The Brontës: the unfortunate and unlikely tale of the world’s “greatest literary sisters”

From History Extra:

Charlotte Brontë steps into her father’s study. In her hand, she holds a book – a hardback volume bound in cloth, with the words ‘Jane Eyre’ stamped on the cover. “Papa, I’ve been writing a book,” she announces, rather understating the true matter of her achievement. In fact, her novel is completed, published, and is selling at almost record speed. “Have you my dear?” the unsuspecting Reverend Patrick Brontë replies, without looking up. As Charlotte continues, the clergyman slowly realises that his daughter has become a literary sensation, in secret, right under his nose. After some time, Patrick calls in Charlotte’s younger sisters, Emily and Anne: “Charlotte has been writing a book – and I think it is better than I expected.” It is good that he approves of Charlotte’s tale, because he’s about to learn that his other daughters have similar stories to tell…

This conversation, recounted by Patrick years later to Charlotte’s first biographer, occurred at the beginning of 1848. It was a tumultuous year for the Brontës, with glorious highs and tragic lows. But at this point, the Brontë women were happy, little knowing that they were on the brink of legendary – if short-lived – careers. They have since become famed the world over for their intense, dramatic and tragic novels, for which they had plenty of inspiration in their own lives…

. . . .

The tragedies started early for the Brontës. In 1821, when Charlotte was five, Emily was three and Anne was not yet two, they lost their mother to illness. Four years after that, their two eldest sisters both died of tuberculosis in as many months. Five Brontës remained: their father Patrick, an Irish-born, Cambridge-educated vicar, the girls, and their brother Branwell, who was a year younger than Charlotte. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Branwell, also lived with them in the parsonage of the industrial town of Haworth, Yorkshire. The unassuming grey-stone building, in its bleak setting between a graveyard and the vast expanse of the moors, became a much-loved home, to which the sisters always felt a painful pull.

. . . .

Over the next few years, the sisters took up various, generally short-lived, teaching positions. “All three girls hated being teachers and governesses,” says Barker, largely as “they couldn’t spare the time to write about their imaginary worlds, and Charlotte in particular resented the servility of the position.” Anne was the only one to maintain a long-term post, as governess to the Robinson family from 1840-45. Shortly after Anne joined the Robinsons, Charlotte spearheaded a scheme to open their own school. For this they needed a more sophisticated education so, in February 1842, Charlotte (aged 25) and Emily (23), went to a school in Brussels.

. . . .

They pushed through their homesickness to make the most of the opportunity, only returning at the end of 1842 after Aunt Branwell died. Afterwards, Charlotte returned to Brussels alone. She became forlorn and depressed, and also fell in love with her tutor. The painfully one-sided attachment would continue long after she left Brussels at the end of 1843. Back in Haworth, lovelorn Charlotte set about sourcing pupils for the school, but none were found and the entire dream was dropped, with surprisingly little regret.

. . . .

In autumn 1845, Charlotte found some of Emily’s poems and read them, uninvited. Emily was enraged by the intrusion, but the incident gave head-strong Charlotte an idea – if the sisters could gather a collection of poems, they might be able to publish in secret and, if successful, they could become professional writers. They would never have to teach again, nor would they have to worry so much about Branwell’s ability to provide. After calming Emily, Charlotte, who as Barker explains “was the only one ambitious for fame,” convinced her sisters of the plan.

Link to the rest at History Extra