The Brontës and their reading: A lockdown look at what the Brontës read and their Home School experience

In this first article in our new series, we take a look at the books used and of the bookish backgrounds of the educators: Maria and Elizabeth Branwell (Mother and Aunt) and Patrick Brontë, Rev. of Haworth Parsonage.

1: Home Tutors

Maria (1783-1821) and Elizabeth Branwell

Born into a prosperous merchant family, prominent in the affairs of Penzance when Britain was a great sea power in the world, the two sisters did not lack education, access to books or knowledge of current affairs through newspapers, most important no doubt,  given the family’s close dependence on their developments abroad. Within Penzance society, the girls also became quite the socialites, mixing regularly in company before the close deaths of their parents and elder brother.

Amongst the books noted by Sharon Wright (Mother of the Brontes, 2019) are works of poetry, The Lady’s Magazine, gothic literature, such as the 1794 blockbuster, The Mysteries of Udolpho byAnn Radcliffe, also remarked upon by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. They were also members of the Penzance Ladies’ Book Club which subscribed to magazines, reviews and the latest bestsellers. As Sharon Wright notes, when Maria met Patrick on a visit to Yorkshire, she was an educated gentlewoman with an independent income and good social connections.

Penzance history

Rev. Patrick Brontë

After humble, rural beginnings Patrick, with a single-minded devotion to learning, became very well educated with a charity scholarship to study Theology at St John’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1806. Such an education for the Church would have included a thorough grounding in the Classics, Greek and Latin histories such as Tacitus Agricol and poetry, e.g. Virgil’s Georgics. Such was his proficiency that Juliet Barker notes his prize books of Samuel Clarke’s 1729 edition of Homer’s Iliad and Richard Bentley’s 1728 edition of the works of Horace (The Brontës, p.10).

Rev. Patrick Brontë

If you have lacked an education in the classics which many of us have, Natalie Haynes on Radio 4 has done much to revive interest in them outside the public school system, check her enthusiastic and entertaining programmes now available on BBC iPlayer at: books related to Patrick in the library at St John’s

What they read

Your access to a classical education: with free access to works at historians of the eighteenth century

Folklore, myths and legends

Patrick, Maria and Elizabeth were all from backgrounds steeped in folk tales, myth and legends. Patrick coming from a rural Irish background and Maria and Elizabeth from a Cornish one, as Sharon Wright says, “ghosts and smugglers, legends and liturgy.” Emily Brontë, especially, also spent time working alongside the servants such as Tabby Aykroyd and they, rather like grandparents, would have had a fund of local knowledge on the Haworth area, local family stories and folklore.

Brontë images index at Keighley Local Studies Library

Look out for our next article which will feature the Brontë’s Home School.

Gina Birdsall and Angela Speight

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