So much of the Brontës’ lives remains shrouded in mystery despite the popularity of their works. We probably know more about Charlotte and Branwell, and their characters, than the rest of the Brontë family due to their surviving correspondence and the recollections of the friends they made during their lifetimes. However, there are still misconceptions that surround Branwell in particular, many of which still need addressing on a wider scale. We also know a little about Anne and her nature thanks to the testimonies of those who met her and her own surviving letters and manuscripts. We can also trace Patrick’s movements and philosophy, although, like Branwell, there are still misconceptions about his character. These misconceptions arose from Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), although in recent years there have been successful attempts to address and correct this unflattering portrayal. Emily is the most enigmatic of the four surviving siblings due to her private nature, but we still know remarkably little about her. Even less is known about the oldest Brontë siblings, Elizabeth and Maria, besides the basic facts of birth and death dates.
Similarly not much is known about the mother of the Brontë siblings and wife of Patrick, Maria Brontë née Branwell. Her Cornish roots are well known but not well documented, as is her journey to Yorkshire, but from her own surviving correspondence we see a glimpse of her character and can ascertain that she was a fun, lively, generous woman with a slightly naughty side (see her letters where she refers to Patrick as “my saucy Pat”). From these letters, recollections of those who knew her, and her essay “The Advantages of Poverty, In Religious Concerns” (click here to view the original manuscript online) we probably know more about her character than we do about Emily’s despite the fact that she is the author of one of the greatest novels ever written, Wuthering Heights (1847). However, there is one character in the Brontë story, and a central part of family life in the Haworth parsonage where the children grew up who remains shadowy and elusive despite living until the age of 66 and having a great influence on the family. This is probably due to the fact that despite being a member of perhaps the most beloved literary family in history she had no literary or artistic aspirations or merits of her own. In fact, she wasn’t even a Brontë. I am of course talking about Elizabeth Branwell, sister to Maria, and devoted Aunt to the Brontë children who sacrificed her own life to care for her nieces and nephew after their mother’s death.
Like Patrick, Elizabeth was subjected to a rather unflattering portrayal of her character in Gaskell’s book. Unlike Patrick, however, it isn’t a portrayal that too many people have been overly concerned with correcting over the years, perhaps, again, because she wasn’t a Brontë, and everyone likes a wicked stepmother figure who tries to take the place of the good and kindly mother after her death. I’m not really suggesting that Elizabeth Branwell was depicted as an overtly wicked stepmother figure, but rather a stiff, stuffy, stern woman who enforced harsh rules on her charges and didn’t allow them to have any fun. However, there has always been evidence to suggest otherwise to those bothered to look for it. Elizabeth did after all voluntarily uproot her life and give up a vastly different existence in order to travel hundreds of miles to care for her family, she left her nieces money in her will that enabled them to begin their professional literary life, and she was described by her nephew Branwell as “the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood” (109). Gaskell did Elizabeth Branwell a great injustice and created a myth that still survives to this day, and it’s time that that was put right. Nick Holland, author of Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy (2018) clearly shares my sentiments, writing that “it is perhaps understandable that Gaskell misrepresented Elizabeth’s character and influence upon the Brontës, but it is one that needs correcting” (96). Happily, Holland’s excellent book aims at doing just that.
Holland details Cornish culture and the myths and legends familiar to Elizabeth, her relationships with her family and friends, but also ambitiously, and successfully, tackles the story of the Branwells and their sometimes confusing family history. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this is a book strictly about the Brontës, but also do not make the mistake of thinking that this is a strict biography of Elizabeth Branwell; this is a book of Cornwall and the Branwells, their history, their culture, their legacy, and their influence on the Brontë story. Yes, Elizabeth is the centre, but, like her life at the parsonage, despite being a central figure, there was much more going on around her, and her influence stretches far and wide. It’s a refreshing approach to the well documented story of the Brontës and proves there was more to them than Yorkshire, the moors, and their Irish heritage.
Their Cornish heritage has been unfairly neglected in the Brontë story, and Holland’s meticulous research brings to life some fascinating information about their ancestors’ histories and beliefs, highlights some remarkable differences in aspects such as fortune, but also reveals some touching similarities between the Brontës and the Branwells that one can only see if somebody takes the time to thoroughly research the topic and piece things together with as much care as Holland does. There is a sweet connection highlighted between Anne and Emily Brontë roaming the Yorkshire moors and Elizabeth and Maria Branwell doing the same in Cornwall many years earlier. Holland expertly presents the reader with the surprising amount of similarities between Cornish life and Yorkshire life whilst also addressing the many differences and the challenges that Elizabeth would have faced after uprooting herself.
That’s not to say that Yorkshire is neglected, after all, Elizabeth lived there for over two decades with the Brontës, and Holland also provides fascinating insights into the history and religious and social movements of the day, including a rather interesting section about the influence of the Luddites on Charlotte’s work. The relationships between Elizabeth and the Brontës is also readdressed here; she is rightly portrayed as a pillar of support for her brother-in-law, Patrick, and I feel that their closeness is thoroughly explored for the first time. Her closeness to Anne and Branwell in particular is also highlighted, and it becomes evident just how much of a Branwell Anne Brontë really was. The book does not end with Elizabeth’s death, but continues in order to document the ways in which her legacy continued to help the family through triumphs and tragedies and, for the final time, touches upon the ways in which she is depicted within the sisters’ novels.
A few minor issues include the unfortunate number of typos that seem to be in my edition including a reference to the Penzance tsunami occurring a hundred years after it actually did. Fingers crossed the publishers can have another look at these. As usual though, my rather pedantic side emerges when I come across any references to the Brontë juvenilia. Here it is stated that the famous tiny books were based on the events of Angria and Gondal; Angria was in fact a development of the Glass Town saga, and was only created when the Kingdom of Angria was created by the fictional Verdopolitan Parliament in 1834 as a reward for the Duke of Zamorna’s success in the war against the native Ashantee people. By the time Charlotte and Branwell came to write about Angria rather than Glass Town, they were no longer creating tiny books, but larger manuscripts such as Branwell’s The Politics of Verdopolis. I also don’t believe Charlotte’s teacher Constantin Héger was the inspirtion for the chracter of Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre) but instead owes a debt to the aforementioned Zamorna, Charlotte’s hero of the juvenilia. Sorry, I digress. Back to Aunt Branwell.
Holland’s book is a touching tribute to the woman who loved and raised the Brontës as if they were her own children, and who came to Patrick’s aid when tragedy struck. I’ve read nothing but positive reviews of Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy, and I’m proud to add my own to the list. The one grumble that seems to recur in some reviews is that there is a lot of speculation in certain places rather than hard evidence, and that at times the book reads more like historical fiction. I personally rather like the way in which Holland fills in the gaps in hard facts with charming little depiction of how he imagines Elizabeth to have reacted to certain events and pieces of news. I also admire the way he fleshes out the book with the histories of other members of the Branwell family, including those still living, because, the fact remains, that we will never know a great amount about Elizabeth Branwell. Another author could have so easily fallen into the same kind of trap as the likes of Gaskell, and assumed rather than tried to get to the bottom of things and unearth the precious few facts available to us. By providing a comprehensive family history of the Branwells, Holland allows us to see further back in time to the things that shaped Elizabeth Branwell’s character, and would, much later, shape the way the young Brontës saw and experienced the world. There is plenty of information in here to digest, some of which will be the basis for future posts on Brontë Babe Blog; stay tuned for one about Branwell, the “maverick outsider” (99).
Holland has done a remarkable job in piecing together information that allows Elizabeth Branwell to step out of the shadows and untangle herself from mythology and sometimes malicious gossip. I wholeheartedly agree with one of the final statements in his book, that Elizabeth Branwell’s 250th birthday should be celebrated by the Brontë Parsonage Museum in 2026. Meanwhile, I will look forward to the year of Patrick 200 and take the time to thank Holland for writing what will become an essential read for Brontëites in the years to come.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
Branwell Brontë quote is from The Brontës: A Life in Letters edited by Juliet Baker (Viking, London, 1997).
Nick Holland quote is from Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy (Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, 2018).