The Bronte sisters were the world’s most famous literary family and Haworth Parsonage, now the Brontė Parsonage Museum, was their home from 1820 to 1861.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontė were the authors of some of the best-loved books in the English language. Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847), and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) were written in this house over a hundred and fifty years ago, yet their power still moves readers today.
To find two writers of genius in one family would be rare, but to find several writers in one household is unique in the history of literature. Charlotte and Emily Bronte are ranked among the world’s greatest novelists; Anne is a powerful underrated author, and both their father, the Revd. Patrick Brontė, and brother Branwell also saw their own works in print.
The Brontės, published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, were acknowledged at the time for their directness and powerful emotional energy, qualities which were sometimes interpreted by the critics as ‘coarse’ and ‘brutal’.
Surprisingly, the enduring myth of the Brontės living a life of unrelieved isolation and tragedy was, to some extent, created unintentionally by the Brontės themselves.
In choosing to write under pseudonyms, the sisters drew an immediate veil of mystery around them, and people speculated as to the true identity of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. After Emily’s and Anne’s early deaths, Charlotte Bronte added to the legend in her 1850 Biographical Notice of her sisters.
To protect Emily and Anne from the accusations of brutality levelled by the critics, Charlotte portrayed her sisters as unlearned, unworldly young women who wrote by instinct rather than design
The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell was Charlotte’s first biographer and she was responsible for perpetuating a wider knowledge of the Bronte sisters’ lives when she published The Life of Charlotte Brontė in 1857, two years after Charlotte’s death.
Gaskell’s book, which stands today as one of the best biographical studies of its kind, was nevertheless approached from a novelist’s perspective and it became a monument to what she perceived as Charlotte’s tragedy of noble self-sacrifice to duty.
Thus the Brontės were elevated to the mythic, heroic status which is so often applied to those who die young. The Brontė Parsonage Museum seeks to separate myth from reality and to present the known facts about the family.
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were born at Thornton, near Bradford, but moved to the nearby township of Haworth when Charlotte, the eldest of the famous novelists, was barely five years old.
The children’s formative years and their mature writing careers were developed in Haworth, amid the dramatic landscape of the surrounding moors.
Early biographers and critics sometimes assumed that the Brontės based their fiction exclusively on real life places, people and events, perhaps unwilling to accept that the daughters of a clergyman could produce what were often perceived as shocking, amoral books. However, this would be to deny the Brontės the power of imagination.
The Parsonage was the home in which the young Brontės’ creativity was nurtured, where they created their childhood lands of Angria and Gondal, and in which they served a collaborative literary apprenticeship of over twenty years prior to the publication of their novels.
Like most authors, the Brontės drew upon their imaginations, on their personal experiences and the landscape and characters around them, but their mature poems and novels are also rooted in the themes of the early writings of their childhood and adolescence
Bronte Sisters and Victorian Society
The Brontės occupied an unusual position in society, one which was to influence the themes of their novels. The Parsonage was amongst the largest houses in Haworth, though in comparison with the homes of clergymen in more affluent areas of Britain, it would have been considered small.
Similarly, Patrick’s annual income of around £200 was twenty times more than that of the average domestic servant, but the Brontės were poor in comparison with landowners or wealthy aristocrats whose income might exceed £10,000 or even £20,000.
In the early nineteenth century, the class system was a much more rigid structure than today. The Brontės’ education, in the era prior to the 1870 Elementary Education Act, when a large proportion of the population could not read, placed them socially above most people in Haworth.
However, the Brontės could not afford to keep a carriage, to travel extensively, or to dress and furnish their home as did the upper classes and wealthy manufacturers of Yorkshire.
It was essential that the Brontė girls earned a living, and their experiences as governesses, a social hinterland where they were neither family nor servant, informed much of their writing.
Visiting the home in which these three remarkable women spent most of their lives provides a fascinating insight into the freedoms and restrictions of the time in which they lived and thus a deeper understanding of their novels.
Family History of the Bronte Sisters
In 1820 Patrick Brontė was appointed as incumbent of Haworth, and arrived in the township with his Cornish-born wife, Maria, and their six children.
Although Haworth remained the family’s home for the rest of their lives, and the moorland setting had a profound influence on the writing of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontė, the family history began not in Yorkshire, but in Ireland, where Patrick, the first of ten children, was born in County Down, on 17 March 1777.
Driven by ambition, Patrick left his humble origins far behind and was accepted at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where his original family name of Brunty was dropped in favour of the more impressive sounding ‘Brontė’.
The hard work and commitment which had won him a place at Cambridge carried him through several curacies, mainly in the North of England, until he arrived at Haworth.
By this time Patrick Brontė was a published author of poetry and fiction, so that his children grew up accustomed to the sight of books carrying their name on the Parsonage shelves.
On 15 September 1821, Mrs Brontė died of cancer, and her unmarried sister, Elizabeth Branwell, came to take charge of the running of the Parsonage, exchanging her comfortable home in Penzance for the harsh climate of a bleak northern township.
In 1824 the sisters made their first venture into the world outside Haworth, to attend the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale.
The experience, which provided Charlotte with a model for the infamous Lowood School in her novel Jane Eyre, ended in disaster when her eldest sister, Maria, was sent home in ill-health. Maria died at the Parsonage in May 1825, aged eleven. Ten-year-old Elizabeth was returned home shortly after, only to die at Haworth on 15 June.
For the next few years the surviving children remained at home together, creating a rich imaginary world, sparked by their father’s gift to Branwell of a set of toy soldiers. Because of the important role education had played in his own life, Patrick encouraged his children in their pursuit of knowledge.
Any books that came their way were eagerly devoured, and the children produced their own tiny illustrated books, designed to be small enough for the toy soldiers, with minuscule handwriting to deter the prying eyes of the Parsonage adults.
Their father’s lack of a private income meant that the sisters needed to acquire the accomplishments that would enable them to earn a living as governesses – the only career option socially acceptable for genteel young ladies with no fortune. To this end, Charlotte was sent to Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, Mirfield, in 1831.
There she met her lifelong friends, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. She eventually returned to the school as a teacher, taking first Emily then Anne as pupils.
Branwell, the only boy of the family, when not receiving lessons from his father, was often left to his own devices. Eventually his brilliant conversation earned him what Elizabeth Gaskell considered ‘the undesirable distinction of having his company recommended by the landlord of the Black Bull to any chance traveller who might happen to feel solitary or dull over his liquor.’
Branwell took art lessons in Leeds, but a plan to apply to the Royal Academy of Arts in London never came off, and after a short stint as a professional portrait painter in Bradford, Branwell was back in Haworth, in debt.
In 1839, after one brief attempt as a teacher at Miss Patchett’s School at Law Hill, Halifax, where she was reported to have told her pupils she much preferred the school dog to any of them, Emily was also back at Haworth. Although often unhappy, Anne seems to have been the best able to cope with life as a governess.
Her second post, as governess to the Robinsons at Thorp Green Hall, near York, lasted five years, and her success enabled her to secure the post of tutor to the family’s only son for Branwell.
Branwell was proving to be a cause for concern – an earlier post as tutor, and a position as clerk-in-charge on the Leeds-Manchester railway, had both ended ignominiously, and this new situation was to be no exception.
Anne decided to leave her employment at Thorp Green and came back to Haworth in June 1845, followed shortly after by Branwell, dismissed in disgrace for ‘proceedings bad beyond expression’ – allegedly a love affair with his employer’s wife.
In an attempt to escape the hated life of a governess, the sisters planned to set up a school of their own at the Parsonage. In order to acquire the language skills which would attract pupils and secure the school’s success, Charlotte and Emily spent a year studying in Brussels, funded by their aunt.
It was Aunt Branwell’s death in 1842 which brought the sisters back to Haworth. Emily remained at the Parsonage as housekeeper, whilst Charlotte returned to Brussels. Charlotte returned to Haworth permanently in 1844, suffering the pains of unrequited love for her teacher, Monsieur Heger. A prospectus was circulated but pupils could not be found.
The sisters had continued to write, and in 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne used part of their Aunt Branwell’s legacy to finance the publication of their poems, concealing their true identities under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
Poems was published by Aylott and Jones, but despite some favourable reviews, only two copies of the book were sold. Undeterred, the sisters absorbed themselves in their next literary venture – novel writing.
Charlotte’s first attempt at writing a novel for publication, The Professor, was rejected by several publishing houses, before it arrived at the offices of Smith, Elder & Co.
Although the firm declined to accept the novel, their response was sufficiently encouraging for Charlotte to send them her next work, Jane Eyre, begun in a dreary Manchester lodging whilst nursing her father back to health after a cataract operation. If Poems ranks amongst the great failures in publishing history, then Jane Eyre must count as one of the great successes.
George Smith accepted the book without hesitation, and the novel appeared on 19 October 1847. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey had already been accepted by the London publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, and appeared as a three-volume set in December 1847.
Following the success of Jane Eyre, the publication of two further ‘Bell’ novels fuelled speculation about the gender and identity of the authors
The publication of Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall forced Charlotte and Anne to reveal their separate identities to George Smith, as the unscrupulous Newby tried to pass off the work of his author as being by the more successful Currer Bell.
The two sisters travelled to London in July 1848 and confronted the astonished George Smith in his Cornhill office. Charlotte and Anne, staying quietly at the Chapter Coffee House, resisted Smith’s attempts to show them off, but they did find themselves being escorted to the opera, the National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts.
Charlotte’s pleasure in her new-found success turned out to be shortlived. Branwell, who had increasingly fallen back on alcohol and opium for solace, had been ailing all summer. Tuberculosis was gaining a rapid hold on his abused frame. He died suddenly on Sunday 24 September 1848, aged thirty-one, with the whole family at his death-bed.
While Charlotte was still reeling from the shock of Branwell’s death, it became apparent that Emily and Anne were ill. In fact Emily was also dying from tuberculosis, and never left the house again after Branwell’s funeral. Refusing to admit she was ill, she dragged herself out of bed every morning and continued to carry out her share of the household chores.
Her death came at the age of thirty, three months after her brother’s, on 19 December 1848. All Charlotte’s concern was now directed towards her last-surviving sister, who seemed unable to shake off her cold. A lung specialist, called in to examine Anne shortly after Emily’s death, confirmed Charlotte’s worst fear, that she was likely to lose this last, much-loved sister.
Anne submitted to all the futile treatments then available, but any benefit proved to be temporary. In January 1849 Charlotte wrote: ‘Anne cannot study now, she can scarcely read; she occupies Emily’s chair – she does not get well.’
Anne was anxious to try a sea cure, and on 24 May, accompanied by Charlotte and Ellen Nussey, she set out for Scarborough, a place she had loved from her summers there with the Robinson family. It was in Scarborough that Anne died, just four days later, on 28 May 1849, aged twenty-nine years.
To spare her father the anguish of yet another family funeral, Charlotte took the decision to bury her sister in Scarborough, where she was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, high above the town.
Stunned by the tragedies of the past nine months, Charlotte wrote: ‘A year ago – had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849 – how stripped and bereaved I should have thought – this can never be endured’.
Charlotte turned to her writing to sustain her through the dark days ahead. Her novel Shirley, begun before Branwell’s death, was taken up once more. The novel was published in October 1849, and as winter approached, Charlotte fled Haworth to stay with George Smith and his mother in London.
Her fame had provided her with a means of entering London’s literary society, but by this time, Charlotte found that her sense of loss and the seclusion of her life at Haworth had left her unfitted to enjoy such society.
During her London visit Charlotte was introduced to her literary idol, the novelist W. M. Thackeray, but the experience proved to be more of an ordeal than a pleasure.
Over the next few years there were more visits to London, on one of which she sat for her portrait to the society artist, George Richmond. As Charlotte’s true identity gradually became known, her fame brought her a great deal of attention, and in August 1850 she was invited to the summer residence of Sir James and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth above Lake Windermere, where she met the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.
Later in the year, Smith, Elder & Co. gained permission from Newby to reprint Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Charlotte agreed to edit the work, correcting many of the errors which had appeared in the first edition, and also making changes of her own. She undertook the melancholy task of sorting through her dead sisters’ papers to provide a selection of their poetry, and also wrote an emotional biographical notice of the two authors.
Charlotte’s last novel, Villette, was published in 1853. At this time the atmosphere at the Parsonage was emotionally charged: Charlotte had rejected a marriage proposal from her father’s Curate, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, and Patrick was incensed by the mere thought of the poor Irish Curate pursuing his famous daughter.
What Charlotte saw as her father’s unjust treatment worked in Nicholls’ favour, and the couple were eventually married in Haworth Church on 29 June 1854. Though Charlotte had entered the married state with misgivings, she found unexpected happiness with Arthur.
The happiness did not last. Charlotte died on the morning of 31 March 1855, in the early stages of pregnancy, just three weeks before her thirty-ninth birthday. There were to be no direct descendants of the Brontės of Haworth. Patrick Brontė lived on at the Parsonage for a further six years, cared for by his son-in-law, and died there on 7 June 1861, at the age of eighty-four.
In 1857, two years after Charlotte’s death, her first novel, The Professor, was finally published. In the same year Elizabeth Gaskell’s moving tribute to her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontė, also appeared.
This biography, along with Charlotte’s Biographical Notice of her sisters, have become key sources for interpretations of the family, and have ensured that the story of the Brontės’ lives continues to exert as much fascination as their fiction.
|Wuthering Heights||Emily Bronte|
|The Professor||Charlotte Bronte|
|The Tenant of Wildfell Hall||Charlotte Bronte|
|Jane Eyre||Charlotte Bronte|
|Agnes Grey||Anne Bronte|
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Bronte Sisters" https://englishhistory.net/victorian/famous-people/bronte-sisters/, February 21, 2022