Monday, 16 January 2017

Charlotte and her Sisters: On the Death of Emily Jane Brontë and On the Death of Anne Brontë

In May 1849, a 33-year-old Charlotte Bronte, who had cared for her younger sisters and brother as the eldest since her older sisters’ deaths in 1825, found herself sibling-less. Branwell Bronte had died the previous September, Emily followed in December and now Anne succumbed in Scarborough, where she was buried apart from the Bronte clan.

Branwell's portrait of his sisters (with painted over self portrait)
Charlotte had turned to writing poetry on the death of Emily. Penned five days after her sister’s death, On the Death of Emily Jane Bronte concentrates on the pain Emily has been spared, but her sisters have to endure in grieving for her – ‘My darling, thou wilt never know/The grinding agony of woe/That we have borne for thee’ – and ends with traditional Christian joy at the better world Emily has gone to (‘We will not wish thee here again’) and the hope afforded by the promised reunion in the afterlife (‘give us rest and joy with thee’).

A month after Anne’s death, Charlotte’s second poem on grieving reads very differently and is much more raw. While her poem for Emily starts with a direct address (‘My darling’), the initial focus of the latter poem is the bleakness of Charlotte’s own existence: ‘There’s little joy in life for me,/And little terror in the grave;/I’ve lived the parting hour to see/Of one I would have died to save.

It is much harder for her to rely on religious comfort when losing Anne also means losing the last of her siblings and continuing her existence alone: ‘And now, benighted, tempest-tossed,/Must bear alone the weary strife’. The poem’s central two stanzas dramatise Charlotte’s internal struggle at her sister’s deathbed – wishing for an end to Anne’s suffering, as she had for Emily, and fearing to go on alone. She is horrified at the ‘stillness that must part/The darling of my life from me’ in the same breath as she expresses her thanks to God for not extending Anne’s pain.

There is no question of which emotion will win out. Charlotte knows that ultimately she is not given a choice. Her life may be ‘weary strife’ but it will continue for as long as God decides (in reality another six years, before she died in the early stages of pregnancy, barely nine months after her marriage).

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2 comments:

  1. I lost my beloved sister to cancer just before Christmas, having stood at the foot of her bed and watched her take her last breath. The poem about the death of Anne really does capture that awful feeling of wanting the suffering to end, for each breath to be their last, yet the sheer grief and terror of the idea of life without them. What Charlotte went through, with the death of all her remaining siblings in relatively swift succession I can only begin to imagine. Even more so for their father Patrick, who went on to outlive all of his children.

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    1. It is a really wonderful poem. Glad to know it resonated with you.

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