31st March 1855.
Even though Burns and Shakespeare and later the likes of Grey, Keats, Byron and Wordsworth raised poetry and theatre to new heights, it was the novels of the genteelly raised Jane Austen and the harshly raised Brontes, which was to surpass the popularity of drama and poetry.
Charlotte Bronte, famous for the novel Jane Eyre died today in 1855. She was of a family of 6 siblings, 5 were girls, of which 2 died before their teens, and none lived more than 39. Their mother Maria died of cancer when the eldest was 7.(1)
One thing is apparent is the gap between our cosy enjoyment of the costume dramas, of the novels, and the harsh upbringing of the Brontes raised in their father’s parsonage near the moors at Haworth, Yorkshire.
The Public Health Authority said Haworth was the one of least sanitary place in the country. The water supply came after flowing through the nearby over-full graveyard. Half the population died before 6 and life expectancy was 26.
Conditions were worse when the girls were sent to the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge, Lancashire portrayed as Lowood in Jane Eyre
Its 1820’s founder and Head, portrayed in Jane Eyre, as Mr Brocklehurst, was the Calvinist Evangelical Rev. Carus-Wilson who thought it his Christian duty to cruelly treat, no doubt for their own good, the 70 girls, who had one lavatory, a hole in the ground. The place was freezing and food minimal.
The ‘good’ Reverend believed in Predestination and eternal damnation, a grim morality which aimed to produce pious, conforming children, through the tone and manner of the previous century’s Puritans.
Punishment was deprivation of food, corporal punishment and the Dunces’ Cap. Sunday was spent in Carus-Wilson’s church, after a 3 mile walk, where eternal damnation was preached along with the catechism and Biblical texts.
Two Bronte sisters died of Consumption (TB), at the school, within 2 weeks of each other, aged 11 and 12, after an outbreak of Typhoid.If any further evidence is necessary of the beliefs of Carus-Wilson, he was refused ordination after university for his extreme views.
His publication Childrens’ Friend pursued a grim morality which inculcated good behaviour by dire warnings from stories of children struck dead by God.
If a child died at school he thought ‘he had sent her to heaven. I bless God when one died and taken from us and whose salvation we best hope’.
Later, at the publication of Jane Eyre, Wilson threatened to sue Charlotte when he recognized his portrayal as Brocklehurst, but this was reluctantly dropped.(2)
The Bronte girls’ father, a parson of milder persuasion, eventually brought them home from school, where now introspection and close dependence on each other were to stimulate the three girls’ imaginations resulting in the masterpieces we know today.(3)
(1) Jane Eyre was Published in 1841.
(2) As Charlotte later said: ‘we should strike back very hard …to teach the person never to do it again’.
(3) The Brontes wrote under three nom-de-plume with surname of Bell: Acton (Anne), Currer (Charlotte) and Ellis ( Emily).
Anne: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey and Villette.
Emily: Wuthering Heights.
Ref: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Biography of Charlotte.
Ref: dailymail.co.uk/femail/brontes. A N Wilson 12.11. 2011. Beatings, Insanity…as lost book is auctioned.