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 - Jasmijn Groot -

Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Anne Brontë (1821-1848) were three English poets and writers whose stories became successful due to their passion and originality, and are today considered masterpieces of English literature


The sisters were born from the union between the Irish parson Patrick Brontë and the English Maria Branwell. Patrick's original surname was Brunty and he was the eldest of ten children from a poor farming family. The children received no formal education, but with the family's four books, Patrick taught himself to read. A scholarship allowed him to study theology in England in the early 19th century, where he formally changed his name to Brontë. Maria Branwell came from a prosperous merchant family from Penzance, Cornwall. Having lost both her parents, she moved to Yorskshire in 1812 to help her aunt run his Methodist school. There, she met Patrick, who also worked at a school. The two fell in love instantly and married within three months. Together they had six children: Mary Jr, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily and Anne.

The young family moved to Thornton in 1815, where Patrick was appointed parson and enjoyed a better income. In 1820, they moved to Haworth, where they moved into the parsonage next to the church, which now houses the main museum about the Brontë family. Maria died of uterine cancer in 1821, when Emily and Anne were still babies. Maria's older sister Elizabeth moved in with Patrick and the six children to assist with the household and rearing of the kids. Patrick made at least three marriage proposals to three different women, perhaps to relieve Elizabeth of the duties she had taken on. But in vain, the proposals led to nothing and Patrick remained a widower for the rest of his life. Elizabeth continued to live with the family until her death in 1842. She was described as a woman who knew better than anyone else what was going on in Haworth and maintained strict regularity in the lives of the Brontë family.

The parsonage in Haworth, where the Brontë family lived between 1820 and 1861. Photo: Jasmijn Groot (2024)

The children were educated at home by Patrick and Elizabeth, until Patrick sent the girls - with the exception of Anne, who was still too young - to the Clergy Daughters' School in Lancashire in 1824. This school provided education for the children of impoverished parish families and as such was a solution for Patrick and Elizabeth, who were overwhelmed in bringing up six children by themselves. However, living conditions were not great at the school and the eldest daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, became seriously ill. They both died of tuberculosis in 1825. The loss left a lasting impression on the family. Charlotte and Emily were immediately removed from the school and received their education back home.

St Michael & All Angels Church in Haworth. Photo: Jasmijn Groot (2024)

All four of the Brontë children were educated in literature, poetry, languages, drawing and music. In doing so, Patrick made little distinction between his daughters and his only son. He felt that women were just as intelligent as men and that his daughters were therefore just as deserving of an education. Moreover, Patrick, who had been able to improve his position in life through education, was convinced that his children would also have good opportunities in life. However, it seems that both Patrick and his daughters saw the only boy in the family, Branwell, as a true genius and expected great things from him. The pressure of those expectations was certainly further fuelled by the presence of numerous poetic and theological publications by Patrick's hand in the house.

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne grew up isolated within the walls of the parsonage and made few friends outside their own families. Emily in particular was shy and withdrawn, and had little need for social contacts outside the Brontë household. The children did become close among themselves. The love of literature and poetry their father instilled in them came to life after Branwell received a box of toy soldiers as a gift. The children began making up fantasy stories for the puppets set in their own fantasy worlds, with Charlotte and Branwell in particular maintaining consistency. The children wrote down their stories in miniature script on miniscule manuscripts, so that the little soldiers dolls could read them.


The Brontë family's financial situation was not excessive, so all the children had to work as adults. Emily could not bear to be away from home and she continued to participate in the household. Charlotte and Anne went to work as governesses and as teachers at boarding schools and well-to-do families in England and Belgium. Employment in Haworth and the surrounding area was already considerably low when the Brontë family settled there. Although the region was known for its wool production, since the 17th century it had been automated through the use of mills, which meant that it did not require much manpower. Thus, the lack of work opportunity meant that the Brontë children had to work (far) away from where they had grown up. The social and societal status of teachers was downright poorly and Charlotte and Anne's work experiences were accompanied by feelings of loneliness and humiliation. In the little free time they had, they continued to write prose and poetry. After the death of their aunt Elizabeth and dissatisfaction with their work as governesses, they decided to establish a school in Haworth, which soon had to be closed due to a low number of applications.

Meanwhile, Branwell had not been trained for any specific trade and tried to find work as a writer, portrait painter and teacher for several years. Due to his bragging and problematic drinking habits, he was regularly rejected or fired. Although he was talented in many different fields, including writing, painting and music, it is likely that Branwell struggled with the Victorian pressures and expectations he felt to become an independent and respectable man.

By 1845, all the Brontë children were once again living under their father's roof, but the domestic atmosphere was tense, to say the least. Branwell had once again been dismissed, but this time for a most remarkable reason. He had been working with his youngest sister Anne for the wealthy Robinson family. Branwell had most likely entered into an affair with the wife of the sickly Mr Robinson and hoped to marry her after the husband had died. When it became clear that she would not marry him, Patrick Branwell developed addictions to alcohol and opiates and racked up considerable debts. Their father, meanwhile, went blind. The Brontë sisters had no suitors and were completely dependent on an old, deteriorating father who would not be around for much longer, as well as a brother with severe addictions, who in his state could not take care of his sisters. Moreover, they resented the fact that men like their brother Branwell were expected to be independent and make a name for themselves in the world - only to throw it away - while as women they were underestimated and not allowed to publish their literary merits. Charlotte increasingly began to consider publishing the poetry of herself and her younger sisters with their aunt Elizabeth's inheritance in order to contribute to the family's income. Anne was quickly convinced; Emily was also won over after a few days.

The dining room in the Haworth parsonage. This is where Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote their masterpieces. Photo: Jasmijn Groot (2024)

Because women who wrote professionally were not valued on the same level as men, the Brontë sisters initially wrote under pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In May 1846, they jointly published an unsuccessful collection of poetry - only two copies were sold. They moved on individually to their own writing projects, Charlotte to The Professor and Jane Eyre, Emily to Wuthering Heights, and Anne to Agnes Grey, all three again published under their pseudonyms in 1847. Reviewers were critical of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but Jane Eyre was immediately extremely successful. It is not clear whether Emily started a new manuscript after her first novel, but Charlotte continued with her book Shirley and Anne with The Tennant of Wildfell Hall. These were published in 1848.

On the European continent, 1848 was also the tumultuous year of revolutions and rapid change, which was reflected within the Brontë household. In September, Branwell died unexpectedly of tuberculosis. Weakened by his addictions, the disease, that had also proved fatal to his eldest sisters, had accelerated. At his funeral, Emily suffered from a persistent cough, which quickly developed into pneumonia and eventually tuberculosis, from which she died just three months later. Anne also caught the disease. She travelled to Scarborough, hoping the sea climate would benefit her health. She never returned. In May 1849, she too died. To spare her father another funeral, Charlotte went to Scarborough to lay Anne's body to rest there. Anne is therefore the only one not buried in the Brontë family grave in Haworth.

The fact that so many children died within one family was not exceptional at the time. Life expectancy in Haworth was only 25 years and 41% of the children born did not make it to their second year of life. There was no sewage system and the only water source in the village was contaminated by faeces and by the rotting bodies in the graveyard located at the top of the village. Haworth was also surrounded by unfertile moorlandscpae, thus there was little variety in food. Many families lived on little more than porridge and suffered from vitamin deficiencies. Although the Brontës were living a little more comfortable, Charlotte's main biographer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that Charlotte was missing many of her teeth.


The writing desk of Charlottte Brontë. Photo: Jasmijn Groot (2024)

The Brontës' work is original through an unprecedented combination of the fantastic and

the mundane, the emotional and the intellectual, and through inspiration from their own lives, marked by loss of loved ones and their experiences as teachers. Through their relative isolation, the sisters developed a style of writing that had never been seen before and has known no equals since. For these reasons, the Brontë sisters are three of the most famous writers in English history and their works are classics within world literature.

Charlotte was the longest-living Brontë child. She was able to enjoy her success as a writer the longest and, of the three sisters, was the best regarded author in their own time. Moreover, she is the main source for our information on the other sisters and, as such, she has had quite a fundamental say in her sisters' legacy.

Emily lived a reclusive existence and had few friends outside her family - her closest friend was her younger sister Anne. This makes it difficult for biographers to get a better image of her. The first to write about Emily after her death were her sister Charlotte and the latter's friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell. However, both women are seen as unobjective: Charlotte, because she adapted parts of Emily's work and personality to make them appealing to a wider array of readers; Elizabeth, because she never knew Emily personally and was not enamoured with what Charlotte had to say about her.

Marker for the Brontë family tomb at St Michael & All Angels Church in Haworth. Anne is excluded from he marker, as she was buried in Scarborough. Photo: Jasmijn Groot (2024)

The biggest unknown, however, is Anne. Especially on her legacy, Charlotte's mingling had a disastrous effect. She inherited the rights to The Tenntant of Wildfell Hall after Anne's death. This epistolary novel is about Helen Lawrence Huntingdon, who assumes another identity to escape her marriage to the dandy Arthur Huntingdon. Arthur is in every way like the famous poet Lord Byron, by whom the Brontë children were all inspired: he is an alcoholic and a cheat, who mentally and physically abuses his pious wife Helen, who wants to save his soul from eternal damnation - and as such, she resembles Byron's wife Annabella Millbanke. Even though these similarities are very obvious, Anne's living situation with her addicted brother will also have seeped into the story. Charlotte decided not to publish The Tennant of Wildfell Hall after Anne's death, plunging her name into oblivion for a long time. Charlotte, and many readers with her, felt the work was too immoral. In Victorian society, everything a woman owned belonged to her husband. So when she fled her marriage with her own money or tried to make a living for herself, according to the law, it meant she was taking her husband's property away from him, which was tantamount to theft. For a long time, Anne was seen as the Brontë without the genius of her older sisters. The Tenntant of Wildfell Hall has only gained better recognition in the last decades of the 20th century. Today, it is considered an early feminist work.

Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nichols, an Irish curate of her father's, in 1854. Bell Nichols moved in with his wife and father-in-law at the parsonage in Haworth. Soon after her wedding, Charlotte was pregnant, but she died in the first trimester from dehydration and malnutrition due to hyperemesis gravidarum in 1855. Patrick Brontë outlived both his wife and all of his children. Bell Nichols continued to live with him and to take care of him until his own death in 1861 at the age of 84.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth is open Wednesday to Sunday between 10am and 5pm. Regular admission tickets cost £12.

St Michael & All Angels Church in Haworth is free to enter every day

between 09:00 and 16:30.

For those unable to visit England, there is the film To Walk Invisible, largely shot inside the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the streets of Haworth.


Image: Patrick Branwell Brontë, The Brontë Sisters (Anne Brontë; Emily Brontë; Charlotte Brontë (ca. 1834).


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