Authors: Catherine Reef
Studying mattered more than showy accomplishments to Charlotte Brontë, who was preparing to be a governess, not a wife. Her love of learning flourished at Roe Head. “She picked up every scrap
of information concerning painting, sculpture, poetry, music, etc., as if it were gold,” Mary Taylor recalled. Ellen Nussey added that “she chose in many things
lessons when not prevented by class arrangement or a companion.” Charlotte especially liked learning French. In the evening, she would sit on one of the school’s broad window seats, reading by the last rays of light. The other girls wondered how she could see the words with her weak eyes.
Sometimes at night, when the girls should have been going to sleep, Charlotte entertained them by telling stories. Once she invented a tale about a sleepwalker roaming the world and stepping unaware into all kinds of danger. She had him balancing atop castle walls, reaching the edge of a high cliff, and barely avoiding a deep chasm. It was “all told in a voice
that conveyed more than words alone can express,” Ellen Nussey remembered. The sleepwalker’s next terrifying adventure—standing on a shaky, sky-high tower—proved too much for one listener, a girl who had recently been ill. She started to shiver uncontrollably, and the others had to summon a teacher for help.
The school year was divided into two terms that ended at Christmas and summer. Charlotte went home at the end of each term, but during briefer vacations visited friends from school. Once Branwell escorted Charlotte to the Nussey estate, called The Rydings, where Ellen lived with her widowed mother and sisters and brothers in a great house with turrets like a castle. Charlotte sat beside a brook that flowed through the grounds and walked among ancient chestnut trees that grew nearby. One of the trees had been violently split in two by a powerful bolt of lightning. This stunning picture of nature’s power imprinted itself on her mind.
Her brother enjoyed the visit, too. “Branwell,” said Ellen, “had probably never been far
from home before! He was in wild ecstacy with everything.” Branwell “was then a very dear brother, as dear to Charlotte as her own soul: they were in perfect accord of taste and feeling, and it was mutual delight to be together,” Ellen observed.
Mary Taylor’s home offered different diversions. Called the Red House because it was built of brick, it rang with the voices of six high-spirited children, all close in age. Mary’s father was a cultured man who had traveled in Europe. His opinions were as strong as his daughter’s, and he loved nothing better than to argue about politics. He sometimes drew Charlotte into the debate, goading her into defending her hero, the Duke of Wellington.
Politeness required Charlotte to visit her godmother and others of her father’s friends, but she hated this duty. Her shyness made her afraid to talk, and her small size confused some people. Like other teenagers, Charlotte was eager to appear grown up. She returned to Roe Head furious after one visit because the mistress of the house had treated her like a young child.
Charlotte made such rapid progress that in only eighteen months at Roe Head, she mastered the entire curriculum. She also won the silver medal for proper manners and speech at the end of each term. The medal was a trophy that the winner possessed until the term ended, when another girl might win it. When she left the school in June 1832, Miss Wooler gave her the silver medal to keep. Charlotte went home to Haworth, happy to be living at home again with her brother and sisters.
“In one delightful, though somewhat monotonous
course my life is passed,” Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey about her days back at Haworth. In the morning she taught Emily and Anne. She passed along to them the knowledge she had gained at Roe Head, because they, too, might need to teach for a living one day. The three sisters walked in the afternoon and spent their free time reading, drawing, and adding to the legends of Angria and Gondal. They sought inspiration at night, after their father and aunt went to bed. Then they would silently walk around the dining table, again and again, often arm in arm.
When Ellen visited the Haworth parsonage in July 1833, she saw that Emily and Anne were “inseparable companions.”
Unlike Charlotte, they had never made friends with other girls. They had drawn closer together while Charlotte was away, and a year after her return they remained “in the very closest sympathy which never had any interruption,” Ellen said.
Emily, at fifteen, possessed a “lithesome, graceful figure,” Ellen observed, and beautiful eyes. “Sometimes they looked grey,
sometimes dark blue but she did not often look at you, she was too reserved.” Still, Ellen wrote, “One of her rare expressive looks
was something to remember throughout life, there was such a
of soul and feeling, and yet shyness of revealing herself, a strength of self-containment seen in no other.”
Anne, who was thirteen, “had lovely violet-blue eyes,
fine pencilled eye-brows, a clear, almost transparent complexion,” according to Ellen. She had curls, like Aunt Branwell, but hers were real, whereas the older woman’s were part of a hairpiece.
Ellen learned where Charlotte had acquired her knack for storytelling when she met her friend’s father. White-haired and formal, he made sixteen-year-old Ellen shudder and shrink with his “strange stories
. . . full of grim humour & interest.” The Reverend Brontë told eerie tales about peculiar characters living long ago in forgotten places on the moors. His odd morning habit of firing a pistol out his bedroom window alarmed Ellen even more.
Ellen discovered that the sixth member of this eccentric household, redheaded Branwell, had decided to be a painter. His father had no doubt that Branwell would become a great artist, so he hired a tutor named William Robinson to come to the parsonage and teach him to paint. Robinson was a successful portrait artist who had painted a number of famous people, including the Duke of Wellington. Charlotte loved the lessons as much as Branwell did, and for a time she spent her days drawing.
Branwell also wanted to write poetry for
He sent letter after letter to the editor, explaining why he should be hired. “I
that I am not one
of the wretched writers of the day, I know that I possess strength to assist you beyond some of your own contributors,” he wrote. He reminded the editor that those contributors were going to die off, and younger writers would need to take their places. “Now Sir, to you I appear writing with conceited assurance, but
I am not,
” he stated. “My resolution is to devote my ability to you, and for Gods sake, till you see wether or not I can serve you do not so coldly refuse my aid.” The editor never actually refused the brash eighteen-year-old’s offer; he simply ignored it.
For Charlotte, the delightful sameness of daily life in Haworth ended in the summer of 1835, when she returned to Miss Wooler’s school to teach grammar. It ended as well for Emily, who went with her this time, because the cost of a sister’s education was to be part of Charlotte’s earnings. Although they were together at Roe Head, neither sister was happy there.
Charlotte hated teaching because it stifled her mind and left her no time to write. “Must I from day to day sit
chained to this chair prisoned within these four bare walls, while these glorious summer suns are burning,” she wrote in the journal that she kept at this time. Charlotte privately called her pupils “dolts.”
In her journal she condemned them for lacking imagination. They also demanded too much attention. If she tried to work on her Angrian stories while they did their lessons, they were forever interrupting. On one particular day, her mind had carried her to Africa, where she envisioned a Byronic hero named Zamorna dismounting his black horse. The schoolroom disappeared, and Charlotte stood beneath a sky that was “quivering & shaking with stars.”
Then she heard an annoying voice calling her back. Africa faded, and she was back at her desk, looking into a pupil’s questioning face.
Bending inclination to duty, Charlotte grew depressed. She asked herself, “What in all this is there
to remind me of the divine, silent, unseen land of thought, dim now and indefinite as the dream of a dream, the shadow of a shade.” Miss Wooler reached out to the despairing teacher, inviting her to talk, but Charlotte rejected her employer’s help and chose to be stoical. “I could have been no better
company for you than a walking ghost,” Charlotte told Miss Wooler.
Emily found the routine of school so stifling that she lasted barely three months at Roe Head. She desperately needed time alone for her creativity to flourish, and she had none at school. She awoke every morning thinking of Haworth and the moorland. These fond thoughts of home darkened even the brightest day for her, and she rapidly wasted away. “Liberty was the breath
of Emily’s nostrils; without it, she perished,” Charlotte said. “I felt in my heart she would die if she did not go home.” Charlotte was not about to let Emily follow Maria and Elizabeth into early death, so she arranged for Anne to replace Emily at Roe Head. Anne toiled quietly at her studies, and after a year at school, she earned a medal for good conduct. Anne did her duty by preparing for a governess’s life and gave voice to her unhappiness only in poetry:
This place of solitude
Must be my dungeon and my tomb.
No hope, no pleasure can I find;
I am grown weary of my mind.
This year and the next, the Christmas holidays reunited Charlotte and Anne with Branwell and Emily. In late December 1836, Branwell and Charlotte hatched a plan to mail some of their poems to well-known writers and ask for comments and advice. Branwell sent his to William Wordsworth, who wrote so beautifully about nature. Charlotte, meanwhile, wrote to Robert Southey, Britain’s poet laureate.
They waited one month, two months, then three, until at last a letter came to the parsonage for Charlotte. It contained advice, but of the kind that could only discourage. Southey had tried his best to destroy Charlotte’s dream, and not because she wrote badly. “Literature cannot be the business
of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be,” he wrote. “The more she is engaged in proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.”
Charlotte Brontë wanted to be a writer more than anything else. How it made her feel to read a statement like this can be guessed from the sarcastic tone of her next letter to Southey. She told him, “I have endeavoured
not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil, but to feel deeply interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I’m teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself.” She concluded, “I trust I shall nevermore feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I’ll look at [your] letter, and suppress it.” Branwell never heard from Wordsworth.
Back at Roe Head, Charlotte struggled against her creative urges. If she appeared outwardly at peace, she let loose her frustration in her journal. “Am I to spend
all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage,” she asked herself, “on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience & assiduity?”
While Charlotte fought with herself, Anne grew ill, and Charlotte and Miss Wooler argued about what to do. Charlotte wanted to take Anne home, but Miss Wooler insisted that she was being too cautious. Anne could rest and recover at Roe Head, Miss Wooler said. Her condition was hardly grave. At this Charlotte lost her composure. “I told her one or two rather plain truths,
which set her a-crying,” she told Ellen Nussey. As Charlotte prepared to leave her post, Miss Wooler hurried off a letter to Mr. Brontë, telling him about the fight.
Tempers cooled, and the two women made up. “If anybody likes me I can’t help liking them, and remembering that she had in general been very kind to me, I gave in and said I would come back if she wished me,” Charlotte wrote, “but I am not satisfied.” Mr. Brontë settled the matter by calling his daughters home. Anne slowly regained her health at the parsonage, and after the winter holidays, Charlotte went back to work alone. Sometime before spring Miss Wooler moved her school to a place called Dewsbury Moor, to a building that was smaller than the one at Roe Head but closer to her own aging father.