At the end of my previous post about the family, Patrick Brontë had failed to find a second wife for himself and stepmother for his six children. This meant falling back onto Plan B: school. On the recommendation of a couple of family friends, the two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, aged just nine and eight, were sent off to Crofton Hall. Unfortunately, it was expensive, and Patrick had other children to educate…
(Undated etching of Cowan Bridge, found here)
A new ‘School for Clergymen’s Daughters’ was being opened at Cowan Bridge and seemed an answer to Patrick’s prayer: the fees were half those of comparable schools and its list of patrons included some of the most eminent people in the land. So Patrick escorted Maria and Elizabeth there on 21 July 1824; three weeks later, he brought Charlotte, and in November, Emily, who was only six. By December, poor little Maria was showing signs of consumption but the school did not inform her family; it wasn’t until the middle of February, when she was seriously ill, that the school wrote to Patrick. He came immediately and took her home, where she died in May. Even as the family was nursing Maria, Elizabeth was falling ill with consumption too. There was an outbreak of typhus at the school and on doctor’s advice the girls were sent to the seaside – except for Elizabeth. She was sent back to Haworth in the company of a servant.
Patrick travelled to Silverdale the very next day to bring Emily and Charlotte home, and they never went back to Cowan Bridge. Elizabeth died in June. The remaining children were of course deeply traumatised by what had happened. It was particularly hard, Juliet Barker writes, that Maria and Elizabeth were the eldest; they were the ones who had led, whom the others had looked up to. Motherless children and orphans became a fixture of the remaining sisters’ writing.
Juliet Barker argues that Cowan Bridge was no worse than most schools of its time and in fact better than many. Children and adults were susceptible to fatal diseases the causes of which were not always understood; pupils dying at school was therefore a depressingly common phenomenon and Cowan Bridge’s record was not too bad. Still, the argument that ‘other schools were worse’ in terms of health and punishment is hardly an exoneration of Cowan Bridge. There’s no question that the food was unpleasant, unhygienically prepared and inadequate. The dirty kitchen was responsible for the outbreak of typhus. The girls were cold in winter and, most damningly, expected to wear thin shoes and pattens on their walks. This frequently resulted in wet feet, an invitation to illness –especially consumption. While Charlotte’s depiction of Lowood in Jane Eyre was fictional and based on a small girl’s perspective, particularly alive to cruelty and injustice, it was accurate enough for many former pupils to recognise its original as Cowan Bridge and distressing enough for readers of the time to be horrified by it; its regime may have been the norm but that didn’t make it acceptable to everyone in the nineteenth century.
(One of the little books by Charlotte, from here, where there are lots of nice images of the little books)
Back at Haworth the years passed, the pain grew bearable. The children read voraciously; in addition to their books at home they had access to the circulating libraries in Keighley and copies of Blackwood’s Magazine which they borrowed from a neighbour. Blackwood’s, with its Tory politics, satire and reviews of new works of biography, history, travel and fiction, had a profound influence on the siblings’ writings. Sadly, Emily’s and Anne’s early writings have not survived, but many of Branwell’s and Charlotte’s tiny books still exist. Juliet Barker writes very interestingly about the Gothicky stories of Glasstown and Angria, and the way in which they often formed a sort of artistic conversation between Charlotte and Branwell, a game they enjoyed playing with each other. In the stories they mock their sisters and each other and attack each other’s favourite characters. Barker claims that previous biographers have used Charlotte and Branwell’s cheerfully prolific references to drunkenness to argue that Branwell was already boozing (at the age of thirteen!) – but they don’t argue the same of Charlotte, an interesting double standard.
But the spectre of school and of a governessy future never entirely receded and when Charlotte was fourteen she was sent off to Roe Head School (a considerable improvement on Cowan Bridge which I feel slightly undermines Barker’s earlier position that Cowan Bridge was sort of all right really). Although it was tough for Charlotte, especially at first, she made friends – two were lifelong – and entertained her fellows by telling them stories – a sort of creative lifeline for her, too, away from Branwell and the little books. She also excelled academically. Later she was to return to teach, a less happy experience. Emily and Anne were also sent to Roe Head in due course but Emily only lasted three months before falling ill and being sent home. Barker speculates that while all the sisters found school difficult, Anne and Charlotte had a much stronger sense of duty and obligation than Emily, who simply could not and would not abide the restrictions.
(Drawing of Roe Head school by Anne Brontë, c. 1835–37; found here)
It’s hard not to feel angry on Charlotte and Anne’s behalfs, and not just because there were so few avenues available to them as middle-class women who must earn their livings so they were forced into something that made them miserable. Patrick dissuaded Charlotte from considering a writing career as being too uncertain. This was no doubt true, yet while Charlotte was gritting her teeth teaching French etc. to mischievous girls at Roe Head, Branwell was faffing about at home – shall I become an artist or a writer? Artist? Writer? – and writing hilariously entitled letters to the editor of Blackwood’s insisting that he read Branwell’s work and hire him at once as the next James Hogg. Patrick’s indulgence of this seems doubly odd as everyone seems to have agreed that Branwell was a totally crap painter. And while I’m on the subject, Branwell doesn’t seem at any point to have been sent off to school. So at this stage of the biography, the Brontë men are rather taxing my patience despite Juliet Barker’s even-handedness.