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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

29 April 2022

Malcolm Guite visits Brontë country — and is moved in a way he did not expect

WHEN you walk into a pub where the four real ales on offer are called, respectively, Anne, Branwell, Charlotte, and Emily, then you know you are in Brontë country. Mind you, I didn’t need the ales to remind me; for I had come to the King’s Arms in Haworth directly from the Brontë Parsonage Museum. So my mind was full of the brilliance, compassion, and tragedy woven through the personal stories of those astonishing storytellers.

The museum is beautifully laid out, and contains many treasures — not least the desks, pens, quills, notebooks, and manuscripts of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily, from the tiny books that they made when they told stories to and about Branwell’s toy soldiers as children, to the copies, translations, and correspondence that flowed from the huge success of Jane Eyre.

I love standing in the studies of writers I admire, and seeing the very desks on which they wrote. It gives me a kind of happy vertigo: a sense of the finite giving rise to endlessly generative spirals of the infinite. From these small, folding desks flowed the great worlds of the novels, and not just the world of the novel as it was written, but the new world that each new reading of the novel forms in the active imagination of each new reader — all those worlds began here, generated from the single generous act of imagination, engendered faithfully with pen and quill at these little desks.

But, curiously, it was not the rooms of the successful writers that moved me most, but the room of the Brontë who died in disappointment and apparent failure: Branwell, the brilliant son and much-loved brother, on whom such great expectations were laid, and who could not, in the end, bear the burden of them. He had tried careers as an artist and a writer, and, when these seemed to founder, had been a railway clerk and a tutor, and, when even these smaller ambitions failed, he spent his final years almost bedridden, struggling with depression and dependent on alcohol and opium.

And yet he had left all around him, scattered like Sibylline leaves, the evidence of his genius: translations of Horace, powerful portraits of himself and his sisters (he later erased himself from that family group), and, of course, the inspiration he himself gave to the others, all apparently amounting to nothing, he must have thought, in those last, desperate years.

And yet it was their loving father, the Revd Patrick Brontë — hard-pressed clergyman and perpetual curate — who looked after his tragic son, and loved him as deeply as his brilliant daughters. On Easter Day — the day before my visit to the museum in Hawarth — I heard a very moving sermon in the little church in Stanbury, which Charlotte’s husband had founded as a Sunday school:

“How early on that first day was the resurrection?” the preacher asked. “We think of it as coinciding with the dawn, but we would be wrong. The women arrived ‘whilst it was yet dark’ to find the tomb empty — the resurrection had already happened. God was most powerfully at work in the deep darkness well before the dawn. He does not wait for the light to dawn in our lives before he comes to find and raise us, but it is just when things seem most dark and hopeless for us, long before dawn, that he makes his move.”

I remembered that sermon, standing in Branwell’s room, and prayed for him, and for so many others I’ve known like him, and for the bit of me that is like him, too — prayed that we might all find our peace in Christ and rise with him in glory.

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