The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter V

For the reason just stated, the little girls were sent home in the autumn of 1825, when Charlotte was little more than nine years old.

About this time, an elderly woman of the village came to live as servant at the parsonage. She remained there, as a member of the household, for thirty years; and from the length of her faithful service, and the attachment and respect which she inspired, is deserving of mention. Tabby was a thorough specimen of a Yorkshire woman of her class, in dialect, in appearance, and in character. She abounded in strong practical sense and shrewdness. Her words were far from flattery; but she would spare no deeds in the cause of those whom she kindly regarded. She ruled the children pretty sharply; and yet never grudged a little extra trouble to provide them with such small treats as came within her power. In return, she claimed to be looked upon as a humble friend; and, many years later, Miss Bronte told me that she found it somewhat difficult to manage, as Tabby expected to be informed of all the family concerns, and yet had grown so deaf that what was repeated to her became known to whoever might be in or about the house. To obviate this publication of what it might be desirable to keep secret, Miss Bronte used to take her out for a walk on the solitary moors; where, when both were seated on a tuft of heather, in some high lonely place, she could acquaint the old woman, at leisure, with all that she wanted to hear.

Tabby had lived in Haworth in the days when the pack-horses went through once a week, with their tinkling bells and gay worsted adornment, carrying the produce of the country from Keighley over the hills to Colne and Burnley. What is more, she had known the “bottom,” or valley, in those primitive days when the fairies frequented the margin of the “beck” on moonlight nights, and had known folk who had seen them. But that was when there were no mills in the valleys; and when all the wool-spinning was done by hand in the farm-houses round. “It wur the factories as had driven ’em away,” she said. No doubt she had many a tale to tell of by-gone days of the country-side; old ways of living, former inhabitants, decayed gentry, who had melted away, and whose places knew them no more; family tragedies, and dark superstitious dooms; and in telling these things, without the least consciousness that there might ever be anything requiring to be softened down, would give at full length the bare and simple details.

Miss Branwell instructed the children at regular hours in all she could teach, making her bed-chamber into their school-room. Their father was in the habit of relating to them any public news in which he felt an interest; and from the opinions of his strong and independent mind they would gather much food for thought; but I do not know whether he gave them any direct instruction. Charlotte’s deep thoughtful spirit appears to have felt almost painfully the tender responsibility which rested upon her with reference to her remaining sisters. She was only eighteen months older than Emily; but Emily and Anne were simply companions and playmates, while Charlotte was motherly friend and guardian to both; and this loving assumption of duties beyond her years, made her feel considerably older than she really was.

Patrick Branwell, their only brother, was a boy of remarkable promise, and, in some ways, of extraordinary precocity of talent. Mr. Bronte’s friends advised him to send his son to school; but, remembering both the strength of will of his own youth and his mode of employing it, he believed that Patrick was better at home, and that he himself could teach him well, as he had taught others before. So Patrick, or as his family called him — Branwell, remained at Haworth, working hard for some hours a day with his father; but, when the time of the latter was taken up with his parochial duties, the boy was thrown into chance companionship with the lads of the village — for youth will to youth, and boys will to boys.

Still, he was associated in many of his sisters’ plays and amusements. These were mostly of a sedentary and intellectual nature. I have had a curious packet confided to me, containing an immense amount of manuscript, in an inconceivably small space; tales, dramas, poems, romances, written principally by Charlotte, in a hand which it is almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass. No description will give so good an idea of the extreme minuteness of the writing as the annexed facsimile of a page.

Among these papers there is a list of her works, which I copy, as a curious proof how early the rage for literary composition had seized upon her:-

CATALOGUE OF MY BOOKS, WITH THE PERIOD OF THEIR COMPLETION, UP TO AUGUST 3RD, 1830.

Two romantic tales in one volume; viz., The Twelve Adventurers and the Adventures in Ireland, April 2nd, 1829.

The Search after Happiness, a Tale, Aug. 1st, 1829.

Leisure Hours, a Tale, and two Fragments, July 6th 1829.

The Adventures of Edward de Crack, a Tale, Feb. 2nd, 1830.

The Adventures of Ernest Alembert, a Tale, May 26th, 1830.

An interesting Incident in the Lives of some of the most eminent Persons of the Age, a Tale, June 10th, 1830.

Tales of the Islanders, in four volumes. Contents of the lst Vol.:— l. An Account of their Origin; 2. A Description of Vision Island; 3. Ratten’s Attempt; 4. Lord Charles Wellesley and the Marquis of Douro’s Adventure; completed June 31st, 1829. 2nd Vol.:— 1. The School-rebellion; 2. The strange Incident in the Duke of Wellington’s Life; 3. Tale to his Sons; 4. The Marquis of Douro and Lord Charles Wellesley’s Tale to his little King and Queen; completed Dec. 2nd, 1829. 3rd Vol.:— 1. The Duke of Wellington’s Adventure in the Cavern; 2. The Duke of Wellington and the little King’s and Queen’s visit to the Horse- Guards; completed May 8th, 1830. 4th Vol.:— 1. The three old Washer-women of Strathfieldsaye; 2. Lord C. Wellesley’s Tale to his Brother; completed July 30th, 1830.

Characters of Great Men of the Present Age, Dec. 17th 1829.

The Young Men’s Magazines, in Six Numbers, from August to December, the latter months double number, completed December the 12th, 1829. General index to their contents:— 1. A True Story; 2. Causes of the War; 3. A Song; 4. Conversations; 5. A True Story continued; 6. The Spirit of Cawdor; 7. Interior of a Pothouse, a Poem; 8. The Glass Town, a Song; 9. The Silver Cup, a Tale; 10. The Table and Vase in the Desert, a Song; 11. Conversations; 12. Scene on the Great Bridge; 13. Song of the Ancient Britons; 14. Scene in my Tun, a Tale; 15. An American Tale; 16. Lines written on seeing the Garden of a Genius; 17. The Lay of the Glass Town; 18. The Swiss Artist, a Tale; 19. Lines on the Transfer of this Magazine; 20. On the Same, by a different hand; 21. Chief Genii in Council; 22. Harvest in Spain; 23. The Swiss Artists continued; 24. Conversations.

The Poetaster, a Drama, in 2 volumes, July 12th, 1830.

A Book of Rhymes, finished December 17th, 1829. Contents:— 1. The Beauty of Nature; 2. A Short Poem; 3. Meditations while Journeying in a Canadian Forest; 4. Song of an Exile; 5. On Seeing the Ruins of the Tower of Babel; 6. A Thing of 14 lines; 7. Lines written on the Bank of a River one fine Summer Evening; 8. Spring, a Song; 9. Autumn, a Song.

Miscellaneous Poems, finished May 30th, 1830. Contents:— 1. The Churchyard; 2. Description of the Duke of Wellington’s Palace on the Pleasant Banks of the Lusiva; this article is a small prose tale or incident; 3. Pleasure; 4. Lines written on the Summit of a high Mountain of the North of England; 5. Winter; 6. Two Fragments, namely, 1st, The Vision; 2nd, A Short untitled Poem; the Evening Walk, a Poem, June 23rd, 1830.

Making in the whole twenty-two volumes.

C. BRONTE, August 3, 1830

As each volume contains from sixty to a hundred pages, and the size of the page lithographed is rather less than the average, the amount of the whole seems very great, if we remember that it was all written in about fifteen months. So much for the quantity; the quality strikes me as of singular merit for a girl of thirteen or fourteen. Both as a specimen of her prose style at this time, and also as revealing something of the quiet domestic life led by these children, I take an extract from the introduction to “Tales of the Islanders,” the title of one of their “Little Magazines:” —

“June the 31st, 1829.

“The play of the ‘Islanders’ was formed in December, 1827, in the following manner. One night, about the time when the cold sleet and stormy fogs of November are succeeded by the snow-storms, and high piercing night winds of confirmed winter, we were all sitting round the warm blazing kitchen fire, having just concluded a quarrel with Tabby concerning the propriety of lighting a candle, from which she came off victorious, no candle having been produced. A long pause succeeded, which was at last broken by Branwell saying, in a lazy manner, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ This was echoed by Emily and Anne.

“TABBY. ‘Wha ya may go t’ bed.’

“BRANWELL. ‘I’d rather do anything than that.’

“CHARLOTTE. ‘Why are you so glum to-night, Tabby? Oh! suppose we had each an island of our own.’

“BRANWELL. ‘If we had I would choose the Island of Man.’

“CHARLOTTE. ‘And I would choose the Isle of Wight.’

“EMILY. ‘The Isle of Arran for me.’

“ANNE. ‘And mine shall be Guernsey.’

“We then chose who should be chief men in our islands. Branwell chose John Bull, Astley Cooper, and Leigh Hunt; Emily, Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart, Johnny Lockhart; Anne, Michael Sadler, Lord Bentinck, Sir Henry Halford. I chose the Duke of Wellington and two sons, Christopher North and Co., and Mr. Abernethy. Here our conversation was interrupted by the, to us, dismal sound of the clock striking seven, and we were summoned off to bed. The next day we added many others to our list of men, till we got almost all the chief men of the kingdom. After this, for a long time, nothing worth noticing occurred. In June, 1828, we erected a school on a fictitious island, which was to contain 1,000 children. The manner of the building was as follows. The Island was fifty miles in circumference, and certainly appeared more like the work of enchantment than anything real,” &c.

Two or three things strike me much in this fragment; one is the graphic vividness with which the time of the year, the hour of the evening, the feeling of cold and darkness outside, the sound of the night-winds sweeping over the desolate snow-covered moors, coming nearer and nearer, and at last shaking the very door of the room where they were sitting — for it opened out directly on that bleak, wide expanse — is contrasted with the glow, and busy brightness of the cheerful kitchen where these remarkable children are grouped. Tabby moves about in her quaint country-dress, frugal, peremptory, prone to find fault pretty sharply, yet allowing no one else to blame her children, we may feel sure. Another noticeable fact is the intelligent partisanship with which they choose their great men, who are almost all stanch Tories of the time. Moreover, they do not confine themselves to local heroes; their range of choice has been widened by hearing much of what is not usually considered to interest children. Little Anne, aged scarcely eight, picks out the politicians of the day for her chief men.

There is another scrap of paper, in this all but illegible handwriting, written about this time, and which gives some idea of the sources of their opinions.

THE HISTORY OF THE YEAR 1829.

“Once Papa lent my sister Maria a book. It was an old geography- book; she wrote on its blank leaf, ‘Papa lent me this book.’ This book is a hundred and twenty years old; it is at this moment lying before me. While I write this I am in the kitchen of the Parsonage, Haworth; Tabby, the servant, is washing up the breakfast-things, and Anne, my youngest sister (Maria was my eldest), is kneeling on a chair, looking at some cakes which Tabby has been baking for us. Emily is in the parlour, brushing the carpet. Papa and Branwell are gone to Keighley. Aunt is up- stairs in her room, and I am sitting by the table writing this in the kitchen. Keighley is a small town four miles from here. Papa and Branwell are gone for the newspaper, the ‘Leeds Intelligencer,’ a most excellent Tory newspaper, edited by Mr. Wood, and the proprietor, Mr. Henneman. We take two and see three newspapers a week. We take the ‘Leeds Intelligencer,’ Tory, and the ‘Leeds Mercury,’ Whig, edited by Mr. Baines, and his brother, son-in-law, and his two sons, Edward and Talbot. We see the ‘John Bull;’ it is a high Tory, very violent. Mr. Driver lends us it, as likewise ‘Blackwood’s Magazine,’ the most able periodical there is. The Editor is Mr. Christopher North, an old man seventy-four years of age; the 1st of April is his birth-day; his company are Timothy Tickler, Morgan O’Doherty, Macrabin Mordecai, Mullion, Warnell, and James Hogg, a man of most extraordinary genius, a Scottish shepherd. Our plays were established; ‘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 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 up one and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and 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 ‘Buonaparte.’”

The foregoing extract shows something of the kind of reading in which the little Brontes were interested; but their desire for knowledge must have been excited in many directions, for I find a “list of painters whose works I wish to see,” drawn up by Charlotte when she was scarcely thirteen:-

“Guido Reni, Julio Romano, Titian, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Correggio, Annibal Caracci, Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Bartolomeo, Carlo Cignani, Vandyke, Rubens, Bartolomeo Ramerghi.”

Here is this little girl, in a remote Yorkshire parsonage, who has probably never seen anything worthy the name of a painting in her life, studying the names and characteristics of the great old Italian and Flemish masters, whose works she longs to see some time, in the dim future that lies before her! There is a paper remaining which contains minute studies of, and criticisms upon, the engravings in “Friendship’s Offering for 1829;” showing how she had early formed those habits of close observation, and patient analysis of cause and effect, which served so well in after-life as handmaids to her genius.

The way in which Mr. Bronte made his children sympathise with him in his great interest in politics, must have done much to lift them above the chances of their minds being limited or tainted by petty local gossip. I take the only other remaining personal fragment out of “Tales of the Islanders;” it is a sort of apology, contained in the introduction to the second volume, for their not having been continued before; the writers had been for a long time too busy, and latterly too much absorbed in politics.

“Parliament was opened, and the great Catholic question was brought forward, and the Duke’s measures were disclosed, and all was slander, violence, party-spirit, and confusion. Oh, those six months, from the time of the King’s speech to the end! Nobody could write, think, or speak on any subject but the Catholic question, and the Duke of Wellington, and Mr. Peel. I remember the day when the Intelligence Extraordinary came with Mr. Peel’s speech in it, containing the terms on which the Catholics were to be let in! With what eagerness Papa tore off the cover, and how we all gathered round him, and with what breathless anxiety we listened, as one by one they were disclosed, and explained, and argued upon so ably, and so well! and then when it was all out, how aunt said that she thought it was excellent, and that the Catholics could do no harm with such good security! I remember also the doubts as to whether it would pass the House of Lords, and the prophecies that it would not; and when the paper came which was to decide the question, the anxiety was almost dreadful with which we listened to the whole affair: the opening of the doors; the hush; the royal dukes in their robes, and the great duke in green sash and waistcoat; the rising of all the peeresses when he rose; the reading of his speech — Papa saying that his words were like precious gold; and lastly, the majority of one to four (sic) in favour of the Bill. But this is a digression,” &c., &c.

This must have been written when she was between thirteen and fourteen.

It will be interesting to some of my readers to know what was the character of her purely imaginative writing at this period. While her description of any real occurrence is, as we have seen, homely, graphic, and forcible, when she gives way to her powers of creation, her fancy and her language alike run riot, sometimes to the very borders of apparent delirium. Of this wild weird writing, a single example will suffice. It is a letter to the editor of one of the “Little Magazines.”

“Sir — It is well known that the Genii have declared that unless they perform certain arduous duties every year, of a mysterious nature, all the worlds in the firmament will be burnt up, and gathered together in one mighty globe, which will roll in solitary grandeur through the vast wilderness of space, inhabited only by the four high princes of the Genii, till time shall be succeeded by Eternity; and the impudence of this is only to be paralleled by another of their assertions, namely, that by their magic might they can reduce the world to a desert, the purest waters to streams of livid poison, and the clearest lakes to stagnant waters, the pestilential vapours of which shall slay all living creatures, except the blood-thirsty beast of the forest, and the ravenous bird of the rock. But that in the midst of this desolation the palace of the Chief Genii shall rise sparkling in the wilderness, and the horrible howl of their war-cry shall spread over the land at morning, at noontide and night; but that they shall have their annual feast over the bones of the dead, and shall yearly rejoice with the joy of victors. I think, sir, that the horrible wickedness of this needs no remark, and therefore I haste to subscribe myself, &c.

“July 14, 1829.”

It is not unlikely that the foregoing letter may have had some allegorical or political reference, invisible to our eyes, but very clear to the bright little minds for whom it was intended. Politics were evidently their grand interest; the Duke of Wellington their demi-god. All that related to him belonged to the heroic age. Did Charlotte want a knight-errant, or a devoted lover, the Marquis of Douro, or Lord Charles Wellesley, came ready to her hand. There is hardly one of her prose-writings at this time in which they are not the principal personages, and in which their “august father” does not appear as a sort of Jupiter Tonans, or Deus ex Machina.

As one evidence how Wellesley haunted her imagination, I copy out a few of the titles to her papers in the various magazines.

“Liffey Castle,” a Tale by Lord C. Wellesley.

“Lines to the River Aragua,” by the Marquis of Douro.

“An Extraordinary Dream,” by Lord C. Wellesley.

“The Green Dwarf, a Tale of the Perfect Tense,” by the Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley.

“Strange Events,” by Lord C. A. F. Wellesley.

Life in an isolated village, or a lonely country-house, presents many little occurrences which sink into the mind of childhood, there to be brooded over. No other event may have happened, or be likely to happen, for days, to push one of these aside, before it has assumed a vague and mysterious importance. Thus, children leading a secluded life are often thoughtful and dreamy: the impressions made upon them by the world without — the unusual sights of earth and sky — the accidental meetings with strange faces and figures (rare occurrences in those out-of-the-way places)— are sometimes magnified by them into things so deeply significant as to be almost supernatural. This peculiarity I perceive very strongly in Charlotte’s writings at this time. Indeed, under the circumstances, it is no peculiarity. It has been common to all, from the Chaldean shepherds —“the lonely herdsman stretched on the soft grass through half a summer’s day”- -the solitary monk — to all whose impressions from without have had time to grow and vivify in the imagination, till they have been received as actual personifications, or supernatural visions, to doubt which would be blasphemy.

To counterbalance this tendency in Charlotte, was the strong common sense natural to her, and daily called into exercise by the requirements of her practical life. Her duties were not merely to learn her lessons, to read a certain quantity, to gain certain ideas; she had, besides, to brush rooms, to run errands up and down stairs, to help in the simpler forms of cooking, to be by turns play-fellow and monitress to her younger sisters and brother, to make and to mend, and to study economy under her careful aunt. Thus we see that, while her imagination received vivid impressions, her excellent understanding had full power to rectify them before her fancies became realities. On a scrap of paper, she has written down the following relation:-

“June 22, 1830, 6 o’clock p.m. “Haworth, near Bradford.

“The following strange occurrence happened on the 22nd of June, 1830:— At the time Papa was very ill, confined to his bed, and so weak that he could not rise without assistance. Tabby and I were alone in the kitchen, about half-past nine ante-meridian. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door; Tabby rose and opened it. An old man appeared, standing without, who accosted her thus:-

“OLD MAN. —‘Does the parson live here?’

“TABBY. —‘Yes.’

“OLD MAN. —‘I wish to see him.’

“TABBY. —‘He is poorly in bed.’

“OLD MAN. —‘I have a message for him.’

“TABBY. —‘Who from?’

“OLD MAN. —‘From the Lord.’

“TABBY. —‘Who?’

“OLD MAN. —‘The Lord. He desires me to say that the Bridegroom is coming, and that we must prepare to meet him; that the cords are about to be loosed, and the golden bowl broken; the pitcher broken at the fountain.’

“Here he concluded his discourse, and abruptly went his way. As Tabby closed the door, I asked her if she knew him. Her reply was, that she had never seen him before, nor any one like him. Though I am fully persuaded that he was some fanatical enthusiast, well meaning perhaps, but utterly ignorant of true piety; yet I could not forbear weeping at his words, spoken so unexpectedly at that particular period.”

Though the date of the following poem is a little uncertain, it may be most convenient to introduce it here. It must have been written before 1833, but how much earlier there are no means of determining. I give it as a specimen of the remarkable poetical talent shown in the various diminutive writings of this time; at least, in all of them which I have been able to read.

THE WOUNDED STAG.

Passing amid the deepest shade Of the wood’s sombre heart, Last night I saw a wounded deer Laid lonely and apart.

Such light as pierced the crowded boughs (Light scattered, scant and dim,) Passed through the fern that formed his couch And centred full on him.

Pain trembled in his weary limbs, Pain filled his patient eye, Pain-crushed amid the shadowy fern His branchy crown did lie.

Where were his comrades? where his mate? All from his death-bed gone! And he, thus struck and desolate, Suffered and bled alone.

Did he feel what a man might feel, Friend-left, and sore distrest? Did Pain’s keen dart, and Grief’s sharp sting Strive in his mangled breast?

Did longing for affection lost Barb every deadly dart; Love unrepaid, and Faith betrayed, Did these torment his heart?

No! leave to man his proper doom! These are the pangs that rise Around the bed of state and gloom, Where Adam’s offspring dies!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/bronte/v1chap5.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17