A Family of Writers: The Brontë Sisters
The three Brontë sisters wrote several of the 19th century’s literary masterpieces. They constructed layered, complex characters and some of the most epic love stories ever put on the page. Despite how long ago they were written, the characters remain realistic, their stories still deeply relevant. But the sister’s lives were very different from what they wrote. Where did such talent spring from? How did three sisters from rural Yorkshire all have such incredible literary gifts? They lived quiet, secluded lives which were cut short far too early by illness.
Below are some facts you might not know about these literary sisters, along with some of the finest quotes from their books and writings.
Their literary gifts can be traced to their upbringing. Their mother died when they were very young and they were subsequently raised by their father and aunt. Their father, a parson, provided them with many books and a lot of personal freedom. The family never had much money, but he did his best to make sure they had a decent education. They were also raised with the help of a maid, Tabitha Akyroyd, who would regale them with traditional Yorkshire stories. Their father subscribed to several literary journals and magazines which taught them about the outside world, feeding their imaginations and love of story-telling.
All three worked as different points as governesses or teachers. With few options available to women of modest means, they used their education to support themselves and their families. Charlotte and Emily briefly worked and studied abroad in Brussels, in preparation to open a girl’s school back home in Yorkshire. Their varied experiences as governesses informed much of their writings.
A self-portrait of Branwell Brontë
Their brother, Branwell, suffered from alcoholism and an addiction to laudanum. A talented painter, his health declined after the two sisters returned from Belgium. Their plans for a girl’s school never came to fruition, in part due to their brother’s increasingly poor reputation.
They started writing under male pseudonyms. Writing was not a respected female profession at the time and it would have been very difficult to be published or taken seriously under their own names. Their first published work was a joint book of poetry under the names “Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell”. These odd and uncommon names used their first initials of their real names as a little hint.
The first edition of Jane Eyre published in 1847
They sent Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey to dozens of publishers. It was finally accepted in 1847 by a tiny publisher of scientific papers in London called Smith, Elder & Co. As the manuscripts were sent under their male pseudonyms, he was apparently quite surprised when Charlotte and Anne appeared at his offices to introduce themselves. Their identities were revealed when the three books were reprinted in 1850 under their real names.
There has been a lot myth making about the sisters as tragic and reclusive writers. But they each had different goals and interests. Charlotte was notoriously shy but still enjoyed her literary fame in her lifetime, spending time in London and making acquaintance with other writers, such as William Thackeray. She married a local curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, shortly before her death. Emily, however, had no interest in fame or the outside world. She did not like leaving her surroundings in Yorkshire and was extremely reserved in company.
Following Anne’s death, Charlotte wrote to their publishers and requested that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should not be republished. She believed it had low literary merit and that Anne was an inexperienced writer. It is believed that is one reason why Anne is held in less renown as a writer than her sisters. Tenant was a great success in its time, even outselling Wuthering Heights at its first publication. It is now considered one of the first feminist novels.
Members of the Brontë Society outside the Parsonage in 1899
Due to Charlotte’s fame in her lifetime, their home became a pilgrimage site after the death of all three sisters.
Elizabeth Gaskell, a close family friend, wrote a biography of Charlotte in 1857. This increased the families fame. People flocked in the thousands to Haworth, gathering in large crowds outside the local church in hopes of catching a glimpse of Patrick Brontë, the girl’s father. Visitors continue to visit the parsonage, now a museum, to this day.
(You can click on any of these quotes below to purchase them as prints.)
"Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same."
Emily Bronte, from Wuthering Heights
"You know full well as I do the value of sisters' affections: There is nothing like it in this world."
Charlotte Bronte The Professor.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
“All my heart is yours, sir: it belongs to you; and with you it would remain, were fate to exile the rest of me from your presence forever.”
Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
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