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On this day, October 29th, in 1842, Elizabeth Branwell, aunt to Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë, died.
In the summer of 1821, unmarried at the age of 45, she traveled to Haworth from her native Penzance to be by the side of her dying sister, Maria, wife of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and mother to his six children. After Maria Bronte’s death in September 1821, Elizabeth Branwell stayed on to temporarily help with the care of the Brontë brood, which then included older sisters Maria and Elizabeth who would also die within a few years. When it seemed her brother-in-law was unlikely to remarry, Aunt Elizabeth Branwell took on the permanent role of surrogate mother to the Brontë children. Although it meant enduring the often harsh conditions and seclusion of West Yorkshire, she choose duty, from, I believe, what was a great love for her nieces and nephew, over an easier life in a milder climate, pleasant society, and the familiarity of her native Cornwall.
Aunt Elizabeth was the only “mother” Anne could remember, as a child sharing a bed with her and greatly influenced by her piety, stoicism and sacrifice.
Charlotte and Emily were at school in Brussels at the time of their aunt’s death. Anne, who was governess at Thorpe Green near York, made it home shortly after her funeral. Branwell was the only one of the Brontë children who was with her through her brief but horrible demise from a constriction of the bowel. After her death, he wrote to a friend, ‘I am incoherent, I fear, but I have been waking two nights witnessing such agonizing suffering as I would not wish my worst enemy to endure; and I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’
Here is an excerpt from Without the Veil Between, set the Christmas after Aunt Elizabeth Branwell’s death:
Death had intruded on them all, but Branwell and their father had spent the most time with it and were physically and emotionally wearied by its visit not once but twice in a little over two months. Anne and her sisters weren’t spared its ruthlessness, although with the loss of her aunt, Anne found some relief, not from grief but the concealment of it.
“However did we all fit in this room?” Charlotte prompted Anne to find courage, even a little delight, in remembering.
“We pushed up the side table, didn’t we?”
“Yes, I believe so. And Branny straddled its pedestal, could hardly eat for its wobbling, and sweated as he was so close to the fire.”
Their brother didn’t look up, his plate as full as it was half an hour before.
“Aunt hated when we teased him,” Charlotte continued to talk about her brother as though he wasn’t there, knowing how to both irritate and indulge him. “She doted on him more than she did you, Anne.”
“She knew his weaknesses,” Reverend Brontë immediately clarified, “but at the end his devotion.”
Branwell spoke softly with his hand over his mouth.
His father reached across the table to pull it down. “Say again.”
“I don’t think so. How could she? Her suffering, such pain as I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
“She’s not suffering now, my boy.”
Anne, who was sitting next to him, stroked his hand crumbling a piece of bread.
“Oh, I think she’s comfortably settled on her heavenly throne thinking she did her best and we’re no longer her problem.” Charlotte wasn’t eating much either.
“Not how she wasted her life on us?”
“Well, you must let such a question influence your own choices, Son,” Reverend Brontë spoke without a hint of guilt in any reference to his wife’s sister, who had saved him from foolishly continuing his search for a second wife and his children from being motherless, although not any of them from being sinless.
Copyright 2017 by DM Denton
©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.