Image by Open Plaques
Emily Brontë’s strange personality was not just something that happened of its own accord.
Like her quirky siblings, she was molded by household influences. It’s still not easy to understand, using this logic, what had prompted the Brontës’ obsession with violence and radical behavior. What can explain the drive of pious, shy, sheltered Charlotte, Emily, and Anne to write graphic depictions of a madwoman locked in an attic – a brooding antihero nearly losing his life in a freak accident – a husband degenerating in alcoholism – a woman running away with her child from an abusive marriage, starting a new life under a new name? Oh, and not to mention a man digging up his 20-years-dead lover?
The Brontës lived, all in all, a slow, quiet life removed from society. It wouldn’t seem that theatrics played a major role in their lives. The most dramatic, iconic scenes we know best from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are only of creative invention, of course. But there are still definitely subtle connections (at the very least) we can find between the authors and their writing.
One of the clearest and best understood connections is the recurrence of dysfunctional families in Brontë novels. Consider orphaned Jane Eyre, taken in by her abusive aunt – or Lucy Snowe, whose family never shows up, only vaguely described as being taken by an accident years ago. Or Heathcliff, found as an abandoned baby on a Liverpool street side, only to be mistreated by his adoptive family. Or even Helen Graham, the focus of whose family life is placed on her horribly abusive marriage. No family in the Brontës’ writings is ever happy or normal or complete.
We must go back to see what the Brontë siblings’ parents, Rev. Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell, were like. As expected, we only know the bare bones of the story. But even the basic outline is dramatic enough to satisfy the imaginations of Brontë enthusiasts.
The Brontës’ mother was born to an established family that was abundant with wealth and talents.
Prosperous Cornish merchants for parents, Maria Branwell grew up knowing little about struggle. And, as most families proudly wearing their last name as a status symbol, she was sheltered, kept out of proximity of mingling with potential suitors. She occupied her days with her love for reading and writing poetry and prose – as well as her passion for religion.
Upon the early death of her parents, Maria left the bounds of her Cornwall home to find work in Yorkshire with the help of her uncle Rev. Fennel. It was Rev. Fennel that knew and frequently mingled with the local scholar in classics, Rev. Patrick Brontë. Maria and Patrick, introduced to each other shortly, fell in love quickly and married in six months’ time – to the great dismay of the Branwell family. The story of this controversy is softened, to say the least, by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography on Charlotte. She chose to leave out the fact that Maria was very likely disowned by her relations afterward, her inheritance denied and her personal belongings mysteriously destroyed in a shipwreck. After marrying Patrick, she stayed connected only with her sister Elizabeth and never saw her family again. (This is interestingly reminiscent of the brief backstories provided about Jane Eyre’s dead parents and even Agnes Grey’s mother and father.)
Patrick Brontë seems to have suffered hardship all his life.
With our retrospective, we know that he outlived not only his wife by forty years, but also every one of his children. His beginnings were insanely difficult – born to a poor, illiterate family, removed from society in lonely Irish farmlands, he took initiative in educating himself and securing apprenticeships. Noted for his highly abrupt personality and unmatched academic excellence (not unlike his daughter Emily), he later graduated as a theology major from Cambridge. Patrick was not, by then, even remotely connected to his family any longer. Rather ashamed by his humble beginnings, he took it upon himself to change his last name which thus far had had no fixed spelling – getting rid of Prunty (or Brunty?) altogether to replace it with the current, more stately-sounding spelling.
The match with Maria was quickly made. His wife would readily accept – or at least, put up with – his value system that demanded so much more humility and simplicity than she was ever used to. She put up with relocating from Guiseley to Hartshead to Thornton to Haworth. She was completely alright with severing all ties to her family – either because they disowned her or because her husband demanded she let go of all material goods that came with being associated with the Branwells. We don’t really know, again. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Charlotte’s biography on very gentle terms to keep the yet alive Reverend Brontë happy and hold up his good name. She paints the picture that Maria and Patrick’s marriage was filled with fiery passion, even if with Maria’s sometimes needed compromises and patience. Personally, I’m not convinced, especially when comparing Maria’s comfortable upbringing with the drastic change of lifestyle brought on by her marriage. It just isn’t consistent.
There’s something to thinking about how Maria’s and Patrick’s relationship would have played out in that household.
Patrick was known among the Haworth community for his unpredictable temperament. While a giving humanitarian in public, required as the perpetual curate to Haworth, he was prone to tantrums, often festering with anger behind closed doors. Some townspeople recounted to Elizabeth Gaskell that the gunshots that fired against the brick walls late at night came from the house that had a graveyard for a backyard. Visitors of the Brontë Parsonage today can, if they look closely enough, see the abrasions left behind from the bullets of Patrick’s pistol. How would Maria, who enjoyed a peaceful childhood with mild-tempered parents, have dealt with her husband’s (to put it gently) passionate behavior?
How did she respond when he went through her private belongings in her dresser and shredded her clothes that he judged as too indulgent? These silk gowns, keep in mind, were ones Maria had already resolved never to wear as per Patrick’s terms. Evidently, Patrick was a controlling husband – hardly trusting, even of his wife. On another famous occasion, little Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë were soaked to the bone after having been caught in a heavy thunderstorm on the open moors. While waiting for the servants to bring them home, their mother readied and warmed their new, colorful boots for them. Once her back was turned, Patrick left the boots to burn in the fireplace after judging them too fashionable.
Maria died of uterine cancer just months after her sixth child, Anne Brontë, was born. Later in life, the only memory Charlotte had left was of her mother holding her brother Branwell’s hand to help him learn to walk. There’s so little to what we now know of Maria. Charlotte was just five when she lost her mother. We’ve found no existing evidence of Maria’s correspondence with her family during her marriage with Patrick. It is also unlikely that Patrick would have relayed any negative aspects of his relationship with Maria to Elizabeth Gaskell. And even if he did, Gaskell would have been sure to censor these details from Charlotte’s biography to uphold the Brontë family’s good name. So we don’t have the truth about the Brontë family harmony when Maria was a part of it.
Following his wife’s death, Patrick called on Maria’s sister Elizabeth to help raise Branwell and Anne, who were still only infants. And so Branwell and Anne spent their early years under the rather militaristic regime of their Aunt Elizabeth. Meanwhile, in an effort to lighten the load of raising six children in the small Parsonage, Patrick spent a few years searching for boarding schools. He sent his eldest daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, and Emily (at the time ten, nine, eight, and six years old) to a charitable institution for poor clergymen’s daughters.
In an even sadder twist, the girls were in for more traumatic experiences.
As if this unusual childhood could not become any more tumultuous or tragic.
The Cowan Bridge School in Lancashire was founded and owned by Rev. Carus Wilson, a man that is remembered to have used fear-mongering rhetoric to teach children about piety and avoiding damnation. He wrote pamphlets containing terrifying tales of warning about children dying young and burning in the fiery pits of Hell. Keeping in mind these qualities that the Cowan Bridge school was founded on, it’s nearly no surprise that the methods used to discipline the young girls were so outrageous. These included scarce, rotten scraps of food as meals, scanty rags for clothes, cruel and unusual punishment for extremely minor offenses, and excruciatingly long walks to church on subzero winter days without coats or shoes to withstand the snow. The standards placed on students were so unrealistic that Charlotte recounted this school to near perfection around twenty years later in Jane Eyre. In fact, she felt in wise to leave out some of the worst details, worried she would be accused of exaggeration. The scope of the situation at Cowan Bridge is summed up when young protagonist Jane resolves that the only way to avoid damnation would be to “keep in good health and not die” (Brontë 36).
The school was always cramped, damp, and moist – the perfect condition for breeding deadly bacteria and wiping out two-thirds of the student body with an avoidable typhoid epidemic. Often developing into tuberculosis, which entailed a long, painful deterioration of health, the months of suffering would scar Charlotte for life. She watched her own sisters Maria and Elizabeth waste away into mere flesh and bone. Their health reduced them to the point that, to the testimony many years later of some of the staff, they were hardly able to stand or talk, reduced to endless coughing bouts and burning fevers. And even in these conditions, Maria and Elizabeth were expected to continue with the school routine of waking up promptly and washing up with the near-frozen water in the basin that the schoolgirls all shared. Maria was beaten by school staff when she was unable to dress herself, having grown so weak. Elizabeth Gaskell, getting in touch with Charlotte’s favorite teacher (the one kind-hearted, sympathetic teacher she immortalized as Miss Temple in Jane Eyre) vividly drew recollections of the Brontë sisters as pale, gravely sick, unhappy girls that still managed to show academic strength through hardship.
And conditions worsened to the point Maria and Elizabeth were sent home only to die one month after the other. They were barely eleven and ten years old, respectively.
At this point, the Brontë family had already suffered three deaths. Patrick pulled Charlotte and Emily out of school quickly. He resolved that they would be educated by their Aunt Elizabeth alongside Branwell and Anne.
With the start of this period, the Brontë siblings grew closer than ever, forming intimate, lifelong bonds with each other and with their aunt. Patrick, distraught by tragedy happening after tragedy, learned to soften his ways. It’s here and onward that their father’s gift of wooden soldiers inspired the siblings to write, to materialize fictional countries with fully-functioning governments. It’s here that the Brontë sisters and their brother wove together tiny booklets containing original stories in their tiny scrawl. It’s here they drew inspiration from their library of classics and local magazines which they were finally able to explore, their childhood no longer busy with tragedy. It’s here that Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne penned their earliest pseudonyms for their creative writing.
While it may have seemed that the Brontës were generally a quiet, reclusive, pious family, these are obviously not the qualities we see in their famous works.
Bringing to light the truth about the Brontës shows us their history was, in fact, nothing short of theatrical. Their tale – involving an unlikely match, the severing of family ties, pistols firing in the dead of night, a questionably abusive marriage, untimely deaths one after the other – is clearly one worth writing down. And of course, that is exactly what the Brontë sisters did.
It is needless to say that the siblings’ love for reading dramatic classics and reenacting supernatural tales influenced their novels.
The vividness, the clarity with which Charlotte, Emily, and Anne could speak to issues on a emotional level shows us that no level of inspiration could have resulted in writing as poignant as theirs. The Brontë sisters were struck by the things they had seen at their tender age. Their personalities, even, were shaped by the dysfunctionality of their early upbringing. And they showcased this material for the world to see and be awed by.
To the left, the children's study in the Haworth Parsonage, where they acted out their earliest stories. To the right, an example of Charlotte's writing in her tiny handwoven book - note the scale!
It was not easy for 19th-century London and its world-famous critics to fathom that the strong, cutting words penned in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall came from the minds of three quiet women. Brontë enthusiasts can see that times have not changed very much, really. It’s still difficult to fathom the degree to which the Brontë sisters were actually speaking from experience.
All information is drawn from The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Brontës by Juliet Barker, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum.