The Brontë Sisters – the Early Days
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë were born between April, 1816 and January, 1820; middle children of Patrick Bronte and his wife, Maria. Each is remembered for literary accomplishments that might not have been fully recognized as such during their lifetimes, but continue to be enormously popular today. Charlotte is probably best known for writing Jane Eyre, a story that has been adapted numerous times in both film and television over the years. Emily is best know for Wuthering Heights, while not being very successful when first published, resulted in the film classic starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. Anne wrote two novels; The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey before her untimely death in 1849.
The family name was originally Brunty. It was changed to the more impressive sounding ‘Brontë’ when Patrick was accepted at St. John’s College in Cambridge. By the time the family settled in Haworth, Yorkshire, Patrick was a successful parson, and a published author of poetry and fiction.
Because education helped him rise from humble beginnings, Patrick encouraged his children to pursue knowledge. Books filled the household and the children eagerly read whatever was brought into the home. Soon, they produced their own illustrated books, tiny enough for brother Branwell’s toy soldiers to read, but not the prying eyes of adults. This creative activity helped the four children cope with the loss of their mother to cancer in 1821, and older sisters Maria and Elizabeth in 1825 at the ages of 11 and 10, respectively.
Since Patrick’s income was from a public source, the sisters needed an education in order to find work as governesses or teachers, the only acceptable employment for women in mid-1800s England. The sisters first attended the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale. This experience provided Charlotte with the vision of the infamous Lowood School in her novel, Jane Eyre. Charlotte then attended Miss Woller’s school at Roe Head, Mirfield. When she returned to the school as a teacher, first Emily and then Anne went with her as students. Each sister was employed at one time or another as a teacher or governess. Each continued to write poetry and fiction.
The Brontë Sisters – Rise in Victorian Literature
Their mother’s unwed sister, Elizabeth, took care of the family after Maria’s death in 1821. Elizabeth left an inheritance when she died in 1842, and the sisters used that money to self-publish their first publication of poems in 1846. However, women were not accepted as writers at that time and each used a pseudonym: Charlotte became Currer, Emily became Ellis, and Anne became Acton. The surname used was Bell. The book only sold two copies, but the women were undeterred.
Charlotte’s first attempt at writing a novel was rejected for publication, but she persisted and went on to write Jane Eyre, one of the greatest successes in publishing history at the time. When Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were published, people began speculating about the gender and identity of the ‘Bell’ brothers. When George Smith, of Smith, Elder & Co., the publisher of Jane Eyre, attempted to pass off Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as his own, the sisters were forced to reveal themselves.
Their brother, Branwell, died of tuberculosis in 1848, at age 31. It soon became apparent that Emily was dying of tuberculosis, also. She died three months later at age 30. Not long after that, Anne’s unrelenting cold was also confirmed as tuberculosis. She died in May, 1849, at age 29. This left only Charlotte and her father.
Charlotte continued to write through these dark hours, finishing the novel Shirley, which she started before her brother’s death. Her final novel, Villette was published in 1853. On Jun 29, 1854, she married the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, much to the dismay of her father. They were married for only nine months when Charlotte died on March 31, 1855, three weeks shy of her 39th birthday. She died of tuberculosis complicated by the early stages of pregnancy. Charlotte’s husband continued to care for her father until his death at age 84.
The Brontë sisters legacy continues to this day. Their novels are classic Victorian literature. Pick up a copy to read or watch one of the interpretations of their works. You will find yourself delightfully immersed in Victorian England.
Gallery added March 15, 2019
Here are a few fashions from Recollections inspired by the era in which the
Brontë sisters lived.
BBC – History – The Brontë Sisters.” BBC – Homepage. Web. 12 Aug 2015. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/bronte_sisters.shtml>.
“Bronte Family: Biography.” The Bronte Family. Web. 12 Aug 2015. <http://www.brontefamily.org/history.html>.
“Family history | Bronte Parsonage Museum.” Bronte Parsonage Museum. Web. 12 Aug 2015. <http://www.bronte.org.uk/haworth-and-the-brontes/family-history>.
Photo: “The Brontë Sisters: What did the Bronte Sisters look like?.” The Brontë Sisters. 17 Apr 2011. Web. 12 Aug 2015. <http://kleurrijkbrontesisters.blogspot.com/2011/04/under-comstruction.html>.