Literary classics are rare but to have several come from one family is nothing more than astounding. Today is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth and after watching film adaptations of their writings you have to admire their creative aspirations. The Bronte sisters over two years wrote four classics that stand the test of time and many film and television adaptations.
The Brontës were a nineteenth-century literary family associated with the village of Haworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Charlotte was born on 21 April 1816, Emily on 30 July 1818 and Anne on 17 January 1820 all in Thornton, Yorkshire. They had two sisters, both of whom died in childhood and a brother, Branwell. Their father, Patrick, was an Anglican clergyman who was appointed as the rector of the village of Haworth, on the Yorkshire moors. After the death of their mother in 1821, their Aunt Elizabeth came to look after the family.
All three sisters attended different schools at various times as well as being taught at home. The Brontë children were often left alone together in their isolated home and all began to write stories at an early age. All three sisters were employed at various times as teachers and governesses. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to improve their French, but had to return home early after the death of their aunt Elizabeth. Charlotte returned to Brussels an English teacher in 1843-1844.
By 1845, the family were back together at Haworth. By this stage, Branwell was addicted to drink and drugs. Like many contemporary female writers, they originally published their poems and novels under male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Their stories immediately attracted attention, although not always the best, for their passion and originality. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was the first to know success, while Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and other works were later to be accepted as masterpieces of literature.
The three sisters and their brother, Branwell, were very close and during childhood developed their imaginations first through oral storytelling and play set in an intricate imaginary world, and then through the collaborative writing of increasingly complex stories set therein. The deaths of first their mother, and then of their two older sisters marked them profoundly and influenced their writing, as did the relative isolation in which they were raised. Their home, the parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, has become a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. In 2011 during a trip to Yorkshire we visited Haworth then two years later on a trip to Scarborough we saw the grave of Anne.
Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’ and Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ were published in 1847. ‘Jane Eyre’ was one of the year’s best sellers. Anne’s second novel, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ were both published in 1848. ‘The Tenant’ sold well, but ‘Wuthering Heights’ did not. Branwell died of tuberculosis in September 1848. Emily died of the same disease on 19 December 1848 and Anne on 28 May 1849.
Left alone with her father, Charlotte continued to write. She was by now a well-known author and visited London a number of times. ‘Shirley’ was published in 1849 and ‘Villette’ in 1853. In 1854, Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Nicholls. She died of tuberculosis on 31 March 1855.