Imagine the odds against two sisters of
nearly the same age
becoming famous authors. Imagine the greater odds of that happening in
a time when writing for women was strictly taboo. Now imagine that it
happened not to two but to three sisters. It was an absolutely
monumental feat. But the Brontė
sisters were absolutely extraordinary
On April 21, 1816, Charlotte Brontė was born in Thornton,
Yorkshire, in the north of England. She was the eldest surviving child of
the Reverend Patrick Brontė and his wife, Maria. She had at the
time a brother, Branwell, and two sisters, Emily and Anne. Following the death of
her mother and two eldest siblings, Brontė and her remaining brother and sisters spent much of their play time inventing elaborately detailed
fantasies about imaginary kingdoms built around Branwell's toy soldiers.
They named their worlds Angria and Gondal.
attended the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in 1824, but the
conditions there were harsh, and she returned home the following year.
In 1831, she was enrolled at Roe Head, where she later worked as a teacher
until she fell ill. Suffering from melancholia, she gave up her
teaching post. Future attempts to earn a living as a governess were
equally disappointing, owing to Brontė's nearly disabling shyness, an
ignorance of "normal" children, and her burning desire to be with her
Upon returning to their home at Haworth, Brontė and her two sisters
decided to found their own
school and set about the arduous task. They
opened the doors in 1844, but nobody came. Their advertisements
had failed to enlist a single enrollment.
The following year, Brontė accidentally found and read some of Emily's
poems. She said of them, "They stirred my heart like the sound of a
trumpet....I know no woman that ever lived ever wrote such poetry before."
She decided to publish a selection of all three sisters' poems under the
pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book, entitled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell,
came out in
1846, selling only two copies.
But the experience spurred the women
on to begin writing novels. Brontė completed The Professor,
which went unpublished throughout her lifetime. But the following year, her Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey
were all published, still under pseudonyms. Jane Eyre was an
immediate success. Brontė dedicated the book to William Makepeace
Thackeray, who described it as "the masterwork of a great genius."
The book was largely based on Brontė's real-world experiences.
In her work, Brontė, who is often considered
the best writer of the three, introduced a new type of heroine to English
literature. No empty-headed target of their fate, Brontė's women
refused to accept the traditional role of
female subservience. The novel severely criticized the limited options
open to educated but impoverished women.
While the overnight success of the Brontė sisters was
remarkable, it was also short-lived. In 1848, Brontė and Anne visited their London publishers, where they
revealed their true identities. That same year, Branwell, who
had become an alcoholic and an opium addict, died. Emily died shortly
thereafter, and Anne soon followed.
After months of grieving,
Brontė returned to London, where she was introduced to the city's
literary circles. She met Thackeray, whom she had long admired, as
well as other
popular writers of the day. She also met the Rev. A. B. Nicholls, her
curate at Haworth, who was immediately taken by her. He proposed
marriage in 1852, but her father bitterly opposed the union, and
Brontė--who didn't love the man in any event--turned him down.
Nicholls left Haworth the following year, the same year in which Brontė's
"When Easter, with its duties arising out of sermons to be preached by
strange clergymen who had afterwards to be entertained at the Parsonage,
-- with Mechanics' Institute Meetings, and school tea-drinkings, was over
and gone; she came, at the close of April , to visit us in
Manchester. We had a friend, a young lady, staying with us. Miss
Brontė had expected to find us alone; and although our friend was gentle
and sensible after Miss Brontė's own heart, yet her presence was enough to
create a nervous tremour. I was aware that both of our guests were
unusually silent; and I saw a little shiver run from time to time over
Miss Brontė's frame. I could account for the modest reserve of the
young lady; and the next day Miss Brontė told me how the unexpected sight
of a strange face had affected her." - from Life of Charlotte
Brontė (1857) by Elizabeth Gaskell
In 1854, Brontė's father weakened in
his opposition to his daughter's marriage to Nichols, and Brontė and Nicholls were engaged.
Nicholls returned as curate at Haworth, and he and Brontė were married, although
it seems clear that she still didn't love him.
same year, Brontė, expecting a child, caught pneumonia. It was an
illness that might have been cured, but she seemed by then to have given up
on life. She said, "It is in vain to say human beings ought to be
satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if
they cannot find it."
Following a long and painful illness, Charlotte Brontė died
on March 31, 1855, leaving behind a literary legacy that will last forever.
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