Kimberley Braxton is just starting her second year as a PhD student in English Literature at Keele University where she also works as a sessional teacher. Her thesis focuses on the family connection within the writing of the Brontës, establishing whether a connection is present or merely an assumption produced by their cultural perception. During the course of her research to date she has presented papers on the feminist aspects of the Brontës’ writing, the literary inspiration behind Heathcliff, the Brontë portrayal of the Byronic Hero and the literary relationship between Emily and Anne as seen through their life writing. In addition to this she has also written a paper for Keele’s Post Graduate Journal, Under Construction @ Keele investigating the relationship between religion and the death penalty as portrayed in Victorian Literature. She now works as the Communications Secretary for the Journal. You can find Kim on Twitter @kimbraxton.
Gabriele Rossetti, Abraham Mendelssohn and Patrick Brontë were all ambitious men, who, in different ways, had failed to find complete fruition in their own lives. Their frustrated ambitions were later lavished on their children. Their interference appears insufferable from our present day perspective, but I think this influence was nonetheless crucial in enabling their offspring to achieve all that they did.[i]
In modern society the term ‘pushy parent’ is viewed with certain negative connotations; parents with failed dreams trying to fix their mistakes through their children. As Ian M Emberson has highlighted, a similar description could apply to the parents of some of cultures most talented offspring. Yet we cannot deny the success their ‘pushing’ produced. Patrick Brontë may not be frequently deemed as a pushy parent as he is not credited with his daughters’ success. Patrick’s reputation has struggled to recover from the negative portrayal he received from Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Patrick was accused of burning his wife’s dresses, breaking furniture and depriving his children of meat, which resulted in their poor constitutions which led to their early deaths.[ii] This was all denied by Patrick and the family’s servants. Amongst this shocking gossip it is easy to overlook the profound impact Patrick had on his children. In my research, I recently wrote a chapter concerning the authors who influenced the Brontës such as Milton, Scott and Byron and what should not be overlooked is who gave them access to these texts: Patrick. As Patricia Ingham explains, ‘Perhaps the most surprising feature of Patrick Brontë’s treatment of his children was the freedom he gave them to read whatever was available’[iii]. Particularly writers such as Byron would be deemed rather shocking reading for the young daughters of a clergyman, yet whatever Patrick read, whatever his son read, so too would his daughters. Charlotte’s thoroughness of reading can be seen in her letter to Ellen Nussey written when she was eighteen:
If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though I don’t admire him) Scott, Byron, Camp[b]ell, Wordsworth and Southey. Now Ellen don’t be startled at the names of Shakespeare, and Byron. Both these were great men and their works are like themselves, You will know how to choose the good and avoid the evil, the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting.[iv]
Patrick also took full responsibility for his children’s education. Fatefully, he initially sent four of his daughters to Cowan Bridge. It is important to remember Patrick could not have known the tragedy which would befall his children, as Cowan Bridge was certainly not known for poor standards at the time. Patrick did send his two eldest daughters to another establishment but he simply could not afford it and he was adamant all his daughters should receive an education. Whilst at Cowan Bridge he paid extra so Maria, Charlotte and Emily could also have extra lessons. Patrick was aware that his daughters would most likely need to work. If he were to die his children would have no rights to their family home, which belonged to the church, resulting in them being homeless and penniless. Therefore, from a young age Patrick tried to bestow the skills on his children which they would need to obtain employment as governesses. In Patrick’s letters and fictional work there is no indication of Patrick preparing his daughters for the marriage market; it does not even seem to have occurred to him that his daughters need not work if they could find a husband. His focus was always on giving his daughters the minds to gain their independence and work without the need of a husband. As we can see in Emily’s diary paper, ‘Charlotte, Anne and I – shall be all merrily seated in our own sitting-room in some pleasant and flourishing seminary having just gathered in for the midsummer holydays [sic]’[v]. The Brontë sisters were taught to rely on each other and so their dream of the future was to live together rather than with a husband and their own children. [vi]
After the deaths of his two eldest daughters Patrick took the education of all four of his children onto himself and it wasn’t until Charlotte attended Roe Head in 1831 that the Brontë siblings got any external education. Patrick was certainly qualified: whilst at University, ‘Patrick applied himself diligently to his studies and was placed in the first class in every year that he was at Cambridge.’[vii] His skills in the classics and translations must have been profound as his education of his son resulted in Branwell receiving praise from the likes of Hartley Coleridge. Education also remained an important matter to Patrick beyond his own children, the collection of his letters are filled with requests for money to fund a Sunday school.
Through reading and education, Patrick provided his children with the tools for their writing; he also stood as an example for them that a member of their own family could be a published author. Patrick published a number of poetry collections, a brief prose piece and numerous essays. Whilst Patrick’s work has received little praise, even from his own biographers, it should be noted that Patrick’s reasons for writing were very different to those of his children. Though Patrick did enjoy writing; his work was an extension of his responsibilities as a priest. His writing was not there to garner fame or even for entertainment, but was rather a means of spreading the teachings of God to an even larger audience. It is important to keep these factors in mind when assessing the level of influence Patrick’s writing had on his children. Even so, it is possible to see a potential influence on Jane Eyre in Patrick’s piece The Cottage in the Wood or The Art of Becoming Rich & Happy in which we see a pious Christian girl pursued by a drunken aristocrat who would like to help her rise to a better rank through marriage. However, Patrick’s heroine Mary never succumbs to the hero’s charms until he has amended his ways, unlike Charlotte’s Jane.
Some may deem it arrogance when Patrick claimed, ‘Had I been numbered amongst the calm, sedate, concentric men of the world, I should not have been as I now am, and I should, in all probability, never have had such children as mine have been.’[viii] However, upon further investigation it is undeniable that certainly Patrick did contribute in some ways to his children’s writing careers. Nor was he such a ‘pushy’ parent that he forced his children into a line of work they were skilled in but ultimately despised. The Brontës came to their writing on their own terms, prepared with the skills their father had provided them with. As Emberson suggested by comparing the three literary families (the Rossettis, the Mendelssohns and the Brontës), an influential parent is a key factor in producing not just one but an entire family of talent.
[i] Ian M Emberson. “Three Quartets: the Rossettis, the Mendelssohns and the Brontës.” Brontë Studies 2009; 34(3), pp. 247-254, (pp. 253-254).
[ii] Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) (London: Penguin Group, 1997), p. 41.
[iii] Patricia Ingham, The Brontës (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 70.
[iv] Charlotte Brontë, ‘Letter to Ellen Nussey 4th July 1834’ in Juliet Barker, The Brontës: A Life in Letters (London: Viking, 1997) pp. 28 -29 (p.28).
[v] Emily Brontë, ‘Diary Paper 30th July 1841’ in Juliet Barker, The Brontës: A Life in Letters (London: Viking, 1997) pp. 94-95 (p.95).
[vi] Even though there are indications in Anne’s poetry that she did long for a child. See poems ‘Verses for a Child’ and ‘An Orphan’s Lament’ and ‘Dreams’.
[vii] Dudley Green, ‘The Young Clearygman 1777-1820’ in p. 19.
[viii] Patrick Brontë, ‘Letter to Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell 30th July 1857’ in Patrick Brontë, The Letters of the Reverend Patrick Brontë, ed. by Dudley Green (Gloucestershire: Nonsuch Publishing Limited, 2005), pp. 258-258 (p. 258).