When you think of the Brontë family, you think of the three sisters, the dissolute brother and behind them their vicar father, white-haired and stern. If you’re a fan then perhaps you know that with them also lived their Aunt Branwell, sister to their long-dead mother. The figure of Mrs Brontë has always been shadowy and forgotten. When Wright first wondered aloud why there was no biography of Maria, she was told that ‘there isn’t enough on her’. Wright’s response was ‘I bet there is […] if you grab your pen and your notebook and go looking properly’. The result is her self-described ‘prequel’ to the Brontë story. These are not the ‘famous’ Brontës, but rather the ‘before they were famous’ family members. Yet their story is no less fascinating and the book itself is a tribute to Wright’s perseverance and investigative skill. One of the best new Brontë biographies of recent years, The Mother of the Brontës shines a new light on what and who the Brontë sisters came to be.
The wonder of how Maria ever came to meet Patrick has always been rather eclipsed by Patrick’s side of the story. While he was always rather circumspect in how he shared the details, what he pulled off was little short of miraculous. Going from a poor farming family in Ireland across the sea to England to study at Cambridge with nothing but his brains behind him was quite the accomplishment. Yet there is a further incredible piece to the puzzle. His wife was a Cornishwoman who happened to be visiting Yorkshire and together they had six children, three of whom grew up to produce some of the finest novels within the English canon. In the twenty-first century it might be no strange thing for a man from Ireland and a woman from Cornwall to meet but in the early years of the nineteenth century, it was highly unusual.
Wright traces back to Maria’s life in Penzance. Incredibly, she lived there until she was in her very late twenties, only travelling north aged twenty-nine to assist her aunt and uncle who had opened a school. While the Brontë sisters always seem to have been on the edge of society, their mother was firmly within the upper middle-class. Her father was Thomas Branwell, a successful merchant and pillar of the community. He was also a smuggler. In 1778, he was charged with ‘obstructing the Custom Officers in searching his dwelling’. Wright found further documentation to indicate that he was in business with men wanted for murder who were described in 1791 as ‘the most notorious smugglers in that part of the kingdom’. Of course, smuggling was rife in Cornwall during that era so Mr Branwell would have been in good company. But this is the money that paid for Maria and her sister Elizabeth’s annuities. Elizabeth Branwell, who brought up the Brontë children as their Aunt Branwell, made savings from her legacy which she left to the Brontë sisters. It was this money which paid for Charlotte and Emily to travel to Brussels. It was the same money which allowed them to self-publish their poetry. The proceeds of crime was what kick-started the Brontës’ literary careers.
I can imagine that Wright was delighted to unearth this revelation as it definitely propelled her book into the headlines. However, the book also has a lot more to offer. It puts Maria’s life in context in a way that I had never seen it before. After decades as a mere footnote, she takes on three dimensions. She lived twenty-nine years in Penzance, a busy and thriving town. Maria would have been at the centre of this, attending functions similar to those described in Jane Austen novels. She was also an avid reader, was part of a reading circle and counted as childhood friends some prominent figures such as Sir Humphrey Davy. For several years after her father’s death, she lived independently with her mother and sisters. She had a whole life before she ever met Patrick.
Still, meeting Patrick was clearly a defining moment in Maria’s life. The nine letters which she wrote to him are analysed, quoted from and included in the book’s appendix. As someone who enjoys letter-writing and always feels a pang of sadness when so few people respond, I was deeply impressed by the accomplishment of her correspondence. Maria’s warmth shines in her letters, as does the couple’s obvious strong feelings towards each other. This was a whirlwind courtship and one apparently fuelled by a deep sexual attraction. Given that Patrick is most famous as an irascible and difficult elderly man, it is worth remembering this earlier self. Before all that made him infamous, he was a man so in love that he could not keep his engagement to himself, with his blushing bride-to-be scolding him for his blabbing.
I had known that Maria and Patrick’s wedding day was a joint ceremony with the two friends who had introduced them. However, I had not known that there was a third bride. Charlotte Branwell, Maria’s youngest sister, also got married that day. Her wedding was down in Penzance but the three women had coordinated their ceremonies to take place at the same hour. Again, the details such as these may seem small but they bring these people to life. Maria is a woman far from home and unsure when or if she will again meet with her closest kin but on her wedding day, she can feel the connection between them all.
In agreeing to be Patrick’s wife on that romantic day out to Kirkstall Abbey, Maria’s life was turned upside down. She never returned to Penzance although her elder sister Elizabeth visited her twice. Maria proclaimed in one of her letters to Patrick before their marriage that she hoped that he would take charge effectively in all matters. Yet still, it must have been no small matter for a woman approaching thirty and used to having management of her own affairs to be reduced to merely the ‘wife of’ someone. The newlyweds took a little while to get their bearings and their own home at Thornton Parsonage which must have also made the transition more difficult. Still, once installed at Thornton, there is every sign that the growing family was a great success. Maria had a thriving social life, good friends and healthy children. In later life, Patrick referred to the time in Thornton as the happiest period of his life.
It was the size of the family though which meant that they had to move on. With six children, Thornton Parsonage could no longer hold them. From there, matters appear to have gone downhill. There was the infamous insurrection from the Haworth congregation who refused to accept Patrick as minister, leading to a year of wrangling before he could take up the post. And then Maria became ill. Although her ailment has been generally accepted as uterine cancer, Wright theorises quite convincingly that it was more likely to have been cancer of the cervix. At only thirty-eight and after less than ten years of marriage, Maria Branwell Brontë departed this life.
Maria’s daughters grew up with few memories of their mother. Their elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth might have remembered more but they too passed away only a few years later. It was their Aunt Branwell who kept the house, living with their father for over twenty years. Yet it is apparent that their mother still held enormous significance. Charlotte redrew the profile portrait of their mother to be more flattering. Her heroine Jane Eyre looks up to the moon for solace and the moon speaks to her as a mother. Her later heroine Caroline is on her deathbed and recovers when her long-lost mother suddenly appears. The two Catherines in Wuthering Heights both grow up without mothers. Helen Huntingdon was sent to live with an aunt after her mother’s death. There are motherless women across the Brontë canon. Indeed, the very fact that Agnes Grey does have a mother and a highly capable one at that feels like a form of wish fulfilment – it is part of Agnes’ happy ending.
As I finished Wright’s biography, I felt as though the erasure of Maria Brontë from the family story was just symptomatic of how the Brontës sisters’ femininity is always diminished. They had to publish under male names. There have long been conspiracy theories that their brother Branwell wrote or assisted or inspired their work. So much time and so many pages have been spent pondering why Branwell never amounted to more, ignoring the miracle of three talented writers in one household. Their father Patrick’s meteoric rise from poverty in Ireland is celebrated but less so how Maria also managed a 400 mile journey to reach Yorkshire, losing many of her belongings in a shipwreck. Her sister Elizabeth made the voyage twice. It’s all part of the same trend which insists that all three of the Brontë sisters must have had lovers to have written the way that they did. Anne most likely did not love William Weightman. Equally, Emily seems to have never had much of an interest in anyone at all. Even in the twenty-first century, commentators still need to re-orientate the Brontë story towards men. Yet they told stories about pirates, adapting them from the Cornish tales that their Aunt Branwell passed on. They thought of their mother. She may have been missing but she still mattered.
Wright is an engaging and down-to-earth writer. It struck me that her early admission that she had come to Brontë fandom slightly later in the game was perhaps one of the reasons why Wright was able to offer such a refreshing perspective. The Mother of the Brontës does not get dragged into the controversies which have so dogged the fandom down the centuries. Where she encounters them, she offers her own theory and moves on. But more than anything, Wright’s book left me feeling such sadness for the family that they lost this woman so young. You get the feeling that everything could have been different. With Maria’s annuity, the family’s finances could have been easier. While Aunt Branwell was a dutiful substitute, she had hoped so much to be able to return to Cornwall. Perhaps the girls would not have been sent to Cowan Bridge to lighten her load. More pertinently, it seems that Maria had had a track record of smoothing any feathers which her husband might ruffle. Patrick might have been an easier man to know. There are so many question marks but the Brontë story would have definitely been very different. The Mother of Brontës is a wonderful tribute to a lady who was clearly both loving and loved. Essential reading for all Brontë fans!
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Published by Pen and Sword on July 30th 2019
Genres: Literary Criticism, Women Authors, Literary Collections, Biography & Autobiography, Literary Figures, Social Science, Women's Studies
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