Charlotte & Arthur by Pauline Clooney: Imagining Charlotte Brontë’s Honeymoon

Charlotte and Arthur by Pauline Clooney

Charlotte & Arthur by Pauline Clooney (2021) is a richly imagined novel about the wedding and subsequent Irish honeymoon of Charlotte Brontë and Arthur Bell Nichols, the curate who worked with her father at Haworth parsonage. 

This illuminating narrative is based on meticulous research by Ms. Clooney, an award-winning short story writer and the founding director of Kildare Writing Centre in Ireland. This is her first full-length novel.

The novel focuses on a little-known time in Charlotte’s life. Though she’s a celebrated author at home and abroad, the siblings she grew up with (Emily, Anne, and Branwell Brontë) all died several years earlier, leaving only Charlotte and her father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, from a family that once numbered eight members. 

Though it’s hard to imagine that Charlotte isn’t still quite bereft and lonely, the Rev. Brontë isn’t enthusiastic about her marriage to his curate. Charlotte herself took many years to warm up to Arthur. But finally, he won her heart, and this is where we pick up the story.

From the publisher (Merdog Books): It is the morning of June 29th, 1854, here is the groom coming up the cobbles in Haworth, for his nuptial appointment with Charlotte Brontë. Only a handful of guests have been invited, and you, dear Reader, are one of them …

Charlotte Brontë has married her papa’s Curate, Irishman, Arthur Bell Nicholls. At thirty-eight years of age, and the unlikelihood of there ever being further proposals, Charlotte’s dread of the lonely life of the spinster has convinced her that this is a calculated risk she must take.

For the month of July, the couple’s itinerary brings them from the castles of Wales to the most popular tourist attractions in Victorian Ireland, spending some time along the way with Arthur’s family in Banagher, on the banks of the River Shannon. Set against the backdrop of the recent famine, their tour exposes the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged of Irish society. 

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Charlotte and Arthur by Pauline Clooney
Charlotte & Arthur on Amazon US* and Amazon UK*
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Before we got down to chatting about the book itself, I wanted to know from Pauline whether there are any virtual programs coming up that she could share with Literary Ladies readers. She responded:

The book launch is available to view here, and I feature in a program, The History Show, on our national radio station, RTE Radio One, which looks at the Brontës and the Irish connection. It airs on November 21, 2021, and the podcast will be available here.

These programs will be archived and will allow readers to view and hear them at their convenience.

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What drew you to the story of Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon, a rather brief and specific period in what turned out to be a brief marriage (about 3 years I believe, ending with her death in 1855 from complications arising from her pregnancy)?

The Brontës have held a fascination for me since my first visit to Haworth as a fifteen-year-old in 1979, when I believe a lot of my peers were falling in love with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights because of Kate Bush’s song and video! And admittedly, at that stage I too was more a fan of the song than the book. 

But something lingered with me after that visit; over the following years through my college days and teaching years something kept drawing me back to the Brontës and to Charlotte in particular. Apart from my love of Jane Eyre, as I read more and more biographies, my admiration for Charlotte, her independence, her often very non-Victorian spirit, intrigued me. 

In 2006 I returned to college and completed an M.Litt. on her works and life, with Maynooth University, Ireland, and this time the aspect of the story that lingered was the Irish connection; the honeymoon, for the most part in Ireland, and how little it had been documented, either factually or in fiction. 

This realization coincided with me beginning to indulge my love of creative writing  as I embarked on several courses in writing, culminating in an MA in Creative Writing from University College Dublin (UCD) in 2015. Equipped now with the necessary writing skills, in 2017 I left my teaching career to concentrate on writing, what had been haunting me for far too long, this account of Charlotte Brontë’s marriage to Irish curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, and their honeymoon. And the result is Charlotte & Arthur.

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Why do you think this aspect of Charlotte’s life is important, and why did you choose to tell it in the form of fiction?

I mentioned earlier that I completed an M. Litt. on Charlotte in 2006. For this thesis the bulk of my research concentrated on the extant letters of Charlotte. Like any epistolary evidence these gave a remarkable insight into the evolving personality of the author. Six letters written by her while on honeymoon survive, and when we compare the content of these with what came before and what she writes after, it is very clear that this stage of her life was a happy one. 

It is my belief that these days and the days that followed, although all too brief, were the happiest days of her life. Charlotte Brontë famously said I’m just going to write because I cannot help it …” and it has always been my conjecture this compulsion was to escape the often grim, harsh realities of her life. Other than a scrap of a novel, which may have been written before the marriage, Charlotte never writes again, and I believe it is because she had no reason to want to escape from her new-found reality. 

Why write it as a fictional form? I think the story of her marriage to Arthur is as romantic, and alas, because of the brevity of their time together, as tragic, as the Brontë’s lives and works, and I felt the novel form might do more justice to that mix of romance and tragedy, than the hard facts of non-fiction.

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Charlotte resisted the idea of marriage to Arthur Bell Nichols for some time, and then her father was opposed to their marriage. Why do you think Charlotte made the right choice in marrying Arthur? He certainly had his share of both defenders and detractors.

Yes, you are so right, poor Arthur did not have an easy time of it in loving Charlotte as he did. Do I think Charlotte made the right choice in marrying him? As an author, maybe not, considering what I have alluded to above, the fact that we have nothing more from the pen of Currer Bell following the marriage. 

But as a woman who had experienced so much tragedy, who lived a lonely life in the parsonage caring for her aged father? I think she most definitely made the right choice and I think we can infer from what she writes in her letters that she knows she made the right choice. 

She tells her friend, Margaret Wooler, with regards her marriage to Arthur that to,win such a character was better than to earn either Wealth or Fame or Power.” There seems to be a lovely ease in their relationship, evident in the following remark in a letter to Ellen Nussey, when she refers to him, not as Mr Nicholls but as Arthur, “… excuse the name—it has grown natural to use it now.” And again in a letter to Margaret Wooler, in November 1854, I have a good, kind, attached husband, and every day makes my own attachment to him stronger.”

And as for what turns out to be her final words on Arthur in a letter to Ellen and her friend, Joe Taylor’s wife, Amelia, when Charlotte herself is grievously ill, I find in my husband the tenderest nurse, the kindest support—the best earthly comfort that ever woman had …” and “… As to my husband—my heart is knit to him—he is so tender, so good, so helpful, patient …”

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Charlotte Bronte portrait by George Richmond, 1850
Learn more about Charlotte Brontë
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I read about Charlotte’s honeymoon in Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman. Of course, it doesn’t go into nearly as much detail as your novel, but it was evident that traveling with her new husband gave her much solace after the deaths of Emily and Anne, and brother Branwell. Did you see the honeymoon as a time of healing for Charlotte?

Isn’t Harman’s book a treasure? As is her earlier biography. Yes, I think I did see the honeymoon as a healing time. Throughout my book, written from Charlotte’s point of view, I allow her to reflect on her mother’s and siblings’ deaths as she addresses the grief experienced.  

In the opening pages of Charlotte & Arthur, which takes place on the morning of the wedding, she laments on how silent the house is as opposed to the great clamor there would be if the girls and her mother were there fussing over things, and this is how I imagined she would have felt. 

However, as the book proceeds, I found that the welcome she receives from Arthurs family in Ireland, especially his Aunt Harriette and cousins, Mary Anna and Harriette, as suggested by Charlotte in her letters, coupled with the cheery tone of these letters allowed me to present a Charlotte a lot less burdened by past griefs. Towards the close of the honeymoon her reflections are for their future and less for her past.

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In your novel, as it happened in real life, Charlotte overcame any doubts or hesitancy about Arthur, and he exceeded her expectations as a husband and companion. How did you come to feel about Arthur during your research and writing process?

You know, I think I too fell a little in love with Arthur! Who doesn’t succumb to the charm of having everything done for you? What was so different for Charlotte on her honeymoon was she did not have to organize any of it, Arthur oversaw it all. And rather than see this as controlling I chose to interpret it as indulgent and protective of Charlotte. 

After the honeymoon, the following January and February when Charlotte was too unwell to write, it was Arthur who communicated with her friend Ellen Nussey and in this correspondence, we see his protectiveness and love and indeed, anxiety for her health. However, I think we get an even greater sense of these emotions in the letter the Rev. Patrick Brontë writes to Ellen on the eve of Charlotte’s demise: “We are all in great trouble, and Mr Nicholls so much so, that he is not so sufficiently strong, and composed to be able to write—”

Looking beyond the scope of the book, to this time after Charlotte’s death, I think Arthur’s kindness and humanity are evident in how he remained in the parsonage with Patrick Brontë until the latter’s death in 1861. That cannot have been easy, to remain in the place that was the heartbeat of his grief. 

He returned to Ireland, failing to secure the incumbency in Haworth, apparently much to the disappointment of the locals who loved Arthur. For the rest of his days Arthur lived in Banagher but he kept up a connection with Haworth through the old servant Martha Brown and there is a collection of his letters to her, entitled Dear Martha, and again what we see in these is the kind, caring gentleman he was. 

Arthur married a second time, his cousin Mary Anna Bell, who Charlotte met and described as “a pretty lady-like girl with gentle English manners.” On his return to Ireland he had moved in with his Aunt Harriette and Mary Anna. Remember, he and Mary Anna had grown up together and I imagine the relationship was very close to that of brother and sister. 

The story goes that Aunt Harriette told Arthur that Mary Anna had a suitor call and propose to which Arthur answered, “But Mary is mineand so he married his cousin. 

I believe this marriage was rather a platonic one, if there can be such a thing, and we know that gentle Mary Anna, indulged her husband’s continuing love for Charlotte, allowing their home to be a Brontë shrine and when Arthur died in 1906, she hung the Richmond portrait of Charlotte above where he was laid out in their home, Hill House, Banagher.

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The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte

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Brontë Fanfiction: Paying Homage to (or Starring) the Brontë Sisters
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What were Charlotte’s favorite locations visited and people encountered on the honeymoon, as depicted in the novel?

Based on her letters I think her favorite places were Banagher and Kilkee and it is for this reason that they both get more than just one chapter in the book. I think Banagher was a delightful surprise to her as she had not realized that Arthur’s background was genteel and in an Irish context almost aristocratic, and of course, the welcome the family gave her, especially his Aunt Harriette, would have put her at her ease. 

But also, I believe the fact that here in Ireland, Arthur was the celebrated returned son, taking the spotlight away from her would have pleased her. She makes it clear in her letters that she loathed being lionized, and so, walking in Arthur’s shadow in his hometown would have been a comfortable place for her to be.

They stayed in the West-End Hotel in Kilkee and according to Charlotte it fell rather short of its splendid name, but she says that instead of complaining they laughed because, for out of doors there is much indeed to compensate for any indoor short-comings; so magnificent an ocean—so bold and grand a coast—I never yet saw…”

This was enough for me to conclude that here she was happy, this and the story she tells from Kilkee about how Arthur allowed her to sit alone on the cliff top to be with her thoughts as he watched protectively from a safe distance. You know, I think this might have been the moment Charlotte realized that she loved Arthur.

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What were your main sources of research for this novel? Were you able to spend any time at the Brontë Parsonage, given that it has been closed for much of the past year and a half?

The collected letters I have quoted from, all three volumes, were my primary sources to discover Charlotte, and indeed, through her words, Arthur too. I think I have every biography written on her from Gaskell to Harman, and two on Arthur and they were invaluable. 

To get a sense of England and Ireland at that time I used contemporary travel guides like James Frasers’ Illustrated guides and of course Thackeray’s Sketches in Ireland and John Forbes, Memorandums made in Ireland. The latter two feature in Charlotte & Arthur.

Yes, lockdown was a bit of a nuisance, especially for the Welsh part of the honeymoon but Google Maps was great as I travelled virtually from Conway to Bangor to Llanberis Pass, Beddgelert and Holyhead. It is rather amazing how much you can see and feel that you are there when in satellite/street view mode, I spent many happy days clicking my way along the roads of Wales. 

Thankfully, Ireland opened up, albeit briefly, in summer of 2020 and I did my own grand tour with my husband, staying in every spot they stayed in. Banagher was our favourite too, and a local historian there, James Scully, took us under his wing and squired us around, as if we were the celebrated couple. As we are fortunate enough to have a boat, we even got to recreate their trips on the Shannon.

And you ask if I got to see the parsonage. I have stayed in Haworth eight times since 1979 and have visited the parsonage on each occasion, staying in places on the famous Cobbles Street like the The Old Registry and The Fleece Inn, and our favorite, just outside the town, The Old Silent Inn. 

I have not been there since the pandemic struck but as soon as it is safe to do so, I will be found back walking the trails, especially the one to Top Withins, eating the most delicious food in Cobbles and Clay Café, browsing in the Parsonage Museum shop, and roaming through the house and grounds where I believe they still walk invisible.

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What new insights about Charlotte and the Brontë family did you glean in your research for this novel, and what might surprise readers most (without giving spoilers!)?

That is a great question. In my arrogance, I thought I knew it all when I started out on the process, especially because I had previously completed an M.Litt. on Charlotte Brontë. During the research for that thesis, I remembered reading that she had famously said at the age of twelve that she had no intentions of ever marrying, and her disdain for the institution is well documented in the letters and substantiated by the three marriage proposals before Arthur that she turned down. 

Setting out on the process of researching and writing this book, I always intended it to be a love story, but honestly, I thought that would be the fiction element of a work of historical fiction. I was wrong. 

From the tone and content of her letters after the marriage, and from the fact that she never produced another work, I believe that Charlotte loved being a wife and found it equally, or dare I say, more satisfying and fulfilling, than her role as celebrated author. The former rebellious, feminist Charlotte became a dutiful, conservative, housewife. And I am very aware that there are those who would say this is what was the death of, not just Currer Bell, but Charlotte Brontë.

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Were the letters in the novel verbatim or close to actual letters Charlotte wrote, for example the one she writes to Ellen Nussey from Conway fairly early on, or did you wholly invent them?

All of the letters are the actual letters, quoted in full. Thank you for this opportunity to feature in Literary Ladies Guide, to chat about my book, Charlotte & Arthur, and share my thoughts on Charlotte Brontë.

 

Learn more about Charlotte & Arthur

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