Long before JK Rowling dreamed up Fred and George Weasley, Charlotte and Elizabeth Bronte accomplished impressive things as siblings. Their family history is a sad one, though, and their feelings of loss are evident in their most famous novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
The Early Years
Charlotte and Emily Bronte are probably some of the most well-known children of Maria and Patrick Bronte (who were their parents). The couple actually had five daughters and a son - they had a lot of kids!
Portraits of Charlotte, Emily and siblings
Only Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell actually made it to adulthood. It's important to know that they had these other siblings because the effects of the lives and deaths of their sisters actually did have a lot of influence over their works.
Both Charlotte and Emily (and the rest of their siblings) were born in Yorkshire, Charlotte in 1816 and Emily in 1818. Their mother died in 1821, which is tragic. Their aunt moved in to help their father raise the children.
When the Bronte girls are sent to a boarding school, it wasn't a very nice experience for them. They experienced harsh treatment and seriously unhealthy conditions. Two of the girls, Elizabeth and Maria, actually end up dying of typhus after going to boarding school. So, only four of them made it to adulthood.
Charlotte and Emily returned home shortly after their sisters' death because that's kind of a downer when you're away at school. Maybe it's not such a safe place to be if everyone's coming down with typhus and dying. They come home with their surviving siblings, and they spend a lot of time in their own little worlds. They create these fantasy worlds; they had a couple named 'Angria' and 'Gondal,' which sound awesome. They sound like things out of World of Warcraft. It's amazing that kids back then were exactly like kids right now, in terms of creating worlds of their own to play in and think about.
Influences and Inspirations
All four siblings really loved to write, not surprisingly given that background. They wrote these dramatic accounts of things that happened in these imaginary worlds. Which again, is something that's common with first graders nowadays, right? Everyone's writing fantasy stories - like Lord of the Rings-lite.
Emily and Charlotte were both really interested in education and each held various teaching jobs throughout their lives. What they really wanted to do was eventually go and open their own school. After a few unsuccessful attempts at doing so, they returned to writing, and they published a book of poems with their sister, Anne.
They used the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They're kind of androgynous-sounding names. They choose them because they weren't sure if they would be taken seriously if publishers and readers knew that it was written by women. But they wanted names that would preserve their initials anyway, so that's how they came up with those weird names.
This trend of publishing works under androgynous pseudonyms continued beyond that book of poems. When Charlotte published her best-known novel, which is Jane Eyre (this was in 1847), it was under the name Currer Bell. So, she used that same pseudonym.
It was originally titled Jane Eyre: An Autobiography; since it was written really convincingly from a woman's point-of-view, people started to speculate about whether Currer Bell might really be a woman, possibly because Currer sounds like a totally fake name! That might've tipped them off a little bit that it was a pseudonym.
Despite getting some early criticism for being 'coarse,' Jane Eyre was actually a big hit. This is possibly due in to the fact that there was all of this scandal around who the author was and whether it was really a woman - all of this probably raised its profile a certain amount. We're going to go into more details in another video about the plot of this and what really happens. The basic overview is that Jane Eyre goes to work as a governess for the enigmatic Mr. Rochester, with whom she inevitably falls in love even though he's rich and she's a governess (and by her own account, is very plain). That's kind of the set up for that novel.
The same year (1847) Emily Bronte publishes her most famous - and actually only completed - novel, Wuthering Heights.
Like Jane Eyre, it was kind of controversial because it was pretty dark and features lots of nasty things happening (cruel treatment of other people). When it was first out, it wasn't well-received. It's a classic of English literature now, people regard it as such.
We're going to go into more detail again in a separate video. Briefly talking about it here, it's the doomed romance of Heathcliff and Cathy and all of their relatives. It gets very messy and complicated. After Emily Bronte died of tuberculosis in 1848 (that's tragic), Charlotte had Wuthering Heights published under Emily's real name.
Other WorksCharlotte BronteShirleyVilletteShirleyJane EyreVillette
The novel called The Professor, which was actually the first thing that Charlotte wrote, wasn't actually published until after she died in 1854. She died essentially of morning sickness (which is awful). She was basically so sick from being pregnant that she got dehydrated, couldn't eat and died. That's an awful way to go! You can see that the whole family dies in tragic ways - Branwell was addicted to alcohol and laudanum, and he died at the age of 31. They all died pretty young.
The story of the Brontes might seem like a sad one with all the dying - not so great. It is in a lot of ways. The important thing to remember is that this is a time in which they felt that they couldn't publish fiction under their own female names because they wouldn't be taken seriously if they were known to be women. It's pretty incredible that they were able to be as successful as they were in this kind of climate. That's really what you should take away. It's incredibly sad that they all died young, but it's amazing that they were able to accomplish so much. Who knows what they would've done if they hadn't died of tuberculosis and of being pregnant?
That's the lives of the Bronte sisters and an overview of their work. Go and read it! It's pretty good.