The Bronte Sisters

Three writers who influenced the direction of the English novel also happened to be sisters. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte were all born in Thornton, England in the early 1800s. Their father Patrick was born in Ireland, educated in England, and became an Anglican clergyman. He and his wife had six children. The two oldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth died before reaching adulthood. Of the remaining children, Charlotte was the eldest, born April 21, 1816; followed by brother Patrick Branwell, born June 26, 1817; then Emily, born July 30, 1818; and Anne, born January 17, 1820.

Shortly after Anne's birth, their father accepted a position in Haworth, located within the Yorkshire moors. Mrs. Bronte died soon after reaching Haworth, and the children were cared for by an aunt named Elizabeth Branwell. In 1824, Charlotte and Emily were sent to Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, but they returned within a year. The treatment at Cowan Bridge was considered harsh, and Charlotte later modeled Lowood School (Jane Eyre) after it.

For the next several years, the Bronte children were taught at home. They invented games and told imaginary stories to each other. Charlotte attended Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head for one year in 1831, then returned home and taught her sisters. Charlotte returned to Roe Head as a teacher in 1835, but after suffering from depression and ill health, she resigned from her position. It was at Roe Head that Charlotte met her lifelong friend Ellen Nussey. Her many letters to Nussey have served as the best documentation of her life.

The Bronte sisters worked in various schools during the next few years. Anne worked briefly as a governess in 1839 and from 1841-1845. Emily spent several months teaching at Miss Patchett's school at Law Hill. Charlotte and Emily had plans to open their own school at Haworth, and in 1842, they traveled to Brussels at their aunt's expense to learn German and improve their French. When their aunt died 8 months later, the sisters returned for the funeral. Emily never returned to Brussels, but Charlotte returned as a pupil-teacher. Her time in Belgium was not happy, in part because of her attraction to her married employer. Charlotte returned to Haworth the next year. The dream of opening a school was never realized.

In the fall of 1845, Charlotte discovered some poems written by Emily. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne soon realized they had all been secretly writing verse. The next year, they published a book of poems at their own expense entitled Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The pseudonyms were chosen to match the first letter of their names. They only sold two copies of the book, but each sister already had additional writing plans in the works.

Charlotte's first attempt at the novel was entitled The Professor, but the story was rejected by publishers. Her second attempt was published in October, 1847. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was an immediate success. Several months later Anne's Agnes Grey and Emily's Wuthering Heights were published together in three volumes. The popularity of the Bronte novels allowed Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be published shortly thereafter.

The next year was one of tragedy for the Bronte sisters. Their brother Branwell, an unstable man with a history of drunkenness and opium use died in September 1848. Emily then fell ill and died of tuberculosis December 19, 1848. Anne soon followed, contracting tuberculosis that same year and dying May 28, 1949. Charlotte continued to live virtually alone at Haworth, where she completed Shirley: A Tale.

Over the next few years, Charlotte traveled to London several times as a guest of her publisher. She met novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, was painted by portrait artist George Richmond, and met her future biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. In 1853, Charlotte published Villette.

During this period, Charlotte also accepted an offer of marriage from her father's curate Arthur Bell Nicholls. She had rejected three previous offers from other suitors, but on June 29, 1854, she and Nicholls were wed. They enjoyed brief happiness. After returning to Haworth, Charlotte fell ill during pregnancy. She died March 31, 1855. Her first novel The Professor was published posthumously in 1857, and an unfinished work entitled Emma was published in 1860.

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