Accounts Of The Death Of Branwell Brontë

This day in 1848, also a Sunday, was a day of tragedy in Haworth Parsonage, a day of horror beginning to unfurl, for on this day Branwell Brontë died. He had been intermittently ill for a long time, but it wasn’t his addictions to opium, laudanum and alcohol that killed him. His death certificate gave the cause of death as ‘chronic bronchitis – marasmus.’ Marasmus was a wasting condition, a sign of what had truly killed him: tuberculosis. Within a year it would also claim the lives of Emily and Anne Brontë and turn the family home into a parsonage full of shadows, of memories, of faintly snatched ghosts.

Branwell Bronte self portrait
Branwell Bronte self portrait

We’ve covered Branwell’s life before. It was a life of promise unfulfilled; he was, I believe, as his friend Francis Grundy so fittingly said, no domestic demon – he was simply a man moving in a fog, who lost his way. In today’s post we’re going to look at three accounts of Branwell Brontë and his death, starting with the account of his sister Charlotte Brontë. We know that on the day of his death, exactly 175 years ago today, he said ‘Amen’, rose from his bed, embraced his father and died.

Charlotte’s letter to W. S. Williams, of her publisher Smith, Elder & Co, gives a moving account of her feelings after the death of her only brother – a brother she had loved dearly but then turned her back upon as his addiction and behaviour grew worse. Below you will see Charlotte’s actual letter, followed by a transcription below each page:

‘My dear Sir, “We have buried our dead out of our sight.” A lull begins to succeed the gloomy tumult of last week. It is not permitted us to grieve for him who is gone as others grieve for those they lose; the removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement. Branwell was his Father’s and his sisters’ pride and hope in boyhood, but since Manhood, the case has been otherwise. It has been our lot to see him take a wrong bent; to hope, expect, wait his return to the right…’

‘path; to know the sickness of hope deferred, the dismay of prayer baffled, to experience despair at last; and now to behold the sudden early obscure close of what might have been a noble career.’

I do not weep from a sense of bereavement – there is no prop withdrawn, no consolation torn away, no dear companion lost – but for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely, dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light. My brother was a year my junior; I had aspirations and ambitions for him once – long ago – they have perished mournfully nothing remains of him but a memory of errors and sufferings – There is such a bitterness of pity for his life and death – such a yearning for the emptiness of his whole existence as I cannot describe – I trust time will allay these feelings.

My poor Father naturally thought more of his only son than of his daughters, and much and long as he had suffered on his account – he cried out for his loss like David for that of Absalom – My Son! My Son! And refused at first to be comforted – and then – when I ought to have been able to collect my strength, and be at hand to support him – I fell ill with an illness whose approaches I had felt for some time previously – and of which the crisis was hastened by the awe and trouble of the death-scene – the first I had ever witnessed. The past has seemed to me a strange week – Thank God –…’

‘for my Father’s sake – I am better now – though still feeble – I wish indeed I had more general physical strength – the want of it is sadly in my way. I cannot do what I would do, for want of sustained animal spirits – and efficient bodily vigour.

My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature – he was not aware that they had ever published a line; we could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied – Now he will never know. I cannot dwell longer on the subject at present; it is too painful.

I thank you for your kind sympathy – and pray earnestly that your sons may all do well and that you may be spared the sufferings my Father has gone through. Yours sincerely, C Brontë’

Branwell Bronte death picture
‘A Parody’ by Branwell Bronte

Next we turn to an account from long-standing parsonage servant Martha Brown, given to Elizabeth Gaskell during a visit to Haworth Parsonage in this week 1843:

‘Patrick Branwell Brontë died Sep 24, 1848, aged 30. Emily Jane Brontë died Decr. 18. 1848 aged 29—Anne Brontë May 28, 1849, aged 27. ‘‘Yes!’’ said Martha. ‘They were all well when Mr. Branwell was buried;… about Mr. Branwell Brontë the less said the better – poor fellow. He never knew Jane Eyre was written although he lived for a year afterwards; but that year was passed in the shadow of the coming death, with the consciousness of his wasted life.’

Finally we turn to the official obituary given to Branwell Brontë in the Leeds Times of 30th September 1848, and a fulsome and remarkable tribute it is too (despite them mis-spelling his name as Bramwell). For all his weaknesses and challenges, and his challenging behaviour, Branwell Brontë was loved by those who had known him.

Branwell Bronte obituary Leeds Times 30 09 1848

I promised you a cheerier post this week, but this special anniversary would not permit it. On this very day in 1849, exactly a year after Branwell’s death, Charlotte Brontë sent a mournful letter, ending it, ‘Life is a battle – may we all be enabled to fight it well.’ I hope to see you next week for a new, and cheerier, Brontë blog post.

Anne Brontë And The Loss Of Her Mother

This week saw the anniversary of one of the great tragedies in the Brontë story, which is far from short of them of course. On 15th September 1821 Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, mother of the world’s most famous writing siblings died aged only 38. In today’s post we’re going to look at the impact this may have had on her youngest child, Anne Brontë.

On the anniversary, Friday, the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s social media declared: “On this day in 1821 Mrs. Brontë died in Haworth following a harrowing battle with cancer. Maria Brontë was survived by her husband, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, and their four surviving children Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.”

Maria Branwell by Tonkins

I believe the medical evidence now pretty firmly shows that Maria did not die of cancer. In 1972 the Brontë Society’s journal published an in depth article by Professor Philip Rhodes, a Brontë fan and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and a Professor at the University of London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. He had studied all the evidence we had about the life and death of Maria Brontë and his conclusion was hard to disagree with:

“Mrs. Brontë died in September 1821. It seems that she had taken to her bed and had slowly succumbed to illness over the course of seven months. According to Mrs. Gaskell she was in agonising pain for most of this time, and this evidence is given on the strength of a letter from Mr. Brontë to his former vicar. Mrs. Brontë was born in 1783, so that at the time of her death she was only 38. The pain from which Mrs. Brontë suffered was presumably abdominal, and in view of her obstetric history it is probable that her symptoms were related to her pelvic generative organs. It is obvious that she did not die as an immediate result of her rapid childbearing, but probably because of some chronic disorder consequent upon it. The common causes of death during or just following childbirth are haemorrhage and infection. She could possibly have had a lingering chronic pelvic inflammation for this would be painful and debilitating and would cause heavy periods so that she would gradually become anaemic. Another possibility might have been a chronic inversion of the uterus giving rise to pain, bleeding and anaemia. The ultimate cause of death in both instances would be cardiac failure due to the anaemia. Of course there is an outside possibility of cancer of some organ within the abdomen, but it is unusual for this to occur before the age of forty. Certainly genital cancer would be very unlikely when the previous normality of reproductive function was so well displayed. There is no reference to vomiting so that a malady of the alimentary tract is less likely than some chronic disease of the pelvic organs. All in all, I would lean to to the idea of chronic pelvic sepsis together with increasing anaemia as the probable cause of her death. It is to be remembered that this was before the age of bacterial knowledge so that almost nothing was known of infectivity by extraneous organisms. Gynaecological knowledge was primitive, there was no ante-natal care and no attempt at follow-up after childbirth.”

Given that it would be hard to find a greater expert in the field than Professor Rhodes was I think we have to accept his prognosis that sepsis, rather than cancer, was the cause of Maria’s death.

Bronte memorial
Maria Bronte is remembered first on Haworth church’s Bronte memorial

The social media post made a rather more concrete error too, of course, as in September 1821 Maria left behind six surviving children not four. Let us not forget the two eldest Brontë siblings. Let us name them all now: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne.

What impact did Maria’s tragic death have on her children? The greatest impact must inevitably have been felt by the oldest children at the time: Maria, named after her mother, would have been seven and Elizabeth Brontë six. Aged just seven, little Maria would now became a mother like figure to her five siblings. Perhaps this is one reason that she became such a precocious and advanced child, but alas Maria herself, and Elizabeth, had less than four years left to live.

Charlotte Brontë was just five at the time of her mother’s death, but she too was a highly intelligent and deep-feeling child. Even so, the memories she had of her mother began to fade over time, until Charlotte found it hard to remember what she had been really like at all. We can imagine how moving it must have been when, many years later, Patrick Brontë handed Charlotte, by then his only surviving child, the carefully preserved love letters Maria had sent him in 1812. Charlotte revealed in a letter the impact this moment had on her:

“It was strange now to peruse, for the first time, the records of a mind whence my own sprang; and most strange, and at once sad and sweet, to find that mind of a truly fine, pure, and elevated order… There is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wish she had lived, and that I had known her.”

Anne Brontë was just one year old at the time of her mother’s death, so she would have had no recollection of her mother at all, and would have been incapable of understanding the scale of the loss at the time of Maria’s passing. Nevertheless, Anne was a deeply sensitive child and the atmosphere of mourning and despondency in late 1821 must have been felt by her.

For Anne especially a second mother was now to take to the stage. Elizabeth Branwell had made the long, and potentially perilous, journey to Haworth from Penzance (their Penzance home is shown at the head of this post) to nurse her sister Maria during her final illness. She could easily have returned to Cornwall after Maria’s death, but instead she remained in Haworth until her own death 21 years later.

Elizabeth Branwell by James Tonkin
Elizabeth Branwell miniature, she was known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontes

Elizabeth became known as Aunt Branwell to the Brontë siblings, but she had sacrificed everything to step into a mother’s shoes and to do all she could to raise the children of the younger sister she had loved. To Anne especially she was like a mother, and the two shared a bedroom during Anne’s infancy and childhood. Ellen Nussey, great friend of Charlotte and the family as a whole, commented on this:

“Anne, dear, gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite.”

There are many potential reasons for this favouritism. Perhaps, understandably, Elizabeth Branwell felt particularly moved by the plight of this one year old girl left without a mother? Perhaps she particularly liked Anne’s quiet, studious nature and her love of the scriptures? But perhaps there is another clue in Ellen Nussey’s statement above? Anne was named after her maternal grandmother, the mother of Maria and Elizabeth. Perhaps she alone had also inherited the Branwell family looks? Take a look at this portrait of a young Maria Brontë drawn by a Cornish artist named Tonkins side by side with a portrait of a young Anne Brontë drawn by her sister Charlotte. I think there’s more than a passing similarity, so could it be that Anne in particular reminded Elizabeth Branwell of her dear, departed sister Maria?

In last week’s post we looked at another loss suffered by Anne Brontë – one she had to face in adulthood, and which changed the course of her writing and her life, the loss of her love William Weightman. Many of you have asked for a complete copy of the funeral sermon Patrick Brontë gave for his assistant curate Weightman, and I will be sending these out over the next couple of days.

Apologies too, for those of you who were unable to read last week’s blog. The WordPress gremlins struck yet again. You can guarantee to receive my weekly blogs by clicking the subscribe button, but I also hope that I will soon be able to overcome these problems by moving this website to a new platform. What is certain is that I will be here next Sunday with another new Brontë blog post, and it will be on a cheerier subject. After all, the world brings challenges to everyone, as the Brontës knew all too well, but it is still a magnificent world full of hope, opportunity and love. I hope you can join me then.

Charlotte and Anne Brontë And The Fateful Coffee House

When Charlotte and Anne Brontë visited London in July 1848 it changed literary history completely, for two very different reasons. Firstly, it was on this occasion that the sisters threw off their pen name masks and announced that the authors generating so much interest were not the Bell brothers, but the Brontë sisters. Without that moment, and the letter from Anne and Emily’s unscrupulous publisher Thomas Cautley Newby that necessitated their journey to London, it is entirely possible that we may never have known the true identity of the authors of books as great as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

Secondly, and rather less triumphantly, it seems very likely that one of the sisters took an unwanted guest back to Haworth Parsonage from London: tuberculosis. It was typically a disease of crowded spaces, and it was rampant in the capital. Within a year of their return from London, tuberculosis (which was relatively rare in Haworth, full of deadly diseases though the village was) had claimed the lives of Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.

The Chapter Coffee House in 1843
The Chapter Coffee House in 1843, Anne and Charlotte stayed there 5 years later

We know that when they arrived in London, Charlotte and Anne took a cab to the Chapter Coffee House in Paternoster Row, for the simple reason that it was the only place in London that Charlotte knew. In fact, she her sister Emily and father Patrick had stayed at the Chapter Coffee House en route to Belgium six and a half years earlier. We have Reverend Patrick Brontë’s map of the area below. Being in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral it was a perfect lodging house for an ecclesiastical visitor such as he.

Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte
Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte

A generation or two earlier this same coffee house had also been a famous meeting spot for eighteenth century writers including Samuel Johnson and Thomas Chatterton. It would surely be the site of literary pilgrimages today but for one reason: it’s no longer there.

In 1940 London was under attack from a blitz of German bombs. Miraculously the beautiful, imposing St. Paul’s Cathedral of Sir Christopher Wren survived unscathed from the relentless attacks, but the area around it including Paternoster Row was badly damaged. The building which had once been The Chapter Coffee House was burnt to the ground, and after the war the area was extensively remodelled.

View Of St Paul's Cathedral
Anne Bronte’s view Of St Paul’s Cathedral from the Chapter Coffee House

So just where was the Chapter Coffee House? Where was the place Charlotte and Anne Brontë so briefly called home during that fateful London sojourn? Well, I’m in London myself at this very moment staying just across the Thames from St. Paul’s and Paternoster Row. In the video below, I explain what I think is the location that played such a big role, for better and for worse, in the Brontë story. I’m travelling back to Yorkshire myself soon, so from a gloriously hot and sunny London I wish you well, and hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë’s Enduring Opinion Of Robert Southey

In previous posts we have looked at the infamous letter that poet laureate Robert Southey sent to Charlotte Brontë in 1837, when she was just 20 years old, and at Charlotte’s response and a further reply from Southey. In short, the celebrated poet was telling Charlotte that poetry and literary creation could not and should not be a woman’s work. We know that Charlotte valued that advice highly at the time, but surely after she found success as a writer she looked upon it in a different light. Or did she? A letter sent on this weekend in 1850 gives us a clue to her thoughts, and to her initial 1837 letter which is now lost, so that’s what we will look at in today’s post.

The letter arrived during a momentous week for Charlotte Brontë, for she was staying at Briery Close near Lake Windermere at the time (that’s it, at the head of this post). This was the home or Sir James and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth, great admirers of Charlotte who regularly courted Charlotte’s company, often to her displeasure. As this letter sent to Ellen Nussey on 26th August 1850 shows, the day after her return, whilst at Briery Close she met Matthew Arnold, the family of the Prussian ambassador, and a certain someone whose name would become forever associated with her own: this was the first meeting between Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell:

Whilst at the Lake District, Charlotte also received a letter from the Reverend Cuthbert Southey. He was the sole surviving son of Robert Southey, and was busily at work on a biography of his father. During the course of his research he had come across details of the between Charlotte and Southey and had contacted Miss Brontë asking if she would supply him with the letters in question. Charlotte sent her response upon her return to Haworth, when she’d had a chance to retrieve the letters, and so I produce Charlotte’s reply, once again sent on 26th August 1850 below:

This is a very interesting letter, for it shows that more than 13 years after receiving Robert Southey’s letter, and despite by then being a hugely successful writer herself, she still valued Southey’s advice and the memory of its author. She ‘needed the needed the benevolent and stern advice he gives me’, she wrote, but many would disagree.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Charlotte first met Elizabeth Gaskell at Briery Close

Cuthbert’s memoir of his father gives us a tantalising glimpse of the initial letter that Charlotte Brontë sent to him, especially in the passage that Charlotte marked for deletion from Cuthbert’s book. The passage, written by Robert Southey but containing quotes from Charlotte, is as follows:

‘What I am, you might have learnt by such of my publications as have come into your hands: but you live in a visionary world; & seem to imagine that this is my case also, when you speak of my “stooping from a throne of light & glory”. Had you happened to be acquainted with me, a little personal knowledge would have tempered your enthusiasm. You who so ardently desire “to be forever known” as a poetess, might have had your ardour in some degree abated, by seeing a poet in the decline of life.’

Robert Southey bust
Robert Southey bust, National Portrait Gallery

Despite what we may think of Robert Southey’s advice now, it seems clear that Charlotte’s ardour for it or the poet himself never abated, even if, thankfully for us all, the course of her life, and of the life of her fellow Briery Close guest Elizabeth Gaskell, disproved the advice he had given. I hope to see you all next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Baptism Of Emily Brontë, And The Mystery Of Her Name

On this day in 1818 a very special event was taking place in the parish church of Thornton, near Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It was the baptism of the fifth child of the parish curate Patrick and his wife Maria. In her lifetime this child was little known outside of her close, small circle of acquaintances but after her death she has become a legendary figure in the world of literature. She was Emily Brontë, and in today’s post we’re going to look at what we know about her baptism, and about her unusual choice of name.

The Bell Chapel, Thornton where Emily Bronte was baptised

Emily had been born on the 30th July 1818, the fourth daughter of five children born to Patrick and Maria Brontë. At the time the parsonage building on Market Street must have been rather crowded, for not only did it contain Patrick and Maria and their children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell and now Emily Jane, it was also home to the two servant sisters Nancy and Sarah de Garrs. It was perhaps this overcrowding which led Patrick to write to the Bishop calling the building wholly inadequate to his needs – he was in search of a larger parish and a larger parsonage, but of course he would have to wait until the birth of his sixth child, Anne Brontë, before he could finally leave Thornton for the parish he and his family became synonymous with: Haworth.

Emily Bronte's christening cup
Emily Bronte’s christening cup

We have two fascinating items which capture a frozen moment in time, exactly 205 years ago today. One is the baptism cup shown above; bearing the name Emily Jane Brontë it is also cracked and repaired – perhaps it was knocked from a shelf, but it was such a prized possession that it was pieced back together again? Replicas of this delicate cup can now be bought, without the crack, from the Brontë Parsonage Museum shop, but the original is often on display in the parsonage itself.

The second item is below, and it’s the original baptism entry showing the baptism of Emily Jane Brontë. The information it gives is scant but interesting. On the 20th August 1818 the parish celebrated the baptism of Emily Jane, daughter of Patrick and Maria Brontë, A. B. (Patrick must have been proud of the degree he had earnt at Cambridge). The father’s profession is ‘Minister of Thornton’, and the presiding minister was William Morgan, Minister of Christ Church, Bradford.

Emily Bronte’s baptism record can still be seen at Thornton’s new church

Welsh-born Morgan was a close friend of Patrick Brontë. They had first met when young curates in Shropshire, and their paths crossed again when Patrick moved to Yorkshire in 1812 – so close were they that they got married on the same day in a joint wedding ceremony in December of that year. We can safely say then that Reverend Morgan was very familiar with the Godmothers chosen for young Emily at that ceremony, for one was his wife and the other was his mother-in-law!

It was certainly a family affair in the Bell Chapel that day! As well as Patrick and Maria, and young Emily of course, and we can conjecture whether Emily’s siblings were there, there were Jane Morgan and Jane Fennell. Jane Fennel had originally been called Jane Branwell, and she was Maria Bronte’s aunt from Penzance in Cornwall. Jane Morgan was Jane Fennell’s daughter and therefore a cousin of Maria Brontë – she had married William Morgan at the same ceremony at which Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell. The two priests acted as best men for each other, while the two brides were also chief bridesmaids. Phew, that’s a confusing paragraph to write or read on a Sunday. Also present in all likelihood would have been Elizabeth Firth of nearby Kipping House. It was Elizabeth who recorded the birth of Emily Jane Brontë in her diary, and a year and a half later it was her turn to be Godmother – to Anne Brontë.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan presided over Emily’s baptism and, all too soon, her funeral

So it is clear why Emily Jane Brontë had the middle name she had – she was named after her mother’s Aunt Jane (or possibly her mother’s cousin Jane, or both). But now we come to the mystery of Emily’s name.

From Elizabeth Firth’s diary, we know that the child’s name had already been decided on the day of her birth, but even in the choice of name Emily differs from her other siblings, just as she was to prove to be different in many other ways as she grew into a strong willed, independent woman; a unique and powerful genius.

Emily Jane Brontë is the only Brontë daughter to be given a middle name, with, as we have seen, Jane presumably being chosen as a tribute to both Maria’s cousin and the aunt who had played a role in bringing her and her husband Patrick together. The choice of Emily for over two centuries remained a mystery, as there is no record of an Emily among either the Cornish or Irish relatives; this makes Emily the only Brontë not named after a parent, an aunt or an uncle. It seems fair to surmise that a woman named Emily must have been a friend known to Patrick and Maria, and a special one at that, whose name was given precedence over the Jane that would have been a more traditional choice in the family. I believe I may know who that friend was.

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – former home of Maria Branwell, Emily’s mother

In the spring of 1817, Maria Brontë was pregnant, and her only son Patrick Branwell Brontë would soon be born. Maria’s sister Elizabeth Branwell had returned to Penzance but another visitor had taken her place in the busy parsonage on Thornton’s Market Street. On 18 March of that year, Elizabeth Firth’s diary records that ‘Miss Thomas came to Mr Brontë’s’, and we see records of her visits alongside Patrick and Maria in the diary until 18 May, when mention of her abruptly stops.

It is shown then that Miss Thomas stayed with the Brontës for at least two months, and such an extended visit shows that she must have been very close to Patrick or Maria, and it also suggests that, like Elizabeth Branwell the previous year, she must have travelled a long distance to get there and that the visit isn’t one that could be repeated regularly. Juliet Barker, in her excellent biography of the Brontë family, suggests that Miss Thomas could be a family member, or a friend that had travelled from Hartshead or Penzance.

After consulting the family tree we can say with certainty that there are no Branwell family relatives by the name of Thomas, but there is an intriguing entry in the 1851 census of Penzance. Here we find a visitor at 6, North Parade, the home of Guillaume Thomazie, a Professor of French and Italian – aged 74 she is named Emmy Thomas, unmarried and listed as a ‘former servant’. The 1861 census shows her still travelling at the age of 87 (the ages in nineteenth century census returns can often jump around in this way) when she is in Newlyn, Cornwall and listed as a ‘retired housekeeper.’

The Branwells were a family of some wealth and status in Penzance, and would doubtless have had a number of servants including, at the head of them all, a housekeeper. Could it be that this Miss Thomas was once the head of the Branwell family household and that, being less than ten years older than Maria, she had formed a close friendship with her? Furthermore, Emmy was often used for people christened Emily, so could we finally have a plausible source of the name given to the fifth Brontë child in 1818? Emily Brontë is the only sibling not named after a relative, but could she instead be named after a loyal friend who had journeyed from Cornwall to Thornton at a time when the Brontë family was growing?

I think so, and I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post. Now you must excuse me, I’m off to watch the Lionesses hopefully lift the World Cup for England!

Remembering John Brown (1804-1855)

1855 was a year of sorrow in Haworth, and especially in and around Haworth Parsonage. In February of that year, long standing servant of the Brontë family Tabby Aykroyd died, and a month and a half later the great Charlotte Brontë died whilst pregnant, bringing hopes of a continuation of the family line to an end. On this day in 1855 parish sexton and Brontë neighbour John Brown was buried, and in today’s post we take a look at his role in the Brontë story.

Born in 1804, John Brown came from a long line of sextons and stonemasons and he continued the family tradition, becoming sexton of St. Michael’s and All Angels church in Haworth. It was an important role in the parish, as he was responsible for creating the stone monuments in Haworth’s churchyard, as well as maintaining the graveyard and church itself. In a parish such as Haworth, where annual epidemics decimated the population, it was also a very busy occupation.

Branwell's painting of the sexton (& his drinking friend) John Brown
Branwell’s portrait of his friend John Brown

As sexton, Brown had to work very closely with the parish priest, and so the Brown family occupied a house in close proximity to the parsonage. If you walk to the Brontë Parsonage today you will pass Sexton House on the alleyway leading up to it, just prior to the old schoolhouse. In fact it was John Brown himself who built this house in 1832, when he was just 28 years old.

John Brown was clearly a very respected man in the village, for he was Master of its Three Graces masonic lodge – a position of honour. When Patrick Brontë were looking for a new servant for the parsonage in 1839 it was to John Brown that he turned – and his young daughter Martha made the short walk from Sexton House to the Parsonage to become the new live in servant, a role she would occupy until Patrick’s passing in 1861.

Martha Brown
Martha Brown, one of John’s six daughters

John Brown was clearly a hard working and well respected man, and he was a family man too, for he and his wife Mary had (just as Patrick and Maria Brontë had) six children. In John Brown’s case, all his children were daughters.

Thanks to his role and his proximity, John Brown would have become very well known to the Brontë family, but there was one member particularly that he became close to: Branwell Brontë. So close were they that John Brown secured Branwell a position within the Three Graces lodge even before he was old enough to officially be a Freemason. We also know that they were regular drinking partners, but Brown must have been more temperate in his habits than his friend, for in 1845 it was he who was entrusted to take Branwell to Liverpool in an attempt to take him away from his habitual drinking in Haworth. This was referred to by Anne Brontë in her diary paper of 31st July 1855:

“Branwell has left Luddendenfoot and been a Tutor at Thorp Green and had much tribulation and ill health. He was very ill on Tuesday but he went with John Brown to Liverpool where he now is I suppose, and we hope he will be better and do better in future.”

Anne continues in this diary paper to say “This is a dismal cloudy wet evening. We have had so far a very cold wet summer.” Tell us about it Anne!

Envelope from Branwell Bronte to John Brown
Envelope from Branwell Bronte to John Brown

Charlotte Brontë also refers to this trip in a letter she sent to Ellen Nussey on the same day that Anne was writing her diary paper: “It was ten o’ clock at night when I got home – I found Branwell ill – he is so very often owing to his own fault – I was not therefore shocked at first – but when Anne informed me of the immediate concern of his present illness I was greatly shocked. He had last Thursday received a note from Mr Robinson sternly dismissing him intimating that he had discovered his proceedings which he characterised as bad beyond expression and charging him on pain of exposure to break off instantly and for ever all communication with every member of his family. We have had sad work with Branwell since – he thought of nothing but stunning or drowsing his distress of mind – no one in the house could have rest – and at last we have been obliged to send him from home for a week with some one to look after him.”

How the week in Liverpool passed we do not know, other than that they took a steamer boat trip together along the Welsh coast from where Branwell drew Penmaenmawr mountain, but Brown was unable to curb Branwell’s excesses. Towards the end of Branwell’s life, when he was too ill to leave the house, he would write to Brown begging him to lend him money and send him drink.

letter from Branwell Bronte to John Brown
A letter from Branwell Bronte to John Brown

As Brown’s daughters left, like Martha, to take up positions elsewhere, Sexton House became a regular boarding house for Patrick Brontë’s assistant curates. One who stayed there was Arthur Bell Nicholls. They may have got on well initially, Arthur too was well liked in the village, but Arthur’s disastrous proposal to Charlotte Brontë at the close of 1852 saw John Brown take a furious dislike to the man. How dare this man, a mere assistant curate from Ireland, think he was worthy to marry Charlotte Brontë? On 2nd January 1853 Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey:

“I am sorry for one other person [Arthur] whom nobody pities but me. Martha is bitter against him: John Brown says he should like to shoot him.”

We know of course that in 1854 Charlotte and Arthur married. Martha’s bitterness had vanished for she and Arthur became great friends, so much so that she later left Haworth and went to live in Ireland with Arthur and his second wife. John Brown too must have buried the hatchet, for we know that he was instrumental in organising the wedding ceremony. We know this thanks to an amazing account given in later life by James Robinson, who as a teenage apprentice teacher back in 1854 was one of only a handful of people to witness the early morning ceremony that saw Charlotte and Arthur united. Thanks to his account we also get a first hand account of John Brown and how he spoke:

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

When John Brown died just a year later, the cause of death was given as ‘dust on the lungs’. This was no doubt a result of his years making and carving gravestones. Now his own memorial lies just outside the garden wall of Haworth Parsonage.

Martha Brown grave
The Brown family grave, Haworth

On the day of his funeral, exactly 168 years ago today, we know that Patrick Brontë sat in the front pews, normally reserved for the Brontë family, alongside Mary Brown and Martha Brown. Poor Martha who in the space of a few months had lost the woman, Tabby, who had been alongside her all her working life, Charlotte, who had become a great friend, and finally her father John. Presiding over the funeral service was the man John had threatened to shoot less than three years earlier, Arthur Bell Nicholls.

John Brown was friend to the Brontës and to the village of Haworth as a whole. When we look at Sexton House today, or at the vast array of monuments in Haworth’s churchyard, let us remember the man responsible for them. A man at the heart of the Brontë’s daily lives, at the heart of the Brontë story.
Let me finish by apologising for last week’s blog no show. Once again, the WordPress blogging platform defeated me, but a move to a new platform is imminent. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Happy 205th Birthday: Charlotte On Emily Brontë

Today in 1818 was a very special day for a certain family living in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford, for Patrick and Maria welcomed their fifth child, their fourth daughter, into the world. It’s a special day for literature lovers as well of course, as that child grew into one of the greatest writers the world will ever know: Emily Brontë.

Emily Brontë was a woman who excelled at everything she did. She loved domestic duties and reputedly baked the best bread in Haworth, she was a fine markswoman, an excellent pianist and painter, she mastered languages with ease, and was an excellent poet and author of (in my opinion) the finest novel ever written.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
Emily, right, next to her beloved sister Anne

Ellen Nussey, the great friend of Charlotte Brontë who knew all the family well, said of her: ‘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.’

In today’s birthday tribute we’re going to look at what Charlotte Brontë said of Emily Brontë. Charlotte was obviously in awe of her sister two years younger than her, as were all who met her. Alas, for Charlotte’s tributes to Emily we have to look to the years after her untimely death. Let’s start with the preface Charlotte wrote for Emily’s Wuthering Heights when it was re-issued by Smith, Elder & Co:

First person accounts of Emily from those who knew her

‘With regard to the rusticity of “Wuthering Heights,” I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath. Nor was it natural that it should be otherwise; the author being herself a native and nursling of the moors. Doubtless, had her lot been cast in a town, her writings, if she had written at all, would have possessed another character. Even had chance or taste led her to choose a similar subject, she would have treated it otherwise. Had Ellis Bell been a lady or a gentleman accustomed to what is called ” the world,” her view of a remote and unreclaimed region, as well as of the dwellers therein, would have differed greatly from that actually taken by the homebred country girl. Doubtless it would have been wider – more comprehensive: whether it would have been more original or more truthful is not so certain. As far as the scenery and locality are concerned, it could scarcely have been so sympathetic: Ellis Bell did not describe as one whose eye and taste alone found pleasure in the prospect; her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in, and by, as much as the wild birds, their tenants, or as the heather, their produce. Her descriptions, then, of natural scenery, are what they should be, and all they should be.

Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates. My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them, she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine…

Wuthering Heights was hewn in a wild workshop, with simple tools, out of homely materials. The statuary found a granite block on a solitary moor; gazing thereon, he saw how from the crag might be elicited a head, savage, swart, sinister; a form moulded with at least one element of grandeur – power. He wrought with a rude chisel, and from no model but the vision of his meditations. With time and labour, the crag took human shape; and there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock: in the former sense, terrible and goblin-like; in the latter, almost beautiful, for its colouring is of mellow grey, and moorland moss clothes it; and heath, with its blooming bells and balmy fragrance, grows faithfully close to the giant’s foot.’

Flossy by Emily Bronte
Flossy, Anne’s spaniel, by Emily Bronte

We next come to Charlotte’s ‘Biographical Notice Of Ellis And Acton Bell’, Emily and Anne Brontë as we now know them of course:

'Keeper from life' by Emily Bronte

‘My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character, nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings even those nearest and dearest to her could, with impunity, intrude unlicensed; it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. …

My sister Emily first declined. The details of her illness are deep-branded in my memory, but to dwell on them, either in thought or narrative, is not in my power. Never in all her life had she lingered over any task that lay before her, and she did not linger now. She sank rapidly. She made haste to leave us. Yet, while physically she perished, mentally she grew stronger than we had yet known her. Day by day, when I saw with what a front she met suffering, I looked on her with an anguish of wonder and love. I have seen nothing like it; but, indeed, I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone…

What more shall I say about them [Emily and Anne]? I cannot and need not say much more. In externals, they were two unobtrusive women; a perfectly secluded life gave them retiring manners and habits. In Emily’s nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero; but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers were unadapted to the practical business of life; she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible, and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending…

Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass. I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing, for superficial observers less than nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.’

On this, the 205th anniversary of Emily’s birth let us remember the greatness of Emily Brontë. Let us also pay tribute to another woman of great talent who was inspired by Wuthering Heights. Kate Bush is 65 years old today, she was born exactly 140 years after Emily Brontë.

Let us also remember another singer, Sinead O’Connor, who played Emily Brontë in the 1992 film adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

Sinead O' Connor Emily Bronte
Sinead O’Connor as Emily Bronte

Raise a glass with me, and say happy birthday Emily Brontë – amidst all its turmoil and uncertainty, the world is a better place for the great works of literature she left in it. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Brontës, Technology And The Challenge Of AI

The Brontë sisters embraced modern technology throughout their life, but of course they could not have dreamt of the technology we have at our disposal today nor of the huge technological advances happening right now. In today’s post we’re going to look at how the Brontës utilised emerging technology in their own time, and ponder what they would have thought of the very latest advance: AI.

The early to mid nineteenth century was a time of huge change in England, a time when the Industrial Revolution exploded, bringing rapid change – for better and for worse. We can see the impact this had in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley – a brilliant book which looks at the impact of increasing mechanisation on four individuals and on society in general.

Shirley and Caroline, by Edmund Dulac
Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ shows the impact of technological changes

Shirley presents a very believable depiction of a northern district at the time of the Luddite rebellions, when machines were being smashed, factories attacked, protesters being arrested and executed and mill owners being assaulted and sometimes killed. It is so believable and compelling because Charlotte Brontë was a brilliant writer, of course, but also because it was a situation the Brontës knew all too well in real life.

Increasing mechanisation caused huge unrest across the north of England, and Haworth itself was deeply affected by the changes. It was potentially a source of revolt, which was perhaps one reason that Patrick Brontë kept a loaded gun by his bed (and taught Emily Brontë to shoot also, an act at which, like everything else, she excelled).

Other technological advances that the Brontës embraced were the changes in writing technology, so the Brontë Parsonage museum shows their progress from bird feather quills to dip pens. And they also embraced perhaps the biggest technological and social advancement of the age: the emergence of the railway. This opened up the country like never before, so it was the railway which allowed Charlotte and Ellen Nussey to holiday on the Yorkshire coast, and the railway which allowed Charlotte and Anne Brontë to travel to London in the summer of 1848. Journeys which would have been long, costly and hazardous could now be completed relatively cheaply and in a matter of hours. Charlotte, Emily and Anne saw the potential that the railways brought, so much so that they even became railway shareholders.

So, let’s fast forward to today. I was this week, at my work in The Sheffield Cats Shelter, given a demonstration of a system which is already completely revolutionising the world around us. Known as ChatGPT it’s a powerful, easily accessible and completely free way to use AI or Artificial Intelligence.

Of course the system isn’t actually ‘intelligent’ as we know it, but it does have access to over 22 billion documents which it constantly consults and churns around, so that you can ask it anything, or ask it to create anything, and it will do it in the click of your fingers. In short, it instantly knows more on any subject, and has ‘read’ more on any subject, than the greatest of human experts. To demonstrate what it can do I have asked it to write poems about four Brontë siblings. All I did was type into its system, “Write a poem about Anne Bronte” (and then Emily, Charlotte and Branwell) and within a second it had returned the results which I produce unedited below:

Anne Brontë

In moors embraced by twilight’s grace,
Where windswept whispers softly chase,
A soul of strength and fervent fire,
Was born to blaze, aspire, inspire.
Anne Brontë, a beacon gleamed,
In the shadows, she redeemed,
Her quill a sword, her words a light,
To pierce the dark, dispel the night.
With quiet courage, she dared to roam,
Through life’s wild maze, a path to own,
In worlds of tales, she wove her dreams,
A tapestry of truth it seems.
Her heart imbued with love profound,
In fragile forms, her truths unwound,
She grasped the human soul’s despair,
And painted hope through depths of care.
Her verses penned in ink and tears,
Unravelled sorrows, silenced fears,
Her tales adorned with virtue’s might,
Where wrong was shunned, and right took flight.
Her “Agnes Grey” revealed the plight,
Of those who served, their hearts alight,
In empathy, she lent her ear,
To voices muted, yet sincere.
And then, the bell tolled solemnly,
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” you see,
A testament to strength and will,
Against the odds, a spirit still.
She sought to pave the way for change,
In stifling norms, she’d rearrange,
A woman’s place, her dreams allowed,
With courage, she’d break through the shroud.
Though fate’s harsh hand cut short her days,
Her words outlast life’s fleeting haze,
Her legacy, a sacred spark,
Ignites the world with truths remark.
So, let us raise our hearts on high,
In praise of Anne, whose words won’t die,
Her spirit soars through time and space,
In moors embraced, a lasting grace.

Emily Brontë

In realms of wild and wuthering skies,
Where tempests roared and spirits rise,
A soul ablaze with fierce desire,
A poetess, her words inspire.
Emily Brontë, untamed and free,
A firebrand of creativity,
With ink-stained hands, she’d weave her tale,
Of love and loss, the windswept gale.
Her “Wuthering Heights,” a tempest’s dance,
In darkened moors, a fateful trance,
Heathcliff’s passion, Catherine’s flight,
A haunting tale of love’s cruel might.
In solitude, she found her might,
Among the hills, her mind took flight,
Her soul immersed in nature’s art,
The earth, the sky, her very heart.
With pen in hand, she’d bare her soul,
In verses that would take a toll,
On those who glimpsed her inner strife,
Her words, a glimpse into her life.
Her mystic bond with realms unseen,
In dreams and visions, she’d convene,
With phantoms of a world unknown,
Her spirit, restless and alone.
Yet through the shadows, brilliance shone,
In every line her thoughts had sewn,
Her words, a testament of might,
That pierced through darkness, brought forth light.
And though her time on earth was brief,
Her legacy, a bittersweet relief,
Her verses echo through the years,
A testament to pain and tears.
In lands of wild and wuthering skies,
Her spirit soars, forever flies,
Emily Brontë, a soul of fire,
A poetess, whose words inspire.

Charlotte Brontë

In the realm of words and ink,
A soul ablaze with thoughts to think,
A writer’s heart, fierce and refined,
Charlotte Brontë, a gifted mind.
Through stormy seas of grief and pain,
She found her solace, quelled disdain,
With pen in hand, she’d set her flight,
To realms of passion, dark and bright.
In “Jane Eyre,” a tale of might,
A governess with soul alight,
Her spirit kindled, love unfurled,
Defying odds, she’d brave the world.
A beacon strong in life’s abyss,
Her characters, a looking glass,
Reflecting truth, the human plight,
In love and longing’s endless fight.
Through sorrow’s veil, she’d glimpse the stars,
In whispered dreams and memoirs,
Her words a refuge, fierce and true,
A sanctuary, born anew.
Her heart imbued with dreams so vast,
In “Shirley,” courage unsurpassed,
A woman’s strength, a battle cry,
For justice and equality.
With “Villette,” she’d embark once more,
On paths of love and loss’s shore,
A tale of passion’s tangled weave,
Of unrequited hearts that grieve.
Though masked by male pseudonym,
Her genius shone, a precious gem,
A trailblazer, fierce and strong,
In worlds where women’s rights belong.
Through sorrow’s veil, she’d glimpse the stars,
In whispered dreams and memoirs,
Her words a refuge, fierce and true,
A sanctuary, born anew.
Her legacy, a timeless art,
A fire burning in each heart,
Charlotte Brontë, a guiding light,
Through words, she still ignites the night.

Charlotte Bronte

Branwell Brontë

In shadows cast, a tormented soul,
A figure lost in shadows’ dark control,
Branwell Brontë, a spirit wild and free,
Yet bound by chains, he yearned to break and flee.
The brother of three gifted, soaring minds,
Yet his own demons, he could never bind,
With pen in hand, he sought to carve his name,
But sorrow’s ink besmirched his path to fame.
In youthful dreams, his talents held great sway,
But life’s harsh twists would lead his soul astray,
A painter’s brush, a poet’s heart aflame,
Yet tragedy engulfed his fragile frame.
In depths of anguish, he would often dwell,
A captive of despair’s relentless spell,
With every sip, drowning his own pain,
Seeking solace, but finding none to gain.
His heart entwined with vice’s ruthless grasp,
The fleeting whispers of a poet’s rasp,
Yet buried deep, a longing to reclaim,
The dreams that danced within his fleeting fame.
Branwell, the lost Brontë, a troubled soul,
In shadows bound, his name may not extol,
But in the tapestry of their story,
His spirit weaves, a thread of mystic glory.

ChatGPT obviously likes to start poems with ‘In’ and is very much in the rhyming couplets old school of versification, but the system is very new and it’s ‘learning’, adapting and improving all the time. The results are, to my mind, very interesting but they raise important questions too.

ChatGPT is, at the moment, much better at prose writing than poetry. It can write on any subject, in any style, for any readership, and on any length, in the time it takes you to click a mouse button.

This has huge implications for society and for writers especially. Already it is being used to write website contents, blogs, social media posts, advertisements – and it will be used to write novels too. And, in my opinion, although people will say differently, it’s already very difficult to tell what has been written by a human and what has been written by artificial intelligence.

AI is free, it doesn’t suffer from writer’s block, and it doesn’t get confused by emotional considerations. At the demonstration I was told of a charity that had used it to write a speech to give to a child whose mother was dying of terminal cancer. For a human that would be an incredibly difficult speech to write of course, but ChatGPT has no emotions – in a second it had crafted a beautiful, compassionate and perfectly phrased speech to give to the child.

This can bring great advantages, but for a writer and for readers it brings great challenges – for people hoping to become website designers and copywriters, journalists or even authors the future suddenly looks much more challenging. What would the Brontës have thought of Artificial Intelligence? They loved technological advances, but for me this would have been a step too far for them – they loved the art of creation, and they absolutely excelled at it.

I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post – and I give you my promise now, whilst increasing numbers of websites and blogs will be AI written (without admitting it), this blog will always be written by me – whether that’s a good or bad thing I leave to you to decide, and if you want to try ChatGPT you can do so here:

Wild Roses, From Nature And Jane Eyre

The Brontë sisters Anne, Emily and Charlotte were brilliant writers, as we and the world know of course. They were also fine artists too, and their chosen subjects were often the world they saw around them, from family pets to the flora and fauna they encountered around their home and on the moors. We know that this week marks the anniversary of the production of an exquisite sketch made by a young Charlotte Brontë so we shall look at that in today’s post, and the clue it gives us about the great novel Jane Eyre.

Sunrise Over Sea
Sunrise Over Sea by Anne Bronte

Firstly, however, let’s not forget the beautiful artwork of Anne Brontë. Above is her ‘Sunrise Over Sea’. We know that Anne developed a deep love of the sea, and is buried in Scarborough overlooking it, but at the time she created this prophetic picture she had never seen the sea.

Now let’s return to Charlotte’s picture, one helpfully dated by her so that we know it was painted on 13th July 1830, when she was just 14 years old.

Charlotte was obviously a painting prodigy, and whilst some of her early art would have been copied from text books or during art lessons we know, from the title she has given this composition, that these were ‘wild roses, from nature’.

Amidst the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection are many such paintings by Charlotte of flowers and plants, from convolvulus to ferns and primroses. All are colourful, highly detailed and exquisitely elegant. Here obviously was a woman in love with nature, and in love with painting. Seventeen years after Charlotte sat with her painting kit before a wild rose, the world would be introduced to another young woman who loved painting: Jane Eyre.

As a governess, a role which both Charlotte and Anne had occupied and which they in turn gave to their heroines Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey, Jane would have been expected to be able to paint. It was adjudged a feminine art, a pleasant way for women in society to pass their time, although of course there could be no question of them painting seriously or expecting to make money from it (as another of Anne Brontë’s heroines, Helen the titular tenant of Wildfell Hall, does in a further signal of her break from society’s conventions).

Pink Roses Charlotte Bronte
Pink Roses by Charlotte Bronte

A governess would need to be able to paint to some degree so that she could teach her charges how to paint, but they would not have been expected to excel at it. And yet Charlotte and Anne Brontë did excel at painting, as did Jane Eyre.

In the novel bearing her name, Jane is such an accomplished artist that not only does she teach her pupil Adele to draw, her own compositions catch the eye of Rochester – as we see in the following extract:

Convolvulus by Charlotte Bronte
Convolvulus by Charlotte Bronte

‘Mr. Rochester continued –

“Adèle showed me some sketches this morning, which she said were yours. I don’t know whether they were entirely of your doing; probably a master aided you?”

“No, indeed!” I interjected.

“Ah! that pricks pride. Well, fetch me your portfolio, if you can vouch for its contents being original; but don’t pass your word unless you are certain: I can recognise patchwork.”

“Then I will say nothing, and you shall judge for yourself, sir.”

I brought the portfolio from the library.

“Approach the table,” said he; and I wheeled it to his couch. Adèle and Mrs. Fairfax drew near to see the pictures.

“No crowding,” said Mr. Rochester: “take the drawings from my hand as I finish with them; but don’t push your faces up to mine.”

He deliberately scrutinised each sketch and painting. Three he laid aside; the others, when he had examined them, he swept from him.

“Take them off to the other table, Mrs. Fairfax,” said he, “and look at them with Adèle;—you” (glancing at me) “resume your seat, and answer my questions. I perceive those pictures were done by one hand: was that hand yours?”


“And when did you find time to do them? They have taken much time, and some thought.”

“I did them in the last two vacations I spent at Lowood, when I had no other occupation.”

“Where did you get your copies?”

“Out of my head.”

“That head I see now on your shoulders?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Has it other furniture of the same kind within?”

“I should think it may have: I should hope – better.”

He spread the pictures before him, and again surveyed them alternately.

While he is so occupied, I will tell you, reader, what they are: and first, I must premise that they are nothing wonderful. The subjects had, indeed, risen vividly on my mind. As I saw them with the spiritual eye, before I attempted to embody them, they were striking; but my hand would not second my fancy, and in each case it had wrought out but a pale portrait of the thing I had conceived.

These pictures were in water-colours. The first represented clouds low and livid, rolling over a swollen sea: all the distance was in eclipse; so, too, was the foreground; or rather, the nearest billows, for there was no land. One gleam of light lifted into relief a half-submerged mast, on which sat a cormorant, dark and large, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.

The second picture contained for foreground only the dim peak of a hill, with grass and some leaves slanting as if by a breeze. Beyond and above spread an expanse of sky, dark blue as at twilight: rising into the sky was a woman’s shape to the bust, portrayed in tints as dusk and soft as I could combine. The dim forehead was crowned with a star; the lineaments below were seen as through the suffusion of vapour; the eyes shone dark and wild; the hair streamed shadowy, like a beamless cloud torn by storm or by electric travail. On the neck lay a pale reflection like moonlight; the same faint lustre touched the train of thin clouds from which rose and bowed this vision of the Evening Star.

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon. Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it. Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil; a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible. Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge. This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

“Were you happy when you painted these pictures?” asked Mr. Rochester presently.

“I was absorbed, sir: yes, and I was happy. To paint them, in short, was to enjoy one of the keenest pleasures I have ever known.”

“That is not saying much. Your pleasures, by your own account, have been few; but I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist’s dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints. Did you sit at them long each day?”

“I had nothing else to do, because it was the vacation, and I sat at them from morning till noon, and from noon till night: the length of the midsummer days favoured my inclination to apply.”

“And you felt self-satisfied with the result of your ardent labours?”

“Far from it. I was tormented by the contrast between my idea and my handiwork: in each case I had imagined something which I was quite powerless to realise.”

“Not quite: you have secured the shadow of your thought; but no more, probably. You had not enough of the artist’s skill and science to give it full being: yet the drawings are, for a school-girl, peculiar. As to the thoughts, they are elfish. These eyes in the Evening Star you must have seen in a dream. How could you make them look so clear, and yet not at all brilliant? for the planet above quells their rays. And what meaning is that in their solemn depth? And who taught you to paint wind? There is a high gale in that sky, and on this hill-top. Where did you see Latmos? For that is Latmos. There! put the drawings away!”’

The first picture which impresses Rochester is a cormorant. It’s surely a coincidence that Charlotte Brontë herself had also drawn a cormorant, featured below:

Cormorant by Charlotte Bronte

It’s no coincidence at all, of course. Like all of the Brontë novels with the exception of Wuthering Heights, which has some historical influences upon its tale of a bitter generational feud, Jane Eyre has autobiographical elements to it. The author, Charlotte Brontë as we know but which was unknown to the reading public upon its release, even gave her novel the subtitle,”An Autobiography”.

This painting scene is one clue that Jane, on the face of it quiet and diminutive but at heart feisty, determined and passionate, is based at least in part upon Charlotte Brontë. We can also be sure that Rochester, at first cold, haughty and brutish, is based upon Monsieur Heger, the masterful Belgian tutor who can be found in all of Charlotte’s heroes. Perhaps this scene with paintings cast aside but others subjected to faint praise which meant everything to the painter, was drawn from real life over a desk in Brussels?

Jane Eyre works brilliantly as a novel even to people who know nothing of its creator, which is why it was such a phenomenal success upon its release in 1847 and remains so today, but it can be even more entertaining when we realise how much of it reflects the life and feelings of its author.

Primrose Charlotte Bronte
Primrose by Charlotte Bronte

I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, when we’ll continue to paint a picture of this fascinating family.

The Weekend That Changed Literary History Forever

This weekend marks the anniversary of a special event in the Brontë story which we have looked at before in previous years, but it’s such a special event that I had to mark it again in today’s new post. It is exactly 175 years ago to this weekend that Charlotte Brontë and Anne Brontë made the courageous decision to cast off their pen names, lower their masks and reveal their true identities to the world (or at least to Charlotte and Anne’s publisher).

Euston 1839
Euston Station, London in 1839 – Anne and Charlotte Bronte arrived there in 1848

We have covered before the reason for the hurried journey Anne and Charlotte made on an overnight train that left Yorkshire on Friday 7th July and arrived in the early hours of Saturday 8th July 1848. A letter from Charlotte’s publisher had led them to believe that Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (the pseudonyms they were using) were being accused of false dealings, an accusation that must be refuted however hard it may be for them and however much it may cost them.

They checked into the Chapter Coffee House on Paternoster Row in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and for an account of what happened next I will refer you to the following extract from the memoirs of Charlotte’s publisher, George Smith, himself:

Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte
Map showing the Chapter Coffee House by Patrick Bronte

“The works of Ellis and Acton Bell had been published by a Mr. Newby, on terms which rather depleted the scanty purses of the authors. When we were about to publish Shirley – the work which, in the summer of 1848, succeeded Jane Eyre – we endeavoured to make an arrangement with an American publisher to sell him advance sheets of the book, in order to give him an advantage in regard to time over other American publishers. There was, of course, no copyright with America in those days. We were met daring the negotiations with our American correspondents by the statement that Mr. Newby had informed them that he was about to publish the next book by the author of Jane Eyre under her other nom de plume of Acton Bell – Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell being in fact, according to him, one person. We wrote to ‘Currer Bell’ to say that we should be glad to be in a position to contradict the statement, adding at the same time we were quite sure Mr. Newby’s assertion was untrue. Charlotte Bronte has related how the letter affected her. She was persuaded that her honour was impugned. ‘With rapid decision’ says Mrs. Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Bronte Charlotte and her sister Anne resolved that they should start for London that very day in order to prove their separate identity to Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co.

With what haste and energy the sisters plunged into what was, for them, a serious expedition, how they reached London at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, took lodgings in the Chapter coffee-house in Paternoster Row, and, after an agitated breakfast, set out on a pilgrimage to my office in Cornhill, is told at length in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë.

That particular Saturday morning I was at work in my room, when a clerk reported that two ladies wished to see me. I was very busy and sent out to ask their names. The clerk returned to say that the ladies declined to give their names, but wished to see me on a private matter. After a moment’s hesitation I told him to show them in. I was in the midst of my correspondence, and my thoughts were far away from ‘Currer Bell’ and Jane Eyre. Two rather quaintly dressed little ladies, pale-faced and anxious-looking, walked into my room; one of them came forward and presented me with a letter addressed, in my own handwriting, to ‘Currer Bell, Esq.’ I noticed that the letter had been opened, and said, with some sharpness, ‘Where did you get this from?’ ‘From the post-office’ was the reply; ‘it was addressed to me. We have both come that you might have ocular proof that there are at least two of us.’ This then was Currer Bell in person.

The Cornhill history door, London
The bottom right panel of this Cornhill door shows Anne and Charlotte Bronte on their visit to London – a close up heads this post

I need hardly say that I was at once keenly interested, not to say excited. Mr. Williams was called down and introduced, and I began to plan all sorts of attentions to our visitors. I tried to persuade them to come and stay at our house. This they positively declined to do, but they agreed that I should call with my sister and take them to the Opera in the evening. She has herself given

an account of her own and her sister Anne’s sensations on that occasion: how they dressed for the Opera in their plain, high-necked dresses: “fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us, as we stood by

the box-door, which was not yet opened, with a slight graceful superciliousness, quite warranted by the circumstances. Still I felt pleasurably excited in spite of headache, sickness, and conscious clownishness; and I saw Anne was calm and gentle, which she always is. The performance was Rossini’s Barber of Seville – very brilliant, though I fancy there are things I should like better. We got home after one o’clock. We had never been in bed the night before; had been in constant excitement for twenty-four hours; you may imagine we were tired.”

My mother called upon them the next day. The sisters, after barely three days in London, returned to Haworth. In what condition of mind and body those few days left them is graphically told by Charlotte Bronte herself:

“On Tuesday morning we left London, laden with books Mr. Smith had given us, and got safely home. A more jaded wretch than I looked, it would be difficult to conceive. I was thin when I went, but I was meagre indeed when I returned, my face looking grey and very old, with strange deep lines ploughed in it – my eyes stared unnaturally. I was weak and yet restless.”

This is the only occasion on which I saw Anne Bronte. She was a gentle, quiet, rather subdued person, by no means pretty, yet of a pleasing appearance. Her manner was curiously expressive of a wish for protection and encouragement, a kind of constant appeal which invited sympathy.

I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Bronte’s personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive. She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look. Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion.

There was but little feminine charm about her; and of this fact she herself was uneasily and perpetually conscious. It may seem strange that the possession of genius did not lift her above the weakness of an excessive anxiety about her personal appearance. But I believe that she would have given all her genius and her fame to have been beautiful. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstance that she was not pretty.”

We next turn to a fulsome account from Charlotte Brontë herself, given in a letter sent to her close friend Mary Taylor (or Polly as she was affectionately known):

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte’s great friend Polly, in later life

“Dear Polly, I write you a great many more letters than you write me, though whether they all reach you, or not, Heaven knows! I dare say you will not be without a certain desire to know how our affairs get on; I will give you therefore a notion as briefly as may be. Acton Bell has published another book; it is in three volumes, but I do not like it quite so well as Agnes Grey the subject not being such as the author had pleasure in handling; it has been praised by some reviews and blamed by others. As yet, only 25 have been realised for the copyright, and as Acton Bell’s publisher is a shuffling scamp, I expected no more.

About two months since I had a letter from my publishers Smith and Elder saying that Jane Eyre had had a great run in America, and that a publisher there had consequently bid high for the first sheets of a new work by Currer Bell, which they had promised to let him have.

Presently after came another missive from Smith and Elder; their American correspondent had written to them complaining that the first sheets of a new work by Currer Bell had been already received, and not by their house, but by a rival publisher, and asking the meaning of such false play; it enclosed an extract from a letter from Mr. Newby (A. and C. Bell’s publisher) affirming that to the best of his belief Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (the new work) were all the production of one author.

This was a lie, as Newby had been told repeatedly that they were the production of three different authors, but the fact was he wanted to make a dishonest move in the game to make the public and the trade believe that he had got hold of Currer Bell, and thus cheat Smith and Elder by securing the American publisher’s bid.

The upshot of it was that on the very day I received Smith and Elder’s letter, Anne and I packed up a small box, sent it down to Keighley, set out ourselves after tea, walked through a snow-storm to the station, got to Leeds, and whirled up by the night train to London with the view of proving our separate identity to Smith and Elder, and confronting Newby with his lie.

We arrived at the Chapter Coffee House (our old place, Polly, we did not well know where else to go) about eight o’clock in the morning. We washed ourselves, had some breakfast, sat a few minutes, and then set off in queer inward excitement to 65 Cornhill. Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Williams knew we were corning, they had never seen us they did not know whether we were men or women, but had always written to us as men.

We found 65 to be a large bookseller’s shop, in a street almost as bustling as the Strand. We went in, walked up to the counter. There were a great many young men and lads here and there; I said to the first I could accost : ‘May I see Mr. Smith?’ He hesitated, looked a little surprised. We sat down and waited a while, looking at some books on the counter, publications of theirs well known to us, of many of which they had sent us copies as presents. At last we were shown up to Mr. Smith. ‘Is it Mr. Smith?’ I said, looking up through my spectacles at a tall young man. ‘It is.’ I then put his own letter into his hand directed to Currer Bell. He looked at it and then at me again. ‘Where did you get this?’ he said. I laughed at his perplexity a recognition took place. I gave my real name: Miss Brontë. We were in a small room ceiled with a great skylight and there explanations were rapidly gone into; Mr. Newby being anathematised, I fear, with undue vehemence. Mr. Smith hurried out and returned quickly with one whom he introduced as Mr. Williams, a pale, mild, stooping man of fifty, very much like a faded Tom Dixon. Another recognition and a long, nervous shaking of hands. Then followed talk talk talk; Mr. Williams being silent, Mr. Smith loquacious.

Mr. Smith said we must come and stay at his house, but we were not prepared for a long stay and declined this also; as we took our leave he told us he should bring his sisters to call on us that evening. We returned to our inn, and I paid for the excitement of the interview by a thundering headache and harassing sickness. Towards evening, as I got no better and expected the Smiths to call, I took a strong dose of sal volatile. It roused me a little; still, I was in grievous bodily case when they were announced. They came in, two elegant young ladies, in full dress, prepared for the Opera Mr. Smith himself in evening costume, white gloves, etc. We had by no means understood that it was settled we were to go to the Opera, and were not ready. Moreover, we had no fine, elegant dresses with us, or in the world. However, on brief rumination I thought it would be wise to make no objections. I put my headache in my pocket, we attired ourselves in the plain, high-made country garments we possessed, and went with them to their carriage, where we found Mr. Williams. They must have thought us queer, quizzical-looking beings, especially me with my spectacles. I smiled inwardly at the contrast, which must have been apparent, between me and Mr. Smith as I walked with him up the crimson-carpeted staircase of the Opera House and stood amongst a brilliant throng at the box door, which was not yet open. Fine ladies and gentlemen glanced at us with a slight, graceful superciliousness quite warranted by the circumstances. Still, I felt pleasantly excited in spite of headache and sickness and conscious clownishness, and I saw Anne was calm and gentle, which she always is.

The performance was Rossini’s opera of the Barber of Seville, very brilliant, though I fancy there are things I should like better. We got home after one o’clock; we had never been in bed the night before, and had been in constant excitement for twenty-four hours. You may imagine we were tired.

The next day, Sunday, Mr. Williams came early and took us to church. He was so quiet, but so sincere in his attentions, one could not but have a most friendly leaning towards him. He has a nervous hesitation in speech, and a difficulty in finding appropriate language in which to express himself, which throws him into the background in conversation; but I had been his correspondent and therefore knew with what intelligence he could write, so that I was not in danger of undervaluing him. In the afternoon Mr. Smith came in his carriage with his mother, to take us to his house to dine. Mr. Smith’s residence is at Bayswater, six miles from Cornhill; the rooms, the drawing-room especially, looked splendid to us. There was no company only his mother, his two grown-up sisters, and his brother, a lad of twelve or thirteen, and a little sister, the youngest of the family, very like himself. They are all dark-eyed, dark-haired, and have clear, pale faces. The mother is a portly, handsome woman of her age, and all the children more or less well-looking one of the daughters decidedly pretty. We had a fine dinner, which neither Anne nor I had appetite to eat, and were glad when it was over. I always feel under an awkward constraint at table. Dining out would be hideous to me.

Mr. Smith made himself very pleasant. He is a practical man, I wish Mr. Williams were more so, but he is altogether of the contemplative, theorising order. Mr. Williams has too many abstractions.

On Monday we went to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy and the National Gallery, dined again at Mr. Smith’s, then went home with Mr. Williams to tea and saw his comparatively humble but neat residence and his fine family of eight children. A daughter of Leigh Hunt’s was there. She sang some little Italian airs which she had picked up among the peasantry in Tuscany, in a manner that charmed me.

On Tuesday morning we left London laden with books which Mr. Smith had given us, and got safely home, A more jaded wretch than I looked when I returned it would be difficult to conceive. I was thin when I went, but was meagre indeed when I returned; my face looked grey and very old, with strange, deep lines ploughed in it; my eyes stared unnaturally. I was weak and yet restless. In a while, however, the bad effects of excitement went off and I regained my normal condition. We saw Mr. Newby, but of him more another time. Good-bye. God bless you. Write. C B.”

Charlotte and Anne visited the Royal Italian Opera House, Covent Garden with Smith.

So there we have two accounts from two of the three protagonists, unfortunately Anne Brontë did not leave her account, of an event that changed world literature forever. Without that letter from Thomas Cautley Newby, a confidence trickster as much as a publisher, Charlotte and Anne Brontë would never have gone to London – perhaps we would never have known their real names. But that letter started a chain of events which leads to today where the Brontë novels are loved, and the Brontës themselves are loved.

There is probably a darker side to this trip too. Charlotte talks of fatigue and depression of spirits, something she constantly battled. She also suddenly looks grey and very old, she is weak and restless. Within a year of their return to Haworth, a terrible tragedy had decimated Haworth Parsonage. Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë had all died of tuberculosis, but it was not one of the main causes of death in rural Haworth, it was a disease of the big city. It seems likely that either Charlotte or Anne caught it in the crowds of London and brought it back to the parsonage with them. The rest, sadly, is history.

I hope to see you here (or on the new site when it is finally up and running, but the address will be the same) for another Brontë blog post next week.