Ten Novels and Their Authors by W. Somerset Maugham


  It was while he was at Cambridge that Patrick Branty, as his surname is spelt in the list of admissions, changed it to Bronte, but it was not till later that he adopted the diæresis, and signed himself Patrick Brontë. He was appointed to a curacy at Withersfield in Essex and there fell in love with a Miss Mary Burder. She was eighteen and, though not rich, well off. They became engaged. For some reason that has remained obscure, Mr. Brontë jilted her, and it has been supposed that, having a good opinion of his advantages, he thought that by waiting he could do better for himself. Mary Burder was bitterly hurt. It may be that the handsome curate’s behaviour caused a good deal of acid comment in the parish, for he left Withersfield and took a curacy at Wellington in Shropshire and, after a few months, another at Hartshead in Yorkshire. There he met a plain little woman of thirty called Maria Branwell. She had fifty pounds a year of her own and belonged to a respectable middle-class family; Patrick Brontë was thirty-five and perhaps thought that by then, notwithstanding his good looks and agreeable brogue, this was about as well as he could expect to do for himself. He proposed, was accepted and in 1812 the couple were married. While still at Hartshead Mrs. Brontë had two children, and they were named Maria and Elizabeth. Then Mr. Brontë was appointed to still another curacy, this time near Bradford, and here Mrs. Brontë had four more children. They were named Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne. A year before his marriage Mr. Brontë had published at his own expense a volume of verse entitled Cottage Poems, and a year after that another, The Rural Minstrel. While living near Bradford he wrote a novel, called The Cottage in the Wood. People who have read these productions say that they are devoid of merit. In 1820 Mr. Brontë was appointed to the ‘perpetual curacy’ of Haworth, a Yorkshire village, and there he remained, his ambitions, one may suppose, satisfied, till his death. He never went back to Ireland to see the parents, brothers and sisters he had left there, but as long as she lived he sent his mother twenty pounds a year.

  In 1821, after nine years of marriage, Maria Brontë died of cancer. The widower persuaded his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, to leave Penzance, where she lived, to come and look after his six children; but he wanted to marry again, and after a decent interval he wrote to Mrs. Burder, mother of the girl he had treated so ill fourteen years before, to enquire whether she was still single. After some weeks he received a reply and forthwith wrote to Mary herself. The letter is smug, self-complacent, unctuous and, considering the facts, in execrable taste. He had the impudence to say that his ancient love was rekindled and that he had a longing desire to see her. It was in effect a proposal of marriage. Her reply was stinging, but, undeterred, he wrote again. With amazing tactlessness he told her: ‘You may think and write as you please, but I have not the least doubt that if you had been mine you would have been happier than you now are, or can be as one in single life.’ (The italics are his.) Having failed with Mary Burder, he turned his thoughts in another direction. It does not seem to have occurred to him that a widower of forty-five, with six young children, was no great catch. He made an offer to Miss Elizabeth Frith, whom he had known when he was a curate near Bradford, but she also refused him; upon which he seems to have given it up as a bad job. It was at all events, something to be thankful for that Elizabeth Branwell was there to look after the house and take care of the children.

  Haworth Parsonage was a small brownstone house on the brow of the steep hill down which the village straggled. There was a tiny strip of garden in front of it and behind, and, on either side, the graveyard. Biographers of the Brontës have thought this depressing, and to a doctor it might have been, but a clergyman may well have thought it an edifying and even consoling sight; anyhow, this particular clergyman’s family must have grown so accustomed to it that in all probability they noticed it as little as the fisherman at Capri notices the view of Vesuvius or of Ischia in the setting sun. There was a parlour, a study for Mr. Brontë, a kitchen and a storeroom on the ground floor, and four bedrooms and a lobby on the floor above. There were no carpets, except in the parlour and the study, and no curtains to the windows because Mr. Brontë had the greatest dread of fire. The floors and the stairs were of stone, cold and damp in winter, and Miss Branwell, for fear of catching cold, always went about the house in pattens. A narrow pathway led from the house to the moor. With the idea, perhaps barely conscious, of making the story of the Brontës more poignant, it has been customary for authors to write as though it were always bleak, bitter cold and dreary at Haworth. But, of course, even in winter there were days of blue sky and brilliant sunshine, when the frosty air was invigorating, and meadows, moor and woods were painted in the tender colours of pastel. On such a day I went to Haworth. The countryside was bathed in a haze of silver-grey so that the distance, its outlines dim, was mysterious. The leafless trees had the elegance of trees in a wintry scene in a Japanese print, and the hawthorn hedges by the roadside glistened white with hoar frost. Emily’s poems and Wuthering Heights tell you how thrilling the spring was on the moor, and how rich in beauty and how sensuous in summer.

  Mr. Brontë walked long and far on the moor. In his old age he boasted that he had been able to walk forty miles a day. He was a man who shunned company – somewhat of a change, for as a curate he had been a social creature, fond of parties and flirtations; and, with the exception of the neighbouring parsons who sometimes came down the hills to drink a dish of tea, he saw no one but the churchwardens and his parishioners. If these sent for him he went to see them, and if they asked a service he was glad to do it, but he and his family ‘kept themselves very close’. He, the son of a poverty-stricken Irish peasant, would not let his children associate with the village children, and they were driven to sit in the cold little lobby on the first floor, which was their study, reading or whispering low in order not to disturb their father, who, when annoyed or displeased, maintained a sullen silence. He gave them their lessons in the morning, and Miss Branwell taught them sewing and housework.

  Even before his wife’s death, Mr. Brontë had taken to having his meals in his study by himself, and this habit he retained for the rest of his life. The reason given for this is that he suffered from indigestion. Emily wrote in a diary: ‘We are going to have for dinner boiled beef, turnips, potatoes and apple pudding.’ And in 1846 Charlotte wrote from Manchester: ‘Papa requires nothing you know but plain beef and mutton, tea and bread and butter.’ This does not seem a very good régime for someone who suffers from chronic dyspepsia. I am inclined to think that if Mr. Brontë took his meals by himself, it was because he did not much care for the company of his children and was irritable when they interrupted him. At eight o’clock at night he read family prayers, and at nine locked and barred the front door. As he passed the room in which his children were sitting, he told them not to sit up late and, halfway up the stairs, stopped to wind the clock.

  Mrs. Gaskell knew Mr. Brontë for several years, and the conclusion she came to was that he was selfish, irascible and domineering; and Mary Taylor, one of Charlotte’s intimate friends, wrote to another of her friends, Ellen Nussey: ‘I can never think without gloomy anger of Charlotte’s sacrifices to the selfish old man.’ Of late, attempts have been made to whitewash him. But no whitewashing can get over the letters he wrote to Mary Burder. They are published in full in Clement Shorter’s The Brontës and their Circle. Nor can white-washing get over his behaviour when his curate, Mr. Nicholls, proposed to Charlotte. I will come to that later. Mrs. Gaskell writes as follows: ‘Mrs.Brontës nurse told me that one day when the children had been on the moors, and rain had come on, she thought they would be wet, and accordingly she rummaged out some coloured boots which had been given them by a friend. These little pairs she ranged round the kitchen fire to warm; but when the children came back, the boots were nowhere to be found; only a very strong odour of burnt leather was perceived. Mr. Brontë had come in and seen them; they were too gay and luxurious for his children; so he had put them into the fire. He spared nothing that offended his antiq
ue simplicity. Long before this, someone had given Mrs Brontë a silk gown; either the make, the colour, or the material was not according to his notions of consistent propriety, and Mrs. Brontë in consequence had never worn it. But, for all that, she kept it treasured up in her drawers, which were generally locked. One day, however, while in the kitchen, she remembered that she had left the key in her drawer, and hearing Mr. Brontë upstairs, she augured some ill of her dress, and, running up in haste, she found it cut into shreds.’ The story is circumstantial, but it is hard to see why the nurse should have invented it. ‘Once he got the hearthrug, and stuffing it up the grate, deliberately set it on fire, and remained in the room in spite of the stench, until it had smouldered and shrivelled away into uselessness. Another time he took some chairs, and sawed away at the backs till they were reduced to the condition of stools.’ It is only fair to add that Mr. Brontë declared that these stories were untrue. But no one had doubted that he had a violent temper, nor that he was stern and peremptory. I have asked myself whether these unamiable traits of Mr. Brontës may not be ascribed to his disappointment with life. Like many other man of humble origins who has had a galling struggle to raise himself above the class in which he was born and to get an education, he may well have had an exaggerated opinion of his abilities. We know that he was vain of his good looks. His literary efforts had met with no success. It would not be strange if it embittered him to realise that the only reward he had got for his long tussle with adversity was a perpetual curacy in the wilds of Yorkshire.

  The hardships and loneliness of life at the parsonage have been made too much of. The talented sisters seem to have been quite satisfied with it; and indeed, if they ever stopped to consider their father’s origin, they may well have thought themselves far from unlucky. They were neither better nor worse off than hundreds of parsons’ daughters all over England whose lives were as isolated and whose means as limited. The Brontës had neighbours, clergymen within walking distance, gentry, mill-owners and manufacturers in a small way, with whom they might have consorted; and if they lived secluded lives it was by choice. They were not rich, but neither were they poor. Mr. Brontë’s benefice provided him with a house and two hundred pounds a year, his wife had fifty pounds a year which, on her death, he presumably inherited, and Elizabeth Branwell, when she came to live at Haworth, brought her fifty pounds a year with her. The household thus had three hundred pounds a year to dispose of, which at that time was worth at least twelve hundred pounds now. Many a clergyman to-day, even with income-tax as it is, would look upon such a sum as riches. Many a clergyman’s wife to-day would be thankful to have one maid: the Brontës generally had two, and whenever there was pressure of work, girls were brought in from the village to help.

  In 1824 Mr. Brontë took his four elder daughters to a school at Cowan Bridge. It had been recently established to give an education to the daughters of poor clergymen. The place was unhealthy, the food bad and the administration incompetent. The two elder girls died, and Charlotte and Emily, whose health was affected, were, though strangely enough only after another term, removed. Such schooling as they got, from then on, seems to have been given them by their aunt. Mr. Brontë thought more of his son than of the three girls and, indeed, Branwell was looked upon as the clever one of the family. Mr. Brontë would not send him to school, but undertook his education himself. The boy had a precocious talent, and his manners were engaging. His friend, F. H. Grundy, thus describes him: ‘He was insignificantly small – one of his life’s trials. He had a mass of red hair, which he wore brushed high off his forehead – to help his height, I fancy – a great, bumpy, intellectual forehead, nearly half the size of the whole facial contour; small ferrety eyes, deep sunk and still further hidden by the never removed spectacles, prominent nose, but weak lower features. He had a downcast look, which never varied, save for a rapid momentary glance at long intervals. Small and thin of person, he was the reverse of attractive at first sight.’ He had parts, and his sisters admired him and expected him to do great things. He was a brilliant, eager talker, and from some Irish ancestor, for his father was a morose, silent man, he had inherited a gift for social intercourse and an agreeable loquacity. When a traveller, putting up for the night at the Black Bull, seemed lonely, the landlord would ask him: ‘Do you want someone to help you with your bottle, sir? if so, I’ll send up for Patrick.’ Branwell was always glad to be of service. I should add that when, years later, Charlotte Brontë then being famous, the landlord was asked about this, he denied that he had ever done anything of the kind: ‘Branwell,’ he said, ‘never needed to be sent for.’ You are still shown at Haworth the room at the Black Bull, with its Windsor chairs, in which Branwell tippled with his friends.

  When Charlotte was just under sixteen, she went to school once more, this time at Roe Head, and was happy there; but after a year she came home again to teach her two younger sisters. Though the family, as I have pointed out, were not so poor as has been made out, the girls had nothing to look forward to. Mr. Brontë’s stipend would naturally cease at his death, and Miss Branwell was leaving the little money she had to her amusing nephew; they decided, therefore, that the only way they could earn a living was by training themselves to be governesses or school-mistresses. At that time there was no other calling open to women who looked upon themselves as ladies. Branwell, by now, was eighteen and a decision had to be made on what trade or profession he was to adopt. He had some facility for drawing, as his sisters had too, and he was eager to become a painter. It was settled that he should go to London and study at the Royal Academy. He went, but nothing came of the project, and after a while, which he spent in sightseeing and presumably having as good a time as he could, he returned to Haworth. He tried writing, but with no success; then he persuaded his father to set him up in a studio in Bradford where he might earn a living by painting portraits of the local people; but this failed too, and Mr. Brontë called him home. Then he became tutor to a Mr. Postlethwaite at Barrow-in-Furness. He seems to have done well enough there, but, for reasons unknown, after six months Mr. Brontë brought him back to Haworth. Presently, a job was found for him as clerk-in-charge at the station of Sowerby Bridge on the Leeds and Manchester Railway, and later at Luddenden Foot. He was bored and lonely, he drank too much, and eventually was discharged for gross neglect of his duties. Meanwhile, in 1835, Charlotte had returned to Roe Head as a teacher, and taken Emily with her as a pupil. But Emily became so desperately homesick that she fell ill, and had to be sent home. Anne, who was of a calmer, more submissive temper, took her place. Charlotte held her job for three years, at the end of which, her health failing, she too went home.

  She was twenty-two. Branwell was not only a source of worry, but a source of expense; and Charlotte, as soon as she was well enough, felt herself obliged to take a situation as a nursery governess. It was not work she liked. Neither she nor her sisters liked children, any more than their father did. ‘I find it so hard to repel the rude familiarity of children,’ she wrote to Ellen Nussey. She hated to be in a dependent position, and was continually on the look-out for affronts. She was not an easy person to get on with and, so far as one can judge from her letters, seems to have expected to be asked to do as a favour what her employers quite naturally thought they could demand as a right. She left after three months and returned to the parsonage, but some two years later took another situation with a Mr. and Mrs. White at Rawdon, near Bradford. Charlotte did not think them refined. ‘Well can I believe that Mrs. W. has been an exciseman’s daughter, and I am convinced also that Mr. W’s extraction is very low.’ She was, however, fairly happy in this place, but, as she wrote to the same intimate friend: ‘No one but myself can tell how hard a governess’s life is to me – for no one but myself is aware how utterly averse my whole mind and nature are for the employment.’ She had long been toying with the idea of keeping a school of her own, with her two sisters, and now she took it up again; the Whites, who seem to have been very kind, decent people, encour
aged her, but suggested that before she could hope to be successful she must acquire certain qualifications. Though she could read French, she could not speak it, and knew no German, so she decided that she must go abroad to learn languages. Miss Branwell was persuaded to advance money for the cost of this; and then Charlotte and Emily, with Mr. Brontë to look after them on the journey, set out for Brussels. The two girls, Charlotte being then twenty-six, Emily twenty-two, became pupils at the Pensionnat Héger. After ten months they were recalled to England by the illness of Miss Branwell. She died, and having disinherited Branwell, owing to his bad behaviour, left the little she had to her nieces. It was enough for them to carry out the plan they had so long discussed of having a school of their own; but since their father was old and his sight failing, they made up their minds to set it up at the parsonage. Charlotte did not think she was sufficiently equipped, and so accepted Monsieur Héger’s offer to go back to Brussels and teach English at his school. She spent a year there and on her return to Haworth the three sisters issued prospectuses, and Charlotte wrote to her friends asking them to recommend the school they intended to start. How they expected to house pupils in the parsonage, which had only four bedrooms, all of which they occupied themselves, has never been explained, and as no pupils came it certainly never will be.

 
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