Maria Bronte: The Spirit of the Brontes

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.”

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm  Comments (26)  
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26 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating yet heartbreaking stuff.

  2. This is so poignant. Poor Maria, poor family. Thank you for pointing out the connections to Charlotte’s writing…

  3. Hi Ralfast,

    Indeed. The family went through a lot. I think Branwell’s later battles with drugs and liquor definitely stem from losing his mother and then Maria and Elizabeth at such an early age.

  4. Hi Kelly,

    It is very sad, and it also leaves me wondering if Maria and/or Elizabeth might also have written stories if they had lived. I find myself particularly intrigued by the quiet Elizabeth…

  5. This family seems nearly as doomed as the Kennedys! Maybe he should have left the original spelling of the name alone, the change may have offended his ancestors. Now there’s a plot for a ghost story :::cue eerie music:::

  6. DD,

    You just totally cracked me up. 🙂

  7. It sounds like the whole family was extraordinary. What a pity Maria and Elizabeth died so young.

  8. Indeed, Amy. It’s a huge, “What may have been…”

  9. I just love your blog. Always have, but anew, today. : )

    These circumstances you document always make me feel grateful to be alive, *today*, in this age, with so many more options, so many ways to remain living.

    That aside, Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite books. So cool to have a behind-the-scenes look into the writing, and the whys — or should I say, the whos.


  10. I was going to email you this, but I’ll post it here for others, too:

    Mary Kole, an Associate Agent at Andrea Brown, is having a MG/YA contest: Novel Beginnings.

    Her blog also happens to be one of my favorites for information on writing, querying, agents, editors, publishing.

    Check it out.

    Good luck, everyone who enters!


  11. ((((Em)))))

    First, thank you so much for your compliment about my blog. Made my day! :))

    And, thank you for mentioning the contest. Good luck to all who may enter it.

  12. Tasha, this may sound irrelevant, but would the Brontes have pronounced the name “Ma-RYE-a” or “Ma-REE-a”?

  13. Hi Marian,

    Not at all irrevelant. I used to think it was, “Ma-REE-a”, but then on a BBC produced documentary they pronounced it “Ma-RYE-a”.

  14. I caught that in the A&E/BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice” from 1986, as well. Charlotte Lucas’s younger sister’s name was Maria, pronounced with the long “I” sound.

  15. Oops, correction: That was 1996, not ’86.

  16. Thanks for the clarification, Tasha and Digital Dame. Interesting how pronunciation changes – Maria was a Roman name as well, and I got the impression that it was “Ma-REE-a” back in the day.

  17. It’s probably a cultural thing. The Italians, whose language descends from Latin, as well as the Spanish, pronounce it MaREEah.

  18. It’s amazing to think that the actions of one nasty-tempered woman helped inspire Jane Eyre. And I’ve always wondered what great things Maria might have achieved if she’d lived long enough. The whole family doted on Branwell and expected him to go on to a bright future, but given what Charlotte and Emily managed to do, the loss of Elizabeth seems far greater.

  19. Mary,

    I agree. Her early death (and Elizabeth’s) is a huge, huge, “what if…” 😦

    Regarding Branwell- he was such a tragic figure. It’s a shame because evidently he had lots of talent. But he couldn’t control his demons long enough to produce anything of merit.

  20. It’s really hard to imagine the conditons were so terrible in the schools that little girls were literally dying. Jane Eyre has always been one of my favourite books. They were tough times. Heartbreaking to read Gaskell’s account. What a sadist that teacher was! xx

  21. Agreed, Josephine.

    And the scary thing is, the conditions at the school weren’t anywhere near as bad as what workhouse conditions were for children back then.

  22. As always, it is fascinating to read the stories here. I don’t really remember hearing about Maria, but what a heartbreaking story.

  23. Thank you Midwest! And I always learn so much by reading your blog, too.

  24. […] GypsyScarlett’s Weblog: Maria Brontë: The Spirit of the Brontës […]

  25. Thank you for your remembering Maria Bronte. I live in Russia, Saint-Petersburgh. I’ve read Jane Eyre in my childhood and I never knew there took place such a heartbreaking story at Cowan Bridge and Haworth. I’ve sunk in the Net for two nights when I first learnt about the tragic Bronte family. I ‘m deeply influenced and want to read more and more about them. The Maria’s high spirit ‘s hypnothised me so!
    Thanks a lot. I wish all the best to everyone visiting the site.

  26. Thank you Ludmilla for your beautiful comment. If you can find it, I love Winifred Gerin’s biography on Emily.

    Also, The Brontes by Juliet Barker is highly acclaimed, though I haven’t read it yet.

    Great to hear from another Bronte fan. All the best to you, too.

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