IN THE summer of 1821, Elizabeth Branwell made the long journey from Cornwall to Yorkshire in response to the Revd Patrick Brontë’s cri de cœur, as her sister, Maria Branwell Brontë, was dying of cancer. “Aunt Branwell’s” third journey north proved to be her last, as Maria’s agonised death in Hawarth Parsonage on 15 September 1821 left six small children without a mother.
The story of those children’s upbringing, of the ground-breaking literary careers of three of them, and of all their premature deaths, leaving Patrick in stoical isolation, was told by Charlotte’s friend Elizabeth Gaskell in 1857, and has been sifted in numerous biographies ever since.
Less familiar is the story of the Branwell sisters’ own upbringing in Penzance, where their father was a prosperous grocer and tea-importer (also a smuggler, Sharon Wright would have us believe), and their mother a member of the well-to-do Carne family. Five Branwell babies had died before Maria was born on 15 April 1783, and two more were to follow them into the Wesleyan chapel graveyard.
Having survived childhood, Maria herself set off for Yorkshire in 1821, when she was called to help her aunt Jane on the domestic side of a new Wesleyan boarding school where Patrick Brontë was the visiting examiner in Classics. After a whirlwind romance and a double wedding, “Pat” and Maria soon fell into the familiar pattern of annual pregnancies and growing responsibilities
A photograph of the solid Georgian house in Chapel Street, Penzance, once the home of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, contrasts vividly with the small two-roomed cottage at Emdale in the parish of Drumballyroney, where Pat Prunty was born in 1777, the eldest of ten children. Patrick’s journey from rural Ireland to industrial Yorkshire, via a sizarship at St John’s College, Cambridge, was traced with skill and tact by Dudley Green a decade ago. Green made good use of Patrick’s letters, which he had also edited, in his biography.
brontë societyMaria Branwell Brontë, in a watercolour later copied by her daughter Charlotte
Wright, a freelance author, journalist, and playwright, prints a handful of Maria’s letters in an appendix to The Mother of the Brontës, together with Maria’s contribution, “The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns”, to an Evangelical periodical. But she makes little of this source material, preferring instead to concentrate on the colourful stories of those who surrounded Maria, ranging from the pirates of Penzance to the Yorkshire tykes of Haworth.
The gaping void at the centre of this book is Maria herself, about whom almost nothing is known, as Green and others have acknowledged. This is background, not biography.
Patrick told Mrs Gaskell that Maria was charming, “an excellent wife and mother, and a highly respected member of Society”. She had “sound sense”, an “affectionate disposition”, and “delicate tact and taste”. And that’s about it. Much else is guesswork, dressed here in a style that combines modern slang with clichés worthy of Barbara Cartland. Maria, we are told “loved to curl up with” a copy of The Lady’s Magazine, Cambridge is described as “that chocolate-box town”, and the young couple are brought together at Woodhouse Grove school on a “blind date, or at least a blind pot of tea”.
The religion that shaped the lives of this devout couple is treated as something of a joke. We are informed, for example, that St Paul was “never a fan of marriage at the best of times”, that Patrick carried a staff “like a moorland Moses”, and that, for the young couple, “there was more to life than going to church”.
Readers are advised not to buy this pleasantly packaged but empty book.
Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, a former Lay Canon of Winchester, and author of English Fiction of the Victorian Period.
The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria met Patrick
Pen and Sword £19.99