Book Reviews

A Tale of Romance, Tragedy and Maria Brontë

Historian Ellis Book Review

Everyone has heard of the Brontë sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Either through their classic works of literature, or through the many outpourings of studies on the women in recent years. Even their brother Branwell has been brought to life by Daphne du Maurier’s vivid biography in 1961, whilst much is also known about the life of their father, the Anglican priest Patrick Brontë, who in the end outlived his whole family. Their mother, Maria Brontë, has remained somewhat a mystery and yet her influence on her family’s fame and identity was extremely significant. In this book, Sharon Wright has set out to bring Maria out of the shadows, after 200 years, and tell a story of love and tragedy in a fascinating biography.

The book begins in eighteenth-century cosmopolitan Penzance, Cornwall, where a young Maria Branwell is introduced and living a life in a prestigious family where she is ‘perfectly her own mistress’ and enjoying the frolics of Cornish society as a young woman . In 1812, this was all to change and Maria unknowingly gave up this life of comfortable independency and bravely made an intrepid journey across Georgian England (bad roads, cramped conditions and hello, highwaymen?!) to Woodhouse Grove in Yorkshire to assist her Aunt and Uncle’s school. Woodhouse Grove would become the very spot that Maria wold first lay eyes on Patrick Brontë, or “Pat Prunty” as he was born in Ireland. Patrick had also travelled from his home county and made a home in Yorkshire. The two quickly fell in love, creating a romance story to rival the classics.

Maria and Patrick Brontë. Maria once called Patrick ‘saucy Pat’ ! Images taken from

Throughout the book, Wright introduces us continually to a whole host of individuals who were connected to Maria and this research is vital in order to understand deeper the context of Maria’s life and relationship with Patrick. As Wright points out, her love letters to Patrick are ‘virtually all we have’ of Maria Branwell’s own record of her life and so in turn, we have very little information on Maria’s day-to-day experiences. What is really lovely is that Wright does include a whole chapter dedicated to unpicking parts of these letters which allows us to feel connected to Maria: ‘her letters are alive with her passion, loyalty, intelligence, wit and learning along with her faith and her fears.’ It is only a shame that there were so few. These letters, which are included in full in an appendix, are rich in content and could even be taken and researched further, for example I think it would be fascinating to pursue a line of enquiry through the emerging study of emotions history. It would be so interesting to understand deeper the emotional responses of Maria with regards to her experiences as a woman in this period falling in love. I really enjoyed reading the letters.

The regional historical context offered within this publication is also vast and it is a wonderful introduction into the social history of Britain during Maria’s lifetime. Maria and Patrick’s romance was set to the background of the Ludite movement in the north, Maria’s childhood was during a time rife with smugglers in Cornwall and both their adult lives continued to see the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. From the beginning, it is also clear the role that religion and the rise in Methodism during Cornwall during the late eighteenth-century, led by John Wesley who was also closely connected to the Branwell family, played in shaping Maria’s life.

Penzance in 1817.

The book later moves on to talk about Maria’s married life with children, it explores the joys and struggles the family faced and these chapters explore the sometimes turbulent Yorkshire society and how Maria and her husband navigated this. The ‘bookish couple’ were able gain many friends (as well as some rivals!) in the area. What is brilliant about the research on the social life of the Brontës, is that these connections are another way of exploring the couple in order to reveal more about Maria and who she was, due to, as mentioned, the lack of primary evidence we have about Maria directly. For example, the diaries of her friend Elizabeth Firth are looked at to get a better idea of the kind of life Maria would have lead.

And so to a tragic end. Maria’s life was cut short at 38, after a harrowingly painful eight-month battle with cancer. I found as I was reading the final chapters of this book that I was incredibly moved and emotional. For some reason, I felt really connected to the story of Maria and really glad that I had taken the time to read this book and discover her story and hear a woman’s voice from the past. Maria died at Haworth Parish, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, leaving six small children and a broken-hearted husband behind. Despite hailing from Yorkshire originally myself, I am still yet to visit the parsonage! It is definitely one that is on my list to go to as soon as possible.

Haworth Parsonage. Now a museum. . ©Justin Paget Taken from Country Life website.

Overall, Wright’s biography is a well needed publication which brings to life and reveals more about the celebrated Brontë family. She successfully argues the case that without Maria, there would not be the Brontë literature we know and love today. It was wonderful to discover Maria’s own joy for writing and yet her tragic death cast a shadow on the whole family. Wright touches on the argument that this traumatic event would have influenced the Brontë sisters’ writing and I would be really inclined to agree and it would be interesting to take this point further. Compared to Maria’s joyful love-filled letters showcased in this biography, the Brontë books do not particularly echo this style.

This is a well-researched book, (although because there are no footnotes it is a little difficult to follow up on certain areas to but there is an extensive bibliography), I found it to be gripping, sharp and extremely moving and it was just thoroughly enjoyable to be immersed in the life of another unsung Brontë writer and read more about the history surrounding some of my literary heroines.

If you would like to purchase your own copy of this fabulous book, please head to the Pen and Sword Books website here. Pen and Sword have a fabulous range of history books, I’ve enjoyed reading so many and I definitely recommend having a browse and supporting this Yorkshire based publishing company and their wonderful host of authors. Next month (October 20201), they are also releasing a 200th anniversary edition of the book which commemorates the anniversary of Maria’s death which was on the 15th September. You can pre-order it here. It is currently on offer! The cover features a commissioned portrait of Maria Brontë based on the only two pictures of her that have survived.

The anniversary edition.

I also really recommend that either before or after reading the book, check out the episode on Patrick and Maria Brontë at Past Loves Podcast, A great podcast that did an amazing episode on their story, which I listened to after reading the book. Holly is a really fab host and chats to Sharon Wright- the author! So you get an even further insight into the book.

Thanks for dropping by! Historian Ellis

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