The hidden Charlotte Bronte

I am going to be  at the Bronte parsonage museum for Charlottes birthday next weekend and I have been working on  a talk to give visitors who may not know much about the Brontes an introduction to Charlotte ,but which will also be interesting to those who do know much more about the Brontes.

As I will be partly talking alongside the museums current displays in her room I thought that using key items would be an interesting approach.I submit my rough notes for input from other bloggers.My approach is based on my favourite ” the artifacts don’t lie “approach but was also inspired by Charlotte’s poem


by: Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855)

RRANGING long-locked drawers and shelves
Of cabinets, shut up for years,
What a strange task we’ve set ourselves!
How still the lonely room appears!
How strange this mass of ancient treasures,
Mementos of past pains and pleasures;
These volumes, clasped with costly stone,
With print all faded, gilding gone;These fans of leaves from Indian trees–
These crimson shells, from Indian seas–
These tiny portraits, set in rings–
Once, doubtless, deemed such precious things;
Keepsakes bestowed by Love on Faith,
And worn till the receiver’s death,
Now stored with cameos, china, shells,
.I wanted to use these “Keepsakes bestowed by love  on faith ” to illuminate Charlotte’s life and her hidden life ,,,The memento  by Charlotte Bronte (cont)In that endowed and youthful frame;
Shrined in her heart and hid from day,
They burned unseen with silent flame.
In youth’s first search for mental light,
She lived but to reflect and learn,
But soon her mind’s maturer might
For stronger task did pant and yearn;
And stronger task did fate assign,
Task that a giant’s strength might strain;
To suffer long and ne’er repine,
Be calm in frenzy, smile at pain.

418px-CharlotteBrontePortrait thompson parsonage

I picked so far

The going away dress

Charlotte’s writing slope and its contents

Sugar tongs

The pink wrapper gown

The silk fan

For those unable to attend next week here’s a brief summary

The going away dress

going away gown full length

This is currently on display  and as I had a chance to study it in detail last  year,it seemed a good choice.The gown is fashionable but practical and beautifully made ,it also symbolises the last few months of Charlotte’s life ,her time as a bride,It will give excellent scope to talk about Charlotte’s other proposals of marriage and of her short happy married life with Arthur Bell Nicholls.


The going away gown was a fashionable up to date choice for a traveling outfit ,it’s very probable that the gold trim at the neckline and waist was much brighter when the gown was new which would have made it look much more eye-catching than now ,highlighting the waist .It would have been worn over several petticoats to create fullness to the skirts.We know Charlotte bought ,made or had made several new gowns for both the London trips and for her trousseau.These gowns are invaluable for  an insight into Charlottes true tastes,as a governess or teacher the gowns she wore needed to be sombre,while financial restraints limited her earlier choices of fabric and style .While Charlotte remained mindful of costs and was not an extravagant clothes shopper,she did enjoy buying clothing and once free to indulge her tastes choose stylish and either elegant outfits such as this or pretty feminine  gowns such as her Paisley gown .

The Sugar tongues


I want to use items which illustrate daily life at the parsonage as  the life Charlotte led for most of her life was that of a parsons unmarried daughter so I choose the sugar tongs ,partly because unlike the china  I own a very similar pair of tongues which I  can use as a visual aid and which I am not overly attached to so will be happy to leave on the kids activity table in between times.The tongues  to me symbolised the endless teas and afternoon teas taken with sunday school teachers ,other parsons ,curates and locals on church  bussiness.Also the  rigidly observed custom of  “visiting” essential to young ladies when elsewhere ,such as in Brussels ,where it was an obvious chore to Emily at least .It also shows the lack of social graces Charlotte had or exhibited in company were perhaps she either felt ill at ease or where she saw no reason to “exhibit”

Anne Thackeray mentions Charlotte’s lack of conversation at Thackeray’s dinner

It was a gloomy and silent evening,” Anne  Thackery wrote ” Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all.”

Lastly they symbolise the  upturn in Charlotte’s fortunes as a writer when luxuries such as silver sugar tongues became possible and give scope to mention her improvements  to the parsonage.

The Writing slope

writing slope charlotteI am indebted to for use of this image

This symbolised to me the ever present  inner life of Charlotte ,wherever she went she carried this inner world.Even if she were writing to Ellen about her miserable and confined life on the slope

“Stupidity the atmosphere, school books the emplyment, asses the society, what in all this is there to remind me of the divine, silent, unseen land of thought?”

or in another letter,,

“If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up … you would pity and I daresay despise me.

Under the slopes pane was almost certainly drafts of poems she had written.

The slope therefore also ties in very nicely to her poetry and  her long term  correspondence with Ellen which forms the basis of much of what we know of Bronte Family life.I will use my own slope and try to collect a similar collection of items to those in Charlotte’s desk .The little book in Charlotte’s I will use to mention Angria and the Brontes little books.


I also mentioned that the slopes contents highlighted a hidden element of Charlottes life that was a daily influence from the day she was born to the day she died ,Religion.Charlotte was born a Parsons daughter and died a curates wife and a parsons daughter she spent almost her entire life just a few yards from a chruch and her year would have been regulated by the churchers year.Days began and ended with prayers,we know that one of the last things she heard was her husbands prayers ,Arthur Bell Nichols had been praying earnesttly that Charlotte might live and Charlotte replied with what may have been her last known words

“Oh, I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy.”

The writing slope was also one of the very few private spaces a school girl, governess or teacher might have , Schoolgirls usually shared rooms if not actual beds ,A teacher may also have to share a room  and while a governess usually had her own room her employers had every right to access it at any time .Writing slopes could be locked and their keys carried around so they were a rare place to keep items or writings that you might want to keep private.

The pink Wrapper gown

pink wraper gown

Not on display but I do have photos and hope by next week to have my replica  gown made or at least the cape part.I am not convinced that thisvdid belong to Charlotte as the measurements suggest someone much taller would have found it practical whereas on Charlotte it would hqve trailed on the floor, I think its just possible it was emilys rather than Charlotte’s, but Charlotte was a very keen on pretty things and clothing, it would entirely fit in with her tastes. I  think this is excellent for showing more of the sisters hidden life ,the mornings doing housework ,writing letters  etc prior to receiving visitors  when these gowns were worn without the restraints of Victorian layers and corsets ,perhaps it was worn  while Charlotte wrote her poetry  or novels..It  perfectly highlights the hidden   Charlotte who loved pretty things but spent much of her life confined to a wardrobe suitable for a teacher or governess, browns ,greys ,blacks .Charlotte  was not unattractive though on the whole we tend to assume she was ,she was certainly not beautiful or physically attractive

description by Smith her publisher

“I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Bronte’s personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive.  She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look.  Her head seemed too large for her body.  She had very fine eyes… There was but little feminine charm about her and of this fact she herself was uneasy and perpetually conscious. Perhaps few women ever existed more anxious to be pretty than she, or more angrily conscious of the circumstances that she was not pretty.”

,but then neither were some of the most famous women in history and even George Smith seems to found her  interesting  and eyes attractive,while despite his protestions he seemed to take more interest and care in her than was strictly necessary.

“On one occasion I took Miss Bronte to the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons. The Ladies’ Gallery of those days was behind the Strangers’ Gallery, and from it one could see the eyes of the ladies above, nothing more. I told Miss Bronte that if she felt tired and wished to go away, she had only to look at me; I should know by the expression of her eyes what she meant – and that I would come round for her. After a time I looked and looked. There were many eyes, they all seemed to be flashing signals to me, but much as I admired Miss Bronte’s eyes I could not distinguish them from the others.

Charlotte despite having no money whatsoever managed to attract several proposals of marriage  one from a man she only met  once ,one from a friends  brother who though obviously not  passionately in love seems to have  been fond of and respected her , Despite the assumption that she was considered frumpish  and ugly by the “London set” she also received a proposal from  James Taylor  a member of the publishing house .While among the men of Haworth it may not have been only Arthur Bell Nichols who was interested  in or attracted to her ,she seems to have known that other men may have also considered proposing and rather than being the ignored old maid ,Charlotte was in fact wary of encouraging too much attention from some of Haworth males

Charlotte to Ellen  Nussey  (sept 1850)

I think I have scarcely seen a single man with whom such a union would be possible since I left London.  Doubtless there are men whom, if I chose to encourage, I might marry; but no matrimonial lot is even remotely offered me which seems to me truly desirable.

While its largely assumed that Charlottes passion for M Heger was  not encouraged and not reciprocated and it is certainly  unlikely Charlotte would have encouraged or pursued a married man it may be that he was not entirely blameless and had paid more attention  than was seemly to her .Its seems incomprehensible that the very moral and upright Charlotte would have formed a passionate attachment to or  wrote to M Heger if she had not thought her letters would be welcome .

There seems to have been something that triggered the Hegers withdrawal of friendship and intimacy and it happened after Emily had returned to Yorkshire,perhaps Emily had been wary of M Heger  or al least guarding Charlotte .

Iniatly  Charlotte seems to have been equally fond of both of the Hegers and to have respected both

Letter to Ellen Nussey

As I told you before, M and Madame Heger are the only two persons in the house for whom I really experience regard and esteem;

before the relationship soured

Letter to Emily

Of late days, M. and Madame Heger rarely speak to me; and I really don’t pretend to care a fig for anybody else in the establishment. I am convinced she (Madame Heger) does not like me; why, I can’t tell.  Nor do I think she herself has any definite reason for this aversion.  (!)  M. Heger is wondrously influenced by Madame. He has already given me a brief lecture on universal bienveillance; and perceiving that I don’t improve in consequence, I fancy he has taken to considering me as a person to be let alone, left to the error of her ways, and consequently he has, in a great measure, withdrawn the light of his countenance; and I get on from day to day, in a Robinson Crusoe like condition, very lonely.”

Charlotte’s initial letter is not overly familiar and could have been equally worded had she been writing to Md Heger , it seems odd for a teacher not to reply to such a lonely ex pupil unless the unexplained promise made this a major issue or perhaps there’s a lost reply ,we only have one side fo the correspondence perhaps also incomplete.

“I may, then, write to you, without breaking my promise. The summer and winter have seemed very long to me; in truth, it has cost me painful efforts to endure up to now the privation I have imposed upon myself. You, for your part, cannot understand this! But, Monsieur, try to imagine, for one moment, that one of your children is a hundred and sixty leagues away from you; and that you are condemned to remain for six months, without writing to him; without receiving any news from him; without hearing anything about him; without knowing how he is; well, then you may be able to understand, perhaps, how hard is such an obligation imposed upon me.”

 later letters become more urgent  while this is assumed the second letter its possible theres a missing letter inbetween from either party of both
Charlotte to Mr Heger
Ah, Monsieur! I know I once wrote you a letter that was not a reasonable one, because my heart was chocked with grief; but I will not do it again! I will try not to be selfish; although I cannot but feel your letters the greatest happiness I know. I will wait patiently to receive one, until it pleases you, and it is convenient to write one. At the same time, I may write you a little letter from time to time; you authorized me to do this
At least one other letter followed and it is only the last letter which may explain Mr Hegers reluctance to continue any correspondence
“I  submit to all the reproaches you may make against me; if my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely, I shall remain without hope; if he keeps a little for me (never mind though it be very little) I shall have some motive for living, for working.
Monsieur, the poor do not need much to keep them alive; they ask only for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, but if these crumbs are refused them, then they die of hunger! For me too, I make no claim either to great affection from those I love; I should hardly know how to understand an exclusive and perfect friendship, I have so little experience of it! But once upon a time, at Bruxelles, when I was your pupil, you did show me a little interest: and just this small amount of interest you gave me then, I hold to and I care for and prize, as I hold to and care for life itself . . .
. . . I will not re-read this letter, I must send it as it is written. And yet I know, by some secret instinct, that certain absolutely reasonable and cool-headed people reading it through will say: ‘She appears to have gone mad.’ By way of revenge on such judges, all I would wish them is that they too might endure, for one day only, the sufferings I have borne for eight months-then, one  would see, if they too did not ‘appear to have gone mad.’
One endures in silence whilst one has his strength to do it. But when this strength fails one, one speaks without weighing one’s words. I wish Monsieur all happiness and prosperity. “
8th January.
Charlottes letter were kept and carefully restored by one of the Hegers ,it’s always assumed it was Madam who sewed them back together but perhaps it was M Heger ?
I also think it not unlikely Charlotte realised she had some attraction which was thwarted by her circumstances for helping her with men she did actually like ,commentators normayl focus of the earlier part of Jame  Eyres speech to Rochester  ,I am a free being ,or  on Jane being small and plain but forget the latter part when Jane says
and if God have gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me as it is now for me to leave you.
Jane doesnt belive shes unattractive or incapable of attracting  men just hindered by her situation

Charlotte mentions a pink dress in villette where the wearer Lucy snow is taken to task about wearing a pink evening gown .the incident is often seen as proof Charlotte wore frumpy clothes and didnt like bright colours yet the wrapper with its pretty flounces and bright pink design clearly shows that  she loved pretty feminine  things .The idea of the sisters wandering around in the morning  in their pretty girly clothing then doning prime brown or grey gowns to receive visitors is also I feel quite endearing and brings the hidden private  world of the family alive to those now visiting their home

The Ivory fan (d67)

ivory fan

Image from the online archive of the Bronte Parsonage Museum

As a gift from Ellen Nussey this provides a chance to discuss Charlotte’s friends and talk briefly about Ellen But equally importantly This like the little black satin slippers (not currently on display )symbolises Charlotte’s new life amongst the rich and famous in the london circle and her visits to  people such as the Kay Shuttleworths .Charlotte visited  Parliament

On one occasion I took Miss Bronte to the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons. The Ladies’ Gallery of those days was behind the Strangers’ Gallery, and from it one could see the eyes of the ladies above, nothing more

She went on more than one occasion to the Great Exhibition ,attended lectures ,visited the theatre and though she only briefly had a chance to experience this life it did widen her world and give her new ideas for her novels,,the characters she met replace the  insular life of Jane Eyre or the rural yorkshire folk  of Shirley ,such as the Curates and Taylors ,with the wider social circle of Villete .

Aunt Branwell also left an Ivory fan to Emily in her will and fans were an essential item of fashion not just as an accessory but for the purely practical reason that in hot weather or hot rooms  the many layers of Victorian clothing can become hot and oppressive.


Charlotte while often isolated during her early years spent a suprising amount of time traveling after her sisters deaths ,visiting London on several occasions ,the lake district and Scotland.She also paid visits to various friends.

In London she talks of trips to the theatre ,the zoo,the great exhibition ,lectures ,parliament and to an assortment of other places for dinner or  lunch appointments .In Victorian society the correct  accessories were essential for every occasion,The parsonage recently acquired a black parasol possibly used for carriage drives such as one described by Charlotte while she was staying with the Kay Shuttleworths.The black parasol is almost a symbol of the wanderings of Bronte artifacts and of the Brontes universal appeal.It began its post Charlotte life in Oxenhope then ext village along from Haworth ,from there it travelled with the family who owned it to Canada,in recent years it was kindly offered to the Parsonage and returned home .,its full story is here,,

The black lace tippet /stole

There are several black lace items but I chose this as it’s on display and while perhaps not the same one gives scope to discuss  Charlottes mourning and her sisters deaths and early visit to london.

Harriet Martineau remembers

Miss Bronte was announced; and in came a young-looking lady, almost child-like in stature, in a deep mourning dress, neat as a Quaker’s, with her beautiful hair smooth and brown, her fine eyes blazing with meaning and her sensible face indicating a habit of self-control.”

but also letters to Ellen about choosing black or white lace stole ,because the black  shows up better against her dress.

The Barage dress fragment ,as this fabric seems to have been a favourite as do the colours of  cream or white with green patterns ,A dress fragment from Charlottes trousseau is this very delicate pretty semi transparent fabric and a dress of this fabric and style is also mentioned in correspondence about Charlotte ,It was on  an evening dinner  visit to Thackery

Its remember by  Anne Thackery who was young at the time

Two gentlemen come in,” accounts Anne, “leading a tiny, delicate, serious little lady, with fair, straight hair and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barége dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement.”

Barege is a very light sheer  fabric  which could be made of cotton ,wool or silk but its defining characteristic was its transparency and  in 1850s it was very fashionable ,it was the subject of a punch cartoon in 1850


bronte punch winter-50-barege

It seems unlikely Mr Bronte would have been easy about such a flimsy fabric if as has been suggested he utterly forbade wearing cotton ,he probably actively discouraged the wearing of light gowns but can not have been the deciding influence in his daughters clothing choice once they reached adulthood.

barage gown

The gown above is Barege ,I also managed to finally find a pair of sleeves in the fabric,though unfortunately they are black ,but I will now to able to provide a “visual aid for the barege fragment.

Other items likely to receive passing mentions are the little half boot /shoes and gloves

A stripe silk dress described in the museum catalogue as
silk striped, mauve/cream/green/pink; lined throughout with glazed cotton, high neckline with front cleft, fullness over the shoulders, gathered to V at waist, sleeves belling out with frill and lace, four tassels at points of goresI am indebted to the Bronte Parsonage museums site for the above details

About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
This entry was posted in 19thc, brontes, Hathaways of Haworth, Haworth and Oxenhope, Uncategorized, work and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The hidden Charlotte Bronte

  1. Luv Lubker says:

    Will you post more about this talk? I’d like to hear/see more about the things you talked about as I was not there 🙂

    • Hi Yes certainly I more or less included the basics here as the talks were fairly short but I will add another post in the next day or so

    • Hi
      I have added the updates to the sections where I used more content in the talks than is in the orignal blog post ,mostly its the writing slope section ,the fan and the going away gown sections .theres a really interesting bit about a new aquisition ,a parsol

  2. paper doll says:

    Terrific post as always…when is a book coming out? Your Bronte clothing posts over time could be shaped into one imo ( with great photos of course)

    Charlotte played down her wedding ,saying her expectations about it were most moderate…but she prepared for it beautifully none the less . Her wedding dress, bonnet and going away out fits were lovely .

    Charlotte was so funny about her wedding dress…thinking at first she would not purchase white martial for the dress maker and then amazed herself when she did indeed go with tradition and picked white like any other bride
    She seem to think she was too old for white at first, but decied to go the whole way. I’m sure Charlotte was glad she did when she prepared for the ceremony .

    • Hi
      Its nice to hear from you again,I really wish the parsonage had displayed the replica wedding gown as I would love to get a clear view of it to create something similare .Yes Charlotte seems to have bought quite a bit for her wedding trousseau,I have seen a few fragments of gowns that were trouseau items and its been on my mind to recreate them but finding the fabrics is quite difficult theres no cheap modern equivilent of Barege or the striped silk taffeta ,I had a costume book cheats guide planned and toyed with a Bronte clothing artical for the BS gazette maybe or a small booklet but I have not worked on my writing for a while and I will need to finish the replcia gowns for photos as I promised not to publish large phtos of the actual gowns I got to study

  3. Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say
    that I have really loved surfing around your
    blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing in your feed and I am hoping you write once more very soon!

  4. nannerlh60 says:

    Reblogged this on Prufrock's Wife and commented:
    God willing, I will be in Haworth in the Autumn of 2016 – I am delighted beyond expression to have found this blog, quite by accident; a happy one, indeed!

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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