February In The Brontë Novels

March, and with it Spring, is just around the corner, and it may herald a better, more promising, time for all of us. I had thought, then, of offering up Emily Brontë’s magnificent poem ‘Hope’ for today’s blog post, but unfortunately it is a tale of hope fleeing not arriving, so it didn’t fit in with my general feeling of optimism. Instead then, with just a day left to squeeze it in, we’re going to look at the month of February in the Brontë novels:

Wuthering Heights

‘Edgar sighed; and, walking to the window, looked out towards Gimmerton Kirk. It was a misty afternoon, but the February sun shone dimly, and we could just distinguish the two fir-trees in the yard, and the sparely-scattered gravestones.

“I’ve prayed often,” he half soliloquised, “for the approach of what is coming; and now I begin to shrink, and fear it. I thought the memory of the hour I came down that glen a bridegroom would be less sweet than the anticipation that I was soon, in a few months, or, possibly, weeks, to be carried up, and laid in its lonely hollow! Ellen, I’ve been very happy with my little Cathy: through winter nights and summer days she was a living hope at my side. But I’ve been as happy musing by myself among those stones, under that old church: lying, through the long June evenings, on the green mound of her mother’s grave, and wishing – yearning for the time when I might lie beneath it. What can I do for Cathy? How must I quit her? I’d not care one moment for Linton being Heathcliff’s son; nor for his taking her from me, if he could console her for my loss. I’d not care that Heathcliff gained his ends, and triumphed in robbing me of my last blessing! But should Linton be unworthy – only a feeble tool to his father – I cannot abandon her to him! And, hard though it be to crush her buoyant spirit, I must persevere.”’

Linton and Cathy have a less than happy marriage
Linton and Cathy have a less than happy marriage

Edgar knows that Heathcliff plans to make his daughter Cathy’s life a misery by marrying her to his son Linton. His great sadness is that he knows he will be powerless to prevent this, although Nelly tries to reassure him that there is hope yet.

Jane Eyre

‘“I’m sure last winter (it was a very severe one, if you recollect, and when it did not snow, it rained and blew), not a creature but the butcher and postman came to the house, from November till February; and I really got quite melancholy with sitting night after night alone; I had Leah in to read to me sometimes; but I don’t think the poor girl liked the task much: she felt it confining. In spring and summer one got on better: sunshine and long days make such a difference; and then, just at the commencement of this autumn, little Adele Varens came and her nurse: a child makes a house alive all at once; and now you are here I shall be quite gay.”’

Mrs. Fairfax (the narrator here) has endured a lonely winter at Thornfield Hall, but with the arrival of Adele and now Jane, her isolation is over. I think we can all sympathise with Mrs. Fairfax here.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

‘But sometimes, I believe, she really had some little gratification in conversing with me; and one bright February morning, during twenty minutes’ stroll along the moor, she laid aside her usual asperity and reserve, and fairly entered into conversation with me, discoursing with so much eloquence and depth of thought and feeling on a subject happily coinciding with my own ideas, and looking so beautiful withal, that I went home enchanted; and on the way (morally) started to find myself thinking that, after all, it would, perhaps, be better to spend one’s days with such a woman than with Eliza Millward; and then I (figuratively) blushed for my inconstancy.’

Markham and Helen
Gilbert is irresistibly drawn to Helen

Gilbert is supposedly to marry Eliza, but his acquaintance with the mysterious Helen of Wildfell Hall has stirred up deeper feelings. This February stroll seems to him to mark the passing of a cold wintry alliance with Eliza into something altogether warmer and invigorating with Helen.


‘One February night – I remember it well – there came a voice near Miss Marchmont’s house, heard by every inmate, but translated, perhaps, only by one. After a calm winter, storms were ushering in the spring. I had put Miss Marchmont to bed; I sat at the fireside sewing. The wind was wailing at the windows; it had wailed all day; but, as night deepened, it took a new tone – an accent keen, piercing, almost articulate to the ear; a plaint, piteous and disconsolate to the nerves, trilled in every gust.

“Oh, hush! hush!” I said in my disturbed mind, dropping my work, and making a vain effort to stop my ears against that subtle, searching cry. I had heard that very voice ere this, and compulsory observation had forced on me a theory as to what it boded. Three times in the course of my life, events had taught me that these strange accents in the storm – this restless, hopeless cry – denote a coming state of the atmosphere unpropitious to life. Epidemic diseases, I believed, were often heralded by a gasping, sobbing, tormented, long-lamenting east wind. Hence, I inferred, arose the legend of the Banshee. I fancied, too, I had noticed – but was not philosopher enough to know whether there was any connection between the circumstances – that we often at the same time hear of disturbed volcanic action in distant parts of the world; of rivers suddenly rushing above their banks; and of strange high tides flowing furiously in on low sea-coasts. “Our globe,” I had said to myself, “seems at such periods torn and disordered; the feeble amongst us wither in her distempered breath, rushing hot from steaming volcanoes.”’

February can bring storms and howling winds, and such a night has brought to mind for Lucy the myth of the banshee – whose sorrowful wails heralds tragedy and death. Much later in the book, and with Lucy living a very different life, we find the true force of storms and the fulfilment of this omen.

Agnes Grey

‘One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather; for Miss Matilda had set out on her daily ride, and Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls. But it struck me that I ought to leave these selfish pleasures, and the park with its glorious canopy of bright blue sky, the west wind sounding through its yet leafless branches, the snow-wreaths still lingering in its hollows, but melting fast beneath the sun, and the graceful deer browsing on its moist herbage already assuming the freshness and verdure of spring – and go to the cottage of one Nancy Brown, a widow, whose son was at work all day in the fields, and who was afflicted with an inflammation in the eyes; which had for some time incapacitated her from reading: to her own great grief, for she was a woman of a serious, thoughtful turn of mind. I accordingly went, and found her alone, as usual, in her little, close, dark cottage, redolent of smoke and confined air, but as tidy and clean as she could make it. She was seated beside her little fire (consisting of a few red cinders and a bit of stick), busily knitting, with a small sackcloth cushion at her feet, placed for the accommodation of her gentle friend the cat, who was seated thereon, with her long tail half encircling her velvet paws, and her half-closed eyes dreamily gazing on the low, crooked fender.

“Well, Nancy, how are you to-day?”

“Why, middling, Miss, i’ myseln – my eyes is no better, but I’m a deal easier i’ my mind nor I have been,” replied she, rising to welcome me with a contented smile; which I was glad to see, for Nancy had been somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy. I congratulated her upon the change. She agreed that it was a great blessing, and expressed herself “right down thankful for it”; adding, “If it please God to spare my sight, and make me so as I can read my Bible again, I think I shall be as happy as a queen.”

“I hope He will, Nancy,” replied I; “and, meantime, I’ll come and read to you now and then, when I have a little time to spare.”

With expressions of grateful pleasure, the poor woman moved to get me a chair; but, as I saved her the trouble, she busied herself with stirring the fire, and adding a few more sticks to the decaying embers; and then, taking her well-used Bible from the shelf, dusted it carefully, and gave it me. On my asking if there was any particular part she should like me to read, she answered –

“Well, Miss Grey, if it’s all the same to you, I should like to hear that chapter in the First Epistle of St. John, that says, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’”

With a little searching, I found these words in the fourth chapter. When I came to the seventh verse she interrupted me, and, with needless apologies for such a liberty, desired me to read it very slowly, that she might take it all in, and dwell on every word; hoping I would excuse her, as she was but a “simple body.”

“The wisest person,” I replied, “might think over each of these verses for an hour, and be all the better for it; and I would rather read them slowly than not.”

Accordingly, I finished the chapter as slowly as need be, and at the same time as impressively as I could; my auditor listened most attentively all the while, and sincerely thanked me when I had done. I sat still about half a minute to give her time to reflect upon it; when, somewhat to my surprise, she broke the pause by asking me how I liked Mr. Weston?

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was the inspiration for Edward Weston

“I don’t know,” I replied, a little startled by the suddenness of the question; “I think he preaches very well.”

“Ay, he does so; and talks well too.”’

Agnes’ haughty young charges in the Murray family think little of the assistant curate Reverend Weston, but the poor parishioners of the area have a very different view of him. Agnes’ love for Weston is growing because of his character and actions, rather than his looks; these are the things that the author Anne Brontë prized most highly too, and which she found pleasing in both Weston and in his prototype Reverend Weightman.

Hanover Press will re-publish neglected Victorian classics in high quality new editions

It’s a shorter post today because I’m currently preparing to post copies of my Hanover Press books Rachel Gray and The Hanover Press Book of Flowers. I’m really happy with how they’ve turned out, and I’m thrilled that more people will be able to read Julia Kavanagh’s most personal novel once more. Copies will be heading out to Kickstarter backers next week, but if you missed out on that you can pre-order now at hanoverpress.co.uk/store in readiness for its general release on March 11th.

So what do we learn from the depiction of February in the Brontë novels? It’s a time of change, a time to say goodbye to coldness in the air and coldness in our hearts. Better times are coming, it seems to say, and so we must trust to the future and wait for the warmth. I will see you again in March, i.e. next Sunday, for another new Brontë blog post.

Tabitha Aykroyd, Loyal Servant, Friend – and More

Today marks the anniversary of the burial of Tabby Aykroyd, who had been a loyal servant to the Brontë family since 1824. She died on 17th February 1855 and was buried four days later, and she plays a central role in the Brontë story. In today’s post we’re going to look at what’s known about Tabby, and reveal new evidence which could tell us much more about her.

We know that Tabby, or Tabitha, to give her her full name, was already in her fifties by the time she entered Haworth Parsonage. Previous parsonage servants Nancy and Sarah de Garrs had recently left their positions, and with his six children by then motherless, Patrick Brontë and his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell decided that, in Patrick’s words, an ‘elderly’ woman was better than two younger ones.

Nancy Garrs
Tabby replaced Nancy Garrs and sister Sarah

Tabby quickly became a firm favourite of the young Brontes, akin to a grandmother figure. It is believed that she often shared tales of Yorkshire folklore with her employer’s children, and that these stirring tales did much to inspire the imagination of the young Brontës; their influence can be seen most strongly in Wuthering Heights.

At the close of 1836, Tabby slipped on ice upon the cobbles of Haworth’s steep Main Street, badly breaking her leg and leaving her with a walking impediment for the rest of her life. Aunt Branwell recommended that Tabby should be let go, not merely because she could no longer perform all her duties but so that Tabby could be looked after by her sister. The young Brontës, however, were having none of it. They refused to eat until the decision was reversed, and under these circumstances Tabby was allowed to stay. It is clear then that to the Brontë siblings, Tabby was an essential and much loved part of the family unit.

June Watson as Tabby Aykroyd
June Watson as Tabby Aykroyd in ‘To Walk Invisible’

Nevertheless, Tabby’s leg injury flared up from time to time, and in 1839 she moved into the house of her sister Susannah Wood. It must have been a lengthy convalescence for she was still there when the 1841 census was taken, but by 1842 she had returned to the parsonage. We know from the interview that Martha Brown (the younger servant later brought in to work alongside Tabby) gave that Tabby also became partially blind in later life, just as her employer Patrick Brontë had. This led to Charlotte secretly finishing off the work that Tabby had been unable to do – such as removing the eyes from potatoes. In this we see the continued love that Charlotte had for the old woman who’d been by her side from childhood; her main concern was that no attention should be drawn to Tabby’s errors, and that Tabby herself should never know that Charlotte had corrected them.

Alas, on 21st February 1855, Charlotte broke some sad news in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey: ‘our poor old Tabby is dead and buried.’ Charlotte could not have comforted Tabby in her final days as by that time she herself was coming to the end of her life – she survived the woman who had started as her nursemaid, becoming a servant and then a friend, by just over a month.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
Tabby Aykroyd’s grave is at the perimeter of the parsonage garden

As another mark of the respect that she was buried at the head of the churchyard, just beyond the parsonage’s garden wall. The memorial stone reads: ‘Sacred to the memory of George Aykroyd of Haworth Hall, who died Jan 6th 1839 aged 76 years. Also of Susanna Wood, who died April 19th 1845 aged 90 years. Also of Tabitha Aykroyd who died Feb 17th 1855 in the 85th year of her age. Faithful servant of the Brontë Family for over thirty years.’

For such an important part of the Brontë story, it seems that little concrete is known of Tabitha Aykroyd. As the Brontë Society website itself says: ‘Almost nothing is known of Tabitha Aykroyd’s life before she entered 1824, aged 53 (born around 1771). She was almost certainly a native of Haworth, and we know of two sisters: Rose, who married a Bingley man called Bower, and Susannah, who married a Haworth man called Wood. Tabitha never married, and while there is no record of her life before she entered the Parsonage in 1824, it is thought she had worked in domestic service and on farms.’

This then is the sum of our knowledge on the Brontës’ beloved Tabby – and yet much of it may not be true, after all. As I always like to do I have been heading into newspaper archives and the world of genealogical research, and the results have certainly been intriguing.

Few records exist for Tabitha Aykroyd, but could that be because she wasn’t born Tabitha Aykroyd at all? The supposition that Tabitha was unmarried has prevailed, but it wouldn’t have been unusual for a woman in her fifties in the early 19th century to have another marital status – widowed. We must also consider her appointment as servant to the Brontë family in 1824. Her duties would have been all encompassing, from cleaning the rooms to cooking meals, but she would also have been expected to help look after the young Brontës – six children aged between four (Anne) and ten (Maria) with no mother. Patrick Brontë and Aunt Branwell, who by that time was also living in the parsonage, were very shrewd and practical people – what sort of person would they have thought suitable to take on this role: someone who had raised their own children, or someone with no experience of children at all?

There is no record of baptism for a Tabitha Aykroyd in the vicinity in the 1770s (or any similar name as spellings could be very inconsistent at this time), but let’s take a look at this certificate from the parish register of Haworth’s St. Michael’s and All Angels church:

On 2nd March 1773 we find recorded the baptism of Tabathy Dawson, more correctly spelled Tabitha Dawson, the daughter of William Dawson of Near Oxenhope, the neighbouring settlement which formed part of the Haworth parish. Fast forward 19 and a half years, and we find a happy event in the life of young Tabitha Dawson – she is getting married; to Joseph Aykroyd.

Here then is the creation of a Tabitha Aykroyd, married in the Haworth parish church later presided over by Patrick Brontë on the 4th September 1892. A year and two months later we find in the register another happy event – the baptism on November 15th 1793 of, ‘Jonathan son of Joshua and Tabitha Aykroyd.’

In fact, it seems that Jonathan was the first of eight children born to the Aykroyds, including the tragic Hannah Aykroyd who was born and died in 1807. Another scenario is presenting itself; could the Tabby Aykroyd who entered Haworth Parsonage in 1824 be a widow who was well known to the parish priest, and who had extensive experience of raising children and looking after a busy household thanks to her own large family?

What then of Susannah Wood and George Aykroyd, buried alongside Tabby? A family tree that I examined showed a George Aykroyd and Susannah Aykroyd; the latter of whom married William Wood in Haworth on 26th December 1782. There was no Tabitha in their family, but they were brother and sister to one Joshua Aykroyd. It seems to me, therefore, likely that Tabitha Aykroyd was in fact the sister-in-law of George Aykroyd and Susannah Wood.

As always, alas, we can’t pop into our nearest time machine and settle these things once and for all; but I believe that the genealogical records, and the simple logic behind Tabby’s appointment, makes it possible that Tabitha was the widow of Joshua Aykroyd, and the mother of a large family of her own. I would say that it’s probable.

Archives and genealogical websites are a fascinating place. I made another interesting discovery this week – look at this charming picture from the Leeds Mercury in June 1930; taken by Wilfred Moore of Keighley it shows his ten year old son being dragged to the sea in Sandsend, near Whitby. I was also this week reading an autobiography entitled Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day in which the author talks of being taken froim Keighley to Sandsend every weekend by his father, whereupon he loved swimming in the sea in his woolen bathing costume. There can be no doubt then that this picture shows a young boy who would grow up to be another legend of Brontë country: the late great Captain Sir Tom Moore.

Captain Sir Tom Moore’s first media appearance – Leeds Mercury, 20th June 1930

There is also no doubt that Tabitha Aykroyd was the perfect woman for the task she was given in 1824, and she entered Haworth Parsonage at the perfect time. She contributed greatly to a loving atmosphere that the Brontë siblings thrived on, and she helped to fire their creativity that had such a brilliant outcome.

I will see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post; one more thing – if Tabitha Dawson is indeed our Tabitha, then her baptism on 2nd March suggests that she was born in the last week of February. Let’s all say, ‘well done Tabby Aykroyd, and Happy Birthday!’

Valentine’s Day: Love In The Brontë Novels

It’s that time of year again; that time of year when we can put away our everyday concerns and concentrate on something altogether more important: love. In previous years we’ve looked at the well known story of how assistant curate William Weightman sent the Brontë sisters their first ever Valentine’s Day cards on this day 1840. It must have been a special moment for Anne, because she undoubtedly had feelings for him, feelings that I think were eventually reciprocated. In today’s post we look at love scenes in the novels of the Brontës, you will, after all, find it in every Brontë novel, and we’ll intersperse the text with some Victorian valentine’s cards – like this one:

The Professor

‘“You are laying plans to be independent of me,” said I.

“Yes, monsieur; I must be no incumbrance to you—no burden in any way.”

“But, Frances, I have not yet told you what my prospects are. I have left M. Pelet’s; and after nearly a month’s seeking, I have got another place, with a salary of three thousand francs a year, which I can easily double by a little additional exertion. Thus you see it would be useless for you to fag yourself by going out to give lessons; on six thousand francs you and I can live, and live well.”

Frances seemed to consider. There is something flattering to man’s strength, something consonant to his honourable pride, in the idea of becoming the providence of what he loves—feeding and clothing it, as God does the lilies of the field. So, to decide her resolution, I went on:—

“Life has been painful and laborious enough to you so far, Frances; you require complete rest; your twelve hundred francs would not form a very important addition to our income, and what sacrifice of comfort to earn it! Relinquish your labours: you must be weary, and let me have the happiness of giving you rest.”

I am not sure whether Frances had accorded due attention to my harangue; instead of answering me with her usual respectful promptitude, she only sighed and said,—

“How rich you are, monsieur!” and then she stirred uneasy in my arms. “Three thousand francs!” she murmured, “While I get only twelve hundred!” She went on faster. “However, it must be so for the present; and, monsieur, were you not saying something about my giving up my place? Oh no! I shall hold it fast;” and her little fingers emphatically tightened on mine.

“Think of my marrying you to be kept by you, monsieur! I could not do it; and how dull my days would be! You would be away teaching in close, noisy school-rooms, from morning till evening, and I should be lingering at home, unemployed and solitary; I should get depressed and sullen, and you would soon tire of me.”

“Frances, you could read and study – two things you like so well.”

“Monsieur, I could not; I like a contemplative life, but I like an active life better; I must act in some way, and act with you. I have taken notice, monsieur, that people who are only in each other’s company for amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together.”

“You speak God’s truth,” said I at last, “and you shall have your own way, for it is the best way. Now, as a reward for such ready consent, give me a voluntary kiss.”

After some hesitation, natural to a novice in the art of kissing, she brought her lips into very shy and gentle contact with my forehead; I took the small gift as a loan, and repaid it promptly, and with generous interest.’

Early Valentine's Day card

Wuthering Heights

‘“It is not,” retorted she; “it is the best! The others were the satisfaction of my whims: and for Edgar’s sake, too, to satisfy him. This is for the sake of one who comprehends in his person my feelings to Edgar and myself. I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. – My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again.’

Agnes Grey

‘“I’m afraid I’ve been walking too fast for you, Agnes,” said he: “in my impatience to be rid of the town, I forgot to consult your convenience; but now we’ll walk as slowly as you please. I see, by those light clouds in the west, there will be a brilliant sunset, and we shall be in time to witness its effect upon the sea, at the most moderate rate of progression.”

When we had got about half-way up the hill, we fell into silence again; which, as usual, he was the first to break.

“My house is desolate yet, Miss Grey,” he smilingly observed, “and I am acquainted now with all the ladies in my parish, and several in this town too; and many others I know by sight and by report; but not one of them will suit me for a companion; in fact, there is only one person in the world that will: and that is yourself; and I want to know your decision?”

“Are you in earnest, Mr. Weston?”

“In earnest! How could you think I should jest on such a subject?”

He laid his hand on mine, that rested on his arm: he must have felt it tremble—but it was no great matter now.

“I hope I have not been too precipitate,” he said, in a serious tone. “You must have known that it was not my way to flatter and talk soft nonsense, or even to speak the admiration that I felt; and that a single word or glance of mine meant more than the honied phrases and fervent protestations of most other men.”

I said something about not liking to leave my mother, and doing nothing without her consent.

“I settled everything with Mrs. Grey, while you were putting on your bonnet,” replied he. “She said I might have her consent, if I could obtain yours; and I asked her, in case I should be so happy, to come and live with us—for I was sure you would like it better. But she refused, saying she could now afford to employ an assistant, and would continue the school till she could purchase an annuity sufficient to maintain her in comfortable lodgings; and, meantime, she would spend her vacations alternately with us and your sister, and should be quite contented if you were happy. And so now I have overruled your objections on her account. Have you any other?”

“No – none.”

“You love me then?” said he, fervently pressing my hand.


Victorian Valentine

Jane Eyre

‘He seated me and himself.

“It is a long way to Ireland, Janet, and I am sorry to send my little friend on such weary travels: but if I can’t do better, how is it to be helped? Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?”

I could risk no sort of answer by this time: my heart was still.

“Because,” he said, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”

“That I never should, sir: you know -” Impossible to proceed.

“Jane, do you hear that nightingale singing in the wood? Listen!”

In listening, I sobbed convulsively; for I could repress what I endured no longer; I was obliged to yield, and I was shaken from head to foot with acute distress. When I did speak, it was only to express an impetuous wish that I had never been born, or never come to Thornfield.

“Because you are sorry to leave it?”

The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway, and asserting a right to predominate, to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last: yes, – and to speak.

“I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield: – I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life, – momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence, with what I delight in, – with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”’


‘”Caroline, the houseless, the starving, the unemployed shall come to Hollow’s Mill from far and near; and Joe Scott shall give them work, and Louis Moore, Esq., shall let them a tenement, and Mrs. Gill shall mete them a portion till the first pay-day.”

She smiled up in his face.

“Such a Sunday school as you will have, Cary! such collections as you will get! such a day school as you and Shirley and Miss Ainley will have to manage between you! The mill shall find salaries for a master and mistress, and the squire or the clothier shall give a treat once a quarter.”

She mutely offered a kiss – an offer taken unfair advantage of, to the extortion of about a hundred kisses.

“Extravagant day-dreams,” said Moore, with a sigh and smile, “yet perhaps we may realize some of them.” Meantime, the dew is falling. Mrs. Moore, I shall take you in.”’

Victorian valentines card


‘And now the three years are past: M. Emanuel’s return is fixed. It is Autumn; he is to be with me ere the mists of November come. My school flourishes, my house is ready: I have made him a little library, filled its shelves with the books he left in my care: I have cultivated out of love for him (I was naturally no florist) the plants he preferred, and some of them are yet in bloom. I thought I loved him when he went away; I love him now in another degree: he is more my own.

The sun passes the equinox; the days shorten, the leaves grow sere; but – he is coming.

Frosts appear at night; November has sent his fogs in advance; the wind takes its autumn moan; but – he is coming.’

Valentines cherub

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Winter rose, tenant of wildfell hall

We have love in all its forms in our selections above, but when it comes to tender, understated, beautiful love, the pen of Anne Brontë is hard to beat. I wish you all a very Happy Valentine’s Day – if this lockdown is keeping you from the one you love, know that things could soon be very different; if you are alone today, I hope you find love from a pet, or from the things and books you love. I will see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Story Of ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’

This week in 1846 saw a very important moment in the Brontë story, and, indeed, in the story of English literature as a whole. On the 6th of February 1846 three sisters, weary yet undaunted after a series of rejections, sent their collection of poetry to a specialist publisher in London; the publisher was Aylott & Jones, and the book was Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; by May of that year the first Brontë book was in print, and things would never be the same again.

The story of the genesis of this collection is well known; how Charlotte accidentally ‘discovered’ a secret collection of Emily’s brilliant poetry, and how the persuasive powers of her beloved sister Anne eventually made Emily agree to a joint venture – they had been writing poetry since childhood, now it was time to send it out into the world.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, with its original frontispiece

Always a woman of action, Charlotte Brontë then obtained a list of English publishers and began to send their parcelled up manuscript to them, time after time it returned unheralded, unwanted. The sisters soon realised that most publishers only wanted prose works; indeed the halcyon days of poetry sales in the first decades of the nineteenth century were over. It was clear that a specialist poetry publisher was needed – Moxon’s, publisher of Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, were uninterested, so who would the Bell brothers call upon next?

A popular magazine of the time was called Information For The People, published by Chambers of Edinburgh, and one of their specialties was answering questions submitted by their readers. Amongst them must have been Charlotte Brontë for she wrote to them asking for the name and address of a suitable publisher of poetry: they recommended Aylott & Jones of Paternoster Row, London, a company who acted as a stationery seller as well as a publisher of prose and poetry. They were situated in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral so it’s fitting that their main line was the publishing of theological works, but they would also publish poetry collections if the author’s shared the cost of publication.

Paternoster Row
Paternoster Row, London (now gone), home of Aylott and Jones, and of the Chapter Coffee House

Perhaps it was the ecclesiastical address of the authors, writing from Haworth Parsonage (wherever that was?) that impressed Aylott & Jones, but we know that by 31st January, the work had been accepted at the writer’s risk – that is, the Bells would pay for the cost of the paper, printing, binding and publicity.

Thankfully the sisters had the remnants of their legacy from their Aunt Branwell which allowed them to cover these initial costs, which we know were £35 18s 3d, well over a year’s wage for a governess or teacher at the time. A handful of years earlier, without this legacy, the Brontës would have been unable to meet these costs, and it seems likely that the Brontës would never have found their way into print.

On 6th February, Charlotte wrote once more to Messrs Aylott and Jones:

‘Gentlemen, I send you the M.S. as you desired. You will perceive that the Poems are the work of three persons – relatives – their separate pieces are distinguished by their respective signatures. I am Gentlemen, Yrs. Truly, C Brontë’

It’s interesting to note here that whilst the work would go on to be published under the nom de plumes of the Bell brothers, Charlotte wrote to this publisher under her own name (with the first name left as an ambiguous initial). When she later came to submit their works of fiction she always wrote letters under the name of Currer Bell.

At this time when the postal service was in its infancy there was a maximum weight limit of 16 ounces, and the Brontës’ manuscript must have exceeded this limit, as Charlotte had to send it in two parcels. It was written by hand of course, and the weight of the parcel makes it likely that they had invested in high quality paper, and written their manuscript out in their best hand, rather than the tiny writing which they habitually employed.

Things moved rapidly once the manuscript was received; what an exciting time it must have been for the three sisters in that moorside parsonage. Alas, the general public weren’t interested in poetry and it sold very poorly. In June 1847, Charlotte famously wrote to a number of writers the sisters admired, sending a free copy:

‘My relatives, Ellis and Acton Bell and myself, heedless of the repeated warnings of various respectable publishers, have committed the rash act of publishing a volume of poems. The consequences predicted have, of course, overtaken us; our book is found to be a drug; no man needs it or heeds it; in the space of a year our publisher has disposed of but two copies, and by what painful efforts he succeeded in disposing of those two, himself only knows. Before transferring the edition to the trunk-makers, we have decided on distributing as presents a few copies of what we cannot sell – we beg to offer you one in acknowledgment of the pleasure and profit we have often and long derived from your works. I am Sir, Yours very respectfully, Currer Bell.’

Thomas De Quincey was just one of the book’s recipients

These letters, with accompanying book, were sent to a number of writers including William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Hartley Coleridge, Ebenezer Elliott the Chartist poet of Sheffield, and Thomas de Quincey, who must have perked up when reading the line, ‘our book is found to be a drug’.

Whether only two copies were sold, or whether Charlotte exaggerated the poor sales, is open to question, but undoubtedly it hadn’t yet achieved the sales it deserved. I say ‘yet’ because eventually Smith, Elder & Co (publishers of Jane Eyre) bought up all the unsold copies, re-bound them, and sold every copy, sending Charlotte £24 in royalties at the close of 1848.

Smith Elder’s re-release of the book (although they forgot to change the date)

There’s a lesson in perseverance, and in having faith in yourself here. Publishers, and readers, weren’t initially interested in the writing of the Brontë sisters, but the Brontës knew that their work was worthy of interest; from the little acorn of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell soon sprang the mighty oaks of their novels. Whatever you’re good at, keep at it – be your own biggest fan, and never let setbacks deter you. Better times came for the Brontës, and better times will come for us all.

I leave you now with the first contribution of Anne Brontë to the collection – ‘A Reminiscence’ (along with the end of Emily Brontë’s ‘Faith and Despondency’ and the opening of Charlotte’s ‘Mementos’). It was the first time that Acton Bell was seen in print, thankfully it wasn’t to be the last. Stay safe and happy, and I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

‘A Reminiscence’ from ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’

Charlotte Brontë And Dr. William MacTurk

In today’s post we look at someone who was called upon by Charlotte Brontë in this week 1855, and who played a sad part in her story. Tragedy was never far away from the life of a doctor in the first half of the nineteenth century, as Dr. William MacTurk (or Macturk or McTurk) must have known well.

By the 30th of January 1855 Charlotte Brontë had been ill for some time, and her sickness and lethargy seemed to be growing worse. A Haworth doctor had already examined Charlotte and pronounced that there was little to worry about, but a worried Arthur Bell Nicholls, by then the husband of Charlotte, insisted that they call in William MacTurk for a second opinion.

St. Paul and St. Jude’s church, Manningham, was built thanks to Dr. MacTurk

We can see, then, that Dr. MacTurk must have been a very well respected physician, for his practice was based in the centre of Bradford, around nine miles distance from Haworth. He was also renowned for his philanthropic enterprises, having campaigned to lower the number of hours that children could work in factories, establishing a new church in Manningham, Bradford and being closely connected to Bradford Grammar School.

Born to Scottish parents in 1795 in South Cave, 14 miles west of Hull, he continued to practice until 1869, making him ‘one of the oldest members of the medical profession in the West Riding of Yorkshire’ as reported in a glowing obituary in an 1872 edition of the British Medical Journal. The journal also noted that MacTurk was ‘a man of upright character’, although he had ‘made no contributions to the literature of his profession’.

British Medical Journal, 29th June 1872

We can imagine how anxious Arthur Bell Nicholls and Patrick Brontë must have been on that January day 1855 as they awaited the doctor’s verdict. What it was Elizabeth Gaskell alluded to in her biography of her friend, couched in the modesty the century demanded:

‘She yielded to Mr. Nicholls’ wish that a doctor should be sent for. He came, and assigned a natural cause for her miserable indisposition; a little patience, and all would go right.’

Later the natural cause is explained more simply, ‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad some time,” she would say; “but I am so ill—so weary—”’

It was 166 years and a day ago, then, that Dr. MacTurk confirmed that Charlotte Brontë was pregnant. We get further evidence of this in a letter Charlotte wrote to her closest friend Ellen Nussey on 21st February 1855, in which she asks:

‘Write and tell me about Mrs. Hewitt’s case, how long she was ill and in what way.’

Mary Hewitt was a friend of Ellen, and had suffered severe sickness during her pregancy in the previous year, before giving birth to a son in December 1854. It seems clear then that Charlotte’s friends knew that she was pregnant, as further shown by the baby bonnet knitted by Charlotte’s friend, and former teacher and employer, Margaret Wooler, one of the most moving exhibits of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Charlotte Bronte baby bonnet
The baby bonnet made for Charlotte Bronte’s child by Margaret Wooler

William MacTurk had diagnosed Charlotte’s pregancy but had failed to diagnose hyperemesis gravidarum, an excessive morning sickness. Today it would be treated rapidly and successfully, as in the case of the Duchess of Cambridge, but alas such knowledge and treatment was then unavailable, and Charlotte was nearing her end – who knows what a Brontë child could have achieved in their life, or if the line would still be continuing to this day.

Dr. MacTurk continued to visit Charlotte throughout her final illness, and it seems that he had also treated Branwell Brontë for the effects of his alcoholism. It could be this service which first brought him to the attention of Charlotte Brontë, leading to him featuring in her novel Shirley as the surgeon who is called upon to administer to Robert Moore:

‘”We must have Dr. Rile again, ma’am; or better still, MacTurk. He’s less of a humbug. Thomas must saddle the pony and go for him.”… Doubtless they executed the trust to the best of their ability; but something got wrong. The bandages were displaced or tampered with; great loss of blood followed. MacTurk, being summoned, came with steed afoam. He was one of those surgeons whom it is dangerous to vex – abrupt in his best moods, in his worst savage. On seeing Moore’s state he relieved his feelings by a little flowery language, with which it is not necessary to strew the present page.’

Bradford Observer, 20th October 1859

Dr. William MacTurk was much loved across Bradford and beyond, as shown by a grand testimonial thrown for him in 1859 in which he was presented with an elaborate silver bowl and stand costing over two hundred guineas, a five figure sum in today’s terms. Perhaps the greatest testimony he received, however, was being featured in a Charlotte Brontë novel. I hope you are all in good health, and I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë And William Makepeace Thackeray

Whilst Anne and Emily Brontë didn’t live to see the success their huge talents deserved and earned, Charlotte Brontë did encounter the trappings of fame in the final years of her life, including fans arriving in Haworth to seek out ‘Currer Bell’. Charlotte also met a number of writers, and she has become particularly associated with Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau. Charlotte also became acquainted with one of her literary heroes and it’s he that we’re going to look at today – William Makepeace Thackeray.

William Makepeace Thackery by Eyre Crowe, 1845
William Makepeace Thackery by Eyre Crowe, 1845

Thackeray is one of the great figures of nineteenth century English literature, and he’s most famous today for his masterpiece Vanity Fair. Charlotte Brontë was a great fan of this novel, and it was for this reason that she chose to dedicate the second edition of Jane Eyre to its author. This second edition was published on this week in 1848, and it was certainly effusive in its praise of Thackeray:

‘There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital-a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time-they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Rimoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day-as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him – if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger – I have dedicated this second edition of “JANE EYRE.”’

Thackeray dedication
Thackeray’s dedication in Jane Eyre

This dedication was obviously heartfelt, especially as he was, as Charlotte said, a total stranger. Unfortunately she was therefore unaware of a fact which meant that her dedication set literary tongues wagging: Thackeray, like the male protagonist of the novel now dedicated to him, had a wife who was locked away, suffering from mental illness.

Isabella Thackeray’s depression grew after the birth of their third child Harriet, and as her condition worsened she spent time in two asylums near Paris. Thackeray later brought Isabella back to London but found himself unable to provide the care she needed, and so she was placed into a private care home in Camberwell, under the auspices of a Mrs. Baker. Incidentally, Harriet Thackeray married Leslie Stephen the father of Virginia Woolf, although it was Stephen’s second wife who was mother to the Brontë loving novelist.

It was the superficial similarity between the marital situation of both Rochester and Thackeray, coupled with Charlotte’s dedication in the second edition of Jane Eyre, which led many to believe that Thackeray must be known to Currer Bell.

Thackeray by Frank Stone
Thackeray by Frank Stone

Charlotte famously met her literary idol in June 1850, as she revealed in a letter to Ellen Nussey. Charlotte’s letter boils this meeting down to its basics, ‘and, last not least, an interview with Mr. Thackeray’. In fact, there was rather more than an interview, for her publisher George Smith had arranged for Charlotte to be guest of honour at a dinner party thrown by the Thackerays. For a woman as painfully shy as Charlotte (a characteristic she shared with Anne and Emily Brontë) it was an ordeal to be endured, often in silence. We have a much more fulsome description of this evening in the book Chapters From Some Memoirs by Lady Ritchie. On that 1850 evening, Lady Ritchie was the 13 year old Anne Thackeray, daughter of the novelist who was hosting for the event (until he managed to escape to his club):

‘One of the most notable persons who ever came into our bow-windowed drawing-room in Young Street is a guest never to be forgotten by me – a tiny, delicate, little person, whose small hand nevertheless grasped a mighty lever which set all the literary world of that day vibrating. I can still see the scene quite plainly – the hot summer evening, the open windows, the carriage driving to the door as we all sat silent and expectant; my father, who rarely waited, waiting with us; our governess and my sister and I all in a row, and prepared for the great event. We saw the carriage stop, and out of it sprang the active well-knit figure of young Mr. George Smith, who was bringing Miss Brontë to see our father. My father, who had been walking up and down the room, goes out into the hall to meet his guests, and then, after a moment’s delay, the door opens wide, and the two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, pale little lady. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress, with a pattern of blue flowers. She enters in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This, then, is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. To say that we little girls had been given Jane Eyre to read scarcely represents the facts of the case; to say that we had taken it without leave, read bits here and read bits there, been carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind into things, times, places, all utterly absorbing, and at the same time absolutely unintelligible to us, would more accurately describe our state of mind on that summer’s evening as we look at Jane Eyre – the great Jane Eyre – the tiny little lady. The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, though genius she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, especially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. She sat gazing at our father with kindling eyes of interest, lighting up with a sort of illumination every now and then as she answered him. I can see her bending forward over the table, not eating, but listening to what he said as he ate.

It was on this very occasion that my father invited some of his friends in the evening to meet Miss Brontë – for everybody was interested and anxious to see her. Mrs. Catherine Crowe, the reciter of ghost-stories, was there. Mrs. Brookfield, the Carlyles, Mrs. Jane Elliott and her sister Miss Kate Perry, Mrs. Procter and her daughter Adelaide, John Everett Millais, most of my father’s habitual friends and companions. It was a gloomy and a silent evening. Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess, Miss Truelock. The room looked very dark, the lamp began to smoke a little, the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all. Mrs. Brookfield, who was in the doorway by the study, near the corner in which Miss Brontë was sitting, leant forward with a little commonplace, since brilliance was not to be the order of the evening. ‘Do you like London, Miss Brontë?’ she said; another silence, a pause, then Miss Brontë answers, ‘Yes and No,’ very gravely. My sister and I were much too young to be bored in those days; alarmed, impressed we might be, but not yet bored. A party was a party, a lioness was a lioness; and – shall I confess it? – at that time an extra dish of biscuits was enough to mark the evening. We felt all the importance of the occasion: tea spread in the dining-room, ladies in the drawing-room. We roamed about inconveniently, no doubt, and excitedly, and in one of my incursions crossing the hall, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him. When I went back to the drawing-room again, the ladies asked me where he was. I vaguely answered that I thought he was coming back. I was puzzled at the time, nor was it all made clear to me till long years afterwards, when one day Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened once when my father had invited a party to meet Jane Eyre at his house. It was one of the dullest evenings she had ever spent in her life, she said. And then with a good deal of humour she described the situation – the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how, finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club. The ladies waited, wondered, and finally departed also; and as we were going up to bed with our candles after everybody was gone, I remember two more guests, in shiny silk dresses, arriving, full of expectation.’

Charlotte Bronte dress, New York
It is this dress that Charlotte Bronte wore to Thackeray’s house in 1850

This was obviously a difficult night for Charlotte Brontë, she never enjoyed being in the limelight; nevertheless, Anne Thackeray has given a fascinating portrait of her, and she also alludes to the fact that some people in literary circles had been suggesting that William Makepeace Thackeray himself was the author of the novels by the mysterious Bell brothers.

Lady Ritchie
Lady Ritchie, Anne Isabella Thackeray, who met and remembered Charlotte Bronte

Another rumour was that Currer Bell was either a maid servant in the employ of Thackeray, or his mistress! (Despite the male-sounding pen name chosen by Charlotte many believed, correctly of course, that Jane Eyre was written by a woman). In November 1848, J. G. Lockhart wrote to the vituperative critic Elizabeth Rigby, stating: ‘The common rumour is that they [Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell] are brothers of the weaving order in some Lancashire town. At first it was generally said Currer was a lady, and Mayfair circumstantialised by making her the chére amie of Mr. Thackeray.’ Rigby herself wrote that, ‘Jane Eyre is sentimentally assumed to have proceeded from the pen of Mr. Thackeray’s governess.’

The 1850 dinner party was not the first encounter between Charlotte and Thackeray, and the meeting of these great novelists is commemorated forever on a door panel in Cornhill, London. This beautifully carved panel also shows Anne Brontë meeting Thackeray, but in fact the two never met. Charlotte’s very first meeting with the author of Vanity Fair was in December 1849, and once more it was brought about my George Smith. Charlotte wrote to her father after the event:

Bronte door panel
Bronte and Thackeray door panel in Cornhill

‘Yesterday I saw Mr. Thackeray. He dined here with some other gentlemen. He is a very tall man, above six feet high, with a peculiar face – not handsome – very ugly indeed – generally somewhat satirical and stern in expression, but capable also of a kind look. He was not told who I was – he was not introduced to me – but I soon saw him looking at me through his spectacles and when we all rose to go down to dinner he just stept quietly up and said “Shake hands” so I shook hands. He spoke very few words to me, but when he went away he shook hands again in a very kind way. It is better I should think to have him for a friend than an enemy, for he is a most formidable looking personage. I listened to him as he conversed with the other gentlemen – all he says is most simple but often cynical, harsh and contradictory.’

Thackeray in 1855
Thackeray in 1855

Four days later, on the 9th December 1849, this encounter was still weighing heavily on Charlotte’s mind, for she revisited it again in a letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘I suffer acute pain sometimes – mental pain, I mean. At the moment Mr. Thackeray presented himself I was thoroughly faint from inanition, having eaten nothing since a very slight breakfast, and it was then seven o’clock in the evening. Excitement and exhaustion together made savage work of me that evening – what he thought of me I cannot tell.’

We cannot tell what Charlotte’s reaction would have been when she discovered that Thackeray had a secret akin to Rochester’s, nor when she discovered the rumours that circulated about Thackeray and Currer Bell, but we can guess. Nevertheless, Charlotte continued to hold William Makepeace Thackeray in the utmost admiration, and she even purchased a portrait of him which is sometimes displayed in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Thackeray portrait Charlotte Bronte
Thackeray portrait belonging to Charlotte Bronte

Brutish in appearance, yet capable of kindness, a wealthy man with a family secret, and the host of grand society dinners that he escapes from at first opportunity – William Makepeace Thackeray was like Edward Rochester in many ways, even though Charlotte had never met him when she created the character. It also has to said that some of Thackeray’s attitudes towards Irish people, although of their time, were cruel and unenlightened, but perhaps Charlotte didn’t know that Thackeray wrote a series of anti-Irish diatribes for ‘Punch’ magazine under the pseudonym Hibernis Hibernior? What is undisputed is that Vanity Fair is indeed a masterpiece, satirical, thrilling and moving by turns, and it helped to inspire another genius, Charlotte Brontë, to become a novelist herself. For that we can all be thankful. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

National News On The Day Anne Brontë Was Born

Today is a very special day in the Brontë calendar, for Anne Brontë was born on the 17th January 1820; that make Anne 201 years old today – Happy Birthday Anne!

Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte
Anne Bronte, our birthday girl, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

It’s fair to say that Anne’s big 200th birthday celebration year didn’t go as anyone expected or wanted, but hopefully we will still get the chance to celebrate Anne in a proper and fitting way once we have finally defeated this pandemic. We surely live in a very different world to just a year ago, so how different is it from the one that Anne was born into by the fireside of Thornton Parsonage near Bradford?

Some people like to buy newspapers from the day they were born, or receive cards bearing news from that natal date. In that spirit I’ve delved into the archives to find newspapers published on that exact date, 17th January 1820, and curated stories from them. Before we take a look at them, let’s turn to a news source a little closer to the Brontë home. Elizabeth Firth lived in Kipping House in Thornton; she became a firm friend of the Brontës, and was eventually made godmother to Anne. It is in her diary that we get our very first glimpse of Anne Brontë, and confirmation of the day she was born. Elizabeth’s diary entry for 17th January 1820 reads: ‘Anne Brontë born, the other children spent the day here.’

Anne Brontë's birthplace
Emily’s, once Thornton Parsonage, where Anne Bronte was born 201 years ago

We can picture the five young Brontës making their way to Kipping House through the snow on this momentous day. How do we know it was snowing? It’s in the papers, of course, and in fact the country as a whole had been suffering from unusually cold weather:

The Statesman

The temperature has been recorded at two and a half degrees, that’s Fahrenheit of course, which equates to -16 degrees Celsius or Centigrade (why does it have two names?). It had been like that since the start of the year, and rivers and canals had frozen, causing great disruption to trade. In those days before central heating and modern clothing, it can’t have been pleasant.

Morning Chronicle

The weather report in The Statesman noted especial concern for the poor of the nation at this ferociously cold time, and this was picked up by many papers. There was a large demand for food and relief to be given to the poor, but the government, and some of the richer people of the country, seemed less than willing to help. This correspondent who signed his name “Homo Sum” (meaning “I am a man”) declared that ‘there is nothing so disgraceful as a good excuse to withhold charity’. He also takes direct aim at those in positions of authority who say that some of the claimants may be fraudulent or undeserving, or that they should be covered by the Poor Rate.

The Sun

For the poor, this harsh winter was a thing of terror, but the upper classes were having a grand old time, skating on the frozen Serpentine lake within London’s Hyde Park. It’s reported that a hundred thousand people were on the ice, led by the dashing Frederick Byng.

The Honourable Frederick Byng, AKA Poodle

Byng was the fifth son of Viscount Torrington and had become a favourite of the scandal sheets of the time. He was nicknamed ‘Poodle’ and was said to have had many conquests, mainly by himself. I wonder what Lady Whistledown of ‘Bridgerton’ would have made of him? With so many people on the Serpentine ice it’s little wonder that the ice gave way in two places, but thankfully it’s reported that no fatalities took place, and the skating carried on uninterrupted.

The Sun

Falling through ice was far from the only threat in January 1820, as this advert shows. Poignantly for an ad published on the day of Anne Brontë’s birth it reveals that 40,000 die annually of consumption (tuberculosis), with a quarter of the fatalities coming in London. The figures for both are likely to have been much higher in reality, and it’s also likely that Anne’s visit to London in the summer of 1848 at least partially influenced her own death from consumption less than a year later.

Caledonian Mercury

Reading newspapers from the early decades of the nineteenth century provides a never ending supply of strange ways in which people met their end. This man was particularly unlucky, the pig rather less so.

The British Press

The time of Anne’s birth and life was one that saw huge change and technological advances throughout the country, but Londoners were left disheartened by the failure to repair the main Thames crossing at London Bridge. Plus ça change, as last year London Bridge was again closed for six months, and Hammersmith Bridge is in such a state of disrepair that it has remained closed to traffic and pedestrians since August of last year.

Bristol Mercury

The birth of a sixth child brought joy and hope to the Brontë family of Thornton, but where could others find hope? If they could afford a ticket they could enter the ‘Golden Lottery’ and dream of changing their life. The eventual winner, if indeed there was one, has not been recorded.

Caledonian Mercury

Another distraction could be found in that most timeless form of entertainment, performing dogs! The Caledonian Mercury makes this sound like a delightful treat which would surely take our ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ by storm, and who in any era could fail to be astounded by a fire dog and a rope dancing dog? I particularly like the sound of the ‘learned dog’ who defeats human opposition at dominos – beat that, Simon Cowell!

Finally, we turn to a newspaper from Anne’s birth county, the West Riding of Yorkshire. We find a poem in praise of the winter and ‘the gloomy genius of the storm and flood’. Perhaps fittingly for a poem published on the day that the future author of Agnes Grey was born, the poet gives their name simply as ‘Agnes’.

Leeds Intelligencer

All of these pieces were published on that special day, 17th January 2020. We find performing dogs as popular entertainment, the threat of infectious disease, London bridges closed, a government that won’t feed the poor, a lottery that’s impossible to win, and dancing on ice drawing large audiences. Perhaps things aren’t that different 201 years later after all?

One thing that will never change is the brilliance of Anne Brontë’s writing. It’s there whenever we need it, so let’s raise a glass of something pleasant and say ‘Happy birthday Anne Brontë!’

Isabelle Huppert as Anne Bronte

Claire Heger, Madame Beck and Charlotte Brontë

Many people made a lasting impression on Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë – people such as Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor, George Smith and Margaret Wooler. This week marks the anniversary of the passing of a woman who certainly made a lasting impression upon Charlotte Brontë and influenced her work, but they weren’t necessarily the best of friends. In today’s post we’re going to look at Madame Claire Heger, the prototype of Madame Beck in Villette.

Claire Heger-Parent

Claire Zoë Parent was born in 1804 in Belgium to a French father, but perhaps the most significant relative, for our story, was her aunt. This aunt was a nun who ran boarding schools in Brussels, with a girl’s school and boy’s school adjacent to each other. It may be supposed that Clare worked as a teacher in that school for in 1830 she inherited the establishment, known as a Pensionnat. By 1842, at the time that two new English pupils arrived at the school on the city’s Rue d’Isabelle (Charlotte and Emily Brontë of course) it bore a plaque outside hailing it as the ‘Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent.’

Charlotte would always remember the moment she arrived at the school, and recreated it in the guise of English born teacher William Crimsworth in her first-written novel The Professor:

‘I saw what a fine street was the Rue Royale, and, walking leisurely along its broad pavement, I continued to survey its stately hotels, till the palisades, the gates, and trees of the park appearing in sight, offered to my eye a new attraction. I remember, before entering the park, I stood awhile to contemplate the statue of General Belliard, and then I advanced to the top of the great staircase just beyond, and I looked down into a narrow back street, which I afterwards learnt was called the Rue d’Isabelle. I well recollect that my eye rested on the green door of a rather large house opposite, where, on a brass plate, was inscribed, “Pensionnat de Demoiselles.” Pensionnat! The word excited an uneasy sensation in my mind; it seemed to speak of restraint. Some of the demoiselles, externats no doubt, were at that moment issuing from the door – I looked for a pretty face amongst them, but their close, little French bonnets hid their features; in a moment they were gone.’

Pensionnat Heger
The Pensionnat Heger, attended by Charlotte and Emily Bronte

Let’s head back to see how Claire Parent is doing as Directrice of her own school. In 1833 she hired a new Professor for the boy’s school which was named the Athenee Royal. Constantin Georges Heger was 24 but had already experienced tragedy in his life. He came from a wealthy family but the fortune had been lost and the young Constantin moved to Paris to seek his own way in life as a lawyer. In 1830 he married Marie Josephine Noyer but she, along with their son, died in 1833 and Constantin returned to his home city of Brussels. It was in the direct aftermath of this double tragedy that he was hired by Claire Parent to teach at the Athenee Royal. She must have helped to heal his broken heart, for three years later they were married and Claire became Madame Heger.

Within ten years of their marriage they had (like Patrick and Maria Brontë) six children: Marie, Louise, Claire, Prospere (born in the year the Brontës arrived in Brussels), Julie and Paul. That’s the happy Heger family at the top of the post, painted by Ange Francois. Claire is centre stage, although her husband Constantin is looking on rather furtively from the left as if he’s about to sneak off whilst his wife’s back is turned.

The story is well known of how Charlotte Brontë spent time as both a pupil and then teacher in Brussels, and of how she came to fall in love with Professor Constantin Heger. We only need to look at the despairing letters that Charlotte sent back to Brussels after her return to Haworth at the commencement of 1844 to see this, including one sent on 8th January 1845 in which she writes: ‘Pardonnez-moi donc Monsieur si je prends le partie de vous ecrire encore – Comment puis-je supporter la vie si je ne fais pas un effort pour en alleger les suffrances?’

Constantin Heger
Constantin Heger in old age

Let’s have it in English, and see just what suffering the departure from Constantin caused Charlotte:

This letter and others sent from Charlotte to Constantin were first published in 1913 by ‘The Times’ newspaper, and they caused an uproar. Up until then the prevailing orthodoxy was that Charlotte had not been in love with Constantin at all, but these letters proved otherwise and challenged the Victorian attitudes of propriety which were still holding firm among the chattering classes. The general opinion in 1913 was that the letters should have been destroyed rather than published, but thank goodness that they were brought to life for it allows us to see a passionate, human side of Charlotte Brontë that we can surely all sympathise with, and it gives us a first hand insight into the events and emotions that shaped The Professor and Villette and which influenced the character of Rochester.

We can have no doubt that poor Charlotte fell head over heels for Monsieur Heger, although you might not guess that from her first mention of him in a May 1842 letter to Ellen Nussey:

‘There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken: Monsieur Heger the husband of Madame. He is professor of Rhetoric, a man of power as to mind but very choleric and irritable in temperament – a little, black, ugly being with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane Tom-cat – sometimes those of a delirious hyena – occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air not above a hundred degrees removed from what you would call mild and gentleman-like.’

Could the ghost nun of Villette have been influenced by Claire’s aunt?

In this same letter Charlotte also introduced Claire Heger:

‘Madame Heger the head is a lady of precisely the same cast of mind, degree of cultivation & quality of character as Miss Catherine Wooler [this sister of Margaret Wooler had taught Charlotte at Roe Head and was renowned for her aloofness and severity]. I think the severe points are a little softened because she has not been disappointed & consequently soured – in a word she is a married instead of a maiden lady.’

By the following year, Charlotte’s views on Claire had hardened, as she expressed in a letter to her sister Emily dated 29th May 1843:

‘Of late days, Mr and Mde Heger rarely speak to me, and I really don’t pretend to care a fig for anybody else in that establishment. You are not to suppose by that expression that I am under the influence of warm affection for Mde Heger. I am convinced that she does not like me – why, I can’t tell.’

Perhaps the clearest indication of Charlotte’s feelings towards Claire Heger (although once again hidden by another name) is given via the depiction of Madame Beck in Villette – clearly a depiction of Madame Heger herself.

Madame Modeste Beck is the cool and calculating head of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles; she is not averse to spying on pupils and staff alike, and ruling them with a rod of iron. She is the antagonist of Lucy Snowe, doing all she can to keep Lucy from Monsieur Paul, and Charlotte Brontë is unsparing in her description of her:

‘About noon, I was summoned to dress Madame. (It appeared my place was to be a hybrid between gouvernante and lady’s-maid.) Till noon, she haunted the house in her wrapping-gown, shawl, and soundless slippers. How would the lady-chief of an English school approve this custom?

The dressing of her hair puzzled me; she had plenty of it: auburn, unmixed with grey: though she was forty years old. Seeing my embarrassment, she said, “You have not been a femme-de-chambre in your own country?” And taking the brush from my hand, and setting me aside, not ungently or disrespectfully, she arranged it herself. In performing other offices of the toilet, she half-directed, half-aided me, without the least display of temper or impatience. N.B.—That was the first and last time I was required to dress her. Henceforth, on Rosine, the portress, devolved that duty.

When attired, Madame Beck appeared a personage of a figure rather short and stout, yet still graceful in its own peculiar way; that is, with the grace resulting from proportion of parts. Her complexion was fresh and sanguine, not too rubicund; her eye, blue and serene; her dark silk dress fitted her as a French sempstress alone can make a dress fit; she looked well, though a little bourgeoise; as bourgeoise, indeed, she was. I know not what of harmony pervaded her whole person; and yet her face offered contrast, too: its features were by no means such as are usually seen in conjunction with a complexion of such blended freshness and repose: their outline was stern: her forehead was high but narrow; it expressed capacity and some benevolence, but no expanse; nor did her peaceful yet watchful eye ever know the fire which is kindled in the heart or the softness which flows thence. Her mouth was hard: it could be a little grim; her lips were thin. For sensibility and genius, with all their tenderness and temerity, I felt somehow that Madame would be the right sort of Minos in petticoats… “Surveillance,” “espionage,” – these were her watchwords.’

There can be no doubt that Lucy didn’t get on with Madame Beck, nor did Charlotte get on with Madame Heger, but why? The answer clearly lies in Charlotte’s affections for Claire’s husband Constantin. He never replied to Charlotte’s letters after her return to England, and they grow ever more desparate. Indeed, they have been torn into pieces and then stitched back together again. Perhaps Constantin meant to destroy the evidence of this unrequited love, but his wife, being an expert spy around her kingdom, found them and pieced them back together again?

Charlotte and Heger
Charlotte and Monsieur Heger emerge from the tunnel of mystery in ‘Devotion’ – possibly not the most accurate portrayal

We all love Charlotte Brontë of course, and we all love her masterly novel Villette, but in Belgium a very different view of the novel tended to be held. Claire Heger was a pillar of the Brussels commnunity and well loved for her lifelong services to education and for her charitable works. It was she, in the minds of her countrymen, who had been wronged.

Claire Heger died in 1890, and her husband survived her by six years. On 3rd June 1896 ‘The Sketch’ carried an extraordinary obituary of Constantin Heger written by Albert Colin, editor of ‘L’Etoile Belge’. In it, Monsieur Colin writes:

‘At the end of two years [after Charlotte Brontë’s entrance into the Pensionnat], the future English novelist spoke and wrote correctly the language of Bossuet, Racine and Voltaire. Once this had been achieved, Madame Heger, considering that her part of the contract morally entered into between herself and Charlotte had been completely fulfilled, refused to receive Miss Brontë a third year in her school. According to the statements of her own schoolfellows, the daughter of the English clergyman [sic] was anything but popular… Madame Heger was, therefore, not sorry to put an end to the connection.

The humiliating refusal to which she had been exposed sorely wounded Charlotte Brontë, who was not happy in her father’s house… She warned Madame Heger that she would take her revenge, and this threat was soon carried out.’

Clearly the Heger family in Brussels, maybe the city as a whole, felt slighted by Villette, although they could not help but acknowledge its genius. These wounds were healed, however, in 1953 by the visit to Haworth of a woman with a very appropriate name: Madame Beck(ers).

Madame Beckers was a guest of honour at the Brontë Parsonage, for she was in fact the granddaughter of Claire and Constantin Heger. After being given a tour of the museum, she pronounced that she forgave Charlotte for her portrayal of her grandmother as Madame Beck. What Charlotte’s response would have been we do not know, although a faint rumbling noise may have been heard coming from the nearby church.

Heger granddaughter BronteParsonage Museum
Madame Beckers in Haworth, Yorkshire Post, 27 August 1953

Perhaps we too, in a spirit of reconciliation, should put aside any ill feelings we may have towards Madame Heger. At the time Charlotte knew her, Claire was successfully running two schools and raising her family, and she was also pregnant in both of the years that Charlotte was in Brussels – with Prospere in 1842 and with Julie in 1843. She may also have been understandably suspicious of Charlotte’s growing infatuation with her husband, and she may have witnessed similar things in previous years with other pupils.

What we can say for certain is that Claire Heger was a good mother and a good headmistress, and that without the advent of herself and Constantin Heger in Charlotte’s life the world of literature would be very different today. For that we can all be grateful. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post; have a slice of cake ready for we’ll be saying happy 201st birthday to Anne Brontë!

Brontë Lessons And Motivation For The New Year

A new year has dawned and I suppose that most of us will be glad to wave goodbye to the pestilent 2020. Many people see the turn of the year as a time to make resolutions, or a time to take a blank canvas and finally put into action the plans we’ve long thought of.

Happy New Year card
The Victorians didn’t just make odd Christmas cards!

I’m generally an optimistic sort of chap, and there is definitely light and hope at the end of this tunnel, thanks to the vaccines that are just starting to be delivered. Maybe this year will see Anne Brontë 200th birthday events that should have taken place last year finally spring into life? I also believe that we may see some new Brontë television this year too, although I don’t know how Covid has affected the plans I heard about. Certainly the pandemic has delayed the release of my Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey book, but I’m confident that it too will see the light of day in the months ahead.

One thing which is beyond doubt is that we will still have the Brontë books to turn to, so whatever’s happening in the world without the world within can be a happy place. There’s lots of new year motivation and January wisdom to be found in the words of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.

“I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward. This is not the time to regret, dread or weep.”

Letter to Ellen Nussey, January 15, 1849


These very wise words from Charlotte Brontë were part of a doleful letter written at a very distressing time, but they show that even in moments of darkness Charlotte was always clinging onto that Pandoran gift – hope. Charlotte also wrote of the powerful force of forgiveness:

“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs”

Jane Eyre

I received a Jane Eyre word search at Christmas – each chapter has its own puzzle. Can you solve these first two?

Charlotte Brontë was not a person who suffered fools gladly; she had high standards and could be cutting about those who failed to match up to them. Nevertheless, she was at heart a very kind woman and she was always ready to forgive and forget. Emily Brontë was feted for her kindness by all who knew her, yet her writing is often dark and brilliantly challenging. Nevertheless in her masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Emily reveals how the pleasures of the natural world brought brightness and joy into her life – a lesson we can all learn from:

“He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy.”

Wuthering Heights

The climax of the novel sees old wrongs righted, and the feuds of the past laid to rest forever. This is Emily’s lesson for the new year, one repeated in the following lines of poetry written when she was 18: forget the painful past, and move on to a better future:


“But this is past and why return
O’er such a past to brood and mourn?
Shake off the fetters and break the chain
And live and love and smile again
The waste of youth the waste of years
Departed in that dungeon’s thrall
The gnawing grief the hopeless tears
Forget them – O forget them all -.”

One reason that Anne Brontë’s novels are both so powerful is that they are optimistic in nature. Anne was determined to depict the perils of life with truth and honesty, yet she also showed her innate belief in redemption and the pursuit of happiness. Both Agnes and Helen (especially) have much to endure, and yet their novels end with them marrying the man they love and settling down to a much brighter future. They have been kind in the face of horrific provocation and misfortune, and have reaped the rewards, and I think that the following line sums up succinctly Anne’s attitude to life:

“The more happiness we bestow, the more we shall receive, even here.”

Agnes Grey

Charlie Murphy as Anne Bronte in To Walk Invisible
Charlie Murphy as Anne Bronte in To Walk Invisible

I’ll close today’s post with the final lines of Anne’s poem ‘The Consolation’. One consolation that we can all embrace is that 2020 is behind us, and we all have lots to look forward to, including spending lots more time with those we love most. Happy New Year to you all, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

“When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.
Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.
The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.
Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.”

Happy Christmas: Music On Christmas Morning

Well here it is, Merry Christmas, and hopefully a day to look forward to a better year ahead for us all. As always, I will close this short but special post with Anne Brontë’s very own tribute to Christmas morning, and I’ll throw in an unusual Victorian Christmas card or two, but I will start with a card with a rather more sedate feel:

Ellen Nussey Christmas card
Ellen Nussey’s Christmas card to Charlotte Bronte

This understated yet sweet card was sent by Ellen Nussey to Charlotte Brontë during a festive season of date unknown. Inside, in typically formal manner, Ellen has written to her best friend: “Wishing you the old wish, A Merry Christmas, and, A Happy New Year, from E. Nussey.”

Christmas cards were still in their infancy at this period, and this is the only extant Christmas card we know of sent to, or by, a Brontë. Later in the Victorian period, as we shall see, these cards took on a rather more colourful, not to say bizarre, hue.

I also want to mention a couple of great books that may be of interest to you. The first is The Brontës’ Christmas compiled by Maria Hubert, which was bought for me by the wonderful Emma Langan who has done so much to brighten my year. It’s too late for you to buy this for this particular Christmas of course, but bear it in mind for next year. It contains festive writing by Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell, as well as Christmas writing by some of their contemporaries including Thackeray and Southey (we won’t mention his letter, after all it is the season of good will). It’s beautifully put together and illustrated and it even contains this recipe for spice cake that we can easily imagine the Brontës enjoying:

We all love quizzes, and we all love the Brontës, so how about combining the two? Well now you can, thanks to A Brontë Quiz Book by John Hennessy. John is a longstanding Brontë enthusiast and expert, and the author of Emily Jane Brontë And Her Music. His quiz book contains 400 Brontë related questions, along with picture questions, and you can play them by yourself or with friends and family in your bubble. It’s a great, fun way to pass time and, even better, all proceeds go to the Brontë Society Covid Appeal which ensures that the Brontë Parsonage Museum keeps its head above water in these challenging times. The book is, or soon will be, available to purchase online via the Brontë Parsonage shop or in the shop itself once it re-opens.

Right, it’s time to look at some 19th century Christmas cards which truly capture the festive spirit, many of which I first saw on the wonderful Twitter account of @HorribleSanity. Please don’t let the clowns scare you!

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to share part of your Christmas day with me, and for all your support throughout the year. As it’s only two days away I will be taking a break from my usual Sunday post this week, but I hope you can join me next week (and next year) for a new Brontë blog post. Whatever you are doing today, and whoever you share it with, I hope you have a Happy Christmas and a day full of good food and good books. I will leave you now, as always on this day, with Anne Brontë’s poem, ‘Music On Christmas Morning’:

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

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