THE BRONTES IN HALIFAX
My food is but spare, begins The Cottager’s Hymn,
And humble my cot,
Yet Jesus dwells there
And blesses my lot.
Such is the theme and style of the poetry. In the introduction, Patrick is forthright in his explanations of its purpose: Cottage Poems … is chiefly designed for the lower classes of society … For the convenience of the unlearned and poor, the Author has not written much… has aimed at simplicity, plainness, and perspicity, both in manner and style. The poems are fairly simple, their arguments easy to grasp, perhaps naïve in parts, yet coloured by a personalised conviction:
Though thinly I'm clad,
And tempests oft roll,
He's raiment, and bread,
And drink to my soul.
The Reverend, having travelled from Ireland to Shropshire and eventually to Yorkshire, was an accomplished writer, being the author of a great many letters to, among other papers, The Leeds Mercury, in which he wrote earnestly on subjects such as education, labour rights and the need for decent housing, and in his poetry he just as zealously rebuked the slipping standards of society, material greed and vain hopes - comparing the latter to spiders’ webs blown apart by winds.
In 1810 came his first poetry publication, a poem composed and published in a newspaper while he was living in Dewsbury, near Bradford, where he worked as a curate. In keeping with its author’s firm belief in Christian modesty, Winter Evening Thoughts, appeared anonymously, but its vivid depictions of the lives of the poor are clearly intended to make an impact:
Where blinking embers scarcely glow,
And rushlight only serves to show
What well may move the deepest sigh,
And force a tear from pity's eye.
You there may see a meagre pair,
Worn out with labour, grief and care.
A year later, and now happy to gain recognition for his writing, Bronte produced his Cottage Poems, written in his leisure hours while pursuing his duties as a curate, and including a re-written version of his earlier published piece. In a newspaper advertisement he delightedly described how When released from his clerical avocations, the Author was occupied in writing ... from morning till noon, and from noon till night, his employment was full of real, indescribable pleasure such as he could wish to taste as long as he lives.
"Indescribable pleasure" seems almost anathema to such a straight-laced man of traditional values, whose advice to a younger man urged restraint, forbearance and a plea to
Remember still to fear the Lord,
To live, as well as preach, His word,
And wield the Gospel's two-edged sword,
(Epistle To A Young Clergyman)
Religion, clearly, formed the chief concern in Patrick Bronte’s view of life, and his political beliefs were accordingly built around this central anchor. While instrumental in the installation of a new irrigation system designed for healthy drinking, he also worked as a school examiner, organised the building of a Sunday School, and felt it his duty to inculcate his Christianity into the young. His most overtly political poem, Epistle to the Labouring Poor, begins, much like Shelley’s Song To The Men of England, with a descriptive overview of the poem’s collective subjects, as defined by their daily work:
All you who turn the sturdy soil
or ply the loom with daily toil
And lowly on through life turmoil
For scanty fare
but there are few further similarities with Shelley’s impassioned plea for Revolution. Instead of encouraging the workers to "forge arms", he urges them to attend to his advice, which is, he assures us,
freely penned, devoid of art,
In homely style, '
Tis meant to ward off Satan's dart,
And show his guile.
The general message of the ensuing poem is that those labouring to make money for those in all the pomp of wealth and pride should realise that the rich are rarely happy anyway, for the more they get the more they want. The poet ends by reminding the lumpen-proletariat that though you dwell in cots obscure, All guilty, ragged, hungry, poor, their lot is actually a good one, since the love of God can be counted on throughout the years of hardship.
The focus on patient endurance chimes with the writing of his wife - in 1812, Patrick married Maria Branwell, a Cornish lady who met him on a visit North, and whose sole published work was to be a pamphlet mirroring many of her husband’s attitudes, entitled The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns. Against the flaming backdrop of the Luddite riots, the turmoil of Revolutionary Europe, and the fight for Catholic Emancipation - a cause to which the Anglican was sympathetic as his letters to the papers show - it is perhaps not surprising that this compassionate, yet nonetheless characteristically cautious and unobtrusive man might take a somewhat more guarded approach to politics than young radicals such as Shelley. Although supporting industrial legislation aimed at stemming the exploitation of the infant poor, and educational schemes designed to boost the chances of their betterment, the churchman was less concerned with ameliorative assaults on poverty, than with encouraging his readers to accept their lot, at least in the short term, and see their suffering in the context of faith:
Christ says to all with sin oppressed,
'Come here, and taste of heavenly rest,
Receive Me as your friendly guest
Into your cots;
In Me you shall be rich and blest,
Though mean your lots.
And yet, not all of the clergyman’s poetry was dominated by piety, at least not overtly. The poet who describes almost threateningly how
God in thunder spoke
His fiery Law, whilst curling smoke,
In terror fierce, from Sinai broke,
Midst raging flame!
Could also celebrate the wonders of the natural world:
Throughout the cloudless sky
Of light unsullied blue,
The larks their matins raised,
Whilst on my dizzy view,
Like dusky motes,
They winged their way
Till vanished in
The blaze of day.
The linnets sweetly sang
On every fragrant thorn,
Whilst from the tangled wood
The blackbirds hailed the morn;
For the most part, though, Patrick Bronte was a poet concerned with temperance and self-restraint:
And dress nor slovenly nor gay,
Nor sternly act; nor trifling play;
Still keep the golden middle way
Whate'er betide you;
And ne'er through giddy pleasures stray,
Though fools deride you.
It is difficult to imagine Patrick’s son Branwell, known for his sociable, pleasure-seeking lifestyle, conforming to these puritanical suggestions. Branwell’s tragic life was cut short after several torrid years struggling with illnesses, thanks to which he eventually succumbed to opium, a substance that, along with his addictive need for alcohol, battered him both physically and mentally. One of the happier periods of the young man’s life, though, came in the early 1840’s, when he lived and worked as a railway clerk first at Sowerby Bridge, and then at Luddenden. In The Brontes, Juliet Barker writes how the chief merit of his new job was his proximity to the literary, artistic and musical circles of Halifax, a town long renowned for its culture. John Frobisher, the organist at Halifax Parish Church, was a prolific organizer of concerts … there were regular, if bizarre, lectures in the town and, in December, a newly refurbished and reorganized Halifax Theatre opened …
As for his father before him, Halifax proved a significant place for Branwell Bronte, but his presence in the area was preceded by that of his sister Emily, whose experiences were somewhat different.
My sister Emily, wrote Charlotte Bronte to her friend Ellen Nussey in September 1838, is gone into a situation in a large school of nearly forty pupils, near Halifax.This school, presided over by the sister of a Halifax banker, was Law Hill, Southoworam, a girls’ school which opened in 1825 on the site of a former warehouse. Emily Bronte, aged nineteen, arrived at Law Hill to work in a senior capacity, replacing the sister of its Headmistress, who had helped in the running of the school but had left to marry. It was to be a most fortuitous appointment.
Law Hill, writes Juliet Barker, stands in glorious isolation high on a hillside with panoramic views across miles of open moor and farmland. From Southworam can be seen the famous Shibden Hall - home of 18th Century gardener and diarist Anne Lister. Halifax lies directly below, and in 1838 would have spread out like a chequer-board of Yorkshire stone buildings, viewable from some of the higher outposts along the hills which climb its edges, far enough away not to clog the moorland air with soot or fumes, but near enough to give the school’s pupils - and by extension their teachers such as Emily - an enviable proximity to exhibitions and museums. Rich on the spoils of their industries, the powerful families of Halifax enjoyed the good life, and unlike bigger Northern industrial epicentres, the town did not grow into a combustive glut of over-crowded slum lands and smog-swaddled squalor. Juliet Barker refers to it as the wealthy and cultured town of Halifax,and points out that Halifax attracted eminent musicians from all over Europe. In terms of location, therefore, Law Hill had everything to please Emily.
Elizabeth Patchett was in charge of the school, and by all accounts controlled it with a rod of iron. Someone living near the school is reported to have said she was "stately and austere … she knew how to keep things in order," but this orderliness did little for the spirit of the poetic Emily, who told her sister Charlotte in a letter that the school’s regime involved hard labour from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half hour of exercise in between. It is scarcely to be wondered at, then, that she remained in post for only around six months, returning to Haworth the following spring.
Yet whatever the hardships of the job and culture at Law Hill, the period spent there appears to have had an inestimably positive effect on Emily Bronte’s writing. For a start, several poems were composed which offer stirring insights into their writer’s mind, as well as demonstrating an acute proficiency of style. In The Bluebell, the poet sets the stage with scenes as cold as the climate, metaphorical and physical, in which she found herself at Law Hill:
The trees are bare, the sun is cold;
And seldom, seldom seen;
The heavens have lost their zone of gold
The earth its robe of green;
And ice upon the glancing stream
Has cast its sombre shade
And distant hills and valleys seem
In frozen mist arrayed
How do I yearn, how do I pine
For the time of flowers to come,
And turn me from that fading shine
To mourn the fields of home
And elsewhere we find a longing for the onset of the spring,
Where the lark - the wild sky-lark was filling
Every breast with delight like its own.
In the very grip of winter, on the 12th of January 1839, when she would have been in the midst of her work at Law Hill, Emily Bronte composed the following, one of the starkest and most bitingly detailed of her poems thus far, blending the fairytales of "Gondal" - the mythic land of fantasy narratives concocted between the poet and her sisters and brother as children - with richly Gothic undertones:
THE NIGHT WAS DARK YET WINTER BREATHED
THE night was dark, yet winter breathed
With softened sighs on Gondal's shore;
And though its wind repining grieved,
It chained the snow-swollen streams no more.
How deep into the wilderness
My horse had strayed, I cannot say;
But neither morsel nor caress
Would urge him farther on the way.
So loosening from his neck the rein,
I set my worn companion free,
And billowy hill and boundless plain
Full soon divided him from me.
The sullen clouds lay all unbroken
And blackening round the horizon drear,
But still they gave no certain token
Of heavy rain or tempest near
I paused, confounded and distracted,
Down in the heath my limbs I threw;
But wilder as I longed for rest,
More wakeful heart and eyelids grew.
It was about the middle night
And under such a starless dome,
When gliding from the mountains height,
I saw a shadowy spirit come.
Her wavy hair on her shoulders bare,
It shone like soft clouds round the moon;
Her noiseless feet, like melting sleet,
Gleamed white a moment, then were gone.
What seek you now on this bleak moor brow,
Where wanders that form from heaven descending?
' It was thus I said as her graceful head
The spirit above my couch was bending.
This is my home where whirlwinds blow,
Where snowdrifts round my path are swelling;
'Tis many a year, 'tis long ago,
Since I beheld another dwelling.
When thick and fast the smothering blast
I’ve welcomed the winter on the plain,
If my cheek grew pale in its loudest gale,
May I never tread the hills again.
The shepherd had died on the mountain-side,
But my ready aid was near him then;
I led him back o'er the hidden track
And gave him to his native glen.
' When tempests roar on the lonely shore
I light my beacon with seaweeds dry,
And it flings its fire through the darkness dire
And gladdens the sailor's hopeless eye.
' And the sea-birds noisy I love to keep,
Their timid forms to guard from harm;
I have a spell, and they know it well,
And I save them with a powerful charm.
' Thy own good steed on his friendless bed
A few hours since you left to die;
But I knelt by his side and the saddle untied,
And life returned to his glazing eye.
To a silent home thy feet may come,
And years may follow of toilsome pain;
But yet I swear by that burning tear,
The loved shall meet on its hearth again.'
Sprites, the ghostly, the undead, convey semblances of hope, familiarity, reunion. One thinks of the multitude of graves at Haworth, of the snowdrifts and impenetrable moors, witness to a thousand generations, the poet’s "native glen," laid out like a memory beyond the hills of Halifax. Up at Southowram, even on a summer’s day the winds and rain can make one feel detached from the metropolis below, as if perched upon some island in the sea. Almost two centuries ago, this element of seclusion must have been yet more pronounced, intensifying loneliness and sequestering the author in a distant, unforgiving world, cut off from everyday society. In such environments, the imagination might run wild. In her 1986 book about Patrick Bronte’s extraordinary children, Joan Rees comments on the Walker family - erstwhile owners of the Law Hill building - and their adopted nephew, Jack Sharp, whose family dynamics provided her with the bare bones of the plot she was later to expand on with such consumate skill in Wuthering Heights.
Tired, ill, and taking few happy memories, Emily Bronte was to leave Halifax in the spring of 1839, going home to Haworth, where she recuperated, undertook the management of the parsonage, and, after months of creative inactivity, began once more to write.
The time at Law Hill was short-lived and for the most part hardly happy. Yet, imprinted on her mind, it provided Emily Bronte with a building block for something neither she, nor her family, could ever have expected. Almost as if the experiment at Southworam had never happened, it was to the safety, the security, the oddly sanctifying wildernesses of Haworth that she returned to refuge, consigning Law Hill, its school and people, to the past. Yet some years later, Charlotte Bronte was to promote the creation of a story rooted in the wild moors of the North of England composed by her sister, "a homebred country girl". The lonely days on the snow-choked lanes and wintry hills which survey the outskirts of Halifax, the very town from which the phenomenal Bronte family’s first literary mark was made in the form of the unsophisticated but impassioned poetry of an idealistic clergyman more than thirty years previously, had finally come to roost. In December 1847, Wuthering Heights was published.