Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 1

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Emily Brontë (1883)
by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter I. Parentage
2365100Emily Brontë — Chapter I. Parentage1883A. Mary F. Robinson



Emily Brontë 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 Brontës. 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 Brontë, B.A. (whose fine Greek name, shortened from the ancient Irish appellation of Bronterre, was so naïvely admired by his children), is itself a remarkable and interesting story.

The Reverend Patrick Brontë 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 Brontë, 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 Brontë 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 Brontë 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 Brontë 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 Phœnix 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 Bran well'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. Brontë 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. Brontë, 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 Brontë, from her uncle's parsonage near Leeds. The young couple took up their abode at Hartshead, Mr. Brontë'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. Brontë, 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 Brontë 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. Brontë 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. Brontë 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. Brontë, 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. Brontë 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 Brontë papers, does not scruple to speak of Mr. Brontë'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 clos.e, seemed to exclude any thought of the children. We hear expressly that Mr. Brontë, from natural disinclination, and Mrs. Brontë, 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."[1] 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.

  1. Mrs. Gaskell.