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Charlotte Brontë and Her Sisters

ISSUE:  Winter 1929
“If you think from this prelude that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment and poetry and reverie? Do you expect passion and stimulus and melodrama? Calm your expectations: reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.”
“Shirley,” Chap. 1.

Haworth, in Yorkshire, is a melancholy village in one of the dreariest provinces in England. Its low houses have that dumpy, sad, sullen look to be seen in the peasants of the region; and, massed about a little square-towered church on the top of a small hill, they give to this elevation the severe aspect of a fortress.

Patrick Brontë was thirty-three years of age when, in 1820, he was appointed rector at Haworth. He was an Irishman, tall, with regular features and something in his glance and his carriage which gave the impression of indomitable strength. His wife was small and delicate, but courageous; and she took up, without complaint, her abode at Haworth with her six children, the eldest seven years of age. A cruel malady was sapping her strength; she realized her condition and was resigned to death. Almost immediately after her arrival she was forced to take to her bed and she did not again leave her room in the course of the single year she lived.

A sister of Patrick Brontë, Miss Branwell, an energetic spinster full of prejudices, but good in spite of a certain harshness, assumed the responsibility of the five little girls and the little boy. She immediately took in hand the education of the little girls, and as, in her honest but limited mind, the chief object of life was sewing, she taught them to sew. Whenever he could, Patrick Brontë assigned lessons to his children and heard them recite, but the time was at hand when that method of instruction would soon become insufficient, and he began to wonder if it were not better to send the little girls to school.

It so happened that some clergymen had just founded in the neighborhood, at Cowan Bridge, a school to which ministers’ daughters alone were admitted. This was exactly what Patrick Brontë wished, and he took his two eldest daughters to that providential school: Maria, who was eleven, and Elizabeth, who was ten. Two months later, he sent Charlotte and Emily, respectively eight and six. Bran-well, the little boy, and Anne, the youngest, remained at home.

It would seem that one should be happy at Cowan Bridge, it is so agreeably situated near a pretty stream on the edge of vast meadows; but the little Brontës found only sadness, boredom, and illness.

Maria made the best of it in silence. Like all the members of her family she was endowed with unlimited power of resignation, and never did a complaint escape her lips; but she had an incurable disease. To add to her sufferings she was a prey to the malevolence of one of the teachers, who suspected her wrongly of affecting a mournful air to gain the compassion of her comrades. Maria died ten months after her arrival at Cowan Bridge and Elizabeth a few weeks later. Both sisters had succumbed to tuberculosis.

In spite of these warnings, an epidemic of malaria had to strike forty pupils at Cowan Bridge before Patrick Bronté would consent to take his other two daughters from the school. Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth towards the end of 1825.

They, were two timid and studious little girls, happy only at home. Charlotte was the gayer and played and talked willingly when she felt at ease. Emily, almost never spoke, but she had so attentive and serious an air that it was difficult to forget her presence. They found at home their brother Branwell, already admired for a very precocious artistic sense, and Anne, who, in her gentleness and her gravity, must have reminded them of the sister Maria whom they had lost.

Miss Branwell resumed their education at the point where she had left it and the three little girls began again to sew. They also read much with their brother and all four passed long hours in discussing the world in general and, in particular, politics, about which they questioned their father at length. Wellington was Charlotte’s great hero. She spoke of him with all the vehemence of love, and the three little faces raised to hers would watch her fixedly and open-mouthed. Her activities did not stop there, however, and she wrote novel after novel, most often alone, sometimes with the help of her brother. One day she made a list of her works, adding proudly at the end: “This makes twenty-two volumes.” Each book contained from sixty to a hundred pages. It was in 1830; she was not yet fourteen.

At the beginning of the next year, Patrick Brontë confided Charlotte to the care of Miss Wooler, who directed Roe Head School, about twenty leagues from Haworth. Charlotte was happy there; Miss Wooler took an interest in her from the first. In that small, ungraceful girl she divined an exceptional force of character and a way of thinking which was neither of her age nor of her sex.

Meanwhile Charlotte was growing up. She was small without appearing short. Heavy brown hair framed her face. A large nose and an irregular mouth made her already hopelessly ugly, but there was something in the glance of those brown eyes which gave the impression of a deep spiritual force.

When she returned to Haworth after a year and a half at Roe Head, it was above all to busy herself with the education of her sisters. She made them study their lessons in the morning but in the afternoon all three had to sew, for the years might pass but Miss Branwell’s theories did not alter. The rest of the time they took walks in the country through the meadows of purple heather or else read Scott’s novels and the magazines which they received weeks late.

They, were very proud of Branwell, who seemed the best endowed of the whole family. He was well built and had a pleasing face in spite of hair which was inclined to be reddish. When he was eighteen there was a family council to decide upon his future. He talked and wrote well; he could also draw. His sisters urged him to choose an artistic career, for their ambition would have been to draw and paint if the genius had not been lacking. Not much insistence was necessary to make Branwell yield, for he was eager to have a reason to go to London. In July, 1835, he presented himself at the Royal Academy.

The same year Emily was sent to Roe Head School. Charlotte, who was nearly twenty, was now thinking about earning her living and also went to Roe Head, not as a pupil, but as a teacher. The profession did not please her but she had no choice; Patrick Brontë no longer earned enough to support his family. Anne remained at home.

For the first part of the time Charlotte was happy. Her life was monotonous and she was not fitted for her work, but she forced herself, with a Puritanical joy, to do her duty against her will. Her constitution was weak and her disposition became more and more melancholy. This girl, so brave and so firm on every other occasion, was afraid in a dark room. At night she imagined that she heard voices. She was afraid of death, such cruel and such frequent images of which she had had at the rectory, of Haworth. She no longer had any confidence in life and she had only to form a plan to be immediately doubtful of its success. This Protestant girl would have been very much surprised and irritated if she had been told that she resembled a Catholic nun, a prey to the acedia of the cloister; but it was true. At Roe Head, however, she was less disturbed because she was more occupied than at Haworth.

Emily, on the contrary, suffered from living away from home. She did not complain but she grew weaker from day to day, and they finally realized that they were shortening her life by keeping her at Roe Head. She returned home at the end of three months, ashamed, in spite of all her sisters’ attempts to console her; and she began to work with all her strength.

Charlotte returned to Haworth to spend her Christmas vacation, eager to see her family again and also to discuss plans for the future with Emily. The two sisters waited for that until everyone was abed. Then they closed the parlor door and talked at length in low voices, walking up and down by the light of the fire and, when the fire went out, in the dark; they did not light the lamp for reasons of economy.

About this time a young clergyman of the neighborhood asked Charlotte’s hand. You are acquainted with him if you have read “Jane Eyre” and if you remember Saint-John. The girl reflected and, with that seriousness which characterized her every action, she asked herself if she loved him to the point of dying for his sake. The answer was: no.

Marriage did not attract her. She loved hardly anything but work. She would have devoted herself entirely to writing and especially, if her eyes had permitted, to drawing; but sight was becoming weaker and weaker. In addition she was forced to earn her living, and the vacation she had fixed for herself was coming to an end. She decided to become a governess. It was the profession of poor young ladies at that time, a profession for which Charlotte had no vocation, for she did not like children; but her choice was limited.

Anne, who was just nineteen, resolved to do the same thing, although she was even less adapted to the life than her elder sister. She was very, timid and spoke with difficulty. Nevertheless, nothing in the world would have prevented a Brontë from doing her duty, and she went to live with a family in the neighborhood. Emily took charge of the house and remained at Haworth with Branwell and her father.

Charlotte remained at home all the year 1840, busy especially in writing a story which she disowned afterwards in the preface to her first novel. At the beginning of 1841, she went as governess to the Whites, near York. She was happier there than she had been at the Sidgwicks, but there too, they made her do a great amount of dressmaking which tired her eyes. She suffered also much from not being able to live at Haworth; in no English heart had the word home more strength than in that of a Brontë.

She conceived the idea of founding a little school with her sisters and she wrote Miss Wooler of her plan. Miss Wooler offered to help her and they were ready to begin when Charlotte, who did not consider herself sufficiently educated, asked permission to pass at least six months on the Continent in order to perfect herself in French and the art of teaching.

It was agreed that Charlotte and Emily would go to Brussels, Miss Branwell loaning them her savings; and the Christmas vacation brought the whole family together before the departure. Anne was to take Emily’s place at Haworth.

Upon their arrival in Brussels, in February, 1842, the two went to the boarding school of Mme. Heger, the address of which had been given them in England. The trip was a great event for young girls who had never left their province and scarcely knew what a city was and everything new they saw impressed them. In Mme. and M. Heger they found good teachers. M. Heger did not recommend himself either by affable manners or by patience, but he was intelligent and good and he seemed to understand the girl he was teaching when he said one day of Emily: “She should have been a man, a great navigator.”

Emily was the more difficult to know. If Charlotte was timid and could not speak without turning her head away, Emily opened her heart to no one and lived entirely within herself. She was not accustomed to the discipline she found in the boarding school but submitted to it without protest. Charlotte endured it in the same manner and she doubtless had to struggle with herself silently like her younger sister.

In September they, were called back to England by the death of Miss Branwell and, after Christmas, Charlotte returned alone to Brussels. Anne had found a place as governess and Emily would, therefore, remain at home. This time Charlotte was not happy. She was given a class to teach but, being a Protestant, she was distrusted by students and teachers and no one came to talk to her. She tried to amuse herself by writing to her friends but she could not dissipate her melancholy. In her solitary walks she thought only of Haworth, of the future of her sisters, of her own so dreary life; for she was nearly twenty-nine and she was still planning instead of doing, as at the age of twenty.

A single event troubled her monotonous existence, a very small event, it is true, the symbolic importance of which must have escaped her. Towards the end of 1842, Queen Victoria came to Brussels to visit King Leopold. Charlotte saw her pass in the procession and she thought that there was not much dignity in this stout little woman who laughed and talked continually. Does not this scene assume a different aspect today? At that epoch England was already marked with the stamp of the Queen. There was a certain manner of thinking and of living which one could call Victorian, a care for convention and morality which came from the Court and penetrated little by little among the people; but in the whole kingdom it would have been difficult to find a person more clearly cut on the Victorian pattern than that woman who, watching the procession, thought: “Really, our Queen lacks dignity.”

In January, 1844, she returned to Haworth, with a knowledge of French and some experience in teaching. Her first care was to draw up with her sisters and send to families of the district a prospectus announcing the foundation of their school. It was to be in the rectory at Haworth but, before preparing the house, they awaited the answers. None came. What good, then, had been these trips to Belgium, these plans, these negotiations?

Weeks passed without bringing any change in the situation. Charlotte suffered more than Emily or Anne, for she was the eldest; and she kept repeating to herself: “I am thirty years old and I have done nothing.” She wished to live and to do and instead it seemed necessary, as she said, to bury herself at Haworth.

Branwell had ended by obtaining a position as tutor in the Robinson family where Anne was a governess, but his conduct was becoming peculiar.

One day, in the summer of 1845 Patrick Brontë received a letter from Mr. Robinson announcing Branwell’s immediate dismissal. What had he done? The Brontës learned and in vain they tried to conceal their secret; modern curiosity has brought everything to light. Letters have been discovered, and a will. Violently in love with Mrs. Robinson, he had seduced this woman twenty years his senior. The intrigue was discovered and Branwell returned to Haworth.

Now he thought of one thing only: to forget (he had nevertheless kept Mrs. Robinson’s letters and he was to read them on his deathbed), and to forget he began to drink. Then he succeeded in getting opium.

Life was becoming impossible at the rectory. The three sisters, downcast with shame, wrote their friends not to come to see them. They avoided going into their brother’s room for they found him most often either drunk or stupefied, and they feared his violence. Alone Patrick Brontë talked to him without becoming moved at his morbid frenzy or his continual threats.

In this period of sadness, Charlotte made a discovery which moved her and gave her new hope. One day, in a book she was looking over, she came across sheets of manuscript containing verses. A wild melancholy breathed forth from these poems; their vigorous phrasing, their deep feeling, showed a powerful inspiration.

Charlotte had a moment of enthusiasm and then she began to reflect. Emily had written these poems, Emily, with whom she had lived so long, who never spoke of herself. Nevertheless, Charlotte knew her; she knew that a powerful and passionate soul was hidden in the silent girl. She recalled certain scenes, certain things Emily had done, which betrayed the depths of her character. Keeper, Emily’s big bulldog, was in the habit of sleeping on his mistress’ bed and nothing could prevent him. He was a redoubtable dog that they did not care to beat, for he would not hesitate to leap at any one’s throat and he was strong enough to strangle a man. One day Emily was told that he was again on her bed. She went up to her room and, dragging the furious and growling animal by the neck to the bottom of the staircase, she struck him repeatedly on the nose with her clenched fist until, bleeding and dazed, he fell back upon the floor. Then she lifted his head and began to bathe his wounds.

And little by little in Charlotte’s mind the different aspects of her sister merged into one. She recognized in the poems this strange and almost superhuman force of character, a few instances of which she had seen. She succeeded in persuading Emily to publish the poems. She herself had written some which could be added; and Anne, when she was told of the plan, produced in her turn some poems of her composition. They were more tender and calm than Emily’s, but the hand which had traced them was firm and capable. The book was done; all that was necessary was to find pseudonyms, for the Brontës did not want anyone to know that they wrote; they had reasons for that. They decided to call themselves Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, thus keeping the initials of their real names; and they sent the manuscript to a publisher who agreed to publish it at their expense. In May, 1848, the book appeared without attracting attention; two copies were sold. But the first step had been taken.

At this moment the three sisters were writing their first novels. A morbid sadness inspired them, especially the two youngest, for they were without defense against the terrible impressions they received daily. Charlotte especially admired firmness in the face of misfortune; and she reacted. But open “Jane Eyre.” Where can you see that its author once smiled while writing it, smiled with the joy of being alive and the joy of creating something? Imagine what the long autumn and winter nights must have been in the rectory of Haworth. When the three sisters had finished their sewing for the day, they took their escritoires to the parlor and each one accomplished the task she had fixed for herself; but in what anxiety and what tension of mind! Branwell slept in the room with his father and every night he threatened to kill him. What meaning, then, did the slightest unusual sound in the house and the steps they heard above their heads take for these young women; and what glances did they exchange when the furious voice of their brother resounded in the silence?

Nevertheless, they worked. Charlotte had finished her first novel, “The Professor,” the theme of which had been suggested by her stay in Belgium, and she was working on another, “Jane Eyre.” She often spoke of this book to her sisters and discussed it with them, walking up and down the parlor. Emily thought she was wrong to make her heroine unattractive, but Charlotte had carefully considered her plan and she refused to change it. She first wrote rough drafts which she arranged before her on a little board and she studied them for a long time before beginning her page. She never erased a word; if an expression did not suit, the entire sentence was removed. Sometimes she would abandon her work for a time and only resume it when she felt again in the mood to write.

While she was finishing “Jane Eyre” the manuscript of “The Professor” kept traveling to London, invariably to return to Haworth; no one wanted it. That admirable book seemed dull to the publishers and, as a matter of fact, it is; but it is by reason of an art which is obstinately bent on sober truth and fears literary, graces. Five times the brown-paper packages returned by mail to Currer Bell, Esq., who sent it then to a new address. In her ignorance of proper procedure, Charlotte contented herself with crossing out the name of the publisher who had sent it back, and wrote underneath the name of the one in whom she put her new hope. Each could thus see at a glance to whom the manuscript had been sent and what had been thought of it. It was not very clever but the ingenuousness is touching.

Emily and Anne had been more fortunate and their novels, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey,” had been accepted and were to appear in a single volume. Finally a publisher was found, Smith by name, who was willing to take “The Professor.” He also published “Jane Eyre,” which Charlotte had just finished.

At first “Jane Eyre” was little noticed, the critics putting no trust in an unknown author. However, the novel had such singular qualities and differed so much from what people were accustomed to read that it soon attracted attention and two months after it appeared everybody was discussing it. People tried in vain to discover the author, and no one suspected it was not a man. Now the papers were full of praise. Charlotte’s publisher sent to Haworth all the criticisms of “Jane Eyre”; almost all were favorable.

The novels of Emily and Anne appeared some time after “Jane Eyre” and had a favorable reception. A rumor circulated in London and became more and more credited that the same writer, the same man, was the author of the three novels. “Wuthering Heights” was seen as a first attempt, full of promise, of which “Jane Eyre” was in a way the accomplishment; and there is, in fact, in “Jane Eyre” more technical ability, more skill, than in the somewhat unpolished art of “Wuthering Heights”; but opinions have changed since then and many no longer hesitate to rank Emily’s novel above that of her eldest sister. As for Anne’s, it approaches Charlotte’s style and way of thinking a little more, and the mistake is comprehensible as far as it is concerned.

One day when Smith, the publisher, saw two young women enter his office who were quite obviously from the provinces he was at a loss to know who they could be. Trembling with emotion, Charlotte handed him a letter and recognition followed; but the publisher was long in recovering from his surprise and he had difficulty in believing that the authors who were then exciting the most curiosity in England were these two Yorkshire women speaking hesitatingly with an Irish accent.

Branwell’s death inaugurated a period of grief. Charlotte fell ill almost immediately but recovered at the end of a week. It was not the same with Emily; the young woman seemed greatly affected by her brother’s death and failed rapidly. She did not complain of feeling ill and would not allow anyone to question her on the subject; but her breathing became difficult and she lost ground day by day. A rapid change came over her whole person and she was suddenly white and thin, so that it seemed surprising that she was still alive. She had sharp pains in her side and chest, but she refused to be examined by doctors, medical poisoners, as she called them.

December 21 she rose and, without the help of anyone, dressed herself and began to sew. Her respiration was short and labored and her eyes were glassy; but she did not leave her work and a last hope came to agitate Charlotte and Anne. At noon she murmured:

“If you want to get a doctor, I will see him.”

She died at two o’clock. They buried her beside her mother and her two sisters, Elizabeth and Maria.

Anne had been sick for some time. She complained of pains but she let herself be treated. All her life she had been timid and submissive to her eldest sister and although she was not far from twenty-nine years of age, something about her made one think of a little girl. They told her to go to bed; she did so. There was no care she did not accept, no piece of advice she did not follow. After Emily’s obstinacy this touching docility must have consoled Charlotte a little in her anxiety.

Anne realized her condition and awaited death with resignation; but the winter passed and the disease seemed still the same. After consulting the doctors, they decided to go to Scarborough, a little beach in Yorkshire very much recommended for the qualities of its waters and the charm of its situation.

They arrived at Scarborough on September 25, 1849, in the company of Ellen Nussey. The 27th was a Sunday and Anne begged to be allowed to go to church; but she was too weak. The 28th she rose and dressed alone as Emily had done. Towards eleven o’clock she suddenly said that she felt a great change in herself and that she would not have much longer to live. She died quietly a short time after, exhorting her sister to be courageous. Charlotte decided to bury her at Scarborough.

Charlotte returned home a few days later. An awful silence reigned throughout the house. Patrick Brontë no longer left his library and Charlotte was alone, alone in the parlor where she used to talk with her sisters, alone in the chambers where all three had grown up. She tried to master her emotion, to accept her destiny, without weakening, but suddenly she broke down; her will yielded before a grief which nothing could contain and she gave herself up entirely to her despair.

She regained control of herself rather quickly and resumed, as soon as she found the necessary strength, all her usual habits. She drew from a drawer the pages of a novel she had begun soon after the publication of “Jane Eyre” and resolved to continue and finish it; Emily was the central character. This book caused her more difficulty than “Jane Eyre,” for now she had a reputation to uphold and there was no longer anyone to whom she could read her story and ask advice. When she had finished her daily task she would walk alone in the great deserted parlor, given up to the bitterness of her reflections.

In October, 1849, “Shirley” appeared. It was a sort of event in the literary world and the critics discussed it at length. In general they, praised it and at first Charlotte thought herself rewarded for her efforts; but a deep mortification awaited her.

In November she was invited to pass some time in London with the Smiths, and this time she accepted. Her hosts took her on drives about the city. One morning they decided to start a little sooner than usual, but Charlotte asked permission to glance at the newspapers which had just arrived. They insisted on leaving at once. Charlotte was obstinate, suspecting that they were hiding the papers on purpose; and she asked for the Times. It had been mislaid. Then she understood and asked again for the paper. Mrs. Smith finally gave it to her.

The two women sat facing each other. Charlotte had opened the paper and was holding it in front of her. Mrs. Smith pretended to be sewing but she watched her continually. Suddenly she saw tears falling on Charlotte’s waist. The critic of the Times had not spared “Shirley.”

“I like the truth,” wrote Charlotte some years later, also in regard to an unfavorable criticism. “I do it honor, I kneel before it. If it strikes me, good! Tears come to my eyes; but courage! Here is the other cheek. Strike again, hard!”

The pain the article gave her must have been compensated to a certain degree by the success of her book among the Yorkshire people. They immediately recognized Haworth in the novel and, by dint of patience, they, had finally discovered the real identity of Currer Bell. Some clergymen of the neighborhood frowned on reading “Shirley,” for the rector’s daughter had, with a peculiar energy, presented them in their true colors. She knew them well; they often came to see her father and she understood perfectly of what stuff they were made and how to paint them in a way to make them groan with shame.

The years passed slowly and, little by little, she resigned herself to her solitude. Another novel occupied her, but she wrote it without pleasure and wisely refused to promise it for a fixed date. Household duties took the rest of her time; everything in the rectory had to be in order and in a perfect state of neatness. Now that she had more money, she bought furniture and curtains. A large and handsome clock sounded in the deep silence of the house, and nothing was so pretty as the parlor papered in red; but it was empty. Upstairs, in the hall before Emily’s door, an old blind dog slept every night and cried, in the morning, sniffing under the door; it was Keeper.

For some years a clergyman named Arthur Nicholls had been coming to the house. He was a reserved man and never spoke of literature, but Charlotte discovered his solid qualities. He was upright and good and she loved him. Did he know it? One day in December, 1852, he visited Patrick Brontë. Charlotte, who was sewing in her room, heard the library door open and close and she thought he was leaving when she heard his steps on the stairs. He stopped before her door and knocked. She ran and opened it; he entered and stood motionless before her. A timid man in spite of his apparent firmness, he had not dared to ask Patrick Brontë, but he said what he had to say to Charlotte and she promised him an answer.

Patrick Brontë had a bitter and discouraging opinion of marriage and the esteem which he had for Nicholls could not make him change. He therefore refused his daughter permission to marry. Charlotte yielded; she had learned to wait and not to do violence to her destiny.

Some months before she was finishing her last novel, “Villette.” Her father tried in vain to make her modify the denouement, which he thought too melancholy; but Charlotte persisted, as she had before in her discussion with Emily about “Jane Eyre,” and the character who was to drown found death in the Atlantic.

Everyone was of one voice in praising the book and acclaiming its author, and the success of “Jane Eyre” was nothing in comparison with that of “Villette.” At present, Charlotte’s literary ambitions were satisfied. She had placed the name of Brontë among the most famous of her time, and the whole country paid homage to her genius. But glory had no hold upon that soul and its proud humility; Charlotte Brontë remained the same and continued to watch through her glasses from afar a world from which she had almost retired.

Suddenly, at the moment when she least expected it, happiness entered her life. Her father had changed his mind and, after reflecting more than a year, he permitted the marriage of his daughter and the Reverend Mr. Nicholls. Charlotte’s joy was inexpressible. She was married June 29, 1854.

A few months later she caught cold while walking in the country and had to take to her bed; her strength had been too often tried to resist longer and complications arose. One day, as she woke from a long sleep, she heard her husband murmuring prayers and she was seized with fear.

“Oh, I am not going to die, am I?” she asked. “It will not separate us, we have been so happy.”

March 31, 1855, the door of the rectory opened a last time to let her pass. Her father survived her six years.


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