Sometimes a family is classed as “artistic” or “literary,” and such a title certainly belongs to the Brontes, particularly the Bronte sisters. The Brontes included Charlotte, Emily and Anne who were born respectively in 1816, 1818, and 1820. Two older sisters were born in 1815 and 1816, and the sole brother, Branwell, was a year younger than Charlotte. Of the family, Charlotte was the eldest when she died, at the age of 39. Emily was 30, Anne 29, and Branwell 31, when they met their deaths, primarily from consumptive or tubercular illness. The two eldest daughters died at the ages of 10 and 11.
What makes the Brontes unique is that the three daughters were avid writers, really from the time they were children. Branwell’s toy soldiers inspired the children to create an imaginary world called Angria, which they talked about, played around and certainly wrote about. Children of a clergyman who also published work, the Brontes were quite literate, and their imaginary world grew into a strong aptitude for writing, which later came to fruition in their published works.
History and legend have often depicted the Brontes as lonely geniuses, bereft of their mother at an early age, and subject to the cruelty of an insane father. It’s clear in contemporary times that such legends are exaggerated. The Reverend Patrick Bronte was certainly no contender for father of the year, but many of the strange acts attributed to him in the past, like destroying his wife’s dress as she lay dying, are certainly myths. Critics and literary historians sometimes feel today that the children were purposefully lonely, preferring best each other’s company, and finding the most comfort in imaginary worlds and writing together or separately.
Inspiration from their childhood was not hard to find. Charlotte and Emily attended Roe Head Charity School, with their two eldest sisters, who both died of an illness that swept the school. Later, Roe Head was discovered to have been badly managed, depriving the students there of food or decent living conditions. Changes were made and Charlotte returned there again as a student and then briefly as a teacher. Roe Head is thought to definitely have inspired the school, Lowood, in Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre.
Additionally, the sisters were deeply attached to their brother Branwell, who became a raging alcoholic in his 20s. Many of the male characters in each of the Bronte’s novels show essential weaknesses and tendencies toward self-destruction. These characters may have been influenced by the terrible fate of Branwell.
It’s rare though to find three sisters who all became published authors. Their first published work was a book of poems, written under the synonyms, Curer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The book received little attention, though some of the work of Ellis, or Emily, has since been anthologized. More success was reached when in 1847, the Brontes each published a major work: Jane Eyre by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and Agnes Grey by Anne. Of these novels, only Jane Eyre received much in the way of critical praise. Emily and Anne’s books were considered morbid and “coarse,” and Charlotte furthered this myth upon their deaths by depicting them as uneducated girls who merely made mistakes in their writing.
Today, of course, Jane Eyre is considered to be one of the master works of the Victorian period, and Wuthering Heights has become one of the most popular gothic novels ever written. Anne’s work has increasingly garnered attention and interest. Particularly her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has shown promise as possible inclusion in the literary canon.
The Brontes, then, can be said to have been an extraordinary literary family, with certainly tragic ends to their lives. Emily and Branwell died the same year, and Anne one year later. Charlotte survived her younger siblings by nearly a decade, continuing to write and publishing arguably some of the most interesting work of her time, including the novels Shirley, and Villette. Questions will always exist about what inspired virtually a whole family to become so incredibly artistic — questions which may never be fully answered.