In history they are the pre-eminent Victorian literary family, the passion, repressed desire, and unrequited love with its undertones of violence with which their books are most closely associated providing a fascinating if often dark glimpse into the imagination and aspirations of a woman in a middle class family of the time – if of course the peculiar circumstances of their home life can ever be considered the yardstick by which to judge.
The Bronte children Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick (known as Branwell) Emily and Anne were all born within six years of each other in the village of Thornton in Yorkshire before in 1820 they moved to Hawhorth on the edge of the gloomy and forbidding Moors where their father Patrick, an Irish born clergyman had been appointed rector.
In September 1821 their mother Maria died after a long illness and only Charlotte was to have vague memories of their mother who she described as being a vivacious presence around the house and if that was indeed the case then their aunt Elizabeth who had moved into the house soon after to help raise the children was very different. She was by all accounts a stern and distant woman who did not tolerate misbehaviour and who the children would learn to respect if never truly love.
Their father despite his stern demeanour was remembered as a kindly and generous man even if he had an often eccentric way of displaying it. He would not permit the children to speak in his presence unless spoken to and at meal times they were expected to remain silent.
In the early summer of 1825 tragedy struck the family once again when the two eldest girls Maria and Elizabeth died within weeks of each other after contracting tuberculosis at Cowan Bridge, the local school they attended, a cold and heartless place of fire and brimstone sermons and regular beatings.
Patrick immediately withdrew his other children, much to their relief, and from now on they would be educated at home.
Removed from school the children now rarely left the house spending their days together reading, writing poetry and creating entire worlds from their imagination.
When Patrick, referred to as Branwell, his mother’s maiden name,, was given twelve wooden soldiers by his father they became known as the Twelve Men and the children provided them each with names and fictionalised lives. They even created the mythical African country of Glass Town where they would live and fight.
Their imaginations fired from an early age Emily and Anne who were particularly close, also created the world of Gondal; and so Branwell and Charlotte created their own world of Angria in response.
In February 1842 their father sent Charlotte and Emily to Brussels to continue their education but it was not a happy stay and they returned in October following the death of their aunt Elizabeth.
In truth, none of the Bronte sisters ever felt comfortable away from the surroundings of Haworth.
As the children grew into adulthood they worked as school teachers and governesses with varying degrees of success but they continued to write poetry and stories referencing their imagined worlds and all aspired to a literary career. Even though it was not considered a right and proper pursuit for a woman as Charlotte was to discover when the poetry she sent to a publisher was poorly received and swiftly returned.
She remained undeterred however and always big sister to her younger siblings she suggested that they all send their poetry together but using male pseudonyms: She would be Charlotte Bell, Emily would be Ellis Bell, and Anne would be Acton Bell.
The publisher in London expressed his concern that the book would not sell but agreed to publish it but only at the author’s own expense. He was to be proved right and their collected works of poetry sold only three copies but it was the beginning of the Bronte’s literary career:
Branwell Bronte was always his father’s favourite and he devoted much of his time to providing his son with a classical education encouraging him in his translation of classical texts and to pursue his dream of becoming an artist and poet. He was described as being:
“Almost insignificantly small with a mass of red hair which he wore brushed off his forehead – to help his height, I fancy (with) small ferrety eyes, deep sunk and still further hidden by the never removed spectacles.”
Branwell was deeply insecure about his lack of stature and he seemed constantly in need of proving himself a man and from an early age he became a regular in the local taverns drinking, as he would say, with the best of them.
He suffered a setback to his ambitions when he visited the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Lake District and though received cordially was told in no uncertain terms that he should concentrate upon his translations. He reacted to the advice by getting thoroughly drunk in the Inns and Taverns of Keswick. It was a sign of things to come.
In 1835 he applied to the Royal Academy in London but receiving no reply he chose not to pursue his application.
But he was to be the first of the children to have his poems published yet he always seemed in awe of his sisters and was less inspired by their talents than undermined by them. Often including himself in the many sketches and paintings he did of his sisters he would then invariably erase his image as if he already knew that posterity would not be interested in, Branwell Bronte.
Towards the end of his life his alcoholism, made worse by an addiction to laudanum, was out of control and he had become an embarrassment to his family. Charlotte would write regularly chastising him for his behaviour but he was incapable of changing.
In the summer of 1848 he contracted tuberculosis and there appeared to be little willingness on his part to fight the disease. Instead he informed his sisters that he was dying and perhaps still wanting to prove himself a man insisted that he be allowed to do so standing up. It wasn’t to be and he died in his bed on 24 September, 1848.
The death of Branwell upset his family greatly. He was his father’s only son and despite his errant behaviour was much loved and admired by his sisters who saw him as their great lost talent.
Dark and mysterious Emily will always be the little known Bronte and it is difficult to imagine someone who wrote with such passion as the quietly spoken model of a Victorian woman who was never seen to be out of control of her emotions and rarely deviated from what was expected of her.
In the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights Charlotte wrote of her.
“My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious, circumstances favoured and fostered her tendencies to seclusion, except to go to church and a walk in the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very silly exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them, their ways, their language, their family histories. She could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate, but with them she rarely exchanged a word.”
She had been greatly affected by the death of Branwell and fell ill not long after attending his funeral having contracted tuberculosis, herself.
As her condition continued to deteriorate she refused any medical attention declaring that “she would have no poisoning doctor near her.”
Greatly concerned, Charlotte consulted a doctor without Emily’s knowledge writing in December 1848:
“She grows daily weaker. The physician’s opinion was expressed too obscurely to be of use – he sent some medicine which she would not take. Moments so dark as these I have never known – I pray for God to support us all.”
Not long after Charlotte wrote these words Emily, who was so deathly pale, pitifully thin, and clearly in pain that to look upon her could reduce one to tears, took a serious turn for the worse.
The following day 19 December 1848 sitting upon the sofa her breathing became slow and heavy and at around two in the afternoon she spoke softly and with great difficulty, her voice by now little more than a whisper – “If you send for a doctor, I will see him now.”
It was far too late and after desperately clinging onto life for a further two hours, Emily died aged 30. Her body was so wasted that the mortician would later say that he had never made a smaller coffin for an adult woman.
Emily’s only novel Wuthering Heights is now considered a classic of the English literary canon but at the time it was published the year before her death it was not well received and sold few copies. She never lived to witness its success.
Sweet natured Anne was always much closer to her than she was to Charlotte whom she thought patronised her somewhat.
Described as being bright and precocious she was perhaps the most like her mother for it was said her presence brightened up any occasion and she appears to have been liked by everyone who met her but she lacked authority as her experiences as a governess were to prove. She was also far and away the most attractive of the Bronte sisters. Visiting Haworth Hall Charlotte’s friend Ellen Nussey left this description of her:
“Anne, dear gentle Anne was quite different in appearance to the others and she was her aunt’s favourite. Her hair was very light brown and fell to her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows and a clear almost transparent complexion.”
In July 1846, her novel Agnes Grey was published but it was her second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall published the following year that was particularly well-received selling out of its first run in just six weeks.
Anne however had little time to enjoy her success and in January 1849 she was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis.
Already devastated by the death of Emily just the previous month it was said her condition weakened as a consequence though unlike her sister she did seek the help of a doctor and she remained remarkably upbeat confident of a full recovery.
In the spring believing that the sea air would improve her health she went to stay in Scarborough along with Charlotte and Ellen Nussey but instead of improving her condition she went into sharp decline and had to be pushed around in a wheelchair.
Aware that the end was near Anne requested to be taken home to die but she was too weak to travel.
Cheerful to the end she greeted her death on 28 May 1849 with the same stoicism that had been displayed by her sister. She was just 29 years of age.
Sober Charlotte, a serious woman not known for her sense of humour was always big sister often acting as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings something they sometimes resented. It was Charlotte however who encouraged them to write even if she was not always generous regarding their abilities.
She is considered to be the most talented of the Bronte’s even if she was neither the most imaginative nor the most radical, though she was certainly the most prolific and successful with her books The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and the unfinished novel Emma.
Jane Eyre was published in September 1848 to great critical acclaim and commercial success, but also some controversy.
A gothic love story told in the first person and from a female perspective it was considered amoral by some and fuelled the speculation that its author Currer Bell was in fact a woman.
Charlotte had almost completed the manuscript of her second novel Shirley when the tragedy of losing her brother and two sisters in just eight months struck. She was devastated by the loss and as the oldest sister the responsibility weighed heavily upon her shoulders and she only began writing again she said to be distracted from the pain. It was not the first time that a Bronte had escaped the harsh realities of life by escaping into a world of make-believe.
As the reputation of Jane Eyre as an amoral and improper book grew so did its sales and Charlotte’s fame. She was to become a publishing sensation and was soon mixing in London literary circles.
The author William Makepiece Thackeray’s daughter recorded a visit to the family home by Charlotte:
“Two gentlemen came in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barege dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence and serious, our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking My father stoops to offer his arm, for genius though she may be, Miss Bronte can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impression is that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter. Everyone waited for the brilliant conversations that never began at all. The conversation grew dimmer and more dim. The ladies sat around still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all.“
Thackeray later left to go to his club and one of the guests, Mrs Procter, was to describe it as the dullest night she ever spent in her life.
Despite her evident lack of social sparkle Charlotte remained the author of the moment and enjoyed the attention though she was to be an infrequent visitor to London.
In June 1854 she married her father’s Curate Arthur Bell Nicholls. She was the only one of the Bronte sisters to marry but it was to be short-lived.
Charlotte was soon pregnant but in the following months her health began to decline and on 31 March she died aged 38.
The reasons for her death remain uncertain and it might have been as a result of complications due to her pregnancy, from typhoid fever, or like her siblings from tuberculosis.
The Reverend Bronte had outlived all his children and he greeted their deaths with the equanimity that might be expected from a man of God. But he had played a pivotal role in their development and despite being of a stern demeanour he had encouraged them in their creativity and an avid reader himself he had permitted them to read the many papers and journals he subscribed to including Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly Review.
A well respected man within his community who helped provide the village with clean drinking water and established a school for the children of poor families he died in his sleep aged 82 on 7 June 1861.