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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Writing: Sinful Adverbs

In recent years, adverbs (words used to modify verbs) have fallen into great disfavor.  Adverb opponents insist they indicate weak writing.  Go to any writing forum critique board and you’ll see any and all adverbs swatted away like mosquitoes.

I’m going to be heretical and declare,  “There’s not a darn thing wrong with adverbs.”

If adverbs in themselves indicate weak writing than many of our most critically acclaimed and beloved authors including Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, Steinbeck, and Austen sure fooled a lot of people.

It is the overuse of them that indicates weak writing.

It often takes a writer a long time to learn less is more.  Precision is key.

A sure-sign of an amateur writer are pages cluttered with adverbs.   Uncertain of their writing ability,  they fear they must spell out everything.   None of their characters simply speak, stand, walk, cry, or laugh.

“He ran quickly”

“She screamed loudly”

“She whispered softly”

“John noticeably cringed as the woman on stage sang horribly.”

Avoid adverbs that are redundant and clutter the sentence at all costs.

Imagine a little girl receiving a toy doll.   She smiles.  That is it. You would not write, “She smiled, happily.”  The fact she smiled already showed she was happy.

So when is it okay to use adverbs?

Here is a quote from John Gardner: “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously—a startling word that makes the scene spring to life (adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox).”

And here is an example from Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White : “I wound my way down slowly over the Heath, enjoying the divine stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground on every side of me.”

One may argue the word, “slowly” is not necessary.   Yes, the sentence is clear without it.  However, it also does not clutter the sentence.   Rather than being redundant, it adds a certain nuance.   So in this example, the choice of whether or not to use, “slowly” is a stylistic one.

Think of adverbs as spice.   Carefully placed they add a certain tone and color.   Too much and they overtake the main flavor of the dish.

Emily Bronte-Through Her Poetry


“Often rebuked, yet always back returning

To those first feelings that were born with me,

And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning

For idle dreams of things which cannot be:


To-day, I will seek not the shadowy region;

Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;

And visions rising, legion after legion,

Bring the unreal world too strangely near.


I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,

And not in paths of high morality,

And not among the half-distinguished faces,

The clouded forms of long-past history.


I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading:

It vexes me to choose another guide:

Where the grey flocks in ferny glens are feeding;

where the wild wind blows on the mountain side.


What have these lonely mountains worth revealing?

More glory and more grief than I can tell:

The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling

Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.”


 Emily Bronte was too sensitve to allow others into her private recesses.  Like mystics before- she was not comfortable with the outside world.  Yet it is erroneous to label her a misanthrope or even unkind.    Ellen Nussey (best friend of sister, Charlotte Bronte) stated, “Her extreme reserve seemed imprenetrable, yet she was intensely lovable; she invited confidence by her moral power.  Few people have the gift of smiling as she could look and smile.  One of her rare expressive looks was something to remember through life, there was such a depth of soul and feeling, and yet a shyness of revealing herself.”

Victorian society was of no interest to Emily.  Having taken a fancy to the romantic, gigot sleeves of the 1830s- she wore them long after they’d gone out of style.   On the other hand, she had no use for false embellishment.  While attending Madame Heger’s school in Brussels, she was teased by the fashionable girls for not wearing a corset.   Fellow pupil, Laetitia Wheelwright, recollected that Emily always answered their jokes with,  “I wish to be as God made me.”  

Around this time, she stated:

“Strong I stand, though I have borne

                                         Anger, hate, and bitter scorn;

                                         Strong I stand, and laugh to see

                                         How mankind have fought with me


Shade of mast’ry, I contemn

All the puny ways of men;

Free my heart, my spirit free;

Beckon, and I’ll follow thee.


False and foolish mortal know,

If you scorn the world’s disdain,

Your mean soul is far below

Other worms, however vain.


Think of Dust- with boundless pride,

Dare you take  me for a guide?

With the humble I will be;

Haughty men are naught to me.”


    Although Emily’s father was a clergyman, she rarely attended church.  When Emily did, she sat facing away from the pulpit.  Surprisingly, her father never insisted she conform.  He understood Emily found God within Nature.    

 The usually somber-looking girl transformed while roaming alone on her beloved Moors.   When neighbor, John Greenwood chanced upon her once, he said, “Her countenance was lit up with a divine light.   Had she been holding converse with Angels, it would not have shone brighter.  It appeared to me, holy, heavenly.”


  Here, she depicts a mystical experience:

“On a sunny brae alone I lay

One summer afternoon…

Methought the very breath I breathed

Was full of sparks divine,

And all my heather-couch was wreathed

By that celestial shine.

And while the wide Earth echoing rang

To their strange minstrelsy,

The little glittering spirits sang,

Or seemed to sing to me…”


       Yet it was only during the still hours of night that Emily felt truly free. She lay upon her bed gazing out at the stars. 

“I’m happiest when most away

I can bear my soul from its home of clay

On a windy night when the moon is bright

And the eye can wander through worlds of light-“


    During these quiet hours, Emily communed with a male personified Muse.   In this poem, He speaks to her: 

“I’ll come when thou art saddest,

Laid alone in the darkened room;

When the mad day’s mirth has vanished,

And the smile of joy is banished

From the evening’s chilly gloom.

I’ll come when the heart’s real feeling

Has entire, unbiased sway,

And my influence o’er thee stealing,

Grief deepening, joy congealing,

Shall bear thy soul away.

Listen, ’tis just the hour,

The awful time for thee;

Dost thou not feel upon thy soul,

A flood of strange sensations roll,

Forerunners of a sterner power,

Heralds of me?”

In “The Night Wind”- He asks:

“Have we not been from childhood friends?

Have I not loved thee long?

As long as thou hast loved the night

Whose silence wakes my song

And when thy heart is laid at rest

Beneath the churchyard stone

I shall have time enough to mourn,

And thou to be alone.”

When Emily found her creative powers waning, she awaited her Muse like a lover:

“What I love shall come like visitant of air,

Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;

Who loves me, no word of mine shall e’er betray,

Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.

Burn then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear-

Hush! a rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air;

He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;

Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.”


The sun herald the return to the drudgery of housework and other banal reality.

“All through the night, your glorious eyes

Were gazing down in mine,

And with a full heart’s thankful sighs

I blessed that watch divine!


I was at peace, and drank your beams

As they were life to me

And revelled in my changeful dreams

Like petrel on the sea.


Thought followed thought- star followed star

Through boundless regions on,

While sweet influence, near and far,

Thrilled and proved us one.


Why did morning rise to break

So great, so pure a spell,

And scorch with fire the tranquil cheek

Where your cool radiance fell?


Blood red he rose, and arrow-straight

His fierce beams struck my brow;

The soul of Nature sprang elate,

But mine sank sad and low….


I turned me to the pillow then

To call back Night, and see

Your worlds of solemn light, again

Throb within my heart and me!…


O Stars and Dreams and Gentle Night;

O Night and Stars Return!

And hide me from hostile light

That does not warm- but burn-“


 Emily struggled between love of home and her soul’s desire to free itself  from its hated clay.  In May 1841 she wrote:

“Few hearts to mortals given

On Earth so wildly pine;

Yet none would ask a Heaven

More like this Earth than thine…”


She wondered:

“Glad comforter, will I not brave

Unawed the darkness of the grave?

Nay, smile to hear Death’s billows rave,

My Guide, sustained by thee?

The more unjust seems present fate

The more my Spirit springs elate

Strong in thy strength, to anticipate

Rewarding Destiny!

Emily must have found peace within.  For in her last known poem, written before her untimely death at the age of thirty, she declared:

    “No coward soul is mine

No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere

I see Heaven’s glories shine

And faith shines equal arming me from Fear


O God within my breast

Almighty ever-present Deity

Life, that in me has rest

As I undying Life, have power in Thee


Vain are the thousand creeds

That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,

Worthless as withered weeds

Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one

Holding so fast by thy infinity

So surely anchored on

The steadfast rock of Immorality


With wide-embracing love

Thy spirit animates eternal years

Pervades and broods above,

Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears


Though Earth and moon were gone

And suns and universe ceased to be

And thou wert left alone

Every Existence would exist in thee


There is not room for Death

Nor atom that his might could render void

Since thou art Being and Breath

And what thou art may never be destroyed.”


Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 3:14 am  Comments (4)  
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