Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 2 of 12)
Updated: Mar 31
Volume I (continued)
Chapter IX—Love and Treachery at Sunny Bank
May 12th, 1840 Broughton
Great Heavens, my head is positively splitting as I scribble these lines. So much has transpired since my visit to Nab Cottage that I hardly know where to begin.
I returned with heart and mind unsettled, still incapable of reconciling my practical need for independence with my deepest desires and ambitions. Coleridge meant well, but as Mr. Postlethwaite might say, the net gain was naught. That is, though my heart soared to hear praise of my verse, and my mind was fortified by encouragement to continue working at, and ultimately seeking a publisher for, my translations, I was sobered by the seemingly intractable dilemma of trying to make one’s way practically, “normally” in the world while achieving real success as a poet. How likely was it that I could sail between Scylla and Charybdis when even the greatest poets had foundered on the rocks? Surely teaching—or even more practical occupations—would drain away any lingering inspiration, would snuff out the vital spark of creativity.
Father, Charlotte, Emily Jane, and Anne—even our servant Tabby—have all of them every confidence that once I have found my true path I will achieve, if not glory and fame, then at least my independence and the high regard of all who know me. But their very expectations—and my sisters’ frequent reminders that as a member of the stronger sex I am free to pursue nearly anything—is rather a burden than an inspiration, one that presses down upon and suffocates me, like the slab in a burial ground, or chokes me like a rope twisted about my neck.
And yet: I continue in my employer’s good graces, struggling ever more mightily to perform what should be the simplest of tasks, for I am not so blind as to fail to appreciate the difference between my work and that of the Postlethwaites’ other paid subordinates. But is my suffering any less real because it is unreasonable?
The only moments when I have been free of this sensation of suffocation, of drowning, is when I am with Agnes, though after today I fear I will see her no more. With her I could lose myself entirely, and in our passion I would feel myself wanting to consume her entirely, to absorb her into myself, while at the same time she takes me into her, blotting us both out of existence, in a towering blaze of passion that fades into blissful nothingness, like smoke that dissipates into purest air.
All that fucking, as Coleridge had said with disgust, and waiting at the end, Shelley’s funeral pyre. In moments of cold reflection, I understood him, but had he ever felt such exaltation in his drunken carousing at Oxford or London? When my lips meet Agnes’s, when she eagerly, thirstily, takes me into her depths and I, in turn, move within her—slowly at first, then faster, then, at the end, very slowly, so that we can extend and savour that moment when the rising wave of anticipation crests almost imperceptibly into a deafening, blinding torrent of ecstasy—all such considerations fall away, and the entire universe vanishes around us. Like two parched desert travelers who at last arrive at a plentiful oasis, we drink wildly, madly, and the water is at once more than we can imbibe and yet never enough to slake our thirst.
John Nelson can go to the Devil! He whose carelessness and cruelty first introduced me to Agnes has now proved our undoing. When I returned to Broughton House with the gig on May Day, John’s usual scowl was even blacker with hatred than was usual, but so unpleasant a lad is he that I thought no more of it.
The next morning I was to learn from Frances Atkinson, always a ready gossip, that John’s sister Eleanor had been sacked by the Postlethwaites.
“But why, Frances?” said I, truly surprised.
She only giggled maliciously.
“Come, come, Frances, if you are going to spread gossip, pray spread it all.”
“We-ell,” she responded coyly, drawing out the word for dramatic effect, “though she’s go’ no ‘usband, somebody’s put her in the pudding club, you see—she’s found herself in a family way to say i’ a bit more polite-like. Seems Mr. Postlethwaite sent her packin’ on the spot, once it were plain.”
Though such occurrences are far from rare, now that I myself have been with a woman—another unmarried woman of the lower orders at that—this took on greater significance. I also wondered if John’s strange manner toward me was somehow related to his sister’s misfortune, though I could not imagine how or why. Who, I wondered, had fathered Eleanor’s child? The Postlethwaite boys were too young. Postlethwaite himself? Stranger things have happened, surely, and if his appreciation of feminine charms is anything like his appetite for good food, cigars, and brandy, Eleanor’s attractions cannot possibly have gone unnoticed. He held absolute dominion over his servants, after all. How many respectable gentlemen of our day, if transported in time and place to a harem, would not use their position as Sultan or Pasha to its fullest? Hypocrites! Would they shrink from the decadence of such rich and multiple carnal possibilities? Of course, it was entirely possible that the father was a fellow servant or just about any other man in Broughton, for those lovely, imploring green eyes would be hard to resist under the right circumstances. What I know is this: I am not the father, and I haven’t the slightest notion of who is.
Agnes and I had long agreed that heavy rain meant that we would not meet in the customary spot in the meadow, but today, after nearly a week of steady showers, we were able to meet again. We speak little when we see each other, and few words are needed. The ground remained so wet that we used a table-like outcropping of rock that had dried in the sun, our clothes softening its rough surface. It was a new and thrilling posture—me standing and her with toes pointed to the sky—that caused us both to moan so loudly in ecstasy that each simultaneously reached out to cover the other’s mouth; then came laughter and an embrace, the warm disinterested embrace of lovers basking in the afterglow of their passion. I heard a twig crack and birds flap out of the woods nearby. I turned and thought I saw movement along the path I taken from Broughton.
“It’s nowt, love,” said Agnes, kissing me hungrily; I, however, was thoroughly distracted, even agitated. The news of Eleanor’s dismissal had introduced a legion of fears to my mind, and though they had politely drawn away as our passion raged, back they rushed when I heard the sharp snap. Habitually, such kisses would quickly enough have led to my wanting and needing to have her again, but I rapidly dressed and told her I must go. Pressing her sweeth mouth firmly and audibly on my lips, she said with a dimpled smile and those magnificent azure eyes, “Be off then…but come back t’ me tomorrow.”
“Of course I will,” said I, and I set off to town. The path was muddy from the incessant rains, and I stepped carefully from one rare dry spot to the next, using stones and roots whenever I could. A few feet into the woods I suddenly found myself sprawled in the mud—but I had not slipped. John Nelson was on top of me, his hands fastened around my neck.
“What the deuce?” I cried, the strength and skill I had acquired from boxing and wrestling in Haworth coming to my rescue. With considerable effort, I managed to prise his fingers loose, his grip still burning in my gullet. Still, in the long term I would be no match for the hulking young man; he could crush my ribs like a rotten hazelnut if he so desired. Diplomacy was required.
“John! Hold fast! What are you about?”
“I le’ it pass when you took that cunt’s part for them broken eggs and spilt milk, for ye seemed to be in t’maister’s favour, and I’m too clever to drown a man if it means I mun go w’im t’ bottom of t’ sea. But now I could fairly kill ye, for what ye done to me sister. And I jes’ seen you havin’ it off wi’ tha’ whore”—still trembling with rage and gesturing toward the meadow—“and so tha’ proves it were you that got Eleanor with child, it do.” As he spoke, he apparently thought better of actual murder, for which he would surely be hanged, for his hands now dropped fully to his sides.
“Now see here, John, I swear on all that is holy—on the graves of my dead mother and sisters, and on the heads of my venerable father and my living sisters—that I have not touched yours.” To my shame, I did not defend Agnes against his calumny, for surely what he had witnessed qualified her—especially if I was not her first lover, as her actions seemed to suggest—for such a denomination in society’s eyes.
Was it because it is well known that Papa is a clergyman that my oath seemed to seize his attention? Or perhaps, beneath his bearish exterior, he is devout, or at the very least fears for his eternal soul. He seemed, if not entirely convinced, at least willing to consider that I was not the culprit where his sister was concerned. He took a breath—almost a sigh—and look round as if wondering what to do next. Finally, his face brightened. If he was not to punish me for Eleanor’s state, he had other reasons to do so: the incident with Agnes, my reporting of it to Mr. Postlethwaite, and the general dislike people of his rank have for those of mine: tutors, governesses, and suchlike, educated and refined but just as dependent as they on the good graces of their masters.
What he had in mind, I sensed vaguely, was some kind of extortion.
“I’ll none say a word about this to t’ maister, but I’d take care if I were ye. Y’might be seen on yer rambles into this wood, and a body’s attachment to maintaining the upright morals of this place might cause ‘im to le’ yer employer and landlord know about yer doin’s. I’m none so sure Mr. Postlethwaite would want such a person educatin’ ‘is boys, and surely Mrs. Fish would not want such a devil so near ‘er precious daughters.”
“And if I were to deny such accusations, John?”
“Ah, well, tha’s a chance I’m willin’ to take, Mr. Brontë. Ye see, I am so upse’ by Eleanor’s condition that I can’t reliably say what I will say or do next. And she ‘erself ‘as overheard ol’ Postlethwaite telling the missus that ‘e ‘as some serious concerns about whether you, Mr. Brontë, was app…app…” Here he stumbled on the common but Latinate word, which he nevertheless understood perfectly: “…abou’ whether you was fitted for t’ post of tutor to ‘is boys.”
“Appropriate,” said I, my knowledge of the word my only remaining shred of superiority over John Nelson. It was now my turn to be furious—at John, certainly, but also at Postlethwaite. I had no doubt that John’s animal intuition was right, and that any negative intelligence about me whatsoever would tip the balance in the direction of my dismissal.
I grudgingly nodded my understanding. At this he seemed satisfied, and turned directly around and struck out in the direction of Broughton. “Oh, and,” he said, stopping briefly and turning to face me, “I’d be grateful for a goo’ word meseln, if y’chance upon the appropriate”—he drawled, ah-PROH-pree-ut—“moment.” The clown seemed especially pleased with himself now, and swung back round, disappearing into the woods.
I could not bear to imagine Agnes waiting for me in the meadow day after day, and decided—despite my habitual shunning of difficult tasks—that there would be no better time to inform her of what had occurred than the present. The sun was not yet down and, in any event, my clothes were already caked in mud from John Nelson’s attack, so I hastily made my way through the woods and across the stream, then to the Riley cottage. There would be no safer moment than the present, with John well along towards town.
Upon seeing me, Agnes was alarmed, but did her best to conceal it from her parents, slipping quickly out of doors, where we made our way back toward the stream. I explained, in as few words as possible, what had happened, and told her that I could not meet her until I had fashioned a plan to do so, nor could I be without her. We crossed the stream as we had that first time, and once into the woods she turned to face me, put her arms about my neck, pressed her head close to my breast, and wept without saying a word. As the light of the setting sun spread open into the peculiarly beautiful, kaleidoscopic shower of light that only occurs at day’s end, as it filters horizontally through the woods, Agnes lifted her face to me. Those lovely eyes brimmed over with tears, each of which I hastened to kiss as they streamed down her cheeks.
To anyone who has not both felt such passion and had the liberty to act upon it as often as possible—so that it becomes a craving far greater than any other—what happened next might seem preposterous; those, however, who have lived in such an exalted state, however briefly, will find it not only plausible but inevitable. For there, in the mud of a week’s heavy rain, we desperately engaged in amorous congress as if it were the last time, for well it might be, trying to satisfy in this act every last atom of desire. Agnes, above me as on that first day, collapsed once again onto my breast, her sobs now pouring forth in great, strangling gasps.
“I am sorry for it,” said I, “but until we can devise a way to see each other safely, I must stay away. I will come as soon as I can.” With that, I tore myself away from her, looking back only once, to see her grasping a tree for support, her sobs still racking her frame. For the first time, I too began to weep as I made my way to Broughton, only regaining some control as I neared town.
To the few townsfolk I encountered I felt compelled to say, “I have had quite a tumble in the mud on my rambles!” At High Syke House, Frances brought me water, soap, and clean linens, and as she did so she seemed to treat me with even more than her usual degree of cheek. Had she already heard something of John Nelson’s suspicions about me? Worse, was there a current of rumour among Broughton’s servant class about me? Was it even possible that Eleanor was pregnant by Postlethwaite himself and so rather than impugn him and lose all, including her brother’s post, she had hinted that I was the father? Did others know about Agnes? My mind sped through the range of possibilities.
Or, more likely, was it I who had changed? What ponderous weight we give to each passing glance, to each insignificant utterance, when we suspect that our secret has been discovered! Like blackest night, our guilt makes monsters of the habitual shapes of everyday life—or so I tried to convince myself. It was likely that Frances was no different than she had been since my arrival in Broughton, for she had always spoken to me in the same provocative, flirtatious way when unobserved by others.
And yet I struggle to sleep, so great are my twin fears of losing Agnes and my situation. I have begun having at least one glass of whisky—and often several more—with Dr. Fish at day’s end, for it deadens my anxiety, and eventually gives way to a shallow, disagreeable slumber. I awake each morning with a seemingly unquenchable thirst and an insufferable headache. How long can I persist in such a state?
May 20th, 1840 Broughton
More than a week has passed and I am no closer to devising a plan to see Agnes. I am wild with distraction, but I struggle mightily to retain the inward calm necessary to continue in my situation at Broughton House. The warming weather and lengthening days commingle with my own inattention, which makes the boys’ lessons almost unbearable, to tutor and pupils alike. Once, I used the excuse of Vergil’s Eclogues to take my charges out of doors, but this reminded me too powerfully of Agnes, and I did not repeat the experiment. I fear I gaze out the windows even more than my charges do. The truth is that I wish to keep my position at the Postlethwaites’, but I have no desire to do the work entailed, though easier and more suitable work I cannot imagine.
I cannot conceive that my overwrought nerves can endure this state for long: I must keep my bearing and thus my position, and yet within my soul there is nothing but tumult and torment, and I could no more sit down to write—or even translate—in my current state of mind than I could settle into a long, dull career as a bank clerk, as papa once imagined, so little does he know me. I am wild with desire and yet I cannot act. I yearn for Agnes, and yet see no way forward. Perhaps I can frame a solution during the Midsummer vacation, for a solution there must be. Is there not always a solution, when one has sufficient will?
June 5th, 1840 Broughton
Confound it all, my life in Broughton is finished—I am to leave this place at week’s end! Home—Haworth, which was to be a brief haven—will now be a prison, though the inmates all too familiar. It is I who will be changed. If indeed a Hell there is, I am convinced that we, ourselves, give birth to it, nurture it, and then carry it with us wherever we might go. That this Inferno is of our own making only makes the wormwood and gall more bitter!
Two nights ago—one of the two nights a week when the good doctor permits himself to get as drunk as a lord, though he drinks nearly every night—I finally succumbed to my desire to drown myself entirely, so anxious was I that John Nelson would reveal my secret life. Dr. Fish was all too willing to have me along on his drinking bout, and we sat up many hours after the family had gone to bed. What we discussed mattered not to me; only the numbing sensation that spread from my throat to my entire body and at last to my feverish brain was of any importance.
The next morning I awoke with a parched mouth and head pounding like a drum. As I arrived at Broughton House, none other than Mr. Postlethwaite himself awaited me under the portico. I smiled as I climbed the steps, feigning good spirits—after all, I had become expert in such deception at Haworth, years ago. For the briefest moment I found my master’s physiognomy reassuring—until he spoke.
“Well, Brontë, good morning. Please follow me…I’ve some things to discuss with you.” My veins ran with ice as I followed him to the library, where he motioned for me to sit. “This is hard for me to say, but I have some bad news for you: I’m afraid I must terminate your employment here. It’s my hope that you will come to feel that it is best for you as well.”
Struggling to remain calm, I asked what had prompted such a decision; I could not imagine that John Nelson had already said something.
“As we discussed, I’ve been concerned for some time whether your abilities and temperament were the best match or fit for the boys.” Here I stiffened somewhat with resentment, but battled to keep it at bay. Postlethwaite might be a hard-nosed businessman, but one of his practical talents is to read the language of the human body, and he clearly perceived my inner furor.
“See here, Brontë, there is no question that your intellectual abilities are superior, and your behaviour with the boys has been beyond reproach, though they have begun to intimate that your heart appears not to be in your work—that you often sigh and look out of doors, lost in your own thoughts. The servants report that once or twice you have arrived quite late, and that you occasionally smell of drink. The boys have said no such thing, and their unwillingness to compromise you—that is, their loyalty to you despite these circumstances—is also cause for concern, for I wonder to what extremes your behaviour would need to go before they would report you to their own father. That, I would rather not find out.”
He sighed with what seemed genuine regret.
“I just think it best for everyone to start afresh. I shall of course write you a glowing reference to carry with you, and will send it along in a day or two. You will be paid for the work you have done; indeed, I shall make it a point of honour to pay you through Midsummer”—here he tendered me an envelope—“though I would ask you to return no more to Broughton House after today. You may say ‘good-bye’ to the boys when you leave. They are waiting for you in the school-room.”
I was not ready to depart, however, and pressed him for a fuller explanation.
“Well, Brontë, already rumours were afoot in the village that you were not entirely the steady, abstemious, pious gentleman we thought you at first. Though such talk is perhaps as insubstantial as the air that carries it, it can, if violent and unceasing, do great damage to a person, just as a blasting wind and constant mist erodes the mightiest cliffs along the sea.”
It appeared that Postlethwaite, in spite of himself, was a poet. Is not everyone, at some moment of his life, before putting away such childish dreams? Here was a lesson, I suppose: at some point the poet or the man of the world would need to triumph, the one slaying the other once and for all. As I gazed out the window, my mind wandered toward my conversation with Coleridge, and then what I would tell Father and the others, and beyond that, what I would do next, when I heard my employer calling my name.
I removed my spectacles and gazed at the blurred features of Mr. Postlethwaite. This is an action I habitually perform in uncomfortable circumstances, when I must look directly at a person but do not really wish to see him, whether from dislike, diffidence or trepidation.
“As I was saying, Mr. Brontë, a fresh start for all will be just the thing. Though you leave under a bit of a cloud, I intend that you should know—and that the world should know—that you have performed your duties well, and that I am not ashamed to clasp hands with you as you go. A cloud is not the same as a storm, and I suppose what I mean to say is that it is best that you depart before the cloud bursts upon you.”
First a weather simile, now a weather metaphor. Did Postlethwaite know the difference? Did it matter? Surely not to him. Yet I continued to like him, and there was no manner in which I could deny the fairness—even kindness—he had consistently shown me, especially now.
“I understand,” said I at last, and stood to shake his hand. He accompanied me down the great corridor to say my farewells to the boys, William and John. They stood when we entered, and their father’s presence no doubt dampened any warmer sentiments they might have displayed at my departure. William, a serious, golden-haired lad of eleven, seemed at war with himself, and his “Good-bye, Mr. Brontë,” trembled with emotion. Had I committed the sin of opening his mind to poetry and then abandoning him to a world that had little use for such things, just as papa had done to me—to us all? Had I cast him into the same dilemma I myself faced, but in miniature?
John, a year or so younger, was a less sensitive soul, all dark bushy hair and swarthy skin, a rough-and-tumble lad with a quick intelligence, particularly for the practical: he delighted in the mechanics of grammar, as if he were tearing apart machinery, and had little patience for more elevated poetic sentiments. And yet, like his father, he was eminently likeable, and I fancied him as the logical successor to the Postlethwaite empire, if not the legal one. What, meanwhile, would the pious young William do? I could not worry about it—my own life was far more than I could manage.
As I left Broughton House I encountered John Nelson, who was readying my former employer’s coach. His face was oddly apprehensive. I walked directly to him and said, “Well John, you will be glad to know that I am to be employed no more here, and am to leave the neighbourhood within a week.”
Thinking perhaps that I suspected him of having divulged my secret relations with Agnes, he quickly said, “But I said nowt, I swear it!” His intelligence was quick enough to know that now that I was free of his dominion, I could in turn do him harm, if I chose.
“I believe you, John, strange as it may seem. And besides, all is lost, so what does any of it matter?” I left him gaping in the street, apparently mystified at my resignation.
High Syke House was as silent as a tomb when I returned. Frances was away, Dr. Fish was on his rounds, and his wife and children appeared to have gone on an errand or visit. Upon regaining my room, I lay down and curled my knees to my chest, like an unborn child in its mother’s womb, exhausted by all that had occurred over the past several days: my encounter with John Nelson in the woods, my excessive drinking, and, most of all, my dismissal from Broughton House.
Could it be that I was also relieved, somehow—that the pressure, which had been building up in me like that in the boiler of a steam engine, had finally been released? This thought had scarcely begun to dawn upon me when I was overcome with sleep, which lasted well into the next morning. Is there anything so pure as the relief of such real rest?
June 10th, 1840 Broughton
Mr. Postlethwaite had his letter delivered today, and in it he recommends me heartily. He speaks no untruths, but rather brings to the fore his desire to make a change in his sons’ course of study, toward the evermore practical. He even goes so far as to say, “In five short months, through his excellent tuition, Mr. Brontë laid the foundations of a classical education, and instructed my sons to pay the strictest attention to grammar,” the same language he had employed in the advertisement that had appeared in the Intelligencer. He even pays homage to my “reliable, upright character.” I suppose this corresponded to his experience of me, and he chose not to acknowledge even the most plausible of rumours. With a clear conscience, then, he could both sing my praises and silence any misgivings he might have.
Round the letter of reference was wrapped another, a brief personal note from Mr. Postlethwaite. It read as follows:
My Dear Sir,
I trust that this testament to your abilities and character will be of service. Should you, however, wish to strike out in an entirely different walk of life, I enclose here the address of a Mr. Wright, who is overseeing all aspects of the railway that is under construction between Leeds and Manchester. Though he currently is at work in your neighborhood, he hails from mine—indeed, he still has his accounts with Petty and Postlethwaite in Ulverston—and the enclosed from me will suffice to put you on the best possible footing with him. I know not whether he seeks anything above navvies for his project, but I leave that to you to discover. Who knows but this may be just the fresh start you need?
Wishing you only much continued happiness and success, I am,
R. Postlethwaite, Esq.
I leave for Haworth on the morrow and thanks to my former employer can arrive home with a plausible excuse. Even my arrival would not be a surprise, as they are expecting me for the Midsummer Holiday. I hope that I, alone, will know what truly transpired here in Broughton, and can carry it to my grave.
While a weight had thus been lifted, others pressed more heavily than ever upon my breast: I must see Agnes again, but what would I say? What course must I take next to make my independence? I remembered Coleridge’s final words, which had seemed simple enough: continue 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 truly fame you seek. Try to be happy, Brontë.
I had failed at the first of these, and since John Nelson’s discovery of Agnes and me, I had also failed at the second: I had written nothing, so complete was my paralysis, so all-consuming my distraction from the fear of being discovered. As for writing a novel, while I had said nothing to the effect to Coleridge, I found the idea repellent, for I would forever associate storytelling in prose with my childish, back-and-forth scribbling of the tales of Verdopolis and Angria, with Charlotte—which I put away once and for all when I left Haworth for Broughton. Perhaps I could rescue a few old poems imbedded in those texts, polish them up. But the thought of creating anything new was sufficient to plunge myself into a state of exhausted despair.
Happiness? If there exists a tame, domesticated form of happiness, perhaps more justly named contentment, is that what Coleridge meant? For I seem to know only two extremes: restless desperation, a kind of itch that no scratching will ever relieve, or the bliss bordering on annihilation, on unconsciousness, on death itself, such as the moments with Agnes when my entire being seemed to rush out, to explode into a million atoms as our bodies blindingly blazed and blurred and blended into one; or the rare moments—now seemingly gone forever—when, utterly immersed in my writing, I would lose all sense of time and space, in this case not an explosion but an implosion that concentrated my very existence into the creation of each word, when I would, half-consciously, feel that the entire universe was collapsing into the minute space where ink flowed rhythmically from my pen. Lacking either or both of these experiences, there was always Dr. Fish’s bottle of whisky, which served to deaden my desperation and provide a passing euphoria, a mirage of possibilities that rose up in a wave as I drank and then crashed to earth as the spirit ebbed from my veins, ultimately replaced by the stark reality of morning, when I awoke conscious of no sensation but a parching thirst and a sickly loathing.
I have a highly refined gift for procrastination; the more onerous the duty, the more likely I am I to delay its accomplishment until the final hour: so it has been with seeing Agnes, for my heart breaks to think of saying farewell! One would well think that I should be spending every possible moment with her, but alas, I find I live in denial these final days, as if keeping at a distance from her could somehow prevent our imminent separation. I have taken great rambles, including an entire, happy day spent in half-drunken conversation with that most unusual character, the owner of the public house in Ulpha, discussing my translations as I downed one whisky after another. I was able, if only for a few hours, to forget my woes and stumble numbly and contentedly home.
In short, I have sought distraction wherever I could: even this entry in my journal is an act of procrastination, for I must see Agnes before my stagecoach leaves in the morning, and yet still I resist. I have no idea what I will say, and yet I can no longer delay. I must set down my pen and go to her.
June 11th, 1840 The Inn, Kirkby Lonsdale
How strange the human organs of perception, which distort the world around them to fit the inner life of the perceiver! Our feelings rule us so that our vision of the world shifts as wildly as if we were constantly switching lenses—not just from rose-tinted to clear spectacles, but from spectacles to magnifying glass, from microscope to telescope. How oddly different is this little inn now that I am so greatly changed! When last I passed here, on the eve of this year, I was full of hope and zeal, and celebrated my new beginning by a somewhat reckless participation in a drinking bout with a crowd of strangers, including a mad Irishman and a stubborn Jew, whose debate over which people was the more persecuted caused us all—including and especially the contestants themselves—to collapse into great gales of drunken laughter. Yet, if my life were a novel, what a perfect foreshadowing of the months to follow: mirthful hope drowned ultimately in drink.
Now the inn is quiet; no potential drinking companions are about, and that is just as well. Tomorrow I return to Haworth, and my story—given credence by my letters from my former employer—is prepared. The calm I feel in this regard, the tranquility of the inn, and the fatigue I feel from the day’s journey, should be sufficient to vouchsafe me slumber, but sleep I cannot, for I can think only of Agnes. What living being has not at some moment felt his heart heavy with remorse and regret, so thick that it seems to spread through the arteries to all of the limbs, and rise even unto his throat, threatening to choke him with unbearable sorrow?
Yesterday afternoon I at last made my way along the wooded trail to Sunny Bank, not wishing to be perceived by anyone, including Rutherford. A warm, steady breeze blew a handful of clouds in from the sea and bade the leaves—now exchanging their bright spring green for a deeper hue as the season progresses toward Midsummer—to dance, though to me their capers were hardly merry. All round me was a beauty that held no joy, for I knew I would not pass this way again. I passed first the spot where John Nelson had knocked me to the muddy ground, then the golden meadow where Agnes and I had met so many times, including the table-like stone outcropping that had served as our dry refuge that last, fateful day. I continued toward the farm on the other side of the clearing, to that place where we had last been together, paying no mind to the mud beneath us, for we were enveloped in a far more tangible blanket of fear, grief, and desperate desire. Beyond the woods ran the beck, which at this late date was much diminished from the rushing stream I had first seen in April, so that I was easily able to ford it in three quick steps.
My heart rose in my throat as I approached the Riley cottage, so much did I dread this final farewell. The door opened slightly in response to my knock, and a rough, unpleasant countenance thrust itself through the opening: Mrs. Riley.
“I am sorry to disturb you, ma’am,” I said somewhat absurdly, not knowing her Christian name and at a loss for what else to call her. “But is Agnes here?”
“She’s poorly, sair,” she fairly growled, “and can see n’one.”
I tried, ever so subtly I thought, to peer over the old crone’s shoulder, but she narrowed the opening further and scowled. “I say she’s unwell, sair, and mun have her rest.”
“See here, Mrs. Riley,” I began, but the door was slammed squarely in my face; I heard a plnak lowered into place to bar it, followed by contentious but muffled conversation. The dwelling’s two small windows were covered, and so despite my best efforts I could have no intelligence at all of Agnes’s condition. I did not think it possible, but my anxiety rose higher still as I slowly picked my way back toward the stream, frequently glancing behind me in the fervent desire that somehow she would emerge and run after me. Instead, I saw nothing but the clouds marching eastward and the treetops waving to and fro; I heard nothing but the occasional neighing of horses and the scolding of the neighborhood rooks, who circled constantly in their eternal hunt for nourishment.
Would I not be able to see her this last time, unable even to convey the dreaded news of my departure? The coward in me—he who would fain have skulked off without having to perform this awful task—was, for once, routed by a man of nobler sentiment: I loved her far too well to disappear without an explanation, without a final embrace. As I stepped back across the brook, I lashed myself inwardly for having delayed this visit for so many days, for leaving it to the final moment.
I turned to take one last, hopeless look in the direction of her cottage, and saw, to my surprise, the figure of a woman running toward me, her thick mane of chestnut hair flying wildly, her hands lifting her skirt high enough to enable her legs to move freely and swiftly toward me. I crossed back over the stream and embraced her, crying pitifully, as if in a wretched romance, “Oh my Agnes, my darling girl!” Her dash along the path had her cheeks flushing, her heart racing, her breasts heaving. Those impossibly pale blue eyes were damp from crying, and I leant to kiss her, her simple beauty overwhelmed me.
“No’ ‘ere,” she whispered urgently, taking my arm and leading me once more over the water and into the woods. We stopped in the precise spot where we had last fallen to the sodden earth, where we had desperately clung to each other and wrung a final, melancholy ecstasy from each other’s flesh. Several days of sun and wind had dried the ground so completely that it was difficult to imagine that the mud had ever been, though I fancied I could read the imprint of our bodies captured in the now-solid earth. A fallen tree served as our couch.
There was hardly a gentle way to break my news, so I simply blurted out, as she caught her breath, “Agnes, we are entirely undone…I have been sacked by Postlethwaite and must leave tomorrow for Yorkshire. I…I …”—I knew not how to continue—“I don’t know if or when I can ever see you again, for I cannot remain in the neighborhood. I…I…”
Agnes placed her hand over my mouth and simply said, as she had on our first day together in the meadow, “Whisht. I know, love.”
“But how could you know?”
She smiled sadly, beautifully. “Them great society ladies ain’t the only ones tha’ traffic in gossip, is they?”
Of course, of course: I had been so absorbed in my own woes in the week or so since my dismissal that it had not even occurred to me that all of Broughton, from my employer to the lowliest stable boy and scullery maid, would have bustled with the news of my ignominious end.
Agnes linked her arm in mine, as we sat side-by-side, as if on a church pew, the prattling brook our chanting monks, the woods our cathedral walls, the sky our vaulted ceiling. She leant her head on my shoulder, and I kissed her forehead, and for the first time noticed that she burned with fever.
“Great Heavens,” I said with alarm, “you are sick! You should not have come.”
“I ‘ad to see ye once more…jes’ once more.”
She seemed possessed of a preternatural calm that gave rise to an aura of wisdom, and taking both of my hands said, “All things end…all things. You mun leave this place, it’s spoilt for you now. And even if ye remained, and still ‘ad yer post down Broughton House, and John Nelson ‘ad never seen us in the clearin’—what then? Would you’ve asked for the ‘and of a poor farm girl in holy matrimony? Did ye never think o’ tha’?”
“No,” was all I could utter in reply, but somewhere in the deepest recesses of my being I had, of course, known that such a union was impossible. I had pushed the question out of my mind with a persistent avoidance, just as I had postponed this final encounter with Agnes herself. It is forever in my nature, after all, to avoid the most painful of realities.
Agnes could tell from my downcast eyes that I acknowledged the justice of her remarks.
“It’s, it’s”—her heart struggled for the words it needed—“it’s like a beautiful day…i’ comes and then i’ goes…or when the sun goes, and gives place to rain. It’s like when spring comes and then it goes…just ‘cause winter comes, tha’ don’t mean tha’ spring never was: tha’ first day when you and me laid us down on the ground in t’ meadow don’t stop bein’—nay, i’ lasts forever, ‘ere”—she touched my forehead gently with her small hand, rough from her daily toil, a reminder of just how different she was from even the daughters of an impoverished parson—“and ‘ere”—she placed her hand gently on my breast, over my heart.
My eyes welled with tears, and do again as I write this. She had, in her simple way, said more than I ever could. If nothing but a memory, it would be a memory as durable as the eternal rocks beneath the changing seasons. There was nothing I could add, and we sat in silence, the only sound now the melancholy wind rippling through the leaves above us; even the horses and rooks seem to have gone dumb, as if in reverence for her beauty and her simple wisdom.
At last, her flushed cheek and feverish brow recalled me to the reality of her illness, and I said, “Darling, you need to rest, and I am certain your parents are displeased that you ran after me.”
“It don’t matter, really, for they’re already angry wi’ me ‘bout”—she hesitated for a moment—“’bout any number of things. I’d like fairly to run off someday…so far that I would never see this place again!” I wanted to cry, “Come with me!” but I knew it was impossible. Imagine appearing at the parsonage arm-in-arm with an unmarried farm hand, and no employment for either of us in the bargain! And even if I had ventured such an absurd idea, Agnes would, with a single penetrating glance, have disabused me of the notion.
All I could say was, “Let me walk you home, for you are truly not well.”
We rose from our homely bench and made our way to the edge of the woods, where the path crosses the stream. “Come no further,” said she. “Me da’ may be old and tired, but ‘e’s terrible cross jes’ now. Leave me ‘ere.”
I again embraced her, one final time, kissing first her forehead, then each tiny ear, then her eyelids, then the spots where her dimples lay hidden, at which point she smiled softly and they faintly appeared. I kissed her gently on the lips, gazing directly into the impossibly beautiful blue of her own wide eyes, that warm ocean in which I had so many times drowned myself, only to be born again.
“I shall never forget you, my sweet, beautiful girl.”
“Nor I you, Mr. Brontë” she said simply, with a polite formality that signaled the end of all. At long last I released her, and as we parted she turned once more as if it say something, but thinking better of it she bowed her head and walked determinedly toward the family cottage, never looking back. I watched her—my fair forsaken one—from the edge of the woods, heard raised voices as she entered her parents’ humble dwelling, and then, as the voices fell silent, made my way back to Broughton.
Now, perhaps, I can sleep, for with the morrow comes the long voyage home to Haworth, and I need the energy required to face my family and begin my life anew.
Chapter XII—The Parsonage
July 18th, 1840 The Parsonage, Haworth
My return to the Parsonage has been as agreeable as might be hoped, but I will surely be unable to endure remaining here much longer. I coolly recounted Mr. Postlethwaite’s decision to seek a different sort of tutor, playing on my family’s inherent disdain of the purse-proud merchant class and framing the entire episode as an example of pearls cast before swine. Charlotte in particular, always so ready to be disappointed with me, was here entirely duped, the arrogance which springs from her own insecurities making her all too happy to join in the general round of condemnation: yes, yes, I was well rid of such a dreary post, in such a remote village lacking the cultured diversion of Halifax or Bradford, or even Keighley for that matter, etc., etc. Meanwhile Papa—whose indulgence for his only son always eclipses any doubts he might have, no matter how well founded, about my career—also readily accepted the explanation, and congratulated me on the fine recommendation my former employer had provided.
As I suspected, Charlotte seeks to conceal her infatuation with Father’s curate, Mr. Weightman, through jest and mockery, but I am not deceived. I say nothing, not wishing to broach the topic of affairs of the heart, for fear of being asked questions about Broughton. Would Charlotte know I was lying? Would she—could she—sense that I was forever changed, having loved a woman as passionately as I had?
What was clear was that this air of mockery seeped into all of her communications, not just those concerning the unfortunate curate. Mr. Postlethwaite’s note suggesting that I might consider a career with the railway sent her into paroxysms of laughter; the same “wit” that had been directed at William Weightman was now turned upon me.
“Oh ho,” she cried, laughing so heartily that she could with difficulty continue her raillery, “I can picture it now! Our young poet sets off to seek his fortune, in the wild, wandering, adventurous, romantic, knight-errant-like capacity of clerk on the Manchester and Leeds Railway!” This was more than mere teasing; it was cruel derision. I realised that it sprang from the twin sources of envy and contempt: envy that as a woman her choices were so much narrower than mine, and contempt that despite the wide berth the accident of my sex had awarded to me, I was still without a post. I sometimes think she might kill a man to be offered the opportunity to work as a railway clerk, if only then to be in a position to turn her nose up at it! Could it also be that her own inability to secure a position at present makes her mockery all the more acid in tone?
As I write these words, it dawns upon me that any unease I feel at the parsonage springs almost entirely from Charlotte. Once my closest companion, the precocious little girl with whom I created one imaginary world after another is now a stranger, by turns censuring and mocking—the latter simply a gentler version of the former—nearly all those who come into her orbit. She at once holds herself superior to all, and yet can scarcely hide within her a deprecation of self, the two apparently opposing forces in fact feasting, cannibal-like, on each other. I conjecture that she would sell herself to Satan himself to be an admired beauty who moves with effortless grace in the highest social circles, for if she truly cared little for such matters, her attitude would be one of absolute indifference, that which we display toward those things we value little. I also fear that she will abase herself in shameless adulation before the first man of quality and intellect who demonstrates any genuine appreciation for her.
In the first weeks away from Broughton I thought without cease about Agnes, but just as I tend to delay all painful actions in life, so have I striven to place my grief at a remove, like some terrible secret locked away in an attic, or better still, like the cauterization of a wound with a hot iron. When even that fails, I rely on her own insistence that I leave Broughton: You mun leave this place. Why should I feel guilt? But even as the guilt fades, my yearning for her comes, unbidden, and is sometimes so great that I must walk out onto the moors until I find a place hidden by rocks, where I lie down and imagine myself with her until, for a brief instant, I feel a spasm of relief—shameful, paltry, and transient though it be.
I can no more share what happened in Broughton than I can leap over the Pennines, but it has caused in me great disquietude when I am thrown into too close quarters with young ladies who are not my sisters—for here are three creatures I do not, Heaven be praised, imagine without their clothes. I was covered with utter confusion, however, when Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor, from her time at Miss Wooler’s school, came to stay at the parsonage just days after my arrival. She is a beauty, with the golden ringlets and the alabaster skin of a porcelain doll, and it was not hard to imagine—indeed it was impossible not to imagine—the perfectly feminine curves to match, moving beneath her dress. It was thus not surprising, then, that I paid homage to this young lady, for I cannot help but be drawn to a beautiful woman, like a moth to a flame. In this case she is also a noble, warm and generous creature: I doubt not that she would die willingly for one she loved, and her intellect and her attainments are of the very highest standard. I was hardly smitten—let alone in love—but like any young self-respecting gentleman, I drew myself up, peacock-like, in the most gallant manner possible, not so much to seduce as to impress.
To my surprise, I could feel her respond to my “attentions,” and I suddenly found myself baffled. Yet why should I be surprised, and why baffled? Was it because Agnes was of the lower orders, and that I felt that if a lady were pursued, such a chase would be harmless sport without consequence? Did I—like Charlotte—have so little regard for myself that I could not conceive of an equal—and, in truth, the Taylors are far superior to us in social standing—returning my passion?
It was quite safe to treat Mary as a real goddess, as long as she took no notice of me. But once she did, I knew not how to proceed, for I had known a very different kind of love from what society deems proper, with its long and tedious gradations, its tortuous paths of courtship and marriage. Any true passion for Mary, if it were to be consummated, must issue ultimately in marriage, for no other way forward was possible. Even if such a marriage were to be wished for, what business had I in marrying, I who had no employment and was at twenty-three years old still dependent upon my father for my food and shelter? No, no—there was no way.
As Mary’s affection for me became manifest, all of these thoughts and more raced through my mind, and I recoiled in panic. Then what did I do? I confess it with shame—I shrank icily into myself, like a snail, and at every glance retired colder and farther; till, finally, the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses. I found myself making excuses for being out of doors alone, which usually meant that I went seeking the fellowship of John Brown. Besides, the truth of the matter was that I wanted a practical man’s advice on whether once and for all to cast all serious artistic ambitions aside and look into that post with the railway, regardless of what Charlotte might say.
August 1st, 1840 The Parsonage
Yesterday I came upon John Brown where he is often to be found, in the churchyard, digging a fresh grave. It was an unusually hot day, even for late July, and the sexton was all too glad to break off his toil. He jammed his shovel into the pile of dirt he had disinterred, wiped his brow on the back of one of his powerful, sunburnt forearms, and dusted his hands on the seat of his trousers. Though he speaks with a slightly gentrified version of the rough accent of the West Riding, he is an exceedingly literate, if not a literary, man. He has read his fair share of the classics, especially Shakespeare and Milton, and he knows his Bible through and through. Indeed, the stonemason is entirely capable, for comic effect, of assuming the accent of the gentry, though with me he tends to chip off his words whenever it suits him—in other words, most of the time.
“Well now, if it’s no’ t’ poet himself!” he exclaimed heartily. By God, you’re a sigh’ for sore eyes, as I was lookin’ for any excuse at all to sit on t’ wall and smoke me pipe. E’en you’ll do,” he said, eyes twinkling with mischief. “Pray tell, have you devastated the heart of tha’ youn’ Mary Taylor? Is she writin’ you billets doux from afar, now she’s gone ‘ome?”
John is the only person to whom I have confessed my love for Agnes, and the revelation of what happened at Broughton is an endless source of mirth to him whenever we find ourselves alone, when he christens me Romeo, Don Juan, Lothario, etc. It is harmless enough when confined to our private conversations, and yesterday I was gratified that he who had initiated me into the secrets of the masons, he who had taught me how to box and how to drink—for Father was of an entirely different order of man—now acknowledged that I had forded the most important stream of all on the road into manhood, even if this recognition came through amiable mockery. It occurs to me now that I have been most fortunate to have two fathers: one of the mind and spirit and occupied with matters of the hereafter, the other with those of this world. How often are young men, through the fault of no one, born to fathers who are singularly inappropriate to their needs!
I explained what had happened with Mary Taylor while John puffed meditatively on his pipe. “Well, surely,” he said, “I’ve no doubt that the womenites over there—he nodded his head in the direction of the parsonage—are upse’ wi’ ya, but o’ course you di’ the right thing. You erred—if any error there were—in your initial desire t’ please, bu’ wha’ red-blooded male can be thrown into t’ proximity of such a charmin’ creature as tha’ and no’ wish to please? ‘ad you begun icily enough, or failed to take par’ in t’ ladies’ diversions, you’d a been condemned just as roun’ly for your misanthropy, would you no’? She go’ t’ wrong end o’ t’ stick, tha’s all.”
He paused to reflect. “For example, my Martha,” he said, referring to his twelve-year-old, who has just begun doing errands and other odd jobs for us, “reports tha’ Miss Brontë ‘as been known to speak quite ill of our virtuous curate, Mr. Weightman, callin’ ‘im a shameless male flirt and suchlike. As far as I know, the young fella ‘as a good heart and spreads ‘is charm evenly all about the neighbourhood. ‘e can’t help it if ‘e’s so devilishly good-lookin’ and charmin’ tha’ any kindness, any eagerness to please, appears to those eager hearts—and I suspect your eldes’ sister t’ be one of ’em, in spite of ‘erself—to be a cruel tease and nothin’ more. ‘e would be just as roundly censured, if no’ more so, if ‘e held himself back from entering into the fun: ‘e would then be cold, arrogant, proud, aloof, superior--‘ow can such a man win?”
As was his wont, the sexton had cleared away my bewilderment as easily as if he were wiping the dust off a freshly-chiseled headstone. I could only nod in agreement with his view of the situation.
“As for you, lad,” he continued in more formal tones, “until you’ve made your independence you’ll be thwarted from the proper expression of love in the sacred confines of holy matrimony.” Here Brown’s eyes were again full of mischief and double-entendres, though the shadow of the church steeple now fell across us like a condemnation from on high, and his daily contact with mortality—I thought at first—should have been a constant reminder of the ephemeral nature of the pleasures of this world and the eternity of the next. Then again, perhaps digging graves day after day had wrought the opposite effect upon him: could it be that death was so familiar to him that its attendant awe and mystery, its fear and dread, had rubbed away entirely, like the shine of a shovel-blade from constant use?
Brown’s comment approached blasphemy, and it was doubly amusing—or for one truly believing in eternal damnation, doubly perilous—because he is known to stray outside the “confines of holy matrimony” as often as he can, his appetite for women possibly the only thing greater than his thirst for strong ale. At thirty-six he has already fathered six children, with another on the way—and that’s counting only those I know of, those he has had with his long-suffering wife Mary. He succeeds in playing the faithful husband here in Haworth, of course, for the Reverend Brontë would sack him if he had clear intelligence of his sexton’s philandering, and now that his little Martha is in the parsonage nearly every day, the bond between parson and sexton is even tighter. Of course, John is not unhappy to have a great deal of business concerning memorials, headstones and other sextonly activities, which take him regularly to Bradford or Halifax, where he can be at his ease.
While these thoughts occupied my mind, Brown puffed silently on his pipe, then continued in his habitual voice, “And t’ make your independence—for d’ya really wish to be under tha’ roof any longer, with Father payin’ for, and sisters cookin’, every bi’ o’ food ya take, havin’ t’ borrow money just t’ join me for a glass of whisky down t’ Black Bull? Settin’ aside the question of the fairer sex for a moment”—and here his gaze followed, in the church lane, an especially pretty young girl, who was just blossoming into womanhood—“yes, settin’ that aside for a moment, d’ya no’ simply need t’ be gone from the neighborhood once more, to find your independence at last? All the rest”—here he nodded in the direction of the lovely creature—“all the rest, by which I mean life, will follow. But you’re barred from all bu’ the impotence tha’ud come from bein’ a perpetual inmate of tha’ parsonage if you do no’ take your destiny in hand. Even if the railway is bu’ a steppin’-stone t’ greater things, will it no’ procure for you a livelihood tha’ll once and for all free you fro’ the shackles of dependency on others? What ‘ave you t’ lose by lookin’ into t’ post, eh? And what ‘ave you to gain by failin’ to do so?”
With that he knocked his extinguished pipe against the stone wall, stood up, and reached for his shovel. “Ashes t’ ashes, Romeo,” he laughed, and set himself to work. I left him to it, but as I passed through the churchyard gate I heard him say, as he effortlessly assumed the diction of a proper gentleman once again, “It is I who shall buy you a drink this time; we shall toast your next adventure!” He seemed supremely confident that he had just convinced me to contact Mr. Wright about the railway position, and indeed he nearly had. “The Black Bull, nine o’clock, mind you—there will be a tumbler of whisky waiting for you there.” Without slowing the pace of his digging, he nodded downhill, past the church, in the direction of the public house.
As I returned to the parsonage I turned things over in my mind. I began to understand why Emily preferred performing domestic duties to taking up the life of a governess, for as she has sometimes said, this leaves her mind utterly free to wander the landscape of her imagination. Teaching, on the other hand, allows no such freedom and is, in fact, ruinous to the creative impulse. Even Charlotte has begun to see this, saying sometimes that she would rather be a scullery maid than a governess! I see what they mean. Perhaps, indeed, the railway might not be such a bad thing. Though I would not be digging tunnels like a navvy, how intellectually onerous could the duties of a railway clerk in fact be? Would I not have time to myself, to refine my translations and write my poetry? Still, I resist Coleridge’s idea of a novel, for to me the form is—like the work of the tutor or governess—an unseemly mongrel, a mélange of the poetic and the everyday, and though he might justly call it the most saleable of products, I reject the idea out of hand.
Let Charlotte mock the railway, but is it not exciting, if sometimes terrifying, to watch the very future unfold, as lines are laid along the valleys, tunnels penetrate hills, and bridges are cast gracefully, like a sorceror’s spell, over deep river gorges? Perhaps the choice of her words—adventurous, romantic—reveals, even in her mockery, her own occupations, for she obstinately craves to remain in the childhood worlds of our own creation. So: she would have me find a career that is truly adventurous and romantic? What, pray, would such a career look like in this pragmatical century? Surely teaching does not fill the bill.
And what of her? Staying at the parsonage to receive visitors, write letters, and heap sarcasm on everyone, while Emily bears the brunt of the domestic duties and Anne—our baby Anne—has already found another position at Thorp Green, in which she is, it appears, highly valued? Is she using what she has learnt any more than I am employing what I have? No, in a word.
In brief, the eternal, sterile sameness of life at the parsonage is unbearable, and so I have applied to Mr. Wright for a position with the Manchester and Leeds. At the same time, I await word from Coleridge on my translations of Horace, which I revised and sent along upon my arrival here in late June. As the days drag on with no word from him, I have little hope in that direction, but as he is the only man of real intellect who has taken an interest in my work, I have at least followed his counsel in this respect, though I may have failed to do so in all others.
Chapter XIII—The Dead and the Living
August 14th, 1840 The Parsonage
What a dreadful nightmare I have had! Rarely do I dream—or perhaps my dreams are so vile that my waking self refuses to recall them? This morning, however, I awoke from the most vivid and heart-wrenching of scenes, perhaps more memory than dream—a recollection that stole upon me, like a spirit, in my slumber. And spirits indeed there were! I stood—my present self of three and twenty years—behind my four-year-old self, one of five little children standing with our nursemaid of long ago, Sarah Garrs, at the foot of a bed, the deathbed of a pale, wasting figure lying quite still.
Papa and Aunt stood on either side, and Maria, the eldest, held baby Anne, the youngest, in her arms. Mother—oh God, Mamma—please do not die! We had all just emerged, somewhat miraculously, from scarlet fever, and stood quietly weeping, the sobs of grief that wrack even the stoutest hearts so much heavier a burden for the very young, though their elastic resilience quickly proves their salvation. They may be scarred forever, but the wound itself heals quickly. My present self regarded this scene at a remove, almost coolly; I was more fascinated than troubled.
Mamma looked round at us all and moaned, “Oh God my poor children—oh God my poor children!”
Papa, perhaps afraid that this constituted an oath that would offend the Almighty, said desperately, “Shhhh….hush, my love…do not let the great enemy disturb your mind…give over…have confidence that Christ is your Saviour, and Heaven your eternal home.”
Whether with her own mind or with the fiend himself—I would prefer the former, not the latter, construction of events—she seemed to struggle mightily, even delirously, as she said at last, “My darling Patrick…you know that my heart has always been more ready to attach itself to earth than to heaven. I even dreamt, once, that I was in heaven and it did not seem to be my home. I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, and I woke sobbing for joy.” Tears rolled down her cheeks in silence, as once more she exclaimed, with every atom of her being concentrated in grief, “Oh God, my children!”
It was this last outburst, her love of life, of us—not her dying or the sorry contingent of diminutive mourners that included my former self—that finally caused my chest to heave. Silence ensued, for her spirit had left her. Papa, too overcome by his own sorrow to worry, or even notice, that we had witnessed our dear Mamma’s final, blasphemous words, threw himself on her body and cried out, “Oh my dear sweet Maria, God have mercy on you, my love, oh my life, how can I bear it?” At this, our own wails now rose in such a chorus that poor Sarah, herself overcome with tears, ushered us at last from the room.
Next, I stood in the damp cool near the altar at Haworth Church, as John Brown’s father William lowered her coffin into the vault. Whether I was my four-year-old or current self I know not, but I was there, and my grief knew no bounds.
“Oh God, mamma, my sweet mamma, who will read to me by firelight, whose fingers will wriggle through my mass of red curls, who will kiss me on the cheek, who will call me her little Branney, her Little Angel? Oh Christ, oh sweet Jesus, God Almighty in Heaven, mamma!” I wanted to fling myself into the vault, to be covered up and blotted out for all eternity, so great was my grief. “How will I endure sitting here listening to Papa’s sermons while just below my feet I know that worms consume your sweet flesh, those soft cheeks once so close to mine? How ever will I bear it?”
I awoke this morning bathed in sweat, aching with grief. After breakfast I walked down to the church and there, on the cool flagstones covering the vault, I stretched myself out and lay silently, feeling, for just a moment, at peace. Beneath me lay not just mamma, but also my sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, both of whom died four years after her. And though Papa watched over his little bereaved flock with truly paternal solicitude and affection—for he was our constant guardian and instructor and he took a lively interest in all our innocent amusements—my two elder sisters mothered me, Maria reading to me just as mamma had done, Elizabeth washing my ever-begrimed little face and struggling to keep my hair and clothes in order, particularly on church days.
I had always believed that their deaths had mattered to me far more than our mother’s, but now I saw that to them I had transposed an even greater childlike grief, one that was as profound and necessary as the foundations of the church, and as deeply buried as the three coffins that lay side-by-side beneath its cool pavement. As I lay there, I heard not a sound, and at length drifted not into slumber, but dwelt rather in a sleeplike trance, and in my reverie, I recalled first Maria’s, then Elizabeth’s, funeral.
Beloved, angelic girls, how I remember that dreadful hour when you—when your coffins—and that velvet pall descended—and descended—slowly—slowly—into the horrid clay, and we who remained on the earth in that dark hour were borne deathlike, and wishing to die, for in that moment I thought I would never be able to enter this church again! How I ache for your kindnesses, your goodness, which mother on her deathbed seems to have bestowed upon you both. No wonder you have died, for you were far too good for this world!
I lay thus, half-conscious, half-dreaming, half-dead, and half-alive—or so it felt—but with the cool sensation of the stones against my flushed cheeks still very real indeed. Only when the bell marked the hour did I kiss each name on the vault—Maria Branwell Brontë, Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë— and lift myself from the flags, and escape from the church.
August 17th, 1840 The Parsonage
Dreams mean nothing until they are interpreted by the waking. I took mine as a sign that I need to live, to move beyond the spiral of impotence in which I am drawn when I am here. The wellspring of childhood creativity has run dry, at least for me, and I so I must turn elsewhere. Charlotte continues to be an interesting study, and I wonder if my dream gives some clues to her character as well. Within a month of her elder sisters’ deaths, she went from being an unremarkable, if headstrong, middle child who worshipped her sisters as I did, to the unchallenged leader of our sad little band. We were fast friends and collaborators, yes, but more accurately we were—we are—competitors. Her disdain for me springs, I have no doubt, from her sentiment that I continue to cast away all the advantages that nature and the world have afforded me.
I now see—or should say that I now guess—that my dream arose from two events. The first was the conversation with John Brown as he dug yet another grave, but the second was the rare treat of a visit from Mamma’s family: her cousin John Branwell Williams and his wife and daughter. They were a lovely trio, at once refined and dignified but natural and friendly in their manner. The daughter, Eliza, was a distant enough relation for me to appreciate her charms from head to toe, for she is quite a beauty. Upon their departure, I saw that Charlotte’s sarcastic tendencies extended far beyond me, and that they in fact had fastened themselves with particular relish, like the jaws of a watchdog on an intruder’s ankle, on the unsuspecting visitors.
“Well now,” she began as we sat round the table after their departure, “they reckon to be very grand folks indeed; to my eyes there seemed to be an attempt to play the great Mogul down in Yorkshire, don’t you think?”
Emily did not even lift her eyes from her work. I weakly objected, “Well, I’m not sure I agree, Charlotte—”
“Oh come now Branwell!” she said sharply, “All right then, I will grant you that Mr. Williams was much less assuming than the womenites”—she had picked up John Brown’s playful term, and added it to her growing repertoire—“he seemed a frank, sagacious kind of man. Did you see how, the moment he saw me, he exclaimed that I was the very image of my Aunt Charlotte? But the ladies…for heaven’s sake: Mrs. Williams set up for being a woman of great talents, tact and accomplishment, but I thought there was much more noise than work, don’t you?”
A grunt from Emily, whether in assent or dissent, I could not tell.
“And as for that simpering girl, Cousin Eliza,” she continued, particularly animated by now, “she may have been intended by nature to be a bouncing, good-looking girl, but Art has trained her to be a languishing, affected piece of goods!”
I tried to appraise my sister as a man who was not her brother might do: she is almost impossibly small, and her head seems too large for her body. Despite her fine, intelligent eyes, her face is marred by the shape of her mouth and by her complexion. She has but little feminine charm about her, and seems uneasily and perpetually conscious of this fact. How often do our judgments of others tell far more of ourselves than the objects of our derision or praise! Charlotte had neither Anne’s outer grace and inner strength of will, nor Emily’s ferocious independence and—to be candid—indifference to almost everything that lay beyond the smooth functioning of the parsonage and the world of her imagination. Had she not been at Thorp Green, Anne would have sought, in her sweet and winning way, to find the most positive things she might say about the family, and left the rest unsaid. Emily, I felt, was at once capable of dashing pretty young Eliza’s empty head against the paving stones and yet was far too uninterested to pay her any regard at all.
Like all those who speak ill of others, only to find that no one joins in their mockery, Charlotte grew red in the face, for our silence was a judgment of sorts upon her unseemly behaviour. She hastened to get up, finding something else to occupy her. As she left the room, I turned to Emily.
“Can you believe”—but I fell silent after these three words, for the full power of Emily Jane Brontë’s gaze was suddenly turned upon me, and its meaning was as unmistakable as if she held the tip of a dagger to my throat: If you think I am going to repeat Charlotte’s sin, and speak ill of her—who after all is my dear sister and abides under the same roof, whereas at least her harmless twaddle was visited upon the head of those we had never met and are likely never to see again—you are quite mad. Do not even think on it, Branwell!
Yes, those piercing, hawk-like eyes said all of this, and far more: in their presence, there was nothing for me to do but shrink from any further discourse on the matter, and I, too, made my way out of the room, with only these pages to receive my confidences.
August 21st, 1840 The Parsonage
How often do we fail to keep our own counsel, and how often does this failure stem from our pride or our vanity! Surely now I regret the day in June when, shortly after my arrival home, I boasted of my visit to Coleridge at Nab Cottage. Of course, I emphasized the more encouraging of his words, framing our discussion in such a way as to cast myself in the most favourable light. Is that so wrong, or so rare?
I had revised my translations and sent them off almost immediately, but thought no further of my conversation with the family. Now I learn that not only has Charlotte sent her own manuscript to Coleridge; he has answered her! She claims with great delight that he cannot decide whether the author is of the “soft or hard sex,” but I cannot imagine that Coleridge was unable to discern that the pseudonym concealed of my sisters, for how many such missives can he possibly receive from the Parsonage at Haworth! I think, rather, he is toying with her. Still, how I wish he would respond to me! Coleridge has given her quite the same advice he offered to me: keep her expectations low and consider packaging her work for market, on the scale of a three-volume novel.
What grieves me seriously is that I cannot but feel that Charlotte has stolen my one foothold in the world of letters, just as she has so often taken my stories, filling them with swooning heroines and a superabundance of French. With due justice, though, while I do not care for her tiresome tales, I have to recognize that she has made them very much her own, and that is the most frustrating part of all, for I feel at times that I have poured my very being into my work, only to have it reshaped beyond recognition in hers. More accurately, when I read her tales and poems I feel my inspiration everywhere, but my being nowhere. While I cannot truly claim that Charlotte has stolen any of my work, I sometimes feel she has robbed me of my very soul.
Melodramatic? Unjust and untrue? Perhaps. But I feel it all the same, and the feeling is real.
September 4th, 1840 The Parsonage
And so a railway man I shall be, and after a languid summer, events are suddenly moving at the speed of a locomotive! Just two weeks ago I applied to Mr. Wright for a position, and a week later it was announced that the section from Leeds to Hebden Bridge would be open by early October. My appointment as assistant clerk-in-charge at Sowerby Bridge was confirmed in Manchester just four days ago! Charlotte may choose to mock me however she wishes, but I have employment at last, while she continues idly to receive her friends, write letters, and read French novels, while Papa cares for his flock, while Anne continues faithfully as governess at Thorp Green, and while Emily oversees the parsonage, for that matter. Not only do I embark on a new career, in an enterprise that can only grow in the coming years, but I am also able to leave this stifling parsonage once again, God be praised. And to have Halifax so close at hand, with its concerts, plays, and lectures—and best of all, my old friend Joe Leyland, whose marble works and studio now stand hard by the centre of town.
Yesterday, when word came of my appointment, I struck out to find John Brown rather than endure Charlotte’s incessant teasing. Soon we were at our habitual table in the Bull, celebrating my good news. “D’y’ reckon,” asked Brown, “tha’ you’ll be permitted to travel wherever y’ please on this newfangled railway?”
“I haven’t the foggiest notion,” said I, somewhat giddy at the thought of hurtling along in space, spinning about the world, as the network of railways expand to every corner of Britain. “After all, my position ties me to a station, not a particular railway train, and after what occurred at Broughton the most essential thing of all is that I keep my post, and I suspect that means being present.”
“Aye, of course, of course, and I ‘ave no doubt tha you’ll succeed in tha’. Wha’ exactly does it signify to be assistant-clerk-in-charge?”
“Now John, you aren’t going to skewer me as Charlotte has about this, are you?” I said with a rueful smile. He laughed and slapped his knee, then signaled to Abe Wilkinson to refill our glasses.
“Ho ho, no indeed, I really want t’ know!”
“Well, I’m not so sure myself, but from what I’m given to understand, there is a bit of everything involved: minding the books, keeping logs of arriving and departing trains and their contents, supervising the loading and unloading of freight, assuring the safety of passengers…that sort of thing.”
“Surely you’ll be able to come home from time to time, or visit your friends in Halifax, will you not?” I assured him that I would have time not only for holidays, but also for that matter time to eat and sleep—and to continue writing when I could.
“Well, in tha’ case I suspect my stone-carvin’ will be takin’ me quite regularly to see old Joe Leyland, and together we’ll make an infernal threesome—though of course the more the merrier! I know some absolutely charmin’ ladies in Halifax, and surely”—here he lowered he voice—“your bollocks must be aching—if they haven’t yet been cut off and thrown to the dogs by the womenites up at the parsonage!”
“Go on and laugh, John…though at times it feels that way. Or at least, I feel suffocated there, buried alive,” and then I thought of my recent dream, and of Mamma, Maria and Elizabeth, in their cold and silent vault beneath the flags. I shuddered, finished my glass, and this time it was I who motioned for another. “If for no reason other than to escape from this place, the next adventure fills me with hope, a hope I have not felt in months.”
“Let us lift our glasses, then, to Lady Hope” said Brown, assuming his more gentlemanly diction and drawing me into the warmth of his mirth, “and let us hope that Hope does not let us down.” Aided by the whisky, I did indeed feel hope surge through every fibre of my being. After three glasses, I felt anything was possible, and imagined a response from Coleridge, in which he wished to attach his name and his own translations to mine, due to which, within months, I would be able to walk away from my humble post at the railway and, once and for all, devote myself entirely to letters.
I know but one thing above all, as I told Brown: the most essential thing for now is that I keep my post, not just to make my independence but to prove once and for all—to everyone, but especially to Charlotte—that I am capable of success.
September 13th, 1840 The Parsonage
I am in that most delightful of periods in life, that twilight region between appointments, where one has earned the respect that comes from having secured a post, but where one is not yet required to fulfil any of its obligations. This respect—even a grudging version of the sentiment from Charlotte herself—has also won me a certain leisure, even idleness, in the days preceding my installation at Sowerby Bridge on the first of October. I am thus free to ramble about the moors, visit friends in Bradford and Halifax, write poetry, or just sit daydreaming at my ease, without the usual attendant guilt, for no one can claim that I have done nothing to make a living for myself. Ah—what bliss it is to have left behind the responsibilities of my post at Broughton, to have laid down the burden of finding a new one, and yet to feel only the anticipation and excitement of my life to come! I know that it is absurd to wish that this state would continue forever, but that recognition does not make the feeling any less real.
In rereading these pages, I have come to realise that in one way or another, all of my family, even dear Mamma, Maria and Elizabeth, have found their place, with one notable exception: Papa. Why is it that I find myself unable to bring him to mind? It cannot be that he holds no importance for me, for upon Mamma’s death he did his best to raise us into adulthood, in a gentle but firm manner. So much of what I know I owe to him, for he has been my sole tutor and guide in the realm of the intellect. And yet, I find myself resistant to the very idea of probing this paradox further—all the more reason, in this time of unusual leisure, where I have the luxury of true reflection, to do so.
Could it be that Papa’s strengths—especially those corresponding most closely to my weaknesses—are a condemnation of sorts? He, too, had literary ambitions, and has still a passion for the written word; but his desire to make his way and to sustain his family ultimately triumphed over any dreams of glory in the world of letters. Though he rarely speaks of it, it takes no great intellect to suppose that he drinks no spirits and co-founded the temperance society in reaction to a vice that may have plagued his forebears.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the matter of his faith: it is beautiful, it is childlike, it is most earnest and sincere. At the same time, he displays a marvelous tolerance of the various sects of dissenters, unless of course they are in league to deprive him and his family of his living as perpetual curate. While I dread death and the possibility of eternal damnation, how can I make myself believe as papa believes? When I think of poor Mamma and my dead sisters, I cannot picture them in immutable, perfect unity with the Almighty, but only wasting in the church vault.
Am I stronger for this ability to see death for what I believe it is, the end of all, or is his childlike faith the sign of a superior mind, or rather, of a superior soul, one touched by God, with an unshakeable faith in his redemption through Christ Our Lord? I recall Mamma’s dying words—or were they really my words, shaped by a dream?—“my heart has always been more ready to attach itself to earth than to heaven,” and cannot help but wonder whether she passed her preference for this life over the next to her children—or at least, to this child. And it stands to reason that one could not possibly prefer the pains and joys of this life to everlasting bliss unless one were skeptical of the very existence of the latter. But such doubts could never have been—can never be—uttered in a parsonage, where not just the soul but the body daily depends upon the Church for its nourishment.
The Reverend Brontë makes a great show of being stern with us—especially when others are about—but we who were comforted by his tender paternal presence in the absence of our mother know that he would sacrifice all for our happiness, as though seeing us thrice bereft led him to make protecting us his primary obligation in this world, and I fear that this impulse has at times led us to be far too petted, so that we are ill-suited for anything required to make one’s way in the “grown-up world” we have now fully entered.
But I begin to stray again from the topic of Papa himself, and wonder if this is because I find it too painful to dwell upon the differences between us: The Reverend Patrick Brontë is selfless, abstemious, industrious, reliable, and devout; Patrick Branwell Brontë is none of these. Why, then, do I still believe that there is a place for me in this world, that I can find happiness and love, joy and fulfilment, possibly even fame? Why do I feel that the name Brontë will come to be known throughout England and the world, with a feeling so certain and palpable that it has an even greater reality to me than the names John Brown almost daily carves into his headstones? Am I quite mad?
Chapter XIV—The Sculptor and the Railway Clerk
October 20th, 1840 Sowerby Bridge
What a strangely different world is upon us with the railway! The activity is ceaseless, and even in such a humble place as this the movement of people and goods continues almost without respite. Such work—to my great surprise—is perfectly suited to the active side of my temperament, that part of my character that cannot sit still and bring my mind to bear for long on a single thing, for this post will not even allow such a stated of tranquil concentration! No, here is constant “hustle and bustle” as the common folks say, and so uniquely fitted to a mind already in a state of constant movement and distraction. I am determined to do well, to confound Charlotte in her skepticism, and believe that thus far the head clerk and the railway hold me in the highest esteem.
The only element of the position I dislike is the keeping of the ledgers, for my old loathing of money counting, which had prompted me to refuse even the briefest consideration of father’s idea that I might make my living as a bank clerk, has grown only more intense. I cannot imagine what sort of narrow mind could delight in such work, which is at once so simple that a child can do it, and yet so stultifying as to drive an imaginative person quite mad! But I will do as I am required to fulfil my obligations to the company.
How to describe the grand opening of the railway here two weeks ago? Such a multitude! Thousands came to view the arrival of the first train, waving banners and flags, cheering the locomotive—a sight most of them had never seen before, a great “iron horse” drawing behind it goods and passengers in a motley array of waggons and coaches. The Sowerby Bridge station has not even been completed, but bunting nevertheless decorated our temporary outpost, and banners were strung gaily from lamps and bridges along the way. A small orchestra had been assembled to play music to herald the train’s arrival. I, lover of the ancients, felt, in spite of myself, my chest swell with pride at the unrelenting march of progress, now come even to this remote place!
The head clerk, Mr. George Duncan, and I stood proudly at the front of the assembled multitude to watch the beast puff slowly into the makeshift station. That day there was nothing but a communal glee mingled with national fervour, for no other power in the world comes near to the pace at which the iron rails currently unspool through Britain’s hills and dales, so that perhaps even little Haworth will soon hear the shrill whistle and thundering rattle of engines. The public houses overflowed, and at the end of the long day even the sober Mr. Duncan and I were able to lift a single glass to the railway’s successful arrival.
All of this excitement is but nothing, however, when compared to a ride on the railway itself! As an employee I am permitted to travel at no cost, and within days of the grand opening I was able to take my first journey, and was invited to stand with the driver in the locomotive itself, so that rather than viewing the countryside speed vertiginously beside me, I was at the very tip of the engine as it penetrated into the wilderness, banking along the hills and moving beside the River Calder. I felt I was on a flying carpet, like Prince Husain in the Arabian Nights! The engineer bade me lean my head out of the locomotive itself, and I could feel the exhilaration of the wind moving like a stream about my face and neck, my hair swept back from my forehead as though I had plunged into the Calder itself. The wind was like a balm, for it was a perfect early autumn day, clear skies and brilliant sunshine illuminating the turning, falling leaves with a thousand different shades, the kind of day that causes lovers of this season of sweet, gentle decay to cherish it even more.
The driver, a Mr. Matthews by name—for he had introduced himself with a hearty handshake, after doing his utmost to wipe his hand clean of grease—assured me that the age of rail had just begun, and that speeds unimaginable would be reached in the future. It was a race of sorts, with all of the world’s great powers feverishly erecting railway lines, stations, and more powerful engines to carry freight and passengers more and more quickly, and the latter in greater and greater luxury. Matthews was a practical philosopher of sorts, for he added thoughtfully, “Think on ‘t, Mr. Brontë—we’ve depended on horses fer thousands o’ years, bu’ soon I reckon they’ll be used only for sport and show!” While I find such an assertion far-fetched indeed, I cannot but wonder, having glided along those rails with the wind in my face, what an age of change we inhabit! Where will it all end?
Up at the Summit Tunnel, the workers toil away, and hope to lay the last brick by December. We shall see, for such projects always cost more in time and labour than imagined. Still, the work advances. Until it is completed we have only three trains a day, but soon there will be many times more than that—possibly as many as twelve each way—once the link with Manchester is complete. If I believe myself occupied at present, what shall I do with eight times as many trains?! Well, I suppose there is security in such activity, and it may be that the railway determines that more clerks are needed to assist us. Until then, Mr. Duncan and I shall manage. Take each day as it comes, I tell myself, and do each thing necessary to continue in good stead with the railway. Or as Papa might say, Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
It occurs to me that a career—like the Summit Tunnel itself—must be built brick-by-brick in just this way, in increments, through steady application. Of course, I already know that Rome was not built in a day, but what a difference there is between a stale epigram and one’s life experience! How vast the gulf between knowing that something is true and putting it into daily practice, especially with a nature as restless and variable as mine!
All Saints’ Day, 1840 Sowerby Bridge
Well now, that illustrious sculptor, Joseph Bentley Leyland, has been to visit at last, and since the trip from Halifax is less than three and a half miles, it was high time! I forgive him, though, for he says his commissions are coming faster than he can execute them. Where at times I am guilty of the cardinal sin of envy when I encounter successful artists, Joe Leyland is one of such genial good humour and effortless talent that he is impossible to dislike, despite—or perhaps even partly because of—his streak of playful cruelty.
He is of that company of men who attract other men of genius—real or pretended—and women. Oh God in his Heaven, does he attract women, so many that sometimes I think I could be sated simply by eating the crumbs that fall from his table. But I’m running on too fast, seduced to distraction by the very thought of being with a woman, who inevitably assumes the shape of Agnes, whose lips I again feel pressed to my own, whose breasts sway above me, who surrounds and massages me with her love until our bodies are a single ecstatic blur of being.
As I said, I am running on too fast…
Joe arrived with a new acquaintance to me, his brother Francis, who operates a circulating library I have already promised to visit. He is a gentler, far more sweet-tempered version of Joe, and seemed to view me as a curiosity of sorts, as if he were a novelist looking for characters for his next tale, so carefully did he observe all about him, so attentively did he listen to our conversation, though without adding much at all to it himself.
I showed my guests about the station, now nearly complete, and Sowerby Bridge itself, including the unremarkable suite of rooms I have taken with a most unremarkable family, the Wilsons. The ageing, childless couple has just two ageing servants, themselves a childless couple. Here I will find no garrulous Dr. Fish, no ravishing Margaret, no flirtatious Frances. In short, a proper place to sleep and take my meals, and stay out of mischief.
We settled into a public house, The Mermaid, for a drink.
“I daresay,” began Leyland, with significantly less sarcasm than Charlotte on the matter, though with a bantering mockery all the same, “Patrick Branwell Brontë is just about the last person in Yorkshire—nay, in all of Britain itself—that I would have expected to see employed as a clerk on the railway. But Frank here claims that it is the way of the future, and utopian philosopher that he is, he has set you up in his mind as a hero of the industrial age!”
“Well,” said I, smiling and bowing my head slightly in the direction of Francis, “that is most generous. And I confess to an unexpected enthusiasm for the railway, for I do believe it will change—is changing—everything, especially how we see time and space, for they are collapsing, being bent to man’s will like a white-hot iron under a blacksmith’s hammer.”
Joe beamed across the table at his brother, and brought his heavy right hand down upon the table, slapping it with an open palm, his large dark almond-shaped eyes laughing.
“You see? How often have I told you of young Brontë’s poetical gifts? With him, even the railway is transformed, like a train going through a tunnel: it enters his mind as just so much wood and iron and smoke, but emerges from his mouth as song, a mechanized chariot of the Gods!” At this he paused, and said, more seriously, “And what of your poetry? Writing anything? What of those translations you sent along to Coleridge fils?”
I told them that I had yet to hear from Coleridge, but that yes, in odd moments I continued to write now that I was free of the oppressive atmosphere of the parsonage. What I lacked, I said, were men of true intellect who could read and critique my writing. In the childhood days of secret composition, only my sisters read my work, but I now realised how important it was to throw off my diffidence and, once and for all, seek the wisdom of fellow poets. I also realised that I no longer desired to share any of my writing with Charlotte, for I was certain that what she did not object to in style she would condemn in substance.
Francis remained silent, but Joe, the whisky beginning to work its magic, cried in mock indignation, “What are you saying, that we are not men of true intellect? I have half a mind to leave you with this bill, Master Assistant-Clerk-in-Charge!”
I was in that familiar state of mind where we welcome and even wish to participate in the mirth of the moment, and yet still have a serious point to make. “Ha. You know what I mean…I haven’t seen you in ages, and this is my first acquaintance of your brother—who, by the bye, is considerably more gentlemanly than you.”
“Well, my friend, that is the difference between the artist and the bookshop owner, is it not? His quiet, steady temperament will likely permit him to live decades beyond me, for he does nothing to excess. Which are you to be, Brontë? Do you wish to make a life on the railway, perhaps becoming a rich shareholder, an elegant suit stretched tightly over your plump belly, so full that it is only with great difficulty that you can extract your watch from its pocket to ascertain that the trains are running on time? Somehow I don’t picture that for you, lad—there is a beast within you, trying to claw its way out.”
Leyland, whose colossal, terrifying Head of Satan we had first seen so many years ago when Charlotte’s drawings were exhibited in Leeds, was serious now, though his ardour always retained more friendship than censure: I was certain he only meant me well. Seeing his own great head in such passionate animation gave me the thrilling, fleeting thought that his famous sculpture was, at least in part, a self-portrait.
Joe’s harangue was far from finished.
“I suppose what I mean is that it is hard to find those in this life who manage to live a temperate, steady, wholesome life and at the same time create art. Find me the functionary or bank clerk”—he had purposely, and I thought, for him, sensitively, avoided “railway clerk”—“yes, find me such a man who is also, consistently, creating great and passionate works of art. Perhaps such a creature exists, but I have yet to encounter him in my travels.”
Francis remained unaffected at what other men might have considered a genuine affront to his character. He was surely used to Joe’s meditations on the topic, and like so many of us, he allowed the genius and affability of his brother to wash away the sins of his arrogance. The conversation was following the same channel as my earlier dialogue with Hartley Coleridge, but in a new and improved version, with examples of flesh and blood: Francis served as the steady, wholesome man of business and Joe the Byronic hero, given to excess of all kinds, to be practiced—or at least excused—in the name of artistic freedom. My place in this drama? Why, apparently, to choose between these extremes. Was there, in fact, no middle way?
“As you might imagine, my dear sir, I have wrestled with such thoughts since I abandoned the career of painter. I agree with you that it is with a difficulty akin to impossibility that I continue to pursue my writing and my mundane occupation on the railway, but I see no other way at present. I must make and keep my independence, and to do so I must give the better part of myself—my energy, my attention, my time—to that which sustains me.”
“Now then!” cried Joe, again slamming his huge sculptor’s hand on the table, this time so loudly that several other patrons looked up. Then, more softly, “That’s the key to this puzzle! What sustains you! Did not the Reverend Brontë ever tell you that man does not live by bread alone? Damn it, little man”—this is another of his favourite epithets for me—“do you wish to let the world, as it is called, slash your wrists, so that the passionate beating of that noble heart ebbs slowly away into nothingness?”
I was indeed growing weary of this debate: it was, in fact, a topic that had occupied my sisters and me almost since childhood; papa had made it clear that he had vanquished the extreme temptations of literary activity, channeling his erudition and desire to write into his sermons, his letters to the newspapers, and his other occasional compositions. And yet, despite his own moderation in this matter—as in all others—he could not help but bestow his passion for letters upon his children. It was the same topic I had discussed with Coleridge—who seemed to have no real solution to it—and with Mr. Postlethwaite, for that matter.
Joe signaled for another round of whisky. Meanwhile, I would hardly let him, of all people, beat a parson’s son at the scripture game.
“I believe the Reverend Brontë would say that you are forgetting the rest of the verse—whether you are quoting Matthew or Luke—which Matthew gives as: “not by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
But he waved his hand dismissively. “Please, Brontë, are you one of those ignorant blockheads, like your father’s Baptist foes in Haworth, who take scripture as literal truth, believing you should gouge out eyes and pluck off limbs, and that the earth is only five thousand years old?”
“Which means that the mouth of God doesn’t refer to an old man with a white beard who floats up on the clouds—a chap who, after all, is nothing but a pale version of Zeus, without the lightning bolt or any of the rollicking fun, for that matter. Think of how many goddesses he had it off with—even his own sister Hera!”
I thought of my own three sisters, my mind’s eye briefly, weirdly—against my will—trying to disrobe them, and then fortunately failing, revulsion coming so quickly that my throat and mouth seemed to fill with bile, so that I had to take an especially large swallow of whisky.
There was no stopping Leyland, who could never resist displaying his erudition, though it was always in such good humour that one could hardly accuse him of pedantry.
“And his progeny! Apollo, Hermes, Artemis, the nine Muses, the three Graces, the list goes on and on and on, ad infinitum.”
The Three Graces. It was the name of the Masonic Lodge in Haworth, but I thought instead again of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, this time picturing them circling the table in the parsonage dining room, reading to one another, a chaste, cerebral dance of virgins. I could hardly imagine them presiding over banquets and representing beauty, charm and joy. No, I suspect Leyland’s fêtes—for I would be invited to them, now that I had returned to the neighbourhood—would feature young ladies far more palpably, even unabashedly, committed to those qualities.
“What exactly,” said I at last, as Leyland stopped to take a long draught from his glass, “is your point? Is there one?” The three of us exchanged smiles, for we were still sober enough to recognize that phenomenon of enthusiastic storytelling under the influence of strong drink, when digressions proliferate, whilst the original topic recedes from view so quickly as to become nearly irretrievable.
Joe laughed aloud. “I may need to implore Zeus’ own granddaughter, the fair Ariadne, to help me follow this particular thread back to its beginning!”
He mused for a moment, then drew himself up, puffing out his great chest and pronouncing sententiously, “My point, dear Brontë, is this: the Mouth of God, like the mouth of the Oracle of Delphi, simply means the truth transcendent, whatever nourishes our mind and our soul, like those eternal qualities of great art and literature and all other things that distinguish man from beast. Bread alone is just what it appears to be, the nourishment of man’s animal nature only.”
“And my point is this,” riposted I, confronting in my own mind the justice of his words in the abstract with the workaday world I inhabited, “that as much as I would tend to agree with you, let us take a concrete example, a page from the life of one Patrick Branwell Brontë: I cannot continue to be dependent upon my father and currently have no other way to make my living than to be an ‘assistant clerk-in-charge’ for the Manchester and Leeds Railway. What to do? Quit my post, and eat the pages of my unpublished poetry? Plead with Father to allow me to live in the parsonage and spend my days writing—or more likely, unable to create in that oppressive place? Crush my desire to write once and for all and, as Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, become a man and put away childish things?”
How fitting, I thought, that Paul had sent his epistle to the Greeks. Zeus indeed. Was Leyland—was I—no more than an overgrown child? Was that, ultimately, the problem?
While there was no anger in my words, a desperate seriousness had crept into our conversation, so that an awkward silence ensued. Francis Leyland had been a mere spectator to all of this, but an attentive one. He looked down at the table, while his brother matched my warmth with his own, though it was that of a kindred spirit.
“Bugger me, Brontë, of course you are right—but so am I! I suppose that the best we can both do is to keep at it, and hope that something breaks in our favour.”
I looked at him quizzically, for he had blazed onto the art scene long ago, and could scarcely keep abreast of his commissions. What was his struggle in this arena, compared to mine? I had always imagined the grass to be quite green in his pasture, and could not imagine his needing a “break” of any kind. I said nothing, but Joe read my confusion correctly.
“Yes, yes, you might call me a great success, but you would be surprised at how little profit such work yields, and how often I have had to seek advances from my family.”
Francis simply smiled mildly and said, “This is true."
Joe continued, “Notoriety, even fame of a minor sort—none of this puts much bread on the table.”
All it took was a look from me, and Joe burst into laughter.
“Very well, you have me there—I am again vanquished by that great philosopher of the railway age, PBB,” he said, using the initials by which I sign my letters to him. “Let us agree, then—nay, let us even toast with another round of drinks—that we have wrestled with this intractable problem and that it will not give over, indeed, that it will never yield a satisfactory answer, for it is somehow linked to that paradox of mankind: a yearning for the eternal, the transcendent, the sublime, joined to a body that begins to decay the moment it reaches its full maturity, and that shares all of the appetites of the animal kingdom.”
Francis declined the third whisky, but I gladly accepted mine.
“Please do not call me the great philosopher after that inspired peroration,” said I, grateful to have turned the page on this conversation. I could bear dwelling so directly on my condition for only so long. “Pray, tell, good man, when am I to be invited to one of your famous—or should I say infamous—soirées in Halifax?”
Joe grinned. “I assume that all this talk of animal appetites has whetted yours, then?” In keeping with the theme of our conversation, he pronounced sacrilegiously, and with great dramatic flair: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring ye good tidings of great joy, but in this case it shall not, alas, be to all people, but only to the elect, which of course will include yourself: for unto you is born—or borne with an “e” if you prefer—this day an invitation to my next fête, a regular jollification—for let us say here and now that next Saturday, in the ensnaring town of Halifax, that Devil’s Cauldron, I shall expect the honour of your worship’s presence at half-past seven o’clock—that is, if you are able to tear yourself away from your enchanting little railway station here in Sowerby Bridge.”
As we parted company that afternoon, I agreed to try my best.
To be continued on 6 April 2020