Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 2

Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter II. Babyhood



After his wife's death the Rev. Mr. Brontë's life grew yet more secluded from ordinary human interests. He was not intimate with his parishioners; scarcely more intimate with his children. He was proud of them when they said anything clever, for, in spite of their babyhood, he felt at such moments that they were worthy of their father; but their forlorn infancy, their helpless ignorance, was no appeal to his heart. Some months before his wife's death he had begun to take his dinner alone, on account of his delicate digestion; and he continued the habit, seeing the children seldom except at breakfast and tea, when he would amuse the elders by talking Tory politics with them, and entertain the baby, Emily, with his Irish tales of violence and horror. Perhaps on account of this very aloofness, he always had a great influence over the children; he did not care for any dearer relation.

His empty days were filled with occasional visits to some sick person in the village; with long walks alone over the moors, and with the composition of his 'Cottage in the Wood' and those grandiloquent sermons which still linger in the memory of Haworth. Occasionally a clergyman from one of the neighbouring villages would walk over to see him; but as Mrs. Brontë had died so soon after her arrival at Haworth their wives never came, and the Brontë children had no playfellows in the vicarages near; nor were they allowed to associate with the village children.

This dull routine life suited Mr. Brontë. He had laboured for many years and now he took his repose. We get no further sign of the impatient energies of his youth. He had changed, developed; even as those sea-creatures develop, who, having in their youth fins, eyes and sensitive feelers, become, when once they find their resting-place, motionlessly attached to it, losing one after the other, sight, movement, and even sensation, everything but the faculty to adhere.

Meanwhile the children were left alone. For sympathy and amusement they only had each other to look to; and never were brother and sisters more devoted. Maria, the eldest, took care of them all—she was an old-fashioned, motherly little girl; frail and small in appearance, with thoughtful, tender ways. She was very careful of her five little ones, this seven-year-old mother of theirs, and never seems to have exerted the somewhat tyrannic authority usually wielded by such youthful guardians. Indeed, for all her seniority, she was the untidy one of the family herself; it was against her own faults only that she was severe. She must have been a very attaching little creature, with her childish delinquencies and her womanly cares; protecting her little family with gentle love and discussing the debates in Parliament with her father. Charlotte remembered her to the end of her life with passionate clinging affection and has left us her portrait in the pathetic figure of Helen Burns.

This delicate, weak-chested child of seven was the head of the nursery. Then came Elizabeth, less clearly individualised in her sisters' memory. She also bore in her tiny body the seeds of fatal consumption. Next came impetuous Charlotte, always small and pale. Then red-headed, talkative Patrick Branwell. Lastly Emily and Anne, mere babies, toddling with difficulty over the paven path to the moors.

Such a family demanded the closest care, the most exact attention. This was perhaps impossible on an income of £200 a year, when the mother lay upstairs dying of a disease that required constant nursing. Still the conditions of the Brontës' youth were unnecessarily unhealthy. It could not be helped that these delicate children should live on the bleak wind-swept hill where consumption is even now a scourge; it could not be helped that their home was bounded on two sides by the village graveyard; it could not be helped that they were left without a mother in their babyhood; but never, short of neglect, were delicate children less considered.

The little ones, familiar with serious illness in the house, expected small indulgence. They were accustomed to think nothing so necessary as that they should amuse themselves in quiet, and keep out of the way. The lesson learned so young remained in the minds of the five sisters all their lives. From their infancy they were retired and good; it was only Patrick Branwell who sometimes showed his masculine independence by a burst of natural naughtiness. They were the quietest of children by nature and necessity. The rooms at Haworth Parsonage were small and few. There were in front two moderate-sized parlours looking on the garden, hat on the right being Mr. Brontë's study, and the larger one opposite the family sitting-room. Behind these was a sort of empty store-room and the kitchens. On the first floor there was a servants'-room, where the two servants slept, over the back premises; and a bedroom over each of the parlours. Between these and over the entrance passage was a tiny slip of a room, scarcely larger than a linen-closet, scarcely wider than the doorway and the window-frame that faced each other at either end. During the last months of Mrs. Brontë's illness, when it became necessary that she should have a bedroom to herself, all the five little girls were put to sleep in this small and draughty closet, formerly the children's study. There can scarcely have been room to creep between their beds. Very quiet they must have been; for any childish play would have disturbed the dying mother on the one side, and the anxious irritable father on the other. And all over the house they must keep the same hushed calm, since the low stone-floored rooms would echo any noise. Very probably they were not unhappy children for all their quietness. They enjoyed the most absolute freedom, dearest possession of childhood. When they were tired of reading the papers (they seemed to have had no children's books), or of discussing the rival merits of Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, they were free to go along the paven way over the three fields at the back, till the last steyle-hole in the last stone wall let them through on to the wide and solitary moors. There in all weathers they might be found; there they passed their happiest hours, uncontrolled as the birds overhead.

One rule seems to have been made by their father for the management of these precocious children with their consumptive taint, with their mother dying of cancer—that one rule of Mr. Brontë's making, still preserved to us, is that the children should eat no meat. The Rev. Patrick Brontë, B.A., had grown to heroic proportions on potatoes; he knew no reason why his children should fare differently.

The children never grumbled; so Mrs. Brontë's sick-nurse told Mrs. Gaskell:

"You would not have known there was a child in the house, they were such still, noiseless, good little creatures. Maria would shut herself up in the children's study with a newspaper and be able to tell one everything when she came out; debates in Parliament, and I don't know what all. She was as good as a mother to her sisters and brother. But there never were such good children. I used to think them spiritless, they were so different to any children I had ever seen. In part, I set it down to a fancy Mr. Brontë had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat. It was from no wish for saving, for there was plenty and even waste in the house, with young servants and no mistress to see after them; but he thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner; but they never seemed to wish for anything else. They were good little creatures. Emily was the prettiest."

This pretty Emily of two years old was no mother's constant joy. That early shaping tenderness, those recurring associations of reverent love, must be always missing in her memories. Remembering her earliest childhood, she would recall a constant necessity of keeping joys and sorrows quiet, not letting others hear; she would recall the equal love of children for each other, the love of the only five children she knew in all the world; the free wide moors where she might go as she pleased, and where the rabbits played and the moor-game ran and the wild birds sang and flew.

Mrs. Brontë's death can have made no great difference to any of her children save Maria, who had been her constant companion at Thornton; friendly and helpful as a little maiden of six can be to the worried, delicate mother of many babies. Emily and Anne would barely remember her at all. Charlotte could only just recall the image of her mother playing with Patrick Branwell one twilight afternoon. An empty room, a cessation of accustomed business, their mother's death can have meant little more than that to the younger children.

For about a year they were left entirely to their own devices, and to the rough care of kind-hearted, busy servants. They devised plays about great men, read the newspapers, and worshipped the Duke of Wellington, strolled over the moors at their own sweet will, knowing and caring absolutely for no creature outside the walls of their own home. To these free, hardy, independent little creatures Mr. Brontë announced one morning that their maiden aunt from Cornwall, their mother's eldest sister, was coming to superintend their education.

"Miss Branwell was a very small, antiquated little lady. She wore caps large enough for half-a-dozen of the present fashion, and a front of light auburn curls over her forehead. She always dressed in silk. She had a horror of the climate so far north, and of the stone floors in the Parsonage. . . . She talked a great deal of her younger days—the gaieties of her dear native town Penzance, the soft, warm climate, &c. She gave one the idea that she had been a belle among her own home acquaintance. She took snuff out of a very pretty gold snuff-box, which she sometimes presented to you with a little laugh, as if she enjoyed the slight shock of astonishment visible in your countenance. . . . She would be very lively and intelligent, and tilt arguments against Mr. Brontë without fear."

So Miss Ellen Nussey recalls the elderly, prim Miss Branwell about ten years later than her first arrival in Yorkshire. But it is always said of her that she changed very little. Miss Nussey's striking picture will pretty accurately represent the maiden lady of forty, who, from a stringent and noble sense of duty, left her southern, pleasant home to take care of the little orphans running wild at Haworth Parsonage. It is easy to imagine with what horrified astonishment aunt and nieces must have regarded each others' peculiarities.

It was, no doubt, an estimable advantage for the children to have some related lady in authority over them. Henceforth their time was no longer free for their own disposal. They said lessons to their father, they did sewing with their aunt, and learned from her all housewifely duties. The advantage would have been a blessing had their aunt been a woman of sweet-natured, motherly turn; but the change from perfect freedom to her old-maidish discipline was not easy to bear—a bitter good, a strengthening but disagreeable tonic, making the children yet less expansive, yet more self-contained and silent. Patrick Branwell was the favourite with his aunt, the naughty, clever, brilliant, rebellious, affectionate Patrick. Next to him she always preferred the pretty, gentle baby Anne, with her sweet, clinging ways, her ready submission, her large blue eyes and clear pink-and-white complexion. Charlotte, impulsive, obstinate and plain, the rugged, dogged Emily, were not framed to be favourites with her. Many a fierce tussle of wills, many a grim listening to over-frivolous reminiscence, must have shown the aunt and her nieces the difference of their natures. Maria, too, the whilom head of the nursery, must have found submission hard; but hers was a singularly sweet and modest nature. Of Elizabeth but little is remembered.

Mr. Brontë, now that the children were growing out of babyhood, seems to have taken a certain pride in them. Probably their daily lessons showed him the character and talent hidden under those pale and grave little countenances. In a letter to Mrs. Gaskell he recounts instances of their early talent. More home-loving fathers will smile at the simple yet theatric means he took to discover the secret of his children's real dispositions. 'Twas a characteristic inspiration, worthy the originator of the ancient name of Brontë. A certain simplicity of confidence in his own subtlety gives a piquant flavour to the manner of telling the tale:—

"A circumstance now occurs to my mind which I may as well mention. When my children were very young, when, as far as I can remember, the eldest was about ten years of age and the youngest four, thinking that they knew more than I had yet discovered, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deemed that if they were put under a sort of cover I might gain my end; and happening to have a mask in the house I told them all to stand and speak boldly from under cover of the mask.

"I began with the youngest (Anne, afterwards Acton Bell), and asked what a child like her most wanted; she answered, 'Age and experience.' I asked the next (Emily, afterwards Ellis Bell) what I had best do with her brother Branwell, who sometimes was a naughty boy; she answered, 'Reason with him; and when he won't listen to reason whip him.' I asked Branwell what was the best way of knowing the difference between the intellects of men and women; he answered, 'By considering the difference between them as to their bodies.' I then asked Charlotte what was the best book in the world; she answered, 'The Bible.' And what was the next best; she answered, 'The book of Nature.' I then asked the next (Elizabeth, who seems to have taken Miss Bran well's teaching to heart) what was the best mode of education for a woman; she answered, 'That which would make her rule her house well.' Lastly, I asked the oldest what was the best mode of spending time; she answered, 'By laying it out in preparation for a happy eternity.' I may not have given precisely their words, but I have nearly done so, as they have made a deep and lasting impression on my memory. The substance, however, was exactly what I have stated."

The severely practical character of Emily's answer is a relief from the unchildish philosophy of Branwell, Maria, and the baby. A child of four years old who prefers age and experience to a tartlet and some sweets must be an unnatural product. But the Brontës seem to have had no childhood; unlimited discussion of debates, long walks without any playfellows, the free perusal of Methodist magazines, this is the pabulum of their infancy. Years after, when they asked some school-children to tea, the clergyman's young daughters had to ask their little scholars to teach them how to play. It was the first time they had ever cared to try.

What their childhood had really taught them was the value of their father's quaint experiment. They learned to speak boldly from under a mask. Restrained, enforcedly quiet, assuming a demure appearance to cloak their passionate little hearts, the five sisters never spoke their inmost mind in look, word, or gesture. They saved the leisure in which they could not play to make up histories, dramas, and fairy tales, in which each let loose, without noise, without fear of check, the fancies they never tried to put into action as other children are wont to. Charlotte wrote tales of heroism and adventure. Emily cared more for fairy tales, wild, unnatural, strange fancies, suggested no doubt in some degree by her father's weird Irish stories. Already in her nursery the peculiar bent of her genius took shape.

Meanwhile the regular outer life went on—the early rising, the dusting and pudding-making, the lessons said to their father, the daily portion of sewing accomplished in Miss Branwell's bedroom, because that lady grew more and more to dislike the flagged flooring of the sitting-room. Every day, some hour snatched for a ramble on the moors; peaceful times in summer when the little girls took their sewing under the stunted thorns and currants in the garden, the clicking sound of Miss Branwell's pattens indistinctly heard within. Happy times when six children, all in all to each other, told wonderful stories in low voices for their own entrancement. Then, one spring, illness in the house; the children suffering a complication of measles and whooping-cough. They never had such happy times again, for it was thought better that the two elders should go away after their sickness; should get their change of air at some good school. Mr. Brontë made inquiries and heard of an institution established for clergymen's daughters at Cowan's Bridge, a village on the high road between Leeds and Kendal. After some demurring the school authorities consented to receive the children, now free from infection, though still delicate and needing care. Thither Mr. Brontë took Maria and Elizabeth in the July of 1824. Emily and Charlotte followed in September.