Gentleman Jack: Anne Lister And The Brontës

Nineteenth century England was a very strict, staid place wasn’t it – after all its restrictive corsets are where we get the expression ‘straight laced’ from? In fact, one of the fascinating things about the period is that it’s often much more daring and exciting than that cliché suggests. The Brontës weren’t afraid to break free from the norm in their writing, and many other women challenged societal norms in their lives – women such as Mary Anne Evans, better known as the great novelist George Eliot, who for most of her life enjoyed a common law marriage to George Henry Lewes, who himself was already in an open marriage solemnised by the church. In Yorkshire, there was the great Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax, and we’re going to take a brief look at her incredible story today.

Anne Lister is the real life heroine of a new drama coming to BBC One tonight, ‘Gentleman Jack’ starring the brilliant Suranne Jones, but just who was she, and what, if any, Brontë connections did she have?

Anne Lister, painted in 1830
Anne Lister, painted in 1830

Anne was born into a wealthy Yorkshire family in 1791, the eldest daughter of James Lister, a landowner and former army officer. Anne had four brothers, but none of them outlived their father, and so it was that she came to inherit her family fortune, including the splendid Shibden Hall in 1836, although she had in effect been given the building, and the large estates that came with it, ten years earlier, allowing her a life of ease and independence.

She possessed a brilliant mind, and a love of literature and the arts, and she left a series of diaries that add up to more than four million words. In these she details the expansion of Shibden Hall that she carried out, and how her astute financial mind increased her fortune through investments in mining and railway shares, as well as detailing her life in Halifax and beyond.

The diaries would have proved a brilliant historical document in themselves, but what makes them especially fascinating is that approaching a million of the words are in a secret code that wasn’t cracked until the 1930s. Anne’s secret cypher was a mixture of ancient Greek with algebraic formulations thrown in to conceal things still further. What was Anne hiding that needed such secrecy? When the code was finally cracked it laid bare a series of conquests, sexual and amorous, with other women.

Shibden Hall, Halifax is open to the public

The fact that Anne Lister was a lesbian was well known at the time, she lived quite freely with a woman she considered her wife for many years, and she always wore black, male clothing. This led to her being nicknamed ‘Gentleman Jack’ and ‘Fred’ by Halifax locals, but the sheer scale of her love life and the frankness with which she wrote about it behind the protective code still came as a surprise to some, considering the reputation that the first half of the nineteenth century had, and still has. I won’t go too much into Anne’s story, as I don’t want to spoil what should be an excellent drama series that’s about to burst forth onto our screens, but was Anne Lister known to the Brontës, and could they even have been known to her?

In September 1838, Emily Brontë surprised her family by taking the post of a teacher at Law Hill school in Southowram, in the hills above Halifax. She served under the head teacher Miss Elizabeth Patchett, who believed in giving her girls (it was an all girl’s school) a comprehensive education, taking them to museums and concerts, as well as giving them more traditional lessons. We know that whilst Emily served at the school as a teacher, the pupils were also taken to the grand home of a woman who had been known to Miss Patchett since childhood – the home was Shibden Hall and the woman, of course, was Anne Lister.

Would Emily Brontë have been expected to accompany her pupils on the two mile walk to visit Miss Lister? It seems likely, especially as Charlotte had written how Emily was never allowed any time on her own during her service at Law Hill: “I have had one letter from her [Charlotte wrote of Emily] since her departure, it gives an appalling account of her duties – Hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half-hour of exercise between – this is slavery, I fear she will never stand it.”

One of the most remarkable scenes in Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre‘ comes when the young protagonist is locked in the ‘red room’ of Gateshead Hall by her cruel aunt, Mrs Reed. Shibden Hall really is one of the delights of Yorkshire, and I urge you all to visit if you get the chance; thanks to Anne Lister it is splendid inside and out, and one of its many rooms was known as the red room. We know that one of Miss Lister’s lovers, an Anne Walker, barricaded herself into the room at one point, and also that it was reputed to be haunted by Anne Lister’s uncle, just as the red room of Gateshead Hall is haunted by Jane Eyre’s uncle. It seems clear to me that the fictional red room of ‘Jane Eyre’ is modelled upon the real red room of Shibden Hall; and that leads me to think it probable that Emily Brontë had herself been inside the room during a visit as a teacher, and been so impressed by it and its ghostly reputation that she later told the story to Charlotte, who stored it away for later use.

Shibden Hall
Shibden Hall has a haunted red room – sound familiar?

Charlotte would doubtless have been impressed by the story, by the grand hall, and by Anne Lister herself, for she was in many ways a grander version of Charlotte’s great friend Mary Taylor – Anne, like Mary, travelled extensively across Europe and was a pioneering female mountaineer, and in later life Mary Taylor too lived with a succession of women, young maids who travelled to Gomersal from Switzerland.

When we say the name Anne Lister, we find Ellis at its heart; could Emily have been so impressed by this powerful, free living woman that she inspired the pen name of Ellis Bell? We can never know for sure, but one certain Brontë connection is that tonight’s new drama series comes from the brilliant pen and mind of Sally Wainwright, who hit all the right notes with her Brontë drama ‘To Walk Invisible’. We won’t see the Brontës in ‘Gentleman Jack’ but it will show us a side of West Riding life at the time they lived there, that we don’t often see. I can’t wait to watch it!

What Became Of The Real St. John Rivers?

One of the great things about all Brontë novels is that they are jam packed full of fantastic characters – some we love (like Agnes Grey), some we root for (Jane Eyre or Helen Graham), and some who are sheer villains (Heathcliff and Arthur Huntingdon, for example) and some who can irritate us immensely with their piety and pomposity; foremost among these rascals is surely Jane Eyre’s ecclesiastical cousin St. John Rivers, but just who was the real St. John Rivers, and what became of him?

St. John Rivers
St. John Rivers in an illustrated ‘Jane Eyre’

Many Brontë characters are based on real people, perhaps that’s why they’re all so brilliantly observed; Agnes is surely Anne Brontë herself recounting her two roles as governess, Weston is her tragic love William Weightman, whilst Charlotte’s unrequited love Constantin Heger inspired Rochester and Paul Emanuel of ‘Villette’. St. John is clearly modelled on someone Charlotte knew well too, and whilst in the book he proposed to Jane Eyre in real life he proposed to Charlotte Brontë.

The character St. John Rivers is a cold man who is completely dedicated to his religious faith, and to whom love and emotions of any kind should be subdued, if they ever surface at all. When it finally comes, St. John’s proposal is far from romantic:

“Jane come with me to India: come as my helpmeet and fellow-labourer… God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must be – shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you – not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”

St. John is determined to become a missionary, and he relentlessly pressurises Jane to accept his proposal and leave England behind for ever. Thankfully she is saved from his bullying coercion by a vision of Rochester, giving her the strength to leave her cousin and find her true love – and the rest is literary history. In real life, Charlotte Brontë didn’t find it quite so hard to escape St. John’s clutches.

The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of adventure and discovery for the intrepid explorers of the expanding British Empire – of course today, we also see the other, cruel, side of colonialism, but the Brontës, like so many others at this time, loved reading of their exploits. Alongside explorers, large numbers of missionaries travelled with the intention of converting people to Christianity – it was a dangerous profession, not only because many didn’t want to be converted but because of the diseases and extreme temperatures they faced, but it was a glamorous one too. The Brontë’s uncle John Kingston had served as a missionary in the Caribbean and America, Arthur Bell Nicholls applied to become a missionary in Australia after his proposal of marriage was rejected by Charlotte, and the real St. John Rivers, like his fictional counterpart, also dreamed of becoming a missionary – his name was Henry Nussey, brother to Charlotte’s best friend, and one time vicar of Hathersage who was to end his life in truly tragic circumstances.

Rydings, Birstall, once home of the Nussey family

Henry Nussey was born in 1812, one of the six elder brothers of Charlotte’s great confidante Ellen Nussey, and she grew to know him well. He was a serious and religious man, and he seems to have proposed to Charlotte for exactly the same reason that St. John Rivers proposes to Jane Eyre – he felt a minister needed a wife to support his work.

On 1st March 1839, Henry Nussey wrote to Charlotte proposing marriage to her, but her subsequent letter to his sister Ellen shows why she rejected it:

“You ask me dear Ellen whether I have received a letter from Henry. I have about a week since, the contents I confess did a little surprise me, but I kept them to myself, and unless you had questioned me on the subject I would never have adverted to it. Henry says he is comfortably settled in Sussex [where he was then a vicar], that his health is much improved & that it is his intention to take pupils after Easter – he then intimates that in due time he shall want a Wife to take care of his pupils and frankly asks me to be that Wife… I asked myself two questions – ‘Do I love Henry Nussey as much as a woman ought to love her husband? Am I the person best qualified to make him happy?’ Alas Ellen my Conscience answered ‘no’ to both these questions. I felt that though I esteemed Henry, though I had a kindly leaning towards him because he is an amiable well-disposed man, yet I had not, and never could have that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him – and if ever I marry it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my Husband… Could I, knowing my mind to be such as that, could I consciously say that I would take a grave quiet young man like Henry? No it would have been deceiving him.”

Henry had a rather less romantic notion of marriage, as unbeknownst to Charlotte just 11 days prior to his proposal to her, he had also proposed to the sister of a priest he had previously served as curate under at Burton Agnes in Yorkshire’s North Riding. Margaret Ann Lutwidge also rejected him, and she would later become aunt to a famous literary nephew – Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Alice’s creator Lewis Carroll. Therefore, Henry’s first two quickfire proposals could have seen him become husband to Charlotte Brontë or uncle to Lewis Carroll, but it seems he had little interest in literature and the arts himself.

Henry’s proposals could have seen him become husband to Charlotte Bronte or uncle to this man – Lewis Carroll

Like St. John Rivers, Henry Nussey had dreams of becoming a missionary, and aged just 16 he had written in his diary:
“I trust I shall be called to the ministry, and if it should be the Lord’s will, I would, for Christ’s sake, gladly be called to be a missionary, if I could in any way be an instrument in God’s hands, of promoting the salvation of mankind.”

Henry never gave up his dreams of missionary work, or of marriage, and on 23rd May 1845 Reverend Henry Nussey married the wealthy Emily Prescott of Everton, Lancashire, originally from Hampshire. By this time he was serving as parish priest in Hathersage in Derbyshire’s Peak District. This is the town recreated as Morton in ‘Jane Eyre’ whose parish priest was St. John Rivers, just as Henry was the vicar there in reality. Charlotte’s time in Hathersage, alongside Ellen who was visiting her brother, hugely influenced Jane Eyre, as the Eyres of Hathersage were the leading local family.

St. Michael's, Hathersage
Henry Nussey was vicar at St. Michael’s, Hathersage

St. John Rivers is rejected by Jane but continues on his mission, but, alas, life for Henry Nussey was not to be so straightforward.

Before marrying Miss Prescott, Henry Nussey had delayed his marriage by six months as he wanted to spruce up Hathersage Parsonage first, and his sister Ellen, always the practical one of the family, was called in to help him with this refurbishment. In a letter of March 1845, however, Charlotte had warned against this:

“I shall be so sorry when you are gone to Hathersage – you will be so far off again, how long will they want you to stay? I should say Henry would do wisely to make sure of Miss Prescott immediately – 6 months is a long time to wait, adverse things might happen in the meanwhile.”

It seems that Charlotte’s advice was heeded as the wedding was brought forward, but what were these ‘adverse things’ alluded to?

Henry Nussey had suffered ill health throughout his life, physical and mental. During his service as an assistant curate in his home town of Birstall, early in his ecclesiastical career, he recorded that he had become ‘harassed in mind’, and he was unable to continue in his role. Similarly, he was asked to leave his later post in Burton Agnes because he was having difficulty in delivering sermons and performing the duties of a priest.

Henry had received a head injury in his youth after being thrown from a horse, and there is some thought that this may have contributed to the mental health problems that plagued him throughout his adult life. By July 1847, Henry had given up his role as parish priest in Hathersage, and he and his wife travelled to the continent, hoping that the warm climate and new scenery would be good for his health. This doesn’t seem to have worked, and as well as giving up his vocation as a priest, Henry was soon forced to give up his marriage too.

The excellent detective work of Linda Pierson discovered what happened next. She discovered that in the 1850s, Henry had been admitted to Kingsdown Lunatic Asylum in Box, Wiltshire. In January 1860, he was moved from there to Arden House, a private asylum in Shakespeare country, where his entry record describes the former vicar of Hathersage as ‘lunatic’.

At Arden House, Henry is also recorded as being, “melancholic, at times violent and dangerous to himself and others.”

A half hidden grave at St. Peter’s church, Wootton Wawen in Warwickshire shows what happened next; it bears the following inscription:

“Sacred to the memory of the Revd Henry Nussey MA of Mag Coll Cambridge and late Vicar of Hathersage who died in this parish on the 20th day of August 1860 aged 48 years. He was the seventh son of the late John and Eleanor Nussey of Ridings near Leeds. Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.”

Arden House
Arden House, where Henry’s tragic life ended

Henry had taken his own life in Arden asylum, becoming the second of Ellen’s brothers to die in this way. In 1838, the great hope and success of the family, William Nussey who was Royal Apothecary and a physician to Queen Victoria herself, and who had been offered a knighthood, died after throwing himself into the River Thames. The Nussey story is often a tragic one, and none more so than that of Henry Nussey, the real St. John Rivers.

The Turning Off Of Patrick Reid

History is an endlessly fascinating subject, not only when it deals with Kings and Queens, great houses and great battles, but when it deals with ‘ordinary people’ as well. I put ordinary in quotation marks, because none of us are ordinary really are we? On the face of it, the Brontë siblings were ordinary people too, but of course they did extraordinary things.

The wonderful television series ‘A House Through Time’ with historian David Olusoga recently came to an end, and it showed the amazing secrets that can lie within an on the surface insubstantial home. The Brontës themselves took a keen interest in news stories from their area, and the lives of the people around them. Even Emily Brontë, always painfully shy and increasingly reclusive, knew the people of her village, as Charlotte Brontë recalled:

‘My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them.’

The Brontë family were avid readers of news local and national, and in 1847 one particular story is sure to have caught their attention – a savage triple murder in Mirfield, the town where Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë had attended Roe Head school, and where Anne had served as governess to the Ingham family of Blake Hall.

Patrick Reid Turned Off
‘Patrick Reid Turned Off’ by Branwell Bronte

It was a case that shocked, or possibly enraptured, the whole of Yorkshire – and we can be certain that Branwell Brontë took a keen interest in it because of his drawing of ‘Patrick Reid turned off, without his cap’. This ‘turning off’ was the public execution of the murderer Patrick Reid, but who was he and who were his victims? It’s a terrible tale with a bizarre twist.

The fateful event took place on 12th May 1847 at Water Royd House (that’s it at the top of the picture, it’s no longer extant although it was during the time I myself worked in the village) in a rural area of Mirfield away from other habitations. It was owned by James Wraith, a 77 year old man who lived there with his 65 year old wife Ann. Wraith had previously served as steward to Joseph Ingham of Mirfield’s Blake Hall. Ingham had also employed Anne Brontë at the hall as well of course, and was later portrayed as the cruel Mr Bloomfield in ‘Agnes Grey‘. It’s likely then that Anne would have known the ill fated Wraiths.

Wraith gravestone
The Wraith gravestone

They were a wealthy couple in their own right, thanks to a string of property they owned, and they had their own servant girl Caroline Ellis. She had become embroiled in an argument with a local knife grinder – Patrick Reid. Reid accused her of stealing a tea caddy from him, whether this was true or the circumstances surrounding it we’ll never know, and on the 12th May he created a scene at Water Royd House demanding that Caroline make repairs for her theft.

James Wraith ordered Reid to leave the house, but he vowed to return and wreak revenge. He then called upon an Irish tinker called Kilty and borrowed a soldering iron, after which he returned to Water Royd House and struck Caroline Ellis on the head. He was then confronted by James Wraith and then Ann Wraith, and he dealt them all the same blow, leaving them fatally wounded. To complete his evil work, Reid rifled their pockets and finally cut the throats of all three individuals. Caroline Ellis had been due to be married just four days later.

Patrick Reid
A contemporary drawing of Reid’s arrest

Reid was soon under suspicion as his quarrel with the Water Royd residents was well known. He was placed under arrest and committed to trial at the York assizes in July 1847. The trials gained huge press attention, but they were rather farcical as contradictory evidence was brought, and Reid was cleared of the murder of James Wraith. He was later, however, found guilty of the murders of the two women, and in December he was sentenced to hang.

The day of execution was set for 8th January 1848, a day that we know was terribly cold – and yet that did not diminish the huge crowds that gathered in York’s Knavesmire to see the triple killer’s execution. The Leeds Mercury reported that it was the greatest gathering ever assembled there to see a public hanging:

‘Probably on no occasion has an execution, within our recollection, drawn together so vast a concourse of spectators. Besides bringing together a very large proportion of the inhabitants of York and its more immediate vicinity, many towns in the West Yorkshire Riding added their thousands to swell the general throng From Halifax, Bradford, Wakefield, Barnsley, Leeds, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Mirfield, Pontefract, and indeed from every other place, great and small, contributions of inhabitants to the vast multitude took place. Some idea of the proportion which Leeds bore, may be formed from the fact that by the 7.20 a.m. train alone there were conveyed to York more than 1,000 extra passengers. All the available carriages were put into use, and still hundreds were left behind, at that time, to be conveyed by a subsequent train. This, however, gives but a very imperfect estimate of the number of persons that went from Leeds to York, as it is exclusive to pedestrians, many of whom even as early as the previous night, left this little town to visit the scene of the execution. It may be truly said of this occasion, that the soul-depressing exhibition of a criminal on the scaffold, drew more persons early from their rest on the coldest morning of the winter, than the most transcendent exhibition of virtue could probably have by a accomplished with all the charms and temptations of one of summer’s most attractive days.’

Caroline Ellis memorial
The Caroline Ellis memorial, Mirfield

The spectacle didn’t stop there. After his most public death, a showman named Andrew Purchase purchased the clothes Reid was wearing and the rope that was used to hang him, and he took them while the body was still warm. Purchase then had an effigy of Reid made, dressed it in the dead man’s clothes, and restaged his execution at shows across the north of England.

Did Branwell Brontë attend Patrick Reid’s execution? We don’t know, but we do know of course that the person depicted in his picture isn’t Reid at all, but the artist himself being hanged. It was a sign of Branwell’s inner turmoil at this time, and below the self portrait is the scene of a drunken brawl. The history of ‘ordinary people’ can be a fascinating one indeed, but it’s also frequently a tragic one.

Anne Brontë And ‘The North Wind’

I journeyed from Yorkshire to London and back again this weekend, and so forgive me if today’s post is a little shorter than usual. Of course, it’s a voyage that Anne Brontë herself made in July 1848, on her one and only journey outside Yorkshire. As we’ve looked at in previous posts, it’s likely that either Anne or Charlotte inadvertently brought tuberculosis bacillus back with them, starting a chain of events that would see Branwell, Emily and finally Anne herself die of the disease within a year of their visit to the capital.

The Cornhill history door, London
The bottom right panel of this Cornhill door shows Anne and Charlotte Bronte on their visit to London

London was as beautiful as ever yesterday, although the north winds of Storm Hannah were rushing through its streets and sending grass cuttings flying everywhere. It was an inconvenience, but for the Brontës of Haworth the north winds could be much worse as they often presaged periods of illness. Charlotte also spoke of how melancholy the sound of the wind made her; in a letter of October 1836 to her beloved friend Ellen Nussey, she wrote:

“Excuse me if I say nothing but nonsense, for my mind is exhausted, and dispirited. It is a Stormy evening and the wind is uttering a continual moaning sound that makes me feel very melancholy. At such times, in such moods as these Ellen it is my nature to seek repose in some calm, tranquil idea and I have now summoned up your image to give me rest. There you sit, upright and still in your black dress and white scarf – your pale, marble-like face, looking so serene and kind – just like reality. I wish you would speak to me.”

Northern Ballet's Wuthering Heights
Dancing on the windy moors in Northern Ballet’s Wuthering Heights

For Anne Brontë, however, the sound of wind was one she associated with home, and it inspired two poems by her, her wonderful nature poem ‘Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day‘, and the altogether different ‘North Wind’. Anne was just 18 when she wrote this poem, and like many of her youthful works it is based in the kingdom of Gondal that she created with Emily Brontë. Like many of these Gondal verses it is set in a dungeon, as the narrator, Alexandrina Zenobia in this case, finds solace in her solitary despair from a breeze that reminds her of home. It’s a lovely poem, and I leave you with it now:

“That wind is from the North, I know it well;
No other breeze could have so wild a swell.
Now deep and loud it thunders round my cell,
The faintly dies,
And softly sighs,
And moans and murmurs mournfully.
I know its language; thus is speaks to me —
‘I have passed over thy own mountains dear,
Thy northern mountains — and they still are free,
Still lonely, wild, majestic, bleak and drear,
And stern and lovely, as they used to be
When thou, a young enthusiast,
As wild and free as they,
O’er rocks and glens and snowy heights
Didst often love to stray.
I’ve blown the wild untrodden snows
In whirling eddies from their brows,
And I have howled in caverns wild
Where thou, a joyous mountain child,
Didst dearly love to be.
The sweet world is not changed, but thou
Art pining in a dungeon now,
Where thou must ever be;
No voice but mine can reach thine ear,
And Heaven has kindly sent me here,
To mourn and sigh with thee,
And tell thee of the cherished land
Of thy nativity.’
Blow on, wild wind, thy solemn voice,
However sad and drear,
Is nothing to the gloomy silence
I have had to bear.
Hot tears are streaming from my eyes,
But these are better far
Than that dull gnawing tearless void
The stupor of despair.
Confined and hopeless as I am,
O speak of liberty,
O tell me of my mountain home,
And I will welcome thee.

Happy Birthday Charlotte Brontë And Ellen Nussey

I know that many people today will be laying out egg hunts in their beautiful gardens, cooking a roast and spending quality time with the people they love – to those I say Happy Easter. There’s another cause for joy, and in fact it’s not only a double celebration but a triple celebration!

On this day in 1816 a very special event had taken place in Thornton Parsonage near Bradford, as it was on this day that a girl we would all come to know and love was born: Charlotte Brontë. Almost exactly a year later, on the 20th April 1817 a special event of a similar kind was taking place in Birstall, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, for the day before Charlotte’s first birthday saw the birth of Ellen Nussey.

Happy Birthday Charlotte Bronte
Happy birthday, Charlotte Bronte, 203 today!

Charlotte and Ellen became the closest of friends after they met at Roe Head School in January 1831, and so doubtless in subsequent years they would have delighted in celebrating each others birthday jointly with their own. That’s what I’m going to do today. Ellen it was, more than anyone, who preserved the Brontë legacy, and who ensured that people throughout the centuries to come could understand what this remarkable family was truly like. She deserves to be remembered, which is one reason I’m delighted to be working on a book about Charlotte and Ellen at the moment, so today let’s take a look at what Charlotte and Ellen had to say about each other:

Charlotte On First Seeing Ellen

“When I first saw Ellen I did not care for her. We were schoolfellows – in the course of time we learnt each others faults and good points. We were contrasts, still we suited – affection was first a germ, then a sapling, then a strong tree: now, no new friend, however lofty or profound in intellect, not even Miss Martineau herself, could be to me what Ellen is, yet she is no more than a conscientious, observant, calm, well-bred Yorkshire girl. She is without romance – if she attempts to read poetry or poetic prose aloud I am irritated and deprive her of the book; if she talks of it I stop my ears. But she is good – she is true – she is faithful and I love her.”

Roe Head school
Roe Head school, Mirfield, where Charlotte and Ellen first met

Ellen On First Seeing Charlotte

“Turning to the window to observe the look-out I became aware for the first that I was not alone; there was a silent, weeping, dark little figure in the large bay window; she must, I thought, have risen from the floor. As soon as I had recovered from my surprise, I went from the far end of the room, where the book-shelves were, the contents of which I must have contemplated with a little awe in anticipation of coming studies. A crimson cloth covered the long table down the centre of the room, which helped, no doubt, to hide the shrinking little figure from my view. I was touched and troubled at once to see her so sad and tearful.”

Charlotte Bronte 200

Charlotte On Ellen

“If I like people it is my nature to tell them so and I am not afraid of offering incense to your vanity. It is from religion that you derive your chief charm and may its influence always preserve you as pure, as unassuming and as benevolent in thought and deed as you are now. What am I compared to you? I feel my own utter worthlessness when I make the comparison. I’m a very coarse common-place wretch!”

Ellen Nussey in chair
Ellen Nussey in later years

Ellen On Charlotte

“She never shirked a duty because it was irksome, or advised another to do what she herself did not fully count the cost of doing, above all, when her goodness was not of the stand-still order, when there was new beauty, when there were new developments and growths of goodness to admire and attract in every succeeding renewal of intercourse, when daily she was a Christian heroine, who bore her cross with the firmness of a martyr-saint.”

Charlotte On Ellen

“My darling if I were like you I should have my face Zion-ward though prejudice and mist might occasionally fling a mist over the glorious vision before me, for with all your single-hearted sincerity you have your faults. But I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up and makes me feel Society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I dare say despise me.”

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey in old age, painted by Frederic Yates

Ellen On Charlotte

“She was so painfully shy she could not bear any special notice. One day, on being led into dinner by a stranger, she trembled and nearly burst into tears; but not withstanding her excessive shyness, which was often painful to others as well as to herself, she won the respect and affection of all who had opportunity enough to become acquainted with her. Charlotte’s shyness did not arise, I am sure, either from vanity or self-consciousness, as some suppose shyness to arise; its source was in her not being understood. She felt herself apart from others; they did not understand her, and she keenly felt the distance.”

Charlotte On Ellen’s Appearance

“To her had not been denied the gift of beauty. It was not absolutely necessary to know her in order to like her; she was fair enough to please, even at the first view. Her shape suited her age: it was girlish, light, and pliant; every curve was neat, every limb proportionate; her face was expressive and gentle; her eyes were handsome, and gifted at times with a winning beam that stole into the heart, with a language that spoke softly to the affections. Her mouth was very pretty; she had a delicate skin, and a fine flow of brown hair, which she knew how to arrange with taste; curls became her, and she possessed them in picturesque profusion.”[This description is of Caroline Helstone in ‘Shirley‘, a character based upon both Ellen Nussey and Anne Brontë]

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
A young Ellen Nussey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

Ellen On Visiting Haworth After The Time Of The Brontës

“Haworth of the present day, like many other secluded places, has made a step onwards, in that it has now its railway station and its institutions for the easy acquirement of learning, politics, and literature. The parsonage is quite another habitation from the parsonage of former days. The garden, which was nearly all grass, and possessed only a few stunted thorns and shrubs, and a few current bushes which Emily and Anne treasured as their own bit of fruit-garden, is now a perfect Arcadia of floral culture and beauty. At first the alteration, in spite of its improvement, strikes one with heart-ache and regret; for it is quite impossible, even in imagination, to people those rooms with their former inhabitants. But after-thought shows one the folly of such regret; for what the Brontës cared for and lived in most were the surroundings of nature, the free expanse of hill and mountain, the purple heather, the dells, and glens, and brooks, the starry heavens, and the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create. For it was not the seclusion of a solitary person, such as Charlotte endured in after days, and which in time becomes awfully oppressive and injurious. It was solitude and seclusion shared and enjoyed with intelligent companionship, and intense family affection.”

Haworth Parsonage
Haworth Parsonage as Charlotte and Ellen knew it

We can all enjoy the intelligent companionship of the Brontës today, partly thanks to the support and championing of their cause by Ellen, long after they had shuffled off this mortal coil. So let’s put down our chocolate, raise a glass, and say ‘Happy birthday, Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey.’

The Brontës, Butterfield And Trouble At The Mill

Anne Brontë was a lover of truth above all else, she did after all write that, ‘If I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.’

That’s one reason that Anne’s novels feel so vital and relevant today, she was throwing a spotlight on the society and times that she lived in, and fighting for equality and tolerance. Social justice, in its broadest sense, is something we associate more with Anne’s work than that of her sisters, and yet there is one other Brontë novel that squares up to some of the social problems of their day: ‘Shirley‘ by Charlotte Brontë.

Shirley Dulac caress
An illustration to Shirley by Edmund Dulac showing Caroline and mill owner Moore.

‘Shirley’ is a long and complex novel; it’s my favourite Charlotte Brontë work, a view that the author herself shared, although I know not everyone agrees. At its heart is a love story, or two love stories to be precise, but it’s also a novel in which Charlotte looks at some of the inequalities of her time. The Luddite unrest portrayed in her novel was well known to her father Patrick who was in situ in Hartshead at the time of the attack on nearby Rawfolds Mill (that’s it at the top of this post), but Charlotte also uses the Luddite cause as a symbol of the Chartist unrest that was tangible at the time that she was writing ‘Shirley’. The north of England felt like a tinderbox, and a sudden spark could have set a working class revolution ablaze.

With political uncertainty of a different kind engulfing the UK at the moment (don’t worry, I’m steering clear of discussing that), ‘Shirley’ really is a novel for our times. I know that lots of people are reading it at this very moment, and one such reader contacted me lately with a question which we will look at in today’s post. They had visited the beautiful Hewenden Mill near Haworth; it’s now a luxurious place to stay, and they also host a number of retreats and events there, but as we shall see it was once very different.

Hewenden Mill
Hewenden Mill today consists of beautiful holiday homes

They had been told that the mill may have connections to ‘Shirley’, and that Charlotte Brontë had once talked to the owner, a Mr Butterfield, there. That’s an intriguing suggestion which I hadn’t hear before, and although the mill and Butterfield were well known to Charlotte, it can’t be said that they were on friendly terms.

The woolen industry completely transformed the West Riding of Yorkshire, and neighbouring Lancashire, in the first half of the nineteenth century, and at the time the Brontës lived there, the population of Haworth was rapidly expanding. Many of the populace worked as hand loom weavers and spinners in infernally hot rooms within their own homes, with one property often housing multiple factories. Others, however, worked long, punishing hours at the local mills, and Hewenden Mill was among the largest.

Cliffe Castle
Butterfield owned property in Haworth but also Cliffe Castle, now a museum in Keighley

The growing population, poor working conditions and lack of a clean water supply combined to make Haworth one of the unhealthiest places in England, comparable to Whitechapel and other inner London slums. Patrick Brontë realised this, and it was his persistent lobbying that led the government to send an official inspector to Haworth, Benjamin Herschel Babbage, in October 1849. The findings were shocking, something had to change. Nevertheless, Patrick still had to lobby for the recommended changes to be implemented, including better sanitation and the building of a reservoir on the moors outside the village.
This saved thousands of lives over the years and decades to come, but one man in particular opposed Patrick’s philanthropy: the mill owner Richard Shackleton Butterfield. Butterfield was, in short, almost a caricature of a wicked Victorian industrialist. Immensely wealthy, he paid his workers the lowest wage possible, and vehemently opposed any moves to improve the quality of life of mill workers. His mill was staffed by the bare minimum number of workers, which he achieved by making them work two looms each at a time, a very dangerous practise.

Luddites frame breaking
Luddites in action

On 18th May 1852 his workers downed tools and went on strike. When they refused to return, Butterfield, who was also a magistrate, had eight ringleaders arrested, and two were sentenced to do two months’ hard labour. A third man, Robert Redman declared in court that he had evidence which would prove Butterfield’s malpractice and law breaking. We don’t know the nature of this evidence, but it was enough to make the mill owner throw up his hands and admit that he was at fault. The men were freed, and Butterfield was ordered by the court to pay the mens’ wages.

Many in Haworth delighted at this defeat for the unpopular mill owner, and we know that Patrick, who’d had many a run in with him, and his daughter Charlotte were among them. On 2nd June 1853, Charlotte Brontë wrote to her father from Filey, stating:

‘I cannot help enjoying Mr. Butterfield’s defeat – and yet in one sense this is a bad state of things, calculated to make working class people both discontented and insubordinate’

Charlotte's of Filey
Cliff House, Filey from where Charlotte wrote to her father – now a fish and chip restaurant.

Charlotte was clearly conflicted. Earlier posts have shown how Charlotte herself had become known around the Haworth area for her philanthropy and her kindness towards the poor, and yet at heart she was also a believer in many of the social systems that were in place at the time. This conflict of the author is also evident in ‘Shirley’, are we supposed to side with Moore the mill owner, who is the romantic hero after all, or his downtrodden workers?

One thing seems clear to me, if Charlotte Brontë had indeed walked and talked with Richard Butterfield, it would only have been to mediate in some sort of dispute between him and her father. Both Richard Butterfield and Patrick Brontë were among the most influential and powerful men in the Haworth district at the time, but there the similarity ended.

Why Did The Brontë Sisters Turn To Novels?

“The heavy, walnut door creaked on its hinges in the Paternoster Row office, and candles flickered around a room that was as gloomy within as the fog drenched street without.

‘A letter for you, Mr Aylott’, a shy, quiet voice intoned before placing the missive on the wax stained table before him as proof of his assertion.

‘Thank you, Mr Jones’, replied the older man who looked as if the red leather chair around him had fitted itself to his form over a succession of sedentary years. He took the letter by one corner and opened it carefully, as carefully as if he were negotiating a deal with a prospective new writer. The paper inside the envelope was tiny, the writing upon it tidier with words cut short to save on space. This was not a letter with a prosperous origin. He read:

‘C. E. & A. Bell are now preparing for the Press a work of fiction – consisting of three distinct and unconnected tales which may be published either together as a work of 3 vols. of the ordinary novel-size, or separately as single vols – as shall be deemed most advisable. It is not their intention to publish these tales on their own account.’

‘It is a letter from Currer Bell, of that northern family whose poetry we recently published, Mr Jones – they propose novels to us.’

‘But we do not publish novels, Mr Aylott?’

‘No, we haven’t sunk quite that far yet, Mr Jones. This Bell is clearly a chap in need of money, in need of help. I will send them a list of publishers of novels – it may be of no use to them, but when means are scarce, hope can be a welcome dish.’”


Paternoster Row
Paternoster Row, London (now gone)

Forgive me my momentary reverie there; I was imagining a scene that might have played out on this very week 173 years ago, for on 6th April 1846 Charlotte Brontë, still using her pen name of Currer Bell, sent the letter mentioned above to Messrs Aylott and Jones of London. It was a letter that went unheralded at first, but it was to change literary history forever, as it showed that the Bell brothers, by which of course we mean the Brontë sisters, had turned their attention from poetry to novels.

Aylott & Jones had recently published the sisters’ brilliant collection of poetry, ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell‘; it had gained positive reviews, where it had been reviewed at all, but sales had been poor, and the sisters seemingly had little hope of recouping the £35 or so they had paid the publisher to see their work in print.

Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

Many people would have given up in despair at this point, or at least been greatly discouraged, but thankfully for us all, our favourite Haworth family were made of sterner stuff. They realised that their writing was good, but the form they had placed before the public was wrong. The early decades of the 19th century was the golden era of the Romantic Poetry movement, and sales of verse had been strong, but by the time the Brontës were writing they were already in steep decline. The slump was so pronounced that even legendary poets such as Elizabeth Barret Browning and William Wordsworth were finding it hard to persuade great poetry publishers such as Edward Moxon to publish new volumes of their work.

Wordsworth’s sales were falling by 1846, today marks his 249th birthday!

With this in mind, Charlotte, Emily and Anne decided to return to an old love: prose. Their juvenilia is full of sparkling prose (although sadly Anne and Emily’s Gondal prose is now lost) and was a prodigious output, and these years spent honing the craft of novel writing in childhood and youth were to pay dividends.

In her ‘Biographical Notice’ of her sisters, Charlotte Brontë explained what happened next:

‘Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given us a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced ‘Wuthering Heights’, Acton Bell, ‘Agnes Grey’, and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume. These MSS. [manuscripts] were perseveringly obtruded among various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.’

Did Emily and Anne set to work on their ‘prose tales’ after the failure of their poetry enterprise as indicated above? The evidence seems to suggest they may already have been working on them for some time. ‘Wuthering Heights’ appears highly influenced by the strange but true story of Law Hill school in Halifax, where Emily taught in 1838, and the nearby High Sunderland Hall is often thought of as an inspiration for the titular building of the novel.

High Sunderland Hall
Was High Sunderland Hall, Halifax the original Wuthering Heights?

In her diary paper of July 1845, Anne Brontë wrote:

‘I have begun the third volume of passages in the life of an Individual. I wish I had finished it.’

It seems to me that this ‘life of an Individual’ is likely to be a prototype of ‘Agnes Grey’. Emily and Anne may have long been working on their novels then, and eventually they found favour with the publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, although, just as Aylott & Jones had done, he asked for the writers to pay a fee to enable publication.

Charlotte’s letter had stated that they would not be prepared to pay any such fee this time, but after a year and a half of rejections, their stance had softened somewhat. The fee was paid and these brilliant books were accepted. If we look at Charlotte’s biographical notice again, we see that she refers to her own contribution to the scheme with the dismissive words, ‘Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume.’

Charlotte’s ‘The Professor’ found no takers until after her death, but once again she didn’t give up and wrote a further novel in great haste, starting in the gloom bestrewn streets of Manchester (some things never change) while she nursed her father after his eye operation. Written at great speed, but full of genius. Elizabeth Gaskell explained what happened:

‘She had the heart of Robert Bruce within her, and failure upon failure daunted her no more than him. Not only did ‘The Professor’ return again to try his chance among the London publishers, but she began, in this time of care and depressing inquietude – in those grey, weary, uniform streets, where all faces, save that of her kind doctor, were strange and untouched with sunlight to her, – there and then, did the genius begin Jane Eyre‘.

The Salutation
The site where Charlotte commenced Jane Eyre in Manchester is now The Salutation inn

That letter of April 1846 then is one we should all cherish, for from it came immortal works of beauty and power. What was unheralded and unloved has become adored the world over, and will be while the sands of time still run.

Preparing For Anne Brontë 200 In 2020

2020 is a very special year for fans of the great Anne Brontë, because it marks the 200th anniversary of her birth in Thornton, Bradford – the last of the six Brontë siblings. Keeping the theme of 20 going, it’s now 20 months until the end of that year, and that means there’s no time to waste when it comes to preparing for Anne Brontë celebrations and events. With that in mind, I’d like today to announce that I’ve launched a new website specifically for that purpose:

Don’t worry, this website will continue exactly as it has done for the last few years, with posts about Anne Brontë and her family on at least a weekly basis. The Anne Brontë 200 year is a very special occasion, however, and one I felt deserving of its own dedicated website.

Anne Bronte 200 screenshot

I’ve already had lots of people emailing me, or talking to me, to see if I have details of upcoming Anne Brontë celebrations next year. In short, I didn’t, so I’m going to gather information on as many of these events and publications as possible, and publish them here. Doubtless the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth will be planning their own events for 2020, and I look forward hugely to finding out about them, but I know myself and others are also holding Anne Brontë events in the next 20 months. They’ll all be listed on my Anne Brontë 200 website – in short, it will be a one stop shop for news on Anne Brontë events throughout this year and next.

I love Anne Brontë, and I know so many of you out there, in all corners of the world, love her as well – so if you have any information or events you’d like me to publicise simply email me at I’d be absolutely delighted to hear from you.

The website will also feature a wall of hope – more information on that will follow in the early summer, but it will be a chance for all of you to get involved and share your love of Anne, after all she belongs to each and every one of us who reads and enjoys her books. We’ll also have a chance to support a fantastic and very relevant charity, and at the end of the year create a wall of hope in Anne Brontë’s name.

Anne 200
Let’s make Anne 200 a year to remember

2020 is a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase Anne Brontë as a brilliant writer, and as a brilliant human being. The new website will feature daily updates throughout 2020, with your help, and together we will ensure that next year really is a year of celebration from beginning to end – a Year of Anne!

Virginia Woolf’s Journey To Haworth, 1904

Today is a sad day for Brontë lovers worldwide, as we affectionately remember Charlotte Brontë, who died on this day in 1855 in particularly tragic circumstances – when she was looking forward to bringing a child into the world. Tragedy, of course, appears all too frequently in the Brontë story, and in the stories of some of their most celebrated fans.

One of the sure signs of the brilliance of the writing of Anne Brontë and her sisters is that their legacy is an enduring, and still growing, one. They inspire readers across the globe to pick up their brilliant novels and poems, but throughout the years they’ve also inspired numerous writers of the very highest calibre.

Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote a magnificent poem entitled ‘Wuthering Heights’ describing the spiritual feeling she gained from walking on Haworth’s moors. Born in Massachusetts, she is now buried in a churchyard in Heptonstall, just nine miles from Haworth.

Sylvia Plath Wuthering Heights
Sylvia Plath’s Wuthering Heights

Sylvia was a giant of twentieth century poetry who left us too soon, and she shared a love of the Brontës with the woman we’re going to look at now: perhaps the greatest of all twentieth century writers, a genius who revolutionised the novel, and an equally tragic figure: Virginia Woolf.

This week marked the 78th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death, as she passed from this world on the 28th March, 1941. Her friend and fellow literary ground breaker T.S.Eliot, upon hearing the news, said: ‘For myself and others it is the end of the world, I feel quite numb.’

Woolf and Eliot
TS Eliot with Virginia Woolf, and his wife Valerie

Virginia’s legacy was large and varied, but universally brilliant, and from Mrs. Ramsay of ‘To The Lighthouse’ to Clarissa Dalloway and the gender swapping, time defying, Orlando, she often takes a brilliant and powerful look at the role of women in society. Perhaps this is one thing that she took from the Brontës.

Virginia Woolf would also have been aware of the difficulties the Brontës initially had in finding a publisher, and how they had to pay to have their first books published. Virginia didn’t encounter this problem, but as she became more celebrated and more confident in her talents, she hated being censored and edited by her publishers. It was this that led her, with her husband Leonard Woolf, to found the Hogarth Press in 1917. Virginia Woolf could now publish her own books without having to see parts struck out by editors who hadn’t any of the genius that she had, but she also used it to publish works by some of the most important authors of the century, including the aforementioned Eliot, E.M. Forster and Laurens van der Post.

Charlotte by Vanessa Bell
A drawing of Charlotte Bronte by Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell

The very first work that Virginia Woolf had accepted for publication was rather different to the work she would become known throughout the world for. Published in 1904 by the Manchester Guardian it is an account of a literary pilgrimage to the home of the authors who she loved and who inspired her: the Brontës. This is an important literary moment, but an interesting historical document as well; this is before the Brontë Parsonage Museum was opened (although there was already a little museum elsewhere in the village), and we see a very different Haworth to the one we know today – a dark, grimy one much more like the one that Anne, Charlotte and Emily would have known. I leave you now with 22 year old Virginia Woolf’s brilliantly written account of her journey to Haworth, and on this day let’s remember Virginia, Sylvia and Charlotte fondly:

“I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys. It is better to read Carlyle in your own study chair than to visit the sound-proof room and pore over the manuscripts at Chelsea. I should be inclined to set up an examination on Frederick the Great in place of an entrance fee; only, in that case, the house would soon have to be shut up. The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.

The Life, by Mrs Gaskell, gives you the impression that Haworth and the Brontës are somehow inextricably mixed. Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth; they fit like a snail to its shell. How far surroundings radically affect people’s minds, it is not for me to ask: superficially, the influence is great, but it is worth asking if the famous parsonage had been placed in a London slum, the dens of Whitechapel would not have had the same result as the lonely Yorkshire moors. However, I am taking away my only excuse for visiting Haworth. Unreasonable or not, one of the chief points of a recent visit to Yorkshire was that an expedition to Haworth could be accomplished. The necessary arrangements were made, and we determined to take advantage of the first day for our expedition. A real northern snowstorm had been doing the honours of the moors. It was rash to wait fine weather, and it was also cowardly. I understand that the sun very seldom shone on the Brontë family, and if we chose a really fine day we should have to make allowance for the fact that fifty years ago there were few fine days at Haworth, and that we were, therefore, for sake of comfort, rubbing out half the shadows on the picture. However, it would be interesting to see what impression Haworth could make upon the brilliant weather of Settle. We certainly passed through a very cheerful land, which might be likened to a vast wedding cake, of which the icing was slightly undulating; the earth was bridal in its virgin snow, which helped to suggest the comparison.

Virginia Stephen by George Beresford
Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) at around the time she visited Haworth

Keighley – pronounced Keethly – is often mentioned in the Life; it was the big town four miles from Haworth in which Charlotte walked to make her more important purchases – her wedding gown, perhaps, and the thin little cloth boots which we examined under glass in the Brontë Museum. It is a big manufacturing town, hard and stony, and clattering with business, in the way of these Northern towns. They make small provision for the sentimental traveller, and our only occupation was to picture the slight figure of Charlotte trotting along the streets in her thin mantle, hustled into the gutter by more burly passers-by. It was the Keighley of her day, and that was some comfort. Our excitement as we neared Haworth had in it an element of suspense that was really painful, as though we were to meet some long-separated friend, who might have changed in the interval – so clear an image of Haworth had we from print and picture. At a certain point we entered the valley, up both sides of which the village climbs, and right on the hill-top, looking down over its parish, we saw the famous oblong tower of the church. This marked the shrine at which we were to do homage.

It may have been the effect of a sympathetic imagination, but I think that there were good reasons why Haworth did certainly strike one not exactly as gloomy, but, what is worse for artistic purposes, as dingy and commonplace. The houses, built of yellow-brown stone, date from the early nineteenth century. They climb the moor step by step in little detached strips, some distance apart, so that the town instead of making one compact blot on the landscape has contrived to get a whole stretch into its clutches. There is a long line of houses up the moor-side, which clusters round the church and parsonage with a little clump of trees. At the top the interest for a Brontë lover becomes suddenly intense. The church, the parsonage, the Brontë Museum, the school where Charlotte taught, and the Bull Inn where Branwell drank are all within a stone’s throw of each other. The museum is certainly rather a pallid and inanimate collection of objects. An effort ought to be made to keep things out of these mausoleums, but the choice often lies between them and destruction, so that we must be grateful for the care which has preserved much that is, under any circumstances, of deep interest. Here are many autograph letters, pencil drawings, and other documents. But the most touching case – so touching that one hardly feels reverent in one’s gaze – is that which contains the little personal relics of the dead woman. The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them, and because these, trifling and transient though they are, have survived, Charlotte Brontë the woman comes to life, and one forgets the chiefly memorable fact that she was a great writer. Her shoes and her thin muslin dress have outlived her. One other object gives a thrill; the little oak stool which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think what was probably better than her writing.

Haworth's graveyard
Haworth’s graveyard made a big impression on Virginia Woolf

The church, of course, save part of the tower, is renewed since Brontë days; but that remarkable churchyard remains. The old edition of the Life had on its title-page a little print which struck the keynote of the book; it seemed to be all graves – gravestones stood ranked all round; you walked on a pavement lettered with dead names; the graves had solemnly invaded the garden of the parsonage itself, which was as a little oasis of life in the midst of the dead. This is no exaggeration of the artist’s, as we found: the stones seem to start out of the ground at you in tall, upright lines, like and army of silent soldiers. there is no hand’s breadth untenanted; indeed, the economy of space is somewhat irreverent. In old days a flagged path, which suggested the slabs of graves, led from the front door of the parsonage to the churchyard without interruption of wall or hedge; the garden was practically the graveyard too; the successors of the Brontës, however, wishing a little space between life and death, planted a hedge and several tall trees, which now cut off the parsonage garden completely. The house itself is precisely the same as it was in Charlotte’s day, save that one new wing has been added. It is easy to shut the eye to this, and then you have the square, boxlike parsonage, built of the ugly yellow-brown stone which they quarry from the moors behind, precisely as it was when Charlotte lived and died there. Inside, of course, the changes are many, though not such as to obscure the original shape of the rooms. There is nothing remarkable in a mid-Victorian parsonage, though tenanted by genius, and the only room which awakens curiosity is the kitchen, now used as an ante-room, in which the girls tramped as they conceived their work. One other spot has a certain grim interest – the oblong recess beside the staircase into which Emily drove her bulldog during the famous fight, and pinned him while she pommelled him. It is otherwise a little sparse parsonage, much like others of its kind. It was due to the courtesy of the present incumbent that we were allowed to inspect it; in his place I should often feel inclined to exorcise the three famous ghosts.

One thing only remained: the church in which Charlotte worshipped, was married, and lies buried. The circumference of her life was very narrow. Here, though much is altered, a few things remain to tell of her. The slab which bears the names of the succession of children and of their parents – their births and deaths – strikes the eye first. Name follows name; at very short intervals they died – Maria the mother, Maria the daughter, Elizabeth, Branwell, Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and lastly the old father, who outlived them all. Emily was only thirty years old, and Charlotte but nine years older. ‘The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law, but thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ That is the inscription which has been placed beneath their names, and with reason; for however harsh the struggle, Emily, and Charlotte above all, fought to victory.”

The First Brontë Biography: Jottings By W.P.P.

As you’d expect, I love biographies of the Brontës, and of writers in general, and I have many favourites (especially the series by Winifred Gerin). One biography that has special importance in many eyes is ‘The Life Of Charlotte Brontë‘ by Elizabeth Gaskell, and tomorrow, the 25th of March, marks the 162nd anniversary of its publication. It’s special because it was written by a woman who knew Charlotte well, and a great writer in her own right; it’s also the first ever biography of the Brontës, published just two years after Charlotte Brontë’s death. Everyone knows this, but in fact this last point isn’t true.

Whilst deep in research for the Charlotte and Ellen book I’m working on last week, I came across a fascinating notice in the Monmouthshire Merlin – it’s for a biography of the Brontë sisters called ‘Jottings on Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, and the review dates from May 1856, a year before Elizabeth Gaskell’s book.

Jottings On Currer Ellis and Acton Bell Monmouthshire Merlin 17 May 56
Jottings On Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell review, Monmouthshire Merlin 17 May 1856

This then is the first ever Brontë biography, but the author remains mysterious as he (I deduce it’s a ‘he’ from a particular section we’ll come to later) goes only by the initials of ‘W.P.P.’ Having discovered the existence of this book, I had of course to track it down. I did so, and read it, and a very enlightening read it is too – some of it is filler, some of it is plain wrong, some of it is bizarre, some of it is beautiful, but it does contain some interesting information I’ve not seen elsewhere. I think it’s time, for all its faults and fascinations, to delve into W.P.P.’s jottings!

Opening Notice

The author provides a strange opening ‘notice’ to the biography, in which they say that they had to write it as quickly as possible, and haven’t even had time to proof read it! Nevertheless, the Monmouthshire Merlin reported it had good reviews and sales. The book is brief, and much of it is taken up by excerpts from Charlotte’s ‘biographical notice’ of her sisters, and with Brontë prose and poetry. Here is the peculiar preface that isn’t guaranteed to build confidence:

“These pages following were written in the intervals of engrossing pursuits – pursuits that left us in little time for “jotting”, or, in fact, for any other employment. We were thus obliged to throw off sheet after sheet as quickly as we could; rapidity being the chief object… we have scarcely had time to correct the proof-sheets as they were handed to us from the printers.”

Jottings frontispiece
Jottings frontispiece

Great Love For The Ladies

“We frankly confess to a great love for the three ladies whose pseudonyms grace the head of this page [this is the opening line of ‘Jottings of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell”]; yet we trust that we have not suffered this love to influence our judgment in the following notice. Some years ago the writer of this paper was gossiping with some literary friends, when the conversation chance to turn on Currer Bell. We then heard the name for the first time, and felt sore ashamed of our ignorance, which we determined should not be abiding… If there be any who are, as we were, without a knowledge of their writings, let them do as we did, and we promise them, they will award us thanks with no sparing hand, for having drawn their attention to such a hidden treasure.”

Jottings opening
Jottings opening page, note the footnote explanation of the Bronte name.

Patrick In Penzance

“Many years ago, the Reverend Patrick Brontë – then living at Penzance – married, against the wishes of his friends, a very delicate young lady, in whose constitution the seeds of that English plague – consumption – were already sown broad-cast, soon to bring forth fruit a hundred-fold.”

[This is the biggest mistake in the biography, Patrick never travelled to Penzance, and met Maria in Leeds; there is no evidence she had consumption, and it is unlikely that Patrick’s friends would have felt this was anything other than an excellent match]

Harriet Martineau On Charlotte After The Deaths Of Her Siblings

“In her deep mourning dress (neat as a Quaker’s), with her beautiful hair, smooth and brown, her fine eyes blazing with meaning, and her sensible face indicating a habit of self-control, if not of silence, she seemed a perfect household image – irresistibly recalling Wordsworth’s depiction of that domestic treasure. And she was this. She was able at the needle as the pen. The household knew the excellence of her cookery before they heard of that of her books.”

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Bronte’s friend and woman of letters

[This is fascinating, as we hear somebody who knew Charlotte well describing her as beautiful and as a 19th century domestic goddess, qualities we never, seemingly erroneously, associate with her today.]

Arthur Bell Nicholls, Literary Man

“The latter end of the year 1854, Charlotte Brontë married the Rev. A. B. Nicholls, her father’s curate, and, we believe, an occasional Edinburgh reviewer.”

[Another fascinating insight – was Arthur Bell Nicholls really a reviewer for The Edinburgh Review, using a pseudonym? W.P.P, who we heard earlier mixed in literary circles, certainly believed this to be the case, and it shows Arthur as a literary man, something entirely unknown today]

Arthur Bell Nicholls, 200 today
Was Arthur Bell Nicholls really a secret reviewer for a leading magazine?

The Importance Of ‘Jane Eyre’

“Jane Eyre caused a revolution that shook to its centre the very stronghold of King Antiquated Twaddle.”

Charlotte The Anti-Feminist

“Currer Bell was one who detested, as much as any one, those who would seek to drag woman from her own place, and put her in a man’s – thus destroying her most heaven-born attributes, but still she strove, as much as in her lay, to free her sex from those foolish conventionalities that bind women to worthless pursuit, or trammel them with absurd restrictions and inane “proprieties,” as they are misnomered.”

[W.P.P. redeems himself a little with the latter lines, but we couldn’t agree with their opening statement. It’s this, I think, that proves the author was a man.]

A Reputation Built On Rock

“The Bells were highly educated, and their minds were, necessarily, well trained; of their innate purity, there can be no doubt. And, to our minds, they evidenced their true modesty most forcibly. By writing freely and truthfully on all subjects, whether they were what Mrs. Grundy – detestable old bugbear! – would call delicate, or not. Such an honest proceeding would, of course, bring down on them the puny attacks of tiny controversialists; but the reputation of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell is built, not on the sand, but on the rock; and no feeble attempt of still feebler minds would, or could, shake it one tittle.”

[W.P.P. is back in the good books here, with a strident defence of the Brontës against any critics.]

An Increasing Evil

“And now an unpleasant task devolves upon us. Hitherto we have only had to quote eloquent words, or beautiful images of speech; but now we have to play the censor, though we trust we shall not be censorious. The indiscriminate use of foreign language in novels is a prevalent, and we fear, an increasing evil, in the present day… ‘Tis quite sickening. You cannot take up a novel without being stared in the face by whole pages of French, or German, or Italian… Currer Bell makes some of her characters speak French, paragraph after paragraph. Now, as it is an English book, why not say they spoke in French, but that she translated it?”

[To be fair, having struggled with huge sections of French in ‘Villette’ and ‘The Professor’, the author may have a fair point here, even if he does put it a little too vehemently.]

In Praise Of Emily

“Ellis Bell, in ‘Wuthering Heights’, has produced some wondrous characters… As Currer says, some may not consider it advisable to create such a being as Heathcliff; but he, or she, who has the power to do so, is as a god among the writers.”

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Biography

“We would beg to remind you all what a treat is in store for us, since Messrs. Nicholson and Brontë – the husband and father of Charlotte Brontë – have commissioned Mrs. Gaskell, – the talented authoress of ‘Ruth’, ‘Mary Barton’, and, more recently, ‘North And South’, – to write a Biography of Currer Bell, which will, we trust, soon be forthcoming.”

Jottings ending
Before ‘Old Hal’s’ poem, W.P.P. concludes the book with Anne Bronte’s final poem, ‘Last Lines’

What, then, do we make of W.P.P.’s Brontë biography? It’s a product of its time, definitely, but that time was the time of the Brontës – it’s a contemporary voice, and that makes it important. The author has made a number of errors simply because he lacked the information that Gaskell and later biographers had, but his love of the subject shines through. Jottings finishes with the work of another writer under a disguise – one called only ‘Old Hal’. W.P.P writes, “To conclude we give a poem on the Bell sisters, written by one who herself has the spirit of poetry, which shone so brilliantly in them. This is not the only kindness ‘Old Hall’ has rendered us during the preparations of these ‘Jottings’. For this and all others, we take the opportunity of thanking her. May she and hers ever enjoy all they deserve. We indeed “read a power within her soul,” as she herself says, and hope that, in justice to herself and others, she will make it manifest. W.P.P.”
Hal, as in Shakespeare’s plays, is usually short for Harry, but Old Hal is revealed as a woman – it could only therefore be a Harriet; could it be Harriet Martineau, who is earlier quoted within the book? We will never know W.P.P. or Old Hal, but their words can still be discovered, and I leave you now with Old Hal’s poetic tribute to the Brontës:

“Sisters! Your’s the magic art,
To fix the eye, to chain the heart;
To waken mirth, or grief, or rage
As bending o’er your wondrous page,
We read a power within your soul;
A mind that could not brook control,
And list’ning to that master tone.
In its existence lose our own.
Pondering on your chosen name,
O’er my soul a fancy came;
The power that in your writing swells,
Seems to me like distant bells.
Deep, and clear, bursts forth their sound,
Waking mirth, and joy around;
Distant now, and softer sighing,
Tolling faintly, sadly dying.
Ye too must die! Though to the grave,
Laurels bright your footpaths pave,
Fading slowly, one by one,
Sinking like the setting sun,
Ye pass away! But lives the page,
Handed down from age to age.
Yours the never dying name,
Blazon’d on the scroll of fame!”