A long, slow, cold day in the north of England. In the morning, as I walked from my hotel to the train station, the sky was a deep, bruised colour, and as the train pulled out of York snow began to fall. By the time I reached Haworth the fields and roads and houses and cars were covered in white pillows, and the snow was blowing across the graveyard, and the moors.
Words can barely describe how wonderful it was to walk through the parsonage, visit the museum and library, wander in the graveyard and church, and school, where Charlotte, Anne, Emily, Branwell, their father Patrick and – for a very brief time – their mother Marie lived their lives.
The parsonage museum is a wonderful place. The house has been restored so that it is, as much as possible, as it was when the Brontës lived in the house, filled with their furnishings and personal belongings. Recently, the house has been repainted and wallpapered, bringing the house even closer to how it once looked.
Each room also contains a selection of Brontëana: letters, clothes, artworks. Each of the women’s portable writing desks is on display, as well as a relatively new, and very moving item, Emily Brontë’s art chest.
You can also see Charlotte’s faded but terribly touching wedding bonnet. And another bonnet. One made for Charlotte by her friend, Margaret Wooler. A tiny baby’s cap for the child Charlotte was perhaps carrying at the time of her death.
I know you shouldn’t have favourites but I have to confess that I have a soft spot – a sense of warm, friendly curiosity – for the youngest of the Brontë siblings, Anne. The author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was only three months old when the family moved to the parsonage at Haworth, and 19 months when her mother passed away. Her mother’s sister – Elizabeth Branwell – stepped into the breach. Anne shared a room with her aunt, and was heavily influenced by her more calvinist beliefs, particularly the notion that salvation was only for an elect few (her father, by contrast, believed in and preached universal salvation). While her siblings never felt much more than respect and begruding affection for their severe aunt, Anne was the baby Elizabeth had taken into her arms. The small, precocious child in whose company – and this is pure speculation – the forbidding demeanour softened, at least a little.
Anne was largely educated at home by her older sister, Charlotte, her aunt and her father. She did spend two years at Roe Head School while Charlotte was teaching there. But the deaths of Anne’s eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, occurred shortly after they were sent to school at the Clergy Daughter’s School in Lancashire. A fact that contributed to Patrick’s decision to educate the rest of his children at home.
Anne seems to have been the most socially capable of her siblings: able to flourish in her position as a governess for the Inghams, and then the Robinsons, despite how lonely she found it living away from her home. (Evidently the Robinsons thought well of Anne, as she managed to secure Branwell the position with the family that would lead to his downfall). Nevertheless, after five years with the Robinsons, at the age of 25, Anne returned home to her family, and fell happily once more into the literary whirl of the family’s evenings.
She contributed 21 poems to Poems by Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, which was published a year later in 1846, and published one novel in each of the following years. Agnes Grey in December, 1847, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in June, 1848. This last novel was an enormous success, selling out within six weeks of its release. Despite the fact that Branwell had returned to Haworth in disgrace after falling in love with (and being rejected by) his employer, the widow Mrs Robinson, things were looking good for the Brontë sisters. Success – both literary and financial – seemed within reach. But Branwell was unwell. He rolled up and down the hill to The White Lion and the Black Bull. A notorious local drunk who also over-indulged in opium. His father shared a bedroom with him, fearing that if he were left alone at night Branwell might accidentally harm himself. But in the night, with the winds whistling down off the moors, across the graveyard, one of the most notably sounds that summer would have been coughing and spluttering. Branwell was not just a sot, he had developed tuberculosis. In September he passed away. This was the beginning of a terrible time for the family. Three months later, despite a heroic effort to deny her illness, and a trip to Scarborough to take the sea air, Emily, too, succumbed to TB.
Christmas, 1848. It is hard to imagine it was a cheerful time at Haworth Parsonage. Charlotte and Anne kept up their writing, walking around and around the dining table as they had used to do with their now absent sister. It was winter. Cold days, colder nights. The bitter grip of grief. Anne developed influenza. Patrick had lost his wife, and four of his children. And now a fifth child haunted the house. Pale, weak, growing steadily thinner. Anne did everything she could to get well. She did not, as Emily had, soldier on and refuse to acknowledge the danger. She saw doctors, and took medications, but she knew – perhaps she knew – that death was inevitable.
On the 7th of January, 1849 Anne wrote her incredible poem, Last Lines, with its powerful and rightfully famous lines about a ‘dreadful darkness clos[ing] in’. [You can read the whole poem online here.]
On 24th May, Anne left Haworth with Charlotte and their friend, Ellen Nussey, to travel to Scarborough and take the sea air. They travelled via York, where Anne enjoined her travelling companions to visit York Minster. By now, she was not strong enough to walk. Her sister pushed her wheelchair along the cobbled streets, through the stunning cathedral with its impressive medieval stained glass windows.
Anne did not tarry long in Scarborough. On the 27th, when a doctor was called in and pronounced death was close, Anne told Charlotte to ‘take courage’. Anne was 70 miles from home – from the moors she loved, from her father – when she passed away. And she was buried at Scarborough, after a funeral attended by only three mourners. Ellen, Charlotte and Margaret Wooler, the former schoolmistress at Roe Head.
Charlotte clearly loved her sister, but she did Anne, and the readers of the world, a great disservice when, after Anne’s death, she refused to allow republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. She wrote that it was hardly worth preserving, that the subject matter was a mistake and that:
[Anne] had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was a naturally sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind: it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course, with fictitious characters, incidents and situations), as a warning to others.
This post is already long, so I think I’ll hold off writing a ‘defense’ of this astonishing and important novel. Except to say this: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is as beautiful, as heartfelt, as tender and courageous a novel as any her sisters wrote. Perhaps if she had not been a Brontë, if she had been read and appreciated in isolation from that storm of talent, if she had had a sister who was not more concerned with her moral than her literary heritage, Anne might be a far more widely read and appreciated novelist.