Literary sensations of the 19th century

The Bronte sisters expressed both the light and the darkness in human nature and explored the balance between the two through characters in their novels.

Literary sensations of the 19th century

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The Bronte family, perhaps the greatest literary family of the 19th century — created a literary phenomenon that remains undisputed till date. This phenomenon is chiefly known for the ardour, vehemence and spirituality in their works. They had always kept the fire of writing burning in them, which aided them to rise to prominence among other distinguished and eminent authors of that era.

Charlotte, the eldest sister, was born on 21 April 1816; Emily on 30 July 1818 and Anne on 17 January 1820. They were all born and brought up in Thornton, Yorkshire. Their father, Patrick, was an Anglican clergyman who was later appointed as the rector major of the village of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors.

After the death of their mother in 1821, their aunt Elizabeth came to look after the family. They had two more sisters — both of whom died at a very early age — and a brother named Branwell. Thus, they were raised in profound isolation, which somehow influenced their writing to the fullest extent.


The Bronte sisters were women of their class and time —educated, impoverished and destined to spinsterhood, although with a twist. Motherless since they were young, the sisters did not mind the fact that they were neglected by their busy father, and made the most of their freedom to develop elaborate fantasy worlds. They read everything they could get their hands on — from stories of gypsies to dolphins, from dragons to wonderlands. They spent long afternoons on the moor at the back door, invented exotic kingdoms with voluminous and prodigious histories and political intrigues, put on plays that were enchanting and sewed novels and poems into miniature books, written in a script so tiny that no adult in the household could decipher them.

Like many other contemporary female writers, they initially published their poems and novels under male pseudonyms and sobriquets, like Currer Ellis and Acton Bell. Their stories attracted the masses to a tremendous extent due to their passion, authenticity and originality.

The sisters studied in Cowan Bridge School and later in Miss Wooler’s School. Charlotte and Emily had also gone to Brussels to pursue their education. Emily returned to England, but Charlotte stayed, despite her loneliness, and entered the tutelage of Constantin Heger, who helped her develop her literary skill and the understanding of herself, which was vital to the creation of her novels. Their father engaged John Bradley as a drawing master for the children who managed to foster Branwell’s enthusiasm and spirit for art and architecture, and led him to be the renowned artist the world came to know.

The sisters kept working on their passion. Anne’s Agnes Grey was accepted for publication, but Charlotte’s The Professor failed to find a publisher. As they grew up, their aunt passed away, too. Now, since their ageing father occupied his parsonage on the sufferance of a quarrelsome congregation, they lacked security and were compelled to find a profession to practice.

This could only mean that the Bronte’s would become governesses or teachers of the children of the gentry. Charlotte’s first teaching job lasted three years. Next, she and Anne started working as governesses, but soon realised that they had been reduced to glorified nannies. Emily worked briefly as a teacher in a girl’s school, but she could not continue the job for a long time. She told her pupils that she preferred the school dog to them.

From 1833, their tales began to feature Byronic heroes, who had a passionate spirit and demonstrated arrogance and blackheartedness. This is obvious in the characters of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre who display the traits of Byronic heroes. In their novels, the Bronte sisters explore elements of human nature. Emily explores the darkness present in human nature in Wuthering Heights. The primary example of this can be seen in the influence Heathcliff has on the other characters. His darkness and desire for revenge cause a chain reaction, sucking the other characters into his self-destructive spiral.While Emily explores the darkness present in all humans, Charlotte provides a more tempered view. She shows how darkness can come unintentionally from one’s experience and is utilised because there seems to be no other way.

The character she uses to explore this, Mr Rochester, is not purposely cruel or seeking revenge like Heathcliff, but rather is reacting to his experiences and is trying to find happiness. Their imagination was also influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Martin’s artistic brilliance.

Following the overwhelming success of Jane Eyre, Charlotte was pressured by George Smith, her publisher, to travel to London and address the public. Despite the extreme timidity that paralysed her among strangers and made her almost incapable of expressing herself, Charlotte consented to be lionised, and in London she was introduced to other great writers of the era, including Harriet Both Martineau and William Makepeace Thackeray who befriended her. Charlotte especially admired Thackeray, whose portrait, given to her by Smith, still hangs in the dining room at Haworth parsonage. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ have won lofty praise and have stirred romantic sensibilities of generations of readers.

Branwell died the year Wuthering Heightswas published, after a long period of illness due to consumption of alcohol and opium, and Emily is said to have caught a cold at his funeral, which led to tuberculosis, from which she also expired the same year. Her younger sister Anne also died five months later.

Wuthering Heights is one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature. The novel is now one of the most widely read Victorian classics and is immortalised in many ways. Emily had been completely unknown outside the family circle, unlike her elder sister Charlotte, who would often mix with friends outside. After Emily’s death, Charlotte was famed as a writer, despite her best efforts to promote Emily’s novel and other works.

Following the deaths of her siblings, she wrote Shirleyand Villette, which received great appreciation from people. Even though none of her writings reached the depths of Emily’s masterpiece, nor provided the page-turning thrill of Anne’s two popular books, one could get a sense of her hard work and dedication by viewing the beautiful and vivid descriptions of landscapes and characters — an area of literature in which she championed.

In 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, a family friend whose middle name had likely inspired the sister’s pseudonyms. She died the next year, possibly due to a complication of pregnancy. She was already 20 pages into her next novel Emma, which has been completed by authors in recent years. Thus, Charlotte is, till date, admired more for her struggle than for her novels. The Bronte’s show readers both the light and the darkness present in human nature. They explore the balance needed through their characters, allowing readers to learn about their own nature through the experience of others.

The Bronte sisters had contributed enormously to the spiritually starving Victorian world. Poetry was the verity life. From their childhood, they composed verses and this fascination they had remained with them throughout their lives, giving recognition not only to their family, but also to their little worlds.