The Brontës and War: Reinventing Wellington and Napoleon.

This post will briefly introduce you to the foundations of my research, the transmogrification of Wellington and Napoleon into Charlotte and Branwell’s childhood writings. Later this month, I’ll be speaking about the Brontës’ relationship to war at the annual Brontë Society conference. My paper, which attempts to establish Charlotte and Branwell as post-war authors, will convey how the siblings re-invented the heroic legacy of the Napoleonic Wars through their fictitious, juvenile kingdoms of Glasstown and Angria. Indeed, the timing of this talk (and my thesis titled ‘The Brontës and the Military’ more generally) could not have come at a better moment. With the bicentenary of Waterloo next year, and Charlotte Brontë’s birth the following, the revival of their childhood world (based around their respective heroes, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte) not only gives insight into the celebrated siblings’ unbound imaginations but also comments more widely on the late-Georgian public’s lust for war, longed for in a time that was to many, just plain dull. Disraeli even states in his novel Vivian Grey (1826) ‘if it wasn’t for the general election, we really must have a war for variety’s sake. Peace gets quite a bore (Glen, 520).’ Ashley 2468, f.1 map When their father famously bought Branwell his wooden toy soldiers in 1829 it was Charlotte and Branwell who chose Wellington and Napoleon as suitable names for them, using these playthings to conceptualise a military-centred universe. Wellington, part of the initial Twelves that sail to and colonise Africa, was constructed as Charlotte’s ideal. In her early Glasstown writings, he takes centre stage as, literally, a ‘king’ among men, who goes away to fight the Napoleonic Wars, which are briefly incorporated into the narrative, and who then returns to Africa to be crowned as its sovereign. Napoleon was also featured in their world despite being a less prominent character. Whereas Wellington is presented as a stable, fatherly figure, the siblings remain unsure about Napoleon, usually conforming to contemporary opinions – such as Lord Byron and Walter Scott – that acknowledged his greatness, yet interpreted him as a flawed evil genius. Pre-figuring Charles Dickens’ novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) Charlotte’s The Green Dwarf (1833) shows Jean-Charles Pichegru, a Napoleonic French general, leading Napoleon through the streets of Paris in an effort to enlighten him of his wrongs. In one instance, the air is described as having an ‘overpowering mixture of the scents of mortal corruption (141).’ napoleon As Charlotte and Branwell reached their late teens, Wellington and Napoleon became embodied within the siblings’ fully-formed protagonists, Zamorna, the Duke of Wellington’s son, and Alexander Percy, Zamorna’s future father-in-law, better known as Northangerland. It is through these two characters that the siblings were able to reconstruct one of the most important associations in military history, inventing an imagined, deeply homosocial relationship between Wellington and Napoleon that never actually existed – despite frequently writing about one another, Wellington and Napoleon never actually spoke to one another in real life. Before his death in 1821, Napoleon published his thoughts of Wellington (which were quite rude in some cases), yet Wellington never revealed his thoughts on Napoleon until his memoirs were published posthumously-. Like Blackwood’s which, in 1827, dramatised Wellington and Napoleon as ultimate adversaries who ‘struggled like two giants for ascendancy’ (Anon, 840), Charlotte and Branwell described Zamorna and Northangerland as being ‘the two great drivers of Verdopolis [the name of the vale of Glasstown] (33)’. This sense of dual power climaxed in 1834, Charlotte and Branwell creating Angria and placing Zamorna as its king and Northangerland as its prime minister. Over the next five years, their relationship proves to be one of the most psychologically tormenting and highly dramatised companionships in the history of English literature (yes I may be biased, but I bet you would agree). As Angria’s empire collapses and slowly recovers, betrayal and revenge are paramount in Zamorna and Northangerland’s development as hostile enemies with a bizarre fanatical devotion to one another. As Angria draws to a close in 1839, both characters are ostracised from their subjects as a direct consequence of their mutual infatuation, one of Branwell’s last tales showing them walking down a palace’s steps, arm in arm, into the path of a waiting mob. Clearly, (again not biased) Wellington and Napoleon inspired Charlotte and Branwell to create one of the best bromances of all time.

(If this has wetted your appetite and you’re interested in finding out more about the Brontës’ relationship to war, I’ll be speaking at ‘The Brontës and the Condition of England’, Warwick University, 29th-31 August 2014:


Alexander, Christine. (Ed.) (1991). An Edition of the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë Volume II Part I The Rise of Angria. Oxford, New York: Basil Blackwell.

Anon. (1827). ‘The Military Sketchbook.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, June, no. 127, pp.838-843.

Glen, Heather (Ed.). (2006). Tales of Angria. London: Penguin.


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