Friday 28 April 2023

Monica Wallace: The Irish relations of the Brontë family

Monica Wallace, a former member of the Brussels Brontë Group who has moved back to Ireland, gave the group a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of the Irish relatives of the Brontë sisters. 

Monica’s interest in the subject was kindled when she discovered that an elderly neighbor in Ireland was a descendant of William Brontë, the Reverend Patrick Brontë’s brother, and had a carton of “silly old family stuff” in her attic. Monica dove in and so began an “amazing journey of research and discovery about the Irish Brontë cousins.” 

In her talk on Saturday 22 April 2023, Monica told us about John Brontë, the son of a nephew of the Patrick Brontë and the great-grandfather of Monica’s neighbor, Jenny. John became a druggist and emigrated to New Zealand. But he was also immersed in the debate about the Irish Brontës that was raging in the 1890s after the publication of William Wright’s 1893 book The Brontës in Ireland, which gave the oral history of Patrick’s Irish ancestors in County Down. 

John had grown up in Lacken in County Down, with ready access to the reminiscences of his grandfather, William Brontë (Patrick’s brother), who lived next door. John was a young adult at the time that his Haworth cousins rose to literary fame and would have remembered family discussions about them. John defended Wright’s book amid a chorus of criticism, praising it as “the last word on the history of the Brontës in the British Isles.” 

Monica Wallace

A copy of Wright’s book passed down through John’s family, along with Clement Shorter’s volume Charlotte Bronte and her Circle (1896). John’s daughter Catherine annotated the Clement Shorter book, with some of her marginalia criticizing Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, whose family was from County Antrim, just north of County Down. Monica speculated about how much contact – and animosity – there was between the two families. 

Catherine had three children, each with Brontë as a middle name. It was her daughter Elizabeth (“Dolly”) who kept the box of “silly old family stuff” that Monica’s neighbor Jenny had in her attic. Dolly was Jenny’s aunt. 

In her talk, Monica also went through other branches of the Irish Brontë family. One interesting revelation was that two of Charlotte Brontë’s first cousins who emigrated to the United States owned slaves – one in Mississippi and one in Tennessee. 

Monica has written about her research in Brontë Studies (Vol. 47 No. 3 July 2022). Subscribers can read her article, as well as lots of other interesting pieces on the Brontës going back decades.

  -- J.H.

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