The Mother of The Brontës: When Maria met Patrick. By Sharon Wright. Pen-and-Sword Books, 2019. 182pp.
Maria, let us walk, and breathe, the morning air,
And hear the Cuckoo sing,
And every tuneful bird, that woos the gentle spring.
(‘Lines, Addressed to a Lady on her Birth-day’ by Patrick Brontë)
After the flush of books published recently on her children and husband celebrating their various anniversaries, it’s nice to see this full-length work on Maria Brontë (née Branwell). So often Maria remains in the shadows but now, in this excellent book by Bradford-born journalist and playwright, Sharon Wright, she features in her own right.
The book opens with a wide-ranging, absorbing, and impressively detailed account of Penzance in the late 18th century. This is followed by an account of Maria herself, her upbringing, her large and complex family, and their social, religious, military and political worlds. A picture emerges of a bright, independent and mature young lady, cultured, religious, and at home in a middle-class social scene.
Well charted is the chaos at Woodhouse Grove School at Apperley Bridge from where Maria’s aunt, Jane Fennell, pleaded for the help of her practical and level-headed niece. Here Maria was courted by the school’s examiner in classics, Patrick Brontë. There is a full account of the couple’s unusual wedding ceremony, including a description of the wedding clothes researched by dress historian Eleanor Houghton, and a lyrical account (imagined) of the wedding parties’ three-mile walk to Guiseley Parish Church.
An edge is taken off the romance by the reminder of the troubled background of England in 1813. The French Wars were sucking the country dry, the industrial revolution was laying waste to traditional employment, and a series of poor harvests combined with high prices was causing widespread hunger among the poor. Maria must have welcomed it when the couple and their growing family moved to Thornton which had a cultured society somewhat akin to that enjoyed in Penzance.
The old Thornton was a sizeable village with the parsonage fronting a busy road. We learn from church records that the parsonage had a stand for a cow and a horse, not that Patrick could afford a horse, but some of his visitors could. An analysis of socialite Elizabeth Firth’s diary helps to chronicle visits made and books read by people in the area. Both Patrick and Maria found time to write and Maria’s sole surviving essay on the Advantages of Poverty, as with her letters, is reprinted in full; though with the annual arrival of babies plus young children to look after, Maria would have had little time for writing and socializing, even with the appointment of Nancy and Sarah Garrs as servants.
With the move to Haworth we are on more familiar ground. The disputes with the Haworth Church Land Trustees and Patrick’s early duties in front of a resentful congregation are well chronicled. ‘The inhabitants of the hilltop town were hard working, hard drinking and hard to impress’ writes our author. But Maria’s elegance, fashionable dress, and her ease with social elites did her husband proud. Though all too soon the sad, long, and painful death of Maria followed. The burden placed on Patrick with six young children and a large parish led to the summoning of Maria’s sister, Elizabeth, from Penzance, to help out.
Author Wright’s wide experience as a journalist on regional newspapers has paid handsome dividends as shown by her wide ranging research and easy writing style. She quotes from the Lady’s Magazine, featuring ‘gothic bluebooks’ and ‘shilling shockers’ which were high on the publishing scene in the early 1800s. She paints a delightful picture of both Maria, and later, her daughter Charlotte, curled up in a chair reading this mutually-owned magazine, and probably enjoying the same stories. It was all a long way from Sunday School!
This is a fine book. It is no surprise that the publishers needed a reprint. The book does not merely chronicle the life and times of the mother of the Brontë children; it puts her centre stage as an influential life-enhancing individual who played a major part in the family’s life and their subsequent development and success.