The recent commemorations of the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth have led me to read Claire Harman’s excellent biography. There is a good review here. However, though Harman’s book opens up many new insights into Charlotte Brontë, her treatment of religion is sketchy and sometimes a little misleading. This has drawn me back to Juliet Barker’s magisterial The Brontës, to Elizabeth Gaskell’s ground-breaking Life of Charlotte Brontë (Penguin edition 1975), and to my own researches on the Clapham Sect.
In Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë memorably satirises the dark side of Evangelicalism – the Revd. Mr Brocklehurst’s hypocritical tyranny and the ghoulish religious tracts designed to terrify children into submission to a baleful and vindictive god. Her portrayal of another Evangelical clergyman, St John Rivers, is more nuanced – unlike Brocklehurst he is a good man – but we are left in no doubt that Jane was right to reject his harsh Calvinism and his cold determination to mould her into his own creature.
I here trace three connections between the Brontë family and the Clapham Sect.
St John’s College
Charlotte Brontë’s depiction of Evangelicalism is based on her deep knowledge as the daughter of an Evangelical clergyman. Patrick Brunty (or Prunty, or Branty) was born in 1777 in a two-roomed peasant cabin in County Down. His academic abilities and his religious commitment brought him to the notice of another Irishman, Thomas Tighe, a wealthy Evangelical clergyman, and, thanks to his support, he was able to become a sizar at St John’s College, Cambridge. This was in 1802 when Patrick was twenty-five.
St John’s was Thomas Tighe’s own college. It was also the place where William Wilberforce had studied (for want of a better word – he was an extremely idle undergraduate!) along with his friend, the future clergyman and squire of Yoxall Lodge, Staffordshire, Thomas Gisborne, whose family was to become disastrously entwined with the Brontës.
One of the fellows at St John’s was another prominent Evangelical, Henry Martyn, who in 1806 was to go out to India as a missionary. He died in Persia in 1812, and most Brontë biographers agree that he was the inspiration for St John Rivers.
At the time Patrick went up to Cambridge as an undergraduate, Martyn was the curate of Charles Simeon, the rector of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, then as now an Evangelical powerhouse. When Patrick made it known that he wished to seek ordination, Simeon wrote to the Revd. John Sargent, who was married to Wilberforce’s cousin, to seek financial help for the impoverished young Irishman. The person to approach was Wilberforce’s second cousin, Henry Thornton, who was devoting a large part of his considerable income to sponsoring promising young Evangelical clergymen. Thornton and Wilberforce agreed to support Patrick through university. Martyn wrote to Wilberforce to thank him, and Barker (p. 11) quotes Wilberforce’s endorsement of his letter:
‘Martyn abt Mr Bronte Heny .[Thornton] & I to allow him 10 L [£] each anny.’
Patrick was ordained in 1806. He had come a long way from his turf cabin, and he owed his rise to his piety, his academic gifts, and to the patronage of influential Evangelicals.
The Clergy Daughters’ School
By 1823 Patrick was the perpetual curate of Haworth. He was now a widower with six children and looking out for a school for his elder daughters. It must have seemed like an answer to prayer when he read a notice in the Leeds Intelligencer for 4 December informing the paper’s readers that a property had been purchased at Cowan Bridge in the parish of Tunstall, Lancashire, to educate the daughters of clergy at the modest rate of £14 p. a. The school’s Evangelical credentials were impeccable. The founder, the Revd. William Carus Wilson, was a celebrated preacher, well known in the Bradford area. The patrons included Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, and Hannah More (who was to leave the school £200 in her will). The two eldest Brontë girls, Maria and Elizabeth, were duly enrolled in July 1824, to be followed by the eight-year-old Charlotte, and the six-year-old Emily. By the middle of February 1825, however, it was obvious that Maria was seriously ill. Patrick hastily removed her from the school, but it was too late. She died of consumption on 6 May 1825, at the age of eleven. Charlotte was later to tell her editor that her portrayal of Helen Burns was based on Maria. At the end of the month, Elizabeth, too, was brought home to die. Charlotte and Emily were removed as well, and never returned.
The school was probably no worse than many similar institutions, but it was its misfortune to be made infamous when Elizabeth Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Brontë identified it as Lowood School and made it a byword for Evangelical hypocrisy and cruelty.
‘Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson’
The story of the decline and miserable death of Branwell, the only Brontë son, is well known, but the Evangelical links to the scandal that ruined him are less so.
In May 1840, Anne, the youngest Brontë, went to Thorp Green near York to be governess to four of the five children of the Revd. Edmund Robinson, a wealthy clergyman with Evangelical connections.
Mr Robinson’s wife, Lydia, was the daughter of the Thomas Gisborne who had aided his fellow Johnian, Patrick Brontë, in his struggling youth and it is hard to believe that Patrick did not tell Anne of the connection. In his eyes, it must have made the post all the more desirable. In January 1843 Branwell had joined her at Thorp Green to be the the tutor of the Robinsons’ only son.
Branwell was clearly taken with Mrs Robinson from the start. In a letter to a friend written in May 1843 he described her as ‘a pretty woman, about 37, with a darkish skin & bright glancing eyes’ (quoted Barker, p. 459) . In fact the parish records show that Lydia Robinson (née Gisborne) was baptised on 25 September 1799, and that she was therefore about forty-three years old, eighteen years Branwell’s senior. Did she lie about her age? Or was he too besotted to notice the extent of the age gap?
In June 1845 Anne and Branwell came home for their annual holiday, when Anne startled her family by announcing that she would not be returning to Thorp Green. She was deeply unhappy and the reason became clear in the following month when Branwell was suddenly dismissed for conduct which Charlotte described as ‘bad beyond expression’ (quoted Barker, p. 457). By far the most likely interpretation of these words was that he had been conducting an affair with Mrs Robinson.
Edmund Robinson seems to have forgiven his wife her affair, or at least wished it to be covered up, and to have laid all the blame on Branwell, who continued to be obsessed with the woman who had now rejected him. During a trip to Wales he wrote an anguished poem, ‘Lydia Gisborne’, significantly referring to her by her maiden name and by implication stressing her Evangelical parentage. He wrote another ‘Lydia Gisborne‘ poem in June 1846. He did not know then that the Revd. Edmund Robinson had just died, and when he heard the news he was ecstatic. But it was not to be: though she secretly sent Branwell some money, the widow was not going to throw away her comfortable lifestyle and marry a penniless tutor nearly eighteen years her junior.
Branwell died from drug and alcohol abuse on 24 September 1848. In November Mrs Robinson married the seventy-two year old baronet, Sir Edward Dolman Scott, of Barr Hall in Staffordshire, near her childhood home at Yoxall Lodge. When he died two years later, he left her £600 a year, a London house, and the family diamonds. The ‘diabolical seducer’ as Patrick Brontë called her, was now a rich woman with a title.
In 1857 Lady Scott received unwelcome publicity when Elizabeth Gaskell published her Life of Charlotte Brontë. Though she was careful not to name names, Gaskell dropped too many clues for the identity of this ‘mature and wicked woman’ (Life, p. 273) not to become widely known. No-one could fail to understand, for example, this explicit reference to the seductress’s Claphamite antecedents:
‘The woman – to think of her father’s pious name – the blood underneath whose roof-tree sat those whose names are held saintlike for their good deeds -‘ (Life, p. 281)
Threatened with a libel action, Gaskell’s publishers retracted the accusation of impropriety, but she felt that she had told no less than the truth. She had been talking to a childhood acquaintance of Lydia Scott, Lady Trevelyan, born Hannah More Macaulay, the daughter of the abolitionist, Zachary Macaulay, who confirmed her bad reputation. On the other hand, Lady Scott was defended by another second-generation Claphamite, Sir James Stephen, son of Wilberforce’s brother-in-law. These conflicting testimonies suggest that the Evangelical world was thrown into some temporary turmoil by Mrs Gaskell’s inconvenient revelations.
The Brontë siblings were the children of an Evangelical clergyman, who owed his education and his ordination to the patronage of wealthy Evangelicals. It was through these links that Charlotte was educated at the Clergy Daughters’ School, and – more indirectly – that Branwell embarked on the affair that was to lead to his ruin.