Before Jane Eyre met Mr Rochester, Maria Branwell met Mr Brontë.
Before Cathy declared, “I am Heathcliff” in the pages of ‘Wuthering Heights’, Maria poured out her heart to “my dear Mr B.” in a real life Regency romance that changed the course of literary history.
The true love story of writers Maria and Patrick resulted in their remarkable children, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë – yet it has been largely ignored for 200 years.
Charlotte Brontë was only 5 when her mother died in 1821, and was the last living sibling when Patrick took her aside just before Valentine’s Day 1850.
After Papa handed her the yellowing love letters from “mamma” he had cherished for decades, Charlotte wrote:
It was strange now to peruse, for the first time, the records of a mind whence my own sprang; and most strange, and at once sad and sweet, to find that mind of a truly fine, pure, and elevated order. They were written to papa before they were married. There is a rectitude, a refinement, a constancy, a modesty, a sense, a gentleness about them indescribable.
These letters were written during a whirlwind summer romance at a new Methodist boarding school near Bradford in 1812.
Patrick had made his adventure-strewn way there from a poor farming family in Ulster, via Cambridge and the largesse of the Evangelical network.
Maria’s story also began far from the wuthering Yorkshire heights where it ended.
Sermons, sea and smuggling
Born in 1783 to a family of wealthy merchants in Penzance, Cornwall, Maria Branwell was a contemporary of Jane Austen and enjoyed a similarly cultured life.
The cosmopolitan port bustled with Enlightenment thinking and the Napoleonic wars, boasting the Penzance Ladies’ Book Club and balls at the Georgian assembly rooms.
Her family were friends of John Wesley, the Evangelical preacher who brought outdoor revivals to shake up the 18th century Church of England before the Methodist movement broke away.
Maria’s father was a gentleman merchant and town worthy – and involved with one of the most notorious Cornish smuggling outfits of the ‘free trade’ era.
At 29 she was, Maria told Patrick, “perfectly my own mistress” with a private income after the death of her parents.
Then her aunt and uncle opened Woodhouse Grove School for the sons of itinerant Wesleyan preachers in the industrialising West Riding of Yorkshire.
Feeling overwhelmed, her ageing aunt wrote to Penzance for help and in early 1812, Maria answered the call.
After a gruelling 400-mile journey to reach the converted Georgian manor house, Maria became reacquainted with cousin Jane and met her fiancée, curate William Morgan.
Morgan was best friends with one Patrick Brontë, a poet and curate 12 miles away in Hartshead where the Luddite riots were happening on his doorstep.
Patrick was invited to be the school’s external examiner and a fateful meeting was inevitable.
When the petite, elegant Cornish cousin met the tall, handsome Irish curate she was 29 and he was 35. It was an instant Celtic love match and he walked the 24-mile round trip to woo her.
They became secretly engaged at ruined Kirkstall Abbey in August, Romantic-with-a-capital-‘R’ after it was painted by Turner.
When they went public, a double Christmas wedding was planned with Jane and William. Triple, if you count that of Maria’s sister at the same hour and day in Penzance.
Maria’s love letters to her man leading up to the wedding brim with gossip, hope and passion, none more so than the one that begins:
My dear Saucy Pat, Now don’t you think you deserve this epithet, far more, than I do that which you have given me?
Saucy Maria perhaps? A clue to the strong sexual attraction alongside their meeting of minds.
After the wedding they honeymooned in Hartshead and on Maria’s 30th birthday in April 1813, Patrick wrote her a long love poem that begins:
Maria, let us walk, and breathe, the morning air/ And hear the cuckoo sing…
By summer the new Mrs Brontë was pregnant, first with Maria and then Elizabeth.
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were born at the first Brontë parsonage in their next home of Thornton, Bradford, during what Patrick dubbed “my happiest years”.
“The beloved sufferer”
In the spring of 1820, the Brontës moved to Haworth, climbing the famously steep Main Street to the Parsonage on the edge of the moors that would feature in so much of the Brontë sisters’ writing.
This little family on the horse-drawn carts would make Haworth famous across the world.
On this day, though, Anne Brontë was a babe in Maria’s arms and all the future world-renowned authors and artists were under 7.
The devoted parents had a fine new home, a bigger income and 6 lovely little ones.
They had every reason to hope for the long life together Maria had spoken excitedly of in her letters when they first fell in love.
But in January 1821 Mrs Brontë collapsed at home and the doctor delivered a hammer blow. She had terminal cancer.
Witty, clever, pious and loving Maria took 7 long months to die, in what Patrick describes as:
more agonising pain than I ever saw anyone endure.
“Death,” he said, “pursued her unrelentingly” and he had to watch, helpless to save her.
He conducted 70 funerals in the graveyard outside their bedroom window, knowing his young wife, his “beloved sufferer”, could be next.
Patrick nursed her through each tortured night, then rose to try to keep life going for the children and his flock.
5-year-old Charlotte Brontë tried to run away from the home oppressed by grief.
Patrick and the children surrounded Maria’s bed as she died aged 38 in September 1821, crying out “Oh, my poor children!” as her poor Pat doubtless agreed.
She was carried through the coffin gate in the garden to the Haworth church vault, her life and legacy to be slowly forgotten by history, if not her bereft husband and gifted children.
Out of the shadows
The Reverend Patrick Brontë never remarried and is remembered as the elderly gentleman in the white cravat, weighed down by tragedy after the premature deaths of his wife and all their singular offspring.
Young Maria and Elizabeth died as children, Branwell at 31, Emily at 30, Anne at 29 and Charlotte at 38 like her mother.
Maria Branwell Brontë is remembered barely at all. Even the information boards at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth refer to her as “a shadowy figure”.
As 2020 marks the birth of Maria’s last baby – Anne Brontë in 1820 – it brings to a close the 5-year Brontë bicentenary also marking the births of Charlotte in 1816, Branwell in 1817 and Emily in 1818, along with 2019 devoted to the work of Patrick as curate of Haworth.
Mrs Brontë is conspicuous by her absence.
Yet readers of ‘Agnes Grey’, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Shirley’, ‘Villette’, ‘The Professor’ and the Brontë poetry really should know about the enigmatic, influential mother of genius.
It was her love story that started it all.
Sharon Wright is a journalist and nonfiction author from Bradford, West Yorkshire. Her first book is the lost history of the lady aeronauts, Balloonomania Belles: Daredevil Divas Who First Took To the Sky and her new book is The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick – both published by Pen & Sword Books.