Oblivion: The Lost Diaries of Branwell Brontë (Part 9 of 12)
Updated: May 19
My mistress is DAMNABLY TOO FOND OF ME.
Branwell Brontë, letter to John Brown, May 1843
Yet then I was at Thorp Green, and now I am only just escaped from it…during my stay I have had some very unpleasant and undreamt of experience of human nature.
Anne Brontë, Diary Paper of 31 July 1845
Chapter I—The Pleasures of the Flesh
June 27th, 1843 Thorp Green
Oh God, it has happened, as I both hoped and feared it would. Hoped, because her flashing eyes and pleasing form, her elegant manners and sometimes haughty bearing—yes, even the superiority she so often enjoys placing on display—have provoked in me, if not love, then lust: I desire everything about her, everything she is, and everything she has. Sometimes I wonder what space there is between these two most powerful attractions. Surely, this is love, is it not? How does one know what is one, and what is the other? When we are together, I wish to consume her, body and soul: to inhale her perfumed flesh, to devour and become Thorp Green itself.
Feared, of course, because I feared, and fear still, discovery. For in that case our passion will have destroyed us both. And yet, this fear itself—as long as it does not prove prophetic—provides all the more intense excitement to our union.
My mistress—no longer Mrs. Robinson but Lydia, my sweet Lydia—for I shall henceforth call her by that name—is mine, and I am her infatuated slave. Anne and Flossy left for Haworth some ten days ago, but until then I lived in almost unbearable anguish, not knowing what would happen. After Crosby spoke to my mistress on that day, now a month since, I rarely saw her, and when I did, she took great pains never to be alone with me, and to avoid my gaze at all costs. I began to think that the doctor’s intelligence had, in fact, wrought a negative effect upon her, and that she thoroughly despised me. As the days and weeks passed, I could bear it no longer, at last seeking him out to discover what could be amiss. He is ever hearty and amiable with me, but his brow grew clouded when I accosted him in the park that day, some two weeks ago.
“Did we not, Brontë, near this very spot, shake hands and promise to speak of this no more? Is your word not to be trusted, lad?” His tone was midway between exasperation and controlled wrath.
“But she appears to wish me forever out of her presence, Crosby! I would rather be cast out of the household than endure this treatment.”
“You promised not to speak of this,” he repeated, “and I refuse to be drawn in. However, I will utter one word, which you may attach to whatever, or whomever, you see fit: patience. Now then. Trouble me no more with this, or our friendship will suffer, if I don’t positively knock you down.”
“Very well,” said I, adding, “I’m sorry, Crosby, it won’t happen again.”
Perhaps, thought I, strolling down to the Ouse that afternoon, perhaps her indifference to me is not a sign of indifference, but the only way to control herself. Perhaps it is true what the French say, that love cannot long remain concealed—or l’amour ne peut longtemps se cacher, as Charlotte might say—and so she has brought down a curtain to shield herself from the gaze of others? Surely, sometimes, lovers take greater pains to avoid each other when they meet in a larger assembly? Whatever the case, I was still not thoroughly comforted by the doctor’s uttering of patience—though a flame of hope began to flicker once again.
I would soon discover the truth.
On the day Anne left for Haworth, Mrs. Robinson—for she was then still known under that name to me—proclaimed a school holiday not just for young Lydia, Bessy, and Mary, but for Edmund as well, and the four children set off in high glee for York, accompanied by Ann Marshall, my sister, and Flossy. These last two were to take a coach to Leeds, whilst the children and their guardian were to have a day of shopping.
I stood next to Mrs. Robinson to bid my sister good-bye, her husband feeling particularly ill that day and unable to rise from his bed. As the family’s fashionable but tightly-packed clarence, with the eternally-grinning Billy Allison sitting atop it, at last rumbled out of sight, my mistress turned to me with the most serious of gazes and said, “May I see you in the library, Mr. Brontë?”
“Of course, ma'am,” said I, but she had already turned on her heel and was sailing so quickly into the house that I could scarcely keep pace. She stood by the entrance to the library and as I walked in she quickly closed and bolted the door.
A man who has never experienced what I did that day would scarcely credit its reality, would dismiss it as mere rubbish, the stuff of sentimental novels. But he who has loved, and has been loved in return, with a passion that burns so bright that it renders one insensible to all other thought or feeling—the love Shelley calls passion’s golden purity—would nod his head in recognition, remembering even in his dotage what it felt like when the entire world fell away, nay, when the universe was eclipsed by a whirling, exploding passion that seemed to know no bounds: when he and a woman made a universe unto themselves.
Lydia fairly threw herself into my arms. There were at first no passionate kisses or caresses, only an embrace more like that of parent comforting a child. Who the child was here, and who the parent, was unclear. Could we each have been both? Could she, overseeing her children, her house, and her sickly, embittered husband, have sought for a moment the consolation a little girl finds on her father’s breast? Could I be seeking in a single woman, a mother, a sister, a mistress, a lover?
Such considerations come only now, for in that moment we simply held each other fast, as all rational thoughts fled.
At last she let go of me, and I was surprised to find her eyes—the same stern orbs that had seemed to rest on everything and everyone but me in the past few days—wet with tears.
“You love me, then?” said she, fervently pressing my hand.
“I do,” I responded, wiping her tears from her eyes.
Though no one could possibly see into the library on such a bright June day, she drew the heavy curtains kept closed in winter, and at long last kissed me, and soon we were embracing each other with seemingly boundless hunger, with unquenchable thirst. She had worn a far simpler frock than usual, and just as she had in my dream, she guided my hand to her breasts. This, however, was no dream. No, she did not vanish into the air, but placed my other hand between her legs, where she was dewy with anticipation. Our mouths and hands were frantic, our breath panted with mounting desire. Soon she had my staff, already hard, in her hand, which she stroked methodically, expertly, until I was wild with anticipation, until I thought it would burst the very confines of its own skin. How long it had been since I was with a woman!
The only proper place to recline was a chaise longue, and we lay there, she beneath me. So full was I with desire, so long had been the wait, that after just a few thrusts, I had spent myself entirely. As reason began to return to me, I thought, what if she is with child from this? The danger of such an eventuality—for us both—caused me to shudder, but Lydia soon soothed my mind, rubbing the wrinkles from my forehead with her fingers, as if drawing the very thoughts from it.
“You should know that after poor Georgiana was born”—here she became serious, if not sad—“I learned I could have no more children.” She soon brightened, however, as if to forget past woes, and, though no one was near, whispered into my ear, as her phantom self had in the York Minster of my dream, this time saying, “but this means that I am free.”
I begged forgiveness for how quickly our congress had ended, but she placed her right forefinger on my lips and said, “Hush. You are young, and I daresay you have not been with a woman for a very long time. And yet I can tell that you are no stranger to women. Let us take a walk on this lovely morning and talk things over, for we have plans to make.”
I had no idea what these plans might be; all I cared was that I could again possess her as I just had, and as often as possible.
Our passion momentarily abated, we quickly adjusted our garments, after which she pulled back the bolt on the door and we made our way down the great entry, under the portico, and out into the sunshine, as if nothing had occurred. And yet, what had happened was, to me, as monumental as the earthquake that had struck above Haworth in our childhood, as potentially cataclysmic and perilous as the bog that had exploded in its wake, nearly sweeping us away, whilst papa, wild with anxiety, feared us all dead.
“I suppose,” she began, as we walked out onto the grounds, in the direction of my lodgings at the Monk’s House, “that by now you have guessed that it was not just little Ned who needs you for his lessons. I need you—I want you. And now that I have had you, I will want you whenever I can have you.” She paused for several seconds, and turned to me.
“Have you ever taken laudanum—opium?”
“Yes,” said I, “just once. But I fear that any habitual usage might catch me in its grip, and that an irreversible addiction could ensue. It is the same with drink—I must very careful, I have found.”
I paused, looking up at her dark eyes flashing beneath long lashes, her full soft lips parted in a beguiling smile as I continued. “I am afraid that I might well be among those unfortunate souls who tend toward a mania with all forms of euphoria, and the more I experience of such exaltation, the more I want to annihilate myself in it, so much do I wish it never to cease.”
She let out a sigh, not of sadness or regret, but more like a moan of rekindled desire. “That is why I mention opium, for the exaltation of two lovers far surpasses its effects, and can forever be renewed, and yet such ecstasy is restorative and salutary, not debilitating or noxious, is that not so?”
“But what,” I asked, as we reached the Old Hall and she bade me enter, “if we are discovered? Surely the house is full of spies. Discovery would mean disaster for mistress and tutor alike, would it not?”
“That is precisely what I want to discuss with you. We must be cautious, ever so cautious, and if we are, no one will be the wiser. You have unquestioned access to the house, do you not? And my husband, the poor thing, is wasting away in his bed. Still, let us vary our assignations, never creating an observable pattern of behaviour. We must never grow careless, never let our guard down. Ours is a delicate bubble, to be protected at all costs.”
“No one else must know,” I said, marveling at her ability to feign concern for her brute of a husband. I suppose she had practiced this most necessary of hypocrisies for most, if not all, of her marriage.
“Of course not”—here she paused, biting her lip in the loveliest, most girlish way—“though it might be necessary, after all, that Ann Marshall know. You see, she owes me her life and livelihood, and may serve as a lookout if need be. Otherwise, we could be surprised en flagrant délit. She might, indeed, have to serve as the conduit through which I send for you, or announce that I am coming to you.”
I thought of her lady’s maid herding the children, Anne, and Flossy into the large coach that morning.
“She already knows,” said I, “doesn’t she?”
“I have told her nothing directly,” said Lydia, blushing somewhat, “though she is a perspicacious creature and perhaps has an idea or two on the subject.”
“Ah, like the good surgeon himself,” I laughed, at last beginning to feel at ease. Lydia had turned her back to me and was gazing out the bedroom window that looks onto the rear of my lodgings, where the trees have been warped by the north wind and a large stone wall runs along the lane. I approached her from behind and buried my face in the warm, soft flesh of her neck, encircling her waist with my arms, breathing in her lovely scent as if it were life-giving oxygen. She smelled of perfume—the same perfume she had placed on her bookmark of Shelly, a volume of which stood on a night table, next to a bottle of wine.
I left her briefly to pour two large glasses, and raising mine to hers, I recited—feeling that my ability to commit verse so effortlessly to memory had found, at long last, a practical use—these lines:
One passion in twin-hearts, which grows and grew,
Till like two meteors of expanding flame,
Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
Touch, mingle, are transfigur’d; ever still
Burning, yet ever inconsumable:
In one another’s substance finding food…
“I thought,” said she, smiling mischievously and swallowing a large portion of wine, for here no decorum was necessary, “that you said you must be very careful with drink.”
I followed her example. “Oh, it’s all about moderation, of course. Just a glass or perhaps two of this claret can only be good for body and soul,” said I, dismissively. “Though the only food I need to nourish me stands before me.” In a moment we had finished our glasses and were again locked in a tight embrace, the wine freeing us to an even greater extent, if such a thing were possible.
“I want,” said I, whispering in her ear, “to see and touch every inch of you. Off with those garments! Let us be like Adam and Eve.”
Making her best attempt to appear thoroughly wicked, Lydia said, “Before the fall, or afterwards?”
“The Devil take theology,” said I, attempting to surpass her heretical words. “If you promise to forget that you are the daughter and wife of clergymen, I shall do my best to forget that I am a clergyman’s son.”
She drew the curtains, and coyly began to undress. “You do understand, my boy, that I am an old woman, one who has given birth to five children. Do not expect to see the smooth perfection you would find under the garments of a young girl.”
I thought inevitably of her daughter, the young Lydia, the breathtaking beauty of her face and form, but neither of us would mention her daughters any more than we would speak of my sister. While it was true that she was no Kilmeny (damn Leyland and his theory of spoiled fruit!), my Lydia was beautiful nonetheless: a long, swanlike neck; perfect, still shapely, round breasts; wide, graceful hips; and lovely thighs, and tiny, flawless feet. She loosened her dark hair, which tumbled luxuriantly onto her shoulders whilst her dark eyes flashed with renewed desire.
“Now you,” said she, as she hastened to remove my clothing herself, as if I were a little boy. Pushing me down upon the bed, she grasped my prick with her right hand and, kissing me from knees to forehead and back to knees, stopping to take me into her full lips for a moment, and at last sliding down upon me and moving above me with a slow intensity like nothing I had felt since Agnes. Aided by the wine and the relief of our first encounter, our coupling was this time slow and languorous, for we found in one another a seemingly inexhaustible supply of sustenance, like an eternal shower of manna from Heaven.
At one point, I whispered in her ear, “I know about your husband…his true nature…each time we do this, you are repaying him for his conduct, aren’t you? Happiness is the best revenge, is it not?” At these words she moved faster, tightening round me and moaning, these moans at last transformed into cries of pleasure, at the same time drawing me up and out of myself, my mind for an instant blissfully, ecstatically annihilated, until at last we collapsed together, panting. At length I smoothed her hair away from her cheek as we lay side-by-side, and whispered in her ear, “I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!”
Repeating what she had said in the library, she said, “You love me, then?”
“Yes, darling Lydia, I love you.”
She moaned—or was it a whimper? —with pleasure at these words, and buried herself in my arms, her richly scented hair spread across my breast: now she was the little child seeking solace and protection. I drew my sheet over us both and together we fell into that blissful slumber that lovers have known since time immemorial. When I awoke she had donned my dressing gown and was wandering around my room, examining my spare furnishings and my few belongings, another glass of wine in her hand. Noticing that I was awake and watching her, propped up on one elbow, she smiled, walked over to kiss me, then proceeded to fill the other glass and hand it to me. I sought to undo the sash of the dressing gown she had expropriated, for already I wished to bury myself again in her flesh, but she withdrew from my reach, slapping my hand in jest.
“No, you naughty boy, to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven—surely the good Reverend Brontë’s son should know that.”
Some believe that a consummated love is a tarnished love. What idiots—what fools! No, by God, having possessed Lydia—or having possessed each other, I should say—I found that my ardour had only redoubled: Burning, yet ever inconsumable. Like the drunkard who takes more, not less, liquor as he descends into intoxication, so too I burned with even greater desire for Lydia.
I laughed. “Oh ho! The clergyman’s daughter has returned. Yes, yes, I know, Ecclesiastes 3. Shall I venture to guess that the Reverend Gisborne’s daughter Lydia has in mind verse 5? A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing?” I reached again for the sash, but like a young girl playing a child’s game, she skipped backwards, just out of my reach.
“How long must we refrain, then?” said I, pouting in such an exaggerated fashion that she laughed aloud. I leapt from the bed and, naked from head to toe, chased her into a corner of the room where a dressing table stood, both of us laughing. She was trapped, and turned to face me.
“Do you know what, Mr. Brontë?”
“Branwell. What is it, sweet Lydia?”
“You make me feel like a young girl again.”
“And the best part,” said I, closing in on her, “is that you can be a girl at heart and yet such a woman…such a wonderful, perfect, woman.”
At this I lifted her small but shapely body onto the table and began kissing her, and as I descended I slowly opened her—my—dressing gown, showering soft kisses down her long, snowy neck and shoulders, her breasts, her waist, and beyond. Any hesitation Lydia had had now vanished, as she spread her legs, took my head in her hands, and pulled me into the glistening petals of her open tulip.
“I want your tongue inside me,” said she, with what was now an almost desperate urgency.
I seized a chair to sit upon, and after moving in a rhythmic circle I plunged into her, thanking God or Mother Nature or the universe itself for the gift of an unusually long tongue. At the same time, I felt my unclothed member stiffen yet again with desire as she moaned with increasing pleasure. Lydia pulled my hair—so roughly that it smarted—first toward her, so that my tongue would penetrate her ever more deeply, then, after a few moments, upward, so that I would be standing, sending the chair falling backwards with a crash. The table was just the right height, and soon it was banging against the wall so noisily that we had to cease, and I carried her, while still hard inside her and both of us again laughing, to the bed, where we finished what we had begun, I on top of her this time, her arms and legs clenching me as desperately as a drowning woman might cling to the plank of a shattered vessel.
At last Lydia rose from the bed and began to dress, but she smiled contentedly. “Ah!” said she, inhaling and exhaling as if she had just climbed a steep hill. “I feel so much improved! Unfortunately, now I really must go, for the children will be back soon, and my husband will be waking, irritably, from his nap. I informed Dr. Crosby to tell him that I would be off visiting some poor cottagers, but, unfortunately, my Edmund knows that I rarely spend much time engaged in that particular occupation.”
She arranged her hair and clothing, allowing me to kiss her as she left my quarters, and from my window I watched her glide across the lawn toward the portico, her head held regally high as a servant opened the front door for her.
This all occurred several days ago, and we have continued our liaison, varying our rendezvous as she recommended, always sending word by way of Ann Marshall, who surely already knows enough to hang me, though she also appears to know her place. Since that day when all the children were away our intimate encounters are less frequent and thus—though I can scarcely believe it possible—all the more passionate, delicious, ecstatic. Our respective woes are kindled into amorous fuel, and our passion knows no bounds; that we must be secretive only adds spice to our lovers’ repasts: In one another’s substance finding food. We have been together again in the library, in my quarters, even in the stables. On Sunday last, when her husband was unusually well enough to attend church with the family, she pretended to be indisposed and sent a note to bid me come to her in her own chamber, just adjacent to his.
Lydia has informed me that I am to continue Edmund’s lessons in Scarborough next month, but that in such close quarters—where Anne, too, will have rejoined the family—we must be strong, avoiding all temptations. But will I bear it, to be so close to her, and yet so distant? Can love ever hide its face, or must it blaze forth for all to see, in spite of our best efforts to conceal it?
I shall do my utmost to obey my mistress, and so will seek other occupations. Anne has spoken so often of her beloved Scarborough that at least I look forward with very real anticipation to seeing its stately new houses and gardens, walking across the iron Spa Bridge strung high above Millbeck Ravine, treading the sparkling sands of the bay, visiting the crowded old town on the harbour, and walking up the headland above, to explore—and perhaps even sketch—the castle ruins and old Saint Mary’s church. We are all to stay at Wood’s Lodgings at The Cliff, and I wonder just how I am to control my nerves when my sweet Lydia sleeps so near at hand, when I can almost hear her breathing, when I can so vividly picture myself knocking on her door in the middle of the night, when I can feel myself in her arms!
God, what joy, what intoxication, what ecstasy!
July 22nd, 1843 The Cliff, Scarborough
My sister did not exaggerate the beauty of this place, where we have now been for more than two weeks; another ten days and we return to Thorp Green. She and I have spent nearly every free moment together, for the Robinsons are much occupied in receiving company or in showing off their daughters along the Promenade. Alas, much to the young ladies’ dismay, this is the closest they will ever come to a “season” in London.
Anne arrived from Haworth the day after we came from Thorp Green, and though her presence sometimes strikes both fear and apprehension in my heart—for she is a constant reminder of Papa, the parsonage, and thus my sins, if sins they be—I am still, most often, grateful for her presence. And indeed, if I were simply left alone for the remainder of each day I should be wild with restless agitation in the absence of Lydia.
Once she had recovered from her journey, my sister made haste to show me the sights. How she loves it all—the broad, bright bay, the deep, clear azure of the sky and ocean, the craggy cliffs surmounted by green swelling hills, and above all, the brilliant, sparkling waves and the inexpressible purity and freshness of the air! One morning, as we walked along the shore, our footsteps the first to press the firm, unbroken sands that day, my delicate little sister turned to me and said, with unwonted force: “Do you know, Branwell, that when I am here I forget all my cares, and feel as if I had wings on my feet, and could go at least forty miles without fatigue? I experience a sense of exhilaration to which I have been an entire stranger since the days of early youth.”
“Would you stay here forever, if you could?” said I. “Even in deepest winter?”
“I think I would, brother—the wild commotion of the tempest-tossed waves is to me as charming as the serenity of this placid summer morning.”
“In that case,” I replied, gesturing toward the old church of Saint Mary and the castle ruins jutting from the headland high above us, which separates the North Bay from the South, “do you think those winged feet can carry you there?”
Anne smiled and put her arm through mine. “If I were not so often short of breath—curse that family curse!—I would challenge you to a race, as when we were children. But yes, let us make the climb.”
Reaching the old church was not too arduous, and it was not long before we had wound round the hill, up Castlegate, and Paradise, to its summit. Soon we had caught our breath and were exploring the churchyard, where now stand the ruins of the original transept and great quire. I leant against the tallest of the ruins and looked out at the South Bay below. A thunderstorm the previous night had laid to rest the dust, and cooled and cleared the air, and the prospect was magnificent. Sultry July seemed to have given way, if only for a day, to springtime, or early autumn, so refreshing was the breeze that washed over us from the sea, which shone with the brilliant azure reserved for such days, a blue that sought to rival the beauty of Anne’s own eyes as they, too, gazed out upon the waters, her hands catching wisps of her hair as they played in the wind, tucking them here and there into her bonnet.
She was so lovely, so vulnerable, and yet somehow ever with that core of iron determination, wherein beats a heart of scarcely credible sincerity and goodness. I loved her then, as only a brother can love a sister, and the purity of such love overwhelmed me. Inexplicably, I felt my eyes fill, and soon hot tears were spilling down my cheek.
“What is it, Branwell?” said my sister, noticing that I was dabbing my eyes with my handkerchief.
“I don’t know…it’s just so beautiful…I wish I could explain…it is too much, the fullness of love and life, almost too full for speech…it overwhelms me, it suffocates me, it crushes me…oh, I don’t know,” and I clutched her to my breast, tears now become great, primal sobs of grief, until at last I could cry no more. Anne took both of my hands in hers and held me now at arm’s length, far enough to survey me in my entirety; we stood like two dancers frozen in time, or two towers of a bridge, whose span was formed by our arms.
“Even Jesus wept, you know,” she said, pausing earnestly. “And is not sorrow a form of grace, prerequisite to God’s forgiveness? Are not tears like the downpours that bring life to the arid plain?”
My paroxysms of grief—whatever their cause—were soon past, and had brought me great relief; as I so often do, I shunted aside such pious considerations in favour of jest, as I wiped a final tear from my cheek and blew my nose.
“I don’t know, sister. I am quite convinced that you are a far better theologian than I. Such matters are far beyond my ken.”
A smile crept over her earnest features, despite her best efforts to maintain a certain air of gravity.
“Now that is a relief—my heretical brother is alive and well! Or are you playing at Northangerland, or his faithful man-servant Sdeath?”
“Why, we three are one and the same, an Infernal Trinity if ever there were! Father, Son, and Unholy Ghost!”
“Hush!” said Anne, slapping me playfully, ever so softly on the cheek. “No more of this impious talk!” Yet I could detect no true censure in that little face, as it beamed in the bright sunshine, her eyes a mirror of the sea, her hair still dancing in the delicious breeze. Was it the extraordinary beauty of the day that made her accept my impudence in stride? Whatever the case, she soon was positively laughing, taking me by the hand and fairly dragging me up the hill toward the castle ruins, despite her shortness of breath.
Here the wind met no resistance, and as we stood together facing the sea, my hat was quite blown off my head, whilst Anne’s bonnet was nearly swept away, her dress in danger of become a giant sail. She threw herself into my arms and laughed, “I feel as giddy as a young girl again!” But her words sent an odd chill through me, as I remembered Lydia’s own recent remark to that effect. Over my sister’s shoulder, down the Castle Road, lay the old church and churchyard, its headstones bearing silent witness to the inexorable march of time, its tranquil green grass masking the ferocious maw of death that awaits us all.
“Sometimes,” Anne explained later, as we walked back down into town, “I feel so old—that I could not be flatter or older of mind if I lived to the age of eighty! But there are other times—like today—when all seems new again, the old exhilaration returns, and my head is full of so many schemes for the future that even those eighty years would not be sufficient. What strange creatures we are, to have such varied emotions!”
I said nothing, for her heart’s oscillation between these two extremes was the very picture of my own daily torment: hope, despair, renewed hope, renewed despair, etc., etc. Added to this spiritual malaise was now the physical thrill of Lydia, who gives me almost daily pleasure, but it is a troubled pleasure soon chastised by fear, as Pope renders Homer, for I live in constant terror of discovery.
I was deep in these thoughts as we again reached the sands, where the tide had now gone out and seagulls scoured the beach, at times battling with the occasional curious dog, investigating with its nose or digging with its paws. “Flossy used to love to come here,” Anne sighed.
“Why did you leave him in Haworth, then?”
“So many reasons, really, but which can be reduced to these: it is quite enough to keep up with the three Misses Robinson, Emily fell quite madly in love with him, and Keeper has found a fast friend. He will be better off in Haworth, and Papa is fond of him too. Besides, Flossy’s brothers and sisters are all about Thorp Green, so there is no want of canine companionship there, if I need it!”
As we thus strolled along the sands towards our lodgings, there appeared before us none other than Mrs. Robinson, Ann Marshall, Mary, and young Edmund. Lydia performed her iciest version of Mrs. Robinson, bearing no relation whatever to that passionate woman who embraces me with such desperate fervour.
“Miss Brontë,” said she, tilting her head ever so slightly, “Mr. Brontë. I see brother and sister are reunited once again. I trust, Miss Brontë, that your venerable father was not too pained at his son’s absence for the June holidays.”
“I think, ma’am, that our father is quite pleased that Branwell can be of such service. To be valued in one’s position is all we can ask, really.”
“Indeed.” She tousled Ned’s hair. “In point of fact, this lad has made considerable progress under your brother’s tuition, and I should like to discuss next steps with him since the opportunity has presented itself today, quite by chance. Would you, Miss Brontë, be kind enough to accompany Miss Mary back to The Cliff? I believe she has had quite enough activity, and fear that her fair skin has been too much exposed to the sun, despite the best efforts of bonnet and parasol. We cannot have her looking like a rough labourer, now can we?”
Anne set off with her charge toward our rooms at The Cliff, whilst I walked silently with my pupil, his mother, and her lady-in-waiting. Soon Lydia turned to Ann Marshall. “Marshall, would you please take Edmund down to the water’s edge? Let him remove his boots and stockings and roll up his trousers, and bathe his feet in the waves. It will be a treat for him,” she said staidly.
“Hurrah!” shouted Edmund, throwing his straw hat into the air and himself into his mother’s arms with unrestrained glee. “Dear me!” she said, suppressing a laugh beneath an otherwise stern brow. “You needn’t strangle me for that!”
Once the boy’s feet were bared, he hopped and skipped down to the water’s edge, his left hand clutched by Mrs. Marshall, the other accompanying his gleeful woops with a circular motion as his dark hair flapped in the salty breeze. Oh to be a little boy again! If only to begin anew…
My reverie was interrupted by Edmund’s mother, who, having become my Lydia again, leant toward me and said: “There are so many reasons to love the sea, but one not often discussed is that lovers can speak to each other and yet be assured that the sound of the waves will obliterate their words as thoroughly as the rising tide effaces a child’s writing on the sands.”
At these words, all doubts, all fears, all guilt, vanished in an instant, leaving only hot, stiff desire in their wake. “Good God in his Heaven, Lydia, I miss you. I want you.”
Edmund was waving as he kicked the surf, shouting for his mamma to take notice. She returned a small, dignified gesture, and without changing her expression, she said in my ear, “I am desperate for you. I know that I commanded you to keep off, but I do not think I can wait until we return to Thorp Green.”
“What do you suggest, then?”
“Meet me at the boathouse on the shore beneath The Cliff, at midnight. Marshall will be standing without, and I shall wait just within.”
So I did, and so have I done nearly every night since.
Chapter III—Leyland in York
September 16th, 1843 Thorp Green
We have long since returned to Thorp Green, and how much less frequently I see my lady! As it happens, our assignations were more easily achieved in the boathouse at Scarborough than here, and the simple addition of Anne’s presence in the house has sufficiently altered matters, so that to be with Lydia has become nearly impossible. Only once, since our return, have I held her in my arms, and that was when she again, on a Sunday, professed to be indisposed whilst even her husband—feeling somewhat better that day—accompanied the womenites to church. Despite the possibility of being observed by her servants, she crossed the dewy grounds in a cloak, beneath which she wore only a simple silk shift. As she entered my quarters she bolted the door, threw off her cloak, and then loosened her gown, which fell slowly, gracefully revealing each soft, lovely curve.
“What if,” said I, coming up for air from our passionate kisses, like a flailing swimmer gasping for air, “what if you—we—are discovered?”
“I am the mistress of Thorp Green,” said she, redoubling her caresses, as if again to repay her husband for his past transgressions. When our passion was spent, she lay with her head on my left shoulder, the fingers of her right hand playing gently over my torso, which she was fond of calling my taille d’athlète. Her radiant brown eyes opened wide as she kissed my mouth, her hand moving playfully down beneath the sheets.
“No servant will dare speak ill of me. Even if they knew all, they know how I have suffered at the hands of that…that…of my dear angel Edmund,” she added, sarcastically. “I detest that man,” she said, with almost a snarl. “In any event, it is no matter. Servants are mere automatons—it’s nothing to them what their superiors say or do; they won’t dare to repeat it; and as to what they think—if they presume to think at all—of course, nobody cares for that. It would be a pretty thing indeed, would it not, if our actions were to be dictated by our servants!”
“Still, we—you—must be careful, for if there is enough talk among the domestics, my own sister and your own daughters may begin to suspect, and where such intelligence would lead any of them, who knows?”
At this my mistress pulled me closer, and before she left we found ecstasy once again, but she thereafter seemed to take matters to heart, for this was the last time we were together.
Mistress of the situation she is indeed, for excepting those times when we are alone in our lovers’ bubble, it is she who decides all, and I who must obey. How different from the arch-seducer of my youthful imagination, Percy, Duke of Northangerland! No, it is I who have been seduced, I who am Lydia’s infatuated slave, I who worship at the living, breathing, altar of her flesh.
And how much easier, really, to be her slave, than to summon the energy to enslave her, even if such a thing were possible for an impoverished tutor. How much more exhausting, after all, to be the puppet master than the puppet? Even such a great artist as Landseer, after all, obeys the wishes of his noble mistress, does he not? Does that make him any less a man, or any less an artist? And if the rumours are true, is the Duchess of Bedford any less his slave in the bedroom for all that?
If I have been musing upon these matters, it is no doubt in large part because Leyland has been to visit York, where I spent a long afternoon in the company of him and Dr. Crosby. The memorial committee for the unfortunate Dr. Beckwith, it so happens, could not settle upon a local sculptor for his monument, so intent were they upon driving down its cost. Finding itself at an impasse, the committee had shown an interest in Joe, whose name Crosby had recalled from our conversation of last spring. Thus, Joseph B. Leyland had been summoned before the committee, and he was all too happy to spend an afternoon with us thereafter.
We shook hands briefly before the meeting, during which I was free to wander the vast interior of York Minister. I walked to the oldest part of the church, the north transept, and stood before the massive window—five long gothic windows, in fact—called the “Five Sisters.” I pondered, turning left and walking toward the window at the western end of the nave: five sisters had I once too. Standing beneath the Great Western Window, I tilted my head back to gaze at the pointed arch of the upper window, where the stonework and tracery form an enormous heart. The two panels beneath its point depict the Coronation of the Virgin and Christ in Majesty. Mary, Marie, Maria: dear Mamma, why did you leave me, why did you forsake your only son?
I soon was benumbed by the sheer size and beauty of the church—was quite simply unable to take it all in. I found myself seated in the first row, near the altar, gazing up and to the left at the grand pulpit, realizing at last that this was just where I had sat in my dream. Here, however, no Reverend Brontë preached on the sin of adultery; here no emaciated Edmund Robinson slumped in his seat; no lascivious Lydia guided my hand into her lovely, dewy cleavage; no Brown or Leyland leered approvingly from across the aisle.
No: only the chill damp void of a temple long ago abandoned by God. And yet—here also was peace, beauty, even some sort of vague medieval grace, I thought, and as a shaft of sunlight shot down from above, thousands of particles of dust and the occasional fly were illuminated, like actors in a stage light. Anne, who loves this place, once said to me: If finite power can do this, how great God’s infinite power must be!
But was not this finite human power enough of a token of God’s might, if God there be? Must there be Heaven or Hell? Were they not perversions of the true God; were they not inventions of man’s finite power as well, established to subjugate and control the true spark of divinity, a perverse and savagely feudal law Shelley rightly saw pretends even to govern the indisciplinable wanderings of passion, to put fetters on the clearest deductions of reason, and, by appeals to the will, to subdue the involuntary affections of our nature? Did he not admit, with clarity so great that it immediately roused the condemnation that always befalls those martyrs who speak the truth, that the narrow and unenlightened morality of the Christian religion is an aggravation of these evils, and that only lately has the fanatical idea of mortifying the flesh for the love of God been discarded?
Alas, thought I, such fanatical ideas have hardly been discarded. And yet, on the other side of the ledger, Hartley Coleridge’s words, spoken that May Day three years since—what a lifetime ago!—came back to me: Byron and Shelley cast all decency to the wind, breaking hearts and destroying lives. I felt tired, overwhelmed, confused, and just wanted my mind to stop its ceaseless hurtling for a moment. I leant back to admire the massive ceiling, upheld by a multitude of ribbed vaults, and wondered what it would take for the entire structure to collapse upon me. Would that be such a terrible thing, once the impossibly brief initial shock was past? Not another soul stirred in the church, and at length I dropped into a light slumber, only roused by two birds wheeling high above, through the pillars, just beneath the ceiling. They had found their way into the great church, but now flapped about with increasing desperation, seeking a way back out into the open sky.
A large hand clapped me on the shoulder, and I jumped. It was Leyland, who had stolen silently up as I had awakened and watched the birds circle above. Soon we had made our way out of the Minster and to the end of Stonegate, where we turned left into Coney Street, passed the venerable Saint-Martin-le-Grand and Leyland’s lodgings at the George, and on into Spurriergate, where Dr. Crosby awaited us at the Ouse Bridge Inn.
Joe ordered whiskies for the three of us, and was soon interrogating me about Mrs. Robinson. After my initial requests for advice, I had written no more, either to him or to Brown, for the matter was rendered moot by subsequent events. The ensuing silence had, it seemed, nearly driven him mad with curiosity.
“Sooooo, little man, tell old Joe Leyland what has transpired in these many months since you last wrote to Brown that your pupil’s mother was damnably fond of you? Did you go to extremities? Is she now your mistress in both senses of the word? If so, I can hardly blame you for your silence, ha ha!”
At this speech, Crosby frowned—nay, glowered—and abruptly stood up, hat in hand. “See here, gentlemen, I just remembered I have some additional business to conduct at the chemist’s, and so will leave you to your own devices,” adding meaningfully as he looked directly at me, “I shall return in a half-hour’s time or so.”
Soon I had revealed to Joe, at great length, all but the most intimate details of my liaison: the gifts, the offer to send my poems to Macaulay, the request that I stay behind when Anne traveled to Haworth, and everything that ensued. In so doing, I also explained Dr. Crosby’s seemingly odd behaviour.
“Ha! Yes, he’s no fool!” said Joe, finishing the surgeon’s whisky, which had been left where he had sat, and motioning for two more glasses. “He knows on which side his bread is buttered!”
When the glasses arrived, he lifted his and proposed a toast: “Let us toast the Year of Our Lord Eighteen-Hundred-and-Forty-Three, for I feel propitious winds of change for you, Brontë. Think of it, you are valued in your position—here he could not help himself, winking lewdly—or should I say positions in the plural? A rich woman loves you, and has promised to send your poetry to Macaulay. Eighteen-Hundred-and-Forty-Four could prove even better!”
He grew somewhat more serious, leaning toward me and lowering his voice, though his large brown almond eyes were still merry, and a smile still played on his full lips. “Damn you, you lucky devil, you have found your very own Duchess of Bedford! Keep her happy and who knows what might transpire. If that invalid husband of hers quits the stage, you will be there to comfort her, will you not?”
Embarrassed to have already thought of this myself, I pretended that it had not even occurred to me—an assertion met with incredulous laughter.
“Oh come now, little man! You mean to say that it never crossed your mind that you might replace that son-of-a-bitch as master of Thorp Green? You even signed your letter to Brown—for of course he showed it to me—Jacob the Supplanter, Son of Joseph!”
“Good sir, I meant to supplant him in Lydia’s affections, that’s all. Whoever heard of a lady marrying her son’s tutor, or a gentleman taking a governess for his wife? Really, Leyland, you are quite mad!”
“Stranger things have occurred, young Faustus. And even if you are not legally married, could you not more easily play that role if the good man were dead and buried?”
I began to imagine that such could be the case, and even smiled to myself at the thought, as our conversation turned to news of people at home. Soon Crosby had returned, and the sculptor, now thoroughly informed of the surgeon’s resolute desire to remain ignorant of my proceedings with Lydia, hailed him heartily.
“Ah, Dr. Crosby, just in time to help me tell my tale of this morning’s meeting with the unfortunate Dr. Beckwith’s memorial committee. I was just saying that though the good man has been dead and buried for some time, work on the monument has been terribly delayed.”
“Indeed,” said Crosby, smiling. In fairness to him, I must confess that his naturally sunny temperament is at all times prepared to return once passing clouds have vanished, and knowing we had finished discussing Lydia, he was more than happy to rejoin our conversation. He looked down, puzzled. “But where is my whisky?”
“See here, Dr. Crosby, it would have quite evaporated, would it not? La part des anges, the French call it: the angel’s share. Well, blast it all, I think the angels have quite enough of everything, don’t you?”
Crosby laughed, as nearly everyone does in Joe’s company, as another whisky was ordered up from the bar.
I looked across at my friend. For just an instant, a world-weary version of the sculptor appeared, as he had that day in Halifax. Here, thought I, was no Lucifer, no Azrael. He was not Mephistopheles any more than I was Faustus; no more the demonic Gil-Martin than I was the Robert Wringhim he leads to perdition in Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. No, alas: here was simply a man rapidly passing from his youth towards middle age, and growing weary—so very, very weary.
Just as quickly, however, Leyland was again his jolly self, recounting the story, assisted by Crosby, of the morning’s meeting with the committee.
“I am sure that when your friend Brontë here wrote you about the possibility of a commission,” said the surgeon, “you scratched your head and wondered why in Heaven’s name the committee would seek a sculptor so far from York, where you can’t throw a rock—forgive the play on words—without hitting a stone carver.”
“I must confess,” laughed Leyland, running his hand through his ample hair, “that the old phrase carrying coals to Newcastle did spring to mind. Of course any misunderstanding faded once I met the committee.” He leant toward me conspiratorially, but allowed Crosby to hear him as well. “I know, Branwell, that just last year you were profoundly embarrassed by Dr. Andrew’s memorial committee in Haworth, but they were nothing when compared to this band of misers. At least your local folk acted purely out of—what did you call it?—gothic ignarance and ill breeding, I believe.”
“With all due respect to your friend Crosby, here,” he continued, nodding toward the surgeon, “—for he is surely the exception that confirms the rule—the committee for Dr. Beckwith is a group of parsimonious hypocrites bent upon treating a noted sculptor like a common mason. They have agreed to pay me only £250, and I have to supply my own materials, and am allowed only £50 on account to accomplish a memorial fit for royalty: a full-length recumbent statue of polished black marble, over a white Huddlestone tomb. I may be a genius,” he concluded, laughing. “But I am not a magician. The task is well-nigh impossible, and my own labour has been valued about as much as that of a bricklayer.”
He drained his glass as if chasing wormwood and gall.
“And yet,” said Crosby, “you accepted the commission, did you not?”
“I did,” said Joe ruefully, staring down at his empty glass. Soon brightening, however, he added, “At least I won the dispute over the £50 advance. The niggardly philistines—again, present company excluded, my dear Crosby—tried to begrudge me even that.” Let us spend a bit of that advance, shall we?
Crosby and I had dinner and one more drink with Leyland before setting off for Thorp Green. We left him laughing with a pair of buxom women, one flaxen-haired and the other a brunette—courteous ladies of notable distinction as the late Hogg himself might say—women who had surely noticed not just Joe’s handsome features and fashionable checked suit, but also—and far more to the point—his gold watch and the liberality with which he showered his friends with food and drink. I have no doubt how his evening ended, and merely hope that he awoke with enough cash in his pocket to return to Halifax.
Chapter IV—A Jealous Husband
November 4th, 1843 Thorp Green
Upon receipt of some of my verses, the celebrated Macaulay has sent me a most complimentary letter, which has occasioned—alas!—more heartache than joy. While Lydia would fain have kept the very existence of her cousin’s epistle from her husband, she could not resist telling her eldest daughter of it; I suppose it was necessary that her pride in me should burst forth somehow. Young Lydia, in turn, mentioned it to her papa. Was this the innocent chatter of a young girl, or a deliberate attempt to gauge the invalid’s response to such intelligence? Did she suspect something about her mother and her brother’s tutor? In short, was she merely giddy and mischievous—or something far more dangerous?
I learnt of this all yesterday, when at last I found myself in Lydia’s arms. She had proclaimed a school holiday, and had, despite the November chill, bundled her children off to York under the guidance of my sister and Ann Marshall. Her husband, it seemed, was particularly ill; Dr. Crosby had given him more than enough laudanum to make him sleep the day away. My lady, meanwhile, claimed to be indisposed.
“Oh God,” she said as our hips moved together, “oh God, oh God—it has seemed an eternity.” Indeed it had been weeks, and our ardour knew no bounds, and bears no description: indeed, as the blasphemous Sdeath might say, it passeth all understanding. Afterwards, she buried her head in my shoulder, eventually tipping her face toward mine. I caressed her gently from her long neck to that magical place where hip meets thigh, finding that she had grown thinner since last we were together.
“I had to send them all away,” said she. “I had to have you…and not once, but two or three times before they return. I feel like a great dam holds my passion in abeyance, and that when at last we are together it must flow freely, overwhelming everything else, obliterating every trace of every other living thing but you.”
She paused, a single tear trickling down her right cheek.
“You do know that I want you all the time, don’t you?” she continued earnestly. “I can scarcely eat, for all I want is you—in your substance finding food,” said she, her desire momentarily eclipsing her other thoughts, her kisses causing me—impossibly, I thought—already to harden once again with desire. Soon, however, cold reason returned.
“I am in constant terror of discovery, and Marshall says that the servants have begun to talk. I cannot bear the thought of parting with you.”
“Did you not say that one’s actions cannot be dictated by one’s servants?”
“I did,” said she, biting her lip—adorably, I thought, in spite of her frustration—as she propped her head upon her elbow, “but as you said, if the children discover us, that is quite another matter. And servants talk to children. And children are curious.”
She proceeded to explain how she had made the mistake of telling her eldest about Macaulay’s letter of praise, and how within a few hours young Lydia had made sure that her father knew about it as well. As a result, the Reverend Robinson was now more splenetic than ever.
“He cannot abide the mere idea of your being able to write anything, and was sick all day yesterday as a result.”
“I wonder why, then, he continues to employ me. Why does he not just send me packing to Haworth?”
“Ah, well you see,” she said, attempting a wicked smile as she guided my hands over her body, though to me her face is forever that of an angel—“if he knew that you were touching me here…and here…and here…you would be dismissed. But he knows that you are valued by everyone and that Edmund is happy and progressing.”
She paused and frowned. “The fact is that he is one of those people who wishes no one to be happy. It’s not because it’s you, Patrick Branwell Brontë; it’s because it’s not him, Edmund Robinson. He is like a little boy who would lick all of his sweets at once, or throw them into the dirty lane, rather than share one morsel with his fellows. He is, in a word, miserable. It is not as if he has any poetic proclivities or pretensions himself. He is just such a spiteful creature that he is incapable of suffering anyone else to do well, in any endeavour.”
“Still, I wish he hadn’t known.”
“I know, I know” said she, impatiently. “I should not have told Lydia. Indeed, Lydia is the last person I should have told; I am finding her more and more ungovernable—and meddlesome—these days.”
Hours were as minutes as our bodies became one again…and yet again. The third time she said, laughing, “Now you may do as you please, Mr. Brontë.” This expression is a great favourite of hers, which she habitually uses to tell Anne or me that we are free for the day. In this case, however, she had something else in mind. I was grateful to Maeve for her lessons, though none of what she had taught me seemed to surprise Lydia.
As she began to dress, Lydia at last grew serious.
“We must be careful. I think we would be wise to take no risks between now and the holidays, and it is essential that you return home with your sister, to allay all suspicions.”
“But Lydia, how can I bear it? How can you?”
“It is only for a while—and is it not better to let all suspicion die quite away? For if we succeed in convincing everyone that we are merely mistress and subordinate, we can then find a way to be together once again, of that I am certain. You must obey me in this.”
She paused for a moment, smiling as a thought emerged. “In this case, you may not do as you please, Mr. Brontë.”
Standing naked before her, I performed a ridiculous bow, saying “Of course, I shall obey you as in all things, ma’am. Kiss me once more, then,” said I, “for minding so well,” and refusing to let her dress, I reached for a pair of scissors on my night table. “Give me a lock of your hair, so that I might pretend it lies once again on my breast.” Growing serious, I added softly: “Would to God it could do so legally!”
She seemed not to hear this final remark, but quickly snipped a generous lock where it would least be noticed, dressed, expertly put her hair up, and kissed me a final time. I know not when I will see her again, beyond the brief chance encounters that would naturally occur.
November 24th, 1843 Thorp Green
As I write these lines, the last of autumn’s leaves, long since fallen, are swept by the north wind, as the sky threatens a day of chilling rainfall. Over the past three weeks I have only seen Lydia in passing, and each time her gaze avoids mine, as if the danger of our eyes’ meeting—how I still remember the first time they locked, when I was sick in bed and Papa was here—were so great that it would result in her dashing forward and throwing herself in my arms.
Or so I like to imagine.
What a toll it takes on one to conceal a great secret, and how much greater the damage if that secret is one’s strongest passion! Every second marked by the clock’s swinging pendulum is full of deception, is packed with lies. To conceal such truth is to bury one’s beating heart, to entomb one’s best, one’s noblest self. All because of some ridiculous, mere human law, put in place to subdue the involuntary affections of our nature. Shelley was right: it was indeed barbaric. I suspect Mr. Robinson, however, would not share my view.
Does Lydia suffer as much as I do? Alas, I cannot ask her. But I seem to detect that she continues to grow thinner every day. GOD, how I wish I could feel her soft skin moving against mine, smell her perfumed flesh wrapped about mine, whilst we form once again one body in ecstatic union, in an instant containing all of eternity. Though on certain days I would like to drown my sorrows utterly, I cannot compromise my position, which now matters to me only because it keeps me near to Lydia. I take no wine, but only some brandy and water once a day, before breakfast, to enable me to face the sheer agony of each day without her.
I ask again: does she ache for me as much as I do for her? Would she sacrifice all for me? If not, who am I to criticize her? Was I not willing to ignore the circumstances of Agnes? Why did Maggie choose her mate? Vergil may claim that love conquers all, but does it ever? Each day these worries consume me, and only a visit from Lydia could assuaged them. Oh God! I am ravaged from within by deceit, desire, and doubt, like the worm that never dies, all the while struggling to appear ever the calm and respectable tutor of young Edmund Robinson.
I cherish one hope, which would bring resolution to all: if only my employer were to die and Lydia make me the master of Thorp Green. And why on earth would she not? Have stranger things not occurred, as Leyland said? Is she not a clergyman’s daughter and I a clergyman’s son, as well as a scholar and promising poet? What would be amiss? Surely it would not be the first time a woman of significant means married a gentleman who had none. Such reflections only make my inner world more infernal and the efforts to conceal it more strenuous. But then are we not all close and resolute dissemblers, and do we not all don the mask of a placid countenance when our hearts are wild with passion and joy, or filled with anger and bitterness?
Soon the Christmas holidays will be upon us, and it has been nearly a year since last I saw Haworth. Will I be able to dissemble as well there as I have here? Will Papa’s failing eyesight blind him to my guilt? Or will my very words, my faltering tone of voice, proclaim my iniquity to his ears?
Chapter V—The Three Virgins of Haworth
New Year’s Day, 1844 Haworth, The Parsonage
Anne could not wait to escape Thorp Green, but I felt I was being torn from the place, like a plant uprooted from all that nourishes it. How much has changed since I arrived last January! What once was terra incognita has become my only hope of salvation, my promised land—for what would become of me if Lydia and I were cleft asunder? I am wild with desire for her, and yet frantic to conceal all that is true, all that is noble—which is to say love.
Mere human convention condemns our actions; I am convinced that anyone who has felt such bliss as this would praise, or at the very least understand and accept them. For I firmly believe that not one in one dozen persons has ever felt such exaltation, such delirium, and so it is that the vast majority of society is composed of frigid old maids; embittered, gouty old men whose withered idea of pleasure is to be found solely in the bottle and at the table; and couples who have settled into the slow, joint suicide of a passionless marriage. Aye, misery loves company! What does Milton have the King of Hell say in Paradise Regained?
Envy, they say, excites me thus to gain
Companions of my misery and woe!
And yet: what of Papa? Surely his passion was as strong as mine, but he turned it into an appropriate channel, according to society’s laws (nay, according to God’s Law, he would say): six children in as many years. Did not Aunt used to say that Mamma had called him “my saucy Pat”? What had become of this saucy young man, brimming with poetry and bursting with love, when poor Mamma died?
Why, the Reverend Brontë had snuffed him out by sheer force of will, of course, had crushed every last trace of these fleshly joys, had obliterated all that was wild and beautiful, all that lived and breathed. Unable to find a wife to share his joys and burdens, he directed the twin streams of his great intellect and boundless passion into the rearing of his children and his service to the Lord. An amputation, I might say: perhaps one required to save the patient’s life, but an amputation all the same. But that bottomless force of will of his! I cannot fathom it. What is it to control oneself? I do not know, for I have a moral weakness that impedes such exercise of will, which is as foreign to me as the towering Himalayas or the deepest reaches of the Amazon.
What I can confess to these pages alone is this: what Papa has failed to pass on to me, he seems to have succeeded in bestowing upon all three of his daughters. Or is it that they must exercise such control, since the field of their endeavours is so circumscribed? In short, because I am a man, the expectations placed upon me are both significantly greater in the arena of my professional achievements and much, much less where my personal conduct is concerned. Expectations! Good God in Heaven, there have always been expectations! The very thing that frees me becomes my prison, whereas my sisters’ gaol sets them free. And now, since Aunt’s death, they have sufficient means to survive should Papa die, while I am left with nothing. It is all the more imperative that I retain my post at Thorp Green, not only to be near Lydia, but to retain my independence.
Charlotte, we have lately learned, is quitting Brussels once and for all. The reasons for this are shrouded in mystery, as she has been for some time employed as a teacher, thus assuring her own independence, and she seems fond of the Monsieur and Madame Héger—though, as is always the case with her, she has largely praise for the gentleman and censure for the lady. Is she returning because she wishes, as she claims, to start a school? It is with great difficulty that I imagine her doing so, and though Anne would surely be a valued assistant, I can no more imagine Emily teaching little girls than being a patient, long-suffering governess. And where is this school to be? In the parsonage? Surely no mother in her right mind would consent to sending her precious little girls to live in such a wilderness as this, where disease is rife, the inhabitants churlish and uncouth, and even the parsonage itself is ruled over by an ageing and severe, if ultimately kindly, old man; where Keeper and Flossy and other assorted animals run wild and fly free; and where, worst of all, the churchyard seems to contain more of the dead than the town does of the living, as if it threatened at any moment to devour parsonage, church, public houses, shops, mills, hovels, inhabitants and all.
Does she return because, as she has written to Emily, she feels that she ought not to be away from Papa, that she feels it would be too selfish to leave him so long as Anne and I are absent? I do not for a moment believe this, for Papa was not so much worse when she last left him, and when she did leave him—traveling in great haste and alone, which aunt would never have permitted—he had lost not only his beloved curate Weightman, but also Aunt, who, though she could not be his wife, was surely his helpmate as he struggled to raise his brood, she who was the closest thing to a mother we ever knew. It was only because Emily was all too happy to remain behind that Charlotte could fly back across the Channel. I do not doubt her love of family, especially Papa; it is a love that extends even to me. I do believe, however, that she has a core of selfishness—perhaps indistinguishable from her iron will—that overrules all else.
In short, had she wished to stay in Brussels she would have found ample excuses for doing so: for it was not long ago that she claimed that with even more proficiency in French and German I will be better placed to lead a school for young ladies; by teaching, I am no longer a burden on Papa; it would, in fact, be selfish for me to return when Anne and Branwell are making their way in the world and Emily is caring for him; etc., etc.
Do we not all create such happy stories to fit our desires? She now is, most conveniently, turning each one of these arguments on its head. I imagine that Emily, sphinxlike, understands all of this, and clearly wishes to discuss none of it. Anne strives, as always, to put the best construction on everything. As for Papa, he is happy his dear Charlotte is returning, and despite his failing eyesight there is a spring in his step since we received the news.
I wonder: where will we all be, and how will we fare, one year—five years—ten years—hence? I cannot but think that Joe Leyland is right: 1844 will be even better, at least for me. Through my mind races, at the speed of a flash of lightning, the future course of my life: at last I am published in Blackwell’s, after which I become the toast of London itself. Riches soon follow, and just as it becomes clear that Brontë no longer needs his post as tutor to young Edmund Robinson, the boy’s unfortunate father shuffles off his mortal coil. Lydia—lovely in mourning—soon marries the poet, whose rising star and full purse make him a more-than-suitable match in the eyes of everyone, even his sisters, though they are privately shocked that a woman would take another husband so soon after the death of her own.
But what of the three virgins of Haworth? What fate awaits them? If the school scheme fails, as it surely will, perhaps they will turn back to being governesses, though I cannot see that suiting Charlotte or Emily ever again. How often has the first said that she would rather be a housemaid or kitchen-girl, than a baited, trampled, desolate, distracted governess! At such moments, Emily nods vigorously, or says vehemently, “That’s right!” And indeed, has not Emily herself already chosen to be a sometime housemaid and kitchen-girl rather than ever be a governess again? Only Anne, whose equanimity, sense of duty and sweet but adamantine will—her own variation of Papa’s—seems to have the constitution necessary to the task of governess, though she would hardly disagree with her sisters on the subject of their ill treatment. My situation is different, for I am paid thrice what Anne is, and have only one dull, but affable pupil, who has already long ago reached the age of reason.
No, the school scheme matters not, for my literary apotheosis and marriage to Lydia will allow me a liberality with the poor creatures, though at present they have money and I have none. As I write, the thought of my own magnanimity cheers me. Yes, surely, 1844 will mark a new beginning, for even if such visions of the future are chimerical, what good fortune I already have will surely continue: I have a beautiful lady who loves me, and will do anything to preserve our union; I am wonderfully valued in my situation, and both my pupil’s advancements and my mistress’s affection for me assure my place at Thorp Green; Macaulay has sent encouraging words, and I will set about more methodically to attain the literary recognition that is long overdue me.
Within a few days we return to Thorp Green, and I to Lydia. How fervently I hope that she has devised a plan to allow us to see each other again! I have spent the entire holiday in Haworth wishing myself there, and trying my best to conceal my feelings, my erratic behaviour at times drawing puzzled looks from Anne and Emily, whilst Papa, as I had hoped, has not noticed—or has chosen not to notice—any change in my manner.
Chapter VI—The Ball
January 20th, 1844 Thorp Green
At eighteen, Miss Robinson has emerged from the quiet obscurity of the schoolroom into the full blaze of the fashionable world. Whilst we, the paid subordinates, were in Haworth, she had her “coming out” at a magnificent winter ball, to which her mamma invited all the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood, for twenty miles round.
Anne has informed me that the provoking thing—for she is as vexatious in spirit as she is delightful to behold, one of those young ladies whose character repels nearly as much as their face and form attract—will no longer be under her tuition, and I worry what mischief she will cause when set adrift in this way. What will she do with her days, besides dress elegantly, shake her ringlets, and tease the local gentlemen of station high and low? Upon the first opportunity her mother informed Anne that she might do as she pleased, my sister wasted no time in seeking me out in my quarters, to regale me with the story of the ball.
She had scarcely removed her outdoor garments from our journey back to Thorp Green when Miss Robinson—young Lydia—had seized upon her, desperate to recount just how brilliantly she had shone, how many hearts she had broken, and how many women had been driven mad with envy at her beauty and grace. Meanwhile, her sister Bessy stood by, wishing to tell her governess about her acquisition of a new mare, the very mention of which her sister found inconceivably shocking. My sister’s own gift for mimicry is truly extraordinary, and I laughed aloud as she assumed the alternately sweet and bitter tones of her eldest pupil and her sister:
“Really, Miss Brontë,” said Anne in the young lady’s voice, swooping dramatically round my sitting room in the Monk’s House, “I’m so sorry you didn’t see me! I was charming, wasn’t I Bessy?”
“Middling” (in an equally skilled imitation of Bessy’s slightly deeper voice).
“No, but I really was—at least Mamma…and Marshall…said so. Marshall said she was sure no gentleman could set eyes on me without falling in love that minute; and so I may be allowed to be a little vain. I was so much admired; and I made so many conquests in that one night—you’d be astonished to hear—”
Anne pirouetted—laughing, but already short of breath—and settled into a soft chair to resume her narration, this time in her own voice.
“I said to her, speaking quite in earnest, that one conquest would be well enough, at which point she laughed, reminding me that we never agree on such points. It was a double delight to her to see the older gentlemen fall at her feet, while their nasty, cross wives were ready to perish with spite and vexation.”
My sister has a sense of fun, but her moral rectitude is unquestionable. I knew that she would not have let such comments pass unchecked. “And what did the wicked thing say when you upbraided her for such behaviour?” said I, still laughing.
“She admitted that it was very wrong and promised to be good sometime!”
At this Anne, for all her disapproval, could not resist resuming her imitation of the young lady, saying in Lydia’s voice, “Only don’t preach now, Miss Brontë, there’s a good creature—I haven’t told you half yet...” Still in character, Anne enumerated the many unmistakable admirers of young Lydia: there were innumerable old codgers, only fit companions for Papa and Mamma, a young gentleman who was young, rich, and gay, but an ugly beast; a younger son who was good-looking and a pleasant fellow to flirt with but otherwise useless because without fortune, assorted country boobies with money but no family connections, and the good rector of Little Ouseburn and his new curate.
Anne brightened and laughed, adding again in her own voice, “Miss Robinson accused this last gentleman of being an insensate, ugly, stupid blockhead—I can only reason from this that he was the sole member of the stronger sex not to swoon at her feet.”
“Ah,” said I, mischievously, “the pious clergyman chose not to gaze and gape at the feast of feminine charms spread before him, eh? His tongue didn’t loll out of his mouth like Keeper’s beneath the dinner table? Well, jolly good for him! Perhaps he simply doesn’t care for the fairer sex—he wouldn’t be the first clergyman of that sort.”
“That’s a wicked thing to say, Branwell. I, for one, am curious to meet this gentleman; he must be a person of considerable rectitude to have been resistant to the attractions of Miss Robinson. You men,” she continued, “are shameless.”
For a moment the image of young Lydia's mother and myself in a sublimely shameless frenzy of fornication flashed before my eyes, and I changed the subject just as abruptly.
“Yes, well, we aren’t going to change that now, are we? Tell me, then, how the ball ended. What philosophical conclusions did young Lydia draw from this grand event? Which of the gentlemen does she like best?”
“Ah yes,” said Anne, unable to resist a dramatic conclusion to her performance. Rising out of her chair, she shook her modest auburn coiffure as if it were young Lydia’s profusion of golden curls, once more assuming her erstwhile pupil’s voice, with an exaggerated sigh: “If I could be always young, I would always be single. I should like to coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have.”
I laughed heartily, though none of this came as a surprise. “My, she is quite the naughty thing, isn’t she? And how did you, good creature that you are, respond to that?”
Anne sat back down with a smile that seemed half mirth and half resignation. “You can well imagine, Branwell. I said something like this: “Well, as long as you entertain those views, keep single by all means, and never marry at all, not even to escape the infamy of old-maidenhood.”
We shared a final laugh over this, though it was soon succeeded by a prolonged silence. Where had her mind wandered, as her eyes travelled over the grounds, patched here and there with the remnants of the latest snowstorm, and across the sky, dressed in a shimmering gown of winter blue, reflected in her own brilliant orbs? Back to Haworth? To Scarborough? It has been just three days since her twenty-fourth birthday: was she wondering if she would ever marry?
“A penny for your thoughts, Miss Brontë.”
She turned with sad resignation, and sighed. “Oh, Branwell, just the usual thoughts. Will we be all right? How long will Papa live? Will the school scheme ever be successful? Will any of us ever marry? Where will we all be in a few years, and what changes will we have seen and known? Will we be much changed ourselves?”
I said nothing, but reflected that among her unspoken questions was very likely this one: Will Branwell be able to keep his position at Thorp Green, though he has failed at all others? For my part, despite my love for her—and indeed, my love for Charlotte and Emily as well—I wanted to ask: Should you worry so much about money when you have been provided an inheritance by Aunt Branwell, whilst I received nothing but a Japanese dressing box whose intricate designs I may have admired as a boy, but which now is utterly useless?
Instead I smiled, stood up, and kissed her on the forehead. “All will be well, little sister, all will be well. Fear not.”
As she rose to say goodbye I did my best to make her smile. “And, thank you for the performance of Miss Robinson’s coming-out ball. I believe that if all else failed—if acting were not such a disreputable profession, mind—you could rival the greatest performers of domestic melodrama at Covent Garden or Drury Lane! Perhaps, like the famed Eliza O’Neill, you could even marry a baronet and retire to his estate. Ha ha!”
Alas, I did little to raise Anne’s spirits, and as she left I realised that mine were every bit as depressed as hers. I have no doubt that my self-pity has worsened since Lydia—my Lydia—seems to have severed all ties with me. Does she ever think of me? Did she ever love me? I am beginning to wonder, for I scarcely see her at all.
March 28th, 1844 Thorp Green
I am wondering no more—Heaven be praised! We have at last been together again, at least once a week. Mere chance provided the solution, and happiness has proceeded most unexpectedly from misery. Would that it could continue forever thus!
By dreary February I was so depressed of spirits that I could scarcely drag myself through my daily duties; I had written almost nothing, and even ignored the pages of this diary. I feared that my gloomy countenance would affect my earnest pupil, and that my employers would send me packing. One day in the middle of the month I sent word that I was too ill to teach young Edmund. I settled back into bed and watched a regiment of steely clouds march past my window, from northeast to southwest: toward Haworth. I had just begun to wonder what Papa, Charlotte, and Emily were doing at that moment when I heard a sharp knock on the door.
It was my mistress, accompanied by her lady’s maid, to whom she said simply, “Please wait outside, Marshall. You may knock if someone approaches.”
Lydia bolted the door behind her and walked rapidly to my bedside, where she spread out her skirts and sat daintily before me, reaching out for my hand, pressing it tenderly in hers.
“Are you quite all right, Branwell?”
Immediately my heart swelled with hope, for she had only ever used my Christian name in our most intimate moments. Tears filled my eyes, mingled tears of misery and suffering, but also relief and gladness.
“My sweet boy,” said she, “why are you crying?”
“I have been miserable without you. It has been utter torture to have you at once so near and unattainable. I began to suppose that you had forgotten me.”
Lydia again pressed my hand. “Foolish boy, you know I have not forgotten you. Hush now.”
With that she leant over to kiss me gently on the forehead, each cheek, and finally, my mouth. She began to draw away from me, but starved for her caresses, I pulled her back, kissing her hungrily.
“No, we mustn’t,” said she, resisting me at first. “I am afraid of being discovered, truly I am.”
“You cannot do this,” said I. “You cannot bring a feast to a starving man and then forbid him to partake.” I drew her to me again and soon my hands and mouth had convinced where words had failed, and all fear of discovery—indeed, all awareness of anything beyond the blissful, rhythmic union of our bodies—fell away like a lover’s garment. My sickness, it seems, was only love-sickness, for in Lydia’s delicious embrace all of my symptoms melted quite away, and as I exploded within her I felt that great Godlike flash of joy and oblivion.
“Oh God, Lydia,” said I, “I have missed you so, my love. You are all I need to heal me.”
She, however, had quite returned to her senses—it was a good thing, too, for no sooner had she straightened her hair and smoothed her clothes—for she had lifted her skirts but not removed any clothing—than there came a brisk rapping at the door. In all of our assignations, this had never occurred, and we both fairly leapt at the sound, so that I rapidly pulled the bedcovers over my body, whilst she walked calmly, though flushed, to the door.
It was Ann Marshall, come to announce that my sister was waiting downstairs to see me. Rather than try to escape unseen, my mistress chose—wisely, I think—to pretend as though nothing were amiss.
“Ah, Miss Brontë,” she said with great condescension as Marshall showed her into my room, “I am so glad you came, despite your duties with Bessy and Mary.”
This comment was meant to convey: Why are you not in the school-room with your pupils?
“I am certain that you are worried about your brother’s condition, as am I. I’ve just arrived myself, to enquire as to his health and to see what we might do to help him recover.”
Her body had, of course, already done this noble work, but I now feared that this visit from my sister would seal my fate forever, and that Lydia would never again risk being alone in my company. I looked at Anne, and it was clear from her concerned eyes that she suspected nothing—indeed, that she could not possibly dream of what had just occurred in the bed, still damp from our sweet congress, where I lay. She was here merely to see how I was.
“Yes, ma’am, I was indeed concerned. I told the young ladies that I would be back directly, but wanted to see my brother for myself.”
“Now, now, little sister,” said I with bravado, as my fear of discovery gave way to a wave of relief. “I am already feeling better for your visit, and suspect I just need some rest.”
Anne sat precisely where Lydia had just before we began kissing, and examined me closely.
“Hmm. Well, other than being too thin—you must eat, Branwell—and a bit flushed with fever”—here she leant forward and placed her palm on my forehead—“you seem quite all right to me.”
As we spoke, Lydia had wandered over to a table that held my drawing materials, and was examining some of my rough sketches. She now held one aloft. “This is quite good, Mr. Brontë. I see that your sister is not the only artist in the family.”
“Oh, goodness, no,” said Anne, always prepared to undervalue her own accomplishments and exaggerate those of others, a sign of genuine humility, yes, but also, conveniently enough, an attractive quality in a governess. “Branwell is an excellent artist. He gave all of us tuition in painting and drawing, and was even a portraitist in Bradford for a time.”
“Is that right?” said Lydia, turning to lock eyes with me. “My heavens: a tutor, a railway man, a poet, a painter. You truly are a man of diverse talents. Drawing and painting were my favourites when I was a girl,” she sighed, at last looking back at my drawing. “I remember being delightfully lost in creation, with no sense of time or place…and how positively enraged I would become when someone interrupted me!” She sighed again, as if mourning something far greater. “Indeed, they are the only accomplishments I wish I still practiced.”
“Why ma’am, I’m sure Branwell could give you lessons. Couldn’t you, Branwell?”
Lydia later told me that she had wished to seize at once upon the opportunity, because the idea came from Anne, and thus would be far less suspicious. However, she said nothing while I protested.
“My sister, I fear, has an unduly grand conception of my artistic talents. I believe she would be every bit as proficient an instructor as I, ma’am. Indeed, you should see the portrait I painted of my sisters and myself. My own likeness was so bad that I obliterated myself by inserting a pillar between Emily and Charlotte. Their likenesses are not much better, I fear.”
Anne’s eyes narrowed, as if to say that she had quite enough to do, even though no longer teaching young Lydia, but said, “Of course I will do as you command, Mrs. Robinson, but I would hate to detract in any way from my lessons with the young ladies. And truly, Branwell is far superior to me as an artist. Methinks he doth protest too much.”
My mistress bit her lip pensively. “Well, hmm. Yes, I suppose your sister does have a point, Mr. Brontë, for not only does she have two pupils where you have one, she is still very much a companion for my Lydia, even if the latter has graduated from the school-room to the ballroom. I need her to accompany that headstrong creature on her walks, for it is not proper for a young lady of her rank and prospects to be wandering about by herself, exposed to the attentions of anyone that presumes to address her, like some poor neglected girl that has no park to walk in, and no friends to take care of her!”
She pondered for a moment, gazing out onto the park in question. At last, turning again to me, she said, “Assuming, then, Mr. Brontë, that you will have me, I shall follow your sister’s advice and take instruction from you once a week, as soon as you are well enough to resume your duties. If I find you to my satisfaction, I may even ask my daughters to continue under your tuition.”
She had, as I say, already healed me, and the next day I returned to my lessons with Edmund, during which my mistress sent word that she would like to begin her lessons the following day. Since then we have pursued them with remarkable vigour.
April 21st, 1844 Thorp Green
Lydia has repeated her assertion, en passant, to both Anne Brontë and Ann Marshall, that she will not abide interruptions in her lessons now any more than she did as a girl, and so not only is my sitting room locked, but Mrs. Marshall stands guard as we silently and quickly embrace. This we do immediately, so that should anyone knock after a few moments, my mistress is indeed already at work on a painting or drawing.
Yesterday I was the culprit. As she sketched the head of a young girl, biting her lip adorably in concentration—for she had become one again herself—I said, “What does your husband think of these lessons?”
Lydia looked across at me, her pen in the air, with a look of flinty consternation I had scarcely ever seen. The loveable little girl had quite vanished.
“He thinks nothing at all of my lessons. He is happy, I suppose, that I am occupied.”
“But is he not jealous that we are locked away together?”
“I believe I told you that he has never been jealous of you in that fashion. He simply does not wish any other man to be successful. His spite over your letter from Macaulay had nothing to do with you, really, and everything to do with him, remember?”
“Yes, but does he not fear that you will seek to avenge his earlier unfaithfulness and cruelty toward you by taking up with the handsome and brilliant young tutor?” said I, trying to brighten her mood with a touch of levity.
She smiled, but not for the reason I supposed.
“He afraid that I would take up with you?”
“Why should that be so absurd, Lydia?”
“First, he is a selfish, arrogant wretch, who believes that while he can—or once could, I should now say, for he is long past such pursuits—carry on with anyone he pleases, no one else, and least of all his own wife, can do so. Do you not see that it is the same as with your poetry?”
She leant back from her work, placed her pen calmly in its stand, and stared at me even more fixedly.
“Second, why would he differ from any other gentleman in thinking that while he should be able to dip his nib in any inkwell he chooses, his wife should be forever faithful and long-suffering, and, indeed, should be quite cast out if ever she were discovered engaged in such activities?”
Despite an unusually warm April breeze coming through the open window, I shuddered, not liking to consider such a thing.
“Third, and last, I am quite certain, that if he could imagine that I might form an attachment, the last person I would take up with would be young Edmund’s tutor, who after all is a poor clergyman’s son, one whose rank is not much above his other domestics.”
I kindled up inside, but tried to remain calm. I was nettled by this blunt reminder; it was a though she had brought her hand across my face with a smart slap. My countenance surely betrayed me, for Lydia rose and came to me quickly. “Hush, silly boy,” she whispered, standing behind me and wrapping her arms about my neck, which she kissed repeatedly. “Do not think that I see you that way. I was simply trying to allay your fears, to make you see why my husband thinks nothing of these lessons. After all, ladies in my station are not accustomed to running off with their sons’ tutors. And I could almost be your mother, you know.”
She kissed me sweetly on the forehead.
“No, indeed,” exclaimed I, my vexation subsiding as quickly as it had appeared at the touch of her rosy, impossibly soft lips. “No one who saw us together would suppose that for an instant. You look as young as some women do at five-and-twenty or thirty.”
Lydia laughed indulgently. “Which is it, young sir? Those are two quite different ages.”
“La beauté n’a pas d’âge, Madame. When I think of my sister Charlotte—please do not think me a cruel or unloving brother—I find that she, who will be eight-and-twenty tomorrow, is already an old woman, every bit the peevish spinster who might provide a laugh or two to the readers of a three-volume novel. You are far younger than she, in every respect.”
“Can that be so?” she responded. “Why, your sister Anne—though she does insist on playing the prim governess, the ‘plain Jane’ as they say these days—though I confess I would have it no other way, for it surely would not do to have an elegant, sparkling rival of my daughters in the school-room, heavens!”
Lydia laughed heartily at the unlikely phantom she had called forth: the image of little Anne dressed for a glittering ball. When she had at last caught her breath, she said, “What was I saying? Oh, yes, your sister Anne—she is quite pretty, really, in her properly plain sort of way of course, and surely looks her age, does she not?”
“Yes, yes, but she and Charlotte could not be more different in appearance and temperament, and I think their inner selves are revealed without.”
“Ah,” was all Lydia said, looking up at the clock on the mantle. “Goodness, I have to go!” she exclaimed.
“Kiss me once more.”
She tousled my hair as if I were her own little boy, but refused. “No, you bad animal, but you will have far more than that to look forward to next time…I must be off.”
I reminded her that in the coming days she was to begin work on a self-portrait, which we are to discuss next week. It was essential, after all, that the pretext for our rendezvous be evident to all, and the truth of the matter is that she really does take great pleasure in the process.
Today is indeed Charlotte’s birthday. I wonder—have I been unfair to her? Whence come my harsh—nay, cruel—words? What has she done to me to merit such opprobrium? Do I merely deplore in her character what I loathe most in my own? Is looking at her in earnest simply holding up a mirror to myself? Or does she represent something greater—the constant threat of censure, of disapproval, of condemnation, a sword of Damocles suspended high above me by a single hair?
What became of the unadulterated joy—greater even than the transcendent but transient bliss of coition, and far superior to the happy but soon-repented oblivion of strong drink—that joy in which we bathed as children, scribbling our poems and spinning, together as one, our tales of Glass Town or Verdopolis, and then Angria, peopling them with Northangerland, Zamorna, Mina Laury and Caroline Vernon, Henry Hastings and Charles Townsend—yes, even Robert Patrick Sdeath and Benjamin Patrick Wiggins, and legions more—that joy where, together as one, we formed a union more perfect, and bore more fruit, that any physical intercourse could ever engender? Each of our fecund minds anticipated the other’s next word, our characters and their speeches almost interchangeable, like lovers who, in the flames of their passion, know not where one body ends and the other begins—so, too, were we united in a creative ardour that seemed to know no bounds. Even in our fraternal innocence, Shelley could also have said of us, that we were one spirit within two frames, one passion in twin-hearts. It was as if Charlotte was I, and I was she.
Whither did this passion go? Was it as simple as growing up? Even so, should not a warm regard for each other be what resides in the wake of our juvenile labours, like the softly glowing embers in a grate long after the consuming flames have quite died away?
Let me try to be just, and imagine what she thinks of me: a brother she still loves in a theoretical sort of fashion, and for whom she had the highest hopes, hopes that are dimming with each passing year, with each failed undertaking. She has always been of a penetratingly censorious cast, and so she has determined that I am a lost cause, as much as she might wish otherwise. She would be the first to shower me with praise and affection if I were to triumph in the world, but she has decided that such a thing will never happen—just as she would be delighted to flap her arms and take flight high over the moors, whilst knowing that such a thing is equally impossible. I have become, more often than not, something of an embarrassment; and deep within her, she believes that had I fulfiled my childhood promise, none of my sisters would have to be governesses, or start a school.
Now, then: what do I think of her? A woman whose hidden passions know no bounds, but have no object or outlet, so that they constantly remain simmering near a low boil, ever threatening to spill over; an almost impossibly short, dumpy thing with lovely eyes and hair, but poor skin and teeth, who might well be tempted to sell her soul to the devil to look like the exquisite Lydia Robinson—either mother or daughter, for that matter—even though it is just such women whom she most despises. Is her enmity merely envy disguised? Yes, she is consistently unfair to her own sex, whereas the gentlemen—though from this I fear her brother may be excluded—are judged with a far more indulgent eye: was Monsieur Héger as perfect a model of virtue as she pretends, and his wife the harpy she implies?
Doubt, as the French—and, I assume, the Belgians also—say, is permitted.
Still, even the stronger sex, can on occasion be subject to her condemnation. The most salient feature of her peculiar habit of mind, however, is the extent to which she fixes individuals in a single mold for all eternity, as if they were incapable of change. Anne, for instance, is the helpless baby, though the evidence of the past several years daily demonstrates the contrary. I suspect her image of me is the most unflattering of all: the brilliant brother whose want of application and pertinacity mean that he will never find steady employment or peace of mind; the brother whom God has given talents equal to hers, and who—far more important—has the great good fortune of being a man, and who has taken these treasures and cast them to the wind. Worst of all, his utter lack of restraint represents a moral weakness that he will never overcome.
Is this truly what she believes? But did not Blake say that those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained? Is my will truly less strong than hers, or are my desires simply greater?
Chapter VIII—Amor Vincit Omnia
May Day, 1844 Thorp Green
Yesterday, after we had slaked the thirst of our passion—I confess that as I write this phrase I cannot help but hear the booming voice of Joe Leyland, who, deep in his cups, corrects me, his words winging their way magically, as if by salacious celestial telegraph, across Yorkshire from Halifax: “After havin’ it off, little man, you mean, after going at it, after fucking her to your heart’s content, ha ha!”—and had sat quietly for some time, my mistress rose and shyly presented me with her self-portrait.
Though her painting displays admirable technical skill, Lydia has failed to capture her own beauty, especially her brilliant, flashing eyes and dazzling smile. Is this mere modesty, or has she herself accurately depicted an otherwise concealed disquiet or foreboding—or worse, an inner unhappiness? Could she be weary of me? I cannot bear the thought. But surely—surely—the manner in which she threw her arms around me and held me fast as our bodies moved together to a rapturous climax was not that of a jaded lover, but rather a woman clinging to her salvation.
“Your painting,” said I, hesitatingly, standing behind her, “is very good.”
I encircled her waist with my arms and plunged my face into her lovely, perfumed white neck, breathing in with all the vigour of the inveterate snuff-taker relieving his craving.
“However, my darling Lydia, you do not capture a fraction of your beauty. See here: why do you not smile? Why have you made yourself so downcast?”
I carried her portrait to the window and held it in the light. “See here, Lydia, your eyes even seem to brim with tears. What is wrong, my love?”
Now all-too-real tears streamed down her cheeks. As she dried her eyes with my handkerchief, she sniffled and said, sighing: “Oh, my dear boy, it is just that we cannot go on in this fashion.”
My heart throbbed; I thought it would burst with despair.
“What do you mean, Lydia? I cannot live without you.”
She smiled a sweet, melancholy smile as she dried the last of her tears and returned my handkerchief. She was radiant, stunning, a woman who had ripened to perfection (pace Joseph Bentley Leyland and his fruit-inspired theories of feminine perfection), her person still lovely, her mind still youthful, if seasoned by experience.
“Silly boy, of course you can. Your entire life stands before you, whereas I am a weary old woman with nearly-grown children and a dying husband I must nurse.”
I could no longer keep from kissing those full, round lips, and again, her neck. “These are not the lips, and this is not the neck, of an old woman. And what of the woman whose caresses, just moments ago, moved me to heavenly ecstasy? Was she an old woman?”
“You are merely saying that,” said she, “because you have become dependent—nay, addicted—to me.”
“If you mean the old sense of that word—that I am bound or devoted to you—this is true. But let us suppose that the modern sense of the word is also apt: did you not tell me, nearly a year since, that the ecstasy of two lovers is restorative and salutary, not debilitating or noxious? You told me this the day you seduced me.”
“I seduced you? Surely you confuse the facts, Mr. Brontë.” She said this playfully, however, as if the very word seduce was enough, with the kisses she had received on her lips and neck, to reignite her passions. By Heaven, how fortunate I am to have a lover of such boundless desire!
“Yes, you seduced me, you beguiling, wicked creature. Was it not you who had already enflamed my desire with your gifts, and marking Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” with your perfumed slip of paper?”
By now she had pressed herself against me, her arms pulling me tight, her lovely head tipped upward, her pulpy lips parted in a smile, just an inch or two from mine.
“And then what happened?” she whispered.
“Then we went to the library…”
She raised herself on the tips of her toes to kiss my lips.
Each question was now followed by a kiss, each kiss deeper and more passionate than the last.
“You bolted the door.”
“And then?” she asked once again, touching me and guiding my hand to touch her, just as she had that first day.
My mind was now a blank and my tongue had grown heavy. I felt at once like a man on fire, and yet, unaccountably, like one moving underwater. I could barely utter: “And then we did this…”
“Wait,” said Lydia suddenly, stiffening and straightening her garments, and walking abruptly to the window, while I fairly writhed with renewed desire.
“Ah, this is perfect!” said she, fairly skipping across the floor and into my arms like a young girl. “Your sister is at the far end of the park, walking toward the woods with the three young ladies, and Edmund and his dogs are frolicking about them. Marshall is standing guard below. So we have at least ten minutes to do as we please.”
And so we did.
As she prepared to leave, Lydia’s countenance was again downcast.
“What is it, Lydia? I won’t ask you if you still love me, but what is the matter?”
“I told you, we cannot go on in this manner; we cannot risk discovery.”
“We shall be careful, I promise it,” said I, kissing her again on the forehead. “Do you think I would ever risk losing that smile, those eyes?”
“Well might you say that, now that you are again become yourself, but just a few moments ago neither of us was capable of a rational thought—for such passion as this is a madness that seizes us both and overthrows reason utterly. It is afterwards that I am wracked with fear of discovery, and the thought of losing you. It is well that you are leaving next month for a holiday, for with such a distance between us tongues will cease to wag.”
“Marshall says that the servants have begun their gossip again; worse than this, however, are the comments I have heard from my own daughter Lydia, who has taken to teasing her mamma about her rendezvous with Mr. Brontë. She seems born for mischief, and if she cannot produce it from her own actions she will seek it in others.”
At this my old enemy, Fear, wrapped his long, icy fingers round my frame, and all I could do was repeat my vow to take great care to avoid discovery as she stepped out the door and down the stairs to rejoin Marshall. I pulled a chair to the window and watched them glide down the lane and across the park toward the Great Hall; at the same time, in the distance, Anne and the children approached, returning from their perambulations. Edmund raced to see his dear mamma, he and his canine companions circling round and round her and Marshall, whilst the young ladies sailed toward them at a more dignified pace. Did I imagine it, or did young Lydia turned her head in the direction of the Old Hall, her hand shading her eyes, which fell directly on mine even from that great distance? I leant back suddenly into the shadow to avoid her gaze. No, surely she did not see me. But what if she did? Was this not my abode?
I again surveyed Lydia’s self-portrait, this time at leisure, and thought of what had just transpired: yes, our amorous congress, but more significant because more troubling, her incessant apprehension and fear of discovery, which she captured in her own downcast likeness, in a manner both so naïve and true.
I took out my notebook and began to write. How little I have written these past weeks and months! At first, I was sick from the absence of my mistress, and now I am either consumed with desperate longing when I am away from her, or plunged into a brief, blessed sea of relief when I am with her.
The first few lines of my poem evoke a renaissance painting of the crucifixion. I scribble, erase, rewrite—why must I always begin with something not pertinent, something from long ago and far away? Why am I unable to speak from my heart in my poems as I do in this journal? Must every work repose on a foundation unrelated to my true intentions, like the weighty plinths supporting Leyland’s stone creations?
It is only in the third stanza that my true subject, her self-portrait, comes into view:
Her effort shows a picture made
To contradict its meaning
Where should be sunshine painting shade
And smiles with sadness screening
Where God has given a cheerful view
A gloomy vista showing
Where heart and face, are fair and true
A shade of doubt bestowing
Ah lady if to me you give,
The power of your sketch to adorn
How little of it shall I leave
Save smiles that shine like morn
I’d keep the hue of happy light
That shines from summer skies
I’d drive the shades from smiles so bright
And dry such shining eyes
I’d give a calm to one whose heart
has banished calm from mine
I’d brighten up God’s work of art
Where thou hast dimmed its shine
And all the wages I should ask
For such a happy toil
I’ll name them—far beyond my task—
THY PRESENCE AND THY SMILE
I had at first written “youth demure” in the second stanza, but crossed it through, replacing it with “happy light”—for Lydia herself, with her foolish talk of being an old woman, would surely scoff at such a phrase.
I have every intention of making a fair copy of this poem, to present to her next week.
May 29th, 1844 Thorp Green
When Lydia arrived the following week for her lesson, I learned there was to be none.
Instead, she stood biting her lip, her eyes alighting everywhere but on me.
“What is it, my darling?” said I, as the old signs of trepidation, a cold sweat and racing heart, made their appearance. I sought to draw her to me, but she resisted. Tears welled in her eyes.
“There can be no more lessons, Mr. Brontë,” she replied. “It has become altogether too perilous…I am sorry, but this must stop now.”
“The lessons, I suppose you mean, not—”
“Oh, I don’t know, I just don’t know,” said she, tears now welling up in her eyes. “Of course I want to continue…you make me feel so…so…young. But how can we persevere in running such risks? If we stop now—when there is no proof—then we are both safe, but if we continue, I fear—indeed, I feel —that we shall be quite found out, disgraced, and both cast out. That simply cannot happen. I will not allow it.” Her jaw clenched with resolution.
“I don’t care: we must be together…do you not feel this as powerfully as I do? If I were with you, I would be afraid of nothing. Together we could brave Satan and all his legions!”
At this she laughed ruefully, wiping her eyes, which now narrowed with—what it was I could not quite tell—mirth? Condescension? A touch of scorn, even? All three?
“You foolish boy, and I suppose we will brave them without a shilling?”
“Amor vincit omnia: we could sail to Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand, and begin life anew. I would do anything for you, truly I would.”
At this she relaxed her arms and allowed me to draw her to my breast and kiss her uplifted forehead and cheeks. She sighed and then laughed again, this time softly, dolefully.
“Love only conquers all in those popular novels you yourself are so fond of disparaging. And as for sailing to the Antipodes—Heavens, what a foolish tale of adventure!”
She permitted me at last to kiss her mouth, after which she added, “You are quite mad.”
“No, just madly in love, demens in amore, complètement fou d’amour. I cannot be separated from you.”
“And yet,” replied Lydia, becoming utterly serious again but no longer resisting my embrace, instead placing her head on my shoulder, “we cannot be discovered. We simply cannot.”
With a herculean effort, I resisted making the amorous advances to which I would normally have proceeded, but instead gently withdrew from her arms, asked her to sit, and walked across to my work table, where I had placed a fair copy of my most recent poem.
“Here,” said I, handing her the folded sheet. “I have a gift for you. Read it.”
As she read the lines, tears again clouded her lovely brown eyes. She folded the sheet into a small square, hid it in her garments, and prepared to take her leave. Never had she seemed so beautiful: at once strong and passionate, and yet vulnerable and disconsolate. Now I wanted to take her in my arms again, to love her as I am sure only I can, but I refrained—why, I know not—and a good thing it was, too, because just then a sharp rapping came at the door, which my mistress hastened to open as I seized one of Lydia’s sketches and held it aloft, as if in the midst of an earnest critique of its various virtues and imperfections.
Before us stood eighteen-year-old Lydia, in a shimmering pale blue summer frock, calculated to draw attention to her every flawless curve, and to complement her own lovely, mischievous, blue eyes; in short, her whole person seemed deliberately contrived to drive the young beaux of the neighborhood, should they be fortunate—or unfortunate, depending on how one viewed the matter—enough to cross her path, positively mad with distraction. I confess that I myself, despite all that had just transpired with her mother, found her to be an extraordinarily lovely creature. It would not take much for her to shoot an arrow through nearly any man’s heart.
She had clearly overruled Mrs. Marshall’s objections and marched up the stairs on her own. Truly, I thought, she is indeed becoming ungovernable, though such reflections were secondary to the profound relief I felt that she had not discovered her mother and me in any of various stages of undress, or in the throes of passion.
“Now Mamma,” said she, shaking her ringlets, “I know you do not wish to be interrupted when you are thus engaged with Mr. Brontë”—was it merely my own guilt that discerned a look of saucy suspicion in those brilliant eyes, or did she truly suspect our proceedings?—“but Papa is asking for you.”
“Well that,” said Lydia coolly, not seeming to care whether her daughter heard her tone of disdainful dismissal, “is news. What does he want? Cannot one of the servants assist him?”
“Oh, Mamma, really, how should I know? He simply wishes to see you.” Turning to me, she added, “It certainly is not my concern what transpires between my parents, any more than it is yours, isn’t that right, Mr. Brontë?” Was she trying to ensnare me with what seemed a trivial comment? I chose the safest course, and said nothing.
Whether because of the determination with which she had already come to me that day, or the subsequent shock of having her eldest daughter—whose increasingly inquisitive conduct she already dreaded—appear our very door, Lydia has, indeed, discontinued her lessons. I was, myself, sufficiently frightened to have determined that it is best for us to pretend that there is nothing between us, though I continue to ache for her, and to envision schemes that would once again allow us to be together. Surely we will find a way.
It has been three weeks since this last rendezvous occurred. Has Lydia quite forgotten me? Or can she, with the slightest effort of imagination, remember how it felt to be in my arms, as I recall the bliss of being lost in hers? I console myself with this: if my mistress truly wished never to see me again, she would tell her husband not to engage me for the coming months. Indeed, now, just prior to our summer holiday, would be precisely the time to send me packing with the least amount of controversy, à la Postlethwaite.
Instead, I have again been summoned, with Anne, to spend July and August in Scarborough.
To be continued on 23 May 2020