In 1820, after his wife succumbed to cancer, Patrick Bronte was left with the responsibility of raising six children on his own: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Although Patrick’s spinster sister-in-law came to the parsonage in Haworth to care for the children, they turned to Maria for guidance and maternal affection.
Thus, at seven years-old, Maria became a mother to her brother and sisters. She entertained them by reading to them from daily newspapers and creating games for them to play together. From the beginning, Patrick had declared his eldest child the most gifted one of them all. He stated she possessed, “a heart under Divine Influence.” Named after her mother, the young girl had a “powerful, intellectual mind.” He further stated that even at her young age, he could, “converse with Maria on any of the leading topics of the day as freely, and with as much pleasure, as with any adult.”
Worried about his daughters’ formal education, and unable to afford one of the better schools in the area, Patrick thought he’d discovered the perfect solution when the Clergy Daughters’ School opened at Cowan Bridge in 1823. He sent Maria and Elizabeth there on July 21, 1824. Charlotte followed six weeks later, and Emily, the following autumn. However, the school conditions were harsh and unsanitary. Maria returned home in February 1825 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Elizabeth followed on May 31st. A few days later, Patrick sent for Charlotte and Emily. While his youngest daughters had fortunately not fallen ill, it proved too late for his two eldest. Maria died on May 6th, and Elizabeth fell soon after.
Of the quiet Elizabeth, not much is known. But the death of Maria would haunt the rest of the family for the rest of their lives. Branwell and Charlotte, were affected most of all. Family servant, Sarah Garrs, reported that Branwell wrote morbid poetry about Maria for years after her death. Branwell, himself, often claimed that he heard Maria wailing outside his window at night. This apparition may have inspired Emily when she later wrote of Cathy’s spirit tapping on Lockwood’s window in Wuthering Heights: “Let me in! Let me in!…It’s twenty years, twenty years…I’ve been a waif for twenty years.”
Charlotte immortalized her eldest sister in the character of Helen Burns, the pious girl who Jane Eyre befriends. After some critics complained that Helen was too sweet, too good to be true, Charlotte wrote, “…she was real enough. I have exaggerated nothing there.”
In the Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell described one of the incidents that Maria had suffered through at Cowen: “The dormitory in which Maria slept was a long room, holding a row of narrow little beds on each side, occupied by the pupils, and at the end of this dormitory there was a small bed-chamber opening out of it, appropriated to the use of Miss Scatcherd. Maria’s bed stood nearest to this door of this room. One morning, after she had become so seriously unwell ….poor Maria moaned out that she was so ill, so very ill, she wished she might stop in bed; and some of the girls urged her to do so, and said they would explain it all to Miss Temple, the superintendant. But Miss Scatchered was close at hand, and her anger would have to be faced before Miss Temple’s kind thoughtfulness could interfere; so the sick child began to dress, shivering with cold, as, without leaving her bed, she slowly put on her black worsted stockings over her thin white legs. Just then Miss Scatcherd issued from her room, and, without asking a word of explanation from the sick and frightened girl, she took her by the arm…and by one vigorous movement whirled her out into the middle of the floor, abusing her all the time for dirty and untidy habits. There she left her. …Maria hardly spoke, except to beg some of the more indignant girls to be calm; but, in slow, trembling movements, with many a pause, she went down stairs at last- and was punished for being late.”
Charlotte wrote in Jane Eyre: “…I saw the girl with whom I had conversed in the verandah dismissed in disgrace by Miss Scatchered, from a history class, and sent to stand in the middle of the large school-room. The punishment seemed to me in a high degree ignominous, especially for so great a girl- she looked thirteen or upwards. I expected she would show signs of great distress and shame; but to my surprise, she neither wept nor blushed: composed, though grave, she stood, the central mark of all eyes.”