Emily Bronte (Robinson 1883)/Chapter 4

Emily Brontë  (1883)  by A. Mary F. Robinson
Chapter IV. Childhood



The home to which Charlotte and Emily returned was f not a very much more healthy spot than that they left; but it was home. It was windy and cold, and badly drained. Mr. Brontë was ever striving to stir up his parishioners to improve the sanitary conditions of the place; but for many years his efforts were in vain. The canny Yorkshire folk were loth to put their money underground, and it was hard to make them believe that the real cause of the frequent epidemics and fevers in Haworth was such as could be cured by an effective system of subsoil drainage. It was cheaper and easier to lay the blame at the doors of Providence. So the parson preached in vain. Well might he preach, for his own house was in the thick of the evil.

"As you left the Parsonage-gate you looked upon the stonecutter's chipping-shed, which was piled with slabs ready for use, and to the ear there was the incessant 'chip, chip' of the recording chisel as it graved in the 'In Memoriams' of the departed."

So runs Miss Nussey's manuscript. She also tells of the constant sound of the passing bell; of the frequent burials in the thronged churchyard. No cheerful, healthy home for sensitive, delicate children.

"From the Parsonage windows the first view was the plot of grass edged by a wall, a thorn-tree or two, and a few shrubs and currant-bushes that did not grow. Next to these was the large and half-surrounding churchyard, so full of gravestones that hardly a strip of grass could be seen in it."

Beyond this the moors, the wild, barren, treeless moors, that stretch away for miles and miles, feeding a few herds of mountain sheep, harbouring some wild conies and hares, giving a nesting-place to the birds of heaven, and, for the use of man, neither grain nor pasturage, but quarries of stone and piles of peat luridly smouldering up there on autumn nights.

Such is the home to which Emily Brontë clung with the passionate love of the Swiss for his white mountains, with a homesickness in absence that strained the very cords of life. Yet her childhood in that motherless home had few of the elements of childish happiness, and its busy strictness of daily life was saddened by the loss of Maria and Elizabeth, dear, never-forgotten playfellows. Charlotte, now the eldest of the family, was only two years older than Emily, but her sense of responsibility made her seem quite of a different age. It was little Anne who was Emily's companion—delicate, shrinking, pretty Anne, Miss Branwell's favourite. Anne could enter only into the easiest or lightest of her sister's moods, and yet she was so dear that Emily never sought another friend. So from childhood she grew accustomed to keep her own confidence upon her deepest thoughts and liveliest fancies.

A quiet regular life—carpet-brushing, sewing, dusting in the morning. Then some necessary lessons said to their aunt upstairs; then, in the evening, while Mr. Brontë wrote his sermons in the study and Miss Branwell sat in her bedroom, the four children, alone in the parlour, or sitting by the kitchen fire, while Tabby, the servant, moved briskly about, would write their magazines or make their plays.

There was a great deal about politics still in the plays. Mr. Brontë, who took a keen interest in the affairs of the world, always told the children the chief public news of the day, and let them read what newspapers and magazines they could lay hold on. So the little Brontës prattled of the Duke of Wellington when other children still have Jack the Giantkiller for a hero; the Marquis of Douro was their Prince Charming; their Yahoos, the Catholics; their potent evil genii the Liberal Ministry.

"Our plays were established," says Charlotte, the family chronicler, in her history of the year 1829: "'Young Men,' June, 1826; 'Our Fellows,' July, 1827; 'Islanders,' December, 1827. These are our three great plays that are not kept secret. Emily's and my best plays were established the 1st of December, 1827; the others, March, 1828. Best plays mean secret plays; they are very nice ones. All our plays are very strange ones. Their nature I need not write on paper, for I think I shall always remember them. The 'Young Men's' play took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had; 'Our Fellows' from Æsop's Fables; and the 'Islanders' from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origin of our plays more explicitly if I can. First, 'Young Men.' Papa bought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds; when papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door" (the little room over the passage. Anne slept with her aunt) "with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed, 'This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke.'

When I had said this, Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, the tallest and the most perfect in every part. Emily's was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him 'Gravey.' Anne's was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him 'Waiting-boy.' Branwell chose his, and called him Bonaparte."

In another play Emily chooses Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Lockhart and Johnny Lockhart as her representatives; Charlotte the Duke of Wellington, the Marquis of Douro, Mr. Abernethy, and Christopher North. This last personage was indeed of great importance in the eyes of the children, for Blackwood's Magazine was their favourite reading. On their father's shelves were few novels, and few books of poetry. The clergyman's study necessarily boasted its works of divinity and reference; for the children there were only the wild romances of Southey, the poems of Sir Walter Scott, left by their Cornish mother, and "some mad Methodist magazines full of miracles and apparitions and preternatural warnings, ominous dreams and frenzied fanaticism; and the equally mad letters of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe from the Dead to the Living," familiar to readers of 'Shirley.' To counterbalance all this romance and terror, the children had their interest in politics and Blackwood's Magazine, "the most able periodical there is," says thirteen-year-old Charlotte. They also saw John Bull, " a high Tory, very violent, the Leeds Mercury, Leeds Intelligencer, a most excellent Tory newspaper," and thus became accomplished fanatics in all the burning questions of the day.

Miss Branwell took care that the girls should not lack more homely knowledge. Each took her share in the day's work, and learned all details of it as accurately as any German maiden at her cookery school. Emily took very kindly to even the hardest housework; there she felt able and necessary; and, doubtless, upstairs, grimly listening to prim Miss Branwell's stories of bygone gaieties, this awkward growing girl was glad to remember that she too was of importance to the household, despite her tongue-tied brooding.

The girls fared well enough; but not so their brother. Branwell's brilliant purposelessness, Celtic gaiety, love of amusement and light heart made him the most charming playfellow, but a very anxious charge. Friends advised Mr. Brontë to send his son to school, but the peculiar vanity which made him model his children's youth in all details on his own forbad him to take their counsel. Since he had fed on potatoes, his children should eat no meat. Since he had grown up at home as best he might, why should Patrick Branwell go to school? Every day the father gave a certain portion of his time to working with his boy; but a clergyman's time is not his own, and often he was called away on parish business. Doubtless Mr. Brontë thought these tutorless hours were spent, as he would have spent them, in earnest preparation of difficult tasks. But Branwell, with all his father's superficial charm of manner, was without the underlying strength of will, and he possessed, unchecked, the temptations to self-indulgence, to which his father seldom yielded, counteracting them rather by an ascetic regimen of life. These long afternoons were spent, not in work, but in mischievous companionship with the wilder spirits of the village, to whom "t' Vicar's Patrick" was the standard of brilliant leadership in scrapes.

No doubt their admiration flattered Branwell, and he enjoyed the noisy fun they had together. Nevertheless he did not quite neglect his sisters. Charlotte has said that at this time she loved him even as her own soul—a serious phrase upon those serious lips. But it was Emily and Branwell who were most to each other: bright, shallow, exacting brother; silent, deep-brooding, unselfish sister, more anxious to give than to receive. In January, 1831, Charlotte went to school at Miss Wooler's, at Roe Head, twenty miles away; and Branwell and Emily were thrown yet more upon each other for sympathy and entertainment.

Charlotte stayed a year and a half at school, and returned in the July of 1832 to teach Emily and Anne what she had learnt in her absence; English-French, English and drawing was pretty nearly all the instruction she could give. Happily genius needs no curriculum. Nevertheless the sisters toiled to extract their utmost boon from such advantages as came within their range. Every morning from nine till half-past twelve they worked at their lessons; then they walked together over the moors, just coming into flower. These moors knew a different Emily to the quiet girl of fourteen who helped in the housework and learned her lessons so regularly at home. On the moors she was gay, frolicsome, almost wild. She would set the others laughing with her quaint humorous sallies and genial ways. She was quite at home there, taking the fledgeling birds in her hands so softly that they were not afraid, and telling stories to them. A strange figure—tall, slim, angular, with all her inches not yet grown; a quantity of dark-brown hair, deep beautiful hazel eyes that could flash with passion, features somewhat strong and stern, the mouth prominent and resolute.

The sisters, and sometimes Branwell, would go far on the moors; sometimes four miles to Keighley in the hollow over the ridge, unseen from the heights, but brooded over always by a dim film of smoke, seemingly the steam rising from some fiery lake. The sisters now subscribed to a circulating library at Keighley, and would gladly undertake the rough walk of eight miles for the sake of bringing back with them a novel by Scott, or a poem by Southey. At Keighley, too, they bought their paper. The stationer used to wonder how they could get through so much.

Other days they went over Stanbury Moor to the Waterfall, a romantic glen in the heathy side of the hill where a little stream drips over great boulders, and where some slender delicate birches spring, a wonder in this barren country. This was a favourite haunt of Emily, and indeed they all loved the spot. Here they would use some of their paper, for they still kept up their old habit of writing tales and poems, and loved to scribble out of doors. And some of it they would use in drawing, since at this time they were taking lessons, and Emily and Charlotte were devoted to the art: Charlotte making copies with minuteness and exact fidelity; Emily drawing animals and still-life with far greater freedom and certainty of touch. Some of Charlotte's paper, also, must have gone in letter-writing. She had made friends at school, an event of great importance to that narrow circle. One of these friends, the dearest, was unknown to Haworth. Many a time must Emily and Anne have listened to accounts of the pretty, accomplished, lively girl, a favourite in many homes, who had won the heart of their shy plain sister. She was, indeed, used to a very different life, this fair young girl, but her bright youth and social pleasures did not blind her to the fact that oddly-dressed, old-fashioned Charlotte Brontë was the most remarkable person of her acquaintance. She was the first, outside Charlotte's home, to discover her true character and genius; and that at an age, in a gosition, when most girls would be too busy with visions of a happy future for themselves to sympathise with the strange activities, the morbid sensitiveness, of such a mind as Charlotte possessed. But so early this girl loved her; and lives still, the last to have an intimate recollection of the ways, persons and habits of the Brontë household.

In September, 1832, Charlotte left home again on a fortnight's visit to the home of this dear friend. Branwell took her there. He had probably never been from home before. He was in wild spirits at the beauty of the house and grounds, inspecting, criticising everything, pouring out a stream of comments, rich in studio terms, taking views in every direction of the old battlemented house, and choosing "bits" that he would like to paint, delighting the whole family with his bright cleverness, and happy Irish ways. Meanwhile Charlotte looked on, shy and dull. "I leave you in Paradise!" cried Branwell, and betook himself over the moor to make fine stories of his visit to Emily and Anne in the bare little parlour at Haworth.

Charlotte's friend, Ellen, sent her home laden with apples for her two young sisters: "Elles disent qu'elles sont sûr que Mademoiselle E. est très-aimable et bonne; l'une et l'autre sont extrêmement impatientes de vous voir; j'espère que dans peu de mois elles auront ce plaisir ———" So writes Charlotte in the quaint Anglo-French that the friends wrote to each other for practice. But winter was approaching, and winter is dreary at Haworth. Miss Branwell persuaded the eager girls to put off their visitor till summer made the moors warm and dry, and beautiful, so that the young people could spend much of their time out of doors. In the summer of 1833 Ellen came to Haworth.

Miss Ellen Nussey is the only person living who knew Emily Brontë on terms of intimate equality, and her testimony carries out that of those humbler friends who helped the parson's busy daughter in her cooking and cleaning; from all alike we hear of an active, genial, warm-hearted girl, full of humour and feeling to those she knew, though shy and cold in her bearing to strangers. A different being to the fierce impassioned Vestal who has seated herself in Emily's place of remembrance.

In 1833 Emily was nearly fifteen, a tall long-armed girl, full grown, elastic of tread; with a slight figure that looked queenly in her best dresses, but loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth. A tall, thin, loose-jointed girl—not ugly, but with irregular features and a pallid thick complexion. Her dark brown hair was naturally beautiful, and in later days looked well, loosely fastened with a tall comb at the back of her head; but in 1833 she wore it in an unbecoming tight curl and frizz. She had very beautiful eyes of hazel colour. "Kind, kindling, liquid eyes," says the friend who survives all that household. She had an aquiline nose, a large expressive, prominent mouth. She talked little. No grace or style in dress belonged to Emily, but under her awkward clothes her natural movements had the lithe beauty of the wild creatures that she loved. She was a great walker, spending all her leisure on the moors. She loved the freedom there, the large air. She loved the creatures, too. Never was a soul with a more passionate love of Mother Earth, of every weed and flower, of every bird, beast, and insect that lived. She would have peopled the house with pets had not Miss Branwell kept her niece's love of animals in due subjection. Only one dog was allowed, who was admitted into the parlour at stated hours, but out of doors Emily made friends with all the beasts and birds. She would come home carrying in her hands some young bird or rabbit, and softly talking to it as she came. "Ee, Miss Emily," the young servant would say, "one would think the bird could understand you." "I am sure it can," Emily would answer. "Oh, I am sure it can."

The girls would take their friend long walks on the moor. When they went very far, Tabby, their old factotum, insisted on escorting them, unless Branwell took that duty on himself, for they were still "childer" in her eyes. Emily and Anne walked together. They and Branwell would ford the streams and place stepping-stones for the elder girls. At every point of view, at every flower, the happy little party would stop to talk, admire, and theorise in concert. Emily's reserve had vanished as morning mists. She was full of glee and gladness, on her own demesne, no longer awkward and silent. On fine days Emily and Anne would persuade the others to walk to the Waterfall which made an island of brilliant green turf in the midst of the heather, set with clear springs, shaded with here and there a silver birch, and dotted with grey boulders, beautiful resting-places. Here the four girls—the "quartette" as they called themselves—would go and sit and listen to Ellen's stories of the world they had not seen. Or Emily, half-reclining on a slab of stone, would play like a young child with the tadpoles in the water, making them swim about, and she would fall to moralising on the strong and the weak, the brave and the cowardly, as she chased the creatures with her hand. Having rested, they would trudge home again a merry party, save when they met some wandering villager. Then the parson's three daughters would walk on, hushed and timid.

At nine the sewing was put by, and the four girls would talk and laugh, pacing round the parlour. Miss Branwell went to bed early, and the young people were left alone in the curtainless clean parlour, with its grey walls and horse-hair furniture. But with good company no room is poorly furnished; and they had much to say, and much to listen to, on nights when Branwell was at home. Oftenest they must have missed him; since, whenever a visitor stayed at the "Black Bull," the little inn across the churchyard, the landlord would send up for "T' Vicar's Patrick" to come and amuse the guests with his brilliant rhodomontade.

Not much writing went on in Ellen's presence, but gay discussion, making of stories, and serious argument. They would talk sometimes of dead Maria and Elizabeth, always remembered with an intensity of love. About eight o'clock Mr. Brontë would call the household to family prayers: and an hour afterwards he used to bolt the front door, and go upstairs to bed, always stopping at the sitting-room with a kindly admonition to the "children" not to be late. At last the girls would stop their chatter, and retire for the night, Emily giving her bed to the visitor and taking a share of the servants' room herself.

At breakfast the next morning Ellen used to listen with shrinking amazement to the stories of wild horror that Mr. Brontë loved to relate, fearful stories of superstitious Ireland, or barbarous legends of the rough dwellers on the moors; Ellen would turn pale and cold to hear them. Sometimes she marvelled as she caught sight of Emily's face, relaxed from its company rigour, while she stooped down to hand her porridge-bowl to the dog: she wore a strange expression, gratified, pleased, as though she had gained something which seemed to complete a picture in her mind. For this silent Emily, talking little save in rare bursts of wild spirits; this energetic housewife, cooking and cleaning as though she had no other aim in view than the providing for the day's comfort; this was the same Emily who at five years of age used to startle the nursery with her fantastic fairy stories. Two lives went on side by side in her heart, neither ever mingling with or interrupting the other. Practical housewife with capable hands, dreamer of strange horrors: each self was independent of the companion to which it was linked by day and night. People in those days knew her but as she seemed—"T' Vicar's Emily"—a shy awkward girl, never teaching in the Sunday school like her sisters, never talking with the villagers like merry Branwell, but very good and hearty in helping the sick and distressed: not pretty in the village estimation—a "slinky lass," no prim, trim little body like pretty Anne, nor with Charlotte Brontë's taste in dress; just a clever lass with a spirit of her own. So the village judged her. At home they loved her with her strong feelings, untidy frocks, indomitable will, and ready contempt for the common-place; she was appreciated as a dear and necessary member of the household. Of Emily's deeper self, her violent genius, neither friend nor neighbour dreamed in those days. And to-day it is only this Emily who is remembered.

Days went on, pleasant days of autumn, in which Charlotte and her friend roamed across the blooming moors, in which Anne and Emily would take their little stools and big desks into the garden, and sit and scribble under the currant-bushes, stopping now and then to pluck the ripe fruit Then came chill October, bringing cold winds and rain. Ellen went home, leaving an empty chair in the quartette, leaving Charlotte lonelier, and even Emily and Anne a little dull. "They never liked any one as well as you," says Charlotte.

Winter came, more than usually unhealthy that year, and the moors behind the house were impassable with snow and rain. Miss Branwell continually bemoaned the warm and flowery winters of Penzance, shivering over the fire in her bedroom; Mr. Brontë was ill; outside the air was filled with the mournful sound of the passing bell. But the four young people sitting round the parlour hearth-place were not cold or miserable. They were dreaming of a happy and glorious future, a great career in Art; not for Charlotte, not for Emily or Anne, they were only girls; their dreams were for the hope and promise of the house—for Branwell.