The Brontë Sisters

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) was the eldest of the Brontë children who survived into adulthood, her older sisters Maria and Elizabeth having died as children. Charlotte was educated at Roe Head, where she later served as a teacher between 1835 and 1838. In 1839 she took up the first of many governess positions which would provide inspiration for her most famous novel, Jane Eyre. In 1842, she and Emily enrolled at Constantin Héger’s boarding school in Brussels. Charlotte also taught there for a year in 1843. Charlotte’s first manuscript was The Professor which failed to secure a publisher. In response she wrote Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847. She wrote her second novel Shirley while grieving for her sisters. Her final novel, Villette, was published in 1853. The following year she married her father’s curate Arthur Bell Nicholls.  She died less than a year afterwards, possibly from the effects of severe morning sickness. The Professor was published posthumously in 1857. In the same year the famous novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published a biography of Charlotte.


Emily Brontë

Emily (30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848) was the second eldest of the three famous sisters, and the fifth of the Brontë children overall. Emily attended the Clergy Daughters’ School for a short time between November 1824 and June 1825. At 17, she attended the Roe Head Girls’ School, where Charlotte was a teacher, but returned home after only a few months due to extreme homesickness. Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in September 1838 but the stressful work damaged her health. She studied with her sister Charlotte at the academy run by Constantin Héger in Brussels. Unlinke her sisters, she wrote only a single novel, Wuthering Heights, published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. It was published in 1847 as part of a three-volume set which also included Anne’s Agnes Gray. Emily died of tuberculosis in December 1848, aged 30. She had, until shortly before her death, refused medical attention.


Anne Brontë

Anne (17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849) was the youngest of the Brontë siblings. She attended a boarding school at Mirfield between 1836 and 1837. At 19, she left home and worked as a governess between 1839 and 1845. She wrote two novels. Agnes Gray, which was inspired by her experiences as a governess, was published in 1847. Her final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is often considered one of the first feminist novels, was published in 1848. Her novels were published under the pen name Acton Bell. She died of pulmonary tuberculosis aged 29. She is not as well-known as her elder sisters, partly because Charlotte prevented the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall after Anne’s death.  

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come was objectionable: “I must keep in good health and not die.”

—  Charlotte Brönte.

Charlotte Brontë’s tiny poem - 1829

- The Brontë sisters often wrote their works in a minuscule handwriting on whatever scraps of paper they could find. A magnifying glass is often required to read the texts. This early poem from a 13-year-old Charlotte was scrawled on a three-inch square paper. Scholars believe the miniature handwriting was a way for the sisters to hide their work from prying eyes and due to the expense of paper at that time. Others suggest it’s the scale that the sisters’ beloved toy soldiers would have written in, since the playthings were an integral part of their childhood fantasy world that inspired their earliest works. -


Great little manuscript from Charlotte Bronte

A few years ago this super charming manuscript written by one of the Bronte sisters was auctioned off. Before the talented sisters became known for their now classical novels, they made little handwritten magazines with stories for their own pleasure. Miraculously, this one from 1830 survived. It contains three short stories by Charlotte Bronte (d. 1855), who is best known as the author of Jane Eyre. The manuscript measures only 61x35 mm (half a credit card), but its nineteen pages contain a combined 4000 words. Now that’s a lot of scribbling! The tiny pages contain the seeds of big scenes her later novels would be famous for. One of the stories, for example, alludes to Jane Eyre through a scene where someone locks up his enemy in the attic, after which he starts to imagine how the prisoner sets the place on fire by burning the curtains. All in all this little art project shows that small books matter too - as do, admittedly, non-medieval manuscripts, the usual focus of this Tumblr.

Pic: Sotheby’s, where this “Young Men’s Magazine nr. 2” sold (in 2011) for $1.07 million, after a bidding frenzy (read it here). More information in this article.


Favorite Books:
by Charlotte Brontë

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!”  

The Bronte Museum at the Haworth Parsonage, as seen from the graveyard

The back of the card says: “The old parsonage, which was the home of the Bronte family from 1820, is now a museum containing many relics of the famous sisters. It was buit in 1779 of the local gray stone, a typical late-Georgian house.”

The BBC reports that “30,000 people are believed to have been interred in Haworth churchyard. Today this may be a romantic place but, in the Bronte’s time, methods of burial here contributed to a death rate which was estimated to be over 40% higher than in neighboring villages. The village water supply passed through the graveyard.”

No wonder those girls were morbid. 

It’s unsurprising that Charlotte Brontë had a way with words, but did you know that this Brontë sister’s writings currently appear as the earliest supporting evidence for 150 words and senses in the Oxford English Dictionary?

From the unprogressive “men’s work” to the surprising “Wild West,” find out some of the more unusual words that Charlotte Brontë currently provides evidence for in the OED.

Image: Charlotte Brontë portrait. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.