Two hundred years ago in 1819, Patrick Brontë (1777-1861) was offered the perpetual curacy of St Michael and All Angels’ Church in the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Patrick took up the position in April 1820 when he moved his young family to Haworth from nearby Thornton. However, by September 1821, his wife Maria was dead, and just four years after this tragedy in 1825, his two oldest children, Maria and Elizabeth also died. Patrick was left to bring up his surviving children (Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne) alone until his wife’s sister, Elizabeth Branwell, moved from Cornwall to Yorkshire in order to help him. Patrick spent the rest of his life in Haworth, outliving his sister-in-law and remaining children, dying aged 84 in 1861.
Beginning with Charlotte’s bicentenary in 2016, the Brontë Parsonage Museum launched the Brontë 200 celebrations which aimed to celebrate the lives of each of the surviving members of this remarkable family. After a solid, if not especially spectacular start with Charlotte, Branwell’s revolutionary celebrations followed in 2017, and then there was a rather lacklustre approach to Emily’s life and work in 2018. As stated, this year will focus on Patrick. The exhibition, Patrick Brontë: In Sickness and In Health is running at the Brontë Parsonage Museum until January 2020 and according to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, “explores how illness, poor health and death plagued his life”. I haven’t yet had a chance to visit this exhibition and I’m unsure if I will make any trips to Haworth this year for reasons I will outline below. The exhibition promises to give visitors and Brontëites the opportunity to discover more about the tragedies and triumphs Patrick witnessed and experienced, and also how he supported his family and parishioners in both sickness and in health. In short, it sounds fascinating. As I may not get there myself, I thought I’d post a little tribute to Patrick, and combine it with a small tribute to my much-loved furry friend, Bob, who we sadly lost in April. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Bob was a lover of all things Brontë and enjoyed a good stroll around Haworth, following in the footsteps of Patrick and his family.
Patrick was truly a remarkable man, and he not only supported those around him during bouts of ill health and in the face of death, but did so when his own health was failing. Following the death of his last surviving child, Charlotte, in 1855, he still took the time to write and inform friends of her death, and also to thank them for the kindness they had shown towards him and his family. It must also be noted that he also wished them strength if tragedy ever came their way, writing to George Smith on 20th April 1855, “That you may never experimentally know, sorrow such as ours, and that when trouble does come, you may receive, due aid from Heaven, is the sincere wish and ardent prayer, of Yours, very respectfully & truly, P. Brontë”. It may have been Patrick’s strong Christian faith that got him through this time, but it must still have been agony to keep his head up and keep going after experiencing so much tragedy. Although Patrick remained open-minded and hearted, the extent of his own suffering is revealed is letters such as the one written to Reverend John Buckworth following his wife’s death in 1821; Patrick describes how he found himself widowed and without friends in Haworth, writing that, “after every earthly prop was removed, that I was called on to bear the weight of the greatest load of sorrows that ever pressed upon me”. Patrick goes on to describe how he feared for the lives of all of his children following an outbreak of scarlet fever. If Patrick had felt such anguish after Maria’s death, one can only imagine what he felt following the loss of all of his children years later.
Throughout these cruel times of sickness and death, Patrick’s philosophy of kindness, love, and tolerance shone through, and it is a philosophy we would do well to adopt in these times of political and religious turmoil where society seems more divided than ever before. Patrick’s stance regarding the education of his daughters, and his attitude to their reading, is also to be admired in an age where many women worldwide are still struggling for equality and respect. Patrick gave his children (including Branwell) an unusual amount of creative and intellectual freedom which allowed their talents to flourish and resulted in some of the best-loved poetry and novels of all time. Patrick was a remarkable man who had remarkable children, but importantly, he gave them the opportunity and freedom to be the extraordinary artists they grew up to be.
Patrick’s attitude towards the Brontës’ many feathered and furry friends is also inspiring. Over the years, his children introduced many animals to the parsonage, including birds, cats, and dogs, the most famous arguably being Emily’s fierce mastiff called Keeper and Anne’s spaniel named Flossy. Patrick didn’t turn the animals away, nor did he obviously discourage the young Brontës from bringing more pets home, and even acquired two more dogs named Plato and Cato in his later years. Patrick truly respected all creatures great and small, those who were healthy and wealthy, and those who were suffering, ill, and poor. It’s yet another lesson we can learn from this great man in the 21st century.
Although Charlotte and Branwell did not seem to have the same kind of connection with animals as Emily and Anne did, I think it’s safe to say that, like his youngest daughters, Patrick clearly had an affiliation with and respect for animals. Why else would he write a letter to Charlotte as Flossy? Yes, you read that right. In January 1853, Patrick wrote on Flossy’s behalf to Charlotte in order to inform her that after she sent her respects to the little dog he, “struck the ground three times with my tail” in gratitude, and also to advise her to “trust dogs rather than men”. Although this seems light-hearted, it could have been a covert warning to Charlotte to stay away from the man she would eventually marry, Arthur Bell Nicholls (who I assume is the travelling companion who Flossy says “has lost all his apparent kindness, scolds me, and looks black upon me”), as Patrick famously disapproved of their relationship.
Underneath the surface of this joking letter from Flossy are hints about not only Flossy’s advancing age, but also Patrick’s age and declining health as it is stated that, “the weather is too cold, or too wet for my master to walk in”. Perhaps this was a gentle reminder to Charlotte that Patrick’s health was indeed declining by this point. It also highlights his fears of being left alone, something that sadly happened after Charlotte’s death. However, Patrick’s kindness to animals is an overlooked aspect of his kind nature and one that really resonates with me. Patrick opened his home and his heart to many animals over the years including the dogs Keeper, Flossy, and Grasper in addition to cats Black Tom and Tiger, the geese Victoria and Adelaide, and many birds including Little Dick, Emily’s falcon named Nero, and other wild birds including Rainbow, Diamond, Snowflake, and a pheasant called Jasper. Patrick clearly had a love of all living things and did what he could to ease their suffering ad pain even when he was suffering himself from physical ailments, worry, and grief.
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.
Eight years ago my sister came across a little scruffy dog named Bob during her time studying to be a vet, and just like Emily and Anne, persuaded her family to open our doors to him just like Patrick did with his children’s animals. The result was that we lost our heart to Bob and loved him in both sickness and in health, for over the past eight years, there have been many illnesses and even deaths in the family, and Bob (who became quite the pampered pooch) continued to love his people no matter what. In return, we loved Bob throughout his own illnesses, numerous surgeries, and his own periods of sickness and good health. We weren’t looking for a dog but Bob found us anyway, and in doing so he sought out the family who would cherish and support him through the allergies, the bone diseases, the arthritis, and the bouts with cancer but also people who would walk with him through the laughter, the joy, the travelling, the exploring, and the peace and serenity.
In being re-homed, Bob found a family who would support him through his illnesses and troubles, and we found a soulmate who was the perfect companion, and who understood us completely. Although it was the hardest thing in the world to say goodbye to Bob for the final time three weeks ago, I can honestly say that he changed all of our lives for the better. I think Bob certainly had a bit of the spirit of Patrick Brontë in him, and he certainly enjoyed following in his footsteps around Haworth. He loved to amble around the streets, enjoyed mooching in the churchyard, and even made it into the church once! Although the current church is a post-Brontë construction, he was definitely following in Patrick’s footsteps there. He also loved a visit to the Parsonage garden where Keeper rests in peace and was even allowed into the shop (again, another post-Brontë construction, but once again treading the same ground). Perhaps Bob could sense the spirits of not only those humans who lived and loved in the parsonage, but also the animals named above who must have loved in return.
The simple reason I don’t think I’ll be able to visit the official tribute to Patrick this year is that I just can’t face going to Haworth without Bob yet. Although the last few times we have been, he wasn’t with us, following in his footsteps around the place we knew and loved so well together now that he is gone will be too difficult for the foreseeable future. I will go back one day because I love the Brontës and Haworth, and I love Bob, who also loved everything to do with Haworth and perhaps a bit of his spirit is there in the village along with Keeper, Flossy, Grasper et al. I hope that we have a bit of Patrick Brontë’s spirit in us to inspire us to be kinder and more tolerant of all living things. Perhaps the world would be a better place with more spirits like Patrick’s; it certainly would be with more like Bob the Bichon’s. Rest in peace like Patrick, Bob.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
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.
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All quotes are from The Brontës: A Life in Letters edited by Juliet Baker (Viking, 1997) except “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” which is from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (Wordsworth Classics, 1992) and “explores how illness, poor health and death plagued his life” which is taken from the website of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. (2019).