“The book that can never be written”. So Sharon Wright was told every time she proposed the idea of a biography of the Brontë sisters’ mother, Maria. The accepted view in Brontë scholarly circles has always been that Maria’s life was eclipsed by the genius of her children.
Wright, however, is tenacious by nature; a journalist by trade and a lover of true stories. Admitting that the book was, indeed, very hard to write, Wright explained to her Southwark Cathedral audience that her attitude towards being told there was no information available on Maria was: “I bet there is. If you grab your pen and note book and go looking properly.”
And that’s exactly what Wright did, travelling up & down the country and visiting every single location associated with Maria. Her investigations began at Hawarth Parsonage, where Charlotte, Shirley and Anne grew up and where Maria died, just one year after the family moved there – yet yielded only a description of Maria as a “shadowy figure”.
Nor was Mrs Gaskell’s famed biography of Charlotte Brontë much help. Written at the instigation of Maria’s husband, Patrick, long after his wife and children had died, much of the book is based upon gossip. Patrick, Wright believes, has been unfairly maligned and was a loving husband and father, as well as a progressive clergyman.
Here are the facts about Maria that were previously known. She was born on 15 April 1783 in Penzance, then a bustling cosmopolitan port – one of 12 children, only six of whom made it to adulthood. Her wealthy merchant family, the Branwells, enjoyed an affluent lifestyle; Thomas, Maria’s father, was a town bigwig and very well-connected.
Less well-known are the family’s links to the local smuggling trade. Smuggling, then, was “…so rife that no one bothered to hide it.” Opposite Maria’s home stood the Admiral Benbow tavern, the base for a group of smugglers known as the Benbow Brandy Men, with whom Thomas had a business partnership. Maria’s father also had a conviction for obstructing local revenue men.
Wright further discovered that Thomas was in business with two of Penzance’s “busiest tax dodgers”: James and John Dunkin, who ran a shop four doors away from Branwell’s Corner. They described themselves as merchants of Penzance, while the Reading Mercury described them as “The most notorious smugglers in that part of the kingdom”. In reality, commented Wright, they were both.
In 1791, the Dunkin brothers’ ship, Liberty, had a deadly encounter with customs officials off the Scilly island of Tresco. Several officers were shot & killed, but the Dunkins escaped and were never captured. Wright discovered that Thomas Branwell and his neighbours, Thomas Love and Richard Hosking, co-owned different Dunkin ships; the Penzance shipping register for 1786-1791 shows that Thomas was in business with James Dunkin when the latter was wanted for murder.
Unsurprisingly, those elements of Wright’s research hit the headlines, the Observer proclaiming “How illicit links with Cornish smugglers funded Brontë novels”. This, says Wright, is true of only a handful of the Brontës’ books. The Telegraph opted, rather wittily, for “What do you do with a problem like Maria?” followed by the inaccurate, and far less witty, “Was the Brontës’ mother, Maria, raised by pirates?”
Interesting characters, Maria’s parents, Thomas and Anne. Devout Methodists, esteemed members of the local community, sympathetic to smuggling; undeniably wealthy. So how on earth did Maria end up moving so far away from them?
In 1812, Maria’s Uncle John and Aunt Jane were sent to West Yorkshire to open a Wesleyan boarding school in a Georgian mansion belonging to Methodists: Woodhouse Grove. Within six months of opening their doors to the sons of preachers, the 60-year-old Aunt Branwell found herself unable to cope and wrote to Maria asking her to join them as a junior matron. This, says Wright, would have been a big sacrifice for 29-year-old Maria, who loved her “Jane Austen-like” life in Regency Penzance. Bravely, she made the 400 mile journey by stage coach during December; a dangerous undertaking due to frequent attacks by highwaymen and the very real possibility of freezing to death in the cheaper seats.
Maria may have reached Yorkshire safely, but the majority of her belongings did not, being lost en route in a ship wreck. The Trader capsized off the coast of Ilfracombe and only a fraction of its cargo could be saved.
It was in Yorkshire that Maria met a tall, handsome Irishman called Patrick, who had already lived an “extraordinary” life, having been caught up in the Ulster Rebellion before attending Cambridge University as a charity student. Patrick’s official reason for visiting Woodhouse Grove was to find out what was expected of him as the school’s external classics examiner; in reality, the 36-year-old wanted to meet the much talked-about Miss Branwell.
We know, from the couple’s letters, that it was love at first sight: a strong physical attraction, but also a meeting of well-educated minds. Maria’s letters her “dear, Saucy Pat” are “illuminating”: the only tangible evidence we have of her views on any topic (amusingly, Maria never mentions Woodhouse Grove or the infamous chaos in which it was run). On Sunday 23rd August 1812 the couple got engaged at Kirkstall Abbey.
In December 1812, as the Luddite Rebellion raged and Britain engaged in war with the French, Maria and Patrick were married. Having set up home at Lousy Farm, West Riding, by the following summer Maria was pregnant and the couple moved to the village of Hightown. In early 1814, baby Maria was born, followed one year later by Elizabeth – named after her aunt, Maria’s fun-loving older sister, who moved to Yorkshire to help look after the children, who called her “Aunt Branwell”.
In May 1815, Patrick became curate of Thornton, a bustling town in Bradford, which provided them with a house that became the first Brontë parsonage. Patrick would later describe the five years the family spent in Thornton as the happiest of their lives, and it’s where the remaining Brontë siblings were born. Here, Maria lived a genteel life similar to the one she had led in Penzance. Fortunately for us, she became best friends with Elizabeth Firth, a doctor’s daughter, who kept a detailed diary in which she recorded all her meetings with Maria, even the books that her friend was reading.
During this period, Maria wrote a religious tract entitled ‘The Advantages of Poverty’. Unlike Patrick’s tracts, it was never published and is, Wright chuckled, evangelical to the point of being embarrassing – but Maria had demonstrated to her children that women had opinions, and that they could write, too.
By the time Maria and Patrick had their sixth child, Anne, they were “completely broke”, although their lifestyle still afforded them two nursemaids. Unsurprisingly, when Henry Heap offered them the curacy of Haworth, West Yorkshire, in 1819, they were delighted. This was a plum posting for an ambitious curate, not least because it came with a parsonage and had a fine tradition of evangelical preaching.
Life is never straightforward, is it? The Haworth parishioners were outraged that they hadn’t been involved in Patrick’s appointment and drove their new curate out of the pulpit three Sundays running. A horrified Patrick had his resignation rejected. Told to “audition” for the role, he refused – and this time his resignation was grudgingly accepted.
The next curate was also chased out of church by angry parishioners and also resigned, following which a “rota system” for curates, including Patrick, was implemented. As the situation limped along, Henry Heap held an acrimonious meeting with the church trustees and somehow managed to persuade them to employ Patrick. The Brontë family moved into Haworth Parsonage at the beginning of 1820.
It was Haworth Parsonage, facing on to the Yorkshire moors, which inspired ‘Wuthering Heights’. And it was there that Maria came into her own as a curate’s wife. She and Patrick made a brilliant team, but one that was tragically short-lived. In January 1821, Maria collapsed at home and an emergency doctor diagnosed her with an internal cancer, telling the family that she would die that very night.
In fact, it took eight months, filled with “unendurable pain”, for Maria to die. Patrick was beside himself, grudgingly allowing medical assistance during the day, when he had to carry out his parish duties, but insisting on being the only person to nurse Maria at night. The ladies of Thornton travelled back and forth to help, and Aunt Branwell returned, but Maria’s condition was incurable. Unbearably, Patrick had to conduct over 70 funerals during that period, each of which Maria would have been able to hear from her sick room.
In September 1821, Maria became the first Brontë to be carried out of the Haworth Parsonage and through Coffin Gate, to be buried in the vault of the church. She was just 38 years old and, sweating on her death bed, had cried out “Oh, my poor children” over and over again.
Poor Patrick. Bereft and alone, he began searching for a new wife not long after Maria’s death, but no one was interested in a penurious widower with six children, and he never remarried. Instead, Aunt Branwell, once the belle of Penzance society, stayed on in Haworth to help raise the Brontë children – all of whom Patrick would outlive, dying at the age of 84.
If you’ve enjoyed this summary of Sharon Wright’s talk, you’ll definitely enjoy her wonderful book, which I highly recommend. It’s both a labour of love and a fitting tribute to a woman whose children contributed so much to the world, but who tragically did not live to see them fulfil their potential.