Meet the Brontë Sisters: Literary Sisters of Genius
Over 150 years have passed since the death of the Brontë sisters, yet their works remain as popular as ever, finding their way into films, music, television, and the classroom. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë were revolutionary writers who pushed boundaries in their work and won recognition despite their society’s prejudice against women authors. From the bleak isolation of their Yorkshire home, these three daughters of a humble clergyman would change English literature forever.
1. The Brontë Family
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were born to an Irish Anglican clergyman, Patrick Brontë, and his wife, Maria Branwell. The eldest of the three, Charlotte, was born in 1816, Emily in 1818, and Anne in 1820. They also had two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who died of tuberculosis before adulthood, and a brother, Branwell. The family initially lived in the town of Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire. In 1820, they moved to the nearby village of Haworth, where Patrick Brontë was appointed the perpetual curate of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church.
1.1. Early Life of the Brontë Sisters
The Brontë sisters’ works are known for portraying cruelty and violence to the extent that they were accused of ‘coarseness’ by contemporary critics. Raised on the wild, wind-swept moors around Haworth, it is no wonder nature’s harshness, and beauty bled into their work. The abandoned ruins of mansions and farmhouses on the moors also provided ample inspiration for the Brontë sisters. Observing these crumbling facades, it was tempting for them to imagine the turbulent passions that might have brought such beautiful places to ruin.
From 1824 to 1825, Charlotte, Emily, and their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, spent a miserable year at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. The school subjected the students to cold rooms, inadequate clothing, and rancid food. Eventually, Maria and Elizabeth contracted tuberculosis at the school and died in 1825. After their deaths, their father brought Charlotte and Emily back home. The harsh conditions at the Clergy Daughters’ School left a deep impression on Charlotte, who used the school as the basis for the Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre.
Although they did not have much formal schooling, the Brontë sisters received an intellectually stimulating education at home. They had access to many books and read voraciously; their library included the Bible, works by Shakespeare, Tales of Arabian Nights, and poetry by Wordsworth, Southey, and Cowper. These stories and poems fed their imagination, which the Brontë sisters channeled into the worlds of Angria and Gondal that they created as children. Angria was an imaginary world created by Charlotte and Branwell when their father gave them a box of 12 toy soldiers, which they named and created stories for. Emily and Anne played with Charlotte and Branwell at first but later seceded to form their imaginary world of Gondal.
Throughout the Brontë sisters’ childhood and adolescence, they spent much of their free time writing prose, poetry and plays set in these worlds. Not only did this develop their literary abilities, but it was also an escape from their mundane and isolated life in a remote Yorkshire parsonage.
1.2. Adulthood of the Brontë Sisters
As adults, the Brontë sisters took up work as teachers and governesses to support themselves. Their work was low-paid and emotionally draining, often requiring them to deal with unreasonable employers and unruly children.
Nevertheless, the Brontë sisters’ literary talent was not dimmed. Within the span of their unfortunately short lives, Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote novels that have stood the test of time. Due to the prevailing societal view that women should not pursue a literary career, the sisters wrote under androgynous pen names: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Their first published work was a book of poetry titled, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. It was not a commercial success, selling only two copies in its first year. After this effort, their lives and literary careers branched into separate paths.
2. Charlotte Brontë
The eldest of the Brontë sisters, Charlotte is best known for her debut novel, Jane Eyre (1847). Her pen name was Currer Bell. When it was released, Jane Eyre was an instant hit, catapulting the author ‘Currer Bell’ to literary stardom. As one of the first fictional female autobiographies, Jane Eyre showcased a powerful female voice through its bold and witty narrator.
Charlotte’s journey to literary success was not smooth. At age 20, she sent some of her best poems to the celebrated Romantic poet Robert Southey, hoping to receive encouragement and feedback. Southey wrote back, telling her, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” Despite his advice, Charlotte continued pursuing her love of writing. From 1846 to 1847, she sent out her first novel, The Professor, to multiple publishers, but all rejected it. One publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., did not accept The Professor but expressed interest in a longer work by Currer Bell. Charlotte sent her second novel, Jane Eyre, to this publisher; the rest is history.
After the success of Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote two more novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). The Professor was published posthumously in 1857, with the help of her widower, Arthur Bell Nicholls.
Charlotte Brontë’s novels have been noted for their evocative first-person narratives, told from the viewpoint of protagonists who she based on herself. In her work, Charlotte was interested in exploring the plight of unmarried Victorian women who faced limited career opportunities and social marginalization. She combined realism with razor-sharp wit to bring attention to society’s unfair treatment of women. Her novels incorporate many genres, including romance, gothic fiction, coming-of-age tales, and mystery.
Alas, Charlotte, like her siblings, was not destined for long life. At the age of 38, she died during a difficult pregnancy. Her cause of death is believed to be hyperemesis gravidarum, a pregnancy complication characterized by excessive vomiting, weight loss, and dehydration.
2.1. Interesting facts about Charlotte Brontë
2.1.1. Charlotte was short in stature.
She was only about four foot seven (1.4m) to four foot eleven (1.5m) in height. These estimations are based on measurements of her clothes preserved in the Brontë parsonage museum.
2.1.2. Charlotte is thought to have based Thornfield Hall and Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre on real houses.
Thornfield Hall, where the heroine Jane is employed as a governess, was likely based on Norton Conyers Manor, a house in North Yorkshire that Charlotte once visited in 1839. During her visit, she heard a legend about a madwoman locked in the attic, which inspired the character of Bertha Mason. The blocked staircase that leads from the first floor to the attic also appears in the story of Jane Eyre.
Ferndean Manor, where Mr. Rochester stays at the end of the novel, is thought to be based on Wycoller Hall, an abandoned 16th-century manor house near Haworth.
2.1.3. Charlotte was obsessed with her married professor.
While studying and teaching in Brussels, Charlotte fell for her professor, Constantin Héger, who was married to the school’s headmistress. Her feelings for Héger and her experiences in Brussels inspired two of her novels, The Professor and Villette.
3. Emily Brontë
Emily Jane Brontë was the second oldest of the Brontë sisters. She wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), and went by the pen name Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights was controversial due to its violence and passion when it was first published. It has since been re-evaluated and recognized as a classic of English literature.
Unlike her sisters, Emily had a very reserved personality and did not spend much time interacting with people outside the family. Charlotte described her as a “solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove.” She loved to take long walks on the moors; the freedom of these vast, open, untamed grasslands appealed to her. Removed from this environment, she felt homesick.
Wuthering Heights could be said to be a product of this desolate and beautiful landscape. The novel tells the tale of two lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, who grew up together on the moors. The moors represent freedom for Catherine and Heathcliff, an escape from the stifling atmosphere of their dreary farmhouse. There, Catherine, a daughter of the gentry, and Heathcliff, a servant boy, could be together without heeding the social boundaries that keep them apart. However, the moors are also dangerous and hard to navigate, just like the destructive relationship that develops between the pair.
Apart from Wuthering Heights, Emily wrote several poems that critics praised. A reviewer of the Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell writing for the Athenaeum said, “Ellis possesses a fine, quaint spirit and an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted.” Emily Dickinson, a renowned American poet, requested that Emily Brontë’s last poem, “No Coward Soul is Mine” be read out at her funeral. This moving poem has been noted for its “profound insight into the nature of the universe and man’s attempt at finding permanence therein” by author Lawrence J. Starzyk.
In December 1848, Emily Brontë passed away from tuberculosis, aged 30. Tragically, she did not live to see the eventual success of her only novel.
3.1. Interesting facts about Emily Brontë
3.1.1. Emily had a dog named Keeper.
Keeper was a mastiff mix and was quite large and menacing. Emily and Keeper shared a close bond. In a letter to W.S. Williams, Charlotte wrote that after Emily’s death, Keeper visited her room daily to mourn.
3.1.2. Emily was a skilled pianist.
Emily and her siblings took music lessons at home as children. She excelled at the piano and taught music while studying in Brussels with Charlotte.
3.1.3. She was very close with her younger sister, Anne.
As children, they wrote stories and poems together, set in the imaginary world of Gondal. This collaboration continued into adulthood. Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey, said they were “‘like twins – inseparable companions, and in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.”
4. Anne Brontë
Anne Brontë was the youngest of the three Brontë sisters. She wrote two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), and under the pen name Acton Bell. After her death, Charlotte prevented the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, saying, “‘Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.” This intervention has contributed to Anne being less well-known than her sisters.
Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, was largely autobiographical. She based the story of Agnes Grey on her experiences working as a governess. Agnes Grey explored the difficulties faced by governesses, who were often lonely unmarried women. They belong neither with the family nor the servants, and they also had to cope with disrespectful employers and ill-behaved children.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, on the other hand, exposed the plight of married women who had little independence and were vulnerable to domestic abuse.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was highly controversial when it was first released. The heroine, Helen Huntingdon, defied legal and social norms by leaving her abusive alcoholic husband and taking her son with her.
Moreover, the novel portrays the horrors of alcohol addiction in graphic and disturbing detail as a warning to readers. The Brontë brother, Branwell, suffered from alcoholism in the last years of his life. Living with him, Anne witnessed his decline firsthand and what she saw sank deeply into her sensitive mind.
An 1848 review in The Examiner said that the novel was “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls” because of its “coarseness” but acknowledged that it was “a powerful and an interesting book.” Another contemporary response in the North American Review claimed that the novel generates “horror and disgust.”
Nevertheless, Anne Brontë’s novels have since been acknowledged for their bold and thoughtful feminism. Feminist writer and suffragette May Sinclair wrote in 1913 that the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and writer, described Agnes Grey as a “furious novel, and a feminist novel” mainly concerned with how women can find empowerment in an unfair world.
At 29, Anne Brontë died of tuberculosis in the seaside town of Scarborough. She was accompanied by Charlotte and Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey. Charlotte buried her there in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church. Anne’s gravestone had several errors, the most egregious of which was her age at the time of death, which was wrongly inscribed as 28. While Charlotte fixed the other errors after discovering them, the age error remained for the next 164 years. In 2013, The Brontë Society finally gave Anne a new gravestone with all the errors corrected.
4.1. Interesting facts about Anne Brontë
4.1.1. Anne had a dog named Flossy.
Flossy was a black-and-white King Charles Spaniel that was given to Anne as a pet by the Robinson girls in June 1843. Anne would go for walks on the moors with Flossy, who would sometimes run off to chase sheep. In May 1849, when the terminally ill Anne departed for Scarborough, one of her last acts was to cradle Flossy in her arms as the dog was passed to her in the carriage.
4.1.2. Anne protected a donkey as she was dying.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in the biography: The Life of Charlotte Brontë that when Anne arrived in Scarborough for the last time, she took a ride across the beach in a donkey cart. Worried that the driver may force the donkey to go at a higher speed, Anne took the reins herself.
4.1.3. Anne managed to hold down a job longer than any of her sisters.
Anne could cope with the difficult conditions of working as a governess with her stoic, strong personality. In 1839, she was employed for six months by the Ingham family at Mirfield before being dismissed. She later worked for five years between 1840 to 1845 for the Robinson family. Her working experiences inspired her first novel, Agnes Grey, where the Inghams were depicted as the Bloomfields, and the Robinsons were portrayed as the Murrays.
5. The Brontë Sisters’ Legacy
Since the deaths of the Brontë sisters, their works have greatly influenced literature and pop culture.
5.1. Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, perhaps the most well-known book of the Brontë sisters, has been the subject of 12 film adaptations from 1934 to 2011. The most recent film adaptation in 2011, directed by Cary Fukunaga, starred Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester. Besides film and television, Jane Eyre has been adapted into a Broadway musical, stage plays, radio series, and silent films.
In the realm of literature, Jane Eyre popularised the first-person female bildungsroman. The novel inspires works like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons (1862), and Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative (1850). Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) also has parallels to Jane Eyre, and the author was known to be an admirer of the Brontës.
In addition, retellings of Jane Eyre have been written both from Jane’s perspective and the perspectives of other characters in the story. Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a retelling written from the perspective of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, that aims to explain how she became mentally unstable and violent. The Wife Upstairs (2021) by Rachel Hawkins is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre set in Birmingham, Alabama, that portrays Jane as a young woman who supports herself by walking dogs for residents of a wealthy gated community.
5.2. Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights
The second of the Brontë sisters, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has received many film adaptations. Most notably, the 1939 film by William Wyler, starring Merle Oberon as Catherine and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, received the 1939 New York Film Critics Award for Best Film and nominations for eight Academy Awards.
The novel’s evocative portrayal of the wild Yorkshire moors and tragic love has also inspired several responses in music and poetry.
In 1978, singer-songwriter Kate Bush released a song titled ‘Wuthering Heights’ that references the novel. The song lyrics were written from the perspective of Catherine’s ghost, pleading to be let into Heathcliff’s window.
Wuthering Heights inspired a poem of the same name by the American poet Sylvia Plath. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, wrote another poem also named “Wuthering Heights.” Both husband and wife were moved by the vastness, danger, and solitude of the moors portrayed in Emily Brontë’s novel.
Canadian poet Anne Carson’s poem, “The Glass Essay,” references the life of Emily Brontë and the harsh moorland environment depicted in Wuthering Heights. The poem’s narrator visits her mother on the Canadian moors and reflects on life, a past relationship, and the work of Emily Brontë, her favorite author.
5.3. Anne Brontë and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Amongst the Brontë sisters, Anne’s work is not as widely read. Nonetheless, Anne Brontë’s novels have been appreciated by critics for their feminist themes and realism. In 2013, Sally McDonald of the Brontë Society said that Anne “is now viewed as the most radical of the sisters, writing about tough subjects such as women’s need to maintain independence, and how alcoholism can tear a family apart.”
Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), has been noted for its daring portrayal of alcoholism, domestic abuse, and injustice towards women.
May Sinclair wrote in 1913, “Anne took her courage in both hands when she sat down to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There are scenes, there are situations, in Anne’s amazing novel, which for sheer audacity stand alone in mid-Victorian literature, and which would hold their own in the literature of revolt that followed.”
In 1996, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was adapted into a television serial directed by Mike Barker and produced by BBC. The adaptation starred Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Huntingdon, Rupert Graves as Arthur Huntington, and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham.
The Brontë sisters’ works remain relevant today for their strong heroines, social commentary, and intricate portrayal of nature and human relationships. Although their lives were cut short, they lived more deeply and felt more profoundly than many who were blessed with more years. The pain, beauty, and complexity of their experiences give their work an intense pathos that gripped readers in their time and will continue to do so for generations to come.
6. The Brontë Sisters’ Books List
6.1. The Brontë Sisters’ Poems
6.2. Charlotte Brontë’s Books
Jane Eyre (1847)
The Professor (1857), written before Jane Eyre but published posthumously.
Emma (1860), unfinished manuscript with only 20 pages completed by Charlotte. It was published posthumously.
Two continuations of this manuscript have been published: Emma by Constance Savery (1980) and Emma Brown by Clare Boylan (2003).
6.3. Emily Brontë’s Books
Wuthering Heights (1847)
6.4. Anne Brontë’s Books
Agnes Grey (1847)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)