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About A Week: The Brontes' Dad

Peter Hinchliffe tells tales about Patrick Bronte, father of the famous literary Bronte sisters.

American actresses will portray the literary Brontė sisters in a new film.

Literary geniuses Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontė grew up in Yorkshire, the county of broad acres.

Folk born and raised in England’s biggest county speak in an accent which features broad, heavily-emphasised vowel sounds which are extremely difficult for “outsiders’’ to imitate.

That task will be tackled by Michelle Williams, 26, who received an Oscar nomination for her role in Brokeback Mountain, Bryce Dallas Howard, 26, who was in The Village, and the up-and-coming actress Evan Rachel Wood, 19.

This was announced at the Cannes Film Festival. British filmmaker Charles Sturridge wil write and direct the film Brontė, which is due to be released in 2009. Sturridge made the much-praised television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s bitter-sweet novel Brideshead Revisted, first screened 26 years ago.

Charlotte Brontė will be played by Michelle Williams, Emily by Bryce Dallas Howard and Anne by Rachel Wood.

The Brontės lived in the bleak moorland hill village of Howarth, where their father Patrick was the vicar. Their novels shocked readers in the Victorian age, when women were not thought capable of writing great works of fiction. The sisters initially deceived their publishers by calling themselves Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The pen-names were also used to conceal their literary endeavours from their father.

Charlotte (1816-1855) wrote a number of novels, the best known of which is Jane Eyre. Emily (1818-1848) wrote a single novel, the towering and melodramatic Wuthering Heights. Anne (1829-1849) wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

Patrick Brontė, the father of the three literary geniuses, was a curate in the Yorkshire town of Dewsbury – where I spent most of the first 27 years of my life.

Patrick was no namby-pamby milksop. He was action man, a real live hero. In the present day he would probably have featured in dramatic newspaper headlines.

Most of his time as a curate was taken up with christenings and weddings, preachings and buryings. But whenever possible he was outdoors, walking on the banks of the River Calder near Dewsbury Parish Church.

One day he passed a gang of lads who were absorbed in a scrimmaging rough and tumble. One of them, a slow-witted boy, was pushed into the flooded river.

Hearing his cries, Patrick dived in and rescued him from the swollen current. He carried the boy to his home, handed him over to his widowed mother, returned to the vicarage to change his clothes, then again started out on a walk.

When he met the same gang of boys he stopped to lecture them. One confessed that he only pushed the victim "to make him wet his shoes". The curate made the boys go and apologise to their victim and his mother.

On another occasion Patrick was leading a Whitsun Sunday procession from Dewsbury to a nearby village. A drunken man obstructed the path, threatening the church group, refusing to let them pass. The young curate grabbed hold of him by the collar and threw him into a ditch, to the delight of his Sunday school pupils.

Patrick was born in a peasant cottage in Ireland on St Patrick’s Day, 1777. Surmounting impossible barriers, at the age of 25, he became a student at St John's College, Cambridge. There he existed on less than £20 a year.

When he became a curate at Dewsbury in 1809 he was joining the most important church in the West Riding. During his 16 months there he officiated at 130 weddings, baptised 426 babes, and conducted up to eight funerals a day.

In 1836 Charlotte Bronte was teaching at Roe Head school. Anne was a pupil there. They longed for the holidays, and a return to their home in Haworth. Their father insisted they first spend a week as guests of the vicar of Huddersfield, the Rev James Franks.

The girls were not well pleased. The week dragged by. The only highlight was a day with the Walker family in Lascelles Hall, which still exists and is less than a mile from where I now live.

In later years Patrick was old-fashioned in manner and speech. A photograph of him, taken when he was very old, seems to reveal a serious-minded, and perhaps sour, individual. He stares fiercely through small round glasses, his neck encased by an enormous white silk cravat.

He was given to peculiar habits. He slept with a loaded pistol close to hand. First thing every morning, he opened a bedroom window and fired a bullet across the Howarth churchyard.

He was deeply loved by his children though. He involved himself in the politics of the day, regularly writing letters on topical matters to a Leeds newspaper.

Patrick did not approve of certain kinds of fiction. He once wrote:

"The sensual novelist and his admirer are beings of depraved appetites and sickly imagination who, having learnt the art of self-tormenting, are diligently and zealously employed in creating an imaginary world, which they can never inhabit, only to make the real world, with which they must necessarily be conversant, gloomy and unsupportable."

The vicarage once occupied by the famous family, now a museum to their memory, has changed little since Victorian times. Black rooks caw gruffly in the tops of the trees surrounding the nearby church, seemingly engaged in an endless conversation about death.

Patrick Bronte knew death as a constant companion. Infant mortality was so common in Haworth that the average life-span was only 25.

His wife Maria died in her 39th year. Of his six children, Charlotte lived the longest, dying when she was 39. Patrick survived until he was 85.


If the three talented American actresses are to truly portray the literary sisters, they should perhaps learn something of the Yorkshire dialect, which I was brought up to speak.

It’s the dialect which gave birth to those broad Yorkshire vowel sounds.

They could make a start by trying to understand this dialect tale written by a friend of mine, Mike Shaw.


Whahle we wer talkin' abaat summer 'olidays at t' club on Setdy, Edwin Walker sed 'im an' t' missus were baan ter Greece.

"By gum, that's a 'eck of a long way ter gooa on a cooach," sed Jooa Sykes.

"Oh, we're nooan gooin' bi cooach, we're flahin' ter Athens," replahd Edwin, as praad as Punch. "It's th' ooanly way ter travel, Ah reckon. It'd knock me aat fer days if we wer awl that tahme on a cooach. Ah remember wen we went bi cooach ter Switzerland. Tuthri days afta we gate wom Ah could still feel t' wheels gooin' raand."

Jooa Sykes, same as me, 'as nivver flown in 'is lahfe, an' 'e reckoned 'e wer nooan baan ter start naah. "Ah lahke ter feel t' graand unda mi feet," 'e sed. “Ah used ter come ovver giddy if we ivver went upsteers at t' pictures."

"Yus, Ah'm a bit same," Ah telled 'im. "Ah could ner mooar gooa up i' an aeroplane ner do one o' yond bungee-jumps 'at's all t' rage just naah."

Jack Bamforth reckoned 'at cars an' planes wer tekkin' ovver us lahves thees days. "They're diggin' up fer new rooads awl ovver t' shop, an' at t' same tahme they're wantin' mooar an' mooar runways at th' airpooarts."

Jack reckoned 'at if 'e wer fifty yeears younger, 'e'd gooa an' join them protesters 'at's trahin ter stop t' diggin'.'

"Ah think tha's getten a point theer, Jack," Ah sed. "Ah'd come wi' thee, Ah think, if Ah wer their age."

Jack 'ad a bit on a laff at that an' sed 'at seein' as Ah couldn't stand 'ights Ah'd be nooah gooid fer clahmbin' up trees. "Tha'd atta gooa undergraand i' one o' t' tunnels asteead," 'e telled me.

"It's a bloomin' tale," Ah replahd. "Ah'm war gooin' daan ner Ah am gooin' up. Ah start feelin' wammy if yar Ethel sends me inta t' cellar ter t' coil-oile!"


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