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The Brontë Family: A Tragic Romance

A recent chance encounter with an old BBC production got me curious about one of my favorite fiction-writing families, the Brontë’s. 

Three of the siblings in the last generation of that name were famous: Anne, Charlotte, and Emily – the latter two remain famous, having written two of the most loved and widely read books of all time: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, respectively.

But their family history reads like one of the Gothic romances of which they write – and more than likely was the inspiration for their tales of wild hearts and dark secrets.

I had a professor in college who was extremely fond of the books, and had more than one theory about incest, abuse, and possibly even schizophrenia that fueled the books.

But let’s back up to a bit of simple history.

Curate Patrick Brontë was married to Maria, and had six children: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. Shortly after Patrick was appointed to a parsonage in Haworth, Yorkshire (England), his wife died. Yorkshire is in the far north of England, in approximately the center of this narrow band of the country. The countryside is relatively bleak, and the moors about which the sisters write is what they grew up with: wild farming country, beautiful but remote.

When her mother died in 1821, Maria, the oldest child, was only seven. Patrick shipped the girls (Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Anne) off to Cowan Bridge School, where they were not happy, and ultimately, Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis and died. The girls’ experience at Cowan Bridge served as a model for Charlotte’s Lowood School that Jane Eyre attended – including the devastation of losing a friend to tuberculosis while there.

After Patrick brought the children home, their Aunt, Elizabeth Branwell (sister to Maria) came to stay at the parsonage and help raise the remaining family. This was the beginning of the imaginative play that served the young writers so well in later years. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne constructed elaborate stories that centered around a set of twelve wooden soldiers given to Branwell.

“The Young Men,” as the soldiers were named, eventually came to live in the kingdom of Glass Town, which evolved into the Empire of Angria. Emily and Anne conjured up Gondal, an island continent in the North Pacific, ruled by a woman. Because their father allowed them to read the various periodicals to which he subscribed, the children had ready sources of both imagination and political influence – which eventually gave the girls the courage to attempt the publication of their books, though under ambiguous pseudonyms.

Charlotte and Emily eventually went to “the Continent,” studying languages, music, writing, arithmetic and drawing. At the school in Brussels where they studied, the wife of the master eventually came to believe Charlotte had fallen in love with her husband (another theme that would show up later in Jane Eyre), and all the world at this time was under the influence of the Romantic era, notably in the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Lord Byron.

Meanwhile, Branwell, the only male issue of Patrick, was the child upon whom the hopes of the family were pinned. A talented writer and artist, he was sent to London to attend the Royal Academy Schools – but never made it. Instead, he squandered the money for this purpose on alcohol and misadventure. My personal theory (granted, only half-developed, and partially informed by my college professor) is that, given the age at which his behavior began to deteriorate, and the pattern of it, he may have been the victim of schizophrenia, which often, tragically, first manifests in young men in their late teens to early 20s.

He, too, was suspected of having an affair with an employer’s wife, and finally returned home in disgrace to die at age 31. It was also the suspicion of my professor – and the theme does present itself in Wuthering Heights, that Branwell also may have been the object of deep affection on the part of one or more of his sisters. He certainly filled the bill of the romantic hero, with his genius, talent, and salvageable, wicked soul.

The girls, in the meantime, had been busy. Charlotte had written Jane Eyre (to enormous success), Shirley, and Vilette, as well as the posthumously published The Professor. Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, and Anne contributed the less well-known but equally delightful Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The sisters published under the pen names Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell, and eventually also published a collection of poetry, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

In Jane Eyre we find the themes of the horrid school the girls attended, and the forbidden love of a governess for her dangerous and mysterious (Branwell?) employer, whose wife is a mad-woman and jealously sets fire to her husband’s bed hangings. In Wuthering Heights, the theme of forbidden love, insanity, alcoholism, and early death are repeated. My professor’s take was that Heathcliffe and Cathy were kept apart because Heathcliffe was her half-brother by her father’s mistress. Their love, if consummated, was sinful and therefore punished in life – and it was only when the child of each with another person (a tangled relationship, to be sure) came together could there be peace in the blighted Wuthering Heights.

In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, themes of lechery, violence, and alcoholism are repeated – but with final redemption at the end.

In 1848, Emily, too, succumbed to tuberculosis, followed soon by Anne, and of the same disease. Finally, only Patrick and Charlotte remained.

In a final, pitiful note, Charlotte marries – and lives one year more, dying of tubercular complications of pregnancy. In many ways, the real story is as tragically romantic as the fiction and poetry the women wrote.

While I suspect that most of you have read at least one of the novels (even if forced to in high school), why not pick one up to while away the long winter nights? I’ll admit to reading each of the books multiple times, and expect to read them at least once more. Each.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.