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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Newly Published Letter from Patrick Bronte

The loving side of 'stern' Bronte father
By Clive White

A previously unpublished letter has thrown new light on the character of the clergyman father of the famous Bronte authors.

It now appears the Reverend Patrick Bronte was not the "cassocked savage" as branded by Elizabeth Gaskell, his daughter Charlotte's biographer.

It shows him to be, in fact, a loving and courageous dad.

The letter is among the archives at Lambeth Palace, London, and was written to Charles Thomas Longley, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a friend of Patrick.

In the letter Patrick says: "I have lived long enough to bury a beloved wife and six children - all that I had, I greatly enjoyed their conversation and company.."

"Now they are all gone - their image and memory remain and meet me at every turn - but they themselves have left me."

The significance of the four pages has been revealed by Bronte scholar and author Brian Wilks, of the Bronte Society.

It was written ten days after the death of Charlotte, the author of Jane Eyre and the sixth of Patrick's children to die before him.

The 78-year-old was left to grieve at Haworth Parsonage, and the letter gives a deeply moving account of the tragedies that struck his gifted family, said Mr Wilks.

The vicar lost his son Branwell, aged 31, in September 1848, Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights, three months later, aged 30, his daughter Anne, aged 29, in May 1849, having already suffered the grief of losing his wife and two elder daughters some years earlier.

Mr Wilks, who intends to publish the letter in the Bronte Society Journal next autumn, said: "I have always supported the idea that Patrick was a compassionate man.

"It was fashionable to think of him as a bad tempered man and there may have been some of that, but overall he was very compassionate.

"The best thing about the letter is what he says about missing the company and companionship of his family.

"The letter is a missing piece of the jigsaw and will startle and delight Bronte enthusiasts."

It was sent to Longley in 1855 while he was Bishop of Ripon, thanking him for his words of comfort, but also reveals how Patrick's faith had been challenged by the devastation.

He says: "The Lord gave and the Lord took early awaybut I have often found and find in this last sad trial that it is often frequently extremely difficult to walk entirely by faith and sincerely to pray They will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'"

The sentiments in the letter contradict comments made by Mrs Gaskell in a magazine article. She said Patrick was a "cassocked savage who ought to be have been taken out into the garden and shot."

Ann Dinsdale, the Bronte Parsonage librarian, said the letter revealed Patrick as a loving father.

"Elizabeth Gaskell had an axe to grind. The Bronte novels at the time were perceived as brutal and shocking and she was trying to protect Charlotte.

"The way she did it was to make the case that what else could they write about when they were living in this backward place with a half-mad father and alcoholic brother?"

In reality Patrick was a compassionate father who suffered and missed his children, she added.

With a new biopic of the Brontes in the works, I can only hope that we will no longer see Patrick Bronte depicted as an abusive father. It is surprisingly difficult to escape from Gaskell's malicious portrait. So many editions of the Bronte novels state in their tiny penny paperback bios how their father was brutal, or severe. This letter does not surprise me in the least. Some of the well-known letters from Patrick are very warm, and sometimes even silly (as when he wrote a letter to Charlotte under the guise of one of the family dogs. Charlotte was so amused that she forwarded it to her friend). Needless to say, I have little love for Gaskell. Who, incidentally, didn't just say that Patrick ought to have been 'taken into the garden and shot' in a magazine article- she villified him in the biography she wrote for Charlotte at Patrick's request. It is well known today that she relied on the testamony of servants who had been dismissed and had their own 'axes to grind' as well as her own prejudices (she seems at a loss to understand how an Irishman could be so calm- he must have irrational 'volcanic' outbursts of rage while in private- such as shredding his wife's dress or throwing his children's boots into the fire). My point is, then that this letter is not so 'startling' as the article suggests...


Cordelia-Says said...

When I read Gaskell's descriptions of Patrick Bronte's behaviour in CB's biography, I remind myself that Gaskell is at her best as a storyteller, more comfortable with fiction than biography. It seems fair to say that Gaskell got carried away and perhaps overstepped the mark when characterising Patrick. Reading, say, Gaskell's letters, however, she comes across as a very likeable, if quirky, figure. Certainly, from what I can gather, she underestimated the controversy the biography would cause.

Brontëana said...

That was Mr.Brontes view of things too. His only comment on the affair was that she is a novelist after all. ;) But she caused a lot of damage, and knew at least that she was going to cause a lot of turmoil for the model of Brocklehurst because she wrote to Smith and Elder saying "I want to libel someone," and inquired about how best to cover her tracks. I didn't know that she had written this 'take him out back and shoot him' kind of statement but it fits with what I expect from reading about her involvement with the Brontes.

Cenarth Fox said...

I have written a play called Saucy Pat which is the life and times of Paddy Brunty later Patrick Brontë. It takes the line that his rags to riches story is a great achievement. That his own writing and then his education of his four remaining children and his ability to get them to think was the stimulus for their juvenile writing which was the foundation for the novels in the future. My play is at www.foxplays.com