Brontë, Charlotte and Emily
BRONTË, CHARLOTTE AND EMILY
Few literary biographies have inspired as much interest and myth as those of poet-novelists Charlotte (1816–1855) and Emily Jane Brontë (1818–1848). This fascination is provoked both by the genuine peculiarity of their background and the strong influence of the feelings and scenes of that background upon their writing. Their father, Patrick Brunty, the child of Irish laborers, gained admission to Cambridge University, changed his name to "Brontë," was ordained and, in 1820, became perpetual curate of Haworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In spite of his name-change, Patrick was never thoroughly at home in middle-class society, and he himself linked the idiosyncrasy of his daughters' literary productions with his own social marginality. His Cornish wife, Maria Brontë, died in 1821, leaving five daughters and a son.
In 1824 the girls were sent to a subsidized school for the daughters of impoverished clergymen at Cowan Bridge, near Gretta Bridge, the setting for the hellish Dotheboys Hall of Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839). Although, according to Juliet Barker, there is little hard evidence to substantiate the fact, Charlotte's fictionalization of the school as the Lowood of Jane Eyre (1847) suggests that it shared the poor living conditions of the notorious "Yorkshire schools" that so incensed Dickens. Charlotte attributed the deaths in 1825 of her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth to their stay there.
For a period after this scarring experience the children were all educated at home, where they collectively constructed the imaginary worlds of Angria and Gondal, the setting for their highly colored juvenilia, and a source of ongoing fascination into their adult lives. Their writing, from the beginning, was fueled by a passionate reading of Romantic poetry, as well as of Shakespeare, Milton, the Arabian Nights, and other works of fantasy, but they were also deeply immersed in the more worldly literary atmosphere of the periodicals, in particular Blackwood's Magazine. They shared with their father a keen interest in politics, and a pre-occupation with those two political giants of the early nineteenth century, Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, whose attributes seem recognizable in the powerful and violent heroes of the sisters' fiction.
From 1831 to 1832 Charlotte was at school at Roe Head. A classmate recalled her eccentric appearance and strong Irish accent. She made two very different friends, who brought out a tension in her personality, later very prominent in her fiction. Mary Taylor, from a family immersed in radical politics, shared Charlotte's intellectual and
rebellious proclivities. Ellen Nussey was pious and conventional. After a period in her early twenties back at Roe Head as a teacher, Charlotte became a governess.
Emily spent a few very brief periods away at school and as a governess, but she found herself overwhelmed by an acute physical homesickness whenever removed from the moorlands of home. Both sisters spent a period in Brussels studying languages under M. Heger, with whom Charlotte fell unrequitedly in love. Her experiences there are reworked in Villette (1853).
Finding teaching unbearable, the sisters struggled instead toward authorship. In 1846 they published, with their sister Anne, a volume of poetry, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (pseudonyms of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, respectively), which received little critical regard. Emily is now regarded as the strongest poet of the three. Such is the originality and raw feeling of her apparently simple lyrics that they are sufficient on their own to guarantee her literary reputation.
The Brontës are best known, however, for the fiction they wrote in 1847. Jane Eyre was published in that year and, despite a number of hostile reviews targeting its unseemly realism, "hunger, rebellion and rage" (to quote Matthew Arnold's review) proved very popular. Like all Charlotte's fiction, it is in some respects a defiantly "realist" novel. Its plain governess heroine advances through experiences of cruelty and poverty, registered in scenes drawn from life and meticulously described, to the attainment, finally, of a prosaic domestic contentment. On the other hand, the novel has strong gothic elements, and its heightened emotionalism and Byronic hero, Rochester, strongly recall the spirit of the Romantic movement in its more fantastic aspect. Charlotte was much more deeply immersed in the poetry of her century than in its fiction—she had never read Jane Austen, for instance, until recommended to do so by G. H. Lewes after the publication of Jane Eyre, and even then was distinctly unimpressed.
Charlotte Brontë completed only three other novels: The Professor (1857), Shirley (1849), and Villette. All manifest a tension between, on the one hand, a vivid engagement with matters that Shirley, a novel which explores social issues such as the Luddite riots and the Woman Question, dubs "as unromantic as Monday morning" and, on the other, a use of supernatural motifs, heightened allegorical imagery, and a psychological and emotional intensity recalling gothic and religious writing, that together seem the very antithesis of realism.
Emily's Wuthering Heights, published in 1848, makes use of a number of partially reliable narrators, a convoluted time-scheme, and a bleak though vital and vividly realized moorland setting. It portrays a shockingly violent and amoral universe on which no final judgment is ever passed, and in which the destructive forces of nature and civilization come into irreconcilable conflict. An exceptionally poised and sophisticated novel, pervaded by a biting, worldly irony, it places in mutually complicating juxtaposition the Wordsworthian view of a benevolent Nature, the cult of the Byronic hero, and the conventions of domestic realist fiction. The result is explosive.
Charlotte alone of the sisters, however, experienced literary celebrity during her lifetime. She met many of the most prominent literary figures of the time in London, but her enjoyment of fame was prevented by the illness and deaths, in 1848 and 1849, of her brother Branwell and of her sisters Emily and Anne.
Right up to the time of her early death, Emily had no close friends, and very little is known about her inward life beyond the little that can be inferred from Wuthering Heights, that most enigmatic of novels. More light is thrown on Charlotte by a biography (1857) by Elizabeth Gaskell, who became a friend in her later years. In 1854, after much hesitation, Charlotte married her father's curate, A. B. Nichols, but died a few months later, probably from complications relating to pregnancy.
It is not particularly easy to place the Brontës' fiction within a wider literary tradition, though post-1970s criticism has tried to resist F. R. Leavis's resigned identification of Wuthering Heights as a freakish, if awe-inspiring, literary sport. Terry Eagleton made one of the first and most influential critical efforts to resist this dehistoricizing, reading the Brontë novels as expressions of a wider Victorian ideological conflict over the establishment of bourgeois ideological hegemony, but his reading has difficulty accommodating the genuine idiosyncrasy of the sisters' background and output. Andrea Henderson's reading of Emily as a female Romantic is rather more successful—the novels of both sisters do feel more akin to the poetry of the previous generation than to the fiction of their own. Heather Glen's study of Charlotte's fiction combines a thoughtful placing of it in relation to the society in which it was produced, with an acknowledgement of the "singularity" that has continued to strike readers of the Brontës for a century and a half.
Allott, Miriam, ed. The Brontës: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston, 1974. Reprint, 1997.
Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. London, 1994.
Barker, Juliet, ed. The Brontës: A Life in Letters. London, 1997.
Eagleton, Terry. Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës. London, 1975. Reprint. New York, 2005.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). Harmondsworth, U.K., 1975.
Glen, Heather. Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination in History Oxford, U.K., and New York, 2002.
Henderson, Andrea K. Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity, 1774–1830. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.