(left to right) Ann, Emily and Charlotte Brontë. Branwell Brontë. ca. 1834. National Portrait Gallery, London. The redacted image of Branwell remains as a shadowy figure in the center of the portrait.
THE BRONTË FAMILY PORTRAIT
Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell married in December of 1812 and over the next eight years they had five daughters and one son. In 1821, shortly after the birth of her youngest child, Maria died of cancer. Patrick tried to remarry but was unable to find a bride. As a result, the long term care of the children fell to their maternal aunt, Elizabeth Branwell. By all reports, "Aunt Branwell" was reserved and quite firm; nevertheless she was devoted to the well-being of her nieces and nephew. She developed an especially close relationship to the infant Anne with whom she shared a room.
In 1824 their father sent Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily to the school at Cowan Bridge. The conditions at the school were harsh. Students were subjected to mistreatment by the staff as well as hunger and cold. In 1825, at the ages of eleven and ten respectively, Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis. They withdrew from school and returned home, but died shortly afterward. The death of their mother and sisters had a traumatic effect on the Brontë siblings and, many years later, Charlotte used her personal experience of boarding school and death as material for her novel Jane Eyre.
For the five years immediately following the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth, the Brontë children received their education at home from their father, their aunt, and two private music and art instructors. It was during this period that the children developed an imaginary world: the African kingdom of "Angria". The children created extensive characters and stories about Angria which they then meticulously logged in diminutive books. These early stories were the first expressions of their literary talents.
In time, Anne, Emily and Charlotte all went away to school again and eventually all took work as teachers and governesses. One of the last such posts was Anne's employment as governess to the children of Reverend Edmund Robinson and his wife Lydia at Thorp Green [1840-1845]. In 1842 she secured a tutoring position at Thorp Green for her brother Branwell. However, Branwell's affair with Lydia Robinson resulted in his dismissal and Anne's resignation in 1845.
. . . we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine . . . we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.
Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), novelist, poet
It was that summer of 1845, following the employment reversal for Anne and Branwell, that the sisters began working on a collection of poems. This collection was published the next year under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Though the book sold only two copies, each of the sisters soon began writing their first novels. By 1847, all three sisters had published manuscripts under their pen names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell: Wuthering Heights [Emily Brontë/Ellis Bell], Agnes Grey [Anne Brontë/Acton Bell] and Jane Eyre [Charlotte Brontë/Currer Bell]. Following the enormous success of Jane Eyre, there was a public rumor that all three books were the work of one author. In the summer of 1848, Charlotte and Anne traveled to the publishing house of Smith, Elder & Co in London and revealed their three identities as the authors of these novels.
During the year following that trip to London, Branwell, Anne and Emily all died of tuberculosis. After their deaths, Charlotte assumed primary care of her father. Her authorship of Jane Eyre had brought a certain amount of unwelcome notoriety to Charlotte but by living life 'quietly' as the dutiful daughter of her parson father, she was spared some of the intense public scrutiny. On occasion, her publisher even managed to persuade her to visit London where she socialized with the city's literary elite.
Before her death, Charlotte saw two more manuscripts published, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). She married in 1854 and the following year, like her siblings, died of tuberculosis. She was pregnant with her first child.
Patrick Brontë (1777 - 1861), husband of Maria and father of the six Brontë children, was the curate of the Haworth parish. He was the descendant of Irish farmers and studied successfully at Cambridge. He was a sometime writer and poet.
Maria Branwell Brontë (1783 - 1821), wife of Patrick and mother of the six Brontë children, was also the daughter of a prosperous middle class family. She died at the age of thirty-eight, probably from uterine cancer.
Elizabeth Branwell (1776 - 1842), "Aunt Branwell", was the older sister of Maria and after caring for her dying sister, assumed the care of the six Brontë children.
Maria Brontë (1814-1825) was the oldest of the six children. At the age of eleven she died from tuberculosis which she contracted while attending boarding school.
Elizabeth Brontë (1815-1825) was the second oldest of the six children. At the age of ten she died from tuberculosis which she contracted while attending boarding school.
Charlotte Brontë, chalk, George Richmond. circa 1850. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Conventionality is not morality.
Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855) writer, poet, oldest of the three surviving sisters
Charlotte Brontë wrote under two pen names: initially as Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley, later as Currer Bell. She is the only one of the Brontë sisters who received recognition for her work in her lifetime. Her best known novel is Jane Eyre which contains much autobiographical material. For example, she used her personal experience of boarding school at Cowan Bridge in her depiction of Lowood School, the boarding facility which Jane Eyre attends. Charlotte also models Helen Burns, a young girl who dies of consumption at Lowood, after her sisters.
After the deaths of Anne, Emily and Branwell, Charlotte centered her life around her father's care. Her portrayal of female passion and desire in her heroine Jane Eyre had made Charlotte and her novel subject to attack. By living life as the dutiful daughter of her parson father, she was able to know some measure of peace. Despite the cost of her notoriety, on occasion, her publisher managed to persuade her to visit London where she socialized with the city's literary elite.
She saw two more manuscripts published before her death: Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). In June 1854, at the age of thirty-eight, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nichols, the vicar of Haworth. She was in the early stages of pregnancy the following spring when she contracted tuberculosis and died. She is the only literary Brontë to receive significant recognition in her lifetime.
WORKS OF CHARLOTTE BRONTË
The Green Dwarf, A Tale of the Perfect Tense (1833)
Tales of Angria (1834)
Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846)
Jane Eyre (1847)
The Professor (published posthumously 1857)
Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817 – 1848) was a painter, writer and occasional worker. As an adult, he developed an addiction to alcohol and laudanum. [Anne used the experience of Branwell's addiction as a model for a character in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.] In 1848, at the age of 31, he contracted tuberculosis and died.
Emily Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë. date unknown.
I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.
Emily Brontë (1818-48) writer, poet, second of the three surfing sisters
Emily Brontë was an extremely introverted individual who had few friends and was drawn to the mystical. Little of her juvenile writing survives. However, her adult poetry was the inspiration for the collection which the sisters published in 1846.
She is best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights. It was first published as two volumes of a three volume set which included Agnes Grey. The first edition credited Ellis Bell with its authorship. After Charlotte and Anne revealed the true identities of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in 1848, there were some who still believed that Branwell must have written Wuthering Heights. This skepticism was due to the intensely passionate nature of the text, which contemporary readers thought could only be written by a man and not a sheltered and retiring woman.
Shortly after the funeral of her brother Branwell in 1848, Emily became ill. She refused all medical attention, contracted tuberculosis, and died three months later. In 1850, Charlotte published Wuthering Heights as a stand alone novel and under her sister's real name. The complex approach to the structure of time, coupled with the use of layered narrative, made this novel one ahead of its time. It is also this innovation which may make Emily the most gifted of the three Brontë writers.
WORKS OF EMILY BRONTË
Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846)
Wuthering Height (1847)
Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë. 1834.
My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring.
Anne Brontë (1820-49), writer, poet, youngest of the three surviving sisters
Anne Brontë wrote under the pen name of Acton Bell. Her major works were two novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Her writer's voice was both realistic and ironic, a style very dissimilar from her sisters' decidedly Romantic approach. Though her novels are not as popular as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, they are considered among the classics of English literature.
Of the three sisters who survived into adulthood, Anne was also the most intensely spiritual. She was especially close to her maternal aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who helped shape her religious thinking. A Christian Universalist, Anne believed that all souls will eventually be saved.
Shortly after the death of her sister Emily in December of 1848, Anne contracted influenza. She never recovered fully and in May 1849, while traveling for her health, Anne died of consumption at the age of 29.
WORKS OF ANNE BRONTË
Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846)
Agnes Grey (1847)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)