Breakfast with the Brontës

by Kathryn Liebowitz

At breakfast Patrick sits with his back to the rain-streaked window. He says little from behind his newspapers, the three dailies he reads to get a broader view of things. He passes these around, but who reads them? He is a man of routine. Every morning he discharges the loaded pistol he keeps on his bedside table out the window over the Yorkshire moors. He dresses with elaborate care: his white shirts, snowy bed linen, and dressing gowns his only indulgences. Miss his wife? It has been years since Marie died giving birth to Anne, their sixth child. Years since he felt the soft touch of a woman’s hand.

It is April; snow drops bloom in the kitchen garden.

At breakfast, Charlotte sits erect—all four-foot, ten-inches of her, when she sits at all. Seldom still, she flits about from beginning to end of this most overrated and ritualized of meals, helping Tabby, the housekeeper, and making lists. She alights sporadically for sips of coffee; saying little. Emily, too, is silent. She does not make eye contact and has no interest in chitchat. (Emily had no friends, Charlotte writes in her famous introduction to Wuthering Heights. She died young, as did they all, forbidding recourse to doctors and medication.)

Patrick eats toast thickly spread with butter and tart gooseberry jam, a cup of coffee sans sugar and cream. Two helpings of everything—he is not one to express likes and dislikes regarding food, except to say he prefers plain fare. But as breakfast will tide him over until tea at three and supper at seven, he eats with a thoroughness that suggests the axiom far better to eat to live than live to eat.

Emily drinks her tea black and bitter, consumes a single slice of buttered bread and sometimes a soft-boiled egg with salt and pepper. Charlotte eats with finicky care; in winter a demitasse of coffee and a child-size portion of porridge; in summer a half piece of dry toast or a cup of custard with her coffee, into which she drops a generous dollop of fresh cream. Anne may be the only one to reach for the sugar bowl, just as she alone will choose to die away from home—asking Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey to take her to Scarborough so that she might fill her dying eyes with the light of the sun setting over the ocean. She alone lies buried there.

brontesLet us presume we are breakfasting at table with Patrick and his three remaining daughters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne during their most creative period. (Their brother, Branwell, is off making love – or speaking it, anyway – to his employer’s wife.) It is inconvenient for historians but liberating for romancers that Charlotte’s first biographer, her close friend, the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, did not visit the Parsonage until 1853. It means we’re on our own in composing this picture. Gaskell came to know Charlotte more intimately four years after the deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne, whose ghosts continued to haunt the long, empty hours at Haworth Parsonage on the Yorkshire moors. From Gaskell’s subsequent biography, which draws on her several visits to Charlotte, we can presume a few details retrospectively, so as to carry on the delicious pretense of knowing this brilliant, tragically mournful family.

Despite Gaskell’s testimony recently scholars have revised their opinions of Patrick. He is seen as ahead of his time, a pioneer of women’s education and modern sanitation, a good father, or at least not an entirely impossible one. Mrs. Gaskell would disagree. But then, Mrs. Gaskell puts Patrick before us in sumptuous visual detail that makes me think of the Beast in so many of the timeless tales that come to us by way of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. Perhaps it is the dark side of Patrick that shows up in the writings of the Bronte sisters?

She tells us, for instance, that Patrick Brontë had a fetish for cleanliness and wore a fresh shirt daily. His clothes required much ironing and constant mending. Abstracted, he might not speak to anyone for days – a silence Mrs. Gaskell found formidable. She wondered at Charlotte’s capacity to endure the dark months of mid-winter at Haworth, alone but for the company of this hard and difficult man; this bear in a clergyman’s cloak, with a starched white shirt and white silk scarf at his neck. This scarf cuffed his face like a collar and grew wider with each passing year, writes Mrs. Gaskell. Winters and summers he wore it to protect against bronchial infection. His hands tremble. He has bad teeth.

Charlotte’s letters tell more: He cared about economy and safety, education, and sewers. Some part of him must have taken delight (was it allowed?) in his children’s rich fantasy lives, their stories of the knights and ladies of Angria, the Gothic adventures, the intrigues, and later, the novels written by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, which made such a splash in London literary circles, and have subsequently found their way into the hearts of countless readers.

Whether he supported his daughters’ literary fervor and aspirations is not recorded. Certainly, he gave it a covert nod, while he kept the girls sequestered at the Parsonage, where Charlotte found life dreary and forbidding. (Later in life when Charlotte’s writing kept him afloat in snowy bed linen and dressing gowns, I rather doubt he minded her renown.) Did their father notice the luminous intensity of his daughters’ eyes? We know he worried about their health and safety—so delicate, all three. Anne and Charlotte frail and tiny as wrens; Emily, tall, bony, and stoic.

But for the moment, the girls are alive and writing, and though they lead a shuttered life, it is not an arid one. Their passion—not for anything of this world, not for clothes or food, or men, or fame—goes into their writing. Every night, after their father has wound the clock on the stair landing and gone to bed, they blow out the candles (to save tallow), circle the parlor by firelight, read from their novels and discuss the role of the heroine in fiction. (Charlotte alone argued she need not be beautiful so much as clever.)

At breakfast, only Charlotte knows what to say to calm Patrick’s nerves.

More toast, Papa? Another cup of coffee? Tabby’s coming back in a moment.

His eyesight is weak, and she knows it strains him to read as much as he does.

After breakfast and chores, Emily will walk on the moors with her dog Keeper, Charlotte will dust and clean alongside Tabby, never completely well during these years; Charlotte will decide meals, start the yeast for the day’s bread, check the kitchen garden for Brussels sprouts, rush down the lane to get the mail—perhaps a letter from John Smith of Smith, Elder & Co., the publishing house that will bring the Brontës’ writing before us. Late in the afternoon, tasks complete, she will sit at the parlor table writing scenes that come to her full-blown as if configured in a dream. Emily, too, will find her way to her attic bedroom to scribble, Keeper asleep at her feet.

Anne. Anne will write in her diary. She is still a child, and she writes more luridly of passion – but she is skilled and like her sisters, driven. She brings that distinctive Brontë fervor and a precocious knowledge of evil to her writing. Where does it come from? Living out of the way of the world as they do, seldom leaving the Yorkshire hamlet: Emily a recluse and Anne nearly so; Charlotte more social but mostly on paper, she had so little opportunity and tired so easily. What trained their hearts to penetrate fear, lust, love, and the self-loathing and cruelty that accompanies such passions? They say the tales that swept across the moors influenced them: the family sagas; the gossip; but no one knows for sure, and that remains part of the fascination.

While his daughters keep house, Patrick spends the rest of the day writing, reading, and meeting with parishioners. Breakfast barely remembered.
Breakfast is uneven at best. Who speaks of anything of import over toast and marmalade? Who can stomach more than a morsel of sugary starch or a piece of fruit and a cup of caffeine? Yet it has its revealing aspect. It cracks open the day. We approach it with our masks askew. For those of us who rise reluctantly, looking far from our best— introverted and uncommunicative, picking our way around eggs and cereal, counting entirely on lunch for sustenance and pleasure, breakfast takes place before the curtain rises in a sort of Green Room of the mind where imagination fingers various costumes, lighting on this character from history, trying on that.

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Kathryn Liebowitz’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared variously in Harvard Review, Boston Review, The Boston Globe, Poetry Porch, Wild Apples, The T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Shadowbox Magazine, among others. She received the Joseph J Del Marco Best Fiction Award for work published in Harvard Review, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and lives in Groton, Massachusetts.

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2 Comments

  1. charliebritten

    So atmospheric. Loved the way the characters of each Bronte (so well known to us) were illuminated in the way they ate breakfast. One small niggle: I believe that Anne was spelt with an ‘e’, like ‘Anne of Green Gables’.

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