«Brontë Myths Christopher Cooper This article is based on a talk given by Dr Cooper to members of the public, rather than to ABA members. It not only ...»
This article is based on a talk given by Dr Cooper to members of the public, rather than
to ABA members. It not only compares Brontë myths to reality, but gives a representative
example of early writings from Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell.
In 2016 we’ll celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth, and
this year is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens commemo-
rated by special events in England, and in Australia.
The Brontës are almost as famous as Shakespeare, Dickens or Jane Austen, but one fact makes them stand out from all the others. While Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen moved around and lived in different parts of England, the Brontë sisters lived their whole lives in one house, the Brontë Parson- age in Haworth. This has, for some the haworth Parsonage time, been a museum and it attracts more visitors annually than any other literary home in Britain apart from Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Also, there was much trag- edy in the lives of the Brontës which also adds to their mystique.
Why Brontë Myths? Because much of what people think they know about the Brontës is quite inaccurate. The myths follow, and we will examine each of them.
The Brontës were an old Yorkshire family. Patrick Brontë had three daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, as well as a son Branwell. They were born in Haworth which was an isolated village on the moors. The three sisters were spinsters and they lived sheltered lives, rarely moving far from Haworth. They each wrote only one novel. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Branwell was a ne’er do well who never wrote anything, preferring instead to go drinking at the Black Bull. Emily wrote some poetry but none of it was published in her lifetime. Their father, Patrick Brontë, was the minister at Haworth. He had married a local girl, Maria, but as she
-1- died soon after Anne was born he had to raise them all by himself. He encouraged them to write and he used to listen with interest as they read out chapters of their stories while walking around the dining room table.
Branwell died of drink while the three girls all died of consumption. This left their father living all alone in the parsonage. All four children died in their twenties. The girls wrote about love but, as they were daughters of a clergyman, these stories were very proper and could be safely given to young girls as Sunday School prizes. Charlotte was a staunch Protestant and would never be caught going anywhere near a Catholic church.
(1) the Brontës were an old yorkshire family.
The Brontë novels are steeped in Yorkshire traditions and contain much Yorkshire dialect. C
-2The name Brontë is a fake. Patrick was born Patrick Prunty.
However he admired Lord Nelson, who received the title Duke of Bronte. So while he was at Cambridge he changed his name to Bronte.
Then he experimented with various accents over the ‘e’ until he finally settled on the two dots.
(2) Patrick Brontë had three daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne...
In fact there were five daughters. The eldest two were Maria and Elizabeth, who seemed to be just as gifted as their better-known sisters. Indeed Maria assisted her father by proofreading his writings. But they died at the ages of 11 and 10 respectively and are thus not so well known.
(3)... and a son Branwell.
In fact the brother’s name was Patrick, after his father, but his second name was Branwell, after his mother’s family name. However he was known as Branwell all his life.
Some even see a likeness between Branwell and John Lennon!
(5)... which was an isolated village on the moors.
Here we come to one of the major myths, on which Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth focusses, and it’s one that Charlotte herself began. Charlotte was quite uneasy about the raw, wild, almost pagan world described by Emily in Wuthering Heightss, so when it came to the second edition, after Emily’s death, Charlotte wrote an introduction in which she begs the reader to excuse Emily’s excesses. She asserts that Emily lived in a very remote place and had no knowledge of the wider, more civilized world.
Yet, at the time, Haworth was a small but busy town in which spinning and weaving were the local industries, most of which was carried out by individual operators in their own homes. And it was only a short walk to the larger town of Keighley where the girls could, and did, access two
-4libraries. During the Brontës' lifetime the railway came to Keighley from which one could readily reach London.
It’s true that at the time of the Brontës the back door of the parsonage led directly onto the moors. It hasn’t changed much in that respect. But out the front door, and through the graveyard directly in front of the house and past the church one was immediately in a bustling little town.
Today the spinning and weaving have given way to tourism. On a summer weekend the main Brontë waterfall, & Haworth, old & new street of Haworth is crowded with visitors. Some have come to pay homage to the three sisters.
Others have come because of the steam railway that runs from Keighley. Still more have come to enjoy a classic picturesque Yorkshire village that straddles both sides of a steep cobbled road.
(6) they were spinsters...
In fact Charlotte married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, a year before she died.
Mr and Mrs Nicholls honeymooned in Ireland. Like Arthur Bell nicholls her father, her husband was Irish. From her letters we learn that she was very happy during this short time. But tragically Charlotte Nicholls died before her first wedding anniversary. She was some months pregnant and her death is attributed to hyperemesis gravidarum – extreme morning sickness.
-6they each wrote just one novel. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
There is some evidence that Emily wrote a second novel, but it has not survived. Did Charlotte burn it? Anne wrote Agnes Grey, a short and rather inconsequential novel. But Charlotte wrote three other novels.
The first was The Professor, which she submitted for publication at the same time as Emily submitted Wuthering Heights and Anne submitted Agnes Grey.
Emily and Anne’s novels were accepted but Charlotte’s was declined.
Charlotte then wrote Jane Eyre and sent this to another publisher, George Smith, who snapped it up and in fact it was published before her sisters' works. It created a sensation and her name became very well-known – or rather her pseudonym did.
Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell and Anne was Acton Bell. They name ‘Bell’ probably came from Arthur Bell Nicholls, Mr Brontë’s curate and much later Charlotte’s husband.
They chose the first names to conceal the fact that they were women.
Charlotte went on to write two further novels, both of which were published in her lifetime. Villette is based on her time in Brussels and the heroine Lucy Snowe, is a student at a Belgian school who falls in love with her professor.
Villette is written in the first person and in one sense it is autobiographical, but there’s no way Charlotte identified with Lucy. She wrote once that she didn’t like Lucy as a person, which is why she deliberately gave her a ‘cold’ surname. Villette is a novel that needs to be read twice because Lucy, the narrator, deliberately misleads the reader. Later events often
-7contradict what Lucy tells us earlier in the book.
There have been dozens of film versions of Jane Eyre but not a single Villette. Yet, as a psychological drama with many great cinematographic scenes, it would make a great movie.
The other novel of Charlotte’s, also worth being better known, is Shirley. On one level it’s a love story, with two couples eventually finding romantic fulfilment. But this is against a backdrop of the Luddite uprisings that took place a couple of decades earlier.
At that time the weavers and cloth manufacturers were beginning to set up factories and introduce machinery, which would put hundreds of workers out of work. In this novel there are several scenes of conflict that would make an action-packed historical film, with a strong love interest. If I can be sexist let me say that the film Shirley would appeal to both men and women. It would be interesting to see who they would cast as Shirley herself. She is a strong, independent character. Her parents are dead and she has inherited their wealth, so she is financially independent and owns a woollen mill. It is said that Charlotte based Shirley on Emily, who was strong and inde- the Luddites pendent, though not financially so.
These days the name ‘Shirley’ is fairly common as a girl’s name. Actually, prior to Charlotte’s book, it was only ever used as a man’s name and it was Charlotte’s novel which opened it up as a girl’s name.
I highly recommend that you read both Villette and Shirley. If you wait for the film versions I fear you may be waiting a very long time. Every time we hear of a new Brontë film it is either yet another Jane Eyre, or one more Wuthering Heights.
You probably know the story of both of these. Jane Eyre is an orphan
-8who is put in a rather Dickensian school where the food is off and the girls are forever cold. This is based on Charlotte’s own experience at Cowan Bridge School, where her two older sisters died. It is said that Helen Burns, who befriends Jane and then dies, is based on her sister, Maria.
Most notable of the many actresses who have played Helen Burns over the years was in the classic black and white Laurence Olivier version – the then un- Cowan Bridge, and 15 year old known 15 year old Elizabeth Taylor. Elizabeth taylor as Jane Eyre Jane grows up and becomes a governess to Mr Rochester’s ward, a little French girl who may or may not have been his own daughter. Rochester is intelligent but rather gruff and often rude – perhaps another Monsieur Héger. Despite the difference in their circumstances they fall in love and end up at the altar.
But the marriage ceremony brings up the question ‘Does anyone know of any lawful impediment...’ And there is an impediment. Rochester has a mad wife living in the attic, a fact that is revealed just in time. Jane runs off and discovers some cousins, but a supernatural voice calls to her across the miles and she returns to Rochester, only to discover his wife had managed to burn down Thornfield Hall.
Rochester was injured while trying to save his wife, but is now free to marry Jane. A famous line opens the second last chapter: Reader I married him!
- 10 Monsieur Héger once remarked that Emily had the brain of a man.
Certainly it’s possible to find a great deal of precise logic in the story.
We think of it as mostly taking place on the moors but in fact most of the action takes place in the two houses. Next time you read it look out for the huge number of architectural references. Simply to count the number of uses for windows that Emily provides is an interesting exercise.
Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, is quite short and not very remarkable.
Her second - Tenant of Wildfell Hall - is much more worthy of attention.
The tenant who has moved into Wildfell Hall is the mysterious Helen Graham, who has run away from her alcoholic and abusive husband, taking her young son with her. According to the law of the day she has committed a criminal offence because both she and her son were considered to be her husband’s property. She makes a living by painting, and, much to her annoyance, attracts the attention of an eligible young farmer, Gilbert Markham.
It’s interesting that Charlotte, who eventually married, wrote about the plight of the single woman while Anne, who remained a spinster, wrote about the plight of many married women.
(9) Branwell was a ne’er do well who never wrote anything, preferring instead to go drinking at the Black Bull.
There’s certainly some truth in this. He was the black sheep of the family, but this was not always so. At one time he was a Sunday School teacher, organist in the church and secretary for the local Masonic Lodge. He wrote a great deal of poetry and some prose. There’s even a rumour that it was he who wrote Wuthering Heights but this has been laid to rest.
(10) Emily wrote some poetry – none published in her lifetime.
All four children wrote quite a deal of poetry, though Emily’s is considered to be the best. Before they moved to prose the three girls decided to self-publish a joint book of poems (Emily needed much persuasion).
It got some good reviews but unfortunately it only sold three copies.
(11) their father, Patrick Brontë, was the minister at haworth.
- 11 he had married a local girl...
Patrick’s wife was Maria Branwell and she came from Penzance.
(13) but as she died soon after Anne was born he had to raise them all by himself.
Maria died of stomach cancer a year after Anne was born. However Maria’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell, came to Haworth from Penzance to help with the children until he got himself sorted out.
Patrick made several unsuccessful attempts to remarry. So Aunt Branwell never returned to Penzance and she stayed with the family for many years until she died and was a strong influence on the children. It was her money that enabled Charlotte and Emily to go to Brussels.
(14) he encouraged them to write and he used to listen with interest as they read out chapters of Aunt Branwell their stories while walking around the dining room table.
The girls did read out their stories to each other while walking around the dining room table after dinner but their father was not part of this.
In fact he always ate alone in his study. The first he knew of their books was after they were published.
However he did discuss politics with them while they were still children.
They read several newspapers and periodicals and many contemporary historical and political events found their way in the children’s juvenile writing.