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The Bronte Sisters: Literature’s Greatest Trilogy

April 10, 2013

A painting of the Bronte sisters from about 1834. From left to right – Anne, Emily, and Charlotte. The blurry gold blob in the middle was Branwell, who painted this picture, but he later painted himself out of it.

The last few weeks we’ve been posting a series of articles to give our readers more insight into the world around them.  This post, about the famous Bronte sisters of Northern England, was written by Mrs. Harig.  Anyone associated with TAP – students, travelers, parents, grandparents, former or future travelers – is welcome to submit an article for this space.  

In a few months, five TAP teachers, twenty-seven Minooka Junior High students, and a few parents and grand parents are going to spend one night in a hotel in Manchester, England.  The next morning we’ll all get up, eat our weird English breakfast – which for some reason has baked beans and a skinless tomato involved in it – and head northeast towards the beautiful city of York.

Manchester is cool, well known for the world’s most famous soccer club, and York, with it’s Viking history and incredible church, is one of the spots I’m looking forward to most – on the way, about halfway through that drive, though, we’ll likely see some road signs pointing us towards a small town called Haworth.

Unfortunately, you can’t see everything on one of these TAP trips.  There’s always something that you miss – or as we like to say – there’s always going to be an excuse to travel again.  This time it might be Haworth that’s the spot that some TAPpers are going to want to go back to see.

The thing that makes Haworth worth coming back to England to see is that it’s   the home to the First Family of Books – the Brontes.  Sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte grew up in Haworth in the mid 1800s, writing many of their world famous stories right there in the town.

It’s hard to think of a trio of siblings that were more successful in the literary world, but their lives surely had rocky beginnings and endings. In all, there were six Bronte siblings – five sisters and one brother.  Their father, Patrick, was a clergyman assigned to the Haworth parish.  There, in 1812, he met and married Maria Branwell.

By 1820, the couple had six kids – Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily, and Anne.  In 1821, with baby Anne not yet two years old, Maria (their mother) passed away.

The children’s aunt Elizabeth Branwell (Maria’s sister – known as Aunt Branwell) moved in with the family, taking care of the children.  Things settled down for a while, with the four older girls all attending the Cowan Bridge School.  In the spring of 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth Bronte became ill and were sent home from the school.  In May of that year, Maria – just 11 years old – died.  Six weeks later, Elizabeth passed away too.  She was only 9.

You have to imagine that all this death had a profound effect on the remaining Bronte siblings, but like their father before them, all four children turned to art and writing.   Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne wrote often, collaborating together on intricate stories and poems about mythical worlds and strange characters based on a set of toy soldiers Branwell had been given by his father.

After the death of the two oldest siblings, Patrick Bronte kept all of his children at home, educating them himself – along with the help of Aunt Branwell – and the writing became a game of sorts of the children.  In 1827 their ideas started to be written down, in tiny books the size of a matchbook, the kids wrote stories about the imaginary African kingdom of Glass Town, the Empire of Angria, and Gondal, an island  in the North Pacific.

As difficult as their early life was, the siblings found strength in one another and solace in their work.  These collaborations strengthened their writing ability, focused their narratives, and shaped them as authors. In 1845, the three sisters submitted a book of poetry for publication – however, at that time, there was still a great deal of sexism in the publishing world, so they wrote using the male pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell.

Even though their book of poetry sold only three copies – yeah, that’s right – three… The girls were undeterred.   They continued to write privately, often talking late into the night at the dinner table about their characters, their styles, and the dreams they held on to.  Those dreams came true in 1847 when all three sisters published their first novels.

Charlotte published Jane Eyre – which contained scenes and characters very similar to her oldest sister, Maria, and the situation surrounding her sickness and mistreatment at the Cowan Bridge School.  Jane Eyre became one of the year’s best sellers, but the public thought the story was written by a man named Currer Bell, not a gawky country girl.  Jane Eyre is now considered one of the most important books in English literature.

The same year, Anne published her first book – Agnes Grey.  Her book wasn’t as big a success commercially, but critics praised it’s brave style.  Just like Charlotte’s book, Anne’s was published under her fake male name.  A year later, Anne published one more book – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which got a much better reception than her first.  200 years later, Anne is the least famous of the three sisters, but recently critics have been re-examining and praising her style, and slowly she’s gaining the recognition her sisters have been given.

Also in 1847, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte was published.  Even though it’s now probably the most successful of the Bronte sisters’ works, Emily’s book was quite controversial when it was first released.  Many critics denounced it, but despite that, it found a strong audience and is considered a classic of English literature.

While the Bronte sisters were venteuring deeper into the writing careers, their brother Branwell was venturing deeper into alcoholism and opium.  Branwell passed away from his addictions in 1848, at the age of 31.   That same year, Emily’s promising career and her life were cut short – she passed away from tuberculosis.  Emily Bronte was just 30 years old.  Shortly afterward, Anne became sick too.  She tried to escape the same fate as her sister by moving to Scarborough – hoping that a life by the sea would help cure her from her illness.  It did not.  She passed away in May 1849.  She was 29 years old.

After the devastating loss of her siblings, Charlotte continued to write.  She published Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853.  In 1854 she married her father’s assistant clergyman – Arthur Bell Nichols.  Married life made it much more difficult for Charlotte to find time to write.  She never finished another novel.  In 1855, at the age of 38, Charlotte died.  She was pregnant at the time.  Two years later, an unfinished novel called The Professor was published.

The Bronte sisters endured a depressing childhood with the loss of their mother and a few siblings.  They dealt with their sadness by using their creativity to write short stories, poetry, and eventually novels.  The sisters made their writing dreams come true by tricking the business world with their pseudonyms and had successful writing careers even though they were incredibly short.

Their novels have stood the test of time and are considered great literary works even to this day.  Even through all of their lives were short and filled with pain and loss, the Bronte sisters have found immortality with their words – their poems, their stories, and most beloved of all – Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and Jane Eyre will live forever in the hearts and minds of their fans.

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