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Updated: Nov 27, 2020

The three famous sisters were born within four years of each other in the village of Thornton (Haworth), Yorkshire, Charlotte in 1816 (famous for Jane Eyre), Emily in 1818 (famous for Wuthering Heights) and Anne in 1820 (famous for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). With their brother Branwell, they were always a close knit group, sharing a passionate attachment to their wild rural surroundings and a love of literature fostered by their father. After the tragic death of their mother Maria from cancer in 1821, the children passed into the care of Elizabeth Branwell (who is also known as Aunt Branwell), Maria’s elder sister, whose presence at the parsonage reinforced the formal hierarchical structure of life. A respect for privacy and enjoyment of quiet and solitude was thus engendered even at early stage in the sisters’ lives.

In 1824 Charlotte and Emily were sent with their two elder sisters Maria (the eldest) and Elizabeth (the second child) to school at Cowan Bridge near Kirkby Lonsdale. The sudden exposure to the noise and bustle of school life and the unhealthy situation of the place proved disastrous. The two older girls were taken ill with tuberculosis and the children were brought home at once, Maria and Elizabeth dying within weeks of each other in the summer of the same year. Patrick Bronte was devastated by this blow, coming so soon after the loss of his wife, and the children were thrown even more on each other’s resources for comfort and companionship. Charlotte in particular, as the oldest remaining child, shouldered an increasing amount of responsibility for her younger brother and sisters. The terrible experiences of Cowan Bridge made a deep impression on her young imagination, re-emerging in the vivid and appalling description of Lowood in Jane Eyre.

The children education was continued by their father, in a unique fashion. A born teacher, a poet from his early youth and lover of literature and of Nature as the divine teacher, he encouraged the originality and depth of thought which so distinguishes the novels of his daughters. This encouraged them in what Branwell described as ‘scribblemania- spontaneous writing of poetry and prose on scraps of paper which they occasionally even bound into tiny books.'

It gradually became obvious over the next few years, as Patrick Bronte’s health declined, that in order to provide a secure future for the family, Charlotte at least would have to acquire the qualifications necessary for employment as a governess. She was therefore sent to a new school, Roe Head, at Dewsbury run by the Misses Wooler, who became her long standing friend. The school was the ideal setting for the development of Charlotte naturally courageous and independent character. Painfully shy and agonisingly aware of her lack of beauty, the short, pale, but resolute figure soon achieved success in her new calling and was later invited back to the school as a teacher. Perhaps the most valuable acquisition gained from her time at Roe Head was a belief in and knowledge of her own capacity to survive in the outside world, without the shelter and warmth of her sisters’ companionship in the familiar landscape of Haworth. This self-reliance was something which Charlotte and two sisters never achieved and it sounds loudly and unmistakably through the pages of Jane Eyre and the later novels, particularly Villette.

Emily Bronte is one of the most enigmatic figures in English literature and was a mysterious being even to those closest to her. Where Charlotte and Anne were small and slight, Emily was a tall lithesome, graceful figure who would flout convention without fear or affectation. She remains in a sense set apart from the others in the world of her poetry, her countryside and her animals. As Charlotte wrote of her,‘She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights, and not the least and best loved - was liberty.’ Some indication of the vital nature of the link between Emily and her beloved Haworth moors may be seen by her instant decline when forced to leave them either to accompany Charlotte back to Roe Head to endeavor to earn her living as a governess, or to travel to Brussels. She remained forever haunted by ‘the vision of home and the moors’-a vision so graphically and unforgettably translated into fiction in her masterpiece, Wuthering Heights (her only Novel).

Of ‘dear, gentle Anne’perhaps least of all is known. She never knew her mother and, more than any of the other children, fell under the influence of Aunt Branwell, a strict, if benevolent, Methodist. By the age of thirteen Anne was remarkably pretty, taking after her mother:‘Her hair was a very pretty light brown and fell on her neck in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, fine pencilled eyebrows, and a clear, almost transparent complexion.’ Always reticent and retiring, Anne lived in the shadow of her beloved sister Emily, a silent and inseparable companion, excluded from her deepest imaginings, but adoring her with a devotion which typified her life. She wrote an autobiographical novel called Agnes Grey.

In 1842, Emily and Charlotte travelled to Brussels to teach in the establishment of Monsieur Heger. When Aunt Branwell died later the same year, the girls returned to Haworth. Emily remained after the funeral, but Charlotte returned to Brussels, thriving on the stimulus of new sights and people. It soon became obvious that she was falling in love with her master, Monsieur Heger - a married man of impeccable respectability to whom Charlotte had been giving private English lessons and who had treated her with unprecedented kindness, reading her writings and discussing literature and ideas with her as with an equal. The situation quickly became emotionally unendurable and Charlotte returned home, nursing a disappointed passion whose intensity may be seen in her letters. Out of this suffering grew her mature masterpiece, Villette.

The return to Haworth, therefore, was not a happy one, and the beginnings of the black depression which was to lead to the drunkenness, disease and death of her beloved brother Branwell (died of tuberculosis in 1848), was an added burden. It was during this very bleak and unhappy period, however, that the sisters’early dreams of becoming authors took the character of a resolve. A collection of their poems was published in May 1846 under the names of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell’ and met with favourable reviews, although only two copies were actually sold. Nothing daunted, they each set to work on a prose tale. Every evening they would walk around the parlour, discussing their writing, reading extracts from what they had written so far, planning new chapters. The great works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte burst upon the reading public as ‘epidemic’ force, to remain among the most popular of all romantic novels of this day. Later on, all three sisters died from various forms of tuberculosis. Charlotte died on 1855 at the age of 31( who married Arthur Nicholls) and Emily Jane in 1848 at the age of 30 and Anne died on 1849 at the age of 29.


The Brontë sistersby Brontë, Emily, 1818-1848.

Wuthering Heights;Brontë, Anne, 1820-1849.

Tenant of Wildfell Hall;Brontë,

Charlotte, 1816-1855. Jane Eyre

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