In my first blog I explained my interest in Charlotte Bronte and her most famous work “Jane Eyre”. I was convinced there was a connection between Hathersage in Derbyshire and some key events, places and characters in the novel. Having read the full book and made copious notes I had more questions than answers. The next step in my quest was to download and read a comprehensive biography of Charlotte Bronte published by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1857. I thought this would be in the public domain but not quite. I managed to find a free download of the second volume to my Kindle app but had to pay 99p for the first volume. No matter I was researching again and making notes as I went along. I was sure that at least some of my questions would be answered…..
The biography really gets going in Chapter 3 when Charlotte’s family are introduced. Her mother was Maria Branwell, daughter of a merchant in Penzance. She met her husband to be, Patrick Bronte when visiting relatives including the Reverend John Fennel of the Church of England in Leeds in the summer of 1812. In a letter dated 26th August 1812 she writes to Patrick and mentions a picnic to Kirkstall Abbey with “Uncle Aunt and Jane”. Maria was married from her uncles house in Leeds on 29th December 1812. The very same day her sister Charlotte Branwell was married in Penzance. The Brontes remained at Hartshead for five years and this is where both Maria and Elizabeth were born. Afterwards they all moved to Thornton in Bradford Parish and here Charlotte was born on 21st April 1816, followed by Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne. The Brontes moved to the Parsonage at Haworth on February 25th 1820. Maria Branwell was described as “extremely small in person, not pretty but very elegant, always dressed with a quiet simplicity of taste”. In time one of her daughters would fit this description exactly.
Soon after arrival at Haworth the mother was struck down with a serious illness and confined to bed. The children would all walk out together on the nearby moors, the elder ones taking care of the youngest. They took their meals without their parents. Their mother was fed in bed and their father always ate alone. Mrs Bronte died in September 1821. Charlotte was just over five years old at the time. The girls quickly passed from childhood into girlhood.. “bereft of all such society that would have been natural to their age.” The eldest child Maria would read the magazines and newspapers (Leeds Mercury, Leeds Intelligencer) that came into the Parsonage and would then relay the news, foreign and domestic and political back to her younger sisters and brother. The Bronte children had no contact with other children at this time. In 1822 the elder sister of Maria Bronte senior , a maiden aunt, arrived from Penzance, ostensibly to look after the children. She was well past forty years of age and had no experience of children. She passed nearly all of her time and took most of her meals in her room. The children were left to their own devices, to play on the moors and read any books they could find in the house. There were no children’s books, only books for adults.
Chapter 4 in the Biography details Charlotte’s early schooldays. Patrick Bronte was an intelligent man and had attended university in Ireland. He was aware that his daughters needed to have an education to make them economically independent. He took his two eldest Maria and Elizabeth to a school for clergymen’s daughters at Cowan Bridge in July 1824. This lay on the road between Leeds and Kendal in an isolated location. Mr Bronte returned in September 1824 with Charlotte and Emily. Charlotte was eight and a half years of age when her schooling was begun. Cowan Bridge was not a happy school and all of the Bronte girls suffered, none more than the eldest Maria who was always in trouble with a particular teacher. The food was not to their liking as the “cook was careless, dirty and wasteful.” The girls often went without food and this did not help the eldest daughters who were already weak having recently recovered from a bout of measles and whooping cough. A fever broke out at the school in the early 1825 and 40 girls were taken ill. None died at Cowan Bridge but one expired after being taken home. None of the Brontes suffered with the fever. Charlotte made a friend in Mellany Hane, an older girl.. “ready to protect her from any tyranny or encroachment on the part of the girls.”
In the winter of 1824- 1825 Maria was taken ill and her father was summoned. She was withdrawn from school on 14th February and taken home via a coach to Leeds. She died a few months later of consumption on May 6 1825. She was just over eleven years of age. Elizabeth also became sick in the early summer and on 31st May was taken back to Haworth in the care of a confidential servant. She also died of consumption six weeks after Maria on June 15th. She was only ten years of age. Charlotte and Emily were taken home from Cowan Bridge and never returned there. With her elder sisters gone, Charlotte was now the eldest child at little more than nine years old.
Chapters 3 and 4 of the biography most definitely began to answer some of my questions. Elizabeth Gaskell makes clear that Cowan Bridge School is the “original” of Lowood school in Jane Eyre. The Reverend William Carus Wilson who founded Cowan Bridge is the “original” of Mr Brocklehurst. According to Elizabeth Gaskell Charlotte’s oldest sister Maria is the “original” for the Mary Burns character. Here I must confess I disagree. I would say that Mary Burns is a composite of Maria Bronte and Mellany Hane, both real pupils at Cowan Bridge, both suffering badly in school and both dying well before their time. Gaskell also hints at the identities of two real teachers at school. In the novel these are Miss Temple, the kind and caring superintendent who looks after Jane and Miss Scratcherd who torments Mary Burns. The real names of these two teachers is not revealed in the biography. This only made me more determined to seek them out. Chapter 4 also mentions a real incident involving “Miss Temple” and Elizabeth Bronte. Her husband communicated a memory she had of this particular Bronte girl. She had found Elizabeth with a severe cut on her head and then kept her in her own room looking after her for some days and nights. In the novel it is Jane Eyre who is taken into “Miss Temple’s” room.
Charlotte Bronte had this to say about her first school…..”Suffering her whole life long both in heart and body from the consequences of what happened there.”
Elizabeth Gaskell noted the following about her experience at Cowan Bridge..
“The pictures, ideas and conceptions of character received into the mind of a child eight years old were destined to be reproduced in fiery words a quarter of a century afterwards.”
As a writer myself I am interested in the writing process, where the ideas come from and why and how did famous writers create their works. I perceive something clearly about Jane Eyre now; this story is personal. For Jane Eyre read Charlotte Bronte. She is writing from her own experiences and from the heart. Some of her major characters were real and some seem to be composites ie more than one character. My quest has found some answers but I have more questions. I have yet to find any links with Derbyshire.
Next time I will reveal some more revelations from the Biography of Charlotte Bronte……….