"No coward soul is mine No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere..." wrote Emily Bronte in 1848. It was a remarkable time for herself, her elder sister Charlotte, and younger sister Anne. Each of the young women had recently published poetry and exceptional novels. They were living quiet but active lives once again in a country parsonage with their ailing brother Branwell and aging father. Early in adulthood, each of the Bronte sisters had spent brief periods away from the parsonage attending school, working as governesses, or teaching. Yet, duty and a strong devotion to family kept them returning home. By 1848, they had accomplished much; they had endured much. Reverend Patrick Bronte, their father, was perpetual curate of Haworth in the beautiful but remote north country of England known as Yorkshire. Their mother Maria died in 1821, leaving five daughters and one son who ranged in age from eight months to seven years old. Only four years later the eldest two children, Maria and Elizabeth, died. The four remaining children were brought up by their mother's maiden sister and their stern father. The children, who had only themselves for playmates, knew few other places than their father's church, the parsonage half encircled by a tombstone-shrouded churchyard, and a rolling countryside of heather-laden moors. To entertain themselves, they built fantasy worlds together. By 1826, when Charlotte, now the eldest, was ten years old, their fantastic dramas began. At first each child adopted a hero such as Charlotte's favorite, the Duke of Wellington, and fought ferocious battles. Later they chose islands for these heroes and additional adventurers. Eventually, they created an entire fantasyland known only to themselves and called it Angria. In 1845, when the three sisters were together at Haworth, Charlotte discovered some poems of Emily's. Eventually, and it was indeed difficult, she talked the extremely private Emily into letting her put these poems together with some she and Anne had written to self-publish. The Bronte sisters spent their own money in 1846 to publish a thin volume which they titled The Poems of Acton, Ellis, and Currer Bell, male pseudonyms. The sisters believed, likely with excellent cause, they would be given more objective reviews if those judging believed them to be men. Despite Charlotte's high hopes, the volume sold few copies. The "Bells" did not give up, however. Soon after publishing their poems, they tried to publish some novels. Several publishers rejected The Professor, Charlotte's first novel, but eventually accepted her second, Jane Eyre, in 1847. This tale about a small, plain governess was soon the talk of London. Anne's Agnes Grey found publication later in 1847 as did Emily's Wuthering Heights, set in her beloved moors. In 1848, Anne published her second novel, Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The novels grew popular with the public, and rumors abounded they were actually the work of one author, Currer Bell. Yes, the young women were still writing under their pseudonyms. Charlotte became angry at this development, so she and Anne traveled to London to the offices of their publisher (they could not convince the reclusive Emily to join them) and revealed all their identities. Although their writings were often praised, they received considerable criticism, as moral frailty, degradation, villainy, and oppression were regarded as unfit subjects to rise from the pens of women. Soon after the sisters' publishing successes, tragedy again struck the family. In September of 1848, their brother Branwell died. He was thirty-one. Emily's death at thirty came three months later, and soon Anne, too, fell ill from the tuberculosis that had taken Emily. By June of 1849, only Charlotte was left with her father. She found life without her sisters almost unbearable. Together they had suffered their mother's and two sisters' deaths, together they had created fantasy worlds and woven fine tapestries of imagination, together they had roamed the moors and withstood the cold winds that raged against their parsonage home, and together they had ventured into the literary world. To ease her suffering, Charlotte reached out to her few friends and literary acquaintances. She took comfort in her religious faith. And she continued to write. In 1849, her novel Shirley was published. She completed Villette in 1853. But, in 1855, Charlotte Bronte became seriously ill and died. She had married her father's curate only nine months earlier. Many theories exist concerning her death, including one that she may have died of morning sickness. At any rate, her readers greatly mourned her death. Her voice, however, had not yet been stilled. The Professor was published posthumously in 1857, and soon thereafter, a fragment of a novel called Emma was also published. Although Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte, led brief lives marked by tragedy, they left much of themselves behind. In a house upon a hill in that wild, often solitary country of Yorkshire, the Bronte sisters nurtured sensitive and creative natures powerful enough to portray the human condition. For women to do this in Victorian England, truly no coward souls were theirs.
Evans, Barbara and Gareth Lloyd. Everyman’s Companion to the Brontes. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1985.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. Note: Actually, Elizabeth Gaskell was a contemporary of Charlotte Bronte, knew Charlotte well, and was a well-known writer and novelist herself. She wrote her biography of Charlotte within a few years of Charlotte’s death. The Penguin publication was, of course, a re-issue. I still have a novel (somewhere) of Gaskill’s but, alas, it is hiding presently.
Gerin, Winifred. Emily Bronte: A Biography. London: Clarendon Press. 1971.
Peters, Margot. Unquiet Soul. London: Hodderand Stoughten, 1987.
Ratchford, Fannie Elizabeth. The Bronte’s Web of Childhood. New York: Russell and Russell, 1969.
Spark, Muriel and Derek Stanford. Emily Bronte. Lond: Arrow Books Ltd., 1985.
These are some older, but excellent references.