Tuesday 19 October 2021

Education, independence and self-improvement: Brontë talk

For the Brontës, education was not only a way to gain financial independence, but more importantly a way to improve oneself. That was one of the main messages of the very interesting talk last week by Dinah Birch, Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, to the Brussels Brontës Group.

It all started with their father Patrick. Eldest son of a large family in County Down in the north of Ireland, he was fond of books. It seems suprising to me that he took to the written word, because we are always told that his father Hugh was a great storyteller, a man of the spoken word. Patrick Brontë was ambitious and determined and seems to have met the right people to help him get to Cambridge University. His hard work at university brought him an ordination in the Church of England. And eventually he made his way to Haworth.

It must have been a terrible shock to this educated man and father, that he lost two of his children by actually sending them to school, to the infamous Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. After that tragedy the four surviving Brontë children were educated at home by their father and aunt until years later Charlotte went to Margaret Wooler’s Roe Head School. This school gave Charlotte a positive experience, both in learning and in meeting people, like her two life-long friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. These two spoke of Charlotte’s wide knowledge of art and literature she obviously already had acquired at home. 

Their father Patrick made a good impression as a teacher. Even when he was younger his future wife Maria Branwell, an independent young lady, wrote him during their engagement that she found in him a “guide and instructor.” But a teacher not only needs talents, but also discipline. Patrick had that. His only son Branwell did not have it and did not acquire it – maybe as a reaction to Patrick’s dominance in his life and education, maybe he was just too romantic.

Emily’s second attempt at a formal education after that terrible school in Cowan Bridge was more than ten years later when she was seventeen. Being a very private person she could not  manage it, not even at the friendly school of Miss Wooler. She returned home in three months time. That doesn’t mean she was an uneducated young woman, when she later went with Charlotte to Madame Héger’s Pensionnat in Brussels. Monsieur Héger was impressed by her. She even told him, an experienced teacher, that she didn’t not agree with his methods of teaching!

Anne’s formal education also started at Miss Wooler’s school, but before she went there she was home-educated by her father and her aunt Elizabeth Branwell (mostly by her aunt). During her whole life she thought a lot about education and how it plays a role in giving people moral standards, especially from a religious point of view. The stories in both her novels prove how highly she valued education.

Before they got to publishing their literary works, the Brontë sisters had the dream of having a school of their own. It would have given them independence, but not fulfilment, because in the end none of them really liked teaching. It looks like they preferred learning to teaching; and, thinking about several affectionate relationships in their stories, it looks like they wanted the education to come with love.

I'll end with a quotation Dinah Birch gave us. Charlotte wrote in 1849, after all her sibling were gone, to W.S. Williams, literary adviser of her publisher Smith, Elder, and father of a large family including daughters:

“Come what may afterwards, an education secured is an advantage gained – a priceless advantage. Come what may – it is a step towards independency – and one great curse of a single female life is its dependency … teachers may be hard-worked, ill-payed and despised – but the girl who stays at home doing nothing is worse off than the hardest-wrought and worst-paid drudge of a school.”

It was a great pleasure to hear Dinah Birch’s talk online and I am sure we would like to meet her in person one day and hear her again.

Marcia Zaaijer, Beilen in Midden-Drenthe, the Netherlands

No comments: