It was only when I started seeing reviews of Claire Harman’s new biography of her, that I realised that 2016 was a Significant Year: the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. Stefanie’s and Jenny’s brilliant reviews made me wild to read about this extremely talented and erm slightly unusual family, and I knew I had a copy of Margaret Lane’s biography… but who knows where that is? It may be at my parents’ house, but even though that poor book has lain unread for ten years on a shelf or perhaps even in a box, suddenly I could not wait even a couple of months until I next visited them. I needed Brontës right now! And although the Harman biography looked very good, I decided to succumb entirely to Brontëmania and ordered a copy of Juliet Barker’s biography of the whole family, described as ‘definitive’.
Definitive it may very well be, but it is also enormous. Huge! Bigger than my Collected Shakespeare! When the postman arrived, we had to remove the front door simply to get the book in the house! I can only read it if K kneels before me holding it up and open, as a human lectern! And it’s so heavy he weeps all the time he’s holding it! Progress through such a large book is thus necessarily slow and, the Parry brains being no longer what they could be, I feared that I might forget the beginning before I reached the end. Then I thought: I’ll write about it as I go along!
Before I started, I believed I knew a few things about the Bs:
- Patrick Brontë, the papa, was a mean old tyrant.
- Branwell, the brother, was a useless drunkard. And his paintings were crap!
- The children lived an isolated and friendless life, with only the moors, their imaginations and assorted dogs called Gnasher and Psycho for companions.
- Everyone (except Papa) died of consumption, either due to the horrible cruel school where the girls were sent by their mean old papa, or due to the poisonous fumes of the churchyard by their house, I don’t really know which but it was definitely grim and Victorian.
Already, it seems that I may not have been correct about all of these...
(Photograph of Patrick Brontë around 1860; found here)
The biography starts off with several chapters concerning Patrick’s life before becoming a father. I admit that I was impatient to get onto some wailing and moorland, but this section is both useful for understanding the children’s domestic environment and important because it gives us a more rounded figure of Patrick than the mean old git of popular legend. Born in Ireland of farming stock, Patrick managed to secure himself a place at St John’s, Cambridge: he was clearly very intellectually able but without an immense amount of hard work and determination he would never have succeeded. At university, surrounded by the sons of the richest families in Britain, he struggled to make ends meet yet was almost always top of his class. He also managed to make some useful friends who helped him to his first job as a curate in the Essex village of Wethersfield. Here he had a fairly easy life and contracted an engagement with Mary Burder. Precisely what happened next is unclear, but it seems that Mary’s uncle – her father was dead, but the family was reasonably well-off – took a dim view of Patrick’s future prospects and Irishness. He forbad the marriage and whisked Mary away from Wethersfield to his house. Embarrassed by this and convinced that God had acted through the uncle (Mary was a Nonconformist and marrying her was a bit problematic for Patrick’s conscience and career), Patrick gave her up, found another job and moved away; Mary continued to hope for some years after. Eventually, bitterly hurt, she realised that their engagement would never be renewed and believed she had been jilted.
Not so much is known about Patrick’s wife, Maria Branwell, whom he met when she was helping her aunt with the domestic side of running a school, Woodhouse Grove, and married in 1812. She had grown up in Penzance in middle-class comfort and a whirl of social activity until her father died when she was twenty-five (her mother died a year later). Her letters seem to suggest she was more playful and perhaps light-hearted than Patrick. What would life have been like for our future authors and their siblings had she survived? For after bearing six children in as many years, she contracted what was probably cancer of the uterus and died; her suffering lasted a harrowing seven and a half months.
(Maria Branwell, artist unknown, at around the age of 15 according to the internets; found here)
Maria’s great concern seems to have been for the future of her children, and it must have been heartbreaking for her to know she would never see them grow and that they would be marked by her loss. But her death brought another problem. She left five daughters and, despite all Patrick’s hard work, it was clear that none of them would be independently wealthy through him. If they failed to marry, they would have to earn their own livings. In the early nineteenth century, pretty much the only respectable form of employment for an unmarried middle-class woman was teaching, either as a governess or in a school. Without a mother, however, the Brontë girls would fail to acquire the education necessary for such employment – unless they went to school. And school cost money and Patrick did not have much money.
In the two years following Maria’s death, therefore, Patrick desperately sought a second wife. Did he realise that a man of limited means with six small children whose wife had only recently died was perhaps not the most attractive prospect as a husband? He seems to have proposed or tried to propose to three women and managed to do so in a way that left them no longer on speaking terms with him. One of these women was none other than poor Mary Burder. Patrick seems genuinely surprised that she might have been wounded by his behaviour a dozen or so years previously.
So far, Juliet Barker has been rather at pains to rehabilitate Patrick Brontë from the damning portrait painted by Elizabeth Gaskell and sometimes perhaps bends a bit too far the other way. That drive which served him so well in his career may have rendered him rather blinkered when it came to others’ sensitivities. He also had a lot of calls on his time which surely would have kept him from spending a lot of time with his children – although in Victorian England, that was not remotely unusual. Discharging the pistol which you slept with from the back of the house every morning was, on the other hand, definitely unusual however you try to gloss it.
Next time: horrible school and juvenilia.