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The bleak Yorkshire moors inspired the unique Bronte sisters

Posted in British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 27 February 2014

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This edited article about the Bronte sisters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 572 published on 30 December 1972.

The Bronte family,  picture, image, illustration

The Bronte family grew up well educated by their father, Patrick Bronte

The journey from Keighley in Yorkshire to the village of Haworth is four tough, steep scrambling miles with the road winding along between wave-like hills with bleak and desolate moorlands on either side. On a fresh, blustery morning in April 1820 a little convoy of seven heavily laden carts moved slowly towards Haworth village. The new parson was arriving, with all his household goods, his books and bedding and his six children, five of whom could now and then be seen peeping round the canvas covers as they stole a quick glance at their new home. The sixth child, Anne, was a babe-in-arms.

Haworth was a long and straggling community, with one narrow street which was so steep that the cobblestones were placed on end so that the horses’ feet did not slip. But the carts drew into the grounds of the Parsonage at last and the children tumbled out to look over the solid grey stone house that was to be their home. The Bronte children had arrived at the scene of the tragedies and triumphs which so marked their short lives. Their extra-ordinary range of talents had yet to be discovered but the effect of the bleak and barren moors which surrounded Haworth was already starting to take place and would soon find expression in their books.

They were certainly no ordinary family. Their father, Patrick, was born in a large and poverty-stricken Irish family. Though his own parents were illiterate they did own three or four books and from these Patrick taught himself to read. Eventually he found the key to a wider world and by effort and determination he got to Cambridge University and was ordained. He held several curacies and then moved on to Haworth at the age of forty three.

Unfortunately, the first of many tragedies occurred only just over a year after the Brontes moved into the Parsonage at Haworth, Mrs Bronte died and although her sister came to look after the children they began to find themselves increasingly on their own. To pass the time they made up plays, wrote poems and books and imagined little kingdoms which they would plan for hours. In the gloom of the late winter afternoons, with the light fading and the mist rising from the moors, the children would gather round a blazing kitchen fire, light a solitary candle and talk of revolutions, feuds, battles and the exploits and loves of their heroes in the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.

Many of these stirring tales were written in minute writing on the tiny pages (sometimes only one and a half or two inches long) of books which they stitched together and covered themselves. Over a hundred of these little volumes still exist, many in the Parsonage Museum at Haworth.

The turbulent, uncertain world of the Industrial Revolution did not often intrude on the quiet and sheltered world of the Bronte children but when it did it made a deep impression. The growth of the new factories and the loss of work to the cottage industries of the moorland villages brought hardship and poverty to many families.

Isolated groups of men tried to redress the balance by wrecking the machines that took away their jobs. These “Luddites” were often harshly treated, troops were used to protect the factory owners’ property and so an unequal kind of war came to be waged.

Desolate moorland meeting places suddenly became crowded on wild, dark wintry nights as groups of men gathered for a concerted attack on the hated machines. While others slept, grim-faced men with blackened faces fought a hopeless task in trying to stop the march of progress. Mills and factories were attacked, riots ensued, and half the populace seemed to be taking sides until it became clear that the men could not win. The unhappy desperation of the work-people in the machine-breaking times and the riots over the price of bread which followed were not forgotten and Charlotte Bronte used them in her novel “Shirley,” written almost twenty years later but still recalling vividly the fear, excitement and anger which erupted in the North.

Two of the Bronte children died during childhood and the four who survived were each beginning to show the particular sides of their characters which would later be revealed in their writing. Anne, Emily and Charlotte were able to express themselves in books and poetry but their brother Branwell had ambitions to become a painter and if he were to be able to go to the Royal Academy it was essential that the girls should become independent.

So the three sisters went out into the world as teachers and governesses, and students. At first Emily went to a small boarding school, set on one of the Pennine hills around the town of Halifax, but the duties there were so hard that she did not stay long. From six in the morning until eleven at night, with only half an hour of exercise in between, she was on duty and at length, after about eighteen exhausting months, she returned home.

Eventually, the sisters decided on the idea of setting up their own school, so that they might live and work together and Emily and Charlotte went to Brussels in order to prepare for this aim. But all was far from well at home. Branwell had given up painting, tried several jobs from being a tutor to a clerk on the railway and was now in debt, drinking more and more, and taking opium. Despite the stress and unhappiness of this time, however, the sisters started on their writing careers and made their first attempts at publishing their work.

It was decided that they would keep the same initials but not use their real names, and so their first volume of poetry was printed as being by “Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.” It was hardly a resounding success for in the first year only two copies were sold! Despite this, Charlotte wrote and told their publisher that “C.A. and E. Bell are now preparing three distinct and unconnected tales . . .”, and these were the novels “The Professor,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey.” But it was Charlotte’s next book, “Jane Eyre” which really brought them fame. When the book was given to George Smith, the head of a publishing firm, he began to read it, in order to judge if it was suitable, one Sunday morning.

Soon he was lost in the adventures of the book’s heroine, and nothing else seemed important. His family wondered what had become of him, for servants who went timidly to the study were sent away again; he refused meals and cancelled his appointments, until late that week he emerged triumphant, knowing that he had discovered a masterpiece.

“Jane Eyre” was published in October 1847 and was an instant success. But the mystery about its author, and the shadowy figures of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, remained until the following year, when Charlotte and Anne decided that they should reveal their secret to their publisher.

Several days later the bustling London offices of Smith, Elder and Co. were visited by two small, frail looking young ladies, dressed in black and looking as shy and bewildered as anyone up from the country might be in the face of such bustling activity. Eventually they came face to face with Mr Smith and at this point Charlotte thrust his own letter into his hands. His jaw dropped in surprise; “Where did you get this?” he demanded. It was the only way that he could be convinced that the pleased but agitated young women who stood before him really were Currer and Acton Bell.

The moments of triumph were all too brief, and their short periods of success were followed by months of sickness and tragedy which soon left only Charlotte to continue her career. First Branwell died, then Emily and Anne. None of the sisters had ever been strong and Branwell had destroyed himself with drink and drugs. Charlotte faced a lonely future with grief and bitterness, but her determination to write was as strong as ever, and in the next three years she wrote two more books “Shirley” and “Villette.” Her fame at last brought some reward, too, with meetings with other famous writers and a little travelling as her chief pleasures. But even Charlotte could not enjoy her triumph long and after a short illness she died in March 1855.

The story of the Bronte family has always been inseparable from the bleak, wild and barren moorland country which surrounded their home. Their own story was as dramatic as the windswept views that both they and today’s visitors to Haworth enjoy. Of all the Victorian writers, only Dickens is read more widely than the Brontes; in “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”, as well as in the Museum at Haworth, the Bronte story lives on.

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