Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 8, 2013 12:10:14 GMT -5
Darkness on the Moors: The Brontë Sisters
Imagine a windswept moor in the north of England. Add a clergyman and his four children – isolated, pale little children inventing fantasy worlds in the nursery of a rambling old house. These were the peculiar origins of the Brontë sisters, the novelists Emily, Charlotte and Anne who, with their brother Branwell, endured a grim and lonely upbringing by vanishing into fantasy worlds so obsessively and vividly imagined they even had their own magazines. In December 2011, the auction house Sotheby’s sold one such manuscript produced by 14-year-old Charlotte for a whopping $1.1 million.
The prolific and puzzling Brontë family are straight out of a Gothic novel. Writers all but for the talented dilettante Branwell, the sisters supported the family with their updating of the Gothic genre. Their lives were not unlike the novels they wrote: though not as far-ranging, they all lived with great intensity and even violence. Anne, Charlotte and Emily all wrote of intense, cruel men, all of whom were Gothic heroes, and many scholars feel they based these characters on their brother Branwell, the unwilling pet of the family. They were strong heroines, however: Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of Emily’s cauterizing her own dog-bite wound with a hot pair of tongs. Anne and Emily died of tuberculosis, and Charlotte, the most Gothic of all, finally married and pregnant, succumbed to starvation.*
Our fascination with the Brontë sisters is seemingly inexhaustible. In the autumn of 2011, there were two new films of Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Director Andrea Arnold’s brooding, silent Wuthering Heights is the 27th film adaptation of this book. Both films have as their backdrop the bleak landscape of the moors which was so formative in the strange and secluded lives of the Brontë sisters. But for all their insular existence, the stormy passion contained in the pages of the books shocked and fascinated readers when they were first published in the 1840s. Emily Brontë was all passion, and Wuthering Heights makes clear her obsessions with some of the darkest subjects of all. The story concerns a forbidden love between its heroine Catherine and the brooding Heathcliff. There are hints of incest (Heathcliff and Catherine are brought up as brother and sister); race (Heathcliff is a “dark-skinned gypsy”); and even necrophilia (after Catherine’s death, Heathcliff becomes obsessed with her corpse).
Charlotte Brontë was a more balanced character than was Emily and her story in Jane Eyre of the plain little governess who attracts the love of her boss – a swarthy, rather villainous squire who secretly keeps a mad wife in the attic – is of perennial fascination to romance buffs. But in the newly discovered little story of Charlotte’s, there are even more dark suggestions of incest – and madness as well.
From where did this darkness and turbulent passion come? An answer of sorts can be found in that extraordinary house, the Haworth Parsonage – now one of the best literary museums in the world – where the Brontë children lived their short and all too tragic lives. Not only did they lose their mother, Maria, to cancer when the oldest child was just seven, but of six siblings – five of them girls – two died before reaching their teens and none lived beyond the age of 39.
Visitors to Hawarth will know that Charlotte Brontë, her sisters and brother Branwell, jotted down many poems and stories in tiny booklets. Tightly written on minute pieces of paper and illustrated, these stories reveal the imagined worlds in which the closely-knit family all lived. Thousands come every year to see these tiny books, the small rooms the family inhabited, the clothing worn by these reclusive people, and to savor the (if we are honest, rather unwholesome) fantasies which were concocted by a family of eccentric introverts in that remote, cramped residence.
Emily, the tall sister, (5ft 6in) invented a world called Gondal – a mystical land of magic – to escape the sorrow that never left her following the death of her mother. Charlotte, more practical, invented the Kingdom of Angria. In these stories, she imagined herself being swept off her feet by the Marquess of Douro – the title belonging to the Duke of Wellington’s heir – whom she renamed Zamorna. The tiny books at Haworth contain tens of thousands of words and are a sign of how much the Brontës lived in their own world, how cut off they were from outsiders.
When neighbors visited the parsonage (pictured above), they noted how, in the presence of strangers, the children would hug one another like timorous animals huddling against predators. They spoke not with the local Yorkshire dialect, but with the Northern Irish brogue of their father, the Rev Patrick Brontë. He was a remarkable man, born into abject poverty in Ulster, the son of an agricultural laborer. His intelligence took him to Cambridge and into the Church. He married Maria Branwell, a Cornish woman, and they had six children in quick succession between 1814 and 1820: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick (always called Branwell), Emily and Anne. Mrs. Brontë died in 1821, the year they all moved to Haworth.
It was a remote, semi-industrial village on the edge of the moors – the railway did not come until 1867. A report by a public health inspector said it was one of the least sanitary villages in England and had not a single water closet. The water supply came into the village after flowing through the full-to-bursting burial ground beside the church. Half the population died before the age of six and the average life expectancy was 26.
When they were old enough, the Brontë girls were sent to one of the most horrible boarding schools in England – Cowan Bridge, which Charlotte would describe in the fictional school of Lowood when she came to write Jane Eyre. The Cowan Bridge headmaster, the Rev. Carus Wilson, was a religious maniac who felt it was his Christian duty to torture children. Seventy girls shared one outside lavatory – which was a hole in the ground. It was freezing cold and the children were kept on starvation rations. If a child died, as often happened, the headmaster felt he had sent her to Heaven. “I bless God,” he announced, when one child died, “that he has taken from us the child of whose salvation we have best hope.”
Wilson was never confident of the salvation of Charlotte and beat her mercilessly. Two of the Brontë sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption (tuberculosis) within two weeks of each other at the ages of 11 and 12, while pupils at Cowan Bridge. After this, Rev. Brontë brought all his children home, where their introspection and dependency upon one another increased. They sketched. They told each other stories – Charlotte remembered how they paced about the rooms excitedly as they did so. This weird household of over-excitable, sickly young people was to be the imaginative powerhouse which produced some of the most wonderful novels in the English language.
The little toy magazine story by Charlotte, which brought the staggering $1.1 million, contains a swaggering hero who sets fire to his bed – a foreshadowing of the mad Mrs. Rochester setting fire to the house in Jane Eyre, and Rochester’s being blinded in the conflagration. It happens that the real-life Brontë girls’ brother, Branwell, set fire to his bed and would have died had they not put out the fire. Branwell was a highly creative drunkard and drug addict plagued by delirium tremens. Other than their reclusive father, Branwell was the only man in the sisters’ lives for years, which perhaps explains Emily’s obsession with incest.
Apart from the disastrous experience of boarding school, the only time the children went away for any significant period of time was when their father sent Charlotte and Emily to Brussels in 1842 to perfect their French. Emily hated it and could not wait to get back to Yorkshire. Her whole life was bound up in the moors and her poetry, all her emotional life took place in the solitude of Haworth. Charlotte, by contrast, wanted all her life to get away from the parsonage. She fell in love in Brussels with M. Heger – a professor who was helping the young English governess with her French. She poured the painful experience of totally unrequited love into her novels.
It was in 1847 that a London publisher – Smith, Elder and Co. – received a novel by one Currer Bell: it was called Jane Eyre. Another publisher, T.C. Newby, brought out Wuthering Heights, by Ellis Bell. Both books, presented under pseudonyms, are pressure cookers with the lid firmly screwed down. They are so powerful because they are about frustrated passion. And Jane Eyre, in particular, achieves its spectacular success as a fantasy to which so many can relate – namely that a plain little woman can win the heart of a romantic hero and succeed in finding love against all odds. “Finished Jane Eyre, which is really a wonderful book, very peculiar in parts, but so powerfully and admirably written, such a fine tone it is, such fine religious feeling, and such beautiful writings.” This was the opinion of another plain little woman – Queen Victoria. Charlotte Brontë was the only one of the siblings to find anything close to emotional satisfaction in both life and fantasy.
Her brother Branwell’s love life was a disaster. He could have been a successful painter, but instead took a job at Luddendenfoot Railway Station 20 miles from Hawarth and had an unhappy affair with the station master’s wife, a Mrs. Robinson, 20 years his senior. He died from alcohol and opium overindulgence at the age of 31. Like all his siblings, Branwell had tuberculosis, which carried off Emily at the age of 30 and Anne a few weeks later, at age 28. When Emily died on December 19, 1848, she was so frail the width of her coffin was only 16 inches.
When all her siblings had died, Charlotte, in her late 30s, married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. Within a short time, she was pregnant. But she had not shaken off the tuberculosis which afflicted them all and hers was a sickly pregnancy, made worse by chills picked up from walking on the moors in her minuscule shoes. (These doll-like shoes are on display at Haworth.) Her appetite diminished to almost nothing. She took to her bed. She still could not quite believe, though, that she was going to share the miserable end of her siblings. “Oh, I am not going to die, am I? We have been so happy!” she exclaimed to poor Mr. Nicholls. She died March 31, 1855, at the age of 39.
Nicholls stayed on with old Rev. Brontë in the parsonage until the vicar himself died six years later. He then retired to Ireland, married again and lived until 1906. However, he remained in love with Charlotte all his life and when he died, his second wife had his coffin placed beneath Charlotte’s portrait before it was carried out to be buried. It is thanks to Nicholls that the Brontë children’s little books, drawings, clothing and other memorabilia have been preserved.
The extraordinary gifts of the Brontës spring from the hidden well of genius. But genius has to be planted in a nourishing soil. And the strangeness of this tragedy-stricken family, the seemingly “unhealthy” fantasies they indulged, combined with Rev. Brontë’s determination to instill in them an intellectual seriousness and pursuit of learning, enabled the genius to flourish.
The discovery of the little short story by Charlotte Brontë excited booksellers and is of great interest to scholars. But in the end, it is the human element of this document which brings goose bumps. Like the clothing she left behind, the tiny nature of this document brings her, for some reason, vividly to life again. Looking upon the miniature pages, we are once again in the enclosed, claustrophobic atmosphere of that parsonage in the depths of winter, with the wind howling outside on the Yorkshire moors and a group of children, hyperactive and flushed with tubercular blushes, exclaiming their fantastical tales, as, in the room above the corridor, their short-sighted and miserable father, hunched over his Green Bible, mourns his long-dead wife.
Sources: A. N. Wilson, The Daily Mail; NPR; Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times; and The Brontës by Juliet Barker.
*One theory is that Charlotte died of hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition in pregnant women characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss and electrolyte disturbance.