Reader's Encyclopedia


An English family, originally of Irish descent, that produced three 19th-century novelists: Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. On the death of his wife in 1821, the Reverend Patrick Bronte, a curate, sent for his sister-in-law to help him bring up his six children. A few years later, all the girls except Anne were sent to board at the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge; conditions at the school were dreadful, worsened by the administration's belief that physical discomfort was spiritually edifying. The two eldest girls died at the school in 1825, and Charlotte and Emily were returned home. Lowood School in Jane Eyre was based on Charlotte's unhappy memories of Cowan Bridge. During much of their childhood, the four remaining Bronte children were free to roam and play in the Yorkshire moors, giving free reign to their imaginations. Charlotte, with the help of her brother Branwell, created Angria, a vast, imaginary African empire, and wrote of the lives and adventures of its inhabitants. At the same time, Emily kept a journal, the Gondal Chronicle, on the wars and intrigues of the Royalists and Republicans in a mysterious North country.

In 1831 Charlotte (1816-55) was sent to Roe Head School, where she returned to teach (1835-38). She worked for a time as a governess and then in 1842 went with Emily to Brussels to study at the school of Constantine Heger, where she taught the following year. Many of the scenes of Villette are based on Charlotte 's experiences at the school and on her deep but frustrated emotional attachment to Heger. In 1845 Charlotte made the accidental discovery that Emily and Anne had been writing verse. She herself had composed many poems, and she collected them all into a volume (1846) of poetry signed by Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell, pseudonyms that they retained throughout their later work. The book, published at their expense, was unsuccessful, selling only two copies. Charlotte soon submitted her first novel, The Professor, to a number of publishers, and it was rejected so many times that she finally withdrew it. She nevertheless set to work to complete Jane Eyre, which was published and achieved spectacular success.

On the strength of her one novel, Wuthering Heights, and the best of her poems, Emily (1818 - 48) is generally considered to be of greater genius than her sisters. Her mysticism is reflected in her work, especially in her extraordinary novel and in such poems as "The Prisoner," "Remembrance " "The Old Stoic " and "The Visionary." Some skeptics maintained that Wuthering Heights was actually the work of her dissipated brother, Patrick Branwell (1817-48), on the grounds that no woman, let alone one who led such a circumscribed life, could have written such a turbulent and passionate book. But Branwell, who was tubercular and addicted to alcohol and possibly to opium, had no literary talent. Emily, who caught cold at his funeral, died a few months after him.

Anne (1820-49), the least talented of the sisters, wrote two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It is possible that neither of these books would be remembered today if she were not the sister of Charlotte and Emily.

After her sisters' death, Charlotte devoted herself to the care of her father, who was going blind. She completed Shirley, which was well received, as was Villette, her last novel. These were years of social lionization, and in London and elsewhere she met Thackeray, Matthew Arnold, Mrs. Gaskell, Harriet Martineau, and others. She married Arthur Bell Nichols, her father's curate, in 1854 and died the following year. The Professor was published posthumously in 1857, and Emma, a fragment, appeared in 1860.