The Brontës at war: how Charlotte and Branwell brought Waterloo into their drawing room
One of the most celebrated literary families of the 19th century, the Brontës were part of a post-war generation, with Charlotte Brontë, the eldest child, born in 1816, a year after the decisive battle of Waterloo. What impact, then, did the Napoleonic Wars have on the Brontës' early literature? Here, Emma Butcher from the University of Hull investigates
The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 marked the end of a seemingly relentless war and left a stunned Europe reflecting not only on the sensational elements of conflict, but also the horrors.
The Brontë family’s local Yorkshire landscape saw multitudes of soldiers return from battle overseas, suffering physical and psychological damage and confined to the economic limitations of half-pay – an allowance soldiers received when in retirement or not in service. Within its family home, Haworth parsonage, the family’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, remained a military fanatic. Although trained in the church he held a lifelong obsession with the Napoleonic Wars, passing onto Charlotte his hero worship of the Duke of Wellington.
The British writers of the day thought the early 19th century to be dull and uneventful. The future prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, famously stated in his 1826 novel Vivian Grey, “if it wasn’t for the general election, we really must have a war for variety’s sake. Peace gets quite a bore”.
The newspapers and periodicals of the day were saturated with war commentary. They ignored the monotony of the present and lingered on the shadows of Britain’s military past. Wellington and Napoleon especially dominated the media. Their rivalry was sensationalised and very quickly engrained into cultural mythology: Wellington as a hero; Napoleon as a tortured, evil genius.
The Brontë family’s favourite periodical, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, especially dramatised the relationship between Wellington and Napoleon. One commentator stated that Wellington had conquered Napoleon by “simple manly heroism”; another said that “they struggled like two giants for ascendency”. In short, throughout the 1820s and 1830s the air was still abuzz with war. This buzz filtered right through the core of Britain’s social fabric and straight into the Brontës’ imaginations.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that the Brontë children came into contact with soldier veterans from the Napoleonic Wars, they read widely about these conflicts. As well as the hum generated by the media the children read specific military journals such as The United Service Journal, and military biographies. Notably, by the age of 13, Charlotte and Branwell had each read Walter Scott’s Life of Napoleon, the definitive eight-volume memoir of the French Emperor’s life. They were also familiar with the artistic response to war: for example, they devoured Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a poetic lament that critiqued the motives behind Waterloo. With all this information at hand, the Brontës’ gradually became ‘war experts’ – soon they would become war commentators.
In 1826, the Reverend Patrick Brontë brought home a box of toy soldiers for his son, Branwell. Each of the siblings picked one and together they would venture out on the moors to play war games. Entranced by the contemporary focus on military celebrity, Charlotte named her soldier ‘Wellington’ and Branwell named his ‘Boney’, after Napoleon Bonaparte. Charlotte and Branwell began writing stories about their chosen soldiers: one of Branwell’s earliest manuscripts, written in 1828, records an imaginary battle between their foes. Branwell wins, forcing Charlotte to declare her admiration for her brother – a foul blow in the politics of sibling rivalry.
What began as child’s play became a catalyst for literary inspiration. The famous novels that we celebrate today – Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – are just the tip of the iceberg when placed alongside the multitude of prose, poems, plays and ephemera the siblings produced in their early years.
Many are in tiny books no bigger than the palm of your hand and were filled with explicit content: affairs, gory battle scenes and violent, cruel men. As children of a parson, this was highly scandalous content. Luckily for them their father had poor eyesight and could not read the tiny books, meaning the Brontës could write freely.
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The fantasy worlds they created are remarkable in terms of both size and scope. In fact, they are comparable to Lord of the Rings or a modern-day Game of Thrones. As time progressed these kingdoms increased in complexity, with new countries, characters and events woven into an already intricate web. Although themes of love and politics are key players in the siblings’ stories, the most important chord running through this imaginative mosaic is a chord of war.
Worlds of war
Charlotte and Branwell’s collaborative fantasy works reveal a decade-long creative power struggle in which the siblings fought to reconstruct and reanimate military persons and events. Over a number of years Charlotte and Branwell would reimagine Haworth as an exotic, militant kingdom off the shores of the West Coast of Africa. With her favourite toy-soldier hero at hand, Charlotte chose her Duke of Wellington to rule her and her brother’s world. In an attempt to rewrite recent history, Charlotte’s early writings describe how her fictional Wellington, after winning the battle of Waterloo, sails to Africa to be crowned as its sovereign.
Charlotte’s hero continued to rule her fantasy world equipped with the characteristics imprinted on him by the Georgian press. Like Wellington of the media, Charlotte’s Wellington was confident, authoritative and heroic. However, with her ever-maturing pen, Wellington started to lack something: sexual appeal. To Charlotte he was a father figure and could not fulfil her awakening desires. To remedy this, Charlotte indulged in her fantasies and imagined a fictional son for Wellington, named Zamorna.
As well as inheriting the military characteristics of his father, Zamorna was remodelled as a young, sexual, Romantic warrior [a Byronic figure born out of the Romantic movement]. When Charlotte was 18 she wrote of him as “passion and fire unquenchable. Impetuous sin, stormy pride, diving and soaring enthusiasm, war and poetry are kindling their fire in all his veins, and his wild blood boils from his heart”. Effectively, Charlotte was writing Wellington fan-fiction, combining military history with the erotic daydreams of a teenage girl.
While Charlotte was arming herself with her own personal Wellington, Branwell was busy working on a familiar nemesis, Napoleon. With his toy soldier he reimagined Wellington’s foe as the evil ruler of “Frenchysland”, which rests just off their fictional coast of West Africa. Branwell’s fictional Napoleon is a repeated threat to Wellington’s new kingdom, plotting to invade with other enemy countries. As well as ruling his country of degenerates and reprobates with a tyrannous hand, he simultaneously struggles with his own autocracy: his tortured self falls into fits of paralysis and hysteria.
Yet, like his sister, Branwell also became bored of this literal transmogrification and sought to create his own character. His new pseudonym came in the form of Northangerland – a revolutionary, Republican, and, in a personal capacity, Zamorna’s father-in-law. In 1834, Zamorna marries Mary, consolidating political allegiance with his future friend/nemesis. From hereon, the rivalry of Wellington and Napoleon becomes personal.
Northangerland’s daughter and Zamorna’s wife, Mary Percy, is used by the siblings as a pawn in their rival’s political and military games. Regularly, Mary is subjected to neglect and emotional torment at the hands of her men, their treatment of her entirely dependent on their relationship.
With this personal conflict dominating the majority of Branwell and Charlotte’s writings, it could be said that the siblings brought the battle of Waterloo into the drawing room.
An enduring legacy
The multiple layers of the Brontës’ early writings show how engrained the legacy of the Napoleonic Wars had become in Britain’s social consciousness. The rise of Wellington and Napoleon’s mythological status as titans of war struck a note with the Brontës’ early genius. Their writings are a direct response to the Napoleonic Wars and mark a country’s fascination with a shocking and culturally significant moment.
By staging and re-enacting a war with one another they manage to translate mass conflict to domestic sibling warfare. With young people’s fan-fiction, almost soap opera, they provide an important window to one of the most fascinating moments in military history.
Emma Butcher is a researcher in English Literature at the University of Hull, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Last year she co-curated a major exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage, ‘The Brontës, War and Waterloo’. She has recently appeared in BBC Two’s Being the Brontës and written a celebration of Charlotte Brontë’s early writings for The Guardian. You can follow her on Twitter @EmmaButcher_.