Authors: Catherine Reef
The move from home-based production to the factory system had been painful and bloody. Factories employed fewer hands than home looms did and put many weavers out of work in Haworth and elsewhere. International conflict made the problem worse. Great Britain and France were at war, and each was attacking the other’s trade. In 1806, Napoleon forbade his European allies from trading with Britain, so in 1807 Great Britain responded with the Orders in Council, prohibiting France from trading with Britain, its allies, and neutral nations. The Royal Navy enforced the orders by blockading French ports. Reduced foreign trade meant less work, and lower profits, for large and small manufacturers in England.
As their families starved, some displaced workers struck out violently. Beginning in 1811, in Yorkshire and other manufacturing centers, bands of men descended on mills to destroy the power looms and knitting frames that had taken away their livelihood. They called themselves Luddites in recognition of their unseen leader, Ned Ludd, who might have been real or imaginary. The government sent in thousands of armed foot soldiers and cavalrymen to halt the rioting and destruction. By the end of the decade, the forces of law and order had snuffed out the Luddite movement and hanged its ringleaders or deported them to Australia.
Later, during the Victorian period, needy people seeking work moved from the English countryside to the slums that were growing around cities. There, factories devoured their hard labor and paid them barely enough to get by. Fueled by coal, the mighty factories spewed out smoke that darkened the sky, choked plant life, and even blackened the wool of sheep.
In fine homes supported by this system, governesses instructed their charges in “the usual branches
of a solid English education,” which included reading, spelling, and a modern foreign language, usually French. A governess might also give instruction in music, drawing, dancing, and fancy needlework. Perhaps most important, she was to set an example of high moral standards and proper behavior. Governesses came from groups that enjoyed social stature but lacked money. They were unmarried daughters of clergymen, military officers, and aristocrats who had lost their fortunes.
According to Charlotte, Anne wrote home to say that her pupils were “desperate little dunces”—dolts in the making—and beyond her control. Anne’s employers had ordered her not to punish the children, but to inform Mrs. Ingham if they misbehaved. There was one big problem with this system: The children knew their mother would be lenient, so they had no reason to obey their governess. Anne scolded them uselessly, and she tried methods that would be called inappropriate today. Once, she tied Cunliffe and Mary to a table leg to make them do their lessons. Anne rightly felt that her employers gave her no support, but she also showed little understanding of children. Years later, Mrs. Ingham commented that she “had once employed a very unsuitable governess
called Miss Brontë.”
Charlotte, too, tried her luck as a governess. In May 1839, she took a temporary job with a family named Sidgwick, whose great home, Stonegappe, was twelve miles from Haworth. She was to teach and care for the two youngest Sidgwick children, seven-year-old Matilda and four-year-old John Benson. At first Charlotte, like Anne, found the children impossible to govern. “More riotous, perverse, unmanageable cubs
never grew,” she griped. On one occasion, John Benson threw a rock at Charlotte and hit her on the head. Nevertheless, unlike Anne, Charlotte won over the children well enough to enjoy order in the schoolroom.
But she never adjusted to her place in the household. Charlotte had known of Mrs. Sidgwick before her marriage, when she was Hannah Greenwood of Keighley, the daughter of a cotton manufacturer. She expected to be greeted as an equal and given the respect owed to her as the Reverend Brontë’s daughter. Instead, Mrs. Sidgwick treated Charlotte almost like a stranger. Charlotte wrote to Emily that her employer “does not intend to know me.” Charlotte took care of the children from morning until night. Once they were asleep, she had to work on the mountain of sewing that Mrs. Sidgwick had given her to do.
A governess like Charlotte held an awkward place in England’s complex social structure. As a minister’s daughter, she came from a higher class than her employers, who had earned their money in trade. Yet no true lady worked, so by taking a job she had lowered herself socially. There was one standard for men and another for women, as the English writer Sarah Stickney Ellis explained: “Gentlemen may employ their hours
of business in almost any degrading occupation and . . . may be gentlemen still; while, if a lady but touch any article, no matter how delicate, in the way of trade, she loses caste and ceases to be a lady.”
A governess was forbidden to have suitors or to show affection to her pupils. She was to wear drab clothes to avoid attracting the notice of unmarried uncles, older brothers, and even straying husbands. “She may be known
from her plain and quiet style of dress; a deep straw bonnet with green or brown veil and on her face a fixed sad look of despair,” noted a ladies’ magazine from 1840.
Charlotte complained about the Sidgwicks, but they found fault with her as well. They thought she was too touchy. She became angry if the Sidgwicks asked her to walk to church with them, because she thought they were ordering her around. Yet if they failed to invite her, she sulked about being ignored. Then, if a spell of depression fell on her, she would spend the day in bed, leaving the pregnant Mrs. Sidgwick to do her work. It was fortunate for both Charlotte and the Sidgwicks that the regular governess returned in July.
Upon coming home, Charlotte received a second proposal of marriage. This one came from David Bryce, an Irish clergyman, who asked her to marry him after visiting the Haworth parsonage and meeting her only once. Charlotte turned him down, and the unlucky Mr. Bryce died several months later. “I am tolerably well convinced
that I shall never marry at all,” Charlotte confided to Ellen Nussey.
Before the weather turned cold, two of the Brontës did some traveling. Branwell and a friend took a sightseeing trip to the busy port of Liverpool, on the Irish Sea. Liverpool “owes its fame to its commerce,”
decided a writer of Branwell’s time. Every day, ships left Liverpool carrying the products of English factories to foreign buyers. Other ships arrived from the New World with tobacco, rice, sugar, and rum. Passenger vessels came and went as well, transporting people to and from North America. Branwell was bothered by a facial tic during this trip and took opium to relax his muscles. Opium was legal and easy to find in nineteenth-century England, where people used it as a medicine.
Charlotte had a bigger adventure when she and Ellen Nussey went to the eastern seaside resort of Bridlington. Charlotte had never been to the seashore and was enthralled with “the idea of seeing the SEA—of being near it,” and watching things she had only read about, “its changes by sunrise, Sunset—moonlight—& noonday—in calm—perhaps in storm.” The two friends went by train, which was still a new way to travel, and by horse-drawn coach.
The sea was mightier and more magnificent than Charlotte could have imagined. When she and Ellen first walked to the shore, she stood there silently, in tears. “Its glorious changes—its ebb and flow—the sound of its restless waves—formed a subject for Contemplation that never wearied either the eye, the ear, or the mind,” she commented.
Charlotte and Branwell spent the autumn and early winter with Emily, writing stories and poems. When Anne came home for Christmas, she informed her family that she would not be going back to the Inghams in the new year; she had been dismissed. The Brontë sisters were completely unsuited for teaching and caring for children, in Ellen Nussey’s opinion. “There never could have been
to such a position,” she concluded. When Tabby Aykroyd, the family’s longtime servant, fell and broke her leg, the sisters busily nursed her themselves. They took over Tabby’s household chores and threw themselves into this new work. Emily, who loved the kitchen, did all the cooking and baking; Anne oversaw the housecleaning; and Charlotte did the ironing, although she burned several garments before she got the knack of it.
The sisters also spent the last days of December sewing shirts for Branwell, who had been hired as a tutor for two boys, ages eleven and ten. They were the stepsons of Robert Postlethwaite, a landowner living in the Lake District, near the poet William Wordsworth. The Postlethwaite family had made its money building ships and selling timber. On December 31, Branwell said goodbye to his family and took a coach to the town of Kendal, where he bade “farewell of old friend whisky,”
as he told his pal John Brown. Brown was the Reverend Brontë’s sexton, the man who maintained the church building and graveyard.
The farewell was temporary, because upon reaching the Lake District, Branwell joined a group of men drinking at the Royal Hotel. Before the wild night was over, an Irish squire and “a native of the land of Israel” got into a barroom brawl. Branwell joined the fight on the side of Ireland and reported that “a regular rumpus ensued.” He bragged, “I found myself in bed next morning with a bottle of porter, a glass, and a corkscrew beside me.” That day he went on to Broughton, where the Postlethwaites lived.
Branwell made a good first impression, as he reported to John Brown: “I take neither spirits, wine nor malt liquors,
I dress in black and smile like a saint or martyr. Everybody says, ‘what a good young Gentleman is Mr Postlethwaite’s tutor!’” Branwell lodged in the town, so when he was not teaching, his time was his own. He took long rambles in the countryside, which he loved to do, and he again sent his writing to poets, asking for advice.
He was thrilled to get a letter back from the writer Hartley Coleridge, the author of biographies and poems. Coleridge’s father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was one of the great English Romantic poets, known for writing mystical, symbolic works like
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The younger Coleridge’s letter has been lost, but in it he invited Branwell to his home, Nab Cottage. Branwell made this visit on May 1; after spending a day with Hartley Coleridge, he returned to his room to translate Homer’s
from classical Greek into English. Coleridge had promised to read Branwell’s translation when it was finished.
Life seemed to be going well for Branwell until Mr. Postlethwaite fired him two months later. No one knows for certain why Branwell lost his job. He may have been spending too much time writing poetry and not enough time teaching. Or he may have made too many trips to the tavern, despite his boast of being sober. He did remark that his landlord, a Mr. Fish, was drunk “two days out of every seven.” Also, some years later, a local nobleman wrote in his commonplace book, or notebook, that Branwell was dismissed for having an affair with a woman in his employer’s house, which led to a pregnancy. The woman was either a daughter or a servant, and the child, born months after Branwell had gone, later died. Whatever the reason for his firing, Branwell packed up his things and headed for home, having failed again.
Emboldened by Branwell’s successful contact with Hartley Coleridge, Charlotte sent Coleridge a portion of a novel that she had started. She signed her letter “C.T.,” to keep her identity a secret and to prevent Coleridge from knowing whether she was a woman or a man. She wanted to be judged simply as a writer. But, like Robert Southey, Coleridge offered this eager writer no encouragement.
While Branwell was away, his sisters had been enjoying the company of another young man. All the Brontës liked handsome William Weightman, who came to Haworth to be the Reverend Brontë’s curate. A curate serves as an assistant to a priest or minister. Curates are often young, newly ordained, and in training to lead their own congregations one day. Weightman was “agreeable in person
and manners, and constitutionally cheerful,” Patrick Brontë observed. “His character wore well.” The families of Haworth also grew fond of the kindly curate who baptized their children, buried their dead, and called on their sick and lonely.