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Monday, April 11, 2016

Charlotte Bronte on Whitsunday Walks

Enjoying the celebrations in Haworth,
Charlotte Bronte's hometown.

In her novel Shirley, Charlotte Bronte describes a village fete. This celebration, held on the week following Whitsunday, or what we celebrate as Pentecost in the United States, involved the clergy, Sunday School teachers, the children from nearby villages, and a community walk. As one of the Sunday School teachers, Caroline Helstone helps prepare the school rooms for the party. Inside will be seated one hundred-and-forty guests. In this case, these won't be the students, but the teachers, aids, and sponsors of the event. The adults will sit at their tables, enjoy food and drinks, and engage in lively discourse. Over their heads hang cages containing canaries, which will enhance the festivities by singing their delight. The students, drawn from the participating villages, will sit outside to enjoy their refreshments. Then, when the adults are ready, the clergy will begin the community walk.

As he wields the most authority, Caroline's uncle, Reverend Helstone, signals the commencement of the walk. Organized into troops overseen by Sunday School teachers and other adults, twelve hundred children take part in this organized walk. As Charlotte Bronte writes in Shirley:

It was a joyous scene, and a scene to do good. It was a day of happiness for rich and poor--the work, first of God, and then of the clergy. Let England's priests have their due. They are a faulty set in some respects, being only of common flesh and blood like us all; but the land would be badly off without them. Britain would miss her church, if that church fell. God save it! God also reform it!

In an article in the Manchester Evening News written by Yakub Qureshi, Manchester canon Jim Burns states that the churches organized started these fetes and walks to keep the children from indulging in gambling and drinking on their holiday. Interestingly, Burns only describes one type of occupation for the children: working in a mill. In Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, Robert Moore, the man Caroline Helstone loves and admires, operates the local textile mill. His investments in automation have put a great many adults out of work. 

Having nearly read halfway through Shirley, I've not yet seen Charlotte Bronte mention that Moore employs children at his mill. But if he did, according to Church of England canon Jim Burns, they would have worked long, hard days, far longer than the average eight hour day most adults work. Thus, on their lone day off, they get a little party, and a walk through the countryside.

Charlotte Bronte grew up in a parsonage. Yet for the most part, the rectors and curates in Shirley come off as self-important figureheads hungry for money and power, who are only to happy to regard women as second class citizens. The fact that her father was a priest didn't blind Charlotte Bronte to her church's faults. But, while highlighting her church's myriad imperfections, she also portrayed the positive role it played in the community. 

As in Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley, churches in the English city of Manchester still organize these historic Whitsunday walks to remind residents of their heritage, and the role the church plays in their lives. You can read an article on last year's festivities, and see photographs from the event, by clicking on the link below. The second link offers a great look back at the importance of this historic day for the Manchester community, accompanied by old B&W photographs.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Manchester Evening News: 2015 Whitsunday Walk
Historic Whitsunday Celebrations in Manchester

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