Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993
This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.
As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.
And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.
The five fragments give us glimpses of a life, but their relationship to each other is not always clear.
- We are given a nostalgic look back thirty years from the present (therefore around 1823, when Charlotte was around seven) with the narrator remembering a childhood at the ancestral Ellin Hall where he was one of four siblings raised by the housekeeper Mrs Widdup. His eldest half-brother (“a tyrant”) had died and the narrator has purchased back the house and estate of Ellin Hall.
- The second episode has a narrator who is neither owner, resident tenant, family member nor servant: a child of Night he claims to be, “I came upward out of earth — not downward from heaven”, a being with affection for the ground Ellin Balcony stands on.
- The third section introduces us to an orphan called Willie, escaped from ill-treatment at the hands of his elder brother Edward and now arrived at Ellin Balcony, 15 miles away, seeking protection from housekeeper Mrs Hill. Edward arrives to chastise him but is persuaded against it by his colleague Mr Bosas.
- Back in Golpit the resigned Willie is subjected to a savage beating by his sadistic brother.
- After this or another beating Willie is attended to by an unnamed servant girl: the 17-year-old comforts him by “rocking the sufferer in her arms and cradling him on her breast.”
To me, one of the features that sticks out is a motif found commonly in folk- and fairytales: the younger or youngest child who has to make his way in the world against the jealousy, cruelty or greed of older siblings. At its simplest we have two siblings, often two brothers, with the eldest badly disposed towards to younger; this is the male equivalent of Cinderella’s ill-treatment by her sisters, for example. Such a fierce antagonism may result in extremes (such as the murder of Abel by Cain or Remus by Romulus) or merely abandonment, as evidenced by Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament.
There is no real motivation suggested for Willie’s ill-treatment by his brother Edward other than sadism, exacerbated by alcohol; Dr Winnifrith sees the unexpected brutality as belonging to “the world of Emily rather than that of Charlotte, although an examination of the latter’s juvenilia might make these Gothic touches less surprising” (1993: x). Interestingly, Charlotte was to return again and again to this Two Brothers theme, though sometimes the antagonism is much more muted. Let me list the instances.
- In parts of the juvenilia which Charlotte largely concocted with her elder brother Branwell there is a evolving contrast between Edward Percy and his younger brother the cultured Sir William. This echoes other rivalries in the Angrian saga such as that between Arthur Marquis of Douro and Charles Wellesley.
- In the long fragment titled Ashworth (1840-1) included in Unfinished Novels there are two rival brothers, Edward and William Ashworth, modelled on the Angrian brothers Percy.
- In The Professor (written in 1846 but not published till 1857) the two warring brothers are the cruel Edward Crimsworth, married with a family, and the more studious William who goes off to teach in Belgium, later returning with a wife to open a school.
- The Moores (also in Unfinished Novels) is presumed to be Charlotte’s attempt to rewrite the opening of The Professor, which hadn’t been accepted for publication. The elder married brother is John Henry (whom Charlotte in a revealing slip once calls Edward) while the younger, unsurprisingly called William, is Eton-educated.
- Jane Eyre (1847) has a back story in which the old Mr Rochester leaves all his estate to Edward’s older brother, Rowland, manipulating Edward Rochester into marrying Bertha Mason. When father and brother die Edward inherits Thornfield but remains married to the increasingly unstable Bertha.
- In Shirley (1846) Charlotte reuses the surname from the now abandoned The Moores, but where the characters are concerned the older half-Belgian brother Robert is more proactive if taciturn, while the younger sensitive Louis is a tutor.
- In 1853 Charlotte, having completed her recasting of The Professor as Villette (with its gender-reversed protagonists) starts Willie Ellin’s tale, again on the “theme of the two rival brothers” (Harmon 2016: 328) but breaks off after promising beginnings as though she has exhausted her imaginative resources.
- A year later she introduces a Mr Ellin into the start of Emma,* a character described by Harman as deliberately enigmatic and one who could be an “amateur detective within a puzzle plot” (2016: 341); now, however, there is no brother in evidence.
Why this seeming obsession with rival brothers, one dominant if not domineering and the other sensible and sensitive, at times quiescent but also determined once action is decided on? Is there a parallel between Branwell and Charlotte’s relationship, with her quite willing to defer to her brother in childhood, but in later life anxious when he was in an alcoholic or drugged state, resulting in “fits of fury and frustration, his melancholic self pity induced by remorse and an excess of gin and opium” (Gardiner 1992: 105)?
But it may be that Branwell’s psychotic, almost schizophrenic, Jekyll & Hyde character furnished a part model for Charlotte’s rival brothers. After all he may have inspired aspects of Jane Eyre: as with Branwell on one occasion Rochester’s bed is found to be on fire; and Branwell’s insomnia and “agony of mind”, as he himself described it, plus “intolerable mental wretchedness and corporeal weakness” may be paralleled by Bertha Mason’s disturbed mental state, kept under surveillance and isolated in one room (Harman 2016: 251-2). And yet he had once been full of promise when, once upon a time, he’d set out to be an author, an artist, a clerk, a poet or a tutor. In a sense, Patrick Branwell Brontë had — for Charlotte, at least — been both an Edward and a William.
There is one more aspect I’d like to draw attention to, and that concerns elements of fairy lore that Charlotte seems to include in her adult novels. I noted it in Shirley and, rather belatedly, in Jane Eyre, as in this exchange between Jane and Rochester:
“I find you rather alarming, when I examine you close at hand: you talk of my being a fairy, but I am sure, you are more like a brownie.”
“Am I hideous, Jane?”
“Very, sir: you always were, you know.”
I fancy I detect something not quite human about the narrator in the second fragment of The Story of Willie Ellin.
In other countries, and in distant times, it is possible that more of my kind might have been attracted to human dwellings […] Yet we were always few, our presence rare, its signs faint, and its proofs difficult to seize.
Ellin Balcony, an aged dwelling though unprepossessing to look at, is situated over an ancient burial mound. The narrator, though not one of the dead, doesn’t know if he/they were ever “knit with humanity, or was mixed with the mystery of existence as men or women knew it.” Charlotte may have envisaged this personage as a brownie, a fairy type familiar in Yorkshire, usually attached to a farm or house where they will accomplish minor tasks — often at night — in return for food and drink or, more rarely, clothing (Briggs 1976: 46ff). If crossed then a brownie was likely to turn into a boggart, but in the Willie Ellin fragment the individual senses that the old housekeeper is able to think and he is thus able to detect her presence — and maybe she can detect his, too? — and so feels inclined to seek her presence.
In appearance and in their clothing brownies are dun-coloured (hence, presumably, their name). This may account for the fact that in the next fragment, in which the creature approaching Ellin Balcony is actually a human child aged about ten, is at first imagined as a brownie:
Is his garb coloured like the path? Does it make a concord with gravel, moss, tree, stem? Are his cheeks and hands berry-brown and red?
The fact of the matter is that Willie is dressed instead in town clothes, as befits a gentleman schoolboy, but with a knapsack over his shoulder. I sense that the author had begun a passage about the house’s genius loci — a recurring motif in her thinking — only to abandon it when she realised it mightn’t fit the direction she fancied taking her narrative in.
In conclusion, then, these are the main points I draw from The Story of Willie Ellin, that a primary thread concerns itself with a young man who, despite long abuse from an older brother, survives and succeeds in time-honoured fairytale fashion; and that a secondary or even lesser thread involves a guardian spirit attached to the ancestral throne. Remembering that the young Brontë siblings saw themselves as the genii of their imaginary land of Glass Town, it would hardly be surprising that one of her final attempts at a novel might possibly involve a genius loci interfering in the history of the house variously called Ellin Hall or Ellin Balcony.
* Charlotte had read Jane Austen’s Emma in 1850 (Gardiner 1992: 13), when she was rather disparaging of Jane’s seeming lack of passion.
Katharine Briggs. A Dictionary of Fairies. Allen Lane, 1976.
Juliet Gardiner. The World Within: The Brontës at Haworth. A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings. Collins & Brown, 1992.
Claire Harmon. Charlotte Brontë: A Life. Penguin Books, 2016.
Tom Winnifrith. Introduction to Charlotte Brontë, Unfinished Novels. Alan Sutton, 1993.
Nicola, who blogs as Brontë Babe, on Willie Ellin:
The text of the Willie Ellin fragments at the Anne Brontë blog: