The Bronte Sisters
Posted: 1 November 2010 in Poets & Novelists
Tags: brontes, haworth, novelist
Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

Patrick Bronte was an Anglican clergyman who, in 1812, met Maria Branwell whilst living at Guiseley in West Yorkshire. Patrick and Maria married later that same year, and had six children between 1814 and 1820. The first, Maria Bronte, was born in 1814, followed by Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Patrick (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). After the birth of Anne, the family moved to Haworth in West Yorkshire, where Patrick Bronte was to become perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels, and where the Bronte Sisters were to grow up. Shortly after the move, on 15 September 1821, Patrick Bronte’s wife died, and her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, moved to Haworth to help care for the children.

In 1824 the four eldest sisters were sent to the Clergy Daughter’s school in Lancashire, but the poor conditions there led to Maria dying of typhus the following year. Elizabeth, Emile and Charlotte were quickly brought home, but Elizabeth, who had contracted tuberculosis whilst at the school, died the following year. The three remaining sisters were educated by their father and aunt. The aim of their aunt in educating them was to ensure that they would make good wives for future husbands, but the three remaining sisters were discovered to be voracious consumers of literature, and their father’s library was to keep them well supplied with reading material. Anybody who has seen a present day clergyman’s library will know how well stocked it tends to be. The sisters also wrote stories incorporating characters drawn from their childhood games, and some fragments of these stories have survived.

In 1831 Charlotte was sent to Miss Wooler’s school in Mirfield, near Leeds. She seems to have prospered there, but returned to Haworth in 1832, possibly because the fees were outstripping Patrick Bronte’s ability to pay them. The impression made by Charlotte during her stay at the school must nevertheless have been good, because in 1835 she was offered a teaching post at the school, and returned taking her sister Emily with her. The latter was to become her pupil, with the fees being paid out of Charlotte’s wages. Emily proved unable to settle at the school, and left after just a few months, with Anne arriving to replace her. After two years at the school Anne became seriously ill with gastritis and returned home.

In 1839 Anne became a governess at Blake Hall in Mirfield, but she was dismissed at Christmas the same year. The reason for the dismissal was that she had proved incapable of controlling her employer’s spoilt children. This episode provided her with the inspiration for her first novel, Agnes Grey.

Anne Bronte

Anne Bronte

In 1842 Charlotte Bronte travelled to Brussels to take up a teaching post at a boarding school. Apart from an interlude occasioned by the death of her aunt in October 1842, she remained at the school until early 1844. In January of that year she returned home feeling homesick. The two years spent in Brussels were to provide her with inspiration for her first two novels The Professor, which was not to be published during her lifetime, and Villette, which was.

One day in the Autumn of 1845, Charlotte stumbled upon a collection of poems which had been written by her sister Emile, and felt unable to praise them too highly. After a row with Emile, who resented her sister reading what she regarded as her private papers, Charlotte managed to persuade her two sisters that they should jointly publish a collection of poems under the pen names of Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell (Charlotte, Emily and Anne respectively). They found a company in London which agreed to publish the collection for them, but it would be at their own financial risk. When the collection sold only three copies, their publisher’s caution turned out to be amply justified.

Fame finally came in 1847, with the publication of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, by Smith Elder & Co, Anne’s Agnes Grey, published by Thomas Cautley Newby, and Emile’s Wuthering Heights, also published by Thomas Cautley Newby. Jane Eyre achieved immediate popular success, and Charlotte Bronte became a celebrity in literary circles. The other two novels had a lesser degree of popular success, but were nevertheless still very popular, and met with the same critical acclaim. That said, there was some criticism of the gratuitous violence in Wuthering Heights.

Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was published in June 1848, but less than a year later Anne was dead. In September 1848 Branwell Bronte also died, and in December his sister Emile followed him into the grave. So by the end of May 1849 Charlotte and her father were the only members of the Bronte family left alive. The reason for the Brontes’ early demise was probably the insanitary conditions in Haworth, especially with regard to the water supply.

Emile Bronte

Emile Bronte

Charlotte’s second published novel Shirley was published in 1849 and the third, Villette, in 1853. Like her first (published) novel, Villette was an immediate popular success, but Shirley had more mixed reviews.

In 1854 Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, and soon became pregnant. Unfortunately, by this time Charlotte’s health was also declining, and she died on 31 March 1855 without giving birth to her child. The cause of death was believed to have been tuberculosis, but there has been more recent speculations that it may have been typhus, or dehydration resulting from morning sickness. Arthur cared for Charlotte’s father until the latter’s death in 1861.

After having the manuscript rejected several times during her lifetime, Charlotte’s husband arranged for the issue of her first, and still unpublished, novel The Professor in 1857. Arthur Bell Nichols then lived to see the dawn of the twentieth century, and died in 1906.

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