Friday, July 19, 2013

The Brontë Sisters (1816-1855)

1. Triumph and tragedy (1777-1825)
Patrick Brontë was born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1777, into a poor family of farm workers living in northern Ireland. His mother was Roman Catholic but his father was Anglican and raised him that way. Patrick tried work as a blacksmith and weaver before becoming a teacher in 1798. His local priest appreciated his intelligence and helped him get a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1802. He graduated in 1806 and was ordained a priest in the Church of England the following year. While serving as an assistant pastor in 1811, he saw his first book, Cottage Poems, published. In December 1812 he married Maria Branwell (b. 1783). His second book, The Rural Minstrel, was published in 1814.

What an astounding story! A boy is born into a dirt-poor family living in rural Ireland. He doesn’t fit into either major religious community because his parents come from both. He tries to support himself doing physical work but fails. He manages to get a poorly paid, emotionally demanding, and socially marginal job teaching children. But he’s bright and, by the grace of God, his local priest is paying compassionate attention to him and helps him get a scholarship to Cambridge University. Somehow he successfully completes the academic work, survives the heavy social ridicule, earns his degree, and as priest is ordained into the minor nobility of England. He sees two books published and marries an English woman from a prosperous middle-class mercantile family. Wow!

Patrick and Maria's first two daughters, Maria (b. 1814) and Elizabeth (b. 1815), were born while they lived in the town of Hartshead. Charlotte (b. April 21, 1816), Patrick Branwell (b. 1817), Emily (b. July 30, 1818), and Anne (b. January 17, 1820) were all born after they moved to Thornton.

Patrick became the pastor of the Anglican church in the small town of Haworth, about 200 miles (320 km) north of London, in 1819. His wife and children joined him there in 1820. In 1821 Patrick’s sister-in-law Elizabeth, called “Aunt Branwell” by the children, moved in with the family to help raise them and care for her sister who soon died of cancer.

What a sad story! At 29, Maria Branwell had already been socially condemned a spinster and marginal female when she married Patrick. She moved three times and gave birth to six children in seven years. Then she suffered and died of cancer.

In August 1824, Patrick sent his four older daughters to live and learn at the Clergy Daughters’ School about 40 miles (64 km) away in Cowan Bridge. The deprivation and cruelty they experienced there sickened and stunted all of them. Maria returned home in February 1825 and in May died of tuberculosis. Elizabeth returned home in May and also died shortly afterward of tuberculosis. Patrick then brought Charlotte and Emily home.

Charlotte used her experiences at the school in Cowan Bridge to create a vivid, meaningful, yet tragic narrative near the beginning of her novel Jane Eyre (1847). She gives her readers an experiential understanding of the deprivation suffered, mocks the Olympian tyranny of the headmaster in Mr. Brocklehurst, captures the cruelty of one teacher in Miss Scatcherd, and celebrates her older sister Maria as the heroic Helen Burns.

How tragic! Patrick wants a proper education for his four precocious daughters. Socially ennobled but still financially marginal, he trusts them to a Christian school started specifically to meet his need and theirs. Members of the staff, and older students at the school following their dreadful example, betrayed his trust. Within a year, they had physically and psychologically damaged all four daughters and two of them had died as a result.

2. Intensification (1825-1838)
Charlotte and Emily, together with their younger brother and sister, now learned at home, taught by their father, aunt, and local adults skilled at music and drawing. Expected by their father to entertain themselves, the children focused intensely—for the next six years—on imagining a fantastic world of their own. In 1827 they started writing about it and supplementing their stories with their own illustrations and maps. In 1831, Emily and Anne started working together on a separate saga.

For inspiration, all four siblings devoured the daily newspaper and the handful of magazines, including Blackwood’s, to which their father subscribed. Articles in Blackwood’s and Byron’s poems inspired all four, especially Emily, to create Byronic characters who, like the man himself, dramatically embodied arrogance, intense emotion, sexual dominance, and downright wickedness. They also read the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and loved the novels of Walter Scott.

In 1831, Charlotte once again attended school outside her home at Roe Head School about 20 miles (32 km) south of Haworth. Although she made some enduring friendships, she remained there for only one academic year.

She returned there, however, in July 1835 as a teacher. Emily went with her as a student but didn’t like it and returned home after three months. Once Emily returned, Anne took her place. Both Charlotte and Anne returned to Haworth in 1838.

That summer, Charlotte was 22 years old, Branwell 21, Emily 20, and Anne 18. They all felt the need to move on.

3. Failures as teachers and governesses (1838-1845)
In September 1838 Emily started work as a teacher in a nearby town but returned home in April 1839. Thereafter she assumed responsibility for doing most of the housework. She also taught Sunday school, learned German, practiced the piano, took long walks alone on the moors, and continued writing.

In April 1839 Anne tried working as a governess but she too returned by Christmas.

Charlotte was also home for Christmas but persisted in working as a governess with various Yorkshire families until 1841.

Branwell, after working briefly as a portrait painter in a nearby town, returned in debt but in time to join his family for the holidays.

In 1840 Charlotte and Anne returned to work as governesses. Charlotte quit the profession for good in 1841. Anne, however, overcame the initial difficulties and settled into teaching the three teenage daughters and one young son of a wealthy pastor and his wife.

In January 1843 she persuaded her employer to hire her brother Branwell to teach his now eleven-year-old son. Branwell eventually became the lover of his employer’s wife. In June 1845, when Anne discovered this, she resigned as governess without explanation and returned to Haworth. When Branwell’s employer discovered it, he fired him.

In 1842 Charlotte and Emily enrolled in a school in Brussels to gain fluency in French and German. They hoped to start their own school once they had. In November they both returned to Haworth in response to the death of their aunt. Charlotte returned bodily to the school in January 1843 as a teacher but left her will to be there behind. She fell in love with the owner of the school. He ignored her but his wife didn't. In January 1844 she returned to Haworth. She later used her experiences in Brussels as inspiration for parts of The Professor and Villette.

By 1845 all four of Patrick Brontë’s surviving children, ages 25 to 29, were back at home unemployed and uncertain about what to do next.

4. Success as historically significant authors (1845-1848)
In the summer of 1845 Charlotte, Emily, and Anne decided to pay for the publication of a book of poems which they had written. Slow in getting printed, only two copies sold. One of the pleased purchasers asked the authors for their autographs. Two reviewers singled out Emily’s poems for praise. Undaunted, all three agreed to write their first novels and see if they could get them published.

During this time Branwell was at home with his sisters. He too worked on his first novel and got paid for writing several poems published in local newspapers. But depression and his addictions to alcohol and opium increasingly hampered his work.

By July 1846, Charlotte had finished The Professor; Emily, Wuthering Heights; and Anne, Agnes Grey. They put the three manuscripts together in a package and sent it to various publishers in London. The novels by Emily and Anne were accepted for publication but no one wanted Charlotte’s. Undaunted, she wrote Jane Eyre and sent the manuscript to a publisher in August 1847. They printed it six weeks later and it quickly became a critical and commercial success. That encouraged the publishers of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey to finally print and market those two books in December.

After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte started writing her third novel, Shirley. Anne finished her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and saw it published in 1848. It shocked its readers by realistically describing the malice of an alcoholic husband and the desperate (and at times illegal) means his wife used to protect herself and their son.

5. Denouement (1848-1855)
Branwell died of tuberculosis in September 1848. Emily became ill after attending his funeral and died of tuberculosis on December 19th. Anne became ill after Emily’s death and died of tuberculosis on May 28, 1849.

Charlotte found writing to be a creative response to the deaths, in quick succession, of her siblings. She finished Shirley and it was published in October 1849. Her next novel, Villette, was published in 1853.

In June 1854 Charlotte married the Anglican priest, Arthur Bell Nichols, who had been her father’s assistant for nine years. She became pregnant and nausea and faintness never left her. She died on March 31, 1855 of tuberculosis worsened by dehydration and malnourishment.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.