The Brontë sisters were English novelists, and three of the six children of Patrick Brontë, a clergyman of the Church of England, who for the last forty-one years of his life was perpetual incumbent of the parish of Haworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Patrick Brontë was born at Emsdale, Co. Down, Ireland, on the 17th of March 1777. His parents were of the peasant class, their original name of Brunty apparently having been changed by their son on his entry at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1802. In the intervening years he had been successively a weaver and schoolmaster in his native country. From Cambridge he became a curate, first at Wethersfield in Essex, in 1806, then for a few months at Wellington, Salop, in 1809. At the end of 1809 he accepted a curacy at Dewsbury, Yorkshire, following up this by one at Hartshead-cum-Clifton in the same county. At Hartshead, Patrick Brontë married in 1812 Maria Branwell, a Cornishwoman, and there two children were born to him, Maria (1813-1825) and Elizabeth (1814-1825). Thence Patrick Brontë removed to Thornton, some 3 m. from Bradford, and here his wife gave birth to four children, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell (1817-1848), Emily Jane, and Anne, three of whom were to attain literary distinction.
In April 1820, three months after the birth of Anne Brontë, her father accepted the living of Haworth, a village near Keighley in Yorkshire, which will always be associated with the romantic story of the Brontës. In September of the following year his wife died. Maria Brontë lives for us in her daughter's biography only as the writer of certain letters to her "dear saucy Pat," as she calls her lover, and as the author of a recently published manuscript, an essay entitled The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns, full of a sententiousness much affected at the time.
Upon the death of Mrs Brontë her husband invited his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, to leave Penzance and to take up her residence with his family at Haworth. Miss Branwell accepted the trust and would seem to have watched over her nephew and five nieces with conscientious care. The two eldest of those nieces were not long in following their mother. Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, were all sent to the Clergy Daughters' school at Cowan Bridge in 1824, and Maria and Elizabeth returned home in the following year to die. How far the bad food and drastic discipline were responsible cannot be accurately demonstrated. Charlotte gibbeted the school long years afterwards in Jane Eyre, under the thin disguise of "Lowood," and the principal, the Rev. William Carus Wilson (1792-1859), has been universally accepted as the counterpart of Mr Naomi Brocklehurst in the same novel. But congenital disease more probably accounts for the tragedy from which happily Charlotte and Emily escaped, both returning in 1825 to a prolonged home life at Haworth. Here the four surviving children amused themselves in intervals of study under their aunt's guidance with precocious literary aspirations. The many tiny booklets upon which they laboured in the succeeding years have been happily preserved. We find stories, verses and essays, all in the minutest handwriting, none giving any indication of the genius which in the case of two of the four children was to add to the indisputably permanent in literature.
At sixteen years of age—in 1831—Charlotte Brontë became a pupil at the school of Miss Margaret Wooler (1792-1885) at Roe Head, Dewsbury. She left in the following year to assist in the education of the younger sisters, bringing with her much additional proficiency in drawing, French and composition; she took with her also the devoted friendship of two out of her ten fellow-pupils—Mary Taylor (1817-1893) and Ellen Nussey (1817-1897). With Miss Taylor and Miss Nussey she corresponded for the remainder of her life, and her letters to the latter make up no small part of what has been revealed to us of her life story. Her next three years at Haworth were varied by occasional visits to one or other of these friends. In 1835 she returned to Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head as a governess, her sister Emily accompanying her as a pupil, but remaining only three months, and Anne then taking her place. The year following the school was removed to Dewsbury. In 1838 Charlotte went back to Haworth and soon afterwards received her first offer of marriage—from a clergyman, Henry Nussey, the brother of her friend Ellen. This was followed a little later by a second offer from a curate named Bryce. She refused both and took a situation as nursery governess, first with the Sidgwicks of Stonegappe, Yorkshire, and later with the Whites at Rawdon in the same county. A few months of this, however, filled her with an ambition to try and secure greater independence as the possessor of a school of her own, and she planned to acquire more proficiency in "languages" on the continent, as a preliminary step. The aunt advanced some money, and accompanied by her sister Emily she became in February 1842 a pupil at the Pensionnat Héger, Brussels. Here both girls worked hard, and won the goodwill and indeed admiration of the principal teacher, M. Héger, whose wife was at the head of the establishment. But the two girls were hastily called back to England before the year had expired by the announcement of the critical illness of their aunt. Miss Branwell died on the 29th of October 1842. She bequeathed sufficient money to her nieces to enable them to reconsider their plan of life. Instead of a school at Bridlington which had been talked of, they could now remain with their father, utilize their aunt's room as a classroom, and take pupils. But Charlotte was not yet satisfied with what the few months on Belgian soil had done for her, and determined to accept M. Héger's offer that she should return to Brussels as a governess. Hence the year 1843 was passed by her at the Pensionnat Héger in that capacity, and in this period she undoubtedly widened her intellectual sphere by reading the many books in French literature that her friend M. Héger lent her. But life took on a very sombre shade in the lonely environment in which she found herself. She became so depressed that on one occasion she took refuge in the confessional precisely as did her heroine Lucy Snowe in Villette. In 1844 she returned to her father's house at Haworth, and the three sisters began immediately to discuss the possibilities of converting the vicarage into a school. Prospectuses were issued, but no pupils were forthcoming.
Matters were complicated by the fact that the only brother, Patrick Branwell, had about this time become a confirmed drunkard. Branwell had been the idol of his aunt and of his sisters. Educated under his father's care, he had early shown artistic leanings, and the slender resources of the family had been strained to provide him with the means of entering at the Royal Academy as a pupil. This was in 1835. Branwell, it would seem, indulged in a glorious month of extravagance in London and then returned home. His art studies were continued for a time at Leeds, but it may be assumed that no commissions came to him, and at last he became tutor to the son of a Mr Postlethwaite at Barrow-in-Furness. Ten months later he was a booking-clerk at Sowerby Bridge station on the Leeds & Manchester railway, and later at Luddenden Foot. Then he became tutor in the family of a clergyman named Robinson at Thorp Green, where his sister Anne was governess. Finally he returned to Haworth to loaf at the village inn, shock his sisters by his excesses, and to fritter his life away in painful sottishness. He died in September 1848, having achieved nothing reputable, and having disappointed all the hopes that had been centred in him. "My poor father naturally thought more of his only son than of his daughters," is one of Charlotte's dreary comments on the tragedy. In early years he had himself written both prose and verse; and a foolish story invented long afterwards attributed to him some share in his sisters' novels, particularly in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. But Charlotte distinctly tells us that her brother never knew that his sisters had published a line. He was too much under the effects of drink, too besotted and muddled in that last year or two of life, to have any share in their intellectual enthusiasms.
The literary life had, however, opened bravely for the three girls during those years. In 1846 a volume of verse appeared from the shop of Aylott & Jones of Paternoster Row; "Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell," was on the title-page. These names disguised the identity of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. The venture cost the sisters about £50 in all, but only two copies were sold. There were nineteen poems by Charlotte, twenty-one by Emily, and the same number by Anne. A consensus of criticism has accepted the fact that Emily's verse alone revealed true poetic genius. This was unrecognized then except by her sister Charlotte. It is obvious now to all.
The failure of the poems did not deter the authors from further effort. They had each a novel to dispose of. Charlotte Brontë's was called The Master, which before it was sent off to London was retitled The Professor. Emily's story was entitled Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Gray. All these stories travelled from publisher to publisher. At last The Professor reached the firm of Smith, Elder & Co., of Cornhill. The "reader" for that firm, R. Smith Williams (1800-1875), was impressed, as were also his employers. Charlotte Brontë received in August 1847 a letter informing her that whatever the merits of The Professor—and it was hinted that it lacked "varied interest"—it was too short for the three-volume form then counted imperative. The author was further told that a longer novel would be gladly considered. She replied in the same month with this longer novel, and Jane Eyre appeared in October 1847, to be wildly acclaimed on every hand, although enthusiasm was to receive a counterblast when more than a year later, in December 1848, Miss Rigby, afterwards Lady Eastlake (1809-1893), reviewed it in the Quarterly.
Meanwhile the novels of Emily and Anne had been accepted by T. C. Newby. They were published together in three volumes in December 1847, two months later than Jane Eyre, although the proof sheets had been passed by the authors before their sister's novel had been sent to the publishers. The dilatoriness of Mr Newby was followed up by considerable energy when he saw the possibility of the novels by Ellis and Acton Bell sailing on the wave of Currer Bell's popularity, and he would seem very quickly to have accepted another manuscript by Anne Brontë, for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published by Newby in three volumes in June 1848. It was Newby's clever efforts to persuade the public that the books he published were by the author of Jane Eyre that led Charlotte and Anne to visit London this summer and interview Charlotte's publishers in Cornhill with a view to establishing their separate identity. Soon after their return home Branwell died (the 24th of September 1848), and less than three months later Emily died also at Haworth (the 19th December 1848). Then Anne became ill and on the 24th of May 1849 Charlotte accompanied her to Scarborough in the hope that the sea air would revive her. Anne died there on the 28th of May, and was buried in Scarborough churchyard. Thus in exactly eight months Charlotte Brontë lost all the three companions of her youth, and returned to sustain her father, fast becoming blind, in the now desolate home at Haworth.
In the interval between the death of Branwell and of Emily, Charlotte had been engaged upon a new novel—Shirley. Two-thirds were written, but the story was then laid aside while its author was nursing her sister Anne. She completed the book after Anne's death, and it was published in October 1849. The following winter she visited London as the guest of her publisher, Mr George Smith, and was introduced to Thackerary, to whom she had dedicated Jane Eyre. The following year she repeated the visit, sat for her portrait to George Richmond, and was considerably lionized by a host of admirers. In August 1850 she visited the English lakes as the guest of Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, and met Mrs Gaskell, Miss Martineau, Matthew Arnold and other interesting men and women. During this period her publishers assiduously lent her books, and her criticisms of them contained in many letters to Mr George Smith and Mr Smith Williams make very interesting reading. In 1851 she received a third offer of marriage, this time from Mr James Taylor, who was in the employment of her publishers. A visit to Miss Martineau at Ambleside and also to London to the Great Exhibition made up the events of this year. On her way home she visited Manchester and spent two days with Mrs Gaskell. During the year 1852 she worked hard with a new novel, Villette, which was published in January of 1853. In September of that year she received a visit from Mrs Gaskell at Haworth; in May 1854 she returned it, remaining three days at Manchester, and planning with her hostess the details of her marriage, for at this time she had promised to unite herself with her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls (1817-1906), who had long been a pertinacious suitor for her hand but had been discouraged by Mr Brontë. The marriage took place in Haworth church on the 29th of June 1854, the ceremony being performed by the Rev. Sutcliffe Sowden, Miss Wooler and Miss Nussey acting as witnesses. The wedded pair spent their honeymoon in Ireland, returning to Haworth, where they made their home with Mr Brontë, Mr Nicholls having pledged himself to continue in his position as curate to his father-in-law. After less than a year of married life, however, Charlotte Nicholls died of an illness incidental to childbirth, on the 31st of March 1855. She was buried in Haworth church by the side of her mother, Branwell and Emily. The father followed in 1861, and then her husband returned to Ireland, where he remained some years afterwards, dying in 1906.
The bare recital of the Brontë story can give no idea of its undying interest, its exceeding pathos. Their life as told by their biographer Mrs Gaskell is as interesting as any novel. Their achievement, however, will stand on its own merits. Anne Brontë's two novels, it is true, though constantly reprinted, survive principally through the exceeding vitality of the Brontë tradition. As a hymn writer she still has a place in most religious communities. Emily is great alike as a novelist and as a poet. Her "Old Stoic" and "Last Lines" are probably the finest achievement of poetry that any woman has given to English literature. Her novel Wuthering Heights stands alone as a monument of intensity owing nothing to tradition, nothing to the achievement of earlier writers. It was a thing apart, passionate, unforgettable, haunting in its grimness, its grey melancholy. Among women writers Emily Brontë has a sure and certain place for all time. As a poet or maker of verse Charlotte Brontë is undistinguished, but there are passages of pure poetry of great magnificence in her four novels, and particularly in Villette. The novels Jane Eyre and Villette will always command attention whatever the future of English fiction, by virtue of their intensity, their independence, their rough individuality.