The Brontës, War and Waterloo: The Bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo


​Living in a post-war age, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë's juvenilia offers a child's perspective of a nation recovering from the ramifications of large-scale conflict. The siblings' absorption of periodicals, newspapers, biographies and literaturealongside their father's fervour for all things military, exposed them to reminiscences of the recent Napoleonic wars, a time that many thought awakened the nation's spirits. The Brontë Parsonage's new exhibition, 'The Brontës, War and Waterloo' examines their lifelong interest in war, ranging from its early, childhood influence on their imaginary kingdoms, right through to its impact on their mature works and later lives. As well as engaging with the wartime and post-war civil conflicts that ravaged the local Yorkshire landscape – such as Luddism and Chartism - the Napoleonic Wars, with its intricate campaigns and heroic figureheads, became a form of escapism in an otherwise dull, challenging and uneventful period. My research, which fed into this major exhibition, aims to contextualise their early writings as significant examples of military literature and establish the siblings as stirring post-war writers.

Immortalised Rivalry: Wellington and Napoleon

The display reveals to visitors what military material the Brontës read, the war heroes they worshipped, and how their interest in war impacted their lives and works. The Brontës were highly knowledgeable of the events that rocked wartime Britain, the Napoleonic Wars were still discussed and debated by canonical authors and the periodical press well into the mid-nineteenth century. Having not lived through the wars, the siblings relied on this sustained conversation rather than lived experience. As well as indulging in a long history of military inspired literature (Homer, Shakespeare, Scott), the Brontës read numerous Napoleonic memoirs in periodicals such as Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and The United Service Journal that celebrated eminent men of the present day and relived all the horrors of battle.

The two most talked about military figures in post-war press and publications were the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte, opponents at the Battle of Waterloo. The Duke of Wellington is a prominent figure in the exhibition. The Brontë family owned various commemorative goods that celebrated his military career including portraits, biographies, busts and a commemorative medallion case that states that he was the 'most noble and exalted hero in the annals of history.' The Brontë family's hero-worship of Wellington continued throughout their lives. In 1841 Patrick Brontë wrote a letter to the Duke of Wellington proposing a novel sighting device for army muskets, hoping to get noticed by the Duke – instead he received a rude, unenthusiastic reply. He still, however, continued to sing the Duke's praises, passing the incident off as a minor blip. In 1850, Charlotte made a special visit to London to see her hero in the flesh.

Despite Wellington being the Brontës' (and nation's) hero, many still admired Napoleon for his Byronic attributes and military prowess. After the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon's relationship was sensationalised, inspiring the young siblings to establish them as rival protagonists in their childhood battles and stories. In Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon, a book featured in the exhibition, Scott explains that Napoleon left some money in his will to a man who tried to assassinate Wellington. Potentially, the most interesting object of the exhibition relates to Napoleon in the form of a macabre souvenir. When Charlotte went to study in Brussels in 1843, her tutor, Monsieur Heger, gave her a piece of Napoleon's original coffin from St Helena. Before he was reinterred in Les Invalides in Paris, bits of Napoleon's original coffin were broken up and shared out. Heger purchased this piece from his close friend, who had in turn acquired it from Napoleon's nephew. It is an amazing and unlikely piece of history to end up in the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, but it evidently helped to encourage the siblings' continued interest in war and commemorative military items.

The Brontës' imaginary and 'war-driven universe'

Charlotte Brontë's 'Sketch of a Military Man'

From these two military figureheads, the four Brontë siblings conceptualised a fantasy, war-driven universe in the form of Young Men's Plays and Glass Town. Charlotte and Branwell developed these ideas in their later kingdom, Angria, whilst Emily and Anne broke off to create their own imaginary world, Gondal. Although Wellington and Napoleon play literal roles within the saga - Wellington as head of a band of men that colonise Africa and Napoleon as head of Africa's enemy, Frenchysland - their personalities and rivalry are also transposed onto Charlotte and Branwell's main protagonists: Zamorna (Wellington's son and later King of Angria) and Alexander Percy (Republican and later Prime Minster of Angria). The exhibition explores the tumultuous relationship between these two men alongside the changing face of war in these early writings. As well as highlighting the sisters' admiration of military men and war's impact on domestic interiors, the display attempts to draw out Branwell's writing from literary obscurity, presenting previously unseen examples of his militant poetry and prose.

One panel is dedicated to Branwell's Angrian pseudonym Henry Hastings, the war poet and commentator. The iconic image of the tragic, Romantic soldier, Hastings eventually kills his superior officer and deserts the Royalist (Zamorna's) army to join sides with Alexander Percy's (the transmogrification of Napoleon) Revolutionary forces. Eventually, Hastings degenerates into drunken disarray; Charlotte focused on his demise in her later Angrian tale Henry Hastings. In this same novella, Charlotte introduces Henry's level-headed sister, Elizabeth, the precursor to Jane inJane Eyre. In her touching narrative, both Elizabeth and Henry come to embody Charlotte and Branwell, an affecting portrayal of a saddened, anguished sister devoted to her drunken, unruly brother.

(Post-War) Local landscape: Luddites and Chartists

The last section of the exhibition closes in on the Brontës' localised experiences of post-Napoleonic Europe. We know that their father, Patrick, visited the site of Waterloo whilst accompanying Charlotte and Emily to their new school in Brussels. Upon his return to Haworth, he conducted a stirring sermon where he recounted his experiences and feelings after seeing the battlefield. As well as Patrick's enthusiasm to memorialise the recent wars, the local people were also embroiled in their economic and social aftershocks. Many thought that Britain was heading for a large-scale rebellion, with industrial riots breaking out across the country. The Leeds Intelligencer and Mercury provided reports of disturbances in northern cities such as Bradford, Manchester, Macclesfield, Wakefield and Sheffield. Provoked by these continuous riots, the government released the controversial 1832 Reform Act, which had little real impact in bettering the lives of the working class. From 1838, Chartism, a working-class movement that advocated political reform, would also sweep the country. Activists from across the nation would team up with factory workers and march on industrial towns, Keighley and Haworth included. Although not in living memory for the Brontë siblings, for many, Chartism brought back memories of the Yorkshire Luddites, who, during the years 1811-16, violently attacked frames and power looms in protest against industrialisation. Charlotte truly grapples with the subject in her later novelShirley, historically placing her narrative at the time of the Luddite riots. Like the Napoleonic Wars, these local disturbances were evidently engrained with local consciousness. After years and years of unrest, the Brontës' father, Patrick was always on high alert. It was rumoured that he kept a loaded pistol by his bed every night for security and that he discharged his gun from his bedroom window into the graveyard every morning.

Hopefully, from this brief introduction to the exhibition, readers can see how much the Brontë family were affected and inspired by the Napoleonic Wars. Although, at first, the connection does not seem obvious, our hope is that the exhibition will convince visitors that this international event was highly significant to the imaginations of some of the world's greatest writers. The bloody battles and heroic figureheads of the Napoleonic Wars were closer to home than you think, the stories and legacy of militarism remaining an important talking point in the village during the early nineteenth century and the Yorkshire moors becoming a canvas in which the Brontë children reanimated and revived the worldwide phenomena of total war. 

'The Brontës, War and Waterloo' is showing at the Brontë Parsonage Museum until January 3rd 2016.

Emma Butcher was an AHRC-funded doctoral candidate at Hull University. Emma's thesis responds to the Brontës as commentators of war, looking at representations of conflict and military masculinity in their juvenilia. She is the postgraduate researcher group coordinator for The Northern Nineteenth Century Network and the post-graduate representative for the British Association for Victorian Studies. A keen tweeter, she can be found under the handle @EmmaButcher_.

Image credits: The images are of sketches belonging to the Brontë Parsonage Museum collection. Emma would like to thank the Museum for allowing her to reproduce the sketches.