A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Margery Clute: Literary Phenomenon Or Provincial Nobody?

Charlotte and Emily Brontë's writing table in the Haworth Parsonage Museum.

Following a recent visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, I was reminded again of that little-known Yorkshire poet Margery Clute (1824-76), who, I'm reliably informed, entered into and vanished from the lives of the Brontës like a wraith on the Pennine moors. When you've had a surfeit of Emily Brontë's poetry, and you're wondering where to turn next, it's well worth perusing Clute's (admittedly meagre) output for a bit of light relief.

It's on record that Clute became increasingly jealous of and vindictive towards the Brontë sisters, particularly Charlotte and Emily, as it became more and more evident that her own work would never achieve the starry heights so obviously destined for these superior writers. What's not always realised is the extent to which Clute tried to sabotage the work and reputation of her talented contemporaries. For example, she was in the habit of accompanying minor portrait painter Branwell Brontë on some of his habitual pub crawls around Haworth — not for reasons of social intercourse or beer-soaked bonhomie (indeed, Clute was strictly teetotal), but in order to clinically observe Branwell's progressive inebriation and document each sordid detail in her notebook in a neat and precise hand. (This cold and calculating attitude, it may be argued, is a necessary stimulus to creativity. Did not Graham Greene talk of the writer's 'splinter of ice in the heart'?) Although she never actually used any of this 'evidence', as far as I can gather, it was always there in case she needed it in her secret campaign to sully the Brontë image.

Another story, so incredible it must be true, goes as follows. Clute kept a pet magpie which she'd found injured in Haworth churchyard. She nursed the bird until it was completely recovered, training it easily, as one can an intelligent corvid. Then, one warm summer's day, when Tabitha Aykroyd, the Brontës' housekeeper, had opened the rectory windows to let in some fresh air, Clute introduced the magpie through the window of the downstairs room where Charlotte and Emily were in the habit of working at a large mahogany writing desk. It promptly flew across to a sheaf of papers on the table, picked them up in its beak and carried them off into the treetops. Neither bird nor booty were ever seen again. The papers comprised the half-finished manuscript of Emily Brontë's second novel, provisionally entitled Blethering Depths. Emily never restarted the work.

One final apocryphal narrative suggests that Margery Clute is in fact a pseudonym for the obscure Bradford poet William Eckerslyke, though why he should adopt a female name is a mystery, as it would be an invitation to even less attention and fewer book sales (after all, the Brontë sisters adopted the masculine first names of Currer, Acton and Ellis in order to evade the pervasive nineteenth-century prejudice against female writers, and, of course, Mary Ann Evans published under the name George Eliot). 

I've been able to trace very few of Clute's poems myself. Despite rumours of a second slim volume of verse, possibly called Moorland Ditties, her only verifiable published work is Fallen Leaves, which is extremely rare, and I believe only a handful of copies exist in this country (there are tattered copies in New York and Tokyo, I'm told, which are being repaired and restored as we speak). The bulk of the short, privately-printed run may have disappeared in the Great Fire of Ramsbottom (1888). However, I do know that one or two of my blog friends and followers have more than a passing interest in Clute's oeuvre, and may be able to supply me with one or two of her poetic gems. If anyone can contribute, please do so in the comments section. With grateful thanks.

Could one of these indecipherable tombstones in Haworth churchyard mark the grave of Margery Clute?


George said...

An interesting literary detective story. I seem to recall you and Dominic discussing Clute in a few blog postings a couple of years ago, but I know nothing of her work. This posting, however, was an entertaining read.

donna baker said...

Yes Walker, very interesting though I can add nothing as I have never heard of Clute. There is coverage in the news now of a popular writer's being outed using a pseudonym. I couldn't get through her first book, but it seems E. Ferrante has a following in her novels.

Bouncing Bertie said...

Blethering Depths!!
That's a joke, right?
Cheers, Gail.

The Solitary Walker said...


dritanje said...

Yes I think it was the Blethering Depths that made me laugh, and then suspect......

The Solitary Walker said...


solitary-cyclist said...

Having a periodic catch up on the internet and, coincidentally, currently reading Clute's philosophical/autobiographical poem, The Finale. From Book 4:

Ne'er have I read, dear Friend, the like
Of the verse of William Eckerslyke.
Through him, the Muse unquiet sings
A song of of hope, of higher things,
Or,sang, sadly, I ought to say
Since dear, sweet William passed away.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ah, that's a new one to me, Dominic. Have you ever read anything by Eckerslyke's contemporary, Nathaniel Ebigumme?

Anonymous said...

No. Nor have I read any Jonas Threppin-Steans.

As for Clute's final resting place, I'm afraid it's not Haworth churchyard. She died in 1876 and was placed in the Clute family vault at Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for clearing that up, Dominic.There are so many unsolved riddles in her obscure biography that it's nice to have a definite fact now and then.