Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 6 of 12)
Updated: Apr 26
Volume II (continued)
Chapter VIII—A Wrestling Match
August 27th, 1841 Luddenden Foot
Last night I behaved in a way I hope never to repeat. I was again at the Lord Nelson, but this time in very different company. After a long hot day at the station, I invited Spence and Killiner to walk with me to Luddenden Village, where some of my less literary acquaintances were gathering for drinks.
Spence, as usual, declined, citing a need to be home with his wife, who was ill. Killiner, whose only occupations in the world are railway porter during the first part of the day and prodigious tippler for the remainder, gladly accepted the rare invitation, and together we made the fifteen-minute stroll as afternoon lengthened into evening, and a fine, cooling breeze arose from the north. The bright green leaves of spring were fading into an array of deeper hues, and here and there, even a precocious autumnal yellow, as if we needed reminding that such pleasant days were soon to be no more.
In Luddenden we found an illustrious company gathered around a table: George Thompson and John Titterington; Joseph Earnshaw, the local shopkeeper; and Archibald (“call me Archie,” he insisted) Ingram, in town to visit his cousin, Mr. Thompson. Oddly—or perhaps not, given their occupations—these men, all ten to fifteen years older than I, looked somewhat alike: sandy brown hair, ruddy complexion, and respectable clothing stretched over prosperous bellies.
Here the conversation was decidedly different from Leyland’s company of poets, for even when the latter are well in their cups they retain a certain—albeit relative—level of decorum, and even the most lascivious remarks are made to impress with their wit, rather than offend with their coarseness. In short, we remain poets and gentlemen, no matter how roaring drunk.
Ah, but this crowd! I found a certain thrill in surrounding myself with such men, whose language was calculated to shock not only the parson’s son but also the gentleman in me, though I decided to govern my own language before my subordinate, Mr. Killiner. It would be better for the stationmaster to stand out for his good manners and admirable restraint than for an ability to play the chameleon, bending my character to meet theirs. I confess that had the porter not been there, I might well have joined more lustily into their game, with the same sort of thrill of sinning that has come to characterize my weekly visits to Maeve.
It should be noted that these men are respectable members of society, and that they are not only capable of stringing together sentences of proper English, but can do so in such a way that their speech is entirely devoid of oaths and obscenities, sufficient to converse with all manner of gentle society, just like good Mr. Postlethwaite, or for that matter, Mr. Rutherford at Sunny Bank, or my old friend John Brown. To a one—excepting Mr. Killiner, that is, who may also be excluded from the above comments about their powers of conversation, though he is happy enough to drink, listen and laugh—they are also in regular attendance at church each Sunday, and all but one are married.
But it is here at the inn that they can show quite another side of themselves, and it is almost as if the effort of behaving like proper gentlemen and upstanding husbands and fathers has so exhausted them that they can only be restored to themselves by concentrating as much bawdiness and profanity, as much drinking and carousing, as possible into a few hours each week. Like a locomotive letting off steam, or a patient being bled, their very existence seems to depend on eliminating an excess that threatens to overwhelm them.
Is it any wonder, then, that their descent into a chaotic, indecorous, and sometimes quarrelsome hubbub is rapid indeed! Thus it was that last night we were soon all hurtling downhill toward the basest, most indecorous of conversations imaginable. For the briefest of moments, I wondered what would be the reaction of Papa and my sisters, and shuddered. Father would be deeply saddened; Charlotte shocked and outraged; Emily bored and thoroughly unimpressed; Anne dismayed but perhaps quietly resigned. Little do they know that similar scenes regularly play out at the Black Bull, just a stone’s throw from the parsonage and mere steps from the church itself. Or perhaps they just don't wish to know.
After two hours or so of such polite conversation, we were all thoroughly intoxicated. Titterington fairly shouted for silence, then proclaimed, “There are some ladies upstairs for those who know what to do with them.”
Perhaps it was because I had just spent an evening with Maeve in Halifax, or perhaps—strange as it may seem—I wanted to be with her alone, as though even with a prostitute I must be faithful; whatever the case, I consulted my watch and reached for my hat.
“I really must go, Titterington. Morning will come all too soon, I’m afraid, and Killiner and I will need to be at our posts long before the early train arrives at 8:00 o’clock.”
Killiner looked at me in surprise and, I thought, with a hint of dismay. “Well,” added I, “he may certainly stay as long as he likes, for I am only his superior at the station, not here.”
Whether Titterington took my imminent departure as a reproach, or he simply did not wish anyone to miss the fun, he fairly shouted, as though half in jest, “Now Brontë, what art thou, lad, a miss nancy? Surely thou art ready for a good pull, eh? Sod it all, lad, surely there’s one upstairs t’ please thee…’ave a look…we’ll even let thee go first, since thou art so bloody ready to depart.”
It was then that I realised what had most impelled me to flee: the thought that Maeve, herself, could be one of the women waiting upstairs. It was one thing to know, in the abstract, that she sold herself to other men; it was quite another to know that she would spread her legs for one or more of these fellows while I stood idly by, listening. Yet how foolishly absurd to think that somehow this would sully her! No, it really had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.
In any event, I rose to leave, putting on a brave face and attempting to laugh.
“Now see here, Titterington, I appreciate the kind invitation, but I insist.”
This time it was Thompson who spoke up. “Let ‘im go, John. If ‘e’s too holy for us we can spare him any invitations in future, eh? It’s that much more quim for the rest of us to swim in.”
After a few sniggers at this witticism, storm clouds seemed, nevertheless, to gather over our little assembly. At last, Killiner—it may be only to stand in his superior’s good stead, I know not and care not, but was grateful nonetheless—also stood and said, “Mr. Brontë’s right, I’m afraid, we really mus’ be off now,” and at that we made for the door. I had almost reached the threshold when I felt two strong arms reach round me from behind and lift me clear off, then slam me down upon, the floorboards. The handful of other patrons in the Lord Nelson looked round and stared, then quickly resumed their conversations, with either indifference or embarrassment.
Titterington knelt above me, laughing with demonic glee. My size had deceived him, however, and he could not know that I was an experienced wrestler and boxer; within seconds, it was I who knelt over him, his arms pinned to the floor and his stomach heaving like a beast at slaughter. The storm of laughter that had accompanied his ambush became a shower of comments: “Oh ho! Look at Brontë go to it!” or “It’s the Lion and the Mouse!” or “How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!” or “Hell fire, wha’ a brayin’ li’l Branwell’s givin’ big John!,” etc. John tried to free himself, but I was far stronger than he had expected, though I panted with the exertion, as ever. His last resort was total surrender, and then laughter, as his thick neck relaxed and his head dropped to the floor.
“All right, all right, I am vanquished! I am vanquished!” said he, as the assembly erupted into gleeful applause. “Here Brontë, help a daft ol’ bastard up, will you?”
I did as Titterington commanded and walked with him back to the table, shaking hands all around. Even Thompson, who had just moments ago seemed ready to provoke a further quarrel, softened and, finally, grinned, shaking my hand.
“And now, truly, I must ask your leave to depart, gentlemen,” said I, doffing my hat.
“Just a moment, Brontë,” said John. I wondered what he could possibly want now. “Wait for me out in the road—I want a word with you.”
Whether he had decided to speak to the “ladies” upstairs or wanted a word in private with the remainder of the gathering, I know not, but within two or three minutes he had joined me outside, where I waited alone, Killiner having made his way home—or perhaps to another public house.
“I shouldn’t like to say this in front of those gentlemen,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder toward the Nelson and assuming the softer tones he surely used with the local gentry, not to mention his wife. “But permit me to express my apologies for that. I fear debauchery loves company as much as misery does, lad.”
“Well,” I responded, “I shouldn’t like to say this in front of them, but will tell you that I already see a certain lady in Halifax, and that is sufficient at present. I know I can hardly compel you to keep silent on the matter, but I’d appreciate it if you would try, old man. Beyond that, I’d really rather not talk about it.”
How marvelously strange that the human heart can harbour such a range of emotions, like the colours of the rainbow! For Titterington’s beastly conduct melted away, replaced by a pathetic, almost childlike benevolence.
“Of course, of course,” said he, adding his own request. “Though I can hardly keep those blockheads”—again gesturing toward the inn—“from gleefully reporting it all over God’s creation, I would appreciate it if you would avoid recounting our wrestling match to too many others.”
I assured him that, by all means, I would keep the matter to myself. We shook hands warmly on the bargain, and parted friends, each swearing allegiance to the other. Still, as for rolling on the filthy floorboards of a country inn, I will have no more of it. How much lower can a gentleman go?
September 11th, 1841 Luddenden Foot
How quickly the true troubles and cares of life can bring us back to earth! Poor Spence! His wife has, in fact, fallen quite ill, and with no one to care for the little boy—for he and Mrs. Spence are from Leicestershire and have no family here—the poor man is quite beside himself. Even paying a servant girl to watch over the two whilst he earns his bread with the railway is too dear, and more than that, the devoted husband and father is no good to me here in such a state, for he does nothing but pace the floorboards and wring his hands. Yesterday I finally sent him off, fairly commanding him to care for wife and child, and not to return until she was either better or he had found a solution for caring for them that was suitable to him.
“But Mr. Brontë,” said he, wiping his brow, for his anxiety combined with this warm September day to bathe him in perspiration, “I know how you depend on me, especially for the account ledgers.”
“Come come,” said I, assuming an air of calm for his benefit, “who do you think kept the books at Sowerby Bridge? Why, I did such a marvelous job there for Mr. Duncan that I was quickly promoted to stationmaster here, have I not told you that? Think not for a moment upon it; only, tend to your missus and that lad of yours, and all will be well. Of course you will need to find a solution within a few days, for no company will pay for a worker who does not perform his duties. That’s something only a government sinecure—like being the poet laureate—can provide,” I concluded, trying to make him smile. But the poor fellow merely snatched his hat and coat and made his way up the hill toward his ailing wife.
It has been such a long time since I have done any of the work I had so quickly shifted to Spence that I nearly took pleasure in sitting at my desk with the ledgers, and recalled for a brief moment the initial excitement and energy I had felt in my first days with railway. I knew, too, that surely this rudimentary book-keeping was something I could resume doing for the brief span of time Spence required to arrange for his wife and child’s care.
Yet how different is this work from what I had pictured for myself in the past! Down the hill, soon arriving from Sowerby Bridge, the next train whistled merrily, and though it was the urgent signal of the present, it somehow seemed to represent the call of all of my ambitions—past, present, and future. I thought of those summer afternoons long ago when I lay beneath a glorious sky, some noble page of poetry spread beneath me and luminous white clouds above, whilst sweet winds whispered through the trees, revealing the wondrous future fate intended for me! I recalled other hours spent wandering on the moors beneath an iron grey sky, with nothing but lake and stream to break the stern monotony of withered heath and windy hill! My books and my rambles, my heedless fancy and boundless imagination suggested a world of wild wonders, bold adventures and divine scenes beyond the gloomy horizon. Even the moon was transformed, as I stood beside father’s door gazing through the window after a nightmare, transmuted into a magic vessel gliding toward unknown regions.
Why did this whistle bring such scenes to mind, scenes that time has left so long behind? Is it that old, poetic ambition that cannot be killed, rising once again like Polidori’s vampire? For though I may try to crush it, or at least place it neatly into a trunk, like a child’s toy, it will not let me rest, and calls out to me that perhaps it is not too late. As I sat amidst my work, I hastily began to scribble lines in my station notebook, which I recopy here:
Amid the world’s wide din around
I hear from far a solemn sound
That says “Remember Me!”
I looked out the window to see Killiner preparing for the train’s arrival; a handful of people had appeared, either to welcome arriving passengers or board the train themselves. A particularly pretty young lady held a parasol above her head, against the warm September sun, her golden ringlets swaying against her delicate neck and bouncing along her lovely shoulders as she chattered impetuously with her mamma. I thought of Maggie, and Maeve, but most of all of my poor, forsaken, Agnes, and dipped my nib again into the inkwell, hurrying to complete one more stanza before the train’s arrival. It whistled again, louder, as the locomotive laboured slowly uphill:
What was that sound? T’was not a voice
From ruby lips and sapphire eyes
Nor echoed back from sensual joys
Nor a forsaken fair one’s sighs.
I rose and walked out to oversee the unloading and loading of goods and passengers, but as soon as Killiner signaled that he needed no further assistance, I returned to my poem. I looked at the lines above and felt they had been written hours or days or years, rather than just moments, before, but I closed my eyes and concentrated myself to the utmost; as the train left the station with yet another whistle, I once again took up my pen:
I, when I heard it, sat amid
The bustle of a town-like room
‘Neath skies, with smoke stain’d vapors hid,
By windows, made to show their gloom.
The desk that held my ledger book
Beneath the thundering rattle shook
Of engines passing by
The bustle of the approaching train
Was all I hoped to rouse the brain
Or startle apathy.
I paused, staring into the distance, fixed on nothing in particular, my eyes focused far beyond anything in my field of vision, as the engine’s smoke dissolved into the shimmering azure vault above.
Soon quiet descended once again, though a steady westerly breeze carried one last whistle from the train as it continued uphill to Hebden Bridge. I continued:
And yet as on the soft wind’s swell…
And solemn as a funeral knell
I heard that soft voice known so well
Cry—“Oh Remember me!”
I concluded the poem with remembrances of the dreams and wild imaginings of a childhood filled with books and rambles on the moors I have described above, which I wrestled at last into verse.
I suspect Leyland will read the poem and pass the following judgment, or something quite like it: “You’ll never get that published, young Faustus—there is nothing about the Almighty…haha! It’s all about you-you-you. Besides, no one wants to read a poem with engines rattling through it, pouring smoke on the very windows through which they might wish to glimpse the Divine! And a ledger book? Bugger me, man! Why not write a poem about privies? Ha ha!”
The simple truth is that I have made Ambition my god, and it is Ambition’s unrelenting voice that forever calls: “Remember me!”
Chapter XI—A Religious Ramble
October 23rd, 1841 Luddenden Foot
The trains come and go, one after the other, and with them the minutes, hours, days and weeks. Already more than a month has flown by, and I wonder what, if anything, I have accomplished. The sensible man would say, “Why, you have performed your duties well, and each day in which you do so is further proof that you are capable of thriving in your post; such is the way to success in your chosen vocation.” But my ambitions are in a quite different sphere, and far from feeling that I am moving forward, I feel that I am marching in place. How appropriate that I am the stationmaster, then, as life seems to pass me by!
These thoughts were on my mind when, a week or so ago, I took a day to ramble about these wild hills with the Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden, who has the living at Hebden Bridge. He may seem, to those who do not know him, to be a quiet, even timid gentleman—odd for a parson, for most of his tribe adore hearing the sound of their own voices—but once familiar, he warms considerably, and never fails to carry his weight in conversation. Perhaps, indeed, Sutcliffe is more scholar than preacher. He is a great lover of nature, especially geology, and when he has left behind city and town for mother earth he is quite transformed. In his presence, the contrast between our brief and insignificant lives and the ancient cliffs and hills is even more acute. As we climbed in the direction of Cragg Vale, my lungs were no match for his, which clearly expanded with delight as he fairly raced ahead of me. He waited for me on the old stone-flagged road, but then dashed up the hill to a large outcropping of rock, not unlike the one on which I had lain all those months ago, just after my arrival at Luddenden Foot.
Sowden leapt onto the rocks and gazed round in every direction, his arms outstretched as if to embrace the universe. The vast cerulean sky was punctuated by only a few white wisps of clouds.
“Is God’s creation not glorious?” he shouted, his countenance beaming with delight. He sat and pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs, hugging them to his chest like a little child—just as I had done, though my view of the creator had been somewhat more ambivalent.
I drew up to him at last, panting and sweating from the effort. When at last I had caught my breath, I climbed onto the rock next to him. “It is,” said I, still breathing hard. After a long pause, during which nothing passed between us, I added, “Though he surely shows His face but rarely.”
Sowden turned to me not with a look of judgment, but of fraternal concern. “Why, what do you mean, Brontë? He is in every living thing—in you and in me, but also in this rock here, in those moors beyond, in the cascading leaves all around us—even in those rooks circling high above us.”
“Do you mean to say,” said I, smiling and turning to face him directly, “that you, the right Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden, of the Church of England, subscribe to the heresy of pantheism?”
“Not at all, not at all,” he said calmly. “But I do believe in humility. Logically, the moment one accepts a position of humility—by that I mean not just that one does not and cannot know everything, but that Mankind and his various systems and religions do not and cannot know everything—for who are we to describe in detail a God we have never seen?—well, that is the moment one is liberated from the either/or arguments.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you call me—in jest, I am quite certain—a pantheist. I have been called worse things. But in all earnestness, if I am truly humble, and confess that all religion is but man’s weak attempt to understand the omnipotence and infinitude of God, the old black-and-white arguments melt away.”
“Ha ha, I can see it now, Sowden! Standing before your homely little congregation, you announce: ‘See here, ladies and gentlemen, we cannot understand the omnipotence and infinitude of God, and so never mind all of those things we have said were right and wrong, including that nasty obligation that you be in church each Sunday, for who dares try to sound the depths of the mind of God, whose face we have never seen.’ Are you daft?”
“You misunderstand me, Brontë, and are creating unnecessary contradictions. Why can we not say that man can never fully know God, for He is God after all, and we are but fallen sinners? Further, why can we not say that God reveals Himself over time, and that we believe that though our Christian tradition has taken shape over the centuries, it is our best understanding of how we are to worship and serve the Creator and his creation?”
“It still smells strongly of heresy to me,” said I, still smiling. “And I suspect that you hardly propound such views from the pulpit.”
Sowden coloured up a bit and laughed gently. “You are right there. I’m afraid the good people of Hebden Bridge might be a bit confused. All I am telling you—man of intellect that you are—is that I see no contradiction between seeing God everywhere in his creation and yet worshiping him—as, after all, we are instructed by the Church—as its Creator, any more than I see science and religion as mortal enemies, as some would have them be. Each is a pathway to a larger truth, a truth that only God possesses. The rituals of the Church—which, I can confess to you, since you know of what I speak, constitute my least favourite duties—are the simple, imperfect tools we use to try to understand God, and to help our parishioners understand and serve Him, in our daily lives: no more or no less.
I realised that our friendly “dispute” could turn endlessly in circles, like the rooks above, but the day was too beautiful and the company too agreeable for that, and I admired my new friend for a breadth of mind and spirit—not to mention a genuine goodness—that far surpassed mine. To my mind, once one let go of the notion that one had access to the Truth—be he an Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Quaker, Wesleyan or any other of the band of Methodists, or for that matter a Papist, Jew or Mohammedan—anything was possible. So I changed the subject—somewhat.
“What is clear is that we have but a brief moment on this earth, and I feel it slipping away from me before I have even begun to live. I cannot imagine a lifetime of work on the railway, and yet I have thus far succeeded. Is this merely the disillusion that all men face as they grow older?”
“Have you prayed about this?” he asked.
“I have,” I lied—for I have long since abandoned, if not God himself, then at least the childish idea that he is a divine telegraph operator at the far end of a mystical line stretching to heaven, and, still more, that He passes His time waiting for my message to come through. The truth is that I have meditated upon it, in an attitude very like prayer, and have dwelt upon it so often in these pages that my understandably exasperated future self—to whom I send my sincere apologies over the years—will likely by now already have cast this notebook into the fire in boredom or disgust.
There was a long pause, and we could hear only the wind lifting sweetly through the woods below, and the occasional cawing of the eternal rooks.
Sowden turned to me and said, “Do you remember how God spoke to Elijah at Horeb? He came to the prophet in a still small voice. Perhaps, if you listen quietly, you will hear such a still small voice within yourself, telling you what you should do—perhaps, with enough prayer, that is how God will speak to you, for he speaks to us all in the ways we are most apt to receive him.”
Was it my own guilt about not praying that caused me to interpret this last phrase as a reproach? At any rate, he paused, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “There is some truth to your assertion that a bit of reality—I prefer that word to disillusion—must in some manner accompany us into our adult lives, and that we must clear away some of the illusions of our early youth, for if they were to remain with the same intensity we would be eternally dissatisfied and perhaps go quite mad.”
Sowden’s earnest counsel was honestly and kindly given, but I could not help teasing him for his choice of scripture. “The still small voice, eh? Does that not come only after poor Elijah learns that ‘the Lord was not in the wind’ and ‘the Lord was not in the earthquake’ and ‘the Lord was not in the fire’? So much for finding God in all things! Even Holy Scripture denies that. It’s right there in black and white, in the book of Kings.”
“Son of a clergyman!” growled my friend in mock anger as he leapt down from the rock, pronouncing it as if it were a far less polite oath. “It’s always a mistake to quote scripture to such a one as you.”
“And,” said I, delivering the coup de grâce, “what does that voice say when finally it does speak?”
“What doest thou here, Elijah?” answered Sowden.
“Precisely. I suppose that means, at finish, that I am in constant communication with Jehovah, because it seems to be the only thing that still small voice ever says to me: What are you doing here, Branwell?”
Sowden had finally had enough of this conversation, particularly as I had turned his heartfelt concern into a jest, though he laughed gamely enough, shouting over his shoulder, “You’re hopeless, Brontë,” as he strode ahead of me, for our rambling was already drawing to a close, the shortening autumn days restricting our movements as they had not in summertime. We were silent, though he quietly gestured toward those natural phenomena he deemed especially noteworthy as we crossed moorland, traversed woods and fields, and at last arrived in the little village of Hebden Bridge, where I had promised to accompany him.
As we walked along the Calder toward his modest parsonage, I looked at my friend’s mild and earnest countenance, watched his firm and elastic tread along the riverbank, and thought of the general benevolence, even comfort, I always seemed to feel in his presence, which then led me to wonder again at the wide diversity of friendships a single man can have. How different was he from them all, whether Brown and Leyland, Grundy, or Titterington and his friends, and they from one another! If they were all shepherded into a room, we would quickly find, I am quite certain, that they would have little to nothing in common, except for me. I was the center of that particular universe, but each of them, in turn, was his own sun, of which I remained a mere satellite, and so on. My head grew dizzy at the thought of such a web of human connections, which made the railways and telegraph lines sprouting and spreading throughout the kingdom seem the parts of a mere child’s toy.
Meantime, Sowden had again grown serious. “I do believe, Brontë, that the only unpardonable sin is despair, and I will pray that that is one that never afflicts you.”
I, however, retained a jocular mood, my favourite armour against such earnest talk. The very thought of anyone—even my thoughtful, intelligent, and yes, holy, friend—for if anyone merits that appellation it is he—praying for me, as if I were a lost cause, annoyed me seriously—so I continued to jest: “Now now, Sowden, fear not. I really am not going to lie down in the Summit Tunnel and wait for the Manchester train to roll over me, or drown myself in the Calder, or the Rochedale Canal over yonder, for that matter—I pledge my word! It has not come to that, old man, nor will it ever! I shall board a ship to America or New Zealand, or even throw myself into fervent prayer in a monastery, if ever I feel the icy fingers of true despair upon my neck!”
But alas! True, creeping despair does pay me a visit, and far more often that I care to admit.
Chapter XII—Two Wives
November 23rd, 1841 Luddenden Foot
Ever since the celebrated wrestling incident at the Lord Nelson, I am become a great favourite of Titterington and his merry band, if only because the humourous memory of a small, bespectacled, man of gentlemanly appearance and speech capable of pinning a mighty manufacturer to the floor is a novelty that never fails to produce a smile among them. That I am willing to drink right along with them has made me all the more sympathetic, as though I were conferring a gentlemanly status upon them by the very act. Whether it is because they are afraid to wrestle with me, or because Titterington has shared my confidences—I am no longer worried by them to partake in their libertinism, but generally grab my hat and bid them all a hearty adieu when the whoring begins.
Not that these fellows are incapable, as I have before noted, of behaving very much like gentlemen, and it is before their wives—for most are married—that they most diligently strive to conduct themselves in an upright fashion, and I have even had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. John Titterington of late.
Although I had not wielded a brush in a very long time, I succumbed to her entreaties that I paint a portrait of the loving couple in oils. The fact of the matter is that she is a lovely woman in her early to mid-thirties, a real local beauty, all lovely shoulders and creamy white neck, perfect form and, to crown all, one of the most exquisite, irresistible little faces I have ever beheld. My first thought upon seeing her was, “Good God in Heaven, Jim, what need have you for commerce with whores when you have this beneficent fairy adorning your hearth!” But surely only those who live within a marriage can truly know what lies beneath its surface. We external observers are mere sailors upon the deck of a vessel, only guessing at the murky depths of the sea.
In any event, upon learning that I had once dabbled in portraiture, Mrs. Titterington was insistent, even implacable: “Oh John, we must have Mr. Brontë paint our portrait in oils, we simply must!”
“Well, we cannot make him do so, can we?” said my friend, winking at me as if to say, I cannot even wrestle it out of him! “What do you say, Brontë? I’ll make it worth your while, eh?”
This is one woman, I quickly realised, looking at Mrs. Titterington—fairly bouncing on her toes in anticipation, like a spoiled child—who is accustomed always to having her way, one of those creatures who is a pure delight as long as she encounters neither opposition nor indifference. To take up the maritime image once again, like a mariner who, after a long and stormy voyage across the turbid Atlantic, reaches at last the crystalline waters of the West Indies, I suddenly had a penetrating glimpse directly into the heart of this particular instance of matrimonial felicity: my friend Titterington simply has a deep-rooted fear of ruffling his wife’s humour, and so it goes without saying that she always wins the day. He is her slave, and her dominion will surely grind him to dust over the years. Is it any wonder that he seeks refuge in the company of his friends and, upon occasion, in the arms of a whore?
Whatever the case, painting the happy couple suited me just fine, for the thought of spending some time in the same room as my friend’s beautiful wife—yes, he would be there too, but I had an excuse for gazing at her for several hours on end, since I knew his features far better than hers—and earning a few extra shillings, whilst rendering him service in the bargain, caused me to cast my better judgment to the wind. From all that I can tell, they are pleased with the result. If they are not, their manners have dictated otherwise, for they immediately paid me and thanked me heartily for the portrait, which already has pride of place above their roaring fire.
Did I too hastily abandon my painting career? I think not, but it often occurs to me that a lack of focus and persistence is woven into the very fibre of my being; I only hope I can find that thing, or that person, or that occupation, to whom I can devote myself utterly, in a bond that will prove my salvation.
December 9th, 1841 Luddenden Foot
Spence’s wife has improved sufficiently so that he has returned to his work, but not so much as to relieve him of all cares. He seems, still, utterly distracted by the very thought of her demise, staring into the distance, pacing the floor, and, sometimes, even sobbing quietly at his desk. I do my best to cheer the man, vainly hoping that levity will distract him from his gloom.
“But Sir,” said he yesterday, “What if she dies? I have no one here to care for the little boy, no family or friends, and how will I find a wife in these...but the Devil take me for running on so fast, as if she were already dead and buried. Oh, God,” said he, burying his head in his hands, “I’ll not be able to bear it!”
“See here, Spence,” I said, “Did you not say she was much improved? For surely you would not be here, at your desk, if she were in grave danger. I think you are seeing hobgoblins where none exist, lad. For just as surely as a train that has passed through the Summit Tunnel and down through Hebden Bridge can only be arriving here at Luddenden Foot, so your wife, having come out of great danger and improving, however slightly, each day, is on the road to full recovery!”
“Oh Mr. Brontë, if only a person’s health were as simple as that, but I hope and pray that you are right.” He sighed again, then returned, distractedly, to his ledgers.
I usually let the poor distracted fellow leave the station early, for by day’s end I simply cannot bear to watch him struggle to remain at his post, and when I do he fairly flies out the door and up the hill to his home. Does this make me a compassionate fellow, an irresponsible stationmaster, or both?
Chapter XIII—The Messiah
New Year’s Day, 1842 Luddenden Foot
As I dip my pen in my inkwell, the clock has just chimed midnight, signaling the otherwise unremarkable arrival of anno domini 1842, unless a January snowstorm is somehow to be considered exceptional.
I wonder what the year will bring. I was unable to go to Haworth this Christmas, for Spence’s wife has again taken a turn for the worse, and I thought it best to remain nearby. I would greatly have liked to see them all, even Charlotte. She and Emily, it happens, are to leave England to study in Belgium, for the purpose, I am told, of becoming sufficiently learned, cultivated and polished so that they may open their own school. Charlotte is surely the driving force behind this new adventure, for Emily would happily remain reading, writing, walking the moors, and peeling potatoes for the rest of her life. I cannot help but wonder whether this is merely an excuse for Charlotte to abandon her post at the Whites’, where she has doubtless felt nothing but grinding injustice, although, most likely, she has been confronted only with the normal expectations of a governess. As she always says, she has always preferred acquiring knowledge to imparting it, and for that, I can hardly blame her—how similar we are in this way! How much more pleasant to imbibe at the font of knowledge than to lead horses there, especially those that do not wish to drink!
Charlotte gave her notice just before Christmas and has surely bullied Emily—for no one on this earth but she is capable of bullying Emily—into being her companion, for Papa would hardly permit her to study on the continent alone. He is to accompany them to Brussels next month. Aunt Branwell, meanwhile—sometimes stern but, in the end, ever-indulgent and loving Aunt—has agreed to fund the whole enterprise, Charlotte no doubt bringing all of her powers of persuasion to bear, framing the entire thing as what is most needed to secure the girls’ independence. I am curious to see what comes of this latest scheme. Should I envy them? I do, secretly, though Charlotte would laugh outright at the notion that a man, with so many occupations open to him, should ever envy a woman.
Anne, meanwhile, continues steadily along at Thorp Green. How curious that our “baby” sister seems to be the only Brontë child who has succeeded in making her way as a grown adult. Does she lack the quality of almost permanent dissatisfaction that seems to afflict Charlotte and myself? Is this what fuels ambition, I wonder? Does Anne have a reservoir of patience that allows her to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous employers and their spoilt children, or has she simply found a superior situation with a superior family, the Robinsons of Thorp Green? I should like to see her at her work, though I confess that the reported beauty of the eldest daughter Lydia intrigues me just as much! Perhaps someday I will pay her a visit, despite the distance.
Winter has truly come in earnest, and the snow blows sideways as I write these lines, the gale whistling through the eaves and insinuating itself into the cracks in the casement. I have before me a bottle of brandy, with which I am celebrating the arrival of the New Year. The snow provided a welcome excuse from other engagements, for surely I would otherwise have been swept up into one of Leyland’s drinking bouts, if not an actual fête. I saw him recently enough, however, at the Choral Society’s annual Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah. The Reverend Sowden was too busy with parish matters to accompany me—for I would rather someone of his nature, at once truly pious but lacking all pretense and hypocrisy, at such a performance of sacred music—so I invited Joe, who in turn invited his brother Frank. The three of us sat near the front, where the event’s organizer—our old friend Frobisher, of course—paced back and forth nervously, dancing on the tips of his toes, glancing down constantly at his gold watch and gesticulating for everyone to be in place.
Soon the overture had begun, and the single tenor sang the librettist’s first words, taken from Isaiah:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, and her inquity pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
What was it in these words, coupled with Handel’s music, which immediately brought tears to my eyes? I had no wish to weep in the presence of Leyland, for there would be no end to his ridicule. Was this the real reason I had wanted to come with Sowden? Not so much for the presence of his company, but for the absence of Leyland’s mockery? Indeed, of late, I have mostly preferred the extremes of the Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden on the one hand, and the Titteringtons and their wild and rollicking band on the other. Was this an echo of my preference—like Charlotte’s, like Emily's—in work, for either the purely cerebral or mindless drudgery? Whatever the case, I had of late found myself avoiding Leyland, and Grundy for that matter.
In the present moment, this meant that I could not give free rein to my emotions, and did my best to contain them. I remained calm for almost half an hour, but when the chorus sang, in that lovely passage—
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
—I felt again my heart rising to my throat, and tears welling up; feigning a cough I made my way to the back of the assembly room, where, in a dark corner, I allowed the tears to stream down my face, though wiping them furiously, knowing that soon I would need to return to my seat. I made sure to cough again as I sat down, and apologize to those around me. I held fast until the Hallelujah Chorus—“He shall reign for ever and ever”—and was again overcome, again retreating to the back of the room, this time sobbing uncontrollably.
I finally returned to my seat, as the soprano sang, “though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” Why was this affecting me so? I had always felt a swell of emotion, even as a small child, in the presence of sacred music, but this time I was overwhelmed, suffocating with both a kind of nameless grief and yet somehow, at the same time, buoyed by a vague joy of belief in something greater than myself. As, at last, the oratorio ended, I listened attentively to the libretto, more closely than ever I had attended to even scripture itself.
A single voice sang: “Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory,” followed by a duet, which sang: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Then, at last, following a bit of theological explanation, come the final words of the chorus, which struck me with the force of a blow in a boxing match, for I felt I truly understood—in my flesh and bones, in the depths of my heart—for the first time in my life, the central meaning of Christ’s sacrifice:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood…Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Not seventy times seven, but seventy thousand times seven had I heard this message in my life, and yet here it was as fresh and new as if I were a naked savage emerged from a jungle wilderness, hearing the Gospel for the first time.
The scapegoat, that sacrificial lamb that had existed from earliest times, was here elevated to a universal. Feeling more like a black sheep myself, I was not sure what any of this had to do with me, but at last I understood one thing: just as the ancients had slain virgins to propitiate the Gods, and the Jews had sacrificed a lamb to purify themselves before Jehovah, so the Christian God himself offered up his only son as a sacrifice for our sins. He was bringing a cycle of violence to an end.
Man, meanwhile, was largely a spectator in this drama. His job, it seems, was to sin and then to ask for forgiveness, and of course to believe. I had always thought that “whosover liveth and believeth in me shall never die” meant simply believing in the Christian version of the Almighty, but no, I at last saw that it means believing in the actions of the messiah, in the sacrificial drama at the center of the faith. For after all, one can believe in the existence of any number of things; I can truly believe in goodness and yet reject it; I can believe in the ocean but never sail upon it; I can believe it best to renounce a literary career, and yet be unable to do so.
These thoughts revolved through my mind as the final notes sounded, followed by sustained applause. Leyland was clearly impressed by the performance in quite a different way, nearly shouting, “Did you hear that tenor take liberties with the music, as though he himself were the composer? And the drummer was nearly a beat behind the orchestra throughout! Worst of all, the Hallelujah Chorus was murdered outright! See if I don’t have a grand time teasing old Frobisher!” he fairly crowed with delight.
“Really now, Joe,” said I, “Poor Frobisher is already as tightly strung as one of those violins there; do you really think that’s kind?”
“Oh no, of course it’s not kind. I mean to have some fun, though, and I will have it. What’s the matter, Brontë, did the music make you tender and kind yourself? Are you ready to trade your full-time post as stationmaster and your part-time employments of poet, drinker, smoker, whore-monger, gossip, scoundrel, and accomplice to Joy Leyland’s mischief-making, for a collar in the Church of England, just like dear Papa?”
Leyland had pronounced Papa in a provokingly infantile manner, to make certain that I grasped the full weight of his insult. Sometimes I wonder why I am friends with such a man as this. And yet: who has not been drawn to a friend by the brilliance of his good qualities, which more often than not overpower and cast into the shadows their corresponding defects? Eager to steer the conversation away from how overcome I had been, I refused to be offended, instead laughing along with him and assuring him, as I had Grundy, that the only quality I had that would allow me to take to the pulpit was hypocrisy.
“Say,” said I, wishing to direct the conversation even further away from myself, “There’s the man himself,” and I nodded over Joe’s shoulder at Frobisher, who was mopping his brow with a handkerchief and again pacing to and fro as the orchestra packed up its instruments. Joe took the bait and left me alone, for his efforts to disconcert Frobisher would surely pay off far more readily than his attempts to annoy me.
“There he is,” boomed Joe, “the impresario himself! Surely you will allow your old friend to buy you a drink after that impressive performance, eh Frobisher?”
Soon the four of us were sitting round a table at the Old Cock, tumblers of whisky in our hands.
“Now,” said Joe, raising his glass, “Here’s to the most interesting performance of The Messiah I’ve yet heard.”
As if on cue, Frobisher knitted his brows. “What do you mean, interesting?”
“Well surely you know, John, that interesting is a polite word employed by men of refinement, like me, to indicate that something is amiss…ha ha.”
“I don’t follow you, Leyland.”
“Come now, man, yes you do—I’m sure you do! Did you not hear that tenor’s libretto! And the drums were at least a beat behind…and the dreadful chorus, mangling the most important bits of the oratorio, you know, the bits even the least cultivated in the audience have come to hear? At least the tenor could carry a tune!”
I thought it might now be Frobisher’s turn to cry. He took to heart everything he touched, even in the most indirect manner, as if he were responsible for anything musical that transpired in all of greater Halifax and beyond. He looked like a child whose sugarplum has just fallen in the dust, or whose favourite toy has been crushed beneath the wheel of a passing waggon. Despite my affection for Joe Leyland, I have always detested such instances, when the strong prey upon the weak, and so tried to intervene.
“I have to confess, Frobisher, that I heard no such thing. I let the music wash over me in the most general sort of way, but was entranced as never before by the words—or more specifically, how certain phrases are repeated as the music builds towards its climax.”
Joe glared at me, and so I pacified him through blasphemy: “And I’d never really appreciated how strange, almost comical, it is that a merciful God offers his only begotten son to be sacrificed for our sins—and why? Because God—yes, yes, the same God—is a wrathful, vengeful God who will otherwise send us to Hell. Oh, and by the way, he not only has these two very different sides to his character, he can somehow remain the father and yet become the very son he has offered up as a sacrifice! I’m sure the Holy Spirit is, dovelike, soaring above it all as well. No mean trick, eh?”
Francis, who had spoken but a word or two all evening, said in dry, almost priestly tones, but with a familiar Leylandesque twinkle in his eyes: “That’s called the Holy Trinity, Branwell. Has the Reverend Brontë never mentioned it to you?”
My words and those of his brother were sufficient to cheer Joe considerably, as he laughed and slapped Frobisher roughly on the back. “See here, John, you know I only like to tease you. I meant no harm.” Here he paused, but was unable to help himself. “But you must admit that the chorus was a disaster.”
Frobisher did his best to defend the singers, but a truce was quickly reached by his simple admission that yes, they could have used a bit more time to rehearse, and that last year’s performance had been far superior. In this way, he could both ease his conscience and avoid calling Leyland a liar. After another whisky or two, we all parted friends.
Outside the snow continues to swirl, tracing lacy patterns on the upper panes and building creeping drifts on the lower reaches of my windows. What will the Year of Our Lord 1842 bring? Will I again be seated here, thinking the same thoughts, a year from now? Will I be no closer to my dreams of childhood, and yet no more able to renounce them than an opium eater can abandon his daily tincture?
Chapter XIV—Quarrel and Reconciliation with Grundy
January 20th, 1842 Luddenden Foot
I have fallen out with Grundy, but have already set things to right—at least I think so. A few nights ago, on a snowy afternoon, I sat by a roaring fire, drinking with Titterington and company at the Lord Nelson, when none other than Mr. Francis Grundy, railway engineer, appeared at my elbow. We were already well into our cups, and I extended my hand heartily, truly glad to see him. After introductions all round and a hearty invitation from Jim Titterington to join us, Grundy said, a look of real concern written on his face, “May I have a word, Brontë?”
I excused myself and we crossed the room, sitting at a small vacant table, from which I gestured for more to drink.
“Are you all right, Grundy?”
“I am quite all right; it is you who concern me,” he replied, with what struck me as an air of superiority, even sanctimony. I began to feel the blood rise to my face, but remained calm.
“And what, pray, concerns you so, my friend?”
“Well, three times this month I have asked if you should like to meet for dinner, or for drinks, and three times you have refused, using your Mr. Spence’s troubles as an excuse. And yet, I happened to be on my way through Luddenden Foot this afternoon and stopped at the station to shake your hand, finding you gone but the supposedly unfortunate Spence sitting tranquilly over his ledgers! He directed me here.”
“Spence’s wife has improved again somewhat, though her health is still delicate. It is one thing to walk the fifteen minutes to Luddenden village, and quite another to make the trip to Halifax and back,” I snapped. Was Grundy truly concerned about me, or did he envy my local friendships? It was hard to tell. He spoke quietly, soberly.
“See here, Branwell”—his use of my Christian name serving as a reminder of our intimacy—“you know that I am quite willing to visit you at your convenience. But my feelings aside, I fear that you are taking a turn for the worse, for these men”—here he gestured toward Titterington ever so slightly with his forehead—“these men are not congenial to your superior tastes, but are vulgar, hard-headed, half-educated, manufacturers. What could you possibly have to discuss with them? I fear for your mind—and your spirit—in such company, truly I do.”
Now I was truly upset, insulted on my own account, of course, but also wounded for my friends—for they were friends, and I was certain they would do anything for me. I was not so sure about Grundy, or Leyland, for that matter.
“I suppose,” I retorted peevishly—for the brandy that had so recently been an amusing ambrosia was now turned to wormwood—“that sitting with you, Grundy, and hearing about your fascinating connections with the great Unitarian intellects, your lessons with Mr. Martineau and intimate acquaintance with his even more famous sister, etc., etc., is a worthier pursuit? And lest you forget, my dear sir, the last time you and I were together you nearly fell into the Calder, you’d had such a skinful! If I remember correctly, I fairly dragged you to your quarters in Halifax and tucked you into your little crib, before stumbling back up here to Brearley Hall.”
Grundy’s face revealed shock and dismay, which quickly settled into a tightly-controlled anger. He pushed his glass of brandy across the table to me, saying, “Here, Brontë, I think you need this more than I do.” He stood, paid for our drinks, and strode directly out of the inn without another word.
I was furious with him, and even more with myself. How complicated and varied the interpretations of this small event! Had I been avoiding Grundy, and was my mind sinking irremediably into a groveling carelessness, a permanent depravity, a determination to see how far mind can carry body without both being chucked into hell? I had been unfair to him, true; but had he not also been unfair to me? Spence’s wife really had taken another turn for the worse, but had just seemed to rally, yet again, two days earlier.
How many of our actions stand on this knife’s edge? We may think we are acting in the interests of others when in fact we are shaping arguments for our own benefit. In the happiest of circumstances, we find a world receptive to our deepest desires, and can make that which is purely selfish seem altruistic, like Charlotte’s scheme to study in Brussels, which she has so cleverly framed as the last bit of polish needed for her and Emily to open their school.
In any event, I felt that Grundy’s concern was, if not misplaced, at least exaggerated. There was enough truth in it, though, that I felt a pang of gratitude to him as my ire began to recede and I joined my friends for a last round of drinks, after which they began their whoring and I made my way to my quarters and a restless sleep, despite the considerable quantity of brandy I had drunk and the snowy silence that enshrouded Brearley Hall. I awoke more than once, and each time I thought of Grundy: to have him question my mind and my spirit was what had wounded me most deeply—or should I say what cut closest to the bone? That my bodily conduct is often cause for reproach I will freely confess, but for my friend to think that my thought—which I have always believed would be my salvation—was in danger of decay and extinction was too great an insult.
This is not the first time that my life has come to resemble something I wrote, in innocence, long ago. How strange it is, that writing should precede experience, as if fulfilling a biblical prophecy! Should it not be the reverse? Should one’s writing not draw on the experiences of one’s life? Nevertheless, the dispute with Grundy recalled to me a stanza I wrote many years since, its lines still inscribed, verbatim, in the very mind he believed was in such peril.
I arrived at the station the next morning before everyone else, my senses sharpened as they sometimes are following a night of heavy drinking, the freezing walk through the new-fallen snow more bracing than the strongest dose of coffee. I sat down directly and copied the stanza on a fresh sheet of railway stationary, to make the point to Grundy that I was at my post:
The man who will not know another—
Whose heart could never sympathise—
Who loves not comrade, friend, or Brother,
Unhonoured lives—unnoticed dies!
His frozen eye, his bloodless heart,
Nature, repugnant, bids depart!
Had I somehow, mysteriously, known long ago that I would need these verses? Was this pure chance? Or, a third option: was there—as Grundy himself seemed to hint—a deep flaw within my heart and mind that inspired these childish verses but has only now made itself manifest in my life? This last possibility was inadmissible, and I quickly crushed it, dipped my pen into its well, and continued writing, this time new verses to complement the old:
Oh Grundy! born to nobler aim,
Be thine the task to shun such shame;
And, henceforth, never think that he
Who gives his hand in courtesy
To one who kindly smiles to him,
His gentle birth or name can dim.
However mean a man may be,
Know—man is man as well as thee.
I sat, my breast full of the oddest assortment of emotions: pleased with these verses, annoyed with my behavior of the night before, still angry with Grundy, and yet desperately wanting his friendship.
A train announced its arrival from Sowerby Bridge, and I blew on the wet ink and locked the sheet away, only returning to it when the train had continued toward Hebden Bridge:
However high thy gentle line,
Know, He who writes can rank with thine.
And, though his frame be worn and dead,
Some light still glitters round his head:
And though his tottering limbs seem old
His heart and blood are not yet cold.
I paused, guilty of the sin of arrogance, I fear, for I thought: Grundy is hardly a literary genius, so if the first lines were not sarcastic enough, these ought to do! I suppose that hitting my friend, the practical railway engineer, over the head with a pickaxe ought to do the trick.
I was still angry, I realised: how dare he impugn my mind—regardless of the company I keep!
Oh Grundy! shun his evil ways,
His restless nights, his troubled days,
But never slight his mind, which flies
Instinct with noble sympathies,
Afar from spleen and treachery,
To thought, to kindness, and to Thee!
My closing words were genuinely felt, thought I, as I posted the poem to Halifax. If I had avoided Grundy, it was not because I did not esteem him, or had done so consciously, but rather for some indescribable reason that I, myself, did not wholly understand; and Spence’s wife—who really had been very ill—provided a convenient alibi. I had, in truth, been glad to see Grundy that night, until he had expressed such earnest concern. Was it possible, finally, that what ultimately lay at the root of my wrath was that I shared it?
Three days passed, then four, then five—still no word from Grundy. By this time my doubts had turned to regret, and subsequently regret to fear, fear of having lost a true friend. As soon as I was able, I took an early train to Sowerby Bridge, and an omnibus to Halifax, where I proceeded directly to Grundy’s rooms, which he still shared with Stephenson’s nephew. This latter gentleman had clearly just risen, for he wore only a dressing gown and a puzzled, sleepy look as he opened the outer door. I introduced myself and was soon shown into a rather slovenly bedroom, where Grundy slept curled up like an infant, his back to the door, snoring loudly. I decided to make light of the entire matter, in hopes that he would too, and so shook his shoulder with a playful roughness.
“Hello there, Lord Grundy, awake! ‘T’is the arch-sinner Brontë, come to beg your forgiveness and offer an invitation to break your fast!”
Grundy rolled over, his eyes squinting from beneath his thick mop of auburn curls. “I should tell you to go straight to Hell, Brontë, after your shabby treatment of me last week.”
It strikes me now that I was playing a new role, that of jovial, coaxing Joe Leyland. “Come come, Grundy, I was not in my right mind, and perhaps—just perhaps—you struck a nerve. Perhaps I myself was beginning to wonder whether I should restore a bit of equilibrium to my life. But you should know that—and I say this in the cold, sober light of day—Titterington and his fellow manufacturers are true friends, in their way, and I do believe that if I were ever in trouble they’d be the first I’d call upon for assistance. Do you not know such men, whose rough-hewn exteriors conceal hearts of gold?”
As I recount these matters, I see that it was this apology—wrapped though it was in excuses and admonitions—that finally won Grundy over. He sat up, pulling his knees up to his chin, and said, “I accept your apology, Brontë.”
I extended my hand, which he shook warmly, smiling at last.
“But what of my poem?” I asked. “It was meant in earnest.”
“It’s not bad for an impromptu, but do you not think friends should speak face to face of their differences, rather than seek reconciliation through poems sent by penny post? Sometimes I think that recent innovation brings out the worst in people. Besides,” he added, his brow darkening somewhat, “it did not escape me that your poem at once meekly begs forgiveness and yet quite forcefully insults me further! Or did you think I was too dim to grasp your sarcasm?”
I saw that Grundy was right on all counts, and with his usual straightforward manner had not been afraid to upbraid me gently on the poem, despite our reconciliation. How could I remain angry with such an honest and faithful fellow? Only the best of friends will tell us the truth, especially when it is as unpleasant and as unflattering as this was. Grundy would rather take a chance that I would lapse back into moroseness or even anger than frame a deliberate lie.
Near his lodgings, hard by Cow Green, stands the King’s Head, known for the copious breakfasts it serves the farmers who bring their livestock to the cattle market. We ordered our meal and settled in with two steaming mugs of coffee.
“I know,” said Grundy, this time his eyes dancing mischievously, for now all truly was forgiven, “that you disparage my talking of the Martineaus—”
“I said I was sorry, Grundy….”
“—I know, I know,” Grundy smiled, “I’m just repaying you a bit. Now, you’ve made it clear you are sick unto death of the name Martineau, but what if I were willing to provide a written introduction for you and your poems—which, by the bye, are really quite good when they do not have a petulant sting in their tail for those unfortunate enough to call you friend.”
“I’ve nearly given up being published by anything or anyone but the humble Halifax Guardian, which will hardly bring me wealth and fame,” I sighed. I reminded Grundy of my innumerable letters to the Blackwood’s and of my unanswered letters to Wordsworth and others, and of the day I had spent with Hartley Coleridge, which now seemed a lifetime away.
“In short, I will take all the assistance I can get, my dear sir, and I promise that no more shall I mock the hallowed names of Grundy or Martineau, I swear it!” Grundy laughed as I added, “Though I cannot promise to be so respectful toward your heretical Unitarian sect in general.”
He, for his part, made the same promise, vowing to spare all Brontës in future, but reserving the right to criticize the Church of England, which in his view was no better than a pale imitation of the Papists in Rome, without any of their particular benefits.
After breakfast, we shook hands and parted, now better friends than ever.
Chapter XV—Debauchery and Dismissal
February 25th, 1842 Luddenden Foot
Though each passing day has a minute more of light than the last, how dark it still remains, and how deeply I feel buried in winter! Yet another snowstorm has come and gone, and like life itself, it begins with beauty and wonder, settles into a cold and hard uniformity, and then, at last, slowly melts away. I have not much of moment to report, for my days are a monotonous—if pleasant enough—cycle of work and play. By play I mean seeing my various friends—mostly Grundy, Leyland, Sowden and Titterington—and Maeve, who continues to tutor me in the amorous arts and sciences.
A week ago I expressed surprise at one of the positions she had placed us in, and she merely laughed and said, “Listen to me, laddie, such knowledge will likely come in more handy t’an t’at book-layrnin’ o’ yours, I’d place a wager on’t.”
That the prostitute should be instructing her client concerning how they should proceed might seem odd, but she was always careful to say things such as, “We kin do whate’er pleases ye, ye know…I jus’ t’ought ye might like to try somet’in’ new, ye know, to see how’t feels.” Though each manner has its own pleasures, they all feel indescribably good, especially that flash of ecstasy when mounting lust explodes climactically, and then settles into an all-embracing calm, like a ship struck by lightning, which then quietly, languidly sinks to the bottom of the sea.
My work gives me little trouble, but even less satisfaction. I valiantly struggle to keep up with—which in my case simply means to give the slightest fig about—the ledgers during Spence’s absences, which he claims will now become less frequent. Yesterday, still somewhat agitated, he walked over to where I sat and stood before me, arms crossed.
“Mr. Brontë, I would like to thank you for your generosity where I am concerned. I know I cannot continue in this way: missing work or, when I am here, working with a mind so distracted that it is almost worse than if I were not here at all. I remember the joy you evinced almost a year ago upon discovery of my enthusiasm for figures, and I feel that I have especially failed you in that regard, for to keep the ledgers as they must be requires a concentration I simply have not had in sufficient measure.”
I tried to reassure the man, still anguished over his wife’s delicate condition, for her recovery seemed to take at least one step, if not two, backwards for every step forward. She is forever “getting better” but not long after begins to fail again; if I did not believe him to be a man of integrity, and had not, moreover, visited the sick wife and seen the little lad gamboling about—for they live hard by me—I think I might doubt the veracity of his tales of her vacillating health.
Do hardened men of business enjoy sending their employees to the devil? Did Postlethwaite, despite his eloquently expressed and seemingly genuine regret, as he dismissed me from my duties as tutor, in fact take a kind of morbid pleasure in sacking me? I truly cannot say; I only know that the thought of dismissing Spence—especially when his fragile little family depended so entirely upon his livelihood, for which he had removed them such a great distance, that they had neither family nor friends within a hundred miles—made me feel quite ill, more than any toxic combination of liquor, cigars, or spoilt food ever could. I had, in fact, not even permitted the thought to enter my mind until quite recently, when his absences had again increased, and, at last, slowly—for my mind is uniformly unfit for such hard practical considerations—it began to dawn on me that either Spence would need to be fired, or I would be charged with incompetence and lose my place.
As if he had sensed the coming crisis, Spence thus stood before me, his face an ashen mixture of sadness and desperation. I gestured to a chair nearby. “Sit down, Spence. See here—you know I have often told you that Mr. Duncan had delegated his ledgers to me at Sowerby Bridge, and you know that I am entirely capable of keeping them. That I have made no secret of my lack of relish for such work is simply testament to my confidence in you. But—” I paused, groping for the right words.
“But,” said Spence helpfully, “this cannot go on and on in this fashion. I know, Mr. Brontë, I know. Just allow me a month, at which point I shall either find a solution to permit me to return in full vigour to my post, or I shall give over, and leave the railway.”
Having no desire to dismiss the poor fellow and, above all, wishing at all costs to avoid any unpleasantness, I found his solution eminently acceptable. “Absolutely, my dear Spence: that is a capital plan. Let us revisit the matter a month hence.”
I have utter confidence that Spence will return, and it will be with great relief that I hand the accursed ledgers back to him.
April 6th, 1842 Haworth, The Parsonage
How much has changed in the six weeks this journal has lain unopened! Only now do I have the force to open it, for I have been lying in a stupour for the past fortnight, incapable of anything but dragging myself out of bed to perform the minimal motions of existence: washing, dressing, eating, visiting the privy, eating again, and going to bed again as soon as these early spring days permit. I wish for once it were Midwinter again, and I could spend most of my hours in bed, the covers drawn over my head!
More to the point, I wish it were Midwinter again so that I could live my last days at Luddenden Foot over again, so numerous and deep are my regrets!
Having secured the promise from Spence that he would be back at his work with renewed diligence by late March—for I could not conceive of the other alternative—it was as if a great weight had been lifted, and rather than redouble my efforts with the accounts, I abandoned them entirely. After all, I reasoned, Spence would fly back through the columns and restore order within hours, so why should I take any more of an effort with them than was absolutely necessary to get from one day to the next? I grasp only now just how burdened I was by Spence’s own trials and tribulations, and the effect they had on the station; for once we had agreed on the plan to resolve the situation, I was positively giddy—even childlike—with excitement, in that state of mind where relief breeds a desire to celebrate.
Leyland was only too happy to oblige me in my inclinations—which is to say to accompany me on my infernal descent—and so I began to see him again at least once a week, and I arranged, in my trips to Halifax, to see Maeve whenever possible. Most commonly, I would spend an afternoon and evening drinking with Leyland, taking care not to drink so much that I could not perform with her later. Once, indeed, I had so much to drink that no matter what attempts Maeve made to revive my desire, I failed to respond. This was enough to “chasten” me, and so I henceforth carefully calibrated my drinking so that I arrived at Maeve’s in a state closer to passionate, if drunken, ardour, than to unconsciousness. Indeed, if I was careful—and there was both art and science to this as well—I would arrive hungry for her, but sufficiently benumbed so that our congress lasted far longer than usual, so that I somehow felt that I had satisfied her as much as she had me, though such thoughts, I’m quite sure, were folly.
When I was not drinking with Leyland, I was doing so with Grundy, or Titterington, Thomson and their friends at the Lord Nelson. If I was not imbibing, I was thinking about it, and the same was true of Maeve—I yearned for her with a constant ache that was utterly physical; I burned for her as Dante’s Paolo and Francesca did for each other in Hell, and it did not take long after satisfying my urges with her for them to return with redoubled force. As February faded into March, I found that even she—she who had shown me more things than I could ever have conceived of, and had often let me have her twice and, on a few occasions, thrice—was not enough, and I joined Titterington and his merry band in their frequent whoring, utterly abandoning myself to the worst kind of groveling, careless debauchery imaginable. As long as the women vaguely pretended to be interested, and willingly spread their legs—and of course they did both of these things quite gladly, for such is their business—that was all that was required for my arousal; in fact, despite the constant drinking, I seemed to be aroused permanently. I became brazen, and even managed to seduce a pair of barmaids—one, fittingly enough, at the Old Cock in Halifax and the other, most imprudently, at the Anchor and Shuttle, where we did it behind the privies, nearly in view of the station itself. My thirst for both drink and women quickly became insatiable, and it could only be slaked only briefly; in the receding tide, I was soon alone and adrift and athirst for more.
I stopped visiting the Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden entirely.
A cold, objective—and above all, pious—observer might find this account incredible. And yet, it happened. For who has not, at some point in his life, found that all of those demons he has, for so long, held more-or-less successfully at bay, have broken through his fortress at its weakest point, overwhelming him body and soul? What breach in a dam or dike does not grow wider with the eroding force of river or sea? Who on this earth has not at least once in his life surrendered to his basest desires—or worse, reveled in them, plunging with relish headlong into wild and reckless abandon?
I now see clearly, from the cold sobriety with which I write these lines, that far worse than this appalling conduct—which, I frequently assured myself at the time, was temporary, just a bit of a spree—was the arrogance that accompanied it. Was I not, I reasoned, the stationmaster, as Leyland had long ago pointed out? Was not my word law? Could I not direct matters as I saw fit at my station? Soon I was revelling in my conduct, not just my debauchery outside the duties of my post, but even the carelessness with which I kept the books, and most of all, that I seemed to be accountable to no one. I even let the taciturn porter Killiner—who spent every evening equally drunk, sometimes even with me, in the company of Titterington and friends—oversee the accounting, for he knew his figures, if not his letters, passably well. On those days I permitted Spence to be absent, I even gave Killiner the key to the cash box, for beneath his rough exterior beats—I am quite certain—an honest, if not golden, heart. We had worked together nearly a year, and I trusted the man entirely. Besides, I convinced myself, Spence would soon take over the books again, and set all things to right, would he not?
Alas, the meeting with Spence came too late, for on the afternoon prior to the very day we were to evaluate his situation, my fellow stationmaster from Hebden Bridge, a certain Woolven, arrived with an inspector from the railway’s central offices. I confess that my head still throbbed viciously from a particularly serious bout of drinking the night before; exceptionally, I had stayed up with Titterington after the whoring, for his wife was on a visit to her family in Manchester. We thus drank, easily, twice our usual amount, and I had arrived at the station the next morning still feeling the influence of drink. Now, in the afternoon, nausea had supplanted the numbness of the morning hours. I have no doubt that I still smelled strongly of liquor.
Woolven and the inspector stepped off the 2:10 PM train, each carrying an identical brown leather bag, and each wearing a similar expression, which would, curiously enough, best be called expressionless. As we shook hands, I drew in my breath, hoping they would not notice the remnants of the copious amounts of wine, whisky, and even gin I had consumed the night before.
“Hello there, Brontë,” said the usually affable Woolven in uncharacteristically brisk tones, “this is Mr. Hallowell, the company accountant. We are making our rounds at the stations, routine accounting audits you see, just to make sure things are in order.”
Woolven was my equal at Hebden Bridge, so I was puzzled at his presence. What gave him the right to examine my ledgers? I groped, my head still pounding like a military tatoo, for the proper way to express my puzzlement.
“Are you just accompanying him from Hebden to Luddenden Foot, and am I to take the relay and go with him down to Sowerby Bridge and Mr. Duncan?”
“No,” said Woolven, “I’ve been charged with accompanying Mr. Hallowell on his travels, to provide the point of view of a clerk-in-charge.”
Hallowell had precious little hair atop a pointed head, which seemed rather too small for his imposing body. Two prominent front teeth, like those of a horse, protruded from his upper lip as he explained.
“You see, Mr. Brontë, I’m an accountant, not a railway man. The Directors of the company believe that it only makes sense to have another stationmaster along on these visits; they think”—I thought it curious that he did not say we think: did this mean that he felt capable of performing his duties alone, and was, in fact, annoyed at having someone else at his side?—“they think that it will be of assistance to have the inspections performed in the larger framework of the daily comings and goings of a station…and well, they think that only a stationmaster can really know what that is like.”
He agitated his hands in front of him, trying to force himself into something like a smile, though he seemed a singularly mirthless character. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he said, still waving his hands nervously as if imploring a locomotive to stop in its tracks, “I don’t know, Mr. Brontë, next time we may call on you, and you may be charged with accompanying me in my examination of Mr. Woolven’s ledgers. Ha ha!”
These frail attempts at humour did manage to set me somewhat at ease, as I followed them into the station. Woolven turned to me and said, “Oh, terribly sorry Brontë, we did not make ourselves clear. The inspection must be done independently. You may wait outside.”
I turned on my heel and walked slowly to where Killiner stood, near a stack of lumber, and promptly sat down. The sun was already declining, but my biliousness had reached its zenith. I was fast approaching that critical moment in the day where I must either fight bravely through to bedtime, after which I would be rewarded with the blissful, sober sleep of exhaustion that comes the night after a bout of drinking or, more likely, take another path by having the first of many drinks that would, in turn, merely postpone my suffering to another day.
“Wha’s to do?” asked Killiner, tipping his head in the direction of the station.
“An inspection,” I replied simply, but seeing that the porter did not grasp my meaning, I explained, “They’re examining the ledgers, the accounts, and so forth.”
My arrogance—or denial of reality—had become so great that I was far more worried about when and where I would procure my next drink than I was the outcome of such a routine matter.
Killiner, however, blanched at these words.
“What is it, man?” I asked, confused.
“Nothin’, really…it’s jus’ tha’…”
I caught at last his meaning—or so I thought. “It’s just that since I have taken over the books from Spence you are not so confident? There there, Killiner, have no fear, if there’s just a tiny bit of irregularity here and there we can quickly make amends, I’m sure.”
Finally, though, my confidence—arrogance, if you will—was routed by the reality of the situation, and my heart began to sink like a stone, my nausea from the previous eve now multiplied a hundred-fold, so that I thought I would in fact be sick. My forehead was suddenly damp with beads of nervous perspiration, and my blood ran cold.
It was at least another thirty minutes before Hallowell and Woolven emerged from the little station house in time to catch the next train, whose arrival moments earlier I had not even noticed as I sat in icy terror. Both men shook my hand and said, “We shall send along our results by official letter, Mr. Brontë, within two or three days.”
Neither looked me in the eye.
I lived in such a state of anxiety for the next three days that I thought my nerves would snap: there was no carousing, but each night I swallowed two or three large glasses of brandy just to sleep, and such sleep was intermittent, and riddled with ominous dreams, from which I would awake each morning remembering no specific details; I was filled only with a sense of murderous threat, of oppressive foreboding.
Meanwhile, the much-awaited meeting with Spence finally occurred, and he happily reported that he would soon return with his full powers of concentration, for his wife’s sister had agreed to come and care for the little boy, and to nurse her sister—whom, Spence assured me, seemed truly on the mend—back to full health. Only my apprehension about the audit prevented me from expressing the joy I would naturally have felt, and which I endeavoured to feign, at this good news.
The fourth day after the visit, when I thought I could bear it no longer, I received the following letter, neatly written by an anonymous hand, on the same stationary I had used for my petulant poem to Grundy. It struck me like a thunderbolt.
March 30th, 1842
Mr. Patrick Branwell Brontë
Luddenden Foot Station
Dear Mr. Brontë:
It is with the deepest regret that we inform you, that after a thorough review of the ledgers of the Luddenden Foot station on March 25th, we have determined that your employment is to end, effective upon receipt of this letter.
The company’s accountant discovered that the station’s accounts were in a very confused state, and that, upon closer examination, there existed a shortfall of 1 pound, 1 shilling, 7 pence.
The company has determined that since insufficiently conclusive evidence exists of theft in this matter, the missing amount will simply be deducted from the remainder of your salary.
However, it is expected that you will have fully removed yourself and your belongings from the Luddenden Foot Station by no later than April 1, at which time Mr. William Spence will assume the duties of Clerk-in-Charge.
Most sincerely, etc.
Chapter XVI—The Parsonage Again
April 17th, 1842 The Parsonage
How much more formidable, more God-like, is mercy than wrath?
Perhaps the reason I have written so little in these pages about Papa is that his boundless forgiveness, not to say indulgence, makes him such a towering figure in my imagination. I returned to Haworth not to a shower of condemnation, but to the warmth of a father’s embrace of his prodigal son, a father who forgave and believed—or at least wished to believe—everything. That I presented a somewhat altered version of events, omitting my late debauchery, surely smoothed the path.
My story this time? Why, I had generously delegated to, and fully trusted, both Spence and Killiner, and my only practical fault was not verifying the ledgers. My only true sins—both quite pardonable, in that they arose from the laudable Christian virtues of Faith and Hope—had been to give, quite generously, more responsibility to those in my employ, and to believe—naively it now seemed—that they would fulfil their duties. For what was I to do? Blame my subordinates after the fact, thereby dragging them under with me? Shattering Spence’s already fragile existence? Casting Killiner into the streets as a beggar?
Nay: Christ-like, I took their sins upon me: such is the story I told father, and have almost come to believe myself. How much do we deceive others, but especially ourselves, just to be able to set one foot in front of the other in this life!
Under Papa’s watchful eye, and in the quiet of the parsonage—for Charlotte and Emily are now in Brussels and Anne has resumed her post at Thorp Green—I have returned to my abstemious self. My flesh is at last purged of intoxicants, and my incessant yearning for the flesh of a woman has been replaced with an almost constant desire for slumber. I have at long last had some real rest, as mental depression slowly yields to strength and sanity. As a result, I begin to feel whole again, human again, and have taken to long rambles on the moors. Their stark beauty in this season is astonishing, and with an eye no longer jaundiced, I see all anew, feel the winds caressing me as if for the first time, almost as though I had been sent hurtling back in time, and am once again a young boy, half-savage and hardy, and free.
Though I still, after a fashion, love them all—yes, even Charlotte—I find my sisters’ absence the most healing balm of all, for in their collective gaze I would surely stand condemned. They would no more believe my version of events at Luddenden Foot than father would credit me capable of what truly transpired. Is this because they never wish to think well of me, while father always does? Is this the nature of belief itself? Why has the same reality—viz., my past behavior—led different members of my family to view me in ways utterly contrary? Do the girls, like the elder son in Christ’s parable, forever see the prodigal son, while father in his mercy sees only his contrite little lad, come home once more? Does anyone glimpse the person I truly am? Do I?
May 10th, 1842 The Parsonage
I have seen Joe Leyland again, for the first time since my dismissal. The opportunity was provided by the untimely death of Thomas Andrew, our village surgeon of the past quarter century. So great was the outpouring of public grief—for he was a friend of the poor, who charged only what one could pay, which was sometimes nothing at all—that it was determined that a memorial to him should be placed in Haworth Church. Needless to say, I thought of Leyland, for this provided not only work for my friend, who these days seems to be struggling as much as I to secure an income, but vouchsafed an excuse for me to contact him without covering myself with shame. Within two days he had accepted to dine at the parsonage and to appear before the monument committee. He arrived in Haworth in good humour, his mirth matching his girth, for drink has begun to give him not only a flushed face but a rounded waist. He did his utmost to be appropriately serious and abstemious at dinner, though not wholly succeeding.
Over our roast beef and boiled potatoes, he asked father, “Well, Mr. Brontë, you must be quite pleased to have your son back in the nest, if only for a short while. How quiet it must be here without the chatter of females!”
Papa frowned. Such talk was not his fashion, and he appeared to take such a remark as a slight. “My daughters do not chatter, Mr. Leyland. They’ve been reared to speak only when they have something of substance to say.” His brow remained knitted whilst he chewed a particularly stubborn morsel of roast.
“I beg your pardon, Reverend, for that choice of words. But surely it must be quieter than usual here these days,” said Leyland, colouring up and taking a rather too large draught of the wine he had been offered with dinner.
Papa would not be so easily distracted. “In my experience,” said father, with a steely gaze that, in my guilt, seemed to bore to the very center of the world of corrupt pleasures I had shared with Joe in Halifax—that aptly named Devil’s Cauldron—and its neighbourhood, “the conversation of a serious woman is far preferable to the banter of frivolous men.”
After an uneasy silence, Joe said simply, as he lifted his glass in tribute to my father’s wisdom, “Well, let us agree to that, sir. Now tell me more about the late Mr. Andrew.”
Truth to tell, the entire day was excruciating to me: first, a dinner where I sat between, on the one hand, an all-merciful and forgiving father who knew nothing of the depths of my debauchery at Luddenden Foot, and on the other, my erstwhile companion in said activities, who was surely all too ready to resume them—and from his appearance had not ceased since my departure from the railway.
Second, a meeting with a committee of well-meaning but ignorant townsfolk, wherein I felt heartily ashamed at their bad taste and worse conduct, for the monument they wish is far from what Leyland can, and should, do for the cost. My friend has been to Haworth often enough, I trust, to make allowance for gothic ignorance and ill-breeding. As Joe took his leave, I wanted nothing more than to bend my steps toward the Black Bull with him and John Brown, and to down successive glasses of whisky to kill the pain.
What pain? Why, the weight of Paper’s mercy and forgiveness, which pressed more heavily on me than a direct condemnation ever could; his near-reprimand of my friend during dinner and my inability to be myself before either of them; and finally, the embarrassment elicited by the words and actions of certain members of the monument committee. My throat fairly burned with thirst. But I have made a promise to myself, and—without ever giving words to such a vow—to father, who stood at my elbow as my friend took his leave. “Shall we, Branwell?” said the former, turning his steps toward the parsonage, upon which the latter doffed his hat, winked, and, drawing me aside, said in a merry sotto voce, affecting the accent of the simple townsfolk who had so much embarrassed me earlier in the day: “Le’s ge’ t’gether soon, young Faustus—we mun make up for los’ time!”
May 22nd, 1842 The Parsonage
Despite that single day of temptation when Leyland was in Haworth, I remain sober, and gain strength and flesh, filling my less-than-perfect lungs with the pure, bracing winds of late spring as I ramble the moors and hilltops, often up the steep valley of the Sladen. I sometimes pause at what we called, as children, “The Meeting of the Waters,” the waterfalls on South Dean Beck, before pushing up the arduous hills to the heights of Top Withens. Catching my breath at last, I can gaze for miles in every direction, my face whipped by the atmospheric tumult that usually blasts over the ruins of the old farm, wuthering as the common folk call this bracing ventilation. I know the owner, Jonas Sunderland, and he and his wife Mary sometimes offer me a reaming pint of ale to fortify me for my trip home, though a journey downhill is always less onerous than the ascent, is it not? Scenes of childhood throng about me on these walks, sometimes even eclipsing the charming vistas of present day, but it is not with bitterness that I welcome the ghosts of the past, but only with a kind of sweet melancholy, so much have my mind and body improved of late.
I have renewed old friendships, especially with Brown, Grundy, and, of course, Leyland—which is to say, those who both know me and believe in me, unlike my family, the head of which believes in me without knowing me, the rest of whom fancy they know me without believing in me. Last week, in the company of Brown, and inspired by the debacle over Andrew’s monument, on which Leyland has begun work in Halifax, I sat at the Black Bull—my drinking limited to a single, salutary glass of wine—and happily sketched a half-buried tombstone in which is chiseled Resurgam—I will rise again—and dispatched it to Joe; just today I wrote Grundy a letter, inquiring about another possible employment with the railways, perhaps even on the Continent (if my sisters can thrive there, why cannot I?), for the old, cold reality is that now that I am well, I must escape the very walls and walks that have healed me, for I still have a great desire for activity and do not despair of making my independence.
I have assured my friend that I have at length regained health, strength and soundness of mind far superior to anything shown by that miserable wreck he used to know by my name, and that I can now speak cheerfully and enjoy the company of another without the stimulus of six glasses of whisky. What I need, really, is a motive for exertion. I paused for a moment, pen in the air, and thought of Maggie. Surely, she would have given me a reason to exert myself!
And yet—that would have meant abandoning my literary ambitions once and for all, of course, and despite my earnest enquiries to Grundy about practical employment, I am—to my great surprise—finding that one poem after another of mine is now being published. It began with a desperate whim, when I sent along “On Landseer’s Painting,” remembering as I did Leyland’s discourse on the dismal state of English art and letters. To my utter astonishment, the Bradford Herald agreed to publish it, and thus emboldened, I began a veritable poetical campaign, and have published three poems in that esteemed journal, and am preparing three more, for I have at last found someone—its editor—who, mirabile dictu, not only publishes my work but asks for more! At the same time, I have appeared in the pages of the Halifax Guardian and the Leeds Intelligencer, in every case as my alter-ego, “Northangerland.”
This nom de plume—which would deceive none of my closest friends, including my sisters, if they were here to read the local papers—is meant only to mask my identity from father and his associates, for though I crave fame, I do not wish to reveal my name until and unless I am truly a success in the world of letters, which is to say in London or Edinburgh. Perhaps, truth be told—the real truth—is that I do not wish the good Reverend Brontë to know of the despair that runs through my verse, as in this sonnet, which both the Herald and the Guardian chose to publish a few days ago:
PEACEFUL DEATH AND PAINFUL LIFE
Why dost thou sorrow for the happy dead?
For if their life be lost their toils are o’er,
And woe and want can trouble them no more;
Nor ever slept they in an earthly bed
So sound as now they sleep, while dreamless laid
In the dark chambers of the unknown shore,
Where Night and Silence guard each sealed door.
So—turn from such as these thy drooping head
And mourn the dead alive, whose spirit flies,
Whose life departs, before his death has come;
Who knows no Heaven beyond his gloomy skies;
Who sees no Hope to brighten up that gloom:
‘Tis he who feels the worm that never dies,
The real death and darkness of a tomb!
Could it be that I also wish, cloaked as Northangerland, to convince myself that Patrick Branwell Brontë does not share such despair?
This afternoon, as I walked to post my letter to Grundy, the sun shone brightly in a rare cloudless sky, of the kind one only sees in this season. As I entered the square at the top of the Main Street, all of a sudden—or so it seemed to me—down from the fields and moors above Haworth floated hundreds—nay, thousands—of dandelion seeds, like manna from heaven, like a benediction, a sign from the eternal universe itself. As I stood on the cobblestones between the Black Bull and the steps of the church, I wondered if my recent string of small victories—victory over drink and lust, yes, but also the rapid publication of my poems—would at last be a turning point. I began to think that there was hope yet to brighten my gloom, and that I might even once again appeal to Blackwood’s: if I could at last appear in its hallowed pages, then only mighty London would remain unconquered.
I stood and watched the fleecy white seeds of the dandelion dance in the sun-bathed breeze, and recalled that, as children, we had called the seed heads “clocks”—for in plucking them from the earth and blowing on them as hard as we could, we asserted that the number of breaths required to dislodge every last seed from the plant would necessarily represent the time of day. Whether this was because we believed that we—the genii of our own little universe—controlled the march of time itself, or whether we thought cruel Father Time was masquerading as an amiable spirit who worked in harmony with the universe, down to the slightest gesture of a child’s breath on a single dandelion's head, I cannot say.
To be continued on 2 May 2020