The lives of 'the other Brontës'

They provided the name for The Brownies and their books were favourites of their day. Stephen McClarence reports on reviving interest in the tales of the Victorian Gatty family.

People can get very passionate about the Gatty family. Some years ago, at a talk about these once-world-famous West Riding writers, the speaker called them "the other Yorkshire Bronts".

A woman in the third row was indignant. "The Bronts?" she scoffed. "They only wrote novels!"

Well, that puts the also-rans from Haworth in their place. But the parallels are there. Both families lived in village vicarages. Both endured poor health. Both published their own family magazines. And both wrote copiously.

The difference, of course, is that the Bronts are still celebrated and the Gattys of Ecclesfield, a sturdy stone village between Sheffield and Barnsley, aren't. Though they will be if Mel and Joan Jones, a husband-and-wife team of Gatty enthusiasts, have their way.

Over the past decade, the Joneses, from Thorpe Hesley near Rotherham, have delved into the Gattys' lives and produced a seemingly inexhaustible series of articles and books about them.

The latest of the books, The Story of a Nomadic Wife, is based on the letters (695 sheets of them) and diaries written by Juliana, arguably the most talented member of this multi-talented Victorian family, while she was separated from her soldier-husband during his foreign postings in the early 1880s.

So what's the appeal of the Gattys? "The multiplicity of their endeavours," says Mel, visiting professor in landscape history at Sheffield Hallam University, rather splendidly.

Consider the evidence. Juliana Gatty (1841-85), who wrote under her husband's surname, Ewing, was one of the most widely-read children's authors of her day and was often compared to Robert Louis Stevenson. Admired and entertained to tea by John Ruskin (no pushover as a critic), she wrote 140 stories, including The Brownies, about a band of Little People whose purpose was to help adults. Baden-Powell borrowed the name when he set up the junior Girl Guide movement.

Juliana's mother, Margaret (1809-73), was the daughter of Alexander Scott, vicar of Catterick, Royal Chaplain and, most interestingly, Nelson's chaplain and intelligence agent at Trafalgar; he's pictured in familiar Death of Nelson tableaux cradling the dying admiral in his arms. Margaret Gatty duly named the youngest of her 10 children Horatio Nelson Gatty. A woman of bohemian eccentricity, she became a friend of Tennyson and Lewis Carroll, wrote children's stories that were compared to Hans Christian Andersen's and were illustrated by Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt. They touched surrealism, with one including a discussion between a long-tailed radish and a beetroot, but generally brought things to a strong moral conclusion with a guest appearance by God.

Margaret also became a leading authority on sundials and wrote the definitive history of British seaweed… quite an achievement for someone living about as far from the sea as it's possible to live in Britain.

She often worked at Gristhorpe, between Scarborough and Filey, where she excitedly discovered a specimen of Odonthalia dentate, a red frondy seaweed previously "not known south of Dundee".

Some 15,000 of the specimens she collected are housed at Sheffield's Weston Park Museum. They were a large part of her life. She was so devoted to her seaweed, and so indifferent to domesticity, that, 20 years after moving into the vicarage, she had still not got round to hanging curtains at the windows.

Margaret's husband, Alfred (1813-1903), was a curate at Bellerby, in Wensleydale, before becoming Vicar of Ecclesfield from 1839 to 1902, practically the whole of Queen Victoria's reign.

He enterprisingly published a series of Sermons for Wayfarers, improving tracts sold at railway stations to passengers. He also published a history of Withernsea – researched, presumably, while his wife was down on the shore collecting seaweed.

His books were not, admittedly, a huge success, but they kept up the Gatty literary tradition, which found its most concentrated expression in Juliana. She gazes piously heavenwards, hands clasped, in the stained-glass memorial window to her at Ecclesfield church, a grand and spacious place sometimes called the Minster of the Moors. Her hair is pulled back in a chignon, which some of the harp-strumming angels around her have also loyally adopted.

It was this window which first awoke an interest in the Gattys in Joan Jones, secretary of the local Chapeltown and High Green Archive.

"This area is my home patch and we grew up knowing about the family," she says. "We always came to the church for our grammar school Christmas services and I used to look at the window and wonder about her."

By this time, the Gattys had long left Ecclesfield and followed successful legal and diplomatic careers all over the world. Remarkably, the last of Juliana's sisters, Horatia, survived until 1945, 136 years after their mother was born.

With tastes changing, the family's books largely faded from memory. Some of the stories were still being reprinted in the 1950s, but only Margaret's history of seaweed kept the flag flying, mostly among seaweed enthusiasts, along with a hymn written by Juliana's mutton-chopped husband Alexander, who caught the family's creative mood with Jerusalem the Golden.

The vicarage was demolished in 1968 and all that was left was the memorial window to Juliana, another to Margaret, and the family graves in the churchyard, round the corner from their Pets Cemetery (including "Punch – A Prince of Pugs" and a parrot: "Poor Polly – A Great Speaker Accidentally Silenced").

The Joneses have now come to the Gattys' rescue, organising lectures, festivals, and reunions (27 Gatty descendants at the last one), and delving through the family archives, which are widely dispersed among its members.

The Gattys were industrious hoarders of letters and documents, many of which have found their way into the Sheffield Archives and Yorkshire Libraries collections. What's not there are the two armchairs from HMS Victory that were kept for many years at the vicarage. Nelson made a couch from them, with a stool between, and often slept on them: something for guests to contemplate over high tea.

As a landscape historian, Mel's interest was aroused by the way Juliana, usually pictured in doleful profile, used the local Ecclesfield countryside in her stories.

The most successful of them was Jackanapes, which sold 70,000 copies and was admired by Arnold Bennett. "I conceive that Rudyard Kipling must have read Mrs Ewing when he was young," he wrote. "And I wish

I had!"

Such literary associations crop up all the time. Almost casually, Mel points out that Juliana's niece married Siegfried Sassoon. Juliana's stories – Daddy Darwin's Dovecot (the story of a workhouse orphan), The Land of Lost Toys, We and the World, A Flat Iron for a Farthing – are staunchly Victorian and strong on sentiment, moral duty, Christian charity and the now-unfashionable assumptions of their age.

"If the black men kill our men," she writes in A Soldier's Children, "send down white angels to take their poor dear souls to Heaven!"

The stories are as much of their time as the Six Plantation Songs written in the style of spirituals by her brother Alfred: a slightly incongruous pastime for a man who became Garter King at Arms. Picture (as apparently happened) the family round the vicarage piano singing De Ole Banjo or De Lady Moon ("A great black cloud roll in front obyou, see de cloud am passing").

They survived long enough to be sung in The Black and White Minstrel Show. Juliana became violently homesick for Ecclesfield when away on a Canadian posting with her husband.

She frequently longed for "murky English skies" and wrote: "Whatever I have been doing and thinking during the day, I almost invariably dream of Ecclesfield."

Her local patch, just a couple of square miles, is the background to many of the stories.

As the Joneses point out: "It was essentially her childhood countryside, which she revisited in reality and in her imagination for the rest of her life." They recount how she was taken ill in Paris on the way from her army-home in York to join her husband on a posting in Malta.

She was forced to return to England, and, now with no home of her own, spent the next four years travelling the length and breadth of the country staying with friends and relatives.

Her letters to Alexander are vivid and spontaneous, full of exclamation marks. As Joan Jones says: "She pours out her heart to him." His letters to her haven't survived. We've ended up not very keen on him," says Joan. "He was off buying yachts and not sending her allowance on time. Look at this photograph of them together. She's looking at him with devotion and he's looking at the curtain."

During this period, she wrote one of her best-known stories, The Story of a Short Life. It's a poignant title, because Juliana was just 43 when she died of cancer. Her diaries, boldly written with a broad-nibbed pen, chart her decline.

At first, they seem a cosy record of Victorian middle-class life – wallpapering the dining room, painting watercolours, reading Dickens, going to the pantomime ("very poor"), playing charades, going to dances and parties, visiting the workhouse to take poor children out to tea on her birthday. And "seaweedising", as the children called their mother's obsession.

The conviviality fades, however, towards the end, when the ill-health that dogged Juliana's life finally overwhelmed her and she was too weak to get up. Years before she had sketched herself as "an

interesting invalid", ghostly in an armchair. She now writes: "In bed all the morning and seedyish all day… Desperately tired."

Alongside these sad documents, however, the Sheffield Archives also have copies of the family magazine (Circulation: 12; "Price: One kiss"). It's full of stories, poems and drawings, and, though it simmers on a lower imaginative light, inevitably brings to mind the family magazine written at Haworth parsonage.

And there's the Bront comparison again. The Gattys will have to live with it, though as Mel Jones says, recalling Margaret's scientific fame: "She had a seaweed and a marine worm named after her. None of the Bronts could claim that!"

The Story of a Nomadic Wife by Mel and Joan Jones, and their earlier book The Remarkable Gatty Family of Ecclesfield (both from Green Tree Publications) are available at 4.99 each, post-free, from 0114 245 1235.

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