For the final episode of Season One, I am joined by award-winning journalist and author Sharon Wright whose recent book discovering the life of Maria Brontë reveals the love story behind this legendary family between Maria and Patrick Brontë. Here’s the true story behind some of the greatest works of literature ever written…
Holly Smith: Hello, and welcome to the very last episode in this season of Past Loves – the new weekly history podcast that looks at affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and to touch your romance to daily life. I hope you’re doing well. No Past Loves has not become an ASMR podcast. I’m going to have to apologise straightaway for the state of my voice. We will speed very quickly in today’s interview, firstly, because it’s absolutely smashing and secondly because this pesky infection is hardly conducive to a smooth, calming listening experience. Now, today’s episode acts as the backdrop to some of the greatest literature ever written. We’ll be delving into the world of the Brontë family, in particular Maria and Patrick Brontë. To discuss this delightful pair who were so desperately in love, I’m joined by Sharon Wright and award winning journalist and author of critically acclaimed nonfiction about extraordinary women lost to history. She’s also playwright having written comedies for the stage with sparkling reviews. Her book The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria met Patrick finally sheds light on the untold story of the love between Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë. Maria and Patrick’s story has been overlooked for so long and so it was an absolute pleasure to speak to Sharon. I promise my voice was in fine fettle then. Maria, in particular, is so very obscured by the Brontë history and I hope that this episode offers you and you insight into this iconic name. Sharon writes so evocatively about Maria and Patrick, their lives and loves and if you’re anything like me, you will fall instantly in love with their story. So do stay tuned until the end of the episode to find out exactly how you could win an e-copy of her book for you and a friend. But, for now, here is the love story behind this legendary family…
Welcome Sharon and thank you so much for joining me today.
Sharon Wright: Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Holly: I think we should probably start with Penzance because you give a really evocative portrayal of what life was like there and it’s crucial in the formation of Maria as a person, isn’t it?
Sharon: Absolutely. I think that was one of the the huge chunks of the Brontë story and her story particular that was very much lost. It’s still a surprise to some people that she came from Cornwall. She’s born in Penzance – it’s a very cosmopolitan bustling port during the Georgian era – born in 1783. Born into a wealthy merchant family so she was very much part of the Gentry there. She was a contemporary of Jane Austen. So she had a similar social life. It was the assembly rooms at the top of her street. Her street was the smartest in town. She had access to the Penzance lady’s Book Club, which was a kind of circulating library. We know her reading matter. She got a lady’s magazine which she loved to read all her Gothic stories. She just had a very comfortable life up until the age of 29. She was 29 before she even left Penzance.
Holly: It’s incredible. She really did live a life there and I think you can feel how homesick she is throughout the rest of her life with Patrick in Yorkshire and I think possibly that’s because it was such an inclusive society – she was really able to explore her passions and go to the dance hall and there was a real interesting culture there.
Sharon: Well she had the privileges of her class. If you have enough money not to have to work or support anyone then you can have a fine old time and she did by all accounts. I was just thinking of one of the letters she writes letters why she says to Patrick ‘unless my love for you were very great, how could I so contentedly give up the home and all my friends. A home I love so much but I’ve often thought nothing would bribe me to denounce it for any length of time.’ So when she left, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later, she had no idea that she was never going back. And towards the end of her life, she was incredibly homesick. As she was dying in Haworth, there’s this really poignant little detail we have that she would like to be propped up so she could watch the fire being made as it was made in Penzance. There must be something about the fuel used or the method of lighting it that reminded her of those fireplaces in her home, which I actually saw when I was researching the book.
Holly: An entirely different life! And maybe we could talk a little about Maria’s family because as you mentioned, they were very prominent family – wasn’t her brother mayor at some point?
Sharon: Yes he became mayor after she left Penzance but yes, there were. They were sort of town worthies really. Her father Thomas was a very prominent merchant and churchmen. They were a very prominent Wesleyan family. They actually knew John Wesley themselves and we’re in that sort of inner circle. But also, he built his wealth did Thomas through property through all kinds of businesses, including breweries, he owned a pub, he had a huge merchant shop in the heart of Penzance, imports and exports. And of course, the status that came with that meant that – if you’re a man, obviously this always goes without saying – the male member of that family took the status that came with being prominent citizens, which meant Thomas was what we’d call a counselor now, and her brother, Benjamin, the only brother that made it to adulthood became a Mayor of Penzance. So, of course, Maria would have been a sister of this prominent family, so she would have had that standing.
Holly: Yeah, there were quite a lot of children weren’t there?
Sharon: There were. It’s very tragic one baby after another died within quite a short time before Maria was born. Maria was the 11th of 12 children actually and I say in the book by when she was born, it struck me very forcibly that her poor mother had five children safe in their beds and five children in their graves behind the house in the chapel graveyard. This 11th baby, I mean, you can’t imagine how she felt – what’s gonna happen to this one? Is this one going to thrive? Is this going to die? Are we going through all that again? So, just think it’s, it was very interesting for me to unpick those human details from the very dry family history records really.
Holly: Maria was very small physically, but she thrived and became a very well educated woman. As you mentioned, she was very much part of society. We know she had within this reading group…
Sharon: Yes she was specifically known as witty and popular and clever and quick. Her love letters bear that out really. There are so few resources in her own hand, but we have the nine love letters which are in incredibly expressive and revealing. And yes, she was supposedly what Mrs. Gaskell says she was most popular aunt in the family. She said she was ‘perfectly her own mistress.’
Sharon: They were living on private income after the death of both their parents. She was a lady of Penzance with their own income. People used to come to her for advice. She said she was perfectly ‘I was perfectly my own mistress.’ She actually says that’s Patrick. Before then, really depressingly in a sort of of the time way asked for his control and that she might need a steering hand.
Holly: Yeah well,
Sharon: gabbing about Penzance with her little private income and her balls she obviously didn’t mind.
Holly: No, no, but then in 1812, she got called up to Yorkshire because her aunt was in need of someone who was a very good seamstress and could keep some children under control.
Sharon: Well, this is it. I mean, it’s some way of that is supposition about her being a seamstress but she was very good at sewing and she was popular and clearly had the spirit to undertake such a journey. When her aunt and uncle Jane and John Fennell were given the task of opening a Wesleyan boarding school in Apperley Bridge in West Yorkshire, it was a big deal within the Wesleyan movement. This is before they split off from the Church of England and her poor aunt, who was knocking 60 by then, it was just all too much for her. Of course you open a free boarding school you’re quickly overrun. She wrote to Penzance and invited Maria to come up A. to help her as a sort of junior matron we think and also to be a companion to Jane her cousin who they’d grown up together, but then the Fennells had moved away and this was sort of a reunion for them. So Maria bless her pacted up, set of 400 miles across Georgian England – highwayman, freezing to death. It is a very dangerous, dangerous way of travelling. She turned up late spring, early summer 1812 to the beautiful converted Georgian Manor that was Woodhouse Grove and took up residence.
Holly: The journey was so interesting to read about because she sounded very gutsy being able to make that journey on her own.
Sharon: Very, because, again, a lot of that was researched and detective work because there are very few actual passenger records between 1815, held in any maritime archives, but what we can do is look at the record of the time and the newspapers of the time, the reports of the kind of things that were happening on journeys. We’ve got resources to find out what that kind of travel was like and literally in those two or three months from when she was physically travelling in 1812. There were people, a woman was set upon by maniacs as they put it. They started biting her. There was a lot of highway robbery where wealthy ladies were told to get down on their knees and hand over their rings with a pistol to the head. There were I mean she was well off enough to have been in the nice seats indoors but if you were on the sat on the top people would literally freeze to death and be found dead when they got there. And also it was a staggered journey. So whenever there was a break, she would have to find herself accommodation and food. I mean, quite a gutsy thing to do. But she did, she got there. I mean it’s hard getting from West Yorkshire to Penzance now. Last time I went it took about you know, 15 trains and a donkey because of delays so it was like there
Holly: No it must have been quite hellish by the time you’d actually got got there.
Sharon: She I just think everything we know of her speaks of determination and gutsy, feisty. I mean, she was very pious, very religious. I mean, she wasn’t a rebel as far as we know, in sort of overt ways. But I mean that was quite an undertaking, wasn’t it? 29, single woman: ‘Right. I’m going up to Yorkshire. See what happens, have an adventure. See you later.’ Never seen again.
Holly: 29 is pretty old at that point. People must have been thinking she was going to be a spinster from then on.
Sharon: Yes. I mean, this is an interesting debate that the we always talk about. Her family had quite a tradition of unmarried women who would go into teaching and there’s quite a lot of suggestion that Maria herself would have taught Sunday school in Penzance. But yes, I mean, marriage then was seen as fairly inevitable for most women wasn’t it? But we don’t know, we don’t know whether she had romance or didn’t. And I deliberately didn’t speculate because there has been speculation about Penzance and various names floating but I mean there’s literally no evidence at all. And I kind of think as a woman, maybe she just didn’t maybe she just didn’t see a particularly good role model in her sister Jane, particularly who made a very bad an unhappy marriage and who knows?
Holly: Yeah. If she’s fairly happy that she was perfectly her own mistress you know she could have been very content. But she did meet Patrick. And it was at the school that they first saw each other.
Sharon: Love at first sight. Yeah, absolutely. So, in a nutshell, it was pretty much the sort of evangelical movement that brought them together because she’s born in very far west Cornwall into the middle classes. He’s born in Northern Ireland into the labouring classes and by one way and another this evangelical network draws them together on to a collision course. So she’s at Woodhouse Grove. Patrick has made his way from Ireland all the way up the country through his clerical career. He’s got a curacy in Hartshead, still in Yorkshire but 12 miles away. And his best friend William Morgan – also a clergyman is engaged to Jane Fennell, Maria’s cousin. So William recommended to the Fennells that Patrick should be the external examiner for the school. So Patrick (who walked everywhere bless him A. he was very fit but B. he was poor and he couldn’t even afford a horse – he used to have a staff. It always makes me think of like Moses, marching along this tall man with his staff across the moors) arrived at Woodhouse Grove and he met Maria. Very, very quickly they were a couple, very, very quickly they’re engaged. It’s an absolute whirlwind romance from start to finish. He proposed, we think, at Kirkstall Abbey. It’s this beautiful ruin on the banks of the Aire. And then the first of her letters is dated just after that in August. And the whole of the letters, as you’ll know, has such a modern feeling. It’s just absolutely anguished. Each one thinks the other is going to change the mind or their cooling off or their be misunderstood or it’s absolutely palpable. But she wants to keep it a secret for a while.
Holly: But he doesn’t manage that.
Sharon: No, he’s so happy. He tells his landlord and landlady over at Hartshead, Lousy Farm as it’s called. She tells him off for that but I mean everyone’s guessed by then, she does say that. It’s no big surprise to the Fennells or William that they decided to get married.
Holly: So shall we talk a little bit about Patrick’s childhood because it was extremely different to Maria’s. He was born in (I’m gonna butcher this) Drumballyroney.
Sharon: I’ll leave you with that. Yes, I always struggle with it.
Holly: I’ll take that, yeah it’s fine. And he was the oldest of 10 children to Hugh Brunty and Eleanor but I think she was known as Alice.
Sharon: Alice we think. He was born on St. Patrick’s Day.
Holly: Was he?
Sharon: Yeah the little lovely. So they were very poor when he was born, they were poor farming stock really, although there’s a lot of discussion, and Patrick himself like to fan that a little, that they were descended from the great Bards of Ireland. From the off, he was an exceptional man. And you can see that he is very driven, although he worked as a blacksmith as a young man. He also by 16 was the headmaster of his own little school which is extraordinarily really. He was very a devoted to books, very ambitious, very sort of outward looking, very passionate, put himself into one or two pickles with the local ladies.
Holly: With the ladies yes, am I right in thinking that that’s how he ended up leaving being a teacher?
Sharon: Well, yes, it seems like it. He was caught kissing one of his pupils, which sounds terrible, but I mean, he was only a teenager and I don’t think she was much younger, probably about 15 or 16.
Holly: Yeah, they were fairly close in age.
Sharon: I’m not excusing that, but you know, they were caught and her family were furious and I think they’re just pretty much chased him around town from what we can gather, but yes, he glosses over that himself. He does and he doesn’t because Ellen Nussey – Charlotte Brontë’s great friend – does make reference once to how he liked in later years to sort of talk about his conquests really, it sounds like you know, like spoke about military matters and he liked to talk about the ladies.
Holly: He did have to take a new path and he went to Cambridge to study theology.
Sharon: Yes, well, he became then a tutor, the home of it to the family of a very influential Protestant clergyman who then took him under his wing really and saw his potential and encouraged and supported him in applying to be a student at St. John’s in Cambridge, which had a real tradition of giving poor evangelical men of course. So he was supported in that but he had to make his own way, very always so poor. He was taken a sizar, which is basically like a scholarship so he would be able to study but he also would have duties to support his place there.
Holly: From reading your book, I didn’t know about these kind of positions at Cambridge where he was essentially lower down the rungs socially there. And you were talking about another student who came and he was teaching him how to, where to eat and what eat just to make your way through Cambridge at the time.
Sharon: Yeah, a young poet called White who was also from a working background, I think I think (I’d have to check this) that he was the son of a butcher.
Holly: Yeah, that that rings a bell with me too.
Sharon: Again a very gifted young man, intellectually very capable person and a poet and was recognized as such. But, he writes back right to his mother that Mr. Brontë has been given lots of tips and tricks on how to you know, A. to make ends meet also to still appear respectable because that was important. But yeah, so it’s all about, I mean, really made me think of my student days really you know, how if you everything there was an offer of breakfast and the free cup of tea at lunchtime with whatever it was and you’d be alright then until dinner and these sort of tips.
Holly: And then we’ll fast forward through his early life is a curate and go back to their relationship and just how intense it was for them both meeting. You can really feel her anxiety that everything’s going happen and then she’s also has a moment of quiet, I’m gonna call it a sassy behaviour, where she’s scolding him for not replying quick enough and because she’s it’s so intense this relationship she has.
Sharon: Absolutely and you can see that she’s like you do when you’re young and your love is absolutely hanging on every letter. When the old man who apparently collected and delivered with the purse didn’t have anything for her, she was just fit to be tied and she’d just snatch up her pen. And so I think what’s interesting to me is like because obviously I looked at that in the broader context, say it’s a love story, but it’s also in its time. She’s having a go at being a bit of a rubbish boyfriend for for getting messages or not writing when he said he would. But meanwhile, Patrick, over in Hartshead is in the absolute eye of the storm of the Luddite rebellions. He’s got quite a lot to do.
Holly: Just a few things.
Sharon: Yeah, the fact that he hasn’t penned her a little billet-doux or forgot to mention something about a cake, I kind of feel for him a little. But yes, it’s that absolute anxiety that he’s just forgotten or is his cooling. She’s really worried all time he’s cooling. He obviously as well, from what we can gather from her description of what he said. He talks about ‘oh look I how upset you are’ whilst scolding but actually she’s obviously really happy – what about when I really tell you off? He obviously, as well, panics because he was quite good. He really does panic when he thinks he’s upset her and he writes sort of fiery letters of apology, which he talks about feeling like someone whose shipwrecked at one point. It happens to come in the letter that she’s also talking about real shipwreck, which I thought was really entertaining.
Holly: Yeah, I thought that was such a weird it’s one of those weird coincidences in life that her stuff was being brought from Penzance and never actually arrives because it’s in a shipwreck. And then he’s also writing about this shipwreck to her it’s a very weird
Sharon: Yeah because she obviously looks twice and thinks ‘what? Because I thought you were talking about the real one or you’ve heard about it.’ One of my favourite bits of the research was this shipwreck that Maria mentioned in passing in October I think of 1812, where she’s finally told her sisters and family and Penzance and they’ve sent her things from Cornwall by sea. Now there was a shipwreck where all her little belongings were swallowed by the mighty deep she said or something similar. I thought ‘shipwreck? now that’s exciting.’ So I looked into everything we knew about that shipwreck, and there’s a great deal of work going on about the things that are basically ceased then we know we’re in that, therefore must have come from Penzance and their place in the Brontë story. With my journalistic background that I want to know about the actual shipwreck. I wanted to know what happened, where was it? Who got this stuff back? What do we know about it? And then I worked out that it definitely was this particular ship that was wrecked off of Ilfracombe in North Devon on these rocks at the mouth of the harbour and then had this absolute delightful exchange and friendship that grew with them the Ilfracombe museum which did have certain archives that proved really helpful but they were only in a shoe box donated by this lovely lady who’d just had an interest in late 18th, early 19th century shipping for whatever reason.
Holly: I love people like that.
Sharon: She just done all this research and so I was able to say not only what happened to this ship, paint the scene of the shipwreck itself and who would have gone out to get them these people called the hobblers who were self employed boatmen, and then it turned out that there was a photograph not of them in 1812 obviously, but these hobblers few decades later to a certainly their sons and grandsons of the people who would have saved Maria’s trunk which had her wedding veil in. So I just think all that helps to bring to life this woman and her times and her life and I just found things like that fascinating don’t you?
Sharon: I thought I’m not moving on from that. I need to know about shipwreck like the smuggling caused quite a stir.
Holly: And what did her family think about the proposed marriage between her and Patrick?
Sharon: As far as we know, from the record, they were all for it. And I think a big part of that was that Uncle Fennell had written to Penzance, particularly to her sisters and brother and, and said, you know, ‘it’s a very suitable match because he’s a clergyman. He was respectable. She was very pious.’ And also she had no mother and father by then. So she was in a reasonably vulnerable position, I suppose. Also they were very religious families. So it would have been a good match. It’s fairly classless as much as the clergyman – you could become a clergyman and by default become part of the Gentry in a way.
Holly: I particularly love the story of her marriage to Patrick because they have a very unique wedding day.
Sharon: They do. They have a triple wedding and I do think that the stress of organising that just sort of give a clue I think to the slightly bridezilla moments in her letters. She’s getting quite stressed – ‘I asked you about the cake and you haven’t done it yet.’ So her and Patrick, and Jane Fennel and William Morgan, all good friends decided to have the same wedding day 29th December 1812. They would go from Woodhouse Grove, and they would go to Guiseley which was their parish church a few miles away. Not only that, Jane and Maria were also writing to Maria’s younger sister Charlotte Branwell, who helpfully married a cousin who also is called Branwell so didn’t have to change the words. Same hour, same day, three weddings, two in Guiseley and one in Madron near Penzance. The cousin later wrote saying that she herself had never heard of such a thing. But again, that gives a clue to the fact that it Patrick and Maria’s match was a very welcome one because I think it was Charlotte’s daughter who said her mother always spoke about how devoted he was to her. So yes, I just think that’s amazing, can you imagine how the plotting and the marriage planning, the wedding planning.
Holly: Especially when you’re doing all by letter across the country. That’s extensive. I just also found it mildly amusing the idea of the four of them standing in the church and kind of taking place in which position they were going to be playing that turn around. I just thought it was very sweet.
Sharon: It’s very sweet because both being clergymen they both did the honours for the other couple and then of course, each bride because maid of honour to the other one. So they just did a little dance and Uncle Fennell walked them both down the aisle and Aunt Fennell who was known as the Duchess was effectively, I suppose the mother of both brides. But when she came out she was the first, last and only Mrs. Brontë was Maria and I always find that quite fascinating really and quite poignant. Because it was obviously a love match. He thought they had their whole life ahead of them. He talks very movingly in one of the letters about if we are spare 20 years hence, I hope we’re still as in love as we are now.
Holly: So they were married in 1812 and they became curate and curate’s wife.
Sharon: He’s perpetual curate over at Hartshead which was right near to where the Luddite riots happened. Well it was where the Luddite riots happened.
Holly: And what was that life that early marriage like there?
Sharon: Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it because they were so loved up at the beginning and we know that because it was it was a love match. But also Patrick wrote her for her since very early 1813 and Maria turned 30 in April, he wrote a very lovely poem ‘come Maria let’s walk in the morning air.’ That was for her birthday. It’s a very long, very sweet poem and it just sounds, they’re so blissed out.
Meanwhile, all around them, it’s a very febrile atmosphere that the Luddite prisoners are still waiting their fate in York. There’s a great deal of fear around you know, there’s been a lot of state repression of the uprisings that sparked the riots. So on one hand, they’re very happy they’re in their house, but on the other is still quite a dangerous time. There’s lots of discontent about it. Despite this, she gets pregnant in the summer. I spent a lot of time working out her conception dates. As a journalist I used to work for a, well I used to freelance for a, pregnancy magazine and a pregnancy website so I did know there was such thing as a conception calculator. So I spent quite a lot of time working out roughly when should have gone but I mean only roughly because you don’t know whether people are early or overdue. But yeah, that summer she fell pregnant with the first of the Brontë sisters which was baby Maria, who was named after her mother and was always, I mean she might be mythologised. But Patrick himself just talks in such glowing terms about this girl who was so clever and intelligent and articulate and Charlotte Brontë was absolutely devoted to Maria before she died. So yes, the first of the Brontë sisters was born followed very quickly. I mean, she was pretty much always pregnant after this was Maria, as were a lot of women at that time. She then had a second daughter called Elizabeth who she named after her sister in Penzance who became Aunt Branwell. They moved from Lousy Farm, which was where they were lodging on the moors where she was quite nervous because there could be Luddites still parading around to their first family home, which is Clough House, which is beautiful and I was really privileged to meet the people who live there and to be very welcomed into every house actually that I researched. It means everything I think you’re telling a story to actually go to where they walked and lived and breathed and to sort of get the dimensions of the home, where it was, what it meant to be there. And then when she was pregnant with Charlotte, he did a job swap did Patrick…
Holly: That seemed to be quite off the story a few jobs during his time!
Sharon: So he had nothing but his earnings, whereas a lot of clergymen then were sort of independently wealthy. So there was this curate called Atkinson who wanted to be near a hall where he was courting the daughter of this great house, and Patrick was on the doorstep. So he said ‘do you want to swap with my parish with my curacy rather (they were curacies) in Thornton high on the hill above Bradford?’ And they said yes. It was more money and also it came with the house. So it was their first parsonage was in Thorton. So if you’ve ever been to Thornton, it’s now a lovely restored cafe called Emily’s. And that was the birthplace of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë who were all born in quick succession in Thornton. I call that chapter Mothering Heights because A. I wanted to call the book that but was overruled, but it really was this where she was happy for her most famous children were born. It’s where she herself put pen to paper. She herself had a life other than just being a wife, mother and daughter.
Holly: Yeah, I found it really interesting because I know that Patrick later described the years in Thornton as their happiest years.
Sharon: He does say their happiest days were spent there which is very poignant.
Holly: And I felt it was interesting that the life that she could cultivate there was, in a small way recapturing the society life she had in Penzance, you know, she had friends Which I thought was really interesting but also she was had a lot of tiny children. It must been hard.
Sharon: I was talking to the people who live there who have little children themselves and I just said ‘imagine having six of them’. And they both when ‘OH!’. But, yes, she did. She was pregnant and she had little children but she also had one and then two in the end live-in nursemaids which, I mean, it’s not nothing to have all those children but it’s not nothing either to have two full time live-in maids to help is it. So she was busy and probably but it would have given her some leisure certainly – more leisure than anyone of a lower class would have had. I mean, there’s always a sense that yes, they weren’t wealthy. She certainly wasn’t living the life that she lived in Penzance. But the security that came with being a clergyman meant that it was a job for life. If it was a perpetual curacy it was usually a house for life unless you died or moved on. So there was all about security as well. And also the status of being a pastor’s wife meant that she had entre into all those social circles. She became very friendly with the ladies of Thorton and beyond. And also, I mean, one of the things that I try to develop is what asset she would have been to Patrick, he was very gauche, he struggled with a lot of the rules of society, whereas she knew them inside out and she could ease his way lots of times.
Holly: I always thought it was quite sweet that he was often referred to as a bit odd.
Holly: But you know she didn’t see that, wasn’t fazed by it and just they seem to make the perfect match of aligning each other very well.
Sharon: I like peculiar people I don’t know about you I’m sure people are call me peculiar, interesting, not of the common heard. You know how you sometimes look for the most complex and overthink something I think a very big part of that was the fact that if you went to Dewsbury and the area around there which had a very strong Yorkshire dialect, and he had a very strong Northern Ireland dialect, I’m sure quite a lot of it was just strictly, speaking as a Yorkshire woman who lives in London now, even now people look at my husband and go ‘what did she say?’
Holly: So at this point, with all of these young children, but becoming a real part of the society. She decides to write a book.
Sharon: Well a tract yes.
Holly: Yes, for he local magazine is that correct?
Sharon: Well, we think so – there’s little detail about it. I mean Patrick said ‘keep this because it was written by his wife for publication.’ So I mean, the crucial thing he says if she put pen to paper, intending it to be published, so I mean, that’s quite formative isn’t it in their children’s lives? I think it wasn’t just that dad that put pen to paper mother wrote too. Now what she wrote sadly was a tract called the advantages of poverty, which is quite troubling.
Holly: When you hear it first time round,
Sharon: But they were from evangelical wing and I think – I mean it depends on your own outlook – but I analyse it quite carefully and also because there’s nothing about her and I wanted it to be as big and as fair a testament to her life as possible. I do reprint all her letters and the whole of the tract at the end of the book so people can read it and make their own mind up away from my analysis in a way. For me, I just wanted to be really fair. But it’s quite naive and people do make excuses for it. But I’m afraid I don’t. It’s no worse or better than a lot of evangelical tracts at the time. I mean, it just essentially boil down to the old argument of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Again, I don’t think it matters at all what she wrote. It’s that she wrote at all and not only the girls, the young Brontë daughters or Patrick and little Branwell, it was normal for them for women to have opinions to commit them to paper, to have the ambition to publish and all that I think must have been very formative either they remembered it themselves or they were told about it or they were aware of it.
Holly: And I think in general the Wesleyan way of life, which became Methodist, that seems to very heavily celebrate the importance of education and education for everybody.
Sharon: Absolutely. Well, John Wesley was absolutely committed to the idea of people learning from the Bible and other religious works. Well, in order to do that, they had to be able to read didn’t they? So he was very, very committed to educating the poor, and I think very driven by the idea that in order to be devout and to be able to be informed in their faith and the thoughts of their faith, then they needed to be read about it. As a biographer I wanted to be fairly even handed, but I also have an outlook so I’ve tried to be kind of quite dispassionate about these religious elements A. what was happening, but B. other interpretations of it. And that can leave you open to criticism. But also, I think you have to be true to your own voice do you know what I mean?
Sharon: Absolutely she was very religious, because he’s a clergyman, she’s a clergyman’s wife. But that evangelical movement very interesting, I think and had lots of elements that you could analyse which I do. From the start of their marriage it was part of their lives, part of the Brontë story.
Holly: So how would you describe their approach to parenting?
Sharon: Well, as far as we know, I mean, they’re very, they’re very devoted couple and they’re very loving parents. I mean, they made sure that the children always looked after and there’s accounts from Thornton people at the time and they’d see them tottering about, being taken walks and things. And you know, from what we know later that Patrick was a very understanding and encouraging father wasn’t he? I mean, apart from the large obvious thing that the girls had duties and Branwell is pretty much free to do what he wanted. Apart from that he did encourage them with their education, their reading, their minds. He absolutely saw them as having lives of the mind. And she too, I mean, as far as we know – well we do know that she’s very witty, very literate, very well read herself. She left books to them. It seems to be in a very enlightened atmosphere at home, but it will have been, it’s still 1812-1821. There would have been those constraints, social constraints that would have governed a lot of parenting. But they seem to have been very enlightened and loving parents.
Holly: So they moved to the curacy of Haworth which is of course a very famous place for the Brontës but in the beginning there was quite a lot of…
Sharon: Oh no. Haworth didn’t want them at all.
Holly: They were not happy!
Sharon: I devote a whole chapter to that because I find it so highly entertaining. I call it the resistance because that’s how they were referred to and to me it’s just, you know that thing I always use it when I talk about my dad, ‘you can always tell a Yorkshireman but you can’t tell him much.’ It’s just that ‘oh well you’re not telling us who’s the new curate. We decide.’ There was this very ancient and established tradition based on a charter, and it really was enshrined in a charter, that the trustees of the Haworth parish lands ie the people who owned the lands that paid for the Parsonage and the running of the church chose the curate. But I mean technically it was in the gift of the Vicar of Bradford who was called Henry Heap. So Henry Heap goes over to Patrick and says ‘oh there’s a new job that’s come up. He’s died has the old curate, would you fancy moving to Howarth? Big house. More money.’ And of course Patrick leapt at it, presumably so did Maria, little knowing that Henry had left out quite a large part of the story ie that the trustees absolutely insisted on their right to at least technically co-determine it but effectively choose. So they had this year of just anarchy really where Patrick was going over and it slowly dawned on him that this was not all he’d been sold. He ended up in Thornton, they were rioting. When Henry Heap turned up they slammed the door in his face. And then we don’t know what happened to Patrick but we’re fairly sure it’s what had happened to his predecessor. They just wouldn’t have it and when he got up to preach they would just either riot or hoot or run about and just behave appalling. So eventually, they tried to talk him out of it. It put him in an agonising position. They really didn’t like it until it was given to someone called the Reverend Redhead who went over and he says in his diaries everything that happened. He’d get there, everyone would file in, it would be a packed house and then at a signal from the churchwardens (who were usually also the trustees), they’d give a signal and all hell would break loose. They’d start hooting. They’d start jumping over the pews. They’d start running around. They’d start backing up the aisle.
Holly: Yeah it sounded wild.
Sharon: He says ‘we were driven out like wild beasts.’ And they keep coming back and the Archbishop says ‘If you don’t behave I’ll close the church and I’ll tell the Secretary of State’ or whoever it was, the Lord Chancellor I think. And they just ignored him and carried on. Until finally, he resigned as well and then the Archbishop. By which point Maria was pregnant with Anne Brontë and Patrick was, they were so broke, he was writing again to a charity called the Queen Anne’s Bounty that he can’t make ends meet, my clothes are falling apart. So the archbishop sent Henry Heap into the governors, they had a tempered meeting where they agreed that Patrick could be curate. I also think, you know the famous highstreet, the main street in Haworth? And it’s all with the cobbles.
Holly: Yes very famous pictures always.
Sharon: I felt very very strongly when I was writing that bit in the book that it’s not them skipping along to a new house but it’s still a very hostile, febrile environment really. They will have clip clopped up that street with people saying ‘oh here they come.’ They had to win friends and influence people really. But the Parsonage was lovely. It was a bigger house. It backed onto the moors which became so pivotal as we know to the Brontë masterpieces. And Maria was the mistress of this lovely new house. But even though Haworth is a literary shrine now – it’s known as the absolute epicentre of the Brontë world – for Maria her good days were behind her. She just went there to die effectively. It’s very sad what happened at Haworth.
Holly: It is incredibly sad because she spends the last months of her life in absolute agony, with Patrick nursing her throughout the night. It must have been horrific for them to live through.
Sharon: Absolutely. So they got there at the end of 1820 and the end of January 1821 she just collapsed in agony, carried off to bed. The doctor came and said ‘she’s dying, she’s going cancer and she’ll die tonight’ I think he said. An absolute hammerblow. You can imagine the shock that reverberated around that house can’t you? Six very little children, Anne was still a babe in arms, Maria the oldest was only 6/7. Patrick said he saw her suffer more pain than he’d ever seen anyone endure and she took seven months to die. It was agonising and awful and she was in absolute agony. But he wouldn’t, he got a nurse for during the day but he wouldn’t let anyone else nurse her through the night. So he nursed her all night. I mean you can imagine the pain she was in. So he’d get up in the morning do his duties, his parish duties, then he’d try to keep life normal for his little children and staff. There’s this very moving little description about how they had their daily routines and then I don’t know he’d grab a bit of sleep and then he’d have all night nursing her again for seven months. And again I think it’s here where the detail is so incredibly moving. So he conducted 70 funerals in the graveyard which is literally outside their bedroom window. She grew up with the graveyard at the back of her house in Penzance and she was dying in sight of the one her. Ellen Nussey talks very movingly about how you could always hear to stonemasons chip chip from the Parsonage albeit the death wail that would sound so often because the death rate was so high in Haworth. There he was, lowering people into their graves, wondering, knowing that his wife could be next. I mean it must have been unbearably painful. And yet he nursed her for seven months. It is heartbreaking. And then she did have the evangelical good death. She was shouting out ‘Oh my children’ over and again, died in agony, died bent double with them all around her. And Patrick himself writes very movingly to his friend a couple of months later about how he felt when she was dying and she’d died and he writes so eloquently about the weight of grief and suffering. He didn’t know how he was going to go on but he had to go on. He relied very heavily on his faith and of course he had his six children.
Holly: It must have been incredible taking on six children, loosing the love of your life, knowing how much potential she had.
Sharon: Yeah and he couldn’t save her. He’d run up so many debts trying to get medical advice and his friends helped him pay those off. But he couldn’t save her. I think think it must have been a huge test to his faith and his outlook but his faith did endure. He was a man of great faith. It’s very difficult. I mean you’ll know I really analyse her death, their approach to it, what was said of it, what we know of it, the consequences and also the consequences for Charlotte in particular I think. I found it very interesting analysing Charlotte’s memories of being 5. She always said ‘I was 5 years old when…’ but she never associated that terribly grieving child in that awfully oppressed household with herself trying to running away from home or starting to weigh people up. I think it was terribly formative.
Holly: Absolutely it must have been so painful for all of them and for Patrick to have to keep going especially when Anne was such a baby.
Sharon: I mean she never remembered her mother obviously and by then Elizabeth – Maria’s sister – had come to stay and she’d also made her peace with never going home clearly. Although Patrick did make some wild, tragic, comic attempts to find a new wife. No one wanted the penniless curate with 6 small children surprisingly enough. He gets very judged for that but I think he was clearly beside himself with grief and panic and was just trying to find someone else.
Holly: I think it’s understandable that when you’ve been with someone and it’s been such an intense relationship and then you loose them, you don’t think that you can be on your own to do it. When that’s become your norm to try and attempt to do it on your own must have been so daunting and it’s understandable to try to hold on to someone really quick.
Sharon: But him and Aunt Branwell (and Aunt Branwell gets a terrible press from my research I think she sounds a very spirited woman, noble really), Maria was a Brontë for 9 years and Elizabeth stayed with the Brontës for 20. Their whole family was taken up with that tragedy and the consequences of it. But Patrick and Elizabeth are really good friends and we know that she would tilt argument at him I think Ellen says without consequence and her teapot etched with William Grimshaw – a fire and brimstone preacher from a hundred years earlier.
Holly: So the two oldest daughters Maria and Elizabeth die in 1825 so 4 years after Maria’s death and that just must have been a horrific blow for Patrick.
Sharon: Awful because they were sent off to the Clergy’s Daughters School which Charlotte recreates in Jane Eyre very memorably especially with the character of her sister very thinly disguised. Maria and Elizabeth were sent home and they died of TB very soon after and they were only 10 and 11. So they were laid to rest next to their mother literally a few years after she died. The family vault already had three of his loved ones and that was even by then. The loss of their sisters really had a very profound effect on the rest of the Brontës; they never really forgot them and they never forgave who they believed to have been culpable in that.
Holly: Yeah and I also know that some people think that the fact that they lost Maria as well meant that they formed an even stronger bond having to be each other’s mothers as well as sisters.
Sharon: Yes well Charlotte used to call Maria a little mother because when Maria was very ill, Maria was the oldest sister and she did her best by reading to them. They all looked to her adoringly. So when she died and Elizabeth died, suddenly Charlotte went from the third to the oldest daughter and that changed the dynamics of her whole life really. She obviously did idolise Maria but whose to say she was wrong, she did sound like an extraordinary little girl. Patrick himself talks about her amazing qualities. Poor little Elizabeth though!
Holly: I know she just kind of gets washed over.
Sharon: She was a good housekeeper and she was no bother when she was dying that seems to be the whole child bless her!
Holly: And I think the loss of Maria was palpable in their stories as well because a lot of the women in their stories don’t have mothers.
Sharon: Yeah I mean it was a convention in certain writing to have heroes and heroines without parents but yeah absolutely, all their most famous and enduring characters were motherless apart from Agnes Grey – and I can’t think of Tenant. But in Agnes Grey obviously Anne (or the pretend Anne) comes from a very happy family. But Anne was certainly close to or petted by Aunt Branwell who she probably saw as a mother more than her real mother. But yeah that motherless status runs through the Brontë works. I think certain ones, particularly The Professor where the main character talks in really painful terms about his mother who died when he was very little. There’s a portrait of her that he finds really difficult. He wants the portrait of her but then he finds it really painful and thinking about her it’s all very complicated. I think that probably does echo Charlotte’s feelings.
Holly: I think in a nicer way there is still part of their happier lives together there. I think you can feel Maria’s intelligence and whit in Agnes Grey, the squire’s daughter marries the poor priest.
Sharon: Yes they don’t approve in that one.
Holly: No. So I still think you can feel a happier relationship and influence.
Sharon: Yes I mean it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s difficult with the Brontës not to just talk about doom and gloom.
Holly: Yes it’s very difficult!
Sharon: But yes they all lived before they died. What I found really interesting was plotting the gothic elements from Maria, her cornish upbringing, all the myths and legends that swirled about her upbringing, her absolute devotion to the gothic (particularly the female gothic) in the ladies magazine of the time which was absolutely a vehicle for female critic and opinion and talent. And she loved those. Charlotte actually references three of those stories and I spent such a long time tracking those stories down and sort of analysing what they told us. Charlotte says ‘ah I wished I’d been alive in its heyday. I would have written for them.’ You don’t have to look very far into the Brontës’ work for the gothic – mad woman in the attic, Wuthering Heights, Wildfell Hall, all those. I think absolutely there’s a very strong sense of legacy, maternal legacy in the work of the Brontës and I think you find it in both subtle and obvious ways.
Holly: And what do you think their legacy as a couple should be?
Sharon: That it was a love story, absolutely love story and I was think of it as the prequel or the backstory to the Brontës. Without this central love story there would be no Wuthering Heights, there would be no Jane Eyre, there would be no Cathy and Heathcliff. It was an absolute love match and it was an incredibly unlikely match because they were from different backgrounds, they were from different classes, they were from absolute opposite ends of the land. So what was the chance of their A. meeting and falling in love and then having this family like no other. They really are a family like no other the Brontës aren’t they?
Holly: They absolutely are. Well I think that’s a lovely place to finish, thank you so much for talking to me – it’s been a joy.
Sharon: Well you too thank you so much and thank you for concentrating on the love story.
Holly: And thank you for listening. What a couple to end the series on, I am really so happy to have included Maria and Patrick’s story as their love really did change literature forever. It is a heart-breaking end of course but I like to think about the time they did get to spend by each other’s side. After all, they were the love of each other’s lives and through that they created the most incredible legacy with their deeply deeply talented children. Sharon’s book The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick which is published by Pen & Sword is now available on Amazon and at your favourite book shop. There is so much detail about the couple’s lives, it is such a rich story that if you have enjoyed today’s conversation you really must delve into. And you have the chance right now to win an e-copy of the book for you and a friend in the competition that I am currently running with independent publishers Pen & Sword over on my Instagram page @pastlovespodcast. In this giveaway not only will you and a friend both receive a copy of Sharon’s ebook but you will also receive Dickens’ Artistic Daughter Katey: Her Life, Loves and Impact by Lucinda Hawksley who joined me in episode 3 to talk about Kate and Carlo Perguini. It really is an amazing prize and you have until 6pm UK time on 21st July 2020 to enter. Just head to the show notes and you will find a link straight to the place to enter, as well as all of the T&Cs. A very good luck to you. [This competition is now closed] Right well, Instagram is probably also the very best place to find me in this break until season 2, be sure to follow me their for more stories of love and affection in history. Thank you once again for listening to this episode and the series it has been an absolute joy. I’m going on voice rest until season 2 – goodbye for now!