Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Brontë family misfortunes: curse or coincidence?

I have written elsewhere about the witch Biddy Iremonger, a major character in Wilkins’ Tooth aka Witch’s Business by Diana Wynne Jones. She deliberately put a curse on the man she had intended to marry when he chose someone else. This curse hits him and his family very hard: his wife has to go into a home for mentally ill people and his pale, shabby, neglected children are considered peculiar, old fashioned and strange looking.

Reading about the effects of her curse makes me feel very uncomfortable: it all reminds me very much of what happened to and in my own family after my step-mother left in a fury because of disappointed hopes.

It also reminds me of another family: that of Charlotte Brontë. The strange, old-fashioned appearance of the children, the unsuitable housing, the dreadful school, the suffering, the ill health, the blighted lives, the terrible state that Branwell Brontë was reduced to, the ‘too little too late’ successes and the untimely deaths have all been recorded in family letters and described by many biographers. 

Some of it is very familiar: once again my own family comes to mind.

The Biddy Iremonger story left me wondering whether there was someone who could have put a curse on the Brontë family. I refreshed my memory by re-reading some biographical material, and found a person of interest.
There is an episode in the early life of the Reverend Patrick Brontë that now seems very significant to me, although it is treated as a minor incident, if mentioned at all, in most Brontë biographies. There is little evidence of what actually happened, apart from a few letters, which are reproduced in The Brontës and their Circle by Clement Shorter.

In 1807, when he was aged thirty, Patrick Brontë was ordained into the priesthood. He also met farmer’s daughter Mary Burder, who was eighteen years old at the time.  They spent some time together and corresponded for a few years. There are indications that he proposed to her during this time, but later broke off the engagement – or just stopped writing after keeping her dangling for a while.

There is speculation that Mary was the one who decided not to go ahead with the engagement, also that her family objected to any relationship and interfered by intercepting Patrick’s letters. Letters that they exchanged many years after the event do not support these theories: it seems that he had second thoughts after first being carried away by his feelings.

Certainly there were religious differences that would have made his clerical life difficult and damaged his prospects of promotion, but it is also possible that Patrick Brontë came to think that he could do better than a mere farmer’s daughter. Maybe he actually said as much to Mary. Perhaps he seized with relief on her family’s opposition to the match and the religious and professional problems that it would cause as legitimate pretexts to withdraw his attentions.

This raising of Mary Burder’s hopes only to have them dashed appears to have made her embittered and vindictive. Perhaps she had expected him to wait until she became old enough to marry without her family’s permission.

Patrick went on to meet and in 1812 marry grocer’s daughter Maria Branwell, who produced six children in seven years then died after several months of agonising pain.

Parirck made several attempts to find a step-mother for his orphaned children. He proposed to a few women of his acquaintance without success: Irish, in his mid to late forties with a low income, little prospect of advancement and six small children, he was not a great ‘catch’.

He eventually thought of Mary Burder, whom he had not been in contact with for around 15 years and was now aged thirty-eight. His letter to her tactlessly mentions his pleasure on learning that she is still single.

It is possible that this part of his ill-considered letter hit her where it hurt most. After all, whose fault was it that she was still unmarried? Her bitter and vindictive reply mentions her gratitude towards providence for saving her from a marriage with someone who was not altogether clear of duplicity. Patrick once had great ambitions but they came to nothing. Mary is being cruel and sarcastic when she says that she is grateful not to have destroyed Patrick’s glittering prospects by marrying him:

Happily for me I have not been the ascribed cause of hindering your promotion, of preventing any brilliant alliance, nor have those great and affluent friends that you used to write and speak of withheld their patronage on my account…”

She lists the advantages of her current single status, sadistically mentioning her handsome income, which enables her to live comfortably and gratify her inclinations.

I have seen a letter by Charlotte Brontë used as evidence by one biographer that she regretted her marriage, and that she was happily married by another. I can’t see Mary’s Burder’s letter being used to support the theory that it was she who decided to break the engagement. I think that it speaks for itself. I believe that she nursed a grievance after being jilted. She wanted her own back: revenge is witch’s business. He rejected and hurt her then so she hurts and rejects him now.

Patrick’s reply shows that he was appalled by her response:

I look at your letter and see it… breathe such a spirit of disdain, hatred and revenge – after the lapse of so long an interval of time – I appear to myself to be in an unpleasant dream.”

It may seem that Mary was cutting off her nose to spite her face by rejecting the renewed offer that could well be her one chance to marry at last, but she was soon in a position to deliver one final blow: she married a local clergyman the following year and went on to become the mother of four daughters.

The idea that Mary Burder had a malign influence on the Brontë family is complete speculation. She is described as being pretty and pleasant when young, which does not suggest the type of person who freely launches curses. Diana Wynne Jones may have been influenced by what she had read about the Brontë family when she described the effects of Biddy Iremonger’s curse, as opposed to creating them independently.

Even so, assuming that someone really did put a curse on the Brontë family, Mary Burder is a prime suspect in my eyes.