Maria Branwell

Maria Branwell ( - )
Married name
Short biography

Unpublished author of religious tract and letters. Married to Patrick Bronte, Branwell was the mother of the Brontë sisters of Haworth in Yorkshire. Born in Penzance, Branwell left Cornwall in 1912 and never returned. She died in Haworth at the Brontë Parsonage.

Full biography

At her first appearance in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë, Maria Brontë (née Branwell), is already dead. In Gaskell’s description of the Brontë memorial tablet from Haworth church, Maria begins a long list of premature family deaths which, one by one, strengthen the impression of a tragic family life. A telling of Charlotte Brontë’s life often begins from this very moment; the death of her mother. Indeed, this version of Maria’s life is very familiar; beginning with a glance to the Penzance of her youth, then leaping to her meeting and marriage with Patrick Brontë in 1812, before finally alighting on her death. It is undeniably tragic that, when Maria died on 22 September 1821, the six Brontë children (all under 10 years old) were left motherless. But might there be more to her life, and the ways in which we understand it, than appears here? 


Central to writing stories of family and individual development in the Victorian Period was the death of the mother. Carolyn Dever has said strongly, in her book on the subject, that ‘to write a life, in the Victorian period, is to write the story of the loss of the mother’. (1) In both fiction and biography, maternal loss was a flexible, but key device, often functioning as the central crisis and source of dramatic tension early on, organising the ongoing structure of the whole text. Though Maria died before the Victorian era began, Gaskell and other contemporary biographers followed in this vein. 


Maria’s frailty was emphasised by other contemporary biographers of the family in a similar fashion; she was a ‘frail flower transplanted to a bleak abode’. (2) Here, Maria appears as less a woman in her own right, than as a proto-Freudian absence, a lingering presence in her effects on her children and their literary production. Given the force of this cultural phenomenon, and the role Gaskell’s Life played in perpetuating the myth of the Brontës, it is unsurprising that Maria’s early death, which foreshadows the premature deaths of her children, has pervaded imaginings of the family. With this in mind, we are left many questions about this enigmatic woman and the reality of her life outside the narratives which we have inherited.


One reframing of Maria’s life could be made through geographical shift to the South-West, bringing to light her life in Cornwall before marriage. Such a shift reveals Maria and her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, to be full participants in Penzance’s rich local history. Despite the fact that Maria was nearly 30 years old before she left Cornwall, it is only recently that the rich and dynamic intellectual and social landscape of Penzance has been brought to bear on studies of her life. In comparison to Patrick Brontë’s Irish roots, most references to Maria’s Cornish roots have been glancing. Maria’s contribution to the Brontë children’s ‘celtic strain’ has been glossed simply as a predisposition to the superstitious and horrific, offering them a basis of fantastical stories of the supernatural, smuggling, and shipwreck. This was compounded through romantic tellings of the Brontë sisters’ inheritance of their mother’s few remaining belongings; a number of salt-stained books caught in a shipwreck on their journey from Cornwall to Yorkshire. (3) This maternal background bestows a certain amount of biographical intrigue, but little historical depth.


The work of Melissa Hardie, Charlotte MacKenzie, Sharon Wright, and Juliet Barker has begun to rewrite this aspect of Brontë’s story, foregrounding this rich Cornish context and forcing re-examinations of the assumptions made of her character and of her influence on her children. So too, the Cornish context has been weighed little in assessing the life and influence of Elizabeth Branwell, Maria’s sister, who travelled from Penzance to raise Maria’s children after her death. The Penzance into which Maria was born, as the eleventh of twelve children and the fourth of the seven who lived past childhood, was intellectually rich and vibrant. Born on the 15th April 1783, to Thomas and Anne Branwell (née Carne), Maria joined a sprawling family network, linking, through marriage or blood, the literate and well-educated Reynolds, Carne, Batten and Davy families. With influential family members and acquaintances, who were journalists, politicians, educationalists, merchants, tradesmen, travellers, poets, story-tellers, and published academics, the legacies and connections of these families extended far beyond the local context, entwined in national and global trends and events. 


Just a cursory glance into these family, friendship, and social networks reveals notable contemporaries: Ann Batten Cristall, a cousin by marriage born in Penzance in 1769, was a romantic poet, friend of Mary Wollstonecraft and George Dyer; Joseph Carne Sr., a maternal cousin born the year before Maria, in 1782, was a founding member of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall; his daughter Elizabeth Carne, born four years before Maria Branwell’s death in Yorkshire, became the first woman member of the society, and was an author, geologist, mineral collector, and philanthropist in her own right. (4) Maria’s own education is likely to have been wide ranging and rich. Penzance had its own ladies’ ‘book club’, which contained books from authors such as: Maria Edgeworth, Jacques Rousseau, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Mary Wollstonecraft. An older sister of Maria, Margaret, was married to the bookseller who provided such stock, making it likely that Maria and her sisters had access to all these resources.

With just these brief glances into the dynamic society in which she was born and raised, Maria Branwell comes to life as more than a spectral presence. This recent attention paid to the lives of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, before and after journeying to Yorkshire, speaks to broader trends present in historical research and society as a whole. Particularly, it falls within a growing emphasis on exploring under-researched or ignored histories and to taking less strictly linear approaches to tracing such histories. When researching the histories of marginalised people who have been actively suppressed or ignored on the basis of their race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, there will always be problems of absences and silences in the archives. Yet, by matching rigorous academic thinking with creativity, we have started to approach these questions of silence. For Brontë family history and for Cornish history more broadly, research on the maternal origins of the Brontës offers another avenue through which to shine a light on the international and complex history of women moving through Britain in complicated and unexpected ways.



1. Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victoria Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge, 1998), xi

2. Robert Spence Hardy, William Grimshaw, incumbent of Haworth, 1742-63 (John Mason, 1860), 275.

3. Agnes Mary Frances Robinson Duclaux, Emily Brontë (Roberts Bros, Boston, 1883), 12.

4. See Melissa Hardie’s Brontë Territories: Cornwall and the Unexplored Maternal Legacy, 1760-1870 (Edward Everett Root, 2019) for further detail on the above mentioned.



Dever, Carolyn. Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victoria Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

Duclaux, Agnes Mary Frances Robinson. Emily Brontë. Boston: Roberts Bros, 1883

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. London: Penguin Classics, 1998

Hardie, Melissa. Brontë Territories: Cornwall and the Unexplored Maternal Legacy, 1760-1870. Brighton: Edward Everett Root, 2019

Hardie, Melissa. 'Elizabeth Catherine Thomas Carne (1817-1873) A 19th Century Hypatia and her circle'. Transactions of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall XXII, (April, 2014): 16-39

Hardy, Robert Spence. William Grimshaw, incumbent of Haworth, 1742-63. London: John Mason, 1860

MacKenzie, Charlotte, Women Writers & Georgian Cornwall. Truro: Cornwall History, 2020)

McLean, Jacqueline. ‘Writing Women’s Lives: A Study of Victorian Women’s Auto/biography’. Unpublished DPhil Thesis. New York: New York University, 1996.

Wright, Sharon. The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick. Barnsley: Pen & Sword History, 2019

Painting of Maria Branwell
Image caption
Maria Branwell circa 1799.
Date of birth
15 April 1783
Place of birth
Penzance, Cornwall
Date of death (approx)
c. 1821
Place of death
Haworth, Yorkshire
Collections (people)
Person (listed)