This week in 1846 saw a very important moment in the Brontë story, and, indeed, in the story of English literature as a whole. On the 6th of February 1846 three sisters, weary yet undaunted after a series of rejections, sent their collection of poetry to a specialist publisher in London; the publisher was Aylott & Jones, and the book was Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; by May of that year the first Brontë book was in print, and things would never be the same again.
The story of the genesis of this collection is well known; how Charlotte accidentally ‘discovered’ a secret collection of Emily’s brilliant poetry, and how the persuasive powers of her beloved sister Anne eventually made Emily agree to a joint venture – they had been writing poetry since childhood, now it was time to send it out into the world.
Always a woman of action, Charlotte Brontë then obtained a list of English publishers and began to send their parcelled up manuscript to them, time after time it returned unheralded, unwanted. The sisters soon realised that most publishers only wanted prose works; indeed the halcyon days of poetry sales in the first decades of the nineteenth century were over. It was clear that a specialist poetry publisher was needed – Moxon’s, publisher of Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, were uninterested, so who would the Bell brothers call upon next?
A popular magazine of the time was called Information For The People, published by Chambers of Edinburgh, and one of their specialties was answering questions submitted by their readers. Amongst them must have been Charlotte Brontë for she wrote to them asking for the name and address of a suitable publisher of poetry: they recommended Aylott & Jones of Paternoster Row, London, a company who acted as a stationery seller as well as a publisher of prose and poetry. They were situated in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral so it’s fitting that their main line was the publishing of theological works, but they would also publish poetry collections if the author’s shared the cost of publication.
Perhaps it was the ecclesiastical address of the authors, writing from Haworth Parsonage (wherever that was?) that impressed Aylott & Jones, but we know that by 31st January, the work had been accepted at the writer’s risk – that is, the Bells would pay for the cost of the paper, printing, binding and publicity.
Thankfully the sisters had the remnants of their legacy from their Aunt Branwell which allowed them to cover these initial costs, which we know were £35 18s 3d, well over a year’s wage for a governess or teacher at the time. A handful of years earlier, without this legacy, the Brontës would have been unable to meet these costs, and it seems likely that the Brontës would never have found their way into print.
On 6th February, Charlotte wrote once more to Messrs Aylott and Jones:
‘Gentlemen, I send you the M.S. as you desired. You will perceive that the Poems are the work of three persons – relatives – their separate pieces are distinguished by their respective signatures. I am Gentlemen, Yrs. Truly, C Brontë’
It’s interesting to note here that whilst the work would go on to be published under the nom de plumes of the Bell brothers, Charlotte wrote to this publisher under her own name (with the first name left as an ambiguous initial). When she later came to submit their works of fiction she always wrote letters under the name of Currer Bell.
At this time when the postal service was in its infancy there was a maximum weight limit of 16 ounces, and the Brontës’ manuscript must have exceeded this limit, as Charlotte had to send it in two parcels. It was written by hand of course, and the weight of the parcel makes it likely that they had invested in high quality paper, and written their manuscript out in their best hand, rather than the tiny writing which they habitually employed.
Things moved rapidly once the manuscript was received; what an exciting time it must have been for the three sisters in that moorside parsonage. Alas, the general public weren’t interested in poetry and it sold very poorly. In June 1847, Charlotte famously wrote to a number of writers the sisters admired, sending a free copy:
‘My relatives, Ellis and Acton Bell and myself, heedless of the repeated warnings of various respectable publishers, have committed the rash act of publishing a volume of poems. The consequences predicted have, of course, overtaken us; our book is found to be a drug; no man needs it or heeds it; in the space of a year our publisher has disposed of but two copies, and by what painful efforts he succeeded in disposing of those two, himself only knows. Before transferring the edition to the trunk-makers, we have decided on distributing as presents a few copies of what we cannot sell – we beg to offer you one in acknowledgment of the pleasure and profit we have often and long derived from your works. I am Sir, Yours very respectfully, Currer Bell.’
These letters, with accompanying book, were sent to a number of writers including William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Hartley Coleridge, Ebenezer Elliott the Chartist poet of Sheffield, and Thomas de Quincey, who must have perked up when reading the line, ‘our book is found to be a drug’.
Whether only two copies were sold, or whether Charlotte exaggerated the poor sales, is open to question, but undoubtedly it hadn’t yet achieved the sales it deserved. I say ‘yet’ because eventually Smith, Elder & Co (publishers of Jane Eyre) bought up all the unsold copies, re-bound them, and sold every copy, sending Charlotte £24 in royalties at the close of 1848.
There’s a lesson in perseverance, and in having faith in yourself here. Publishers, and readers, weren’t initially interested in the writing of the Brontë sisters, but the Brontës knew that their work was worthy of interest; from the little acorn of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell soon sprang the mighty oaks of their novels. Whatever you’re good at, keep at it – be your own biggest fan, and never let setbacks deter you. Better times came for the Brontës, and better times will come for us all.
I leave you now with the first contribution of Anne Brontë to the collection – ‘A Reminiscence’ (along with the end of Emily Brontë’s ‘Faith and Despondency’ and the opening of Charlotte’s ‘Mementos’). It was the first time that Acton Bell was seen in print, thankfully it wasn’t to be the last. Stay safe and happy, and I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
In today’s post we look at someone who was called upon by Charlotte Brontë in this week 1855, and who played a sad part in her story. Tragedy was never far away from the life of a doctor in the first half of the nineteenth century, as Dr. William MacTurk (or Macturk or McTurk) must have known well.
By the 30th of January 1855 Charlotte Brontë had been ill for some time, and her sickness and lethargy seemed to be growing worse. A Haworth doctor had already examined Charlotte and pronounced that there was little to worry about, but a worried Arthur Bell Nicholls, by then the husband of Charlotte, insisted that they call in William MacTurk for a second opinion.
We can see, then, that Dr. MacTurk must have been a very well respected physician, for his practice was based in the centre of Bradford, around nine miles distance from Haworth. He was also renowned for his philanthropic enterprises, having campaigned to lower the number of hours that children could work in factories, establishing a new church in Manningham, Bradford and being closely connected to Bradford Grammar School.
Born to Scottish parents in 1795 in South Cave, 14 miles west of Hull, he continued to practice until 1869, making him ‘one of the oldest members of the medical profession in the West Riding of Yorkshire’ as reported in a glowing obituary in an 1872 edition of the British Medical Journal. The journal also noted that MacTurk was ‘a man of upright character’, although he had ‘made no contributions to the literature of his profession’.
We can imagine how anxious Arthur Bell Nicholls and Patrick Brontë must have been on that January day 1855 as they awaited the doctor’s verdict. What it was Elizabeth Gaskell alluded to in her biography of her friend, couched in the modesty the century demanded:
‘She yielded to Mr. Nicholls’ wish that a doctor should be sent for. He came, and assigned a natural cause for her miserable indisposition; a little patience, and all would go right.’
Later the natural cause is explained more simply, ‘Martha tenderly waited on her mistress, and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming. “I dare say I shall be glad some time,” she would say; “but I am so ill—so weary—”’
It was 166 years and a day ago, then, that Dr. MacTurk confirmed that Charlotte Brontë was pregnant. We get further evidence of this in a letter Charlotte wrote to her closest friend Ellen Nussey on 21st February 1855, in which she asks:
‘Write and tell me about Mrs. Hewitt’s case, how long she was ill and in what way.’
Mary Hewitt was a friend of Ellen, and had suffered severe sickness during her pregancy in the previous year, before giving birth to a son in December 1854. It seems clear then that Charlotte’s friends knew that she was pregnant, as further shown by the baby bonnet knitted by Charlotte’s friend, and former teacher and employer, Margaret Wooler, one of the most moving exhibits of the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
William MacTurk had diagnosed Charlotte’s pregancy but had failed to diagnose hyperemesis gravidarum, an excessive morning sickness. Today it would be treated rapidly and successfully, as in the case of the Duchess of Cambridge, but alas such knowledge and treatment was then unavailable, and Charlotte was nearing her end – who knows what a Brontë child could have achieved in their life, or if the line would still be continuing to this day.
Dr. MacTurk continued to visit Charlotte throughout her final illness, and it seems that he had also treated Branwell Brontë for the effects of his alcoholism. It could be this service which first brought him to the attention of Charlotte Brontë, leading to him featuring in her novel Shirley as the surgeon who is called upon to administer to Robert Moore:
‘”We must have Dr. Rile again, ma’am; or better still, MacTurk. He’s less of a humbug. Thomas must saddle the pony and go for him.”… Doubtless they executed the trust to the best of their ability; but something got wrong. The bandages were displaced or tampered with; great loss of blood followed. MacTurk, being summoned, came with steed afoam. He was one of those surgeons whom it is dangerous to vex – abrupt in his best moods, in his worst savage. On seeing Moore’s state he relieved his feelings by a little flowery language, with which it is not necessary to strew the present page.’
Dr. William MacTurk was much loved across Bradford and beyond, as shown by a grand testimonial thrown for him in 1859 in which he was presented with an elaborate silver bowl and stand costing over two hundred guineas, a five figure sum in today’s terms. Perhaps the greatest testimony he received, however, was being featured in a Charlotte Brontë novel. I hope you are all in good health, and I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
Whilst Anne and Emily Brontë didn’t live to see the success their huge talents deserved and earned, Charlotte Brontë did encounter the trappings of fame in the final years of her life, including fans arriving in Haworth to seek out ‘Currer Bell’. Charlotte also met a number of writers, and she has become particularly associated with Elizabeth Gaskell and Harriet Martineau. Charlotte also became acquainted with one of her literary heroes and it’s he that we’re going to look at today – William Makepeace Thackeray.
Thackeray is one of the great figures of nineteenth century English literature, and he’s most famous today for his masterpiece Vanity Fair. Charlotte Brontë was a great fan of this novel, and it was for this reason that she chose to dedicate the second edition of Jane Eyre to its author. This second edition was published on this week in 1848, and it was certainly effusive in its praise of Thackeray:
‘There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital-a mien as dauntless and as daring. Is the satirist of “Vanity Fair” admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time-they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Rimoth-Gilead.
Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day-as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterise his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humour, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him – if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger – I have dedicated this second edition of “JANE EYRE.”’
This dedication was obviously heartfelt, especially as he was, as Charlotte said, a total stranger. Unfortunately she was therefore unaware of a fact which meant that her dedication set literary tongues wagging: Thackeray, like the male protagonist of the novel now dedicated to him, had a wife who was locked away, suffering from mental illness.
Isabella Thackeray’s depression grew after the birth of their third child Harriet, and as her condition worsened she spent time in two asylums near Paris. Thackeray later brought Isabella back to London but found himself unable to provide the care she needed, and so she was placed into a private care home in Camberwell, under the auspices of a Mrs. Baker. Incidentally, Harriet Thackeray married Leslie Stephen the father of Virginia Woolf, although it was Stephen’s second wife who was mother to the Brontë loving novelist.
It was the superficial similarity between the marital situation of both Rochester and Thackeray, coupled with Charlotte’s dedication in the second edition of Jane Eyre, which led many to believe that Thackeray must be known to Currer Bell.
Charlotte famously met her literary idol in June 1850, as she revealed in a letter to Ellen Nussey. Charlotte’s letter boils this meeting down to its basics, ‘and, last not least, an interview with Mr. Thackeray’. In fact, there was rather more than an interview, for her publisher George Smith had arranged for Charlotte to be guest of honour at a dinner party thrown by the Thackerays. For a woman as painfully shy as Charlotte (a characteristic she shared with Anne and Emily Brontë) it was an ordeal to be endured, often in silence. We have a much more fulsome description of this evening in the book Chapters From Some Memoirs by Lady Ritchie. On that 1850 evening, Lady Ritchie was the 13 year old Anne Thackeray, daughter of the novelist who was hosting for the event (until he managed to escape to his club):
‘One of the most notable persons who ever came into our bow-windowed drawing-room in Young Street is a guest never to be forgotten by me – a tiny, delicate, little person, whose small hand nevertheless grasped a mighty lever which set all the literary world of that day vibrating. I can still see the scene quite plainly – the hot summer evening, the open windows, the carriage driving to the door as we all sat silent and expectant; my father, who rarely waited, waiting with us; our governess and my sister and I all in a row, and prepared for the great event. We saw the carriage stop, and out of it sprang the active well-knit figure of young Mr. George Smith, who was bringing Miss Brontë to see our father. My father, who had been walking up and down the room, goes out into the hall to meet his guests, and then, after a moment’s delay, the door opens wide, and the two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, pale little lady. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress, with a pattern of blue flowers. She enters in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This, then, is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books. To say that we little girls had been given Jane Eyre to read scarcely represents the facts of the case; to say that we had taken it without leave, read bits here and read bits there, been carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind into things, times, places, all utterly absorbing, and at the same time absolutely unintelligible to us, would more accurately describe our state of mind on that summer’s evening as we look at Jane Eyre – the great Jane Eyre – the tiny little lady. The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, though genius she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, especially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. She sat gazing at our father with kindling eyes of interest, lighting up with a sort of illumination every now and then as she answered him. I can see her bending forward over the table, not eating, but listening to what he said as he ate.
It was on this very occasion that my father invited some of his friends in the evening to meet Miss Brontë – for everybody was interested and anxious to see her. Mrs. Catherine Crowe, the reciter of ghost-stories, was there. Mrs. Brookfield, the Carlyles, Mrs. Jane Elliott and her sister Miss Kate Perry, Mrs. Procter and her daughter Adelaide, John Everett Millais, most of my father’s habitual friends and companions. It was a gloomy and a silent evening. Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess, Miss Truelock. The room looked very dark, the lamp began to smoke a little, the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all. Mrs. Brookfield, who was in the doorway by the study, near the corner in which Miss Brontë was sitting, leant forward with a little commonplace, since brilliance was not to be the order of the evening. ‘Do you like London, Miss Brontë?’ she said; another silence, a pause, then Miss Brontë answers, ‘Yes and No,’ very gravely. My sister and I were much too young to be bored in those days; alarmed, impressed we might be, but not yet bored. A party was a party, a lioness was a lioness; and – shall I confess it? – at that time an extra dish of biscuits was enough to mark the evening. We felt all the importance of the occasion: tea spread in the dining-room, ladies in the drawing-room. We roamed about inconveniently, no doubt, and excitedly, and in one of my incursions crossing the hall, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him. When I went back to the drawing-room again, the ladies asked me where he was. I vaguely answered that I thought he was coming back. I was puzzled at the time, nor was it all made clear to me till long years afterwards, when one day Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened once when my father had invited a party to meet Jane Eyre at his house. It was one of the dullest evenings she had ever spent in her life, she said. And then with a good deal of humour she described the situation – the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how, finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club. The ladies waited, wondered, and finally departed also; and as we were going up to bed with our candles after everybody was gone, I remember two more guests, in shiny silk dresses, arriving, full of expectation.’
This was obviously a difficult night for Charlotte Brontë, she never enjoyed being in the limelight; nevertheless, Anne Thackeray has given a fascinating portrait of her, and she also alludes to the fact that some people in literary circles had been suggesting that William Makepeace Thackeray himself was the author of the novels by the mysterious Bell brothers.
Another rumour was that Currer Bell was either a maid servant in the employ of Thackeray, or his mistress! (Despite the male-sounding pen name chosen by Charlotte many believed, correctly of course, that Jane Eyre was written by a woman). In November 1848, J. G. Lockhart wrote to the vituperative critic Elizabeth Rigby, stating: ‘The common rumour is that they [Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell] are brothers of the weaving order in some Lancashire town. At first it was generally said Currer was a lady, and Mayfair circumstantialised by making her the chére amie of Mr. Thackeray.’ Rigby herself wrote that, ‘Jane Eyre is sentimentally assumed to have proceeded from the pen of Mr. Thackeray’s governess.’
The 1850 dinner party was not the first encounter between Charlotte and Thackeray, and the meeting of these great novelists is commemorated forever on a door panel in Cornhill, London. This beautifully carved panel also shows Anne Brontë meeting Thackeray, but in fact the two never met. Charlotte’s very first meeting with the author of Vanity Fair was in December 1849, and once more it was brought about my George Smith. Charlotte wrote to her father after the event:
‘Yesterday I saw Mr. Thackeray. He dined here with some other gentlemen. He is a very tall man, above six feet high, with a peculiar face – not handsome – very ugly indeed – generally somewhat satirical and stern in expression, but capable also of a kind look. He was not told who I was – he was not introduced to me – but I soon saw him looking at me through his spectacles and when we all rose to go down to dinner he just stept quietly up and said “Shake hands” so I shook hands. He spoke very few words to me, but when he went away he shook hands again in a very kind way. It is better I should think to have him for a friend than an enemy, for he is a most formidable looking personage. I listened to him as he conversed with the other gentlemen – all he says is most simple but often cynical, harsh and contradictory.’
Four days later, on the 9th December 1849, this encounter was still weighing heavily on Charlotte’s mind, for she revisited it again in a letter to Ellen Nussey:
‘I suffer acute pain sometimes – mental pain, I mean. At the moment Mr. Thackeray presented himself I was thoroughly faint from inanition, having eaten nothing since a very slight breakfast, and it was then seven o’clock in the evening. Excitement and exhaustion together made savage work of me that evening – what he thought of me I cannot tell.’
We cannot tell what Charlotte’s reaction would have been when she discovered that Thackeray had a secret akin to Rochester’s, nor when she discovered the rumours that circulated about Thackeray and Currer Bell, but we can guess. Nevertheless, Charlotte continued to hold William Makepeace Thackeray in the utmost admiration, and she even purchased a portrait of him which is sometimes displayed in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Brutish in appearance, yet capable of kindness, a wealthy man with a family secret, and the host of grand society dinners that he escapes from at first opportunity – William Makepeace Thackeray was like Edward Rochester in many ways, even though Charlotte had never met him when she created the character. It also has to said that some of Thackeray’s attitudes towards Irish people, although of their time, were cruel and unenlightened, but perhaps Charlotte didn’t know that Thackeray wrote a series of anti-Irish diatribes for ‘Punch’ magazine under the pseudonym Hibernis Hibernior? What is undisputed is that Vanity Fair is indeed a masterpiece, satirical, thrilling and moving by turns, and it helped to inspire another genius, Charlotte Brontë, to become a novelist herself. For that we can all be thankful. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
Today is a very special day in the Brontë calendar, for Anne Brontë was born on the 17th January 1820; that make Anne 201 years old today – Happy Birthday Anne!
It’s fair to say that Anne’s big 200th birthday celebration year didn’t go as anyone expected or wanted, but hopefully we will still get the chance to celebrate Anne in a proper and fitting way once we have finally defeated this pandemic. We surely live in a very different world to just a year ago, so how different is it from the one that Anne was born into by the fireside of Thornton Parsonage near Bradford?
Some people like to buy newspapers from the day they were born, or receive cards bearing news from that natal date. In that spirit I’ve delved into the archives to find newspapers published on that exact date, 17th January 1820, and curated stories from them. Before we take a look at them, let’s turn to a news source a little closer to the Brontë home. Elizabeth Firth lived in Kipping House in Thornton; she became a firm friend of the Brontës, and was eventually made godmother to Anne. It is in her diary that we get our very first glimpse of Anne Brontë, and confirmation of the day she was born. Elizabeth’s diary entry for 17th January 1820 reads: ‘Anne Brontë born, the other children spent the day here.’
We can picture the five young Brontës making their way to Kipping House through the snow on this momentous day. How do we know it was snowing? It’s in the papers, of course, and in fact the country as a whole had been suffering from unusually cold weather:
The temperature has been recorded at two and a half degrees, that’s Fahrenheit of course, which equates to -16 degrees Celsius or Centigrade (why does it have two names?). It had been like that since the start of the year, and rivers and canals had frozen, causing great disruption to trade. In those days before central heating and modern clothing, it can’t have been pleasant.
The weather report in The Statesman noted especial concern for the poor of the nation at this ferociously cold time, and this was picked up by many papers. There was a large demand for food and relief to be given to the poor, but the government, and some of the richer people of the country, seemed less than willing to help. This correspondent who signed his name “Homo Sum” (meaning “I am a man”) declared that ‘there is nothing so disgraceful as a good excuse to withhold charity’. He also takes direct aim at those in positions of authority who say that some of the claimants may be fraudulent or undeserving, or that they should be covered by the Poor Rate.
For the poor, this harsh winter was a thing of terror, but the upper classes were having a grand old time, skating on the frozen Serpentine lake within London’s Hyde Park. It’s reported that a hundred thousand people were on the ice, led by the dashing Frederick Byng.
Byng was the fifth son of Viscount Torrington and had become a favourite of the scandal sheets of the time. He was nicknamed ‘Poodle’ and was said to have had many conquests, mainly by himself. I wonder what Lady Whistledown of ‘Bridgerton’ would have made of him? With so many people on the Serpentine ice it’s little wonder that the ice gave way in two places, but thankfully it’s reported that no fatalities took place, and the skating carried on uninterrupted.
Falling through ice was far from the only threat in January 1820, as this advert shows. Poignantly for an ad published on the day of Anne Brontë’s birth it reveals that 40,000 die annually of consumption (tuberculosis), with a quarter of the fatalities coming in London. The figures for both are likely to have been much higher in reality, and it’s also likely that Anne’s visit to London in the summer of 1848 at least partially influenced her own death from consumption less than a year later.
Reading newspapers from the early decades of the nineteenth century provides a never ending supply of strange ways in which people met their end. This man was particularly unlucky, the pig rather less so.
The time of Anne’s birth and life was one that saw huge change and technological advances throughout the country, but Londoners were left disheartened by the failure to repair the main Thames crossing at London Bridge. Plus ça change, as last year London Bridge was again closed for six months, and Hammersmith Bridge is in such a state of disrepair that it has remained closed to traffic and pedestrians since August of last year.
The birth of a sixth child brought joy and hope to the Brontë family of Thornton, but where could others find hope? If they could afford a ticket they could enter the ‘Golden Lottery’ and dream of changing their life. The eventual winner, if indeed there was one, has not been recorded.
Another distraction could be found in that most timeless form of entertainment, performing dogs! The Caledonian Mercury makes this sound like a delightful treat which would surely take our ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ by storm, and who in any era could fail to be astounded by a fire dog and a rope dancing dog? I particularly like the sound of the ‘learned dog’ who defeats human opposition at dominos – beat that, Simon Cowell!
Finally, we turn to a newspaper from Anne’s birth county, the West Riding of Yorkshire. We find a poem in praise of the winter and ‘the gloomy genius of the storm and flood’. Perhaps fittingly for a poem published on the day that the future author of Agnes Grey was born, the poet gives their name simply as ‘Agnes’.
All of these pieces were published on that special day, 17th January 2020. We find performing dogs as popular entertainment, the threat of infectious disease, London bridges closed, a government that won’t feed the poor, a lottery that’s impossible to win, and dancing on ice drawing large audiences. Perhaps things aren’t that different 201 years later after all?
One thing that will never change is the brilliance of Anne Brontë’s writing. It’s there whenever we need it, so let’s raise a glass of something pleasant and say ‘Happy birthday Anne Brontë!’
Many people made a lasting impression on Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë – people such as Ellen Nussey, Mary Taylor, George Smith and Margaret Wooler. This week marks the anniversary of the passing of a woman who certainly made a lasting impression upon Charlotte Brontë and influenced her work, but they weren’t necessarily the best of friends. In today’s post we’re going to look at Madame Claire Heger, the prototype of Madame Beck in Villette.
Claire Zoë Parent was born in 1804 in Belgium to a French father, but perhaps the most significant relative, for our story, was her aunt. This aunt was a nun who ran boarding schools in Brussels, with a girl’s school and boy’s school adjacent to each other. It may be supposed that Clare worked as a teacher in that school for in 1830 she inherited the establishment, known as a Pensionnat. By 1842, at the time that two new English pupils arrived at the school on the city’s Rue d’Isabelle (Charlotte and Emily Brontë of course) it bore a plaque outside hailing it as the ‘Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger-Parent.’
Charlotte would always remember the moment she arrived at the school, and recreated it in the guise of English born teacher William Crimsworth in her first-written novel The Professor:
‘I saw what a fine street was the Rue Royale, and, walking leisurely along its broad pavement, I continued to survey its stately hotels, till the palisades, the gates, and trees of the park appearing in sight, offered to my eye a new attraction. I remember, before entering the park, I stood awhile to contemplate the statue of General Belliard, and then I advanced to the top of the great staircase just beyond, and I looked down into a narrow back street, which I afterwards learnt was called the Rue d’Isabelle. I well recollect that my eye rested on the green door of a rather large house opposite, where, on a brass plate, was inscribed, “Pensionnat de Demoiselles.” Pensionnat! The word excited an uneasy sensation in my mind; it seemed to speak of restraint. Some of the demoiselles, externats no doubt, were at that moment issuing from the door – I looked for a pretty face amongst them, but their close, little French bonnets hid their features; in a moment they were gone.’
Let’s head back to see how Claire Parent is doing as Directrice of her own school. In 1833 she hired a new Professor for the boy’s school which was named the Athenee Royal. Constantin Georges Heger was 24 but had already experienced tragedy in his life. He came from a wealthy family but the fortune had been lost and the young Constantin moved to Paris to seek his own way in life as a lawyer. In 1830 he married Marie Josephine Noyer but she, along with their son, died in 1833 and Constantin returned to his home city of Brussels. It was in the direct aftermath of this double tragedy that he was hired by Claire Parent to teach at the Athenee Royal. She must have helped to heal his broken heart, for three years later they were married and Claire became Madame Heger.
Within ten years of their marriage they had (like Patrick and Maria Brontë) six children: Marie, Louise, Claire, Prospere (born in the year the Brontës arrived in Brussels), Julie and Paul. That’s the happy Heger family at the top of the post, painted by Ange Francois. Claire is centre stage, although her husband Constantin is looking on rather furtively from the left as if he’s about to sneak off whilst his wife’s back is turned.
The story is well known of how Charlotte Brontë spent time as both a pupil and then teacher in Brussels, and of how she came to fall in love with Professor Constantin Heger. We only need to look at the despairing letters that Charlotte sent back to Brussels after her return to Haworth at the commencement of 1844 to see this, including one sent on 8th January 1845 in which she writes: ‘Pardonnez-moi donc Monsieur si je prends le partie de vous ecrire encore – Comment puis-je supporter la vie si je ne fais pas un effort pour en alleger les suffrances?’
Let’s have it in English, and see just what suffering the departure from Constantin caused Charlotte:
This letter and others sent from Charlotte to Constantin were first published in 1913 by ‘The Times’ newspaper, and they caused an uproar. Up until then the prevailing orthodoxy was that Charlotte had not been in love with Constantin at all, but these letters proved otherwise and challenged the Victorian attitudes of propriety which were still holding firm among the chattering classes. The general opinion in 1913 was that the letters should have been destroyed rather than published, but thank goodness that they were brought to life for it allows us to see a passionate, human side of Charlotte Brontë that we can surely all sympathise with, and it gives us a first hand insight into the events and emotions that shaped The Professor and Villette and which influenced the character of Rochester.
We can have no doubt that poor Charlotte fell head over heels for Monsieur Heger, although you might not guess that from her first mention of him in a May 1842 letter to Ellen Nussey:
‘There is one individual of whom I have not yet spoken: Monsieur Heger the husband of Madame. He is professor of Rhetoric, a man of power as to mind but very choleric and irritable in temperament – a little, black, ugly being with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane Tom-cat – sometimes those of a delirious hyena – occasionally, but very seldom, he discards these perilous attractions and assumes an air not above a hundred degrees removed from what you would call mild and gentleman-like.’
In this same letter Charlotte also introduced Claire Heger:
‘Madame Heger the head is a lady of precisely the same cast of mind, degree of cultivation & quality of character as Miss Catherine Wooler [this sister of Margaret Wooler had taught Charlotte at Roe Head and was renowned for her aloofness and severity]. I think the severe points are a little softened because she has not been disappointed & consequently soured – in a word she is a married instead of a maiden lady.’
By the following year, Charlotte’s views on Claire had hardened, as she expressed in a letter to her sister Emily dated 29th May 1843:
‘Of late days, Mr and Mde Heger rarely speak to me, and I really don’t pretend to care a fig for anybody else in that establishment. You are not to suppose by that expression that I am under the influence of warm affection for Mde Heger. I am convinced that she does not like me – why, I can’t tell.’
Perhaps the clearest indication of Charlotte’s feelings towards Claire Heger (although once again hidden by another name) is given via the depiction of Madame Beck in Villette – clearly a depiction of Madame Heger herself.
Madame Modeste Beck is the cool and calculating head of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles; she is not averse to spying on pupils and staff alike, and ruling them with a rod of iron. She is the antagonist of Lucy Snowe, doing all she can to keep Lucy from Monsieur Paul, and Charlotte Brontë is unsparing in her description of her:
‘About noon, I was summoned to dress Madame. (It appeared my place was to be a hybrid between gouvernante and lady’s-maid.) Till noon, she haunted the house in her wrapping-gown, shawl, and soundless slippers. How would the lady-chief of an English school approve this custom?
The dressing of her hair puzzled me; she had plenty of it: auburn, unmixed with grey: though she was forty years old. Seeing my embarrassment, she said, “You have not been a femme-de-chambre in your own country?” And taking the brush from my hand, and setting me aside, not ungently or disrespectfully, she arranged it herself. In performing other offices of the toilet, she half-directed, half-aided me, without the least display of temper or impatience. N.B.—That was the first and last time I was required to dress her. Henceforth, on Rosine, the portress, devolved that duty.
When attired, Madame Beck appeared a personage of a figure rather short and stout, yet still graceful in its own peculiar way; that is, with the grace resulting from proportion of parts. Her complexion was fresh and sanguine, not too rubicund; her eye, blue and serene; her dark silk dress fitted her as a French sempstress alone can make a dress fit; she looked well, though a little bourgeoise; as bourgeoise, indeed, she was. I know not what of harmony pervaded her whole person; and yet her face offered contrast, too: its features were by no means such as are usually seen in conjunction with a complexion of such blended freshness and repose: their outline was stern: her forehead was high but narrow; it expressed capacity and some benevolence, but no expanse; nor did her peaceful yet watchful eye ever know the fire which is kindled in the heart or the softness which flows thence. Her mouth was hard: it could be a little grim; her lips were thin. For sensibility and genius, with all their tenderness and temerity, I felt somehow that Madame would be the right sort of Minos in petticoats… “Surveillance,” “espionage,” – these were her watchwords.’
There can be no doubt that Lucy didn’t get on with Madame Beck, nor did Charlotte get on with Madame Heger, but why? The answer clearly lies in Charlotte’s affections for Claire’s husband Constantin. He never replied to Charlotte’s letters after her return to England, and they grow ever more desparate. Indeed, they have been torn into pieces and then stitched back together again. Perhaps Constantin meant to destroy the evidence of this unrequited love, but his wife, being an expert spy around her kingdom, found them and pieced them back together again?
We all love Charlotte Brontë of course, and we all love her masterly novel Villette, but in Belgium a very different view of the novel tended to be held. Claire Heger was a pillar of the Brussels commnunity and well loved for her lifelong services to education and for her charitable works. It was she, in the minds of her countrymen, who had been wronged.
Claire Heger died in 1890, and her husband survived her by six years. On 3rd June 1896 ‘The Sketch’ carried an extraordinary obituary of Constantin Heger written by Albert Colin, editor of ‘L’Etoile Belge’. In it, Monsieur Colin writes:
‘At the end of two years [after Charlotte Brontë’s entrance into the Pensionnat], the future English novelist spoke and wrote correctly the language of Bossuet, Racine and Voltaire. Once this had been achieved, Madame Heger, considering that her part of the contract morally entered into between herself and Charlotte had been completely fulfilled, refused to receive Miss Brontë a third year in her school. According to the statements of her own schoolfellows, the daughter of the English clergyman [sic] was anything but popular… Madame Heger was, therefore, not sorry to put an end to the connection.
The humiliating refusal to which she had been exposed sorely wounded Charlotte Brontë, who was not happy in her father’s house… She warned Madame Heger that she would take her revenge, and this threat was soon carried out.’
Clearly the Heger family in Brussels, maybe the city as a whole, felt slighted by Villette, although they could not help but acknowledge its genius. These wounds were healed, however, in 1953 by the visit to Haworth of a woman with a very appropriate name: Madame Beck(ers).
Madame Beckers was a guest of honour at the Brontë Parsonage, for she was in fact the granddaughter of Claire and Constantin Heger. After being given a tour of the museum, she pronounced that she forgave Charlotte for her portrayal of her grandmother as Madame Beck. What Charlotte’s response would have been we do not know, although a faint rumbling noise may have been heard coming from the nearby church.
Perhaps we too, in a spirit of reconciliation, should put aside any ill feelings we may have towards Madame Heger. At the time Charlotte knew her, Claire was successfully running two schools and raising her family, and she was also pregnant in both of the years that Charlotte was in Brussels – with Prospere in 1842 and with Julie in 1843. She may also have been understandably suspicious of Charlotte’s growing infatuation with her husband, and she may have witnessed similar things in previous years with other pupils.
What we can say for certain is that Claire Heger was a good mother and a good headmistress, and that without the advent of herself and Constantin Heger in Charlotte’s life the world of literature would be very different today. For that we can all be grateful. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post; have a slice of cake ready for we’ll be saying happy 201st birthday to Anne Brontë!
A new year has dawned and I suppose that most of us will be glad to wave goodbye to the pestilent 2020. Many people see the turn of the year as a time to make resolutions, or a time to take a blank canvas and finally put into action the plans we’ve long thought of.
I’m generally an optimistic sort of chap, and there is definitely light and hope at the end of this tunnel, thanks to the vaccines that are just starting to be delivered. Maybe this year will see Anne Brontë 200th birthday events that should have taken place last year finally spring into life? I also believe that we may see some new Brontë television this year too, although I don’t know how Covid has affected the plans I heard about. Certainly the pandemic has delayed the release of my Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey book, but I’m confident that it too will see the light of day in the months ahead.
One thing which is beyond doubt is that we will still have the Brontë books to turn to, so whatever’s happening in the world without the world within can be a happy place. There’s lots of new year motivation and January wisdom to be found in the words of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.
“I try to avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward. This is not the time to regret, dread or weep.”
Letter to Ellen Nussey, January 15, 1849
These very wise words from Charlotte Brontë were part of a doleful letter written at a very distressing time, but they show that even in moments of darkness Charlotte was always clinging onto that Pandoran gift – hope. Charlotte also wrote of the powerful force of forgiveness:
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs”
Charlotte Brontë was not a person who suffered fools gladly; she had high standards and could be cutting about those who failed to match up to them. Nevertheless, she was at heart a very kind woman and she was always ready to forgive and forget. Emily Brontë was feted for her kindness by all who knew her, yet her writing is often dark and brilliantly challenging. Nevertheless in her masterpiece Wuthering Heights, Emily reveals how the pleasures of the natural world brought brightness and joy into her life – a lesson we can all learn from:
“He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy.”
The climax of the novel sees old wrongs righted, and the feuds of the past laid to rest forever. This is Emily’s lesson for the new year, one repeated in the following lines of poetry written when she was 18: forget the painful past, and move on to a better future:
“But this is past and why return
O’er such a past to brood and mourn?
Shake off the fetters and break the chain
And live and love and smile again
The waste of youth the waste of years
Departed in that dungeon’s thrall
The gnawing grief the hopeless tears
Forget them – O forget them all -.”
One reason that Anne Brontë’s novels are both so powerful is that they are optimistic in nature. Anne was determined to depict the perils of life with truth and honesty, yet she also showed her innate belief in redemption and the pursuit of happiness. Both Agnes and Helen (especially) have much to endure, and yet their novels end with them marrying the man they love and settling down to a much brighter future. They have been kind in the face of horrific provocation and misfortune, and have reaped the rewards, and I think that the following line sums up succinctly Anne’s attitude to life:
“The more happiness we bestow, the more we shall receive, even here.”
I’ll close today’s post with the final lines of Anne’s poem ‘The Consolation’. One consolation that we can all embrace is that 2020 is behind us, and we all have lots to look forward to, including spending lots more time with those we love most. Happy New Year to you all, and I hope to see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.
“When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.
Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.
The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.
Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.”
Well here it is, Merry Christmas, and hopefully a day to look forward to a better year ahead for us all. As always, I will close this short but special post with Anne Brontë’s very own tribute to Christmas morning, and I’ll throw in an unusual Victorian Christmas card or two, but I will start with a card with a rather more sedate feel:
This understated yet sweet card was sent by Ellen Nussey to Charlotte Brontë during a festive season of date unknown. Inside, in typically formal manner, Ellen has written to her best friend: “Wishing you the old wish, A Merry Christmas, and, A Happy New Year, from E. Nussey.”
Christmas cards were still in their infancy at this period, and this is the only extant Christmas card we know of sent to, or by, a Brontë. Later in the Victorian period, as we shall see, these cards took on a rather more colourful, not to say bizarre, hue.
I also want to mention a couple of great books that may be of interest to you. The first is The Brontës’ Christmas compiled by Maria Hubert, which was bought for me by the wonderful Emma Langan who has done so much to brighten my year. It’s too late for you to buy this for this particular Christmas of course, but bear it in mind for next year. It contains festive writing by Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell, as well as Christmas writing by some of their contemporaries including Thackeray and Southey (we won’t mention his letter, after all it is the season of good will). It’s beautifully put together and illustrated and it even contains this recipe for spice cake that we can easily imagine the Brontës enjoying:
We all love quizzes, and we all love the Brontës, so how about combining the two? Well now you can, thanks to A Brontë Quiz Book by John Hennessy. John is a longstanding Brontë enthusiast and expert, and the author of Emily Jane Brontë And Her Music. His quiz book contains 400 Brontë related questions, along with picture questions, and you can play them by yourself or with friends and family in your bubble. It’s a great, fun way to pass time and, even better, all proceeds go to the Brontë Society Covid Appeal which ensures that the Brontë Parsonage Museum keeps its head above water in these challenging times. The book is, or soon will be, available to purchase online via the Brontë Parsonage shop or in the shop itself once it re-opens.
Right, it’s time to look at some 19th century Christmas cards which truly capture the festive spirit, many of which I first saw on the wonderful Twitter account of @HorribleSanity. Please don’t let the clowns scare you!
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to share part of your Christmas day with me, and for all your support throughout the year. As it’s only two days away I will be taking a break from my usual Sunday post this week, but I hope you can join me next week (and next year) for a new Brontë blog post. Whatever you are doing today, and whoever you share it with, I hope you have a Happy Christmas and a day full of good food and good books. I will leave you now, as always on this day, with Anne Brontë’s poem, ‘Music On Christmas Morning’:
“Music I love – but never strain
Could kindle raptures so divine,
So grief assuage, so conquer pain,
And rouse this pensive heart of mine –
As that we hear on Christmas morn,
Upon the wintry breezes born.
Though Darkness still her empire keep,
And hours must pass, ere morning break;
From troubled dreams, or slumbers deep,
That music kindly bids us wake:
It calls us, with an angel’s voice,
To wake, and worship, and rejoice;
To greet with joy the glorious morn,
Which angels welcomed long ago,
When our redeeming Lord was born,
To bring the light of Heaven below;
The Powers of Darkness to dispel,
And rescue Earth from Death and Hell.
While listening to that sacred strain,
My raptured spirit soars on high;
I seem to hear those songs again
Resounding through the open sky,
That kindled such divine delight,
In those who watched their flocks by night.
With them – I celebrate His birth –
Glory to God, in highest Heaven,
Good will to men, and peace on Earth,
To us a saviour-king is given;
Our God is come to claim His own,
And Satan’s power is overthrown!
A sinless God, for sinful men,
Descends to suffer and to bleed;
Hell must renounce its empire then;
The price is paid, the world is freed.
And Satan’s self must now confess,
That Christ has earned a Right to bless:
Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.”
The year draws to an end and we’re just a few days away from Christmas and all that brings (which may be slightly less than usual in this oddest of years). As promised, I want to bring you something truly special today: a glimpse into the lives of the Brontës from those who actually knew them. It’s a long post but, I hope you’ll agree, packed with fascinating detail. We’ll hear from Haworth villagers at the time of the Brontës, and from two of the people who knew the Brontës better than most: Charlotte’s widow Arthur Bell Nicholls and Charlotte’s friend and long time parsonage servant Martha Brown. I guarantee that you won’t have read most of these accounts before.
I love delving into the archives and finding stories of the Brontës that have become lost through the passage of time, and over the years I’ve accumulated a large collection of them. Some of my favourites are reproduced below, but as this year is Anne Brontë’s special year we will begin with two accounts that feature in my book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200. I do this partly to promote the publisher of the book, Valley Press, an independent little publishing house in Anne’s beloved Scarborough who like so many others must have been having a tough time this year. Take a look at their website, they have a great collection of books and every purchase helps. I’ve chosen these two first person accounts from the many in Crave The Rose because they shine a sweet light on Anne’s character. I will then follow these with half a dozen accounts which you won’t find in that book, or any other. I hope you enjoy them, so let’s begin by stepping back into a winter day in Haworth over a century and a half ago:
A Winter-Day In Haworth, Chamber’s Journal, 22 February 1868
‘Standing beside Charlotte’s last resting place, I questioned my conductor respecting her, and found him at once ready and willing to oblige me with all the information in his possession. “He had been but a little boy,” he said, “when all the family were living, but he remembered the three sisters well, and had often run errands for Mr Patrick. They used to take a great deal of notice of him when he was little; but Miss Annie was his favourite, perhaps because she always paid him so much attention. Baking-day never came round at the parsonage without her remembering to make a little cake or dumpling for him, and she seldom met him without having something good and sweet to bestow on him.
Yes, they were a very reserved family, and very peculiar in their habits. The villagers did not see much of them, except on Sundays; and of course nobody knew that the young ladies were writing books, or that they had become famous, until, long after, strange people had begun to come from a distance to see them. And then the letters! What a heap of letters were always brought to the parsonage in those days by the postman!
Miss Emily, who is buried here, beside Charlotte, was the strangest of all the family; nobody thought so much of Miss Charlotte herself. Emily never came down into the village, or at least very rarely; but here, through the window, I might see the path by which she used always to go from the parsonage from to the moors. Hundreds of times, when he was a boy, he had watched her go through the stile yonder, followed by her dogs. No matter what the weather was, she loved the moors so much that she must go out upon them, and enjoy the fresh breezes. When she went away from Haworth, to become a governess, she was taken very ill, and sickened until she was brought home again, and then she very soon recovered. She loved the moors so much, that it would have been a sad thing if she had been buried away from them.
Of course I had read Mrs Gaskell’s book, and the way in which she had refused to see a doctor until an hour or two before she died. About Miss Charlotte, he could not tell so much, she was so very reserved; but he remembered seeing her stand, just where he was standing now, that morning when she was married. To his mind, Mr Branwell was the cleverest of the family. A wonderful talker he was, and able to do things which nobody he had ever seen could do. He had seen Branwell sitting in the vestry, talking to his (the sexton’s) father, and writing two different letters at the same time. He could take a pen in each hand, and write a letter with each at once. He had seen him do that many times, and had afterwards read the letters written in that way. Yes; it was true that he had come to a sad end, but Mrs Gaskell had not stated the case about him correctly.
Haworth people did not like Mrs Gaskell at all. There was a deal of feeling against her for what she had said about Mr Branwell, and the villagers encouraging him to drink. Mrs Gaskell said that he had learned to drink as a boy, and had gone on strengthening his habit; but that was not true. When he was nineteen years old he was secretary to the temperance society in the village, and it was not until after that that he learned to drink. It was not correct that the landlord of the Bull had anything to do with teaching him, though it was quite true that he used to sit in the back parlour there and drink almost constantly of an evening when he was older. But if he could not have got drink there, he would have been sure to have got it somewhere else. But, oh, he was a fine talker Branwell; and such a talker! Ay, and when he was at the worst, he never missed coming to the Sunday school with his sisters. They all used to come regularly.
He remembered Mr Branwell’s funeral, and Miss Emily’s funeral, and of course he remembered Miss Charlotte’s and Mr Brontë’s. A strange old gentleman was Mr Brontë – Mr Nicholls, who married Miss Charlotte, was very well liked by the people. A true gentleman he was, though very shy and reserved; but how could he help being that, when he had lived so long with such a family? When Mr Brontë died he “put in” for the place; but when he found out there was likely to be opposition, he withdrew, and now he was living in Ireland again, where he had married a second wife. With such pleasant garrulousness did my companion entertain me, even while I stood beside the grave in which ‘life’s fitful fever’ o’er, the bones of Charlotte Brontë rest.’
Old Haworth Folk Who Knew The Brontës, Cornhill Magazine, 29 July 1910
‘She [Tabitha Ratcliffe, younger sister to long time Brontë servant Martha Brown] still preserves a few mementoes of the various members of the family: of Miss Branwell a silk shawl, of Mr Brontë a small hammer he used to use, and of Charlotte a delaine skirt and a white sprigged net veil – which latter has served as a christening veil for several of her grandchildren. Perhaps, however, her most interesting relic is a photograph on glass of the three sisters. “I believe Charlotte was the lowest and the broadest, and Emily was the tallest. She’d bigger bones and was stronger looking and more masculine, but very nice in her ways,” she comments. “But I used to think Miss Anne looked the nicest and most serious like; she used to teach at Sunday school. I’ve been taught by her and by Charlotte and all.” And it is on Anne that her glance rests as she says, “I think that is a good face.” There is no doubt which of the sisters of Haworth was Mrs Ratcliffe’s favourite.’
Camera And Pencil In Charlotte Brontë’s Country, Batley Reporter And Guardian, 3 April 1897
Brontë students must not read this free-and-easy record of a week-end in the Brontë country. It is for laymen who have conned with delight the immortal Jane Eyre and the fascinating Shirley; but who have never read Mrs. Gaskell’s Life Of Charlotte Brontë, or had the patience to wade through the plethora of letters in Mr. Clement Shorter’s recent work.
The bright sunshine of early morning on a Saturday in windy March gladdens the heart of the gentleman who has promised to accompany me in our little exhibition, with the object of pictorially reproducing the scenes that we visited… A quarter of an hour’s journey, and the porter sonorously shouts “Howarth” – caring not a fig for the laws of orthography – and, with stand and portfolio, we alight at a little station unknown in Charlotte Brontë’s day, and suggestive of the changes of the past thirty or forty years…
The homeward journey is relieved by a humorous dialogue with the Man of the Moor, a self-centred, self-opinionated keeper, who has known no society but the lonely moor for a quarter of a century. ‘Old Bluche’, the sobriquet in which he rejoices, followed by pointer and setter, is making tracks for his cottage on the moor. He looks too much of a character to pass without challenge…
“Ha wish Charlut Bronty ha’ ta’en t’waterfall wi’ her. She’d a’ saved me a lot o’ truble.”
“What for?” I enquired.
“Wha, I doan’t min’ yer lads and lasses goin’ to t’waterfall, but yer mun stick to tu’t path and noan wander o’er my moor.”
Upon hazarding that the moor not was the place for the preservation of game and the exclusion of man, he rejoined,
“Ah, they cum here wanderin’ o’ert’ Moor, stealing t’eggs, flaying t’ung birds. It’s a peety she ha’ na’ ta’en her waterfall wi’ her. If they’d only move it neer t’edge ot Moor, I wudent care.” Then, menacingly pointing to the innocent guide – “It’s lads loike that that cums taking t’eggs, that bothers me.”
“Then you are not an admirer of Charlotte Brontë?”
“Noa, I’m not. I doan’t believe i’ her. She niver wrate them books ‘at they talk abaut.”
“Not wrote the books? Who did then?”
“Wha, she didn’t; poor, waik little thing. Sum geentlefowks met together an’ boxed them up for her.”
More light on the Brontës at Haworth!
A little friendly chaff on his startling literary theory and his geographical knowledge, and he makes another alarming assertion, which leads us to associate the place of his nativity with Paddy’s Land –
“I’ve niver bean out of Yorkshir – but I’ve been in Dublin.”…
From the bleak and wintry moor, now covered with snow, which had been falling fast for hours, asylum is sought in the humble cottage of a devout and infirm couple, who have climbed the hill together, and are going down into the valley happy in each other’s society, and with buoyant hope for the future. Both of them knew the Brontës; both talked freely about them, especially the aged veteran, who, puritanical as he now is, would hear nothing against the erring Branwell worse than that “he wor fond o’ a bit a cum-pony.”’
An Interview With Charlotte Brontë’s Husband, Yorkshire Post, 12 September 1893
The tardy revival of public interest in the Brontë literature brings to light an interesting fact. The Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte Brontë’s husband during the last nine happy months of her life survives her. His old age is passed among his own people in the South of Ireland, where, highly esteemed by the peasantry and all about him, as he was by those who knew him best at Haworth, he follows the career of a gentleman farmer…
Mr. Turner’s interview with him [Arthur] seems to have given him the liveliest pleasure. It was accorded very readily, and it introduced him to an excellent host. “I should not”, he [Brontë biographer and Arthur’s interviewer Horsfall Turner] says, “have known him from the photograph. This is nothing less, indeed, than a caricature. You would fancy him as you look at it a curt, snarling, heavy-jawed, morose Hibernian. But I had learnt something of him from Martha Brown, who was long his trusted servant, both at Haworth and at his Irish home, and the moment I felt the hearty grip of his hand I was at home with him. We were seated in his drawing-room, with the kind eyes of Richmond’s own drawing of Charlotte streaming down their lustrous expression upon us… Next I eyed more carefully my host – a genial, well-built, healthy, ruddy-faced, strong-haired gentleman, in manner, mind and matter as different from the usual portrayal of him as chalk and cheese. Sunviter in modo, fortiter in re is the best description I can give of his bearing [gentle in manner, strong in deed]. I could get on with him well; nay, I already revere him. He is the country gentleman, not only cultured, charitable, manly, but Christ-like.
The Richmond portrait, as it hung in the parlour of Haworth Parsonage, had for company, as most people will remember, portraits of the Duke of Wellington and Thackeray (the latter a gift of the author) to which, said Charlotte, in one of her playful moods, “It serves for contrast and foil. Thackeray looks away from it with a grand scorn edifying to witness”. These, too, are in Mr. Nicholls’ drawing-room, with five lead-pencil drawings – copies of engravings, minute in detail – of which three bear the “printed” autograph of Anne Brontë, and the other two are Charlotte’s work. He has, besides, Emily Brontë’s coloured crayon drawing of her two favourite dogs and her cat. Finally, of Patrick Branwell Brontë there is a massive framed medallion, sculpted by his friend Leyland, of Halifax – a high-relief profile in white marble…
“I specially asked,” he [Turner] writes, “about the last walk of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls to see the water fall in flood, and was corroborated in the belief that the fall in question is that which is usually called the Brontë Fall, near the parsonage at Haworth. We spoke about closely identifying characters in the novels with Charlotte’s relatives and acquaintances and he joined in the deprecation. We spoke of Miss Martineau and Mrs. Gaskell and the misunderstandings that were afterwards rectified so far as the former was concerned. This led me to state that one of the most remarkable puzzles to Brontë students is the silence that he has preserved ever since Mrs. Gaskell’s memoir appeared. I now believe that both Mr. Brontë and Mr. Nicholls had the best motive for this silence, and exercised the rare gift of Christian charity in preserving it. Mr. Nicholls has borne obloquy with patience and courage; in the long run he will be duly appreciated… Not long after his return to Ireland he married again. His second wife, who is unfortunately an invalid, was a Miss Bell, one of his cousins.”’
A Visit To Haworth, Batley Reporter and Guardian, 13 September 1873
‘For years I had felt a desire to visit what was the home of the Brontë family, and to have a peep at the district which they have made for ever famous. I had read their wondrous books with a pleasure that many people cannot understand, and had become more and more interested in their home and haunts. Accordingly, I and a friend determined that we would have a day over there, come what might, and fixed on 3rd September as the date… There is a pretty little wooden station at the foot of the village, although the train service between Haworth and Keighley is not of the most accommodating character.
As we had plenty of time before us we sat down a little and enjoyed the beauties of the morning scene. We had not been sat long before we were joined by a personage of the exact character that Mrs. Gaskell’s book would make one expect to meet in Haworth. We were soon in conversation with him, and found that he had been particularly acquainted with the Brontë family. He was a farmer just outside the village, and the old vicar and his daughters used to come very morning to his house for milk, generally accompanied by a large dog. He had talked with them all “scores of times,” and was very well acquainted with Branwell, whom he said had been “led off before he became a man.” As we had read much of the conduct of the father towards his children, and his treatment of them, we thought that they who had lived around them for a life time would be best able to tell. In answer to our enquiries he said that he “was as good a father as ever lived,” and also that “niver a quieter man ever lived.” We made the same enquiries of different persons during the day, and received similar answers to the above… Our friend at the station however admitted that he [Patrick Brontë, although the interviewer may be getting him confused with Branwell] used to get a little too much to drink occasionally, and told of once bringing him home in a drunken state and telling parties he had had a fit. For the above service he reinstated himself in the good graces of Miss Branwell who had once run him away from the parsonage with a pistol in her hand…
Before we reached the village, we met with another old villager, who in answer to a question in our conversation with him, said he “Knew all t’lot on ‘em.” He knew Branwell particularly well, and had often met with him at the Black Bull and other places. He said “he wor a trimmer”, an expression that the reader may explain for himself. On questioning him further respecting Branwell, he said “he was as gooid a fellow as ivver brake bread.” He told us that if any one had gone to him and read a passage from a book, he could at the conclusion have repeated the whole of it…
We sought out the residence of the sexton and got his wife to show us round the place… The woman said she had been one of the scholars in Miss Charlotte’s class in the Sunday school, and also told us that she was a good teacher, but “rather sharp.” All the sisters she said were very kind, but Annie was the most gentle. She well remembered the incident which is so often related respecting Emily, viz., her being bit with the dog, and coming home, and without a murmur burning out the part with a red hot iron.’
A Pilgrimage To Haworth, Leeds Mercury 4 March 1893
‘On the particular pilgrimage which forms the subject of the present sketch, I, in company with an antiquarian friend of like tastes, chose this as our route on a fine day fifteen summers ago… Haworth was now soon reached, and as the chief object of our visit was to have an interview with Martha Brown, the faithful servant of the Brontës for many years, we were not long before ourselves seated in her small, but clean and comfortable, dwelling at the bottom of the village…
Though by no means demonstrative in manner, Martha gave us a cordial greeting, and had a happy way of making us feel “quite at home,” as she termed it. Of course, the chief topic of our conversation was the Brontë family. Her reminiscences of the members of that family abound in references to their uniform kindness to herself and others. “From my first entering the house,” she said, “I was always recognised and treated as a member of the family, although by outsiders I was spoken of as the servant girl”…
Peeling the potatoes for dinner was one of Tabby’s duties, but from her partial blindness she was unable to see and cut out the black specks known as the ‘eyes’ of the potato. “Miss Brontë was too dainty a housekeeper to put up with this, yet she could not bear to hurt the faithful old servant by bidding the younger maiden (Martha) to go over the potatoes again. Accordingly, she would steal into the kitchen, and quietly carry off the bowl of vegetables without Tabby’s being aware, and, breaking off in the full flow of interest and inspiration in her writing (Jane Eyre), carefully cut out the specks in the potatoes, and noiselessly carry them back to their place.”…
Although she spoke in a quiet, subdued tone, her narrative would sometimes become animated, even thrilling; at others deeply pathetic. Especially touching was her description of Charlotte’s maternal anxieties for her younger sisters, and the strong attachment each had for the others. She also told us of the long rambles on the moors; of the regular habits of indoor life; the putting away of domestic work punctually at nine o’clock in the evening, and their beginning their literary studies, talking over the stories they were engaged upon, and describing their plots. “Many’s the time that I have seen Miss Emily put down the tally-iron as she was ironing the clothes to scribble something on a piece of paper. Whatever she was doing, ironing or baking, she had her pencil and paper by her. I know now that she was then writing Wuthering Heights.”
When old Tabby became so lame that she had to give up her work for a time, Charlotte and Emily, who were then at home, divided her duties betwixt them, the former doing the ironing and keeping the rooms clean; the latter the baking and attending generally to the kitchen. “Poor Emily,” said Martha, “we always thought to be the best-looking, the cleverest, and the bravest-spirited of the three. Little did we dream that she would be the first to be taken away.”
Martha had many interesting things treasured in her memory concerning Charlotte Brontë’s literary career. When news first came to Haworth that Miss Brontë was the author of Jane Eyre and Shirley, Martha was the first to bring it to the parsonage. She rushed to the house in the greatest excitement, exclaiming, “I’ve heard such news!” “What about?” inquired Miss Brontë. “Please, ma’am; you’ve been and written two books – the grandest books that ever was seen. My father has heard it at Halifax, and Mr. T-, and Mr. G, and Mr. M-, at Bradford. They are going to have a meeting at the Mechanics Institute to settle about ordering them.”…
The former [Charlotte Brontë] did not much care to talk about either herself or her book, but these were themes on which Martha, for the very life of her, could not be silent, and talk about them she would. “Well, Martha,” said Charlotte, “I only hope the book may be worth all the fuss that is being made about it, but I am afraid it is not.” Taking a very practical view of the subject, and wishing to say something by way of encouragement, Martha replied, “Oh, but you must please not forget the good that your book must have done in supplying employment to so many people. Look at the printers, bookbinders, stationers, and others who have been benefitted by its large sale.” “Thank you, Martha, for putting it in that light,” said Miss Brontë, “I am sure I had never thought of that.”
Martha Brown assured us that Miss [Charlotte] Brontë had been advised, on more than one occasion, to change her publishers, on the ground that the great popularity of her writing would now command a higher figure than she had hitherto received. Charlotte would not, however, hear of this, and replied that Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co, had been pleased to accept her manuscripts after they had been rejected by other publishers, and unless they forsook her she would never forsake them.
Martha was unstinted in her admiration of Emily Brontë. Although silent and reserved in the presence of strangers, she was ever regarded by those who knew her best as the very embodiment of truth and honour… Martha was very indignant at the hard things that had been said about old Mr. Brontë by Mrs. Gaskell and others. “A kinder man could not be, although he was sometimes queer and reserved before strangers.” As to his discharging pistols into the air as a means of letting off his bad tempers, the tale was without the slightest foundation. “Mr. Brontë always was fond of firearms,” she said. “He had acquired this fondness from his having been a Volunteer whilst at college.” She never saw him discharge one in passion.
It was Martha Brown’s loving duty to wait upon her mistress, Mrs. Nicholls, during her illness. Very touching was her narrative of the last moments of the brave and patient sufferer. Even when utterly prostrated by weakness and pain, her thoughts were more occupied with anxiety for her old father, who was so soon to be left desolate, than for her own intense sufferings. When she heard him coming upstairs to see her, she would ask Martha to let her sit up a moment, and would then strain every nerve to give him a pleasing reception. On his entering the room, she would greet him with, “See, papa, I am looking a little better.” The old man would then retire, trying to look comforted, while the poor patient would fall back upon her pillow all but exhausted by the effort she had put forth.
The wasting form told but too sad and true a tale of the end that was not far off. Early on the morning of March 31st, 1855, the bell in the tower of the old church at Haworth gave out the sad news that Charlotte Brontë was no more. The grey old parsonage was now very silent and solitary. Martha Brown remained with the bereaved parent until his death in 1861, and was one of the sorrowful mourners who followed him to his grave.’
The Home Of The Brontës, York Herald, 19 April 1890
‘It is a mistake to suppose that the memory of the Brontës is dying out in the place which once knew them so well. Every old villager we spoke to – and there were not a few – had something to say, and usually some reminiscence on the subject. The names of ‘Charlotte’, ‘Emily’, and ‘Branwell’ dropped easily and familiarly from their lips; and yet there was nothing impertinent, nothing the least disrespectful, in the sound; it merely seemed as if these simple folks cherished a hallowed remembrance, with which any of the ordinary forms of speech would have been incompatible. One nice little matron, with a chastened, subdued demeanour and a face that plainly told life to her had been no child’s play, had perhaps more to tell than all the rest about the Brontës. She had seen ‘Mrs. Nicholls’ pass into the church in her bridal attire on the wedding morn – “very plain, but Charlotte always was very plain in her dress;” and again had seen her re-enter the same churchyard gates but a few brief months later, when carried to her grave.
“She was never very intimate, never at all freespoken with the Haworth people.” “Oh, they liked her; nobody had ever a word against her; but it was understood that she, and indeed all the family, liked best to be alone. Charlotte would come and go. She was a very quick walker, and she would turn the corner of the parsonage lane and be down the street all in a moment: and then she would drop into the shop” – (we were sitting in the shop as we listened) – “order what she wanted, and be off home again at once, without a word more than was needed. My father,” continued the narrator, “had always himself to take the cloth, or whatever it was that had been ordered, up to the parsonage, when his work was done; and he had to measure it there and cut off the length required. No, none of them would ever have it measure and cut off in the shop; it had to be taken up in the piece to the house, and cut there. The Brontës had ways of their own, and that was one of them. They were strange people, but very much beloved. Mr. Brontë was a fine old gentleman” (with a sudden little glow of warmth), “a very fine old gentleman” (most emphatically); and the speaker had heard that there were some who had written about Charlotte, and made up books about her, “who had not spoken quite true about Mr. Brontë.” All she could say was that “there was no one in Haworth now living who had not a good word for the old gentleman, and to see him and Mr. Nicholls together after they were left alone, and poor Mr. Brontë so helpless and blind, was just a beautiful sight – that it was.” She would have discoursed till midnight, but time pressed. We had to move on, and hearken to others.’
An Opposite Opinion, Pall Mall Gazette, 14 October 1889
‘Before bringing these reminiscences to a close, it is pleasant to record the account given by another lady of a visit to Haworth a few years ago. So great is the growth of population in the district around Keighley and Haworth (to which the railway now extends) that the desolate loneliness of Haworth Parsonage and the moors beyond, so graphically described by Charlotte, can now be scarcely realized. On visiting the church and looking at the Brontë tablet, with its pathetic record of eight deaths, this lady got into conversation with one of the older generation of Haworth women, who though at first (with true Yorkshire caution) a little suspicious of a stranger, eventually spoke freely and in the most affectionate way of Miss Brontë, mentioning as one of her chief characteristics the shyness and reserve of which the authoress herself was so painfully conscious. “She never raised her eyes from her book when in church,” said the good woman. How clearly the picture rises before our mental vision! The tiny but well proportioned figure; her dress exquisitely neat, but perfectly plain; her face without pretension to beauty, but with the light of genius shining bright and clear through her expressive eyes. Here, in the old church, plain and unpretending like herself, where for so many years her prayers and praises went up to the God in whom she never lost her trust, we can most fitly take our leave of Charlotte Brontë.’
We must fitly take leave of these first person accounts of the Brontës now; through their encounters we too can encounter them as the flesh and blood people they were, as if the intervening years had drifted away on a December breeze. Thank you for sharing this post with me, and, whatever your faith, I hope you can find time to join me here on Thursday for a Brontë Christmas Day post.
Perhaps one reason for the great power and imagination in the Brontë writing is their family background. They grew up in the Pennine moorlands of Yorkshire but their parents were from Cornwall and Ireland, all areas rich in folklore and famed for their storytelling. The Brontës grew up listening to tales of Cornwall from Aunt Branwell and tales of Ireland from their father, and years later hints of these fantastic tales found their way into their work. In today’s post we’re going to look at an Irish tale which was particularly relevant to the Brontës, and to an Irish cousin of theirs who also lived in Yorkshire and shed further light on it.
Patrick Brontë was a fascinating and complex, yet inherently kind, man, and his character and life fascinated people as much in the 19th century as it does in the 21st century. In 1893, a Brontë scholar from Ireland, but based in Yorkshire, named Dr. William Wright wrote The Brontës In Ireland which gave a history of our favourite family’s Irish roots; it’s a fascinating book to read and based upon testimony that Wright received while interviewing people in Ireland. Among his claims we find the story of Welsh Brunty, the Brontë ancestor who has more than a hint of Heathcliff about him:
‘On one of his return journeys from Liverpool a strange child was found in a bundle in the hold of the vessel. It was very young, very black, very dirty, and almost without clothing of any kind. No one on board knew whence it had come, and no one seemed to care what became of it. There was no doctor in the ship, and no woman except Mrs. Brontë, who had accompanied her husband to Liverpool. The child was thrown on the deck. Some one said, “Toss it overboard”; but no one would touch it, and its cries were distressing. From sheer pity Mrs. Brontë was obliged to succour the abandoned infant… When the little foundling was carried up out of the hold of the vessel, it was supposed to be a Welsh child on account of its colour. It might doubtless have laid claim to a more Oriental descent, but when it became a member of the Brontë family they called it “Welsh”.’
As an adult Welsh supposedly eloped from his new family and married his master’s daughter Mary. He later adopted his brother-in-law’s son Hugh and wreaked havoc upon the family as a whole. This Hugh Brunty, or possibly Prunty, was the father of Patrick. Amidst other exciting claims in the book we read that Hugh himself eloped and married a Catholic girl called Alice McClory, a highly controversial move as Hugh was a Protestant and religious divisions carried much weight at the time.
We further discover that Hugh and Alice raise a family of ten children in difficult circumstances, but that Hugh was an eccentric man who threatened people with shillelaghs and that his son also called Hugh furiously threw rotten potatoes into a glen while shouting oaths against the devil. Wright’s book is great fun but much of it cannot be taken at face value, especially as much of it was challenged by someone who knew the true character of the Irish Brontës: Rose Anne Heslip, neice of Patrick Brontë and cousin to Charlotte, Emily, Anne, Branwell, Maria and Elizabeth.
Rose Anne Heslip was born in Ireland the daughter of Patrick’s sister Sarah. At some unknown point in the mid-nineteenth century she married an Englishman named David Heslip and in 1856 came to live in Heckmondwike and then Oakenshaw in Yorkshire, just 12 miles from Haworth.
Rose Anne lived in relative obscurity in Yorkshire until the publication of Wright’s book when it was found that an Irish Brontë was still alive and living in Brontë country itself. She gave a number of interviews to newspapers local and national, and she was very keen to point out deficiencies and falsehoods in Wright’s book.
On the subject of Welsh Brontë, she denied utterly the story of his having been a Liverpool foundling:
‘I never heard the like named, though I was reared among them. My mother lived in the house till I was 17 years of age, and my aunts were never out of the house a fortnight. My Uncle Welsh was also a constant visitor, but I never once heard it named among them.’
This Uncle Welsh was brother to Patrick, and Rose Anne sagaciously asks why Hugh would have named a son Welsh if the original Welsh Brunty had treated him as badly as The Brontes In Ireland makes out? Rose Anne also dismisses Wright’s assertion that Patrick’s brother Hugh Brunty died of fright after seeing the ghost of a hanged man named Frazer, and claims that he was wealthier than is portrayed:
‘Dr. Wright is all astray in the story, and that, so far from her Uncle Hugh having died in great suffering after the alleged encounter with the ghost, he lived to be an old man. Dr. Wright was correct in saying that the Brontës were much involved in macademising [tarmacking] the roads, and she said her Uncle Hugh “made hundreds from it”’.
Rose Anne was also angry at the potato throwing story, stating that she had been present on many such occasions and her Uncle Hugh threw the potatoes as a joke that always left his niece rolling on the floor with laughter, and in her interviews she always steadfastly denied the story of the inter-faith elopement between her grandfather and grandmother.
A journalist from the Bradford Daily Telegraph notes that Rose Anne Heslip has a strong facial resemblance to her cousin Charlotte Brontë, but sadly the similarities don’t end there. We learn that Rose Anne had a daughter whom she named Emily after her cousin, but that Emily Heslip died of consumption aged 33, after which Mrs Heslip took in her son-in-law and her grandchildren to live with her. Unfortunately Rose Anne had a sad end herself. In 1904, by which time she must have been in her 70s or 80s, Rose Anne was sent by her son-in-law to Clayton Workshouse as he couldn’t handle her ‘eccentricities’, and it’s also reported that Rose Anne, despite her age, has twice escaped from the workhouse.
There is also a fascinating portrait of Charlotte Brontë given to Rose Anne by her Uncle Jamie after he made a visit to Haworth, but that will appear in next week’s post. The coming week marks the anniversary of the death of Emily Brontë, a time to remember her genius as a writer and kindness as a human, but we could all do with happier tidings at this time of year, and in this particular year. Next week then I will bring you a special pre-Christmas post based upon first-person descriptions of the Brontes from people who actually met and knew them. I guarantee there will be some that you won’t have read before, and some are very enlightening.
Rose Anne Heslip defended her family to the hilt, just as her cousins the Brontës would have done. Family and loved ones are so important as Christmas looms ever closer, so I wish you and yours a very happy week and I will see you here next Sunday for a very special Brontë blog post.
Many people will be looking ahead to 2021 with a little more optimism, and many will also be hoping to visit the Brontë Parsonage Museum in the year to come. It’s a wonderful museum, and of course it’s fitting that it’s based within the building the Brontës knew and loved, but it isn’t the first Brontë museum in Haworth. In today’s posts we’re going to look at the first Brontë museums.
The idea of opening a dedicated Brontë Museum had been mooted since the Brontë Society was first founded by a small number of enthusiasts in 1893. The sole purpose of the society at this point was to open a museum and library to preserve the Brontë relics in their possessions, before they became lost to the public forever. At first the city of Bradford was suggested as the host, but it was soon realised that only Haworth, which had no Brontë memorial at all at the time, had the right to the museum. By 1895 a room had been rented above the old Yorkshire Penny Bank at the summit of Main Street (more recently the Tourist Information Centre at the top of this post), and on Saturday 18th May 1895 the Brontë Museum and Library was officially opened, as reported here in The Sphere. It should be noted that contrary to the report Sir Wemyss Reid did not perform the opening ceremony as he was at home with a cold, so it was left to a Bradford councillor to declare it open.
Nonetheless from this little acorn a mighty oak began to grow, and Brontë collectors across the world began to donate their items to the museum. I was reminded of this earlier this week when I was offered a 1927 book entitled ‘The Brontë Society Catalogue Of The Museum And Library’. I snapped the offer up of course, and it’s a remarkable book, 200 pages in length which lists all the items held by the museum at the time.
The date is very important here, as this was the final year of the Brontë Museum and Library above the Yorkshire Penny Bank. A year later Haworth Parsonage had been bought and gifted to the society, and the museum that we know and love today opened. We see in this catalogue, then, what the society possessed before it moved into its present premises. The catalogue is a treasure in many ways as it not only lists the items it also shows photographs of many of them, and reproduces many of the letters in its collection. I will share a few of these treasures with you now, including remarkable images of Charlotte Brontë’s dresses actually being worn.
Whilst the Yorkshire Penny Bank in Haworth housed the first official Brontë Museum, even this could not be said to be the very first museum dedicated to the sisters. That honour goes to the upper floor of an otherwise unassuming house in Albert Terrace, Blackpool, Lancashire, home at the time to one Robinson Brown. Robinson was born in 1860 the son of William Brown, sexton of Haworth just as his father John had been, and nephew of long time Brontë Parsonage servant Martha Brown.
Sometime in the early 1890s, Robinson left Haworth and travelled to Blackpool where he opened a boarding house, but by that time he had inherited a large number of Brontë relics from his father and aunt, and it was this private collection which formed the basis of the original Brontë museum. As this report from The Sketch reports, the Brontë Museum in Haworth wanted to purchase his collection, but they couldn’t afford his asking price of £500. Robinson Brown married in 1897 and the following year his collection was put up for auction. Much of it must then, or subsequently, have found its way to Haworth as items once in the collection of Robinson, including J. H. Thompson’s portrait of Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë’s portrait of Flossy, appear in the 1927 catalogue. Unfortunately however, and certainly surprisingly, many items at the 1897 Brontë auction went unsold or sold for next to nothing, which the Exmouth Journal attributed to Charlotte Brontë being ‘little read’ by that time!
I wonder what Branwell and Charlotte would have felt about someone called Robinson owning many of their precious items? We can also wonder what the Brontës, especially shy Emily, would have made of their items, their lives, being on display so many years after their death? Thankfully for us we have the magnificent Brontë Parsonage Museum to visit, and hopefully many more of us will get the opportunity to do so in 2021. I will see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.