Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 13

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Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter XIII. Troubles.



While Emily Brontë was striving to create a world of fancy and romance natural to her passionate spirit, the real, everyday existence in which she had to work and endure was becoming day by day more anxious and troubled. An almost unliveable life it seems, recalling it, stifled with the vulgar tragedy of Branwell's woes, the sordid cares that his debts entailed, the wearing-anxiety that watched the oncoming blindness of old Mr. Brontë. These months of 1846 during which, let us remember, Emily was writing 'Wuthering Heights,' must have been the heaviest and dreariest of her days; it was during their weary course that she at last perceived how utterly hopeless, how insensible to good, must be the remaining life of her brother.

For so long as the future was left him, Branwell never reached the limit of abasement. He drank to drown sorrow, to deaden memory and the flight of time; he went far, but not too far to turn back when the day should dawn which should recall him to prosperity and happiness. He was still, though perverted and debased, capable of reform and susceptible to holy influences. He had not finally cast away goodness and honour; they were but momentarily discarded, like rings taken off for heavy work; by-and-by he would put them on again.

Suddenly the future was taken away. One morning, about six months after his dismissal, a letter came for Branwell announcing the death of his former employer. All he had ever hoped for lay at his feet—the good, wronged man was dead. His wife, his wealth, should now make Branwell glad. A new life, earned by sin and hatred, should begin; a new good life, honourable and happy. It was in Branwell's nature to be glad when peace and honour came to him, although he would make no effort to attain them, and this morning he was very happy.

"He fair danced down the churchyard as if he were out of his mind; he was so fond of that woman," says my informant.

The next morning he rose, dressed himself with care, and prepared for a journey, but before he had even set out from Haworth two men came riding to the village post haste. They sent for Branwell, and when he arrived, in a great state of excitement, one of the riders dis- mounted and went with him into the "Black Bull." They went into the brown parlour of the inn, the cheerful, wainscotted parlour, where Branwell had so often lorded it over his boon companions from his great three-cornered chair. After some time the messenger rose and left; and those who were in the inn thought they heard a strange noise in the parlour—a bleating like a calf's. Yet, being busy people, they did not go in to see if anything had happened, and amid the throng of their employments the sound passed out of their ears and out of their memory. Hours afterwards the young girl who used to help in the housework at the inn, the Anne who still remembers Branwell's fluent greetings, found occasion to enter the parlour. She went in and found him on the floor, looking changed and dreadful. He had fallen down in a sort of stupefied fit. After that day he was an altered being.

The message he had heard had changed the current of his life. It was not the summons he expected; but a prayer from the woman he loved not to come near her, not to tempt her to ruin; if she saw him once, the care of her children, the trust of their fortunes, all was forfeited. She entreated him to keep away; anxious, perhaps, in this sudden loneliness of death, to retrieve the past, or by some tender superstition made less willing to betray the dead than the living; or, it may be, merely eager to retain at all costs the rank, the station, the honours to which she was accustomed. Be it as it may, Branwell found himself forgotten.

"Oh, dreadful heart of woman,
That in one day forgets what man remembers,
Forgetting him therewith."

After that day he was different. He despaired, and drank himself to death, drinking to the grave and forgetfulness, gods of his Sabbath, and borrowing a transient pleasure at fearful interest. But to such a man the one supreme temptation is enjoyment: it must be had, though life and heaven go forfeit. And while he caroused, " and by his whole manner gave indications of intense enjoyment," [1] his old father grew quite blind, Anne day by day more delicate and short of breath, ambitious Charlotte pined like an eagle in a cage, and Emily, writing 'Wuthering Heights,' called those affected who found the story more terrible than life.

It was she who saw most of her abandoned brother, for Anne could only shudder at his sin, and Charlotte was too indignant for pity. But Emily, the stern, charitable woman, who spared herself no pang, who loved to carry tenderly the broken-winged nestlings in her hard-working hands, Emily was not revolted by his weakness. Shall I despise the deer for his timid swiftness to fly, or the leveret because it cannot die bravely, or mock the death-agony of the wolf because the beast is gaunt and foul to see? she asks herself in one of the few personal poems she has left us. No! An emphatic no; for Emily Brontë had a place in her heart for all the wild children of nature, and to despise them for their natural instincts was impossible to her. And thus it came about that she ceased to grow indignant at Branwell's follies; she made up her mind to accept with angerless sorrow his natural vices. All that was left of her ready disdain was an extreme patience which expected no reform, asked no improvement; the patience she had for the leveret and the wolf, things contemptible and full of harm, yet not so by their own choice; the patience of acquiescent and hopeless despair.

Branwell's pity was all for himself. He did not spare the pious household forced into the contamination of his evil habits. "Nothing happens at Haworth," says Charlotte; "nothing at least of a pleasant kind. One little incident occurred about a week ago to sting us into life; but, if it give no more pleasure for you to hear than it does for us to witness, you will scarcely thank me for adverting to it. It was merely the arrival of a sheriff's officer on a visit to Branwell, inviting him either to pay his debts or take a trip to York. Of course his debts had to be paid. It is not agreeable to lose money, time after time, in this way; but where is the use of dwelling on such subjects. It will make him no better." [2]

Reproaches only hardened his heart and made him feel himself more than ever abused by circumstances and fate. "Sometimes,"[3] says Mr. Phillips, "he would complain of the way he was treated at home, and, as an instance, related the following:—

"One of the Sunday-school girls, in whom he and all his house took much interest, fell very sick, and they were afraid she would not live.

"'I went to see the poor little thing,' he said, 'sat with her half-an-hour and read a psalm to her and a hymn at her request. I felt very much like praying with her too,' he added, his voice trembling with emotion, 'but you see I was not good enough. How dare I pray for another, who had almost forgotten how to pray for myself? I came away with a heavy heart, for I felt sure she would die, and went straight home, where I fell into melancholy musings. I wanted somebody to cheer me. I often do; but no kind word finds its way to my ears, much less to my heart. Charlotte observed my depression, and asked what ailed me. So I told her. She looked at me with a look which I shall never forget, if I live to be a hundred years old—which I never shall. It was not like her at all. It wounded me, as if some one had struck me a blow in the mouth. It involved ever so many things in it. It was a dubious look. It ran over me, questioning and examining, as if I had been a wild beast. It said, 'Did my ears deceive me, or did I hear ought?' And then came the painful, baffled expression which was worse than all. It said, 'I wonder if that's true?' But, as she left the room, she seemed to accuse herself of having wronged me, and smiled kindly upon me and said, 'She is my little scholar and I will go and see her.' I replied not a word. I was too much cut up. When she was gone, I came over here to the "Black Bull" and made a night of it in sheer disgust and desperation. Why could they not give me some credit when I was trying to be good?'"

In such wise the summer of 1846 drew on, wearily enough, with increased economies in the already frugal household, that Branwell's debts might honourably be paid, with gathering fears for the father, on whom dyspepsia and blindness were laying heavy hands. He could no longer see to read; he, the great walker who loved to ramble alone, could barely grope his way about; all that was left to him of sight was the ability to recognise well-known figures standing in a strong light. Yet he still continued to preach; standing grey and sightless in the pulpit, uttering what words (perforce unstudied) came to his lips. Himself in his sorrowful age and stern endurance a most noble and comprehensible sermon.

His spirits were much depressed; for now he could no longer forget himself in his lonely studies, no longer walk on the free moors alone when trouble invaded the narrow house below. He lived now of necessity in intimate relation with his children he depended on them. And now he made acquaintance with the heroic nature of his daughters, and saw the petty drudgery of their lives, and how worthily they turned it to a grace in the wearing of it. And now he saw clearly the vain, dependent, passionate temperament of his son, and knew how, by the lack of training, the plant had been ruined and draggled in the mire, which might have beautifully flowered and borne good fruit had it been staked and supported; the poor espalier thing that could not stand alone. Nemesis had visited his home. He felt the consequences of his selfishness, his arrogance, his cold isolation, and bitterly, bitterly he mourned.

The cataract grew month by month, a thickening veil that blotted out the world; and month by month the old blind man sat wearily thinking through the day of his dear son's ruin, for he had ever loved Branwell the best, and lay at night listening for his footsteps; while below, alone, his daughter watched as wearily for the prodigal's return.

The three girls looked on and longed to help. All that they could do they did, Charlotte being her father's constant helper and companion; but all they could do was little. They would not reconcile themselves to see him sink into blindness. They busied themselves in collecting what information they could glean concerning operations upon cataract, and the names of oculists. But at present there was nothing to do but wait and endure; for even they, with their limited knowledge, could tell that their father's eyes were not ready yet for the surgeon's knife.

Meanwhile they worked in secret at their novels. So soon as the poems had been sent off, and even when it was evident that that venture, too, had failed, the sisters determined to try and earn a livelihood by writing. They could no longer leave their home, their father being helpless and Branwell worse than helpless; yet, with ever-increasing expenses and no earnings, bare living was difficult to compass. The future, too, was uncertain; should their father's case prove hopeless, should he become quite blind, ill, incapable of work, they would be homeless indeed. With such gloomy boding in their hearts, with such stern impelling necessity bidding them strive and ever strive again, as a baffled swimmer strives for land, these three sisters began their work. Two of them, in after time, were to be known through all the world, were to be influences for all time to come and, a new glory in the world not known before their days, were to make up "with Mrs. Browning, the perfect trinity of English female fame."[4] But with little thought of this, heavily and very wearily, they set out upon their undertaking.

Every evening when the sewing was put away the writing was begun, the three sisters, sitting round the table, or more often marching round and round the room as in their schoolgirl days, would hold solemn council over the progress of their work. The division of chapters, the naming of characters, the progress of events, was then decided, so that each lent a hand to the other's work. Then, such deliberations done, the paper would be drawn out, and the casual notes of the day corrected and writ fair; and for an hour or more there would be no sound save the scratching of pens on the paper and the gusty wailing of the wind outside.

Such methodical work makes rapid progress. In a few months each sister had a novel completed. Charlotte, a grave and quiet study of Belgian life and character, 'The Professor;' Anne, a painstaking account of a governess's trials, which she entitled 'Agnes Grey.' Emily's story was very different, and less perceptibly interwoven with her own experience. We all know at least the name of 'Wuthering Heights.'

The novels were sent off, and at first seemed even less likely of success than the school had been, or the book of verses. Publisher after publisher rejected them; then, thinking that perhaps it was not cunning to send the three novels in a batch, since the ill-success of one might prejudice all, the sisters sent them separately to try their chance. But ever with the same result month after month, came rejection.

At home affairs continued no less disheartening. Branwell often laid up with violent fits of sickness, Mr. Brontë becoming more utterly blind. At last, in the end of July, Emily and Charlotte set out for Manchester to consult an oculist. There they heard of Mr. Wilson as the best, and to him they went; but only to find that no decisive opinion could be given until their father's eyes had been examined. Yet, not disheartened, they went back to Haworth; for at least they had discovered a physician and had made sure that, even at their father's advanced age, an operation might prove successful. Therefore, at the end of August, Charlotte, who was her father's chief companion and the most easily spared from home, took old Mr. Brontë to Manchester. Mr. Wilson pronounced his eyes ready for the operation, and the old man and his daughter went into lodgings for a month. "I wonder how Emily and Anne will get on at home with Branwell," says Charlotte, accustomed to be the guide and leader of that little household.

Hardly enough, no doubt; for Anne was little fitted now to struggle against fate. She never had completely rallied from the prolonged misery of her sojourn with Branwell in that fatal house which was to blight their future and be blighted by them. She grew weaker and weaker, that "gentle little one," so tender, so ill fitted to her rugged and gloomy path of life. Emily looked on with a breaking heart; trouble encompassed her on every side; her father blind in Manchester; her brother drinking himself to death at home; her sister failing, paling day by day; and every now and then a letter would come announcing that such and such a firm of publishers had no use for 'Agnes Grey' and 'Wuthering Heights.'

Charlotte in Manchester fared little better. 'The Professor' had been returned to her on the very day of her father's operation, when (bearing this unspoken-of blow as best she might) she had to stay in the room while the cataract was removed from his eyes. Exercise makes courage strong; that evening, when her father in his darkened room might no longer speak or be spoken to, that very evening she began 'Jane Eyre.'

This was being braver than brave Emily, who has left us nothing, save a few verses, written later than 'Wuthering Heights.' But at Haworth there was labour and to spare for every instant of the busy days, and Charlotte, in Manchester, found her unaccustomed leisure and unoccupied confinement very dreary.

Towards the end of September Mr. Brontë was pronounced on a fair way to recovery, and he and Charlotte set out for Haworth. It was a happy home-coming, for things had prospered better than Charlotte had dared to hope during the latter weeks of her absence. Every day the old man grew stronger, and little by little his sight came back. He could see the glorious purple of the moors, Emily's moors, no less beloved in her sorrowing womanhood than in her happy hoyden time of youth. He could see his children's faces, and the miserable change in Branwell's features. He began to be able to read a little, a very little at a time, and by November was sufficiently recovered to take the whole duty of the three Sunday services upon himself.

Not long after this time, three members of that quiet household were still further cheered by learning that 'Agnes Grey' and 'Wuthering Heights' had found acceptance at the hands of a publisher. Acceptance; but upon impoverishing terms. Still, for so much they were thankful. To write, and bury unread the things one has written, is playing music upon a dumb piano. Who plays, would fain be heard.

  1. George Searle Phillips.
  2. Mrs. Gaskell.
  3. 'Branwell Brontë.' G. S. Phillips.
  4. A. C. Swinburne. 'Note on Charlotte Brontë.'