The Brontës In Halifax

As this year marks the start of the four year ‘Brontë 200’ celebrations, we’ll be looking at some of the locations particularly associated with our favourite sisters. The Brontës were born in Thornton and lived most of their lives in Haworth, both part of the Bradford district of West Yorkshire today. We’ve also looked at Anne Brontë’s connection with Mirfield in recent posts, now part of the Kirklees council area centred upon Huddersfield. In this week’s blog we’ll examine the Brontë connection with an area that lies between Bradford and Huddersfield – Halifax.

Halifax is a town just over ten miles to the south of Haworth. Like much of industrial Yorkshire, recent decades haven’t been overly kind to it, and yet the centre still retains some very grand and beautiful buildings, in particular its famous Peace Hall and an imposing Minster. Finished in 1438, it was a landmark that was to become familiar to both Branwell and Emily Brontë.

Emily had enjoyed only a very short period of formal tutoring at Roe Head School before she became so home sick that Charlotte worried she might die, and arranged for her to return to Haworth. Nevertheless she was an obviously intelligent and scholarly young woman, and in September 1838 she amazed her family by taking a position as a governess and teacher.

Emily Bronte plaque
Emily Bronte plaque outside Law Hill

The establishment she took her one and only job at was Miss Patchett’s school for girls at Law Hill, Halifax. Law Hill school is in an area called Southowram, around one and a half miles outside the centre of Halifax itself. I visited it myself recently and two things struck me. The first was the beautiful views that still exist around Law Hill, moor like scenery that must have pleased Emily and reminded her of home. The second was the incredibly steep ascent to the location. It is at the top of an inclination that makes the climb of Haworth’s Main Street look almost flat. If Emily and her pupils had to attend the Minster from there the walk down would have been pleasant, but the walk back up must have been very challenging.

Emily Brontë was an intensely private woman, hiding her shyness behind a fierce reserve. Mixing with pupils and teachers alike must have been difficult for her, and the demanding seventeen hour days that she worked left her little or no time for the activity she truly loved – immersing herself in her imaginary world of Gondal, and writing poetry about it.

Charlotte Bronte wrote to Ellen of her worries about Emily overworking herself in Halifax: ‘This is slavery. She will never stand it.’

Stand it she did, however, at least for a little while. We don’t know exactly when Emily gave up her position and returned to Haworth, but most people estimate that it would have been in the Spring of 1839, around half a year after she became a teacher.
Law Hill School is now Law Hill House, a private dwelling in the village of Southowram, easily spottable thanks to the unusual wall that dominates the frontage of it. It’s around two miles from Shibden Hall, then the home of famous, and controversial, Yorkshire diarist Anne Lister. We know that Miss Patchett and Lister did know each other, but we’ll never know if Emily came into contact with her.

As a private house, you can’t enter Law Hill, but you can see the outside and the blue plaque to Emily that hangs on the wall. It’s well worth a visit, but unless you’re a keen hill walker with sturdy legs I recommend you drive there or take the bus from Halifax bus station.

Emily was back home with her beloved sister Anne, but another Brontë was about to make his acquaintance with Halifax.

At the end of August 1840, Branwell Brontë was given the position of Assistant Clerk at Luddendon Foot railway station near Halifax, earning £75 a year. The prospects were good for a man of intelligence like Branwell on the railways. It was a new boom industry that was transforming Britain and making people rich – indeed Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë all bought shares in the railway, unfortunately losing the money they invested in the process.

Branwell, predictably, was not a diligent worker. He preferred frequenting the taverns of Halifax, particularly The Swan Hotel and The Old Cock Inn where he frequented with sculptor Joseph Bentley Leyland, his brother Francis Leyland, and others of an artistic temperament.

By March 1842, Branwell’s career in the railway was over as he was dismissed due to negligence. His connections with the inns of Halifax continued however, much to the chagrin of his family in Haworth.

In December 1846 a bailiff had arrived at the Haworth Parsonage seeking the payment of debts that Branwell owed to Thomas Nicholson, landlord of Halifax’s Old Cock Inn. This wasn’t the only instance, and Patrick repeatedly had no choice but to settle Branwell’s large outstanding bar bills rather than see him be taken away for trial at the York assizes.

The Old Cock, Halifax
The Old Cock, Halifax

The Old Cock Inn is still in operation today, not far from Halifax railway station. It has an old world charm outside, but it’s a little rough and ready inside. The fireplace from Branwell’s time is still there, although it’s now underneath a large flat screen television and surrounded by pool tables. I had to go in and drain a glass in memory of Branwell of course, and if today’s clientelle seemed a little boisterous at times, I can’t imagine Branwell disapproving of that.

Anne Brontë In Lancashire

Anne Brontë and her sisters will be forever associated with Yorkshire, and quite rightly so – as a Yorkshireman myself I’m immensely proud of their association with my home county. It’s also true, however, that Anne may often have spent time in the old enemy of that county – Lancashire.

The enmity between Yorkshire and Lancashire is a historical one. The houses of Lancaster and York were among the most powerful in the land in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and were two rival branches of the Plantagenet family that each felt they had a claim to the throne of England. This eventually led to all out warfare in what has become known as the Wars Of The Roses. Lasting from 1455 to 1487, it was in effect England’s first civil war with fighting spreading across the country.

The emblem of the two sides has remained – the white rose representing Yorkshire and the red rose Lancashire, legend saying that these roses were plucked by supporters of each side at the outbreak of the conflict. Today, Lancashire and Yorkshire have a sporting rivalry rather than being at war with each other. Whilst the fighting has long ceased, there is still an edge on such occasions, and the mutual distrust of the two counties was very prevalent in the Brontës’ time.

A glimpse of this can be seen in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. Born in London, Gaskell had nevertheless spent much of her time in the north west, and lived in Manchester, the largest city of Lancashire (at that time both Lancashire and Yorkshire were bigger than they are today, when boundary changes have resulted in new counties such as Cleveland and Greater Manchester being separated from their historical origins).

Early on in her biography, Gaskell takes the time to give a very unflattering portrait of Yorkshire people: ‘Even an inhabitant of the neighbouring county of Lancaster is struck by the peculiar force of character which the Yorkshiremen display.’ She then describes how Yorkshire people are suspicious of everyone, surly and dour, slow to make friends, and unforgiving of their enemies (she states that Yorkshire people typically carry a stone for six years in their pocket, and then turn it over for another six years, so if they meet their enemy on the road they’ll be ready for him).

I have previously mentioned that the trip that Anne and Charlotte Brontë took to London in July 1848 was the only journey that Anne ever made outside of Yorkshire, and it’s true that it was the only time Anne deliberately travelled outside of her home county, but it’s also true that she would have walked into Lancashire on many occasions.

Haworth is at the very western edge of Yorkshire, with the Lancashire boundary around four miles across the moors, with the Lancashire village of Wycoller another three miles further on. Lancashire and Yorkshire are indistinguishable in this natural, rugged, moorland boundary, and it can’t be doubted that Anne and Emily would have often walked into the county on their regular walks across landscapes that they loved so much – walks that could extend for twenty miles or more, despite the harsh terrain and often even harsher weather.

Wycoller Hall
Wycoller Hall

It seems likely that Charlotte knew this area too, as Wycoller Hall is believed to be the Ferndean Manor that Rochester retires to after escaping from the fire in Jane Eyre. Another Lancashire location with a strong Charlotte Brontë connection is Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley, the closest town of any size to the west of Haworth. This imposing building was home to the Kay-Shuttleworths, who became great fans and then friends of Charlotte. It was at Gawthorpe Hall that Charlotte met the atheist writer Harriet Martineau among others.

Lancashire is proud of its association with the Brontës, even if it has to play second fiddle in that respect. There have been a number of Brontë related events to celebrate the start of the Brontë 200 period (four years that cover the two hundredth anniversaries of the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë respectively), including walks around the Pendle region of the county that the Brontës would have explored. There have also been Brontë talks at Gawthorpe and Wycoller, with more to come – you can find details via the Pendle council information leaflet here.

Gawthorpe Hall
Gawthorpe Hall, Lancashire

The truth of the matter is that Anne Brontë and her sisters aren’t just for Yorkshire, or for Lancashire, but for the whole world to enjoy. After all, as Charlotte wrote wistfully of her sister:

‘The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, and when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’

After The Death Of Anne Brontë – The Legacy

Anne Brontë died on May 28th, 1849 in Scarborough, watched by her sister Charlotte and their friend Ellen Nussey. For Charlotte Brontë especially it marked the end of a traumatic period that had seen Anne, Emily and Branwell Brontë all die from tuberculosis within a nine month period. Being far from home as she was, she knew that it was now incumbent upon her to make the arrangements for Anne’s burial, but it was beyond her medical and physical capability at that time.

A mournful letter was sent to the Haworth Parsonage, and Patrick wrote back saying that he had known when his youngest daughter Anne had left him on May 24th, that he would never see her alive again. He also urged Charlotte to take a much needed break before returning to her home nearly a hundred miles away at the other side of Yorkshire.

Charlotte's of Filey
Charlotte’s of Filey remembers the stay of Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte had little choice but to accept, feeling weak in body and mind, and with Ellen beside her she stayed another week in Scarborough. After that she journeyed down the coast to the resort of Filey, where she remained for ten days, and then Bridlington. Cliff House, where she stayed in Filey, is now a café called ‘Charlotte’s’ in honour of its guest who returned there once more in 1852. She finally arrived back, alone, in Haworth on 20th June, nearly a month after she had left with her only remaining sibling. She wrote a poignant and moving letter to W.S.Williams, of her publisher, telling how she was greeted by the dogs that Anne and Emily had left behind:

“The ecstasy of these poor animals [Flossy and Keeper] when I came in was something singular… I am certain they thought that, as I was returned, my sisters were not far behind – but here my sisters will come no more. Keeper may visit Emily’s little bed-room, as he still does day by day, and Flossy may look wistfully round for Anne – they will never see them again – nor shall I.”

In the immediate hours and days following Anne’s death, it was the ever helpful Ellen who had to take on many of the organisational duties. This included organising Anne’s headstone. Unfortunately, Ellen made several unintentional errors, as it seems that Charlotte was in no state to supply the correct information to her at the time. When Charlotte gathered the mental strength to re-visit Anne’s grave for the first time three years later, she found that the headstone contained five errors. She paid to have them corrected, but one, famously, still remains. The headstone reads: ‘She died aged 28, May 28th 1849′. She was in fact 29. The fact that this remained unchanged may indicate that Charlotte herself wasn’t sure how old her sister actually was. Further evidence of this could be found in the Brontë memorial that stood in St. Michael & All Angels’ church in Haworth. This, as evidenced by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte, stated that Anne had died even younger than the Scarborough headstone did, saying that she was aged 27.

Anne Brontë's final resting place at Scarborough
Anne Brontë’s gravestone underneath Scarborough Castle

Anne now lies buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Scarborough just underneath the hill and castle. I, and many others, still visit it and lay flowers there. Here’s a tip: if you want to visit it, Anne’s grave isn’t in the main churchyard itself, but at the top of an annexe to the side and above what is now a car park.

St. Mary’s, however, was being renovated at the time, and so the funeral itself had to be held in Scarborough’s Christ Church. The doctor who had visited Anne in her last hours was so impressed with her character that he offered to come to the funeral, but Charlotte excused him of this duty. It would be just she and Ellen at the funeral; or so she thought. Upon arriving at the church on Tuesday, 30th May, they found a woman already there. It was Margaret Wooler, Anne’s former teacher, who was residing in Scarborough and had heard of her passing and come to pay her respects, as well as providing comfort to her former pupil and colleague Charlotte.

In the weeks, months and years following Anne’s death, Charlotte would often suffer from dark bouts of depression; just the sight of the moors around her home would remind her of her departed sisters Emily and Anne, who had loved to roam them so recently.

Her feelings at this time are summed up in perhaps her best, and certainly most succinct poem, ‘On The Death Of Anne Brontë’, written on 21st June, 1849:

‘There’s little joy in life for me,
And little terror in the grave;
I’ve lived the parting hour to see,
Of one I would have died to save.
Calmly to watch the failing breath,
Wishing each sigh might be the last;
Longing to see the shade of death
O’er those beloved features cast.
The cloud, the stillness that must part
The darling of my life from me;
And then to thank God from my heart,
To thank him well and fervently;
Although I knew that we had lost
The hope and glory of our life;
And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,
Must bear alone the weary strife.’

Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with Anne, like that of any sisters, could be fractious at times, but as this poem shows there was also a real love between them. Anne Brontë is gone, but her work remains, and that legacy is gaining more recognition and praise as the years pass.

The Death Of Anne Brontë

On this day, May 28th, in 1849 a young woman in her twenties was dying in a room in lodgings taken at Scarborough, with her sister Charlotte and friend Ellen looking hopelessly on. She died in obscurity, even though her latest novel ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ had recently become a celebrated novel under the pseudonym of Acton Bell. Yet now, 167 years after the death of Anne Brontë, we can give her the praise that she deserves for her talents as a writer, and for her great courage and humanity.

Anne’s health had been deteriorating for many months, and after the passing of her beloved sister Emily five months earlier it was clear that Anne too was dying of consumption, or tuberculosis as we call it now. It seems likely that Anne had carried tuberculosis within her since her early childhood, but the visit to London in the summer of 1848 had exposed her to massive doses of tubercular pathogens that she then brought back to the Haworth Parsonage with devastating consequences.

Unlike Emily, who refused to see a doctor until the day of her death, Anne sought to prolong her life if possible. She tried every remedy suggested, although complained that one medicine tasted like train oil, and had to desist from taking it because it made her sick. By May 1849 she was incredibly emaciated. We know from the account of William Wood, Haworth’s coffin maker, that Emily Brontë, despite being unusually tall for her time, was buried in the thinnest adult coffin he had ever made – measuring just seven inches across. Charlotte reported that Anne had become even thinner than Emily.

Nevertheless, Anne wanted to try one last thing – she wanted to go to Scarborough, famed for the healing waters of its spa. Did Anne really believe that the waters could cure her (she had after all spent many summers in the resort and seen others ‘taking the waters’)? Did she want to see her beloved Scarborough one last time? Or was it simply that she wanted to spare her father Patrick the onerous duty of burying the third of his children in nine months? Quite probably, it was a combination of all three, and so it was that on May 25th the three young women arrived at Wood’s Lodgings in Scarborough, the respectable lodging house previously used by Anne when she was with the Robinson family. The Grand Hotel now stands on the site.

Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough
Anne Bronte plaque at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough

Anne had recently received a bequest from her Godmother Fanny Outhwaite, and she used the money from this to pay for the journey for herself, Charlotte, and Ellen and also to pay for a ticket that allowed them unlimited access to the Spa and the newly built Cliff Bridge linking it to Wood’s Lodgings.

In Scarborough, Anne revived a little, although her breathing was very bad. She took a donkey ride across the sands, insisting on driving the animal herself so that it wouldn’t be mistreated. Here, on the beach, she asked Charlotte and Ellen to be alone. She had a lifetime of thinking to do, and only days or hours to do it in. This, after all, was the very beach she had chosen for the denouement to Agnes Grey. Here was the spot on which she had turned around and found her love Edmund Weston waiting for her. Did she know feel the real Weston, William Weightman, drawing closer to her?

After an hour, Anne drove the donkey back, all was now done that needed to be done.

On Sunday May 27th, Anne asked to be taken to the church, but Charlotte gently explains that this is out of the question. She then tells her companions to go, but they won’t leave her. That evening, as Ellen explained in a beautiful booklet she wrote entitled ‘ A Short Account Of The Last Days Of Dear A.B.’, there came ‘the most glorious sunset ever witnessed’. There was a golden sky filled with sunbeams, a boat bobbed on the ebbing tide, and they had moved Anne to the window to look down at it. Here, to my mind, is a replica of Anne’s picture of a decade earlier ‘Sunrise Over Sea’. What she had pictured as a woman looking out at a sunrise at the start of her adult life, had become a woman looking at a sunset at the end of it.

Anne Bronte’s beloved Scarborough

The next day, Whit Monday, Anne had to be carried down the stairs by Ellen. At one point their heads clashed and Anne slumped forward. A horrified Ellen thought she had killed her friend, but Anne revived and said: ‘don’t be sorry, you did your best.’ She was then placed on a sofa that she would never rise from again.

A doctor was called for and pronounced that Anne had only hours to live, but Anne remained calm and collected throughout. She was not scared to go, although she asked Ellen to be like a sister to Charlotte in her absence; she called upon her faith, and in this final test it was not found to be lacking. Her last words, as recorded by Ellen, were spoken to Charlotte:

‘Take courage, Charlotte, take courage!’

The doctor later said that he had never seen such a gentle death, and a sign of its tranquillity is that tea was brought in to their rooms shortly after 2pm when Anne had taken her final breath.

This is inevitably a day of sadness, after all a great writer was taken from us aged just 29 when she had so much more to say and give. But, we should look at the joy she has given us and follow her final command, to take courage. This is a good day to give thanks for Anne Brontë, and read one of her books or poems, this woman of truth, beauty, and courage.

The Award Winning Ponden Hall And The Brontës

England is lucky enough to have lots of guest houses and B&Bs that have a wealth of history to them, as well as a warm welcome for their visitors. One such place is of particular interest to Brontë lovers – Ponden Hall which nestles near the moorland reservoirs between Haworth and Stanbury. Emily and Anne Brontë, and sometimes Charlotte and Branwell too, were frequent visitors to the Hall, and so they would have been as pleased as I was to hear that it recently won a prestigious Dorset Cereals Award for the best B&B’s and friendliest hosts.

I can fully understand it winning the award, having visited myself, and even if it didn’t have such an incredible literary heritage their home made cakes are not to be missed! Anyway, this post isn’t intended as an advertorial, so let’s take a look at Ponden Hall’s Brontë connection!

Emily and Anne Brontë were always happiest in each other’s company, walking miles in each others company, revelling in the stark yet stunning countryside that surrounded them and often dreaming up plots for their Gondal stories with line by line coming step by step. Often they would cross the moors with one particular destination in mind – Ponden Hall.

Ponden Hall is a large and imposing stone fronted farm house around a two mile walk from Haworth itself (you can still cross the Moors to it, or take the road and stop off at Stanbury’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ pub en route). At the time of the Brontës it was home to the Heaton family, who were trustees of Haworth’s St. Michael and All Angel’s Church, and leaders of Haworth society.

As the church was the incumbency of Reverend Patrick Brontë, the families became well known to each other, and Emily and Anne in particular were frequent visitors to the Hall. Both Anne and Emily could be intensely shy, yet at Ponden they felt relaxed and at home. Alongside its moorland location it had another attraction to the literature loving girls – it held the largest private collection of books in Europe at that time, including a first edition folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The familiarity the sisters gained with the hall can be seen in the work of Anne, Emily and Charlotte.

There can be little doubt that Ponden Hall was the architectural inspiration for Anne Brontë’s Wildfell Hall. It shares the same central portico underneath a date bearing plaque, and flanked by tall latticed windows. It also seems likely that Ponden Hall is the real Wuthering Heights. Whilst the more often feted Top Withens matches the spot on the moor of Wuthering Heights, it is a small and unimposing building, whereas Ponden Hall is much more like the building Emily so powerfully describes.

The box bed at Ponden Hall
The box bed at Ponden Hall

We know too that Emily sometimes stayed at Ponden Hall and slept in a box bed there. There is still a box bed today, next to the window that Emily would have looked out of towards the moors. Just seeing it sends a thrill through your bones, it’s impossible not to imagine that incredible opening to the novel, with Cathy’s ghost scratching at what was probably the very same window. You can sleep in that room and that box bed today, but don’t have nightmares of a plaintive voice wailing: “’Let me in – let me in! I’ve been a waif for twenty years!'”

Ponden Hall’s ghostly qualities can also be seen to have inspired Charlotte Brontë. Legend states that the Hall is haunted by a Gytrash, a ghostly demonic dog akin to a Hound of the Heatons rather than a Hound of the Baskervilles. The memory of this Ponden Hall legend returned to Charlotte when she was writing Jane Eyre, as we can see from Jane’s first encounter with Rochester’s dog:

“I heard a rush under the hedge, and close by glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash… Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone.”

Gytrash by Phantom Of Truth
Gytrash by Phantom Of Truth

Ponden Hall certainly inspired the Brontës, and it’s well worth staying at or visiting today. There is history in its stones and in its walls, the same walls gazed upon by Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë nearly two hundred years ago.

William Shakespeare And The Brontës

Hot on the heels of Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday, April 23rd 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the greatest playwright of all time – William Shakespeare. It’s a day when people across the world will celebrate his wonderful work, but what did the Brontës think of him, and what influence did he have on Anne Brontë in particular?

The only pronouncement we have on Shakespeare from the Brontës was not an altogether flattering one, but then again it was from Charlotte who was never one to gild the lily, as the bard would have said. On July 4th 1834 she wrote to Ellen Nussey advising her what she should read:

‘If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don’t admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth and Southey. Now Ellen don’t be startled at the names of Shakespeare, and Byron. Both these were great men and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good and avoid the evil, the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakespeare.’

Shakespeare 400
The Shakespeare 400 was celebrated in 2016

The Brontës, home educated though they were to a large extent, were much better read than a lot of their contemporaries, as Patrick allowed them free reign to read what they would, rather than censoring or limiting their reading materials as many fathers would have done. They also had access to the complete works of Shakespeare in an incredibly rare first folio.

It was housed at nearby Ponden Hall, two miles directly across the moors from Haworth and a place that Emily and Anne in particular often visited. In the early nineteenth century it had one of the largest private library collections in Europe, and pride of place went to that Shakespeare first folio. Alas it has now left Ponden and its whereabouts have long since been lost, as it would today be priceless.

Can we see Shakespeare’s influence on any of Anne Brontë’s works? How about The Taming Of The Shrew? A woman living in a man’s world, strong willed and determined to stand up for her own rights. Of course whilst Shakespeare eventually subjugates his Katherina, Anne insists on the triumph of Helen in her The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

I love Shakespeare (not quite as much as I love the Brontës of course), so I’ll be joining in the celebrations, just as I joined in Charlotte’s ‘Brontë 200’ celebrations in Haworth on Thursday. It was a wonderful day, and I was especially pleased to meet some of this blog’s readers and fellow Anne fans there.

Elizabeth Gaskell – Biographer Of The Brontës

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Anne Brontë’s writings, and those of her sisters Emily and Charlotte Brontë as well. There are other writers who I love almost as much as the Brontë however, and foremost among them is a woman born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson. She had a very interesting life, and wrote some incredible books such as Cranford and North And South, and of course the world knows her better as Elizabeth, or Mrs, Gaskell.

Gaskell is of particular interest to Brontë lovers because she not only knew the family, she wrote the world’s first Brontë biography – her wonderful ‘The Life Of Charlotte Brontë’ published in 1857. More on that later, but first let’s take a look at the woman herself.

The young Elizabeth Gaskell
the young Elizabeth Gaskell

She was born Elizabeth Stevenson in September 1810 in Cheyne Walk London, making her five and a half and nine and a half years older than Charlotte and Anne Brontë respectively. Gaskell (her married name, and by which I will refer to her from now on) had something in common with Anne that would influence both their lives – she lost her mother while still an infant. Anne was eighteen months when Maria Brontë died, and Elizabeth was just thirteen months when her own mother Elizabeth Stevenson, nee Holland, died.

Both Elizabeth Gaskell and Anne Brontë were brought up under the influence of an aunt. Her father suffered greatly from depression and was unable to bring up his daughter, although she did return to London to nurse him before his death in 1829. The majority of Elizabeth’s childhood was spent in Knutsford, Cheshire, where she was raised by her Aunt Hannah (more on Knutsford later as well), and the town was recreated as Cranford in one of her most celebrated works. It was in Knutsford as well that she met and fell in love with the Unitarian minister William Gaskell, and they married in 1832.

Gaskell loved to write, and had contributed many stories to magazines under the rather improbable pseudonym of ‘Cotton Mather Mills’. In 1848 her first book Mary Barton was published, based largely upon her own experience of losing her first two children in infancy. It was an instant success, and her subsequent works made her one of the foremost writers of the time, also gaining her a friend and ally in Charles Dickens.

The great and good of literary society would often visit the Gaskell’s at their large new home in Manchester, now the recently opened Elizabeth Gaskell Museum. One such visitor was Charlotte Brontë. They had initially met in London, and soon became firm friends. Both were short women, a little on the dumpy side it has been said, but both were brilliant writers not afraid to challenge convention. On one occasion we know that Charlotte hid behind the curtains at the Gaskell’s house, as she was too shy to mix with the other guests.

Gaskell’s books are a delight to read, and they are as relevant today as ever, dealing as they do with social inequality and the north-south divide as well as timeless themes of love, hope, and loss. The book that really captivated me, of course, was her life of Charlotte Brontë.

It seems that it was Patrick Brontë, alone after Charlotte’s death in 1855 had seen him outlive all his children, who first suggested that Mrs Gaskell should write a biography of her friend Charlotte. He gave her unprecedented access to her papers, and Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor contributed too.

The book is a brilliant read, one genius writing about another, and incredibly moving. Her stories of Anne and Emily were second hand, as although she often visited the Haworth Parsonage this wasn’t until after their deaths. That doesn’t mean that they are worthless, however, far from it.

Modern, revisionist, readings of Gaskell’s biography often pour scorn on it, because she didn’t have access to the research and archives that modern biographers have. This is far from fair. What Gaskell did have was a personal knowledge of Charlotte and many people in the story, and she was hearing first person testimonies that were still fresh in the memory. That’s why her biography is so important today, and whilst there may be some factual errors, and other sections that were changed because she was threatened by law suits (from Carus Wilson, the head of Cowan Bridge School for example), it’s still the closest we can get to how Charlotte herself thought and acted (other than her brilliant letters of course).

Gaskell inspired me and many other biographers to step into the world of the Brontës and make our own contributions, however small they may be. It’s a book I can read over and over again, and often do. Her depiction of Anne is tender and affectionate, she has obviously learned to love Anne Brontë through the depiction she had of her from Charlotte.

I mentioned Knutsford earlier. It was a place very dear to Mrs Gaskell, and I’m proud to announce that I will be talking about Anne Brontë and her sisters at the Knutsford Literature Festival on Saturday, 8th October. You can find more details here – I’m really looking forward to it, and it would be great to see readers of this blog there!

Elizabeth Gaskell's grave
Elizabeth Gaskell’s grave, Knutsford

Mrs Gaskell lies buried in Knutsford, she died of a heart attack in 1865. I mentioned that she was born in September 1810, but I forgot to mention the date. It was the 29th of September, so I’d like to make a toast to this fine biographer and fine friend of the Brontës, and say ‘Happy Birthday Elizabeth Gaskell!’

Ellen Nussey And The Legacy Of The Brontës

In last week’s blog we looked at the life of Ellen Nussey and her friendship with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. Today we’ll examine her role in the preservation and dissemination of the Brontë story, and her life after the death of the three sisters she loved.

Ellen Nussey old
Ellen Nussey in old age

Ellen and Charlotte Brontë were close friends from the moment they met as teenagers at Roe Head School, Mirfield, in January 1831, but there was one moment of interruption in their relationship. Charlotte accepted a proposal from her father’s assistant curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, having rejected him in December 1852, and the acceptance created a rift with Ellen.

The cause of this rift can never be ascertained with any certainty, was it jealousy, disappointment, or more? Some have said that Charlotte and Ellen may have had an agreement that they would grow old together as old maids, and Ellen saw Charlotte’s engagement as a betrayal.

The two women had corresponded daily for years, but that came to a sudden end. Eventually they were reconciled, and Ellen Nussey acted as Charlotte’s bridesmaid in her marriage to Arthur on 29 May 1854. Nevertheless it seems that Ellen never liked Arthur, and later referred to him as a ‘wicked man who was the death of dear Charlotte.’

This seems to have been a harsh judgement, as Charlotte was certainly enamoured of her husband, but in one sense Ellen was right as it was Charlotte’s pregnancy that led her to die of hyperemesis gravidurum (excessive morning sickness) less than a year into her marriage.

With Charlotte’s death in 1855 the line of six Brontë siblings came to an end, and both Arthur and Ellen were determined to preserve their reputation – but in very different ways. Even whilst Charlotte was alive, Arthur had urged her to impress upon Ellen that she must burn her letters after reading them, describing her lively missives as ‘dangerous as Lucifer matches.’ Charlotte wrote to inform Ellen that she would be unable to write to her unless she agreed to this request, but thankfully for us all she resisted the command.

Charlotte Brontë’s letters are beautifully written, and very revealing of her innermost thoughts as well as her everyday life. They are also the most numerous and important source of information on the Brontë sisters that we have, and the vast majority that are now known to exist were written to Ellen Nussey. We have over 350 letters from Charlotte to Ellen, detailing everything from her relationship with Branwell, her depression after the deaths of Emily and Anne, to her taste in literature, her thoughts on politics, and how she came to be published. In short, Ellen’s collection of letters bring the Brontës to life for us, but that would all have been lost if Arthur’s exhortations before and after Charlotte’s death had been heeded.

The letters from Charlotte to Ellen were also the basis for the first biography of Charlotte Brontë, by her friend and brilliant author Elizabeth Gaskell, and they have formed the cornerstone for every Brontë biography written since. Ellen was happy to lend the letters to Mrs Gaskell, quite rightly, but unfortunately she also put her trust in some people who were less than reliable.

Ellen lived to the age of 80 and never married, but she was never short of company because her friendship with the Brontës made her famous in her own lifetime. Brontë fans would often visit her at Moor Lane House in Gomersal. Visitors include the American artist Frederic Yates who painted a wonderful portrait of Ellen Nussey as an old woman. Ellen’s visitors were sure to be regaled with glorious tales of the Brontës, and many of them also left with a memento of Charlotte, Emily or Anne that she had passed onto them.

Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates
Ellen Nussey by Frederic Yates

Some exploited this generosity, and in particular a man named Clement Shorter. Shorter was made the first President of the Brontë Society, a move that the Society greatly regrets today as with hindsight he is clearly a villain of the Brontë story. Shorter worked in cahoots with a man named Thomas Wise, then esteemed a great literary collector and preserver but later imprisoned as a fraud and forger.

In the late 1880s they began to schmooze the now elderly Ellen, offering her £125 for the letters that they claimed they would preserve for posterity and use for a new biography of Charlotte from which Ellen would receive two thirds of the profit. In actuality, they were selling the letters at auction and to collectors, many in the United States of America, at a huge profit.

Clement Shorter
Clement Shorter

In these last years of her life, Ellen was in effect robbed of the letters she held so dear, and we have been damaged by Shorter and Wise too. Many of the letters and objects that they took from Ellen by their sharp practice remain in private collections, the whereabouts of some unknown, although others have been bought by the Brontë Parsonage Museum or returned voluntarily.

One thing they could not steal from Ellen, however, were her memories. And they can never take from Ellen the honour and praise she deserves from us, for her friendship and loyalty to the Brontë sisters in their lifetime and after their death.

Ellen Nussey: Great Friend Of The Brontës

A lot of the information that we have on Anne Brontë and her sisters comes from the primary sources of their writing and from the many letters of Charlotte Brontë, but there is another woman we have to be extremely grateful to – Ellen Nussey. Ellen met Charlotte when they were pupils at Roe Head School and became her lifelong friend; through her frequent visits to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth she also became friends with Anne and Emily Brontë. Her recollections of the sisters and their lives were central to Elizabeth Gaskell’s brilliant biography of Charlotte, and Ellen’s writing legacy proved invaluable to me when I was writing In Search Of Anne Brontë as well.

Ellen Nussey was born on April 20th 1817 in the village of Birstall, in the wool processing area of Yorkshire’s West Riding. Her parents John and Ellen were quite wealthy, as John was a cloth merchant – then a booming trade.

She first met Charlotte Brontë in January 1831 at Roe Head in Mirfield, forming a great trio of friends along with Mary Taylor of Gomersal, a village adjacent to Ellen’s Birstall. Charlotte’s time as a pupil lasted a year, but her correspondence with Ellen would last a lifetime, and shows the deep love and affection that Charlotte had for Ellen. Charlotte often talks of how pretty Ellen is, and how perfect she is in character, a perfection that she herself feels she can never attain:

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

Thanks to Ellen we have the description of Haworth Parsonage at a time when the sisters were teenagers in 1833 (very neat, regimented, and a little bare), of their garden (sparse but for a few blackcurrant bushes), and of Anne and Emily:

‘Emily had by this time acquired a lithesome, graceful figure. She was the tallest person in the house, except her father. Her hair, which was naturally as beautiful as Charlotte’s, was in the same unbecoming tight curl and frizz, and there was the same want of complexion. She had very beautiful eyes, kind, kindling, liquid eyes; but she did not often look at you: she was too reserved. She talked very little. She and Anne were like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.

Anne, dear, gentle Anne, was quite different in appearance from the others. She was her aunt’s favourite. Her hair was a very pretty, light brown, and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent complexion.’

It is from this same period that we get Charlotte Brontë’s sketch of the young Ellen – a charming and pretty picture, but for the long neck that Charlotte seemed to add to everyone she drew.

Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte
Ellen Nussey, by Charlotte Bronte

Perhaps the biggest testament to Ellen’s character is that Anne and Emily both became firm friends with her, an honour afforded to very few people – especially in Emily’s case.

We have letters to Ellen not only from Charlotte, but from Anne and Emily too (although Emily’s letter is a short missive bemoaning the fact that she is a poor letter writer, and advising Ellen to wait for a better letter from Anne).

Ellen Nussey shared a lot in common with the Brontë sisters, not only a love of books and reading. She too had lost a parent when she was young, although in Ellen’s case it was a father rather than a mother. She could also be sympathetic and understanding when it came to Branwell, as she also had a brother who was a raging alcoholic. The Nusseys were a large family, Ellen was the twelfth child, and it was a tragedy they had to bear that three of Ellen’s brothers took their own life – including Henry Nussey who in 1839 proposed to Charlotte and was rejected. Henry became vicar of Hathersage, and Charlotte’s visits to the Derbyshire village to see Ellen there would provide background material for Jane Eyre.

Ellen’s closeness to the Brontes has caused particular confusion in one aspect in that a photograph once thought to be of Charlotte Brontë is in fact undoubtedly of Ellen herself. Until recently it was used as the main picture on Charlotte Bronte’s Wikipedia page, but by comparing it to known and verified pictures of Ellen we can see that it is the same woman. It is reproduced below with the picture once thought to be Charlotte on the left, and a picture of Ellen in later life on the left.

Charlotte and Ellen
Charlotte Bronte and Ellen Nussey? Actually two photos of Ellen

Ellen’s great kindness was shown throughout her correspondence with the Brontë sisters, as she often sent them gifts, from bonnets to medicinal crab cheese when Anne was ill. She was a visitor to Haworth on many occasions, and was there on the fateful day of January 5th 1849 when Dr. Teale of Leeds made his diagnosis of incurable consumption in Anne Brontë. Ellen described it thus:

‘Anne was looking sweetly pretty and flushed, and in capital spirits for an invalid. While consultations were going on in Mr Brontë’s study, Anne was very lively in conversation, walking around the room supported by me. Mr Brontë joined us after Mr Teale’s departure and, seating himself on the couch, he drew Anne towards him and said, ‘My dear little Anne.’ That was all – but it was understood.’

She also accompanied Anne on her final journey to Scarborough after Anne had sent a plaintive final letter to Ellen asking her to come:

I know, and every body knows that you would be as kind and helpful as any one could possibly be, and I hope I should not be very troublesome. It would be as a companion not as a nurse that I should wish for your company, otherwise I should not venture to ask it.’

It is Ellen’s detailed eyewitness account of Anne’s final days in York and Scarborough that provides much more information about Anne’s final days than modern day research ever can – Ellen after all knew Anne and the Brontës far better than we can ever hope to.

Ellen Nussey was a kind, generous and intelligent woman who brought moments of light and happiness into the lives of all three Brontë sisters – for which we should be very thankful. She was the daily correspondent, the sender of ribbons, the giver of gifts, the visitor when ill, the crutch when walking, the organiser of funerals. She was in every sense a true friend, but the story of how Ellen preserved the Brontë legacy after their deaths, sometimes against the odds and against the express wishes of others, is just as important, and we’ll take a look at it in next weeks Anne Brontë blog.

Anne Brontë And The Influence Of William Cowper

‘In looking over my sister Anne’s papers, I find mournful evidence that religious feeling had been to her but too much like what it was to Cowper’, these were the words of Charlotte Brontë after the death of her youngest sister Anne, but just who was Cowper and what influence did he have on the life and writing of Anne Brontë?

William Cowper was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 1731 and died in 1800, and yet his reputation was still huge at the time that the Brontë were writing. Cowper’s fame is rather faded now, but he was one of the most popular poets of his time, and seen as one of the most important influences on the Romantic movement epitomised by the likes of Wordsworth, Keats and Byron.

Quote by William Cowper
Quote by William Cowper

His poetry as a whole has two main themes running through it – the power of nature and the power of faith, and one of his lasting legacies is the phrase: ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ which is taken (slightly altered) from his poem ‘Light Shining Out Of Darkness’.

Cowper also put his fame to good use, becoming a prominent anti-slavery campaigner in the late eighteenth century, and his words were used by Martin Luther King Jr. during his civil rights campaigns.

We can safely assume that Cowper’s work was read and enjoyed in the Brontë household, and Anne herself left evidence of this that we’ll look at later, but it wasn’t his poetry that Charlotte was referring to in her comment at the head of this post. Cowper had two things in common with Anne (and indeed with Charlotte): they both lost their mothers at an early age, and they were both attacked by religious doubts that drove them to their mental and physical limits.

From an early age Anne Brontë was a keen biblical scholar, but she found her interpretation of the bible differed greatly from much of the church’s teaching of the day. Calvinism was an increasingly powerful faction within the Church of England. Calvinist preachers, in effect what we would think of as Puritans today, taught that sin once committed could never be expunged, and that you could even be born a sinner and condemned to the fiery torments of hell forever.

It’s difficult for us today, even those of us who have faith, to imagine the terror that hell represented in the early and mid nineteenth century. To Anne Brontë and many others, the threat of hell was a real place where people would suffer the worst kind of torments. During her years as a pupil at Roe Head, Anne dwelt more and more on thoughts of eternal damnation – would those she loved be condemned to hell, would she herself end there?

These thoughts interrupted Anne’s sleep, turned all happiness into sadness, and eventually led to a physical and mental collapse that resulted in her being sent back to Haworth from Roe Head. Having come through this crisis Anne found a new and stronger faith based upon the notion of a loving and forgiving God, and although it may sound strange to us that was a controversial theory at the time. She continued, however, to be beset by doubts and fears from time to time.
William Cowper was famous not only for his poetry, but also for the religious fears that beset him. He found it harder to overcome them than Anne did, and was committed to an insane asylum between 1763 and 1765. He had another breakdown in 1773, after having a dream in which he foresaw that he was to be punished with eternal damnation.

Crazy Kate by Henry Fuseli
Crazy Kate by Henry Fuseli, an illustration to a Cowper poem

Was Charlotte right to think that Anne had suffered like Cowper all her life? Probably not, as although doubts did attack Anne from time to time she had the strength of faith and resilience to overcome them. Was Charlotte, again, projecting her own fears and thoughts onto Anne? After all, in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, Charlotte once wrote:

‘I abhor myself – I despise myself – if the Doctrine of Calvin be true, I am already an outcast.’

Certainly, Anne thought very highly of William Cowper, not only of his work but of him as a person – he had faced the same struggles, confronted the same demons that she had. It is this that led Anne to write a poem to his memory, and so we finish today’s post with Anne Brontë’s poem ‘To Cowper’.

‘Sweet are thy strains, celestial Bard;
And oft, in childhood’s years,
I’ve read them o’er and o’er again,
With floods of silent tears.
The language of my inmost heart
I traced in every line;
MY sins, MY sorrows, hopes, and fears,
Were there-and only mine.
All for myself the sigh would swell,
The tear of anguish start;
I little knew what wilder woe
Had filled the Poet’s heart.
I did not know the nights of gloom,
The days of misery;
The long, long years of dark despair,
That crushed and tortured thee.
But they are gone; from earth at length
Thy gentle soul is pass’d,
And in the bosom of its God
Has found its home at last.
It must be so, if God is love,
And answers fervent prayer;
Then surely thou shalt dwell on high,
And I may meet thee there.
Is He the source of every good,
The spring of purity?
Then in thine hours of deepest woe,
Thy God was still with thee.
How else, when every hope was fled,
Couldst thou so fondly cling
To holy things and help men?
And how so sweetly sing,
Of things that God alone could teach?
And whence that purity,
That hatred of all sinful ways —
That gentle charity?
Are THESE the symptoms of a heart
Of heavenly grace bereft —
For ever banished from its God,
To Satan’s fury left?
Yet, should thy darkest fears be true,
If Heaven be so severe,
That such a soul as thine is lost —
Oh! how shall I appear?’