My thanks to Admin for her added notes and contributions from Bertram White’s The Miracle of Haworth. 🙂
Patrick Malahide portrayed Patrick Brontë, immigrant Irish parson and father of the famous Brontë sisters, in the two-part BBC docudrama, “In Search of the Brontës” (2003). It’s an interesting mix of narration, quotes from literary works and letters, and dramatization of biographical events, making for an extremely interesting and different take on the Brontës that provides new insight into Patrick Brontë’s influence on his children’s lives and the family’s history.
Admin note: I recently read a 1939 Brontës biography, The Miracle of Haworth by Bertram White, which corresponds nicely to this production. White had great admiration for Rev. Brontë and sought to rectify some of the misinformation that was out there about him.
The story utilizes a sort of back-and-forth structure combining “present day” reminiscences from Patrick Brontë and other family acquaintances (taken, in part, from actual writings and letters) with a recreation of events. Part 1, “A Wish for Wings”, begins with the arrival of the Brontë family at the Haworth, Yorkshire vicarage and their first real home in February of 1820. Of their six children, the oldest is six years and the youngest just a month old(!!) (kudos to Maria Brontë on her fortitude!), with five girls and one boy. We’re told that Patrick Brontë “clawed his way up” from farmer’s son to Cambridge scholar and then parson, and he appears delighted to provide his family with their first real home and the “grandest house” they’ve ever lived in.
Even though the Brontës’ circumstances have improved, Haworth is not an easy place to live, with polluted water and other side effects of the Industrial Revolution affecting the environment, resulting in an average life expectancy of 25 for the villagers. The threat of cholera is so dire that Brontë baptizes families in groups of 30 a day for expediency and actively campaigns for improvements in living conditions.
A Love Match and Early Loss
We also get a bit of background on Brontë’s relationship with his wife, Maria; theirs is a love match, with the vicar writing and publishing love poetry (yes, that guy in the picture at the top) to his wife during their courtship, and the two of them enjoying long walks on the moors together. Unfortunately, their happiness doesn’t last, as Maria Brontë begins to succumb to uterine cancer only a few months after arrival at Haworth. Despite Brontë’s desperate efforts to nurse her and ease her pain as he prays by her bedside (played with heartwrenching emotion and intensity by Malahide), Maria dies after seven months of prolonged illness, leaving Brontë a widower (he touchingly describes himself as “a stranger in a strange land”) with six children under seven years of age, all of whom will be influenced by their mother’s absence so early in their lives.
Admin Note: White includes some details about Maria. She wrote a letter to Rev. Brontë during their courtship and it reveals a side to their relationship that belies the stern image of Patrick:
My Dear Saucy Pat. Now don’t you think you deserve this epithet, far more than I do that which you have given me? I really know not what to make of the beginning of you last the winds, waves, and rocks almost stunned me. I thought you were giving me the account of some terrible dream, or that you had a presentiment of the fate of my poor box, having no idea that your lively imagination could make so much of the slight reproof conveyed in my last. What will you say you get a real downright scolding? Since you shew such a readiness to atone for your offenses, after receiving a mild rebuke, I am inclined to hope, you will seldom deserve a severe one. I accept with pleasure you atonement, and send you a free and full forgiveness. But I cannot allow that your affection is more deeply rooted than mine.
Saucy Pat? White contends that Maria was a fine writer herself, and based upon the letters I would agree, and that their relationship was a loving one in which she had no qualms to speak her mind or to even tease the supposedly stern man.
It should also be pointed out that he when was caring for his wife during her illness their children had scarlet fever at the same time. His diligence was nothing short of amazing.
A Single Father
A pragmatic man, Brontë immediately goes out in search of a new wife only a few months after Maria’s death, which might seem rather callous until you consider that he has six children to raise and a vicarage to run. Dressed in his best (he could use some coaching on this – seriously, his hat alone has seen many better days and seems to be closely related to similar battered headgear worn by Alfred Jingle or even Robert Dangerfield), he goes out in search of a wife and proposes to three women in close succession. For some reason, a penniless parson with six children is not considered a good catch, and his proposals are all rejected. In a marvelous bit of wordless acting, we see Brontë come to the realization that his cause is fruitless as he regards himself sadly in a mirror. He then “determine[s] to bring up [his] little flock as best [he] could” as a single father (highly unusual for the time).
Equally unusual is the Socratic method that Brontë employs as a teaching technique. He first singles out the designated answerer with a masquerade stick mask, then asks unusual questions (“What does a child like you most need?”) that require odd replies (“Age and experience”), with all of it making up an eccentric sort of catechism, although he’s doing it to develop his children’s powers of critical and independent thinking. When Brontë asks Emily what he should do with Branwell, who’s frequently “a very naughty boy”, her reply is, “Reason with him, and when he won’t listen to reason, whip him,” the latter of which at least sounds more traditionally Victorian.
Brontë’s already decided that Branwell will be a scholar, whereas the girls need to learn “something useful” (scholars aren’t useful??) on their way to becoming teachers or perhaps governesses, so he’s very pleased to learn of an inexpensive school for poor clergymen’s daughters that’s been set up at Cowan Bridge. If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre, you know that Charlotte immortalized it as the “Lowood School” and described the absolutely dire conditions that resulted in her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, contracting consumption (tuberculosis) after a typhus outbreak and dying after being brought home by their father. Brontë is devastated at their deaths, and anguished at not knowing about the conditions they were living in or being able to come for them sooner (very effectively portrayed by Malahide). The abrupt loss of their two older sisters in addition to their mother scars the remaining Brontë siblings.
Brontë then hires Tabby Aykroyd (Barbara Marten) as a sort of cook/housemaid/nanny, and her thrilling tales of Yorkshire folklore and the supernatural imbue his children with what he describes as a “regrettable delight in the unnatural”, as well as inspiring their juvenile writings about the fictional kingdoms of Angria and Gondol, which will ultimately influence their adult writing. But for a man who’s supposedly concerned about his children’s interest in “the unnatural”, he doesn’t restrict their reading material, allowing them to read the works of Byron and Sir Walter Scott as well as The Arabian Nights (which can be mighty racy in its uncensored version!). Perhaps to offset this, he also gives one child a reading assignment from the newspaper every night, requiring the rest to write an essay describing the article in their own words the following morning.
Admin Note: White included the girls’ shockingly poor progress reports from their terrible school. While they were woefully unprepared for such a traditional and harsh education, they were extremely well versed in literature, politics and current events. Rev. Brontë encouraged them to talk freely about the political and social issues covered in the newspapers. Anytime the girls were constrained by formality (or, I suspect, learning by rote) they became bored, depressed and would flounder.
Feeding His Children’s Minds
One of the reading assignments involves an account of an 1812 Luddite uprising that Brontë himself witnessed as a young curate, which led him to the somewhat unconventional habit (especially for a clergyman) of keeping a loaded pistol by his bedside every night to ensure the safety of his family. Also “for safety”(not because he finds it fun or anything like that), he fires it into the churchyard every morning, causing the Irish parson to develop a certain reputation for eccentricity amongst his Yorkshire flock. Why the churchyard? “I wanted to be sure that if I accidentally hit anybody… they’d already be dead,” he says, with an invisible wink. Very practical. We learn that Brontë can be a fire-and-brimstone preacher as well (Malahide does some impressive thundering from the pulpit), when a massive bog explosion (bogs can explode??) and flood on the moors inspire him to remind his flock that the end of the world is always nigh.
In addition to being a fiery preacher, Patrick Brontë is a caring father, tiptoeing up the stairs with a birthday gift of toy soldiers for Branwell. The soldiers further fuel his children’s Angria and Gondol stories and lead directly to their beginning to produce their own works, written out in tiny lettering to imitate newsprint on small squares of paper sewn together to create miniature books. The stories start out as “a defense against the confusing outside world” and “a refuge from grief and isolation”, but the siblings maintain an interest in their fantasy worlds well into adulthood – today it might even be equated to role-playing gaming – and creating the groundwork for themes and characters that will appear in their published novels.
Meanwhile, their adult lives and education are still taking shape. Brontë sends Charlotte (Victoria Hamilton) off to school (again) at Roe Head, where she does well enough to become a teacher herself and thus enables Emily and Anne (Alexandra Milman) to attend for free (“A most satisfactory arrangement,” says Brontë). He also teaches Emily (Elizabeth Hurran), who’s the most attached to home of all the siblings, how to shoot: “She was a woman who had no fear. She handled the pistol like a man,” he muses proudly. Branwell (Jonathan McGuinness) shows some talent for painting and Brontë hires a painting master for him, but the master reports that Branwell “never took the time to learn the rudiments of anatomy, or even how to mix his paints properly”, much to his father’s disappointment as he sorrowfully concludes, “Perhaps the boy had too many talents.”
Out in the Real World
All four siblings try their hands at various forms of governessing, teaching, or tutoring (and there are rumours of an out-of-wedlock child Branwell may have sired while tutoring). But their experiences are uniformly unhappy; they find their situations unsatisfactory or even downright demoralizing, so they resign from or are dismissed from their posts and return to their father. Back at home, they take up their Angria and Gondol fantasies where they left off, leading Brontë to angrily confront Charlotte: “Your fantasies grow into your daily life and… poison it!” Charlotte counters that they’ve read novels all their lives, but it’s different when their father says it is and he’s very forceful about it: “The sensuous novelist is a creature of depraved appetite. He creates an imaginary world which he can never inhabit.” He believes Charlotte should “avoid eccentricity” because her “womanly virtues must come first”. Setting aside judgments of “eccentricity” coming from a parson who fires a pistol out of his window every morning, it’s an oddly altered attitude for a father who actively encouraged his children to read all sorts of novels and poetry (including Byron, who could hardly be called “virtuous”). It seems to be his version of “straighten up and fly right” or “get a real job”, which is pretty fatherly. He still has an eye to his children’s success in the outside world.
Branwell is the first to “get a real job” as a railway clerk, followed by Anne taking another governess position and Charlotte and Emily going to Belgium to study French and German under Monsieur Héger as a foundation for creating their own school. Unfortunately for Branwell, his gainful employment doesn’t last long and he’s soon back at home after being unable to concentrate on work and somehow losing £11, although his father welcomes him back with open arms (both Malahide and McGuinness are very effective here, though the scene is completely without words). Brontë supports his son and doesn’t believe for a minute that Branwell was actually responsible for any theft. The death of Aunt Branwell brings Emily and Charlotte home from Brussels. Although each of the girls inherits nearly £300 from their aunt’s estate, Branwell is bequeathed only Aunt Branwell’s dressing case, in the belief that he’s destined for greater things and doesn’t need the money.
While away at school, Charlotte develops a massive crush on M. Héger, who seems to be the ideal man she’s dreamt of ever since she invented the Duke of Zamorna for her juvenile fiction – never mind that Héger is married and seemingly not interested. She and Emily are both offered teaching positions in Brussels, but homebody Emily decides she’d rather stay in Haworth and keep house for their father instead. Charlotte, who’s supposedly “eager to improve her French” according to Brontë, returns to Belgium to continue (sort of) pursuing Héger, but she’s horrified to discover Héger’s wife knows all about her crush (note: do not write ardent letters to your crush object). In the meantime, Branwell manages to obtain another tutoring job with Anne’s employers, the Robinsons. He proceeds to mess that up completely by becoming romantically involved with Mrs. Robinson and being indiscreet about it, leading to Mr. Robinson discovering the relationship and… not being pleased.
A Different View of Patrick Brontë
So, the stage is well and truly set for Part 2, with “a cycle of scandal and tragedy” about to be unleashed, as the narration says. My previous acquaintance with Patrick Brontë’s life consisted of details from Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Alan Adamson’s Mr. Charlotte Brontë: The Life of Arthur Bell Nicholls, both of which are limited in different ways – which could be an entire post on its own and should probably wait for further comment until after Part 2. Suffice to say that neither book provided the sort of insight available in this docudrama, which admittedly may have flaws and inaccuracies of its own (always a danger when dealing with historical figures), and both (especially Gaskell’s) tend to portray Patrick Brontë as an inflexible, unfeeling, and even selfish father. However, it appears that these biographies are missing part of the picture. Contrary to accepted societal norms of the time, Brontë saw to it that all of his children, not just his son, had a thorough education. And while the type of education they received was decidedly unconventional, it was designed to make them think independently, communicate effectively, and try to understand the larger world.
This is also a different sort of role in that Mr. Malahide is playing a real person, albeit one who has left enough writings (and has been written about) to provide clues as to his character. It’s a different experience to see Patrick Brontë in the flesh rather than read about him; I looked at Patrick Brontë in a new way due, in large part, to Mr. Malahide’s portrayal of him as a warm, loving, and involved father, if a rather eccentric one with an extremely dry sense of humour. We can see his love and concern for his children, and his desire that they should be able to make their own way in the world, coupled with his disappointment (never taken out on them) when they run into difficulties; I was particularly touched by the wordless way he accepted Branwell back into the fold after he lost his railway job. We also see his devastation and utter sorrow at their loss. Though he has occasional flashes of temper, as when he’s exhorting Charlotte to leave her fantasy worlds behind to pay more attention to her “womanly virtues”, overall Malahide portrays him as a sympathetic figure.
I was also extremely impressed by Mr. Malahide’s ability to transform himself from a Patrick Brontë in his 40s all the way to his 80s. The make-up (which was quite well done) helped a lot, but make-up would be useless without the man underneath it using changes in demeanour, posture, voice, and movement to suggest differences in age and health. His performance made the back-and-forth structure of the docudrama extremely easy to follow; I never felt lost on the timeline or unaware of what was going on. And I also must add that this movie really needs a DVD release of the uncut version; there’s one version available which is missing some key scenes from Part 1 that provide a lot of additional detail about Patrick Brontë’s character.
Admin Note: I agree. This production needs a proper uncut DVD release. Make it so, BBC!
You can view Part 1 of “In Search of the Brontës” online starting at the link below (sorry about the Greek subtitles, but this is actually the most complete version out there), or scroll down for a gallery.