About a year after Mrs. Brontë's death, one of her elder sisters
came from Penzance to superintend her brother-in-law's household, and look
after his children. Miss
Branwell was, I believe, a kindly and conscientious woman, with a good deal of character, but with the somewhat narrow ideas natural to one who had spent nearly
all her life in the same place. She had strong prejudices, and soon took a distaste to Yorkshire. From Penzance, where plants which we in the north call green-house
flowers grow in great profusion, and without any shelter even in the winter, and where the soft warm climate allows the inhabitants, if so disposed, to live pretty
constantly in the open air, it was a great change for a lady considerably past forty to come and take up her abode in a place where neither flowers nor vegetables
would flourish, and where a tree of even moderate dimensions might be hunted for far and wide; where the snow lay long and late on the moors, stretching bleakly
and barely far up from the dwelling which was henceforward to be her home;and where often, on autumnal or winter nights, the four winds of heaven seemed to
meet and rage together, tearing round the house as if they were wild beasts striving to find an entrance. She missed the small round of cheerful, social visiting
perpetually going on in a country town; she missed the friends she had known from her childhood, some of whom had been her parents' friends before they were
hers; she disliked many of the customs of the place, and particularly dreaded the cold damp arising from the flag floors in the passages and parlours of Haworth
Parsonage. The stairs, too, I believe, are made of stone; and no wonder, when stone quarries are near, and trees are far to seek. I have heard that Miss Branwell
always went about the house in pattens, clicking up and down the stairs, from her dread of catching cold. For the same reason, in the later years of her life, she
passed nearly all her time, and took most of her meals, in her bed-room. The children respected her, and had that sort of affection for her which is generated by
esteem; but I do not think they ever freely loved her. It was a severe trial for any one at her time of life to change neighborhhod and habitation so entirely as she did;
and the greater her merit.
I do not know whether Miss Branwell taught her nieces anything besides
sewing, and the household arts in which Charlotte afterwards was such an
regular lessons were said to their father; and they were always in the habit of picking up an immense amount of miscellaneous information for themselves. But a year
or so before this time, a school had been begun in the North of England for the daughters of clergymen. The place was Cowan Bridge, a small hamlet on the
coach-road between Leeds and Kendal, and thus easy of access from Haworth, as the coach ran daily, and one of its stages was at Keighley. The yearly expense
for each pupil (according to the entrance-rules given in the Report for 1842, and I believe they had not been increased since the establishment of the schools in
1823) was as follows: -
"Rule II. The terms for clothing, lodging, boarding, and educating,
are £14 a year; half to be paid in advance, when the pupils are sent;
and also £1 entrance-money,
for the use of books, etc. The system of education comprehends history, geography, the use of the globes, grammar, writing and arithmetic, all kinds of needlework,
and the nicer kinds of household work - such as getting up fine linen, ironing, etc. If accomplishments are required, an additional charge of £3 a year is made for
music or drawing, each."
Rule 3rd requests that the friends will state the line of education desired in the case of every pupil, having a prospective regard to her future prospects.
Rule 4th states the clothing and toilette articles which a girl is expected
to bring with her; and thus concludes: "The pupils all appear in the same
dress. They wear
plain straw cottage bonnets, in summer white frocks on Sundays, and nankeen on other days; in winter, purple stuff frocks, and purple cloth cloaks. For the sake of
uniformity, therefore, they are required to bring £3 in lieu of frocks, pelisse, bonnet, tippet, and frills; making the whole sum which each pupil brings with her to the
£7 half-year in advance.
£1 entrance for books.
£1 entrance for clothes. The 8th rule is - "All letters and parcels are inspected by the superintendent;" but this is a very prevalent regulation in all young ladies'
schools, where I think it is generally understood that the schoolmistress may exercise this privilege, although it is certainly unwise in her to insist too frequently upon it.
There is nothing at all remarkable in any of the other regulations,
a copy of which was doubtless in Mr. Brontë's hands when he formed
the determination to send his
daughters to Cowan Bridge School; and he accordingly took Maria and Elizabeth thither in July, 1824.
I now come to a part of my subject which I find great difficulty in
treating, because the evidence relating to it on each side is so conflicting
that it seems almost
impossible to arrive at the truth. Miss Brontë more than once said to me, that she should not have written what she did of Lowood in Jane Eyre, if she had thought
the place would have been so immediately identified with Cowan Bridge, although there was not a word in her account of the institution but what was true at the time
when she knew it; she also said that she had not considered it necessary, in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a
court of justice, nor to seek out motives, and make allowances for human feelings, as she might have done, if dispassionately analysing the conduct of those who had
the superintendence of the institution. I believe she herself would have been glad of an opportunity to correct the over-strong impression which was made upon the
public mind by her vivid picture, though even she, suffering her whole life long, both in heart and body, from the consequences of what happened there, might have
been apt, to the last, to take her deep belief in facts for the facts themselves - her conception of truth for the absolute truth.
A wealthy clergyman, living near Kirby Lonsdale, the Reverend William
Carus Wilson, was the prime mover in the establishment of this school.
He was an energetic
man, sparing no labour for the accomplishment of his ends, and willing to sacrifice everything but power. He saw that it was an extremely difficult task for clergymen
with limited incomes to provide for the education of their children; and he devised a scheme, by which a certain sum was raised annually in subscription, to complete
the amount required to furnish a solid and sufficient English education, for which the parent's payment of £14 a year would not have been sufficient. Indeed that made
by the parents was considered to be exclusively appropriated to the expenses of lodging and boarding, and the education provided for by the subscriptions. Twelve
trustees were appointed; Mr. Wilson being not only a trustee, but the treasurer and secretary; in fact, taking most of the business arrangements upon himself; a
responsibility which appropriately fell to him, as he lived nearer the school than any one else who was interested in it. So his character for prudence and judgment
was to a certain degree implicated in the success or failure of Cowan Bridge School; and the working of it was for many years the great object and interest of his life.
But he was apparently unacquainted with the prime element in good administration - seeking out thoroughly competent persons to fill each department, and then
making them responsible for, and judging them by, the result, without perpetual and injudicious interference with the details. So great was the amount of good which
Mr. Wilson did, by his constant, unwearied superintendence, that I cannot help feeling sorry that, in his old age and declining health, the errors, which he certainly
committed, should have been brought up against him in a form which received such wonderful force from the touch of Miss Brontë's great genius. As I write, I have
before me his last words on giving up the secretaryship in 1850 - he speaks of the "withdrawal, from declining health, of an eye, which, at all events, has loved to
watch over the schools with an honest and anxious interest," - and again he adds, "that he resigns, therefore, with a desire to be thankful for all that God has been
pleased to accomplish through his instrumentality (the infirmities and unworthinesses of which he deeply feels and deplores.)"
Cowan Bridge is a cluster of some six or seven cottages, gathered together
at both ends of a bridge, over which the high road from Leeds to Kendal
crosses a little
stream, called the Leck. This high road is nearly disused now; but formerly, when the buyers from the West Riding manufacturing districts had frequent occasion to
go up into the North to purchase the wool of the Westmoreland and Cumberland farmers, it was doubtless much travelled; and perhaps the hamlet of Cowan's
Bridge had a more prosperous look than it bears at present. It is prettily situated; just where the Leck-fells swoop into the plain; and by the course of the beck
alder-trees and willows and hazel bushes grow. The current of the stream is interrupted by broken pieces of grey rock; and the waters flow over a bed of large
round white pebbles, which a flood heaves up and moves on either side out of its impetuous way till in some parts they almost form a wall. By the side of the little,
shallow, sparkling, vigorous Leck, run long pasture fields, of the fine short grass common in high land; for though Cowan Bridge is situated on a plain, it is a plain
from which there is many a fall and long descent before you and the Leck reach the valley of the Lune. I can hardly understand how the school there came to be so
unhealthy, the air all round about was so sweet and thyme-scented, when I visited it last summer. But at this day, every one knows that the site of a building intended
for numbers should be chosen with far greater care than that of a private house, from the tendency to illness, both infectious and otherwise, produced by the
congregation of people in close proximity.
The house is still remaining that formed part of that occupied by the
school. It is a long, low bow-windowed cottage, now divided into two dwellings.
It stands facing
the Leck, between which and it intervenes a space, about seventy yards deep, that was once the school garden. Running from this building, at right angles with what
now remains of the school-house, there was formerly a bobbin-mill connected with the stream, where wooden reels were made out of the alders which grow
profusely in such ground as that surrounding Cowan Bridge. Mr. Wilson adapted this mill to his purpose; there were school-rooms on the lower floor, and
dormitories on the upper. The present cottage was occupied by the teachers' rooms, the dining-room and kitchens, and some smaller bed-rooms. On going into this
building, I found one part, that nearest to the high road, converted into a poor kind of public-house, then to let, and having all the squalid appearance of 'a deserted
place, which rendered it difficult to judge what it would look like when neatly kept up; the broken panes replaced in the windows, and the rough-cast (now cracked
and discoloured) made white and whole. The other end forms a cottage, with the low ceilings and stone floors of a hundred years ago; the windows do not open
freely and widely; and the passage up-stairs, leading to the bed-rooms, is narrow and tortuous; altogether, smells would linger about the house, and damp cling to it.
But sanitary matters were little understood thirty years ago; and it was a great thing to get a roomy building close to the high road, and not too far from the habitation
of Mr. Wilson, the originator of the educational scheme. There was much need of such an institution; numbers of ill-paid clergymen hailed the prospect with joy, and
eagerly put down the names of their children as pupils when the establishment should be ready to receive them. Mr. Wilson was, no doubt, pleased by the
impatience with which the realisation of his idea was anticipated, and opened the school with less than a hundred pounds in hand, and, as far as I can make out, from
seventy to eighty pupils.
Mr. Wilson felt, most probably, that the responsibility of the whole
plan rested upon him. The payment made by the parents was barely enough
for food and lodging;
the subscriptions did not flow very freely into an untried scheme; and great economy was necessary in all the domestic arrangements. He determined to enforce this
by frequent personal inspection; and his love of authority seems to have led to a great deal of unnecessary and irritating meddling with little matters. Yet, although
there was economy in providing for the household, there does not appear to have been any parsimony. The meat, flour, milk, etc., were contracted for, but were of
very fair quality; and the dietary, which has been shown to me in manuscript, was neither bad not unwholesome; nor, on the whole, was it wanting in variety. Oatmeal
porridge for breakfast; a piece of oat-cake for those who required luncheon; baked and boiled beef, and mutton, potato-pie, and plain homely puddings of different
kinds for dinner. At five o'clock, bread and milk for the younger ones; and one piece of bread (this was the only time at which the food was limited) for the elder
pupils, who sat up till a later meal of the same description. Mr. Wilson himself ordered in the food, and was anxious that it should be of good quality. But the cook,
who had much of his confidence, and against whom for a long time no one durst utter a complaint, was careless, dirty, and wasteful. To some children oatmeal
porridge is distasteful, and consequently unwholesome, even when properly made; at Cowan Bridge School it was too often sent up, not merely burnt, but with
offensive fragments of other substances discoverable in it. The beef, that should have been carefully salted before it was dressed, had often become tainted from
neglect; and girls, who were schoolfellows with the Brontës, during the reign of the cook of whom I am speaking, tell me that the house seemed to be pervaded,
morning, noon, and night, by the odour of rancid fat that steamed out of the oven in which much of their food was prepared. There was the same carelessness in
making the puddings; one of those ordered was rice boiled in water, and eaten with a sauce of treacle and sugar; but it was often uneatable, because the water had
been taken out of the rain-tub, and was strongly impregnated with the dust lodging on the roof, whence it had trickled down into the old wooden cask, which also
added its own flavour to that of the original rain water. The milk, too, was often " bingy," to use a country expression for a kind of taint that is far worse than
sourness, and suggests the idea that it is caused by want of cleanliness about the milk pans, rather than by the heat of the weather. On Saturdays, a kind of pie, or
mixture of potatoes and meat, was served up, which was made of all the fragments accumulated during the week. Scraps of meat from a dirty and disorderly larder,
could never be very appetising; and, I believe, that this dinner was more loathed than any in the early days of Cowan Bridge School. One may fancy how repulsive
such fare would be to children whose appetites were small, and who had been accustomed to food, far simpler perhaps, but prepared with a delicate cleanliness that
made it both tempting and wholesome. Many a meal the little Brontës went without food, although craving with hunger. They were not strong when they came,
having only just recovered from a complication of measles and hooping-cough; indeed, I suspect they had scarcely recovered; for there was some consultation on
the part of the school authorities whether Maria and Elizabeth should be received or not, in July, 1824. Mr. Brontë came again, in the September of that year,
bringing with him Charlotte and Emily to be admitted as pupils.
It appears strange that Mr. Wilson should not have been informed by
the teachers of the way in which the food was served up; but we must remember
that the cook
had been known for some time to the Wilson family, while the teachers were brought together for an entirely different work - that of education. They were expressly
given to understand that such was their department; the buying in and management of the provisions rested with Mr. Wilson and the cook. The teachers would, of
course, be unwilling to lay any complaints on the subject before him; and when he heard of them, his reply was to the effect that the children were to be trained up to
regard higher things than dainty pampering of the appetite, and (apparently unconscious of the fact, that daily loathing and rejection of food is sure to undermine the
health) he lectured them on the sin of caring over-much for carnal things.
There was another trial of health common to all the girls. The path
from Cowan Bridge to Tunstall Church, where Mr. Wilson preached, and where
they all attended
on the Sunday, is more than two miles in length, and goes sweeping along the rise and fall of the unsheltered country, in a way to make it a fresh and exhilarating walk
in summer, but a bitter cold one in winter, especially to children whose thin blood flowed languidly in consequence of their half-starved condition. The church was not
warmed, there being no means for this purpose. It stands in the midst of fields, and the damp mists must have gathered round the walls, and crept in at the windows.
The girls took their cold dinner with them, and ate it between the services, in a chamber over the entrance, opening out of the former galleries. The arrangements for
this day were peculiarly trying to delicate children, particularly to those who were spiritless, and longing for home, as poor Maria Brontë must have been. For her ill
health was increasing; the old cough, the remains of the hooping-cough, lingered about her; she was far superior in mind to any of her play-fellows and companions,
and was lonely amongst them from that very cause; and yet she had faults so annoying that she was in constant disgrace with her teachers, and an object of merciless
dislike to one of them, who is depicted as "Miss Scatcherd" in Jane Eyre, and whose real name I will he merciful enough not to disclose. I need hardly say, that
Helen Burns is as exact a transcript of Maria Brontë as Charlotte's wonderful power of reproducing character could give. Her heart, to the latest day on which we
met, still beat with unavailing indignation at the worrying and the cruelty to which her gentle, patient, dying sister had been subjected by this woman. Not a word of
that part of Jane Eyre but is a literal repetition of scenes. between the pupil and the teacher. Those who had been pupils at the same time knew who must have
written the book, from the force with which Helen Burns' sufferings are described. They had, before that, recognised the description of the sweet dignity and
benevolence of Miss Temple as only a just tribute to the merits of one whom all that knew her appear to hold in honour; but when Miss Scatcherd was held up to
opprobrium they also recognised in the writer of Jane Eyre an unconsciously avenging sister of the sufferer.
One of these fellow-pupils of Charlotte and Maria Brontë's, among
other statements even worse, gives me the following: - 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 the door of this room. One morning, after she had become so seriously unwell as to have
had a blister applied to her side (the sore from which was not perfectly healed), when the getting-up bell was heard, 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 superintendent. But Miss
Scatcherd 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 (my informant spoke as if she saw it yet, and
her whole face flashed out undying indignation). Just then Miss Scatcherd issued from her room, and, without asking for a word of explanation from the sick and
frightened girl, she took her by the arm, on the side to which the blister had been applied, 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. My informant says, 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.
Any one may fancy how such an event as this would rankle in Charlotte's
mind. I only wonder that she did not remonstrate against her father's decision
to send her
and Emily back to Cowan Bridge, after Maria's and Elizabeth's deaths. But frequently children are unconscious of the effect which some of their simple revelations
would have in altering the opinions entertained by their friends of the persons placed around them. Besides, Charlotte's earnest vigorous mind saw, at an unusually
early age, the immense importance of education, as furnishing her with tools which she had the strength and the will to wield, and she would be aware that the Cowan
Bridge education was, in many points, the best that her father could provide for her.
Before Maria Brontë's death, that low fever broke out, in the spring
of 1825, which is spoken of in Jane Eyre. Mr. Wilson was extremely alarmed
at the first
symptoms of this; his self-confidence was shaken; he did not understand what kind of illness it could be, that made the girls too dull and heavy to understand
remonstrances, or be roused by texts and spiritual exhortation; but caused them to sink away into dull stupor, and half-unconscious listlessness. He went to a kind
motherly woman, who had had some connection with the school - as laundress, I believe - and asked her to come and tell him what was the matter with them. She
made herself ready, and drove with him in his gig. When she entered the school-room, she saw from twelve to fifteen girls lying about; some resting their aching
heads on the table, others on the ground; all heavy-eyed, flushed, indifferent, and weary, with pains in every limb. Some peculiar odour, she says, made her
recognise that they were sickening for "the fever;" and she told Mr. Wilson so, and that she could not stay there for fear of conveying the infection to her own
children; but he half commanded, and half intreated her to remain and nurse them; and finally mounted his gig and drove away, while she was still urging that she must
return to her own house, and to her domestic duties, for which she had provided no substitute. However, when she was left in this unceremonious manner, she
determined to make the best of it; and a most efficient nurse she proved, although, as she says, it was a dreary time. Mr. Wilson supplied everything ordered by the
doctors of the best quality, and in the most liberal manner; he even sent for additional advice, in the person of his own brother-in-law, a very clever medical man in
Kirby, with whom he had not been on good terms for some time previously; and it was this doctor who tasted and condemned the daily food of the girls by the
expressive action of spitting out a portion which he had taken in order to taste it. About forty of the girls suffered from this fever, but none of them died at Cowan
Bridge, though one died at her own home, sinking under the state of health which followed it. None of the Brontës had the fever. But the same causes, which
affected the health of the other pupils through typhus, told more slowly, but not less surely, upon their constitutions. The principal of these causes was the food. The
bad management of the cook was chiefly to be blamed for this; she was dismissed, and the woman who had been forced against her will to serve as head nurse,
took the place of housekeeper; and henceforward the food was so well prepared that no one could ever reasonably complain of it. Of course it cannot be expected
that a new institution, comprising domestic and educational arrangements for nearly a hundred persons, should work quite smoothly at the beginning, and all this
occurred during the first two years of the establishment. But Mr. Wilson seems to have had the unlucky gift of irritating even those to whom he meant kindly, and for
whom he was making perpetual sacrifices of time and money, by never showing any respect for their independence of opinion and action. He had, too, so little
knowledge of human nature as to imagine that, by constantly reminding the girls of their dependent position, and the fact that they were receiving their education from
the charity of others, he could make them lowly and humble. Some of the more sensitive felt this treatment bitterly, and instead of being as grateful as they should
have been for the real benefits they were obtaining, their mortified pride rose up from its fall a hundred-fold more strong. Painful impressions sink deep into the hearts
of delicate and sickly children. What the healthy suffer from but momentarily, and then forget, those who are ailing brood over involuntarily, and remember long -
perhaps with no resentment, but simply as a piece of suffering that has been stamped into their very life. The pictures, ideas, and conceptions of character received
into the mind of the child of eight years old, were destined to be reproduced in fiery words a quarter of a century afterwards. She saw only one side, and that the
unfavourable side of Mr. Wilson; but many of those who knew him, assure me of the wonderful fidelity with which his disagreeable qualities, his spiritual pride, his
love of power, his ignorance of human nature and consequent want of tenderness are represented; while, at the same time, they regret that the delineation of these
should have obliterated, as it were, nearly all that was noble and conscientious.
The recollections left of the four Brontë sisters at this period
of their lives, on the minds of those who associated with them, are not
very distinct. Wild, strong hearts,
and powerful minds, were hidden under an enforced propriety and regularity of demeanour and expression, just as their faces had been concealed by their father,
under his stiff, unchanging mask. Maria was delicate, unusually clever and thoughtful for her age, gentle, and untidy. Of her frequent disgrace from this last fault - of
her sufferings, so patiently borne - I have already spoken. The only glimpse we get of Elizabeth, through the few years of her short life, is contained in a letter which I
have received from Miss 'Temple.' The second, Elizabeth, is the only one of the family of whom I have a vivid recollection, from her meeting with a somewhat
alarming accident, in consequence of which I had her for some days and nights in my bed-room, not only for the sake of greater quiet, but that I might watch over
her myself. Her head was severely cut, but she bore all the consequent suffering with exemplary patience, and by it won much upon my esteem. Of the two younger
ones (if two there were) I have very slight recollections, save that one, a darling child, under five years of age, was quite the pet nursling of the school." This last
would be Emily. Charlotte was considered the most talkative of the sisters - a "bright, clever little child." Her great friend was a certain "Mellany Hane" (so Mr.
Brontë spells the name), a West Indian, whose brother paid for her schooling, and who had no remarkable talent except for music, which her brother's
circumstances forbade her to cultivate. She was "a hungry, good-natured, ordinary girl;" older than Charlotte, and ever ready to protect her from any petty tyranny
or encroachments on the part of the elder girls. Charlotte always remembered her with affection and gratitude.
I have quoted the word" bright " in the account of Charlotte. I suspect
that this year of 1825 was the last time it could ever be applied to her.
In this spring, Maria
became so rapidly worse that Mr. Brontë was sent for. He had not previously been aware of her illness, and the condition in which he found her was a terrible shock
to him. He took her home by the Leeds coach, the girls crowding out into the road to follow her with their eyes over the bridge, past the cottages, and then out of
sight for ever. She died a very few days after her arrival at home. Perhaps the news of her death, falling suddenly into the life of which her patient existence had
formed a part, only a little week or so before, made those who remained at Cowan Bridge look with more anxiety on Elizabeth's symptoms, which also turned out to
be consumptive. She was sent home in charge of a confidential servant of the establishment; and she, too, died in the early summer of that year. Charlotte was thus
suddenly called into the responsibilities of eldest sister in a motherless family. She remembered how anxiously her dear sister Maria had striven in her grave earnest
way, to be a tender helper and a counsellor to them all; and the duties that now fell upon her seemed almost like a legacy from the gentle little sufferer so lately dead.
Both Charlotte and Emily returned to school after the Midsummer holidays
in this fatal year. But before the next winter, it was thought desirable
to advise their
removal from school, as it was evident that the damp situation of the house at Cowan Bridge did not suit their health.