By Kim Braxton (PhD Candidate, Keele University)
When Patrick Brontë died in 1861 Charlotte’s husband Arthur Bell Nicholls took a collection of their belongings – predominantly personal items such as their manuscripts, letters, juvenilia, and writing desks – to Ireland and the rest of the household belongings were put up for auction. People from across the country and indeed the world came or sent people to Haworth to obtain something Brontë, but a lot of the real treasures were hidden away in Ireland. Arthur Bell Nicholls hoped to live a quiet, reclusive life with his new wife, but Brontë hunters were soon upon him. It took four auctions for all of the Brontë relics to be obtained by the public: one after Arthur’s death, two during his wife’s lifetime and then one last auction after her death. Amongst these possessions were a small collection of pebbles, nondescript and seemingly irrelevant, pebbles any child could pick up on the beach. And yet Charlotte, then her husband and his second wife, kept them. They were then purchased by a Mrs Chadwick in 1916 at the death of Mrs Nicholls and were finally returned to the Brontë Society in 1947. So what was the significance of these little pebbles? They were found in Anne Brontë’s work basket.[i]
In 2011, I attended one of the early private tours now run by the Parsonage, which allows visitors special access to certain relics as well as a private tour of the house. One of the benefits of the tour was you were allowed to touch the relics and so I picked up Anne’s pebbles and instantly became upset. Anne collected these pebbles in Scarborough, where she first visited with her charges when she was working as a Governess, and it remained a site of happiness for her. She also went there with her sister Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey when she was dying of consumption, and we know from letters that they took Anne to the beach shortly before she died. Whilst the Parsonage cannot confirm which visit the pebbles are from, in my mind these were the pebbles she picked before she died. These were the symbol of a young woman trying to hold onto a world she did not want to leave, to me that was heart-breaking.
Relics and the dead are intertwined; ultimately an item does not become a relic until the being it belonged to is deceased. Pre-Reformation relics were predominantly religious, usually portrayed as the physical remains or belongings of Saints and even Christ. Post-Reformation is when relics became a ‘celebrity’ memento; now people wanted relics of monarchs, heroes, artists and writers. As Deborah Lutz explains, ‘artefacts of beloved bodies still held some of the sublime, fetishistic magic of those outmoded holy relics of bygone days…The sacred moved from the flesh of the saint to that of the beloved individual.’[ii] Furthermore, relics allow us to become part of an historical event through our interaction with them. Anne’s pebbles allow us to be part of her death, to hold in our hands what she held as she faced her demise. But why should these items move us? We never knew Anne and countless people died of consumption during the Victorian period. But we do know her; we have numerous biographies which have detailed her death. Would I have been so moved by Anne’s pebbles if I hadn’t read Ellen Nussey’s description of her death contained in Winifred Gerin’s biography? Nussey writes: ‘The hostess knew that death was near, yet, so little was the house disturbed by the presence of the dying, and the sorrow of those so nearly bereaved, that dinner was announced as ready through the half-open door, as the living sister was closing the eyes of the dead.’[iii]
As a literary scholar, I try to remain focused on the Brontës as writers rather than as people. However, I cannot deny the impact Anne’s pebbles had on me, nor that reading their letters and diary papers, about the lives I know they never had, moves me. As Andrew McCarthy, Director of the Brontë Parsonage, explains, the Brontë relics bear witness ‘in a powerfully moving way, to the Brontës as ordinary human beings. It is for this reason, just as much as the Brontës’ literary achievements, that people continue to make the pilgrimage to Haworth, why these relics have such a powerful effect upon us, and why their history is so compelling.’[iv]
[i] Many thanks to Sarah Laycock at the Brontë Parsonage for providing me with these details.
[ii] Deborah Lutz, “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture 2011; 39, pp. 127-142, (p. 128).
[iii] Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1959), p. 320.
[iv] Andrew McCarthy, ‘Introduction’ in Ann Dinsdale, Sarah Laycock and Julie Akhurst, Brontë Relics – A Collection History (Yorkshire: The Brontë Society, 2012), pp. 4-5, (p.5).