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

When the Brontë children were not busy writing and illustrating their own stories and histories, they were all receiving home education at the hands of Patrick and Aunt Elizabeth. In this second article in our series, we take a look at the early years of the Brontë home school experience.

2: Home School – early days

According to Juliet Barker, Patrick used various copies of the Bible and Prayer Books as a tool for instructing his children in the classics. Branwell received the most dedicated instruction generally but his sisters attended some of his lessons including ancient history. There was also the use of English verse versions of Virgil by John Dryden. Emily translated Virgil’s Aeneid from Latin and later Anne knew enough to teach both Latin and Greek as a governess.

Anne Bronte

Standard texts for education included Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England, J. Goldsmith’s A Grammar of General Geography and Thomas Salmon’s New Geographical and Historical Grammar. A book popular in all such households of the time was Hannah More’s Moral Sketches. Other favoured books of the time used by them were John Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (a couple of other lively recommendations for the young grumblers in your lockdown household). Patrick also had his Cambridge classic texts of Homer and Horace.

All the children would receive some education in history and modern languages such as French and German and shared a great interest in Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Other works familiar to the children were the novels of Walter Scott and the Romantic poets such as Lord Byron, also of course, Shakespeare and such books as Swift’s Gullivers’ Travels and The Arabian Nights.

Adult Fare: holidays, unemployment and leisure reading

Poetry

All the Brontës reflected the contemporary interest and love for poetry. It is known that Charlotte knew much by heart including verses in French. Writing to her friend Ellen Nussey in 1834, Charlotte advised her to read William Shakespeare, John Milton, Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, amongst others. In fact, both Charlotte and Branwell wrote to poets of the day, Charlotte to Robert Southey, then Poet Laureate, from whom she got mixed feedback and Branwell to Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge, receiving a letter of encouragement from the latter. Emily enjoyed the work of the Scottish poet David Moir whose poetry was published in Blackwood’s Magazine under the pseudonym “Delta” (The Brontës p.274).

Robert Southey letter to Charlotte (British Library)

Robert Southey (Poetry Foundation.org)

Search the poets: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/browse#page=1&sort_by=recently_added&school-period=164

Novels

The Brontës, including Patrick, were influenced by Sir Walter Scott, Patrick had his own copy of the Lay of the Last Minstrel. Anne and Emily were particular fans. As early as 9 years old, Emily borrowed the scenery of Scott’s novels for Gondal and made him the chief man of her play ‘Tales of the Islanders’ (The Brontës p146).

Juliet Barker recounts (p.634) the receipt of a parcel of 20 books from Smith, Elder &Co for Charlotte including Hazlitt’s Essays, Charles Lamb’s Letters, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Meinhold’s Amber Witch. There were also books on feminine issues: Julia Kavanagh’s Women in France during the Eighteenth Century, Alexander Scott’s Suggestions on Female Education, Woman’s Friendship and Woman and her Master.  Jane Austen, however, was never a favourite of Charlotte’s.

After her sisters’ deaths, on a visit to the Lakes with her later friend, Elizabeth Gaskell (they met in 1850), Charlotte reveals a liking for John Ruskin and Thomas Arnold and a loathing for Tennyson (The Brontës p. 652). She loved Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook, however. Harriet Martineau wrote novels and books on political economy and became a correspondent of Charlotte’s before a major falling out later. Harriet went as far as giving Charlotte the gift of her recent book Eastern life, present and past, the copy is inscribed and is part of the Brontë collection at Keighley Local Studies Library.

Charlotte Brontë

Such wide-ranging interests would have been shared with, and by the sisters. There were also the influences of educated friends’ reading: such as Martha and Mary Taylor (who were the first to go to Brussels), Ellen Nussey and the sisters’ mutual association with the publisher George Smith of Smith, Elder & Co. and his involvement  with the London literati such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray (Vanity Fair) for whom Charlotte was full of awe and admiration (The Brontës, p. 552) and whom she eventually met in a meeting arranged by George Smith.  There is an excellent radio drama on BBC iPlayer of Charlotte’s and Anne’s visit to London to the home of George Smith called Charlotte in Babylon. It’s in 4 parts: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074bnfv

https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/09/elizabeth-gaskell-cranford

https://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venue/writers-museum for Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott (also http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/home.html for the digital archive)

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-De-Quincey Thomas de Quincey was another writer contacted by Branwell. An English essayist and critic, born in Manchester, he was a great admirer of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wordsworth with whom he associated and at different times rented out the home of Wordsworth in Grasmere. He struggled as a writer but became famous later for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

Branwell Brontë

Gina Birdsall and Angela Speight, Keighley Local Studies

In our next article we will look at the education of the older Brontë children for tutor and governess roles.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s