xxxxxThe three Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were daughters of an eccentric Anglican clergyman who was Rector of Haworth on the bleak Yorkshire moors. Isolated from society in general, and beset by poverty and ill-health for much of their short lives, they nonetheless produced imaginative novels of deep insight, feeling and passion. In 1846 they published a joint volume of Poems. This sold only two copies, but in 1847 each produced a novel of outstanding merit. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was a romantic melodrama which, for the first time, analysed love from a woman’s point of view; Emily’s Wuthering Heights was a passionate, violent love story set amid the brooding, windswept moorland which surrounded her home; and Anne’s Agnes Grey, though showing less literary talent than that of her sisters, was a realistic portrayal of the life of a governess. Soon after their publication, however, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell Bronte, - a young man whose failure as an artist had driven him to alcohol and opium - died of consumption, and Charlotte was left alone to care for her father. She went on to produce three more novels, Shirley, Villette and The Professor, but in 1854 she married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, and died in pregnancy the following year. The works of these three remarkable sisters have made the name Bronte a household word, and the novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are numbered today among the gems of English literature. During the 1850s Charlotte made a number of visits to London and met, among others, the writers William Makepeace Thackeray and Matthew Arnold.



EMILY BRONTE 1818 - 1848

ANNE BRONTE  1820 - 1849


Bronte sisters: by their brother Patrick Branwell Bronte (1817-1848) c1834 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Rectory: date and artist unknown – Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. Charlotte: after the English artist George Richmond (1809-1896), 1850. Nicholls: date and artist unknown. Gaskell: after the English artist George Richmond (1809-1896), 1851 – private collection.

xxxxxThe remarkable Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were the daughters of the Reverend Patrick Bronte, the Rector of Haworth, a remote village on the desolate Yorkshire moors. They were brought up by an aunt in the lonely, bleak atmosphere of the rectory, but all three possessed lively minds and imaginations, and were destined to produce outstanding novels, the subject matter of which went far beyond the scope of their daily experience. Tragically, both Emily and Anne succumbed to tuberculosis, along with their brother Branwell, in late 1848 and early 1849. Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in 1854, and died during pregnancy the following year.

xxxxxThe Reverend Patrick Bronte, an eccentric Anglican clergyman of Irish birth, moved with his wife and six small children to Haworth in 1820. A few years later his wife and his two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, died, and he was left to bring up his remaining children, assisted by his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell. Neither he nor the aunt were warm, convivial people and, as a result, the children led somewhat unnatural and, at times, unhappy lives, obliged to find comfort and companionship amongst themselves, and cut off from the outside world by the desolate landscape that surrounded their moorland home.

xxxxxIn 1824, Charlotte, accompanied by Emily, was sent to the Clergy Daughters School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Londsdale in Lancashire, (where Maria and Elizabeth were already boarders) and it was this school, with its harsh discipline and poor food, which featured later in her novel Jane Eyre, disguised under the name of Lowood. With the death of Maria and Elizabeth in 1825, both Charlotte and Emily were brought home, and for the next five years the four children were virtually left to their own devices. These proved highly formative years, during which they wrote and told romantic stories and poems to each other, and devised a variety of imaginative games, some carried out in the churchyard or upon the bleak, desolate moorland which surrounded the rectory at Haworth (illustrated). A set of wooden soldiers inspired the characters for some of their fantasy “creations”. Charlotte, together with her brother Branwell, conjured up elaborate tales of adventure, set in the make-believe kingdom of “Angria” - many of which have survived - whilst Emily and Anne produced a saga of “Gondal”, a world brought to life through elaborate pieces of prose and verse. During those years, the rectory was a hot-house of imagination in which great stories could and did, in fact, take root.

xxxxxIn 1831 Charlotte was sent to a school at Roe Head, near Huddersfield. She studied there for a year, and then returned in 1835 as a teacher in order to make some money and set Branwell on his career as an artist. She held the post for three years, but found the work uncongenial, and longed to make her own way in life. She left in 1838 and, after working as a governess for a while, planned, along with Emily, to set up a school at the parsonage. With this in mind the two sisters travelled to Brussels in 1842 to improve their French. The school itself never got off the ground, but Charlotte’s two year stay in Brussels introduced her to the outside world, provided her with a deal of material for her future novels (notably Villette and The Professor), and broadened her personal relationships - including an innocent but deep affection for her married teacher, Professor Constantin Héger.

xxxxxShe returned to Haworth in 1844. By this time her aunt Elizabeth had died, her father was gradually losing his sight, and her brother, failing as an artist, had taken to drink and opium. But it was during these troubled years that literary success was achieved. In 1846 the three sisters published, at their own expense, a joint volume of Poems under the pseudonyms Currer Bell (Chartlotte), Ellis Bell (Emily) and Acton Bell (Anne). Only two copies were sold in fact, but the following year saw the production of their now famous novels and, once the authors’ identities were known, the works of the Bronte sisters took their place among the gems of English literature.

xxxxxCharlotte’s novel, Jane Eyre, was published in October 1847 and was an immediate success. Written in the first person, it tells of an orphan girl who, becoming a governess, falls in love with her employer, the moody, enigmatic Edward Rochester. What follows is romantic melodrama, but it gripped the attention of the readers of the day and, by its sensitive portrayal, has remained a popular novel ever since. It is, above all, a powerful declaration of feminism, portraying love from a woman’s perspective, as well as the struggle faced by women in their quest for recognition and independence.

xxxxxBut Emily’s novel Wuthering Heights, a passionate, wild love story set amid the desolate, storm-swept Yorkshire moors, has equally stood the test of time, and is doubtless ahead in the popularity stakes. This powerful, original work was the creation of Emily’s fertile imagination and sense of mysticism - products which stemmed from her love of the bleak, menacing landscape which surrounded her home. This tale of uncontrollable passion and brutal revenge, staged amid the savage forces of nature themselves, is today regarded as one of the most successful romantic novels in the English language.

xxxxxAnne’s Agnes Grey and her novel of the following year, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, whilst not showing such outstanding talent as that of her older sisters, revealed a remarkable skill in personal observation. The first was centred around the life of a governess, and the second gave a candid account of a young man’s decline into drunkenness and debauchery, a somewhat surprising subject for a person of such a gentle and pious nature, but doubtless influenced by the troubled life of her brother Branwell.

xxxxxBut for the Bronte sisters, the happiness which came with success proved short-lived. Towards the end of 1848, the drama and the tragedy within their fictional creations spilled over into real life. In the September their brother Branwell Bronte died of consumption, a condition made the worse by his degenerate way of life. The early promise he had shown as a writer and a painter had came to nothing, and in despair and frustration he had sought refuge in alcohol and opium. Then Emily, having caught a chill at Bramwell’s funeral, died in the December, and Anne, weakened by consumption, died the following May. Charlotte (illustrated) was left alone to care for her ageing father in a rectory full of gloom and memories.

xxxxxBut in spite of such tragic bereavements, Charlotte was determined to carry on. Between her household chores, she resumed her writing, and in October 1849 produced Shirley, a regional novel which, whilst lacking the romantic impact of Jane Eyre, gave a realistic, shrewdly written account of the troubles between master and worker in the Yorkshire weaving industry. She followed this with Villette in 1853, and The Professor, published posthumously in 1857, two works which drew heavily upon the troubled time she had spent in Brussels in the early 1840s. During this productive period she paid three visits to London, where she made the acquaintance of a number of literary figures, including William Makepeace Thackeray and Matthew Arnold, and she also travelled to see friends in the north of England. It was there in 1850 that she met Elizabeth Gaskell, the novelist who wrote her first biography in 1857.

xxxxxInxJune 1854, having turned down several offers of marriage from past suitors, she married her father’s curate, the Irishman Arthur Bell Nicholls (1819-1906) in Haworth Church. Their happiness was brief. They spent their honeymoon in Ireland but, exhausted by sickness, she died in pregnancy the following year. It was a tragic end to a strange and tragic family, though the father did not die until 1861, aged 84.


xxxxxThe novels of the three Bronte sisters, noted above all for their depth of insight, feeling and passion, are the more remarkable because of the restricted lives led by their authors. Isolated in the depths of the Yorkshire moors, and beset by poverty and ill-health for much of their short lives, they nonetheless produced imaginative works of outstanding merit on subjects which, for the most part, were beyond their limited experience. Amongst their varied works, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are clearly the masterpieces, not only for their powerful romantic themes, but also because they described for the first time how women, just as well as men, can feel the deep desires of love.


xxxxxIncidentally, while at school at Roe Head in the early 1830s, Charlotte made a number of friends, including one named Ellen Nussey (1817-1897). It was her life-time correspondence with Ellen that provided most of the details about Charlotte’s life and outlook. Much less is known about the lives of Emily and Anne. ……

xxxxx…… Charlotte’s novel Shirley, published in 1849, contains a graphic account of the attack the Luddites made on the mill at Rawfolds in 1812 in which four of the raiders were shot dead. ……

xxxxx…… In 2011, a little book of nineteen pages - written by Charlotte at the age of 14 to entertain her sisters and brother, and containing an incident which she later used in her novel Jane Eyre - was sold for over £690,000. ……

xxxxx…… The Reverend Bronte was a somewhat strange, stern man. He certainly instilled in his daughters a love of books and writing, but he was opposed to them having any feminine finery, and, by all accounts, insisted on a diet of potatoes in the belief that this made them hardy. ……

xxxxx…… The Rectory at Haworth, where the sisters were brought up, is now a museum, dedicated to their lives and works, and there is a joint memorial to all three in Westminster Abbey, London. All the family are buried in Haworth Church except for Anne, who is buried in the seaside resort of Scarborough, where she had gone to convalesce.

xxxxxThe novelist Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) met Charlotte Bronte in 1850, and later visited her at her Yorkshire home in Haworth. She wrote a frank but sympathetic biography of her friend in 1857, two years after her death.

xxxxxGaskell was born in London, but was brought up by an aunt in the small Cheshire village of Knutsford. She married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, in 1832 and from then on gave much of her time to helping the poor and needy in the slums of Manchester. In 1848 she gained literary fame with her novel Mary Barton, a work describing in harrowing detail the plight of the working classes in the city’s expanding industries. Her most popular novel, Cranford, published in instalments from 1853, and providing a series of sketches of life in a small northern town, was closely modelled on her early days in Knutsford. Among her other novels were The Moorland Cottage of 1850, Ruth of 1853, and North and South, published in 1855, another “utterance”, as she put it, on behalf of the poor. Her concern with social issues won her the friendship of Charles Dickens, and her works were particularly admired by the politician Benjamin Disraeli and the writers Thomas Carlyle and William Thackeray.


Elizabeth Gaskell