The Brontës and War
From brooding Rochester and cruel John Reed to brutish Heathcliff, the Brontës’ male characters are best known for their flaws. But where did their vision of imperfect masculinity originate? The ideal Victorian gentleman exhibited characteristics of honour and moral uprightness – not necessarily immediately obvious in the Brontës’ leading male figures. AHRC-funded PhD student Emma Butcher is seeking answers to this question in this literary dynasty’s childhood writings, specifically exploring how the Brontës’ fascination with the military and their experience of post-war Britain moulded their thinking on masculinity. “If you need an uncensored insight into the Brontës, their juvenilia – childhood writings – is where you’ll find it,” says Butcher, who is based at University of Hull. “This is their raw imagination spilled onto hundreds of pages.”
Apparently inspired by a set of toy soldiers, the young Brontës created an elaborate fantasy world, made up of kingdoms including Glass Town, Angria and Gondal. In addition to stories, they produced speeches, character illustrations, accounts of battles and maps; all to enrich a saga that, as Butcher points out, is similar in terms of complexity to The Lord of the Rings.
Butcher’s research focuses on Glass Town and Angria, kingdoms created by Charlotte and Branwell between 1829-1839, with a storyline filled with bloody battles, revolving around war and politics. In this post-war period, memories of Waterloo continued to loom large in the British public imagination. “The Reverend Patrick Brontë was a military fanatic, so clearly the Brontës were partly inspired by their father in their childhood writings. However, I’ve also found that they were influenced by their reading of contemporary media and biography. The Napoleonic Wars were still very much under discussion in periodicals such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which was the Brontës’ favourite,” explains Butcher. “The rise of the military memoir was another big factor. A lot of these were published after the Napoleonic Wars – it was an important time for recognising the personal experience of the individual soldier, rather than the military en masse. The Brontës picked up on this; Charlotte transcribed sections of these memoirs, so we know she read them.” Charlotte and Branwell may not have had direct experience of war, but their childhood writings add to our understanding of the British domestic experience of overseas conflict. “You get an insight into the myths that solidified in culture, how the general public interpreted and reflected on the war,” Butcher points out.
The cast of characters populating Glass Town and Angria clearly bears the influence of the Napoleonic Wars. “Effectively, Charlotte’s main protagonist was the Duke of Wellington and Branwell’s was Napoleon. Charlotte’s Wellington evolved into the main character, whom they called the Duke of Zamorna; Branwell’s Napoleon became Alexander Percy or Northangerland. They were rival figureheads with an incredible homosocial relationship: bound to one another and yet constantly fighting. There are amazing speeches in the juvenilia, where you have Charlotte responding as Zamorna to something Branwell has written as Northangerland, which they used to read aloud together.”
While the juvenilia was very much a collaborative effort, the siblings did take rather different approaches. “They used the same characters and pattern, but Branwell was the driving force behind the linear chronology and commentary. The first thing he put together, at ten years old, was a ‘battell book’ based on the American and British conflicts of 1812-14, so you get a good idea of his early interest in battles,” says Butcher. “By contrast, Charlotte’s writings expand on specific events and characters. She also brought the battlefield into the domestic space, looking at its ramifications upon individual characters and their relationships.”
Butcher is particularly interested in the Brontës’ understanding of battlefield trauma, most likely influenced by the military memoirs of the time. This is evident in the character of Henry Hastings, a foot soldier who starts the saga as a respected poet but becomes an alcoholic and a deserter. “What’s more, in the juvenilia even soldiers like Northangerland display odd, traumatic behaviour after battles. The Brontës’ skill as writers means that they convey the idea of post-battle trauma by allowing their characters to show signs, rather than explicitly talking about their feelings.”
While Charlotte and Branwell’s male characters are complex, often dysfunctional and have a keen physicality, the women of Glass Town and Angria are for the most part beautiful and weak. “A lot of the female characters simply can’t survive without their men. Zamorna’s main spouse, Mary Percy, wastes away and dies after he leaves her,” notes Butcher. “However, towards the end of the saga there’s a character called Jane Moore, who’s strong and not necessarily physically attractive – she’s has been noted as a precursor to Jane Eyre.”
In addition to her research, Butcher is co-curating a related exhibition at The Brontë Parsonage, ‘The Brontës, War and Waterloo’. She is also co-organising a conference at the University of Hull on military masculinities in the nineteenth century, to coincide with the official celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. “Thanks to the AHRC, I am able to fully immerse myself in my research and all the fantastic opportunities that come with it.”
Article by Hannah Davies
All images used with kind permission of the Brontë Parsonage