Robert Barnard - pictured here with Director of the Parsonage Museum Alan Bentley - gave a talk entitled People the Brontës Knew in Haworth yesterday, to a large and appreciative audience. It was to mark the recent publication of A Brontë Encyclopedia: the indefinite article signifying academic modesty is officially favoured, but this major (definitive?)work should soon be up there with the likes of Juliet Barker's The Brontës. Up there with Clement Shorter too.
Magazine editor Shorter produced Charlotte Brontë and her Circle in the 1890s, and it was his title which provided Dr Barnard with the talk's structure. "Some might think that she didn't have a circle....but everyone has one....although you would be hard-pressed to find one for Emily.
"I am going to talk about two or three circles. The first is the one which Patrick and Maria gathered around themselves at Thornton."
Thornton was described as a place where the gentry (which included the clergy) was "not really impressive" but where it was more numerous than in Haworth. Thanks to Miss Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House, who welcomed the Brontës there in 1815, we know about most of the social engagements of the time. Less than three months after Maria's death, "Patrick contacted Elizabeth, then aged about twenty-one, and must have proposed marriage, because she records that she wrote back to him telling him that it was her last letter to him."
She probably considered him to be of too lowly an origin. And he was Irish, too: "Attitudes to the Irish were perhaps a little similar to some present-day attitudes to immigrant groups like West Indians or the Poles.....It was not usual for people of a humble Irish origin to espouse English conservatism."
Quoting from Dudley Green's The Letters of the Reverend Patrick Brontë, Dr Barnard showed how Patrick, "although he cringed to the gentry he met at Thornton", and although he wrote that "a warmer or truer friend to Church and State" could not be found, nevertheless found himself bound to "advocate the cause of temperate reform".
The end of Patrick's association with "extreme conservatism" and the Thornton Circle was marked by his letter to Dr Outhwaite of 20 September 1844:
I thank You for your Laconic Letter - I will try to abide by your - prescription for in good sooth, I have much need of patience, especially, when under affliction, such as may arise from Old Age, and Old Friends. - But that God to whom you refer, will judge You and [me], on the day of Doom, when we shall be more on a Level than we are now are - You have in times past done me [and mine]good for which I shall ever be thankful, whatever
I remain, Sir
Your most obedient Servant, P. Brontë
The second group of people which Dr Barnard selected was the clergy - part of Charlotte's circle. "We can guess her opinions from reading the opening chapter of Shirley in which clergymen are ridiculed." Clergymen were the only ones who could be regarded as matrimonial prospects, and Charlotte did not think much of most of them - for example the one who absconded with charity money (Smith), the one with profligate habits (Collins) who was physically cruel to his wife and children, infecting her with syphilis, and her father's close friend William Morgan, referred to as a boring "fat Welshman", and whose visits she detested.
"For Charlotte, the majority of clergymen were stupid and mediocre, with few prospects. All they did was to pass the time between meals quarreling. They lacked any zest for life.
"So what an eruption of vigour it must have been when William Weightman arrived! He was exceptionally lively and outgoing, with a wonderful warmth emanating from him......such a contrast with her brother Branwell, always looking in on himself.....Weightman had a sense of love, of humanity.....all the Brontës were in love with him.....he sent them all Valentines, including Ellen Nussey."
The third circle selected was Charlotte's society of her equals. "This was the sort of society which she had been aiming for all her life. The evidence is in the Juvenilia, which is full of literary controversies."
Most of the members of this circle were connected with London, a place of "venomous literary quarrels" which Charlotte had long been aware of before her visits. She knew about disputes surrounding MacPherson (alleged Ossian translator) and Byron, and the vicious denigration of John Keats and Leigh Hunt in Blackwoods magazine ("the Cockney School of English Poets"), so she was well-primed when she met a collection of in-the-flesh critics at a dinner organised by George Smith. She found, unsurprisingly, that critics were more presumptuous and domineering than the actual writers.
In London, she met people she would never have been allowed to see previously, and her attitudes and opinions were suitably amended. Thackeray "fell off his plinth" after her earlier infatuation with him. She became disillusioned with him "and his duchesses". She also stayed in Ambleside with Harriet Martineau - an atheist. "Of course she was lucky to have such friends and guides as George Smith and W S Williams."
"I cut down on the Juvenilia in the Encyclopedia. Some characters are referred to only fleetingly, and they are all covered by Christine Alexander."
Copies of the book (read the review by M. on Brontë Blog at http://bronteblog.blogspot.com/2007/09/bront-encylopedia-review.html) sold well after the talk.
Here are the details if you (or your library) want a copy. Order it from the Parsonage Shop:
Europe / Rest of World £55.00
Australia / New Zealand A$198.00
USA: Aug 2007
Rest of World: Jul 2007
Australia: Sep 2007
Format : 246 x 171 mm , 6.75 x 9.75 in
Details : 416 pages, 50 illustrations.
Robert and Louise Barnard's A Brontë Encyclopedia is an A- Z encyclopedia of the most notable literary family of the 19th century highlighting original literary insights and the significant people and places that influenced the Brontes' lives.
• Comprises approximately 2,000 alphabetically arranged entries
• Defines and describes the Brontes' fictional characters and settings
• Incorporates original literary judgements and analyses of characters and motives
• Includes coverage of Charlotte's unfinished novels and her and Branwell's juvenile writings
• Features over 60 illustrations