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The Brontes: A Family History

The Brontes: A Family History

by John Cannon

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What was the nature of the Brontes' strange genius? Where did it spring from and what inspired it? Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters, came from Ireland, changing his name from Brunty to Bronte when he won a scholarship to Cambridge. His children never met their Irish relatives. This work deals with this subject.


What was the nature of the Brontes' strange genius? Where did it spring from and what inspired it? Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters, came from Ireland, changing his name from Brunty to Bronte when he won a scholarship to Cambridge. His children never met their Irish relatives. This work deals with this subject.

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The Brontës

A Family History

By John Cannon

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 John Cannon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7216-4


The First Brontë

At the beginning of the year 1820 the village of Haworth was buzzing with curiosity about the man who had just been appointed rector to the parish. In the inns of the village the latest rumours and tales were discussed every night. The men of Haworth were a dour lot; religion being as much a part of their lives as food and drink, and taken just as seriously. The previous incumbent had been appointed without due consultation with the trustees of the church and had lasted less than a month. The story of what happened to this gentleman is best told by Mrs Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte Brontë.

The first Sunday he officiated, Haworth church was filled even to the aisles; most of the people wearing the wooden clogs of the district. But while Mr Redhead was reading the second lesson, the whole congregation, as by one impulse, began to leave the church, making all the noise they could with clattering and clumping of clogs, till, at length, Mr Redhead and the clerk were the only two left to continue the service. This was bad enough, but the next Sunday the proceedings were far worse. Then, as before, the church was well filled, but the aisles were left clear; not a creature, not an obstacle was in the way. The reason for this was made evident about the same time in the reading of the service as the disturbance had begun the previous week. A man rode into the church upon an ass, with his face turned towards the tail, and as many old hats piled on his head as he could possibly carry. He began urging his beast round the aisles, and the screams, and cries, and laughter of the congregation entirely drowned all sound of Mr Redhead's voice; and, I believe, he was obliged to desist.

Hitherto they had not proceeded to anything like personal violence; but on the third Sunday they must have been greatly irritated at seeing Mr Redhead, determined to brave their will, ride up the street, accompanied by several gentlemen from Bradford. They put up their horses at the Black Bull – the inn close upon the churchyard – and went into the church. On this the people followed, with a chimney-sweeper, whom they had employed to clean the chimneys of some outbuildings belonging to the church that very morning, and afterwards plied with drink till he was in a state of solemn intoxication. They placed him right before the reading desk, where his blackened face nodded a drunken, stupid assent to all that Mr Redhead said. At last, either prompted by some mischief-maker, or from some tipsy impulse, he clambered up the pulpit stairs, and attempted to embrace Mr Redhead. Then the profane fun grew fast and furious. They pushed the soot-covered chimney-sweeper against Mr Redhead as he attempted to escape. They threw both him and his tormentor down on the ground in the churchyard where the soot-bag had been emptied, and though at last Mr Redhead escaped into the Black Bull, the doors of which were immediately barred, the people raged without, threatening to stone him and his friends. One of my informants is an old man, who was the landlord of the Black Bull at the time, and he stands to it that such was the temper of the irritated mob, that Mr Redhead was in real danger of his life.

Mrs Gaskell goes on to record that Mr Redhead and his friends were able to make their escape later, and that many years afterwards he returned to preach a sermon.

The story, as told to her by an eye-witness to the events, gives us a very clear picture of the villagers of Haworth at that time. Elsewhere in her book, Mrs Gaskell informs us that Charlotte told her about a local saying in Haworth: 'Keep a stone in thy pocket seven year; turn it, and keep it seven year longer, that it may ever be ready to thine hand when thine enemy draws near.' Perhaps with this we are beginning to understand what kind of people waited in Haworth to see their new rector.

The Reverend Patrick Brontë had made sure that the trustees of Haworth accepted him. He had taken the trouble to go there to speak with them after his appointment by the Bishop of Bradford. Patrick would, of course, be fully aware of what had happened to the previous temporary incumbent, but in Patrick Brontë, the people of Haworth had a very different man from Mr Redhead. For one thing he had come from a background far poorer than any in Haworth village; for another he was a very tough character indeed. Everyone in Haworth had heard that Patrick had won his way from a poor home in Ireland to a degree at Cambridge University through scholarship and hard work. The Bishop of Bradford had chosen well. If the people of Haworth were hard, then a hard man was required to minister to them.

On an April morning in the year 1820, the family of the Reverend Patrick Brontë had to rise very early. They had lived for the previous five years in the parsonage at Thornton, which is now a part of Bradford, but was a separate village in 1820. When the family first arrived in Thornton there were two children, Maria and Elizabeth; and at Thornton four more had been born. Getting ready for the move to Haworth must have been a very busy time for Patrick's wife, Maria. She was thirty-seven years old; Patrick was forty-three. Their oldest child was less than seven; their youngest only a few weeks old. An ordinary day in the life of Mrs Brontë must have been tiring enough, but this was no ordinary day.

The family furniture and possessions were loaded into seven horse-drawn carts. Then, with the family in one of the carts, the convoy left Thornton village, taking the rough road across the moors to Haworth. It is a distance of only about ten miles, but it was still winter, and the weather on the high moors is harsh. The journey would have taken two or three hours, since it was probably raining or even snowing, the moors bleak and windswept. John Ruskin wrote of them, 'One may lean against a Yorkshire breeze as one would against a quickset hedge.' Mrs Brontë was tired before the journey began; she was in poor health and already suffering from the illness which would take her to her grave within two years. It was to prove the last time she or any of her family would ever have to move house.

The Brontë children were excited at the prospect of a new home. The parsonage at Haworth was a much bigger house than the one in which they had been living. Their father had told them about the village, and the moors which surrounded it, and even in the grip of winter the moors have a magic about them, a quality of space and wilderness which is inspiring. In spring and summer the air is filled with the sounds of wild birds. There are flashing streams running down the valleys; hares and rabbits and foxes abound; hawks and falcons soar in the broad sky.

For the Reverend Patrick Brontë, this move to Haworth was promotion, and he was looking forward to the responsibilities which awaited him there. In his diary he wrote: 'My salary is not large; it is only about £200 a year. I have a good house, which is mine for life also, and is rent-free. No one has anything to do with the church but myself, and I have a large congregation.'

The house to which he was bringing his family was a solid, foursquare structure of Yorkshire sandstone, almost like a child's picture of a house, with a door in the middle, two windows either side, and five in a line above. It was lit by candles and oil lamps, and water was supplied to the kitchen by a handpump. The outlook from the front of the house was stark; it faced the churchyard filled with graves and headstones. But all this must be viewed in perspective. It was the finest house that Patrick Brontë had ever lived in; and indeed it was a grand house compared with those in the village. Patrick must have been aware that the area was unhealthy, since the average life expectancy was less than thirty years. Half the children died before reaching the age of six. There had been frequent outbreaks of typhus, cholera, dysentery, and smallpox; tuberculosis was common. Patrick lived to be eighty-four, but his wife and all his children died young. Mrs Maria Brontë was already suffering from cancer when she arrived in Haworth, but the cold and the damp there may have accelerated her illness. The early deaths of all her children may be attributed to the living conditions in the area at the time.

It is not difficult to picture the scene as the seven horse-drawn carts trundled across the moors on that April day. About forty years later, when Mrs Gaskell arrived in Haworth to write Charlotte's biography it is unlikely that the village had changed much, and so when we read Mrs Gaskell's fine description of the approach to the parsonage we can, in effect, see what the Brontë family saw as they arrived in Haworth.

For a short distance the road appears to turn away from Haworth, as it winds round the base of a shoulder of a hill; but then it crosses a bridge over the 'beck' and the ascent through the village begins. The flag-stones with which it is paved are placed end-ways, in order to give a better hold to the horse's feet; and even with this help they seem to be in constant danger of slipping backwards. The old stone houses are high compared to the width of the street, which makes an abrupt turn before reaching the more level ground at the head of the village, so that the steep aspect of the place, in one part, is almost like that of a wall. But this surmounted, the church lies a little off the main road on the left; a hundred yards or so, and the driver relaxes his care, and the horse breathes more easily, as they pass into the quiet little by-street that leads to Haworth parsonage. The churchyard is on one side of this lane, the schoolhouse and the sexton's dwelling (where the curates formerly lodged) on the other. The parsonage stands at right angles to the road, facing down upon the church; so that, in fact, parsonage, church, and belfried schoolhouse, form three sides of an irregular oblong, of which the fourth is open to the fields and moors that lie beyond.

At the parsonage, two house-servants were waiting to greet the Brontë family. They were the servants from Thornton who had gone ahead a few days before to get the parsonage at Haworth ready for their master's family. They have been described as 'two rough, warmhearted sisters', and we can imagine the interest they would be taking in their charges. Mrs Brontë, a small, neat woman, with a great deal of quiet charm; the children – Maria, not quite seven; Elizabeth, approaching six; Charlotte, almost four; Patrick Branwell, two and a half; Emily Jane, eighteen months; and Anne, still a babe in arms – and the Reverend Patrick, tall, lean, red-haired, dressed in clerical black. All of them were quickly ushered into the parsonage where fires were burning, and no doubt hot drinks were soon provided. It was decided that the parlour to the left of the entrance door should be the family sitting-room and the room on the right of the entrance, Patrick's study. The stone-flagged kitchen was at the rear of the house, from which a door led into a small garden and the moors beyond. Upstairs were four bedrooms and a tiny room over the entrance passage which, it was decided, should be called the 'children's study', for Patrick was a great believer in education beginning as soon as possible.

His own study was barred to the children. Even his wife and the two servants entered Patrick's study very rarely. There, he would write his sermons and his letters, and read his papers. There also, and quite apart from his parochial duties, Patrick Brontë intended to work at his creative writing; for he was determined to get his name into the annals of British literature. He had been writing poetry since he was a young and penniless lad in Ireland and already there were four volumes of his poetry and prose in print. But of late. Patrick had begun to think that perhaps something more substantial might be aimed at. At this stage of his life, Patrick saw his six children as a hindrance to his personal ambitions, finding it more and more difficult to write. He was quite sure in his own mind, however, that if anything of importance was to be achieved by the Brontë family, it would have to come from himself or his only son Branwell.

His lifelong desire to be accepted as a poet, author, and man of letters, rested on his own sure knowledge that he had been born with a great talent. Patrick's father, Hugh, was talented but he was barely literate, and so it was impossible for him to translate his thoughts into the written word. In fact the little writing done by Hugh – a few poems – was edited by his son, Patrick, after the old man had died. The talent which Hugh had was that of a great story-teller, who could tell a story in such a way that his audience was enthralled. We should remember that in every culture, before there is general literacy, the story-teller is a great entertainer. Most of the great stories from the past were handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, long before they were ever set down in writing. Legends, romances, fairy-tales, ghost-stories, are verbal novels. The talent of story-telling goes back far into the history of man; and there are cultures, even today, where the story-teller is as much a part of society as is the witch-doctor and the medicine-man. Patrick Brontë's father was a renowned story-teller, and Patrick grew up listening to his father's tales; observing the reactions in his audiences. He inherited the gift of being able to hold an audience with words, which is, after all, the combination of the ability to 'see' a good story, and having the facility to tell it. In his case, because he became a preacher, the talent was utilised in telling the story of Christianity, and Christ's message to mankind. Patrick was certainly a very good preacher, as many who listened to him have recorded. Frequently, in the church at Haworth, Patrick spoke for well over an hour without using notes. One diarist wrote, 'The moment he climbed into the pulpit, a spell was cast over the whole congregation, and no-one moved.' We encounter his gift again when he read in Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë that Patrick often told his children, '... weird Irish tales in such a manner that all the children were often held spellbound.'

It has often been said that Patrick was a tyrannical father who resented his children's presence. This is certainly untrue; he was always concerned for his children. True, he wanted them all to learn to live frugally, but he believed this was a good principle, and he did not exempt himself from it. He was particularly concerned about the intellectual development of his children, providing them with books, art and music lessons, but above all the desire to make a name for themselves. Natural talents have to be developed by study and application. This was the message he gave to his children – the message that his father had given to him. It is a characteristic of Celtic people to have a love and a respect for learning, and all the Brontë children showed a great desire for learning. Only Charlotte lived to see success, but her sisters never stopped trying for it. This great driving force to do something with life is seen, perhaps at its most heartbreaking, in a letter from Anne Brontë to a friend. It was one of the last letters she was to write before her death at the age of twenty-nine.

... I wish it would please God to spare me, not only for Papa's and Charlotte's sakes, but because I long to do some good in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practice – humble and limited indeed – but still I should not like them all to come to nothing, and myself to have lived to so little purpose.

At this point it is necessary to draw back a little from the picture of Patrick and Maria with their children in the parsonage at Haworth, for that is the end of the road. The beginning of the road is in Ireland. A great deal is known about the father and mother of Patrick Brontë; and although much less is known about their families, what is known can serve as a beginning to the road which lead to Haworth. The tracing of a family history is always interesting, and all the more so when we find a Charlotte, or an Emily, or an Anne Brontë, at the end of it. In Ireland we find that Patrick's father, Hugh, had a great reputation as a story-teller. In his book, The Brontës in Ireland (1894), Dr William Wright says, 'Hugh seems to have had the rare faculty of believing his own stories, even when they were purely imaginary; and he would sometimes conjure up scenes so unearthly and awful that both he and his hearers were afraid to part company for the night.'

We already know that Patrick inherited this faculty from his father. It is fascinating to follow this through to his children, and to find in a letter written by Miss Ellen Nussey, a schoolmate of Charlotte's, this description of why Charlotte was in great demand as a teller of dormitory thrillers in the school.


Excerpted from The Brontës by John Cannon. Copyright © 2011 John Cannon. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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