History explorer: The Brontës

Claire Harman and Charlotte Hodgman visit Brontë country in West Yorkshire, where sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë penned some of English literature’s most celebrated novels...

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

The ruined farmhouse of Top Withens, perched high on the South Pennine moors.

The village of Haworth, perched on the edge of the South Pennine moors, would be a quaint but unremarkable Yorkshire village but for its unique connection to one of British history’s most famous literary families. But its sleepy tea rooms and antiquarian bookshops are a far cry from the crowded industrial town it was in 1820, when red-haired, Irish-born Patrick Brontë moved his young family into Haworth parsonage after taking up the post of curate.

It’s clear on arrival at Haworth that the bleak, windswept moors were reflected in the settings for many of the sisters’ books, particularly Emily’s Gothic masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. The exposed and isolated moorland setting of Top Withens, an abandoned farmhouse about three miles from Haworth, is thought to have been Emily’s inspiration for the location of the Earnshaws’ farmhouse in the novel.

The ruins can be accessed via a path that takes walkers past a small waterfall known to have been popular with the sisters. “A perfect torrent racing over the rocks, white and beautiful!” wrote Charlotte in November 1854. A chair-shaped rock nearby is said to have been where the Brontë siblings would sit and tell each other stories.


Charlotte Brontë, from a portrait of all three sisters painted by their brother, Branwell, in c1834. (Bridgeman)

The parsonage itself – now a museum and library under the care of the Brontë Society – is the highlight of a trip to Yorkshire for any literary pilgrim. Situated on the edge of the village, adjacent to the graveyard, the Georgian house – with adjoining meadow where the sisters would dry their washing – is virtually as it looked when the family moved in, nearly 200 years ago. Visitors can walk through the house and peer into the rooms where the siblings ate, slept and wrote. The dining room makes for especially affecting viewing – here, we are told, the three women would gather every evening to discuss their writing, walking round and round the large dining table. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were all written in this room.

Death at the parsonage

“When the Brontës moved to Haworth, the physical isolation of the property mirrored the social isolation of the family from the village,” says Claire Harman, author of a recent biography of Charlotte Brontë. “Maria Brontë, Patrick’s wife, died the following year, making it even harder for the family to integrate with the village, and leaving six small children ranging from seven years to just 20 months old. It was a terrible bereavement.”

Elizabeth Branwell, Maria’s unmarried sister, moved to the parsonage to care for the  motherless family. But in 1825 the Brontës were to suffer more anguish when the two eldest siblings, 11-year-old Maria and 10-year-old Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis within six weeks of each other.

“Losing their mother and two beloved siblings had a profound effect on the remaining Brontës,” says Harman. “Overnight Charlotte, previously the middle child, had become the eldest. But where young Maria had naturally assumed the role of ‘little mother’, Charlotte possessed no natural maternal leadership qualities.”

Instead, the children retreated into an imaginary world of their own creation – Angria – where vast lands were conquered and fascinating characters created. Encouraged by Charlotte and the family’s only son, Branwell, the children wrote and handstitched miniature books and magazines – some no more than 2 inches high (see picture below) – for Branwell’s toy soldiers. These games began a journey into writing that would last the sisters their entire lives.

Some of these tiny books – and other objects from the museum collection – can be seen during a private tour of the parsonage library.

One of a number of minature books made by the Bronte children. (The Bronte Society)

 

Out in the world

Says Harman: “Much of the inspiration for the children’s early writing must surely have come from their father, himself a published author of great enthusiasm and ambition. Unlike most fathers of the day, Patrick actively encouraged his daughters to read – even allowing them the works of Byron, who was widely considered a scandalous writer – and all the sisters attended school at various points in their childhoods.

“What was clear from an early age, however, was that the three remaining sisters would eventually have to earn livings as teachers or governesses – a respectable occupation for middle-class women.”

Although Charlotte, Emily and Anne used their sporadic periods at school to learn all they would need for a life of teaching, all three loathed being away from home, and longed to be together at the parsonage, safe within the family unit once more.

“The sisters were pretty fatalistic about the fact they would have to earn a living,” says Harman, “but they hated being away from each other and none of them liked children at all! They clung to the idea that perhaps one day they could leave teaching and support themselves through their writing.

“Eventually they came up with a system that meant that when one sibling was out working, the others could have a period of time at home. But they were all three terribly homesick. Emily in particular found being separated from the family unit incredibly stressful, and developed a profound neurosis  about leaving home. Charlotte, too, became hyper-sensitive away from home, and retreated into her Angrian fantasies to ease the pain of separation.”

The dining room where the sisters wrote and discussed their writing. A portrait of Charlotte hangs over the fireplace. (The Bronte Society)

Charlotte did, in fact, spend a year abroad, teaching at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, where she and Emily had previously studied. It was a testing period for the 27-year-old, who developed a passionate, but unrequited, love for Constantin Heger, who ran the boarding school with his wife. A collection of Charlotte’s anguished letters to Heger – mostly unanswered as he and his wife sought to detach themselves from what was becoming an uncomfortable relationship – are now held in the British Library. Charlotte would use her experiences in Brussels in her fourth novel, Villette, published in 1853.

Throughout their periods of time in Haworth – or away from home – all three sisters continued to write prolifically. And in 1846, using some of the money left to them by Aunt Branwell who had died in 1842, they took the bold step to publish a collection of their poems, under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

“It was Charlotte who was the driving force behind the publication,” says Harman. “Emily was a genius but she had little desire to please a publisher, or anyone else for that matter. Anne, too, was happy to be published but didn’t have the worldly impetus Charlotte had to get her works into print.”

Despite some favourable reviews, the book sold just two copies – a blow to Charlotte in particular, who had declared that she wished to be “forever known”. Undeterred, the sisters continued writing and their persistence paid off: in 1847, Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre was published, becoming an overnight success, while Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey were both published in December the same year.

Published under the same pseudonyms as their poems, the three novels received mixed reviews, but rumours abounded as to who the mysterious Bells could be.

When writing, Charlotte, Emily and Anne used the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell respectively. (The Bronte Society)

“The energetic storyline of Jane Eyre, not to mention its brooding hero Mr Rochester, made the novel an instant hit,” says Harman. “The violent and destructive nature of Wuthering Heights, however, was far more perplexing for readers, and the book was widely condemned as being impious and dangerously uncouth.”

One damning review declared that: “The reader is shocked, disgusted, almost sickened by details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance…”

Tragedy strikes

Any pleasure that the Brontës might have derived from their newfound literary success was short-lived. Branwell, who had been suffering from alcohol and opium addiction for some years, died suddenly in September 1848, at the age of 31.

More heartache was to come. Still reeling from the death of their brother, it soon became apparent that Emily was also seriously ill with tuberculosis. Just three months after Branwell’s death, she perished, refusing treatment until the day of her death when she allegedly uttered: “If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now…”

The loss of Branwell and Emily was devastating for the remaining sisters, but before long Anne, too, was showing signs of tuberculosis. Despite seeking all available treatment, Anne died in Scarborough in May 1849 where she had hoped the warmer climate would relieve her symptoms.

“Charlotte was left utterly bereaved by her siblings’ deaths,” says Harman. “Lost and alone, she continued pacing around the dining table at night, as the sisters had once done together, but was bereft without them.”

As his health declined, Branwell shared this room with his father, Patrick, who cared for his only son in his final days. (The Bronte Society)

Charlotte eventually married curate Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had come to Haworth in 1845. But for a woman who had written such vivid romances in her novels, the union was far from being a love match to rival that of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, or Lucy Snowe and Paul Emanuel (Villette).

“Charlotte’s decision to marry intrigues me,” says Harman. “To marry a man she just about liked enough but whom she had no strong emotions for is not an act one might have expected from a writer of great romance. The couple lived at the parsonage with Patrick, but after just nine months of marriage Charlotte died from pregnancy-related complications.”

Patrick, who outlived his entire family, soon commissioned novelist Elizabeth Gaskell to write Charlotte’s biography. Published in 1857, it heralded the start of a Brontë cult that continues to this day. For many it is the tragic death of such raw, flourishing talent that contributes to the sisters’ ongoing appeal. For others, it is the descriptive beauty and romance of their novels. Either way, it is hard to deny that the Brontës themselves have a life story as moving as any novel.

Brontë Parsonage Museum. (Alamy)

Five more places to explore

1) St Mary's with Holy Apostles, Scarborough
Where Anne Brontë is buried

In May 1849, Anne Brontë arrived in Scarborough accompanied by sister Charlotte, and school friend Ellen Nussey. Three days later she succumbed to tuberculosis and was buried in Scarborough at her own request – she is the only Brontë not to be buried in the family vault
in Haworth.
 

2) Hollybank School, Mirfield, West Yorkshire
Where the sisters were schooled

Charlotte, Anne and Emily all attended Roe Head School – now Hollybank School – at various points, with Charlotte teaching there from 1835–38. It was at Roe Head that the sisters met lifelong friend Ellen Nussey. Today a plaque commemorates the building’s Brontë connections.
 

3) North Lees Hall, Hathersage, Derbyshire
Where Jane Eyre may have been set

Situated in the heart of the Peak District National Park, the imposing 16th-century tower house is thought to have been the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, the home of Mr Rochester. Charlotte visited the property several times, while legend tells of a mad woman at the house who died in a fire – a possible inspiration for the tortured character of Mrs Rochester.
 

4) 72–74 Market Street, Thornton, West Yorkshire
Where four Brontë children were born

Patrick and Maria moved to the small three-bedroomed cottage in 1815 with their two children Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell were all subsequently born in the house – allegedly in front of the fireplace. The house is now an Italian coffee bar and delicatessen.
 

5) St Michael and All Angels Church, Haworth
Where the Brontë family vault is sited

Several members of the Brontë family are buried in a vault in Haworth Church where Patrick Brontë preached from 1820 until his death in 1861. Charlotte was married here in 1854.
 

Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Claire Harman. Claire’s latest book is Charlotte Brontë: A Life (Viking, 2015).

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