Elizabeth Branwell was born in Penzance in 1770, a member of a large and influential Cornish family of merchants and property owners. In 1821 her life changed forever when her sister Maria fell dangerously ill. Leaving her comfortable life behind, Elizabeth made the long journey north to a remote moorland village in Yorkshire to nurse her sister. After the death of Maria, Elizabeth assumed the role of second mother to her nephew and five nieces. She would never see Cornwall again, but instead dedicated her life to her new family: the Brontës of Haworth, to whom she was known as Aunt Branwell.
In this first ever biography of Elizabeth Branwell, we see at last the huge impact she had on Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, as well as on her nephew Branwell Brontë who spiralled out of control away from her calming influence. It was a legacy in Aunt Branwell’s will that led directly to the Brontë books we love today, but her influence on their lives and characters was equally important. As opposed to the stern aunt portrayed by Mrs. Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte Brontë, we find a kind hearted woman who sacrificed everything for the children she came to love. This revealing book also looks at the Branwell family, and how their misfortunes mirrored that of the Brontës, and we find out what happened to the Brontë cousin who emigrated to America, and in doing so uncover the closest living relatives to the Brontë sisters today.
Tanks to Rosie Crofts at Pen & Swords for sending me this book to review. It will be going to a loving home, a Bronte fan birthday gift.
I am not the biggest fan of the Brontes, I prefer Jane Austen, but I was interested in finding out more about them and their family, since they are a large part of the literary culture. I’ve never been to the parsonage at Howarth, although it’s entirely possible I’ve walked on the moors nearby – I did do a lot of hill walking as a child.
Anyway, that’s enough of my rambling, on with the review.
This is a concise biography of the woman who raised, supported – emotionally and financially – and educated the Bronte children after their mother’s death. Maria Bronte, nee Branwell, was Elizabeth Branwell’s favourite sibling (she had loads of siblings, only six of them made it to adolescence) and they grew up together, the children of well-off merchants in Penzance. When Maria was invited by there aunt Jane and uncle John Fennell to help in their school near Bradford, it was a painful parting, but not as painful as the one that came nine years later. By then Maria was married and mother to six children, the youngest, Anne, only a few months old.
Elizabeth made it to the parsonage in Howarth just in time, travelling 400 miles in ten days on bad roads. Her sister died a few days later, finally released from the agony of what was probably a post-natal infection. Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne were left with only their distraught father and a possibly ale stealing servant to look after them. Aunt Elizabeth decided to stay for a couple of years, just until Patrick got remarried, to look after the children, of whom she was very fond, especially her goddaughter Elizabeth, baby Anne, and Patrick Branwell – known to history and his family as Branwell – and keep the house.
Twenty years later she died in the parsonage at Howarth. Patrick failed to remarry, the eldest two girls died at the ages of 10 and 11, Branwell was well on his way to an early alcohol/opium related death, Anne was out as a governess, while Charlotte and Emily were poncing around in a Belgian finishing school, spending the money Aunt Branwell had carefully saved by never buying herself anything and making goo-goo eyes at their teacher’s husband. (What can I say? I don’t like Charlotte very much.)
Elizabeth Branwell left each of her nieces, including Eliza Jane Kingston in Penzance, £300 each. It was a considerable sum, six times Anne’s yearly income as a governess. They could have lived comfortably for years on that, however, the sisters decided to use the money to publish first their poetry and then their novels.
Elizabeth Branwell features in all of their published work, as a mother or aunt figure, and her gifts of books and early encouragement of reading and writing, supported her nieces on the road to literary careers. She is present in letters between the sisters and their friends, as well as memories some friends had of her. She left no letters or notes herself, but a biography can be built from what others said during her life and after. She is necessarily seen only through the eyes of others, their stories and memories.
I got the impression she was an intelligent, devout, mischievous and loving woman who put the needs of her family before herself. She sacrificed her comfort for the future of her nieces, assuming her nephew wouldn’t need her financial support but knowing that the daughters of a low-paid curate would need skills to fall back on and a financial cushion.
This is a short book, only 145 pages long and many of the early chapters and the last chapter don’t discuss Elizabeth Branwell at all, they cover her family history and the history of Penzance, and the nearest living relations of the Bronte family (they’re in the US – descendants of Eliza Jane’s nephew). This gives the reader an anchor in time and place to locate Elizabeth, and understand her choices and behaviour. It’s very easy to read and proceeds in a chronological order.
Nick Holland does speculate quite a bit about actions and feelings on Elizabeth’s part that we have no evidence for and clearly has a bone to pick with Elizabeth Gaskill’s biography of Charlotte and her representation of Aunt Branwell, but i haven’t read it so I can’t comment on how accurate his representation is. There were a few typographical errors, especially with dates that could catch you out if you aren’t wary, but other than that production is good.
This books seems to be a good place to start if you’re interested in learning something about the home life of the Brontes.