Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), Emily Brontë (1818–1848), Anne Brontë (1820–1849)

The most resonant name in women’s fiction of the mid nineteenth century is also the strangest. It originates with a remarkable father. One of ten children of a poor farming family, he had been born Patrick Prunty (1777–1861) of mixed Protestant and Catholic parentage. He gave early evidence of a quick mind. It led, by the hardest of educational routes, to the young Irishman’s registering in 1802 at Cambridge University, and ordination in the Church of England. Patrick, prudently (given his future career in the Church of England) renamed himself ‘Brontë’ – adopting one of the titles of Admiral Lord Nelson. By 1812 he was eligible enough to marry well. His bride, Maria Branwell, was the daughter of a Cornish parson. After nine years of marriage, in which she bore six children, Mrs Brontë would die in 1821, aged thirty-seven. Hers was the first Brontë death in the parsonage at Haworth to which Patrick had been appointed perpetual curate. 

The church served a small mill town in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In the confines of the Haworth parsonage, the Reverend Brontë and his children – five daughters and one son, Patrick Branwell (1817–48), the great hope of the family – lived, wrote and died. It was a handsome building from the outside but inside it was a happy hunting ground for the tubercular bacillus.  The widowed Patrick made clumsy and unsuccessful attempts at remarriage, and eventually the running of the house was taken over by his sister-in-law, Miss Elizabeth Branwell. A woman in her mid-forties and of evangelical disposition, she was not liked by the girls. She seems, however, to have had a soft spot for Anne, the youngest girl, who was less wild than her siblings. Charlotte and Emily, and their two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, suffered a wretched spell at the Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters’ School, which inspired the hellish, typhoid-ridden Lowood. In Jane Eyre it is pictured as sadism institutionalised. In 1825, the two elder sisters died of consumption, the disease which was to rage through the family. 

The Revd Brontë decided, wisely, to educate the surviving daughters himself with the aid of tutors. For the next five years they were free to range at will in the well-stocked parsonage library. Around 1826, the three sisters, together with the brilliant but wayward Branwell, began secretively to write long serials about imaginary worlds. At least one of the serials, that involving the fantastic kingdom of Gondal, was kept going by Anne and Emily until as late as 1845. Charlotte, always the most worldly of the sisters, gave up her parallel Angria saga in 1839. In 1831 Charlotte went for eighteen months to a more congenial school at Roe Head. Emily and Anne followed. Charlotte went on to teach there for a while. There was now the necessity for the sisters to do something with their lives. 

Oddly, none of the Brontë girls – although handsome, as Branwell’s portraits attest, and gifted, as their writing attests – seemed able, or willing, to enter marriage.  In 1838 Emily became a teacher governess at a school near Halifax, Law Hill, and in 1839 Anne and Charlotte went as governesses to private families. Charlotte’s first two positions were short and unhappy. Docile Anne was the least unhappy. She also left in fiction the most realistic account of how humiliating the work was for a well-bred, highly intelligent young woman, superior in every way to her employers.

The sisters made various unsuccessful attempts to publish their writing and had a plan, with the financial assistance of an aunt, to establish a school of their own. With a view to preparing themselves, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels in 1842 to study and teach at a boarding school. Charlotte, then twenty-six, fell hopelessly in love with the proprietor and head of the school, M. Constantin Héger, whom she later portrayed as the exemplarily correct, and morally admirable, Paul Emanuel in Villette. The sisters returned to Haworth in 1842 and only Charlotte went back to Brussels for a second year at the Pensionnat Héger. Emily, the more poetically inclined sister, was most rooted to Haworth and Yorkshire and seems to have hated leaving it. In 1844 the school project fell through. At Charlotte’s initiative, Poems by ‘Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’ (the androgynous names are significant) was published in 1846. It sold two copies, as legend has it. Fiction was more successful, but not entirely. In 1847, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were accepted by the notoriously dubious London publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby. The world took no notice. Charlotte’s but Jane Eyre was eagerly accepted by the eminently respectable house of Smith, Elder and Co and published in October 1847 to terrific success. The rogue Newby now published Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) with the implication that it was actually the work of ‘Currer Bell’ – i.e. Charlotte, who in point of fact disliked her sister’s book for its graphic depiction of Branwell’s dipsomania. She suppressed its republication after Anne’s death. Anne and Charlotte authenticated themselves by going to London to meet George Smith and other members of the literary world. Thackeray on this occasion met Charlotte whom he admired. She dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him, sparking wild rumours that he was the original of Rochester (the only connection was that he, too, had an insane wife). This would be Anne’s only trip outside Yorkshire. 

Branwell, having failed to get the hoped for place at university, went on to fail as a portrait painter. Even more catastrophic was his being dismissed from a clerical job with the local railway firm under the suspicion of embezzlement. There was also sexual misconduct. In 1845 Branwell died, of drink, drugs and galloping consumption, in 1848, aged just thirty-one. As his legacy, Branwell left, in his sisters’ writing, two of the most vivid depictions of chronic alcoholism in Victorian literature. One is Hindley in Wuthering Heights; the other is Arthur Huntingdon, in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne survived her brother by only a few months, dying tragically early, of the family complaint.

A few months earlier, consumption had also claimed Emily – who had resolutely refused medical attention. Emily is the most enigmatic of the writing sisters. No clear image of her remarkable personality can be formed. A second novel, substantially written by Emily, has not survived, but the solitary achievement of Wuthering Heights adds to her mystique. At thirty-five, Charlotte was the only child of the original six left alive. In 1849 she published Shirley, her ‘social problem’ novel, about the upheavals of the early Industrial Revolution, and the only one of her major works to be set in her native Yorkshire. This was followed, in 1853, by her most introspective work, Villette. The following year she married the Revd Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate since 1845. Though not loveless, how passionate the marriage was will never be known. She died of complications arising from pregnancy.

 © John Sutherland 2012