The 21st of April 2019 marks the 203rd birthday of my favourite writer of all time, Charlotte Brontë. Strong-willed, fierce, determined, and incredibly talented, I am in complete awe of her. To celebrate Charlotte’s birthday in 2018 I wrote a post about some of her lesser-known works from her Glass Town and Angrian saga in the hope of encouraging others to read them. This year, I’m going to highlight another lesser-known literary gem of Charlotte’s, The Roe Head Journal, a group of writings from her time spent teaching at Roe Head School which was originally in Mirfield, West Yorkshire (the establishment relocated to nearby Heald’s House, Dewsbury Moor in 1838). Although many Brontëites will be familiar with certain aspects of these extraordinary writings, The Roe Head Journal is still not widely read. Perhaps this is because although it is often described as Charlotte’s journal from part of the time she spent teaching, it contains a heavy dose of the fictional world Charlotte inhabited for many years with her brother, Branwell, their beloved Angria. The result is a fascinating battle between reality versus fantasy as Charlotte struggled to adapt to life as a teacher, but as she also pined for Angria and Zamorna, Mary Percy, Charles Townshend et al. It’s a short but absorbing read which lays bare the brilliant mind of a brilliant writer. Below is a history of the manuscripts which make up the journal in addition to summaries and highlights of their content. Reader, enjoy.
Roe Head School
Firstly, let’s look at Charlotte’s history with Roe Head School. Charlotte attended Roe Head as a pupil from 17th January 1831 when she was just fourteen, until June 1832. Charlotte must have been nervous about attending school again after experiencing the cruel regime at the Clergy Daughters’ School, Cowan Bridge, which found its way into her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, as Lowood Institution. However, Roe Head proved to be a drastically different environment, and although Charlotte didn’t always enjoy her time there, it did have an impact on her, and it was the place she met her lifelong friends Ellen Nussey (1817-1897) and Mary Taylor (1817-1893). It was also the place she met another lifelong friend and confidante, Miss Margaret Wooler (1782-1885), a remarkable woman who was the headmistress and part-owner of the school who eventually gave Charlotte away on her wedding day in 1854. She was later one of the few mourners at the funeral of Charlotte’s youngest sister, Anne. Charlotte returned to Roe Head to teach in July 1835 and remained there until December 1838. Charlotte’s sister, Emily, also attended Roe Head as a pupil for just three months in 1835 but was replaced by Anne who had more success than Emily at adjusting to life away from Haworth. Charlotte paid her sisters’ fees through her teaching wages.
Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal
Whilst at Roe Head as a teacher, Charlotte was unable to devote herself to writing and story-telling, something the Brontë siblings had done from their early childhood. In June 1826, the only boy of the family, Branwell, was famously given a set of wooden toy soldiers by his father and it was this event which saw the birth of The Young Men’s Play. Each Brontë sibling selected a soldier and named them. Charlotte chose the Duke of Wellington; Branwell chose Napoleon Bonaparte; Emily and Anne chose Gravey and Waiting Boy, who would eventually evolve into the famous explorers, Parry and Ross. These soldiers, known as The Twelves, made their way into the Brontës’ earliest writings and eventually became the centre of their imaginary world of Glass Town. Charlotte and Branwell took the lead as the oldest and only boy respectively, and consequently, the characters of Anne and Emily took a backseat to the likes of Wellington, Bonaparte, Rogue, Lord Charles, and Douro. Anne and Emily broke away to create their own narratives set in the world of Gondal in 1831 whilst Charlotte and Branwell continued to collaborate and respond to one another’s narratives which shifted in 1834 from Glass Town to Angria, a Kingdom created by the Verdopolitan Parliament as a reward for Charlotte’s hero, Zamorna, following his success in the War of Encroachment against the native Ashantees.
Whilst at Roe Head, Charlotte was physically separated from her co-collaborator, Branwell, who continued to pen narratives set in Angria, develop long-running storylines, and even sprung a nasty surprise regarding her beloved character, Mary Percy. It must have been agony to Charlotte to see her world developing without her, and events taking turns she didn’t want them to. As Branwell was the only boy he was schooled by their father, Patrick, and wasn’t forced to attend boarding schools or slave away teaching like Charlotte was doing by 1835. In short, Branwell was free to develop Angria whereas Charlotte had to snatch any spare time she had to focus on a world that seemed more real to her than the one around her. Although Charlotte’s mind was never far from Angria, it was only on her visits home during holiday periods that she was free to give free rein to her imagination and pen narratives such as Mina Laury and Stancliffe’s Hotel in 1838.
However, Charlotte continued to write about Angria during her time teaching and, as is evident from The Roe Head Journal, her fantasy world began to encroach upon real life. A battle between reality and fantasy sprung up in Charlotte’s mind, her attempts to document her experience, and her letters to Branwell. “I am just going to write because I cannot help it” is one of the most famous quotes attributed to Charlotte, and it comes from The Roe Head Journal. Written at a time when Charlotte was being forced to be somebody that she wasn’t and to play a part that was alien to her, for Charlotte was a writer in the most profound and rawest sense of the word, this quote demonstrates not only her true nature and her devotion to her own creations, but her determination to continue to do what she did best, what she enjoyed the most, and what made her the person she was. This quote is a source of inspiration to Brontëites, readers, and writers (including bloggers 🙂 ) of all kinds everywhere. It’s a quote that has inspired me in the past when I’ve faced rejection from academic institutions, and also more recently at a time when my family has experienced so much illness and death. Thank you, Charlotte.
The Manuscripts and Content
As stated, Charlotte’s Roe Head Journal is made up of fragmentary pieces she wrote whilst struggling to adapt to life as a teacher. Their content gives an insight into the mind of a brilliant writer as she struggles to balance life and fiction, and slips from documenting her own experience to writing about her Angrian characters Zamorna, Mary Percy, Jane Moore, and Zenobia Ellrington not as Charlotte Brontë, but as her favourite pseudonym, Charles Townshend. Brontë scholar Christine Alexander published the journal in her 2010 anthology of the Brontë juvenilia, Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. Fragments of the journals also appear in Heather Glen’s Tales of Angria (2006). Alexander numbers the fragments of the journal from 1 – 6 and I will follow this system in this post. These fragments are not titled as they were initially meant to be diary entries rather than fiction, and so they are commonly known by their first lines. However, as stated, Charlotte increasingly blurs the line between reality and fantasy as Angria begins to encroach, and then take over. As a lover of the Brontë juvenilia, I adore these fragments which contain Angrian vignettes which fit into the long-running storylines and events in the saga. They allow the reader glimpses into a truly uncensored part of Charlotte’s mind and imagination.
Part one is “Well, here I am at Roe Head” (c. February 1836) and part two is “Now, as I have a little bit of time” (c. February 1836). The two fragments are written on the same piece of paper, although Alexander suggests that they were not written on the same day. The manuscript is written in the tiny writing Charlotte used for her early Glass Town tales, indicating her need to express herself, but also her desire to keep these expressions private. Charlotte begins part one by describing her circumstances at Roe Head but she quickly drifts into fantasy as she describes her vision of Angria where, during her “five seconds of ecstasy”, she travelled to the “war-shaken shores of the Calabar” and witnessed “the defiled & violated Adrianopolis” which is a reference to the series of wars initiated by Branwell in his Angrian narratives. Charlotte’s hero, Zamorna and his beautiful Queen, Mary Percy also intrude into Charlotte’s mind along with Quashia, who has lusted after Mary since her introduction to the saga in Branwell’s The Politics of Verdopolis.
In part two, Charlotte begins by stating her intention to pen something to amuse herself due to there being no French lessons that afternoon, but nothing that will form part of a continuous narrative as, “my mind is not settled enough for that”. She returns to Hawkscliffe Forest, the location of Zamorna’s country estate where her hero appears alongside a fierce army general, Henri Fernando di Enara, here called Henrico. Charlotte learned Italian at Roe Head and became fascinated by the language and culture, as is evident from fragments such as this. Charlotte was clearly desperate to escape back into a world she had built and invested so much in over the years. The manuscript is housed in the Bonnell Collection at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
Part three is “All this day I have been in a dream” (August/October 1836). This piece is where Charlotte’s frustrations with teaching and the stupidity of her pupils is revealed fully. After lamenting that she must “from day to day sit chained to this chair, prisoned with in these four walls” whilst there is a beautiful world outside her window, Charlotte’s mind takes her back to Angria. This fragment is particularly interesting as it is equal parts autobiography and fantasy. Charlotte’s hatred of her actual situation is clear from her labelling a pupil as “a dolt” and her desire to immerse herself not just in Angria, but in the act of writing and creation once more is evident when she states, “I longed to write. The spirit of all Verdopolis … came crowding into my mind”. The piece is also interesting for featuring characters who are not mentioned in any other Glass Town or Angrian narratives such as Dr Charles Brandon and William Lockley Esq. Charlotte’s concern for the fate of Mary Percy (at this point in time in Branwell’s hands) also surfaces here. It is also probable that another prominent character in the saga, Mina Laury, makes an appearance in the narrative which follows Charlotte’s recording of her “toil” at Roe Head. This manuscript can be found in the Bonnell Collection at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth.
Part four is “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it”. Dated roughly October 1836, Charlotte makes reference to Branwell’s alter ego, Wiggins, in this piece, in addition to her habit of writing with her eyes closed. There are mentions of Emily, Anne, and Haworth, but once more, Angria is the focus of this piece. Charlotte openly frets about Mary’s fate and, wondering whether Branwell has killed her favourite heroine (he did); Mary is depicted as wasting away at this point in the saga. Charlotte also features the strong-willed Zenbobia Ellrington, stepmother to Mary and wife of Branwell’s favourite character, Northangerland, who walks about in the solitude of Ennerdale due to her separation from her husband during the wars. Her famously beautiful mother, Paulina, is also mentioned. The piece ends abruptly mid-sentence, implying Charlotte was interrupted in her writing. The manuscript is in the Bonnell Collection at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Part five is “My compliments to the weather” (c. March 1837), and is a significantly longer piece than the previous fragments and is also in the Bonnell Collection at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. This piece is pure Angria and features characters such as the Duke of Fidena and Jane Moore. It’s a detailed piece that is steeped in Angrian history, politics, and war, and it may be a challenge for those unfamiliar with Charlotte’s juvenilia. For those who are, it’s a juicy fragment that wouldn’t be out of place within the larger saga. This is also a fragment in which the voice of Charlotte’s favourite pseudonym, Charles Townshend, breaks through clearly and she loses herself entirely in the tale. There may also be a hint of Jane Eye’s reaction to the death of Helen Burns in the passage where Jane Moore recalls the death of a character named Harriet, who was possibly modelled on the oldest Brontë sibling, Maria. If so, this is the only explicit reference to the death of Maria in Charlotte’s juvenilia, whereas Branwell’s narratives frequently reference Maria’s death in some way.
Part six is “About a week since I got a letter from Branwell”. It is a single-piece manuscript, now housed in the Bonnell Collection at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. In The Brontës, Juliet Barker states this piece is from 1835, however, Alexander believes it is actually from around October 1837. Charlotte begins by discussing a letter from Branwell which contained “a most characteristically exquisite epistle” from Northangerland to his daughter, Mary Percy. Charlotte then goes on to describe Mary as she imagines her reading the letter from her father in Zamorna Palace. If this piece is from 1837 then the reason for Charlotte’s joy, which bursts from the page, is Mary Percy being alive and well after Branwell had indeed killed her off in Charlotte’s absence the previous year. Charlotte cleverly restored her heroine to life through Charles Townshend, who refuted the reports of Mary’s death, insisting it was part of a plot to rouse the inhabitants of Angria against their invaders. The letter Mary reads also has a deep connection to the wider saga; it is from her father who is in self-exile following the political defeat by her husband, Zamorna.
The Roe Head Journal is a fascinating semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional journey into Charlotte’s mind and desires. Reader, what are you waiting for? Oh, and happy birthday, Charlotte.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019).
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
All quotes are taken from Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal (Oxford University Press, 2010), edited by Christine Alexander.
8 thoughts on “I’m Just Going to Write Because I Cannot Help It: Reality Versus Fantasy in Charlotte Brontë’s Roe Head Journal.”
I’ve not long finished the description of CB’s time at Roe Head in Claire Harman’s biography, so this piece was very welcome, thank you!
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You’re welcome. Thank you for taking the time to read my post 😀
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Interesting and beautifully written! Always a joy to read your posts, Nicola x
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Thank you Vesna 😀 x