THE SECRET DIARIES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTË, Excerpt
The 21st of April 1845 was a gloomy, bone-chilling day.
I was awakened at daybreak by a great clap of thunder; moments later, the cloudy grey heavens opened up in a torrential downpour. All morning, rain spattered against the window-panes of the parsonage, pelted the roof and eaves, drenched the densely packed headstones in the nearby graveyard, and danced against the flagstones in the adjacent lane, merging into rivulets which flowed in a steady stream past the church, toward the steep, cobbled main street of the village.
Inside the parsonage kitchen, however, all was cosy, full of the fragrance of new bread and the warmth of a generous fire. It was a Monday—baking-day—which my sister Emily said was very convenient, for it was also my birthday. I had always preferred to observe such occasions with as little fuss as possible; but Emily insisted, as I was turning twenty-nine, that we should make time for a private celebration.
“It is your last year of an important decade,” said Emily, as she expertly kneaded a mound of dough on the floured centre table. Already, two loaves were in the oven, another bowl of dough was rising beneath a cloth, and I was well under way with preparations for a pie and a tart. “At the very least, we must mark the occasion with a cake.”
“I see no purpose in it,” said I, as I measured out the flour for a pastry crust. “Without Anne and Branwell here, it will not feel like much of a party.”
“We cannot put off our own pleasures in their absence, Charlotte,” said Emily solemnly. “We are meant to prize life and enjoy it, so long as we retain it.”
Emily was two years younger than I, and the tallest person in our family, other than papa. She was a complex personality with twin, diverse sides to her nature: brooding, melancholy introspection concerning the meaning of life and death; and sunny delight in contemplation of the world’s many joys and natural beauties. As long as she could live at home, surrounded by her moors, Emily was happy and took life easily; unlike me, she was rarely distressed. She preferred being lost in thought, or in the pages of a book, to any other occupation in life—a preference with which I heartily agreed.
Emily had no regard for public opinion, and no interest in fashion; although it had long been the style to wear neatly waisted, fitted frocks and full petticoats, Emily still preferred to wear the old-fashioned, shapeless dresses and thin petticoats which clung to her legs, and did not particularly suit her lean frame. As she rarely ventured out except to walk on the heath, it hardly mattered.
With her slender physique, pale complexion, and dark hair knotted up carelessly under a Spanish comb, Emily reminded me of a sturdy sapling: thin and graceful, yet unyielding; hardy in solitude; impervious to the effects of wind and rain. In the presence of strangers, Emily withdrew into herself, all gravity and silence; but in the company of family, her ebullient, sensitive nature found its full expression. I loved her as dearly as I loved life itself.
“How long has it been since we were all together for your birthday?” continued Emily.
“I cannot recall the last time,” said I with regret.
It had, indeed, been a long while since all my siblings and I had been in one location at the same time, other than a few short weeks at Christmas and the summer holidays. For the past five years, our youngest sister Anne had been serving as a governess for the Robinson family at Thorp Green Hall, near York. Our brother Branwell, younger than I by fourteen months, had joined Anne there three years previously, as a tutor to the eldest son.
In the years before that, I had been much away at school, first as a student, and then as a teacher, followed by a stint of my own as a governess. Then had come two years in Belgium: a sojourn which had proved to be the most powerful, exhilarating, life-altering—and heartbreaking—experience of my existence.
“I am making you a spice cake, and that is final,” said Emily. “After supper, we shall sit by the fire and tell each other stories. Perhaps Tabby and papa will join us.”
Tabby was our elderly servant, a good, faithful Yorkshire woman who had been with us since childhood. Over the years, when she chanced to be in good humour, Tabby had brought her ironing-table to the dining-room hearth and allowed us to sit about it. While she got up the sheets and chemises, or crimped her night-cap borders, she fed our eager attention with tales of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and ballads. On other occasions, our evenings by the fire had been enlivened by papa’s thrilling renditions of ghost stories and ancient, local legends.
To-night, however, it was uncertain whether or not papa would choose to participate.
I glanced out the kitchen window at the moors beyond. A shower wept over the distant hilltops, hiding their crests with the low-hanging, dishevelled tresses of a cloud. “Wonderful weather for a birthday. At least the day matches my mood: dark and somber, with turbulent storms and no end in sight.”
“You sound like me,” rejoined Emily, as she mixed together the ingredients for her cake. “Do not lose hope. If we take one day at a time, everything may yet work itself out.”
“How?” I sighed. “Papa’s eyesight grows dimmer with each passing day.”
My father was an Irish immigrant who, through perseverance and education, had risen far above his poor, illiterate family’s station. When the registrar at St. John’s College, Cambridge, could not understand the spelling of papa’s surname due to his broad Irish accent, he wrote it down himself, changing it from Brunty to the more interesting Brontë, after the Greek word for thunder.
A good, kind, lively, and highly intelligent man, papa was widely read, with interests in literature, art, music and science which reached far beyond his province as the parson of a small Yorkshire parish. He enjoyed writing, and had had several poems and religious stories published, as well as numerous articles; he was greatly involved in the politics of the community; and he was a deeply committed clergyman. He was also greatly troubled: for to-day, at age sixty-eight, after a lifetime of faithful service to the church, our adored father was going blind.
“I must now do all of papa’s reading and writing for him,” said I. “Soon, I fear he will not be able to keep up with his most basic duties in the parish—and if he loses his sight entirely, what shall we do? Not only will papa forfeit all his scanty pleasures in life and grow entirely dependent on us—a circumstance you know he greatly dreads—but he will no doubt be forced to forfeit his incumbency. We shall then lose not only his entire income, but our home as well.”
“In any other family, the son would come to the financial rescue,” observed Emily, shaking her head, “but our brother has never been able to hold a job for long.”
“Indeed, his stint as tutor at Thorp Green is the longest he has ever held a position,” I added, as I rolled out my pastry crust. “He seems to be highly valued there; yet his income is barely enough to cover his own expenses. We must accept it, Emily: should papa’s health fail, the entire burden of supporting the household will fall squarely upon our shoulders.”