Brontë Sisters: Biographical Sketch & Literary Contribution

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      Brontës Lives : Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were the daughters of an Irish clergyman, Patrick Brontë, who held a living in Yorkshire. Financial difficulties compelled Charlotte to become a school-teacher (1835-1838) and then a governess. Along with Emily she visited Brussels in 1842, and then returned home, where family cares kept her closely tied. Later her books had much success, and she was released from many of her financial worries. She was married in 1854, but died in the next year. Her two younger sisters had predeceased her.

Their Lives : Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were the daughters of an Irish clergyman, Patrick Brontë, who held a living in Yorkshire. Financial difficulties compelled Charlotte to become a school-teacher (1835-1838) and then a governess. Along with Emily she visited Brussels in 1842, and then returned home, where family cares kept her closely tied. Later her books had much success, and she was released from many of her financial worries. She was married in 1854, but died in the next year. Her two younger sisters had predeceased her.

      Emily's Parents. Emily's father was an Irish man and a priest of the Church of England. It was while he was at Cambridge that Patrick Branty, as his surname is spelled in the list of admissions, changed it to Bronte, but it was not till later that he signed himself Patrick Bronte. He was appointed to a curacy at Wethersfield in Essex and later took a curacy at Wellington in Shropshire before shifting to Hartshead at Yorkshire. There he met and married Maria Branwell a gentle, loving, delicate woman belonging to a respectable middle-class family. While still at Hartshead Mrs. Bronte had two children and they were named Maria and Elizabeth.

      Then Mr. Bronte was appointed to still another curacy, this time near Bradford, and here Mrs. Bronte had four more children. They were named Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne. A year before his marriage Mr. Bronte had published at his own expense a volume of verse entitled Cottage Poems, and a year after that another, The Rural Minstrel. While living near Bradford he wrote a novel, called The Cottage in the Wood. People who have read these productions say that they are devoid of merit.

      The Move to Haworth and the Death of Emily's Mother. In 1820 Mr. Bronte was appointed to the "perpetual curacy" of Haworth, a Yorkshire village, and there he remained, his ambitions, one may suppose, satisfied, till his death. He never went back to Ireland to see the parents, brothers and sisters he had left there, but as long as she lived he sent his mother twenty pounds a year.

      In 1821, after nine years of marriage, Maria Bronte died of cancer. The widower persuaded his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, to leave Penzance, where she lived, to come and look after his six children. Haworth Parsonage was a small brownstone house on the brow of the steep hill down which the village straggled. There was a tiny strip garden in front of it and behind, and, on either side, the graveyard. Biographers of the Brontes have thought this depressing, and to a doctor, it might have been, but a clergyman may well have thought it an edifying and even a consoling sight.

      The Influence of the Moors. A narrow pathway led from the house to the moor. With the idea, perhaps barely conscious, of making the story of the Brontes more poignant, it has been customary for authors to write as though it were always bleak, bitterly cold and dreary at Haworth. But, of course, even in winter there were days of blue sky and brilliant sunshine, when the frosty air was invigorating, and meadows, moor and woods were painted in the tender colours of pastel. Emily's poems and Wuthering Heights tell how thrilling the spring was on the moor, and how rich in beauty and how sensuous in summer.

      A Satisfactory Life. The hardships and loneliness of life at the parsonage have been made too much of. The talented sisters seem to have been quite satisfied with it and indeed, if they ever stopped to consider their father's origin, they may well have thought themselves far from unlucky. They were neither better nor worse off than hundreds of parsons daughters all over England whose lives were as isolated and whose means as limited. The Brontes had as neighbors, clergymen within walking distance, gentry, mill-owners and manufacturers in a small way, with whom they might have consorted; and if they lived secluded lives it was by choice. They were not rich, but neither were they poor. Mr. Bronte's benefice provided him with a house and two hundred pounds a year, his wife had fifty pounds a year which, on her death, he presumably inherited, and Elizabeth Branwell, when she came to live at Haworth, brought her fifty pounds a year with her. The household thus had three hundred pounds a year to dispose of, which at that time was worth at least twelve hundred pounds now. The Brontes generally had two maids and whenever there was pressure of work, girls were brought in from the village to help.

      Their Education. In 1824 Mr. Bronte took his four elder daughters to a school at Cowan Bridge. It had been recently established to give an education to the daughters of poor clergymen. The place was unhealthy, the food bad and the administration incompetent. The two elder girls died, and Charlotte and Emily, whose health was affected, were, though strangely enough only removed after another term. Such schooling as they got, from then on, seems to have been given to them by their aunt. Mr. Bronte thought more of his son than of the three girls and, indeed, Branwell was looked upon as the clever one of the family. Mr. Bronte would not send him to school, but undertook his education himself.

      When Charlotte was just under sixteen, she went to school once more, this time at Roe head, and was happy there; but after a year she came “home again to teach her two younger sisters. Though the family, were not so poor as has been made out, the girls had nothing to look forward to Mr. Bronte's stipend would naturally cease at his death, and Miss Branwell was leaving the little money she had to her amusing nephew; they decided, therefore, that the only way they could earn living was by training themselves to be governesses or school-mistresses. At that time there was no other calling open to women who looked upon themselves as ladies.

      Emily's Schooling. Charlotte had returned to Roe Head as a teacher, and taken Emily with her as a pupil. But Emily became so desperately homesick that she fell ill, and had to be sent home: Anne, who was of a calmer, more submissive temper, took her place. Charlotte held her job for three years, at the end of which, her health failing, she too went home.

      Branwell was not only a source of worry, but a source of expense; and Charlotte, as soon as she was well enough, felt herself obliged to take — a situation as a nursery governess.

      Four years later, Emily and Charlotte set out for Brussels, where they became pupils at the Pensiormat at Heger. After ten months they were recalled to England by the illness of Miss Branwell who died leaving a small inheritance to her nieces. Emily staved hack at Haworth while Charlotte returned to Brussels.

      The Setting up of a School. At the end of her term in Brussels, Charlotte returned and the sisters established a school of their own in accordance with their, original plan, but it came to nothing, because no students came forward to enroll in the school.

      The Works of the Brontes. They had been writing off and on since they were children, and in 1846 the three of them published a volume of verse at their own expense under the names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. It cost them fifty pounds, and two copies were sold. Each of them then wrote a novel. Charlotte's (Currer Bell) was called The Professor, Emily's (Ellis Bell) Wuthering Heights and Anne's (Acton Bell) Agnes Grey. They were refused by publisher after publisher; but when Smith, Elder & Co., to whom Charlotte's The Professor had finally been sent, returned it, they wrote to say that they would be glad to consider a longer novel by her. She was finishing one, and within a month was able to send it to the publishers. They accepted it It was called Jane Eyre. Emily's novel, and Anne's, had also at last been accepted by a publisher, Newby by name, "on terms somewhat impoverishing to the two authors", and they had corrected the proofs before Charlotte sent Jane Eyre to Smith, Elder & Co. Though the reviews of Jane Eyre were not particularly good, readers liked it and it became a best-seller. Mr. Newby, upon this, tried to persuade the public that Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, which he then published together in three volumes, were by the author of Jane Eyre. They made, however, no impression, and indeed were regarded by a number of critics as early and immature works by Currer Bell.

      The Death of Emily's Brother. Patrick Branwell the spoilt son of the family, became an addict to drugs and drinking, had an affair with a Mrs. Robinson in whose house Anne worked as a governess, and died prematurely in 1848 at the age of thirty-one.

      Illness and Death of Emily. Emily never went out of doors after the Sunday following her brother's death. She had a cold and a cough. It grew worse, and Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey: "I fear she has pain in the chest, and I sometimes catch a shortness in her breathing, when she has moved at all quickly. She looks very, very thin and pale. Her reserved nature causes one great, uneasiness of mind. It is useless to question her; you get no answer. It is still more useless to recommend remedies; they are never adopted." A week or two later, Charlotte wrote to another friend: "I would fain hope that Emily is a little better this evening, but it is difficult to ascertain this. She is a real stoic in illness; she neither seeks nor will accept sympathy. To put any questions, to offer any aid, is to annoy; she will not yield a step before pain or sickness till forced; not one of her ordinary avocations will she voluntarily renounce. You must look on and see her do what she is unfit to do, and not dare say a word..." One morning Emily got up as usual, dressed herself and began to sew; she was short of breath and her eyes were glazed, but she went on working. She grew steadily worse. She had always refused to see a doctor, but at last, at midday, asked that one should be sent for. It was too late. At two she died.

      The Death of Anne. Charlotte was at work on another novel, Shirley, but she put it aside to nurse Anne, who was attacked by what was then known as galloping consumption, the disease from which Branwell and Emily had died, and did not finish it till after the gentle creature's death only five months after Emily's

      Clarlotte's Marriage and Death. After Anne's death Charlotte went to London in 1849 and 1850, and was made much of, she was introduced to Thackeray and had her portrait painted by. George Richmond. A Mr. James Taylor, a member of the firm of Smith, Elder, whom she described as a stern and abrupt little man, asked her to marry him, but she refused. Before that, two young clergymen had proposed to her, only to be rejected, and two or three curates, her father's or those of neighboring parsons, had shown her marked attention, in 1854 she married Rev. Arthur Nicholls a curate of her father. She was then 38. She died in childbirth nine months later.

      The Death of Emily's Father. Rev. Patrick Bronte, having buried his wife, her sister and his 6 children died at Haworth at the age of 84.

       Their Works : (a) Charlotte Brontë: Charlotte's first novel, The Professor, failed to find a publisher and only appeared in 1857 after her death. Following the experiences of her own life in an uninspired manner, the story lacks interest, and the characters are not created with the passionate insight which distinguishes her later portraits. Jane Eyre (1847) is her greatest novel. The love story of the plain, but very vital, heroine is unfolded with a frank truthfulness and a depth of understanding that are new in English fiction. The plot is weak, full of improbability, and often melodramatic, but the main protagonists are deeply conceived, and the novel rises to moments of sheer terror. In her next novel, Shirley (1849), Charlotte Brontë reverts to a' more normal and less impassioned portrayal of life. Again the theme is the love story of a young girl, here delicately told, though the plot construction is weak. Villette (1853) is written in a reminiscent vein, and the character of Lucy Snowe is based on the author herself.

      The truth and intensity of Charlotte's work are unquestioned; she can see and judge with the eye of a genius. But these merits have their disadvantages. In the plots of her novels she is largely restricted to her own experiences; her high seriousness is unrelieved by any humour; and her passion is at times over-charged to the point of frenzy. But to the novel she brought an energy and passion that gave to commonplace people the wonder and beauty of the romantic world.

      Fundamental to all of Charlotte's novels is the pupil-master relationship, which is her rationalization, based on her own limited experience of life outside Haworth, of one of the commonest sexual dreams of women: the desire to be mastered, but to be mastered by a man so lofty in, his scorn for women as to make the very fact of being mastered a powerful adjunct to the woman's self-esteem. It is a fantasy with obvious affinities with the Cinderella story: the man stoops down, as it were, from a great height. But it goes a step beyond the Cinderella story in sophistication. The woman triumphs not merely because she compels the proud man to stoop. Phyllis Bentley has argued that Jane Eyre is much more than "a mere Escape' romance" because Jane does not enjoy a complete, unreal triumph: she is left with a half-blind husband. It would indeed be absurd to condemn Jane Eyre as a novel of escape, yet that Rochester should be half-blind and almost helpless at the end is the sign of the uncompromising nature of Charlotte Bronte's fantasy: the proud man is struck in his pride by Nemesis. When he is helpless it is the woman's turn to stoop; Rochester's mutilation is the symbol of Jane's triumph in the battle of the sexes.

      (b) Emily Brontë: Though she wrote less than Charlotte, Emily Brontë is in some ways the greatest of the three sisters. Her one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), is unique in English literature. It breathes the very spirit of the wild, desolate moors. Its chief characters are conceived in gigantic proportions, and their passions have an elemental force which carries them into the realms of poetry, In a series of climaxes the sustained intensity of the novel is carried to almost unbelievable peaks of passion, described with a stark, unflinching realism.

      A few of her poems reach the very highest levels, though the majority lack distinction. They reveal the great courage and strength of her passionate nature, and, at her best, she uses simple verse forms with great intensity and a certain grandeur. Her finest poems are probably "No Coward Soul is Mine" and "Cold in the earth, and the deep snow piled above thee."

      (c) Anne Brontë: is by far the least important figure of the three. Her two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), are much inferior to those o aer sisters, for she lacks nearly all their power and intensity.

      With the exception only of Dickens, the Brontes have proved the most widely popular of English novelists. One reason for this is doubtless die story of their lives with its circumstances of loneliness and tragedy. It haunts the memory of all who encounter it like a powerful romantic novel, but a novel which if written would certainly appear too romantic, charged with too great an intensity, to be convincing; four geniuses and four tragic deaths in one novel are too many. The Brontes, then, have become the objects of a cult; it is natural enough that should be so, though it makes more difficult the estimation of Charlotte's worth as a novelist; Emily's worth not even the most idolatrous worship can affect.

      We know a great deal about the self-contained, self-absorbed early family life of the Brontes in the isolation of the rectory at Haworth; we know how they grew up in the private worlds of day-dream, the ideal universes of the Great Glass Town of Angria, which was originally the common property of the four of them but later shared by Charlotte and Branwell only, and the Gondal of Emily and Anne. The booklets which contain them, of which a hundred survive, amounting in length to the total published output of the three sisters, have enormous value for the light they throw on the psychology of literary creation; yet the novels themselves are as revelatory. They are the products of immense solitude, of the imagination turned inwards upon itself, and of ignorance of the world outside Haworth and literature. With Emily, this does not matter: Wuthering Heights is a work of art self-contained and complete as very few novels are: one can only read and wonder. It is perhaps the index of Charlotte's achievement, however, that she needs to be read in adolescence; come to her work after that and a considerable act of imagination is called for before she can be read with sympathy.

      Their Importance in the History of the Novel : With the Brontës the forces which had transformed English poetry at the beginning of the century were first felt in the novel. They were the pioneers in fiction of that aspect of the romantic movement which concerned itself with the baring of the human soul. In place of the detached observation of a society or group of people, such as we find in Jane Austen and the earlier novelists, the Brontës painted the sufferings of an individual personality, and presented a new conception of the heroine as a woman of vital strength and passionate feelings. Their works are as much the products of the imagination and emotions as of the intellect, and in their more powerful passages they border on poetry. In their concern with the human soul they were to be followed by George Eliot and Meredith. The following extract is taken from Wuthering Heights. In the heroine's declaration of the intensity of her passion for Heathcliff we see the heart of a woman laid bare with a startling frankness and depth of understanding. The lyrical tone, bordering on poetry, is new in the English novel.

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