Friday, July 28, 2023

The Branwell family to the Brontës... from Penzance to Haworth

Unlike the granite-faced buildings that surround it, the Branwell home stands out, a little austere and rather enigmatic with its distinctive redbrick facade and imposing door. Such brickwork was indeed a sign of means and status in late 18th century Penzance, with these 'Rotterdam' bricks having been procured from the Dutch by local privateers.
Situated towards the end of Chapel Street, with a view over Penzance quay and Mount's Bay, and later to be overshadowed by St Mary's church built in 1835, the house would have witnessed great day-to-day activity and perhaps a number or illicit or illegal affairs such as smuggling. The house, however, reveals few secrets itself. It does not offer the same quaint charm or meet any of our modern-day notions of cosiness as the other houses here do, but that makes it all the more intriguing.
Set a little higher on the pavement, with steps leading up to the front door, it is impossible to peer inside, try as I might. Yet the plaque on the facade opened a door to a world of ideas and imagination from the moment I read Wuthering Heights as a young teenager. For here was the home of the Branwell family, notably Maria and Elizabeth who were to be mother and aunt respectively of Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell Brontë. From this house would spring the future monumental works of English literature, in northern regions far away from south-west. What would have happened if Maria and her future husband, Patrick Brontë,had settled in Penzance and their children had taken to roaming its magnificent landscape and breathtaking coast instead of exploring the dramatic Yorkshire moorland around Haworth?
One thing is almost certain, without the nurturing administrations of Elizabeth - 'Aunt Branwell' - the publication of the literary works of the Brontë sisters would have been severely thwarted or perhaps never have taken place at all. Alongside the care and love she provided throughout their childhood years and beyond as 'second mother' to the orphaned children, Elizabeth Branwell offered financial support at a key moment, when none was to be found elsewhere.
In fact, much of the information concerning 'Aunt Branwell' comes from the book above that I found in Penzance this summer, and which enabled me to track down the other homes and sites linked to the Cornish relatives of the Brontës around the town. Although I was, of course, fully acquainted with many of these places as part and parcel of Penzance such as I have always known it, the notion that this was the case for the Branwells too is quite strange.
As popular pubs, my teenage memories of The Union Hotel, The Turk's Head Inn and The Admiral Benbow in Chapel Street surely differ greatly to those of Elizabeth Branwell, who would never have frequented such places in that capacity! However, their pasts are linked to historic moments such as the announcement of Nelson's death in 1805 for The Union and The Turk's and then a wild and racy role in smuggling in the case of The Benbow. The latter is even said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson in his writing of Treasure Island...
Born in 1776, Elizabeth grew up in certain comfort within a relatively prosperous merchant family that owned property. In the century prior to her birth, the fortune of Penzance had grown as had its population, largely due to its status as coinage town from the 1660s, thus playing a vital role in the copper and tin industry. Fishing and farming continued to flourish but it was the Industrial Revolution that would fuel the town's ascension. Sir Humphry Davy, Penzance chemist and inventor of the miners' safety lamp was born in the same period as Elizabeth and his experiments opened the way for the advances in chemistry and physics that would transform science. He attended the grammar school in the town, and I went to Humphry Davy Grammar School some two centuries later!
Socially aware of the lack of education and thus the means for moral and social betterment, Thomas Branwell, father to Elizabeth, set up a school room at the back of the family home in Chapel Street as a philanthropic act. Referred to as The Penny School due to its cheap rate, it offered local children education, alongside the Branwell children, several of whom would later teach there. Unfortunately the school was destroyed by a bomb in WW2...
Despite economic growth, no family was safe from hardship or loss and the Branwells were no exception, with the majority of their twelve children failing to survive their infant years. Thus the parish church of St Maddern in Madron was witness to a succession of christenings and subsequent deaths. Yet Jane, Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, born in 1773, 1776 and 1783 respectively, would go on to change literature indirectly by their fates, whilst the eldest daughter, Jane, would be the only Branwell offspring to perpetuate the family name.
Despite attending the church at Madron, the Branwells turned towards the Methodist Movement for prayer and not only were they involved in the establishment of the Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Chapel Street, but it was the family's Methodist faith that was instrumental in bringing Maria and Patrick Brontë together in Yorkshire. Incidently, the Girls Grammar School used to hold Speech Day at the chapel each year until the 1980s...
Following the marriage of Maria to Patrick in 1812, Elizabeth visited the couple in happy times that would prove to be relatively short-lived. Having borne six children between 1814 and 1820, Maria fell ill after the birth of the last child in 1820, Anne, and died of suspected uterine infection. And so it was that Elizabeth's stay at Haworth extended indefinitely so that she never returned to Penzance again. And yet her vital role in the development of her charges, with her far-reaching, albeit discreet influence, ensured that she lived on through the writings of her nieces with references to events, deeds and thoughts that found their source in 'Aunt Branwell'.
As for the elder sister of Elizabeth and Maria - Jane Branwell - following a failed marriage to a disgraced Methodist missionary, reverend John Kingston, she was obliged to flee to Penzance, living in Morrab Place with one of their children. Her husband remained in America with the other offspring who would prove to be the last remaining strains of the Branwell family.

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