Book review: The Mother of the Brontës: The Life of Maria Branwell by Sharon Wright (Pen & Sword History, 2019)
They were from different lands, different classes, different worlds almost. The chances of Cornish gentlewoman Maria Branwell even meeting the poor Irish curate Patrick Brontë in Regency England, let alone falling passionately in love, were remote. Yet Maria and Patrick did meet, making a life together as devoted lovers and doting parents in the heartland of the industrial revolution. An unlikely romance and novel wedding were soon followed by the birth of six children. They included Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, the most gifted literary siblings the world has ever known.
Her children inherited her intelligence and wit and wrote masterpieces such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Yet Maria has remained an enigma while the fame of her family spread across the world. It is time to bring her out of the shadows, along with her overlooked contribution to the Brontë genius. Untimely death stalked Maria as it was to stalk all her children. But first there was her fascinating life story, told here for the first time by Sharon Wright.
The book starts off by saying that not a lot is known about the mother of the Brontë sisters, which means that the book is mostly not about Maria Branwell. The first half or so instead sets the scene of what Maria was eventually born into – the bustling seaside town of Penzance, Methodist preachers, threats of invasion by the French, and so on. We find out about the Branwells, who they were and where they came from. As a result I found it a bit difficult to get into at first, because I wanted to know more about Maria and all I was getting was the history of Penzance from before she was born. It’s necessary to understand who she was, on the other hand, and if you only go by what it known about the actual woman herself, it would have been a very short book.
I’m glad I stuck with it, because it gives a great look into life in the past. What a long and arduous journey it would have been to travel from Cornwall to Yorkshire by stagecoach – and how dangerous those things were! Even today, with modern cars and modern roads, you’re looking at a seven hour drive to get from Penzance to Thornton in light traffic, so in those days Yorkshire might as well have been in a foreign country.
We learn about Maria’s siblings and what happened to them. We eventually get to meet a peculiar Irish clergyman, and get to read some of her correspondence to him. (Patrick’s letters sadly appear to be lost to history.) They had the kind of relationship you’d find in a good romance novel. The only problem is of course that it wasn’t to last. Maria passed away from cancer, leaving a grieving husband and a bunch of small children. Perhaps even sadder is that Patrick didn’t just outlive his wife, he also outlived each and every child they had together.
There’s a good sense of humour in the pages and the author has done a great job with bringing these people back to life. While it may not be all about Maria Branwell, piecing together the circumstances around her is an impressive work and I’m happy to have read it.
4 out of 5 trunks lost in shipwrecks.