The Extraordinary Literary Brontës
Novelist Virginia Woolf once acknowledged writer Jane Austen’s greatness before admitting, “I’d give all she ever wrote for half of what the Brontës wrote.” American critic, Mark Schorer has described Austen’s fiction as “brisk and dry,” and Charlotte Brontë’s novels, “dark and damp.” Mike Barker, who directed a BBC adaptation of Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall says that the “Brontës’ novels are in keeping with the spirit of the times in a way Austen’s is not.” Anne Brontë’, he maintains, “is far more erotic and explicit. In Austen, sex is just a kiss on the back of the hand, whereas here everything happens. We had to tone it down a bit.”
Poet, Emily Dickinson, revered Emily Brontë’s unflinching, mystical poetry. Japanese have traveled thousands of miles to Haworth – a small West Yorkshire, England country village – in an attempt to understand how Emily Brontë could have written Wuthering Heights – a tale that bears a resemblance to ancient Samurai stories. Three isolated sisters – Anne, Charlotte and Emily – daughters of a Church of England minister – after repeatedly failing both as teacher and governess decided in desperation to attempt to become income earning writers. Robert Southey, England’s Poet Laureate at that time, in a reply to Charlotte’s letter seeking his advice, told her that “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” and furthermore, she should instead be “engaged in her proper duties”. Among their seven published novels only Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights have won enduring acclaim. Despite the success (Charlotte enjoyed it her lifetime, Emily did not) of only two of their novels generation after generation continues to discover, explore, and avidly devour the Brontës’ lives and their passionate, imaginative writing.
What is about the prose poem Wuthering Heights from its wintry beginning through its lyrical springtime ending that always makes us shiver with delight no matter how many times we read it? What great mind and depth of imagination could write the following words that are among the most memorable in the English language: “I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”
- The Novels:
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)
- Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (1847)
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
- The Professor by Charlotte Brontë (1857)
- Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853)
- Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849)
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
- Childhood Juvenilia by Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and Patrick Branwell Brontë.
- Emma by Charlotte Brontë (The Cornhill Magazine, 1860)
- Selected Biographies:
- Juliet Barker, The Brontë Society (1994)
- Juliet Barker, The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors – The Story of a Literary Family (2012)
- Edward Chitham, A Life of Emily Brontë (1987)
- Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë
- Winifred Gérin, Branwell Brontë (1961)
- Winifred Gérin, Emily Brontë (1971)
- Ada Harrison and Derek Stanford, Anne Brontë – Her Life and Work
- Margaret Lane, The Brontë Story
- John Lock and Canon W. T. Dixon, A Man of Sorrow – The Life, Letters and Times of the Rev. Patrick Brontë 1777-1861 (1965)
- Joan Rees, Profligate Son – Branwell Brontë and his Sisters (1986)
- Margot Peters, Unquiet Soul [Charlotte Brontë] (1975)
- Selected General Reading:
- Christine Alexander and Jane Sellars, The Art of the Brontës (1995)
- C. W. Hatfield, The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Brontë (1941)
- Glenda Leeming, Editor, Brontë Country (1994)
- Fannie E. Ratchford, The Brontës’ Web of Childhood (1941)
- Other Resources:
A Brief Biography of the Brontës:
Reverend Patrick Brontë – Father of the Brontës, born March 17, 1777 at Emdale, in the Parish of Drumballyroney, County Down, Northern Ireland. His birth occurred in a “two-roomed, whitewashed, thatched peasant cabin. Patrick Brontë gave the following biographical sketch of his family life in Ireland to Elizabeth Gaskell between June 1855 and the 1857 publication of her The Life of Charlotte Brontë:
My father’s name was Hugh Brontë…His pecuniary means were small – but renting a few acres of land, he and my mother, by dint of application, and industry, managed to bring up a family of ten children…I shew’d an early fondness for books, and continued school for several years – At the age of sixteen…I…opened a public school…I continued for five or six years; I was then a tutor in a Gentleman’s family – from which…I removed to Cambridge and enter’d St. John’s College.
Juliet Barker in her 1994 The Brontës tells us that “From the moment he arrived at Cambridge in July 1802 to the day he graduated in 1806, Patrick was Brontë was a distinctive and somewhat eccentric figure. His humble Irish background marked him out immediately.”
When enrolling at St. John’s college Patrick Brontë failed to tell how the Registrar how to spell it resulting an entry of “Branty”. Two days later Patrick returned asking that his name be recorded as “Brontë”. The Latin ë in the spelling became fixed when Reverend Brontë published his Cottage Poems in 1811.
- 1806 – Patrick ordained as a clergyman in the Church of England.
- 1812 – December 29, Patrick Brontë married Maria Branwell from Cornwall.
- 1820 – February, Patrick Brontë appointed Perpetual Curate at Haworth – St. Michael and All Angels Church.
- 1855 – June, Patrick suggests in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell that she write the biography of Charlotte’s life.
- 1861 – June 7, death of Patrick Brontë, the last of the Brontës of Haworth.
Anne Brontë is the gentle, pious Brontë for those who haven’t read her two novels or become familiar with the sensitive, dedicated life she lived. This resilient Brontë persevered as governess, teacher, despite hardship that neither sister – Charlotte and Emily could endure in a similar role. Anne failed to receive the literary fame accorded to Charlotte, and belatedly to Emily. She continues to be the least recognized among the literary Brontës despite the enduring, heart wrenching message and lessons presented in Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
- 1820 – January 17, Anne Brontë born at Thornton, West Yorkshire, England.
- 1839 – April-December, Anne served as a governess at Blake Hall, Mirfield, England.
- 1840 – May, Anne employed as a governess at Thorp Green Hall, Little Ouseburn, England.
- 1845 – June, Anne leaves Thorp Green Hall, resigning her position as governess.
- 1846 – July, Anne completes writing her novel, Agnes Grey.
- 1847 – December, Agnes Grey published under Anne’s pen name, Acton Bell.
- 1848 – June, Anne’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall published.
- 1848 – July, Anne and Charlotte travel to London to reveal their identity to Charlotte’s publisher following a false statement from Anne’s publisher that there is only one “Bell” author, not three.
- 1849 – May 28, Anne’s death at age 29 from tuberculosis follows her arrival at the coastal village of Scarborough, England where she sought a cure in sea therapy.
Charlotte Brontë being the eldest became the maternal surrogate to the surviving Brontë children after the death of her mother and two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Although shy in unfamiliar company she assumed an assertive role in the affairs of the family. Charlotte’s incentives created many significant events in the lives of the Brontës. Energy and enthusiasm displayed by Charlotte helped inspire the writing of “scribblemania” that transformed toy soldiers into characters featured in little books stories written by the Brontë children. Later, Charlotte’s frustration with the limited opportunities available to women encouraged her to seek income as a writer. She convinced reclusive, reluctant sisters Emily and Anne to pursue the same path. Persistence and talent brought Charlotte enduring fame in her lifetime, elevating the Brontës of Haworth to a revered place in English Literature.
- 1816 – April 21, Charlotte Brontë born at Thornton, West Yorkshire, England.
- 1831 – January, Charlotte arrives as a student at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, Mirfield England. There, she meets Ellen Nussey with lifelong friendship following.
- 1839 – May-June, Charlotte employed as a governess by Mrs. Sidgwick at Stonegappe, Lothersdale, England.
- 1842 – February, Charlotte accompanied by Emily travelled to Brussels, Belgium to become students at the Pensionnat Heger.
- 1847 – October 19, Charlotte’s novel, Jane Eyre published under her pen name, Currer Bell. It quickly becomes popular.
- 1854 – June 29, marriage of Charlotte and Arthur Bell Nicholls at Haworth Church by Reverend Sutcliffe Sowden. Her father, Patrick, doesn’t attend.
- 1855 – March 31, death of Charlotte Brontë Nicholls.
Emily Jane Brontë is an English Literature enigma, a poet supreme. Her towering work, Wuthering Heights is a prose poem, a moorland tempest embracing winter’s dark brutality and spring tranquility revealing budding beauty. A mystical nature is evident in one of her poems with lines that read When I am not and none beside – / Nor earth nor sea nor cloudless sky – / But only spirit wandering wide / Through infinite immensity. Emily alone among the Brontë children most resembled Patrick, her father. She inherited his blue eyes, tallness, stamina, and strong walking stride. Also, Patrick’s spiritual inclination. Haworth villagers regarded Emily as the most handsome of the Brontë brood. Heaven and earth merged in Emily: earth ascending, heaven descending.
- 1818 – July 30, birth of Emily Jane Brontë at Thornton, West Yorkshire, England.
- 1843 – January, Emily assumed role as Parsonage housekeeper when Charlotte returned to Brussels, Belgium.
- 1847 – December, Emily’s novel, Wuthering Heights is published under her pen name, Ellis Bell.
- 1848 – May 28, death of Emily from tuberculosis.
Patrick Branwell Brontë, Reverend Patrick Brontë’s only son, a gifted poet, tragically never fulfilled his potential. Weak character and poor self discipline couldn’t support the genius he possessed. These regrettable defects combined perhaps with low self esteem led to an early death. Despite Branwell’s short life and failure to be published his creative legacy is impressive. Branwell’s imaginative work earns him a place in our hearts, and not just by association with his famed sisters. With wide eyed innocence young Anne, Charlotte, and Emily gaze at us from long ago in Branwell’s crude Pillar Portrait. A smile comes when reading Branwell’s Juvenilia writing in which he portrayed a cast of colorful characters, including his alter ego, Northangerland / Alexander Percy.
- 1817 – June 26, Birth of Patrick Branwell Brontë at Thornton, West Yorkshire, England.
- 1838 – June, Branwell begins to earn a living as a portrait painter in Bradford, England. This venture proves unsuccessful, and Branwell burdened by debt returns home.
- 1840 – January-June, Branwell employed as a tutor at Broughton-in-Furness, England.
- 1840 – October, Branwell employed as a railway clerk at Sowerby Bridge, Halirfax, England.
- 1845 – July – Branwell’s employment as tutor at Thorp Green is terminated because of scandalous behavior.
- 1848 – September 24, Death of Branwell, likely from tuberculosis.