Last reviewed: June 2018
April 21, 1816
Thornton, Yorkshire, England
March 31, 1855
Haworth, Yorkshire, England
On December 29, 1812, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, incumbent of Hartshead, Yorkshire (originally of County Down, in Ireland), was married in Guiseley Church to Maria Branwell, a Cornish lady then visiting in the home of her uncle, the Reverend John Fennell. Little more than seven years later, having in the meantime served a ministry in Thornton, he was appointed perpetual curate of Haworth, and the family moved there in April 1820. Eighteen months later Mrs. Brontë died of cancer, leaving six small children—Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—ranging in age from seven years to twenty months. Elizabeth Branwell, Mrs. Brontë’s eldest sister, thereupon came from Penzance to take care of the children. Charlotte Brontë
In late summer of 1824, the four older girls became pupils of the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. Precocious in mind but shy in spirit and frail in body, they fell victims to the severity of its routine. Maria and Elizabeth succumbed to tuberculosis and were taken home to die, Maria on May 6, and Elizabeth on June 15, 1825. Charlotte and Emily were immediately recalled, and thereafter the parsonage children knew no formal school room until Charlotte, at the age of fourteen, entered Miss Margaret Wooler’s school near Roe Head. Their father took overall responsibility for the children’s education. Left much to their own devices, the children found endless entertainment in creative plays that continued from day to day. Shortly after Charlotte’s tenth birthday, they launched a new play centering on twelve wooden soldiers; this absorbed all other household plays and, becoming a permanent imaginary world of escape, nourished and shaped the personalities and talents of the children. They not only created heroes who performed great deeds but, turning authors, artists, and publishers, recorded those deeds in tiny volumes of histories, biographies, novels, poems, and dramas.
In January 1831, Charlotte’s departure for Roe Head interrupted the Young Men’s Play; Emily and Anne took advantage of the break to withdraw from the family group and set up a play of their own called Gondal. Despite Charlotte’s revival of the old creation on her return eighteen months later, and its expansion into a far-flung empire called Angria, the younger girls stayed apart and, from that time on, the Brontë children played and wrote in pairs: Charlotte and Branwell concerned with Angria, Emily and Anne with Gondal.
From 1832 to 1835 the game grew and matured with its creators through an astonishing number of “books.” Branwell’s productions, closely paralleling Charlotte’s in characters and plot, betray his corrupting association with “rough lads of the Village” and the society of the Black Bull Inn. It was time for him to prepare for his chosen work of portrait painting. To help with family expenses, Charlotte, in the late summer of 1835, returned to Miss Wooler’s school as teacher, taking Emily with her as a pupil.
The plan worked out badly. Branwell went to London but did not enter the Royal Academy, as had been planned. Charlotte and Emily, torn from their all-absorbing dream world, which was inseparable from home surroundings, were miserably homesick. Emily fell so ill that Charlotte sent her home and brought Anne to school in her place. Charlotte herself endured for two years until she collapsed. Back home again and absorbed in their writing, she and Emily regained their health and the courage to try again to earn a living away from home. Emily started teaching in a school near Halifax; Charlotte became a nursery governess. Convinced, however, that health and happiness were not to be found away from home, the girls laid plans for a school in the parsonage. To acquire the needed French, they borrowed from Aunt Elizabeth the money for a term of study in Madame Heger’s school in Brussels. Charlotte and Emily entered this school in February 1842, leaving Anne in a position as governess in the Robinson family at Thorp Green, where Branwell later became a tutor. Charlotte and Emily were making satisfactory progress when they were called home by the death of Aunt Elizabeth in October.
The small legacies they received from her enabled the older girls to finish out the year quietly at home. In January 1843, however, Charlotte returned to the Pensionnat Heger as a teacher-pupil. Without Emily she was lonely. Worst of all, increasing weakness of her overstrained eyes raised the specter of blindness and reinforced M. Heger’s frowning advice to give up Angria, the only medium she knew of creative dreaming and writing. Life stretched before her in years of unrelieved teaching, which she loathed.
Broken for a time in health and spirit, she returned to Haworth on New Year’s Day 1844. In the summer of 1845, Branwell, having conceived an infatuation for his employer’s wife, was dismissed from his post. By that time he was a habitual user of alcohol and drugs, and he never recovered from his addictions. Anne returned to the parsonage with him.
At home the sisters found alleviation of their distress in their old creative plays of Angria and Gondal. There is evidence that Charlotte tried by this means to bring her brother back to his old place in the group, but his manuscripts of the period show that she failed.
The order was broken in the fall of 1845, when Charlotte accidentally came upon a manuscript volume of Emily’s poetry, headed “Gondal Poems,” which she read with astonishment at their grandeur and power and the beauty of their “wild, wailing music.” Out of this discovery a joint volume of verse by the three sisters was carefully worked out. For it, each drew from her store of verse (chiefly Angrian and Gondalan) twenty-one pieces and chose a pseudonym to fit her own initials. The small volume, printed with thirty-one pounds and ten shillings from their aunt’s legacy, was titled Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, London, Aylott and Jones, 8 Paternoster Row, 1846. Charlotte records that only two copies were sold. Disappointment turned the girls more determinedly to the novels that were already in progress, which were not drawn from the worlds of Angria and Gondal but novels of realistic setting designed to please a publisher. Yet Charlotte’s The Professor was a skillful and artistic adaptation of portions of the Angrian creation to a Yorkshire-Brussels setting. Emily’s Wuthering Heights showed many recognizable Gondalan features, traceable through her poems. Only Anne’s Agnes Grey, based on her own experience as a governess, had no kinship to her earlier writing. All three retained their previous pseudonyms.
After months of repeated rejections Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted by Thomas Cautley Newby of London. The Professor continued its rounds until it reached the house of Smith, Elder and Company, who returned it but with such encouraging advice that Charlotte, on August 24, 1847, dispatched for their consideration a second novel, Jane Eyre, whose characters and plot incidents derived directly from Angria.
Accepted and then published in the following October, Jane Eyre was an immediate success. Newby now hastened the publication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, encouraging the surmise that they, too, were by the author of Jane Eyre, and that the three Bells were actually one person.
Branwell had meanwhile sunk so far out of family life that he knew nothing of his sisters’ publishing ventures. Through late summer of 1848, he grew rapidly worse, and he died on September 24. Emily caught a cold at his funeral, which passed rapidly into tuberculosis, and she died on December 19. Anne, already ill with tuberculosis, succumbed on May 28, 1849.
Alone in the parsonage with her father, Charlotte returned to her interrupted novel Shirley, which had local Yorkshire color developed through fifteen years of Angrian writing. In November 1852, she began the refining and naturalizing of yet another group of her beloved Angrians against a Belgian background. The result, Villette, was published in January 1853. On June 29, 1854, she married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, but her happiness was of short duration. She died on Easter Eve, March 31, 1855, near the end of her pregnancy.