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AN AMBITIOUS MAN
On the first day of October 1802 a twenty-five-year-old Irishman walked through the imposing gateway of St John's College, Cambridge. Tall and thin, with sandy red hair, his aristocratic features and bearing marked him out as one of the gentlemen of the university. His appearance was deceptive, however, for this young man had only recently arrived in England and had not yet embarked on a university career. Indeed, his purpose in coming to St John's that day was to register as an undergraduate of the college.
He had an inauspicious start to his new life. Defeated by his Irish accent, the registrar attempted a phonetic spelling of the name he gave, entering 'Patrick Branty' as 'no 1235' in the admissions book of the college. After putting down 'Ireland' as the new undergraduate's 'county of residence', the registrar gave up his task as hopeless and left the other columns blank; the names of Patrick's parents, his date and place of birth and his educational background were all omitted. Two days later, when Patrick returned to take up residence in the college, he found that the bursar had copied the mistaken spelling of his name into the college Residence Register. This time, however, he did not allow it to go unchallenged and the entry was altered from 'Branty' to the now famous 'Bronte'. In this way, Patrick Brontë stepped from the obscurity of his Irish background into the pages of history.
It is difficult now to appreciate the full extent of Patrick's achievement in getting to Cambridge. To be Irish in an almost exclusively English university was in itself unusual, but what made him virtually unique was that he was also poor and of humble birth. Many years later, when Mrs Gaskell came to write her Life of Charlotte Brontë, Patrick gave her a brief account of his early years in Ireland.
My father's name, was Hugh Brontë – He was a native of the South of Ireland, and was left an orphan at an early age – It was said that he was of an Ancient Family. Whether this was, or was not so, I never gave myself the trouble to inquire, since his lot in life, as well as mine, depended, under providence, not on Family descent, but our own exertions – He came to the North of Ireland, and made an early, but suitable marriage. His pecuniary means were small – but renting a few acres of land, He, and my mother, by dint of application, and industry, managed to bring up a Family of ten Children, in a respectable manner. I shew'd an early fondness for books, and continued at school for several years – At the age of sixteen, knowing that my Father, could afford me no pecuniary aid I began to think of doing something for myself – I therefore opened a public school – and in this line, I continued five or six years; I was then a Tutor in a Gentleman's Family – from which situation I removed to Cambridge, and enter'd St John's College –
The matter-of-fact way in which Patrick related these astonishing details is significant. For him, life effectively began only when he shook the dust of Ireland from his feet and was admitted to Cambridge. His first twenty-five years were an irrelevance, even though they must have been amongst the most formative of his life.
The bare bones of Patrick's account of his youth in Ireland can be fleshed out only a little. Nothing more is known about his father, and his mother, Eleanor, sometimes called Alice, McClory, is an equally shadowy figure. According to a tradition originating at the end of the nineteenth century, she was a Roman Catholic, but this seems unlikely as all the family records of the Irish Brontës are associated with the Protestant Church and Patrick would hardly have described a mixed marriage as 'suitable'. At a time when literacy was extremely rare, especially in rural districts of Ireland, the unusual Brontë name was spelt in a variety of ways, ranging from Prunty to Brunty and Bruntee, with no consistent version until Patrick himself decided on 'Bronte'.
Patrick was born on 17 March 1777, apparently in a two-roomed, white-washed, thatched peasant cabin at Emdale, in the parish of Drumballyroney, County Down. Over the next nineteen years, Hugh and Eleanor produced four more sons, followed by five daughters. Despite the demands which this ever-growing family must have made on his slender resources, Hugh seems to have succeeded in substantially advancing the family fortunes. By 1781, when their third son, Hugh, was born, the Brontës were living in a larger house at Lisnacreevy, in the same parish, and before the arrival of their last daughter, Alice, in 1796, they had moved again. Their new home, a short distance away at Ballynaskeagh, was a large, two-storey, stone-built house, which was the epitome of respectability. Hugh Brontë may have been only a 'poor farmer' but he was not the impoverished peasant of Brontë legend.
It is a further indication of the fact that the Brontës were not in desperate financial straits that Patrick escaped the customary fate of the eldest child in a large family. Instead of being put to work on his father's farm or apprenticed out so that he could make a contribution to the family income, he was allowed to remain at school much longer than was usual at the time. The school itself has never been satisfactorily identified, but if it was simply the local village one at Glascar, it seems likely that Patrick may have stayed on as an usher or pupil-teacher in order to extend his education and prepare him for a future career as a teacher.
Given the scarcity of written records in Ireland at this time, it is all the more remarkable that there is confirmation of Patrick's startling claim to have established his own school at the age of only sixteen. In November 1793, when Patrick was indeed sixteen, John Lindsay of Bangrove, Rathfriland, recorded the payment of one pound to 'Pat Prunty for David's school bill' in his account book. Nothing else is known about Patrick's school, not even its precise location, though the fact that it must have catered for the sons of the gentry, rather than village children, is indicated by the size of the fee charged and by David Lindsay's subsequent appointment as an officer in the local militia. If this was the case, then Patrick must have been able to offer more than the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic to his young pupils. Whether he was self-taught or whether his evident talents had already attracted the attention of local clergymen, who alone were in the position to give him higher education, is not known. Patrick's abilities and ambition must have made him an outstanding figure in the parish; his brothers simply followed in their father's footsteps, taking on the family farm and, apparently, extending into keeping an ale-house, shoemaking and building roads.
On the surface, Patrick's decision to exchange the independence of keeping his own school for the comparatively humble role of tutor in a gentleman's family is surprising. But this was 1798, one of the most momentous years in Irish history. The rebellion of that year had its roots in the French Revolution, which had inspired the formation of a Society of United Irishmen who, like their French contemporaries, had gradually grown more extreme in their views. By 1797, they no longer simply advocated Protestantism and nationalism but had openly dedicated themselves to the violent overthrow of the Anglican ruling minority and the establishment in Ireland of social and political reform along French lines. When the new lord lieutenant determined to crush the United Irishmen by disarming Ulster, he drove them into open revolt. County Down, where the Brontë family lived, was at the epicentre of the rebellion. At the very least this must have disrupted Patrick's school; at worst, it may have caused its closure. More importantly, at least one member of the Brontë family, the second son, William, was himself a United Irishman. He joined the rebels and fought at the battle of Ballanahinch in June 1798, when the United Irishmen were crushed by government forces, and was lucky to escape capture and punishment.
Where Patrick's loyalties lay at this time is unclear, but in later life he was an impassioned defender of the 1801 Act of Union, which suppressed Ireland's independent Parliament and administration, effectively transferring all executive power to London. He was equally fervent in denouncing rebellion, which suggests that this first-hand experience of popular revolt left him deeply scarred. For the rest of his life, his political opinions would be swayed by his fear of revolution, even to the point of aligning him with the Tory party which, in many other respects, was not his natural allegiance.
The likelihood is that Patrick's political views were already diametrically opposed to his brother's and that the rebellion simply confirmed him in them. By the time it was over, the rebels disbanded, their leaders hanged and a supporting French invasion, which came too late to be of any assistance, repelled, Patrick's life had changed irrevocably. In taking up the appointment as tutor to the children of Thomas Tighe, he had publicly distanced himself from his brother and his brother's cause and declared his own allegiance to the establishment.
The Reverend Thomas Tighe was more than just the local clergyman, vicar of Drumballyroney and rector of Drumgooland. He was the third son of William Tighe, MP, of Rosanna in County Wicklow, and half-brother to two members of the Irish Parliament. Thomas Tighe himself was a justice of the peace and chaplain to the Earl of Glandore. As such he was one of the wealthy landed gentry of Ireland and a man of considerable influence. He had been educated in England, at Harrow, had graduated from St John's College, Cambridge, and been a fellow of Peterhouse before returning to take up his ministry in the Established Church of Ireland. He had been vicar of Drumballyroney since 1778, so he must have known Patrick almost from birth and had had plenty of opportunity to observe his character and his single-minded pursuit of an education. His decisive intervention at such a late stage in Patrick's career, when the young man was already twenty-one, suggests that, for whatever reason, he saw the need to redirect his energies: undoubtedly, too, he had recognized in Patrick a potential recruit for the ministry of his church.
Although Thomas Tighe was a member of the Church of Ireland, he belonged firmly within the Evangelical camp. This was a reforming movement which sought to revive and reinspire a church whose ministry was corrupt and careless and whose congregations were disaffected. Through charismatic preachers, most notably the Wesleys, the Evangelicals' message was taken out of the somnolent parish churches and into the highways and byways of Britain. They preached a faith of personal commitment which began with a positive act of conversion. Habitual self-examination, a sense of one's own sinfulness and an awareness of the imminence of the Day of Judgement, all combined to ensure that a life once dedicated to God remained positively and actively employed in His service. Because the Evangelicals placed great emphasis on the Bible, their ministers were particularly enthusiastic about the need for education and literacy among their congregations, promoting Sunday schools, holding 'cottage meetings' and producing simple, didactic pamphlets. This was a faith that demanded a missionary zeal in its ministers; there was simply no place for the idle or the half-hearted. Though the day was not far off when the Evangelicals would have to decide whether to remain within the Established Church or become a separate movement, as those who chose to become Methodists did in 1812, at this time there was no such conflict. Itinerant Evangelical preachers had been welcomed by Thomas Tighe and his relatives at both Rosanna, the family home, and Drumballyroney Rectory; John Wesley was a personal friend of the family and had stayed with the Tighes at Rosanna in June 1789 on his last visit to Ireland, eighteen months before his death.
In the long term, Tighe's Evangelical sympathies were to be far more important to Patrick than his political and social connections. They were to be the inspiration for the whole of his future career. It has often been suggested that Patrick's choice of the Church was dictated by worldly ambition: the Church or the army, it is argued, were the only means by which talented but poor young men could seek to better themselves. This is singularly unfair to Patrick. Though his ambition cannot be doubted, neither can his personal faith. His writings and his activities are eloquent testimony to the sincerity of his belief, and the fact that he entered the ministry under the aegis of the Evangelicals is further proof of his commitment. By doing so he was effectively curtailing his chances of future promotion, for Evangelical clergymen were, as yet, only a small group within the Church and their progress met with considerable resistance from the all-powerful High Church party. It was difficult to find bishops willing to ordain them or grant them livings, and even the most venerated of all Evangelical clergymen, Charles Simeon, was never anything more than a simple vicar. Had Patrick been ambitious for temporal, rather than spiritual glory, he had enlisted under the wrong banner.
There were considerable difficulties to overcome if Patrick was to reach his goal of ordination, not the least being that he could not become a clergyman unless he graduated from one of the universities. To do that, he had first to be proficient in Latin and Greek. As these were not on the syllabus of the ordinary village school in Ireland, it seems likely that Patrick was instructed in the Classics by Thomas Tighe, perhaps in part-payment for his services as a tutor to the family. Interestingly, the story was current as early as 1855 that Patrick adopted the 'Bronte' spelling of his surname in response to pressure from Thomas Tighe, who disliked the plebeian 'Brunty' and thought the Greek word for thunder a more appropriate and resonant version of the name.
Having overcome his first hurdle, acquiring the gentleman's prerequisite, a classical education, Patrick faced the problem of obtaining entrance to university. Ostensibly there were three choices open to him: Trinity College in Dublin, the natural choice for an Irishman, Oxford or Cambridge. In reality, however, Cambridge – and indeed St John's College – was Patrick's only option. It was not simply that Tighe pushed him to go to his own college, which both his half-brothers and, more recently, his nephew, had attended. St John's was renowned for its Evangelical connections and, perhaps most important of all as far as Patrick was concerned, it had the largest funds available of any college in any of the universities for assisting poor but able young men to get a university education. Unlike most other college foundations, these scholarships were not all tied to specific schools or particular areas of the country, so if Patrick was to get into any university, St John's at Cambridge offered him the greatest chance of doing so. To be admitted, all that he required were letters from Tighe attesting to his ability, confirming that he had reached the necessary standard of education and recommending him for an assisted place as a sizar.
Four long years after taking up the post as tutor to Thomas Tighe's children, Patrick finally achieved his ambition. Leaving behind his family, his friends and his home, he embarked for England with his meagre savings in his pocket and, it would appear, with scarcely a backward glance.
Excerpted from The Brontës by Juliet Barker. Copyright © 2010 Juliet Barker. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted December 14, 2012
This book is very well written, informative and enjoyable to read. I've always wondered about the Brontes and this book answers many of my questions. Very enjoyable..
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