4 – Where did the Brontës get their books?
In part one of an examination of Brontë reading, we looked at some of the books that edified, influenced and comforted the Brontës throughout their lives. We touched on a couple of sources of books and journals, however, this is still a subject of some speculation, especially considering that the Brontës, even after publication, would never have had much spare money to subscribe widely to journals or to purchase many books.
Keighley and Haworth Mechanics’ Institutes
Both Juliet Barker and Bob Duckett, library historian, note that the parsonage library was small and of mainly classical subjects and natural history. Both give excellent accounts of book and journal sources. Both have successfully argued that the Brontë girls did not directly borrow works from Keighley’s Mechanics’ Institute, though it is likely that as a member himself, Patrick was familiar with its library (the Institute’s archive, including catalogues and annual reports, is available to view in Keighley Local Studies Library from c1835). However, Patrick was the first President of the Haworth Mechanics’ Institute and Charlotte was an active supporter.
It is generally agreed that Charlotte used the circulating libraries in Keighley, based on evidence from Mrs Gaskell and on Charlotte’s association with Thomas Hudson of High Street library and bookshop and Robert Aked in Low Street, printer and circulating library service. The latter also printed Haworth Church hymn sheets and printed Patrick’s works such as The Sign of the Times (1835). Both Patrick and Charlotte ordered books from John Greenwood’s of Haworth and by 1853, there were 5 booksellers in Keighley, 21 in Leeds and 8 in Halifax.
Bob Duckett identifies local families such as the Greenwoods of Old Oxenhope who lent books to the Brontës. He has also written extensively about the Heatons and their library at Ponden Hall, often the stopping place for the Brontës on their walks, especially perhaps Emily who may have used some Heaton family history for Wuthering Heights. We do know that Charlotte and her sisters also visited the home of Dr John and Marianne Milligan. They lived in South Street. Mrs Milligan was from Haworth herself and married the Keighley surgeon and workhouse doctor to the Union (from 1838). Dr Milligan was a book collector and became vice president of the Mechanics’ Institute. He lectured on health and disease in manufacturing communities and the effect of poverty. Keighley Library now has a small collection of his former library.
A Curiosity for you
As there is much online on this topic, we would like to leave you amongst the bookshelves of Eshton Hall near Kildwick, the home of Frances Mary Richardson Currer (1785-1861), daughter of Rev. Henry R. Currer. Miss Currer was very wealthy, a bibliophile and a generous philanthropist and a member of Keighley’s Mechanics’ Institute. It is also speculated that she was at one time the anonymous benefactor of Patrick Brontë. She was patron of the Cowan Bridge School, also a neighbour of the Sidgwicks of Stonegappe where Charlotte was a governess in 1839. It is probable that she was the source of the name “Currer” Bell used by Charlotte as her pseudonym. Did any of the Brontës ever visit Eshton Hall’s magnificent library?
The Brontës. Juliet Barker (Phoenix, 1995)
‘Where did the Brontës get their books?’ Bob Duckett in Brontë Studies, Vol 32, Part 3, Nov. 2007 (Brontë Society, 2007)
‘The Rev. Patrick Brontë and the Keighley Mechanics’ Institute.’ Dr Ian Dewhirst. Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 14. No. 5 (Part 75). 1965
Free online leaflets and fact sheets on the Brontë family are available at:
The most useful for this study are:
The Brontë Collection. Angela Speight (Keighley Local Studies Library, 2017)
Keighley & the Brontë Connection and Haworth & the Brontë Connection, both guides to resources in Keighley Local Studies Library. Gina Birdsall (Keighley Local Studies Library, 2017) These include details of further publications by renowned Brontë expert and author Ann Dinsdale, Prinicpal Curator, Haworth Parsonage and Steven Wood, author and specialist local historian on all things Haworth.
Newspapers and Magazines
Newspapers and magazines played a large part in the lives of the Brontës. The most predominant influence was that of Blackwood’s.
Blackwood’s Magazine was a monthly journal published by William Blackwood of Edinburgh from 1817. It contained comment and satire on contemporary politics and literature with extensive and detailed reviews on new works of politics, travel, history and fiction. This magazine appears to have influenced them greatly and inspired their own works of imagination and illustration.
Newspapers and other journals
The Brontës could not afford many subscriptions. Patrick subscribed to Fraser’s, the Leeds Mercury and the Leeds Intelligencer and it was Rev. Jonas Driver of Haworth who leant the family Blackwoods and John Bull.
However, newspapers and journals were not just read by the Brontës but were, particularly for Branwell, a source of publication for his poetry and those of his local poet friends. As well as reading Bell’s Sporting Weekly, he sent poetry of to the Bradford Herald, the Halifax Guardian, the Leeds Intelligencer and the Yorkshire Gazette. The latter was a York newspaper produced by the bookseller and stationer, Henry Bellerby who also ran a public library from his Stonegate shop from which Branwell also borrowed books (The Brontës, p464).
The Brontës may well have had access to the Keighley & Haworth Argus and The Keighley Visitor, as both were connected to a bookseller, Mr Thomas Duckett Hudson, and a printer, Mr Robert Aked, with a circulating library used by Charlotte. Whether or not the Brontë sisters generally read any of the journals in which their own poetry and novels were to be reviewed is not clear for this blog. Such reviews, however, appeared in the Athenaeum, the Critic, the Atlas, the Britannia, the Spectator and the Dublin University magazine. For information on other related journals look at Juliet Barker’s The Brontës and articles from the Brontë Studies published by the Brontë Society referenced at the end of this blog.
Local outdoor and indoor visits (or just online) during relaxing lockdown
Haworth Parsonage and village. https://www.bronte.org.uk/
If you have never visited this wonderful, still atmospheric place or not been for some time then you have missed out. Continually upgraded, with wonderful exhibitions and packed full of Brontë artefacts and manuscripts, it is quite breath-taking in its scope. Treat yourself and follow in the footsteps of the Brontës and the literary curious such as Virginia Woolf, Simon Armitage and Kate Bush. You will be informed and inspired. On a good day, take a picnic. It is Anne Brontë’s bicentenary in 2020 so look out for any continuing events/exhibitions about this brilliant writer who, uniquely for the time, tackled alcoholism and domestic abuse in marriage. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/classic-books/time-celebrate-anne-wildest-bronte-sister/
Scarborough the fair
Scarborough is a great Yorkshire seaside resort and has strong Brontë associations, being a favourite place of Anne Brontë as well as her final resting place. Follow this link for the history of the Brontë connection:
Other useful related links:
The Lakes and the Romantic poets https://www.visitcumbria.com/william-wordsworth/
Mrs Gaskell in Manchester https://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/
John Ruskin in the Lakes and Sheffield: https://www.visitcumbria.com/john-ruskin/ and
The bookish interests of the Brontës were wide ranging. They were acquainted through the sisters’ London contacts with some of the great literati of the early 19th Century, they were aware of the political concerns (the aftermath of the French revolution) and changes of this internationally and locally turbulent time (industrial changes and the Chartist movement), also influenced by their father Patrick’s work as vicar and his involvement with religious debate, parish health, welfare and education, not to mention Branwell’s own wide variety of local friendships, some literary , such as the Gargrave poet Robert Story, John James, local historian (History of Bradford) and Joseph B. Leyland, a Halifax sculptor who was lauded in London for his talent.
It’s sad to think that none of the Brontë siblings ever had the opportunity of a university education and it’s likely that all the sisters at one time or another would have echoed these words extracted from a letter written by Branwell to his close friend Joseph Leyland:
“I used to think that if I could have for a week the free range of the British Museum – the Library included – I could feel as though I were placed seven days in paradise, …” (The Brontës, p. 230)
NOTE: Keighley Local Studies Library is currently closed so we apologise for the limited references for this introduction. In his article referenced below, Bob Duckett lists other in- depth studies of the books read by the Brontë family.
The Mother of the Brontës. When Maria Met Patrick, Sharon Wright (Pen and Sword History, 2019)
The Brontës. Juliet Barker (Phoenix, 1995)
Classics of Brontë Scholarship. Selected & introduced by Charles Lemon (The Brontë Society, 1991), various studies included
Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor and plain. Brontë Parsonage Museum (The Brontë Society, 1991), brochure
Why not join the Brontë Society and get your own copies of Brontë Studies with up to the minute scholarship and discussion on all things Brontë: https://www.bronte.org.uk/about-us/our-history
Gina Birdsall and Angela Speight, Keighley Local Studies Library