Patrick Brontë: Man of Sorrow

Book Review
Title: A Man of Sorrow: The Life, Letters and Times of the Rev. Patrick Brontë 1777–1861, 566 pages
Authors: John Lock and Canon W. T. Dixon
Publisher: Ian Hodgkins & Co. LTD, London (1979)
ISBN-13: 978-0906460047

Patrick Brontë

Patrick Brontë was born in Ireland in 1777 and educated at Cambridge where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1806. Later he married Mary Branwell, and had six children. Three of their children became the famous Victorian Authors Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre), Anne Brontë (Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights).

Patrick led a very colorful and eventful life. But it was darkened by despair, by the steady drumbeat of death, as he lost his wife and six children, one by one, during the second half of his adult life.

The book is an amazing achievement in that it captures the atmosphere of the early 1800s beautifully, while developing the complex character of P. Brontë with exquisite detail. The narrative flows like a novel, every bit as compelling as the best storytelling, while providing plenty of factual points of interest about people and places.

Brontë woke up every morning and fired one shot with his pistol out his window to start the day (every morning to stay in practice, only one shot because bullets are expensive). There were violent riots (luddites) in his early adult years, in his village, including gun fights dangerously close to his home. From then on he carried his pistol during his 10 to 20 mile walks that he enjoyed in the beautiful natural surroundings, moors, heaths, and rolling hills.

He was also good in a scuffle. As a young minister, there were drunken bullies in town who tried to disrupt his Sunday School children’s parade. He soundly picked them up and through them out of the way, and dared them to interfere again. They never did. He was also a local hero for saving a young boy who was taken by the river current and almost drowned. Brontë jumped in and after a long struggle, pulled the boy ashore and revived him.

Patrick was a true friend and a defender of justice. He walked twenty or more miles a day to visit his parishioners, to help those in need, to help the poor and suffering at his own expense. He went to court for people who were not even close friends, for the sake of justice whenever he saw it violated. He fought for people physically, morally, and legally, his whole life.

Brontë was ahead of his time as an educator. Without educational training or prior examples, he innovated teaching methods to adapt fluidly to the strengths and weaknesses of individual students (as opposed to one-lesson fits all, which was universal at the time). Patrick grew up in a very poor family that could not afford luxuries such as books. But kind benefactors through his early life gave him access to libraries, once they saw his enthusiasm for learning. Patrick remembered those kindnesses, and remembered his own thirst for knowledge later when he had children. This is why he was unique for the times—he liberally supplied his daughters with learning opportunities (not so common for the times), and refused to censor any books they chose to read (unheard of for any father towards his daughters at that time).

Those familiar with the Methodist Church might be interested to know that Patrick met John Wesley at the age of 12, and heard his traveling sermons when Wesley passed by. Patrick went on to sympathize strongly with the 1800s Methodist movement, although he remained a clergyman with the Church of England.

Patrick did well as a minister. He enjoyed promotions and the high esteem of his peers and parishioners. He remained in one parish (Haworth) for the last forty-one years of his life. He moved to Haworth with his wife Mary and his first two children, Maria and Elizabeth. In Haworth, Patrick and Mary had four more children, Branwell (the only boy), Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Soon after Anne was born, his wife died of consumption. Soon after, the two eldest daughters Maria and Elizabeth died of consumption within a year of each other, both still teenagers. The rest of the children escaped death for a time.

As everyone knows, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily became popular and critically acclaimed authors, all at in exactly the same year. They broke into publishing together, all at once, but only after a lifetime of incessant writing. They had all written daily and voluminously since childhood. Their sudden success is the tip of the iceberg of a massive mountain of work that came before, and the freedom and encouragement afforded by their father. As the biographers note: “the Brontës wrote simply because they had to: the impulse was too great to resist” (396).

Within a year of that success, Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died of consumption. Charlotte enjoyed her literary success a little longer, wrote several novels, and married. But she was terribly lonely and sad from the sudden loss of both sisters, with whom she was extremely close. Then six years after the death of her sisters and brother, and nine months after marriage, Charlotte also died of consumption.

Patrick was in his late 70s by then. He had been beaten down with the constant sorrow, watching his wife, then his children die, one by one. He lived much longer than typical lifespans of those days. Hence, he long outlived all his friends, all his connection with his past, and finally died six years after Charlotte, at the age of 84.

He died a very lonely man—his biographers neatly sum up his end in a simple line: “Patrick had outlived his age” (538). But his biographers are also careful to point out that his faith carried him through: “Never once did his trust in Christ waver as blow after blow rained down on his unbowed head” (539). Patrick Brontë continued to preach sermons into his 80s, and remains a legendary figure in the Haworth area today.

Not many people have heard of Patrick Brontë. Even fewer have heard of John Lock and Canon W. T. Dixon. It is very good fortune that these two biographers were inspired enough to develop this story. They passed their inspiration on to readers of the 1960s and 1970s when the two editions of this book were published. By calling attention to this book now, I hope one or two more people might receive some of the deeper joy that comes from meeting such noble and noteworthy characters from history as Patrick Brontë and his family.

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