Sisters of tragedy
The story of the Brontës, a tragic and brilliant family, is one of the most fascinating tales in all of English literature. Charlotte, Emily and Anne grew up in a bleak Yorkshire parsonage, expecting to become governesses. Instead, they wrote 7 extraordinary novels – passionate, violent, feminist and autobiographical – which they published anonymously. Only Charlotte enjoyed literary fame, as Emily and Anne died soon after publishing their works.
After marrying in 1812, the Reverend Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria settled in Thornton, where their six children were born in the first eight years of marriage. First were daughters Maria and Elizabeth. Charlotte, the third child in the family, was born in 1816. After her came Branwell, the only boy, then Emily, and Anne, the youngest, was born in 1820.
By 1824, their two eldest children had died, and the family was living at The Parsonage, a stone house at the edge of the moors at Haworth. Here the girls sewed their samplers, invented characters, and started to write in tiny books which they stitched together, creating stories of dashing heroes, dastardly villains and lovely heroines. These amazing little works have survived and are known as the Brontë Juvenilia. You can see some of them in the Haworth Parsonage Museum today.
“at the present moment George Eliot is the first of English novelists.”
― Anthony Trollope (1923)
The sisters knew that they must earn their own livings. Were their father to die, they would lose their house as it went with his clerical position.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, were close in age and generally preferred one another’s company above anyone else’s. Motherless since they were very young, they enjoyed the benign neglect of their busy father and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds. They read everything they could; spent long afternoons on the moor that began at their back door, invented exotic kingdoms with abundant histories and political intrigues, they put on plays, told stories, and created journals and magazines about their make-believe realm.
As adults, the Brontë sisters were women of their class and time — educated, impoverished and likely destined to spinsterhood.
For some critics, Villette is Charlotte Brontë’s greatest novel, but that challenging and highly unusual work has never had the popularity of Jane Eyre. Jane’s personal journey has resonated with so many readers over the years that it has become one of the best-known books of all time.
Emily Brontë wrote poetry but is now best remembered for her only novel Wuthering Heights. Although it received mixed reviews when it first came out, this book too has now become an English literary classic.
Anne Brontë brought her passionate concerns about the position of women to the writing of her books, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While always described as the ‘gentle’ sister, she was in many ways the toughest.
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Scroll down to where I list many of the books, movies, and resources available – about the life, times, characters, styles, and influences on the Brontës’ work. This is a compilation of items that I have referenced over many years and is by no means exhaustive, rather, just a starting point for your own journey of discovery.