‘When I first wondered aloud why no one has ever written a biography of Maria the answer came swiftly: “There isn’t enough on her,”‘ writes Sharon Wright. As Wright’s latest book, The Mother of the Brontës, proves in abundance, this is just nonsense.
Maria Branwell was born in 1783 in a house overlooking the sea at Penzance, the sixth baby of well-to-do gentlefolk Thomas and Anne. She was brought up in a degree of luxury in a place that was more sophisticated than one might assume. Her merchant-class family (who, by the way, had some colourful semi-criminal associations) took a close interest in science, the Penzance theatre accommodated 500 people and there were balls galore at the Assembly Rooms. Humphry Davy, the future scientist but then a lively and charismatic teenager (distantly related by marriage to Maria) lived nearby.
Maria loved stories and Wright has managed to compile her reading list. She has tracked down the titles she borrowed from the Penzance Ladies Book Club, which included religious works (she had strong Methodist leanings) and poetry but also fashionably lurid gothic fiction. At Roe Head School, Charlotte Brontë loved to thrill her school friends with tales of ‘surging seas, raging breakers, towering castle walls, high precipices, invisible chasms and dangers.’ Wright tells us that she read her mother’s old copies of The Lady’s Magazine – until they were confiscated and burned by her father because they contained ‘foolish love stories’ within their pages.
By 1812 when Maria left Penzance to help her uncle John Fennell run his school for the sons of itinerant Wesleyan preachers in Yorkshire, Maria was pushing 30 and well on the way to being an ‘old maid’. Patrick Brontë, an ambitious Irish clergyman from a struggling farming family, had done well at school and gained a sponsored place at Cambridge. He was also lonely and wanted to settle down with a suitable woman and build a family.
The chemistry was instant and they soon became ‘friends’. As Wright says, they did a lot of walking together, one of the few respectable activities available to a courting couple. They must have made a striking sight, a study in contrasts. Patrick was tall, thin, severe-looking, Maria tiny (4 feet 9 inches), elegant, friendly-faced. Despite Maria’s more elevated social rank, they were clearly a good match. She genuinely loved him, and certainly seemed not to notice or mind the ‘oddness’ other people saw in him. He saw an honest, Christian woman who put him at his ease, who was witty and able to tease him. Some of Patrick’s earlier behaviour with women suggests a distinct lack of empathy or social skills – he dumped one, did not think to tell her it was over, and put out feelers to her soon after Maria died (she told him where to get off).
As a married couple, Maria and Patrick weathered storms together including their difficult beginnings in Haworth, where they were greeted by the strong opposition of the town. There were more storms to come, of course, not least the inexorable and painful progress of Maria’s cancer which killed her in 1821 at the age of 38.
Sharon Wright is to be congratulated on producing a biography that is both colourful and serious, written in an accessible journalistic style. She is excellent at bringing to life the atmosphere of a place – the descriptions of Penzance are wonderfully vivid – and the interactions between people and has produced a fast-moving and engaging narrative.
‘For two hundred years, she has been an absence,’ writes Sharon Wright of Maria Brontë. This book completely knocks that on the head. Thank you for that, Sharon. Another woman comes out of the shadows.
The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick
by Sharon Wright
Pen and Sword, 2019