From the moment the librarian wheeled the document to my table at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, I had a foreboding sense that I was going to need a magnifying glass.
Bound in faded purple leather, the minuscule object made the book cart look absurdly unnecessary. At just 9.5 centimeters long and 4 centimeters wide, the manuscript fit in the palm of my hand. But nestled inside was a treasure rare enough to take any literature lover’s breath away: a single page covered in the microscopic handwriting of a 14-year-old Charlotte Brontë.
This sheet of paper is neither diary nor fiction. Titled “A Strange Occurrence at the Parsonage,” it tells an eerie story, detailing the teenage Brontë’s recollections of the night of June 22, 1830, when she crossed paths with something unsettlingly close to the supernatural. Aside from a few brief mentions in Brontë biographies, the manuscript hasn’t garnered too much attention. I came across it quite by chance in the online catalog of rare manuscripts at Harvard, where I study English literature. When I saw the title, I was so intrigued that I decided I had to see it in person.
The incident in question was strange but true. On that early summer night, Brontë was sitting in the kitchen of Haworth Parsonage, her family’s home in West Yorkshire, England. Her father, Patrick Brontë, was the parson of the local parish. But he “was very ill, confined to his bed and so weak that he could not rise without assistance,” as the author writes. (An inflammation of the lungs would keep Patrick in bed for a total of three weeks in June and July of that year.)
“Suddenly,” Brontë continues, “we heard a knock at the door.” Tabitha “Tabby” Aykroyd, the family servant, “rose and opened it. An old man appeared, standing without.”
Brontë records the exchange between the servant and the old man in dialogue form. The stranger asked to see Patrick, but after he was informed that the parson was ill in bed, the encounter took an unsettling turn. The visitor came, he claimed, with a message for the parson from God himself:
The Lord, he desires me to say that the bridegroom is coming and that he must prepare to meet him; that the cords are about to be loosed and the golden bowl broken; the pitcher broken at the fountain and the wheel stopped at the cistern.
Appropriately enough, these cryptic words quoted a Bible verse. Taken from Ecclesiastes, the passage comes at a moment when King Solomon of Israel is giving advice to a young man about how to live and die. The images of shattered objects convey the irrevocability of death, as Solomon implores his companion to remember God “before the silver cord is broken.” Apparently, the stranger at Haworth Parsonage had come to tell Patrick that he was going to die.
The man’s words—also drawn from the Book of Matthew, which states that “The bridegroom was a long time in coming”—evidently unnerved young Brontë, much as she tried to resist believing his prophecy.
“Though I am fully persuaded that he was some fanatical enthusiast, well-meaning perhaps but utterly ignorant of true piety, yet I could not forbear weeping at his words, spoken so unexpectedly at that particular period,” she concludes at the bottom of the tiny page.
Brontë’s reaction is understandable. If their father died, the Brontë children would not only become orphans (their mother died in 1821) but also lose the financial support on which they depended. Luckily for the four surviving siblings—sisters Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother, Branwell—Patrick made a full recovery; in fact, he outlived all six of his children, dying in 1861 at age 84.
The stranger, moreover, turned out to be a local farmer who would later be consigned to an asylum. “A Strange Occurrence” may not have turned out to be a real encounter with the paranormal, but it provides evidence of a side of Brontë that even her most avid readers rarely see or notice—one fit for a season of spooky tales. From a young age, Brontë had an affinity for the supernatural. What’s more, her attraction to the strange and horrific was an early vehicle for her love of storytelling.
As a student at Roe Head School in Mirfield, the young Brontë garnered a reputation as a teller of haunting tales, including one about “the wanderings of a somnambulist,” or sleepwalker, wrote classmate Ellen Nussey in an 1871 essay. “She brought together all the horrors her imagination could create, from surging seas [to] raging breakers, towering castle walls, high precipices, invisible chasms and dangers.”
The account so terrified one of Brontë’s peers that the girls had to call for help, making the storyteller feel guilty enough to pledge to stop sharing such frightening tales—at least until “popular demand” changed her mind, writes historian Juliet Barker in The Brontës.
Sara L. Pearson, a Brontë scholar at Trinity Western University in Canada, believes that encounters with the supernatural weren’t necessarily confined to stories for the Brontë siblings. She speculates that such tales prepared them for real-life encounters with the unexplained, including the incident dramatized in “A Strange Occurrence.”
“Charlotte and the other children wouldn’t have been surprised by this type of experience,” Pearson tells Smithsonian. As she points out, in Brontë’s second novel, Shirley, the author “fictionally describes the ‘mad Methodist magazines’ belonging to their mother that the children had read, ‘full of miracles and apparitions, of preternatural warnings, ominous dreams and frenzied fanaticism.’”
In 1857, two years after Brontë died at age 38, Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a biography of the author titled The Life of Charlotte Brontë. In it, Gaskell mentions “A Strange Occurrence” and highlights her subject’s inclination toward the spooky.
“Thus, children leading a secluded life are often thoughtful and dreamy: The impressions made upon them by the world without … the accidental meetings with strange faces and figures (rare occurrences in those out-of-the-way places) are sometimes magnified by them into things so deeply significant as to be almost supernatural,” Gaskell wrote. “This peculiarity I perceive very strongly in Charlotte’s writings at this time.”
“Gaskell’s biography tries to protect the adult Charlotte’s reputation by relegating her interest in the supernatural to childhood and explaining it away by environmental factors,” Price tells Smithsonian.
Nonetheless, “A Strange Occurrence” and its supernatural bent draw readers’ attention to elements of the supernatural in Brontë’s better-known writings. This tiny manuscript shows that the paranormal nips at the heels of her most famous work, Jane Eyre. In the second chapter of the 1847 novel, the young heroine’s aunt punishes her by locking her in the “red room”—the same spot in which her uncle, the late Mr. Reed, died.
“Superstition was with me at that moment,” confesses 10-year-old Jane. Later, she adds, “I thought Mr. Reed’s spirit, harassed by the wrongs of his sister’s child, might quit its abode—whether in the church vault or in the unknown world of the departed—and rise before me in this chamber.”
Terrified of her uncle’s ghost, Jane screams and shakes the lock on the door in a desperate bid to be freed. Though her nursemaid hears her pleas and temporarily lets her out, Mrs. Reed sends her right back in. “I heard her sweeping away; and soon after she was gone, I suppose I had a species of fit,” Jane says. “Unconsciousness closed the scene.”
The supernatural also rears its head in Brontë’s other juvenile works. As children, Brontë and her siblings spent much time inventing fictional worlds together and writing stories about those places. One of Charlotte Brontë’s short stories, “The Secret,” is set in the imagined kingdom of Verdopolis. Written in 1833, when Brontë was 17, it features the apparition of a woman’s drowned lover, who visits her to tell her to continue her life without him.
The hours that the Brontë sisters spent building imaginary worlds together left its imprint on their individual careers. All three became writers. The evident attraction to the Gothic and supernatural in their early, collaborative romances shows its influence in their later works, including Anne’s 1848 novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Emily’s only novel, the famously dark Wuthering Heights.
In this way, “A Strange Occurrence” testifies to the importance of writers’ childhood works, or juvenilia, in examining their early influences and the evolution of their craft. Historically, such compositions have not attracted the attention of literary scholars, who generally prefer to focus their attention on an author’s “mature” writing. But Brontë, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery and other famous writers had to begin somewhere—and that “somewhere” can turn out to be truly fascinating.
The Brontë children’s fascination with dark, eerie and romantic tales sprang from the bleak, rural landscape of the Yorkshire moors where they grew up, as well as the imaginative play sparked by the siblings’ transformation of a box of toy soldiers into a cast of characters populating their stories. Together, the three sisters would go on to create dark fantasy worlds that would haunt their most famous “mature” works. The fictional world of Gondal, for instance, prefigures the vengeful landscape of Wuthering Heights; it was even home to a character who resembles Emily’s most famous creation, the tortured antihero Heathcliff.
Seen in this light, Brontë’s 1830 composition is just the tip of the iceberg in an ongoing search to uncover a beloved writer’s beginnings.