Charlotte Brontë On Marriage And Life

This week marked the anniversary of a terrible, tragic event in the Brontë story, but in today’s Brontë blog post we are going to look at a rather lower key anniversary which occurs on this very day – a brilliant and powerful letter from Charlotte Brontë in which she lays bare her emotions, in characteristic fashion, and shares her opinions on marriage and on life.

Charlotte Bronte

We can’t do that until I have briefly mentioned that terrible tragedy alluded to earlier, however. For me it is the greatest tragedy of all those in the Brontë story. Some may say otherwise, every death of every person has its tragedy and its immense sadness for all those who are left, of course, and Patrick Brontë had a huge burden to bear outliving his wife and all six of his children. But for me, the death of Charlotte Brontë, which occurred on 31st March 1855, is almost unbearably sad. At the age of 38 she had finally, and to her surprise, found happiness after marrying Arthur Bell Nicholls. She was pregnant, but it was this very pregnancy which killed her – killed by an excessive morning sickness known as gravidarum hyperemesis which could so easily have been treated today, but brought a terrible, lingering end in the mid-nineteenth century. It not only cut off the life of Charlotte Brontë in her prime, it ended the chance of life for her baby, and ended the unique Brontë line of genius which could still have been going strong today.

It was just under ten years earlier that Charlotte Brontë wrote the letter to which we now turn. Addressed, as were thousands of her letters, to her great friend Ellen Nussey, it is as frank and powerful as we have come to expect from her letters – and also as mournful as we often find them:

Charlotte is still reading French newspapers as she is still unable to conquer the unrequited love she had for her Belgian tutor, and then colleague, Constantin Heger. We can deduce this from a letter Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger in November of that same year, 1845: “I read all the French books I can get, and learn daily a portion by heart – but I have never heard French spoken but once since I left Brussels, and then it sounded like music in my ears. Every word was most precious to me because it reminded me of you – I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul.”

We also see Charlotte write of Madeira, and how she hopes to receive a letter there from mutual friend Mary Taylor en route to New Zealand. Just three years later Charlotte will write once more of a letter from Madeira, but this time it’s the will of John Eyre which will change Jane Eyre’s fortunes. Perhaps it is this point in Charlotte’s life which first put the island of Madeira into her mind?

Funchal, Madeira
Funchal, Madeira

We also read that Ellen has been talking politely to a man whom she has later found to be single, not married as she had thought, and that this matter has worried her. Charlotte’s response is fascinating, and displays a world-weariness that is perhaps related to her failed love for Heger. Charlotte attacks the world for thinking that all women must be husband-seeking and that every action they make, every word they utter, is construed as an attempt to land a husband.

Charlotte ends the letter in a fierce mood, but while she controlled it at times this ferocity never died. We see it again in Jane’s indignation at Rochester’s proposal, and in her repeated portrayals of the injustices and inequalities that women at the time (and now) suffered. We can all be thankful that Charlotte kept her fire, and that it was not ‘stroked down’ too much to deny us the magnificent works of genius she later created.

Ellen Nussey, the recipient of Charlotte’s letter

So we think of Charlotte Brontë today, a life of such incredible genius cut too short far too soon, and we also think of all others who have passed. I am thinking particularly of Paul O’ Grady, a wonderful human being whose kindness, compassion and love for animals of all kinds certainly inspired me and so many others.

I’m sorry to say that there won’t be my usual Brontë blog post next Sunday, but I will schedule a mini-post with a much loved Brontë poem instead. I hope that normal service will be resumed and that I am able to return to my normal Brontë blog writing duties by two weeks today. I wish you all a very happy and peaceful Sunday and days ahead, and thank you for following my blog.

The Baptism Of Anne Brontë And A Sad Farewell

This weekend in 1820 was a day of celebration in the Brontë household of Thornton, for 203 years ago yesterday marked the anniversary of the baptism of Anne Brontë. We’ll look at this in today’s post and we’ll also take a look at a very different kind of anniversary, as today is the 137th anniversary of Brontë servant Nancy de Garrs.

Anne was the sixth and final child of Patrick and Maria Brontë, and she was born in Thornton on the outskirts of Bradford on 17th January 1820. It was over two months until Anne was baptised, but then as we shall see the Brontë family were rather busy at this time!

Patrick was, of course, at that time the minister of the local Church of England church, St. James’s. It was Patrick who had a bell tower erected at the church, and although it is now a (lovingly maintained) ruin it still bears the appellation of Thornton Old Bell Chapel – that’s it in modern times at the head of this post and pictured in its prime below:

On the morning of the 25th of March 1820 we can imagine the Brontë family and their servants making the short walk downhill from their Market Street parsonage to the church which looked out onto the moors. Waiting for them at the church were the minister who would be presiding over the baptism, Reverend William Morgan, and two very well chosen godmothers.

Anne Bronte's baptism record
Anne Bronte’s baptism record

Morgan was curate of Christ Church in Bradford, and it is he who is named on the baptism record which is shown below, and which is still kept, and sometimes displayed, at the new St. James’s church, Thornton – across the road from what remains of the church the Brontës knew.

Reverend William Morgan
Reverend William Morgan

Morgan was a man pivotal to the Brontë story. Born in Wales in 1782, making him Patrick Brontë’s junior by five years, the two Anglican priests came to know each other when they were both curates in Wellington, Shropshire. Years later it was Morgan, by then in Yorkshire, who secured Patrick the position of examiner at Woodhouse Grove school near Leeds. Within six months of Patrick’s arrival he had married the school owner’s niece Maria Branwell and Morgan had married the school owner’s daughter Jane Fennell – Patrick and William not only acted as best man for each other during their dual wedding ceremony they were also the presiding minister for each other’s marriage!

William and Patrick remained close friends, and he was often called upon to preside over Brontë ceremonies. At first these were happy ones such as the 1812 wedding and the 1818 baptism of Emily Brontë which produced this beautiful baptism cup (unfortunately whilst there was probably a similar one for Anne it’s no longer extant). Alas, far too soon William Morgan was also called upon to conduct the funeral services of his friend’s children, the children he had once baptised.

Chosen as Anne’s godmothers were Elizabeth Firth, of nearby Kipping Hall, and her friend Fanny Outhwaite. We know that these two women supported Anne and her family all their lives. During the time that Anne and Charlotte were at Roe Head school, Mirfield they often visited the nearby Franks (as Elizabeth was called after marrying a Reverend Frank). Fanny Outhwaite died in 1849 and left Anne a generous bequest; it was this legacy which allowed Anne to travel to Scarborough for the final time in that very same year, as, alas, Anne too was reaching the end of her days.

Elizabeth Firth
Elizabeth Firth, Bronte friend and godmother

The 1820 baptism would have been one of the highlights of the Brontë family’s time in Thornton, but it was also one of the last actions of their sojourn in the village. Less than a month later, on 20th April, the Brontë family said goodbye to Thornton and headed to a new parish six miles to the north-west across the moors; history was about to be made, and Haworth would never be the same again.

It seems likely that Thornton Parsonage servants Nancy and Sarah de Garrs. A very different anniversary has arrived today for the elder sister, for it was on this day in 1886 that Nancy Malone, formerly Nancy Wainwright and Nancy de Garrs (although commonly referred to in Brontë biographies as Nancy Garrs) died in a Bradford Workhouse. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Undercliffe Cemetery, but the wonderful team of volunteers at that cemetery have done a lot in recent years to give her the resting place she deserves, and to tell her remarkable story.

Nancy Garrs
Nancy de Garrs

Sadly the Workhouse was the final habitation of many working class people of the time, but Nancy’s Brontë connection meant that she was given special treatment, including the right to receive visitors who wanted to talk to her about the genius children she had nursed. On more than one occasion Nancy was offered a home outside of the Workhouse,but she always say that she had grown used to it and wanted to stay there.

It is sometimes thought that Nancy was buried in a pauper’s grave, but that’s not the case. A benefactor named J. H. Widdop ensured that she was given a burial in her own plot, and flowers were laid on the spot. Also present at the funeral was the nurse who had looked after Nancy since her arrival at the workhouse. The nurse’s name may have brought to Nancy’s mind a happy day in March 1820, for she was called Mrs Morgan.

In one weekend we have seen the full circle of life in the Brontë story represented. Whatever life is bringing you at the moment I hope that happy times are approaching with the warmth of spring, and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Southey And Charlotte Brontë: Part Two

Last week we looked at the infamous letter that Robert Southey, the then poet laureate, sent to a 19 year old Charlotte Brontë on 12th March 1837. Alas we don’t have the initial letter which Charlotte sent to her poetic hero, but that doesn’t mean that was the end of the correspondence. Rather lesser known is what happened after that initial exchange, and it shines a light on Charlotte and Southey, and on Branwell Brontë and William Wordsworth. We’re going to examine this in today’s Brontë blog post.

Robert Southey memorial Westminster Abbey
Robert Southey’s memorial in Westminster Abbey

You may remember that Charlotte had written to Southey at the start of the year 1837; although we don’t have her letter she had clearly sent him some of her verse, and asked his opinion of it – expressing all the while her desire to follow in his footsteps and become a poet. Alas, Robert Southey’s response was very much of his time: he wrote back to say that poetry was not and could not be a woman’s work, for when she was married and had children she would have no time for it nor would she lack for excitement.

We know from her novels and letters that Charlotte was a very forthright woman, unafraid of expressing her opinions and of standing up for her rights, so what happened next may seem surprising. She wrote straight back to Southey to let him know how delighted she was with his response! Charlotte’s letter of 16th March seems full of both joy and sadness, but it’s a fascinating glimpse of her life and thoughts at this time:

Charlotte has now ‘realised’ that her work is a ‘crude rhapsody’ and ‘senseless trash’, but she is only grateful that Southey has kindly allowed her to continue writing verse for its own sake. If only ‘Word’ allowed me to insert an angry faced emoji here! Charlotte kept both Southey’s first letter and the envelope it came in, upon which she has written: ‘Southey’s advice, to be kept forever’. Above it, however, is a faint pencilled annotation which was perhaps added at a later date, when Charlotte was beginning to have second thoughts about the impact of his advice. It simply reads ‘melpomene’ – the name of the Greek Muse of tragedies!

I say Southey’s ‘first letter’ in the paragraph above, because the communications didn’t stop there. In fact, on 22nd March 1837 he wrote again to Charlotte Brontë, as we can see below:

It seems the poet laureate was so delighted with Charlotte’s response that he actually invited her to visit him at his grand home Greta Hall in the Lake District (that’s it at the head of this post)! He declares afterwards that she will think of him with more goodwill, for he only offered kindly advice and is neither severe nor morose. Whether people today would think of him with anything approaching goodwill is probably another matter.

Charlotte never got the chance to visit Southey. She made her first journey to the Lakes in 1850, by which time Robert Southey had been dead for seven years, but it seems likely to me that he would have been on her mind as she passed through the streets and hills he had known so well.

There is further, fascinating, evidence of the impact Charlotte’s letters made on Southey. On 27th March 1837 he wrote to Caroline Bowles, the artist and poet. Strangely enough, considering the advice he had given to Charlotte, Southey had actually encouraged Caroline to write poetry and suggested that they write together. In 1839, Caroline became Robert Southey’s second wife.

Caroline Bowles became Caroline Southey

The letter from Robert to Caroline mentioned above has a section of great interest to us, so I reproduce it below:

‘I sent a dose of cooling admonition to the poor girl whose flighty letter reached me at Buckland. It was well taken, and she thanked me for it. It seems she is the eldest daughter of a clergyman, has been expensively educated, and is laudably employed as a governess in some private family. About the same time that she wrote to me, her brother wrote to Wordsworth, who was disgusted with the letter, for it contained gross flattery to him, and plenty of abuse of other poets, including me. I think well of the sister from her second letter, and probably she will think kindly of me as long as she lives.’

From this we can deduce that Southey had also discussed Charlotte with William Wordsworth himself who, recognising the name, produced a letter that he had recently received from her brother Branwell Brontë. As Branwell wrote to Wordsworth at around the same time as Charlotte wrote to Southey, perhaps Charlotte and Branwell, at that time very close, had resolved together to write to their favourite poets for feedback on their youthful work?

Wordsworth was discombobulated by Branwell’s letter

Of course, undoubtedly Charlotte has had the last laugh, for she is now far more famous and celebrated than Robert Southey. Like her sisters, she was a writer of vast talent, of genius, and yet in her case it was a genius always beset with self-doubt, and perhaps this is why she so readily accepted Southey’s advice to give up her dream of becoming a writer.

By a coincidence this very weekend marks the anniversary of a further letter which shows that even in adulthood, at the height of her fame, Charlotte could not think highly of her own poetry. She had received a letter from a Miss Alexander of Lupset Hall near Wakefield. Somehow, Miss Alexander had deduced that Currer Bell, celebrated author of Jane Eyre, was actually the unassuming Charlotte Brontë of Haworth. On 18th March 1850, Charlotte wrote back to Miss Alexander saying that she had hoped to keep her identity a secret, but she also gives her opinion of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the first Brontë book to be published and one which Miss Alexander had clearly asked for an opinion on. Charlotte writes:

‘As to the little book of rhymes it has no other title than Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell published by Smith, Elder & Co. 65 Cornhill. Let me warn you that it is scarcely worth your while to send for it. It is a collection of short fugitive pieces; my own share are chiefly juvenile productions written several years ago, before taste was chastened or judgment matured – accordingly they now appear to me very crude.’

There are great similarities in the self-critique of 1850 and of 1837. Thirteen years had passed since Charlotte’s reply to Robert Southey, but it seems that his pronouncement on her work was still very much on her mind. Thankfully it didn’t stop her writing, but it is time for me to stop writing today’s post, but not before we pay a quick Mother’s Day tribute to Maria Branwell, mother of the Brontës, and to all of you who are mothers or grandmothers. Have a great day, and I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Maria Branwell by Tonkins
Happy Mother’s Day Maria Branwell

A Brontë Year And A Letter From Southey

Two rather interesting anniversaries in the Brontë story have their anniversaries on this day, and they both tell us a lot about the development of the young Brontës as writers. On this day 1829, Charlotte Brontë wrote ‘The History Of The Year’, and on this day in 1837 Charlotte received a letter from poet laureate Robert Southey telling her that literature could not and should not be a woman’s work. We’ve looked at both of these things in previous years, but as this is their anniversary day we’re going to look back at both these incidents in today’s new post.

Let’s begin chronologically and head back nearly two hundred years to 1829. Aged 12 Charlotte is now head of the siblings, their elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth Brontë having died tragically four years earlier. Charlotte’s ‘history’ gives us great insight into the Brontë family at this time, and we see a tight knit community, one who loves to play together, and crucially one who loves to create together. Here is the document in full:

‘Once Papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography and she wrote on its blank leaf, “Papa lent me this book.” The book is an hundred and twenty years old. It is at this moment lying before me while I write this. I am in the kitchen of the parsonage house, Haworth. Tabby the servant is washing up after breakfast and Anne, my youngest sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair looking at some cakes which Tabby has been baking for us. Emily is in the parlour brushing it. Papa and Branwell are gone to Keighley. Aunt is up stairs in her room and I am sitting by the table writing this in the kitchin. Keighley is a small town four miles from here. Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper, the Leeds Intelligencer, a most excellent Tory news paper edited by Mr Edward Wood for the proprietor Mr Hernaman. We take and 2 and see three newspapers a week. We take the Leeds Intelligencer, party Tory, and the Leeds Mercury, Whig, edited by Mr Baines and his brother, son in law and his 2 sons, Edward and Talbot. We see the John Bull; it is a High Tory, very violent. Mr Driver lends us it, likewise Blackwood’s Magazine, the most amiable periodical there is. The editor is Mr Christopher North, an old man, 74 years of age. The 1st of April is his birthday. His company are Thomas Tickler, Morgan O’Doherty, Macrabin, Mordecai Mullion, Warrell, and James Hogg, a man of most extraordinary genius, a Scottish shepherd.

Our plays were established: Young Men, June 1826; Our Fellows, July 1827; Islanders, December 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret. Emily’s and my bed plays were established the 1st December 1827, the others March 1828. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The Young Men took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had, Our Fellows from Aesop’s Fables, and the Islanders from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origins of our plays more explicitly if I can. March 12, 1829.

Young Men’s

Papa brought Branwell some soldiers at Leeds. When Papa came home it was night and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed and I snatched up one and exclaimed: “This is the Duke of Wellington! It shall be mine!” when I had said this, Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him “Gravey”. Anne’s was a queer little thing, much like herself. He was called Waiting Boy. Branwell chose Bonaparte. March 12, 1829.

The Origin Of The O’Dears

The origin of the O’Dears was as follows. We pretended we had each a large island inhabited by people 6 miles high. The people we took out of Aesop’s Fables. Hay Man was my chief man, Boaster Branwell’s, Hunter Anne’s, and Clown Emily’s. Our chief men were 10 miles high except Emily’s who was only 4. March 12, 1829.

The Origin Of The Islanders

The origin of the Islanders was as follows. It was one wet night in December. We were all sitting round the fire and had been silent some time, and at last I said, ‘Suppose we each had an island of our own.’ Branwell chose the Isle of Man, Emily Isle of Arran and Bute Isle, Anne, Jersey, and I chose the Isle of Wight. We then chose who should live in our islands. The chief of Branwell’s were John Bull, Astley Cooper, Leigh Hunt, etc, etc. Emily’s Walter Scott, Mr Lockhart, Johnny Lockhart etc, etc. Anne’s Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, Henry Halford, etc, etc. And I chose Duke of Wellington & son, North & Co., 30 officers, Mr Abernethy, etc, etc. March 12, 1829.’

1829 Bronte little book
This 1829 little book is just 5 inches high.

By 1829 we can see that the Brontë sisters, and brother, were fierce creators, conjuring lands and characters out of their imaginations – and by this time they were already putting them into print, as some of the tiny books written by the Brontës (by Charlotte and Branwell at this date) date from this year – like the 1829 manuscript above, only readable under a powerful magnifying glass.

Fast forward eight years and, thankfully, the Brontë love of writing has not diminished. By 1837 they were all in love with poetry and forthright Charlotte had sent some of her verse for appraisal by the most exalted poet in the land (alongside his friend William Wordsworth): poet laureate Robert Southey. Alas, we don’t have her original letter to Southey, but we do have his reply, and it’s a less than perceptive one as you can read below:

Charlotte treasured the letter and kept the original envelope, upon which she wrote: ‘Southey’s advice. To be kept forever.’ She also wrote back to Southey, but rather than giving it to him with both barrels, she wrote:

‘Once more allow me to thank you, with sincere gratitude. I trust I shall never more be ambitious to see my name in print – if the wish should rise I’ll look at Southey’s autograph and suppress it. It is honour enough for me that I have written to him and received an answer. The letter is consecrated; no one shall ever see it but Papa and my brother and sisters. Again I thank you – this incident I suppose will be renewed no more. If I live to be an old woman I shall remember it thirty years hence as a bright dream.’

Robert Southey, Charlotte’s correspondent

Thank goodness that Charlotte and her sisters didn’t, after all, allow this letter to stop them writing. – how surprised would Southey be to see Charlotte and her sisters remembered alongside him in Westminster Abbey’s ‘Poet’s Corner’ at the head of this post? In this we see the value of persistence and the value of following your dream. If you dream of writing a book go ahead and do, and don’t let anyone or anything tell you to stop. I won’t stop writing about the remarkable Brontës while I have breath in my body, so have a great day and I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.

The Unveiling Of The Brontë Pillar Portrait

There is one iconic image of the Brontë sisters. In fact, there is only one complete and authentic portrait of the three writing sisters together. It divides opinion still, and it could be said that it’s far from ideal as it shows Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë in their youth but it still caused a stir when it was exhibited for the first time on this day in 1914 at the National Portrait Gallery (pictured above). In today’s post we’re going to look at the unveiling of the Brontë pillar portrait.

The painting of the sisters was completed by their brother Branwell Brontë in 1834, although there is no certainty over the date. That would make Charlotte 17 or 18 at the time of the portrait, Emily 15 or 16 and Anne 14. The painter himself would have been 16 or 17, and so whilst Branwell went on to be a fine portrait painter this is hardly one of his more accomplished works.

Bronte sisters portrait
Bronte sisters portait by Branwell Bronte, NPG175, courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery

It is, however, in my opinion by far his most important work as it is the only completed portrait of the sisters together (there is an unfinished sketch which has become known as the ‘gun portrait’ as it shows a seated Branwell holding a shotgun.) I also love the way that Anne and Emily are shown side by side, as these inseparable sisters habitually were at this time.

In between Anne and Emily and Charlotte is the feature which gives this portrait its common nomenclature – a pillar. It is commonly thought that Branwell painted himself in this position, but that he disliked his attempt at self-portraiture so much that he painted a large pillar over himself, but is this true? Over time the pillar is fading and the figure beneath it is becoming more prominent – it’s certainly a male figure but it seems to be wearing a neckerchief of the kind always worn by his father Patrick Brontë. Could it be then that Patrick was originally pictured in a portrait with his daughters, and that Branwell painted over him at a later date (possibly when he was in one of his rages against his father)? Time, and its affect on the obscuring pillar, may one day yield the answer, but for now the pillar keeps its secret.

Patrick Bronte
Patrick Bronte wearing, as ever, his Wellington neckerchief

This is a picture used to keeping its secret, for until 1914 it was well known but presumed lost. I bring you below two contemporary reports which detail its amazing discovery:

The Sphere, 7th March 1914

The text reads: “The ROMANTIC DISCOVERY of BRONTE PORTRAITS. CHARLOTTE, EMILY, AND ANNE BRONTE– PAINTED BY BRANWELL BRONTE Charlotte to the right, Emily in centre, Anne to the left Photograph by Emery Walker MRS. GASKELL’S DESCRIPTION OF THIS PICTURE I have seen an oil painting of his, done I know not when, but probably about this time. It was a group of his sisters, life-size, three-quarters length not much better than sign-painting as to manipulation, but the likenesses were, I should think, admirable. I could only Judge of the fidelity with which the other two were depicted from the striking resemblance which Charlotte, upholding the great frame of canvas, and consequently standing right behind It, bore to her own representation, though It must have been ten years and more since the portraits were taken. The picture was divided, almost In the middle, by a great pillar. On the side of the column which was lighted by the sun stood Charlotte in the womanly dress of that day of gigot sleeves and large collars. On the deeply-shadowed side was Emily, with Anne’s gentle face resting on her shoulder. Emily’s countenance struck me as full of power, Charlotte’s of solicitude, Anne’s of tenderness. The two younger seemed hardly to have attained their full growth, though Emily was taller than Charlotte; they had cropped hair and a more girlish dress. I remember looking on those two sad, earnest, shadowed faces, and wondering whether I could trace the mysterious expression which Is said to foretell an early death. I had some fond, superstitious hope that the column divided their fates from hers, who stood apart In the canvas, as in life she survived. I liked to see that the bright side of the pillar was towards her that the light in the picture fell on her; I might more truly have sought in her presentment nay, in her living face for the sign of death in her prime. They were good likenesses, however badly executed.” The Life of Charlotte Bronte. By Mrs. Gaskell”

We can also see from the image of the portrait in 1914 and of it now, earlier in the post, that the National Portrait Gallery have carried out some restoration on the piece. We now turn to a report from the day of the portrait’s unveiling:

Yorkshire Evening Post, 5th March 1914

The Yorkshire Evening Post comments that the picture had been folded by Charlotte’s widower Arthur and had remained unseen since it came into his possession, adding the comment: “Oh the barbarism of Charlotte’s husband!”
It is often thought that Arthur folded the picture because he disliked Branwell (the brother was at loggerheads with sister Charlotte throughout the time that Arthur knew them), but in fact that’s far from the truth. Arthur must have valued Branwell because he kept a portrait of him by Joseph Leyland on his wall, and we also hear, from a niece of Arthur, why he hid the pillar portrait away:

‘The portraits of his sisters by Branwell, that now hang in the National Gallery, Arthur Nicholls disliked – he thought they were “such ugly representations of the girls.”’

To be fair, Arthur had never seen the sisters in their youth, so it could be, whether he thought it ugly or not, that it was a good representation. I personally think it’s a beautiful portrait because it is clearly painted with love, and it’s certainly a historically beautiful portrait.

The Brontë sisters themselves were all skilled artists in their own rights, of course, but it is with their pens that they painted portraits that will lost as long as our world keeps turning. I hope you can join me next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

To Charlotte Brontë, From Mary Taylor In New Zealand

Today marks the 206th birthday of a woman who was a very close friend of Charlotte Brontë, and who was a remarkable person in her own right. Mary Taylor had been a school friend of Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey, friendships that lasted a lifetime. In today’s post we’re going to look at a remarkable letter sent by Mary from the other side of the world!

We’ve looked at Mary in this blog many times before. The daughter of a wealthy cloth manufacturer who lived in the Red House, Gomersal, it was she who persuaded Charlotte and Emily Brontë to follow her to Brussels. Mary later emigrated to New Zealand, returning to England to become an author in her own right, as well as a travel journalist and a pioneering mountaineer. In fact, Mary led the first ever all-woman ascent of Mont Blanc as we can see in this picture – Mary, by this time aged 57, is on the left.

Mary Taylor mountaineering 1874
Mary Taylor (far left) leading the first all woman team to climb Mont Blanc, in 1874

When Mary emigrated to New Zealand to set up her own business, Charlotte wrote that: “To me it is something as if a great planet fell out of the sky. Yet unless she marries in New Zealand she will not stay there long.” Alas, by the time Mary did return to Yorkshire Charlotte and all her siblings were no more, but a slow, ship led, correspondence took place between England and New Zealand (you can see 19th century Wellington, where Mary lived, at the top of this post). It is thanks to this correspondence that we have a remarkable letter sent to Charlotte by Mary on 24th July 1848. We have previously looked at the section of the letter in which Mary gives her, typically forthright, views on Jane Eyre but I now reproduce the letter in full as it also gives a remarkable insight into Mary’s life in New Zealand.

We see, for example, that Mary Taylor was indeed proposed to in New Zealand, but it was never likely to succeed. As Mary writes in her letter, she intended to use the proposal from a rich cattle drover to visit his daughter and go sightseeing with her. In her old age, Mary lived with a succession of maids from Switzerland and there seems little doubt that she preferred the company of women to men.

We also read of the fate of the cow that Charlotte bought for Mary as a leaving present. Unfortunately for the cow and Charlotte, it wasn’t a pleasant one.

Even when separated by thousands of miles of water, the friendship between Cha rlotte Brontë and Mary Taylor endured, and she is pivotal in our understanding of the Brontës today. Happy birthday Mary Taylor, and to any of you who may have anniversaries approaching. I hope to see you all next week for another new Brontë blog post, and in the meantime I leave you with images of the actual letter itself (thanks to the Morgan Library & Museum of New York) and its transcription:

Dear Charlotte

About a month since I received & read Jane Eyre. It seemed to me incredible that you had actually written a book. Such events did not happen while I was in England. I begin to believe in your existence much as I do in Mr Rochester’s. In a believing mood I don’t doubt either of them. After I had read it I went on to the top of Mt. Victoria & looked for a ship to carry a letter to you. There was a little thing with one mast, & also H.M.S. Fly & nothing else. If a cattle vessel came from Sydney she would probably return in a few days & would take a mail, but we have had east wind for a month & nothing can come in.—July 1. The Harlequin has just come from Otago & is to sail for Singapore when the wind changes & by that road route (which I hope to take myself sometime) I send you this. Much good may it do you.

Your novel surprised me by being so perfect as a work of art. I expected something more changeable & unfinished. You have polished to some purpose. If I were to do so I should get tired & weary every one else in about two pages. No sign of this weariness is in your book—you must have had abundance, having kept it all to yourself!

You are very different from me in having no doctrine to preach. It is impossible to squeeze a moral out of your production. Has the world gone so well with you that you have no protest to make against its absurdities? Did you never sneer or declaim in your first sketches? I will scold you well when I see you.—I don’t believe in Mr Rivers. There are no good men of the Brocklehurst species. A missionary either goes into his office for a piece of bread, or he goes from enthusiasm, & that is both too good & too bad a quality for St. John. It’s a bit of your absurd charity to believe in such a man. You have done wisely in choosing to imagine a high class of readers. You never stop to explain or defend anything & never seem bothered with the idea—if Mrs. Fairfax or any other well intentioned fool gets hold of this what will she think? And yet you know the world is made up of such, & worse. Once more, how have you written through 3 vols. without declaring war to the knife against a few dozen absurd doctrines each of which is supported by “a large & respectable class of readers”? Emily seems to have had such a class in her eye when she wrote that strange thing Wuthering Heights. Ann[e] too stops repeatedly to preach commonplace truths. She has had a still lower class in her mind’s eye. Emily seems to have followed t[he] [b]ookseller’s advice. As to the price you got it [was] certainly Jewish. But what could the people do? lf they had asked you to fix it, how do you know yourself how many cyphers your sum would have had? And how should they know better? And if they did, that’s the knowledge they get their living by. If I were in your place the idea of being bound in the sale of 2! more would prevent [me]from ever writing again. Yet you are probably now busy with another. It is curious to me to see among the old letters one from A[unt] Sarah sending a copy of a whole article on the currency question written by Fonblanque! I exceedingly regret having burnt your letters in a fit of caution, & I’ve forgotten all the names. Was the reader Albert Smith? What do they all think of you?

I perceive I’ve betrayed my habit of writing only on one side of the paper. Go onto the next page.

I mention the book to no one & hear no opinions. I lend it a good deal because it’s a novel & it’s as good as another! They say “it makes them cry.” They are not literary enough to give an opinion. If ever I hear one I’ll embalm it for you.

As to my own affair I have written 100 pages & lately 50 more. It’s no use writing faster. I get so disgusted I can do nothing. I have sent 3 or 4 things to Joe for Tait. Troup (Ed.) never acknowledges them though he promised either to pay or send them back. Joe sent one to Chambers who thought it unsuitable in which I agree with them.

I think I told you I built a house. I get 12/– a week for it. Moreover I in accordance with a late letter of John’s I borrow money from him & Joe & buy cattle with it. I have already spent £100 or so & intend to buy some more as soon as War[ing] can pay me the money. —perhaps as much as by degrees as £400, or £500. As I only pay 5 per Ct. interest I expect [to] profit much by this. viz about 30 per Ct. a year—perhaps 40 or 50. Thus if I borrow £500 in two years’ time (I cannot have it quicker) I shall perhaps make £250 to £300. I am pretty certain of being able to pay principal & interest. If I could command £300 & £50 a year afterwards I would “hallock” about N.Z. for a twelvemonth then go home by way of India & write my travels which would prepare the way for my novel. With the benefit of your experience I should perhaps make a better bargain than you. I am most afraid of my health. Not that I should die but perhaps sink into state of betweenity, neither well nor ill, in which I should observe nothing & be very miserable besides. —My life here is not disagreeable. I have a great resource in the piano, & a little employment in teaching.

Then I go to Mrs. Taylor’s & astonish the poor girl with calling her favourite parson a spoon. She thinks I am astonishingly learned but rather wicked, & tries hard to persuade me to go to church chapel, though I tell her I only go for amusement. She would have sense but for her wretched health which is getting rapidly worse from her irrational mode of living.

[letter continues on a separate sheet in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library] I can hardly explain to you the queer feeling of living as I do in 2 places at once. One world containing books England & all the people with whom I can exchange an idea; the other all that I actually see & hear & speak to. The separation is as complete as between the things in a picture & the things in the room. The puzzle is that both move & act, & [I] must say my say as one of each. The result is that one world at least must think me crazy. I am just now in a sad mess. A drover who has got rich with cattle dealing wanted me to go & teach his daughter. As the man is a widower I astonished this world when I accepted his proposal, & still more because I asked too high a price (£70) a year. Now that I have begun the same people can’t conceive why I don’t go on & marry the man at once which they imagine must have been my original intention. For my part I shall possibly astonish them a little more for I feel a great inclination to make use of his interested civilities to visit his daughter & see the district of Porirua.

If I had a little more money & could afford a horse (she rides) I certainly would. But I can see nothing till I get a horse, which I shall have if I’m lucky in 2 or 3 years.

I have just made acquaintance with Dr & Mrs. Logan. He is a retired navy doctor & has more general knowledge than any one I have talked to here. For instance he had heard of Phillippe Egalite—of a camera obscura; of the resemblance the English language has to the German &c &c. Mrs. Taylor Miss Knox & Mrs. Logan sat in mute admiration while we mentioned these things, being employed in the meantime in making a patchwork quilt. Did you never notice that the women of the middle classes are generally too ignorant to talk to? & that you are thrown entirely on the men for conversation? There is no such feminine inferiority in the lower. The women go hand in hand with the men in the degree of cultivation they are able to reach. I can talk very well to a joiner’s wife, but seldom to a merchant’s.

I must now tell you the fate of your cow. The creature gave so little milk that she is doomed to be fatted & killed. In about 2 months she will fetch perhaps £15 with which I shall buy 3 heifers. Thus you have the chance of getting a calf sometime. My own thrive well & possibly I [shall] have a calf myself. Before this reaches England I shall have 3 or 4.

It’s a pity you don’t live in this world that I might entertain you about the price of meat. Do you know I bought 6 heifers the other day for £23? & now it is turned so cold I expect to hear one half of them are dead. One man bought 20 sheep for £8 & they are all dead but 1. Another bought £150 & has 40 left; and people have begun to drive cattle through a valley into the Wairau plains & thence across the straits of Wellington. &c &c. This is the only legitimate subject of conversation we have the rest is gos[sip] concerning our superiors in station who don’t know us on the road, but it is astonishing how well we know all their private affairs, making allowance always for the distortion in our own organs of vision.

I have now told you everything I can think of except that the cat’s on the table & that I’m going to borrow a new book to read. No less than an account of all the systems of philosophy of modern Europe. I have lately met with a wonder a man who thinks Jane Eyre would have done better [to] marry Mr Rivers! He gives no reasons—such people never do.

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor
Mary Taylor in old age after returning to England

The Amazing Secret Of The Brontë Tin Box

If you’re lucky enough to have been to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth you’ll know that it’s full of treasures large and small. Sometimes these have come from surprising sources – such as the toys the young Brontës played with which were found under the floorboards during renovation work. In today’s post we’re going to look at a seemingly unassuming tin box which held a very important secret for over half a century.

Bronte toys
These Bronte toys were discovered below floorboards

The outside of the box is unassuming indeed, it’s a simple rectangular tin of the kind that could be found anywhere at any time – but it’s provenance is the first thing which makes it special, for it was gifted from Branwell Brontë to his sister Emily Brontë.

Emily used it as a sewing box – inside it were found threads of various colours, bobbins, buttons and lace edges used on collars. A fascinating glimpse into the world of Emily Brontë, who like all her sisters was taught to sew from an early age by Aunt Branwell, but nothing surprising. The surprise came much later, and over 300 miles from Haworth – and it completely changed our understanding of the Brontës.

After the death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 and of Patrick Brontë in 1861 the Brontë line had come to a tragic end. Many Brontë possessions were left to friends of the family such as long standing servant Martha Brown, but the majority came into the possession of Charlotte’s widower Arthur Bell Nicholls. He took them with him back to his childhood home of Banagher, Ireland (that’s it at the head of this post) and to his second wife Mary Bell. Their home became a shrine to Arthur’s enduring love of Charlotte Brontë – as Arthur’s great-niece Marjorie Gallop later recalled:

‘With generous loyalty, Mary Nicholls made every room in the house a Brontë shrine. The drawing room was hung with the sisters’ drawings, Mr. Brontë’s gun leaned up against the dining room wall, and Charlotte’s portrait overlooked the sofa on which Mary used to rest. One day it broke away from the wall, missed a table which stood below it, and fell on to Mary. Neither the portrait nor Mary was harmed. When Arthur died, Mary had his coffin placed beneath the portrait until it was carried from the house.’

Charlotte Bronte George Richmond
Arthur’s body was laid to rest beneath this portrait of Charlotte

In 1955, a century after Charlotte’s death, an even closer relative of Arthur, his niece (by then in her nineties) painted a similar picture:

‘Later on, Arthur Nicholls married my aunt, Mary, who made him a devoted wife, and treasured everything that had belonged to Charlotte. My grandmother and my aunt loved to tell me about her, and I loved to listen. Charlotte’s wedding dress, so tiny, and her tiny white gloves, buttoned at the wrist, my aunt gave to Allen Nicholls’ [Arthur’s brother] youngest daughter, who had been given the names of Charlotte Brontë at her christening. Later on she often stayed at the Hill House, and came to love Uncle Arthur, as did all the young people; and, after his death, feeling that these things were peculiarly sacred, she had them burned.

Half way up the stairs at the Hill House stood Mr. Brontë’s handsome old grandfather clock, and near it hung a plaque of Branwell; over the sideboard in the dining-room was the well-known photograph of Haworth Rectory and the graveyard, and in the corner near the door was Mr. Brontë’s old gun. In the drawing room was Charlotte’s portrait, and also one of Thackeray, as well as many framed drawings of the three Brontë sisters. In a glass-fronted case were all the books of the three sisters. The portraits of his sisters by Branwell, that now hang in the National Gallery, Arthur Nicholls disliked – he thought they were “such ugly representations of the girls.”’

One other thing that we know Arthur kept in Banagher was the tin sewing box of Emily Brontë. He must have loved to take out these items and hold them again, as if calling up visions of the Yorkshire family he had loved. Time didn’t diminish these memories or the pleasure obtained from them, for in 1895, 40 years after the passing of Charlotte, Arthur once again held Emily’s sewing box in his hand. Perhaps he was turning it over and over in his hand, or perhaps something made him look at it more closely than before. There was a click unheard for many decades, and a secret compartment flipped open – what was inside had not been seen for nearly half a century.

When I think of this event, words spoken 27 years later. Howard Carter looked into a tomb that for many centuries had been undiscovered – behind him Lord Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter’s reply (oft misquoted) was, “Yes, it is wonderful.” What Arthur saw was wonderful indeed – small, ageing scraps of paper with dense, untidy writing on them and scribbled illustrations; hidden away since 1845 they were the diary papers of Emily and Anne Brontë.

1834 diary paper front
The 1834 diary paper front page

These diary papers were written jointly by Emily and Anne in 1834 and 1837 and then separately by the sisters in 1841 and 1845.

These papers are small and short, but they vividly demonstrate everyday life in the parsonage and the inner thoughts of the two sisters who wrote them. Through these diary papers we hear of Charlotte making apple pudding, of Emily and Anne longing to play rather than doing home or housework, of their early Gondal compositions, of the careers of Charlotte, Branwell and Anne, of the Brontë pets and of a journey to York, of Anne’s despair at what she has seen at Thorp Green Hall, of Charlotte’s visit to Haworth – a visit that would lead to Jane Eyre.

Sketches by Emily from two of her diary papers, showing her with Anne and with Keeper

So many interesting facts and stories are contained within these tiny sheets of paper, but the insight into the character of the two writers is just as fascinating – and it gives us a different picture of Emily Brontë in particular. Emily’s writing is often dark and mysterious – her poems talk frequently of death and of a desire to leave this world, and yet her diary papers, in contrast to Anne’s later entries, are always cheery and optimistic. In the diary papers we see the real Emily Brontë, not the one she presented in her magnificent writing: we see the Emily that made an acquaintance say “Martha Brown loved her, she said she was so kind”, and the Emily that Ellen Nussey wrote of – the Emily that loved to laugh and play practical jokes; the Emily that family friend John Greenwood wrote of dancing down the garden and calling out in her sweet voice.

These diary papers are literary treasures, and yet they could easily have remained hidden and unseen for all time. Only a chance discovery brought them to light, so what other Brontë discoveries are still waiting to be found? At the close of their 1845 diary papers both Emily and Anne wrote of plans to compose a new entry on 30th July 1848 – no trace of those diary papers has yet been found, was it written and may it one day yield us a glimpse of the Brontës after they have become published authors?

Anne and Emily’s 1841 diary paper, now bound in a book but found in the tin box!

I hope to find you here next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post, have a happy and healthy week ahead.

Three Love Poems By The Brontë Sisters

Valentine’s Day fast approaches. On this day in 1840, in a rather desolate moorside parsonage, three sisters and their best friend could have no idea what would happen next. These sisters were Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë of course, and they little suspected that in just two days they would receive their first ever Valentine’s cards! We’ve looked before at the story of these cards and the kindly person who sent them to the Brontës and their friend Ellen Nussey, so in today’s post we will look at fine examples of love poetry from our beloved Brontë sisters.

Victorian valentines card

The sender of the cards wrote personalised verse in each. Alas those verses have long since disappeared into the ether, but we can safely say that it would be hard for them to match up to the Brontë poetry. We shall commence with Charlotte Brontë. It’s fair to say that whilst her skills as a novelist were magnificent, she was less accomplished than her sisters as a poet. Her verse is often overly long and overwrought, but she was still capable of writing fabulous poetry.

Today we look at one of Charlotte’s finer poems: ‘Stanzas’. It was one of Charlotte’s selections in Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the very first Brontë book to be published. Its composition came after Charlotte’s return from Brussels, so we can easily speculate that its inspiration was her great unrequited love Monsieur Constantin Heger (her ‘God divine’ as expressed in this poem):

“If thou be in a lonely place,
If one hour’s calm be thine,
As Evening bends her placid face
O’er this sweet day’s decline;
If all the earth and all the heaven
Now look serene to thee,
As o’er them shuts the summer even,
One moment – think of me!
Pause, in the lane, returning home;
‘Tis dusk, it will be still:
Pause near the elm, a sacred gloom
Its breezeless boughs will fill.
Look at that soft and golden light,
High in the unclouded sky;
Watch the last bird’s belated flight,
As it flits silent by.
Hark! for a sound upon the wind,
A step, a voice, a sigh;
If all be still, then yield thy mind,
Unchecked, to memory.
If thy love were like mine, how blest
That twilight hour would seem,
When, back from the regretted Past,
Returned our early dream!
If thy love were like mine, how wild
Thy longings, even to pain,
For sunset soft, and moonlight mild,
To bring that hour again!
But oft, when in thine arms I lay,
I’ve seen thy dark eyes shine,
And deeply felt, their changeful ray
Spoke other love than mine.
My love is almost anguish now,
It beats so strong and true;
‘Twere rapture, could I deem that thou
Such anguish ever knew.
I have been but thy transient flower,
Thou wert my god divine;
Till, checked by death’s congealing power,
This heart must throb for thine.
And well my dying hour were blest,
If life’s expiring breath
Should pass, as thy lips gently prest
My forehead, cold in death;
And sound my sleep would be, and sweet,
Beneath the churchyard tree,
If sometimes in thy heart should beat
One pulse, still true to me.”

Valentines cherub


We turn next to Emily Brontë. Undoubtedly the greatest Brontë poet, and one of the greatest poets of all time, her verse rarely turned to what we would think of as romantic love. The common themes of Emily’s poetry were nature, death and war but she did ponder the nature of love on one occasion.

Emily comes to the conclusion that love is transient and worthless compared to a great friendship, and this poem entitled ‘Love and Friendship’ reveals the true love of her life; despite the inventions of a certain recent film, Emily’s closest bond in life was with her younger sister Anne:

“Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree –
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild-rose briar is sweet in the spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He may still leave thy garland green.”

Valentine swans

So now we turn finally and fittingly to Anne Brontë, like Emily a poet of the first class. We can easily say that Charlotte’s poem was written for Monsieur Heger, and that Emily’s poem was written for Anne herself, but who was the subject of Anne Brontë’s poem, ‘To -’? It was the person mentioned at the head of this post: the man who sent the sisters their first Valentine’s cards – William Weightman.

Anne’s poem speaks evocatively of a lost love. It’s a powerful poem, one that is clearly written by someone who has experienced love, and loss. Anne dated this poem December 1842, just four months after Weightman’s sudden death:

“I will not mourn thee, lovely one,
Though thou art torn away.
‘Tis said that if the morning sun
Arise with dazzling ray
And shed a bright and burning beam
Athwart the glittering main,
‘Ere noon shall fade that laughing gleam
Engulfed in clouds and rain.
And if thy life as transient proved,
It hath been full as bright,
For thou wert hopeful and beloved;
Thy spirit knew no blight.
If few and short the joys of life
That thou on earth couldst know,
Little thou knew’st of sin and strife
Nor much of pain and woe.
If vain thy earthly hopes did prove,
Thou canst not mourn their flight;
Thy brightest hopes were fixed above
And they shall know no blight.
And yet I cannot check my sighs,
Thou wert so young and fair,
More bright than summer morning skies,
But stern death would not spare;
He would not pass our darling by
Nor grant one hour’s delay,
But rudely closed his shining eye
And frowned his smile away,
That angel smile that late so much
Could my fond heart rejoice;
And he has silenced by his touch
The music of thy voice.
I’ll weep no more thine early doom,
But O! I still must mourn
The pleasures buried in thy tomb,
For they will not return.”

Victorian Valentine

Apologies for the absence of a post last week – the technical gremlins struck, but I’m so pleased to be back today and, Deo volente, there will be another new Brontë blog post next Sunday. I hope you can join me then, and I hope that, however you spend it, you have a very happy Valentine’s day on Tuesday.

Charlotte Brontë And Her Winter Illnesses

January is the longest month, but it can sometimes feel as if it lasts 31 weeks not 31 days. The nights are long and the days are cold and icy. It’s a time of year when people often feel ill or ‘under the weather’, and this was the certainly the case for Charlotte Brontë. In today’s post we’re going to look at two letters she sent on this day in 1852; two letters that lay bare the physical and psychological pressure under which she was living in the years that followed, in rapid succession, the deaths of her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë.

Villette was published 170 years (and a day) ago

The letters, sent on the same day exactly 171 years ago, were sent to two members of the same family. Her publisher and friend (and some have speculated another unrequited love) George Smith, and his mother Elizabeth. Charlotte had visited the Smiths in London in June 1851, and it could be that they were expecting her to visit again soon – but she informs them that illness prevents her now and that she feels unable to return to London until certain conditions are fulfilled. It seems likely that Charlotte is referring to the completion of her novel Villette. Yesterday, the 28th of January, marked the anniversary of the novels publication in 1853. Let us turn now to the letters:

Charlotte is staying at Brookroyd in Birstall, the home of her great friend Ellen Nussey, but mental as well as physical torments continue to plague her. With the frankness typical of her letters, Charlotte reveals that she has suffered terribly from depression of spirits in the autumn, followed by “the solitude of life I have felt very keenly this winter.” It makes us think of another letter of Charlotte in which she talks of walking the moors alone, and seeing Anne and Emily everywhere. She loved to read their poetry but now she dare not, because to do so makes her long for her own death.

This must have been a terrifying time for Charlotte, because the physical symptoms she now suffered from were all too familiar to her. The wasting and inability to eat, a shooting pain in her side. Charlotte writes that “my own conclusion was that my lungs were affected.” Charlotte had seen these same symptoms before in all her siblings shortly before they died – she thought that she too had now contracted consumption. Thankfully Charlotte did not have tuberculosis, her lungs and chest were fine, but it is easy to imagine her terror as she waited for a diagnosis.

George Smith
George Smith

In her letter to George Smith, Charlotte writes, “You would find me thin but not exactly ill now”. Despite some of the representations of Charlotte on screen throughout the years, Charlotte was not only small she was very thin too – she is often described as ‘frail’ in appearance by those who knew her. Charlotte called herself, ‘the weakest, puniest, least promising of his [Patrick Brontë’s] six children’, and yet she outlived all her siblings.

Charlotte found herself challenged by mental and physical illness throughout much of her adult life, but she battled on and produced some of the greatest works of fiction the world has ever seen. The dark nights of winter were especially hard for her, but they passed. I hope to see you next week for another new Brontë blog post.

Coping With The Cold In The Brontë Parsonage

One thing I find wonderful is that there are readers of this blog, Brontë lovers, from all corners of the globe. I hope wherever you are, you’re enjoying a happy and healthy start to the year. Those of us in the United Kingdom are certainly ‘enjoying’ a very cold start to the year, and due to huge rises in energy costs many of us are living in colder homes than ever before. Spare a thought for the Brontës – how did they cope with the cold conditions in Haworth Parsonage? We’re going to look at that in today’s post.

As all who are fortunate enough to have visited Haworth in West Yorkshire know, it’s a village that clings to the north west tip of the county, surrounded on three sides by bleakly dramatic Pennine moorland. The Parsonage itself, which was home to the Brontë family for so long, is at the very summit of the village, and the moors sweep away from its very walls. The result is often very beautiful, but even more often extremely cold.

Haworth moors snow
Haworth moorland leading from the Bronte parsonage

The Brontës would have become used to driving rain, heavy snow and howling winds – and its presence finds a way into many Brontë novels and poems. The ‘wuthering’ of Wuthering Heights, for example, references a local dialect word for a particularly icy wind which blows across bleak, open landscapes.

Aunt Branwell must have felt the cold more than most, having spent most of her life in the far warmer climes of Penzance in Cornwall, 400 miles to the south. Ellen Nussey described one way in which she coped with the cold Parsonage: “She had a horror of the climate so far north, and of the stone floors in the parsonage. She amused us by clicking about in pattens whenever she had to go into the kitchen or look after household operations.”

Aunt Branwell display case
Aunt Branwell display case, Bronte Parsonage Museum, showing her pattens

Pattens are metal soles fastened to the bottom of shoes; typically used outside to provide grip in snow or ice, Aunt Elizabeth used them indoors to protect her feet from the freezing stone floor. As can be seen from pairs of boots which still remain part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection, early nineteenth century shoes were very different to those we wear today. They were much thinner, and yet the Brontës, especially Emily, would think nothing of walking long distances in them, whatever the weather.

Bronte Shawls

It’s also hard to imagine how they coped with the bitter cold without today’s thermal clothing and quilted coats. One way they coped was to layer up, and to wrap shawls tightly around them. The collection of shawls in the Brontë museum is one of its most beautiful treasures, but they were highly practical and necessary items too.

The harsh winter climate of Haworth contributed to continuous colds and illness, but two letters sent on this day in 1849 deal with a far more serious complaint. Anne Brontë had by this time been diagnosed with terminal consumption, tuberculosis as we would call it today, and Charlotte’s publisher George Smith had offered to pay for leading London specialist Dr. Forbes to visit Haworth Parsonage to see if anything could be done for Anne. Charlotte and her father declined this offer, but instead said they would listen to any advice Dr. Forbes could offer. Alas, Dr. Forbes concurred with Dr. Teale of Leeds, there was nothing more to be done.

The second letter sent by Charlotte on this day 174 years ago shows that Ellen Nussey, ever practical and kind, had also offered help. On Anne’s behalf, Ellen purchased a respirator and pairs of cork soles for both Anne and Charlotte. These soles were placed inside shoes, and once again were used to provide some respite from the cold stone floors of Haworth Parsonage. We know from a subsequent letter that the respirator cost Ellen 30 shillings, and the cork sales ten pence each. Charlotte sent Ellen a postal order for two pounds as payment, along with a review of the cork soles: ‘which I find extremely comfortable’.

Warmer weather will soon return as the wheel of the year spins round, but until then let’s all be thankful that we don’t have to cope with winter as the Brontës and so many others did – without the aid of central heating, warm modern clothing, or winter footwear. Keep warm and I hope to see you again next week for another new Brontë blog post.