Maria Brontë – Tragic And Genius Sister

The book reading world knows about the remarkable achievements of the three famous Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. There were five Brontë sisters in total however, and the oldest of them all, Maria, could possibly have become the greatest genius of them all if she hadn’t been struck down at such a tragically young age.

We don’t know the exact date of birth of Maria Brontë, but it was early in 1814 in the Yorkshire village of Hartshead where her father was then the Church of England priest. Hartshead itself is just a short walk from Roe Head School where her younger sister Anne was to be a pupil more than twelve years later.

St Peter's Hartshead
St Peter’s, Hartshead, the village of Maria Bronte’s birth

The first Brontë child, she was named after her Cornish born mother Maria, just as the first son was named after father Patrick, although forever to be known by his middle name of Branwell. From an early age, it was obvious that the family had a true prodigy on their hands. She took a great interest in the books and newspapers belonging to her father, and Patrick later reported that by the age of nine he could converse with her on any leading topic of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any adult.

In many ways, Maria had to grow up fast. After the death of her mother in September 1821, the eight year old found herself the oldest of six motherless Brontë siblings. She was not only eldest sister then, she in effect became almost a surrogate mother to them. It was a role she was well suited to, as by the age of just five she had already been described as ‘grave, thoughtful, and quiet to a degree well beyond her years.’

She would read to her younger brother and sisters, with little infant Anne rocking on her knee. It was little wonder that they all doted on her, but Maria was a candle that burned brightly, fiercely, quickly. When Patrick Brontë famously put a mask on his children and asked them each a carefully tailored question, he asked Maria what was the best way of spending time. She answered: ‘By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity’, as if she knew what was coming.

In July 1824, Patrick’s three oldest daughters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontë set out for a new clergy daughter’s school at Cowan Bridge in what is now Cumbria. At the school one teacher, a Miss Andrews, noted her ‘extra-ordinary talents’, and yet it seems that her clumsiness or untidiness singled her out for particularly harsh treatment at what was becoming a school for dying rather than a school of learning. By early 1825, Maria was suffering from tuberculosis, and was sent home to Haworth to die. She passed away aged eleven on 6th May 1825, her sister Elizabeth also died of the condition a month later.

Charlotte was the most affected by Maria’s death. She was recreated as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, the bright young woman who befriends Jane and is cruelly treated at Lowood to the point of death, dying asleep in Jane’s arms. Throughout their lives, both Charlotte and Patrick would vehemently assert that Helen was a faithful reproduction of Maria, and what she had to endure at the school.

Helen Burns
Helen Burns in ‘Jane Eyre’ was a depiction of Maria Bronte

Branwell too remembered his beloved eldest sister, with the Caroline of his early poem recalling his viewing of her laid out for burial:

‘She lay, as I had seen her lie

On many a happy night before,

When I was humbly kneeling by –

Whom she was teaching to adore.’

If Maria had lived who knows what would have become of her. She could perhaps have become a great a writer as her sisters, maybe even greater (if that’s possible). As with all children taken before their time, history will never know what it missed.

Anne was in many ways inured to the loss of both Maria and Elizabeth because of her age at the time, but there was one other touching monument to Maria that’s easily missed, and it comes from Emily.

Branwell, notable for being mischievous from the earliest age, would sometimes tease his sisters that he heard Maria knocking on the windows on stormy nights. This recalls the incredibly powerful scene near the beginning of Wuthering Heights, when the ghost of Cathy knocks at the window and cries:

“‘Let me in – let me in!… It is twenty years,’ mourned the voice. ‘Twenty years. I’ve been a waif for twenty years!'”

When did Emily write this scene? In mid to late 1845, twenty years after the death of her sister Maria.

Jane Austen Verses The Brontë Sisters

In a week that saw the release of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ it’s time to take a look not at the Bennets versus the undead, but at Jane Austen versus the Brontës.

I once asked one of the hard working guides at the Brontë Parsonage Museum what was the question they are asked more than any other. It was ‘Which of the Brontë sisters wrote Pride and Prejudice?’, followed closely by ‘Is this where Jane Austen wrote her novels?’

Pride & Prejudice
A classic scene from the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice

It seems that many people today get the Brontë and Jane Austen mixed up, and it was a comparison that the Brontës had to live with in their lifetime as well; it was as unfair then as it is today.

On a personal level there are only superficial similarities between Austen and our favourite writing siblings. Austen was an early nineteenth century writer who never married and lived with her family throughout her life. So far, so similar with Anne, Emily and Charlotte (who only married in the last year of her life). Austen was writing earlier in the century than the Brontës, however, and she came from a wealthier family and a more exalted social position. For this reason, it was much easier for Jane Austen to find the time to write, and she was relatively free from worries about her income. It could also be why, in my opinion, her novels lack the grittiness, the integral truth, found in Brontë novels.

Certainly it seems that Austen was not a hit in the book loving Brontë household. Indeed, Charlotte Brontë insisted that she had never read her works until she was urged to by the critic G. H. Lewes. She was far from impressed:

“Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point… I had not seen ‘Pride & Prejudice’ till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”

It irked Charlotte that her books were being compared with those of a writer she had little knowledge of or regard for, and whose books she felt were completely dissimilar. It’s a comparison that persists to this day of course. Charlotte wasn’t the only Brontë to fall foul of an Austen comparison, as Anne Brontë too had a similar fate when she published fer first novel ‘Agnes Grey’. A newspaper called the Atlas wrote:

“‘Agnes Grey’ is a somewhat coarse imitation of one of Miss Austin’s charming stories.”

It’s a pity, of course, that the reviewer hadn’t found the stories so charming that he’d remembered how to spell Miss Austen’s name.

What then is the reason for the inextricable intertwining of Jane Austen and the Brontës today? Sad to say, but it must at least partly be due to the fact that they are all female authors, and yet Dickens and Thackeray, for example, are never confused. Charlotte, Emily and Anne chose male pen names because they were afraid they would not be taken seriously as female writers. How right they were, and they and females in many artistic and scientific fields are still suffering for it today.

One early twentieth century writer, however, thought it was unfair that Anne Bronte in particular was being overlooked in favour of Jane Austen. In 1924, celebrated Irish author George Moore wrote:

“If Anne Brontë had lived ten years longer, she would have taken a place beside Jane Austen, perhaps even a higher place.”

My opinion may not be the prevalent one, but in my mind Anne Brontë already has that higher place.

Animals In The Novels Of Anne And Emily Brontë

Anne Brontë, like her sister Emily, was a great lover of nature and animals, and this was reflected in all three of their novels. It became almost a shorthand for virtue in a character, the villains mistreated animals whilst the heroes and heroines were kind to them.

In Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, the governess first has to deal with the monstrous Bloomfield family, modelled on the Inghams of Blake Hall, Mirfield that she had worked for. The young Tom Bloomfield likes to torture birds, setting traps and then killing them in various horrible ways. In this he is encouraged by his father and uncle, who think that this is a proper and manly way for a boy to behave. Agnes takes a very different view, and when she finds that Tom has a nest of fledglings that he intends to torture, she drops a stone on them killing them instantly and thus sparing them further torment.

Blake Hall, Mirfield
Blake Hall, Mirfield

If this was modelled on real life, as much of Agnes Grey is, then we can imagine how awful it must have been to carry this act of mercy through. Anne herself hints that this really happened in her preface to the second edition of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, when she writes:

‘Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from the life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration.’

Similarly in The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, we see the bullying, abusive, drink sodden husband Arthur Huntingdon taking his young son hunting and smearing blood on his face.

Emily Brontë, often in company with Anne, would frequently take long walks across the moors near Haworth, rescuing injured animals that she found, bringing them home and nursing them back to health. In her great novel, Wuthering Heights, she uses this same shorthand to reveal how villainous Heathcliff really is. Nelly Dean, the books co-narrator, finds the first evidence that Heathcliff has eloped with young Isabella Linton in the shape of her dogs that he has left hanging. This was his wedding gift to his new wife, and a fitting symbol of the cruelty that was to come.

On the other side of this coin, Anne uses kindness to animals to demonstrate that a character is a hero. This is apparent in the character of Edmund Weston in Agnes Grey. We see him rescuing the old woman Nancy’s cat, before it is shot. He also rescues Snap, the dog that Agnes had loved and had to leave behind when she left the employ of the Murray family, modelled on the Robinsons of Thorp Green Hall.

Snap had been sent to a rat catcher much to the horror of Agnes, but later when she is walking along Scarborough beach she is delighted to see the dog run up to her:

‘I heard a snuffling sound behind me, and then a dog came frisking and wriggling at my feet. It was my own Snap – the little, dark, wire-haired terrier! When I spoke his name, he leapt up in my face and yelled for joy. Almost as much delighted as himself, I caught the little creature in my arms, and kissed him repeatedly. But how came he to be there?’

It is then that Agnes looks around and sees Weston, the man that she had loved and had to leave behind. He has bought Snap from the rat catcher and been ever on the look out for Agnes herself. Thus starts what is a very understated, and yet very romantic, end to the novel. It is very moving as well, when we consider that Weston is undoubtedly based upon William Weightman who had been snatched from Anne by cholera five years previously.

Flossy by Anne Bronte
Flossy by Anne Bronte

To Anne, and Emily, a love of animals was a prerequisite for a good character, and as a lover of animals myself I certainly concur with that. This love extended beyond the page and into their real lives as well, as they had a succession of pets, from geese, named Adelaide and Victoria after the royal princesses, to cats, rabbits, pheasants, hawks and canaries, and of course their famous dogs Keeper and Flossy.

The Story Of Flossy – Anne Bronte’s Beloved Pet Dog

Britain is a nation of dog lovers, so they say, and that was certainly true of one nineteenth century family living high up on a remote edge of the Yorkshire moors: the Brontës. Emily and Anne Brontë, the two youngest children and always so alike in character, were especially fond of animals, and throughout their all too short lives they would have a succession of pets, many of which started off as wild animals they had found injured on their beloved moors.

It was dogs that they cherished most of all however, and the two most famous Brontë dogs show one difference between Emily and Anne. Emily had Keeper, a mastiff that was intelligent, fiercely loyal, and yet could be very aggressive when cornered. Anne had Flossy, a black and white Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who was gentle and loving, yet could be strong willed too. As often found, these dogs were reflecting their owners’ personality.

In June 1843, Anne was given the young Flossy as a present by the three Robinson girls she was then serving as a governess. This is testament to how highly the Robinson children rated their kind and quiet teacher, as was also shown by the many letters they later sent to her and their visit to Anne in the winter of 1848, just months before her death.

Anne fell instantly in love with Flossy, and she would often accompany her mistress on walks across the Haworth moors, although she sometimes got a little distracted and ran off to indulge in her favourite hobby of sheep chasing. Flossy would later become a mother, and one of her puppies was given to Ellen Nussey, who also called it Flossy.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth holds two sketches that Anne made of Flossy, both unfinished possibly because Flossy never stayed still long enough to be painted. The picture at the top of this blog was once thought to have been drawn by Charlotte or Emily, but expert analysis has now proved it to be by Anne.

Emily certainly did, however, draw Flossy in all her glory, shown below, which shows how much she had captured the hearts of the family as a while. Emily’s last act, on the night before she died, was to feed both Keeper and Flossy, even though Emily was by then so thin and weak that a sudden gust of wind coming under the door blew her off her feet and against the wall. Refusing help, she slowly regained her feet and fed the dogs.

Flossy by Emily Bronte
Flossy by Emily Bronte

In May 1849, Anne had to take her leave of Flossy one last time. It is said that she cradled and cuddled the dog which was passed to her in the carriage waiting to take her on the first leg of her trip to Scarborough in search of a cure for consumption. The carriage that Anne, and all others, really knew was taking her to her death. It’s easy to imagine how hard it must have been for Anne to say goodbye to the dog she had loved so much for nearly six years, the dog she had whispered secrets to that she would tell nobody else. As always, she faced this dreadful moment with calm courage.

Charlotte, depressed and despondent after witnessing Anne’s death so soon after Emily’s, wrote to W.S.Williams to explain what had happened when she returned from Scarborough to Haworth:

“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.”

Flossy was to outlive Anne by another five years, although all her life she would often look around for her mistress. She was looked after by Charlotte, and often taken for walks by the assistant curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, who for some reason was very keen on doing anything he could to help Charlotte. She reported Flossy’s death to Ellen, saying that no dog had had a better life nor a gentler and easier end. It’s a fitting tribute to a pet who must have brought so much joy and happiness to Anne Brontë, a woman was not to know too much of either of those commodities.

The Bronte Pets by Amanda White
The Bronte Pets by Amanda White

Last year, I was fortunate enough to purchase a collage showing Anne Brontë and Flossy, made by the incredibly talented artist, and Brontë lover, Amanda White. It also contains three other Brontë pets, can you spot and name them?

Mansions In The Sky, The 2017 Bronte Exhibition

Every January the wonderful Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth refreshes its displays and chooses a new theme for the year. As 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Branwell Brontë, it’s fitting that he should be this year’s prime focus – and new exhibition Mansions In The Sky certainly doesn’t disappoint. Don’t worry though, there’s still room for Anne Brontë in the displays!

The opening months of this year have seen me so busy on writing projects (Brontë related of course) that this week marked the first opportunity I had to visit the Parsonage in 2017. As always, it was a complete pleasure akin to returning home or to meeting old friends again.

The dresses of Anne and Emily Bronte from To Walk Invisible
The dresses of Anne and Emily Bronte from To Walk Invisible

Alongside the Branwell items and features, costumes and props from the 2016 BBC drama To Walk Invisible feature strongly. I absolutely loved the drama (although I could have done with another episode or it being a little longer, as the ending seemed rushed) so it was fascinating to see the costumes up close. I was especially interested, of course, in the green dress that Charlie Murphy wore when playing Anne, and it was on display in the dining room next to Emily’s dress from the show. I felt this juxtaposition of the old and new worked well.

Simon Armitage is the man behind Mansions In The Sky, and he’s the new artistic partner for the museum. A good choice, as he is not only an excellent poet and a Brontë lover, he is also a Yorkshire man from the Colne Valley near Huddersfield (where I myself used to live, so I have to give him my seal of approval!)

One of this year’s highlights is a recreation of Branwell’s studio. The room is in semi darkness with fading painted walls and scuffed floors (don’t worry, that’s intentional). Newspapers such as the Halifax Guardian and Leeds Intelligencer are scattered around along with books, Branwell’s sketches, and bottles and paraphernalia that give a hint of Branwell’s opium addiction. In the corner is a bed with blankets strewn haphazardly across it. It’s very atmospheric, and gives you a glimpse into the mind of the tormented, overshadowed and ultimately tragic man.

Branwell's studio, Bronte Parsonage Museum
Branwell’s studio, Bronte Parsonage Museum

So, there is a lot of Branwell on display and a lot of To Walk Invisible memorabilia, but what recognition does dear Anne get this year? I was pleased to see Anne Brontë’s sampler on display (a needlework exercise she completed in November 1848. I always find the final lines of the sampler very poignant:

‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his. Anne Bronte: Finished this sampler Nov 28, 1828.’

A picture of her beloved spaniel Flossy is also on display, but it’s not the one you may be familiar with. Anne made two unfinished pictures of Flossy, one is almost finished and is often on display, but this year they show Anne’s rarely seen and less finished portrait of the dog she adored.

Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte
Unfinished Flossy by Anne Bronte

In a display case we also find one of the tiny book’s of Anne’s poetry – opened to a page showing one of the hymns Anne Brontë wrote – beginning:

‘My God oh let me call thee thine,
Weak wretched sinner though I be,
My trembling soul would fain be thine,
My feeble faith still turns to thee.’

Anne never needed this faith more than when she faced her own end, and one reminded of this is back for another year in the form of Anne’s blood splattered handkerchief. We also see a beautiful locket owned by Charlotte Brontë, contained within is a strand of Anne’s hair.

Well done to Simon and the Brontë Parsonage Museum, who work so hard, for curating such an excellent exhibition. Whichever Brontë you like best you’ll find something to satisfy, and as it runs throughout 2017 there’s plenty of time to catch it.

2017 – The Year Of Branwell Brontë

As 2016 changes into 2017, we bid goodbye to the year which marked the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth – it was a great year for Brontë lovers, and for me particularly as the way my Anne Brontë biography was beyond my wildest dreams.

Just because 2016 is over, however, doesn’t mean that the Brontë celebrations are over. In fact we’re just over a fifth of the way into a period that will mark the two hundredth birthdays of all the writing Brontë sisters (Emily’s celebration is in 2018, whilst Anne Brontë’s will be in 2020). So what about 2017 then? 2017 is the year of Branwell.

Patrick Branwell Brontë was born on June 26th 1817, the fourth Brontë child after Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontë. He was always known as Branwell by his family – it had been his mother’s maiden name, and presumably to distinguish him from his father who was also called Patrick.

Branwell Bronte, self portrait
Branwell Bronte, self portrait

Branwell is a very complex character – was he evil, wicked? I don’t think so, although he certainly did terrible things (begging money from his family to save him from being thrown into jail, threatening that he would kill his father overnight, setting his bedroom on fire), but he was a man sinned against as well as sinning.

He lost his two eldest sisters and his mother at an early age, and I think this contributed to mental problems that would throw a black cloud of his whole life, and that would send him into the horrific depths of drink and drug addiction.

We have to see both sides of Branwell: and that’s certainly something his youngest sister Anne did. Whilst dismaying of some of his actions, his affair with Mrs Robinson is believed to be the event that led to Anne leaving her governess position at Thorp Green Hall after more than five years, she remembered his kindnesses to her as a child, and believed that he was capable of redemption. If he was, it didn’t come in this life, as he descended into a personal hell that would also impact upon his family. The books created by Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë seem even more incredible when you consider how awful Branwell was making life at the Parsonage at the time he was writing them.

Nevertheless, Branwell Brontë was a boy and man who had great potential. If he had applied himself, perhaps he could have been a painter, writer or musician of some note – his painting ‘Jacob’s Dream’ adorns this post. We can’t however pretend that Branwell had the genius of his sisters, but we do well to remember the impact he had upon them and their work.

2017 will see Branwell brought to the fore and examined in greater detail, and I know that Branwell related events are planned throughout the year in both Haworth and Thornton, his Bradford birthplace. In this Anne Brontë blog, we’ll also look at key events in Branwell’s life throughout the year, and at his paintings and sketches – some of which hold keys to what he was and how he felt.

Branwell was also prominent in the new BBC drama To Walk Invisible, which I watched with joy earlier in the week. I think overall it was very well done, although I think the recurring use of the ‘f-word’ seemed anachronistic, and I found it very odd that no mention of Charlotte’s marriage or death was made at the end.

Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Bronte, To Walk Invisible
Adam Nagaitis as Branwell Bronte, To Walk Invisible

Yes, some sections were highly dramatised and the production may have employed some artistic license – but this was a drama after all, so I have no problem with that. I thought the three actresses playing the sisters were all excellent, especially Chloe Pirrie as Emily, and I especially liked the way they depicted the close bond between Emily and Anne Brontë. I look forward to watching it again and again, and I really liked the ending as well (although I know that some found it odd).

In my opinion it needed another hour, or maybe two episodes rather than one, but it was certainly a drama that lit up the Christmas week. Happy New Year and may 2017 make your Brontë dreams come true!

Branwell Brontë: Anne’s Loving Brother

Branwell Brontë died on 29th September 1849, the first in a tragic sequence that would also see his sisters Emily and Anne die within a nine month period. In the months and years leading up to his death he had become a pathetic figure, addicted to drink and to opium, begging for money to obtain his next ‘hit’ and frequently in demand from debt collectors. In a later blog we shall look into why this happened, and see how he became a real danger to himself and his family. If this image of Branwell as being mad, bad and dangerous to know was certainly true by 1849, we should also remember that to the young Anne Brontë he was often a kind and loving brother.

Patrick Brontë, as he was christened, was born in the Bradford village of Thornton on June 26th 1817, a year after his sister Charlotte. He would forever be known as Branwell, his middle name and the maiden name of his mother Maria, to avoid confusion with his father Patrick. A year after Branwell’s birth, Emily was born, and then a year and a half later came the last of the six Brontë children, Anne.

Tragedy was soon to strike Branwell and his siblings. His mother died when he was three, and Anne just one. Shortly before his eight birthday, his two eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth both died in quick succession of tuberculosis, the disease which was to be the scourge of the Brontës. When considering his later addictions and problems, we should always remember what he had to bear in his formative years. The death of his sister Maria affected him deeply, she had become a de facto mother to him and was full of promise and genius beyond her years. Later, in his poem ‘Caroline’ he would remember seeing his beloved sister laid out for burial:

“There lay she then, as now she lies –
For not a limb has moved since then –
In dreamless slumber closed, those eyes
That never more may wake again.
She lay, as I had seen her lie
On many a happy night before,
When I was humbly kneeling by –
Whom she was teaching to adore;
Oh, just as when by her I prayed,
And she to heaven sent up her prayer,
She lay with flowers about her head –
Though formal grave-clothes hid her hair!”

From an early age Branwell felt a pressure on his shoulders. He was the only boy in the family, he would be expected to become a practical man, a breadwinner. His adult life was to show it was a role to which he was singularly unsuited.

In his childhood he formed a close bond with his three surviving sisters. It was his toy soldiers that started the tales of the ‘twelve men’. They would all four gather and invent stories that are incredibly complex for young children. He and Charlotte would eventually start to write them down in incredibly tiny books that they would stitch together, the famous and priceless books that have writing so small it can only be read with a magnifying glass.

The young Anne, always the doted upon baby of the family, would look up to her brother with a kind of awe. It was he would lead his sisters on their early excursions across the moors, proudly taking the lead as the ‘man’ of the family. He would sit Anne on his knee and tell her stories, and as they both grew a little older he would draw pictures for her. Always a talented artist, he would draw fairytale castles, and gentle countryside scenes and he would inscribe them ‘for Anne’.

Branwell drawing for Anne
One of Branwell’s drawings made for Anne

Anne Brontë never forgot kindnesses done for her, she would never judge somebody harshly. Even when she saw her brother’s talents being squandered and his life wasting away, she believed that there was still hope for him, if only in Heaven. The prevailing Christian doctrine at the time was that sinners like Branwell were doomed to Hell for ever. Anne couldn’t accept this, she had her own doctrine of love and forgiveness, and she expressed this in her poem about Branwell entitled ‘The Penitent’:

“I mourn with thee, and yet rejoice
That thou shouldst sorrow so;
With angel choirs I join my voice
To bless the sinner’s woe.
Though friends and kindred turn away,
And laugh thy grief to scorn;
I hear the great Redeemer say,
“Blessed are ye that mourn.”
Hold on thy course, nor deem it strange
That earthly cords are riven:
Man may lament the wondrous change,
But “there is joy in heaven!”

Anne, remembering the kind brother who drew her pictures to brighten up the days, would also secure him employment with the Robinson family for whom she worked as a governess. It was this that would lead to Branwell’s tragic end, as we shall see in a later blog, and Anne would carry a feeling of guilt around with her because of it. It was she, she would tell herself, who had brought about the demise of the brother who had once loved her so, and who she always loved.

10 Fascinating Facts About Charlotte Brontë

Whilst I am a biographer of Anne Brontë, and my enthusiasm for the youngest Brontë is plain to see, I’m a huge fan of all the Brontë sisters. As we look back to 2016, it’s only right that we should remember Charlotte Brontë, as the year has marked the 200th anniversary of her birth. That’s why in today’s blog I’ve chosen to present ten fascinating facts about Charlotte Brontë. You may know some or all of them, or none, but they all shed light on Charlotte as a person, the struggles she had to face, and how that influenced her writing.

1. Charlotte could see well in the dark, but not in the light

Charlotte was very short sighted, taking after her father who in later life had to have his cataracts cut away without an anaesthetic. She was so short sighted that she had to give up playing the piano, as she couldn’t read the sheet music in front of her. Nevertheless when she was a teacher, her pupils were amazed to find that she could seemingly read perfectly well in darkness, an ability that they thought was some kind of magic.

2. Charlotte spoke with an Irish accent

If you believe that the Brontës spoke in Yorkshire tones, you would be wrong. After the Cowan Bridge tragedy, where the eldest Brontë sisters Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and died (the school was later recreated by Charlotte as Jane Eyre’s ‘Lowood’), the Brontë children were largely taught by their Aunt Elizabeth and their father. Unlike today, when children mix much more widely and hear other voices on television, their father’s was the predominant adult voice they heard for many years, and this affected the way they talked as well. When Charlotte was 15 she was sent to another school of a much better character, Roe Head. She made lifelong friends there in the shape of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and Mary recalled how when she first met Charlotte, ‘she was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.’

3. Charlotte hated being a teacher – with a vengeance

After spending one year there as a pupil, Charlotte returned to Roe Head School near Mirfield in the capacity of a teacher. She soon found life as a teacher very different to life as a pupil. Her ‘Roe Head Journal’ of this time is a vicious, angry diary speaking of loathing for her pupils and for herself. She writes of ‘stupidity the atmosphere, school-books the employment, asses the society’ and ‘a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.’ Emily, very briefly, and Anne were pupils at the school, but after their exits her loathing of teaching grew even further until her mental health collapsed and she imagined she had illnesses that no-one else could see. Eventually a doctor was called for, who said that she must return to Haworth or die.

4. Charlotte was advised to give up writing – because she was a woman

From an early age, Charlotte and her sisters loved writing, and as she grew older so her literary ambitions grew. As a teenager she went to the very top to get an opinion on her work. Aged 16 she sent some of her work to the then poet laureate Robert Southey. He replied that whilst she had ‘the faculty of verse’, she should give up her dreams, because ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.’ Strangely enough, the young Charlotte seemed elated at this reply, writing ‘I must thank you for the kind, and wise advice you have condescended to give me… I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print.’

Robert Southey
Robert Southey, whose advice to Charlotte went unheeded

5. Charlotte’s first novel was rejected by every publisher in England

Most people today assume that Jane Eyre was Charlotte’s first novel but in fact that honour falls upon The Professor. The sisters planned to have three novels published together, but whilst Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights were published together by Thomas Cautley Newby, not one company would touch Charlotte’s novel. She had a list of publishers in England, and exhausted it completely in her efforts, but it would only finally be published posthumously – when published it became clear that she had recycled much of its contents and themes in her final novel ‘Villette’. She more than made amends, however, with her second novel about a certain governess.

6 Charlotte was little more than four and a half feet tall

Charlotte Brontë is without doubt a giant of literature but she was very diminutive in stature. Estimations of her height range from four foot seven to four foot eleven, whereas Emily was almost a foot taller, and the tallest of all the Brontës. Her clothes held by the Brontë Parsonage Museum, including shoes, corsets, gloves and dresses, would fit a child today. She was incredibly self conscious of her height and of her looks in general, leading her publisher and close friend George Smith to remark that ‘she would have given all her genius and fame to be beautiful.’

7. Charlotte fell in love with her married teacher

Charlotte’s experience at Roe Head hadn’t completely deterred her from becoming a teacher – after all what else was there that she could do? Aged 21 Charlotte, with Emily alongside her, left Yorkshire and travelled to Brussels, with the intention of learning languages that would help them set up their own school upon their return. She made good progress at the Pensionnat Héger school, but rapidly fell in love with the stern master Constantin Héger. He would be an inspiration for Rochester, but he had the same problem in that he was married. After returning to England, Charlotte wrote him a series of passionate letters. One such reads: ‘I know that you will lose patience with me when you read this letter. You will say that I am over-excited, that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur – I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches – all I know is that I cannot – that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship. I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets.’ He never replied, and in fact cut up the letters, but his wife for some reason pieced them together again, which is how they are now at the British Library.

8. Charlotte rejected her best friend’s brother, with terrible consequences

Despite her concerns about her appearance, Charlotte Brontë rejected at least three proposals of marriage that we know of. The first was from Ellen’s brother Henry Nussey. He later married Emily Prescott and became vicar of Hathersage in Derbyshire. He remained there for only two years however, before ill health made him give up his career as a priest. He was later committed to Arden House Lunatic Asylum, where he hanged himself in 1860.

9. Charlotte really did know a family called Eyre

Charlotte often visited Ellen at Hathersage, where she frequently stayed with her brother. In the middle of the Peak District it was later depicted as Morton in Jane Eyre. Inside the Hathersage church that Henry Nussey presided over is the large tomb of Robert Eyre, and a stained glass window to William Eyre, who was a leading light of Hathersage society at the time of Charlotte’s visits. She would have visited the Eyre family at North Lees Hall near Hathersage, and this is likely to have been the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in ‘Jane Eyre’. Inside it was the grand and imposing cabinet with twelve panels each depicting an apostle. The cabinet is recreated in the book, and now resides in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

Eyre family grave, Hathersage
An Eyre family grave, Hathersage

10. Charlotte’s dedication in ‘Jane Eyre’ almost caused a scandal

One of Charlotte’s greatest literary heroes was William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair among other works, so she dedicated the first edition of Jane Eyre to him. Unfortunately, Charlotte didn’t know that Thackeray actually did have a mad wife that he kept confined within his home. Whilst a public secret it was well known to London society, who assumed that this new author ‘Currer Bell’ must know Thackeray, and have modelled Rochester on him. When they later met Thackeray characteristically laughed it off, although Charlotte was mortified when she discovered the truth.

There are many other fascinating facts about Charlotte: how she owned a piece of Napoleon’s coffin, how she may have made a non-marriage pact with her best friends, how she kept her writing a secret from her own father, how the death of her sisters changed the course of one of her novels, and how she left her future husband ‘sobbing as no woman ever sobbed’ when she rejected his proposal.

Of course, the most fascinating tales of all are inside Charlotte’s books, and those of her sisters Emily and Anne Brontë.