The Brontës were a nineteenth-century family who spent their brief lives in the isolated moorlands of Yorkshire. The three sisters are well known as poets and novelists. They originally published under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, to avoid the prejudice of the time against female writers. They have attracted a cult-following only rivaled by that of Jane Austen.
- Three sisters, Charlotte (1816 – 1855), Emily (1818 – 1848), and Anne (1820 – 1849)
- A unique group of novelists who developed in the isolation and harsh life of the Yorkshire moors.
- Most famous for ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’.
- Much admired as early feminist writers and literary icons.
A Short Biography
Patrick Brontë was an Irishman and born a Catholic on St. Patrick’s Day, 1777. Intelligent and aspirational, he won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge, but on graduation he joined the Church of England – a common practise at the time for educated men with no private means – and no particular indicator of piety. After marrying a young Cornish woman named Maria Branwell, he became curate of the ancient parish of Haworth, in Yorkshire, a post he would retain until his death in 1861. He was not the stereotypical stodgy churchman, but instead wrote novels and accounts of rural life, poems and newspaper articles.
He also took a great interest in the raising and educating of his six children, whose mother died after just nine years of marriage, leaving Patrick a life-long widower, despite his apparent attempts to re-marry. However, he spent a lot of time away from home ministering to the sick, poor and dying, so that his children were mainly brought up by their mother’s sister, Elizabeth, known as ‘Aunt Branwell’ and the family maid, Tabby.
The oldest daughters died in childhood, leaving three sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – to grow up with their brother, Branwell.
In this time before state-funded education, finding a satisfactory but affordable school for someone on the minimal income of a clergyman was difficult. Horror stories of malnutrition and mistreatment were widespread (think Dicken’s Dotheboys Hall!), but Patrick Brontë tried hard and sent his children to Cowan Bridge School, which proved a disaster. The cruel mistress and tyrannical headmaster were to be immortalized in the girls’ future literary efforts and more seriously, all the children were infected with tuberculosis while there, the oldest daughters coming home to die when just 10 and 11 years old. The other girls were also infected.
More successful was their time at Miss. Wooler’s School, where the eponymous Miss. Wooler was much kinder and where the girls received a far better education. Charlotte was happy and made many friends and after she left the school, she was soon invited back to work as an assistant teacher. She does not seem to have been an enthusiastic or particularly involved one.
Charlotte and Emily also spent six months at a boarding school in Brussels, learning German, French and piano. They were fortunate to have an enthusiastic and brilliant schoolmaster – Monsieur Heger, who introduced them to literary analysis and philosophy and invited them to remain at the school as instructors, which they accepted. Neither sister seemed to make much impression on their pupils.
For girls of the lower-middle class in the early 19th century, there were few options in life. If they did not marry young, they could become teachers or governesses. Charlotte had several stints at both with her time at Miss Wooler’s and in Brussels with Emily, while Anne spent time as a governess in two different homes of the wealthy. She had the longest period of single employment of all the sisters, spending five years with the Robinson family at Thorp Green Hall near the city of York.
The direst final option of being a companion to an elderly woman of wealth was one they all managed to avoid.
Towards the end of their time in Brussels, which was in 1842, Aunt Branwell died, an event that brought the sisters home and which did not please Charlotte, perhaps because she had developed a ‘certain passion’ for Monsieur Heger sufficient to bring her into the confessional in a local Catholic church. She continued to write very personal letters to him after her return to Yorkshire, which he tried to destroy, but which his wife retrieved and later made public. They are currently held by the British Museum.
However, the return to Yorkshire was not without benefits. The Branwell family had been wealthy grocers and the sisters received a small inheritance which allowed them to clear all the family debts and still have a small sum for security left over. On the negative side, their father had recently had cataract surgery and their brother increasingly suffered from drunkenness and mental illness.
During all this time the sisters had been cultivating their literary talents, encouraged by the steady influx into the house of subscription magazines, books and daily newspapers. Their first ventures into literature involved elaborate match-book sized handmade books for a set of 12 toy soldiers belonging to Branwell. These books featured imaginary adventures and explorations of the soldiers, complete with maps and diagrams. Lord Byron, who had died in 1824 while they were still children, became an object of passion, representing all the adventure and freedom that was denied them in real life.
Their first publication was a joint collection of poems written by all three sisters. It was published in 1846 as Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The masculine pseudonyms were chosen to reflect their initials, but more to overcome the persistent prejudice against women as poets. It sold three copies and attracted no attention at all.
Undeterred, the sisters continued to write. After a year spent circulating manuscripts to publishers, all three sisters had their first novels published in 1847, still under their pseudonyms. Charlotte released Jane Eyre to generally good reviews and large sales; Emily’s Wuthering Heights was praised for originality but widely condemned for its violence and immorality; Anne’s Agnes Grey garnered little interest.
The following year, Anne Brontë had The Tenant of Wildfell Hall published, her last novel before her death in 1849. Today it is widely considered one of the first feminist novel. The story is what we would now describe as a woman’s entrapment in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic husband and enjoyed significant popularity, outselling Wuthering Heights. However, it was considered inappropriate even by her sister Charlotte, who suppressed its publication after Anne’s death.
Emily was as wild and untamed as her characters in Wuthering Heights and is regarded today as a literary giant among women writers. Cripplingly timid around others and uninterested in fame, she spent her days roaming the moors around Haworth, encouraging the tuberculosis she refused treatment for and dying at the end of 1848, when just thirty years old.
The success of Jane Eyre resulted in Charlotte being invited to London to meet the literary community. Despite acute shyness, she went and seems to have enjoyed her time there, meeting literary figures such as Thackeray and visiting the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace. Other less well-known novels followed and in 1854, after a protracted and difficult courtship, she succumbed to convention and married a curate from her father’s church, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Her feelings for Arthur seem to have been uncertain, although she adopted all the trappings and behaviour of a conventional wife. The following year she died from a combination of her tuberculosis, a bout of typhoid fever and the early stages of pregnancy. She was thirty-eight.
Branwell Brontë, considered by his family a genius, but mired in failure, alcohol and laudanum, died, also of tuberculosis, in 1848.
The Brontë sisters developed their talents in the isolation of the wilds of Yorkshire, alone and unique. Although they influenced other 19th century novelists such as Thomas Hardy and George Elliot, they created no ‘school’ of literature or style to be emulated. A biography of Charlotte published in 1860 by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell caused friction between Patrick Brontë, Arthur Bell Nicholls and another of Charlotte’s friends, Ellen Nussey. The uproar and scandal only heightened the fame of the family and the house in Haworth became a pilgrimage-site for thousands as the sisters entered a state of near-sainthood for their adoring fans. Today it remains one of the most visited literary sites in the world.
Sites to Visit
The family home in Haworth is now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, run by the charity Brontë Society. It contains a wide range of artifacts and materials, including Charlotte’s writing desk. The museum is open from April to October between 10am and 5.30pm, and from November to March between 10am and 5pm.
Emily and Charlotte are buried in the family vault at St. Michael and All Angels’ Church, Haworth.
Anne’s grave is in St. Mary’s churchyard, Scarborough, Yorkshire.
There are numerous biographies available, including:
The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family, by Juliet Barker
The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, by Catherine Reef
Brontë: A Biography of the Literary Family, by Paul Brody
The Brontes at Haworth, by Ann Dinsdale
The Life of Charlotte Brontë, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1860)
Emily Brontë: A Biography, by Mary F. Robinson and John H. Ingram
Most, if not all, of their books remain in print or readily available free online.