The Brontë Birthplace Is Saved!

In today’s very special post I bring you amazing news about the Brontë birthplace in Thornton. Whilst Haworth has become synonymous with the Brontë sisters, it is the former parsonage on Market Street, Thornton that saw the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.

The building was until recently a cafe called Emily’s but was closed to the public after its owners put it up for sale. It faced a very uncertain future, as it had at many times down the decades. Once more there were worries it could be bought by property developers and closed to the public forever – but thankfully, a local group of Brontë enthusiasts came to the rescue. The Brontë Birthplace Campaign was formed, and an ambitious crowdfunding project was put in place. Brontë fans from across the world came together to support the campaign, and I’m thrilled to announce today that the campaign was successful. The Brontë birthplace is saved for the community, and for the literature loving public, forever!

By this fireplace the Bronte sisters were born. Photo by Mark Davis

I was thrilled to be invited along to a preview day by two indefatigable stalwarts of the campaign: Yorkshire broadcasting legend Christa Ackroyd (no relation to Tabby Aykroyd of course, she gets asked that a lot) and Steve Stanworth, who does so much to preserve the nearby Brontë Bell Chapel in Thornton. All the fabulous photographs in this post (including the one at its head) are courtesy of, and copyright of Brontë country photographer Mark Davis. Here are more details from some of those at the heart of this wonderful campaign:

“The Brontë birthplace in Thornton, Bradford, where Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were born in front of the parlour fireplace is now saved and officially in public ownership for the first time in its 200 year history.

Photo by Mark Davis

Brontë Birthplace Limited, a community benefit society, has now taken over the small terraced house on Market Street thanks to a share offer which attracted more than 700 individual investors and significant grants from Bradford City of Culture 2025 and the Community Ownership Fund, under the Government’s levelling up agenda, amounting to more than £650,000 raised. It is a monumental achievement which means the legacy of the most famous sibling authors the literary world has ever known can truly be celebrated throughout Brontë country from cradle to grave and beyond.

Christa Ackroyd (and Charlotte). Photo by Mark Davis

At last we have the keys and the hard work has begun to restore the grade 2* blue plaque building to open in time for Bradford City of Culture 2025, when visitors will be invited to walk in the footsteps of its most famous residents and sit in the community cafe beside the original fireplace, or even stay in the bedrooms where the young girls slept.

A full programme for schools, universities, literary enthusiasts, artists and creatives is being planned and the house has already unveiled some hidden secrets including the hitherto unseen servant’s staircase, the Rev Patrick Brontë’s wardrobe and the original deeds stretching back more than two centuries.

Patrick Bronte’s wardrobe. Photo by Mark Davis

Saving this little house, which has been locked and empty for four years now, has been the culmination of a ten year ambition and a two year campaign . Very soon the public who have supported us every step of the way will be given first glimpse inside this hitherto unexplored gem which is considered the missing piece of the jigsaw in the incredible story of the Brontës, which saw three humble Bradford girls succeed on a world wide stage due to their strong sense of purpose, their passion, determination and Yorkshire grit. We like to think they would have found the same virtues in the entirely voluntary committee who have now bought the house and plan to bring it home for Bradford, Yorkshire, the nation and Brontë enthusiasts the world over.”

Photo by Mark Davis

Nigel West (Patron, and living relative of Charlotte Brontë’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls)

“This has to be the most significant purchase for the literary world in the country this year. If you consider how important we believe Shakespeare ‘s birthplace to be , here we have a house where not one but three literary giants were born, now saved for the nation.”

Photo by Mark Davis

Ann Dinsdale (Chief Curator of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth)

“This humble house has had a chequered history and the Society have been fully supportive of the efforts of the Brontë Birthplace Committee to ensure the public have access to what is such an important building in the Brontë story. It is here which Patrick describes as having spent his happiest days and it is important to remember that although he and his wife Maria only lived for five years it is this very place where Charlotte, Branwell , Emily and Anne were born in front of the fireplace to add to their family of two elder daughters, Maria and Elizabeth who sadly the Reverend Brontë was to lose at a young age along with his wife Maria when they moved to Haworth . It should be remembered that It is in Thornton that they socialised for the first and seemingly last time. It will have been a busy noisy happy home and a significant part of their story which will attract visitors from all over the world and add greatly to the offerings already available in Brontë country.”

Steve Stanworth, photo by Mark Davis

Steve Stanworth (Vice Chair)

“This is the culmination of a ten year plan to buy the birthplace not just for Brontë lovers but for young people in the same city where the three famous authors were born to inspire them to see their own potential using the sisters as role models . Now the hard work begins to create an unforgettable experience for visitors who will be able to sit with a coffee besides the famous fireplace where they were born, or even stay overnight in the very rooms where they slept as children. It has been a very emotional day to finally get the keys to what is surely one of the most important buildings in Bradford ‘s cultural past.”

Photo by Mark Davis

Christa Ackroyd (Education Committee Member)

“To achieve support of more than £650,000 is incredible. Two major grants from Bradford City of Culture 2025 and the Community Ownership Fund which comes under the government’s levelling up agenda have significantly helped us with our ambitious plan to raise such a large amount of money in what for many are difficult times.

But it is also to the credit of more than 700 individual investors from people just down the street to all over the world who have bought shares in the humble Brontë home that has stood empty for years that I want to say a special thankyou for seeing its potential . This little house has big plans for the future. It can and will inspire particularly young people to walk in the footsteps of greatness and believe they too can achieve great things. Now it is safe we can breathe a sigh of relief but the hard work begins to being it back to life in time for 2025 and Bradford’s big year.

Bradford has been much maligned in the past. A significant number of children live in poverty and suffer from low expectations . We aim to use this little house to show no matter who you are or what your beginnings you can dream big if you never give up , just like the three sisters who were born here never have up on their ambitions to write stories still read the world over today.”

The original staircase used by the Bronte servants the De Garrs sisters. Photo by Mark Davies

The hard work is only just beginning, but this incredible building’s future is now safe and secure – for us all! It will become an educational centre, a centre for the arts, a cafe, even a place where people can stay in the rooms where the young Brontës lived and breathed. Let us have some more great news:

An open day is planned to celebrate Charlotte’s birthday on Sunday April 21st from 11 til 4 when everyone is welcome at the house to celebrate its purchase before it is closed for major structural work after which it will spring back into life in 2025 as a beacon of ambition and possibility for those who will then be able to experience its magical sense of the past and its promise for the future.”

I hope to see as many of you as possible on 21st April at the Brontë birthplace in Thornton! There will be more on Thornton, and its former parsonage, in my usual post on Sunday. Tonight, and this weekend, is a time for celebration for all those in the campaign, all its backers, all the people we owe so much to. It’s a time of celebration for Thornton, for Bradford, for all across the world who hold the memory of those three incredible sisters dear!

 

Proposals Of Marriage In The Bronte Novels

For Brontë fans today is a day which brings mixed emotions. It is Easter Sunday, a day of joy and one that would have been especially beloved of the religious Brontë family. Today, also, however, marks one of the very saddest Brontë anniversaries. The Brontë novels and lives show what we all know, that life brings its challenges but it also brings its joys and triumphs. On this special day let us choose to look at the joyous side of life by looking at proposals in the Brontë works.

Agnes Grey

Whilst all Brontë novels possess some level of autobiography, I believe it is Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë which draws most from its author’s life, and from her dreams of what her life could have been. I also believe, as regular blog readers will know (and please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button if you haven’t already done so), that Anne Brontë was in love with her father’s assistant curate William Weightman.

Alas, Weightman caught cholera after visiting a sick parishioner and died far too young. Anne Brontë was denied her dreams of a proposal, a marriage and a loving life to follow, but she determined to give herself that happy ending in her debut novel. It is quite clear to me that Agnes is Anne, and Reverend Weston is Reverend Weightman, which makes the following understated proposal scene even more touching:

‘“I went to get ready, and was down again in a few minutes; though, of course, I took a little more pains with my attire than if I had merely been going out on some shopping expedition alone. The thunder-shower had certainly had a most beneficial effect upon the weather, and the evening was most delightful. Mr. Weston would have me to take his arm; he said little during our passage through the crowded streets, but walked very fast, and appeared grave and abstracted. I wondered what was the matter, and felt an indefinite dread that something unpleasant was on his mind; and vague surmises, concerning what it might be, troubled me not a little, and made me grave and silent enough. But these fantasies vanished upon reaching the quiet outskirts of the town; for as soon as we came within sight of the venerable old church, and the – hill, with the deep blue beyond it, I found my companion was cheerful enough.

“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.

“Yes.”’

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach

Jane Eyre

We have just witnessed a simple, and simply beautiful, proposal scene. The proposal scene which follows from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was rather more complicated. Not merely because (spoiler alert) Rochester is already married (a fact which Jane doesn’t know at this point) but because of the class difference between the protagonists – Jane believes that Rochester is going to marry the wealthy Blanche Ingram and she is therefore planning to leave his service, but Rochester has other plans:

‘“Pity!” he said, and sighed and paused. “It is always the way of events in this life,” he continued presently: “no sooner have you got settled in a pleasant resting-place, than a voice calls out to you to rise and move on, for the hour of repose is expired.”

“Must I move on, sir?” I asked. “Must I leave Thornfield?”

“I believe you must, Jane. I am sorry, Janet, but I believe indeed you must.”

This was a blow: but I did not let it prostrate me.

“Well, sir, I shall be ready when the order to march comes.”

“It is come now – I must give it to-night.”

“Then you are going to be married, sir?”

“Ex-act-ly – pre-cise-ly: with your usual acuteness, you have hit the nail straight on the head.”

“Soon, sir?”

“Very soon, my – that is, Miss Eyre: and you’ll remember, Jane, the first time I, or Rumour, plainly intimated to you that it was my intention to put my old bachelor’s neck into the sacred noose, to enter into the holy estate of matrimony – to take Miss Ingram to my bosom, in short (she’s an extensive armful: but that’s not to the point – one can’t have too much of such a very excellent thing as my beautiful Blanche): well, as I was saying – listen to me, Jane! You’re not turning your head to look after more moths, are you? That was only a lady-clock, child, ‘flying away home.’ I wish to remind you that it was you who first said to me, with that discretion I respect in you – with that foresight, prudence, and humility which befit your responsible and dependent position – that in case I married Miss Ingram, both you and little Adèle had better trot forthwith. I pass over the sort of slur conveyed in this suggestion on the character of my beloved; indeed, when you are far away, Janet, I’ll try to forget it: I shall notice only its wisdom; which is such that I have made it my law of action. Adèle must go to school; and you, Miss Eyre, must get a new situation.”

“Yes, sir, I will advertise immediately: and meantime, I suppose – ” I was going to say, “I suppose I may stay here, till I find another shelter to betake myself to:” but I stopped, feeling it would not do to risk a long sentence, for my voice was not quite under command.

“In about a month I hope to be a bridegroom,” continued Mr. Rochester; “and in the interim, I shall myself look out for employment and an asylum for you.”

“Thank you, sir; I am sorry to give – ”

“Oh, no need to apologise! I consider that when a dependent does her duty as well as you have done yours, she has a sort of claim upon her employer for any little assistance he can conveniently render her; indeed I have already, through my future mother-in-law, heard of a place that I think will suit: it is to undertake the education of the five daughters of Mrs. Dionysius O’Gall of Bitternutt Lodge, Connaught, Ireland. You’ll like Ireland, I think: they’re such warm-hearted people there, they say.”

“It’s a long way off, sir.”

“No matter – a girl of your sense will not object to the voyage or the distance.”

“Not the voyage, but the distance: and then the sea is a barrier – ”

“From what, Jane?”

“From England and from Thornfield: and – ”

“Well?”

“From you, sir.”

I said this almost involuntarily, and, with as little sanction of free will, my tears gushed out. I did not cry so as to be heard, however; I avoided sobbing. The thought of Mrs. O’Gall and Bitternutt Lodge struck cold to my heart; and colder the thought of all the brine and foam, destined, as it seemed, to rush between me and the master at whose side I now walked, and coldest the remembrance of the wider ocean – wealth, caste, custom intervened between me and what I naturally and inevitably loved.

“It is a long way,” I again said.

“It is, to be sure; and when you get to Bitternutt Lodge, Connaught, Ireland, I shall never see you again, Jane: that’s morally certain. I never go over to Ireland, not having myself much of a fancy for the country. We have been good friends, Jane; have we not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And when friends are on the eve of separation, they like to spend the little time that remains to them close to each other. Come! we’ll talk over the voyage and the parting quietly half-an-hour or so, while the stars enter into their shining life up in heaven yonder: here is the chestnut tree: here is the bench at its old roots. Come, we will sit there in peace to-night, though we should never more be destined to sit there together.” 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.”

“Where do you see the necessity?” he asked suddenly.

“Where? You, sir, have placed it before me.”

“In what shape?”

“In the shape of Miss Ingram; a noble and beautiful woman, – your bride.”

“My bride! What bride? I have no bride!”

“But you will have.”

“Yes; – I will! – I will!” He set his teeth.

“Then I must go: – you have said it yourself.”

“No: you must stay! I swear it – and the oath shall be kept.”

“I tell you I must go!” I retorted, roused to something like passion. “Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, – as we are!”

“As we are!” repeated Mr. Rochester – “so,” he added, enclosing me in his arms, gathering me to his breast, pressing his lips on my lips: “so, Jane!”

“Yes, so, sir,” I rejoined: “and yet not so; for you are a married man – or as good as a married man, and wed to one inferior to you – to one with whom you have no sympathy – whom I do not believe you truly love; for I have seen and heard you sneer at her. I would scorn such a union: therefore I am better than you – let me go!”

“Where, Jane? To Ireland?”

“Yes – to Ireland. I have spoken my mind, and can go anywhere now.”

“Jane, be still; don’t struggle so, like a wild frantic bird that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.”

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”

Another effort set me at liberty, and I stood erect before him.

“And your will shall decide your destiny,” he said: “I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.”

“You play a farce, which I merely laugh at.”

“I ask you to pass through life at my side – to be my second self, and best earthly companion.”

“For that fate you have already made your choice, and must abide by it.”

“Jane, be still a few moments: you are over-excited: I will be still too.”

A waft of wind came sweeping down the laurel-walk, and trembled through the boughs of the chestnut: it wandered away – away – to an indefinite distance – it died. The nightingale’s song was then the only voice of the hour: in listening to it, I again wept. Mr. Rochester sat quiet, looking at me gently and seriously. Some time passed before he spoke; he at last said – 

“Come to my side, Jane, and let us explain and understand one another.”

“I will never again come to your side: I am torn away now, and cannot return.”

“But, Jane, I summon you as my wife: it is you only I intend to marry.”

I was silent: I thought he mocked me.

“Come, Jane – come hither.”

“Your bride stands between us.”

He rose, and with a stride reached me.

“My bride is here,” he said, again drawing me to him, “because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?”’

It is worth remembering when we read this that Charlotte Brontë, as she explicitly stated in a letter, saw Rochester as a romantic hero who had been wronged by fate, and whose intentions were honourable. This is such a powerful scene, and I think it was portrayed brilliantly in the 1983 tv adaptation starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke:

https://youtu.be/lyTpzvElJck

Charlotte Brontë eventually had her own real-life proposal scene, but at first she turned Arthur Bell Nicholls down. Their romance grew, however, and they eventually married and found great happiness. It was an all too brief happiness, for on this day 1855 Charlotte Brontë died in the cruellest of circumstances: when she was pregnant.

The Easter story is one of hope triumphing over devastating loss, the hope of eternal life, of eternal love. In a very real way Charlotte Brontë still lives today, for as long as this Earth spins people will read her books, know her name, and love her.

Charlotte Bronte's wedding to Arthur Be
A Haworth recreation of Charlotte Bronte’s wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls

I had a proposal scene of my own this week. I’ve been on holiday in Lapland with the love of my life, and I’m thrilled to say that she has agreed to become my wife. I’m over the moon with happiness, so may I wish you all a very Happy Easter and I hope you can join me here at the earlier time of next Friday, the 5th of April, for some more good Brontë news!

Where Was The Real Thornfield Hall?

Spring has not yet sprung and we are still enjoying dark nights where you can snuggle up with a good book. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is one of those books that you can read time and time again, and of course many people do just that. In today’s post we’re going to look at one of the enduring mysteries of the book: just where was the real Thornfield Hall?

 

Like all of the Brontë novels (Wuthering Heights to a lesser extent, although it was inspired at least in part by a real life family feud) Jane Eyre has autobiographical elements. Dig deep under the surface of many great books and you can often find a trace of the author and their life, but in the Brontë books you don’t have to dig too far. The eponymous Jane has a passing resemblance to Charlotte Brontë herself, and Rochester has more than a passing resemblance to Charlotte’s unrequited love Constantin Heger – which is perhaps why Charlotte so stridently defended Rochester against all charges that he was a less than romantic hero. The shadowy, brooding family seat of Thornfield Hall is almost as imposing a character in its own right – but did Charlotte conjure it from her magnificent imagination or was it a building she knew?

Just like the Wuthering Heights which gave Emily’s novel its name there are many buildings which have claimed a connection to Thornfield, or had it claimed for them. One such building is The Rydings, or simply Rydings, which was the Birstall residence of the Nussey family – amongst whom was Charlotte Brontë’s loyal best friend Ellen Nussey.

Rydings
Rydings was home to Ellen Nussey

The Nusseys were a wealthier and better connected family than the Brontës, as shown by the fact that two of Ellen’s older brothers became royal apothecaries to the monarch. Charlotte must have loved her visits to Rydings not only because of the love and friendship waiting for her there but also because of its grandeur compared to draughty, crowded Haworth Parsonage. We know that it was at Rydings that Charlotte Brontë corrected the proofs of Jane Eyre, and yet she somehow managed that without Ellen discovering what she was doing or that she had written a book.

Rydings plays an important role in the Jane Eyre story, but could it also have been the inspiration for Thornfield Hall? Rydings today has a rather less grand purpose given its historic and literary significance, as it is now used as a reception building for a surrounding paint factory but we can still see its castellated design – a feature shared by Thnornfield. On the whole, however, I feel Rydings is an unlikely Thornfield Hall. It’s certainly not small, but it’s not as large as Thornfield is in its depiction, and it was a place associated with friendship and happiness in Charlotte’s mind, not with the drama and despair we see associated with Rochester’s home.

Norton Conyers

Another popular option is Norton Conyers House. The house is often simply referred to as Norton Conyers, the name of the nearby village, and it dates back to medieval times. Located near Ripon in North Yorkshire it is a fine looking house, but without any battlements that Bertha could have toppled from. It is through Bertha, however, that Norton Conyers gains its Eyre-ish connection.

It is said that a former owner of Norton Conyers kept his mad wife locked up in an attic accessible via a stone stairway. The room is still bare and forbidding and has the unfortunate title ‘Mad Woman’s Room’. This was enough proof for The Guardian to declare, in 2004, that the mystery of Thornfield Hall had been solved forever, but they had arrived at the wrong solution. Charlotte Brontë did make a brief visit there in 1839, and would have heard the story which may well have stayed in her mind and influenced the tragic tale of Bertha and Edward. There were many such sad stories at the time however, and indeed Charlotte knew of a woman who had been kept a prisoner in Haworth itself. Norton Conyers is a grand house, but it bears little physical resemblance to Thornfield. On another note, the name of the family who have owned Norton Conyers since the 17th century is the Graham family. When Anne Brontë came to write of a woman who was trapped by an abusive husband, she gave the tenant of Wildfell Hall the name of Helen Graham.

‘The Mad Woman’s Room’ at Norton Conyers

One of my followers on Twitter, Jo Welch, recently tweeted me with another possible Thornfield candidate: Netherby Hall in Cumbria. This hall was also owned by the Graham family, and its large and impressive exterior looks much more like Thornfield.

Jo’s four times great-grandfather Lister Ellis was steward of Netherby Hall and his son, another Lister Ellis, is said to have known Charlotte and Emily Brontë. It is said, so Jo informs me, that Charlotte attended dinner at the hall, where she heard a tale of a staircase hiding a mad wife! It may be, however, that Netherby is simply too grand to be Thornfield.

Netherby Hall

Three fine buildings and three fine candidates, but for me there is no mystery at all. It is clear where Thornfield Hall is, because Charlotte Brontë told us all along. In the summer of 1845 Charlotte Brontë spent an extended period of time at Hathersage Parsonage with Ellen. They were preparing the parsonage for the return of Ellen’s brother Henry Nussey – the newly appointed vicar of Hathersage was also newly married and away on his honeymoon. Whilst in Hathersage, Charlotte became well acquainted with the leading family of the district – the Eyre family.

This is shown in a letter Ellen sent from Hathersage to her friend Mary Gorham on 22nd July 1845 in which she gives a detailed account of her time in the Peak District with Charlotte Brontë. In this letter Ellen writes: “At North Lees we have paid two or three visits… We had Mrs. Eyre’s pony and we went a little way up cave dale.”

North Lees Hall

 

North Lees Hall, on the perimeter of Hathersage, was the family home of the Eyre family. It’s pictured above, and as you can see it has the castellated roof of Thornfield, not to mention the same bleakly beautiful setting. But the biggest clue of all, the conclusive proof in my opinion, is its name. Charlotte Brontë was hiding the truth in plain sight all along. 

North is an anagram of Thorn and the following meaning of Lees is taken from the Ancestry website:

Therefore lees equals fields or field, and so North Lees becomes Thornfield. There can be no doubt; like all great writers, Charlotte Brontë may also have taken snippets of inspiration from multiple sources, but Morton in Jane Eyre is Hathersage and Thornfield is North Lees Hall. I hope you can join me next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Patrick Bronte’s Beginnings In Drumballyroney

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s also a day we remember another Patrick – for on this day in 1777 in Drumballyroney, County Down (that’s it at the top of this post) a local farmer’s wife had a son who was named after the patron saint whose day it was. Patrick Prunty, or Brunty, was a natural scholar and, with the aid of a local priest named Thomas Tighe, came to Cambridge University in 1802. It was there he changed his name to Patrick Brontë. Reverend Brontë encouraged his children to read and learn, and he was royally rewarded when his daughters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë became some of the greatest novelists the world has ever known.

Young Patrick Brontë
Portrait of a young Patrick Brontë

In previous posts down the years we’ve looked at Patrick Brontë’s life and influence, from saving a boy from drowning to throwing a prizefighting village bully over a hedge, to campaigning for better sanitation in Haworth – a move which saved tens of thousands of lives. Patrick Brontë had a life filled with tragedy, he did after all bury his wife and all six of his children, but it was a life well lived, one filled with incident. As Patrick himself said: “I do not deny that I am somewhat eccentric. If I had been numbered among the calm, sedate, concentric men of the world I should not have been as I now am. And I should in all probability never have had such children as mine have been.”

In today’s post we remember Patrick’s homeland, as it’s a very appropriate way to do it. Charlotte was the only Brontë sibling to visit her fatherland, as she spent her honeymoon there in 1854 with Arthur Bell Nicholls, another Irishman. The Irish spirit of courage and creativity shone through in all of their writing, and in their lives, however. We are going to do this through the eyes of the 1894 book ‘The Brontës In Ireland: Or Facts Stranger Than Fiction’ by Dr. William Wright. Here is the chapter on Patrick’s birth and on his parents Hugh and Alice:

So we can see that Patrick Brontë was born in a lowly cowshed, but thanks to his genius daughters his name will live on forever. To all of you, have a happy St. Patrick’s Day, a happy Sunday, and I hope to see you here next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte encouraged his daughters’ creativity

A Mother’s Day Tribute To Maria Branwell

Today in the United Kingdom (although other countries celebrate on different dates) we celebrate Mother’s Day, so in today’s new post we’re going to take a brief look at a woman whose life was all too brief: Maria Branwell, whose daughters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte changed the world of literature forever.

Maria Branwell was born into a prosperous and well connected merchant family in Penzance, Cornwall on 15th April 1783. Her father Thomas Branwell was a wealthy businessman, and under him the Branwell property empire and fortunes grew. Maria’s brother Benjamin rose to become Mayor of Penzance, but she was particularly close to her sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth, who would become better known as Aunt Branwell after sacrificing everything to raise Maria’s children after her tragic and untimely passing. At the top of this post you can see Maria (in blue) in a Penzance mural.

Maria Branwell by Tonkin
Maria Branwell by James Tonkin

It was the death of Maria’s parents Thomas and Anne that led her, in the summer of 1812, to make the arduous journey from Cornwall to Yorkshire to work as an assistant in a school that had been opened by her Aunt Jane and Uncle John Fennell (as a comparison, this is a longer journey in miles than the one her daughters Charlotte and Emily would later take when they travelled from Haworth to Brussels).

Thomas Branwell b J. Tonkin
Maria’s father Thomas Branwell

The school was in Rawdon, between Bradford and Leeds, and John Fennell had recently recruited a new classics examiner for the schoolchildren. It was a friend of his from his days in Shropshire who had also moved to Yorkshire. He was of course Patrick Brontë, and when he and Maria first saw each other it was love at first sight. The rest, as they say, is literary history.

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

One part of Maria’s story that is often overlooked is that she herself was a brilliant mind and an excellent and fluid writer, as Charlotte Brontë found out as an adult when presented with a very special gift by her father. It was a lovingly preserved and cared for package of her mother’s letters, and the effect on her was very moving:

‘It was strange now to peruse for the first time the records of a mind whence my own sprang – and most strange – and at once sad and sweet to find that mind of a truly fine, pure and elevated order. They were written to papa before they were married – there is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable. I wished she had lived and that I had known her.’

We still have some of Maria’s love letters to Patrick, who she christened ‘my saucy Pat’, and they are beautifully written, often playful, but most obviously full of love. By this time neither she nor Patrick were in their first flush of youth, she was approaching her thirtieth birthday and he was six years older, but they fell head over heels for each other almost instantly, and were married within six months of their first meeting.

As early as 5th September 1812 their love is evident, as is the fact they had already decided to be together:

‘O my dear friend, let us pray that we may live lives holy and useful to each other and all around us! I pitied you in your solitude, and felt sorry it was not in my power to enliven it.’

By 18th September, Maria was writing:

‘I believe a kind Providence has intended that I shall find in you every earthly friend united; nor do I fear to trust myself under your protection, or shrink from your control. It is pleasant to be subject to those we love.’

Maria was certainly having an effect on Patrick too, and he could think of nothing but his love to the point where he often forgot anything else. After forgetting to tell the Fennells about visitors to the school that he had arranged, John Fennell thought Patrick’s behaviour had become so out of character that he should be sent to the lunatic asylum in York (presumably he only said this in jest). Maria reports this in the same letter as above:

‘I do not know whether you dare show your face here again or not after the blunder you have committed. When I got to the house on Thursday evening, even before we were within the doors, we found that Mr and Mrs Bedford had been there, and that they had requested you to mention their intention of coming – a single hint of which you never gave. They all agreed that I was the cause of it. Mr Fennell said you were certainly mazed and talked of sending you to York. Even I begin to think that this bears some mark of insanity!‘

By 24th October, their feelings for each other were in no doubt, as Maria writes:

‘Unless my love for you were very great how could I so contentedly give up my home and all my friends… Yet these have lost their weight… the anticipation of sharing with you all the pleasures and pains, the cares and anxieties of life, of contributing to your comfort and becoming the companion of your pilgrimage, is more delightful to me than any other prospect which this world can possibly present.’

The last surviving letter of Maria’s extant today is dated 5th December:

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

The cakes were for their wedding, as they were married in Guiseley’s St. Oswald’s church 24 days later. These were the letters that Charlotte Brontë loved to read, and they revealed a warm, witty, loving woman. This is how we should remember Maria Brontë, nee Branwell, as well as for the brilliant family she bore, as we say ‘Happy birthday, Maria Brontë!’ Incidentally, we’ll be saying that again in a week’s time, in a sense and for a different reason, as although we don’t know the exact date her first child, the kind, brilliant and prodigious genius Maria Brontë junior, was born, she was baptised on 23rd April 1814.

St. Oswald's Church, Guiseley
St. Oswald’s Church, Guiseley, site of a joyful event in 1812

Five further children followed in quick succession: Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne. Shortly after Anne’s birth the family moved to Haworth. Maria and Patrick were now in a larger property, with a larger income and a large family – it should have been the beginning of a period of great happiness in Maria’s life, but tragedy was drawing closer. Just a year after the birth of her youngest child, Anne, Maria fell desperately ill and after a long and painful illness she died. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on thanks to the works of genius by her brilliant daughters. 

Maria Bronte Morrab Library
With a familiar face at the amazing Morrab Library

If you are a mother or grandmother, I would like to wish you a very happy Mother’s Day. If you are missing a special someone on this day, may the memories be happy and comforting ones. Thank you for all the positive comments after last week’s post regarding my upcoming Bronte podcast, look out for more news soon. I hope you will join me next week for another news Bronte blog post. 

Bronte Remembrance

In my nine years of creating this blog my aim has always been to create a tribute to Anne Brontë and her family, a Brontë remembrance. In today’s post we’re going to look at two Brontë poems dealing with remembrance, as well as looking ahead to a new way in which I will be remembering the Brontës, their lives and the incredible literary legacy they’ve left.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
Anne and Emily Bronte by Branwell Bronte

First, let us look at one of Emily Brontë’s greatest poems – titled ‘Remembrance’ it has become known for its first words, ‘Cold in the earth’. F. R. Leavis, the legendary 20th century literary academic, gave it his unstinting praise saying: ‘Emily Brontë has hardly yet had her full justice as a poet… her Cold In The Earth is the finest poem in the 19th century part of The Oxford Book Of English Verse.’

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

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond

Remembrance was also on the mind of Charlotte Brontë in her poem entitled ‘Parting’:

“There’s no use in weeping,
Though we are condemned to part:
There’s such a thing as keeping
A remembrance in one’s heart:
There’s such a thing as dwelling
On the thought ourselves have nurs’d,
And with scorn and courage telling
The world to do its worst.
We’ll not let its follies grieve us,
We’ll just take them as they come;
And then every day will leave us
A merry laugh for home.
When we’ve left each friend and brother,
When we’re parted wide and far,
We will think of one another,
As even better than we are.
Every glorious sight above us,
Every pleasant sight beneath,
We’ll connect with those that love us,
Whom we truly love till death!
In the evening, when we’re sitting
By the fire perchance alone,
Then shall heart with warm heart meeting,
Give responsive tone for tone.
We can burst the bonds which chain us,
Which cold human hands have wrought,
And where none shall dare restrain us
We can meet again, in thought.
So there’s no use in weeping,
Bear a cheerful spirit still;
Never doubt that Fate is keeping
Future good for present ill!”

We don’t have a ‘remembrance’ from Anne Brontë, but we do have her mournful ‘A Reminiscence’:

“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.”

The Brontës knew the importance of remembrance, and we know how important it is to remember the Brontës. They weren’t simply a collection of sublime novels and poems, they were a living, breathing family with an incredible story of their own. A family who faced a succession of challenges and heartaches, triumphed against all the odds, yet finally succumbed to the ultimate tragedy.

It is this incredible story that I will be telling in my new podcast ‘The House Of Brontë’, coming later this year. It will be available on Apple, Spotify, YouTube and more, and across a series of episodes I will tell the Brontë story from beginning to end – helped by some special guests who give unique insights into this endlessly fascinating family.

I first posted the above trailer on my Twitter feed yesterday, and was blown away by the positive response; in one day it’s had over 27,000 views and it’s clear that there’s still a lot of Brontë love out there!

If you have any suggestions for the podcast, or if you’d like to be a guest on the podcast, please do ­contact me.

If you run a business, or know a business, who would like to sponsor or support ‘The House Of Brontë’ podcast please drop me a line too – it would be great to hear from you.

I’ll bring you more news once launch day for the podcast approaches, but in the meantime I hope you will join me again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Earliest Poetry Of Anne Brontë

One of the greatest gifts you can give to a child, I feel, is encouraging their creativity. Whether they like painting, writing, or crafting, give their imaginations free reign and you’ll be amazed where it can lead. That’s one of the things we can thank Patrick Brontë for; unlike many fathers of the time he didn’t believe in censoring his daughter’s activities or reading matter – and, alongside his sister-in-law Elizabeth Branwell, he created an atmosphere within Haworth Parsonage where the children were free to play, to read, to learn, to create – and the results rock the world two centuries later.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte encouraged his daughters’ creativity

The first phase of Brontë creativity accompanied the invention of stories, then worlds, revolving around toy soldiers gifted to brother Branwell Brontë. They then invented plays, followed by the tiny books containing stories from their imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. Gondal was the domain favoured by twin-like sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, and the Gondalian output we still have exists in the form of poetry. In today’s new post we’re going to look at the earliest extant example of Anne Brontë’s poetry: “Verses By Lady Geralda.”

My poetry as a 7 year old was surprisingly, er, avant-garde

Yesterday, whilst looking through some of my own early school exercise books from the 1970s I found some of my own verse created aged 7 – including the rather freestyle example “Cat Cat” featured above. Perhaps it’s a good thing I eventually gravitated to the world of non-fiction rather than the world of poetry!

“Verses By Lady Geralda” is a rather accomplished poem, especially as Anne was just 16 at the time of its composition. It is set in the world of Gondal, and we can imagine Anne reading it to Emily as they discussed the latest developments in their kingdom. This then is the earliest writing we have of Anne Brontë, and from this little (if lengthy) acorn the mighty oaks of her mature poetry and novels grew!

Poetry is for everyone, whether they are seven or 107. It can bring calm at times of trouble, as Anne Brontë herself wrote, under the guise of Agnes Grey, when saying: “When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry.”

Agnes, Edward and Snap walk on the beach
The love of poetry features within Agnes Grey

This ability of poetry to soothe the mind, or bring clarity to the mind, is also at the heart of a system called Restorative Creativity which encourages self-care through creative writing. I think that’s something the Brontës would have had great sympathy with, and I myself have found it insightful and helpful. Simply reading great poetry, as well as embracing your own creativity, is also a very valuable and rewarding function of course. With that in mind, and with the hope that I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, I leave you now with the young Anne Brontë’s “Verses By Lady Geralda”:

‘Why, when I hear the stormy breath
Of the wild winter wind
Rushing o’er the mountain heath,
Does sadness fill my mind?
For long ago I loved to lie
Upon the pathless moor,
To hear the wild wind rushing by
With never ceasing roar;
Its sound was music then to me;
Its wild and lofty voice
Made by heart beat exultingly
And my whole soul rejoice.
But now, how different is the sound?
It takes another tone,
And howls along the barren ground
With melancholy moan.
Why does the warm light of the sun
No longer cheer my eyes?
And why is all the beauty gone
From rosy morning skies?
Beneath this lone and dreary hill
There is a lovely vale;
The purling of a crystal rill,
The sighing of the gale,
The sweet voice of the singing bird,
The wind among the trees,
Are ever in that valley heard;
While every passing breeze
Is loaded with the pleasant scent
Of wild and lovely flowers.
To yonder vales I often went
To pass my evening hours.
Last evening when I wandered there
To soothe my weary heart,
Why did the unexpected tear
From my sad eyelid start?
Why did the trees, the buds, the stream
Sing forth so joylessly?
And why did all the valley seem
So sadly changed to me?
I plucked a primrose young and pale
That grew beneath a tree
And then I hastened from the vale
Silent and thoughtfully.
Soon I was near my lofty home,
But when I cast my eye
Upon that flower so fair and lone
Why did I heave a sigh?
I thought of taking it again
To the valley where it grew.
But soon I spurned that thought as vain
And weak and childish too.
And then I cast that flower away
To die and wither there;
But when I found it dead today
Why did I shed a tear?
O why are things so changed to me?
What gave me joy before
Now fills my heart with misery,
And nature smiles no more.
And why are all the beauties gone
From this my native hill?
Alas! my heart is changed alone:
Nature is constant still.
For when the heart is free from care,
Whatever meets the eye
Is bright, and every sound we hear
Is full of melody.
The sweetest strain, the wildest wind,
The murmur of a stream,
To the sad and weary mind
Like doleful death knells seem.
Father! thou hast long been dead,
Mother! thou art gone,
Brother! thou art far away,
And I am left alone.
Long before my mother died
I was sad and lone,
And when she departed too
Every joy was flown.
But the world’s before me now,
Why should I despair?
I will not spend my days in vain,
I will not linger here!
There is still a cherished hope
To cheer me on my way;
It is burning in my heart
With a feeble ray.
I will cheer the feeble spark
And raise it to a flame;
And it shall light me through the world,
And lead me on to fame.
I leave thee then, my childhood’s home,
For all thy joys are gone;
I leave thee through the world to roam
In search of fair renown,
From such a hopeless home to part
Is happiness to me,
For nought can charm my weary heart
Except activity.’

Brontë Depictions Of February

February is a month of change in the calendar year. It’s typically a cold month, and has (so the Met Office tells me) on average five days of snow per year. It has turbulent, stormy days and torrential downpours. It can also, however, produce mild days, like today in Yorkshire, when the promise of spring seems almost close enough to touch.

Tabby Aykroyd grave
We remember Tabby Aykroyd, whose anniversary was yesterday

It was often a month of change in the Brontë household within Haworth Parsonage too. It was the month in 1840, for example, when the Brontë sisters received their first ever Valentine’s cards. It was the month in 1855 when loyal servant Tabby Aykroyd died, with her beloved Charlotte Brontë moving ever closer to her own passing. It is a month of unpredictability, but it is a month of promise too – and that’s reflected by the appearance of February within the Brontë novels as we shall see in today’s blog post:

Villette

‘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.”’

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?

“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.”’

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman was the inspiration for Anne’s hero Weston

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.”’

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.”’

Wuthering Heights

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.’

February, as the Brontë sisters well knew, is a month of ups and downs, but I hope the second half of your February brings more sunny days than rainy horizons. I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Day Love Arrived At Haworth Parsonage

The day of love is here, so in today’s special post we’re heading back exactly 184 years to the day when love arrived at Haworth Parsonage interspersed with a selection of Victorian-era Valentine’s Day cards!

Valentines cherub

The giving of Valentine’s cards far predates the giving of Christmas cards that only became popular in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Brontë sisters received their first cards on February 14th, 1840, and even though they eventually discovered the source was their father’s new assistant curate it must still have been a thrill for them – especially for 20 year old Anne.

What You Please Anne Bronte

The man was, of course, William Weightman, who had recently gained his Master of Arts degree from the newly founded Durham University and commenced life in the clergy. In the run up to February 14th he was astonished to find out that none of the sisters had ever received a Valentine’s day card, and characteristically he sprung into action. What he did next was a testament to his kind and good nature, although as we shall see Charlotte later took a different view of it. He not only bought four cards, not wanting the visiting Ellen Nussey to feel left out, but wrote personalised verses in each. His efforts didn’t end there, as he then walked more than ten miles across very rugged terrain in the height of winter to Bradford, where he posted them. He did this of course so the Brontë sisters wouldn’t guess he had sent them because of a local postmark, thereby adding to the excitement and intrigue.

Valentine swans

The titles of the poems on each card can be equally intriguing to us: with only one can we positively identify the target, as ‘Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen’ was obviously meant for the great Brontë friend Miss Nussey. One title, sadly, has been lost in the intervening years, but two of the other three were called ‘Soul Divine’ and ‘Away Fond Love’. Could ‘Soul Divine’ have been for Emily, in tribute to her indomitable spirit, and could ‘Away Fond Love’ have been a reference to Anne, who was at that moment looking for a new situation as a governess that would take her away from Haworth? If so, then the missing title could have been for Charlotte, who may possibly have ripped it up in a fit of pique after falling spectacularly out with the young man she had once thought so highly of.

William Weightman by Charlotte Bronte
William Weightman drawn by Charlotte Bronte

Despite the Bradford subterfuge, Anne, Emily, Charlotte and Ellen soon worked out who their anonymous sender was, and they wrote him a collective poem in return:

“We cannot write or talk like you;
We’re plain folks every one;
You’ve played a clever trick on us,
We thank you for the fun.
Believe us frankly when we say
(Our words though blunt are true).
At home, abroad, by night or day,
We all wish well to you.”

Victorian Valentine

Were the sisters annoyed at being made fun of, or did they see it as an act of kindliness? I believe the latter, but either way we can easily imagine how delighted they must have been when their cards first arrived. These were young women who loved the romance of novels by Walter Scott and the poetry of Byron, and had created their own lands of Angria and Gondal full of the intrigues and mysteries of love, so this romantic gesture must have set their hearts a-flutter, if only for a moment or two. Charlotte in a letter to Ellen dated 17th March 1840 (her father’s birthday, a fact she fails to mention in her letter – but then Charlotte was never very good at remembering birthdays) told of how well received the cards had been, and what an impression they and their sender had made:

‘Walk up to Gomersal and tell her [Martha Taylor] forthwith every individual occurrence you can recollect, including Valentines, “Fair Ellen, Fair Ellen” – “Away Fond Love”, “Soul Divine” and all – likewise if you please the painting of Miss Celia Amelia Weightman’s portrait [Celia Amelia was Charlotte’s pet name for William] and that young lady’s frequent and agreeable visits.”

early Valentine's card

In February 1841, William Weightman once more sent Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë a Valentine’s day card, but this is how Charlotte viewed it now as revealed in another letter to Ellen:

“I knew better how to treat it than I did those we received a year ago. I am up to the dodges and artifices of his Lordship’s character, he knows I know him… for all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round.”

Charlotte had Weightman’s character correct the first time round. His kindness would eventually be his undoing as his passion for visiting sick parishioners led to his early demise from cholera just two years after sending the Brontës their first ever Valentine’s Day cards.

Early Valentine's Day card

If he had lived longer he may well have sent cards annually to Anne Brontë, for I like to think that they were an ideal match for each other. After all, it would not have been unusual for a young cleric to seek a wife among the daughters of a more senior clergyman, and affection at least certainly grew between them, until we hear of Charlotte complaining that Weightman spends his time in church sighing and gazing at Anne.

It was not to be, alas, but at least the sisters had that thrilling 14th of February in 1840 to remember. I hope that you have a very happy day, whether you’re with the love of your life, looking for that special person, or spending the day on your own with a good book. Please come back this Sunday for a completely new Brontë blog post.

Charlotte Brontë’s “Letter Out Of Nothing”

Charlotte Brontë, like her sisters Emily and Anne Brontë, was a consummate writer. Writing came easily to her, and as readers of her novels will know, she was almost incapable of writing a dull or badly-phrased sentence. Unlike her sisters, we have a large number of letters from Charlotte Brontë that showcase her writing skills, as well as providing a remarkable look at life within the Brontë family. In today’s post we look at a letter Charlotte sent on this day 1834, a letter which she ‘made out of nothing’.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte, was the recipient of this letter.

At the time of its composition Charlotte Brontë was seventeen years old, and this letter shows the maturing style of Charlotte between her juvenilia set in the imaginary kingdom of Angria and her mature masterpieces written in her thirties. The recipient was Ellen Nussey, a year (almost to the day) younger than Charlotte, and the great lifelong friend she had made at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head in Mirfield. It is a letter brimming with charm and youthful vigour, but with a tinge of characteristic melancholy too:

Charlotte Bronte's letter to Ellen Nussey, 11 February 1834
Charlotte Bronte’s letter to Ellen Nussey, 11 February 1834

It is clear that Charlotte loved Ellen Nussey very much, a love that endured throughout her life. She thinks of her daily, ‘nay almost hourly’, and considers herself a small, insignificant thing when compared to beautiful Ellen surrounded by Birstall society. She has not written to her for two months, because she thinks she has nothing worth saying – this is a theme Charlotte will return to in letters to Ellen for years and decades to come. In one later letter, to Elizabeth Gaskell, she also explained that on occasion she receives a letter that she loves so much that she thinks she will answer it on the next day when she has time to reflect more fully and come up with an adequate response, but instead finds she has nothing to say and the letter goes unanswered.

We also receive an update from Charlotte on the weather in Haworth across that winter of 1833 to 1834. Contemporary records show that it was an unusually severe one, in which the West Riding of Yorkshire saw unprecedented levels of wind and rain, as well as, on New Year’s Eve, ‘one of the most tremendous hurricanes ever remembered.’

Haworth moors snow
This winter was a particularly harsh one in Haworth

On the whole, it seems a cheery letter, but we read that Charlotte is concerned about Ellen’s health – and especially about the threat of consumption (what we now call tuberculosis): ‘I have seen enough of Consumption to dread it as one of the most insidious, and fatal diseases incident to humanity.’

Nine years earlier, a young Charlotte had seen her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth carried away by this terrible disease, but she could little have guessed that in the succeeding decade it would claim the lives of her three surviving siblings too. It is another recurring theme in Charlotte’s letters to Ellen Nussey; she is often concerned about Ellen’s health and constitution, but whilst Charlotte died in her late thirties Ellen Nussey lived into her ninth decade. Charlotte Brontë has indeed cleverly contrived to make a letter out of nothing, but the hundreds of letters of such nothingness add up to an invaluable record of the life and times of the Brontë family.

I hope to see you next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, and please do join me on Wednesday as well for a bonus post where we look once again at a Brontë Valentine’s Day.