John Keats famously called autumn the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, but he wasn’t the only writer to take inspiration from this russet-hued season of falling leaves and temperatures. Let’s face it, there’s been more than a hint of autumn in the air recently, at least up here in the chilly north of England, so it seems the perfect time to see what Anne Brontë and her sisters had to say about autumn.
Autumn in Yorkshire often brings windy conditions alongside cooler days and nights, but it can also be incredibly beautiful, especially if walking through parks and woodland where red and gold coloured leaves blanket the ground, crunching warmly beneath our feet. This is certainly something that Anne loved to do, and she got the perfect opportunity to experience it whilst living as a governess at Thorp Green Hall near York. As beautiful as Haworth is, the moorlands are largely devoid of trees, but the area around Thorp Green provided plentiful woodland for her to walk through, often in company with her dog Flossy that she was presented with whilst there. In 1843 she sat down and drew this lovely autumnal landscape:
Autumn weather at Thorp Green also inspired her poem ‘Lines Composed In A Wood On A Windy Day’:
“My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the wings of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.
The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves, beneath them, are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.
I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder today!”
We see from this how much Anne loved the wild weather of this season, but how it made her long to be at a place she loved even more: Scarborough with its crashing waves and stunning views across the seemingly infinite sea.
As we might expect, Emily Brontë loved autumn weather too, and the wilder the better. Even the world ‘wuthering’ that she made famous forever means a moaning gusty wind. This season, and its weather, also infused her verse. In autumn 1838, while teaching at Law Hill in Halifax, wrote a beautiful but little known poem beginning:
“Loud without the wind was roaring
Through the waned Autumnal sky,
Drenching wet, the cold rain pouring
Spoke of stormy winters nigh.
All too like that dreary eventually
Sighed without repining grief –
Sighed at first – but sighed not long
Sweet – how softly sweet it came!
Wild words of an ancient song –
Undefined, without a name –
‘It was spring, for the skylark was singing.’
Those words they awakened a spell –
They unlocked a deep fountain whose springing
Nor absence nor distance can quell.
In the gloom of a cloudy November
They uttered the music of May –
They kindled the perishing ember
Into fervour that could not decay
Awaken on all my dear moorlands
The wind in its glory and pride!
O call me from valleys and highlands
To walk by the hill-river’s side!”
This is just part of a lengthy poem, but Emily also had the knack of being able to write very succinct yet powerful poems, and in this next poem she captures the essence of autumn perhaps better than anyone other than Keats:
“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.”
The importance of the seasons to the nature-loving Brontë sisters is clear, and Charlotte too wrote a verse that gives autumn a very different feel. Here we see Charlotte Brontë alone in a somber mood, but she embraces the gloom of autumn like an old friend. The autumn chill is as cold as she feels in her heart, she and autumn are akin. It’s a short verse, particularly by Charlotte’s standards as her poems tended to be epics spanning several pages, but I think it’s possibly her greatest poem:
“The Autumn day its course has run – the Autumn evening falls,
Already risen the Autumn moon gleams quiet on these walls,
And Twilight to my lonely house a silent guest is come,
In mask of gloom through every room she passes dusk and dumb.
Her veil is spread, her shadow shed o’er stair and chamber void,
And now I feel her presence steal even to my lone fireside,
Sit silent Nun – sit there and be,
Comrade and Confidant to me.”
Charlotte was at her most evocative in these eight lines, we can almost picture her alone by an autumn fire hearth. Autumn can certainly be melancholy, it is a time when we remember lost loved ones, and for Charlotte, Anne and Emily that was especially so on the 15th of September. Today is the anniversary of the death in 1821 of Maria Brontë, mother to the siblings we all know and love. On this day their thoughts must naturally turn to the woman who had loved them so much, and on dark, cold nights our thoughts can do the same. This is the season of fall, but as Anne and Emily knew it is also a season of rare beauty if we look for it, a season of hope, for the wheel of the year turns and those bare trees will bring fruit and leaves once more.
Whatever autumn brings you, I hope you embrace it and enjoy it. Wrap up warm, kick the leaves around as you walk, and return home to a warm drink and a great book.
This week marks the 177th anniversary of the passing of William Weightman. He died on 6th September 1842, and with his final breath the love of Anne Brontë’s life passed away too. There are some who want only to deal with indisputable facts when dealing with history, but without speculation, without listening to our hearts when the existing evidence is placed before us, we miss out on so much. We see history and historical figures as merely dry cardboard, two dimensional entities, a string of dates and figures, rather than the flesh and blood creatures they really were, ruled by passions and love just as much as we are. It seems clear to me that Anne Brontë was in love with William Weightman, and that she felt his loss greatly throughout her short life.
William was from Appleby in Westmorland (that’s it at the head of this post) and was just 26 when he died, and the nature of his death shows the kind of man he was – he had contracted cholera after visiting a sick parishioner, something he did regularly, sometimes taking them gifts as well to alleviate their want. This trait is also mirrored by Reverend Weston in ‘Agnes Grey‘, and Agnes’ love Weston is really a mirror image of Weightman.
Perhaps the best way to pay tribute to him is to listen to what those who knew him said, including the Brontës:
Charlotte Brontë on William Weightman
[Charlotte’s views on Weightman changed dramatically; she fell under his spell herself but finding her feelings not reciprocated accused him of falseness and christened him ‘Celia Amelia’. Later, however, as this letter to Ellen Nussey shows, she was confronted with his true character]
“There is one little trait respecting him which lately came to my knowledge, which gives a glimpse of the better side of his character. Last Saturday night he had been sitting an hour in the parlour with Papa; and as he went away, I heard Papa say to him – ‘What is the matter with you? You seem in very low spirits tonight.’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been to see a poor young girl, who, I’m afraid, is dying.’ ‘Indeed, what is her name?’ ‘Susan Bland, the daughter of John Bland, the superintendent.’ Now Susan Bland is my oldest and best scholar in the Sunday-school; and when I heard that, I thought I would go as soon as I could to see her. I did go, on Monday afternoon, and found her very ill and weak, and seemingly far on her way to that bourne whence no traveller returns. After sitting with her some time, I happened to ask her mother if she thought a little port wine would do her good. She replied that the doctor had recommended it, and that when Mr. Weightman was last there, he had sent them a bottle of wine and a jar of preserves. She added, that he was always good-natured to poor folks, and seemed to have a deal of feeling and kind-heartedness about him. This proves that he is not all selfishness and vanity. No doubt, there are defects in his character, but there are also good qualities. God bless him!”
Branwell Brontë on William Weightman
[Charlotte wrote of how surprised she was that the usually reserved Emily Brontë quickly became friends with William, but he also made an impression on her brother Branwell and they became close companions. His death just days before that of Aunt Branwell dealt a double blow to Branwell Brontë]
“I have had a long attendance at the deathbed of the Rev. William Weightman, one of my dearest friends, and now I am attending at the deathbed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours… excuse this scrawl, my eyes are too dim with sorrow to see well.”
Patrick Brontë on William Weightman
[Patrick didn’t always get on with his assistant curates, but he was greatly impressed by William from the first. Perhaps if he had one day asked for the hand of a daughter of his, Patrick would have given him a better response than Arthur Bell Nicholls received? Patrick’s love for William can be found in the funeral sermon he preached for him.]
“In his preaching, and practising, he was, as very clergyman ought to be, neither distant nor austere, timid nor obtrusive, nor bigoted, exclusive, nor dogmatical. He was affable, but not familiar; open, but not too confiding. He thought it better, and more scriptural, to make the love of God, rather than the fear of hell, the ruling motive for obedience… For about three years, our Reverend Friend in his sacred office has laboured amongst us, faithfully preaching the doctrines expressed and implied in our text, There are many, who for a short time can please, and even astonish – but, who soon retrograde and fall into disrepute. His character wore well; the surest proof of real worth. He had, it is true, some peculiar advantages. Agreeable in person and manners, and constitutionally cheerful, his first introduction was prepossessing. But what he gained at first, he did not lose afterwards. He had those qualities that enabled him to gain ground. He had classical attainments of the first order, and above all, his religious principles were sound and orthodox… As it ought to be with every Incumbent, and his clerical coadjutor, we were always like father and son… He had the rare art of communicating information with diligence and strictness, without austerity, so as to render instruction, even to the youngest and most giddy, a pleasure, and not a task. The Sunday School Committee, and Teachers, as well as learners, have duly appreciated his talents in this way, and will long remember him with esteem and regret… As he was himself a friend to many, and an enemy to none, so by a kind of reaction, he had, I think I might say, no enemies and many friends… Our late lamented friend ran a bright, but short career. He died in the twenty-sixth year of his age. He had not attained the meridian of man’s life; amidst the joyous, and sanguine anticipations of friends, the good wishes of all, and, as may naturally be supposed, the glad hopes of himself, he was summoned for his removal from this world to the bar of eternity… When good men die early, in the full tide of their usefulness, there is bewildering amazement, till we read in the scriptures, they are taken away from the evil to come. In all such cases, we want faith, and strong faith too.”
The Haworth Parishioners On William Weightman
[The parishioners could be very hard to please, but they loved William, which is why they implored Patrick to publish his funeral sermon, above, and why they collected money to have a plaque raised in his honour. It remains the largest single tribute in Haworth’s church and bears these words:]
“This monument was erected by the inhabitants in memory of the late William Weightman, M.A. who died Sept. 6th 1842, aged 26 years and was buried in this church on the tenth of the same month. He was three years Curate of Haworth and by the congregation and parishioners in general was greatly respected for his orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning, mildness, and affability. His useful labours will long be gratefully remembered by the members of the congregation; and Sunday School teachers and scholars.”
The Leeds Intelligencer On William Weightman
“He was admired and beloved for his sterling piety, his amiability, and cheerfulness, and the loss of so zealous and useful a Minister of Christ is deeply felt by those among whom he lived and laboured. This discourse [the funeral sermon above], plain and touching in its language, simple yet expressive, pays a well deserved tribute to the memory of the preacher’s beloved and lamented fellow labourer.”
Anne Brontë On William Weightman
We will finish with a tribute to William Weightman from the woman who loved him, and who I believed was loved by him in return – our own beloved Anne Brontë. She not only made him the romantic hero of her first novel ‘Agnes Grey’ she also composed a series of mournful poems for the rest of her life, where the subject is clearly William Weightman. I leave you with just one of these; written in April 1844, ‘A Reminiscence’ marks the poets love for a man who is buried under the cold, damp stone of the church floor. William Weightman was not buried in Haworth’s churchyard, but beneath the floor of the church:
“Yes, thou art gone! and never more
Thy sunny smile shall gladden me;
But I may pass the old church door,
And pace the floor that covers thee,
May stand upon the cold, damp stone,
And think that, frozen, lies below
The lightest heart that I have known,
The kindest I shall ever know.
Yet, though I cannot see thee more,
‘Tis still a comfort to have seen;
And though thy transient life is o’er,
‘Tis sweet to think that thou hast been;
To think a soul so near divine,
Within a form, so angel fair,
United to a heart like thine,
Has gladdened once our humble sphere.”
Apologies for the late posting – I’ve spent the last week in London, a glorious hustle bustle of a city and one I always love to visit. There’s so much history there, and of course the streets are paved with literary history too in the form of Brontë gold.
I’ve looked before at how Anne Brontë came here with her sister Charlotte in July 1848, driven by a desire to prove their innocence after Charlotte’s publisher George Smith wrote that it was being said that the three Bell brothers, Currer, Ellis and Acton were one and the same man. Of course, the truth was very different, but it involved Anne and Charlotte finally throwing off their Bell masks and introducing the Brontë sisters to the world. This was the only time Anne travelled outside Yorkshire, and she must have delighted in the capital’s sights and sounds, but Charlotte Brontë visited London on numerous occasions.
In fact, Charlotte’s first visit to London was in 1842, accompanied by Emily and her father Patrick as they made their way to Brussels to attend school at the Pensionnat Heger. After the death of her sisters, Charlotte tried to forget her sorrows by writing, seeking the company of friends, and sometimes travelling, and so she returned to London more than once as the guest of George Smith. In his memoirs, Smith gave a compelling account of one of these visits, and we see Charlotte meeting her hero the Duke of Wellington, standing enraptured in the House of Commons, and even comforting a prisoner in Newgate. Here is his account:
“Charlotte Brontë stayed with us several times. The utmost was, of course, done to entertain and please her. We arranged for dinner-parties, at which artistic and literary notabilities, whom she wished to meet, were present. We took her to places which we thought would interest her – The Times office, the General Post Office, the Bank of England, Newgate, Bedlam. At Newgate she rapidly fixed her attention on an individual prisoner. This was a poor girl with an interesting face, and an expression of the deepest misery. She had, I believe, killed her illegitimate child. Miss Brontë walked up to her, took her hand, and began to talk to her. She was, of course, quickly interrupted by the prison warder with the formula, ‘Visitors are not allowed to speak to the prisoners.’ Sir David Brewster took her round the Great Exhibition, and made the visit a very interesting one to her. One thing which impressed her very much was the lighted rooms of the newspaper offices in Fleet Street and the Strand, as we drove home in the middle of the night from some City expedition.
On one occasion I took Miss Brontë to the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons. The Ladies’ Gallery of those days was behind the Strangers’ Gallery, and from it one could see the eyes of the ladies above, nothing more. I told Miss Brontë that if she felt tired and wished to go away, she had only to look at me – I should know by the expression of her eyes what she meant – and that I would come round for her. After a time I looked and looked. There were many eyes, they all seemed to be flashing signals to me, but much as I admired Miss Brontë’s eyes I could not distinguish them from the others. I looked so earnestly from one pair of eyes to another that I am afraid that more than one lady must have regarded me as a rather impudent fellow. At length I went round and took my lady away. I expressed my hope that I did not keep her long waiting, and said something about the difficulty of getting out after I saw her signal. ‘ I made no signal,’ she said, ‘I did not wish to come away. Perhaps there were other signals from the Gallery.’
Miss Brontë and her father had a passionate admiration for the Duke of Wellington, and I took her to the Chapel Royal, St. James’s, which he generally attended on Sunday, in order that she might see him. We followed him out of the Chapel, and I indulged Miss Brontë by so arranging our walk that she met him twice on his way to Apsley House. I also took her to a Friends’ meeting-house in St. Martin’s Court, Leicester Square. I am afraid this form of worship afforded her more amusement than edification.”
I myself followed Charlotte’s footsteps and visited Apsley House (that’s it at the head of this post). It’s incredibly grand; situated right next to the entrance to Hyde Park it demonstrates the affection that the first Duke of Wellington was held in right across Europe, and the wealth that his success as a General brought him. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take pictures within the magnificent rooms which are open to the public, but there was more gold than Fort Knox and an incredible collection of art. Vast mirrors are actually panels that slide back in daytime to reveal windows looking out onto what was then Kensington Village. Quite simply, it’s the most breathtaking house I’ve seen, and I highly recommend it to anyone who visits London. Here’s a short video I made looking at Charlotte Brontë’s love of the man who once called Apsley House home, and whom she proudly called ‘a real grand old man’:
My final London video is at Apsley House as we look at Charlotte Bronte, the Duke of Wellington and some rather special toy soldiers! pic.twitter.com/bk5Y2sNsha
London is a magical place to visit, although may be a little too hectic (not to say expensive) to live in, and it’s made all the more magical by the knowledge that we walk in the footsteps of the likes of the Duke of Wellington, and of Charlotte and Anne Brontë.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, thank you, you may remember a post from a few years ago that included a petition to stop Kirklees council closing the historic Red House in Gomersal, West Yorkshire. Unfortunately, whilst there was huge public support for the Red House, the council decided to close it anyway, and it’s remained unused, but not unloved, ever since.
The good news is that an enthusiastic group of people are determined that the Red House should re-open. The aim is for the council to lease the building to this community group, after which it could become an important building for Brontë and history buffs and the wider community alike. Its potential really is huge, this historically important building could be a public museum again but it could also be an arts and retreat venue, a place for literary talks and festivals, a wedding venue, as well as a perfectly beautiful host for a wide variety of community groups and events.
Stage one is to convince Kirklees council to let this group address them and present their plans for a Red House revival. Once again, there’s a petition. Please take just a moment to click this link to the petition and sign it. It only takes a moment, but do remember to also click the email you’ll receive to confirm your signature.
There are many reasons that the Red House is important, many of which can be found in this excellent article by Dr. Stephen Caunce which featured recently in the Huddersfield Examiner. As you’d expect, in today’s blog I’m going to concentrate on just why it’s so important to Brontë lovers. The Red House in Gomersal was for many years the home of Mary Taylor, one of a great trio of friends alongside Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey. They met at Roe Head school at Mirfield, just four miles from Gomersal, the school where Anne Brontë later excelled as a pupil.
Charlotte grew very close to Mary Taylor, and to her younger sister Martha, and as well as Mary’s visits to Haworth Parsonage, Charlotte visited them at the Red House. So important was the house to Charlotte that she gave it a central role in her second published novel ‘Shirley’, where it can clearly be identified as Briarmains. Here in the book is Charlotte’s moving introduction to Briarmains and the Yorke family, for which we can read the Red House and the Taylors.
“But if Briar Chapel seemed alive, so also did Briarmains, though certainly the mansion appeared to enjoy a quieter phase of existence than the temple. Some of its windows too were aglow; the lower casements opened upon the lawn; curtains concealed the interior, and partly obscured the ray of the candles which lit it, but they did not entirely muffle the sound of voice and laughter. We are privileged to enter that front door, and to penetrate to the domestic sanctum.
It is not the presence of company which makes Mr. Yorke’s habitation lively, for there is none within it save his own family, and they are assembled in that farthest room to the right, the back parlour.This is the usual sitting-room of an evening. Those windows would be seen by daylight to be of brilliantly-stained glass, purple and amber the predominant hues, glittering round a gravely-tinted medallion in the centre of each, representing the suave head of William Shakespeare, and the serene one of John Milton. Some Canadian views hung on the walls—green forest and blue water scenery—and in the midst of them blazes a night-eruption of Vesuvius; very ardently it glows, contrasted with the cool foam and azure of cataracts, and the dusky depths of woods.
The fire illuminating this room, reader, is such as, if you be a southern, you do not often see burning on the hearth of a private apartment. It is a clear, hot coal fire, heaped high in the ample chimney. Mr. Yorke will have such fires even in warm summer weather. He sits beside it with a book in his hand, a little round stand at his elbow supporting a candle; but he is not reading—he is watching his children. Opposite to him sits his lady—a personage whom I might describe minutely, but I feel no vocation to the task. I see her, though, very plainly before me—a large woman of the gravest aspect, care on her front and on her shoulders, but not overwhelming, inevitable care, rather the sort of voluntary, exemplary cloud and burden people ever carry who deem it their duty to be gloomy. Ah, well-a-day! Mrs. Yorke had that notion, and grave as Saturn she was, morning, noon, and, night; and hard things she thought if any unhappy wight—especially of the female sex—who dared in her presence to show the light of a gay heart on a sunny countenance. In her estimation, to be mirthful was to be profane, to be cheerful was to be frivolous. She drew no distinctions. Yet she was a very good wife, a very careful mother, looked after her children unceasingly, was sincerely attached to her husband; only the worst of it was, if she could have had her will, she would not have permitted him to have any friend in the world beside herself. All his relations were insupportable to her, and she kept them at arm’s length.
Mr. Yorke and she agreed perfectly well, yet he was naturally a social, hospitable man, an advocate for family unity; and in his youth, as has been said, he liked none but lively, cheerful women. Why he chose her, how they contrived to suit each other, is a problem puzzling enough, but which might soon be solved if one had time to go into the analysis of the case. Suffice it here to say that Yorke had a shadowy side as well as a sunny side to his character, and that his shadowy side found sympathy and affinity in the whole of his wife’s uniformly overcast nature. For the rest, she was a strong-minded woman; never said a weak or a trite thing; took stern, democratic views of society, and rather cynical ones of human nature; considered herself perfect and safe, and the rest of the world all wrong. Her main fault was a brooding, eternal, immitigable suspicion of all men, things, creeds, and parties; this suspicion was a mist before her eyes, a false guide in her path, wherever she looked, wherever she turned.
It may be supposed that the children of such a pair were not likely to turn out quite ordinary, commonplace beings; and they were not. You see six of them, reader. The youngest is a baby on the mother’s knee. It is all her own yet, and that one she has not yet begun to doubt, suspect, condemn; it derives its sustenance from her, it hangs on her, it clings to her, it loves her above everything else in the world. She is sure of that, because, as it lives by her, it cannot be otherwise, therefore she loves it.
The two next are girls, Rose and Jessy; they are both now at their father’s knee; they seldom go near their mother, except when obliged to do so. Rose, the elder, is twelve years old; she is like her father—the most like him of the whole group—but it is a granite head copied in ivory; all is softened in colour and line. Yorke himself has a harsh face—his daughter’s is not harsh, neither is it quite pretty; it is simple, childlike in feature; the round cheeks bloom: as to the gray eyes, they are otherwise than childlike; a serious soul lights them—a young soul yet, but it will mature, if the body lives; and neither father nor mother have a spirit to compare with it. Partaking of the essence of each, it will one day be better than either—stronger, much purer, more aspiring. Rose is a still, sometimes a stubborn, girl now. Her mother wants to make of her such a woman as she is herself—a woman of dark and dreary duties; and Rose has a mind full-set, thick-sown with the germs of ideas her mother never knew. It is agony to her often to have these ideas trampled on and repressed. She has never rebelled yet; but if hard driven, she will rebel one day, and then it will be once for all. Rose loves her father: her father does not rule her with a rod of iron; he is good to her. He sometimes fears she will not live, so bright are the sparks of intelligence which, at moments, flash from her glance and gleam in her language. This idea makes him often sadly tender to her.
He has no idea that little Jessy will die young, she is so gay and chattering, arch, original even now; passionate when provoked, but most affectionate if caressed; by turns gentle and rattling; exacting, yet generous; fearless—of her mother, for instance, whose irrationally hard and strict rule she has often defied—yet reliant on any who will help her. Jessy, with her little piquant face, engaging prattle, and winning ways, is made to be a pet, and her father’s pet she accordingly is. It is odd that the doll should resemble her mother feature by feature, as Rose resembles her father, and yet the physiognomy—how different!
Mr. Yorke, if a magic mirror were now held before you, and if therein were shown you your two daughters as they will be twenty years from this night, what would you think? The magic mirror is here: you shall learn their destinies—and first that of your little life, Jessy.
Do you know this place? No, you never saw it; but you recognize the nature of these trees, this foliage—the cypress, the willow, the yew. Stone crosses like these are not unfamiliar to you, nor are these dim garlands of everlasting flowers. Here is the place—green sod and a gray marble headstone. Jessy sleeps below. She lived through an April day; much loved was she, much loving. She often, in her brief life, shed tears, she had frequent sorrows; she smiled between, gladdening whatever saw her. Her death was tranquil and happy in Rose’s guardian arms, for Rose had been her stay and defence through many trials. The dying and the watching English girls were at that hour alone in a foreign country, and the soil of that country gave Jessy a grave.
Now, behold Rose two years later. The crosses and garlands looked strange, but the hills and woods of this landscape look still stranger. This, indeed, is far from England; remote must be the shores which wear that wild, luxuriant aspect. This is some virgin solitude. Unknown birds flutter round the skirts of that forest; no European river this, on whose banks Rose sits thinking. The little quiet Yorkshire girl is a lonely emigrant in some region of the southern hemisphere. Will she ever come back?”
This is beautifully written of course, as we’d expect from Charlotte, but it shows an exact portrait of the Red House and the family within it. It’s especially moving for two reasons, the portraits of Jessy Yorke and Rose Yorke show the autobiographical elements to this novel.
Jessy was in fact Martha Taylor, the younger sister who was deeply loved by Charlotte, and who died in a time of promise when Mary, Martha, Charlotte and Emily Brontë were all at school in Brussels. So much did this loss affect Charlotte that she also included a depiction of it in her first written novel ‘The Professor’. Charlotte’s words of love and loss are now depicted on the Martha Taylor memorial at the foot of Mary’s grave in Gomersal churchyard (alas, Martha’s grave in Brussels has long ago been concreted over – a Kirklees-like move): ‘Much loved was she, much loving.’
Rose Yorke is Mary Taylor, and we see the second Taylor tragedy as far as Charlotte was concerned: ‘the little quiet Yorkshire girl is a lonely emigrant in some region of the southern hemisphere. Will she ever come back?’
By this time, Mary Taylor had indeed emigrated to New Zealand, where she launched a successful business. Charlotte wrote at the time of this loss of her friend: ‘to me it is something as if a great planet has fallen out of the sky.’ By the time Mary returned to England, and to Gomersal, Charlotte Brontë was dead, as were all of her siblings that Mary had once known.
Mary Taylor was an incredible woman in her own right: a proto-feminist, a novelist in her own right, an adventurer and traveller. In many ways her life bears striking similarities to that of Anne Lister. Mary too preferred female company in later life, living with a succession of Swiss maids, and, just like Anne, she was also a pioneer of female mountain climbing in the Alps – as can be seen in this remarkable photograph.
Of course there is one big difference: Anne Lister’s home of Shibden Hall has been cherished by Calderdale Council, the neighbouring council to Kirklees, and it is now a major tourist attraction and a jewel in the cultural crown of Halifax. It’s not too late for Kirklees to do the same for the Red House, but it nearly is. The interior so beloved of Charlotte Brontë is now empty, where once it held glorious exhibits. The stained glass window of Shakespeare mentioned above has now been removed and is in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
I’m proud to have been asked to help the Red House Revival community group, and this weekend I’ll be setting up a website for the group and the house – www.bronteredhouse.co.uk. Let’s do the decent thing and open this beautiful treasure of a house to the public once more. We can’t afford to let it rot. A Kirklees spokesman said that closing the Red House was part of their program to ‘improve museum facilities in Kirklees.’ Improving them by closing them down, at a time when we need culture and community facilities more than ever before. Please sign the petition.
How is your head feeling today? No, I’m not implying that you overindulged on Saturday evening, I’m talking about the bumps on your head and the swelling of your skull? Still none the wiser? Today we’re discussing phrenology and why the Brontës were so fascinated with it, and we’ll then take a look at the rather revealing things a leading phrenologist had to say about Charlotte Brontë herself.
It may sound strange in our highly scientific age, but phrenology was very popular, and widely believed, in the early nineteenth century. It rapidly gained popularity in England after the 1819 work ‘Essays On Phrenology’ was published by George Combe. In it he expounded Franz Gall’s theories that each part of the brain corresponded to different characteristics, emotions and moral values, meaning that by feeling someone’s head, and feeling which parts of their skull were particularly pronounced, they could find a person’s true personality and fate.
At the time it was considered a cutting edge scientific discipline, with people having phrenological busts in their homes to help them read the heads of visitors – modern examples of which can be seen in the fabulous ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities‘ shop in Haworth, which was once the village apothecary.
References to phrenology can be found in the writing of great Victorian authors such as Dickens and George Eliot, but they occur particularly often in Charlotte Brontë’s novels.
For example, in Jane Eyre, Blanche Ingram tries to turn attention away from the fortune telling she’s just received (by a disguised Rochester) by telling her questioners: ‘really your organs of wonder and credulity are over excited.’
The organs of wonder and credulity were just two phrenological areas, and Charlotte references more of them in ‘The Professor’ when she writes: ‘what good can your bumps of ideality, comparison, self-esteem, conscientiousness, do you here?”
It seems that Charlotte was keen on putting her knowledge of phrenology to the test with people she met, so we can be sure she’d felt the heads of Anne and Emily. We know this as her great friend Mary Taylor told Elizabeth Gaskell of this practice, and that ‘Charlotte said she could get on with any one who had a bump at the top of their heads’ – this, it should be noted, to phrenologists is the bump of conscientiousness referred to in ‘The Professor’.
Doubtless Charlotte told her publisher and friend George Smith of her beliefs, and probably felt the shape of his head too, for in his memoirs he gives a delightful and detailed account of taking her with him to see a professional phrenologist called Dr. Browne. They posed as brother and sister, Mr and Miss Fraser, and the doctor later gave him a typed account of his assessment. It should be noted that Dr. Browne had no idea who ‘Miss Fraser’ really was (although the difference in social standing and accent between the grand London gent Smith and the shy and retiring Yorkshire woman Charlotte may have led him to realise that they weren’t related, something he no doubt discretely ignored), and yet he makes some very acute observations. Browne records that ‘in its intellectual development this head is very remarkable’, and ‘if not a poet her sentiments are poetical, or are at least imbued with that enthusiastic glow which is characteristic of poetical feeling.’
It should be noted as well that the doctor did not give such glowing reports to everyone, as Smith himself was disappointed with the mundane reading that his head produced. I will leave you with the full reading of the bumps on Charlotte Brontë’s head. It really is a remarkably accurate reading in parts, so whilst phrenology is looked down upon today, maybe the Victorians were right to consider things that might not be explained by science alone:
“A Phrenological Study Of The Talents And Dispositions of A Lady.
Temperament for the most part nervous. Brain large, the anterior and superior part remarkably salient. In her domestic relations this lady will be warm and affectionate. In the care of children she will evince judicious kindness, but she is not pleased at seeing them spoiled by over-indulgence. Her fondness for any particular locality would chiefly rest upon the associations connected with it. Her attachments are strong and enduring — indeed, this is a leading element of her character; she is rather circumspect, however, in the choice of her friends, and it is well that she is so, for she will seldom meet with persons whose dispositions approach the standard of excellence with which she can entirely sympathise. Her sense of truth and justice would be offended by any dereliction of duty, and she would in such cases express her disapprobation with warmth and energy; she would not, however, be precipitate in acting thus, and rather than live in a state of hostility with those she could wish to love she would depart from them, although the breaking-off of friendship would be to her a source of great unhappiness.
The careless and unreflecting, whom she would labour to amend, might deem her punctilious and perhaps exacting; not considering that their amendment and not her own gratification prompted her to admonish. She is sensitive and is very anxious to succeed in her undertakings, but is not so sanguine as to the probability of success. She is occasionally inclined to take a gloomier view of things than perhaps the facts of the case justify; she should guard against the effect of this where her affection is engaged, for her sense of her own importance is moderate and not strong enough to steel her heart against disappointment; she has more firmness than self-reliance, and her sense of justice is of a very high order. She is deferential to the aged and those she deems worthy of respect, and possesses much devotional feeling, but dislikes fanaticism and is not given to a belief in supernatural things without questioning the probability of their existence. Money is not her idol : she values it merely for its uses; she would be liberal to the poor and compassionate to the afflicted, and when friendship calls for aid she would struggle even against her own interest to impart the required assistance – indeed, sympathy is a marked characteristic of this organisation.
Is fond of symmetry and proportion, and possesses a good perception of form, and is a good judge of colour. She is endowed with a keen perception of melody and rhythm. Her imitative powers are good, and the faculty which gives manual dexterity is well developed. These powers might have been cultivated with advantage. Is a fair calculator, and her sense of order and arrangement is remarkably good. Whatever this lady has to settle or arrange will be done with precision and taste. She is endowed with an exalted sense of the beautiful and ideal, and longs for perfection. If not a poet her sentiments are poetical, or are at least imbued with that enthusiastic glow which is characteristic of poetical feeling. She is fond of dramatic literature and the drama, especially if it be combined with music.
In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. It is highly philosophical. It exhibits the presence of an intellect at once perspicacious and perspicuous. There is much critical sagacity and fertility in devising resources in situations of difficulty, much originality, with a tendency to speculate and generalise. Possibly this speculative bias may sometimes interfere with the practical efficiency of some of her projects. Yet since she has scarcely an adequate share of self-reliance, and is not sanguine as to the success of her plans, there is reason to suppose that she would attend more closely to particulars, and thereby present the unsatisfactory results of hasty generalisation.
This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force – sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. The character of the German language would be well adapted to such an organisation. In analysing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power; but in her mode of investigating mental science she would naturally be imbued with a metaphysical bias; she would perhaps be sceptical as to the truth of Qale’s doctrine. But the study of this doctrine, this new system of mental philosophy, would give additional strength to her excellent understanding by rendering it more practical, more attentive to particulars and contribute to her happiness by imparting to her more correct notions of the dispositions of those whose acquaintance She may wish to cultivate.
The time that the Brontës lived in was one of rapid technological innovation that helped to drive (for good and bad) the industrial revolution, and which completely changed how, and where, we lived. Perhaps the most revolutionary invention of them all at this time was the railway, opening up the country as never before whereas previously many people spent their whole lives within a few miles of the place in which they were born.
Another invention that must have seemed like wizardry was photography. The existence or not of Brontë photographs is, I know, very contentious, so I won’t get into that here. We know for certain that there was at least one photograph of Charlotte Brontë at some point, however, in the form of an early glass plated image known as a daguerreotype. We hear of this in an interview with Nancy Garrs, in her home, carried out by the Leeds Mercury in March 1893 in which she proudly took down photographs of Patrick and Charlotte to show the reporter:
‘Round this certificate of character were suspended photographs of Mr. Brontë, Miss Brontë, Haworth Church, etc., and these she also brought for our inspection. The expression of the features in Miss Brontë’s portrait, which is taken on glass, are altogether pleasanter than that in Mrs. Gaskell’s book, which always seems to to have something weird and uncanny about it.’
Photography was in its infancy at the time the Brontë siblings died, but just a decade later it had become commonplace. That means that we have undisputed photographs of many of the people who were in the Brontë story, from relatives to servants and friends. Technology is still advancing rapidly, of course, and now we can even attempt to ‘colourise’ old black and white photographs – it’s also referred to as ‘de-oldifying’ by some. I tried this with a couple of pictures of Ellen Nussey this week, and the results were astonishing – it really seemed to bring her to life. Buoyed by this I’ve colourised some more people with Brontë connections, and I present the results to you below – but please remember that this is just a bit of fun, and the results can be variable.
Ellen was described as a very pretty young woman, and although these two colourised photographs show Ellen in her later years we still see her pleasant character shine through.
Mary Taylor was, if anything, regarded as even more of a beauty than Ellen in her youth, although the only photograph of her shows Mary in old age. When young, her teacher Miss Wooler (a central figure in much of the Brontë story) described Mary Taylor as ‘too pretty to live’, but in fact she attained the ripe old age, for the time, of 76.
Elizabeth Gaskell was the first biographer of Charlotte Brontë, and although her work caused controversy then and now she was a close friend of Charlotte, and she became an acquaintance of Ellen Nussey’s too.
Nancy, along with her sister Sarah, was a servant to the Brontë family in Thornton and Haworth, helping to nurse and raise them through their infant years. Incidentally, there’s a very worthy campaign to buy a headstone for Nancy’s grave in Undercliffe cemetery near Bradford, with some special Nancy Garrs events taking place in September. You can find out more via this link.
Martha was the daughter of sexton John Brown, Branwell’s close friend, and she herself became a very close friend of Charlotte after the death of Emily and Anne. She served in the Brontë Parsonage for twenty years from the age of 12 until Patrick Brontë’s death in 1861.
Monsieur Heger was first Charlotte Brontë’s tutor in Brussels, and then a colleague at the school run by his wife, but he also broke her heart. The unrequited love had a huge influence on all Charlotte Brontë’s novels, but again the photograph of him in later years may not do justice to the man Charlotte fell in love with.
Arthur Bell Nicholls
The path to romance finally flourished with Arthur Bell Nicholls, who after a fraught courting married her in 1854. He was also renowned for being handsome, with a Haworth villager later remembering him as ‘a tall, dark, well-made man.’
The Brontë patriarch was a striking figure in his youth, and even in his old age he still possessed an innate strength and charm, as this 1859 witness describes: ‘Very handsome he must have been in his younger days, for traces of beauty most refined and noble in expression, even yet show themselves in his features and in his striking profile. His brow is still unwrinkled; his hair and whiskers snowy white: lines very decided in their character are impressed about the mouth; the eyes are large and penetrating.’
This is the woman after whom our Charlotte was named. Charlotte Branwell was the younger sister of Maria, the mother of the Brontë siblings, and their Aunt Branwell, and the youngest of the Branwell family of Penzance, Cornwall. She married her cousin Joseph Branwell and kept her last name.
Now do remember that this is a bit of fun. Whatever you think of the provenance of this picture, whether you believe it’s Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë or not, I think it looks rather splendid with a dash of colour added. If you want to do the same to any black and white pictures you have, simply head to https://colourise.sg/ – you don’t need to give any details, and all it takes is the click of a button to bring the past, once more, vividly to life.
This day, the fourth of August, in 1792 saw the birth of one of the foremost poets of English literature, and one whose influence upon the Brontës is clear to see: Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Shelley is often associated with those other great masters of the second wave of Romantic poets George Gordon Byron and John Keats, and ‘Adonais’, his tribute to the ill starred Keats, is one of the greatest elegies ever written:
‘The breath whose might I have invok’d in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.’
These closing lines are prophetic, as in July 1822, just a year after Keats’ death, Shelley was drowned in a tempest upon the waters of Italy’s Gulf of Spezia. In a further twist his body was identified by a copy of Keats’ poetry found in his pocket, bringing an echo of the epitaph that Keats had written for himself: ‘Here lies one, whose name was writ in water.’ He now lies in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where literary pilgrims still flock to see the graves of both he and John Keats.
Percy Shelley was undoubtedly a brilliant poet, but he was also a controversial figure in his day, chiefly because of his outspoken atheism and his radical political beliefs in support of the working class. His ‘The Mask Of Anarchy’ was composed in response to the Peterloo Massacre, and he exhorts the masses to:
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’
It is little surprise then that Shelley had a large influence upon Chartism and later upon the work of Karl Marx, but perhaps more surprising to find him influencing Charlotte, Anne and especially Emily Brontë.
We see evidence of Shelley’s presence within Haworth Parsonage in the Brontë writing, and the fact that Patrick Brontë allowed his daughters free access to his books shows his enlightened approach to his daughter’s education and entertainment. Most early nineteenth century fathers would not have dreamed of letting their daughters near this blasphemous, seditious man (the prevailing opinion of the time), but Patrick let them read what they wanted to, for which the world can be thankful.
In a draft version of Charlotte Brontë’s youthful work ‘Caroline Vernon’ set in the world of Angria, she writes:
‘In what an obscure, dim, unconscious dream Miss Vernon was enveloped! How little she knew of herself! However, time is advancing & the hours – those ‘wild-eyed charioteers’ as Shelley calls them – are driving on.’
This description of galloping time has obviously made an impression upon Charlotte, showing that it was perhaps recently that she had read the source of them – Percy Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound.’
Shelley’s poetry is full of such expressions that linger long in the memory; it is brilliantly written and often dwells upon the power of nature, and in this it clearly influenced Emily and Anne Brontë. Emily’s poetry is a force of nature in its own right, and stands alone amongst the verse of its time, but Shelley’s poetry seems the closest to it thematically and in terms of its elegance of phrase. Surprisingly, however, Percy Shelley’s influence upon Emily can most clearly be seen in her only novel, ‘Wuthering Heights.’
It is a work of towering genius, but like Shakespeare, that other genius before whom us mortals can only stand and bow our heads, Emily took influences from books she had read and loved. Thus we can see echoes of the likes of James Hogg in ‘Wuthering Heights’, and we can also see a source for perhaps the most famous quote of all from this most quotable of books:
‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’
The brilliance of Emily is such that she makes these lines even more powerful than when a similar expression appeared in Shelley’s ‘Epipsychidion’:
‘How beyond refuge I am thine. Ah me! I am not thine: I am a part of thee.’
Shelley, like all great writers influenced writers that came in the generation after him, like the Brontës, and continues to influence writers. This too he shares in common with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, for as long as books are read there will be those who are inspired to take up the pen for the first time themselves by the likes of ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.’
Today, the 30th July 2019, marks the 201st birthday of Emily Brontë. This time last year great celebrations were under way in her beloved Haworth, and she was being remembered in her maternal homeland of Penzance too – I was lucky enough to be there and invited to a celebratory screening of ‘To Walk Invisible‘ shown in her honour.
Emily is the author of one of the greatest novels, perhaps the greatest, the world has even seen, Wuthering Heights of course, and she has also left us a brilliant body of verse that places her among the finest poets of the nineteenth century. She can also seem quite an enigmatic character, as she left us all too few letters or diary entries. From those who really knew Emily however, it seems that she may have been rather different from the austere image many have of her today. Emily was very kind hearted, had a mischievous sense of humour, and an innate charm (when it wasn’t hidden by her powerful reserve). Let’s take a look at what her family, friends and those who actually knew Emily said about her:
Charlotte Brontë on Emily Brontë:
“I have never seen her parallel in anything. Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”
“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.”
“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.”
John Greenwood on Emily Brontë:
“Patrick had such unbounded confidence in his daughter Emily that he resolved to learn her to shoot too. They used to practice with pistols. Let her be ever so busy in her domestic duties, whether in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand, or at her studies, rapt in a world of her own creating – it mattered not; if he called upon her to take a lesson, she would put all down. His tender and affectionate “Now, my dear girl, let me see how well you can shoot today”, was irresistible to her filial nature and her most winning and musical voice would be heard to ring through the house in response.”
Patrick Brontë on Emily Brontë:
“Oh! She is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand. Nay the very apple of my eye!”
Miss Evans (Superintendent of Lowood) on Emily Brontë:
“A darling child… quite the pet nursling of the school.”
Martha Heaton (Maria Brontë’s nurse) on Emily Brontë:
“There never were such good children… they were good little creatures. Emily was the prettiest.”
Ellen Nussey on Emily Brontë:
“Emily had by this time [1833, when she was 15] acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little.”
“She and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.”
“A spell of mischief also lurked in her on occasions. When out on the moors she enjoyed leading Charlotte where she would not dare to go of her own free will. C. had a mortal dread of unknown animals and it was Emily’s pleasure to lead her into close vicinity and then to tell her of what she had done, laughing at her horror with great amusement.”
Let’s finish this birthday tribute with a closing appraisal by Ellen Nussey, as her thoughts turned once more to that remarkable woman she had known. She was perhaps Emily’s only real and lasting friend outside of her family, and she made it clear that when you were in Emily’s company, even if she was merely silent, you knew that you were in the company of something very powerful and special indeed. Emily was a unique genius, the likes of which we shall not be blessed with again, so let’s read Ellen’s words and raise a glass to say ‘Happy Birthday, Emily Brontë’:
“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 Tuesday I will be marking the 201st birthday of Emily Brontë with a special post, so today I give you a post that is longer in length than most, but shorter in my contribution.
You may have heard of, or even read, Charlotte Brontë’s unfinished novel ‘Emma’, but in fact this wasn’t her only unfinished work, and certainly not the most remarkable. In 1853, after the completion of Villette, Charlotte began work on a novel entitled ‘The Story Of Willie Ellin’. Five fragments are all that we have of it, but together they give us more words than we have in Emma. It’s a Brontë work unlike any other. You shall see how fragments three and four follow on from each other, and how fragment five seems to be an alternative version of fragment four. It is a tale of sibling cruelty and abuse that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel, or even Wuthering Heights.
What I love most about Willie Ellin, however, is the second fragment which seems to deal with a supernatural element – a spirit who ‘came to consciousness within the rim of twilight’ and seems to have haunted the spot ever since. It’s a unique edition to the Brontë canon, if only we had more of it! You can read more about the story and its significance in this wonderful blog by Nicola Friar, an expert on Brontë juvenilia. The work itself is difficult to find, but as it’s out of copyright I feel it’s right that more people should be able to see it, so I present to you here Charlotte Brontë’s:
THE STORY OF WILLIE ELLIN
I will not deny that I took a pleasure in studying the character of Mrs. Widdup, nor that to me she seemed to possess a good deal of worth of a particular kind. Thirty years ago (our acquaintance dated its commencement thus far back) I had believed very heartily in her worth without studying her character. She then ruled me as one of a flock of four nurslings. Of this flock I was not her favourite; indeed my place was lowest in her grace. Even through boyhood and adolescence she held me for a riddle rather than a model. After two decades of separation and more than half a generation’s change beheld us again under the same roof, still the housekeeper of Ellin Hall, while respecting its master, revolved him day and night as an unsolved conundrum. It was and must be so: habit and circumstances attached us, but nothing could combine, nothing quite unfold.
In a certain sense Mrs. Widdup was spotlessly honest; she had the fidelity of a consistent and steady nature; she was a partisan in friendship, an unflinching foe; she was usually humane and cheerful. She was narrow minded, loved money, and by natural instinct still leant to the guidance of interest. Fidelity, partisanship, interest, all counselled her to attachment to the Ellin family, and accordingly she was attached to me, that family’s surviving representative.
Ellin Hall had for five ages been the home of the Ellins. In my youth it passed out of their hands. My eldest half-brother sold it. He died suddenly, leaving neither will nor direct heir; his fortune fell to me, and I purchased back the ancient homestead. That eldest half -brother of mine was a stronger man in body and a tyrant in heart. I would advert to his deeds, but they are such as we suffer Death to cancel from memory.
In other countries, and in distant times, it is possible that more of my kind might have been attracted to human dwellings – hut or mansion – and secretly taken them in lease, than for these hundred years past have been known to make their home in such abodes. Yet we were always few, our presence rare, its signs faint, and its proofs difficult to seize.
My house was not picturesque: it had no turrets, no battlements, no mullioned or lozenged windows. From the first, however, I believe its stones were grey, dug from a grey quarry on a grey waste. They who planned it had loved fresh air, and had chosen a raised site, building it where the green ground swelled highest. Its outlook was free and four-fold: it commanded both sunrise and sunset, and viewed an equal and a wide expanse north and south. These builders, too, preferred solitude to convenience: the village was distant – near enough, perhaps, in summer weather, but remote for a winter’s day walk. As to a sentimental peculiarity of the vicinage, I believe the first owners had not known nor reckoned it in their choice of ground. The short, green, flower-bearing turf around covered an ancient burying-ground – so ancient that all the sleepers under the flowers had long ago ceased to be either clay or bone, and were become fine mould, throwing out violets in May, and a carpet of close silken grass all spring, summer, and autumn. These violets were white, and in their season they gathered thickly in a· bleached wreath about what seemed a deep-sunk and iron-grey rock – the sole left foundation stone of a forgotten chapel, or the basement of a cross broken away. A quiet gable of the house looked upon this mossy bit of mead. In the lower story of the gable was no aperture, in the upper a single window, having before it a balcony of stone, a peculiarity rare in that neighbourhood, forming indeed the distinctive feature of the house and originating its name – Ellin Balcony.
Who am I? Was I owner of the house? No. Was I its resident tenant, taking it perhaps on lease, and paying the rent? No. Was I a child of the family? No. A servant? No. Ask me no more questions for they are difficult to meet. I was there, and it was my house.
I recollect the first hour that I knew it. I came to consciousness at a moment within the rim of twilight. I came upward out of earth – not downward from heaven, and what first welcomed and seemed to aid me to life was a large disk high over me, a globule, clear, cragged, and desolate. I saw the moon before I could see the sky; but that too, night-veiled and star-inspired, soon opened for me. A sweet silence watched my birth-hour. I took affection for this mossy spot, I stole all through building and nook of land. In the mild beam and pure humidity of a midsummer night I found my seal and sign printed here in dew and there in moonbeam on roof and lawn of Ellin Balcony.
I do not know that ever I was knit with humanity, or was mixed with the mystery of existence as men or women know it. Yet had no mortal relic slumbered near the Balcony, should I have risen? Would Night, my mother, have borne me, unwedded to a certain vital, mortal essence ? Tears had watered this ground; great sorrows and strong feelings had gathered here. Could a colder soil, drenched only with rain and visited only by airs and shadows, have yielded me as its produce? I even think that some one sleeper threw me out of a great labouring heart which had toiled terribly through his thirty, or sixty, or fourscore years of work, had lived and throbbed strongly, stood still while yet in vigour, and buried, yet warm and scarce arrested, had thrown forth its unslackened glow and ill-checked action in an essence bodiless and incomplete, yet penetrative and subtle. I believe this because my relations to men were so limited. To millions I felt no tie, found no approach; to tens I might draw gently. Whether units existed that could more actively attract it, yet lay with time and chance to show.
Whoever in my early days were the inmates of Ellin Balcony, on me they made no impression. I knew every stone in the walls. I knew the neighbourhood – the knolls, the lanes, the turfed wastes, all vegetable growth, field flowers, hedge plants, yellow gorse and broom, foxglove springing bright out of stony soil, ivy on ground or wall. I distinguished and now remember these things very well. I knew the seasons, the faces of summer and winter. Spring and autumn were familiar in their skies; night, day, and the hours were all acquaintances. Storm and fair weather complete my reminiscences. I cannot recall anything human, and yet humanity was in the house. Experience now tells me that it must have been busy, bustling humanity, an alert current of life flowing out after to towns and thickly peopled scenes, returning thence with accessions – life circulating in a free, ordinary channel, never stealing slow under the banks of thought, never winding in deeps, but coursing parallel with populous highways. At last, I suppose, this practical daily life forsook retirement and went permanently away to the towns which were its natural sphere. This departure made no difference to me, except that I remember looking at the sun and listening to the wind with a new holiday feeling of unconstraint.
About this time I first added a cognisance of the individual human being to a vague impression of a human race existing. A solitary old woman became housekeeper of Ellin Balcony. She used to feed a great dog chained in the now empty yard, to close and open shutters, to knit a great deal, and read and think a little. I believe it was because she did think, however little, that I had the power to perceive her presence. Those who had lived here before her never thought, and into an existence all material I could not enter.
Old Mrs. Hill, the solitary housekeeper of Ellin Balcony, was sitting one day, in her kitchen reading a pamphlet-sermon as old as herself, when, just as her kettle began to simmer for tea, she thought she heard a noise like the jar of the iron gate opening from a bridle road which approached the lone house. She held her hand, checked her clicking needles and listened. Was it an arrival? It was no more than the wind, which, when it blew as it now did from the south, could rattle that gate like a hand. Sedately superstitious, Mrs. Hill, every day and ·every night, heard noises about this deserted place which scared her, but, firm-nerved, her fears never passed her lips or affected her movements.
She passed the jar over and resumed her stocking. True, there blew a south wind, but in a low key. It shook nothing; it sighed only along the natural avenue which darkened above a path conducting upward from the gate. At this moment the shadow fell not on the path only, but on a small wayfarer – a child’s figure – perhaps a little rustic venturing through this gate and up this tree-dark way as a short cut to the bourn of some errand. Is his garb coloured like the path? Does it make a concord with gravel, moss, tree, stem? Are his cheeks and hands berry-brown and red?
Not at all; the shape is less picturesque. It is civilised and slender, a contrast with adjuncts, not a harmony. The dress was made in a town; the hair is long and waved, the face is fair, the countenance is informed. This seems to be a gentleman schoolboy, perhaps ten years old. He must have walked far to-day; he is footsore, pale, and with a few more miles of pilgrimage would become exhausted. He carries a knapsack, a light burden, but his weary shoulder aches under it. Emerging from the avenue, he halts on the little lawn, and looks at Ellin Balcony. He has measured the house, surveyed the enclosed ground, glanced ,down into the wooded valley and up at the barer and greyer hills towards which the Balcony fronts. He approaches the door.
The old lonely knitter was winding the worsted round her ball, and folding her knitting, preparatory to taking off the fire the kettle, which now boiled, when the house thrilled to a knock, a loud though brief knock at the front door. She started – and might well start, for it was the first time she had been thus summoned since she kept the Balcony. She ran amazed, she opened, and saw on the step a boy, well clad but dusty, viewing her from under light-complexioned brows with direct clear blue eyes.
“They call you Mrs. Hill? ” said he.
He was answered affirmatively.
“And this place is Ellin Balcony?”
“If you please, then, let me pass. I should like to come in; I should like well to come in. I’m tired.”
“But, master” – Mrs. Hill paused astonished, as if a sudden light broke on her. She quickly pursued-
“Surely you are not an Ellin of Golpit, surely not the little one – the baby?”
“I’m Willie, that is William Ellin, and I came this very day from Golpit- fifteen miles, a long way. I’m tired.”
Mrs. Hill let him pass. She took him to the kitchen, and he sat down in a chair that stood on the hearth.
“You are the baby, then? ” cried the housekeeper.
“Perhaps I was a baby when you saw me. I hope I’m a boy now.”
“How old, Master Ellin? ”
“Ten and a half, but I’m a thin boy.”
“You are thin and white. Have you good health?”
“Capital – when they let me.”
“You are like your mother.”
“Am I like mamma? I’m glad of it!”
” You have her mouth, you speak like her. But what, Master William, brought a child like you alone from Golpit? ”
“Several things, Mrs. Hill. I can’t tell you all in a minute – only here I am, and very hungry and tired.”
“Hungry!” echoed Mrs. Hill: “I’m afraid he is hungry,” and she hastened to get a tray and cups.
Before the boy took his tea he asked his hostess to fasten both outer doors of the house. When this was done he said, “Now I’m safe,” and proceeded to eat with appetite. The meal over, he lay down on a kind of settle. He folded both hands under his head, but did not close his eyes; he was pale but had no look of langour.
“Mrs. Hill,” he resumed, “you knew my mother?”
“I stayed with her in her last sickness, Master Willie.”
“Had she much pain when she was ill ? ”
“Sometimes she suffered greatly.”
“Was she patient, or not? ”
“She was silent when she suffered, and bore wonderfully.”
“She cared for me, didn’t she, Mrs. Hill?”
“Beyond words,” said the housekeeper. “And we all used to think you took greatly to your mamma.”
“Well, I suppose it was so. I was not much more than three years old when she died, but I remember her. I have wanted her always.”
“You must have something of her nature in you,” was the reply, “and I see you have. But I am afraid you have not found many friends, or your mind would not dwell in this way.”
“No more it would, I daresay,” replied the lad.
“Do they treat you well at Golpit, Master Willie? ”
“I have run away, Mrs. Hill.”
“Child, where do you mean to go to, and what will you do?”
“I shall think about it. You must hide me here for a day or two.”
“What has happened wrong? Do they starve you? ”
“Oh no, I get enough to eat, but Edward’s hand and stick are so heavy.”
“Ah! Mr. Ellin never liked either you or your mother.”
“I believe he was a cruel stepson, Mrs. Hill – he still speaks so savagely about mamma at times.”
“And does he strike you, child? ”
“If he thinks me slow in the business, which I find dry and hard enough to learn, he knocks my head about till it aches. It is very seldom that I cry, but if I look dull after punishment, he calls me a disaffected rebel, and strikes again. Last night he had been making bargains, and had taken some brandy and water. He knocked me down with a stool, for no particular reason that I know of, unless it is that in some moods he hates the sight of me. My temple was cut with the sharp corner of the stool. I wish, Mrs. Hill, you would give me a little warm water to wash it. It is sore and burning now, after my long walk.”
The housekeeper soon brought him a basin of water. She wished to aid him, but he took the sponge himself, and pushing aside his fair brown hair, discovered in the blue-veined temple a rough laceration and dark bruise – it was now darkened with blood – but he soon washed it clean, and then Mrs. Hill bound it up carefully.
“My lamb,” said she, compassionately, “this is wicked work.”
“Old lady, I am not a lamb,” replied the boy, while his eyes laughed. “And after all it is not so much the knock I think about. I did not runaway on that account.”
“What could it be for? ”
“Because Edward threatened me with something I really should dread. It seems I am quite in his power, as my parents left me no money.”
“I know, child. Your stepbrother’s property came to him in his mother’s, your father’s first wife’s, right. You are dependent on him, as they say.”
“Yes, and he tells me he will bring me up as becomes a beggar – he will make me a shop apprentice. I can’t bear it, Mrs. Hill.”
The old lady shook her head, and looked somewhat at a loss for a response.
“I can’t bear it. I don’t want to live with shop boys, and stand behind a counter. My mother was a lady – I ought to be a gentleman.”
“But you’ve no money; you can’t choose. You must learn a trade.”
“We have never had traders in our family for I don’t know how long till Edward out of greediness went into business. My father and grandfather and great-grandfather lived here at Ellin Balcony and farmed their own land, and were squires.”
“Yes, and lessened their income little by little. Ellin Balcony would have had to be sold if your brother had not removed into premises at Golpit, and gone, as you say, into business.”
“Would it? ”
“Aye; and mind me, you can’t do better than follow his example. Would he take you into his own counting house?”
“I should be so miserable.”
The poor lad groaned.
“But, remember,” said Mrs. Hill, with much sympathy, but also with deep warning in her tone, “you are without friends, Master Willie. Edward is your only chance: displease him as little and obey him as much as you can.”
“Can’t I go to sea, or be a soldier? ”
” You can’t – indeed you can’t.”
“But Edward is cruel, Mrs. Hill; he persecutes me, I think. I don’t complain much, I don’t tell you all, but indeed I hardly know how to go on living as I have lived for some years.”
“You must look to God – you must, my poor child. It is all that sufferers, whether grown up or little ones, can do in this weary world.”
“I wonder if mamma knows about me, Mrs. Hill? I sometimes hope not, lest she should be unhappy in Heaven.”
“Do you say your prayers at night? Have they ever taught you to pray?”
“Yes,” said he briefly. “They never taught me – that is, Edward and his wife never taught me my prayers, but I learnt them of mamma, and remember them yet.”
“Don’t forget them. Will you go to bed now? ”
“Yes, if you please. I’m tired.”
After Mrs. Hill had taken the child upstairs and shown him his room, containing a spare bed she always kept dry and aired, he came to the staircase head, and called out anxiously, yet quietly:
“Lock the doors fast, Mrs. Hill. Let nobody in, and tell nobody there is a strange boy in the house.”
She promised accordingly.
Worn out with fatigue, he slept till late the next morning. He had not yet risen when the iron gate clashed back and a gig drove furiously up the avenue. In an instant a man athletic and red-whiskered bounded to the yard pavement, entered the kitchen door, and seemed to take house and housekeeper by storm.
“Where is the cub? I tracked him here by sure marks, so let us have no lies. Where is he?”
“Mr. Ellin, what can you mean?”
Mr. Ellin held up a clenched fist in the old woman’s face, shook it between her two eyes, pronounced an oath, and dashed upstairs.
There were seven bedrooms. He tried the doors of six – they yielded. He entered, and found empty rooms. Testing the seventh door, he found that it resisted his hand – a drawn bolt opposed him.
“Run down!” said he. “I have him now. William Ellin!”
“Yes, Edward,” said a child’s voice.
“Open this door!” (Oath accompanying).
“I would open it directly if you would promise not to strike – at least, not hard.”
For answer the great athlete vigorously shook the slight door.
“I promise!” he yelled, “I’ll see you,” etc.
Silence within. Again the door was made to quiver.
“If you will not promise,” recommenced the treble organ, uttered in an awe-pierced yet not timid key, “I must defend.”
“Defend? What do you mean? Open if you value your life.”
“I do value my life, so I shall make a barricade,” was answered, and a dragging sound followed as of furniture moved. The child seemed quietly planning to resist this terrible besieger. Hereupon Goliath foamed at the mouth. Strong hand and heavy shoulder were both made to bear upon the door. It heaved, creaked, swayed. Below knelt Mrs. Hill on the landing praying for pardon
and forbearance. She might as well have implored stone. Ere long hinge, lock, panels yielded, the whole door crashed in, and thrusting aside an interposed chest of drawers, Edward Ellin sprang upon his young brother. Down went the child before the onslaught, but he got up soon on one knee, and his blue eye did not fall – it rose. Over him flourished the gig whip. He looked at the lash.
“Not too hard this time,” said he in a low voice, inexplicably quiet and steady. “I have considered, and mean to do my best at a trade.”
The wicked man’s arm stiffened its muscles; the cruel lash vibrated, but it did not fall. There was a Providence watching over that poor little Samuel kneeling on the floor in his scant night-shirt.
A voice spoke behind.
“Ellin – not so. I’ll not see that done,” declared accents manlier and mellower than those of the husky ruffian. “Whatever the lad may be, he is not strong enough for the discipline of a gig whip. Let him go.”
The speaker was the second occupant of the gig. Mrs. Hill’s cries and the breakage of the door had called him upon the scene of action. He looked at this moment a capable protector. He was a handsome man, as powerful as Ellin; and his face, his eye, his voice, attested that by him power would never be abused to cruelty. There might be a certain command about him, but it was unmixed with any propensity to oppress. Many a murderer has owned the light savage eye, the sensual traits, the strong jaw, massive neck, and full red whisker of Edward Ellin. No criminal ever displayed in a dock the countenance, bearing, feature and glance of Mr. Bosas.
“Come, Ellin, be calm,” said this last. “Give me that whip; I’ll take care of it.”
The person addressed looked ready to pour out oaths, and indeed forth they rushed, but not on his dark-eyed, pleasant opponent. Little Willie bore the brunt of the storm, or would have borne it had not Bosas stepped between.
“Dress yourself,” said he to the boy, speaking sharply but not unkindly. He was obeyed in haste. William meantime still eyed with dread, but no poltroonery, the bull kept at bay by the man. He washed his face and hands too, and as he wiped them on a towel, he looked up at his friend, and said, with a curious kind of resigned endurance, “After all, sir, do not give yourself too much trouble. I’ve had that whip before, and shall have it again when you’re gone.”
“I hope not,” said the gentleman gravely. “Come, Ellin, promise me you’ll let him off this time.”
Ellin made no promise and gave no answer for some minutes; then, as if his mood had changed suddenly, he burst out laughing, and said – “Pooh, pooh! I’m only in joke; I’ll not touch him.
Willie knows me well enough. I’m a passionate fellow but good-natured.”
“You forgive him, then?” said the mediator.
“Oh, to be sure. I owed the little booby no grudge. Let him play truant no more, and come home quietly now – that is all.”
“Very well. You agree, don’t you, my little fellow?” said the dark-faced but kind man. He spoke without turning to the child. If he had seen him at that moment perhaps the current of his own thoughts might have changed, perhaps an intention might have entered his mind which for the present did not occur to him. But Fate sat in the air invisible at her cloudy wheel. She span on impassive, unravelling no knot in her wool. It was in vain that Willie turned sheet-white, and, for an instant, heart-sick. No man regarded, or could read what a lot the child foresaw. He put neither his thoughts nor his forebodings into words. Prescient but long-suffering, he went back to Golpit that morning.
Mr. Bosas was no resident at Golpit. He lived, indeed, a great way off in a capital city. Notwithstanding his foreign-sounding name, he was English born, but report ascribed to him a Hebrew origin. There was nothing, indeed, of the Jew in his countenance or eye, yet in his features some of the handsomer lines of Israel’s race were perhaps traceable, and might he have worn a beard, curls, rich, dark, and Eastern would have graced his chin.
Between Bosas and Ellin existed mercantile relations, for the former was in business too; and as he was the merchant who bought Ellin’s manufactured goods for export, and possessed besides, in his superior wealth and commercial standing, the power of either obliging or injuring to an important extent, Ellin held him in respect, and treated him almost with subservience. Hence the ready concession to his will in the matter of Willie; and for this reason, too, during the two days Mr. Bosas continued a guest at Golpit, his protege remained unmolested.
Perhaps Willie expected this respite would last no longer than the kind merchant’s stay; perhaps he wished to express as much; but if so he never found his opportunity to put in a quiet word, nor had he the chance of renewing or conforming an awakened interest at parting. Shortly before Mr. Bosas’ departure Willie. had been sent out on an errand, and when he returned his advocate was gone.
The lad had a small room he called his own. It was only a kind of garret, and contained but a crib and a stool. Yet, such as it was, he preferred it before the smart drawing-room, two floors below. If his poor tossed life numbered any peaceful associations, they were all connected with this cold, narrow nest under the slates. Hither he retired early, on the night after Bosas’ departure – rather wondering to himself that nothing had yet befallen him, even dimly conceiving a hope that perhaps his brother for once had sincerely pardoned. It was half-past eight of a summer evening, not yet dusk, consequently Willie had brought a book with him, and sitting near the little window he could read. A year ago some love of reading had dawned in his mind. The taste had not been much cultivate, but it throve on scant diet full as much as was healthful. At present he liked “Robinson Crusoe” as well as any book in the world. “Robinson Crusoe” was his present study.
His thoughts were all in the desolate island, when he heard a step mounting the ladder staircase to his room. It pressed almost the last round ere any more disturbing idea struck him than that it must be wearing late, as the maids who also lodged in the attics were coming to bed. Suddenly he felt a weight in the tread which forbade the supposition of a female foot. The wooden steps shook, his door shook too; it opened, and a shape six feet high, broad and rather corpulent, entered.
Willie had never, till now, seen his brother enter his chamber alone by night. In all his trials he had never been visited thus in darkness, and in secret. I should not, perhaps, say in darkness,. for the hour was shared between two gleams – twilight and moonlight. It was a very pleasant night, quite calm and warm, and only a few faint clouds, gilded and lightly electric, curled mellow round the moon. The door was shut, the thin child sat on his stool, the giant man stood over him.
“I have you safe at last, and I’ll very nearly finish you now,” were the first words, spoken in rough adult tones. None must expect qualified language or measured action from Mr. Edward Ellin. He stood there strong, brutal, and ungovernable, and as an ungoverned brute he meant to behave.
The boy pleaded only once. “Wait till to-morrow,” said he. “Don’t flog me here, and in the night-time. Do it to-morrow in the counting house.”
But his step-brother answered by turning up the cuff of his coat, showing a thick wrist not soon to be wearied. He had brought with him the gig whip. He lifted and flourished it on high. This was the rejoinder.
“Stop,” said the expectant victim earnestly – so very earnestly that the executioner did stop, demanding, however,
“What am I to stop for? It’s no use whining, sooner or later you shall have your deserts – you’ve run away and you shall pay for it.”
“But mind how you make me pay, Edward. A grown-up man like you should be reasonable. That whip is heavy, and I am only moderately strong. If you strike me in great anger you may cut deeper than you think.”
“What then? Who cares? ”
“If I were to be more hurt than you think of? If you had to be taken before a magistrate and pay a fine or be transported?” suggested Willie.
The idea was an unlucky one. The whole bearing of the boy was antipathetic because incomprehensible to the gross nature under influence. Mr. Ellin growled fury in his throat.
“Insolent beggar!” said he; “so you. threaten me with fines and magistrates? Take that! and that !”
He had fallen to work. It seemed he liked his business, for he continued at its exercise what seemed a long, a very long time. The worst of it was, Willie would not scream, he would not cry. A few loud shrieks, a combative struggle, a lusty roar, might probably have done wonders in abridging Mr. Ellin’s pleasure; but nothing in the present case interrupted or checked him, and he indulged freely. At last there came a gasp – the child sunk quite down-the man stopped. Through the silence breathed some utterance of pain – a moan or two, the slightest sound to which suffering Nature could be restricted; but in its repression only too significant. It induced Mr. Ellin to say, “I hope you have had enough now.”
He was not answered.
“Let me see you play truant again, or wheedle Bosas, and I’ll double the dose.”
No reply – and no sob – perhaps no tear.
“Will you speak?”
The flogger seemed half-frightened, for Willie’s exhausted attitude proved that he had indeed received enough; possibly he might have swooned, which would be troublesome. But this was not the case. He spoke as soon as the severe pain of that last cut permitted him.
“I cannot bear any more to-night,” said he.
Ellin believed him – told him to go either to bed now or to another place, whistled and walked off. By and by, after Willie was left alone, he gathered himself up. It would have been sad to watch him undress and creep painfully to his crib, and sadder to read his thoughts. Scarce an interjection and not a word passed his lips; for some time scarce a tear wet his eyelashes. He had lain sleepless and suffering for over an hour ere there came any gush that could relieve; but at last the water sprung, the sobs thickened, his little handkerchief was drawn from under his pillow – he wept into it freely – then he murmured something about his life being very, very hard and difficult to bear. At last, and after a long pause, he slowly got on his knees – he seemed to be praying – though there were neither lifted eyes nor .clasped hands nor audible words to denote supplication – nothing indeed but the attitude and a concentrated, abstracted expression of countenance, denoting a mind withdrawn into an unseen sphere preoccupied with viewless intercourse. As he returned to earth, his eyes, hitherto closed, slowly opened. He lay down; probably he believed his petition heard; composure breathed rest upon him; he slumbered. Willie cannot take rank as a saint – his patience was constitutional, as his religion was instinctive. Temperance in his expression of suffering was with him an idiosyncrasy. Prayer was a need of his almost hopeless circumstances. Oppressed by man, Nature whispered him, “Appeal to God,” and he obeyed.
Some think prayers are rarely answered; and yet there have been penetrating prayers that have seemed to pass unchallenged all gates and hosts and pierced at once within the veil.
The man of bad propensities withdrew. William was left kneeling at his cribside, his face and hands pressed against the mattress. He had been severely flogged, and for a time felt sick, but he was not maimed or dangerously hurt – not corporeally maimed. How his heart fared is another question.
It might seem that the watchful care of God had temporarily been withdrawn from this orphan, as he shrank powerless to resist under a tyrannic hand – as he afterwards moaned alone, pale, faint, miserably though not passionately weeping, compelling himself, according to the bent of his idiosyncrasy, to a sort of heroic temperance of expression,. even in extremity of grief. In man’s judgment it might be deemed that this child was forgotten where even the fledgling dropped from the nest is remembered. William himself feared as much. There was great darkness over his eyes, and a terrible ice chilled his hopes – his very hearing was suspended. He did not now catch an ascending step on the ladder, nor notice the door once more opening. It required the near glare of candle-light to snatch him even transiently from himself and his anguish.
The hand which brought the candle placed it on the narrow window-sill. Some one then approached Willie, sat down beside him on the edge of the crib; an arm passed round him, another arm drew him towards a warm shoulder, lips kissed his forehead, and eyes wept on his neck.
“Poor boy! Poor wronged child! ”
The voice uttering these words belonged to an age not many years beyond Willie’s own: the speaker seemed a girl of seventeen, blooming, and with features which, if they borrowed at this moment interest of pity, gave back in return beauty distinct, undoubted, undenied. Fine indeed were the eyes which dropped tears on Willie, and all lovely the arms, the hands, the lips by which he was protected and soothed.
“I heard what has happened-heard it from my room below. I fear you are terribly hurt? “said she.
“I don’t care for the pain – my mind suffers the most,” the boy declared with a groan. This sudden transfer from terror to tenderness relaxed for one instant the power of self-control.
“Hush, my love, my child! Hush, Willie, forget him: he shall never hurt you more,” said the young comforter, rocking the sufferer in her arms and cradling him on her breast.
Softened even while relieved, Willie wept fast and free and was soon easier. By gentle hands he was helped to bed, he was lovingly watched till he slept, he was kissed in his slumbers; and then the guardian withdrew, only to think of him through the night, to listen against molestation, and to be prepared at one menacing symptom to come out resolved to defend.
This weekend we remember a remarkable human achievement that happened exactly 50 years ago – the moon landing and mankind’s first steps on the moon. Thanks to the brave crew of Apollo 11 we have a greater understanding of our nearest neighbour in the solar system, our only satellite which has kept us all enraptured since the dawn of time.
You may know that there’s a golf ball on the moon (possibly as a result of a Rory McIlroy tee shot on day one of this year’s Open) but did you also know that there’s a Brontë on the moon? Here it is, helpfully marked with a green dot:
Craters on the moon are traditionally named after people of historic significance; it is said that astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, who drove along the 200 meter crater in 1972, named it after Charlotte Brontë, but I like to think that it honours all of this fabulous family.
The Brontë lunar crater (and by the way, there’s also a larger Brontë crater on the planet Mercury) is on an area of the moon known as the Taurus-Littrow Valley, and rather fittingly the crater to the northeast of it is called Horatio. I say fittingly, because one of the reasons that Patrick chose to change his surname from Brunty (or Prunty) to Brontë is that his hero Horatio Nelson had been made Duke of Brontë in Sicily.
One of the things most apparent in the writing of Anne, Charlotte and Emily is their deep love of nature, so we can be sure that they loved to stare up at the night sky at the moon and constellations. Without the light pollution that’s so ubiquitous today, gazing at a dark sky from the Haworth moors must have been a truly magical experience, with the lights of the stars standing out in stunning detail.
Can we doubt that on a calm, warm, cloudless night, with a full moon in the sky, the Brontës would have sat together on the moors looking up with hearts filled with awe and love? Little did they know that in the next century humans would walk on the moon, or that their name would be immortalised upon it. I close with a poem by Anne Brontë entitled, ‘Call Me Away’. It was written in 1845 as Anne neared the end of her service at Thorp Green Hall, and its notable because it includes mention of the moon not once, but three times, and we are left in no doubt of how much Anne loved to gaze upon it. Whether it’s full, new, waxing, or waning, looking up at the moon is always a magical experience, and the next time we do it we can try (in our minds at least) to pick out the Brontë crater:
Call me away; there’s nothing here,
That wins my soul to stay;
Then let me leave this prospect drear,
And hasten far away.
To our beloved land I’ll flee,
Our land of thought and soul,
Where I have roved so oft with thee,
Beyond the world’s control.
I’ll sit and watch those ancient trees,
Those Scotch firs dark and high;
I’ll listen to the eerie breeze,
Among their branches sigh.
The glorious moon shines far above;
How soft her radiance falls,
On snowy heights, and rock, and grove;
And yonder palace walls!
Who stands beneath yon fir trees high?
A youth both slight and fair,
Whose bright and restless azure eye
Proclaims him known to care,
Though fair that brow, it is not smooth;
Though small those features, yet in sooth
Stern passion has been there.
Now on the peaceful moon are fixed
Those eyes so glistening bright,
But trembling teardrops hang betwixt,
And dim the blessed light.
Though late the hour, and keen the blast,
That whistles round him now,
Those raven locks are backward cast,
To cool his burning brow.
His hands above his heaving breast
Are clasped in agony —
‘O Father! Father! let me rest!
And call my soul to thee!
I know ’tis weakness thus to pray;
But all this cankering care –
This doubt tormenting night and day
Is more than I can bear!
With none to comfort, none to guide
And none to strengthen me.
Since thou my only friend hast died –
I’ve pined to follow thee!
Since thou hast died! And did he live
What comfort could his counsel give –
To one forlorn like me?
Would he my Idol’s form adore –
Her soul, her glance, her tone?
And say, “Forget for ever more
Her kindred and thine own;
Let dreams of her thy peace destroy,
Leave every other hope and joy
And live for her alone”?’
He starts, he smiles, and dries the tears,
Still glistening on his cheek,
The lady of his soul appears,
And hark! I hear her speak –
‘Aye, dry thy tears; thou wilt not weep –
While I am by thy side –
Our foes all day their watch may keep
But cannot thus divide
Such hearts as ours; and we tonight
Together in the clear moon’s light
Their malice will deride.
No fear our present bliss shall blast
And sorrow we’ll defy.
Do thou forget the dreary past,
The dreadful future I.’
Forget it? Yes, while thou art by
I think of nought but thee,
‘Tis only when thou art not nigh
Remembrance tortures me.
But such a lofty soul to find,
And such a heart as thine,
In such a glorious form enshrined
And still to call thee mine –
Would be for earth too great a bliss,
Without a taint of woe like this,
Then why should I repine?