Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Brontë Family

by Beverly Townsend

           About 10 years ago I was in the West Riding of Yorkshire and visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth. It was the home of the Brontё family who lived there at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. The surrounding area is wild and beautiful; leaning wind-swept trees and picturesque moors stretch for miles.

Patrick Brontё (originally Brunty) became the Anglican curate of Haworth in 1820. He and his wife Maria had six children. The two eldest sisters died young of tuberculosis and Maria died of cancer aged 38. This left the four youngest children; Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell. Their tragic beginnings fostered in them an ability to create and write gothic stories of orphans, spirits and haunting. The children were close and wrote stories about imaginary towns in minute writing in miniature books the size of a matchbox which still exist today.

The three sisters first published a book of their poetry in 1846 under the masculine pseudonyms of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. The book did not sell well.

In 1847 Charlotte published ‘Jane Eyre‘, Emily ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Anne ‘Agnes Grey’. This was after being rejected by at least a dozen publishers.

Life in Haworth was very basic in the time of the Brontë’s. There was no sewage system and the well water was contaminated resulting in serious illness for the population. Life expectancy at the time was less than 25 years and infant mortality was around 41% of children under six months of age.

Anne wasn’t as celebrated as her two sisters. She wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ in 1849. She suffered poor health and died in 1849 aged 29.

Emily was described as timid and enjoyed wondering the wild landscape of the moors around Haworth. She died of consumption in 1848 aged 30.

Charlotte was the most prolific writer. ’Jane Eyre’ was a great success and she visited London in 1851 to promote the book at the request of her publisher. In 1849 she published ‘Shirley’ and in 1853 ‘Villette’. ‘The Professor’ was published after her death. She married her father’s curate Arthur Nichols in 1854 and was pregnant at the time of her death in 1855 aged 38.

Branwell is described as an artist, author and casual worker. Although it appears he was as creative as his siblings he became addicted to alcohol and laudanum. He died of tuberculosis in 1848 aged 31.

My favourite Brontë book is ‘Jane Eyre’ which I have read more than once. The story is about a governess who falls in love with her employer. It is believed to be based on Charlotte’s own life when she worked as a governess in Brussels and fell in love with her employer’s husband Constantin Heger.

Although they wrote relatively few books it seems the mystique of the Brontë family is infinite. Little did they know that their home in Haworth would one day become a museum and place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world each year.


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