First Person Accounts Of The Brontës

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.

Crave The Rose by Nick Holland
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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.

Haworth moors snow
The snow topped moors of Haworth

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.

Arthur Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls

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.

Steam trains still run in Haworth today, although the station was built post-Brontes

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”…

Martha Brown
Martha Brown became a close friend of the Brontes

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.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Brontë biographer Elizabeth Gaskell

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.

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet
Charlotte Bronte’s wedding bonnet

“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.

Rose Anne Heslip: The Brontë Cousin In Yorkshire

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.

Dr William Wright
Dr. William Wright

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
Rose Anne Heslip in the 1927 Bronte Museum catalogue

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.’

Rose Anne Heslip interviewed in The Sketch, 10 February 1897

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.

Extract from the Royston Crow, 25 August 1893

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.

Treasures Of The First Brontë Museums

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.

The Sketch, 22 May 1895

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.

The catalogue is full of lovely images
A fascinating insight into the items held, and often revealing who donated them
Many letters from Charlotte to Ellen Nussey and others are reproduced
A glimpse inside the Bronte Museum as it once was
Incredible images of Charlotte Bronte’s dresses being worn – you wouldn’t see this today

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.

The Sketch, 6 January 1897

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!

Exmouth Journal, 9 July 1898

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.

The Discovery Of The Brontë Diary Papers

A lot of us have had a lot of extra time on our hands this year, for better or worse. It’s been an anxious year at times, of course, but it’s also provided the opportunity for many to learn new skills or spend time doing the things they love – like reading a good book. It has also provided opportunities for reflection, so it may be that you’ve started a journal or diary. If so, then you’re in good company for this week was the 186th anniversary of the first diary paper written by Emily and Anne Brontë, so in today’s post we’re going to look at it and how it came to be discovered.

Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls made an astonishing discovery in 1895

After the tragic early death of Charlotte Brontë in 1855 the majority of her possessions went to her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, although some items were left to her friend and faithful parsonage servant Martha Brown. Without doubt Arthur continued to love Charlotte until the end of his days, although he did later marry his cousin Mary Bell after returning to Ireland (Mary’s father was a priest, so Arthur had married both Currer Bell and the daughter of Curate Bell). Charlotte’s legacy was painful to look at, and for that reason many of Charlotte’s items went untouched by Arthur for many years. It was forty years after Charlotte’s passing that Arthur took a look at one particular item and made an incredible discovery.

The item was a plain tin cash box which Branwell Brontë had at one point gifted to his sister Emily. Emily Brontë had used it as a sewing box, so upon opening it Arthur found a collection of bobbins, needles, thimbles and thread. Turning it over in his hands however he found something else, a hidden compartment secreted at the base of the box.

This box kept the secret of the Bronte diary papers!

Opening this compartment, Arthur found something completely unexpected, and completely remarkable. It held a collection of tiny folded pieces of paper, placed there by Emily before her death in 1848. These papers were what we now call the ‘diary papers’ written by Emily and Anne Brontë in the years 1834, 1837, 1841 and 1845 and they give a remarkable insight into life in the Brontë household, and in their lives, at these times. The first diary paper was written jointly by Emily and Anne on 24th November 1834, and is reproduced in full below:

“November the 24, 1834 Monday, Emily Jane Brontë, Anne Brontë,

I fed Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake, Jasper, pheasant this morning. Branwell went down to Mr Drivers and brought news that Sir Robert Peel was going to stand for Leeds. Anne and I have been peeling apples for Charlotte to make an apple pudding and for Aunt’s nuts and apples. Charlotte said she made puddings perfectly and she was of a quick but limited intellect. Tabby said just now come Anne pilloputate (ie pill a potato). Aunt has come into the kitchen just now and said, ‘where are your feet Anne?’ Anne answered, ‘on the floor Aunt’. Papa opened the parlour door and gave Branwell a letter saying, ‘here Branwell read this and show it to your Aunt and Charlotte’. The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine, Sally Mosley is washing in the back kitchen.

It is past twelve o’clock Anne and I have not tidied ourselves, done our bed work or done our lessons and we want to go out to play. We are going to have for dinner boiled beef, turnips, potatoes and apple pudding; the kitchen is in a very untidy state. Anne and I have not done our music exercise which consists of b major. Tabby said, on my putting a pen in her face, ‘ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate’, I answered, ‘oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, I will directly’. With that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished pilling the potatoes). Papa going to walk. Mr Sunderland expected.

Anne and I say I wonder what we shall be like and what we shall be and where we shall be if all goes on well in the year 1874 – in which year I shall be in my 57th year, Anne will be going in her 55th year, Branwell will be going in his 58th year, and Charlotte in her 59th year; hoping we shall all be well at that time, we close our paper.

Emily and Anne, November the 24 1834”

1834 diary paper front
The 1834 diary paper front page includes a drawing of a lock of hair by Anne Bronte
1834 diary paper
Back page of Emily and Anne Bronte’s 1834 diary paper

In its mundanity is its brilliance. It shows teenage girls in 1834 (Anne and Emily were 14 and 16 at the time) being much like teenagers today – they haven’t done their homework, haven’t tidied their rooms and want to go out to play. The handwriting is messy and punctuation and spelling an afterthought, typical of Emily at this time but she would grow up to be one of the greatest, some might say the greatest, novelist of all time. Emily also loved to draw and doodle, as we see in subsequent diary papers, but in the 1834 entry it is Anne who has drawn long flowing hair down the left hand side of the front page.

This is also a very moving piece of writing, particulary as Emily and Anne wonder what they will all be doing in 1874. Arthur first saw this diary paper 21 years after that date, so he knew as we do that by 1874 they were all, alas, long dead.

It was an incredible yet chance discovery that has given us lots of valuable and fascinating information on the Brontës. Above all, it shows them as humans like you and I, rather than the towering genii they are often encountered as. What a lucky discovery, and who knows what other discoveries may yet be made?

Perhaps today could be a good day to start your own journal, after all future generations are sure to be fascinated, and possibly bemused, by how we live our lives today? I hope you can join me again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post; hoping we shall all be well at that time, I close my post.

Past Days: Anne Brontë’s Isolation Message

Let’s face it, this has been a strange year. At the dawn of January I was looking forward to a year spent celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anne Brontë, but 2020 had other plans. Many of us have found ourselves separated from the ones we love, and unable to do those everyday things we enjoy so much and perhaps took for granted. It’s been challenging for us all, and this isolation and a longing for a return to the past is something that Anne Brontë was familiar with too, as we can see from a poem that she wrote on this day in 1843.

Anne Bronte’s 200th anniversary year has been very different to how I expected it to be

Anne originally called the poem ‘’Tis Strange To Think’, but it was later given the title of ‘Past Days’ for its inclusion in the very first Brontë book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. By the time of its writing, and it was dated by Anne on the 22nd of November 1843, Anne was coming to the close of her fourth year in the service of the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall; it is just over a year since the love of her life, William Weightman, died of cholera, and a month until she can return to her beloved home in Haworth for the Christmas holiday. Anne’s feelings of despair and alienation can clearly be seen in her poem which follows:

“’Tis strange to think there was a time
When mirth was not an empty name,
When laughter really cheered the heart
And frequent smiles unbidden came,
And tears of grief would only flow
In sympathy for others’ woe;
When speech expressed the inward thought
And heart to kindred heart was bare,
And Summer days were far too short
For all the pleasures crowded there,
And silence, solitude and rest,
Now welcome to the weary breast,
Were all unprized, uncourted then,
And all the joy one spirit showed
The other deeply felt again,
And friendship like a river flowed,
Constant and strong its silent course,
For nought withstood its gentle force;
When night, the holy time of peace,
Was dreaded as the parting hour
When friendly intercourse must cease
And silence must resume her power,
Though ever free from pains and woes
She only brought us calm repose;
And when the blessed dawn again
Brought daylight to the blushing skies
We woke, and not reluctant then
To joyless labour did we rise,
But full of hope and glad and gay
We welcomed the returning day.”

Thorp Green Hall
Thorp Green Hall, where Anne was governess at the time she wrote ‘Past Days’

In one sense this is an understandably mournful poem, but in another sense it’s a joyous poem too, even if the joys are only remembered ones. Anne gives us a snapshot of life in Haworth Parsonage at the turn of the 1840s, with the kindred hearts of the Brontë sisters revelling in their nascent creativity and laughing out loud at their shared happiness.

It particularly gives us an insight into the closest and most important friendship of Anne’s life – that with her sister Emily Brontë. The closeness of Anne and Emily was remarked upon on more than one occasion by family friend Ellen Nussey:

‘She [Emily Brontë] and gentle Anne were often seen twined together as united statues of power and humility – they were to be seen with their arms lacing each other in their younger days whenever their occupation permitted their union.’

In her poem Anne Brontë recalls this sororal symbiosis with happiness, remembering long summer days together walking the moors. Only night time can temporarily break their friendship, so the welcome the rising of the sun and the return of a new day which would see them side by side again. Alas, in November 1843 that joy has been eclipsed, and the sun only brings another day away from Emily and her family.

Anne and Emily Bronte in 1834
A close friendship was the driving force in the lives of Anne and Emily Bronte

It’s a situation that many of us in lockdown can easily sympathise with. We find ourselves away from family and loved ones, and the rising sun only brings another day where they are distant. Nevertheless this isolation and despair passed. Anne returned to Haworth a month later and spent a happy Christmas with her family, and a year and a half later she was back home in Haworth permanently. Our isolation too will pass, and this dreadful virus will pass and be defeated, so until then we need to take solace, like Anne, in happy memories and the knowledge that we will be with our loved ones again. It also helps if we have a good book or two to read as well, of course.

Once again, we find the writing of Anne Brontë to be remarkably prescient, she truly is a writer for our time and for all times. In the version published within Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell we find the stamp of another genius too: Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte had taken on the task of editor for their poetry project, and it was surely she who gave Anne’s poem the title of ‘Past Days’ by which it’s now known. She also changed one line in the poem; Anne’s wrote about ‘when friendly intercourse must cease’, but Charlotte changed it to ‘when speech and mirth at once must cease’, emphasing even more powerfully the joyous nature of the relationship the sisters enjoyed.

Many people think of the Brontës as an endlessly tragic, gloomy bunch, but it seems to me that they were often very happy, carefree and loving siblings and that the walls of their parsonage often rang with laughter. I hope you find something to smile and laugh about today, because better times are drawing ever nearer and whilst past days may be good, future days could be even better. I’ll see you again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.

The Aftermath Of The Life Of Charlotte Brontë

Other than the Brontë novels themselves, it’s hard to beat a good Brontë biography. Contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life Of Charlotte Brontë wasn’t the first Brontë biography (that was by the mysterious W. P. P. and you can read about it here) but it was certainly the first officially sanctioned biography, and it helped to cement Charlotte Brontë’s reputation which endures to this day. Gaskell herself died on this week in 1865, so in today’s work we will take a look at the torrid history of her Brontë biography, and at why she wished she’d never written it.

The young Elizabeth Gaskell
A young Elizabeth Gaskell

The first thing we should say is that The Life Of Charlotte Brontë was a huge success upon its publication by Smith, Elder & Co. in March 1857. This success, sales wise and acclaim wise, has continued: Woman At Home magazine in 1896 said, ‘in the whole of English literature there is no book that can compare in widespread interest with The Life Of Charlotte Brontë by Mrs. Gaskell’, and in 2017 it featured in The Guardian’s list of the hundred best non-fiction books of all time.

By 16th June 1857 however, just three months after its publication, Gaskell wrote to Ellen Nussey (Charlotte’s great friend who had been the major source for the biography): ‘I am in the Hornet’s nest with a vengeance… I have cried more since I came home than I ever did in the same space of time before; and never needed kind words so much – & no one gives me them.’

What had happened? By May 1857 the first edition had completely sold out and a second edition had been released, but a month later the book was removed from sale, and we get a clue why in this edition of the Yorkshire Gazette dated 30th May 1857 (and which appeared in other papers across the country:

A certain lady, carefully not mentioned by name in either The Life Of Charlotte Brontë nor in these letters has threatened to sue Gaskell and her publishers after the book ‘impute to the lady in question a guilty intercourse with the late Branwell Brontë.’

The passage of time, of course, allows us to identify the lady as the former Lydia Robinson of Thorp Green Hall, by 1857 the rather grander Lady Scott. It is interesting to note that the solicitor acting on behalf of Lady Scott was a W. Shaen of Newton & Robinson solicitors of London, and the person acting on behalf of the Gaskells was William Shaen of Newton & Robinson solicitors of York. At least somebody must have done well out of the matter, as they wrote legal letters to themselves. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if it had ended up in court.

Gaskell was forced to apologise and rewrite the chapters involving Branwell and Lydia Robinson and the injunction was lifted, but her troubles didn’t end there. On 24th April 1857, W. W. Carus Wilson, having read The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, wrote to The London Evening Standard:

The letter writer is the son of the Reverend William Carus Wilson, founder of the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge, who insisted that his father ‘has spent a life solely for the good of others.’

This seems in rather bad taste when you consider that Maria and Elizabeth Brontë were just two of the many children who had died in (or after being sent home from) Wilson’s harsh schools – with large numbers of deaths recorded both in the time of the Brontës and in succeeding decades. Wilson junior attributes the stories within the biography to Elizabeth Gaskell’s dislike of the ‘evangelical’ wing of the church. The Wilson family and friends launched a prolonged campaign against the book and its author, and they too threatened legal action meaning that once again the book had to be re-written. Thankfully no amount of threatening letters and legal action can remove the character of Mr. Brocklehurst from Jane Eyre nor will it stop readers from knowing that, as Charlotte herself had asserted, that this was a facsimile portrait of the cruel Carus Wilson.

Sources closer to the Brontë family also found cause to complain to Elizabeth Gaskell. Patrick Brontë, the man who had originally commissioned Gaskell to write the biography of his daughter, was unhappy at his portrayal within it, and especially the statement (which we know to be untrue) that he had denied his children meat. It was for this reason that Patrick spoke to The Daily News England in August 1857, who reported:

‘With regard to the statement that Mr Brontë, in his desire to bring up his children simply and heartily, refused to permit them to eat flesh meat he asserts that Nancy Garrs alleges that the children had meat daily, and as much of the food as they chose. The early article from which they were restrained was butter, but its want was compensated for by what is known in Yorkshire as ‘spice-cake,’ a description of bread which is the staple food at Christmas for all meals but dinner.

“I did not know that I had an enemy in the world, much less one who would traduce me before my death. Everything in that book [The Life Of Charlotte Brontë] which relates to my conduct to my family is either false or distorted. I never did commit such acts as are ascribed to me. I stated this in a letter which I sent to Mrs Gaskell, requesting her at the same time to cancel the false statements made about me in her next edition of her book. To this I received no answer than that Mrs Gaskell was unwell, and unable to write.”’

Already the strain brought on by the book, and an almost constant stream of letters from solicitors and unhappy individuals, is making Elizabeth Gaskell unwell. Ellen Nussey, too, had cause to write to Elizabeth. One sad aspect of the book’s publication is that Patrick and Arthur blamed Ellen for the sections of the book they were unhappy with, although again we now know that she was not the source for those parts of the biography. They cut off the woman who had been Charlotte’s best friend, and a lifelong animosity grew between Ellen and Arthur. With a moving plea, she too wrote to Elizabeth Gaskell:

Ellen Nussey to Elizabeth Gaskell

By November 1857 a third edition of The Life Of Charlotte Brontë was published. It bore the legend ‘revised and corrected’ it should really have read ‘censored’. Elizabeth Gaskell had tried to portray her great friend Charlotte Brontë as she knew her, a woman of genius and a woman with a huge heart, but although her efforts sold well they brought her grief and anxiety. She later wrote to her publisher George Smith to lament that ‘every one who has been harmed in this unlucky book complains of some thing.’

These complaints continued over the next decade until on 12th November 1865, eight years after the publication of the biography, Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly in the middle of a sentence. We know this thanks to a letter sent by her daughter Meta to Ellen Nussey in January 1866:

Meta’s letter to Ellen was published in The Sphere, 25th May 1918

The postscript is interesting here, as although we don’t have her letter it is clear that Ellen has asked about Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘sunset’. This brings to mind her description of the last night of Anne Brontë’s life; Ellen wrote that Anne was looking out of the window across Scarborough’s South Bay, and that she witnessed the most ‘glorious sunset’ ever seen. Some have pointed out that the sun rises over the South Bay rather than setting in it, but it seems clear to me now that Ellen habitually used the phrase ‘sunset’ to refer to the closing of a life.

Did the stress caused by the aftermath of the publication of The Life Of Charlotte Brontë hasten the end of Elizabeth Gaskell’s life? We shall never know, but we can be sure that she regretted its publication. We can’t regret its publication however because, for all its flaws, it is a brilliant biography that reveals so much of what we know about the Brontës today.

Elizabeth Gaskell's grave
Elizabeth Gaskell’s final resting place in Knutsford, Cheshire

Thank you to all who supported the Kickstarter project for Hanover Press after last week’s post – with your help we will be rescuing some neglected classics of Victorian literature in 2021. Stay well, stay happy, and I will see you here for another Brontë blog post next Sunday.

Charlotte Brontë, Julia Kavanagh And Hanover Press

Today I want to talk to you about a project that’s very special to me, and if you love nineteenth century books then you might love it too!

Earlier this week I launched Hanover Press via a Kickstarter appeal, with the aim of raising enough support to rescue and re-publish neglected classics of Victorian fiction. We all love the works of the Brontës of course, and novels by the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy are still read and loved across the globe. There are other novelists however, like Julia Kavanagh, Maria Correlli, Jean Ingelow, James Payn and many more, who sold well and were acclaimed in their day, and yet their work is little known now. Some of these authors can be read via overpriced badly scanned copies which are hard to read and often error-strewn, copies which pay no respect to the book, author or reader.

Julia Kavanagh, painted by Henri Chanet

I want to change that, which is why Hanover Press will publish some of these lost and neglected Victorian novels in high quality new editions complete with introductions and notes. They will look great, and they’ll be a pleasure to read too, and very reasonably priced. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I’ll tell you how to back this project and order the first books soon, but first we’ll look at Charlotte Brontë and Julia Kavanagh – the unfairly neglected author who will be the first to be published by Hanover Press.

Julia Kavanagh was born in Thurles in Ireland’s County Tipperary in 1824, but whose writing life was spent largely in Paris and London. Kavanagh wrote out of necessity as a way to avoid poverty, and the money she made was spent largely on the cost of looking after her blind mother; her father Brendan had abandoned his wife and child, although he later attempted to exploit his daughter’s name to promote his own writing.

Kavanagh was a prolific writer, and her novels such as Madeleine, A Tale Of Auvergne, Nathalie and Daisy Burns brought her to the attention of the public and to writers such as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. After Charlotte met Julia Kavanagh, she wrote to a friend: “Do you remember my speaking of Miss Kavanagh – a young authoress who supported her mother by her writings? I called on her yesterday – I found a little, almost dwarfish figure to which even I had to look down – not deformed, that is, not hunchbacked but long-armed and with a large head and (at first sight) a strange face. She met me half-frankly, half-tremblingly… she lives in a poor but clean and neat little lodging – her mother seems a somewhat weak-minded woman who can be no companion to her – her father has quite deserted his wife and child – and this poor little feeble, intelligent, cordial thing wastes her brain to gain a living. She is twenty-five years old.”

You can order Rachel Gray by Hanover Press now

The first Hanover Press release will be Rachel Gray, first published in 1856, is a brilliant novel which is as relevant today as it has ever been, as it looks at the importance of family and love, and at social inequalities that were driving working class families apart. At its heart is the tale of a young woman who has been abandoned by her father, and who now spends her days under the control of an uncaring mother, dreaming of an escape from a life of a drudgery and a chance to find her father once again – it’s a story that Julia Kavanagh knew all too well.

Charlotte decided to visit Julia Kavanagh after hearing of her parlous state from W. S. Williams, the Smith, Elder & Co reader who had first discovered Jane Eyre. Despite her own frailty and ill health she continued to write to stave off poverty until her death in 1877. She died after falling from bed, and her tragic last words were ‘Oh Mama! How silly I am to have fallen.’

Julia Kavanagh deserves a better legacy than this. Her books are often excellent, and were well received by the critics of the day. They deserve to be counted among the best that the nineteenth century has to offer, which is why I’m pleased that Rachel Gray is available to order now on our Kickstarter page. If you’re not familiar with the Kickstarter concept you simply make a pledge to buy a book or books (different ‘rewards’ are available) but you don’t pay until the end of the project – which for Hanover Press is December 2nd. Backers only pay if the project reaches its target, but I’m thrilled to say that Hanover Press has already reached and exceeded our target.

We have some excellent neglected Victorian classics lined up for next year too, and right now we are also making The Hanover Press Language Of Flowers exclusively available through the Kickstarter page. It’s a fun little book which draws on the Victorian tradition of assigning secret meanings to each flower, and it also includes a selection of floral themed poems from the era. Poets include Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë, but also, in the Hanover Press way, some excellent poets you may not be familiar with.

You can also order The Hanover Press Language Of Flowers via the Kickstarter page

Victorian literature is rich, diverse and great to read, so with your help I look forward to rescuing and republishing some neglected books which are excellent page turners. You can back the project now at this link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hanoverpress/hanover-press-rescuing-lost-victorian-literature In effect, it’s a way to pre-order the books.

Whether you order a book or books, or simply pass on your best wishes, I’ll be grateful as always for your brilliant support. Don’t worry, I’ll still be keeping on the Brontë path in this blog and in my own writing, and my book on Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey will be published by The History Press next year.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain Arthur M Branwell (HU 114269) Unit: 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Copyright: © IWM.

Today, of course, is also Remembrance Sunday. As always, at 11 o’clock I will take a moment to remember all who fought in wars, and their families, such as Brontë relative Captain Arthur Branwell who served in France in World War One. We will remember them. Thank you for your time today, please join me next week for a Brontë blog post.

The Strange Tale Of Charlotte Brontë’s Ghost

Halloween comes but once a year, but that’s why I like to make it last all weekend, meaning that today it’s time for this year’s Brontë Halloween blog post! In previous years we’ve looked at the Long Island staircase said to be haunted by Anne Brontë, at the Gytrash of Ponden Hall, and at the ghost of Mrs Baines which haunted Penzance at the time that the Brontës’ mother Maria and their Aunt Branwell lived there. Today we’re going to look at ghosts in the writing of Charlotte Brontë, and a spooky report of Charlotte being a ghost herself.

Emily’s Wuthering Heights, of course, is a book full of superstition and gothic tones, and yet it is Charlotte Brontë who most consistently wrote about the supernatural and otherworldly. Her unfinished book Willie Ellin sees an unnamed spirit taking up residence in the human world, and even when a teacher at Roe Head school it seemed that Charlotte was experiencing phenomena that can’t easily be explained away, as we see from this excerpt from her journal:

‘The toil of the day, succeeded by this moment of divine leisure, had acted on me like opium & was coiling about me a disturbed but fascinating spell, such as I never felt before. What I imagined grew morbidly vivid. I remember I quite seemed to see, with my bodily eyes, a lady standing in the hall of a gentleman’s house, as if waiting for some one.’

Roe Head by Anne Bronte
Roe Head, where Charlotte taught, drawn by Anne Bronte

Could this vision have been waiting in the hall of a gentleman’s house, waiting for Charlotte to take up her pen ten years later and write her story in Jane Eyre? This novel too is full of hauntings, of past spectres being made all too real, and it contains one of the most famous ghost scenes of them all as the young Jane is banished to the red-room:

‘This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchen; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered. The house-maid alone came here on Saturdays, to wipe from the mirrors and the furniture a week’s quiet dust: and Mrs. Reed herself, at far intervals, visited it to review the contents of a certain secret drawer in the wardrobe, where were stored divers parchments, her jewel-casket, and a miniature of her deceased husband; and in those last words lies the secret of the red-room—the spell which kept it so lonely in spite of its grandeur.

Mr. Reed had been dead nine years: it was in this chamber he breathed his last; here he lay in state; hence his coffin was borne by the undertaker’s men; and, since that day, a sense of dreary consecration had guarded it from frequent intrusion.

Shibden Hall
The red-room of Jane Eyre may have been inspired by Shibden Hall in Halifax which had a haunted Red Room.

My seat, to which Bessie and the bitter Miss Abbot had left me riveted, was a low ottoman near the marble chimney-piece; the bed rose before me; to my right hand there was the high, dark wardrobe, with subdued, broken reflections varying the gloss of its panels; to my left were the muffled windows; a great looking-glass between them repeated the vacant majesty of the bed and room. I was not quite sure whether they had locked the door; and when I dared move, I got up and went to see. Alas! yes: no jail was ever more secure. Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented as coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers. I returned to my stool.

Superstition was with me at that moment; but it was not yet her hour for complete victory: my blood was still warm; the mood of the revolted slave was still bracing me with its bitter vigour; I had to stem a rapid rush of retrospective thought before I quailed to the dismal present… Shaking my hair from my eyes, I lifted my head and tried to look boldly round the dark room; at this moment a light gleamed on the wall. Was it, I asked myself, a ray from the moon penetrating some aperture in the blind? No; moonlight was still, and this stirred; while I gazed, it glided up to the ceiling and quivered over my head. I can now conjecture readily that this streak of light was, in all likelihood, a gleam from a lantern carried by some one across the lawn: but then, prepared as my mind was for horror, shaken as my nerves were by agitation, I thought the swift darting beam was a herald of some coming vision from another world. My heart beat thick, my head grew hot; a sound filled my ears, which I deemed the rushing of wings; something seemed near me; I was oppressed, suffocated: endurance broke down; I rushed to the door and shook the lock in desperate effort.’

The heroine of Villette, Lucy Snowe, also finds herself beguiled and besieged by dread of the supernatural, thanks to the recurring presence of a ghost nun:

The Brontës had been brought up on ghostly folkore and tales of the supernatural, thanks to the Pennine tales of their loyal servant Tabby Aykroyd and the Cornish tales regaled by their Aunt Branwell. It’s easy to imagine them telling each other spooky stories by candlelight on All Hallow’s Eve, but perhaps more surprising were the stories that circulated in the 1920s of Charlotte Brontë herself appearing as a ghost!

Dundee Evening Telegraph, 11 February 1927

It is reported here in February 1927 that Charlotte’s ghost has been appearing on an annual basis at the beautiful Hathersage Parsonage where she stayed with Ellen Nussey in 1845. The incumbent vicar’s children often see her ghost, and her appearance is said to terrify the dog. The article also conjectures that her phantom returns to this spot because she was in love with the man who lived there, Reverend Henry Nussey whose proposal she rejected and who at least partially inspired St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre, and because she had found calm at Hathersage in contrast to the misery of Haworth. The article also points out that the ghost of Thomas Eyre, who had lived at nearby North Lees Hall, also haunted the building and that the Psychic Society had offered to help investigate the matter, but their request was not being entertained.

Did Charlotte visit this building, Hathersage Parsonage, again in the 1920s?

A month later, however, Hathersage’s vicar the Reverend J. H. Brookbank took to the press to deny these claims, saying that the idea that he and his family had seen Charlotte’s ghost was absurd – but perhaps it’s telling that there was no comment from the family dog!

Charleston Gazette, 13 March 1927

We’ve had a little bit of Halloween fun today, and I think we could all do with that as another lockdown looms. Once again, Brontë books will prove invaluable in the weeks ahead, so please join me next Sunday for another new post. Next Sunday will be the special one that I hinted at in last week’s post, so I hope you can join me for it. Stay safe and if you have a terrified pet today don’t panic, it’s probably just Charlotte Brontë popping by to say hello.

The Month Of October In The Brontë Novels

Thank you so much for all the kind words about my recent posts taking you on a virtual tour of the new Anne Brontë exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, it was a pleasure to share it with you. With new lockdown restrictions appearing across the country we once again turn to books for solace; after all, they never let us down. The clocks have gone backwards, some might say to the fourteenth century, and the dark nights are here. Late October is certainly making her presence felt, so in today’s post let’s take a look at October in the Brontë novels.

My beautiful new copy of Jane Eyre by Chiltern Publishing, it has golden pages too!

Jane Eyre

A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day: I left Lowton at four o’clock a.m., and the Millcote town clock is now just striking eight. Reader, though I look comfortably accommodated, I am not very tranquil in my mind.’

George Hotel, Hathersage
The George Hotel, Hathersage is the George Inn of Jane Eyre

October brings new opportunities for Jane after leaving her position as a teacher at Lowood school, and we see her now preparing to enter her life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. The George Inn at Millcote is clearly modelled on the George Inn (now the George Hotel) at Hathersage, the Derbyshire village visited by Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey. You can still visit the George Inn today and see the portraits of George III and the Prince of Wales on its walls.

The matching Wuthering Heights, also with a beautiful embossed cover

Wuthering Heights

But the hour came, at last, that ended Mr. Earnshaw’s troubles on earth. He died quietly in his chair one October evening, seated by the fire-side. A high wind blustered round the house, and roared in the chimney: it sounded wild and stormy, yet it was not cold, and we were all together—I, a little removed from the hearth, busy at my knitting, and Joseph reading his Bible near the table (for the servants generally sat in the house then, after their work was done). Miss Cathy had been sick, and that made her still; she leant against her father’s knee, and Heathcliff was lying on the floor with his head in her lap. I remember the master, before he fell into a doze, stroking her bonny hair—it pleased him rarely to see her gentle—and saying, “Why canst thou not always be a good lass, Cathy?” And she turned her face up to his, and laughed, and answered, “Why cannot you always be a good man, father?” But as soon as she saw him vexed again, she kissed his hand, and said she would sing him to sleep. She began singing very low, till his fingers dropped from hers, and his head sank on his breast. Then I told her to hush, and not stir, for fear she should wake him. We all kept as mute as mice a full half-hour, and should have done so longer, only Joseph, having finished his chapter, got up and said that he must rouse the master for prayers and bed. He stepped forward, and called him by name, and touched his shoulder; but he would not move: so he took the candle and looked at him. I thought there was something wrong as he set down the light; and seizing the children each by an arm, whispered them to “frame upstairs, and make little din—they might pray alone that evening—he had summut to do.”

I shall bid father good-night first,” said Catherine, putting her arms round his neck, before we could hinder her. The poor thing discovered her loss directly—she screamed out—“Oh, he’s dead, Heathcliff! he’s dead!” And they both set up a heart-breaking cry.’

October is a time for change in the Earnshaw household too, but this time we are bathed in tragedy. This is the end of childhood happiness and innocence for Catherine and Heathcliff, their roles will now change forever, setting in sequence the often violent and tragic action to come.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

October 1st.—All is settled now. My father has given his consent, and the time is fixed for Christmas, by a sort of compromise between the respective advocates for hurry and delay. Milicent Hargrave is to be one bridesmaid and Annabella Wilmot the other—not that I am particularly fond of the latter, but she is an intimate of the family, and I have not another friend.’

Helen is happy with her marriage to Arthur – but it won’t last

October 9th.—It was on the night of the 4th, a little after tea, that Annabella had been singing and playing, with Arthur as usual at her side: she had ended her song, but still she sat at the instrument; and he stood leaning on the back of her chair, conversing in scarcely audible tones, with his face in very close proximity with hers. I looked at Lord Lowborough. He was at the other end of the room, talking with Messrs. Hargrave and Grimsby; but I saw him dart towards his lady and his host a quick, impatient glance, expressive of intense disquietude, at which Grimsby smiled. Determined to interrupt the tête-à-tête, I rose, and, selecting a piece of music from the music stand, stepped up to the piano, intending to ask the lady to play it; but I stood transfixed and speechless on seeing her seated there, listening, with what seemed an exultant smile on her flushed face to his soft murmurings, with her hand quietly surrendered to his clasp. The blood rushed first to my heart, and then to my head; for there was more than this: almost at the moment of my approach, he cast a hurried glance over his shoulder towards the other occupants of the room, and then ardently pressed the unresisting hand to his lips. On raising his eyes, he beheld me, and dropped them again, confounded and dismayed. She saw me too, and confronted me with a look of hard defiance. I laid the music on the piano, and retired. I felt ill; but I did not leave the room: happily, it was getting late, and could not be long before the company dispersed.’

October 24th.—Thank heaven, I am free and safe at last. Early we rose, swiftly and quietly dressed, slowly and stealthily descended to the hall, where Benson stood ready with a light, to open the door and fasten it after us. We were obliged to let one man into our secret on account of the boxes, &c. All the servants were but too well acquainted with their master’s conduct, and either Benson or John would have been willing to serve me; but as the former was more staid and elderly, and a crony of Rachel’s besides, I of course directed her to make choice of him as her assistant and confidant on the occasion, as far as necessity demanded, I only hope he may not be brought into trouble thereby, and only wish I could reward him for the perilous service he was so ready to undertake. I slipped two guineas into his hand, by way of remembrance, as he stood in the doorway, holding the candle to light our departure, with a tear in his honest grey eye, and a host of good wishes depicted on his solemn countenance. Alas! I could offer no more: I had barely sufficient remaining for the probable expenses of the journey.’

No Brontë book mentions October more than Anne Brontë’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. This is perhaps understandable given that the middle section of the book takes the form of a diary written by Helen, but by following the October entries, just some of which are given above, we see the progression of Helen’s marriage and life. At first we have hope, followed by despair as she sees her husband Arthur’s behaviour and character, Finally, however, there is hope again as Helen finally escapes for a new life at Wildfell Hall. October can often seem a dark and challenging month, never more so by now, but as we see in Anne’s great novel it can end with hope and light – even if that light is caused by candles flickering inside pumpkins.

Haworth Halloween
Haworth at Halloween

Wrap up warm, grab a nice drink and a great book, and I hope to see you next week, in November, for what I hope will be a very special post. Thank you, as always, for your company.

A Virtual Tour Of The Anne Brontë Exhibition: Part II

Last week we embarked upon part one of a virtual tour of the Anne Bronte exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. We looked at Anne items and ephemera within the old Brontë parsonage itself, but today we will look at the main body of the Anne Brontë exhibition, contained in a series of display cases in the Bonnell Room next to the museum shop.

Sadly, on my latest visit I didn’t manage to get a close up picture of the first display case, but here’s an image from my earlier visit in January. It’s a stunning start to the ‘Amid The Brave And Strong’ exhibition because it contains two fine examples from Anne Bronte’s necklace collection, made of carnelian and turquoise:

Amid The Brave And Strong exhibition

Here we see examples of Anne’s precocity, including a sampler created at just eight years of age, and a sketch of Roe Head in Mirfield, the school she entered aged 15.

In last week’s post we saw three images of Anne’s beloved spaniel, two by Anne herself and one by Emily. Centre stage here is another image of Flossy, along with his collar. Note that I call Flossy a ‘he’: sometimes the spaniel is referred to as female due to a puppy called Flossy Junior being given to Ellen Nussey, but there are no references to any other puppies around the parsonage so it seems likely that Anne’s four legged friend was the father rather than the mother. Here also we have Anne’s German language textbook; Anne was an excellent linguist, and the only Brontë sister who could read Latin and Greek.

 

Here we see the only signature of Anne Brontë under her pseudonym Acton Bell. According to Charlotte (whose ‘Currer Bell’ signature can also be seen here) their first book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, sold only two copies. One of the purchasers, however, a Mr Enoch, was so impressed that he wrote via the publisher to ask for their autographs.

 

Anne was a wonderful artist, as indeed were all the siblings, and perhaps her most popular artwork is ‘Woman gazing at a sunrise over the sea’ shown in the display case above. It’s easy to think that this represents Anne herself at her beloved Scarborough, but in fact had seen neither Scarborough nor the sea at the time she drew this in 1839.

My personal favourite artwork of Anne’s is ‘What You Please’ pictured below, as I believe it’s an Anne Brontë self-portrait. This case also contains a first edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, published together in 1847. It was perhaps fitting that the two sisters, Anne and Emily Brontë, who were so close to one another, and whose arms were to be seen constantly entwined in their childhood, should find their remarkable novels published side by side in adulthood.

Another beautiful drawing by Anne, along with her groundbreaking novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall which is still relevant and powerful today. This is a particularly moving copy of the book as it was Anne’s own copy which she presented to her friend Ellen Nussey in January 1849. It was just a month after Emily’s death from consumption, and Ellen walked Anne around the room as she waited for the verdict of a doctor’s consultation: the verdict when it came was a terrible one, Anne had just weeks or months to live. Ellen remembered the visit at which she was presented this book: ‘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.’

Contemporary critics were extremely harsh about the writing of Anne and her sisters, but she faced up to them and hit back in her famous preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. Her message was, and is, a simple one: truth is all that matters. We also see a Brontë inkwell and one of Anne’s quills – it’s incredible to think that they wrote their novels using these instruments, and often by candlelight.

In this very moving display case we see Anne’s handkerchief bearing her hand stitched initials and stained by her blood, a symbol of the bloody coughing associated with tuberculosis. Here also is Anne’s last letter, to Ellen Nussey asking her to accompany her to Scarborough. Even at this time, when she had little need to preserve paper or money, Anne writes using the frugal ‘crossed letter’ style, meaning that you had to read the letter both vertically and horizontally. The paper is black bordered as Anne is still in mourning for Emily.

‘Last Lines’ was the title given by Charlotte Brontë to this, Anne’s final poem, after her sister’s passing. I believe, however, that Anne had also been working on a philosophical essay, one that is published for the first time in book form in my book Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200and that those were her actual last lines.

The exhibition closes, as all such retrospectives must, on a sad note of finality, and yet we can still remember the joy that Anne Brontë brought to so many people and which she will continue to bring, whatever challenges our little planet faces. I hope you’ve enjoyed my virtual tour of the Brontë Parsonage Museum’s exhibition, ‘Amid The Brave And Strong’ is a fine and fitting tribute to Anne Brontë in her 200th birthday year. I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour, and don’t forget that, if you wish to do so, you can donate to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth via this link. I hope to see you all again next Sunday for another new Brontë blog post.