The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte: The Secrets of a Mysterious Familyby James Tully
Using fiction to explore further his investigation into the Brontes' lives, noted true crime author James Tully creates a murder mystery darker than anything produced by their imaginations and reveals a hidden side to their literary myth. Told through the Parsonage maid, Martha Brown, The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte penetrates the claustrophobic world where the Bronte sisters wrote their stories of tumultuous passions and twisted love. Were their tragically early deaths merely the result of illness, or are there telltale clues of poisoning in their correspondence and the doctors' reports? What was Branwell's true role in the writing of Wuthering Heights? Why are Charlotte's letters about her sisters' deaths so strangely inconsistent with all the other facts we have?
Christian Science Monitor
- Avalon Publishing Group
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`Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it.'
My name is Martha Brown, and for over 20 years I was servant to the Brontë family at Haworth Parsonage. During my time there I witnessed and overheard many things that have stayed unknown to the world outside, and I was told of other matters by my Father and the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was Mr Brontë's curate for about 16 years. Even so, there were happenings that were not fully clear to me at the time, but so much has come out since the Brontës died that I can now see the whole picture.
For a long while now what I know has been a burden to me and, as I have not been too well of late, I now feel that it is high time that I set my mind at rest. I shall ask that what I write is not read until after my death, and even then it should not be made public if Mr Arthur Bell Nicholls, now of Hill House, Banagher, King's County, Ireland is still alive. Although he has much to answer for, he has never rendered me any harm and I do not wish any ill to befall him through me.
What I have to say begins in 1840, when I was only just over 12 years of age. My Father, John Brown, was a stone mason in Haworth. He was also the Sexton of the Church there and Master of the Freemason Lodge. We lived in a cottage called 'Sexton House' in The Ginnel near the Church and right next door to the National School, where I also went to Sunday School. Father used a barn across The Ginnel from the Parsonage for his work.
I wasvery happy with my Mother and Father and sisters until shortly after my 12th birthday, when Father told me that as I was the oldest I would have to earn my keep. He said he had had a word with Mr Brontë and I was to work at the Parsonage and live there. Life was never the same for me after that.
There were many tales about the Parsonage, and I was very ill at ease on the morning that I had to start my job, so Father took me by the hand and we walked there together, carrying the bits and pieces that I was taking with me.
First of all we met the Parson, Mr Brontë, and his dead wife's sister, Miss Branwell, who had come up from Cornwall to look after the family when Mrs Brontë died nearly 20 years before the time that I am talking about. Mr Brontë was only 63 then, with Miss Branwell being but a few years older, but they both seemed very old to me, and I was a little afraid of them. Mr Brontë spoke to me kindly enough though, as did Miss Branwell after him and Father had left the room. She showed me the kitchen and the other rooms downstairs, and then took me to meet Mrs Tabitha Aykroyd.
In truth, Miss Aykroyd as we called her knew me very well, as I did her. She was a village widow-woman who was nigh on 70 then, and who had worked at the Parsonage for 15 years. The Brontë children looked upon her as an aunt, and called her `Tabby', but talk in the village had it that, at one time, she had had a very different friendship with Mr Brontë. Now, though, the years were catching up with her, and also she had had a fall and broken her leg which was not mending as it should, so Father and Mr Brontë had agreed that I should be taken on to help out.
The work at the Parsonage was hard, and the house dreary and damp with no curtains at the windows because Mr Brontë was afraid of a fire. I had to get up very early, and I slaved for many hours, doing all manner of rough jobs, some of which I hated, from scrubbing the flags with sandstone, which often left my hands bleeding, to making ready the vegetables, and all for only 2/3d a week which I had to give to Mother with naught for myself but what she chose to give me from time to time. As I got older I was to be relieved of many of the worst jobs by younger girls, and I would be allowed to work upstairs, becoming something of a maid to the sisters. However, I did not know that then and I was very unhappy.
Night after night I was kept working to all hours. I would trail upstairs so tired out, and many a time in tears. I had to share a bedroom with Miss Aykroyd, and that had not bothered me when first I was told about it for I was used to sharing with my sisters in our crowded house. When it came to it though, I did not like it one jot. Miss Aykroyd snored a great deal, and often moaned, I suppose from the pain in her leg. But it was not only that she got up two or three times in the night to pass water and made such a noise that some nights I had barely any sleep and would start work tired out already.
At the start it seemed that I could do nothing right, and I was always being scolded. Miss Aykroyd was crochety and had little patience, but she was old and I was able to get away with some things with her. No, it was Miss Charlotte who was the bane of my life. She was always snooping around the house and poking her nose into things that were not rightfully her business, and she took to ordering me about and watching to see that I did not get a moment's rest. I also heard her complaining to Miss Branwell about me, and I began to wonder why she was so down on me, but it was not until I said about it to Father that I understood. He told me to take no notice, and said that she was probably trying to get back at him through me as she blamed him a lot for Master Branwell's drinking. Father and Master Branwell both loved to drink at the Black Bull, and were also members of the Freemason Lodge of the Three Graces.
It was all right for Father to say take no notice; he did not have to put up with her. As fast as I finished one job I was given another, and if anything went wrong, such as me breaking something, you could be sure that she would be on the spot. Then she would give me a good scolding, no matter who else was there, and say that the cost would be taken out of my wages. I would feel myself becoming redder and redder, and would have a job holding back the tears. Many was the time when I swore to myself that I would get my own back on her one day.
It was Miss Emily who, without the others knowing, usually came to my aid with a kind word, a hug, and little treats, and she saw to it that nothing ever was taken from my wages. She was the only person who took the trouble to explain to me how jobs should be done properly, and to give me a kind word when I did well. Happily for me, it was her who was in the kitchen for most of the time, as she loved cooking and doing jobs around the house, whereas the others seemed to think such things beneath them. As time went on I grew to love her dearly.
Little by little I became more able, and I also became very good at hiding my true feelings from Miss Charlotte. It was all `Yes, Miss' and `No, Miss' with a smile on my face even though I usually put my tongue out, or worse, to her back and gradually she came to think that that was the real me, and stopped tormenting me so much.
The years passed, and I grew stronger, but even so it was still hard work, and many were the times when I told Father that I wanted to leave the Parsonage to do something else, and be more amongst girls of my own age. I had my mind fixed on going into one of the mills, where most of the girls I knew were working, but Father would have none of it. I know now that he was right, and that the hours there were even longer and the work far harder than I suffered at the Parsonage, but at least I would have had a few laughs instead of the grimness that was my lot in that dreary house.
As time went by, though, things became a little easier and in the end I was as taken for granted and unnoticed as a piece of their old furniture. Rarely did anyone tell me off, and I was allowed to be privy to a lot that was hidden from other folk. I have kept most of what I learned to myself for all this time, but now it is only right and proper that folk should know what really happened over the years in that awful place.
I suppose it was during the year of 1845, when I was 17, that things began to go wrong for the family, although it was hard to see it at the time.
The first thing that happened was that a new curate came to help Mr Brontë out. He was the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, and when he arrived there was quite a stir of interest both in the Parsonage and the village. I knew more about him than most though, for Mr Brontë had arranged with Father that he should lodge in our house as though it was not full enough already but I was still surprised when I saw him.
Mr Nicholls for even after all we have been through together I seldom think of him as anything else was a handsome man. Then he was 27, about Miss Emily's age and some 2 years younger than Miss Charlotte. He was well-built, with a full beard. Like Mr Brontë, he had been brought up in Ireland, but he spoke in a lovely soft voice that was quite unlike the harsh Irish accent of Mr Brontë and his daughters.
I got to know him quite well early on, what with him living with my family and being in and out of the Parsonage all the time. He was very agreeable and, when he wished, he could be quite the charmer, but there were other sides to his nature.
Very often he would seem quite down, and Mother told me that then he would go off for long walks on the moors from which he would come back more cheerful. There was no doubt in my mind, nor indeed in the whole village, that he had an eye for the ladies, and it seemed to give him great pleasure to make himself agreeable to even the oldest and most cross-grained of the women in the parish though I had a good idea of his true thoughts.
I knew that he was lonely, because at the Parsonage he was treated much as I had been when I first went there. He told Father that Mr Brontë and Miss Charlotte rarely spoke to him, and that only Miss Emily had shown him any kindness and gone out of her way to make him feel at home. There were no young men of his class in the village, and though Father had tried to befriend him at the outset they did not get on very well. Father loved his drink, and he was often at the King's Arms or the Black Bull, but Mr Nicholls was not interested in mixing with the villagers socially, especially in a tavern, and I always noticed his face set when the Freemasons were mentioned.
Mind you, Father would not have been so well-inclined towards him then had he known of some of the things that Mr Nicholls got up to with me from time to time when nobody was about.
It started with him putting his arm around my shoulders in a fatherly fashion, and sometimes he would pat my bottom in jest. Then he took to creeping up behind me when I was busy and tickling me in the ribs. I am very ticklish, and used to wriggle and try to stem my laughter, and then, somehow, his hands would be on my breasts giving them a gentle squeeze. I was quite taken aback when first it happened, but put it down to being by chance. When it happened quite often though, I knew it was not. Still, I never made anything of it indeed I rather liked it and, although it would have been very immodest of me to have let him know that, he must have sensed how I felt.
One day he tickled me when I was on my hands and knees scrubbing, and somehow we finished up on the floor together with him on top of me. I could feel the hardness of him, and feelings that I had never had before swept over me. To this day I do not know what would have happened next if we had not heard Miss Charlotte clip-clopping across the flags. Mr Nicholls leaped to his feet and was out of the door in a flash, whilst I quickly put my dress to rights and took to scrubbing as if possessed.
All along, though, I knew that to him it was but a bit of play with a servant girl, especially as I had noticed that he had been trying very hard to get into Miss Charlotte's good books right from the very start. He would take any chance to talk to her, putting on all his charm as he did so. I just could not understand this, because even her best friend such as she had would not have called her anything like pretty, or even handsome. In truth, to me she looked very much like an old pug-dog that Father once had. That being so, you would have thought that she would have been more welcoming of his attentions, but she was not and sometimes she was really quite rude to him. Not only that I heard her pass nasty remarks about him to Miss Emily, and I know from seeing some of her unfinished letters to her friends that she was quite down on him to them as well.
It seemed to me that the only man she had any time for then was one that she used to write to in Belgium.
* * *
Here, I think, we should pause for a closer look at Charlotte who, to my mind, is the key figure in the Brontë puzzle.
I have explained how, when I started upon the research for this book, I knew practically nothing about the Brontë family, and had read none of the sisters' works. Therefore I had no preconceived ideas but, as I became more and more involved with my research, I was able to put some flesh on the bare bones of my knowledge.
Most of the recognized information about the Brontës comes from Charlotte. Her letters and those from her friends form the basis of most research, together with the first biography of her, written by another famous novelist, Mrs Gaskell.
Mrs Gaskell presents a sometimes inaccurate, almost always biased, and frequently over-sentimental picture of her subject. The letters, however, are invaluable because they tell us about Charlotte's true character. Fortunately, when they wrote them she and her friends had no way of foreseeing that successive generations would read them, and be able to compare them, one with another, thus allowing them to place what they wrote in context.
Let us make a start with her appearance.
Most people who know anything about Charlotte prefer to think of her as she was presented in the portrait by George Richmond. That, however, is a very flattering likeness, to say the least. It should be borne in mind that Richmond would have wanted to please the successful authoress, who was by then in a position to recommend him to the rich and famous. For something nearer the truth we should listen to those who knew her well, her two lifelong friends, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.
Talking about Charlotte at the age of fifteen, Mary Taylor said: `She was very ugly.' Ellen Nussey said: `Certainly she was at this time anything but pretty.' Her `screwed up' hair revealed `features that were all the plainer from her exceeding thinness and want of complexion'. She looked `dried in'.
Even Mrs Gaskell was not flattering. Listen to her description of Charlotte, when she first met her in 1850: `She is (as she calls herself) undeveloped; thin and more than half a head shorter than I, soft brown hair, not so dark as mine; eyes (very good and expressive, looking straight and open at you) of the same colour, a reddish face; large mouth and many teeth gone; altogether plain; the forehead square, broad and rather overhanging.'
In the same year, G.H. Lewes, a well-known writer of the day, described her as `a little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid'. She was only thirty-four!
Let me not be misunderstood. Nobody can be held responsible for what Nature bestows upon them, only for what they do with, or to, it. It was not Charlotte's fault that she was short, thin and plain; all I am trying to do is peel away some of the layers of myth which have been built up around her.
Now that we know how she looked, let us examine her character.
Basically she was a domineering and ambitious child who became a domineering and ambitious woman. I attribute that to the fact that she had a poverty-stricken upbringing in a bare and poorly furnished parsonage which left her with mental scars from which she never recovered.
She was the plain daughter of an eccentric to put it mildly -- Irish parson, who herself spoke with an Irish brogue. Very early in her life she developed an inferiority complex which never left her. She went to Roe Head School where most of the other girls were from better-off families. They were better dressed than she, had better homes, more influential parents and more money. The only ways in which she could offset her feelings of shame and inferiority were to tell herself that she was intellectually superior to them, and to attempt to dominate them and become the centre of attention.
As she grew older she became determined to acquire money. In that she was encouraged by her father, who also thought that life owed him more than he had achieved. For a woman in those days, the usual way to a comfortable life was by making a `good' marriage, and upon that Mr Brontë pinned his hopes for his daughters. In reality, however, there was little hope of his dreams coming to fruition the sisters being who they were and living where they did. The only young men whom they were likely to meet, and who were remotely acceptable socially, were curates, and Mr Brontë wanted something better.
Charlotte also wanted something better but, as Martha observed, `the only man she had any time for then was one she used to write to in Belgium'. This was M. Constantin Héger, at whose school in Brussels both Charlotte and Emily had been teachers in 1842 and 1843. Charlotte was passionately in love with him.
M. Héger was only seven years older than Charlotte. Already embarked upon his second marriage, he was sexually experienced and had awakened in Charlotte that latent sensuality which, once aroused, was to increase until it tended to dominate her whole being. Martha realized what had happened only too well, even though Charlotte always concealed her passions beneath a demure, and apparently rather prudish, facade.
Although, of course, we can never be absolutely certain how far that affaire finally went, all the indications are that Charlotte and M. Héger eventually became lovers in every sense of the word.
One of those signs is contained in a letter which Charlotte wrote to Emily on 2 September 1843. She told of how she had gone into the Catholic cathedral in Brussels and asked if she might make confession. At first the priest refused, because she was a Protestant, `but I was determined to confess'. He finally agreed that she could do so, but only in the hope that it would be a first step `towards returning to the true church. I actually did confess a real confession.'
Now what on earth could have affected Charlotte so much that she just had to confess to a Roman Catholic priest? Her father would have been furious to think that a daughter of his had done such a thing. I submit that the reason was that she was so weighed down with guilt about her adultery with M. Héger that she was desperate to unburden herself.
Charlotte promised the priest `faithfully' that she would go to his house every morning, in order that he might do his best to convert her to Roman Catholicism but, of course, she did nothing of the sort. She could not risk having M. Héger identified as her lover.
Unfortunately for Charlotte, Madame Héger eventually became suspicious, and Charlotte had no alternative but to leave the Pensionnat.
Charlotte came back to England early in January 1844. In July 1844, she wrote to M. Héger complaining about his `long silence', but his failure to write can hardly be wondered at. Clearly he had been `warned off' by his wife in no uncertain terms, and had finally come to his senses once the physical temptations offered by his tiny admirer had been removed.
Charlotte ended her letter: `Once more good-bye, Monsieur; it hurts to say good-bye even in a letter. Oh, it is certain that I shall see you again one day it must be so . . .'
When October arrived she wrote again, asking if he had received her two previous letters, but there was no reply.
The year 1845 dawned and, still having heard nothing, in January Charlotte once again put pen to paper. `Day and night I find neither rest nor peace. If I sleep I am disturbed by tormenting dreams in which I see you...' She asked him to be frank with her, to tell her if he no longer had any interest in her and had forgotten her, and went on to tell him of `the torments which I have suffered for eight months'.
It was passionate stuff indeed, and by then M. Héger must have been praying that Charlotte would stop writing altogether. In an attempt to lessen his problems, he proposed that she should send any future letters to the academy, the Royal Athénée, where he was Professor of Literature, but that did not suit Charlotte at all. Whether she had hoped to profit from any dissent which her letters were causing between husband and wife, or whether she simply felt humiliated by the suggestion, we can but conjecture. However, she had finally got the message and, to M. Héger's undoubted relief, she never wrote again. Some idea of what he thought of her, in the latter days at least, may be gained from the fact that he used her letters for laundry and shopping lists.
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