Sunday, 8 June 2008

Patrick Bronte


The Reverend Patrick Bronte -- who died on June 7th, 1861 -- is the subject of a new biography by Dudley Green. I just reviewed the book for the Times (it appeared yesterday, on the anniversary of his death), and here it is again, for anyone who might be interested:

What made Patrick Bronte the father of genius? It’s a question that has perplexed the biographers of his more famous daughters, from Mrs Gaskell onwards, but never fully answered. Dudley Green, a former chairman of the Bronte Society, is the most recent in a long line of biographers, though unusual in that his attention is fully focused on Patrick Bronte, the first to do so in over 40 years.
Green’s aim is explicit: to rehabilitate a man misunderstood and maligned by the Bronte myth since Mrs Gaskell published her ‘Life of Charlotte Bronte’ in 1857. But unlike Gaskell’s portrayal of Patrick as “a remote father given to eccentric behaviour and strange fits of passion”, Green believes him to have been a kindly and loving parent with “a keen interest in his children’s development and an able and faithful clergyman, who was ever sensitive to the pastoral needs of his parishioners.”
If this sounds worthy, verging on the dull, then the Patrick Bronte who emerges from the pages of Green’s biography is far more compelling. Born into a poor Irish farming family in County Down on 17th March 1777 (St Patrick’s Day), he was the eldest of ten children, and exceptionally intelligent, becoming a schoolteacher at 16, and then, with the support of his local vicar, entering St John’s College, Cambridge at the age of 25. He studied hard, winning academic prizes on his path to ordination, but also found time to serve under the future Lord Palmerston in the volunteer militia, during a period marked by fears of French invasion.
By the time of his marriage in December 1812 to Maria Branwell, Patrick was a Yorkshire curate, and already a published poet. Six children were born in rapid succession: Maria in 1814, Elizabeth in 1815, Charlotte in 1816, Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818, and Anne in 1820. In April that year, the Bronte family moved to Haworth, where Patrick was appointed curate; his wife fell ill soon afterwards, and died of cancer in 1821.
According to Mrs Gaskell, the children’s life after their mother’s death was bleak, with some of the most vivid scenes of her book suggesting an upbringing as harsh as ‘Wuthering Heights’: “Mr Bronte wanted to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasures of eating and dress… he went at his object with unsparing earnestness of purpose. Mrs Bronte’s nurse told me that one day when the children had been out on the moors, and rain had come on, she thought their feet would be wet, and accordingly she rummaged out some coloured boots which had been given them by a friend… These little pairs she ranged round the kitchen fire to warm; but, when the children came back, the boots were nowhere to be found; only a very strong odour of burnt leather was perceived. Mr Bronte had come in and seen them; they were too gay and luxurious for his children, and would foster a love of dress; so he had put them into the fire. He spared nothing that offended his antique sympathy.” Gaskell also has Patrick cutting up his wife’s silk dress, setting the hearthrug on fire and sawing up chairs in irrational fits of rage, reminiscent of Heathcliff.
Dudley Green is not the first to show this to be based on the gossip of a disgruntled servant dismissed from the Parsonage, but his rebuttal is scrupulously detailed, using the evidence of the children themselves. Whereas Mrs Gaskell told the tale that the Bronte children “had nothing but potatoes for their dinner”, Green quotes Emily and Anne’s diary on 24 November 1834: “We are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding.”
None of which explains the origins of genius, but the details of Green’s biography are intriguing, nevertheless. We learn of Patrick Bronte’s encouragement of his children’s writing (he provided a wide variety of books for them to read – including volumes by Milton and Scott – along with newspapers that stimulated their avid interest in politics). Green also cites Charlotte’s school friend, Ellen Nussey, who first visited the Parsonage in 1833: “Mr Bronte at times would relate strange stories, which had been told to him by some of the oldest inhabitants of the parish, of the extraordinary lives and doings of people who had resided in far-off, out-of-the-way places… stories which made one shiver and shrink from hearing; but they were full of grim humour and interest to Mr Bronte and his children.” And while his own writing – including several published books of poetry and stories – is not of great literary merit, he nevertheless provided a clear example to his children of the pleasures and possibilities of authorship.
One might cast Patrick as a tragic figure – he survived long after his wife and his six children, all of whom died too young – yet Green’s portrait is of a stoic character, who never lost faith, serving his congregation in Haworth for forty years, successfully campaigning for their right to schooling and clean water. He died on June 7th 1861, at the age of 84, mourned by hundreds of local villagers, who knew him as far more than the father of Charlotte Bronte.
Dudley Green sees it as a measure of Patrick Bronte’s tolerance and forbearance that he had supported Gaskell in the writing of her biography, and defended her from critics afterwards, despite the inaccuracies in her account of him. Or perhaps this reveals Bronte’s own understanding of the complications of what it might mean to be a writer searching for the truth. According to Mrs Gaskell, he had encouraged Charlotte during her writing of ‘Villette’ to let the hero and heroine ‘marry and live happily ever after.’ But his own life has something of the singularity of his daughters’ fictional characters, evading conventional narratives or happy-ever-afters, expressing rage as well as piety, and seeming all the more vividly true as a result.

16 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

That is a good review Justine, it sounds like an interesting book...his eccentricities were passed onto his children I think.


I remember seeing a scene in a movie as a kid, which I took to being real - of an older man grilling his children as to what books were best, with the Bible being the most important. To my childish imagination, I decided to remember this, just in case I was grilled in a likewise fashion in future years. Alas I was not. yet a few years ago, in a bout of insomnia, I turned on the t.v and it was the same scene, from a movie about the Brontes...!

For all his strangeness ( I think I remember reading he used to shoot the gun out of Emily's window every morning or am I getting mixed up somehow with Mary Poppins????) I think it shows he had a real strength of character to feed his children's imaginations, letting them read what they could...

His birthdate is interesting too, all those 7's....

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

It was a fantastic review. It's good to see Patrick Brontë vindicated at last.

Cristina.

Justine Picardie said...

Gondal-girl -- it's intriguing that we have the same childhood references, despite living thousands of miles apart. I was haunted as a child from a scene in a television adaptation of 'Wuthering Heights', when a ghostly little hand came in at the window, and was then savagely cut against the broken glass. I used to dream about that, and about Mary Poppins -- the books, which are far darker than the Disney version.
And yes, apparently Patrick did shoot his gun out of the window every day, but it was for some practical reason that I can't now remember. Cristina at Bronte Blog will know the answer. Cristina! We need your expertise!

BrontëBlog Adm. said...

Phew, Justine, I thought the call upon my so-called expertise would be something much, much worse!

Patrick Brontë lived practically in the heart of the movement during the Luddite riots and, as he wasn't very compromising with either party, he started keeping a loaded by his bed at night.

Things moved forward and nothing happened to him except the custom stuck even after he arrived much later in Haworth and he kept loading the gun every night. Having a loaded gun during daytime was of course quite dangerous so he discharged it out of his window every morning. Some marks on the church tower opposite could or could not have been made by his pistol.

Hope I helped!

Cristina.

Justine Picardie said...

Thsnk you Cristina! I knew you would have all the right details...

Gondal-girl said...

thanks Cristina that solves the riddle - I did do an earlier reply, but that didn't show up on the comments list...mysterious ( bloody merc retro)....will see if i can refind.

Still, it is an odd 'custom' to keep, slightly obsessive...

Gondal-girl said...

Found my earlier post sent before Cristina's solving the riddle...not sure why it didn't come up, as it says it did in gmail...forgive me if the other one re-appears....

Yes, I find these connections both eerie and exciting...I didn't get to read Wuthering Heights until University, the ghostly Cathy and the broken glass shocked and thrilled me - there is a closet bed at Vaucluse House museum in Sydney, and it is very creepy and reminds me of it greatly ( also apparently in the children's rooms the first smell of the day upon opening is regularly chocolate...which is much less haunting than the closet bed).

P.L Travers who wrote Mary Poppins was Australian, and a big theosphist ( not sure how to spell) / Golden Dawn people....very interesting bio of her called, 'Out of the Sky she Fell...." Had massive issues with Disney, particular about the fictional love relationship between Bert and Mary. Travers, is one of those fabulous Australian women who changed their identity to escape....

Would love to know why Patrick shot his gun out the window, though I am sure there is a twist to whatever explanation that Cristina can offer....almost heading to the Bronte books on the shelf to scour reference....

Justine Picardie said...

I'm going to order that biography of P.L Travers. Here's another nice coincidence for you -- she was published by Peter Davies, Daphne du Maurier's cousin, and Henri's great uncle, who also appears in my book.

Gondal-girl said...

Yikes, these co-incidences are mounting up!
I also remember she was great friends with Irish poet George Moore....

Felicity said...

Dear Justine,

I discovered your blog today and I think I have spent the whole day catching up on it - it is just wonderful! You write with an incredible warmth of character and I feel I have learnt so much and I cannot wait to keep following!

Childhood holidays in Fowey guaranteed a love affair with Du Maurier. I, therefore, read 'Daphne' when it first came out and needless to say was totally captivated by it - I then came to the Oxford Literary Festival to hear you speak; what an excellent evening! I have since been spreading the word and presenting the book to a number of friends - after all who can resist Du Maurier or the Brontes?!

You have also inspired me to organise a trip to Haworth in July - I cannot wait to discover some of the history and atmosphere there and only feel embarrassed that I have not felt the compunction to visit earlier!

I am currently working my way through the Virago 30th B'day editions that you have been talking about too - 84 Charing Cross Road really having captured my heart. Not only Helene Hanff’s generosity and humour but also it reminded me that of my own correspondence with a bookshop in Curzon Street. Although my letters are nothing compared to Helene's, it is odd that I live so close by to the shop but have resisted collecting the books by hand, instead preferring to continue, for over a year now, with handwritten letters in response to them successfully feeding my appetite for all books Mitford related. They even include handwritten invoices and the books arrive beautifully wrapped in brown paper and string. Surely something to be said about the otherworldly nature of books – what better way to remove oneself from reality than with a book and moreover one seeped in history and indeed mystery! Where on earth would we be without them??!!

With warmest wishes,

Happy Blogging!

Justine Picardie said...

Felicity -- welcome to the blog, and thank you for your encouraging comments -- I'm so glad you enjoyed 'Daphne', and I'm sure you'll find lots to interest you in Haworth next month. And if you ever return to Fowey, do go and see Ann Willmore at Bookends -- it's a lovely bookshop, filled with treasures. Where did you stay in Fowey as a child? The town remains remarkably unchanged since I first went there as a little girl -- just smarter shops and restaurants.
I imagine your favourite bookshop in Curzon Street must be Heywood Hill, which I love -- I always go there, whenever I'm passing, and think of the days when Nancy Mitford worked there. I'm not sure if they stock Daphne -- I'm too shy to ask -- but I live in hope that they might do. Do you ever visit the shop, or is it a relationship purely conducted by correspondence?
Please do stay in touch...
By the way, I'm re-reading Harold Acton's book about Nancy Mitford, hence Heywood Hill has been much on my mind.

HelenMH said...

How fascinating. Must get a copy! Glad he didn't get his way over the ending of Villette though!

brooksideelaine said...

this book hit my desk this morning and I cannot wait to read it. i have posted today about the undiscovered letter, printed in this book, which he wrote to the Bishop of Ripon after the death of charlotte. Quite heartbreaking.

http://randomjottings.typepad.com

simoncadbury said...

In 1809 patrick bonte became assistant curate at Wellington in Shropshire and in 1810 he published his first poem Winter Evening Thoughts in a local newspaper, followed in 1811 by a collection of moral verse, Cottage Poems.

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simoncadbury said...

The following year (1812) he was appointed school examiner at a Wesleyan academy, Woodhouse Grove School, near Guiseley.

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Carmina said...

I remember this guy, Patrick Bronte because my boyfriend Sildenafil always talks about him, he is his admirer and always mentions him in every conversation no matter what the topic is!