The Brontës: the unfortunate and unlikely tale of the world’s “greatest literary sisters”

Against a backdrop of incredible personal tragedy, three modest, Victorian women from Yorkshire would forever change the face of English literature. Mel Sherwood reveals the unfortunate and unlikely tale of the world’s greatest literary sisters: Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë

Portrait of the Bronte sisters

Charlotte Brontë steps into her father’s study. In her hand, she holds a book – a hardback volume bound in cloth, with the words ‘Jane Eyre’ stamped on the cover. “Papa, I’ve been writing a book,” she announces, rather understating the true matter of her achievement. In fact, her novel is completed, published, and is selling at almost record speed. “Have you my dear?” the unsuspecting Reverend Patrick Brontë replies, without looking up. As Charlotte continues, the clergyman slowly realises that his daughter has become a literary sensation, in secret, right under his nose. After some time, Patrick calls in Charlotte’s younger sisters, Emily and Anne: “Charlotte has been writing a book – and I think it is better than I expected.” It is good that he approves of Charlotte’s tale, because he’s about to learn that his other daughters have similar stories to tell…

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This conversation, recounted by Patrick years later to Charlotte’s first biographer, occurred at the beginning of 1848. It was a tumultuous year for the Brontës, with glorious highs and tragic lows. But at this point, the Brontë women were happy, little knowing that they were on the brink of legendary – if short-lived – careers. They have since become famed the world over for their intense, dramatic and tragic novels, for which they had plenty of inspiration in their own lives…

Family misfortunes

The tragedies started early for the Brontës. In 1821, when Charlotte was five, Emily was three and Anne was not yet two, they lost their mother to illness. Four years after that, their two eldest sisters both died of tuberculosis in as many months. Five Brontës remained: their father Patrick, an Irish-born, Cambridge-educated vicar, the girls, and their brother Branwell, who was a year younger than Charlotte. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Branwell, also lived with them in the parsonage of the industrial town of Haworth, Yorkshire. The unassuming grey-stone building, in its bleak setting between a graveyard and the vast expanse of the moors, became a much-loved home, to which the sisters always felt a painful pull.

The grieving children developed a close bond. “The sisters were all very close indeed, because their interests were so similar and they were all so pathologically shy. Emily and Anne were almost like twins,” says Juliet Barker, author of The Brontës. “Charlotte, the eldest, tended to try to organise them”. Their daily routine involved prayer, lessons, walks and imaginative play, in which they would escape into fantastical lands. When, in 1828, Branwell began to record their adventures – filling miniature books with barely legible handwriting – the others followed suit. Soon, this phase of play documentation evolved, and they began to write stories solely for the page. Charlotte and Branwell created a land called Angria together, while Emily and Anne built Gondal. These paracosms were incredibly sophisticated, and exceptionally important to the Brontës – not only as subjects to hone their writing skills with, but also as places to escape to, which they did well into their adulthoods.

Their interests were similar and they were all pathologically shy
Juliet Barker, author of The Brontës

In 1831, a 15-year-old Charlotte went to Roe Head school, where she would ultimately become a teacher. Her sisters both became her pupils – Emily only managed three months before homesickness (and Gondal-sickness) pulled her home, but Anne completed two years at the school. After Anne left, Charlotte struggled with loneliness, and she left her job in the winter of 1838-39.

International students

Over the next few years, the sisters took up various, generally short-lived, teaching positions. “All three girls hated being teachers and governesses,” says Barker, largely as “they couldn’t spare the time to write about their imaginary worlds, and Charlotte in particular resented the servility of the position.” Anne was the only one to maintain a long-term post, as governess to the Robinson family from 1840-45. Shortly after Anne joined the Robinsons, Charlotte spearheaded a scheme to open their own school. For this they needed a more sophisticated education so, in February 1842, Charlotte (aged 25) and Emily (23), went to a school in Brussels.

Photo of Haworth Parsonage
Haworth Parsonage, home to the Brontë sisters, now a museum in their memory. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

They pushed through their homesickness to make the most of the opportunity, only returning at the end of 1842 after Aunt Branwell died. Afterwards, Charlotte returned to Brussels alone. She became forlorn and depressed, and also fell in love with her tutor. The painfully one-sided attachment would continue long after she left Brussels at the end of 1843. Back in Haworth, lovelorn Charlotte set about sourcing pupils for the school, but none were found and the entire dream was dropped, with surprisingly little regret.

The Brontës encompass some of the most exquisite examples of the beauty, strength, wonder and depth of the human spirit.
Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, novelist and critic

Meanwhile, Branwell’s adult years had got off to an inauspicious start. After short stints as a portrait painter (the career for which he had received much training), a private tutor, and a career in the railways, he took up a position as a tutor alongside Anne with the Robinson family in 1843. This was, arguably, the true start of Branwell’s demise.

Mrs Robinson

Anne returned to Haworth in the summer of 1845, having resigned her position. Mere weeks later, Branwell returned too – in disgrace. He and Mrs Robinson had been having an affair. The young Mr Brontë was, it seems, seduced by the older woman, with whom he was deeply in love. Denied his heart’s desire and with ever-more dwindling hope of a reunion with her, Branwell sank into heavy depression and dependency on alcohol and opiates. One can only imagine how much his downfall influenced his sisters’ next, unlikely, steps.

In autumn 1845, Charlotte found some of Emily’s poems and read them, uninvited. Emily was enraged by the intrusion, but the incident gave head-strong Charlotte an idea – if the sisters could gather a collection of poems, they might be able to publish in secret and, if successful, they could become professional writers. They would never have to teach again, nor would they have to worry so much about Branwell’s ability to provide. After calming Emily, Charlotte, who as Barker explains “was the only one ambitious for fame,” convinced her sisters of the plan.

Where did the Brontë sisters live?

At home in Haworth

“Haworth was a busy industrial West Riding township, not the remote and backward village of Brontë legend,” Juliet Barker, author of The Brontës, reveals. “The family had access to music, art, libraries and lectures.” And then there were the Moors. From the parsonage, standing at the high point of the village, the Brontës could look out over vast swathes of dramatic moorland. On a clear day they could have seen as far as the Yorkshire Dales.

But the town had its dark side. Health and sanitary conditions were spectacularly poor. There were no sewers, only open drains, and the water supply was insufficient. Some days, the main well’s water would run green and fetid. This had a dramatic effect on mortality rates. Two in five children died before the age of six, and the average age of death among adults was 25.

The parsonage itself was also flawed. Exposed to the elements on its hilltop setting, bitter wind would howl and whistle through its grey-stone walls. Despite its bleak nature, the Brontës adored their home. They would even become physically unwell with homesickness when they went away. But of course, the chances of them becoming sick at home were also relatively high.

Emily and Anne insisted on privacy, so they chose androgynous pseudonyms – only their initials would give a clue to their identities – and prepared a collection. Charlotte found a publisher quickly, but that isn’t as remarkable as it might appear: “They had to pay for their first book of poems to be published,” Barker reveals. Indeed, it cost them around £3,000 in today’s money. Regardless, in May 1846, the first copies of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell arrived at the parsonage.

A portrait of Charlotte hangs above the fireplace in the dining room of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
A portrait of Charlotte hangs above the fireplace in the dining room of the Bronte Parsonage Museum. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Ignoring mixed reviews and poor sales figures, all three sisters continued with phase two: novels. Charlotte had been writing The Professor, Emily, Wuthering Heights and Anne, Agnes Grey. But finding a publisher to take on all three books proved impossible. Finally, an offer was received for Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in the midsummer of 1847. However, Emily and Anne had to contribute to the cost of printing again, and no one wanted The Professor.

I wish you had not sent me Jane Eyre. It interested me so much that I have lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it…
William Makepeace Thackeray, 19th-century novelist

Charlotte was down, but not out; in July, she received a promising letter. A publisher had recognised Currer’s talents and, though they did not wish to print The Professor, they encouraged ‘him’ to submit any further works for consideration. Charlotte did have something up her sleeve – Jane Eyre. She hurriedly finished the manuscript and sent it off. Within a fortnight, she had received the Brontës’ best offer yet: £100, and the first refusal on ‘his’ next two novels.

The first copy of Jane Eyre arrived at the parsonage in October 1847. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey followed in December, though they had clearly been published by a less-professional outfit – the volumes were full of errors that the authors had corrected many months earlier.

Sell-out success

Jane Eyre was a hit. The first print run sold out in under three months. The reviews were mixed, and many focused more on the question of the author’s identity and sex than the writing, but none denied that it was a powerful book. Emily and Anne’s novels were far less well-received. The reviewers found Wuthering Heights baffling and Agnes Grey was more or less overlooked. Not easily put off, Anne made headway on novel number two, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published in June 1848. There is much speculation as to whether or not Emily also began a second novel but, if she did, it did not survive. In July, Charlotte and Anne were compelled to travel to London to visit their respective publishers for the first time. Though they took care to conceal their identities as much as possible, Charlotte got a taste of the life of a literary darling. She was elated, but events back home would soon change that.

The Brontes literary legacy: which books did they write?

Three novels that changed the world

How did the novels of three shy, middle-class sisters change the face of literature? One key part of the answer is that they imbued their writings with a powerful element that would stop all contemporary readers in their tracks: the truth. Their harsh, satirical retellings of provincial life had little in common with the sentimentality of Romantic literature that was then popular, and their tales shocked Victorian audiences, who found some of the lesser-known facts of their society too much to bear. It was only Charlotte who discovered a way to package the realism of their life up in a way that her immediate audience found palatable. Another crucial change that their works wrought was to help quash the prevalent belief that women were inferior writers to men. Charlotte herself was told that “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be,” by the then-Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. Yet what poured out of their imaginations remains among the most powerful prose in English. They were not alone – they were among a number of pivotal female writers, including Jane Austen before them and George Eliot after, whose persistence in the face of prejudice contributed to what the 19th-century writer Margaret Oliphant considered “the age of female novelists”. The Brontës’ writings can be seen as early feminist works, with heroines struggling for independence in a patriarchal society.

  • Jane Eyre Currer Bell (AKA Charlotte Brontë)

The most successful of the sisters’ books, Jane Eyre is a perennially popular piece of English fiction. The novel purports to be the autobiography of ‘plain Jane’. While following the realistic narrator’s trials as an orphan and a governess, Charlotte explores moralistic themes of love, independence and forgiveness, against the backdrop of the Moors.

Heavily inspired by Charlotte’s own experiences, Jane Eyre is so true-to-life in places that readers were able to identify real schools, people and even the author herself from the text. Charlotte penned another three novels in total, but Jane Eyre was her magnum opus.

  • Wuthering Heights Ellis Bell (AKA Emily Brontë)

It is only since Emily’s death that this tale of love and revenge has been recognised as a masterpiece. Like her sisters’ works, the novel contains wit and dramatic intensity but, unlike them, Wuthering Heights is pure fiction, with minimal autobiographical content.

The novel’s unusual structure confused contemporary readers, while its characters’ primitive motivations and brutal behaviour shocked its reserved Victorian audience – Charlotte included. In the past it was incorrectly posed that Branwell must have been Wuthering Heights‘ author, as they believed such brutality could only have been written by a man.

  • Agnes Grey Acton Bell (AKA Anne Brontë)

This tale of a virtuous governess is thought to be highly autobiographical of Anne’s life. Though her sisters’ novels have always received more attention, Agnes Grey has plenty of groundbreaking credentials. For instance, it was the first novel to star a plain, ordinary woman as its heroine (Jane Eyre is often credited with this, but Agnes Grey was written first). And its portrayal of life as a governess also paints both a more ruthless and humorous picture than Jane Eyre. Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is a more exciting story, and sold better among the Victorian audience than her debut.

Branwell’s addictions and temperament had been putting intense pressure on the household, not to mention his health, for some time. This may be the reason his sisters decided to reveal their secret to Patrick earlier in the year – the news offered their father, who was growing ever more concerned about the fate of his family, a ray of hope. Sadly, that ray soon flickered out. That summer, Branwell became ill – probably with tuberculosis. By September, he was bed-bound, and he died on the 24th of the month. He was 31.

Another two tragedies were to befall the parsonage in brutal succession. As the family grieved for Branwell, Emily became sick. Despite suffering with symptoms of tuberculosis, she refused medical attention. On 19 December, she rose at seven, though she barely had the energy to descend the stairs. By midday, she could hardly breathe. She was taken to her bed, where her loyal dog lay beside her as she passed away. She was 30.

Before Christmas that year, Anne fell ill. The diagnosis was gravely familiar: tuberculosis. Somehow, the Brontës remained hopeful for a recovery. In May, Charlotte took Anne to Scarborough for the sea air – but it was too late. She died, quietly and calmly, in the seaside town on 28 May 1849. She was 29.

Invisible no more

Mourning in the sister-less parsonage, Charlotte distracted herself by writing. Her second novel, Shirley, was finished in August. Its publication brought further distraction – fresh speculation about who the ‘Bell’ authors were was making it very hard “to walk invisible”, as she phrased it. As she no longer had to maintain her sisters’ privacy, she lowered the veil of secrecy. She embraced the life of a respected author – fostering relationships with key writers, allowing her publisher to take her to public events and travelling the country. Charlotte struggled through her third novel, but Villette was completed in November 1852. The following month, the author received a marriage proposal from her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Though she initially refused, the pair were married in June 1854. They settled into a happy life at home at the parsonage, with Patrick. Charlotte was so content she was barely writing at all – she was just beginning to show an interest again when she fell pregnant. But carrying a child was too much for Charlotte’s 38-year-old body. Debilitating sickness consumed her rapidly and, around three months into her pregnancy, Charlotte passed away, on 31 March 1855. She was 39.

Photo of the Bronte Moors
A misty morning on the Brontë Moors, near Brontë Falls. (Photo by Michael Houghton Photography, Getty Images)

Having outlived all of his children, Patrick Brontë did everything he could to secure his girls’ place in history. “Patrick was immensely proud of his daughters’ achievements, particularly Charlotte,” Barker explains. “He preserved many mementos of his children, from locks of their hair to their drawings, carefully writing on each one so that it should not be lost or forgotten.” He also asked Elizabeth Gaskell, a writer friend of Charlotte’s, to pen her biography. When he died in 1861, Charlotte had been firmly accepted into the English literary canon, a class which certainly Emily and arguably Anne joined in the years to come.

Read

Juliet Barker’s The Brontës (Abacus, 2010) tells the story of the entire Brontë family, including Patrick and Branwell.

Visit

The Brontë Parsonage in Haworth is a pilgrimage for any Brontë fan. Walk around the sisters’ humble home and enjoy the museum’s regular exhibitions. www.brontë.org.uk

This article was first published in the May 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed

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Mel Sherwood is the editor of Homes and Antiques magazine