Tyrant who ruled the Brontës

A rare photograph has been discovered of the man who headed Britain's greatest literary family. Chris Green reports

Friday 05 June 2009 00:00

In her famous 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell described the author's clergyman father Patrick as a "strange" and "half-mad" man who was "not naturally fond of children". Ever since, the unfortunate Reverend Brontë, whose children Anne, Emily and Charlotte penned some of the most enduring novels in English literature, has been regarded as a cold and unfeeling man who terrorised his family with his sudden bursts of temper.

Now, an ageing sepia photograph of the Brontë patriarch has resurfaced after missing for more than a century. Discovered at a Midlands antique fair, the picture is still mounted in its original oval gilt frame and shows the elderly rector looking characteristically stern.

The man who spotted the photograph, which was hidden in an old box of papers, has decided to sell it through a specialist auction house in Surrey. The lot is expected to fetch up to £600 when it is sold on 24 June.

Once proudly displayed alongside other Brontë mementos at the Temperance tea rooms in the family's home village of Haworth in West Yorkshire, the picture was auctioned by Sotheby's in 1898 when the Museum of Brontë Relics closed down and sold off everything it owned. It has not been seen since, although copies of the picture are known to exist.

An inscription on the back of the portrait, presumably copied from the museum's description, reads: "Rev P Brontë; Various relics including an oval photograph framed and glazed, a small china blue and white plate often used by him and a sword stick."

In the 1898 sale, the newly established Brontë Society could only afford to spend £20 on mementos, missing out on hundreds of valuable items including the photograph.

Yesterday, in a bitter twist of irony, the society admitted it was again unable to purchase the picture due to financial difficulties.

Andrew McCarthy, the director of the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, which is owned by the Brontë Society, told The Independent that "limited resources" and the economic crisis prevented the museum from placing a bid.

"We have to be pretty ruthless in terms of what we try to acquire. It's very disappointing not to be able to acquire all Brontë items that come up for sale, but we are a small, independent charity and not immune to the difficult financial climate."

The photograph is likely to fascinate Brontë enthusiasts seeking an answer to the riddle of the patriarch's personality. Many have never understood how an irascible Irish clergyman came to father three writers of such talent, who between them produced Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Born in Ireland in 1777, Patrick Brontë was one of 10 children. His father was an agricultural labourer and the young Patrick started out as a blacksmith's apprentice before leaving to pursue a university education at Cambridge. He was ordained into the Church of England in 1807.

In her Life of Charlotte Brontë, regarded as a classic Victorian biography, Gaskell issued a searing indictment of the Reverend's relationship with his children, writing that he viewed "their frequent appearance as a drag both on his wife's strength, and as interruption to the comfort of the household".

As well as his fits of temper – during which he burned his children's boots, shredded his wife's gown and fired a gun out the kitchen door – Mr Brontë would also make his daughters wear masks while he questioned them about moral issues, which he insisted would "make them speak with less timidity".

His damaged reputation was not repaired until 2005 when a collection of his letters was published. Last year Dudley Green, a former chairman of the Brontë Society, wrote a sympathetic biography portraying him as "an able and faithful clergyman" who cared deeply about his children.

Chris Ewbank, from the auctioneers Ewbank Clarke Gammon Wellers, said he expects the photo to generate a lot of interest among individual collectors familiar with the work of the Brontë sisters.

Unhappy families: Writers and their fathers

Philip Larkin

The poet claimed to have had a happy upbringing, but the famous opening to This Be The Verse – "They fuck you up, your mum and dad" – seems to suggest otherwise. His father Sydney Larkin, a Coventry city treasurer, was a cultured man with a love of jazz music, a passion that he passed on to his son. However, he was also fascinated with Adolf Hitler, keeping a small statue of the dictator on the mantelpiece of the family home which raised its arm in salute at the press of a button.

Sylvia Plath

The father of the American poet and novelist was a professor of apiology and German at Boston University who wrote a book about bumblebees. Otto Plath died when Plath was eight and she would later explore her non-existent relationship with him in her poem Daddy: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through". Plath committed suicide in 1963 while her two children slept in the next room. In March this year, Nicholas, her son with Ted Hughes, hanged himself at his home in Alaska.

Eugene O'Neill

The American playwright's masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night, is an autobiographical study of his own dysfunctional family. His father, James, was a successful touring actor and O'Neill was born in a hotel and spent most of his early childhood on the road. Later he blamed his father for his difficult family life which resulted in his mother's drug addiction and both parents appear as defeated characters in Long Day's Journey. O'Neill's eldest son committed suicide aged 40.

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