Charlotte Brontë was born two hundred years ago on April 21, 1816, in West Yorkshire. Charlotte was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature. Ever since they have been an inspiration to many writers including myself.
The following story was written several years ago, after a visit to Norton Conyers, the house which was allegedly visited by Charlotte as a young woman when she was working as a governess. It is also alleged that it was here at Norton Conyers that she first heard a story about a mad woman in the attic.
My story explores Charlotte’s experience in letters
to her sister Emily.
Here it is:
Letter to Emily
Mrs Hedgewick decreed that as Lottie was so very small she could sit with the children on their side of the carriage. This meant that Lottie was squashed into the corner with baby Rupert on her knee. Rupert was her favourite: six months old and plump and pliant, he smiled with delight every time he saw her even though it had only been a week since she had joined the family.
From her corner of the carriage Lottie watched as Mrs Hedgewick spread her skirts and place her parasol before her, clasping its silver peacock head tightly to counterbalance the rocking of the coach.
Young Sarah reach out her hand and pinched her sister Julia, who howled and flailed out against the hand, catapulting Sarah into Lottie’s shoulder and making Rupert cry, In the seat by the window James folded his arms with their tight razor elbows and stuck out his chin. ‘Mother,’ he shouted above the din, ‘This is a madhouse. Do make them stop.’
Mrs Hedgewick turned her gaze from the rolling Yorkshire countryside and fixed Lottie with her mean porcine stare. ‘Miss Lottie, the children!’ she said grimly. ‘According to your father you have been a little mother to your own sisters, I have seen little evidence of such qualities in my house. ‘See to your charges!’
The screaming battle between the girls slowed. Rupert stirred and whimpered on Lottie’s knee, The eyes of the three older children locked eagerly onto Lottie’s face, displaying the clinical interest that had chilled her from the first moment she’s met them at Hedgefield House,
‘That’s enough, Julia! Sarah!’ Lottie said sharply, injecting her voice with all the firmness she could muster, It was very hard to play the bully. Her own little sisters could be cajoled with a jest, rewarded with a story or a picture. She’d never had to raise her voice,
Sarah, sharp kited eyes on Lottie, reached out and pinched Julia’s fat cheek. Julia shrieked and pulled Sarah’s snaky curls. Exhaling a loud sigh Lottie stood up in the swaying coach and thrust the baby onto his mother’s unwilling lap. Then she turned to pull the brawling sisters apart, holding each one by the back of her dainty muslin frock, ‘Now James,’ she said grimly to their brother,’ You will move to the centre so that you are between your sisters, You will be the constable, the peacemaker.’
‘The boy shrugged.’ Perfectly comfortable here, thank you ma-am,’ he said, smoothing the fine serge of his knickerbockers with blunt, ill-shaped fingers.
Lottie met his gaze with a look which, she knew, made her own sisters tremble, Into that look she forced all her power – all her contempt for this boy and his ignorant, pig-faced family; all her anger at being forced into this work for a miserable, grudgingly bestowed pittance; all her despair at being parted from her sisters with their gentle hands, their bright knowing eyes, and their knife sharp minds. ‘You will move, James!’ she said, ‘Or I will know the reason why,’
Mumbling under his breath James shuffled along the3 seat. Lottie thrust a girl either side of him, straightening their shoulders and pulling their skirt into some semblance of order. She squeezed in beside Sarah, She could smell the sweat that had gathered in her hair under her bonnet and was starting to trickle down her neck.
‘Miss Lottie! Do take Rupert.’ Mrs Hedgewick thrust the whimpering child towards her,’ He is slavering so. And my dress with be creased to high heaven. What Lady Gardam will think I can’t imagine. She will take us for paupers.’ She pulled down the sleeves of her exquisite dress, a vision in palest blue fine lawn, and patted the sausage curl drooping on her cheek.
As Lottie settled Rupert in her own creased lap and stroked his face to stop the whimpering she considered the vulgarity of Mrs Hedgwick’s remark. Here was baby Rupert immaculate in a diaphanous dress of trimmed organdie and the other children were also pristine in showy clothes just brought up from London on the train. Lottie was quite aware that she herself, in her six year old mended gown, would draw attention to the poverty of her condition.
She glanced out of the window, already composing an amusing letter to her little sister Em. This one would mention the Hedgehogs – as she referred to her employers in this sanity-saving correspondence – making calls, as one does in the country,
Lottie put her face closer to the thick glass of the carriage window. Through the trees she glimpsed a flash of blue – a whole shelf of delphiniums, above which, stretching elegantly on a long bank sat a weathered brick house with high chimneys, Its wide double doors were overshadowed by an extended portico bracketed with great stone buckets of flaring geranium.
‘This must be Colyer House, Mrs Hedgewick?’ she ventured.
Lottie’s employer nodded her satisfaction, her second chin wobbling slightly. ‘Not one of the great houses my dear, but substantial. The family have been here since the Norman Conquest and Sir Richard is a leading man in the North, He and Mr Sedgwick are most intimate friends. And Lady Gertrude…’she paused. ‘So gracious.’
Lottie had written to her sister that the she-Hedgehog had aspirations above the status of the he-Hedgehog. He was modest enough despite the fact that he was already a very successful farmer and man of business. The she Hedgehog only seems happy dear Em in the company of people who, with various degrees of subtlety, patronise her and put her down. Poor she-Hedgehog generally fails even to notice the slights, contenting herself with the opportunity to bask in the glimmering, distant light of those whom she sees as ‘leading people;
Now Lottie watched as the house came into view then vanished behind tall trees and then back again. Its windows winked and its warm brick glowed in the July sun. The caught her breath. Mrs Hedgewick was correct in saying this was not one of the great houses. A curved, decorative roof had been rather clumsily added to the pediment at the front, contrasting in a comical fashion with the battlemented walls behind.
However as it grew closer and closer the sight of the house moved Lottie so much that she felt the itch of tears in the bones under her eyes, She felt she had seen this house somewhere before, had known it. She searched the far corners of her memory, turning over images like a woman sorting her laundry. At the back of her mind an urgent sense of familiarity fought to claim recognition,
Then she smiled. There was that day when the three of them had been sitting round the table in their little parlour. She herself had been working on her small watercolour, Em had been scribbling away in her tiny script. Annie was embroidering a flourishing P on a handkerchief for their father, who was locked in his study wrestling with his God and his own inability to write about pure faith, Annie had stuck her needle in her cloth and peered short-sightedly at Lottie’s painting. ‘That’s a fine house, Lottie, Such a grand entrance. Who should we make to live there, do you think?’
Em had looked up from her page, blinking. ‘A tall man, dark I think,’ she said, joining in their old game. ’Somewhat severe.’
‘He has suffered in life,’ Annie put in her portion. ‘And that makes him snappy, like an injured dog.’
‘But his heard is true,’ concluded Lottie, applying her sable brush to some flowering sage which she made to flower in profusion below the tall window.
‘Miss Lottie! Miss Lottie!’ She was dragged back to the present by Mrs Hedgewick’s voice which was laced with the familiarly dangerous wheedling tone. ‘You are again in one of your dazes, Wake up! Can you not see we have arrived?’
The carriage had stopped rocking and was still. A footman stood to attention beside the carved door, Lottie blinked as she saw the purple sage flowering in profusion beneath one of the tall windows.
She struggled down from the carriage, the sleeping Rupert now a dead weight on her aching arm. The other children alighted and they all watched as Mrs He3dgewick signalled the footman to assist her in stepping down from the carriage,
Lady Gardam did not rise to welcome them when they were announced into her drawing room. She merely patted the sofa beside her. ‘How delightful to see you, Mrs Sedgewick,’ she said in a dry papery voice. ‘And you are en famille I see,’
Mrs Hedgewick presented James, who bowed, and Sarah and Julia, who curtseyed, ‘And the baby is Rupert,’ she said, proudly, not noticing her ladyship’s raised brows,
‘Clearly a fine child,’ said Lady Gardam, without looking at him. She raised her lizard eyes to Lottie, who exchanged look for look, ‘And this is?’
‘This is Miss Branwell, Lady Gardam, The children’s governess.’
‘Ah,’ said her ladyship. ‘Perhaps Miss Branwell will take her charges to the old nursery. There are pastimes there, although alas our own children are long gone.’ He wavering gaze left Lottie and fixed on the hovering footman, ‘Conduct the children and Miss Branwell to the nursery Robert. Then tell cook to send milk and cakes up to the nursery. Mrs Hedgewick and I will take tea here,’
‘…Then, Em I was hustled out of the door. Such contempt in her old voice. You should have heard it. The children and I were definitely not invited. The she Hedgehog had definitely stepped over a line that she never even knew was there. I wonder what this dithery old wreck of an aristocrat wants with the she-Hedgehog. Something to do the he-Hedgehog’s great wealth perhaps. That seems usually the case when such people curry favour with the Hedgehogs of this world,’
The nursery was scruffy and cluttered with objects. Sarah and Julia immediately started fighting over a very bog rocking horse. James pulled a box off a high shelf, knelt on the floor and a whole heap of lead soldiers fell with a clatter onto the bare wooden floor.
Lottie’s shoulders ached with Rupert’s dead weight. The room smelled damp. She shivered,
‘I’ll light thoo a fire if thoo wants.’ The footman’s voice raked her ear, ‘Fire’s allus laid in here,’
She turned to look at him for the first time. He was stocky, no more than sixteen with thick wild hair and beetling brows.
She nodded. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
He took a flint box from the mantle shelf and knelt down beside the fire, ‘Nah need for thanks,’ he grunted, ‘It’s onny a job like.’
She looked at his averted face; at his busy hands with their sprouting black hair, ‘Would there be anywhere I could lire the baby?’ she said, ‘He needs to sleep.’
‘Room next door, Night nussery,’ he grunted. ‘Yah’ll find a cot in there. Nah bairn in there for years, but.’
In the night nursery she hunted in a cupboard and found a blanket smelling of mothballs to put on the bare cot mattress. She laid Rupert on the bumpy surface and his head fell back, his baby mouth opening slightly like the inside of a fresh strawberry, She waited until he was properly asleep and when she got back into the day nursery the fire was blazing and the footman had gone. The little sisters had abandoned the rocking horse and had opened a cupboard from which were tumbling enticing doll figures and mechanicals. James was fighting the battle of Agincourt on the nursery table.
Lottie subsided into the fire- side chair and stared at the dancing flames. Her eyelids drooped. The letter in her head continued. The footman, dearest Em is the queerest fellow; he has hair on the back of his hands and a gleam in his eye that spoke great revolt. There is this energy about him. And yet he is submissive enough. But in that very submission there is a kind of menace. The children are playing and the baby is asleep. Oh it’s so good to sit just a few moments and do nothing. The she-Hedgehog has had me trotting to her porcine will every hour since I arrived at the Hedgehoggery. And still, Em, I cannot please! I feel she is at the point of dismissing me from minute to minute.
‘Miss Lottie! Miss Lottie!’ Her skirt was being pulled. Young Julia was poking her little snout close to Lottie’s face. ‘Rupert’s gone, Miss Lottie, You were asleep and we heard a noise and when we went in there, into that room, he was not there. Rupert’s gone, Miss Lottie,’ Lottie looked from child to child. James was rubbing a leaden infantryman on his immaculate sleeve eyeing her dispassionately. Sara was pulling a dress onto a naked cloth doll,
Lottie leapt to her feet and raced into the night nursery, Rupert and his blanket were gone. In the filtered light from the curtained window the surface of the lumpy mattress was as bare as the moon. She turned round and raced back through the door. ‘Where have you put him, you naughty girls?’ She shook Julia and Sarah by their plump shoulders.
Julia’s twisted away, her lip jutting out, ‘I told you, Miss Lottie,’ she wined. ‘We heard a noise and when we came in here he was gone.’
Sarah started to cry.
Lottie looked across at James,
He put the leaden soldier in his pocket and shrugged, ‘I didn’t hear any noise. Then he cocked his head. ‘There! That’s him crying. Didn’t you hear him? It came from somewhere upstairs,’
She frowned at him,’ I hear no noise.’
He looked at her steadily, ‘I’m telling you, I heard a noise upstairs,’
She raced out onto the deserted landing then walked along until she found a door to a staircase. She clambered up the narrow staircase her nose wrinkling at the smell of dust and dead mice, She ducked to save her head from a sloping roof joist and found herself in a narrow corridor, She opened one door after another peering into one ill lit room after another making out the shabby detritus of the lives of female servants, She ducked her head again entered a doorway at the end of the corridor, Now she was in a long room with a straw paillasse in each corner covered in blankets, Fusty coats hung drunkenly from hooks curiously mimicking their owner’s male bodies. Polished Sunday boots were to attention standing by the battered pillows, waiting for their owners to enjoy their rime off, to be themselves,
Lottie marched on to a door at the far end of the room and round herself in a narrow room with a high window bare except for a bed on legs and a rusty narrow hip bath. The high window was small and round. She stood on tip toes to peer through it, She could see the edge of one of the old battlemented walls and beyond that the park and the rising Yorkshire hills, In any other mood she would have gasped at the beauty and reached for her paintbrushes,
But now she was angry, ‘Wold goose chase,’ she muttered, striding back to the door, ‘Wild goose chase!’ she shouted now in her frustration. She pushed at the door but it would not open. She pushed harder and harder but it refused to open. She banged on it with her fists. It clicked against a bolt or some other barrier on the other side. She kicked it hard and recoiled as she jolted her toe,
She leaned her cheek against the door’s rough plank surface and rested for a moment. And so, dear Em, I am locked in this dingy stinking attic. Children’s mischief of course. One of the porcine monsters has locked the door behind me, I must shout, get them to hear me. But I will sound gentle so they come.’
Gentle she was but soon she started to shout until her voice was hoarse. She went across and opened the tiny window and shouted more, Then she took off her boots and threw them out of the little window, only to hear them clatter one by one, on the leaden roof nit as she had hoped on the ground far below where it might, she hoped, have drawn attention from a passing gardener,
She went back to the door, slid down with her back to the door and bit her lips to stop the hot tears of frustration spilling down her cheeks. The crackling silence taunted her in the dusty space. She started to shout again, banging the door every few minutes. In time the outside dark crept into the room and closed its fist around her. That was when she started to shout continuously, screaming and moaning her deep distress, kicking away at the hard resisting door,
Dawn came and through the window she could see the rain falling on the battlement. The light was starting to fade again when he finally heard noises outside the door. ‘Let me out! Let me out! You little monsters. Don’t think I don’t know your nasty little name. Pig-monsters, I’ll murder you when you get out.’
The noise outside the door ceased.
‘Let me out,’ she whispered. ‘Please let me out. Please.
Suddenly the heavy door was yanked open and she stood blinking as the light of a lantern flooded into the darkened attic. Holding the lantern was the young footman, Robert. He held a heavy cudgel in his hand. ‘What is it? What’s oop in here?’ He raised the lantern and peered at her. Then the fear drained from his voice, ‘Miss. Miss, can it be thoo?’
Lottie put her dirty hands up tie her loosened hair and cast her eyes down to her dirty stockinged feet,’ ‘The children,’ she said dully, ‘They locked me in. Wait till I get my hands on him.’
‘Thoo’ll need a long reach miss. They left straight for home yesterday. The lad said you’d gone off, away, left them. Said you’d gone off away, left them to it. We searched down to the far wall and through the woods. Ten men out there. You weren’t there so they – that is her Ladyship – decided the Lad was right,’
‘But Rupert, the baby? He was lost. Did they find him?’
‘The babby? Not lost at all, Housemaid brought milk up for t’bairns and said you was asleep, Babby was grizzling so she took him down to the kitchen to find him a titty bottle,’
She rubbed a dirty hand across her brow, ‘But listen! I’ve been shouting and banging for hours. You must have heard me. She scrabbled at her hair trying to pit its snaky straggles into some kind of order.
‘Aye miss, we heard ‘em, them noises … all the time, into the night too. We hear them regular, day and night, a woman banging and screaming. Thoo say – it’s an old tale in these parts. There was this lass locked in here for years by her husband. That’s what they say, like. They say the lass had a babby and smothered it and was locked in here to keep her out of the madhouse, Flung herself off the room in t’end, so they say,’
So now, I am beginning to get back my breath Em. And the boy in relishing his doleful tale.
‘The staff here’ve been scared out of their wits at your shouting and wailing, Her Ladyship, as usual, tells us we were dreaming it, Deaf as a post she can be. I was the only one dared come.’ He lifted the lantern nearer to his face and in the darting light his black eyes sparked into hers. ‘Happened to that lass no worse than to my own ma, who died afore Ah was born, They say they pulled us from her like she was a dead pig, They do say also that Ah roared uncommon lusty from the second Ah came out if her,’
‘… and then dear Em, I fainted, When I came to I found the young footman carrying me down the steep stairs like a baby. I blush to say it but the boy was nuzzling my neck like a day old pup. And despite his fine livery he smelt of the byre,
They sent for the she-Hedgehog of course but she did not blame the children. Instead she gave me notice and a guinea for my trouble. But no reference, mark you!
This is, as you will see, a great relief. I have decided now that I will come home. I will be with you and dearest Annie tomorrow. Something is brewing in my head about us earning our living in quite another way. Being a little mother to brats is surely the short end of the stick. The perverse nature of this life has convinced me there is a way we can all stay at home and flourish,
So I will be home tomorrow, Em. Be sure to light the lamp on our favourite table, won’t you?
Love to Annie
Your loving sister Charlotte.
@ Wendy Robertson 2016