Brontë Inc: The Three Sisters Who Changed English Literature

The Power of the Brontës

In 1835, Patrick Branwell Brontë paints a portrait of his three sisters and himself. At the time, Charlotte is teaching, Emily returns to live at home, and Anne is enrolled in school. Only Branwell, who is about to embark on a painting career, holds any potential for fame. In the next ten years, everything will change. Branwell not only faded, but he, after a fight with father, paints himself out of the family portrait, leaving only a blurring pillar when he used to be. His three sisters will have risen to become major figures of English literature. What caused this otherwise undistinguished family to produce three sisters of such literary excellence? The question still rages on blogs and website, in academic journals and coffee houses. And the Brontës continue to command fascination, respect and love. Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre adds to our modern infatuation with Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. But the public’s obsession with the whole Brontë clan, even the black sheep Branwell, has never flagged.

The Beginning: Patrick Brontë & Maria Branwell

In 1812, Patrick Brontë, an Irish-Anglican priest who dabbled in poetry and wrote philosophical essays, meets Maria Branwell, the daughter of tea-and-grocery merchant from Conrwall. The two marry and immediately start a family. Over the next 9 years, Maria gives birth to six children, and then tragically at 38 she develops cancer and dies. From all accounts, Maria is a lively woman, whose untimely death left her family adrift. In 1819, a few years before her death, Patrick settles his family in the rural village of Haworth, where he has assumed Perpetual Curacy. After her death, Maria’s sister rushes to Haworth to help raise her sister’s children. Unfortunately not all the children survive childhood. The two oldest, Maria and Elizabeth, grow sick attending the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge and die of tuberculosis. The remaining four––Charlotte, Emily, Ann, and Patrick Branwell––grow up, very much depending upon themselves and their imaginations.

Early Years: A Painful Education

All of the girls, except Anne, are sent to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale. Although the place was recommended to Patrick Brontë as an appropriate institution, especially since it caters to clergy with little money, the school proves to be a nightmare. Badly heated and ventilated, the school proves to more like a prison than a education haven, with the girls never getting enough to eat while being pushed through a torturous schedule. Years later the dark place inspires Lowood in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The unhealthy circumstances experienced by Maria and Elizabeth bring on their death. When they return from school in 1825, both fall ill and soon after die from tuberculosis. The death of Maria deeply affects Charlotte, and many believe Maria serves as the model for Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. After the death of Maria and Elizabeth, Jane and Emily are pulled from the school and educated at home.

Early Years: At Home with their Imagination

After Cowan Bridge, the four children, Charlotte, Emily, Ann, and Branwell, grow up in Haworth sheltered from the outside world. Charlotte later writes: “Resident in a remote district where education had made little progress, and where, consequently, there as no inducement to seek social intercourse beyond our own domestic circle, we were wholly dependent on ourselves and each other, on books and study for the enjoyments and occupations of life.” When Patrick gives his son Branwell a set of twelve wooden soldiers in 1826, the toys serve as the catalyst for epic stories and art created by the children. In 1827, Charlotte and Branwell dream up the world of Glass Town, with many illustrations by Branwell. Later they follow up with tales about the fictional world of Angria. Anne and Emily, the younger two siblings, later band together to create their own world of Gondal, a fantasy realm ruled by women.

Charlotte Brontë

After the death of her sisters, Charlotte takes on a maternal role with her younger sisters and brother at home. But in 1841, her father finds her a place at the Roe Head School. Even though it is more than he can afford, he manages to secure a place for Charlotte at Roe Head in 1831. And Charlotte blooms, making lifelong friends with other girls, and eventually being hired as an assistant, a job that enables her to help pay part of the tuition for her younger sisters. At 19, she moves on to a governess job, and a year later hits upon a scheme to start her own school with her sister Emily. In 1842, both travel to Brussels to improve their language skills and observe how a school is run. But their trip is cut short when their Aunt Branwell suddenly dies. Their plan to start a school falls apart after they fail to secure a single subscription. After attending her aunt’s funeral, Charlotte returns to Brussels, falling in love with Constantin Heger, the married head of the school where she teaches. In 1844, Charlotte returns to Haworth, feeling frustrated and out of options.

Emily Brontë

Born 1818, the fourth of five girls, Emily is described by family and friends as caring, sweet, and a little shy. After leaving Clergy Daughters' School at age 7, Emily is content to stay home, reading and creating imaginative worlds with her siblings. During this time she grows very close to her sister Anne. In 1835, she briefly attends Roe House, her tuition being partially covered by Charlotte’s teaching fees, but after only three months, racked by homesickness, she returns to Haworth. Among other things Emily develops a nearly spiritual relationship to the moors surrounding her home, a sentiment she will fully express in Wuthering Heights. In 1842, feeling the need to contribute to the household, she joins Charlotte, traveling to Brussels in hopes of starting a school. But where her Aunt Branwell dies a few months later, she returns home to run the house and take care of her family. 

Anne Brontë

Born in 1820, Anne is educated mostly at home, forming a strong relationship with her sister Emily, both being the youngest children. Together the two spend hours exploring their own imaginative world of Gondal.  At 15 she is enrolled at Roe Head School where Charlotte teaches. For the next two years, she excels there, however a serious illness in 1837 pushes her into a spiritual crisis. By 1838, she is recovered, finding her first position, serving for a year as the governess of a brood of ill-mannered and unruly wards. A year later, her luck changes when she is engaged at Thorp Green by Reverend Edmund Robinson and his wife Lydia to help with their four children. She develops a strong bond with the family, even finding a position for her older brother Branwell a few years later.

Patrick Branwell Brontë

Born in 1817, Patrick Branwell (called simply Branwell) is educated at home at the insistence of his father. There he forms a strong emotional bond with his sisters as they together collaborate on a range of artistic projects. Branwell grows very close to his sister Charlotte, especially as the two are the chief architects of the fictional world of Angria. Showing a talent for art, Branwell is sent in 1835 to London to seek admittance to the Royal Academy School, but by all reports he never even applies. Insecure and alone, he takes to drinking. A few years letter he is sent to Bradford to make at stab at portrait painting. Unfortunately for the next few years, nothing seems to work, be in being a painter, railway clerk or private tutor. In 1843, his sister Anne secures him a position as Edmund Robinson’s tutor at Thorp Green, but two years later he is dismissed after rumors spread of an affair with the boy’s mother, Mrs. Robinson. Back home, Branwell seeks to escape his failures in alcohol and growing addiction to Laudanum. In his darkness, he writes a friend, “Cheerful company does me good till some bitter truth blazes through my brain, and then the present of a bullet would be received with thanks." Weakened by his addictions, he develops tuberculosis and dies on Sunday 24 September 1848 at thirty-one. At his death, Charlotte writes, “When the struggle was over.....all his errors, all his vices, seemed nothing to me in that moment....he is at rest, and that comforts us all. Long before he quitted this world, life had no happiness for him." Forgotten for years, Branwell reputation is re-examined in 1960 when the writer Daphne Du Maurier profiles him in The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë.

The Poems

In 1845, a year after Charlotte has returned from Brussels, she discovers a book of poems her sister Emily has been writing. Emily is furious to have her privacy violated, but eventually agrees to join her sisters in publishing a book of verse. The final manuscript contains 21 poems each from Anne and Emily and ten from Charlotte. Convinced that they will have better commercial prospects if they publish using under masculine-sounding names, the sisters call themselves Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Later Charlotte writes, “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.” As first-time writers, they underwrite the publication, each paying  the enormous sum of nearly 50 pounds for expenses. The book sells only three copies. 

The Novels

Energized by their writing venture, each sister next takes up writing a novel. By the end of 1846, all three have a novel to submit for publication.  Charlotte has finished The Professor about a male teacher in an all-girls school. Emily’s novel is Wuthering Heights, a wild romance about the impossible love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw. And Anne pens Agnes Grey about the live of a governess (culled mostly from her own personal experience). The sisters offer the novels together, again using their masculine pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. After a number of rejections, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey are finally accepted by a London publisher, but Charlotte's novel is across the board. Luckily, in the time they have been seeking publication, Charlotte has finished a second novel called Jane Eyre. This book is quickly snatched up by Smith, Elder & Co., a different publisher from Anne's and Emily's, and Jane Eyre actually published before their novels. The book proves to be a best seller. With the new fame, the sisters reveal their true identities (Anne and Charlotte actually travel to London to prove they are who they say they are).  With a year, Anne publishes another novel The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall, a wildly successful morality that also drew sharp criticism for its unflinching portrait of an abusive husband.

Tragedy and Marriage

In the midst of their success comes tragedy. Soon after the publication of the sisters’ novels, Branwell grows sick, dying in September 1848. Emily, who endures a cold storm to attend her brother’s funeral, gets sick herself, eventually dying of tuberculosis in December of the same year. She is only 30.  By May of 1849, the same illness kills Anne, who is only 29. In less than year, the Brontë family is reduced to Charlotte and her father. Encouraged by her publisher to make herself known, Charlotte begins to travel and meet other writers. She becomes friends with the novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell, the later who will write Charlotte’s biography. She publishes several more novels: Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853. In 1854, Charlotte eventually marries her longtime friend, the Arthur Bell Nicholls, the vicar of Haworth. Four years later, at the age of 39, she too dies from tuberculosis. Her father outlives his entire family, continuing on for many years before passing away at the age of 84.

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