Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

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Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’

In ‘Shirley’ (1849), Charlotte Bronte describes a Mr Yorke who is devoid of imagination and empathy.  Chapter Four begins: “A Yorkshire gentleman he was, par excellence, in every point.” (1), which in itself perhaps shows a lack of imagination on Bronte’s part in choosing his name!

Apparently Mr Yorke lacks the “organ of Veneration” and can’t look up to anybody, even God. “He believed in God and heaven; but his God and heaven were those of a man in whom awe, imagination, and tenderness lack.” (2). She then goes on to list so many other inadequacies of his personality that one starts to think ‘Why should I care about this character at all?’ There are several pages of Brontë telling us about Mr Yorke rather than showing us what he’s like, acceptable in a novel written in the 1840s but which wouldn’t get past an editor today. But this does allow her to speak about the importance of the imagination as a “gift of the mind” and the error of those who dismiss it:

“…who cares for imagination? Who does not think it a rather dangerous, senseless attribute – akin to weakness – perhaps partaking of frenzy – a disease rather than a gift of the mind?”

It’s very easy for me as a writer at the beginning of the twenty first century to look back to the beginning of the nineteenth and to imagine that it was a period when writers and those living by the products of their imagination were in a privileged position compared to my own time.  What would it be like to be an artist or poet in the Romantic era, or a novelist in the glory days of the Brontës, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot?

But this section of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ makes me think that it was just as hard then to be taken seriously if one took the imagination seriously and viewed it as an essential of life. She states that probably all people think the imagination is more of a disadvantage in life or even more like a “disease”, unless you actually possess it. Those who think they have strong imaginations speak very differently about it:

“To hear them speak you would imagine that their hearts would be cold if that elixir did not flow about them; that their eyes would be dim if that flame did not refine their vision; that they would be lonely if this strange companion abandoned them. You would suppose that it imparted some glad hope to spring, some fine charm to summer, some tranquil joy to autumn, some consolation to winter, which you do not feel.” (3)

Here Brontë seems to be claiming some sort of aristocracy of the Imaginative, and is depicting how the claims of the Imaginative can look like a superiority complex to others.  She gives Mr Yorke’s view: “An illusion, of course; but the fanatics cling to their dream, and would not give it up for gold.” (4).  Mr Yorke, we are told, did not consider a poetic imagination a necessity of life.  He could “tolerate” the results of it as works of art in the form of a good picture or music, but could not tolerate all the talk of the struggles of a quiet poet, who “might have lived despised, and died scorned, under the eyes of Hiram Yorke.” (5).

Bronte then gives a fascinating description of the character of the imaginative artist, “the true poet”, who has to somehow survive the fact that “there are many Hiram Yorkes in this world”:

“… it is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, had often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold, careless side to them – he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgement on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than consoled with.”

Perhaps Charlotte realises she is getting a bit carried away here and so comes back with: “These, however, are not Mr Yorke’s reflections; and it is with Mr Yorke we have at present to do.” (6).

Charlotte Brontë

But perhaps these words do stand as a rebuke to all those who mainly emphasise the outward “bleakness” of the Brontës’ lives and don’t look further into these glowing recesses of inner creativity and hope.  Bronte’s own images for the imagination here – comparing it to an elixir, a flame, a refiner of vision, an imparter of hope and charm, joy and consolation, bliss, a festal brightness and cherishing glow that can make all things bright and genial – these images inspire our imaginations too. And we are convinced by her conviction that true imagination is utterly necessary for tenderness and awe and veneration to exist in us, even for a truer appreciation of God and heaven. Who wouldn’t want more of imagination by her definition, this “strange companion” ?


To enjoy more of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination in the form of her most famous novel ‘Jane Eyre’, you can read my latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ which intertwines a contemporary murder mystery with the experience of a reading group studying her great classic.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy this at Amazon UK:

Or at Amazon US:




(1) Charlotte Brontë, ‘Shirley’, Penguin Classics edition, London, 1994, p44.

(2) ibid., p45.

(3) ibid., p46.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid., p47.

(6) ibid.

Emma-Jane Austin and the Brontë Birthplace

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Brontë Birthplace

In my novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’, Emma-Jane Austin visits the birthplace of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë in Thornton, West Yorkshire.  She is really keen to take photos for an exhibition at her place of work, Bromley House Library.  But it is also the weekend of Mother’s Day.  And the other members of her reading group, the Rotic Club, are keen to see Thornton too, since it is 200 years since the birth of Charlotte Brontë in 1816 and they are studying her masterpiece ‘Jane Eyre’ together.  So a quiet contemplative solo trip turns into a more social pilgrimage and a celebration for Emma’s mother and grandmothers who swell the numbers – and the fun!

Their journey begins at Nottingham train station with a disagreement over changes to the architecture of the victorian building

Nottingham train station

eg. have the lovely old art nouveau features been sufficiently enhanced in the recent refurbishment?

Art nouveau detail on station gates

Fortunately the train is on time and on the way to Bradford the women share some of the Brontë memorabilia and objects of interest to begin their study day.  A taxi takes them through thick snow to Thornton and their rented cottage on Market Street, the same street where the younger Brontës were born.

Brontë birthplace plaque

You can see more at .  But the highlight was having lunch at ‘Emily’s’, the lovely bistro that is now situated in the Brontës’ former home,

‘Emily’s’ bistro and Brontë birthplace

‘Emily’s’ bistro, Thornton

and that still has the original fireplace and some of the furniture from their time.  You can see this, plus a map of a walking tour of Thornton called ‘Brontëland’, at


Fireplace at ‘Emily’s’

Over their meal, the women compare photos of Charlotte B from various biographies.  Of course there is the portrait of the three sisters by Branwell

Brontë sisters

and the photo on the cover of Lyndall Gordon’s excellent biography.

At ‘Emily’s’ cafe the women also enjoy looking at drawings of the Brontë family growing up as imagined by Joan Hassall in ‘The Brontë Story’ by Margaret Lane.

Margaret Lane’s biography of the Brontës

They also hand round a copy of ‘Charlotte in Love’ by Brian Wilks and have quite a lot to say about Charlotte’s own romance and marriage.

Charlotte’s love life by Brian Wilks

This means that they are not just delighted at being in the Brontës’ birthplace but also wonder about a trip to Haworth Parsonage together, where the sisters and their brother grew up and practised their art.  The parsonage has become a place of pilgrimage for Brontë fans even more than Thornton, and Emma’s mother and grandmothers have some surprises for the younger women in the form of catalogues and guidebooks from their own visits to Haworth in the 1980s.  One of Emma’s grandmas has a 1967 guide to Haworth bought there in 1981.

1980s guide

And Emma’s mother produces a booklet called ‘Sixty Treasures’ from 1988, which shows 60 items kept at the Parsonage.  The women exclaim over the photos of everyday household items and artistic materials used by the family, and particularly Charlotte’s tiny dress and boots and her wedding veil.

1980s guide

Rosanna, one of Emma’s reading group, gives them some very useful web addresses for keeping up with Brontë news and fandom, such as and and .

She also shows a picture of her favourite painting of the character Jane Eyre by Sigismond De Ivanowski from 1907.

Jane Eyre by De Ivanowski

One of Emma’s closest friends, Nattie, talks about reading the famous novel by Jean Rhys which imagines life for Rochester with his wife before they come to England and Bertha Mason descends into madness.  Nattie has also enjoyed the Persephone edition of Frances Towers’ collection of short stories ‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ from 1949.

Tea with Mr Rochester

The Persephone books are plain grey on the outside but all have beautiful endpapers inside and matching bookmarks that fit in with the era of the story.

Persephone pattern

To everyone’s amazement, even Emma’s grandmother ‘Grambo’, who has been less than enthusiastic about the trip and its theme so far, produces a memento from a visit to the Brontës’ home from many years before – an old toffee tin!

1980s souvenir tin

She had even filled it again with toffees for their journey home!  The tin is rather lovely – very Puginesque – with victorian photos of the main Brontë sites on each side.

Side of tin

The only member of Emma’s reading group who cannot be with them on the trip is Maria, the German teacher.  Instead she sends them something of interest to read that is referred to in ‘Jane Eyre’ and comes from her own culture.  This is an extract from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Die Rauber’ or ‘The Robbers’ from 1782.  Not everyone appreciates having to read this!  (You can find it at )

Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’

Instead Emma suggests they read ‘Henry Brocken: his Travels and Adventures’ by Walter de la Mare from 1904, a fascinating story imagining visiting fictional characters as if they were real – for example Henry Brocken goes to see Rochester and Jane and their dog Pilot in their small house in a dark wood after their marriage.  (You can read this at )

This shows that re-imagining the characters from ‘Jane Eyre’ and writing new stories about them is nothing new.  My own novel, ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ is in this category in a sense, as Emma-Jane Austin not only discusses Charlotte Brontë’s characters with her friends and family but feels she is meeting with them again in some form in her own life as she struggles to solve a murder mystery.  I am sure the Brontës would be amazed, and hopefully gratified, to know that we have still felt compelled to revisit their novels and even their birthplaces and homes in the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can read all about Emma-Jane and her friends in ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ as an ebook on Kindle at