Two brothers

Haworth Church and Parsonage

Ashworth by Charlotte Brontë,
in Unfinished Novels.
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith,
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

“When Edward and I were in penury, kept chained together by want, and abhorring each other for the very compulsion of our union, I used to endure worse torments than those of hell. Edward overwhelmed by his strength and bulk. He used his power coarsely, for he had a coarse mind, and scenes have taken place between us [of] which remembrance to this day, when it rushes upon my mind, pierces every nerve with a thrill of bitter pain no words can express.”
— Sir William Percy, in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Duke of Zamorna’ (1838)

In discussing Ashworth, one of the four items in Tom Winnifrith’s collection of Charlotte Brontë’s uncompleted tales, I want to focus on a motif that she kept returning to in her novels, that of two brothers in conflict, a motif which only disappeared with Villette, her last finished work (published in 1853, a couple of years before her death).

One brother, who may be called Edward, was often (as with Sir Edward Percy) described as having a “savage, hard, calculating barbarity” while his younger sibling, frequently named William, was altogether more gentle and sensitive. In varying degrees of intensity that fraternal rivalry was pursued in narratives for roughly two decades until her writing tailed off before her tragic death.

I’ve already discussed this aspect in a review of The Story of Willie Ellin (1854) but in outlining Ashworth I want to consider how the unfinished fragment forms a link between Charlotte’s juvenilia and her later work and speculate about why her Two Brothers theme seems to be a continuing obsession.

The Two Brothers strand in Charlotte Bronte’s writings

Ashworth is the longest fragment in Winnifrith’s collection, over forty pages and four chapters long. By the time she got to Emma Charlotte had virtually got over her idée fixe, for the male character who briefly appears is only a faint echo of the pleasanter brother of earlier works, with no brutalistic sibling in evidence. Fourteen years before she’d decided to say farewell to Angria and set her stories in the “real” world, or rather her version of Yorkshire and particularly the West Riding:

Mr Ashworth was a man much known about the country some years ago. But in the West Riding of Yorkshire where most of his public exploits were performed, his private history remains to this day in a great measure a mystery.

What’s confirmed by Brontë scholars is that the Ashworth brothers are essentially the Percy siblings of her Angrian chronicles transposed to a more realistic and geographically precise setting. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me say something about this unfinished novel as a whole.

Apparently what we have is part of the sample Charlotte sent to the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge for his consideration, and of which he was dismissive. Dispersed after Charlotte’s husband Arthur’s death, the four extant chapters were first published in the 1980s and republished in Tom Winnifrith’s collection. The first chapter gives a summary of the first part of Alexander Ashworth’s life: an Eton-educated young man, by degrees he went from talented pianist to magistrate via radicalism, Unitarianism, hell-raising and cattle droving (he’s later characterised as “demagogue, cow-jobber, horse jockey”). Brought up at Ashworth Hall in Hampshire he eventually lands up a widower at the antique pile of Gillward in Yorkshire, father to Edward, William and Mary.

The next chapter focuses on the siblings — Edward, who severely bullies his younger brother William, even at Harrow School, and Mary whom we see behaving well towards the less advantaged Ellen Hall at her boarding school. Chapter III shifts us from Gillwood to the neighbouring properties of Ripley Towers and De Capell Hall: at the former we have General West and the bluff Mr De Capell chewing the fat about the disreputable Mr Ashworth, and about their own varied offspring — the dashing Arthur Ripley West, and tearaway John De Capell, his brother Thornton* (!) and sister Amelia.

In the final available chapter we have Mary Ashworth visiting former schoolfellow Amelia at De Capell Hall, where she meets Marian Fairburne and attracts the roving eye of Arthur Ripley. These four chapters have introduced us to a multiplicity of characters — a cast we’re often hard pressed to keep track of — and shifted our focus from Hampshire to London and then to Yorkshire, from mansions to schools and shady dens of iniquity.

In addition to all that, Charlotte constantly changes narrative viewpoint: first from that of a mature writer retailing anecdotes she’s tried to collate, then to the proverbial fly on the wall eavesdropping on private conversations. She shifts also to the omniscient novelist employing her familiar tic of addressing the reader directly whilst disclaiming any skill: “Biography is not my forte,” she tells the reader at the start of Chapter II before continuing with her biography. It’s not till after the middle of Chapter IV that, after many digressions, she tells us who her male protagonist is going to be:

… Mr Arthur Ripley West. We may as well introduce him at once without further parade and also announce that he is going to be our hero, for if we did not reveal this secret, the reader would soon find out.

It is intriguing to wonder in which direction Ashworth would have gone if it hadn’t been nipped in the bud. But here I now want to pick up on the warring Ashworth brothers whom Charlotte references in the second chapter. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’s wondered why this theme appears again and again.

As a clergyman’s daughter she will have been familiar with Biblical brothers at loggerheads — the likes of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob — and her wide early reading will have furnished contrasting male siblings from various mythologies. But we mustn’t neglect her own personal experience.

After the premature death of their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, Branwell became the eldest Brontë sibling ahead of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. We also know that when the four Brontë children began their collective journey to the imaginary worlds of Glass Town, it was Emily and Anne who split off to found the Pacific island of Gondal while Branwell and Charlotte remained in West Africa to build on Angrian life.

Much has been written about Branwell, of course, of his early promise, his talent for art and poetry, his poor decisions, and his addictions to alcohol and drugs which ultimately led to his own death. Charlotte dearly wanted to look up to her brother but must have been continually disappointed.

Self portrait by Branwell Brontë

So here are two possibly inspirations for the Two Brothers theme which permeated Charlotte’s writings. Branwell’s mood swings from charm personified to intemperate episodes prefigured Stevenson’s story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the tale of the rational and talented doctor who transformed into a violent monster after imbibing substances. Secondly, is it not also possible to see in the headstrong and domineering Branwell the template for the many Edwards who popped up, even under a different name, from the Angrian stories all the way to The Tale of Willie Ellin? And in the sensitive but determined brothers William (or Louis, or even Edward Rochester, despite his forename) should we not see the persona of Charlotte herself? She had of course already authored sensitive Angrian male characters, often named Charles, who were in essence herself in masculine guise.

I come now to some final words on Ashworth as we now have it. It’s a curious hybrid in terms of writing styles, jumping from memoir to biography, from epistolary to omniscient, with flashes of humour and archness amongst more serious, judgemental passages. Above all, it’s far too busy, trying to cram in too much in too little space, too many changes of scene peopled with too many characters; as readers we have to assess each individual on often sparse evidence, deciding whether we should invest in this or that person or whether they are incidental, extras for a crowd scene. It may be this inconsistency that irked Hartley Coleridge when he replied negatively to the anonymous writer CT, and to whom Charlotte then sent a pointed and cutting response using some insider knowledge gleaned from Branwell (as Claire Harmon notes in chapter six of her recent biography).

The previous criticism notwithstanding, there is enough in this incomplete piece to wonder where Charlotte would have intended taking her chronicle of the Ashworth family, and to speculate on what she might have done with it in her more mature years. In the meantime we may picture her putting the manuscript away in a drawer or box till, as she put it, “I get sense to produce something which at least aim at an object of some kind…”

* Thornton in West Yorkshire is of course where Charlotte was born, and which even might have inspired the name Thornfield where Jane Eyre met Rochester

Charlotte Brontë, Tales of Angria. Edited with an introduction and notes by Heather Glen. Penguin Classics, 2006

Claire Harmon, Charlotte Brontë. A Life. Penguin Books 2015: 127-8

Nicola Friar, “Charlotte Brontë’s Unfinished Novels: Ashworth.” 2019 at Accessed 09/10/2020

14 thoughts on “Two brothers

  1. I enjoyed Ashworth a lot. I think it’s because there are so many connections to the juvenilia. The theme of warring brothers is so intriguing. I can’t help but think that Arthur Ripley West is a little nod to Zamorna. It does make me wonder if she’d have continued with the piece if a figure based on Lord Charles would have appeared and the original set of feuding brothers from the juvenilia would also have been present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once I’ve read Wuthering Heights and Wildfell Hall, The Tenant of (same initials!) — but before Villette — I want to look at the juvenilia properly instead of just dipping in.

      Ashworth I find intriguing for the wealth of detail Charlotte’s tried to shoehorn in, even if doesn’t quote hang together! And I see she’s managed to include the fairy reference when Arthur Ripley compares Marian to a delicate flower as they stand by a mirror.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your note here about brothers and Jekyll/Hyde got me thinking about those good and evil natures, and how much we seem to like pegging someone as one or the other rather than a mix of both. When one person contains both, we look for the why behind the evil because we want to banish it like any other devil, and we consider roots of transformation, like substances imbibed…

    I feel like I’m blabbering a bit, but your words here caught me in something I’ve said as a parent every now and again. When one of the boys goes off the rails, I would sometimes say, “Where’s my kind Bash? Where’s my nice guy Biff?” As if they were separate entities, things we could cast out…


    1. Stevenson distilled in fictional form the dichotomies that appear to exist in many people at some time or another and which you clearly evoke when you appeal to Biff and Bash’s ‘better natures’. I used to see many cartoons (less so now) where people had a devil and an angel on opposite shoulders, which sort of externalises those natures.

      My concern, as always, is that some will regard these dichotomies as a justification for dualist beliefs such as Manichaeism, which I think is much too simplistic an approach. Your stance I think is the right one — people have the propensity to act in negative as well as positive ways — though looking for a cause (the ‘demon drink’ for example) is fraught with difficulties. Charlotte Brontë’s characterisations I think are on the whole more nuanced, though that doesn’t mean she eschews individuals making bad choices.

      Anyway, I’ m glad this post got you musing, Jean, and that you opted to share your musings! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Jane Eyre, and never got around to the others. Fascinating to think what might have been a story. I have my own trunk novels, and things I would like to keep, but, having been diverted to a major trilogy for twenty years now, doubt I will go back and see what I can resurrect.

    Time washes many things downstream.


    1. You are right, Alicia, all those creative projects we once embarked on with hopes and expectations, will they appear as urgent when revisited?

      Still, now that Miss Brontë is no longer with us how we regard anybody who tries to complete what she started? There are those who’ve finished Dickens’ Edwin Drood, say, or Austen’s Sanditon (I think Joan Aiken did, much as she wrote continuations or sequels of Austen’s published novels) but the results have had mixed receptions.

      At least the initial ideas in Charlotte’s unfinished Emma were reused and brought to a conclusion by Frances Hodgson Burnett in her The Little Princess, which I’m hoping to pick up soon.


      1. I am vehemently opposed to anyone but the original creator ‘completing’ the work. I won’t read it. My Sherlock Holmes is forever limited to the cannon. I can still remember the disappointment I felt when I read The Seven Percent Solution, thinking naively I had found another of Conan Doyle’s books!

        Create your own detectives! Or romantic heroes. Inspired by – but create your own.

        Why? Because if they take off, you have a beautiful child.

        I’m aware I’m in the minority, but, as a creator, the thought that someone else could touch Kary, Andrew, or Bianca when I’m finished with Pride’s Children chills my soul.

        I owe a lot to my predecessors – but I won’t update their creations, nor encourage that. Imagine anyone having the temerity to modernize Huck Finn.

        Taking ideas will happen – anything else is still plagiarism in my mind, even for books in the public domain. And is depriving us of originality.


        1. Interesting point of view, and I appreciate a lot of your arguments. I wouldn’t put it as strongly — I think we’d lose well written novels like the Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea for example — but I do get really irritated at screen adaptations which disrespect their inspiration by changing details and characterisations out of all recognition.


          1. I won’t read The Wide Sargasso Sea, or Scarlett. You go ahead – my point is that they are not written by the original author, and they should have had their own characters created and developed by their writers. It seems crassly commercial to try to cash in on something they didn’t create – but I’m a purist, and most others are not.

            I also think it puts them forever out of the potential category of great books – because they are so derivative, and everyone knows it.

            Movies, well, I love movies, and even the authors of the books that ‘inspire’ some movies realize how faint the connection can be. For a few, the movie is so much better than the book that it is in a separate category – and actually gives the book new life.

            I don’t expect to persuade anyone to change the system – there’s a lot of money in automatic purchases of pseudo-sequels and prequels. But also a lot of disappointment possible.


            1. I think we could debate this for quite a while, Alicia, and while I see what you’re driving at (and I do understand the points you’re making about originality) I think we may have to agree to disagree! For me a work of art, be it novel or film script or dramatisation or modernisation, can be as derivative as it likes but my only criteria would be: is it good, does it work, am I moved by it or admire it for its own sake. That’s my bottom line, not whether the characters or plot has been ‘borrowed’. And all art that sells is ‘commercial’, it’s whether it’s crass or not that matters.


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