Eminent Women Series
Edited by John H. Ingram
All Rights Reserved.
A. MARY F. ROBINSON
London: W. H. Allen and Co. 13, Waterloo Place 1883.
[All Rights Reserved]
London: Printed by W. H. Allen and Co., 13 Waterloo Place. S.W.
CHAPTER I. Parentage 8
CHAPTER II. Babyhood 18
CHAPTER III. Cowan's Bridge 28
CHAPTER IV. Childhood 40
CHAPTER V. Going to School 53
CHAPTER VI. Girlhood at Haworth 61
CHAPTER VII. In the Rue d'Isabelle 77
CHAPTER VIII. A Retrospect 92
CHAPTER IX. The Recall 103
CHAPTER X. The Prospectuses 111
CHAPTER XI. Branwell's Fall 116
CHAPTER XII. Writing Poetry 128
CHAPTER XIII. Troubles 144
CHAPTER XIV. Wuthering Heights: its Origin 154
CHAPTER XV. Wuthering Heights: the Story 168
CHAPTER XVI. 'Shirley' 209
CHAPTER XVII. Branwell's End 217
CHAPTER XVIII. Emily's Death 223
* * * * *
LIST OF AUTHORITIES.
1846-56. The Works of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
1857. Life of Charlotte Bronte. Mrs. Gaskell. 1st and 2nd Editions.
1877. Charlotte Bronte. T. Wemyss Reid.
1877. Note on Charlotte Bronte. A. C. Swinburne.
1881. Three Great Englishwomen. P. Bayne. MS. Lecture on Emily Bronte. T. Wemyss Reid. MS. Notes on Emily and Charlotte Bronte. Miss Ellen Nussey. MS. Letters of Charlotte and Branwell Bronte.
1879. Reminiscences of the Brontes. Miss E. Nussey.
1870. Unpublished Letters of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. Hours at Home.
1846. Emily Bronte's Annotated Copy of her Poems.
1872. Branwell Bronte: in the "Mirror." G. S. Phillips.
1879. Pictures of the Past. F. H. Grundy.
1830. Prospectus of the Clergymen's Daughters' School at Cowan's Bridge.
1850. Preface to Wuthering Heights. Charlotte Bronte.
1850. Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell. Charlotte Bronte.
1850. Wuthering Heights: in the "Palladium." Sydney Dobell. Personal Reminiscences of Mrs. Wood, Mrs. Ratcliffe, Mrs. Brown, and Mr. William Wood, of Haworth.
1811-18. Poems of Patrick Bronte, B.A., Incumbent of Haworth.
1879. Haworth: Past and Present. J. Horsfall Turner.
* * * * *
There are, perhaps, few tests of excellence so sure as the popular verdict on a work of art a hundred years after its accomplishment. So much time must be allowed for the swing and rebound of taste, for the despoiling of tawdry splendours and to permit the work of art itself to form a public capable of appreciating it. Such marvellous fragments reach us of Elizabethan praises; and we cannot help recalling the number of copies of 'Prometheus Unbound' sold in the lifetime of the poet. We know too well "what porridge had John Keats," and remember with misgiving the turtle to which we treated Hobbs and Nobbs at dinner, and how complacently we watched them put on their laurels afterwards.
Let us, then, by all means distrust our own and the public estimation of all heroes dead within a hundred years. Let us, in laying claim to an infallible verdict, remember how oddly our decisions sound at the other side of Time's whispering gallery. Shall we therefore pronounce only on Chaucer and Shakespeare, on Gower and our learned Ben? Alas! we are too sure of their relative merits; we stake our reputations with no qualms, no battle-ardours. These we reserve to them for whom the future is not yet secure, for whom a timely word may still be spoken, for whom we yet may feel that lancing out of enthusiasm only possible when the cast of fate is still unknown, and, as we fight, we fancy that the glory of our hero is in our hands.
But very gradually the victory is gained. A taste is unconsciously formed for the qualities necessary to the next development of art—qualities which Blake in his garret, Millet without the sou, set down in immortal work. At last, when the time is ripe, some connoisseur sees the picture, blows the dust from the book, and straightway blazons his discovery. Mr. Swinburne, so to speak, blew the dust from 'Wuthering Heights'; and now it keeps its proper rank in the shelf where Coleridge and Webster, Hofmann and Leopardi have their place. Until then, a few brave lines of welcome from Sydney Dobell, one fine verse of Mr. Arnold's, one notice from Mr. Reid, was all the praise that had been given to the book by those in authority. Here and there a mill-girl in the West Riding factories read and re-read the tattered copy from the lending library; here and there some eager, unsatisfied, passionate child came upon the book and loved it, in spite of chiding, finding in it an imagination that satisfied, and a storm that cleared the air; or some strong-fibred heart felt without a shudder the justice of that stern vision of inevitable, inherited ruin following the chance-found child of foreign sailor and seaport mother. But these readers were not many; even yet the book is not popular.
For, in truth, the qualities that distinguish Emily Bronte are not those which are of the first necessity to a novelist. She is without experience; her range of character is narrow and local; she has no atmosphere of broad humanity like George Eliot; she has not Jane Austen's happy gift of making us love in a book what we have overlooked in life; we do not recognise in her the human truth and passion, the never-failing serene bitterness of humour, that have made for Charlotte Bronte a place between Cervantes and Victor Hugo.
Emily Bronte is of a different class. Her imagination is narrower, but more intense; she sees less, but what she sees is absolutely present: no writer has described the moors, the wind, the skies, with her passionate fidelity, but this is all of Nature that she describes. Her narrow fervid nature accounted as simple annoyance the trivial scenes and personages touched with immortal sympathy and humour in 'Villette' and 'Shirley'; Paul Emanuel himself appeared to her only as a pedantic and exacting taskmaster; but, on the other hand, to a certain class of mind, there is nothing in fiction so moving as the spectacle of Heathcliff dying of joy—an unnatural, unreal joy—his panther nature paralysed, aneanti, in a delirium of visionary bliss.
Only an imagination of the rarest power could conceive such a denouement, requiting a life of black ingratitude by no mere common horrors, no vulgar Bedlam frenzy; but by the torturing apprehension of a happiness never quite grasped, always just beyond the verge of realisation. Only an imagination of the finest and rarest touch, absolutely certain of tread on that path of a single hair which alone connects this world with the land of dreams. Few have trod that perilous bridge with the fearlessness of Emily Bronte: that is her own ground and there she wins our highest praise; but place her on the earth, ask her to interpret for us the common lives of the surrounding people, she can give no answer. The swift and certain spirit moves with the clumsy hesitating gait of a bird accustomed to soar.
She tells us what she saw; and what she saw and what she was incapable of seeing are equally characteristic. All the wildness of that moorland, all the secrets of those lonely farms, all the capabilities of the one tragedy of passion and weakness that touched her solitary life, she divined and appropriated; but not the life of the village at her feet, not the bustle of the mills, the riots, the sudden alternations of wealth and poverty; not the incessant rivalry of church and chapel; and while the West Riding has known the prototype of nearly every person and nearly every place in 'Jane Eyre' and 'Shirley,' not a single character in 'Wuthering Heights' ever climbed the hills round Haworth.
Say that two foreigners have passed through Staffordshire, leaving us their reports of what they have seen. The first, going by day, will tell us of the hideous blackness of the country; but yet more, no doubt, of that awful, patient struggle of man with fire and darkness, of the grim courage of those unknown lives; and he would see what they toil for, women with little children in their arms; and he would notice the blue sky beyond the smoke, doubly precious for such horrible environment. But the second traveller has journeyed through the night; neither squalor nor ugliness, neither sky nor children, has he seen, only a vast stretch of blackness shot through with flaming fires, or here and there burned to a dull red by heated furnaces; and before these, strange toilers, half naked, scarcely human, and red in the leaping flicker and gleam of the fire. The meaning of their work he could not see, but a fearful and impressive phantasmagoria of flame and blackness and fiery energies at work in the encompassing night.
So differently did the black country of this world appear to Charlotte, clear-seeing and compassionate, and to Emily Bronte, a traveller through the shadows. Each faithfully recorded what she saw, and the place was the same, but how unlike the vision! The spectacles of temperament colour the world very differently for each beholder; and, to understand the vision, we too should for a moment look through the seer's glass. To gain some such transient glance, to gain and give some such momentary insight into the character of Emily Bronte, has been the aim I have tried to make in this book. That I have not fulfilled my desire is perhaps inevitable—the task has been left too long. If I have done anything at all I feel that much of the reward is due to my many and generous helpers. Foremost among them I must thank Dr. Ingham, my kind host at Haworth, Mrs. Wood, Mr. William Wood, Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Ratcliffe of that parish—all of whom had known the now perished family of Bronte; and my thanks are due no less to Mr. T. Wemyss Reid, as will be seen further on, to Mr. J. H. Ingram, and to Mr. Biddell, who have collected much valuable information for my benefit; and most of all do I owe gratitude and thankfulness to Miss Ellen Nussey, without whose generous help my work must have remained most ignorant and astray. To her, had it been worthier, had it been all the subject merits, and yet without those shadows of gloom and trouble enjoined by the nature of the story; to her, could I only have spoken of the high noble character of Emily Bronte and not of the great trials of her life, I should have ventured to dedicate this study. But to Emily's friend I only offer what, through her, I have learned of Emily; she, who knew so little of Branwell's shames and sorrow is unconcerned with this, their sad and necessary record. Only the lights and sunshine of my work I dedicate to her. It may be that I have given too great a share to the shadows, to the manifold follies and failures of Branwell Bronte. Yet in Emily Bronte's life the shaping influences were so few, and the sins of this beloved and erring brother had so large a share in determining the bent of her genius, that to have passed them by would have been to ignore the shock which turned the fantasy of the 'Poems' into the tragedy of 'Wuthering Heights.' It would have been to leave untold the patience, the courage, the unselfishness which perfected Emily Bronte's heroic character; and to have left her burdened with the calumny of having chosen to invent the crimes and violence of her dramatis personae. Not so, alas! They were but reflected from the passion and sorrow that darkened her home; it was no perverse fancy which drove that pure and innocent girl into ceaseless brooding on the conquering force of sin and the supremacy of injustice.
She brooded over the problem night and day; she took its difficulties passionately to heart; in the midst of her troubled thoughts she wrote 'Wuthering Heights.' From the clear spirit which inspires the end of her work, we know that the storm is over; we know that her next tragedy would be less violent. But we shall never see it; for—and it is by this that most of us remember her—suddenly and silently she died.
She died, before a single word of worthy praise had reached her. She died with her work misunderstood and neglected. And yet not unhappy. For her home on the moors was very dear to her, the least and homeliest duties pleasant; she loved her sisters with devoted friendship, and she had many little happinesses in her patient, cheerful, unselfish life. Would that I could show her as she was!—not the austere and violent poetess who, cuckoo-fashion, has usurped her place; but brave to fate and timid of man; stern to herself, forbearing to all weak and erring things; silent, yet sometimes sparkling with happy sallies. For to represent her as she was would be her noblest and most fitting monument.
Emily Bronte was born of parents without any peculiar talent for literature. It is true that her mother's letters are precisely and prettily written. It is true that her father published a few tracts and religious poems. But in neither case is there any vestige of literary or poetical endowment. Few, indeed, are the Parish Magazines which could not show among their contents poems and articles greatly superior to the weak and characterless effusions of the father of the Brontes. The fact seems important; because in this case not one member of a family, but a whole family, is endowed in more or less degree with faculties not derived from either parent.
For children may inherit genius from parents who are themselves not gifted, as two streaming currents of air unite to form a liquid with properties different from either; and never is biography more valuable than when it allows us to perceive by what combination of allied qualities, friction of opposing temperaments, recurrence of ancestral traits, the subtle thing we call character is determined. In this case, since, as I have said, the whole family manifested a brilliance not to be found in either parent, such a study would be peculiarly interesting. But, unfortunately, the history of the children's father and the constitution of the children's mother is all that is clear to our investigation.
Yet even out of this very short pedigree two important factors of genius declare themselves—two potent and shaping inheritances. From their father, Currer, Ellis, and Acton derived a strong will. From their mother, the disease that slew Emily and Anne in the prime of their youth and made Charlotte always delicate and ailing. In both cases the boy, Patrick Branwell, was very slightly affected; but he too died young, from excesses that suggest a taint of insanity in his constitution.
Insanity and genius stand on either side consumption, its worse and better angels. Let none call it impious or absurd to rank the greatest gift to mankind as the occasional result of an inherited tendency to tubercular disease. There are of course very many other determining causes; yet is it certain that inherited scrofula or phthisis may come out, not in these diseases, or not only in these diseases, but in an alteration, for better or for worse, of the condition of the mind. Out of evil good may come, or a worse evil.
The children's father was a nervous, irritable and violent man, who endowed them with a nervous organisation easily disturbed and an indomitable force of volition. The girls, at least, showed both these characteristics. Patrick Branwell must have been a weaker, more brilliant, more violent, less tenacious, less upright copy of his father; and seems to have suffered no modification from the patient and steadfast moral nature of his mother. She was the model that her daughters copied, in different degrees, both in character and health. Passion and will their father gave them. Their genius came directly from neither parent; but from the constitution of their natures.
In addition, on both sides, the children got a Celtic strain; and this is a matter of significance, meaning a predisposition to the superstition, imagination and horror that is a strand in all their work. Their mother, Maria Branwell, was of a good middle-class Cornish family, long established as merchants in Penzance. Their father was the son of an Irish peasant, Hugh Prunty, settled in the north of Ireland, but native to the south.
The history of the Rev. Patrick Bronte, B.A. (whose fine Greek name, shortened from the ancient Irish appellation of Bronterre, was so naively admired by his children), is itself a remarkable and interesting story.
The Reverend Patrick Bronte was one of the ten children of a peasant proprietor at Ahaderg in county Down. The family to which he belonged inherited strength, good looks, and a few scant acres of potato-growing soil. They must have been very poor, those ten children, often hungry, cold and wet; but these adverse influences only seemed to brace the sinews of Patrick Prunty and to nerve his determination to rise above his surroundings. He grew up a tall and strong young fellow, unusually handsome with a well-shaped head, regular profile and fine blue eyes. A vivacious impressible manner effectually masked a certain selfishness and rigour of temperament which became plain in after years. He seemed a generous, quick, impulsive lad. When he was sixteen years of age Patrick left his father's roof resolved to earn a position for himself. At Drumgooland, a neighbouring hamlet, he opened what is called in Ireland a public school; a sort of hedge-school for village children. He stuck to his trade for five or six years, using his leisure to perfect himself in general knowledge, mathematics, and a smattering of Greek and Latin.
His efforts deserved to be crowned with success. The Rev. Mr. Tighe, the clergyman of the parish, was so struck with Patrick Prunty's determination and ability that he advised him to try for admittance at one of the English universities; and when the young man was about five-and-twenty he went, with Mr. Tighe's help, to Cambridge, and entered at St. John's.
He left Ireland in July, 1802, never to visit it again. He never cared to look again on the scenes of his early struggle. He never found the means to revisit mother or home, friends or country. Between Patrick Bronte, proud of his Greek profile and his Greek name, the handsome undergraduate at St. John's, and the nine shoeless, hungry young Pruntys of Ahaderg, there stretched a distance not to be measured by miles. Under his warm and passionate exterior a fixed resolution to get on in the world was hidden; but, though cold, the young man was just and self-denying, and as long as his mother lived she received twenty pounds a year, spared with difficulty from his narrow income.
Patrick Bronte stayed four years at Cambridge; when he left he had dropped his Irish accent and taken his B.A. On leaving St. John's he was ordained to a curacy in Essex.
The young man's energy, of the sort that only toils to reach a given personal end, had carried him far on the way to success. At twenty hedge-schoolmaster at Drumgooland, Patrick Bronte was at thirty a respectable clergyman of the Church of England, with an assured position and respectable clerical acquaintance. He was getting very near the goal.
He did not stay long in Essex. A better curacy was offered to him at Hartshead, a little village between Huddersfield and Halifax in Yorkshire. While he was at Hartshead the handsome inflammable Irish curate met Maria Branwell at her uncle's parsonage near Leeds. It was not the first time that Patrick Bronte had fallen in love; people in the neighbourhood used to smile at his facility for adoration, and thought it of a piece with his enthusiastic character. They were quite right; in his strange nature the violence and the coldness were equally genuine, both being a means to gratify some personal ambition, desire, or indolence. It is not an uncommon Irish type; self-important, upright, honourable, yet with a bent towards subtlety: abstemious in habit, but with freaks of violent self-indulgence; courteous and impulsive towards strangers, though cold to members of the household; naturally violent, and often assuming violence as an instrument of authority; selfish and dutiful; passionate, and devoid of intense affection.
Miss Branwell was precisely the little person with whom it was natural that such a man, a self-made man, should fall in love. She was very small, quiet and gentle, not exactly pretty, but elegant and ladylike. She was, indeed, a well-educated young lady of good connections; a very Phoenix she must have seemed in the eyes of a lover conscious of a background of Pruntyism and potatoes. She was about twenty-one and he thirty-five when they first met in the early summer of 1812. They were engaged in August. Miss Branwell's letters reveal a quiet intensity of devotion, a faculty of judgment, a willingness to forgive passing slights that must have satisfied the absolute and critical temper of her lover. Under the devotion and the quietness there is, however, the note of an independent spirit, and the following extract, with its capability of self-reliance and desire to rely upon another, reminds one curiously of passages in her daughter Charlotte's writings:—
"For some years I have been perfectly my own mistress, subject to no control whatever; so far from it that my sisters, who are many years older than myself, and even my dear mother used to consult me on every occasion of importance, and scarcely ever doubted the propriety of my words and actions: perhaps you will be ready to accuse me of vanity in mentioning this, but you must consider that I do not boast of it. I have many times felt it a disadvantage, and although, I thank God, it has never led me into error, yet in circumstances of uncertainty and doubt I have deeply felt the want of a guide and instructor."
Years afterwards, when Maria Branwell's letters were given into the hands of her daughter Charlotte and that daughter's most dear and faithful friend, the two young women felt a keen pang of retrospective sympathy for the gentle independent little person who, even before her marriage, had time to perceive that her guide and instructor was not the infallible Mentor she had thought him at the first. I quote the words of Charlotte's friend, of more authority and weight on this matter than those of any other person living, taken from a manuscript which she has placed at my disposal:—
"Miss Branwell's letters showed that her engagement, though not a prolonged one, was not as happy as it ought to have been. There was a pathos of apprehension (though gently expressed) in part of the correspondence lest Mr. Bronte should cool in his affection towards her, and the readers perceived with some indignation that there had been a just cause for this apprehension. Mr. Bronte, with all his iron strength and power of will, had his weakness, and one which, wherever it exists, spoils and debases the character—he had personal vanity. Miss Branwell's finer nature rose above such weakness; but she suffered all the more from evidences of it in one to whom she had given her affections and whom she was longing to look up to in all things."
On the 29th of December, 1812, this disillusioned, loving little lady was married to Patrick Bronte, from her uncle's parsonage near Leeds. The young couple took up their abode at Hartshead, Mr. Bronte's curacy. Three years afterwards they moved, with two little baby girls, Maria and Elizabeth, to a better living at Thornton. The country round is desolate and bleak; great winds go sweeping by; young Mrs. Bronte, whose husband generally sat alone in his study, would have missed her cheerful home in sunny Penzance (being delicate and prone to superstition), but that she was a patient and uncomplaining woman, and she had scant time for thought among her many cares for the thick-coming little lives that peopled her Yorkshire home. In 1816 Charlotte Bronte was born. In the next year Patrick Branwell. In 1818 Emily Jane. In 1819 Anne. Then the health of their delicate and consumptive mother began to break. After seven years' marriage and with six young children, Mr. and Mrs. Bronte moved on the 25th of February, 1820, to their new home at Haworth Vicarage.
The village of Haworth stands, steep and grey, on the topmost side of an abrupt low hill. Such hills, more steep than high, are congregated round, circle beyond circle, to the utmost limit of the horizon. Not a wood, not a river. As far as eye can reach these treeless hills, their sides cut into fields by grey walls of stone, with here and there a grey stone village, and here and there a grey stone mill, present no other colours than the singular north-country brilliance of the green grass, and the blackish grey of the stone. Now and then a toppling, gurgling mill-beck gives life to the scene. But the real life, the only beauty of the country, is set on the top of all the hills, where moor joins moor from Yorkshire into Lancashire, a coiled chain of wild free places. White with snow in winter, black at midsummer, it is only when spring dapples the dark heather-stems with the vivid green of the sprouting wortleberry bushes, only when in early autumn the moors are one humming mass of fragrant purple, that any beauty of tint lights up the scene. But there is always a charm in the moors for hardy and solitary spirits. Between them and heaven nothing dares to interpose. The shadows of the coursing clouds alter the aspect of the place a hundred times a day. A hundred little springs and streams well in its soil, making spots of livid greenness round their rise. A hundred birds of every kind are flying and singing there. Larks sing; cuckoos call; all the tribes of linnets and finches twitter in the bushes; plovers moan; wild ducks fly past; more melancholy than all, on stormy days, the white sea-mews cry, blown so far inland by the force of the gales that sweep irresistibly over the treeless and houseless moors. There in the spring you may take in your hands the weak, halting fledgelings of the birds; rabbits and game multiply in the hollows. There in the autumn the crowds of bees, mad in the heather, send the sound of their humming down the village street. The winds, the clouds, Nature and life, must be the friends of those who would love the moors.
But young Mrs. Bronte never could go on the moors. She was frail and weak, poor woman, when she came to live in the oblong grey stone parsonage on the windy top of the hill. The village ran sheer down at her feet; but she could not walk down the steep rough-paven street, nor on the pathless moors. She was very ill and weak; her husband spent nearly all his time in the study, writing his poems, his tracts, and his sermons. She had no companions but the children. And when, in a very few months, she found that she was sickening of a cancer, she could not bear to see much of the children that she must leave so soon.
Who dare say if that marriage was happy? Mrs. Gaskell, writing in the life and for the eyes of Mr. Bronte, speaks of his unwearied care, his devotion in the night-nursing. But before that fatal illness was declared, she lets fall many a hint of the young wife's loneliness during her husband's lengthy, ineffectual studies; of her patient suffering of his violent temper. She does not say, but we may suppose, with what inward pleasure Mrs. Bronte witnessed her favourite silk dress cut into shreds because her husband's pride did not choose that she should accept a gift; or watched the children's coloured shoes thrown on the fire, with no money in her purse to get new ones; or listened to her husband's cavil at the too frequent arrival of his children; or heard the firing of his pistol-shots at the out-house doors, the necessary vent of a passion not to be wreaked in words. She was patient, brave, lonely, and silent. But Mr. Wemyss Reid, who has had unexampled facilities for studying the Bronte papers, does not scruple to speak of Mr. Bronte's "persistent coldness and neglect" of his wife, his "stern and peremptory" dealings with her, of her "habitual dread of her lordly master"; and the manuscript which I have once already quoted alludes to the "hard and inflexible will which raised itself sometimes into tyranny and cruelty." It is within the character of the man that all this should be true. Safely wed, the woman to whom he had made hot love would experience no more of his impulsive tenderness. He had provided for her and done his duty; her duty was to be at hand when he needed her. Yet, imminent death once declared, all his uprightness, his sense of honour, would call on him to be careful to the creature he had vowed to love and cherish, all his selfishness would oblige him to try and preserve the mother of six little children under seven years of age. "They kept themselves very close," the village people said; and at least in this last illness the husband and wife were frequently together. Their love for each other, new revived and soon to close, seemed to exclude any thought of the children. We hear expressly that Mr. Bronte, from natural disinclination, and Mrs. Bronte, from fear of agitation, saw very little of the small earnest babies who talked politics together in the "children's study," or toddled hand in hand over the neighbouring moors.
Meanwhile the young mother grew weaker day by day, suffering great pain and often unable to move. But repining never passed her lips. Perhaps she did not repine. Perhaps she did not grieve to quit her harassed life, the children she so seldom saw, her constant pain, the husband "not dramatic enough in his perceptions to see how miserable others might be in a life that to him was all-sufficient." For some months she lay still, asking sometimes to be lifted in bed that she might watch the nurse cleaning the grate, because she did it as they did in Cornwall. For some months she suffered more and more. In September, 1821, she died.
[Footnote 1: Mrs. Gaskell.]
After his wife's death the Rev. Mr. Bronte's life grew yet more secluded from ordinary human interests. He was not intimate with his parishioners; scarcely more intimate with his children. He was proud of them when they said anything clever, for, in spite of their babyhood, he felt at such moments that they were worthy of their father; but their forlorn infancy, their helpless ignorance, was no appeal to his heart. Some months before his wife's death he had begun to take his dinner alone, on account of his delicate digestion; and he continued the habit, seeing the children seldom except at breakfast and tea, when he would amuse the elders by talking Tory politics with them, and entertain the baby, Emily, with his Irish tales of violence and horror. Perhaps on account of this very aloofness, he always had a great influence over the children; he did not care for any dearer relation.
His empty days were filled with occasional visits to some sick person in the village; with long walks alone over the moors, and with the composition of his 'Cottage in the Wood' and those grandiloquent sermons which still linger in the memory of Haworth. Occasionally a clergyman from one of the neighbouring villages would walk over to see him; but as Mrs. Bronte had died so soon after her arrival at Haworth their wives never came, and the Bronte children had no playfellows in the vicarages near; nor were they allowed to associate with the village children.
This dull routine life suited Mr. Bronte. He had laboured for many years and now he took his repose. We get no further sign of the impatient energies of his youth. He had changed, developed; even as those sea-creatures develop, who, having in their youth fins, eyes and sensitive feelers, become, when once they find their resting-place, motionlessly attached to it, losing one after the other, sight, movement, and even sensation, everything but the faculty to adhere.
Meanwhile the children were left alone. For sympathy and amusement they only had each other to look to; and never were brother and sisters more devoted. Maria, the eldest, took care of them all—she was an old-fashioned, motherly little girl; frail and small in appearance, with thoughtful, tender ways. She was very careful of her five little ones, this seven-year-old mother of theirs, and never seems to have exerted the somewhat tyrannic authority usually wielded by such youthful guardians. Indeed, for all her seniority, she was the untidy one of the family herself; it was against her own faults only that she was severe. She must have been a very attaching little creature, with her childish delinquencies and her womanly cares; protecting her little family with gentle love and discussing the debates in Parliament with her father. Charlotte remembered her to the end of her life with passionate clinging affection and has left us her portrait in the pathetic figure of Helen Burns.
This delicate, weak-chested child of seven was the head of the nursery. Then came Elizabeth, less clearly individualised in her sisters' memory. She also bore in her tiny body the seeds of fatal consumption. Next came impetuous Charlotte, always small and pale. Then red-headed, talkative Patrick Branwell. Lastly Emily and Anne, mere babies, toddling with difficulty over the paven path to the moors.
Such a family demanded the closest care, the most exact attention. This was perhaps impossible on an income of L200 a year, when the mother lay upstairs dying of a disease that required constant nursing. Still the conditions of the Brontes' youth were unnecessarily unhealthy. It could not be helped that these delicate children should live on the bleak wind-swept hill where consumption is even now a scourge; it could not be helped that their home was bounded on two sides by the village graveyard; it could not be helped that they were left without a mother in their babyhood; but never, short of neglect, were delicate children less considered.
The little ones, familiar with serious illness in the house, expected small indulgence. They were accustomed to think nothing so necessary as that they should amuse themselves in quiet, and keep out of the way. The lesson learned so young remained in the minds of the five sisters all their lives. From their infancy they were retired and good; it was only Patrick Branwell who sometimes showed his masculine independence by a burst of natural naughtiness. They were the quietest of children by nature and necessity. The rooms at Haworth Parsonage were small and few. There were in front two moderate-sized parlours looking on the garden, that on the right being Mr. Bronte's study, and the larger one opposite the family sitting-room. Behind these was a sort of empty store-room and the kitchens. On the first floor there was a servants'-room, where the two servants slept, over the back premises; and a bedroom over each of the parlours. Between these and over the entrance passage was a tiny slip of a room, scarcely larger than a linen-closet, scarcely wider than the doorway and the window-frame that faced each other at either end. During the last months of Mrs. Bronte's illness, when it became necessary that she should have a bedroom to herself, all the five little girls were put to sleep in this small and draughty closet, formerly the children's study. There can scarcely have been room to creep between their beds. Very quiet they must have been; for any childish play would have disturbed the dying mother on the one side, and the anxious irritable father on the other. And all over the house they must keep the same hushed calm, since the low stone-floored rooms would echo any noise. Very probably they were not unhappy children for all their quietness. They enjoyed the most absolute freedom, dearest possession of childhood. When they were tired of reading the papers (they seemed to have had no children's books), or of discussing the rival merits of Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, they were free to go along the paven way over the three fields at the back, till the last steyle-hole in the last stone wall let them through on to the wide and solitary moors. There in all weathers they might be found; there they passed their happiest hours, uncontrolled as the birds overhead.
One rule seems to have been made by their father for the management of these precocious children with their consumptive taint, with their mother dying of cancer—that one rule of Mr. Bronte's making, still preserved to us, is that the children should eat no meat. The Rev. Patrick Bronte, B.A., had grown to heroic proportions on potatoes; he knew no reason why his children should fare differently.
The children never grumbled; so Mrs. Bronte's sick-nurse told Mrs. Gaskell:
"You would not have known there was a child in the house, they were such still, noiseless, good little creatures. Maria would shut herself up in the children's study with a newspaper and be able to tell one everything when she came out; debates in Parliament, and I don't know what all. She was as good as a mother to her sisters and brother. But there never were such good children. I used to think them spiritless, they were so different to any children I had ever seen. In part, I set it down to a fancy Mr. Bronte had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat. It was from no wish for saving, for there was plenty and even waste in the house, with young servants and no mistress to see after them; but he thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner; but they never seemed to wish for anything else. They were good little creatures. Emily was the prettiest."
This pretty Emily of two years old was no mother's constant joy. That early shaping tenderness, those recurring associations of reverent love, must be always missing in her memories. Remembering her earliest childhood, she would recall a constant necessity of keeping joys and sorrows quiet, not letting others hear; she would recall the equal love of children for each other, the love of the only five children she knew in all the world; the free wide moors where she might go as she pleased, and where the rabbits played and the moor-game ran and the wild birds sang and flew.
Mrs. Bronte's death can have made no great difference to any of her children save Maria, who had been her constant companion at Thornton; friendly and helpful as a little maiden of six can be to the worried, delicate mother of many babies. Emily and Anne would barely remember her at all. Charlotte could only just recall the image of her mother playing with Patrick Branwell one twilight afternoon. An empty room, a cessation of accustomed business, their mother's death can have meant little more than that to the younger children.
For about a year they were left entirely to their own devices, and to the rough care of kind-hearted, busy servants. They devised plays about great men, read the newspapers, and worshipped the Duke of Wellington, strolled over the moors at their own sweet will, knowing and caring absolutely for no creature outside the walls of their own home. To these free, hardy, independent little creatures Mr. Bronte announced one morning that their maiden aunt from Cornwall, their mother's eldest sister, was coming to superintend their education.
"Miss Branwell was a very small, antiquated little lady. She wore caps large enough for half-a-dozen of the present fashion, and a front of light auburn curls over her forehead. She always dressed in silk. She had a horror of the climate so far north, and of the stone floors in the Parsonage.... She talked a great deal of her younger days—the gaieties of her dear native town Penzance, the soft, warm climate, &c. She gave one the idea that she had been a belle among her own home acquaintance. She took snuff out of a very pretty gold snuff-box, which she sometimes presented to you with a little laugh, as if she enjoyed the slight shock of astonishment visible in your countenance.... She would be very lively and intelligent, and tilt arguments against Mr. Bronte without fear."
So Miss Ellen Nussey recalls the elderly, prim Miss Branwell about ten years later than her first arrival in Yorkshire. But it is always said of her that she changed very little. Miss Nussey's striking picture will pretty accurately represent the maiden lady of forty, who, from a stringent and noble sense of duty, left her southern, pleasant home to take care of the little orphans running wild at Haworth Parsonage. It is easy to imagine with what horrified astonishment aunt and nieces must have regarded each others' peculiarities.
It was, no doubt, an estimable advantage for the children to have some related lady in authority over them. Henceforth their time was no longer free for their own disposal. They said lessons to their father, they did sewing with their aunt, and learned from her all housewifely duties. The advantage would have been a blessing had their aunt been a woman of sweet-natured, motherly turn; but the change from perfect freedom to her old-maidish discipline was not easy to bear—a bitter good, a strengthening but disagreeable tonic, making the children yet less expansive, yet more self-contained and silent. Patrick Branwell was the favourite with his aunt, the naughty, clever, brilliant, rebellious, affectionate Patrick. Next to him she always preferred the pretty, gentle baby Anne, with her sweet, clinging ways, her ready submission, her large blue eyes and clear pink-and-white complexion. Charlotte, impulsive, obstinate and plain, the rugged, dogged Emily, were not framed to be favourites with her. Many a fierce tussle of wills, many a grim listening to over-frivolous reminiscence, must have shown the aunt and her nieces the difference of their natures. Maria, too, the whilom head of the nursery, must have found submission hard; but hers was a singularly sweet and modest nature. Of Elizabeth but little is remembered.
Mr. Bronte, now that the children were growing out of babyhood, seems to have taken a certain pride in them. Probably their daily lessons showed him the character and talent hidden under those pale and grave little countenances. In a letter to Mrs. Gaskell he recounts instances of their early talent. More home-loving fathers will smile at the simple yet theatric means he took to discover the secret of his children's real dispositions. 'Twas a characteristic inspiration, worthy the originator of the ancient name of Bronte. A certain simplicity of confidence in his own subtlety gives a piquant flavour to the manner of telling the tale:—
"A circumstance now occurs to my mind which I may as well mention. When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the eldest was about ten years of age and the youngest four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask.
"I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, 'Age and experience.' I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell) what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who sometimes was a naughty boy; she answered, 'Reason with him; and when he won't listen to reason whip him.' I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of men and women; he answered, 'By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.' I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, 'The Bible.' And what was the next best; she answered, 'The book of Nature.' I then asked the next (Elizabeth, who seems to have taken Miss Branwell's teaching to heart) what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, 'That which would make her rule her house well.' Lastly, I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, 'By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.' I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they have made a deep and lasting impression on my memory. The substance, however, was exactly what I have stated."
The severely practical character of Emily's answer is a relief from the unchildish philosophy of Branwell, Maria, and the baby. A child of four years old who prefers age and experience to a tartlet and some sweets must be an unnatural product. But the Brontes seem to have had no childhood; unlimited discussion of debates, long walks without any playfellows, the free perusal of Methodist magazines, this is the pabulum of their infancy. Years after, when they asked some school-children to tea, the clergyman's young daughters had to ask their little scholars to teach them how to play. It was the first time they had ever cared to try.
What their childhood had really taught them was the value of their father's quaint experiment. They learned to speak boldly from under a mask. Restrained, enforcedly quiet, assuming a demure appearance to cloak their passionate little hearts, the five sisters never spoke their inmost mind in look, word, or gesture. They saved the leisure in which they could not play to make up histories, dramas, and fairy tales, in which each let loose, without noise, without fear of check, the fancies they never tried to put into action as other children are wont to. Charlotte wrote tales of heroism and adventure. Emily cared more for fairy tales, wild, unnatural, strange fancies, suggested no doubt in some degree by her father's weird Irish stories. Already in her nursery the peculiar bent of her genius took shape.
Meanwhile the regular outer life went on—the early rising, the dusting and pudding-making, the lessons said to their father, the daily portion of sewing accomplished in Miss Branwell's bedroom, because that lady grew more and more to dislike the flagged flooring of the sitting-room. Every day, some hour snatched for a ramble on the moors; peaceful times in summer when the little girls took their sewing under the stunted thorns and currants in the garden, the clicking sound of Miss Branwell's pattens indistinctly heard within. Happy times when six children, all in all to each other, told wonderful stories in low voices for their own entrancement. Then, one spring, illness in the house; the children suffering a complication of measles and whooping-cough. They never had such happy times again, for it was thought better that the two elders should go away after their sickness; should get their change of air at some good school. Mr. Bronte made inquiries and heard of an institution established for clergymen's daughters at Cowan's Bridge, a village on the high road between Leeds and Kendal. After some demurring the school authorities consented to receive the children, now free from infection, though still delicate and needing care. Thither Mr. Bronte took Maria and Elizabeth in the July of 1824. Emily and Charlotte followed in September.
"It was in the year 1823 that the school for clergymen's daughters was first projected. The place was only then contemplated as desirable in itself, and as a place which might probably be feasible at some distant day. The mention of it, however, to only two friends in the South having met with their warm approbation and a remittance of L70, an opening seemed to be made for the commencement of the work.
"With this sum in hand, in a reliance upon Him who has all hearts at his disposal, and to whom belong the silver and the gold, the premises at Cowan's Bridge were purchased, the necessary repairs and additions proceeded with, and the school was furnished and opened in the spring of 1824. The whole expense of the purchase and outfit amounted to L2333 17s. 9d.
"The scanty provision of a large portion of the clergy of the Established Church has long been a source of regret; and very efficient means have been adopted in various ways to remedy it. The sole object of the Clergy Daughters' School is to add, in its measure, to these means, by placing a good female education within reach of the poorest clergy. And by them the seasonable aid thus afforded has been duly appreciated. The anxiety and toil which necessarily attend the management of such an institution have been abundantly repaid by the gratitude which has been manifested among the parents of the pupils.
"It has been a very gratifying circumstance that the Clergy Daughters' School has been enabled to follow up the design of somewhat kindred institutions in London. Pupils have come to it as apprentices from the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy; and likewise from the Clergy Orphan School, in which the education is of a limited nature and the pupils are not allowed to remain after the age of sixteen.
"The school is situated in the parish of Tunstall, on the turnpike road from Leeds to Kendal, between which towns a coach runs daily, and about two miles from the town of Kirkby Lonsdale.
"Each pupil pays L14 a year (half in advance) for clothing, lodging, boarding, and educating; L1 entrance towards the expense of books, and L3 entrance for pelisses, frocks, bonnets, &c., which they wear all alike. So that the first payment which a pupil is required to bring with her is L11; and the subsequent half-yearly payment L7. If French, music, or drawing is learnt, L3 a year additional is paid for each of these.
"The education is directed according to the capacities of the pupils and the wishes of their friends. In all cases the great object in view is their intellectual and religious improvement; and to give that plain and useful education which may best fit them to return with respectability and advantage to their own homes; or to maintain themselves in the different stations of life to which Providence may call them."
... Here comes some explanation of the treasurer's accounts. Then the report recommences:—
"Low as the terms are, it has been distressing to discover that in many cases clergymen who have applied on behalf of their daughters have been unable to avail themselves of the benefits of the school from the inadequacy of their means to raise the required payments.
"The projectors' object will not be fully realised until the means are afforded of reducing the terms still lower, in extreme cases, at the discretion of the committee. And he trusts that the time will arrive when, either by legacies or otherwise, the school may be placed within the reach of those of the clergy for whom it is specially intended—namely, the most destitute.
"The school is open to the whole kingdom. Donors and subscribers gain the first attention in the recommendation of pupils; and the only inquiry made upon applications for admission is into the really necessitous circumstances of the applicant.
"There are now ninety pupils in the school (the number that can be accommodated) and several are waiting for admission.
"The school is under the care of Mrs. Harben, as superintendent, eight teachers, and two under-teachers.
"To God belongs the glory of the degree of success which has attended this undertaking, and which has far exceeded the most sanguine expectations. But the expression of very grateful acknowledgment must not be wanting towards the many benefactors who have so readily and so bountifully rendered their assistance. They have their recompense in the constant prayers which are offered up from many a thankful heart for all who support this institution."
Thus excellently and moderately runs the fourth year's report of the philanthropic Gymnase Moronval, evangelical Dotheboys Hall, familiar to readers of 'Jane Eyre.' When these congratulations were set in type, those horrors of starvation, cruelty, and fever were all accomplished which brought death to many children, and to those that lived an embittering remembrance of wrong. The two Bronte girls who survived their school days brought from them a deep distrust of human kindness, a difficult belief in sincere affection, not natural to their warm and passionate spirits. They brought away yet more enfeebled bodies, prone to disease; they brought away the memory of two dear sisters dead. "To God be the glory," says the report. Rather, let us pray, to the Rev. William Carus Wilson.
The report quoted above was issued six years after the autumn in which the little Brontes were sent to Cowan's Bridge; it was not known then in what terms one of those pale little girls would thank her benefactors, would speak of her advantages. She spoke at last, and generations of readers have held as filthy rags the righteousness of that institution, thousands of charitable hearts have beat high with indignation at the philanthropic vanity which would save its own soul by the sufferings of little children's tender bodies. Yet by an odd anomaly this ogre benefactor, this Brocklehurst, must have been a zealous and self-sacrificing enthusiast, with all his goodness spoiled by an imperious love of authority, an extravagant conceit.
It was in the first year of the school that the little Bronte girls left their home on the moors for Cowan's Bridge. It was natural that as yet many things should go wrong and grate in the unperfected order of the house; equally natural that the children should fail to make excuses: poor little prisoners pent, shivering and starved, in an unkind asylum from friends and liberty.
The school, long and low, more like an unpretending farmhouse than an institution, forms two sides of an oblong. The back windows look out on a flat garden about seventy yards across. Part of the house was originally a cottage; the longer part a disused bobbin-mill, once turned by the stream which runs at the side of the damp, small garden. The ground floor was turned into schoolrooms, the dormitories were above, the dining-room and the teachers'-room were in the cottage at the end. All the rooms were paved with stone, low-ceiled, small-windowed; not such as are built for growing children, working in large classes together. No board of managers would permit the poorest children of our London streets to work in such ill-ventilated schoolrooms.
The bobbin-mill, not built for habitation, was, no doubt, faulty and insufficient in drainage. The situation of the house, chosen for its nearness to the stream, was damp and cold, on a bleak, unsheltered plain, picturesque enough in summer with the green alders overhanging the babbling beck, but in winter bitter chill. In this dreary house of machines, the place of the ousted wheels and springs was taken by ninety hungry, growing little human beings, all dressed alike in the coarse, ill-fitting garments of charity, all taught to look, speak, and think alike, all commended or held up to reprobation according as they resembled or diverged from the machines whose room they occupied and whose regular, thoughtless movement was the model of their life.
These children chiefly owed their excellent education, their miserable food and lodging, to the exertions of a rich clergyman from Willingdon, the nearest village. The Rev. Carus Wilson was a person of importance in the neighbourhood; a person who was looked to in emergencies, who prided himself on his prudence, foresight, and efficiency in helping others. With this, none the less a man of real and zealous desire to do good, an energetic, sentient person capable of seeing evils and devising remedies. He wished to help: he wished no less that it should be known he had helped. Pitying the miserable conditions of many of his fellow-workers, he did not rest till he had founded a school where the daughters of the poor clergy should receive a fair education at a nominal price. When the money for the school was forthcoming, the property was vested in twelve trustees; Mr. Wilson was one. He was also treasurer and secretary. Nearly all the work, the power, the supervision, the authority of the affair, he took upon his shoulders. He was not afraid of work, and he loved power. He would manage, he would be overseer, he would guide, arrange, and counsel. So sure did he feel of his capacity to move all springs himself, that he seems to have exercised little pains and less discretion in appointing his subordinates. Good fortune sent him a gentle, wise, and noble woman as superintendent; but the other teachers were less capable, some snappish, some without authority. The housekeeper, who should have been chosen with the greatest care, since in her hands lay the whole management and preparation of the food of these growing children, was a slovenly, wasteful woman, taken from Mr. Wilson's kitchen, and much believed in by himself. Nevertheless to her door must we lay much of the misery of "Lowood."
The funds were small and somewhat uncertain. Honour and necessity alike compelled a certain economy. Mr. Wilson contracted for the meat, flour, and milk, and frequently himself inspected the supplies. But perhaps he did not inspect the kitchen. The "Lowood" scholars had many tales to tell of milk turned sour in dirty pans; of burnt porridge with disgusting fragments in it from uncleanly cooking vessels; of rice boiled in water from the rain-cask, flavoured with dead leaves, and the dust of the roof; of beef salted when already tainted by decomposition; of horrible resurrection-pies made of unappetising scraps and rancid fat. The meat, flour, milk and rice were doubtless good enough when Mr. Wilson saw them, but the starved little school-girls with their disappointed hunger had neither the courage to complain nor the impartiality to excuse. For the rest, it was not easy to complain to Mr. Wilson. His sour evangelicism led him to the same conclusion as the avarice of a less disinterested Yorkshire schoolmaster; he would have bade them conquer human nature. Being a very proud man, he sought to cultivate humility in others. The children were all dressed alike, all wearing in summer plain straw cottage bonnets, white frocks on Sundays and nankeen in the week; all wearing in winter purple stuff frocks and purple pelisses—a serviceable and appropriate raiment which should allow no envies, jealousies, or flatteries. They should not be vain, neither should they be greedy. A request for nicer-tasting food would have branded the asker with the lasting contempt of the Rev. William Carus Wilson, trustee, treasurer, and secretary. They were to learn that it was wrong to like pretty things to wear, nice things to eat, pleasant games to play; these little scholars taken half on charity. Mr. Wilson was repulsed by the apple-and-pegtop side of a child's nature; he deliberately ignored it.
Once in this grim, cold, hungry house of charity, there was little hope of escape. All letters and parcels were inspected by the superintendent; no friends of the pupils were allowed in the school, except for a short call of ceremony. But it is probable that Maria and Elizabeth, sent on before, had no thought of warning their smaller sisters. So destitute of all experience were they, that probably they imagined all schools like Cowan's Bridge; so anxious to learn, that no doubt they willingly accepted the cold, hunger, deliberate unkindness, which made their childhood anxious and old.
The lot fell heaviest on the elder sister, clever, gentle, slovenly Maria. The principal lesson taught at Cowan's Bridge was the value of routine.
Maria, with her careless ways, ready opinions, gentle loving incapacity to become a machine, Maria was at discord with every principle of Cowan's Bridge. She incurred the bitter resentment of one of the teachers, who sought all means of humiliating and mortifying the sweet-natured, shiftless little creature. When, in September, bright, talkative Charlotte and baby Emily came to Cowan's Bridge, they found their idolised little mother, their Maria, the butt, laughingstock and scapegrace of the school.
Things were better for the two younger ones, Charlotte, a bright clever little girl, and Emily, the prettiest of the little sisters, "a darling child, under five years of age, quite the pet nursling of the school." But though at first, no doubt, these two babies were pleased by the change of scene and the companionship of children, trouble was to befall them. Not the mere distasteful scantiness of their food, the mere cold of their bodies; they saw their elder sister grow thinner, paler day by day, no care taken of her, no indulgence made for her weakness. The poor ill-used, ill-nourished child grew very ill without complaining; but at last even the authorities at Cowan's Bridge perceived that she was dying. They sent for Mr. Bronte in the spring of 1825. He had not heard of her illness in any of his children's letters, duly inspected by the superintendent. He had heard no tales of poor food, damp rooms, neglect. He came to Cowan's Bridge and saw Maria, his clever little companion, thin, wasted, dying. The poor father felt a terrible shock. He took her home with him, away from the three little sisters who strained their eyes to look after her. She went home to Haworth. A few days afterwards she died.
Not many weeks after Maria's death, when the spring made Lowood bearable, when the three saddened little sisters no longer waked at night for the cold, no longer lame with bleeding feet, could walk in the sunshine and pick flowers, when April grew into May, an epidemic of sickness came over Cowan's Bridge. The girls one by one grew weak and heavy, neither scolding nor texts roused them now; instead of spending their play-hours in games in the sweet spring air, instead of picking flowers or running races, these growing children grew all languid, flaccid, indolent. There was no stirring them to work or play. Increasing illness among the girls made even their callous guardians anxious at last. Elizabeth Bronte was one of the first to flag. It was not the fever that ailed her, the mysterious undeclared fever that brooded over the house; her frequent cough, brave spirits, clear colour pointed to another goal. They sent her home in the care of a servant; and before the summer flushed the scanty borders of flowers on the newest graves in Haworth churchyard, Elizabeth Bronte was dead, no more to hunger, freeze, or sorrow. Her hard life of ten years was over. The second of the Bronte sisters had fallen a victim to consumption.
Discipline was suddenly relaxed for those remaining behind at Cowan's Bridge. There was more to eat, for there were fewer mouths to feed; there was more time to play and walk, for there were none to watch and restrain the eager children, who played, eat, shouted, ran riot, with a certain sense of relief, although they knew they were only free because death was in the house and pestilence in the air.
The woody hollow of Cowan's Bridge was foggy, unwholesome, damp. The scholars underfed, cramped, neglected. Their strange indolence and heaviness grew stronger and stronger with the spring. All at once forty-five out of the eighty girls lay sick of typhus-fever. Many were sent home only to die, some died at Cowan's Bridge. All that could, sent for their children home. Among the few who stayed in the fever-breeding hollow, in the contaminated house, where the odours of pastilles and drugs blended with, but could not conquer, the faint sickening smell of fever and mortality, among these abandoned few were Charlotte and Emily Bronte.
Thanks to the free, reckless life, the sunshine, the novel abundance of food, the two children did not take the infection. Things, indeed, were brighter for them now, or would have been, could the indignant spirit in these tiny bodies have forgiven or forgotten the deaths of their two sisters.
Reform had come to Cowan's Bridge, and with swift strides cleared away the old order of things. The site was declared unhealthy; the clothing insufficient; the water fetid and brackish. When the doctor who inspected the school was asked to taste the daily food of the scholars he spat it out of his mouth. Everything, everything must be altered. It was a time of sore and grievous humiliation to Mr. Wilson. He had felt no qualms, no doubts; he had worked very hard, he thought things were going very well. The accounts were in excellent order, the education thorough and good, the system elaborate, the girls really seemed to be acquiring a meek and quiet spirit; and, to quote the prospectus, "the great object in view is their intellectual and religious improvement." Then stepped in unreckoned-with disease, and the model institution became a by-word of reproach to the county and the order to which it belonged. People, however, were not unjust to the influential and wealthy treasurer, trustee, and secretary. They admitted his energy, financial capacities, and turn for organisation. All they did was to qualify the rigour of his management. He still continued treasurer, but the funds were entrusted to a committee. He kept his post of inspector, but assistants were appointed to share his responsibilities. The school was given in charge to a new housekeeper; larger and better rations of food were given out. Finally a subscription was set on foot to build a better house in a healthier spot. When Charlotte and Emily Bronte went home for the midsummer holidays, reform was in full swing at Cowan's Bridge.
They went home, two out of the four children who had left their happy home six months before. They went home to find no motherly Maria, no sturdy, patient Elizabeth. The walks on the moors, the tales under the thorn-trees must henceforth be incomplete. The two elders of that little band were no longer to be found in house or garden—they lay quiet under a large paving-stone close to the vicarage pew at church. The three little sisters, the one little brother, must have often thought on their quiet neighbours when the sermon was very long. Thus early familiarised and neighbourly with death, one of them at least, tall, courageous Emily, grew up to have no dreary thoughts of it, neither any dreams of a far-off heaven.
When the holidays were over, the two sisters returned to school. Their father, strangely enough, had no fear to send them to that fatal place. Their aunt, with her two favourites at home, was not over-anxious. Charlotte and Emily went back to Cowan's Bridge. But before the winter they were ill: the damp air, the unhealthy site (for as yet the new house was not built) brought out the weakness of their constitutions. Bearing the elder sisters' fate in view, the authorities warned Mr. Bronte, and the two children came home to Haworth.
[Footnote 2: It is very much wished that the pupils should wear only their school dress during the vacations.]
[Footnote 3: Mrs. Harben to Mrs. Gaskell.]
The home to which Charlotte and Emily returned was not a very much more healthy spot than that they left; but it was home. It was windy and cold, and badly drained. Mr. Bronte was ever striving to stir up his parishioners to improve the sanitary conditions of the place; but for many years his efforts were in vain. The canny Yorkshire folk were loth to put their money underground, and it was hard to make them believe that the real cause of the frequent epidemics and fevers in Haworth was such as could be cured by an effective system of subsoil drainage. It was cheaper and easier to lay the blame at the doors of Providence. So the parson preached in vain. Well might he preach, for his own house was in the thick of the evil.
"As you left the Parsonage-gate you looked upon the stonecutter's chipping-shed, which was piled with slabs ready for use, and to the ear there was the incessant 'chip, chip' of the recording chisel as it graved in the 'In Memoriams' of the departed."
So runs Miss Nussey's manuscript. She also tells of the constant sound of the passing bell; of the frequent burials in the thronged churchyard. No cheerful, healthy home for sensitive, delicate children.
"From the Parsonage windows the first view was the plot of grass edged by a wall, a thorn-tree or two, and a few shrubs and currant-bushes that did not grow. Next to these was the large and half-surrounding churchyard, so full of gravestones that hardly a strip of grass could be seen in it."
Beyond this the moors, the wild, barren, treeless moors, that stretch away for miles and miles, feeding a few herds of mountain sheep, harbouring some wild conies and hares, giving a nesting-place to the birds of heaven, and, for the use of man, neither grain nor pasturage, but quarries of stone and piles of peat luridly smouldering up there on autumn nights.
Such is the home to which Emily Bronte clung with the passionate love of the Swiss for his white mountains, with a homesickness in absence that strained the very cords of life. Yet her childhood in that motherless home had few of the elements of childish happiness, and its busy strictness of daily life was saddened by the loss of Maria and Elizabeth, dear, never-forgotten playfellows. Charlotte, now the eldest of the family, was only two years older than Emily, but her sense of responsibility made her seem quite of a different age. It was little Anne who was Emily's companion—delicate, shrinking, pretty Anne, Miss Branwell's favourite. Anne could enter only into the easiest or lightest of her sister's moods, and yet she was so dear that Emily never sought another friend. So from childhood she grew accustomed to keep her own confidence upon her deepest thoughts and liveliest fancies.
A quiet regular life—carpet-brushing, sewing, dusting in the morning. Then some necessary lessons said to their aunt upstairs; then, in the evening, while Mr. Bronte wrote his sermons in the study and Miss Branwell sat in her bedroom, the four children, alone in the parlour, or sitting by the kitchen fire, while Tabby, the servant, moved briskly about, would write their magazines or make their plays.
There was a great deal about politics still in the plays. Mr. Bronte, who took a keen interest in the affairs of the world, always told the children the chief public news of the day, and let them read what newspapers and magazines they could lay hold on. So the little Brontes prattled of the Duke of Wellington when other children still have Jack the Giantkiller for a hero; the Marquis of Douro was their Prince Charming; their Yahoos, the Catholics; their potent evil genii the Liberal Ministry.
"Our plays were established," says Charlotte, the family chronicler, in her history of the year 1829: "'Young Men,' June, 1826; 'Our Fellows,' July, 1827; 'Islanders,' December, 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret. Emily's and my best plays were established the 1st of December, 1827; the others, March, 1828. Best plays mean secret plays; they are very nice ones. All our plays are very strange ones. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The 'Young Men's' play took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had; 'Our Fellows' from AEsop's Fables; and the 'Islanders' from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origin of our plays more explicitly if I can. First, 'Young Men.' Papa bought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds; when papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door" (the little room over the passage. Anne slept with her aunt) "with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed, 'This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke.' When I had said this, Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, the tallest and the most perfect in every part. Emily's was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him 'Gravey.' Anne's was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him 'Waiting-boy.' Branwell chose his, and called him Bonaparte."
In another play Emily chooses Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart and Johnny Lockhart as her representatives; Charlotte the Duke of Wellington, the Marquis of Douro, Mr. Abernethy, and Christopher North. This last personage was indeed of great importance in the eyes of the children, for Blackwood's Magazine was their favourite reading. On their father's shelves were few novels, and few books of poetry. The clergyman's study necessarily boasted its works of divinity and reference; for the children there were only the wild romances of Southey, the poems of Sir Walter Scott, left by their Cornish mother, and "some mad Methodist magazines full of miracles and apparitions and preternatural warnings, ominous dreams and frenzied fanaticism; and the equally mad letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe from the Dead to the Living," familiar to readers of 'Shirley.' To counterbalance all this romance and terror, the children had their interest in politics and Blackwood's Magazine, "the most able periodical there is," says thirteen-year-old Charlotte. They also saw John Bull, "a high Tory, very violent, the Leeds Mercury, Leeds Intelligencer, a most excellent Tory newspaper," and thus became accomplished fanatics in all the burning questions of the day.
Miss Branwell took care that the girls should not lack more homely knowledge. Each took her share in the day's work, and learned all details of it as accurately as any German maiden at her cookery school. Emily took very kindly to even the hardest housework; there she felt able and necessary; and, doubtless, upstairs, grimly listening to prim Miss Branwell's stories of bygone gaieties, this awkward growing girl was glad to remember that she too was of importance to the household, despite her tongue-tied brooding.
The girls fared well enough; but not so their brother. Branwell's brilliant purposelessness, Celtic gaiety, love of amusement and light heart made him the most charming playfellow, but a very anxious charge. Friends advised Mr. Bronte to send his son to school, but the peculiar vanity which made him model his children's youth in all details on his own forbad him to take their counsel. Since he had fed on potatoes, his children should eat no meat. Since he had grown up at home as best he might, why should Patrick Branwell go to school? Every day the father gave a certain portion of his time to working with his boy; but a clergyman's time is not his own, and often he was called away on parish business. Doubtless Mr. Bronte thought these tutorless hours were spent, as he would have spent them, in earnest preparation of difficult tasks. But Branwell, with all his father's superficial charm of manner, was without the underlying strength of will, and he possessed, unchecked, the temptations to self-indulgence, to which his father seldom yielded, counteracting them rather by an ascetic regimen of life. These long afternoons were spent, not in work, but in mischievous companionship with the wilder spirits of the village, to whom "t' Vicar's Patrick" was the standard of brilliant leadership in scrapes.
No doubt their admiration flattered Branwell, and he enjoyed the noisy fun they had together. Nevertheless he did not quite neglect his sisters. Charlotte has said that at this time she loved him even as her own soul—a serious phrase upon those serious lips. But it was Emily and Branwell who were most to each other: bright, shallow, exacting brother; silent, deep-brooding, unselfish sister, more anxious to give than to receive. In January, 1831, Charlotte went to school at Miss Wooler's, at Roe Head, twenty miles away; and Branwell and Emily were thrown yet more upon each other for sympathy and entertainment.
Charlotte stayed a year and a half at school, and returned in the July of 1832 to teach Emily and Anne what she had learnt in her absence; English-French, English and drawing was pretty nearly all the instruction she could give. Happily genius needs no curriculum. Nevertheless the sisters toiled to extract their utmost boon from such advantages as came within their range. Every morning from nine till half-past twelve they worked at their lessons; then they walked together over the moors, just coming into flower. These moors knew a different Emily to the quiet girl of fourteen who helped in the housework and learned her lessons so regularly at home. On the moors she was gay, frolicsome, almost wild. She would set the others laughing with her quaint humorous sallies and genial ways. She was quite at home there, taking the fledgeling birds in her hands so softly that they were not afraid, and telling stories to them. A strange figure—tall, slim, angular, with all her inches not yet grown; a quantity of dark-brown hair, deep beautiful hazel eyes that could flash with passion, features somewhat strong and stern, the mouth prominent and resolute.
The sisters, and sometimes Branwell, would go far on the moors; sometimes four miles to Keighley in the hollow over the ridge, unseen from the heights, but brooded over always by a dim film of smoke, seemingly the steam rising from some fiery lake. The sisters now subscribed to a circulating library at Keighley, and would gladly undertake the rough walk of eight miles for the sake of bringing back with them a novel by Scott, or a poem by Southey. At Keighley, too, they bought their paper. The stationer used to wonder how they could get through so much.
Other days they went over Stanbury Moor to the Waterfall, a romantic glen in the heathy side of the hill where a little stream drips over great boulders, and where some slender delicate birches spring, a wonder in this barren country. This was a favourite haunt of Emily, and indeed they all loved the spot. Here they would use some of their paper, for they still kept up their old habit of writing tales and poems, and loved to scribble out of doors. And some of it they would use in drawing, since at this time they were taking lessons, and Emily and Charlotte were devoted to the art: Charlotte making copies with minuteness and exact fidelity; Emily drawing animals and still-life with far greater freedom and certainty of touch. Some of Charlotte's paper, also, must have gone in letter-writing. She had made friends at school, an event of great importance to that narrow circle. One of these friends, the dearest, was unknown to Haworth. Many a time must Emily and Anne have listened to accounts of the pretty, accomplished, lively girl, a favourite in many homes, who had won the heart of their shy plain sister. She was, indeed, used to a very different life, this fair young girl, but her bright youth and social pleasures did not blind her to the fact that oddly-dressed, old-fashioned Charlotte Bronte was the most remarkable person of her acquaintance. She was the first, outside Charlotte's home, to discover her true character and genius; and that at an age, in a position, when most girls would be too busy with visions of a happy future for themselves to sympathise with the strange activities, the morbid sensitiveness, of such a mind as Charlotte possessed. But so early this girl loved her; and lives still, the last to have an intimate recollection of the ways, persons and habits of the Bronte household.
In September, 1832, Charlotte left home again on a fortnight's visit to the home of this dear friend. Branwell took her there. He had probably never been from home before. He was in wild spirits at the beauty of the house and grounds, inspecting, criticising everything, pouring out a stream of comments, rich in studio terms, taking views in every direction of the old battlemented house, and choosing "bits" that he would like to paint, delighting the whole family with his bright cleverness, and happy Irish ways. Meanwhile Charlotte looked on, shy and dull. "I leave you in Paradise!" cried Branwell, and betook himself over the moor to make fine stories of his visit to Emily and Anne in the bare little parlour at Haworth.
Charlotte's friend, Ellen, sent her home laden with apples for her two young sisters: "Elles disent qu'elles sont sur que Mademoiselle E. est tres-aimable et bonne; l'une et l'autre sont extremement impatientes de vous voir; j'espere que dans peu de mois elles auront ce plaisir——" So writes Charlotte in the quaint Anglo-French that the friends wrote to each other for practice. But winter was approaching, and winter is dreary at Haworth. Miss Branwell persuaded the eager girls to put off their visitor till summer made the moors warm and dry, and beautiful, so that the young people could spend much of their time out of doors. In the summer of 1833 Ellen came to Haworth.
Miss Ellen Nussey is the only person living who knew Emily Bronte on terms of intimate equality, and her testimony carries out that of those humbler friends who helped the parson's busy daughter in her cooking and cleaning; from all alike we hear of an active, genial, warm-hearted girl, full of humour and feeling to those she knew, though shy and cold in her bearing to strangers. A different being to the fierce impassioned Vestal who has seated herself in Emily's place of remembrance.
In 1833 Emily was nearly fifteen, a tall long-armed girl, full grown, elastic of tread; with a slight figure that looked queenly in her best dresses, but loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth. A tall, thin, loose-jointed girl—not ugly, but with irregular features and a pallid thick complexion. Her dark brown hair was naturally beautiful, and in later days looked well, loosely fastened with a tall comb at the back of her head; but in 1833 she wore it in an unbecoming tight curl and frizz. She had very beautiful eyes of hazel colour. "Kind, kindling, liquid eyes," says the friend who survives all that household. She had an aquiline nose, a large expressive, prominent mouth. She talked little. No grace or style in dress belonged to Emily, but under her awkward clothes her natural movements had the lithe beauty of the wild creatures that she loved. She was a great walker, spending all her leisure on the moors. She loved the freedom there, the large air. She loved the creatures, too. Never was a soul with a more passionate love of Mother Earth, of every weed and flower, of every bird, beast, and insect that lived. She would have peopled the house with pets had not Miss Branwell kept her niece's love of animals in due subjection. Only one dog was allowed, who was admitted into the parlour at stated hours, but out of doors Emily made friends with all the beasts and birds. She would come home carrying in her hands some young bird or rabbit, and softly talking to it as she came. "Ee, Miss Emily," the young servant would say, "one would think the bird could understand you." "I am sure it can," Emily would answer. "Oh, I am sure it can."
The girls would take their friend [for] long walks on the moor. When they went very far, Tabby, their old factotum, insisted on escorting them, unless Branwell took that duty on himself, for they were still "childer" in her eyes. Emily and Anne walked together. They and Branwell would ford the streams and place stepping-stones for the elder girls. At every point of view, at every flower, the happy little party would stop to talk, admire, and theorise in concert. Emily's reserve had vanished as morning mists. She was full of glee and gladness, on her own demesne, no longer awkward and silent. On fine days Emily and Anne would persuade the others to walk to the Waterfall which made an island of brilliant green turf in the midst of the heather, set with clear springs, shaded with here and there a silver birch, and dotted with grey boulders, beautiful resting-places. Here the four girls—the "quartette" as they called themselves—would go and sit and listen to Ellen's stories of the world they had not seen. Or Emily, half-reclining on a slab of stone, would play like a young child with the tadpoles in the water, making them swim about, and she would fall to moralising on the strong and the weak, the brave and the cowardly, as she chased the creatures with her hand. Having rested, they would trudge home again a merry party, save when they met some wandering villager. Then the parson's three daughters would walk on, hushed and timid.
At nine the sewing was put by, and the four girls would talk and laugh, pacing round the parlour. Miss Branwell went to bed early, and the young people were left alone in the curtainless clean parlour, with its grey walls and horse-hair furniture. But with good company no room is poorly furnished; and they had much to say, and much to listen to, on nights when Branwell was at home. Oftenest they must have missed him; since, whenever a visitor stayed at the "Black Bull," the little inn across the churchyard, the landlord would send up for "T' Vicar's Patrick" to come and amuse the guests with his brilliant rhodomontade.
Not much writing went on in Ellen's presence, but gay discussion, making of stories, and serious argument. They would talk sometimes of dead Maria and Elizabeth, always remembered with an intensity of love. About eight o'clock Mr. Bronte would call the household to family prayers: and an hour afterwards he used to bolt the front door, and go upstairs to bed, always stopping at the sitting-room with a kindly admonition to the "children" not to be late. At last the girls would stop their chatter, and retire for the night, Emily giving her bed to the visitor and taking a share of the servants' room herself.
At breakfast the next morning Ellen used to listen with shrinking amazement to the stories of wild horror that Mr. Bronte loved to relate, fearful stories of superstitious Ireland, or barbarous legends of the rough dwellers on the moors; Ellen would turn pale and cold to hear them. Sometimes she marvelled as she caught sight of Emily's face, relaxed from its company rigour, while she stooped down to hand her porridge-bowl to the dog: she wore a strange expression, gratified, pleased, as though she had gained something which seemed to complete a picture in her mind. For this silent Emily, talking little save in rare bursts of wild spirits; this energetic housewife, cooking and cleaning as though she had no other aim in view than the providing for the day's comfort; this was the same Emily who at five years of age used to startle the nursery with her fantastic fairy stories. Two lives went on side by side in her heart, neither ever mingling with or interrupting the other. Practical housewife with capable hands, dreamer of strange horrors: each self was independent of the companion to which it was linked by day and night. People in those days knew her but as she seemed—"T' Vicar's Emily"—a shy awkward girl, never teaching in the Sunday school like her sisters, never talking with the villagers like merry Branwell, but very good and hearty in helping the sick and distressed: not pretty in the village estimation—a "slinky lass," no prim, trim little body like pretty Anne, nor with Charlotte Bronte's taste in dress; just a clever lass with a spirit of her own. So the village judged her. At home they loved her with her strong feelings, untidy frocks, indomitable will, and ready contempt for the common-place; she was appreciated as a dear and necessary member of the household. Of Emily's deeper self, her violent genius, neither friend nor neighbour dreamed in those days. And to-day it is only this Emily who is remembered.
Days went on, pleasant days of autumn, in which Charlotte and her friend roamed across the blooming moors, in which Anne and Emily would take their little stools and big desks into the garden, and sit and scribble under the currant-bushes, stopping now and then to pluck the ripe fruit. Then came chill October, bringing cold winds and rain. Ellen went home, leaving an empty chair in the quartette, leaving Charlotte lonelier, and even Emily and Anne a little dull. "They never liked any one as well as you," says Charlotte.
Winter came, more than usually unhealthy that year, and the moors behind the house were impassable with snow and rain. Miss Branwell continually bemoaned the warm and flowery winters of Penzance, shivering over the fire in her bedroom; Mr. Bronte was ill; outside the air was filled with the mournful sound of the passing bell. But the four young people sitting round the parlour hearth-place were not cold or miserable. They were dreaming of a happy and glorious future, a great career in Art; not for Charlotte, not for Emily or Anne, they were only girls; their dreams were for the hope and promise of the house—for Branwell.