’s style, but it certainly is Ellis’ style, anyway, back to the film.

Arthur first makes his move on Charlotte at the grand ball thrown by Lady Thornton. There is a dance sequence that I could watch over and over again, it’s highly comical, especially as it’s followed by a fist fight between Arthur and Branwell that could have come straight from a ‘Zorro’ movie.

Charlotte and Heger
Charlotte and Monsieur Heger emerge from the tunnel of mystery

In Brussels things, historically, take a turn for the worse. Heger falls in love with Charlotte, rather than the other way round, and rather than the dashing young man that he was he is instead a portly middle aged man who is almost a caricature of a Frenchman. He takes Charlotte, or Carlotta as he insists on calling her, on a fairground ride through ‘the tunnel of mystery’. She asks him what the mystery is, after which the screen goes black until we see Charlotte rearranging her bonnet and hair as they emerge from the tunnel; ‘now there is no mystery’ says Heger.

Another caricature comes in Tabby Ayckroyd who has been to the ‘ee bah gum’ school of Yorkshire dialogue. Her first line comes when she is asked where the children are: “Oop yonder aah reckon, oop on’t moor!”

‘Jane Eyre’ becomes such a success that Charlotte travels to London not, as in real life, to prove her identity, but because she relishes fame. Thackeray quickly falls under her spell, and he takes her to the ballet. She looks down at the crowd and says she is impressed by all the people looking up at him, ‘My dear, they are looking at you!’ he replies. I thought this, and the London episode as a whole was nice, but of course in reality it was Anne that shared London with her not Thackeray, whom she only met on subsequent visits. Charlotte also finds time to have dinner with the Prime Minister and, quill in hand, she signs books for a long queue of fans that could have come straight from a Waterstones.

Ballet Devotion
Charlotte and Thackeray at the ballet

Whilst in London she drops in on Arthur, who for some unexplained reason is now living and working in the East End (if you expect lots of street urchins here, you won’t be disappointed). He finally declares his love for her, but Charlotte has to dash back to Haworth as Emily is gravely ill. The two sisters are reconciled on her death bed, and the last scene shows Charlotte on the moors once more, with Arthur by her side.

So this is all hokum, right? It’s a tragic interpretation of the Brontës that is only worth watching to laugh at, right? Well, no. By the end of the film I knew that what could have been tragic is actually something rather magic. I loved it more than any other Brontë biopic I’ve seen, despite its huge multitude of fallacies, so I will try to explain why.

Lupino and de Havilland are great actors, and they portray Emily and Charlotte brilliantly. I think Emily may well have approved of the choice of Ida Lupino to play her, because not only was she fantastic at what she did, she was a pioneer for women’s rights in the movies – in the 1950 she became the first woman to set up her own independent production company.

Branwell's death
I defy anyone not to be moved by Branwell’s death scene

Anne, whilst not appearing nearly enough, is kind and empathic and shows a particular tenderness towards Branwell. Branwell’s frailties are shown, yes, but he is portrayed very sympathetically and we can see why his sisters love him. Branwell’s death scene is incredibly touching, and very well done. Emily dashes out in the rain looking for him and finds him collapsed in the street, where he dies cradled in her arms. It moved me to tears, it was so tenderly written and acted as Emily simply says, ‘he’s gone Charlotte.’

Arthur’s accent is ridiculous, yes, and he is an amalgam of himself and Weightman, and yet he has some good lines to deliver, and does it well. When Charlotte finally confronts him in London and asks why he paid for her and Emily to go to Brussels and later left Haworth altogether he admits, “I’m not a big enough man to live side by side with such greatness, nor am I so small that I can witness its torment.”

We see a rounded Emily; she is a brilliant genius, she loves the moors and her family, she is strong and powerful, and we also see her visionary side. Arthur asks if she really believes in ghosts, and Emily replies “Oh yes, I’ve both seen and heard them.”

Emily dies in Charlotte’s arms, but after Charlotte leaves the room a strange scene is played out. We see Emily sit bolt upright, her eyes open and then we see her ghost walking the moor until a horse comes to take her away. It could have been ridiculous, but in fact it’s very moving.

Emily's ghost Devotion
Emily’s ghost walks the moors in Devotion

That line describes the film as a whole. I think that somebody connected with the film loved the Brontës, and somehow it shows. It lacks historical accuracy, or accuracy of any kind, it has farcical sets, squashes time to suit its purpose, and rewrites characters and events; but it does not lack heart, and it does not lack beauty and when it comes to art of any kind I always tend to agree with Keats who (quoting Theophile Gauthier) said “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.

‘Devotion’ is a warm, loving tribute to the Brontë sisters and a moving portrayal of tormented genius and I commend it to you all.

Happy Birthday Anne Brontë, 199 Today!

It’s time to get out the balloons, pop the cork on a bottle of prosecco (or have a nice cup of tea), hang up the pinata, slice a cake, and sit back with your favourite book. It’s a moment of celebration, for today marks the 199th birthday of the woman without whom this blog would not be possible: Anne Brontë.

Anne was born on the 17th January 1820 in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford, where her father Patrick was the Church of England priest. Just three months later, baby Anne would be heading to a new home in Haworth with her five siblings: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell and Emily – the sister who would develop a twin like affection with her as they grew older. In many posts on this site, and in my book ‘In Search Of Anne Brontë‘, I’ve looked at the many reasons that make Anne Brontë special, and her work deserves to be regarded as equal to that of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, and indeed of any novel produced in the nineteenth century. In short, Anne’s prose is brilliant, it flows quickly and jumps from the page with not a word wasted; she was also unafraid to address the issues of her day, however controversial that made her with some people, and when we read her works now we often see that they remain issues of our day too.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
The loving bond between Anne and Emily Bronte had its origins 199 years ago today!

Anne Brontë then is a major novelist, an increasingly important writer who is still being read and heard, and understood, and whose best days may yet be to come. It’s also important to remember that she was a sister, a daughter, a friend, maybe a lover (in the way that term was understood in the nineteenth century); she was a kind, considerate and brilliant woman who never put herself first, and for those who knew her it was a privilege to be in her company. Wherever we are today, whether laying flowers at the graveside in her beloved Scarborough, next to the magnificent St. Mary’s church, treading the streets and moorland so familiar to her in Haworth, or simply thinking of her wherever in the world we happen to be, we can take a moment to reflect and be thankful for all she was and all she did.

Let’s look now at one of the finest examples of her writing, when Helen, the eponymous tenant of Wildfell Hall, reveals her love for Gilbert, despite the trials, tribulations and worse of the abusive marriage to Huntingdon she has just survived:

”Without waiting for an answer, she turned away her glistening eye and crimson cheek, and threw up her window and looked out, whether to calm her own excited feelings or to relieve her embarrassment, or only to pluck that beautiful half-blown Christmas rose that grew upon the little shrub without, just peeping from the snow that had hitherto, no doubt, defended it from the frost, and was now melting away in the sun. Pluck it, however, she did, and having gently dashed the glittering powder from its leaves, approached it to her lips and said –

“This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, Gilbert, it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals – Will you have it?”’

Christmas rose snow
Anne’s prose is as delicate and perfect as a Christmas rose in the snow!

Anne’s writing was her gift to us all, the Christmas flower that we’re all presented with; it has been neglected but we can appreciate it’s beauty and power even more because of that, so yes, we’ll have it, and we’ll join together and say ‘Happy 199th Birthday, Anne Brontë, we love you!’

Who Delivered The Brontë Children In Thornton?

A happy event was growing ever nearer in Thornton Parsonage, near Bradford, on this day 199 years ago, for we are just four days away from the birth of our beloved Anne Brontë. To my mind there is nothing more beautiful than a happy woman in the glow of late pregnancy, and hopefully Maria was able to look forward with joy to the birth of her sixth child.

front of Thornton Parsonage
Thornton Parsonage near Bradford without the modern frontage shown in the header picture

Thornton Parsonage must have been a bustling place, for Maria and Patrick Brontë already had five children to keep them occupied: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell and the one year old Emily Jane. There were also two live in servants at this time, the Garrs sisters Sarah and Nancy, but just who was it who would deliver baby Anne on the 17th of January 1820?

I was recently asked the question as to who delivered the Brontë children in Thornton and I was stumped for an answer, but after giving it some more thought I believe I may know who it was. Of course, giving birth in 1820 was very different to giving birth today – there were no hospitals with maternity wards to attend, and so in effect this meant giving birth at home with any children hopefully kept well out of the way by an aunt, uncle, or neighbour.

Thornton Parsonage fireplace
The historic fireplace in Thornton that witnessed the birth of the Brontes

My first thought is that a village midwife would have assisted, but again this isn’t ‘midwife’ as we would understand this term today. These weren’t medically trained individuals, or officially licensed in any way, but usually old women of some standing in the community who in their earlier days had given birth a number of times themselves. They would be called upon to help expectant mothers throughout their village, and in return could doubtless expect some payment in gratitude from the father depending upon their financial situation.

It’s believed that an old woman called Mrs Feather may have filled this role in Thornton at the time, so it seemed likely that she may have been called upon to help with the delivery of Anne, but on second thoughts there’s possibly a more likely candidate in this instance.

The two oldest siblings, Maria and Elizabeth Brontë, were born before the family moved to Thornton. At the time the Brontës resided at Clough House in Hightown near Mirfield, a short walk from the building which became the Roe Head School that Charlotte, Emily and Anne later attended. We know that a Dr. Carr of Gomersal assisted in the delivery of the births of Maria and Elizabeth, riding to Hightown on horseback, a distance of three miles.

Clough House
Clough House, Hightown, where Maria and Elizabeth Bronte were born

In Gomersal he served as family physician to the wealthy merchant family the Taylors at the Red House, and he would have delivered their daughter Mary who became one of Charlotte Brontë’s best friends. He later married Sarah Nussey, who was cousin to Charlotte’s other great friend, Ellen Nussey. When it comes to the Brontës, there are always connections.

Dr. Carr would not have travelled the greater distance to Thornton, but it demonstrates that a doctor rather than an untrained midwife would have been expected to deliver the child of the parish priest, perhaps in deference to their social standing within the community.

If it wasn’t Dr. Carr that delivered Anne Brontë, then who was it? Perhaps we get a clue from Anne’s godmothers. One was Elizabeth Firth, and the Firths of Kipping House were great friends of the Brontës throughout their time in Thornton, but the other was Fanny Outhwaite. Fanny was a friend of Elizabeth Firth, and presumably well acquainted with both Maria and Patrick, and her brother and father were both doctors.

Fanny’s older brother John Outhwaite was born in 1792, and as well as being a doctor and surgeon based in Bradford, he was a socially minded individual who helped to found the Bradford Exchange and also helped to run the Bradford Infirmary. Dr. Outhwaite is mentioned in handwritten notes within a medical book that Patrick Brontë kept, ‘Modern Domestic Medicine’ so it seems that Patrick trusted him and continued to consult him on medical matters long after the Brontës had moved to Haworth.

Dr. John Outhwaite, it seems to me, is the most likely person to have delivered Anne Brontë, and Emily, Branwell and Charlotte before her (I’ve ruled out the stork). Whoever it was did a sterling job, as Maria and all her six children survived childbirth of course, which was an unusual achievement at a time when giving birth could be so fraught with danger.

So we can look forward now to next Thursday when we celebrate the 199th birthday of a woman who means so much to us all: Anne Brontë.

Arthur Bell Nicholls And The 6 Bronte Curates

Today marks the 200th birthday of a man who was very important in the Brontë story – Arthur Bell Nicholls. Born in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland on 6th January 1819, he arrived in Haworth to serve as assistant curate in June 1845 and nine years later he married Charlotte Brontë. We’ve looked at Arthur’s marriage to Charlotte previously, whilst the course of romance ran far from smooth with them, they certainly found love eventually. Today, we’re going to look at why Haworth needed an assistant curate, and at the six men who filled this role.

Haworth was a very prestigious parish, largely thanks to its minister William Grimshaw who served there from 1742 until his death in 1762. He was, alongside the likes of the Wesleys, prominent in the founding of what we now know as Methodism, and huge crowds would come to hear him speak. His sermons could last for hours, and he was noted for sometimes fainting during them, being revived and continuing on and on. It was also claimed that he had a habit of entering the nearby inns, such as the Black Bull, during Sunday services and whipping men that he found there. Perhaps surprisingly these actions made him hugely popular, although one famous commentator gave this view of Grimshaw:

‘In his unconverted state this person was certainly insane; and, had he given utterance at that time to the monstrous and horrible imaginations which he afterwards revealed to his spiritual friends, he would deservedly have been sent to Bedlam.’

Aunt Branwell's teapot
Aunt Branwell’s teapot, the reverse of which is inscribed ‘Wm Grimshaw, Haworth’

The man who gave this opinion? Robert Southey, who also of course gave his opinion on women writers to Charlotte Brontë. Grimshaw’s fame lived well into the nineteenth century, so that one of Aunt Branwell‘s prized possessions was a teapot bearing his name and one of his quotes. Patrick Brontë, then, was entering a very prestigious post in 1820, but it was also a very busy one thanks largely to the huge numbers of funerals he had to preside over. As he aged he felt increasingly the need for help at his services, and this came in the shape of the following six assistant curates:

Reverend William Hodgson (December 1835 – May 1837)

Hodgson was Patrick’s first assistant curate, and his appointment was made possible by a grant of £50 given to Patrick by the Church Pastoral Aid Society to cover his wage. He left Haworth to become a vicar in nearby Colne, across the Lancashire border.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

Reverend William Weightman (August 1839 – September 1842)

Along with Arthur, poor tragic William Weightman is the assistant curate who made most impact on the Brontës. He was a charming, kind man with a brilliant intelligence, and in a moving funeral sermon, Patrick claimed that he had been like a son to him. Perhaps if fate hadn’t intervened he could one day have filled that role, as I believe that he and Anne Brontë were in love with each other. He was also a close friend of Branwell Brontë, and after his sudden death from cholera, caught after visiting a sick parishioner, he was mourned by Anne in a series of poetic laments as well as being the inspiration for Reverend Weston who eventually marries Agnes Grey.

Weightman plaque
The William Weightman memorial plaque, paid for by parishioners. is the largest in Haworth church

Reverend James William Smith (March 1843 – October 1844)

Weightman’s successor as assistant curate was an altogether different character. He was in little favour with Patrick, who disliked his fiery temper and his love of money – going so far as to tell Charlotte to warn her friend Ellen Nussey that he may only be after her money when the curate showed some interest in her. It is also thought that he was the inspiration for Reverend Malone in Charlotte’s novel ‘Shirley‘, the argumentative priest who is summarily banished by the title character. In 1844 he left Haworth to become a priest in Keighley, but he came under a cloud due to the missing accounts of Haworth’s school which had been supposedly under his control. In 1848 he fled to Canada leaving unpaid debts behind him.

Shirley Keeldar by Edmund Dulac
Shirley Keeldar dismissing Malone by Edmund Dulac

Reverend Joseph Brett Grant (October 1844 – March 1847)

Grant combined duties as assistant curate with the role of Headmaster at the nearby Free Grammar School in Oxenhope, and when Oxenhope was created a parish in March 1847 he was appointed its first vicar. He was a friend of Arthur Bell Nicholls, and accompanied him to his wedding to Charlotte, presumably also acting as his best man. Grant’s high standing is also evinced by his role as one of the six pall-bearers at Patrick Brontë’s funeral in 1861.

Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls (May 1845 – May 1853)

Arthur was the longest serving of Patrick’s assistant curates, and all seemed to be going well in his role until he made the mistake of falling in love with his boss’s daughter. It is well known how furious Patrick was, and of how Charlotte was amazed at his proposal of marriage, but a 1905 newspaper report I saw this week also carried the revelation that Charlotte was advised not to marry him because he had rheumatism. Despondent, Arthur pledged to start a new life as a missionary in Australia, but in fact he became curate at Kirk Smeaton near Pontefract, at 37 miles away not quite so distant from Haworth as Australia.

Manchester Courier 15 Sept 1805
The Manchester Courier 15 Sept 1805 carried interesting news on Arthur Bell Nicholls.

Reverend George de Renzy (May 1853 – June 1854)

During his spell as assistant curate, de Renzy married a local girl, Emily Mackey of Wilsden. Patrick seems to have been less than impressed by him, and this may have helped to soften his stance towards the man who replaced him.

Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today
Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today

Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls (August 1854 – September 1861)

When Arthur left Haworth under a cloud in May 1853 few would have thought he would have officiated there again, but 15 months later he returned triumphant – not only resuming his previous role as assistant curate but adding a new one as fiance to Charlotte Brontë. One of Charlotte’s most delightful sentences in ‘Shirley’ is, ‘Of late years, I say, an abundant shower of curates has fallen on the north of England’, but only one of them could, eventually, capture her heart. He was a devout man, a persistent man, one whose heart was full of love (even if his legs may have been full of rheumatism), and so on this day let us charge our glasses and say ‘Happy 200th Birthday, Arthur Bell Nicholls.’

Patrick Brontë, Maria Branwell And A Triple Wedding

The new year rapidly approaches, and for many of us, let’s face it, this is a time to relax and recharge our batteries before the madness of New Year celebrations arrive. A time to curl up with a good book, hopefully with a nice warm fire (or radiator) nearby or a duvet pulled up tight. For one, or rather three, couples in 1812 however, this was a time of great activity, and one that would change their lives forever. It also changed literary history forever, for on this weekend 206 years ago, Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell.

On 29th December 1812 the farmer’s son from County Down and the merchant’s daughter from Cornwall were married in St. Oswald’s church in Guiseley, between Leeds and Bradford. It had been a whirlwind romance, as Patrick and Maria had only met that summer when Patrick took up a post as classics examiner at Woodhouse Grove school in Leeds. It was a Methodist school run by John and Jane Fennell, who had earlier met Patrick when they were all living in Shropshire. Their niece had arrived at the school, after a journey of over 400 miles, around the same time to work in an administrative position, although she may later have expected to take up a teaching role – this was, of course, Maria Branwell, as Jane was the sister of her father Thomas.

Woodhouse Grove School
Woodhouse Grove School where Maria met Patrick in the summer of 1812

Love and marriage came late for both of them, especially by early nineteenth century standards, as Maria was in her late 20s and Patrick in his mid 30s, but there can be no doubt at all that this was a love match and that they were both smitten with each other from the moment they met. We see plentiful evidence of this in Maria’s letters during her courtship to her ‘saucy Pat’. They are often amusing, always moving. By December 5th we can see that wedding arrangements were being finalised:

‘We intend to set about making the cakes here next week, but as fifteen or twenty persons whom you mention live probably in our neighbourhood, I think it will be most convenient for Mrs Bedford to make a small one for the purpose of distributing there, which will save us the difficulty of sending so far.’

Mrs Bedford was Patrick’s landlady, and of course just over three weeks after this letter, Maria would herself be living with Patrick in Hartshead as Mrs. Brontë. Patrick and Maria weren’t the only couple getting married on that day, as an advertisement placed in The Gentleman’s Magazine at the start of 1813 reveals:

‘Lately at Guiseley, near Bradford, by the Rev. William Morgan, minister of Bierley, Rev. P. Brontë, B.A., minister of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, to Maria, third daughter of the late T. Branwell, Esq., of Penzance. At the same time, by the Rev. P. Brontë, Rev. W. Morgan, to the only daughter of Mr. John Fennell, Headmaster of the Wesleyan Academy near Bradford.’

St. Oswald's Church, Guiseley
St. Oswald’s Church, Guiseley, site of Maria’s wedding to Patrick Bronte

Woodhouse Grove had seen a series of strange coincidences that summer, as Reverend William Morgan had also met the Fennells and Patrick Brontë during an earlier ministry in Shropshire before he too moved north to the burgeoning towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Originally from Wales, Morgan fell in love with the other young woman at the school, Jane Fennell junior – cousin to Maria Branwell.

Patrick and William were lifelong best friends, and Reverend Morgan presided over many important events in the lives of the Brontë sisters – from their christenings to, all too soon, their funerals. But wait – I mentioned three couples, so let’s turn to the third couple, as that leads us to a detailed account of what happened on that December day in Guiseley.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan, also married in Guiseley 206 years ago this week

Maria Branwell had a younger sister, Charlotte, who had fallen in love with their cousin Joseph Branwell. The two sisters, and their mutual cousin Jane (who was also a cousin, rather than sister, to Joseph Branwell), colluded with each other via correspondence that must have whizzed back and forth across the hundreds of miles separating Leeds and Penzance, and they arranged to get married at the same day and same time, despite the distance separating them. This was later recalled by Charlotte and Joseph’s daughter, another Charlotte Branwell (cousin to the Brontë sisters). On Christmas Day 1884, The Cornish Telegraph printed her story:

‘It was arranged that the two marriages [Patrick and Maria and William and Jane] should be solemnized on the same day as that of Miss Charlotte Branwell’s mother, fixed for 29th December in far off Penzance. And so, whilst the youngest sister of Mrs. Brontë was being married to her cousin, the late Mr Joseph Branwell, the double marriage, as already noted was taking place in Yorkshire. Miss Charlotte Branwell also adds that at Guiseley not only did the Rev. Mr Brontë and the Rev. Mr Morgan perform the marriage ceremony for one another, but the brides acted as bridesmaids for each other. Mr Fennell, who was a clergyman of the Church of England, would have united the young people, but he had to give both brides away. Miss Branwell notes these facts to prove that the arrangement for the three marriages on the same day was no caprice or eccentricity on the part of Mr Brontë, but was made entirely by the brides. She has many a time heard her mother speak of the circumstances. “It is but seldom,” continues Miss Branwell, “that two sisters and four cousins are united in holy matrimony on the same day. Those who were united on that day bore that relationship to each other. Mrs. Brontë (formerly Maria Branwell) and my mother, Charlotte Branwell, were sisters; my father was their cousin; and Jane Fennel was a cousin to them all, her father, the Rev. J. Fennell, having married a Miss Branwell of a former generation.

If the account I have given you is likely to be of any interest you are quite at liberty to use it as you think proper. I really think a deal of eccentricity has been ascribed to Mr Brontë which he never possessed, and from his letters to my dear mother, of which there are some still in existence, I should say he was a very worthy man, but one who had to pass through some great trials in the early death of a truly amiable wife and of a very gifted family.”’

Charlotte Branwell
Charlotte Branwell, third bride in the triple wedding

It is clear from Charlotte’s account above that Patrick and Maria had a very loving, if all too brief, marriage, and their wedding day must have been an exciting and joyous one. It is said that after the marriage in Guiseley, the two happy couples repaired to Woodhouse Grove school for their reception, cakes and all! Let us leave them there, and indeed leave 2018 on a note of love and promise. This has been the year of Emily Brontë, and I hope it has brought you closer to her and to her wonderful family, I certainly feel that it has done so for me. I wish you a Happy New Year, and I’ll have a new post out on the 1st of January 2019. Tempus fugit!

A Musical Christmas In The Brontë Parsonage

So here it is – Merry Christmas! I sit here on Christmas Day morning 2018 wondering whether it’s still too early to crack open a bottle of prosecco, thinking of turkey to come and with carols playing in the background – and of course there’s a plentiful supply of Brontë books within reach!

Haworth Christmas pillar portrait
Happy Christmas from me, Anne, Emily, Branwell and Charlotte – to you all!

Christmas should be a time of fun and joy, full of music and laughter, and it seems it was often like this at the Haworth parsonage we all know and love. Bands and singers would travel to the larger houses and the village inns, spreading festive cheer in return for a few coins, a drink and maybe a mince pie or two. We get a glimpse from Emily Brontë in her ‘Wuthering Heights‘ as the Gimmerton Band comes a-calling:

‘In the evening we had a dance. Cathy begged that he [Heathcliff] might be liberated then, as Isabella Linton had no partner; her entreaties were in vain, and I was appointed to supply the deficiency. We got rid of all gloom in the excitement of the exercise, and our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them. After the usual carols had been sung, we set them to songs and glees. Mrs Earnshaw loved the music, and so they gave us plenty.’

Bronte piano
The Bronte piano that Emily and Anne loved to play

Anne Brontë too loved music at Christmas, and we can imagine Anne standing by the piano on this special day and singing along with her sweet voice as Emily played a Christmas refrain. I wish you all, and your families a Happy Christmas and Yuletide – without you reading this blog it wouldn’t exist, so I thank you all! I leave you, as my tradition dictates, with Anne Brontë’s poem ‘Music On Christmas Morning’:

“Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.”

The Funeral Of Emily Brontë

The joyous feast of Christmas is nearly upon us, and I’ll be up with the elves producing a Christmas morning blog post on just that theme, but today we deal with more solemn emotions. Christmas can be a terrible time for those who are lonely, who are bereaved, who have lost the one they love. Celebrations, laughter and festivity are everywhere, but they feel excluded from it all because instead of light they live under a constant veil of darkened shadow. This was the cloak which enveloped Charlotte Brontë on this day 170 years ago, for on 23rd December 1848 she wrote to Ellen Nussey:

‘Emily suffers no more either from pain or weakness now. She never will suffer more in this world – she is gone after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible then she might be with us still for weeks and a few hours afterwards she was in Eternity. Yes – there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now – yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the Church pavement. We are very calm at present, why should we be otherwise? The anguish of seeing her suffer is over, the spectacle of the pains of Death is gone by, the funeral day is past, we feel she is at peace. No need now to tremble for the hard frost and keen wind – Emily does not feel them. She has died in a time of promise – we saw her torn from life in its prime.’

Parsonage dining room
This black sofa in the Bronte Parsonage was where Emily Bronte died

Charlotte was referring of course to the funeral of Emily Brontë, who was buried in the Brontë family vault in Haworth’s St. Michael and All Angels’ Church on 22nd December 1848 having died three days earlier. She joined her mother, her Aunt Elizabeth, her sisters Maria and Elizabeth and her brother Branwell in the vault, but there were two more spaces yet to be filled. After the church was rebuilt by Reverend Brontë’s successor, John Wade, a pillar was placed above the Brontë vault, a strange echo of the pillar that Branwell had placed between his sisters in his youthful painting of them.

Bronte family vault
A pillar marks the Bronte family vault

With Patrick acting as chief mourner, of course, the funeral service was conducted by his assistant, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Emily’s beloved dog Keeper also had a place of honour in the church and led the funeral procession, as reported by Ellen Nussey:

‘Keeper was a solemn mourner at Emily’s funeral and never recovered his cheerfulness.’

Ellen Nussey on Keeper
Ellen Nussey’s letter revealing Keeper’s presence at Emily’s funeral

Ellen also wrote that Keeper ‘seemed to understand her [Emily] like a human being’ and even years later he would still long for the mistress he loved and missed. Writing after Anne Brontë’s death, which followed just six months after Emily’s, Charlotte wrote:

‘The ecstasy of these poor animals [Flossy and Keeper] when I came in was something singular… I am certain they thought that, as I was returned, my sisters were not far behind – but here my sisters will come no more. Keeper may visit Emily’s little bed-room, as he still does day by day, and Flossy may look wistfully round for Anne – they will never see them again – nor shall I.’

So, Christmas 1848 was a time of mourning. Charlotte had lost the sister she hero worshipped, Anne had lost her twin like sister and herself was now gravely ill, Patrick had lost the daughter he had called his right hand and the apple of his eye, and Keeper had lost the human who was the whole world to him.

For Charlotte life had to go on, but it was diminished, her sun had set. Perhaps as she walked the hills and moors the lines from one of Emily’s poems came into her head:

‘I dream of moor, and misty hill,
Where evening closes dark and chill;
For, lone, among the mountains cold,
Lie those that I have loved of old.’

Emily herself was not scared of death, and she wrote about it in many of her brilliant poems, perhaps recalling John Keats who wrote, ‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme.’ Nevertheless, Emily was not an invariably gloomy woman, for we have reports of her happy, cheerful voice and her love of practical jokes. No, to Emily death was simply a fact of life the same as any other.

It is perhaps fitting that Emily died and was buried around the time of the winter solstice. A time when death inevitably comes, when we reach the darkest point of the year, but that, as Emily knew, also heralds the beginning of a new light that will eventually bring new life, and the verdant beauty will return. Emily died, but the legend and legacy of Emily was just being born. I will leave you with ‘At Castle Wood’, a remarkable poem by Emily Brontë in which she looks ahead to her death and funeral. But this is the time of Yule, from the old Norse word for wheel; the wheel of the year and life turns and joy will come again, so on Christmas day I will have a much happier post for you all.

Emily Bronte, At Castle Wood

In Remembrance Of Emily Brontë

We are moving towards the end of a very special year for Emily Brontë, and for Brontë fans across the globe, because 2018 has marked the 200th anniversary of her birth, it has been in effect The Year of Emily.

A birthday party was held in Haworth on the 30th of July; I could not be there but I was instead at another birthday party given for Emily – over 400 miles away in Penzance, the home of Emily’s mother and her maternal relatives, the Branwells. I loved every minute of my visit to Penzance and Cornwall this summer, and despite the distance from Haworth I felt close to the woman I had loved since I first opened ‘Wuthering Heights’ as an 18 year old student.

Penzance mural
This Penzance mural shows notables of the town – fourth from left is Maria Branwell – mother of Emily Brontë

Nevertheless, on this day I felt I had to return to Haworth for it was on this day in 1848 that Emily Brontë took her last breath. All who had known her were distraught of course, with Charlotte writing a moving tribute containing the line, ‘yes, there is no Emily in Time or on Earth now. Yesterday, we put her poor, wasted mortal frame quietly under the church pavement.’

Bronte Parsonage Museum 1929 by Kaye Sugden
The room where Emily Bronte died, photographed in 1929 by Kaye Sugden

Unfortunately, last minute circumstances have delayed my journey to Haworth until another day, but before Christmas I will have paused in silence by the couch on which Emily died, and have laid flowers by the pillar that marks the spot on the church pavement beneath which Emily’s mortal remains were laid. It is a mournful day for me, but not for Emily – she will always live on.

So, let us dwell not on her final illness, but on her genius and her brilliance that has never seen the like before or since. The unmistakable power and talent that led Ellen Nussey to declare: ‘I have at this time before me the history of a mighty and passionate soul, whom every adventure that makes for the sorrow or gladness of man would seem to have passed by with averted head. It is of Emily Brontë I speak, than whom the first 50 years of this century produced no woman of greater or more incontestable genius.’

On this day then let us remember the brilliance of Emily Brontë contained within ‘Wuthering Heights’ and contained within her remarkable poetry. This particular poem was praised by F.R. Leavis, perhaps the greatest ever literary critic, as ‘the finest poem in the nineteenth century’. High praise indeed, so I shall leave you with ‘Remembrance’ as we remember Emily Jane Brontë, who left us 170 years ago today:

“Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?
Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover,
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover,
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?
Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers,
After such years of change and suffering!
Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee,
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!
No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.
But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.
Then did I check the tears of useless passion –
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten,
Down to that tomb already more than mine.
And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?”

The Kindness And Charity Of Charlotte Brontë

Today I’m going to relate a story that’s now very little known, indeed that had been lost within the tiny print amidst a mass of yellow tinged nineteenth century newspapers. It’s a tale full of charity and care for those less fortunate than yourself, so it’s perfect for this Christmas season. If you’re sitting comfortably I’ll begin the tale of Charlotte Brontë and the boots.

I can never stay away from the Brontë family for too long, so I may have news of two new Brontë related books next year – and that means my favourite thing of all, research! Some people might feel there’s nothing new to discover, but in fact you can sometimes find a new piece of documentary evidence that hits you right between the eyes, and illuminates further a character we know and love. That’s what happened to me yesterday as I read through some nineteenth century newspapers, and we find a story of Charlotte Brontë that is forgotten today, but which shows her studious side, her charitable side and her sense of fun.

From an 1893 copy of the Leeds Mercury comes this reminiscence from a Frank Peel of Huddersfield. He was down on his luck and quite literally down at heel, but then fate led him to a certain building in Haworth. I’ll let Frank tell the story in his own words, as he did 125 years ago:

Keighley Mechanics Institute
Keighley Mechanics Institute visited by Frank Peel, and also by the Brontes

“About the month of April, 1851 (I think), I found myself one evening at Keighley, without money or friends. The factory I worked at had broken down, and, like most lads, I wandered purposelessly about to kill time. After wandering about the town till nine o’clock at night, the question where should I sleep forced itself upon my attention. Now, I had had at the Mechanics’ Institute of a neighbouring town instruction and practice in reciting pieces, and, spurred by hunger and the night air, I resolved to turn my abilities in that way into account by going into the various public-houses and offering to recite to the companies I found there, and then going round with the hat (cap in this case). The first house I went into I got sixpence for once reciting, with an offer that if I would stand on my head and sing a song they would double it. I pocketed the copper and the insult and decamped. Yet, fearing I had not enough to pay for a bed, I plucked up courage and tried in another hotel with more success, for one or two of the company assured me that if I waited upon Mr. Sam Wild, whose company was then in the town, I should be able do better than pitching in pubs.

I then sought out lodgings in a common lodging-house. Being well-dressed – that is for such lodgings – the inmates treated me very respectfully; and one, a travelling glazier, paid for my supper. In doing this he asked me what I was doing there. I told him, and also the advice I had been given about applying to Wild, and then went to bed. In the morning I found a sad mishap had befallen me – some one had gone off with my boots. I told the landlady, but she said she could not help me, so in my perplexity I consulted the glazier, who, after listening to me went out and bought me a pair of ‘pushers’ – that is, boot fronts with the leg and back cut off. To interview the theatrical manager with these on was out of the question, and on naming my difficulty to the glazier he said, after a little consideration, that he would put me into the way of getting a pair of boots. He said he was going to ‘work’ Haworth that day, and if I would carry his glass crate he would see me all right.

Keighley hovels by John Bradley
‘Keighley Hovels’ by John Bradley, art tutor of the Brontes

We trudged up the famous village, and then he pointed out a house where there was a lady – ‘Miss Charlotte’ he called her – who was ‘good for a pair of boots’ if I told her all my story. He then left me to ‘call’ the village. I felt my painful position very keenly. I durst not meet the glazier again without having seen ‘ Charlotte’ and eventually I mustered courage to knock at the door and ask for the lady. By and by a lady came, accompanied by another, younger than herself. With some difficulty I managed to tell my tale as I stood at the door, and was then invited into the kitchen and a pot of coffee and some bread and butter were put before me. By the time I had finished my breakfast the lady had returned to the kitchen and put some old boots before me, bidding me to try to fit a pair on. I did so, and found a pair which fitted pretty well. By this time the younger lady also returned into the kitchen. Both sat down, and Miss Charlotte then said, ‘I have given you breakfast, found you boots, and I am now going to talk to you a bit.’ She did talk to me, and in a way that made me wish I had never gone.

She said that in nine cases out of ten people adopted my course of life from sheer idleness or gipsy instinct, and not because they had any special talent for theatricals. Did I think I had any talent? I told her I thought I had. Would I give her a specimen? Here was a dilemma! How could I refuse after the kindness with which I had been treated? In great pain, I said I would try to comply with her request. I gave, first, ‘Young Lochinvar,’ in my best style, and then her look of motherly severity seemed to relax a little.

She then began to ask a number of questions about my family and other matters, which I answered as well as I could. Amongst other things. I told her I had relations at Cleckheaton, and described it and the neighbourhood to her. The younger lady then asked me if I knew any more recitations, and I replied I could give one or two from Shakespeare. Feeling more at ease, I at once recited one or two selections from ‘Hamlet’, without any remark being made. Miss Charlotte then asked me if I would give the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother, where the Queen says, “Do not for ever with thy veiled lids seek for thy noble father in the dust; thou know’st ’tis common, all that live must die—passing through nature to eternity.’ I complied as well I could; gave the whole scene without the ladies displaying any special interest in it, until I came to the line where Hamlet says, “I have that within which passeth show; these, but the trappings and the suits of woe,” when they both burst out into good-humoured laughter. I dared not ask the cause of this, but I suppose my looks showed my anxiety, and Charlotte said, ‘I’ve seen Hamlet played at Bradford, and they made the same mistake you have made in the word ‘suite.’ Shakespeare never could have used it in that sense – namely, a dress – but in a wider sense, ‘suite,’ pronounced ‘sweet,’ meaning that the King, Queen, and all about them were only acting the part of mourners, making their conduct match or harmonise with their supposed recent bereavement – the death of Hamlet’s father.’ I did not venture on any opinion, but said I believed it was in the book. Miss Charlotte said it was, but only showed the ignorant, shortsightedness of those who tampered with Shakespeare’s works. Other criticisms followed in a similar strain, but I have a very vague recollection of them.

After advising me to return to work and leave playing to idlers, they showed me to the door, and bid me good-morning. I should state here, to account for what follows, that the persons in the second public-house in which had I the night before been reciting were members of Mr. Wild’s company, and that they assured me that I should get an engagement with them: so that when the string of questions which Miss Charlotte put after I preferred my request for the boots began to tighten, I said I had got the engagement, and only required the boots to enable me to enter upon it at once. On leaving the house I sought my friend the glazier, and found him repairing windows just in the hollow of the village. He advised me to return to Keighley at once, and see the manager. I did so, but he had as many as the business would allow of just then. In another week, however, when they commenced the tour of the fairs, he could give me a situation for building and parade business. Unasked, he kindly gave me half a crown, and said I could go behind at night if I wished.

The Lear Of Private Life
The Lear Of Private Life, a Victorian adaptation of Shakespeare

It was now getting late in the afternoon, and I sought out the members of the company, and told them the result of my application. I did go behind the scenes at night, and I am now getting at what I wish to tell you. The play was called ‘The Lear of Private Life’ – that is, a sort of domestic copy of ‘ King Lear.’ I assisted in shifting the scenes, and before the last act began the ‘ Lear’ sent me to the money-taker to get a shilling and fetch him some brandy in a pint-pot, for he was ‘nearly a croaker.’

It was a ‘grand fashionable night,’ and there were about a hundred people in the pit, and in coming from the stage to the side-door I had to pass on one side to it, and there, only just within the harden enclosure, and close to where I had to pass, was Miss Brontë and the other lady I had seen the day before at Haworth parsonage! I now felt so guilty of having told Miss Brontë a falsehood about having got the engagement that I should not have ventured to pass her if the actor’s words ‘nearly a croaker’ had not rung in my ears. In the walk for the brandy I had time to collect myself, and I decided to walk past the ladies as if I belonged to the establishment. I did so, and also made a very respectful bow to them, which they gracefully returned. I looked through the peep-hole in the wing and saw them leave soon after. It was some years after this before I learned that the lady who had given me the breakfast, the boots, and the scolding was the authoress of ‘Jane Eyre.’ I was pleased the rascal stole my boots when I learnt I had had an interview with Charlotte Brontë. – Frank Peel.”

Miss Charlotte Bronte
It seems that ‘Miss Charlotte’ was well known for her kindness

What a beautiful story, an encounter from two centuries ago that we can now see clearly again! It’s an interesting social document as well; we see a tale of men losing their jobs and having nowhere to sleep and no money to buy food with, but isn’t it fascinating that even a man of such a fate can still recite a whole host of passages of Shakespeare from memory, and that people would pay to hear them?

Two further questions jump out at me – just whose were the old boots fit for a young working man to wear? I can only think that Charlotte must have kept some of the boots and other belongings of her brother Branwell who had died three years previously. And then, who was the ‘younger woman’ who sat alongside Charlotte and later visited the travelling show with her? Martha Brown the servant lived in the parsonage at this time and was considerably younger, but it seems hardly likely that she would sit in on the interview as well, ask questions about Shakespeare and then laugh at the man’s interpretation of a particular word. No, it seems to me that this can only have been Charlotte’s great friend Ellen Nussey who often visited the parsonage. Ellen was almost exactly a year younger than Charlotte and would have been 34 at the time of this incident, but from Frank Peel’s account it seems that she looked visibly younger than her.

Above all, we see that Charlotte was at heart a very kind and charitable woman, so much so that her reputation for it had spread outside of Haworth and into Keighley and beyond – otherwise, why would the Keighley glazier have known to send Frank to her, and even to have known her name, when in need of help?

As Christmas approaches we should think of how we can do more to help those in need at this time of year, whether it be a lonely relative or neighbour, or those who have to turn to food banks – let’s all be a bit more loving, let’s all be a bit more Charlotte!