Posted by on Nov 2, 2023 in Main |

Anne, Emily and Charlotte, as depicted by their brother Branwell

Mr Rod Hine from Bradford Astronomical Society was the guest speaker at the October meeting of the society, held on the evening of Thursday 26th.

To a large gathering of the society’s members Mr Hine’s presentation was a combination of Literature, social history and of course astronomy.

To set the nature of the country at the time when the famous Bronte family from the Yorkshire Pennine town of Haworth were living Mr Hine described Britain as going through a profound era of change and social upheaval.

The industrial revolution (which had accelerated from around 1750 to 1830) was in full swing. Iron coal, steam power and textile production were driving the worlds very first industrial economy. There was a large growth in the north of England of factories and the towns and cities rapidly grew as people left the land and were concentrated in the new urban areas.

Guest speaker Mr Rod Hine, and society secretary Dominic Curran

The head of the Bronte family was Patrick Brunty. (He later changed his name to Bronte). He was born in the year 1777 in the market town of Rathfriland, County Down. Which is in Northern Ireland. He attended Saint John’s College, Cambridge from 1802 to 1806, and he ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in 1807. He married Maria Branwell in 1812. He became curate of the parish of Thornton near Bradford in 1815 and moved to the parish of Haworth in 1819. He outlived all his children and dies in 1861.

Patrick Bronte

His children were:-

Maria 1814 to 1825

Elizabeth 1815 to 1825

Charlotte 1816 to 1855

Patrick Branwell 1817 to 1848

Emily 1818 to 1855

Anne 1820 to 1849.

His wife Maria died in 1821.

The house where the Bronte sisters were born, in Thornton near Bradford.

Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily attended the Clergy Daughters’ School, founded in the 1820s, in the village of Cowen Bridge near Kirby Longsdale. It was a school mainly for the daughters of middle class clergy. The school had a harsh regime, with poor food and accommodation.

Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis after attending the school where there was a serious outbreak of typhoid in 1824. Charlotte and Emily moved back to the family home at Haworth where their education continued under the direction of Patrick with the aid of his sister Elizabeth Branwell.

It is believed that Charlotte used the conditions she experienced at the Cowen Bridge School as the basis for the fictional Lowood School in her novel ‘Jane Eyre’.

Haworth parsonage, the family home of the Brontes

Charlotte Bronte:-
After a period of time working as a governess, in 1842 she studied and worked in Brussels: with Emily for a time, and returned home two years later in 1844.

Charlotte went on to write:-
The Professor (which was published after her death)
Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte

She was in the same circle of people as the novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell; who would later right and publish a biography of Charlotte in 1857. Charlotte was married in 1854 but died soon afterwards of pneumonia during pregnancy.

Branwell Bronte:-
Like his sisters he was home educated by his father, and enjoyed the company of his sisters whilst growing up. In his adult life he dabbled in teaching, journalism, painting and poetry. He joined the freemasons aged 19. However, he drifted between jobs, supporting himself by portrait painting, and gave way to drug and alcohol addiction, apparently worsened by a failed relationship with a married woman. He died at the age of 31.

An image of Patrick Branwell Bronte

Emily Bronte:-
She is best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. She also published a book of poetry with her sisters Charlotte and Anne titled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell with her own poems finding regard as poetic genius.

Her brother Branwell painted the only known image of her in a painting together with her surviving sisters. Branwells on image was also in the painting but he later removed it.

Emily Bronte by Patrick Branwell Bornte

Anne Bronte:-
She attended a boarding school in Mirfield between 1836 and 1837, and between 1839 and 1845 lived elsewhere working as a governess. In 1846 she published a book of poems with her sisters and later two novels, initially under the pen name Acton Bell. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was published in 1847 at the same time as Wuthering Heights by her sister Emily Brontë. Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in 1848. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is often considered one of the first feminist novels.

Anne died at 29, most likely of pulmonary tuberculosis. After her death, her sister Charlotte edited Agnes Grey to fix issues with its first edition, but prevented republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. As a result, Anne is not as well known as her sisters. Nonetheless, both of her novels are considered classics of English literature.

Anne Bronte from a painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte.

What was the knowledge of Astronomy prior to 1800?

Mr Hine stated that popular knowledge of astronomy was based on the book ‘ The Armagest’. A 2nd-century mathematical and astronomical treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and planetary paths, written by Claudius Ptolemy (c. AD 100 – c. 170). One of the most influential scientific texts in history, it canonized a geocentric model of the Universe that was accepted up until this time.

The ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus on the operation of the solar system and the observations of Galileo were accepted by many but there were many who were convinced of the of tradition scripture as was directed by the Christian faiths.

An example is this was that Galileo’s works were still prohibited until 1835 and Mr Hine stated that it wasn’t until 1992 that the Catholic Church officially cleared Galileo of all wrong doing. However the experiments and publications of Sir Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, did mean that at this period in time that the orbits of the known planets could be accurately measured and predicted.

What was known about the Solar System in 1800?

At that time seven planets were know of; Uranus the seventh planet was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel.

Neptune and the other smaller worlds had yet to be discovered. Neptune is not visible to the unaided eye and is the only planet in the Solar System found by mathematical predictions rather than by empirical observation. Unexpected changes in the orbit of Uranus led Alexis Bouvard to hypothesise that its orbit was subject to gravitational perturbation by an unknown planet. After Bouvard’s death, the position of Neptune was predicted from his observations, independently, by John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier. Neptune was subsequently observed with a telescope on 23rd September 1846 by Johann Galle within a degree of the position predicted by Le Verrier.

Mr Rod Hine answering question from the audience

The Milky Way:-

Our home galaxy had been observed from very ancient times and it features in ancient religions and mythology. In 1750 the county Durham astronomer and mathematician published his work and ideas. ‘An original theory or new hypothesis of the Universe’, explained the appearance of the Milky Way as “an optical effect due to our immersion in what locally approximates to a flat layer of stars.” This work influenced Immanuel Kant in writing his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755).

The Milky Way

The theory was later empirically advanced by William Herschel in 1785, leading to galactocentrism (a form of heliocentrism, with the Sun at the centre of the Milky Way). Another of Wright’s ideas, which is also often attributed to Kant, was that many faint nebulæ are actually incredibly distant galaxies.

Wright wrote: “…the many cloudy spots, just perceivable by us, as far without our Starry regions, in which tho’ visibly luminous spaces, no one star or particular constituent body can possibly be distinguished; those in all likelihood may be external creation, bordering upon the known one, too remote for even our telescopes to reach”.


Immanuel Kant was born 22nd April 1724, and he died almost 80 years later on 12 February 1804 in the town of Königsberg; at the time, this area belonged to East Prussia. During the course of his life, Kant never left Eastern Prussia. Moreover, her rarely left his own home. He is quite generally regarded as one of history’s truly great thinkers and he major studies were into epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential and controversial figures in modern Western philosophy.

His early works however focused more on geology, astronomy, and physics. In his 1755 work, “The Universal Natural History and Theories of the Heavens,” Kant talks about astronomy and two noteworthy theories about the Heavens. The first is his “Nebular Hypothesis” on star and planetary formations, where he theorized that thin, dim clouds of dust and gas out in the cosmos would collapse in on themselves under the force of gravity, causing them to spin to form a disk. From this spinning disk, stars and planets would form, and from this type of formation, the rotation of Earth and the other planets would be explained.

The Helix nebula

The second theory that Kant made also has to do with nebulae…sort of. Along with the bright, dark, and planetary nebulae, there are also spiral nebulae (though early telescopes could not really see these clearly enough to discern them as actual spirals). Rather, they looked like “die neblichten Sterne,” or nebulous stars. However, Kant distinguished these nebulae as their own species…as galaxies

In 1750, Thomas Wright had suggested that the Milky Way, our own Galaxy, was a vast spinning disk, consisting of stars, planets, nebula etc. He claimed that the Earth was part of this system. Kant had read a report of this theory, and he used it to form a hypothesis about the existence of other galaxies. Ultimately, his use of this theory actually brought it to general attention. An observational confirmation of it came from the great astronomer William Herschel in 1785. Kant’s idea was that the dim, tiny nebulae were themselves external galaxies or “island universes” — independent of the Milky Way.

He said: “It is far more natural and conceivable to regard them as being not such enormous single stars but systems of many, whose distance presents them in such a narrow space that the light, which is individually imperceptible from each of them, reaches us on account of their immense multitude in a uniform pale glimmer. Their analogy with the stellar system in which we find ourselves, their shape, which is just what it ought to be according to our theory, the feebleness of their light which demands a presupposed infinite distance: all this is in perfect harmony with the view that these elliptical figures are just universes and, so to speak, Milky Ways, like those whose constitution we have just unfolded.”

Thomas Wright

Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace, was a French scholar and polymath. An early work of his published work in 1771 started with differential equations and finite differences but he was already starting to think about the mathematical and philosophical concepts of probability and statistics. However, before his election to the Académie in 1773, he had already drafted two papers that would establish his reputation. The first, Mémoire sur la probabilité des causes par les événements was ultimately published in 1774 while the second paper, published in 1776, further elaborated his statistical thinking and also began his systematic work on celestial mechanics and the stability of the Solar System. The two disciplines would always be interlinked in his mind. “Laplace took probability as an instrument for repairing defects in knowledge.” Laplace’s work on probability and statistics is discussed below with his mature work on the analytic theory of probabilities.

Pierre-Simon Laplace

Laplace also came close to propounding the concept of the black hole. He suggested that there could be massive stars whose gravity is so great that not even light could escape from their surface. However, this insight was so far ahead of its time that it played no role in the history of scientific development.


Halley was the first comet to be recognized as periodic. Until the Renaissance, the philosophical consensus on the nature of comets, promoted by Aristotle, was that they were disturbances in Earth’s atmosphere. This idea was disproved in 1577 by Tycho Brahe, who used parallax measurements to show that comets must lie beyond the Moon. Many were still unconvinced that comets orbited the Sun, and assumed instead that they must follow straight paths through the Solar System.

In 1687, Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he outlined his laws of gravity and motion. His work on comets was decidedly incomplete. Although he had suspected that two comets that had appeared in succession in 1680 and 1681 were the same comet before and after passing behind the Sun, he was unable to completely reconcile comets into his model.

Ultimately, it was Newton’s friend, editor and publisher, Edmond Halley, who, in his 1705 Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, used Newton’s new laws to calculate the gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn on cometary orbits. Having compiled a list of 24 comet observations, he calculated that the orbital elements of a second comet that had appeared in 1682 were nearly the same as those of two comets that had appeared in 1531 (observed by Petrus Apianus) and 1607 (observed by Johannes Kepler).

Halley’s Comet was predicted to return in 1835

Halley thus concluded that all three comets were, in fact, the same object returning about every 76 years, a period that has since been found to vary between 74 and 79 years. After a rough estimate of the perturbations the comet would sustain from the gravitational attraction of the planets, he predicted its return for 1758. While he had personally observed the comet around perihelion in September 1682, Halley died in 1742 before he could observe its predicted return. The comet was due to return again in 1835.

The Bronte book collection:-

When Patrick Bronte died in 1861, nearly all the books in his library were sold and no catalogue was made of them. So we will never know if he had books covering astronomy in his collection.

Astrology was as elsewhere a popular topic for discussion and gossip, in the village of Haworth. One local, John Kay made a bit of a living from selling charms and reading fortunes from astrological charts and horoscopes. The Bronte family knew him through their good friend William Heaton of the nearby Ponden Hall and Ponden Mill.

Patrick Bronte being a man of the church took a dim view of this ‘prognostication’
as foolish and wicked. Patrick did later preside at his funeral service and burial in 1847.

What do we think the Bronte’s knew of astronomy?

It appears that Patrick was keen to keep up with all the latest developments.
It is known that from 1833 the family regularly attended the Keighley Mechanics institute. The Keighley Mechanics Institute Library was, “founded in 1825 with the aim of bringing the Arts and Sciences,’ within reach of the most humble’. Fortnightly lectures on chemistry, physics, mechanics and astronomy took place and Patrick was a member from 1833 to 1846.

The original Keighley Mechanics institute building on North Street (Later it became a Bank)

Another source of books was those owned by the Heaton family of Ponden Hall who the family often visited, although that extensive library was mostly of 18th century literature.

Ponden Hall

They also read ‘Blackwoods magazine’, which was a Tory publication that was much admired by the likes of Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington.

Branwell wrote to ‘Blackwoods several times to seek employment and submitted some of his poetry, but he was not successful.

‘Blackwoods magazine’ covered the politics of the day, but also science and industry. It was publications like this that would have kept the Bronte’s up to date with the lastest discoveries and innovations.

The return of Halley’s Comet in 1835 was covered in the magazine.

Blackwood’s Magazine

What astronomical discoveries were made in their lifetimes?

Ceres, the first asteroid was discovered in 1801 by the Italian Giuseppe Piazzi.

The German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss calculated the orbit of Ceres
as being between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars from three of the 22 accurate observations made by Piazzi.

Other asteroids. Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were soon found, but by 1807 no more had been found and the search for others was abandoned by 1815.


Joseph Ritter von Fraunhofer, was a German physicist and optical lens manufacturer. He made optical glass, an achromatic telescope, and objective lenses. He also invented the spectroscope and developed diffraction grating. In 1814, he discovered and studied the dark absorption lines in the spectrum of the sun now known as Fraunhofer lines. This eventually lead to the understanding of the composition of the Sun as being a ball of hot gases, mostly hydrogen and helium (although helium was to be discovered until 1868.

The spectrum of light from the Sun

In 1848, Lord Ross used his huge telescope in Ireland to observe ‘nebulae’ and was able to observe individual stars within them. This opened up the idea that some nebulae were in fact entire galaxies, well beyond our own Milky Way. This matter was finally resolved in 1920.

A sketch made by Lord Ross (William Parsons) of the Whirlpool Galaxy in 1845

Lord Ross’s leviathan telescope at Birr Castle in Ireland

The Planet Neptune was discovered in 1846. Its existence had been predicted by the French astronomer and mathematician Urbain Le Verrier, who specialised in celestial mechanics. He predicted the existence and position of Neptune using only mathematics. The calculations were made to explain discrepancies with Uranus’s orbit and the laws of Kepler and Newton. Le Verrier sent the coordinates to Johann Gottfried Galle in Berlin, asking him to verify. Galle found Neptune in the same night he received Le Verrier’s letter, within 1° of the predicted position. The discovery of Neptune is widely regarded as a dramatic validation of celestial mechanics, and is one of the most remarkable moments of 19th-century science.

Urbain Le Verrier

An age of great advancement: –

1) This was the period of the swift and great expanse of the steam railway network.
2) Electricity was discovered.
3) The works of Charles Darwin on evolutionary biology.
4) The growth and complexity of engineering.
5) The invention and application of photography.
6) The investigations, which lead to a big improvement in public health.
7) Britain became the leading world power.

Astronomy that featured in the writings of the Bronte sisters?

The sisters first published their works under the pseudonyms of Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell, with mixed success. The deception was soon revealed around 1847 when a rumour linked the books and poems of the three Bell brothers as maybe the works of just one man. Their publisher, George Smith, was astonished when Charlotte and Anne visited him in person in London. They had taken the name Bell from the junior curate of their father, Arthur Bell-Nicholls who later married Carlotte.

Patrick Bronte’s 1835 Poem about Halley’s Comet:-

Our blazing guest, long have you been,
To us, and many, more unseen:
Full seventy years have pass’d away
Since last we saw you, fresh and gay
Time seems to do you little wrong
As yet, you sweep the sky along,
A thousand times more glib and fast,
Than railroad speed or sweeping blast
Not so – the things you left behind
Not so – the race of human kind
Vast changes in this world have been,
Since by this world you have been,
The child, who clapped his hands with joy,
And hailed thee as a shinning toy,
Has pass’d, long since, that dusky bourne,
From whence no travellers return;
Or sinking now in feeble age,
Surveys thee as a hoary sage,
Sees thee, a might globe serene.

Patrick had knowledge of Newton’s publication of the force of gravity.

When he wrote :-

“But Newton sage and others say,
The Sun doth play with you yea and nay.
That, at each point of time, his force,
Attracts, repels thy fiery course”.

Astronomical references in the works of Charlotte

1) In Jane Eyre, chapter 28, Jane has to sleep in the open and sees the Milky Way.
2) She sees the night as feminine but God is masculine.
3) She reflects that “Rochester is safe with God…..”
4) She embraced the traditional biblical ideas of heaven and the universe.

The fictional Jane Eyre

Astronomical references in the works of Emily

Emily had a more rebellious streak, and had a pantheistic view of the universe and often introduced an element of darkness into her work.

In a poem called “Stars” She wrote, ‘Darkness and night are both comforting and inspiring’. ‘Light and day are stressful and threatening’.

Emily appears to be much more comfortable setting her work at times of dusk and gathering darkness. Perhaps this is what she expresses in “Wuthering Heights” ?

The fictional Catherine Earnshaw from ‘ Wuthering Heights’

In “Wuthering Heights” she is meticulous about the calendar and the chronology of the Moon. The novel is set around 1800, however research by one A. Stuart Daley has shown that the calendar actually fits 1826 and 1827. Emily was just a child at this time but may have recorded these events and used them as a time line for the events in her masterpiece.

Astronomical references in the works of Anne

In a lengthy poem titled ‘Alexander and Zenobia’ she writes about a lover who doesn’t arrive:-

“He was like a shinning meteor light
That faded from the skies,
But I mistook him for a star,
That on set to rise”.

In her novel ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ the character Helen witnesses her husband’s infidelity and she looks at the Moon and stars and is comforted by them:-

“I knew their God was mine, and he was strong to save and swift to heal”.

Queen Zenobia addresses her soldiers

Astronomical references in the works of Branwell

He to makes frequent references to the Sun, Moon and planets; which indicates some evidence of astronomical knowledge.

One such poem of his is ‘Still and bright, in twilight shinning glitters forth the evening star”

Written in 1836, he later sent it to William Wordsworth, it’s typical of Branwell’s romanticism with extravagant swings of mood and atmosphere, all set in a very hostile world. It isn’t clear what Wordsworth actually thought of the poem, especially as Branwell implies that it is just an introduction to a much longer ‘Magnum Opus’ yet to be written.

The plaque on the wall of the first home of the Bronte family in Thornton near Bradford.

Mr Rod Hine finished his presentation by stating that the Bronte family lived through one of the periods in time that had the most rapid and profound changes in the world around them and the wider universe above them; they noted those changes and included them in their writings poetry and novels.