People in daguerreotypes (an early form of photographs) have a really misty, otherworldly feel to them.
The extreme exposure lightens the irises to point it’s like you’re only seeing the whites of someone’s eyes. Unable to capture midtones or subtleties, subjects look extremely pale, severely gaunt. The subject, when taking the picture, would also be required to stand in front of the camera for many minutes at a time, stiffening their posture and facial expression. White eyes, pale face, gaunt appearance, stiff figure – you’re basically looking at a ghost.
When scouring the Internet pretty late at night, there are a few things I don’t intentionally look for. Among these are 1800s-era daguerreotypes of children, post-mortems (a customary tradition!), or, say, a mysterious woman in a dusty cloak looking you square in the eye beside two other women that might be her sisters, all of whom might be the faceless trio of authors that was all the buzz in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In the twenty-first century, there’s a lot of buzz – at least, among historians and Brontë enthusiasts like me – when a new image of someone from the Brontë family resurfaces.
Emily and Anne never mingled in public, and Charlotte made her appearances on very rare instances, and the rest of the family was happy staying in their removed, rural hometown. Few portraits are in existence. And while daguerreotypes were invented and in use during their lifetime, they were only prominent in the big cities.
It’s frustrating that the portraits in existence are inaccurate, mostly drawn by the sisters themselves with their inexperienced artists’ hands.
What did the Brontë sisters really look like? How am I supposed to properly picture them living their lives when I know the evidence that exists just isn’t accurate? I’m not satisfied knowing that no one will ever know what the sisters really looked like. It’s like the people that personally knew them have taken that secret to their graves.
Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond (c. 1850)
I’m not satisfied that the best I’ll get is the one official (flattering) portrait of Charlotte drawn by a prestigious visiting artist, George Richmond. One of Charlotte’s best friends Mary Taylor said of her portrait, “I had rather the mouth and eyes had been nearer together, and shown the veritable square face and large disproportionate nose.”
The Pillar Portrait by Branwell Brontë (c. 1834)
(Left to right: Anne, Emily, Charlotte.) Most people that knew the Brontës actually hated this portrait because of how poor they found the likenesses. Branwell himself hated the composition. He painted himself in between Emily and Charlotte but, unhappy with how overcrowded this made the portrait, he painted his own figure out and replaced it with a pillar. But even this effort was met with failure: over time, the pillar is wearing away while Branwell’s ghostly outline returns.
Gun Group Portrait by Branwell Brontë (c. 1834)
(Left to right, supposed: Anne, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily.) This portrait was hated even more. Only a tracing of the complete portrait exists now. Charlotte’s eventual husband, Rev. Arthur Bell Nicholls, hated this portrait so much for its inaccurate likenesses that he burned it. He spared only the corner with Emily’s portrait, said to be a somewhat closer likeness. This is the only confirmed image of Emily that exists.
Anne Brontë by Charlotte Brontë (c. 1834)
This portrait of Anne received all the praise from everyone that knew the Brontës. It’s considered a near-perfect likeness – down to the detail of Anne’s slightly open mouth (she’s described to have breathed from her mouth, suffering from asthma).
This is the best idea we have had of the sisters.
Until, a couple years ago – the year I read Jane Eyre for the first time – this photograph was recovered from a messy attic in France. Left to right (proposed): Charlotte, Emily, Anne.
As I mentioned before, I didn’t intend to find this chilling daguerreotype, late at night as I did. Initially I told myself this was likely just a photo staged to look like the Brontës. But the blog I that I found was so meticulously put together by a fellow Brontë enthusiast, conducting independent research scouring for years through Victorian-era Haworth town records, and it kept me reading. The unraveling proof, the uncanny evidence made my stomach lurch as I read the discoveries. This image was found alongside other images (for example, one of the Brontë Parsonage home) taken by the same photographer hired to document Charlotte’s town after her death – but this was also someone the sisters had known when they were alive. There’s even an inscription on the back that identifies these subjects as the Brontë sisters. Only Charlotte and Emily appear to be wearing the thick cloaks known native to Belgium, where specifically the two of them (and not Anne) taught at a school. All three sisters in this image have their hats with them, and Brontë sisters were known by the Haworth community for wearing distinctly only hats while everyone else wore bonnets.
Studying descriptions of the sisters’ appearances is even more proof.
Equally fascinated as I was terrified of this image, I found myself nodding along vigorously as this photograph fit perfectly into place with the incomplete puzzle that is the Brontë sisters. It was exactly what I wanted. Charlotte’s face fits the descriptions given by friends and family. They described how hard it could be to look her directly in her piercing, brilliant eyes (much like I can’t look directly at her in the photograph). Though not exact, this photograph is reminiscent of both the Richmond portrait and the Pillar Portrait – and you have to remember neither portrait did the real Charlotte justice anyway. Emily was specifically described to appear somewhat masculine in appearance – strong jaw, prominent cheekbones, slightly protruding mouth. Her gaze is even downcast, just like her sister Anne, both known for peculiarities about their behavior; they had great difficulty making eye contact with people generally.
The sisters were never thrilled about being the center of attention, much less a camera, surely. But they were highly supportive of their artist brother, who mingled with other artists experimenting with photography and daguerreotyping. And at a time when daguerreotyping was hardly in use or circulated, both Charlotte and Anne explicitly mention daguerreotypes and describe being daguerreotyped… almost as if speaking from experience.
I admire the dedication I saw in that blog investigating this photograph. Research continues today. There’s deeper study being made, explaining that this photograph is a copy of an 1840s daguerreotype (revealing distortions in the image only possible in daguerreotypes), so it fits perfectly in having been taken during the sisters’ lifetime. There’s close scrutiny of what the Brontë sisters appear to be wearing in the photo, as well as close-ups of Emily’s chipped tooth in the photo matching her real-life description, Anne’s mouth slightly open just like in the portrait Charlotte drew of her, the side of Charlotte’s mouth that was known to droop matching with the photograph. The blog digs deep into existing photos of the Brontë sisters’ cousins, comparing similar features.
The stubbornness with which I wanted to confirm this is an actual tangible, valid photo of the Brontë sisters has taught me so many more things, though.
Not only do I now have a comprehensive knowledge of daguerreotypes (the history of them and even how to develop one!), small-town Haworth artist groups, Brontë relations and fashion of the 1840s versus the 1860s. I now know I’m not alone in my obsessive scouring of Brontëana.
There are enthusiasts out there conducting independent research – heck, even reaching out to Brontë scholars working at the Brontë Parsonage – just to satisfy their passion. There’s more people out there dying to know what the Brontë sisters really looked like. Yeah, we’ve gathered that Charlotte was 4’9″, Anne was 5’2″, Emily was 5’7″. But that’s not enough. Knowing what their faces really looked like satisfies my daydreams, picturing Jane Eyre’s struggle with her appearance, imagining the day that Charlotte and Anne revealed to their publishers that they were not, in fact, men, but instead secretly the women that wrote the novels that were all the buzz in London.
My fellow Brontë enthusiasts and I dug far enough to find the sisters’ diary entries and more stories about their lives. We know quirky details about their daily routine all the way to some of their most life-changing events. It’s like we’ve lived it all ourselves.
But our understanding of the Brontë sisters, really, is so much more complete when we can connect a face to the names and stories.
All information cited comes from The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters’ original work, and secondhand sources of their personal diaries (courtesy of the Brontë Parsonage Museum).