Author of acclaimed new biography of Maria Branwell, mother of the Brontë writers, Sharon Wright explores how pivotal Methodism was for the life story of this little-known figure.
When I set out to write the first biography of the enigmatic mother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë I had no idea how pivotal Methodism would be to her extraordinary story.
As my research into this largely forgotten figure progressed, it became very clear that without the invisible threads of the Wesleyan network in the Georgian era, Miss Maria Branwell would never have met the Reverend Patrick Brontë. Their world-changing love story would never have happened. Their daughters of genius would never have existed. Without the Evangelical network of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we would not have masterpieces such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. No John Wesley and Mary Fletcher in real life, no Cathy and Heathcliff in world literature.
For two centuries Maria had remained a mystery. Even the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth referred to Mrs Brontë, who died of cancer at 38, as ‘a shadowy figure’. My journey to uncover her story revealed many secrets, from family scandals to smuggling links. A life in society akin to that of her contemporary Jane Austen to being a lady of letters long before her children took up their own pens. Her world was rocked by war and unrest, great passion and appalling sorrow.
But throughout it all ran the thread of her piety and devotion to Evangelical principles. She was born in Penzance to a family of influential Cornish merchants. As a member of the gentry, she had access to Assembly Room balls and the Penzance Ladies Book Club.
She was also part of the family that counted John Wesley as their friend, whose cousin William Carne was known as the father of Cornish Methodism. When Wesley visited Penzance in 1789, Maria was six and the preacher stayed with her relatives.
When Maria was 29 her aunt and uncle – Jane and John Fennell – were chosen to open Woodhouse Grove School, the Wesleyan academy for the sons of itinerant preachers in West Yorkshire. Maria was invited to help her aunt and made the perilous 400-mile journey to Apperley Bridge. Meanwhile, a driven but penniless young curate called Patrick Brontë was making his own way from rural Ulster to industrializing West Yorkshire, aided by the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. His most crucial brush with the Methodists came as a curate in Shropshire in 1809, when he was drawn into the charmed Madeley circle of influential preacher and fixer Mary Fletcher. It was Mary, widow of Wesley’s great friend John Fletcher, who arranged for the Fennells to get the Grove jobs, Patrick to go to Dewsbury and his friend William Morgan to Bradford. William was engaged to Maria’s cousin Jane.
When the young Mr Brontë strode up to the boarding school in early summer 1812 as the visiting examiner, he met the elegant and well-read bluestocking from Cornwall. It was a whirlwind romance and in her letters Maria calls him her ‘dear, saucy Pat’. They were married at Christmas and went on to have six children, including the authors Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
Methodism even played a part in Haworth becoming the Brontës’ permanent home. It had once been the church of leading Wesleyan William Grimshaw, known to Methodists as ‘the apostle of the north’. Patrick wrote:
“I do think that Providence has called me to labour in His vineyard at Haworth, where so many great and good men have gone before me.”
Maria and Patrick remained in the Church of England when the Methodists formed their own church. Maria’s sister Elizabeth, however, remained a staunch Methodist and was left to help Patrick raise the Brontë children after Maria’s death in 1821. The Wesleyans drew Maria and Patrick together from different classes, different lands, different worlds almost. It was Methodism that gave us the Brontës.
The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick is out in paperback from Pen & Sword.
Piece originally written for Methodist Heritage.