An airy thought….

There I was, opening another marriage register, ready to transcribe, when I spotted something, which took my mind far from the nuptials of the people of Essex, and off into the realms of literature.

Not that this is an unusual occurrence – some people have remarked to me that “we’re all related to each other anyway” and “it’s just a list of lots of names”, but what always fascinates me are the stories you can find in parish registers. There is so much material for authors of historical novels in them – strange deaths, attempted bigamy, bizarre choices for children’s names, I could go on…..

Sometimes, I come across things in registers which remind me of novels I have read. I studied English Literature at university, which is probably to blame. For instance, all those soldiers posted at Weeley from 1803, who married the local girls, reminded me straight away of the militia being billeted near the Bennets’ home in Pride and Prejudice. And my various wanderings in old churchyards bring to mind Wuthering Heights and (as mentioned when I went round St. Peter’s, Harborne) the ghost stories of M. R. James.1)Especially when something rather uncanny happened to me and my mum in the churchyard at High Ongar….

But on this particular occasion, where I paused in my transcribing, my thoughts derailed, it was because I had noticed a particular surname. It wasn’t the first time I had, but this time my thoughts coalesced adequately for me to to think… “Hang on! I wonder if…?”

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels. It has been since we read an abridged version of it when I was 11 at primary school; then, when I was 13 at senior school we read the full edition and were allowed to watch the 1983 adaptation with Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester.2)Watch out – I do love my costume dramas and adaptations, and will be writing about them in this blog. It is a novel at once so ordinary and yet so strange; humdrum life wrapped about with the uncanny, that I cannot prize it from my mind. So little wonder then, that, as I looked at the marriage register and for some reason I don’t know, looked at the instructions for vicars on how to fill out the entries, rather than the entries themselves, that I noticed, once again, that the name of the publisher was George Eyre:

george-eyre

George Eyre’s name appearing in a marriage register. His name also appears in baptism and burial registers from 1813 onwards. After 1831, the “King’s printers” became known as Eyre & Spottiswoode. The 1812 Act specifically states that the registers are to be “of good and durable Paper, to be provided by His Majesty’s Printer as Occasion may require”, which means that every baptism, marriages and burial register in the country was printed by Eyre & Strahan. A sample of 1813 registers that I have looked at are all printed by “His Majesty’s Printer”, but later registers, from the 1840s, are produced by a range of other companies.

George Eyre's name appearing at the front of a baptism register. The Act to use pre-printed registers was passed in 1812, to come into force at the beginning of 1813.

George Eyre’s name appearing at the front of a baptism register. The Act to use pre-printed registers was passed in 1812, to come into force at the beginning of 1813. Old-style, pre-printed registers were in use for marriages from 1754-1812 (although not published by Eyre & Strahan), and some parishes used pre-printed registers for baptisms and burials to keep track of the taxes to fund the war with France.

All sorts of theories are put forward for reasons novelists may have for naming their characters. Usually, Jane’s surname is suggested because she is “airy”, of the air, an elemental being (indeed, Mr. Rochester says she has “rather the look of another world” and jokes that she bewitched his horse). A plausible theory is that Jane received her surname from the Eyres of North Lees Hall at Hathersage, whose battlemented home does seem a very likely inspiration for Thornfield Hall, crenellations and all (especially as Charlotte’s close chum, Ellen Nussey, had a brother who was the vicar of Hathersage, whom Charlotte and Ellen visited together).  In fact, according to Internet Movie Database, North Lees Hall3)And if that’s not enough, North Lees Hall was also used as a location for two versions of Pride & Prejudice – 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth, 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen. It was used again for 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, an historically inaccurate film most notable for giving us Benedict Cumberbatch looking awkward in a nightshirt. was used in the 2011 Mia Wasikowska/Michael Fassbender4)“Fassy” is clearly too handsome to play Mr. Rochester, but he did look rather fine in Victorian costume. film adaptation of Jane Eyre, and the 2006 Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens TV series was filmed partially in Hathersage 5)Both also used Haddon Hall, as did Zeffirelli for his adaptation in 1996. You can even have your wedding at Haddon Hall, but I’d check to make sure your intended hasn’t stashed their ex in a hidden room on the upper story first…. As an exciting aside, the 2011 version used Wingfield Manor to represent Thornfield Hall after the fire. I have a suspicion that this ruin, abandoned since the 1770s and for some reason never demolished, is visible from the M1. Back in 2010, I was in a van heading up to Newcastle (nevermind why), and saw on an eminence, a little distance from the road, the amazing site of this windowless, roofless building. I thought at once of Thornfield, and when I realised it had looked like that since the 1770s, it did cross my mind that Charlotte Brontë could have seen it, and it gave her the idea for the conflagration. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned there, so it’s a place that has a history of being associated with imprisoned women. Who knows…. Ironic that a year after I came up with this theory (a theory I espoused so enthusiastically that I scared the man driving the van), it actually was used to represent the ruins of Mr. Rochester’s house (unless it had already been used in the 2006 version, and I was confusing a memory with an idea. Alas, my ‘mind palace’ fails me sometimes)..

So perhaps I should bow out with my theory about the publisher, George Eyre. Case closed, it’s the Eyres of North Lees Hall! But consider that Charlotte was the daughter of a vicar.6)Despite putting this post in my “Elsewhere (not Essex or Suffolk)” category, Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father, was curate of Wethersfield in Essex from 1806 to 1809. (Ironically, the church in Wethersfield didn’t use printed registers until 1813, and still entered the banns in the unprinted paper register until 1823. Maybe they sat round the fire in the Parsonage and laughed about it? “Oh, yes, in Wethersfield, we just used this big paper book! Wasn’t even one of Mr. Eyre’s pre-printed registers! Oh, what larks we did have!”). You can see his signature on marriages in the register scanned on Essex Ancestors, as you can in the Haworth registers online at Ancestry. The Haworth registers are particularly interesting for Brontë fans, because you get to see Charlotte’s marriage and, inevitably, the burials of the Brontës. Consider that his register books, which he went through at quite a pace in his large parish, were all printed by George Eyre.7)At least initially. Obviously I don’t know if Charlotte ever stirred herself to look at them, but I assume she would have heard the name and seen new registers arrive at the parsonage for her father, so it’s not that unlikely that she would have known the surname.8)My local vicar suggests that the Brontë sisters, being literate, may have helped their father complete the register entries, which makes it even more likely that Charlotte would have known the Eyre surname via that of the printer. Although my own geeky interests may overstate the significance, it’s a copy of the entry from a marriage register in Jamaica that proves Mr. Rochester’s attempted bigamy – and maybe the ones used in Jamaica were also printed by Eyre & Strahan, or Charlotte assumed that they were. Then the Eyres at North Lees, her model for Thornfield, finally cemented the choice of her famous character’s name…. Well, it’s a theory, I suppose.

Images reproduced by courtesy of the Essex Record Office.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Especially when something rather uncanny happened to me and my mum in the churchyard at High Ongar….
2. Watch out – I do love my costume dramas and adaptations, and will be writing about them in this blog.
3. And if that’s not enough, North Lees Hall was also used as a location for two versions of Pride & Prejudice – 1995 Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth, 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen. It was used again for 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, an historically inaccurate film most notable for giving us Benedict Cumberbatch looking awkward in a nightshirt.
4. “Fassy” is clearly too handsome to play Mr. Rochester, but he did look rather fine in Victorian costume.
5. Both also used Haddon Hall, as did Zeffirelli for his adaptation in 1996. You can even have your wedding at Haddon Hall, but I’d check to make sure your intended hasn’t stashed their ex in a hidden room on the upper story first…. As an exciting aside, the 2011 version used Wingfield Manor to represent Thornfield Hall after the fire. I have a suspicion that this ruin, abandoned since the 1770s and for some reason never demolished, is visible from the M1. Back in 2010, I was in a van heading up to Newcastle (nevermind why), and saw on an eminence, a little distance from the road, the amazing site of this windowless, roofless building. I thought at once of Thornfield, and when I realised it had looked like that since the 1770s, it did cross my mind that Charlotte Brontë could have seen it, and it gave her the idea for the conflagration. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned there, so it’s a place that has a history of being associated with imprisoned women. Who knows…. Ironic that a year after I came up with this theory (a theory I espoused so enthusiastically that I scared the man driving the van), it actually was used to represent the ruins of Mr. Rochester’s house (unless it had already been used in the 2006 version, and I was confusing a memory with an idea. Alas, my ‘mind palace’ fails me sometimes).
6. Despite putting this post in my “Elsewhere (not Essex or Suffolk)” category, Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father, was curate of Wethersfield in Essex from 1806 to 1809. (Ironically, the church in Wethersfield didn’t use printed registers until 1813, and still entered the banns in the unprinted paper register until 1823. Maybe they sat round the fire in the Parsonage and laughed about it? “Oh, yes, in Wethersfield, we just used this big paper book! Wasn’t even one of Mr. Eyre’s pre-printed registers! Oh, what larks we did have!”). You can see his signature on marriages in the register scanned on Essex Ancestors, as you can in the Haworth registers online at Ancestry. The Haworth registers are particularly interesting for Brontë fans, because you get to see Charlotte’s marriage and, inevitably, the burials of the Brontës.
7. At least initially.
8. My local vicar suggests that the Brontë sisters, being literate, may have helped their father complete the register entries, which makes it even more likely that Charlotte would have known the Eyre surname via that of the printer.