Could there be anyone who hasn’t heard of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre? Authors Emily and Charlotte Brontë, members of what is surely the best known literary family, lived in the parsonage in Haworth in West Yorkshire with their parents, mother Maria and father, Irish clergyman Patrick Brunty who adopted the name Brontë whilst a Cambridge student. He and his wife had six children.
Mother Marie Bronte died in 1821 when the children were very young, Within a few short years the two eldest siblings had also died leaving Emily, Charlotte, their sister Anne and brother Branwell. All became successful writers (though initially the girls wrote under male pseudonyms since women writers were not taken seriously). We visited the Brontë museum, originally the parsonage in which the family had lived. This is the sort of history that I so enjoy … real people, real lives. It was, for me, the highlight of our time in Yorkshire.
Imagine the children at play in these very gardens
Or in the school room, built by their father for the village children
or the church where their Patrick would preach
Charlotte both wrote and was a talented artist. The drawing of the woman is inscribed by Patrick Brontë, ‘By my daughter Charlotte’.
Branwell painted too. This is a copy of his original painting (now in London’s National Portrait Gallery) of his three sisters. He had initially included himself but later painted himself out. His form can still be seen as ghostly shape between Emily and Charlotte. There are no other known portraits of the three sisters together.
The Reverend Patrick Brontë was greatly concerned at the high death rate in Haworth. Astonishingly 41.6% of children in the village died before reaching the age of six. He petitioned the Government to send an inspector to report on the local water supply which was found to be contaminated by seepage from the churchyard. Sadly the wealthy parishioners (who had their own supply) were against paying higher rates to ensure a clean, piped supply for their poorer neighbours. Exposure to the infections that this would have caused likely have weakened the constitutions of the Bronte siblings and despite living in what was relative comfort by the standards of the period, during 1848/9 Branwell, Emily and Ann all died from tuberculosis. Branwell’s poor health had been exacerbated by an opiate and alcohol addiction. Researchers have suggested that he suffered from mental illness; he certainly had his demons.
Charlotte married the church curate but died age 38, just months after her wedding, and whilst carrying her first child. Patrick’s wife and children were all dead by the age of 38. What irony that in a time when a man’s average life expectancy in England was just 47 years (and even lower than that in Haworth), he should live until he was 84 years old. The family are not buried in the churchyard but in a vault beneath the church. Patrick Brontë would have seen his entire family taken through the gate that led from the garden to the church.
“And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson…” Perhaps you know the song and are aware of the film The Graduate. If so, you will know that the protagonist Ben was left bereft after an affair with a much older woman, Mrs Robinson, ended. Branwell Brontë was rumoured to have had an affair with an older woman too – a Mrs Lydia Robinson. He was tutor to her daughter. Branwell was said to be distraught when the supposed affair ended. Comparisons have been drawn. Benjamin Braddock, Branwell Brontë… two disturbed young men, two Mrs Robinsons. One cannot help but wonder at the similarities, though so far as I am aware Charles Webb, author of the book on which the film was based, has never confirmed any correlation.