Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 1 of 12)
Updated: Apr 7
A Novel in Three Volumes
Edited by Alex P. Northangerland
Of one, too, I have heard,
A brother—sleeps he here?
Of all that gifted race
Not the least gifted; young,
Unhappy, eloquent—the child
Of many hopes, of many tears.
O boy, if here thou sleep’st, sleep well!
On thee too did the Muse
Bright in thy cradle smile;
But some dark shadow came
(I know not what) and interposed.
Matthew Arnold, “Haworth Churchyard”
I’ve watched and sought my life-time long;
Sought him in heaven, hell, earth, and air—
An endless search, and always wrong!
Had I but seen his glorious eye
Once light the clouds that wilder me
I ne’er had raised this coward cry
To cease to think, and cease to be;
I ne’er had called oblivion blest—
Emily Brontë, “The Philosopher”
Ah corpse! [...] in exchange for thy untroubled calm,
Thy gift of cold oblivion’s healing balm,
I’d give my youth, my health, my life to come,
And share thy slumbers in thy ocean tomb.
Patrick Branwell Brontë, “Real Rest”
Chapter I—A New Beginning
New Year’s Day, 1840 High Syke House, Broughton-in-Furness
Here I am at last, arrived in Broughton, and settled in just enough to begin my new life and, suitably enough, a new journal. Like the shirts my sisters have sewn for me, papa’s gift of a diary and wallet mark a change in the material world to correspond to a new post, a new condition, a new beginning, a new year: annus novus.
How very odd, it occurs to me, that—though from an early age I have spilt more ink than many a published poet—I have never yet attempted to write what appeared to me simple, and true, and real in the world, as those appearances pass through the prism of my own mind. I therefore make a New Year’s resolution of it: this journal is not a notebook of ideas for future development, but the homely narrative of my progress in this world.
This, then, is me, unadorned, as I perceive myself; my intended audience—if any—is my future self, just as Anne and Emily write diary papers to be read, by themselves, several years hence. It is only fit that I should do so, as I have now vowed both to papa and to myself after much thrashing about and subsequent soul-searching—to earn my daily bread as a tutor here on the wild borders of the Lake District.
I have tried my hand at painting portraits for a living, but I confess here and to no other that I lack the talent—the genius—to purse that profession. My friend Leyland was encouraging, but I fear his friendship and our frequent indulgence in drink has ultimately distorted his view of the matter; or, more likely, his affection for me has prevented him from telling me the truth. Even my painting of my sisters and myself is so deeply flawed that we all bear too much of a family resemblance, like the almost identical figures of a mediocre mediaeval fresco.
What has painfully dawned on me is this: my sisters and I—and all like us—are in a particularly vexing position: raised as gentlefolk, the children of a Cambridge-educated clergyman, we have through books and newspapers and conversation gained a sense of a greater world, of distant horizons, and our desires are thus constantly stoked, like a fire roaring in the parsonage kitchen. There is an indescribable yearning, so strong that it almost resembles a wound desperately requiring either surgery or amputation. The nature of this yearning? Power, glory, love—nice abstractions, all of them. But also a yearning to be something other than the precocious children of a poor clergyman—to be great, to be famous, and yes—to be rich.
My sisters, at least, have the excuse of the limitations placed upon the fairer sex—I have no such pretext for failure. Father once enquired of an acquaintance in Liverpool about procuring a situation for me as a clerk in a bank, but when I learned of it, I promptly scotched the idea. I can imagine no drearier profession than the hard-headed business of counting filthy lucre day in and day out. I think it more likely to glimpse a fire-breathing dragon skimming over the surface of Dudden Channel than to discover an accountant or bank clerk with any wit or imagination, with vision for anything beyond the columns of figures marching drearily across a ledger.
Chapter II—The Fairer Sex
February 7th, 1840 Broughton
I am now fully settled in my lodgings, have gotten the lie of the land, and come to know my landlord and his family, and of course my employer and my charges, and so can at last give some accounting of these. High Syke House is a long squat farmhouse built in the last century, and as such lies on the edge of the town center, close upon the brow of the hill. My landlord, Mr. Edward Fish, is a surgeon, and if his behavior this week and last is a proper indication, he spends two days out of every seven drunk as a lord. His wife Ann is a bustling, chattering, kind-hearted soul, and the children are blooming, lively things all three. The eldest, Margaret, is eighteen, and a wonder to behold—dark ringlets framing an alabaster brow, eyes wide and blue and almost shockingly frank when she looks at me, a sensual mouth that knows only three attitudes beyond speaking and eating: a pucker as if she were kissing one’s cheek, a biting of her lower lip when lost in reflection, and a flashing smile that borders on laughter, the last leaving me always wondering whether she is laughing at me, or begging me to join in her mirth.
My intercourse with Miss Fish is, of course, verbal and minimal. Her physical attractions aside, she and her younger siblings, John and Harriet, form a lively trio in contrast to my own plain and studious sisters, and one could imagine sharing a roof with far less pleasant young creatures. From the windows of High Syke House I look across the fields to the church of St. Mary Magdalene, and beyond it can glimpse the sea. With the first hint of spring I will set out to explore the area, and perhaps even make my way into the Lake District. For now, however, the cold keeps me largely indoors, shuttling from my lodgings to Broughton House, the home of my employers, the Postlethwaites.
Mr. Robert Postlethwaite, the patriarch of this clan, is about fifty years old and is a retired County magistrate, a large landowner, and of a right hearty and generous disposition. Mrs. Agnes Postlethwaite is a quiet, silent, and amiable woman, and my charges, John and William, are two fine, spirited lads. My “work” is more pleasure than toil, except when the boys determine, as they do on occasion, that they are averse to doing their lessons. I do fear that such obstinacy may increase as the weeks pass, both through familiarity with their tutor and the advent of the warmer months. We shall see.
March 13th, 1840 Broughton
All in all, my life here has far exceeded my expectations. I am determined to succeed and believe I have made a good impression on my employers: punctual, polite, and pious, I have not missed a lesson from either illness or neglect; I am as regular as clockwork in the fulfilment of my duties. I attend church routinely as well, but can confide to this journal that I do so only to keep tongues from wagging: it is already well known by all in such a small village that my father is a clergyman, and so flouting my Sunday obligation here simply will not do. Indeed, it sometimes makes me laugh to hear the character people give me. Oh, the falsehood and hypocrisy of this world!
Well, what am I? That is, what do they think I am? A calm, sedate, sober, abstemious, patient, mild-hearted, virtuous, gentlemanly philosopher—the picture of good works, and the treasure house of righteous thoughts. Cards are shuffled under the tablecloth and glasses are thrust into the cupboard if I enter the room. I take neither spirits, wine nor malt liquors, I dress in black and smile like a saint or martyr. Everybody says “what a good young Gentleman is Mr. Postlethwaite’s tutor!”
Meanwhile, I ride to the banker’s at Ulverston with Mr. Postlethwaite and sit drinking tea and talking scandal with the old ladies. As to the young ones, well I’ve already mentioned Miss Margaret Fish—fair-faced, blue eyes, dark-haired sweet eighteen—she little thought the devil was so near her as I sat penning a letter to John Brown near the fire today!
Aside from the ladies, there are several fine young girls and women of the servant class who, despite their lowly station and simple manners, dress and speech, are capable of stoking the fires of carnal desire. Eleanor Nelson, just eighteen, is a servant at Broughton House, where I see her nearly every day, and our paths cross frequently in the steep lane between the great house and my lodgings, as she lives with her brother in cottages situated midway-between. Her beauty overwhelms her simple dress and aspect, for she has brilliantly flaming red hair, even redder than my own, and large, soulful green eyes as deep and warm as a tropical sea. Though slight in figure, like Anne or Emily, she exudes a primitive, almost animal sensuality, despite her downcast eyes whenever we meet. “Mornin’, Sir,” is all she can muster, but her rapid glances, when she thinks I am not looking, announce an easy conquest if I wished to risk my position with so foolish a capitulation to vague, base desires. Her brother John, three years her junior, is a strapping stable boy, whose countenance seems forever cast in an odd scowl of fear and contempt, like a cur who has been repeatedly kicked and is thus ever ready to bite as repayment for his sufferings. I am afraid to appreciate her beauty when he is present, lest he spring at me in fury.
Serving us tea as I write these lines is yet another fine specimen, a certain Frances Atkinson, a mere sixteen, but whose gracefully-formed person is every bit the match of her employer’s elder daughter. With her unusual combination of plaited blond hair, Roman nose, laughing brown eyes and the ruddy complexion of her class, she could be the fruit of the union of a Scandinavian princess and an Italian nobleman. Unlike Eleanor Nelson, she is bolder in her attentions to me, but with a hypocrisy that must be more innate than learned—for society’s brand of this vice she will never need—as she cunningly shields her flirtations from everyone but me.
Indeed, this small village seems almost bursting with feminine charms, so much so that I wonder whether it is simply the case that because at twenty-three years of age I have never yet felt a woman’s embrace, I am thoroughly wracked with an aimless and yet overweening desire, and I thus find in nearly every young member of the fair sex, regardless of rank or appearance, of intelligence or bearing, a potential lover. It is entirely probable, then, that this inferno of lust is entirely of my own making, and that these girls and young ladies are as oblivious to my yearnings as they are to the finer points of Latin grammar or the geography of Africa.
Chapter III—A Letter from Home
March 25th, 1840 Broughton
Ah, news from home! My eldest sister writes of the comings and goings of the great metropolis of Haworth, and in her narrative is most prominently featured Father’s curate, one William Weightman, who arrived last summer. Her friend Ellen Nussey—her “dear Nell”—has come to visit, and together with the other ladies of the neighborhood, they seem positively smitten by the young man. Charlotte’s bantering tone, calling him Miss Celia Amelia, does not fool me: this is the betrayal of an incipient infatuation, for she would no more tease someone whom she disliked than she would marry a missionary and move to India. No, no, stony indifference is what Mr. Weightman would have received in such a case, I would wager my life on it. Already in autumn I noticed her pale efforts at nonchalance, but her flushed cheeks announced his presence more readily than our old servant Tabby’s Yorkshire drawl ever could.
Anne, whose cold is better, grows restless, and is determined to find another situation as governess. She seems bent upon proving herself independent and making her way in the world. I cannot blame her, for Father and Charlotte—and, I suppose, I am guilty of this as well—have always treated her as not just the baby, but a baby, if not a complete cipher. And yet beneath her calm regard and seeming docility I have glimpsed iron strength and determination, qualities I wish I shared. She will prove that she is the baby no more. I have no doubt that her dismissal from her first post at Blake Hall was less a result of her inexperience than it was the inevitable end to anyone’s attempt to subdue and instruct those wretched Ingham children—nasty little monkeys from all accounts—without due authority to check their excesses.
Governesses and tutors are stuck in a most incommodious in-between place, of course, at once considered the very persons to make ladies and gentlemen of the wild cubs of the aristocratic, and increasingly, the mercantile classes, as they acquire not just money but land and even titles, but are also—and this is the cold reality of it—simply upper-servants, who can be sent packing at the slightest whim and on a moment’s notice. How fortunate am I to have Mr. Postlethwaite as my employer! It is hard to imagine how I might lose my place with him, for he is jolly, generous, and forbearing, with family and servants alike.
No word about our Emily, and that is hardly a surprise: the girl is an enigma, a bundle of contradictions. She says little but writes prolifically. There seems to abide in her heart not only great feeling and compassion, but also a selfishness, a haughtiness, a coldness. To a certain extent we Brontës all have these last qualities, and to compound the matter our innate shyness—when it comes to making new acquaintances, a timidity bordering on a slow, creeping terror—is often perceived as aloofness or arrogance.
But with Emily, any small talent we might have for social niceties, such as the “small talk” that greases the wheels of society’s great engine, has been drained away, and she retains in adulthood a kind of petulant, childlike distaste for anything that might smack of hypocrisy. If she were a man she would be an explorer, an inventor, or a conquering general; I could also fancy her, in another age, a mediaeval mystic, or a youthful Lucrezia Borgia. She is a simultaneously mesmerising and repulsive creative; sometimes I think she is a saint, a demon, a madwoman, or perhaps even a genius. One can easily imagine her running a man through with a sword for speaking ill to her dog Grasper, or any other family pet for that matter.
Yet Emily is also rooted enough in this drab world to know all too well that her eccentricities must forever lie interred beneath the pedestrian paving stones of everyday society, and her solution is to be a good, if taciturn, girl for Papa and the rest of us. I do miss the strange creature, as I do in my way papa, Charlotte, Anne, and Tabby, not to mention John Brown and the rest of the turbulent company that gathers to drink at the Black Bull, the King’s Arms, or the White Lion. I have come to an understanding with Mr. Postlethwaite that by mid-summer I shall have a holiday, and at that time plan to return home. I am not a little pleased with how well things are proceeding for me here, and in three months’ time will be able to demonstrate my triumph in person.
The days lengthen and there appear, here and there with increasing frequency, hints of spring in the air, though the fields and woods retain their solemn, wintry aspect. I have begun to explore the Duddon, and even in this drear season, as Old Man Winter tries mightily to keep his icy grip on the land, the scenery is most delightful, especially the road between Broughton and Ulpha, which I walked yesterday with a mild southwesterly breeze at my back and a copy of Wordsworth’s sonnets in my pocket.
Although my own writing has been thus far confined to this journal and letters to friends, I feel that old pull to throw everything off and create, as if the imminent arrival of spring were drawing forth a parallel motion in my mind and even in my person, not so much a rebirth as the arousal of a long-dormant passion, one that seeks to be consummated, but whose very consummation only enflames further desire. How infernal is this yearning that can never be fully satisfied, a thirst that will not be quenched, a void that can never be filled!
How in God’s name can such a thing be tamed? Or if not tamed, can it not be turned to account? Well, as Heaven is my judge, I shall try. While it is clear that I cannot severely neglect my charges at Broughton House, I now feel so highly valued, so fully ensconced in my position as “Mr. Postlethwaite’s Tutor,” that I can at last free body and spirit sufficiently to set down the shield I have thus far held up against the Muses. For unlike others, I need not invoke the Muses, but only lay down my arms: whether my poetry is of any worth or not, my muses come unbidden to me—we are like hot-blooded lovers silently finding each other under the cool sheets of a dark night, the knowledge of each other’s bodies so perfect that we are almostly instantly one ecstatic flesh—or so I imagine such love to be.
Chapter IV—Agnes Riley
April 6th, 1840 Broughton
This morning, as I left my lodgings at High Syke House and began to make my way down the narrow lane toward Broughton House, I came upon a most unusual, unpleasant scene: John Nelson, the stable boy from Broughton House, stood shouting at a young woman, who, having dropped to her knees, was sobbing over a smashed crate of eggs and a spilt jug of milk, the untidy mess oozing into the cobblestones.
“Damn thee,” cried the young man, holding not one but two horses by their reins, twisted together as one. “thou worthless bitch, I told thee to shift and le’ me pass!” Trembling with rage, he stood above the woman, not knowing how to proceed, and lacking all ability to find any other mode of expression between wrath and fear, now noticing that I was a witness to this drama.
“Is that any way to speak to a lady?” said I instinctively, but realizing immediately my error—I had spent too much time in the imagery worlds of Verdopolis and Angria, where ladies predominate. Or perhaps I thought myself a gallant knight-errant, rescuing a damsel in great distress.
“La-dy?” drawled the young rascal, “why she’s no la-dy, she’s a farm ‘and, almost an ol’ maid at tha’, an’ a dirty slut an’ a whore.”
By now I had my feet planted squarely in the real world. “Now John,” I said, trying my utmost to remain calm, “first, whether she be a servant or a lady, she is a member of the fairer sex, and on no account should a man address a woman thus, whether he be stable boy or gentleman. Second, I would ask that you speak to your betters with more respect. Now then, let us help her up and try to resolve the matter.”
Wordlessly, but with a flaming brow and exaggerated gestures that betrayed his inner fury, he tied the horses to a hitching post and together we lifted the poor thing to her feet. While he said nothing, I could sense his inarticulate rage, which, if translated into proper English might be rendered as such: You, Mr. Brontë, may be considered by some a gentleman, but we are servants both of us, and may be dismissed for the slightest reason, or no reason at all, in the twinkle of an eye. Your manners, speech, and learning are the only thing separating you from me—you have no riches, no name, and no estates. So you may think yourself “my better”—but you are no better than I.
At least this, in the wink of an eye, is what I imagined.
The “whore” as he called her, rose slowly to her feet. Her garments revealed her to be most certainly an agricultural labourer, even if the demolished eggs and proverbial shed milk had not announced her station in advance. Her almost impossibly thick chestnut-coloured hair was tied back with a strip of torn cloth, and her large, exceedingly pale blue eyes were wet with tears, but the tears that had been spilt in despair over her loss—for which she would surely be held responsible—now shone with scarcely-hidden gratitude at my intervention. The dirty, tanned face that had collapsed in weeping now showed itself to be, if not beautiful, unusual, intriguing, and most appealing: one of those faces that draws in and holds fast one’s gaze, with an unlikely and unexpected power of attraction.
Her eyes were bright, and through those windows of the soul shone an intelligence I had scarcely anticipated; her ears, mouth, nose and chin were all exquisitely small and round, as were the breasts scarcely concealed beneath her snug blouse. She had also outgrown her rough skirt, whose hem has been splashed with milk and eggs, which revealed the outline of her ample hips. This was no girl, nor was there anything ancient about her; she looked to be nineteen or twenty; in my three months in Broughton I had never seen her—or, more likely, I had not noticed her, as she would have been a faceless member of the constantly shifting mass of servants and country-folk whose presence is as regular and unremarkable—and necessary—as the cobblestones on which we stood in the steep street.
“What is your name, then?” said I.
“Agnes Riley, sir. I lives at Sunny Bank, in Broughton West. Do y’ know it, sir?”
“Ah yes,” I reflected. “My rambles have taken me past it on more than one occasion.”
Agnes Riley and John Nelson shifted uncomfortably, perhaps not feeling they should be acquainted with my personal movements about the area.
“And what brings you here, then?” I asked.
“Why…why…I comes wi’ eggs and milk ever’ market day, sir,” she stammered, as if surprised I should not know this basic fact.
“Very well then…and what happened just now?”
Agnes was reluctant to speak, and looked down, frowning and biting her lower lip. John had no such hesitation.
“It were like this: I telled ‘er t’ ‘shift’ when I come down t’ lane, and she would na’ move aside, so I jes’ plows through like, ‘cause t’ Maister has pressin’ business abroad. The red’un ‘ere”—he gestured to one of the horses—“hits her fro’ behin’ and she goes tumblin’ down, and then she sets up a flaysome wail like ‘tis the judgment day, and tha’s when you come along, Mr. Brontë, sir.”
Whether the last word was added to show true deference to my status as one of John Nelson’s “betters” or was meant purely in sarcasm—or whether he was trying to eat his cake and have it—I can’t say. Agnes simply sniffled and said, “Bu’ I did try to shift, bu’ ‘e would no’ wait.”
“Well, I shall have a talk with Mr. Postlethwaite, and try to make all right. Let’s hear no more about it. You may go.”
At this, John quickly loosened his horses and led them down the lane to Broughton House. Agnes seemed rooted to the spot, not knowing what to do, bereft of her usual agricultural goods and thus her reason for being in town at all. “Just wait a moment,” said I, and returned into High Syke House to find Frances, whom I set to work cleaning the mess of eggs and milk in the lane. Frances Atkinson obviously knew Agnes Riley, and clearly shared John Nelson’s feelings of superiority toward her. Looking the poor thing up and down, her brow was furrowed in deep disdain, and she said, somewhat disapprovingly, aiming her remarks more at Agnes than at me: “Mr. Brontë, the dogs roamin’ the village would ‘ave this muck fettled up as quick as I could, surely.” She then retreated to the house, spinning her head round with a final backward glance of dismay as she ducked through the doorway.
April 8th, 1840 Broughton
This morning I awoke to this thought: how different, really, is Agnes Riley from Patrick Brunty, the young man papa ceased to be when he crossed the Irish Sea and matriculated at Saint John’s College, Cambridge? And if the difference is great, would it have been just as vast between Agnes Riley and Patrick Brunty’s mother or grandmother? At what point does one’s family escape the base servitude of field and factory and begin the ascent to gentility? Why can some make this climb and others not? And how much more shackled are women than men!
I was able to gain an audience with Mr. Postlethwaite later on the day of the incident, when he returned from his business. As I entered his library he sat smoking a cigar, a glass of brandy before him. It occurrs to me that on the one hand, Mr. Postlethwaite represents everything I detest, especially the triumph of crass, if wily, commercialism over genuine feeling and erudition—of cold hard cash over poetry. On the other hand, I cannot help but like the actual flesh-and-blood Mr. Postlethwaite. He has an enviable ease of manner with all those he encounters, from lords and ladies to the lowliest of servants; there is an effortless confidence and genuine bonhomie in his manner of addressing his fellow humans that makes them wish to remain in his presence.
Needless to say, he is also responsible for my livelihood: no small matter, this. He offered me a glass of brandy—which I officiously declined—and leant forward in his great leather armchair.
“Well, Mr. Brontë, how goes your crusade to stamp out ignorance? Are you ready to lay down your arms and fly back to Yorkshire in retreat? Have those young rascals finally put you past your patience?” All of this was said with sly grin and twinkling eye. That John and William could, occasionally, try my patience was in fact true, but I would no more confess this to their father than I would tell my landlord that I had dreamt of watching his daughter Margaret disrobe. And besides, compared to what Anne and Charlotte have told me of their experiences, I feel extraordinarily fortunate, for both lads share their father’s sunny disposition, so that their occasional tricks and pranks are never meant to wound, but rather to amuse and divert. In short, I feel I live a somewhat charmed life here in Broughton, and have no intention to undermining the goodwill I have endeavoured to build since my arrival in January.
I assured Mr. Postlethwaite that the boys continued to be a delight—a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not so far off the mark that I felt it to be a bald-faced lie—and proceeded to inform him of the incident in the lane involving Agnes Riley and John Nelson.
“Ah, well, I am not surprised. John has some sterling qualities, and though a young lad he is strong as an ox, so I would like to keep him on. I will let him know of my displeasure anon, and make restitution to Mr. Rutherford at Sunny Bank.”
“I hope, Sir,” said I, “that I was not presumptuous in approaching you about such an insignificant matter, but I did not know what else to do.”
He puffed at his cigar for a moment, and then said, “No, no, Mr. Brontë, you did quite right. We can’t have people in our employ dashing others to the paving stones, can we? And while Agnes Riley is no grand dame she’s a child of God, is she not? I wager my grandmother—and yours, no doubt, for did you not say your father was an Irishman who was made English by the purifying waters of the River Cam? —was not much different from young Agnes. ‘Three generations to make a gentleman,’ isn’t that the old saying? Well then, three to make a lady—surely it must take three, if not more.” He looked thoughtfully into the fire, puffing on his cigar. “Are you certain you would not like some brandy?”
Although I fail to share Mr. Postlethwaite’s enthusiasm for the increasing fluidity of the social classes—for without boundaries surely chaos would ensue—I could not argue with the logic of his argument, and his allusion to my own lineage cut close to the bone. I could feel my face flush from my own hypocrisy, but hoped he either attributed it to the fire, or took no notice.
“No, sir, but I thank you for the invitation. You are too kind,” I said, and withdrew with a simple word of thanks and a bow, not too obsequious, I hope.
The following day, upon encountering John Nelson in the lane, I could tell in an instant that our master had already spoken to him, for his countenance darkened with the hatred of a demon, an infernal scowl that positively gave me gooseflesh. I heard him muttering as he walked away, and can only imagine the imprecations that arose from his black heart. At the same time, I cannot tame an inner desire to see Agnes Riley once more, if only to inform her that all has been made right.
Chapter V—Letters, Poems, and Invitations
April 15th, 1840 Broughton
A letter from Father: Anne has promptly found herself a new place, as governess to the children of one Reverend Edmund Robinson, at Thorp Green, near York. It appears to be a grand estate, with five children and a raft of servants, all living in; I should like to see it someday. For Charlotte, nothing, and father appears glad of her company. I suspect she is fond of young William Weightman’s proximity, more than anything else. I, who know her best, can attest that once she is comfortable, she will marshal all manner of arguments to remain where she is (father’s health, her indispensable presence for the smooth running of the parsonage, etc., etc.); once she is unhappy and determined to fly from a situation, new arguments are adduced, and the troops once marshalled for one sort of victory reverse course and retreat toward another, to justify her own (she needs to be independent and no longer a burden on father or her siblings, etc., etc.). Although he says only that she is well, Emily is forever, eternally Emily: fierce, wild, self-contained: an inscrutable world unto herself.
April 18th, 1840 Broughton
When I returned from Broughton House this afternoon, Mrs. Fish greeted me with this: “Well, Mr. Brontë, you’ve had a most unusual invitation.” Miss Margaret and Frances, who were taking and serving tea, respectively, did their utmost to suppress a titter, and their eyes were filled with mischief.
Margaret could not even permit her mother to finish. “Mr. Rutherford of Sunny Bank called for you—and when we said you were not there, he simply said, in his rapid, old-fashioned way, ‘Would it please you to inform Mr. Brontë that I should like him to pay a visit to Sunny Bank? I should like to speak with him, and show him round the place’.”
With this, she sprang up from her chair and cried, “Ah ha, Mr. Brontë, what wonders await you at that place of song and fable, that veritable land of milk and honey, Sunny Bank! How thrilling to see cows milked, hens lay their eggs, or,” her face flushing slightly, “who knows what else?”
“That is quite enough, Margaret,” fairly shouted Mrs. Fish, whose spirited daughter routinely put her past her patience, but in this particular case, the said offspring had stretched her dainty foot dangerously close to a line never to be crossed.
“I don’t know where you get such ideas”—here looking meaningfully at Frances— “but no lady speaks this way, and no young man should receive such shocking treatment at her hands. Believe you me, no true gentleman will ever find you attractive if you are in the habit of uttering such dreadful things.”
Whether it was keeping Dr. Fish’s frequent tippling confined to the house and thus largely unknown to the townsfolk (for if Frances or the other servants were to repeat that intelligence, they would surely be sacked), keeping a spotless house, or ensuring that Margaret’s clothing, manners and speech adhered to her idea of ladylike behavior, Mrs. Fish’s every effort appeared bent toward presenting her elder daughter, like a dripping roast, as the choicest possible piece of meat for the most eligible young gentleman—rich, of course—to consume someday. If she had ever had passions or yearnings of her own, these had long-since been warped and twisted in a single direction, like moorland firs bent by decades of northerly blasts. In short, this was now her life’s work.
Miss Margaret, however, would have her fun at my expense. Inching closer to me, bright blue eyes laughing, she continued, “Well, Mamma, have it your way, I was just teasing Mr. Brontë, who surely deserves it. After all, from what I hear tell, he treated a servant from Sunny Bank as an equal, even calling her a lady. So if you wish to lecture someone on the proper order of things, perhaps you should speak to him, and not me,” she concluded triumphantly, and her eyes flashed toward her mother as if to say, Now then!
Clearly the story of the incident in the lane had been recounted, most likely with embellishments, by John Nelson, and had made its way through the channels of rumour that surely ran, like an underground river, through and around, between and among, the houses of Broughton-in-Furness. I could even fancy Frances, at the first opportunity, seeking John out for a full report of the matter, and repeating every detail to Miss Fish.
“I’m afraid,” said I, struggling to rein in my own nerves as I sat down, “that there was a bit of a misunderstanding. I saw what I felt was a wrong, and tried to do right. That is all.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Fish somewhat absently—for she was surely still thinking far more of Margaret’s unseemly behavior than of mine— “if that’s the case, you did quite right. At any rate, Mr. Rutherford has said that you are to send word if you are willing and able to pay him a call in the coming days.” So saying, she asked Margaret to step into the next room to have a word—no doubt a further expostulation of her views on the proper behavior of the fair sex—whilst Frances proceeded to clear the table. “No tea today, Mr. Brontë?” she said loudly enough so that the ladies could hear, but then, her brows knitted, she leant forward provocatively, her breasts so near that the only way I could avoid staring in their direction was to look fixedly into her eyes.
“Take care if you meet up with tha’ Agnes Riley again,” she said softly and urgently. “Folk’s been known t’ gossip about ‘er.”
“Why do you say so, Frances?” I whispered in return.
“Jes’ take care,” she said meaningfully, and I thought almost threateningly. I had no idea what she meant by this pronouncement, which she uttered with the gravity of the Oracle of Delphi. With that she turned and carried her tray into the kitchen.
I have sent word to Mr. Rutherford that I would be pleased to call at Sunny Bank four days hence.
April 20th, 1840 Broughton
Is it truly a passion for writing or a dislike of any other occupation that drives me to continue to seek a toehold on Mount Parnassus? Do I wish to write poetry, or simply bea poet, as I imagine a poet to be? Did all of my inspiration—that wild childish fury to create, that “scribblemania” as we called it—dry up years ago, like my long-abandoned paints? Is this what it is to be a man of the world—to kill off all hopes and dreams until nothing remains but a harmless cog in society’s great wheel? Do I need to give over, once and for all? Does making one’s life in the world require one’s soul to perish?
How fortunate, in the end, are those who have a stupid, animal-like contentment with the everyday world, or happy even are those brilliant men whose knowledge has a purely practical bent! For who can imagine the great engineer Brunel, as, godlike, he transforms England’s landscape with tunnels, bridges and railways, chomping his cigar and bitterly weeping at the death of his childhood dreams? Nay, the tunnels and bridges, the railways and profits—those surely are his childhood dreams, if such dreams ever he had! I envy such men, for they were made for this world; they were given dreams that conform to it as snugly as a locomotive fits along the rails of the Great Western Railway.
It was in this disconsolate state of mind that today I wrote to Hartley Coleridge, the great poet’s eldest son, at Nab Cottage. I explained to him that since my childhood I have devoted any spare hours to literary composition, but that I have reached a critical moment where I am about to enter active life fully. With my letter I sent a long poem, written some years ago but reworked for this purpose, whose subject was “the fall from unguided passion into neglect, despair, and death,” depicting those who may be “too near pleasure for repentance and too near death for hope.”
Too long have I sought a word—even one of discouragement—from men of letters, and not one has deigned to send the slightest response: how much worse even than rejection is such indifference! Many a day there was, especially when I was very young, that I expected a letter to arrive in the post; I was certain that Wordsworth, or at the very least the editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, would write to confirm me in my chosen path, that even if my work was youthful and inexperienced, I should soldier on heroically; in short, that I held great promise. How much would such words have cost them? How little I now expect to hear from anyone, and how close I am to abandoning my writing altogether!
I have thus set myself an ultimatum: if I have no response from Coleridge I will consider his silence definitive, a final verdict on my suit to gain entry into even the outer corridors of the Pantheon of letters.
Chapter VI—An Ecstasy Most Unexpected
April 22nd, 1840 Broughton
How can I describe what has happened this day? My blood is racing still—my brow perspiring—my limbs tingling. I have tasted the sweet fruit of a woman’s embrace, from a most unexpected place, and my world is turned upside-down. The truth is this: for all of my manly bantering with John Brown and company in Haworth, or Joseph Leyland’s circle, I no more knew how a woman’s body would truly feel than I could imagine living under a blazing Caribbean sun. In a recent missive Brown was his usual jesting self, writing thus: “I should expect, young Brontë, that if your cock is fairly surrounded, as by all your accounts it indeed is, by a veritable brood of plump and ready hens, that it is high time that young rooster doth get to work. Do you know that if your prick doesn’t stand regularly, it could fairly drop off from want of activity? I am sure one of your philosophers or men of science has proven this beyond dispute, for it stands to reason.”
Once the Postlethwaite boys had finished their afternoon lessons, I made my way up and out to Sunny Bank, as had been mutually determined with its owner. A servant directed me up to the house, where I found Rutherford standing on the steps, his hands thrust in his pockets. He is, of course, no common labourer, but “yeoman” or “gentleman farmer” seem almost too refined denominations for this man, for even at the beginning of spring his face and arms were brown from years of exposure in the sun, and his hand, as it shook mine vigorously, gave proof of genuine toil in the daily operation of his farm.
“Ah yes, Mr. Brontë, welcome, welcome!” He seemed to have very little interest in small talk, but did give me to understand that he had relations in the West Riding of Yorkshire. “Yes, yes, I know your countryside well and even find myself in Halifax from time to time. Shall we take a turn around the farm?” he asked. Though the accents of his speech were heavily marked by this northern region, it was indeed the speech of a gentleman, there was no mistaking it.
“I expect,” he continued, gripping me firmly by the arm, just above the elbow, and tugging me along, “that just about now you are wondering why I requested a visit.” Before I could respond, he continued, “You see, Mr. Postlethwaite informed me about what occurred in town the other day, and he made amends for the lost goods. He also told me about your treatment of my farm-hand, Agnes, and his account tallied with her own.”
Again I tried to speak, but Rutherford plowed on to the end; a man of few words, he seemed to wish to be done with this task of explanation as quickly as possible, so that he could get back to the world of crops and livestock; the sphere of action; the silent, satisfying, finite movements of real work. “It is quite simple,” he concluded, “I just wanted to thank you and see for myself what sort of person would take the side of a poor farm hand, and over his own employer’s stable boy, at that!” This last aspect of the incident is one that had never occurred to me, but as Rutherford concluded it flashed upon me that I had surely not chosen sides with my own security in mind. No employer likes to learn that his own servants have erred, and it is in man’s nature to feel more at ease in placing blame on the enemy without rather than the foe within.
We walked round the farm, passing stables, a barn, and a pigsty, the farmer emerging from his silence just long enough to accompany his occasional gestures with an explanatory word or two. Between this beating heart of the farming operation and the fields beyond lay a row of labourers’ cottages. As we approached the dwellings Rutherford said, “Someone else wants to thank you.” He knocked but did not await a response, opening the door as only he would be permitted to do. A man and woman whom years of labour had aged more swiftly than those who have, like papa, less strenuous lots in life, appeared to have just come in from the day’s work.
“And where’s Agnes?” said my guide. “I thought we had agreed that she would be here to thank Mr. Brontë,” he said abruptly, as if any show of kindness to his labourers might be discerned a token of weakness. The man spoke up: “She’s jes’ out to fetch some water, Maister Rutherfor’, Sir.” Old Riley’s speech quickly announced his Irish origins, even if his name had not. I myself—in my youth—suffered so much from this stigma that I have endeavored through the years to scrub every trace of Irish inflection from my tongue. My sisters—and even father, now—have done the same.
At that moment the door pushed slowly open and in walked Agnes with a pail of water, brought from a common well. Glancing shyly in our direction, she proceeded to set her burden down by the hearth, then turned to face her visitors. As the sun moved toward the horizon a ray passed through the open door and fell upon her face, like a lamp directed toward a stage actress.
Something was different. Had word of my visit prompted her to wash what were nearly her only garments—for the same they appeared to be, only freshly laundered—and even bathe her person itself? The thick mane of chestnut hair seemed freshly cleansed, and was tied back not with a rag, but with what appeared to be a blue ribbon—faded and frayed, but a ribbon nonetheless. Her face, too, had lost all traces of dirt; only a veneer of the slightest perspiration covered her face and neck as her chest heaved from her brisk walk uphill. I would not have thought it possible, but her eyes were bluer than I recalled, and her small features were united in a demure smile.
“Well now, Agnes, I think it only proper that you thank Mr. Brontë for his kindness to you,” said Rutherford almost impatiently, for he had work to do, the stabling of horses and enclosing of cows at nightfall, among other things. Already exceedingly uncomfortable as a spectator, I had now been drawn in as an actor to this scene. My nerves were strung taut and my face, I am certain, flushed crimson as Agnes’s parents gaped at me. Had my host not just reached out, to put an exclamation on his comment, and again grasped my arm tightly in the palm of his powerful hand, I would fain have rushed through the door and run all the way back to Broughton.
“Thank ye, sir,”said Agnes, now blushing in turn, “thank ye for your kindness to me an’,” she said, then seeming to remember something she had rehearsed, “thank ye for askin’ Mr. Postlethwaite to make…to make…”
“Restitution,” said Rutherford shortly, but not unkindly.
“Yes...that…to Mr. Rutherford.” She looked down, embarrassed that she had failed to remember the word in question, and aware of her master’s impatience, to which she was surely accustomed.
“Very well, very well, on we go then,” the farmer exclaimed, clapping his hands and moving toward the door. “Mr. Brontë, let me show you the way out,” he said, eager to accomplished this small gesture of obligation, which it now occurs to me he might well have undertaken with no other end than to remain on good terms with my employer. Mr. Postelwaite, after all, could surely be of service to Mr. Rutherford in the future. Oh, the hypocrisy of this world! Does it lie beneath every kind gesture we offer or receive?
As we emerged from the Riley cottage a lad came running, a dog racing along beside him, to announce that a horse had fallen and broken a leg. Rutherford let fly a torrent of oaths, leant back into the humble dwelling, and shouted, “Agnes, show this gentleman out!” whereupon he dashed off with the boy and dog in tow, in the direction of the stables, without a further word to me.
Agnes stepped through the door and said, simply, “Coom,” gesturing with her head toward a path that led away from the farm buildings, whence came shouts, cries and execrations no doubt associated with the fallen beast. She walked quickly, so quickly that I found it difficult to keep pace.
“But see here, Agnes, this is not the way I came!” I exclaimed. My first instinct had been to call her “Miss,” just as I had referred to her as “a lady,” but such an appellation would only make the poor thing believe I was mocking her.
“It’s no’ t’ road we’re takin’, it’s a trail I know. The road circles round the fields, up the hill and back down to Broughton, but this’n cuts direct-like through those woods.” Soon we had forded a beck by way of four large stepping-stones, its icy spring water rushing beneath us, and plunged into the woods beyond. The path was not well worn, which prompted me to enquire, “Are you sure this is the way?” but Agnes strode forward with an animal intensity, saying only “Aye.”
Within a few moments, the path opened into a small meadow, where recent rains and sunshine had brought signs of spring all around us: the trees had begun to bud, wild, bright green grasses had sprung up, and the first wildflowers had begun to appear here and there, at which I could not help thinking of my sisters, especially Anne. After a bleak, damp, and dreary winter, the past ten days had been remarkably warm, with the inevitable result that springtime was bursting forth with unusual rapidity, so that one could almost see the greening of field and forest before one’s eyes. Today was the warmest day thus far, and though the sun began to approach the horizon, the meadow retained the heat it had absorbed at midday, when the great flaming orb, unimpeded by a single branch, had rained down its nourishment to every blade of grass and every struggling harebell.
Lost in my thoughts, I did not notice that Agnes had stopped, and I nearly knocked her down with the force of my momentum, preventing her fall only by clutching her elbow and pulling her toward me. What next transpired occurred with such intensity and rapidity that I can hardly find language to describe it. Just as she steadied herself on her feet, we heard, from the direction of stables, a gunshot, its uniqueness underscored by its echo fading away into the early evening, like the multiple circles spreading out from a single stone dropped into the stillness of a pond. Here was no hunter’s volley scattered across the sky in hopes of slaughtering a few birds—in any event impossible in this season—but a single, most purposeful bullet to the unfortunate fallen horse’s temple.
At the sound Agnes, her small but rough hands already in mine, threw herself into my arms, and pressed her head against my shoulder. She was trembling like a leaf, as if a great chill had come over her, and when she finally lifted her head, I saw that tears stood in her eyes, and I understood now why she had taken this path, and the velocity with which she had sought to escape the horse’s imminent destruction. It had never occurred to me that such a one—habituated as she surely was to such close contact to the farm’s rough, daily cycle of animal life—could share the same tender feelings toward animals as my own, more delicate, sisters.
“Now, now, then,” was all I could say, in a confused effort to comfort her, and yet extricate us both from such intimacy. I began to push her away, though our hands were still clasped firm. Agnes at first complied, and her hands loosened their grip on mine, but as our fingertips were almost parted she threw her arms round my neck with renewed vigor, and tilted her ruddy countenance—wherein grief and desire, I see now, were curiously intermingled—toward mine. The slightest hint of adorable dimples now appeared and her azure eyes caught the sun’s last rays, and with the force of the sea at high tide, her peculiar, rustic beauty swept before it all considerations of rank, propriety and education. We moved our faces ever so slowly toward each other, so that our lips barely touched, and then in an instant all of the inner forces we had exerted thus far to maintain our proper roles were unleashed in the opposite direction, like an archer letting fly his arrow, or like water bursting through a dam. It was as though we were falling from a cliff, or more precisely, were enclosed in a bubble while the world itself fell away into nothingness.
Lips, first meeting gently, were soon pressed firmly to each other. I encircled her waist with my arms and, with a single motion, pulled her entire person closer to me, joining us from head to toe. Agnes said nothing, only making low, almost desperate, moaning noises, as she guided my hands beneath her simple frock, where I touched, first one place and then another, each more arousing and aroused than the last. As I did this, Agnes’s own hand, which appeared to need no such assistance or direction, loosened and plunged into my trousers.
All of the practical reasons we should not do this, all of my poetic notions of love and literary fantasies of seduction—and for that matter all of Brown and Leyland’s jests about pricks and cunts—all of this dropped away with our own, very real clothing, as we fairly fell to the earth, where just enough dried, fresh grass and wildflowers made for a rough lovers’ nest. I was trembling, with excitement and anticipation, with lust, surely, and quite possibly with fear, but all of this was submerged beneath the surface of sensation, for all rational, reflective capacities had fled. Just as she had guided my hand over her breasts and between her legs, Agnes now lay back, pulling me toward her and then slowly inside her, at which point my mind seemed first to collapse upon itself and then, along with every atom of my being, explode into her.
Like a flock of birds scattered by a rifle shot, but who, one by one, cautiously regain, in the ensuing silence, their various perches, my senses eventually returned to me and I lay, still trembling, next to Agnes. Though the world had fallen away and time seemed at once to have stood still and yet been blasted to infinity, the sun told a simple—and short—story: all of this had transpired in no more than five minutes. Far from the dashing seducer or jaded, practiced debauchee, I was quite unmistakably a babe in these woods, and as my mind refocused, I recalled John Nelson’s drawling accusation: She’s a dirty slut and a whore. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, as if waking from a dream. Whether it was John’s words, embarrassment at the brevity of the act, shame at having traversed a forbidden barrier, or a bit of each of these, I know not, but, still trembling, I looked round the clearing and began rapidly, nervously, to utter a stream of gibberish that was equal parts apology, reproach, and lecture. I was further confused by having misplaced my spectacles, victims of this bout of passion, for when I do not see clearly, somehow—or so I fancy—I fail to think properly as well. I nervously dressed, then began to search for them on my hands and knees, still babbling on about “my apologies” and how this “would simply not do” and how “no one must know,” etc., etc.
Agnes had never fully undressed, and now she lay on her side, with her head upon her left elbow, holding my spectacles within a few scant inches of my nose. Putting them on, I saw a woman transformed, a simple farm girl become my Venus, and as I continued to chatter on nervously she placed her right hand over my mouth and said, simply, “Whisht.” I did as commanded, for now her eyes were free of tears and her pert little mouth with its small but perfect teeth shone fully, her adorable dimples on full display. A wildflower had been caught her tresses, and I plucked it out gallantly and presented it to her, saying, in spite of myself, “For you, Miss.” She pushed me onto my back and wriggled over far enough to place her head on my breast, and after a few moments of silence pointed up to the sky, which was still bright high above despite the shadows the trees cast upon us at this late hour. “Look!” was all she said, her finger extended to a billowing, towering bank of clouds moving slowly eastward.
We watched in silence as the clouds, the marvelous clouds, marched away from the declining sun. Was this not further proof that poetry resides in us all, no matter how humble our station? This same woman, who had felt so deeply the loss of a horse, had a visceral grasp of the beauty of creation more powerful than any words could express. Now, instead of standing still, time seemed to race forward, as the shadows quickly lengthened into dusk. We did not move for some time, until finally, as dew began to fall, Agnes again took my hand, and—our eyes still directed skyward—she moved it slowly under her garments, first in a circular motion around each of her perfect breasts, then between her legs, in a regular motion as she arched her back and softly moaned. From the act of touching her thus, of hearing her soft groans of pleasure, I could feel myself harden once again, and by the time her hand had reached over to me I was ready, I wanted her again, my mind again went blank as all thoughts were drained away, as my entire being stiffened with a sharp, unique desire.
This time could not have been more different from the first. Agnes expertly climbed upon me, first lifting and bunching her rough woolen skirt up around her waist, then slowly loosening her blouse and letting it fall from her shoulders, so that her breasts hung tantalisingly, like a pair of beautiful ripe fruits, just beyond my lips. Holding me with one hand and her skirt with the other, she took me into herself, sliding down, and then rocking, at first slowly and gently, then with increasing alacrity and vigor, her moans rising in frequency and pitch. I alternately rose up on my elbows to encircle the ruby tips of her breasts with my mouth and lick them with my tongue, or lay back entirely, at times with my hands on her hips and bum, at others with arms stretched out above me, as if I were bound and could only arc my hips to meet hers, as she rocked back and forth, up and down, her insides tightening around me, as if massaging me—not just every inch of my “cock” as old John Brown would have it—but my entire being, my soul, so that I never wanted it to end, I wanted to be inside her until the end of time, poised on the threshold of ecstasy, until finally, finally, finally I exploded—this time afterwards not trembling, but tingling with a mixture of relief and pleasure, so complete that I almost lost consciousness in a sort of oblivion no spirit or opiate could ever procure.
Night was now falling fast, and yet still we lay together, kissing each other with nearly the same fervour as we had before, as if we both wanted this moment to stretch to eternity, or as if we had—for our respective reasons—so much buried desire that now that it had been uncovered it could not but issue forth, like an infinite subterranean spring bursting at last into the open.
Finally, Agnes pulled gently away, rose up on one elbow, and said, “We mun go now,” and within a moment or two we were dressed and on the other side of the clearing, where the path did indeed resume, leading me far more quickly to town than if I had taken the road. As we reached the road above Broughton she simply pointed down the hill and turned to go, but I clutched her forearm with one hand, and her waist with the other, and pulled her so close that I could see only her eyes, as if to read what was written there. The moon had risen sufficiently so that we could see each other perfectly. While I am far from certain that my body could have complied, my mind—my soul—already wanted her again, wanted to retrieve that feeling of—how can I describe it?—not of the ecstasy itself, but of the feeling just an instant before—or even, to speak truth, the imperceptible and indescribable space between, the eternal twinkling of an eye, where prolonged and seemingly infinite desire gives way to explosive, but finite, fulfilment. I opened my eyes as widely as I could, as if trying to match her pale blue orbs. I wanted to fall into those eyes, as into a sea, and somehow drown myself and yet live to drown myself again and again and again.
“I must see you again,” I said, almost desperately. “Surely there is a way.”
“Meet me at t’ same place,” she said, nodding back toward the meadow. “T’morrow, jes’ afore nightfall.”
Save for the occasional barking dog, all was quiet as I made my way toward Broughton in the moonlight, my limbs still trembling and my mind slowly—very slowly—emerging from one sort of confusion to another: what had happened? Surely I did not love this woman, but nor could I think of her as a mere “whore”—to use John Nelson’s appellation—whose only purpose was to gratify my animal desires. There was veritable beauty and joy there—not just in her person, not simply in her amorous enthusiasm, but also in her mind and soul, from her grief over the fallen horse to her appreciation of the passing clouds—and it was not difficult to imagine her a lady, had fate only dictated otherwise.
What to do? While far preferable to being discovered in Miss Margaret’s bed or, for that matter, in a compromising position with Frances Atkinson, it would simply not do to be found out with Agnes Riley, for any number of reasons, including a failure to observe proper stations and a communal unease, I have no doubt, with what would appear to be the disease of lasciviousness, and fear of its contagion.
All I know, at present, is that I will find my way into the woods again tomorrow.
April 25th, 1840 Broughton
Three days have passed since the entry above, and each day I have found a way to see Agnes, my afternoon rambles abroad providing a ready explanation for my absence at the end of each day. She, in turn, has made it clear that her weary parents care not where she goes, provided she has finished her work and performed her appointed tasks at the cottage. While fictional rakes and debauchees may grow weary of their conquests, I can imagine no such end with Agnes, for each time we are together surpasses the last in duration and intensity and, leaving her each time just before the trail quits the woods, I pull her hips close to mine and already I desire her again, want to be engulfed by her, forever and ever, until the end of time, Amen. If this is blasphemy, what is an eternity of damnation compared to such moments of ecstasy?
Is it in the nature of hidden affairs of the heart that lovers, themselves transformed, deem it necessary that the world around them has also observed this change, although no words or acts betray their secret? Or does the world, in fact, witness this metamorphosis? Do those around me at High Syke House or at Broughton House sense that I am transformed? Or is it only that I am changed within, and coupled with a constant dread of discovery, that change has caused me to read significations into the words and gestures of others where none is intended? Is Miss Margaret Fish changed in her attitude towards me, or is mine altered towards her? Does Frances look at me differently, somehow sensing that I am different, that I have been initiated into the great secret? Or am I imagining all of this?
What is undeniably true is that I can never see them in the same light. In eating from the tree of knowledge—viz., exploring each inch of Agnes’s body—I now see the fairer sex anew, for I can easily imagine, beneath even the most extravagant efforts of fashion to conceal or distort a woman’s figure, the real wonders that lie beneath. Do my imaginings reduce all women solely to their bodily attributes, as if they were no more than mere chattel? No more than Mrs. Fish herself, who will surely auction her precious Margaret off to the highest bidder. And three sisters have I who never hesitate to remind me of the beauty and complexity of the feminine soul, or the strength of a woman’s intellect and character.
Chapter VII—A Different Kind of Invitation
April 27th, 1840 Broughton
Hartley Coleridge has answered my letter! He has read the translations and the poem I enclosed—I am invited to spend May Day with him at Nab Cottage! How I have longed for such affirmation, for just a word, no matter how reserved, from a true man of letters—and this one no less than the great poet’s son, and protégé of the great Wordsworth himself. My nerves can scarcely contain my feelings, so wild am I with excitement and anticipation. Returning last eve from my assignation with Agnes to discover Coleridge’s letter, I could not conceal my joy, and I fairly leapt into the air, whooping with glee—unfortunately, my outburst took place in the small parlour, before Dr. and Mrs. Fish, Margaret, and the ever-present Frances, and so an explanation could not be avoided.
“Ho ho!” exclaimed the good doctor. “To what is owed this great display of joy from the pious, sober Mr. Brontë?” He had a glass of whiskey before him, and was already a step or two beyond sobriety himself. He took another sip, and added simply, “Hmmmm?”
“Yes, Mr. Brontë, do tell,” said Margaret. “I fairly expected you to cut a caper or dance a jig!” Frances said nothing, though from her position behind the others, she allowed her lovely brown eyes to dance beneath a sly smile. Abruptly reining in my enthusiasm, I gave a brief and direct explanation, trying my utmost to conserve a calm, even detached exterior.
“Indeed,” said Dr. Fish, “well then, we must raise a glass to celebrate your forthcoming journey up the road to the Lake District, that haven of poets!” Though she stood just behind him, he fairly shouted, “Fetch another glass, Frances,” for as with all serious tipplers, the only joy he held more dear than drinking alone was partaking with others.
“Many thanks, Dr. Fish, but I must decline your offer,” said I.
“Really man, on such a propitious occasion as this? Come, come,” he said, gesturing to the chair beside his, “sit yourself down here and let us toast your next adventure! You may try to refuse, but I simply won’t hear of it. These are physician’s orders and not to be trifled at!”
Before I could utter another word of protest, Frances brought the requested tumbler, and my landlord poured an inch of whiskey.
“See here,” he continued, pouring almost thrice as much into his own glass. “I know you are not one to imbibe—perhaps fearing your wild Irish blood, eh?—but I can assure you that this will only do you good. Would you like me to water it down it bit, so that we have the same amount to drink?” he continued, and I assented, knowing that I myself would be far less likely to get into mischief if the better part of my glass were water. Even thus diluted, the whiskey did not fail to warm me immediately, the slight burning sensation as I swallowed soon transformed into a diaphanous, multi-hued glow, like a setting sun radiating gloriously through a thin veil of clouds.
This single glass, regrettably, was just enough to loosen my tongue, so that after the ladies and Frances had retired—thanks be to God, for I should have been mercilessly teased had Margaret been present—I remained with Dr. Fish, earnestly confessing my poetic ambitions, my desire to make the name “Brontë” known throughout Britain, perhaps even in the far reaches of Queen Victoria’s empire, or in deep corners of America, wherever kindred souls might reside.
Dr. Fish is that sort of companion—at least when he is in his cups—who, rather than questioning and challenging as some might do, seeks good-naturedly to smooth his fellow’s way—whether toward simple drunkenness, inane chatter, glory, or damnation. He knew just enough about what people have begun to call “the Lake Poets” to keep the conversation going, but seemed primarily interested in getting to the bottom of his glass. I suffered him to pour me one more, this time without water, and as the second dose of whiskey spread its warming blanket upon the first, I began to question my rigid adherence to sobriety, and as I write this today—stone sober—I continue to do so. Am I not now become the man of the world I once could only imagine in my poems and tales? Have I not been with a woman—not once but repeatedly—and felt the shame of my childish innocence fall away like her blouse from her breasts? And now—to crown all—have I not been summoned to spend a day in the presence of the son of one of England’s great poets—he who sat on Wordsworth’s knee and toddled amidst the towers of books in his uncle Southey’s library? By refusing to take anything, have I in fact given too great a dominion to drink—making its despotism nearly equal to that of perpetual drunkenness and debauchery?
April 28th, 1840 Broughton
This afternoon I was again summoned by Mr. Postlethwaite. The servant girl Eleanor knocked just as the boys were closing their books for the day. “T’Maister wishes t’ see you, sir,” she said with a somewhat detached air. She was pallid, almost sickly, in contrast to her usual appearance, that striking combination of red hair, green eyes, and full lips, and I took this to mean that she was somehow privy to, and troubled by, the subject of my imminent interview with my employer. Walking behind her, I was filled with dread. Is this a condition common to all sentient beings, or is it the consequence of being a parson’s son—for such a one hears about nothing but right and wrong, good and evil, sin and redemption, salvation and damnation—that causes my blood, whenever I am summoned by my superiors, to run as cold as the River Duddon in early spring?
My thoughts raced: What sin had I committed? Had the mischievous doctor divulged that I was indeed a hypocrite, that I was as fond of a good glass of whiskey as any other Irishman? Worse, had someone followed me into the woods and witnessed Agnes and me, in flagrante delicto? While such actions were not necessarily grounds for dismissal, I was employed at Mr. Postlethwaite’s pleasure, and could be sacked for any reason—or no reason—at all. Our initial agreement—that I would tutor the boys for six months, on a trial basis—would soon expire; was I being sent packing back to Haworth? All of this coursed through my mind in the few seconds it took to walk the length of the great house’s central gallery. I was not prepared for what happened next.
“Ah, so there you are, Mr. Brontë,” said my jovial employer, his sparkling eyes and warm manner immediately putting me at ease, whether justifiably or not. He folded the newspaper he had been perusing and crossed his legs. “Well, well, I have just had quite a chat with your landlord, Dr. Fish”—and again I felt a cold, creeping dread—“and he shared a bit of your conversation from yesterday”—my heart pounded, so much so that I almost thought it audible to us both—“he tells me that you have been invited to spend May Day with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. What an honour indeed! I would ask you to have a glass of brandy, but I know you do not imbibe.”
So relieved was I at the topic of conversation, so grateful for Mr. Postlethwaite’s congratulations, that—even if my lowly position in the household had not dictated silence—I had no temptation to smile at his confusion. I was also pleased that Dr. Fish had not, evidently, mentioned that I had joined him in his evening libations.
“Well, sir…uh…well, that Mr. Coleridge has left this world, some six years since. I have been invited by his eldest son, Mr. Hartley Coleridge, to Nab Cottage, at Rydal Water.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” said he, pleasantly enough, though he is clearly—like so many of his station—a man who does not fancy being corrected. I have no doubt that this particular mistake was not even considered an error as such, for his brow was untroubled: surely, to him, the difference between Coleridge père and fils could not be less significant.
“That is the very thing I wanted to discuss. I’ve been quite pleased with the progress you have made with John and William and I’d like to offer you—as a bit of a treat—the use of my gig. Surely you know how to drive, yes?”
I answered in the affirmative, thanking him profusely for his generosity. I was about to take my leave and make my way homeward, then on up the hill to my habitual rendezvous with Agnes, but my employer gestured to the chair next to his. As April drew to a close the weather had continued to be unseasonably warm, so that no fire blazed in the grate. The heavy winter curtains had been pulled back and the large library windows had been opened just sufficiently to permit a faint, sweet breeze to steal in, causing the gauzy sheers to tremble from time to time, whilst a fly bumped against the panes at irregular intervals. I sat at his command.
“See here, Mr. Brontë, I truly am most grateful for all that you’ve done, but”—and here my nerves, which had finally relaxed at his offer of the gig, were yet again strung tight as an archer’s bow: O God, what now have I done? I thought, with directionless but palpable feelings of guilt washing over me yet again—“but I want to be sure that you follow the terms of our agreement.”
I was confused, and my bewildered countenance clearly betrayed me, for before I could ask for an explanation, he continued, “What I mean is, you were hired to instruct the boys ‘in a general course in education, including the classics, with the strictest attention to grammar.’ Was that not the advertisement in the Leeds Intelligencer, word for word? Is that not our agreement?” Here he held the newspaper aloft.
“Why yes—yes of course it is,” said I. “Are you unhappy with the results? Should I do otherwise than I have done thus far?” My confusion deepened, and if he were not my employer I might have fairly kindled up at such an innuendo, that I had somehow not performed my duties. Had he not just said that he was pleased? The fly continued to buzz and tap, trapped as it was between the sheer curtain and the windowpane.
“No, no, it is not that. I suppose what I mean to say is that—since you are an aspiring poet—I want to make sure that John and William receive an education that has a practical bent.”
Again relieved, and finally with a clearer notion of where this conversation was heading, though at the same time knowing that a certain amount of diplomacy was required in my response, I simply said “Of course, sir,” though to myself I thought, Do you wish to equate reading the classics with keeping a bank ledger?
Though he sat surrounded by books he had never read and would never lift from their shelves—indeed, most of their pages had never been, and would never be, cut—and was himself a hard-headed businessman, Mr. Postlethwaite was—is—no fool. As if reading my very thoughts, he continued: “Let me be plain. I don’t give a toss for the classics myself, and don’t really care whether the boys do either. But the reality is this, that to make one’s way in this world one needs to be able to converse with all kinds, from the labourer in the field to the lord and lady of the manor, and where the latter is concerned, a smattering of the classics and, above all, an absolute mastery of English grammar and diction is essential.”
I knew exactly what he meant, though I sat silently, appearing somewhat mystified. Truth to tell, I began to take a somewhat perverse pleasure in feigning such obtuseness that he was forced into a more explicit statement of his views. The fly, meanwhile, had freed itself from the curtain and spiraled around the library, landing occasionally near one of us before launching itself back into the air.
“What I mean to say is this: the boys, and especially William, are quite enthusiastic about their readings; John has even attempted to craft some religious poetry himself. So while I congratulate you for having inspired the boys to such an unwonted degree, I cannot countenance the sort of enthusiasm that has carried you thus far in yourcareer, so that you appear even on the threshold of making a life in letters. If you can make your way in the world by some combination of teaching and writing, I say, good for you, for as the son of a poor clergyman, what are you to inherit? John and William, however, are Postlethwaites, and their future has already been mapped for them. My grandfather was a shipbuilder and my father a merchant, so successful that he constructed this home with the fortune he amassed. We build fortunes, we don’t squander them. This is the century of industry, of movement, of change, Mr. Brontë—think of the railways, I can tell you that they are coming soon—yes, even to this remote outpost—and we will all, like it or not, be linked together in a vast web of commerce, and if you were to ask me where to apply yourself I would say there—and so my boys will need to seize the moment, carpe diem, isn’t that it?”
He seemed quite pleased with himself, blissfully ignorant of the irony of this particular employment of Horace. I, on the other hand, wanted to cry out: No, damn it, to seize the day means to lose oneself in utter ecstasy in the arms of a woman; it means having a second—or third or fourth—glass of whiskey, with no regard to the duties of the following day; it means writing a poem today, when one should be planning for one’s future. It was, in fact, the contrary of everything Mr. Postlethwaite believed about this world.
However, by now I had resumed—as a matter of survival—my habitual cloak of hypocrisy. “Why yes,” I said, brightening, “that’s Horace…the very poet whose Odes I have translated and sent along to Mr. Coleridge.”
“You see!” he replied, slapping his knee and unconsciously prolonging the irony, “I’m sure Mr. Coleridge himself would agree with me. I’m glad you do, too, Mr. Brontë.” As in previous interviews, I again found that I could not dislike my employer—though I found his view of the world repugnant—and I was increasingly convinced that his genuinely congenial nature was surely one of the primary factors of his success as a magistrate and the second-largest landowner in the district. I also knew that he would terminate my employment without batting an eyelash if he felt I was not the proper tutor for his sons.
Again appearing to read my thoughts, he concluded, still smiling, “The truth of the matter is that if one of my boys were to announce his intention to be a poet or artist of some sort, I would cut him off without a shilling, and I would very likely blame you for having put father and son asunder.” Without the slightest warning, he brought the newspaper crashing down on the table before him, obliterating the fly beyond recognition. “There now!” he cried triumphantly, and he stood to dismiss me, for it was clear that the interview had ended. As I rose from my chair to depart, Mr. Postlethwaite again thanked me kindly for my service thus far, and assured me that John Nelson would have the gig ready for me just after sunrise on May Day.
Chapter VIII—Nab Cottage
May 2nd, 1840 Broughton
My visit to Nab Cottage, home of Mr. Hartley Coleridge, has filled me with an almost indescribable admixture of sentiments: exaltation and hope, but also trepidation akin to terror, if not despair at my true prospects of earning my living solely by the pen. Well might scripture say that man shall not live by bread alone!
Rising with excitement before dawn, I walked down to Broughton House to take possession of the gig from the ever-scowling John Nelson. If looks could kill, I would not have traveled the twenty miles to Rydal Water, which in fact I did, arriving at Nab Cottage well before noon. A lone servant showed me into the library. The odd little man—some twenty years my senior—who greeted me on the threshold could not have made a greater contrast to the Byronesque scion of the Romantic Movement I had anticipated. And yet here was a large and noble brow, with graying hair swept back in the old fashion, and side whiskers not unlike my own; his face showed, if not the traces of physical suffering—for little, if any, physical want had he known—then the deep imprint of spiritual trials, which gave him a look of well-earned sagacity.
And the library! Surrounding us were shelves and stacks of books, some more well worn than others, but all clearly intended to serve a purpose, unlike the decorative tomes lining Postlethwaite’s walls. I laughed inwardly at this curious paradox: whilst my employer had sat expounding on the importance of practical knowledge, he was surrounded by books that served instead as pure ornament, and could easily have been replaced by factitious replicas with blank pages; it would have made no difference to him. A painting of Coleridge as a young man hung on the wall, along with several landscapes, and a clock stood ticking on the mantle above an unlit fire.
The high glee with which I looked about the room soon led me, in turn, to speak, in hushed, reverential tones, about his father, about Southey, and, of course, about the great Wordsworth himself, the last of whom lives just a mile away, in Rydal Village. Coleridge said nothing, an odd little man sitting in a very large armchair; he simply stared out the windows facing the lake, over which an osprey swooped, dived spectacularly, and emerged with a fish.
I thought I heard him laugh softly, but that was all. I paused for him to respond, and hearing nothing—horror vacui —I nervously rushed on. I told him that I had written to Wordsworth and had never had a reply, but that Charlotte had received a letter both encouraging and sobering from Southey, the poet laureate and uncle of Coleridge—for so he insisted that I call him, dismissing my attempt to address him as “Mr. Coleridge” or “my dear sir” with the wave of a hand and the words, “Please, please,” as if such formality could not be borne.
When finally even my own ears could no longer bear my fulsome prattling, I fell silent. Coleridge continued to gaze out at the water, and then slowly turned his large eyes toward me. His stare, though far from cruel, examined me as if I were the rarest of African beasts, seen for the first time in captivity: did he even know who I was, and why I was there? Still he said nothing, until finally, after what seemed hours but was surely only a few moments, his eyes focused, then narrowed, and he leant forward in his chair.
“Brontë” (in return, I would apparently be neither “Mr. Brontë” nor “Branwell”), said he, “you are young, and so retain a somewhat ideal view of the world. To you, my father and my uncle and Wordsworth—those Lake Poets as they have come to be called—are heroes. You know them for the most part only by the work, which is as it should be, but you must not envy them their lives, or envy me mine. Their kind of genius, which I hardly pretend to share, was often akin to madness, and to make heroes—or worse, Gods—of them can lead to no good. From my earliest memories my father was either plunged in the deepest despair or so giddy with happiness that we thought him quite mad. Later, he was in such utter thrall to the accursed habit of opium that it destroyed him utterly, severing every meaningful tie that remained of his prior life. He married my mother for all the wrong reasons and, in the end, despised her for it, as if the decision had been solely hers.”
Coleridge sighed heavily at the recollections he had called forth, but continued, “As for me—well, as for me, I am afraid I share most of my father’s flaws and precious little of his genius. I was so routinely and completely drunk at Oxford that I lost my fellowship at Oriel—no small achievement, I can tell you that, for the place is hardly a temperance society.”
At this I could not help but bring to mind, with a curious blend of shame and pride, my solemn adherence to the oath of papa’s quaint little Haworth Temperance Society of just a few years ago; had Coleridge’s tale not been so grave I would surely have smiled outright at this thought of my former self.
He pressed on, “Indeed, I don’t think it was so much the drink itself, but the effects it wrought upon me: I disappeared from my tutorials and spent nearly all of my time and money in the public houses and brothels. On one occasion I awoke in my bed with a naked woman of dubious morals beside me”—here he seemed quite delighted, for his face broadened into a smile at the recollection—“with no memory of returning to my quarters or what had transpired; on more occasions than I care to admit, I was dragged or carried through the streets of Oxford and deposited unceremoniously at my front door, in an inebriated heap. The old man”—and here he flippantly designated none other than the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge—“the old man was crushed, of course, and he tried his utmost to have the judgment reversed. If anything, the Coleridge name kept me at Oriel longer than was appropriate, but ultimately the college had to amputate such a diseased limb as me.”
He went on to tell of his life in London and the composition of his first poems; of his failed attempts to operate a school at Ambleside and, more recently, at Sedburgh; and of his contributions to that childhood favourite of mine, Blackwood’s Magazine, which I had repeatedly and arrogantly (I now, at last, understood) assailed with letters proclaiming my poetic worth, including offering myself as its editor in place of James Hogg in 1835, when I was scarcely eighteen! I did not care to admit any of this to my host. The biographies he had written—of Yorkshire worthies and the dramatists Massinger and Ford—he had done, quite simply, for money. Now, at 43, he felt only what he called “the woeful impotence of weak resolve.”
Coleridge was again silent for some time, as he sat with his hands folded on his waist, his two index fingers pointing skyward, like a church steeple. “You see, Brontë, while of course I find no small merit in your writing—especially your translations of Horace—what drew my interest most was your letter, in which you speak of—what was it?”—and here he placed a pair of spectacles on his nose and reached over to a stack of papers near his chair, seizing my letter—“oh yes, you speak of an ‘hour too near those of pleasure for repentance, and too near death for hope.’ This above all spoke to me, for it seemed that a kindred spirit had somehow reached into my very heart and soul and understood the quiet desperation I feel.” At this I felt another strange comingling, this time of pride and disappointment—pride that Coleridge had somehow found in me, however slightly, a kindred spirit, but disappointment that my letter, not my writings, had prompted these feelings.
His hand trembled visibly as he returned my letter where he had found it, and again he was lost to me—his mind surely traveling to another place or time—and he again gazed silently across the water, as the sun rose higher and higher in the cloudless azure sky and an ornate mantle clock ticked off the seconds dividing one minute from the next. I thought briefly of papa, and his habit of winding the great clock on the parsonage landing each night at precisely nine o’clock, on his way to bed. Oh to be a creature of such regular habits!
“You see,” Coleridge said finally, as if prompted by the clock’s inexorable march, “although I have no desire to end this life, I have no great desire to do anything with it—beyond the small, daily pleasures of human existence. The very notion of ambition of any kind seems to me the most alien of concepts, vanitas vanitatum. And yet, and yet: without the burning fire of ambition, there would be no great art or poetry, no palaces and cathedrals—for that matter, no steam engines, aqueducts or railways—would there? But is it possible to domesticate ambition, so that it glows gently in the grate rather than flaring up into a blazing conflagration that consumes house and inhabitants in its way?” My host sat, seemingly puzzled, whilst another osprey skimmed the bright surface of Rydal Water, in search of prey.
At last, Coleridge turned his head, squinting as if again seeing me for the first time, and slapped the arms of his chair with both hands. Leaping up with surprising agility he said, “Now let’s have a look at those translations, shall we?” Together we sat sharing each other’s renderings of Horace’s Odes, and when we had finished it was already half past three in the afternoon. His work displayed flashes of his father’s genius, at times so overwhelming that I felt I should consign my own efforts to the fire. On the other hand, I could not help but wonder: if he had not been raised amongst the greatest poets of their generation—and possibly of the last hundred years or more—and had he not benefited from all of the privileges his favoured birth entailed, how much “genius” would he have displayed? Here my mind wandered to Agnes, her bright speaking eyes and deep sympathy with nature, her intellect that—I was convinced—was limited only by her benighted condition. Just the thought of her caused my entire body to tingle with desire, and this metaphorical hunger for her brought with it the recognition that my host had not offered me so much as a glass of water or a crust of bread.
It was not long, however, before Coleridge exclaimed, “Ah, let us dine! I am sure you must be ravenous, my friend. We’ll have dinner early today, as we did in my childhood.” He showed me into a modest low-ceilinged dining room, but the meal itself betrayed the man’s rarified upbringing, from the fine linens, silver and crystal to the food and wine themselves. For there were multiple courses, and the wine—he was partial to the Bordeaux claret Haut-Brion, he explained—flowed prodigiously; he drank his first glass before he had lifted his fork, as if to put himself in the proper frame of mind for what was to come. Declining to join him was simply out of the question: for the poor parson’s son to display such extreme temperance would be perceived, I was convinced, not only as churlish in its own right, but would smack of judgment, particularly following my host’s avowal of his spirited and spirituous adventures at Oxford.
By the end of a delicious first course of pidgeon in white sauce, his second glass had been emptied, and so for me to finish my first at that moment displayed just enough—but not too much—temperate restraint. Coleridge’s hand, now steady, grasped the bottle and poured us each a large glass, as his lone servant brought out a splendid venison pie. His face had grown bright, his eyes sparkled, and he seemed at once more at ease and animated, as if the claret had gently rendered him unto himself. He set the bottle down and gazed into his glass.
“Once upon a time,” he began, and I half expected a fairy-tale to ensue; “Yes, once upon a time, I wrestled mightily with Old Man Bacchus, but we are now old friends.” Seeing my knitted brows, he continued, “You see, Brontë, I once believed that a man with such appetites as mine could make only one of two choices: complete and utter abstinence from all wines and spirits—a tea-totaling temperance if you will—or a complete surrender to the “demon drink,” as our Baptist friends would say. But I finally became insistent on finding a middle way, avoiding all excess, medan agan as the temple of Delphi tells us. I determined that were I to give over entirely and drink no more, I would in essence show myself to be every bit as routed by the enemy as if I were to succumb entirely to drink, for I would have given Bacchus an omnipotence that he scarcely deserves, as if he were Satan himself. His power over me would be complete, so miserable would I be in my sobriety, for I would surely do nothing but think about drink, or the dangers of falling again into its clutches. Whereas the via media”—here he reached for a second bottle of claret, already uncorked, and moved it toward my glass, but seeing it still full, refilled his own—“yes, yes, the via media, that middle way, that is the answer: moderatio, moderatio!”
Again I felt the clash of emotions that seem to characterize my entire visit to Nab Cottage. To be in this place, sitting opposite this man of talent who had been raised in a hothouse of poetic genius possibly unlike any England had seen, at least since the days in which Shakespeare had dwarfed the work of his own brilliant contemporaries, was an experience so unreal that I would fain pinch myself to ensure that I was not, in fact, in a dream. On the other hand, I was uneasy as I watched him drink, easily, at twice my pace, and I found most disturbing of all his precise echoing of my own recent musings about moderation, which appeared, to me, as simply a justification for being drunk for only part of each day. I have no doubt that Coleridge—who had all of his faculties and was now discoursing volubly on all manner of topics, with a particular genius in finding connections where none was readily apparent, and with an irreverent wit whose end was surely to leave the listener to wonder which remarks were meant in jest, and which in earnest—would be mightily offended at any accusation of drunkenness, but since he alone had already consumed nearly a bottle and a half of claret it was hard not to reach the conclusion that here was excess of some kind.
As an assortment of sweets, pastries, nuts and fruits was brought out on a large platter, I finally dared to ask what he thought of the original poem I had sent him, one of 300 lines, beginning “At dead of midnight, drearily.” I had noted the beatific glow of his countenance and knew that he would likely speak truth in such a state; in vino, veritas being a far more relevant phrase in this case than moderatio.
“Ah yes,” he began. “As you can imagine, you are by no means the first or the only person who has applied to me for judgment of his writings. Indeed,” said he, laughing softly as he swallowed yet another generous mouthful of the claret, his eyes twinkling gaily, “I smile to think that so small an asteroid as myself should have satellites.” Then, more seriously, he continued, “I must say that you are one of only two young poets in whom I can find enough merit to comment without flattery. I was struck with the power and energy of many of the lines you sent me.”
Here he paused at great length. “What I mean to say is that I respect your work and thus your intellectual maturity enough to be quite honest with you. The truth of the matter is that you clearly possess what Wordsworth calls “the faculty of verse”—and good for you, for how much better to have some considerable talent than little or none. The problem, however, is that many volumes of poetry are now published every year without attracting public attention, any of which, if it had appeared half a century ago, would have obtained a high reputation for its author. In short: whoever is ambitious of distinction in this way ought to be prepared for disappointment.”
I told Coleridge that these last comments were nearly identical to the counsel Charlotte had received from his own uncle Southey, three years ago, with a particular emphasis on how the literature could not be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.
“Ah, the old poet laureate did quite right,” he responded, “and oft have we discussed just such matters. However, I would argue that both sexes would do well to heed his advice, not just women—his comment shows just how conventional that erstwhile revolutionary has become of late! In any event, I fear my father and his generation have made poetry so fashionable that there are more young poets living and writing in the visionary poetic world than there are potential readers in the real, all-too-prosaic one. From what you have intimated—and forgive me if I tread too heavily on sensitive ground—as a man of modest means, you do not have the leisure I do, and must make your own independence.”
I acknowledged the sad truth of this with a simple nod of the head.
Here he paused again, as if weighing his words carefully. “The truth is—and I do not expect you to sympathize with me in any respect—such ‘leisure to create’ is, in my case, coupled with the famous name I have inherited, more curse than blessing.”
A few seconds of further reverie elapsed, and he resumed, “But to the point, to speak crassly of the matter, there is simply very little interest in poetry today, and even less in long poetry. The time and attention today’s reader wishes to devote to the reading of verse—especially if such poetry is crafted so as to challenge the imagination, as indeed it should be—is minute when compared to the public’s appetite for novels. Stories, young Brontë, and preferably stories with a happy end!”
Here he slapped the table. “Yes, yes, Mr. Richardson’s virtue rewarded, Miss Austen’s genteel tales tied up neatly with a marriage, like a pretty package with a bow, and now we have Mr. Dickens with his band of orphans, as if Mr. Fielding’s Tom Jones has not already tapped that keg a century ago! But the reading public is insatiable, and now to read such stories one needs only a rudimentary education and access to the latest newspaper. So: do I think your poetry has merit? Absolutely. Do I think you should cast aside all other practical, useful pursuits to win fame as the next Wordsworth or Coleridge—and I clearly speak not of myself,” he said with a mix of bitterness and mirth. “Absolutely not. That way madness lies. No, in the present state of the publishing and reading world a novel is the most saleable article that exists, preferably a novel in three volumes. What do they call it in the advertisements? A triple-decker? Entertainment, my good man, divertissement! Do you know Pascal?”
Here I had to avow my mediocre knowledge of the French language and its literature, despite my childhood fascination with Napoleon—that I had focused on Greek and Latin to the detriment of modern languages, those being the province of my sisters, as in most families.
“Hmm. Well, that great philosopher and mathematician writes memorably on the purposes of entertainment or divertissement, by which he means primarily such activities as gambling and hunting. To those we might safely add debauchery, carousing, drunkenness, dancing and novel-reading. He says, Les hommes n’ayant pu guérir la mort, la misère, l’ignorance, ils se sont avisés, pour se rendre heureux, de n’y point penser: since men cannot eliminate death, poverty and ignorance, they have determined to make themselves happy by no longer thinking of such things. Small wonder, then, that the French have kept the same word for oblivion and forgetting: l’oubli—even though they really are not quite the same thing, at least in our tongue, are they, Brontë? The mass of men who know their letters want to be entertained, they want to forget, to drink from the River Lethe, preferably tumbling down the rapids of an exciting story. They hardly wish to be reminded of their own sufferings and eventual mortality, let alone hear about someone else’s—i.e., the poet’s. No, their desire is a slightly more wholesome cousin to drowning themselves with gin or stunning themselves with opiates, or whoring until they can whore no more. Indeed, on that note, and in all moderatio,” said he, reaching for the bottle with mock gravity, “let’s drink the last of this claret, and drink it to forget: buvons pour oublier!”
Decidedly, Coleridge was as fond of the language and letters of France as he was of its wine.
“In short, my advice to you is the same old Southey gave your sister: write poetry for its own sake, not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity: the less you aim at that, the more likely you will be to deserve, and finally to obtain it. My own counsel—if counsel I dare give—is to continue in the good graces of your employer, meanwhile attempting to establish yourself as a translator, since there always will be a market for improved translations of the great works—for if such volumes appeal to a smaller, more discerning public, they are also more likely to appear in a way that is both a credit and a boon to the translator, being printed on the finest paper and bound expensively, to be sold at a considerable profit to publisher and author alike. If, however, it is fame and riches you seek, I would suggest you follow the path of Mr. Dickens. Though you may pretend that you are above and beyond the pursuit of riches—that you seek only poetic “glory”—one cannot eat or drink glory, and I have no doubt that such wealth is most desirable to you, if only because it would at last procure for you the independence you seek, and which you believe would finally permit you the leisure to create. As I have said, though, beware such leisure, for it can be as great a snare as misery. As Pascal also says, “all of man’s misfortunes come from his being unable to sit alone, tranquilly, in a room.”
He finished the last of his wine, and gestured to me to do the same, then abruptly stood as he said, “Let us confirm the great Pascal’s thesis, and quit this room, for it is time for my daily walk round the neighbourhood. Can you stay long enough to accompany me?” I had no other obligations, and the use of Mr. Postlethwaite’s gig to speed me home, and so I readily assented. We had soon donned our hats and were walking along the turnpike toward Ambleside. Apart from the occasional identification of a local landmark, my host was lost in his thoughts, which permitted me to indulge in a bit of reflection myself.
On the one hand I continued to exult in the presence of Coleridge, whose discourse had given me much food for thought, as we walked along on this brilliant May Day afternoon, a soft but constant breeze cooling us in our exertions, as the aroma, colours, and movement of the bright green leaves, newly sprung after the protracted winter, delighted the senses. He had seen in my verse power and energy, and encouraged me to continue to write. On the other, what he had said about the need to support myself otherwise, and about the state of the publishing world today, rang dismally true. While it was consistent with what I myself had resolved upon my arrival in Broughton, it now had far more weight than my own opinion: it now seemed an objective truth hallowed in its utterance by one who stood just a step away from the eternal greatness of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Lord Byron. I have no doubt that the considerable amount of wine I had consumed at dinner gave a more positive lustre to these thoughts, and for a few brief moments, all seemed possible: I would be both a man of the world and a poet, for the first would enable the second.
As we approached Rydal and began to pass some of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, Coleridge greeted them heartily, doffing his hat and bowing slightly to the ladies and introducing me as “my friend, Mr. Brontë” to those he knew particularly well. Pointing to a large but simple structure on an impressive elevation overlooking both Grasmere and Windermere Lakes he stopped and jabbed his walking stick in its direction, with what seemed almost a stabbing motion. “There lives ‘the Great Man’ of English poetry, Wordsworth. I doubt not that he’ll be poet laureate someday, when poor old Uncle Southey goes to his maker. After all, he has been sitting on his laurels for decades.”
I again mentioned that I had written to Wordsworth, the claret permitting me now to confess that it had been with a warmth that I now regretted, and that the poet had failed to respond.
“Well, though we are not on the best of terms, I must admit that the man receives more letters than he can possibly answer.”
I learned that Wordsworth and Coleridge’s father had become estranged over the latter’s opium use, among other things, and soon thereafter the former had taken the position of Distributor of Stamps in Ambleside.
As he recounted this, my host seemed to brighten. “Do you know Shelley’s reprimand, his sonnet ‘To Wordsworth’? He takes the great poet to task for abandoning pure devotion to his poetic calling in order to procure a regular income, ending thus:
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,— Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve, Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.
“Is this not the very matter we discussed over dinner?” he continued. “For let us take a tally of the best-known of this exceptional band of poets: Wordsworth sells his soul to procure a comfortable existence for himself and his family, his powers ebbing away with age, under the dreadful monotony of bureaucratic toil. Uncle Southey similarly exchanges his youthful calls for liberty for a comfortable pension as Poet Laureate and will, in all likelihood, fade into obscurity not long after his death. My father stuns himself into oblivion, becoming a mere ghost of his former self, a leech on his physician’s family, whilst at the same time he severs his ties with his actual family and friends, dying far earlier than he should. Lord Byron and Shelley cast all decency—I do not simply mean the rigid bounds of convention, I mean any human decency at all—to the wind, breaking hearts, destroying lives, and having it off with, yes, fucking—forgive me Brontë, but no other word will do here, and no ladies are present—fucking, I say, anything in a skirt. Or, in Byron’s case, I should say fucking anything on two legs.”
I must have appeared shocked, for Coleridge laughed and lectured me as he might a small child.
“Come now Brontë, surely you have heard the most proper of ladies—why, even your pious young sisters, I would venture—say they don’t care a fig, or a farthing, or a fillip for something! What word do you believe those replace? And I’m quite certain it was that celebrated libertine, the Earl of Rochester’s, favourite word—not to mention his preferred activity.”
Coleridge’s face was crimson from the combined effect of the wine, our brisk walk, and the subject of his discourse.
“Right then, what was I saying? Yes, Shelley drowns at 29—how poetic!—and Byron dies at 36, like an imbecile, not even killed heroically but trying desperately to be something he was not in a foreign war that was none of his business, expiring from a cold and a fever, with all of the glory of a millworker’s son in one of your squalid Yorkshire villages. Finally, there is young Keats, poor fellow, dead at 25 of consumption.
“And so I ask you, Brontë, who is your model poet? You will say that all of these gifted men have, like shooting stars, blazed across the poetic heavens, at the same time somehow creating in their wake works of eternal beauty that now shine like the constellations, and will do so for all eternity. You might even dismiss all of the damage they did to those who surrounded them as a necessary evil, pardoning the rare exceptions—Wordsworth and Southey especially—for their embarrassing transition into a regular, almost wholesome kind of existence, for their presumptuousness in seeking to support their families as their youthful powers ebbed away, for their steady attention to others, rather than a wild careening between the immediate gratification of their every earthly desire—yes, here I am thinking of the fucking I mentioned a moment ago, but also all manner of appetites—and an obsession with immortality.”
We walked in silence for some time, after which he arrested my forward progression with the top of his cane. “It is a question as old as the ages, I know, but still a conundrum, is it not? Must genius and contentment be sworn enemies? Must human suffering feed the flames of genius, and as those flames grow, must they, in turn, consume all that surrounds them, visiting still more suffering on the world? Can we not be fully human and humane—compassionate, kind, considerate—at the same moment? Why can we not simultaneously obey our overpowering instincts to create and our kindest impulsions to tend and to nurture?”
The passion with which Coleridge had spoken seemed fully at odds with his self-professed woeful impotence of weak resolve, but it occurred to me that these questions—all various forms of the same dilemma—were of deep personal signification to him, and that he was, perhaps, less interested in the eternal questions themselves than in what had happened to him. He was a victim, a casualty, of the unrestrained genius he described, and stood before the blasted lives and eternal works of these poets with a toxic mixture of awe, rage, and impotence. The perfect emblem of all this was Shelley and his sailing companions immolated on their makeshift funeral pyre on the beach at Viareggio: a spectacle of beauty and light, of carnage, waste, and death, of oblivion and eternity.
As we turned to retrace our steps to Nab Cottage, the sun still high enough to warm our necks and shoulders, the bright leaves fluttering even more beautifully, like ten thousand green butterflies rustling their wings, my host lapsed into a quiet gloom. I fear he had reached that very place that in his imagination had prompted his feelings of weak resolve, and as the day declined, so too did the temporary exultation I myself had felt from our earlier conversation and, I fear, from the not insignificant quantity of wine I myself had consumed. By the time we reached his dwelling, we were in that most unpleasant state where habitual tipplers often find themselves, when the effects of their drink has worn off, but it is far too early to go off to bed. Like a fork in the road, such a state demands a choice: more to drink, in an effort to regain the lost state of grace one feels slipping away, or forging through the remainder of the day with a headache and a parched throat.
A third choice—that of a nap—was not at my disposal, but Coleridge himself had formed just such a plan. “Well, Brontë, this is when I have a brief sieste before answering my correspondence. I trust I have not been too discouraging, too saturnine. The long and short of the matter is that I am no Oracle of Delphi. I dwell in the twilight land between the world of letters and the world of action, and so may be singularly ill-suited as an advisor. If I were a true poet, I would tell you to sacrifice all, to gamble all on your writing, with little thought or care for the welfare of your sisters, your father, or anyone else, including your own person. If I were a true man of the world, I would counsel striking off in the opposing direction, to seek a useful path in this life, one where you can feed yourself, possibly a wife and offspring, and even assist your ageing parent in his declining years. If you can strike a balance between the two, you will have achieved what few men have before you.”
As I climbed upon my employer’s gig and took the reins from his servant, Coleridge lifted his hand up to shake mine, but I felt it also to be a benediction of sorts. “I suppose my advice is no different from what you yourself have confided to me: stay in the good graces of your employer, and continue to write if it pleases you. Refine those translations, and send them to me. Begin writing a novel, if it is really fame you seek. Try to be happy, Brontë.”
Uttering these final words he seemed quite overcome, his eyes suddenly brimming. He gave one last wave, turned, and walked slowly inside. I followed him with my own eyes before making my way home to Broughton, following the course of the setting sun.
To be continued on 30 March 2020