Authors: Catherine Reef
“There is a climax
to everything, to every state of feeling as well as to every position in life,” Charlotte Brontë was later to write. She lasted at Dewsbury Moor until summer neared. Then she decided that her position there and the feelings it evoked had run their course. When she wrote to Ellen Nussey on June 9, she was in Haworth, having left Miss Wooler’s school for good, she hoped. “My health and spirits
had utterly failed me,” Charlotte admitted. “So home I went; the change has at once roused and soothed me—and I am now I trust fairly in the way to be myself again.”
A visit from Mary Taylor and her talkative sister Martha added to Charlotte’s happiness. “Mary is playing
on the piano. Martha is chattering as fast as her little tongue can run and Branwell is standing before her laughing at her vivacity,” Charlotte wrote to Ellen, in a letter that sounded like one of the sisters’ diary pages.
By the end of July, Branwell had left Haworth to open a portrait studio in Bradford, a center of textile manufacturing. In August, Charlotte reluctantly went back to Dewsbury Moor, and in September 1838, Emily took her first paying job. She was to be a teacher at Law Hill, a ladies’ school in Halifax, near Bradford. Only Anne remained at home with their father and aunt.
The young Brontës needed to work. Their father was sixty-one years old, and there was no telling how long he would live, although he took good care of his health. He studied the pages of
Modern Domestic Medicine,
a home-treatment guide, and jotted hundreds of notes in its margins. “Should a flea,
or other insect get into the ear—it will produce a dreadful uneasiness—but oil poured in will kill the insect and effect a cure,” he wrote. He also noted, “A roasted onion,
with a little water and sugar mixed and eaten with bread, is an excellent remedy for a hard dry cough.” Still, no one knew when an illness might carry someone away.
Elizabeth Patchett’s School, Law Hill, sat high on sloping ground. From the windows of this solid stone mansion, Emily Brontë looked out on a landscape that she loved, miles of farmland and untamed moors. Nearby Halifax offered concerts and art exhibitions that would delight many bright young women. Yet Emily felt downhearted. She complained to Charlotte that she had entered slavery. She was one of three teachers for forty girls ages eleven through fifteen. Miss Patchett had her working from six o’clock in the morning until eleven at night. “I fear she will never stand it,”
Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey.
Emily made it through her first term, “though she could not easily associate
with others,” as one of her pupils later reported. According to another girl, Emily told her pupils that she cared more for the school’s dog than for any of them. Clearly, Emily, like Charlotte, felt no love for teaching. Her well-being, more than that of her sisters, depended on being in Haworth.
In her brief periods of free time, Emily poured her yearning for home into verses:
There is a spot
mid barren hills
Where winter howls and driving rain
But if the dreary tempest chills
There is a light that warms again
The house is old, the trees are bare
And moonless bends the misty dome
But what on earth is half so dear—
So longed for as the hearth of home?
With the start of the second term, Emily looked ahead to bleak winter months. She stopped writing poetry as she fell into despair, and her health deteriorated, as it had at Roe Head. She went home to recover before the term ended. Charlotte had also had enough of the teacher’s life. At the end of the fall term in 1838, she told Miss Wooler that she was leaving the school for good, and this time she kept her word. For a while, all three sisters were reunited in the parsonage, happily adding to the stories of Angria and Gondal. Branwell came home from Bradford on weekends, either taking a coach or walking the eight miles to Haworth across the moors.
During the week, Branwell occupied a rented room and a studio where he painted portraits of the local clergymen and his landlord’s family, the Kirbys. The Kirbys’ niece described him as “low in stature,
about 5 ft 3 inches high, and slight in build, though well proportioned.” She said, “Very few people, except sitters, came to visit him. . . . I recollect his sister Charlotte coming and I remember her sisterly ways.” Branwell made friends among the artists and writers of Bradford, who gathered in the George Hotel to talk and joke and drink. He had discovered the pleasures of tavern life, but he gave the Kirbys no cause to complain. Their niece observed, “He was a very steady young gentleman, his conduct was exemplary, and we liked him very much.” Despite being liked and having some clients, Branwell earned too little to support himself painting portraits, so sometime in the winter or spring of 1839, he, too, returned to Haworth to live, to his father’s great disappointment.
All four of the grown children were then at the parsonage, but for how long? As a young man of twenty-two, Branwell especially needed to launch a career. His attempt to live as a painter had failed, so his father urged him to consider teaching. Father and son embarked on a course of study designed to refresh Branwell’s knowledge of classical Greek and Latin.
Before long, Branwell’s sisters would have to return to teaching—or marry. Being without money and living in such an isolated place, they had slim chances of finding husbands, but marrying still was possible. That same spring, Charlotte received a marriage proposal from Ellen’s brother, the Reverend Henry Nussey, age twenty-seven. Henry proposed in a letter, which has been lost, but Charlotte remarked that he wrote “in a common-sense style
which does credit to his judgment.”
Charlotte had an important decision to make. Henry earned enough money to support a wife, which meant that she would never again have to earn her own way if she accepted him. Because she was unlikely to receive many offers of marriage, this could be her only chance. So she asked herself two questions. First, “Do I love him as much as a woman ought to love the man she marries?” And second, “Am I the person best qualified to make him happy?” The answer to both questions was
She replied to Henry’s letter, turning him down. “You do not know me; I am not the serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose,” she wrote. She ended by saying, “I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.” Henry’s businesslike proposal could never appeal to a romantic heart like Charlotte’s.
Thinking that her friend deserved an explanation, she wrote to Ellen, “I had a kindly leaning
towards him because he is an amiable—well-disposed man yet I had not, and never could have that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him—and if I ever marry it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my Husband.” Henry took Charlotte’s refusal in stride. He promptly proposed to another woman, who accepted him, and Charlotte looked forward to an eventual return to teaching.
The next of the four Brontë siblings to try to earn a living was nineteen-year-old Anne. She was hired by a family named Ingham to be their children’s governess. The Inghams lived in a mansion near Roe Head called Blake House. They were a prominent family in the region, and their wealth had been passed down for generations. There were five Ingham children in 1839, but Anne had charge of only the oldest boy and girl—Cunliffe, who was six, and Mary, who was five.
Anne had become one of thousands of women employed as governesses in mid-nineteenth-century England. The demand for governesses had grown along with the rising middle class. For as long as people could remember, a chasm that was nearly impossible to cross had separated the upper classes from people in trade. Then, beginning in the 1700s, manufacturing moved from small shops and cottages to factories. The owners of great mills grew wealthier than many aristocrats. And once they had money, they wanted gentility. They dressed like upper-class Britons and mimicked their manners and customs, which included employing governesses to teach their children. A governess became a status symbol for any household hoping to move up.
The social changes spurred by the Industrial Revolution gained momentum after 1837, the year that Queen Victoria took the throne. Victoria’s coronation marked the start of the Victorian period, which lasted until 1901, when the queen died. Britain gained power and wealth during Victoria’s reign, enlarging and securing its empire of colonies and possessions. The Victorian era was a time of greatness, when the English naturalist Charles Darwin published
On the Origin of Species
and revolutionized people’s thinking about evolution. It was the era when an Englishwoman, Florence Nightingale, founded the profession of nursing. Also among the many great British Victorians were Henry Fox Talbot, an inventor of photography, and Alexander Graham Bell, who gave the world the telephone.