Okay, so… a while ago (*ahem*2013*ahem*) I reviewed Part 1 of “In Search of the Brontës” (2003), in which Patrick Malahide portrayed the Reverend Patrick Brontë, father of the famous writing siblings. Admin, who had recently read Bertram White’s The Miracle at Haworth at the time, was kind enough to provide some of her own extremely insightful contributions to that post. So here, now, only two years later and without further ado, is Part 2!
Haworth’s New Parson
Well, perhaps just a little ado first – a brief recap. Part 1 of this excellent docudrama covered the Brontës’ lives upon their arrival in Haworth, Yorkshire, in 1820, where the Rev. Brontë assumed a post as parson. Using a combination of personal “interviews” and reminiscences, quoted writings, and dramatic reconstructions, we become acquainted with the Brontës’ life in Yorkshire in their first real family home. Sadly, their happiness was to be tested when Maria Brontë perished from uterine cancer only a few months later, leaving Rev. Brontë as a single father to six small children, all under seven years of age.
Unsuccessful in his attempts to remarry (for some reason, a penniless parson with six children wasn’t considered the best catch by the eligible local ladies), Brontë raised and educated the children on his own, employing unconventional methods designed to enhance his children’s critical, independent thinking. Once they’d reached an age for higher education, the two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were eventually sent to the Cowan Bridge School, immortalized as the deplorable “Lowood School” in Jane Eyre. Poor conditions at the school likely contributed to their deaths from consumption (tuberculosis) not long after their mother’s. The remaining siblings – Branwell, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – were deeply affected by these deaths, and took comfort in creating stories set in elaborate, shared fantasy worlds as a form of refuge. Later, the girls tried to find employment as governesses or teachers while their brother Branwell, fired from his railway job, became a tutor.
The Brontës in Upheaval
As Part 2, “Gone Like Dreams”, opens, it’s now 1844. Charlotte (Victoria Hamilton) and Emily (Elizabeth Hurran) have been studying French in Belgium under a Monsieur Héger (Ed Stoppard) in an attempt to make themselves more desirable as teachers, with the unintended consequence that Charlotte has developed an intense but unrequited crush on her teacher. Disliking the entire experience and suffering from homesickness, Emily soon returns to Yorkshire. Meanwhile, Anne (Alexandra Milman) has been governessing for a wealthy family, the Robinsons, while her brother Branwell (Jonathan McGuinness) tutors their children – and rashly embarks upon an affair with his employer’s wife. Already unhappy with her job, Anne quits in disgust when she finds out what her brother’s been up to.
Things aren’t going well at Haworth, either. His vision slowly deteriorating due to cataracts, Patrick Brontë is forced to peer very closely at his text while giving sermons in church. “In those days, I could neither read, nor write, nor walk unaided,” he recalls. “When my children needed me most, I, myself, was as helpless as a child.” Meanwhile, Emily and Anne retreat back into their fantasy worlds of Angria and Gondol (which remind me strongly of role-playing gaming scenarios minus structure, dice, and rules) for familiarity and comfort. Eventually Charlotte returns to Haworth as well, heartbroken over M. Héger’s continued indifference and hoping to set up her own school with her sisters. Branwell comes home, too, only to be unceremoniously sacked by Mr. Robinson and forbidden to see his wife Lydia again. When Charlotte pleads with Branwell to come to his senses and get a real job (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the idea), he confidently declares he’ll write a novel (based on his fictional childhood creation, the Earl of Northangerland) while waiting for the invalid Mr. Robinson to die and free up the wealthy Lydia for remarriage. Sounds like a foolproof plan!
A Foray Into the Literary World
When their girls’ school fails to attract any pupils, it’s Charlotte’s idea for the sisters to branch out into the literary world in an attempt to bring some money into the household. She happens upon some of Emily’s poetry and is impressed by how “terse and vigorous” her use of language is, possessed of “wild, elevating music” and “not at all like the poetry women generally write”. She immediately thinks Emily’s poetry is publishable, but Emily does not, in the slightest. She’s incensed Charlotte even snooped through her things in the first place and is completely opposed to the idea of sharing her work with the public.
However, facing a lack of prospects besides governessing and wanting to provide some income for the family, Emily later relents, only upon the condition that Charlotte and Anne submit some of their poetry for publication as well. To increase the chances of their poems being taken more seriously, the sisters decide to submit their writing under male pseudonyms. A chance appearance by their father’s socially awkward curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls (Jay Villiers), provides Charlotte with further inspiration. Using a letter from each of his names to correspond with theirs, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell are born. Oh, and Bell Nicholls is already well on his way to being thoroughly smitten by Charlotte, although she doesn’t know it yet (and maybe neither does he). But the girls have completely omitted Branwell from their plans, since he intends to go his own way with his fanfiction novel (does it count as fanfiction if he invented the milieu? it certainly sounds like bad fanfiction), in which the author insert, the brave and dashing Earl of Northangerland, saves his True Love from the predations of her Evil, Brutish Husband. No projection or wish fulfillment there!
Compensating for Failing Sight
Meanwhile, Patrick Brontë tries to compensate for his failing sight by memorizing his Sunday sermons and having Bell Nicholls assist him in memorizing where everything is in the church, so he can continue to perform his parish duties and support his remaining offspring. He’s completely unaware that his children have embarked on various literary pursuits in an attempt to bring money into the family home. However, when the “Bell Brothers'” book of poetry is finally published, it only sells two copies – although readers are very intrigued as to who the mysterious Bell Brothers might be.
The Sisters’ First Fictional Creations
Undeterred by their initial lack of success, the sisters decide to try their hands at fiction next. Charlotte’s The Professor, which features a protagonist who sounds remarkably like an idealized version of M. Héger, is a stilted and awkward first attempt. But Anne and Emily meet with more success, writing Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, respectively. Anne’s story concerns a young woman who becomes a governess to save her family’s fortune, paralleling Anne’s own experiences, while Emily’s story… has something of everything else. Dysfunctional and destructive relationships, obsession, revenge, violence, lust and desire, psychopathic behaviour… all from the mind of an introverted parson’s daughter who rarely leaves Haworth.
As for Branwell, he’s overjoyed when he finally receives news of his former employer’s death. He believes the first thing the newly widowed (and prophetically named) Mrs. Robinson will do is send word that she wants to marry him, thereby providing him with the lifestyle to which he’s sure he’ll quickly become accustomed. But unfortunately for Branwell, the very practical Mrs. Robinson has no such intentions. She fibs to Branwell that a clause in her husband’s will specifically forbids her from marrying him, then quickly marries a rich relative instead. Her rejection sends Branwell into a steep depressive and alcoholic decline from which he never truly recovers. While Patrick Brontë disapproves of Branwell’s actions, saying he broke the Seventh Commandment, he nonetheless tries to help his son regain some sort of position in life. He places most of the blame for Branwell’s downfall on Mrs. Robinson, angrily declaring, “It was that woman tempted him!” and ominously predicting she’ll end up “reap[ing] her reward in hell”. Hmm… okay, maybe it’s not so mysterious where Emily gets her vengeful streak from.
Surgery and Recovery, and the Birth of Jane Eyre
Brontë’s cataracts worsen to the point where he’s nearly helpless, so Charlotte and Emily venture to Manchester in search of an eye surgeon who can perform a new operation to restore his sight. The painful cataract removal surgery, conducted without any anaesthetic (and on both eyes at once!), takes fifty minutes, during which Brontë must remain as still as possible (Mr. Malahide’s indrawn hiss of pain as the surgeon makes the first cut still gives me the cold shivers!). His only comfort is holding onto Charlotte’s hands for support while the operation takes place. Following the surgery, Brontë is forced to lie quietly for a month, eyes bandaged and unable to do much more than repeat memorized prayers, while Charlotte nurses him and begins her first draft of Jane Eyre. Unlike Charlotte’s unhappy and unrequited passion for M. Héger, Jane’s love for her employer is returned – and they’re even free to marry once his pesky, insane wife is out of the way. As for the cataract surgery, it proves successful: “Through divine mercy and skill of the surgeon, after a year of nearly total blindness, I was able to read, and write, and find my way without a guide,” says Brontë. His next wish is for Branwell to pull himself out of his decline.
But now that he can see, Brontë might wish he can’t – since now he can perceive that his curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, is beginning to take notice of Charlotte, staring at her distractedly. For her part, Charlotte is incensed at being paired up with Bell Nicholls in local gossip in the first place. “Never was rumour more unfounded,” she says. “A cold, faraway sort of civility are the only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls. He and his fellow curates regard me as an old maid and I regard them, one and all, as narrow and unattractive specimens of the coarser sex.” Poor Bell Nicholls somewhat resembles a poleaxed steer with his fascinated stare, but he might want to step carefully; now that he has his sight back, Rev. Brontë will likely get back to early morning pistol practice, and coincidentally might just be tempted to send his curate on some mysterious morning errands in the graveyard.
Jane Eyre Meets With a Father’s Approval
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s latest attempt at getting The Professor published proves unsuccessful – but the publisher, Smith, Elder, and Co., actually provides her with some constructive criticism and encourages her to send another work, so she decides to send Jane Eyre’s manuscript. Publisher George Smith (Richard Clothier) reads the entire book in one sitting and accepts it for publication right away, whereupon it rapidly meets with success and acclaim. Even established author William Makepeace Thackeray becomes a fan, which means a great deal to Charlotte. But she’s perhaps more worried about the reader whose opinion matters most to her; she puts off telling her father she’s a published author until the reviews start rolling in. Brontë’s reaction, when it comes, seems to surprise her with its mix of dry humour and understatement: “Charlotte, I’ve been reading your book. I think it’s a better book than I expected.” Well, don’t sound so surprised! He follows that with a fatherly admonition not to stay up too late. Perhaps he’s changed his mind at last about Charlotte allowing her “fantasies” to subsume her “womanly virtues”?
Sensing opportunity in the air, Emily and Anne’s publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, hastens publication of Agnes Grey (described as a “younger sister to Jane Eyre“) and Wuthering Heights in order to capitalize on Jane Eyre’s success. But while Agnes Grey receives mostly positive reviews, critics are less sure what to make of Wuthering Heights, describing it as “wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable”, with “vulgar depravity” and “unnatural horrors”. Charlotte is wounded on Emily’s behalf by the negative reviews, but Emily is determined to carry on writing, beginning a second novel. Anne also begins a second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a story of moral decline and alcoholism inspired in no small part by Branwell’s behaviour as the Robinsons’ tutor.
The Bell Brothers’ True Identities Revealed
As for Branwell himself, he’s been spiralling downward steadily since Mrs. Robinson’s rejection. Family friend John Brown (Geoffrey Leesley), who frequently ends up carrying Branwell home from the pub, says Patrick Brontë “did what he could” and “never stopped hoping the boy would find himself again”, but that “the girls had given up on him”. In their partial defense, the sisters might be somewhat distracted by Thomas Cautley Newby’s attempt at fraud; he tries to sell The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to an American publisher as being written by the same author as Jane Eyre. Anne and Charlotte immediately set out for London to rectify the misinformation with George Smith, but homebody Emily refuses to leave Haworth, saying they can speak for her. Smith is delighted to meet two of the “Bell Brothers” in person and wants to fête them all over town to celebrate their success, but Charlotte and Anne insist on remaining anonymous. However, Charlotte does begin a correspondence with Smith which soon develops into a budding romance.
Meanwhile, Branwell suffers an even more serious health setback and takes to his bed with consumption, exacerbated by alcoholism’s toll on his body. He laments that he’s done “nothing either great or good” with his life, while Brontë blames himself for being unable to stop Branwell’s drinking. Branwell dies shortly thereafter. Then only three months later, Brontë loses daughter Emily to the same illness, followed by Anne’s contracting the disease only weeks after that. Anne’s last wish is to see the seaside at Scarborough, and Brontë has a premonition as he bids her farewell: “I knew that I should never see her again upon this earth.” Indeed, Anne dies four days after arriving at Scarborough and Charlotte has her buried in a churchyard there. Brontë is devastated by the loss of three more of his children in rapid succession, over only a nine month period.
The Toast of London
Charlotte embarks on more work to keep her from dwelling on sorrow, finishing the novel Shirley, which she started around the time her siblings began to get ill. She also accepts an invitation from George Smith to visit London, to provide a change of scene to “lighten her spirits”. She finally meets her number one fan, Thackeray, whom she finds charismatic and fascinating, but “very ugly, indeed”. She’s also introduced to novelist Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, who will go on to write a biography of Charlotte after her death, The Life of Charlotte Brontë. However, Mrs. Gaskell can’t resist the opportunity to do some strategic editing and “improving” of Charlotte’s story; more on that later.
Brontë is so proud of his daughter’s accomplishments that he sends copies of Jane Eyre to all of his relatives in Ireland, even as he mourns the loss of “the talents of [his] other children”. The miniseries questions what became of Emily’s second manuscript, suggesting that Charlotte burned it rather than allow Emily to be posthumously raked over by critics, but it would seem highly unlikely that Charlotte could bring herself to destroy her sister’s last work in such a fashion.
A Proposal and a Father’s Opposition
While Charlotte is working on her fourth novel, Villette, she’s surprised to be the recipient of a proposal of marriage from… Arthur Bell Nicholls, who has finally screwed his courage to the sticking post. He’s not that courageous, though, since he’s so intimidated by Rev. Brontë he hasn’t yet asked him for Charlotte’s hand, leaving it up to Charlotte instead. But when Charlotte breaks the news, Brontë isn’t pleased at all. “I’ll not have another man in this house! How dare he!! If you marry anyone, I should expect you to choose someone more deserving of you than that… unmanly driveller!” he thunders. Ooo, harsh! Also a bit surprising that Brontë thinks of his curate in such a disparaging way, but perhaps the proposal forces him to reveal his true feelings. In any case, Charlotte obediently refuses Bell Nicholls’ proposal in accordance with her father’s wishes.
But why such a vehement reaction? Brontë’s opposition is due to the fact he still hopes Charlotte’s pen-pal romance with George Smith will turn into an engagement, with the well-connected publisher making a far better prospective husband than a penniless curate. But any possibility of her marrying Smith is dashed when she receives a “Dear Charlotte” letter from him, informing her that he’s just become engaged to a wealthy wine merchant’s daughter. Suddenly, Bell Nicholls doesn’t look so bad after all. “I could no longer maintain my opposition to the match,” says Brontë, adding ruefully, “But if truth be told, I thought she deserved better than a poor country parson, like her father.” He’s primarily concerned that Charlotte has a much easier life than her mother Maria had when she married him.
Marriage, Illness, and Death
However, while he’s withdrawn his opposition, Brontë is still not entirely reconciled to the idea of Charlotte’s marriage. He stays home from the ceremony, pleading ill health – and looking rather guilty about it. Like Jane Eyre, Charlotte marries Bell Nicholls simply, with none of her family present. She also gives up her writing to devote herself to becoming a parson’s wife. But only nine months after their wedding, pregnant and seriously ill with chronic morning sickness, Charlotte dies of severe dehydration. Once again devastated by the loss of the last of his six children, Brontë is touched to receive a poem written by Matthew Arnold in Charlotte’s honour, “Haworth Churchyard“, which he keeps for the rest of his life. It reads in part:
… Strew with roses the grave
Of the early-dying. Alas!
Early she goes on the path
To the Silent Country, and leaves
Half her laurels unwon,
Dying too soon: yet green
Laurels she had, and a course
Short, but redoubled by Fame. …
Brontë and Bell Nicholls then take over Charlotte’s legacy as their lives’ work, seeing to the posthumous publication of The Professor, as well as overseeing all business connected with her other works and those of her sisters. Never remarrying, Bell Nicholls continues to live with Brontë for the rest of his life, taking care of the old parson until his death at the age of 84 in 1861.
Mrs. Gaskell’s Version
Now, back to Mrs. Gaskell for a moment. She wrote a posthumous biography of Charlotte, based in large part on the content of letters Charlotte sent to childhood friend Ellen Nussey, as well as other letters she borrowed from Bell Nicholls and Brontë. However, perhaps in an attempt to make Charlotte’s life more… interesting, Gaskell cast Brontë as a stern, overbearing father, who selfishly opposed his daughter’s marriage on the grounds she’d no longer be around to look after him. She also eliminated any mention of Charlotte’s passion for M. Héger or her almost-romance with George Smith, in deference to Brontë and Bell Nicholls’ sensitivities (although she does mention an earlier marriage proposal from Ellen Nussey’s brother Henry, which Charlotte also turned down). But unfortunately, it was her portrayal of Brontë as a strict father jealously refusing his meekly obedient, but virtuously dedicated daughter’s one chance at happiness that seems to have had the most staying power. I didn’t realize until watching this miniseries that Brontë’s main objection was Bell Nicholls’ finances, because he simply wanted a better life for his daughter. And I also didn’t realize until I read Alan Adamson’s Mr. Charlotte Brontë: The Life of Arthur Bell Nicholls that Brontë and Bell Nicholls went through some prolonged wrangling with Mrs. Gaskell both on the content of the biography, and on the return of Charlotte’s letters and writings – some of which they never got back. If/when I ever get around to re-reading The Life of Charlotte Brontë, I’ll do it with a more skeptical eye.
The Production and Patrick Malahide as Patrick Brontë
As with part 1, this was an excellent production. I enjoyed the mix of dramatizations with actual writings, and although we didn’t see as much of him this time, Mr. Malahide did an excellent job portraying the Rev. Brontë as a real person, a dedicated father devoted to his children, proud of their talents and devastated by their early deaths. He convincingly portrayed Brontë throughout all stages of his life, from middle to old age, conveying the differences not just through make-up but through his demeanour, mannerisms, posture, voice, and movement. He brought Brontë to life for me as a sympathetic figure with his own unique, very dry sense of humour and enormous pride in his children’s accomplishments – making us feel his losses even more keenly. The only drawback to this miniseries is that it’s somewhat hard to get hold of; as I mentioned with part 1, it would be lovely to see it as a properly remastered DVD release.