A novel approach to Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon. By James Scully

Pauline Clooney’ Charlotte & Arthur, an imaginative recreation of the Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon in Wales and Ireland, is an exciting combination of fact and fiction. The extensive historical research which preceded the writing of the book is evident throughout and this coupled with the creation of less historic characters and the weaving in of more fictional nuances ensures a work that is at once refreshing and convincing. While the sources of history are comparatively plentiful for this episode due to Charlotte’s prolific letter writing and an abundance of biographies of the two main characters, it is the richness of Pauline Clooney’s writing that makes the work engrossing and appealing.

From the outset the particulars are resonant with the historic reality often amplified by a series of recollective flashbacks but always coloured by a warm creativity. Details of the turbulence that Arthur’s proposal caused in the Haworth parsonage are vividly recalled but as the violent opposition of Charlotte’s father is gradually overcome so too is Charlotte’s own reluctance. As she grapples with her emotions, initially dominated by compassion and pity for her suitor, she grows to ‘like’ her fiancé and during the wedding ceremony ‘instead of feeling the weight of commitment she felt an approaching freedom and her own words floated before her eyes, above her head in the air of the chancel: ‘no net ensnares me.’

The Brontë sisters

Following a trip across North Wales the happy couple arrive in Kingstown, Dublin where Arthur is eager to share the cultural highlights of the Hibernian metropolis. Conscious of her enthusiasm for the Napoleonic era he points out the Martello towers which they pass en route to the city and surprises her by stopping their carriage outside the birthplace of the Duke of Wellington. Unfortunately, such attentiveness was in vain as Charlotte, always prone to illness, had begun to feel unwell.

Cuba Court

Over the following days she was greatly impressed when meeting the first of her Banagher in-laws in Dublin. The good taste and erudition of Arthur’s brother Alan and cousins Joseph and Mary Anna and their familiarity with the hallowed halls of Trinity College and other Dublin treasures, were a pleasant surprise. However, her flagging spirits dictated that their stay in the capital be curtailed and that they leave for Banagher earlier than planned.

The portrait of Cuba Court and its inhabitants is among the most enjoyable aspects of this book. Arriving at the stone pillared gateway Charlotte would have observed an imposing edifice which symbolized the Bell family’s gentrified upbringing and their relatively privileged place in local society. Sensing her unease as she anticipated the large welcoming party of relatives and servants dwarfed against the imposing façade, Arthur reassured her: ‘Don’t be put off by that block of stone, its harsh, masculine exterior belies the softness you’ll find within…’ Very soon such confidence was realized in the persona of the matronly Aunt Harriette who soon undertook to nurse Charlotte ‘back to ruddiness’. The characterization of Aunt Harriette, Arthur’s foster mother, is a triumph and very much in keeping with novelist’s letters to friends in Yorkshire.

The account of the newlyweds’ attendance at Sunday service is another highlight. The stroll to church from Cuba Court along a rustic roadway afforded her a first proper view of the town as it stretched downhill to the Shannon, rivalling the steepness of her native Haworth: ‘Inside the church was radiant with red velvet cushions brightening the wooden pews, and vases of flowers perfumed the air. The Bells’ pew was to the right of the altar, and as their guest, Charlotte was seated in the front row, next to Arthur, Aunt Harriette and William. As the other parishioners came in, Aunt Harriette whispered their names: Armstrongs, Molloys, Purefoys and many others, who waved hellos to Charlotte, or approached to shake her hand and welcome her to Banagher.’

Hill House, Banagher

Other interludes in Banagher included musing on the origin of the phrase ‘That Beats Banagher and Banagher beats the devil’, discussion on the Harp Hotel and its famous literary residentAnthony Trollope. Local strolls brought Charlotte to view the Bridge of Banagher and its well-armed fortifications including an early morning ramble to the fog-bound Shannon banks and the curiously named Fort Eliza.

The extensive stay at Banagher, ten days at least, afforded time for longer excursions which brought the newlyweds to Birr Castle and Clonmacnoise. Both these occasions are cleverly reimagined. Charlotte is ill at ease in the castle as she is aware that the social divide between the Bells and the Parsons families mirrors that between herself and her fellow Yorkshire woman, Mary Field, of Heaton Hall, wife of the third earl of Rosse. The trip to Clonmacnoise by steamer is enhanced when George Petrie’s account of the site was relayed to her.

Pauline Clooney has done a great service for the promotion of the Brontë Irish connection, particularly the associations with the towns of Banagher and Kilkee. The various episodes are touched with a pervasive happiness. Arthur, far removed from the reserved image he presented in Haworth, is giddy, proud and at times euphoric. Charlotte is more reflective but is gradually accepting of her new status which may at once obviate the looming difficulties of her father’s ill-health and great age, and her own prospects of living alone.

Writing from Kilkee to her friend Catherine Winkworth after one month of marriage she leaves us in no doubt that she is assured she has married a good man: ‘My husband is not a poet or a poetical man and one of my grand doubts before marriage was about ‘congenial tastes’ and so on. The first morning we went out to the cliffs and saw the Atlantic coming in all white foam, I did not know whether I should get leave or time to take the matter in my own way. I did not want to talk but I did want to look and be silent. Having hinted a petition, license was not refused, covered with a rug to keep off the spray I was allowed to sit where I chose and he interrupted me when he thought I crept too near the edge of the cliff. So far he is always good in this way, and this protection which does not interfere or pretend is a thousand times better than any half sort of pseudo sympathy. I will try with God’s help to be as indulgent to him whenever indulgence is needed.

Alas this lingering image with all its exaltation lures us away and off our guard we forget the short-lived final reality. Charlotte Brontë died just nine months later during pregnancy. Pauline Clooney’s epilogue is succinct but nonetheless harrowing. A devastated Arthur remained at Haworth living in harmony with his father-in-law until his death in 1861. Arthur was then bitterly disappointed when he was not appointed as Mr. Brontë’s successor and so returned forthwith to Banagher. Soon after he married his cousin Mary Anna and for the ensuing forty years devoted himself to the memories of Charlotte and the preservation of her memorabilia and protection of her legacy. In this  undertaking he was fully supported  by Mary Anna’s generous spirit. Their home became a Brontë shrine and it was a portrait of Charlotte that overlooked Arthur when he died on December 2, 1906.

Arthur & Charlotte was published by Merdog Book. The book costs €15 and is available from Feeney’s Day Today newsagents and Paul Flynn’s newsagency, both on Main Street, Banagher. Also from Offaly History at http://www.offaly history.com or James Scully.