A Potted History of The Brontes.

The story of the Brontes is one that has always facinated me and has so many curious little corners and ideas. It’s really amazing to explore some of the more obscure aspects of the Bronte lives and legend, so I have created a potted history of the Bronte story compleat with quirky details…

17th March 1777, County Down, Ireland, an illiterate family of farmers; Hugh and Alice Brunty or Punty welcome another baby into the world, his name is Patrick Brunty. 

Meanwhile on the 15th April 1783, in Penzance, Cornwall, the comfortably well off, middle-class Branwell family delight in the arrival of Maria, a sister for Elizabeth born earlier in 1776. Elizabeth and Maria Branwell grow to be bright, intelligent and energetic girls. 

Patrick grows, he’s a bright boy and, after being tutored by the Rev. Thomas Tighe, he wins a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, here he studies divinity and ancient and modern history. Whilst at Cambridge he changes the spelling of his surname to Brontë and so the legendary literary name comes into being. Patrick successfully obtains a Bachelor of Arts degree and on 10 August 1806 is ordained. Over the next few years he becomes the author of Cottage Poems in 1811, The Rural Minstrel in 1814, several pamphlets and newspaper articles, and a number of other poems.  

Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds. Where Patrick Bronte Proposed to Maria Branwell.

In 1812, Patrick & Maria meet, they have plenty in common and quickly fall in love, exchanging letters and during a visit to the wonderfully gothic Kirkstall Abbey, Patrick proposes to Maria & she accepts. Maria and Patrick are married on the same day as Maria’s younger sister and all passes off well, despite the loss of Maria’s bridal veil along with other belongings in a shipwreck. Maria and Patrick are a happy, active couple, and both continue to write, with Maria penning poems & essays, including one on the virtues and benefits of poverty. 

1814 brings joy to the couple with the birth of their first child Maria Bronte, followed by Elizabeth in 1815, Charlotte in 1816, Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818 and finally Anne is born in 1820. Shortly after Anne’s arrival Reverend Patrick Bronte moves the family from Thornton to the parsonage at Haworth and the scene is set for the Bronte Sisters story. It begins sadly, because, even as the family move into Haworth Parsonage Mrs Bronte’s health is declining and in 1821 she dies of Uterine Cancer. She is a devoted wife and mother and her thoughts are always of her children, even as she lies dying, her last cries of  ”oh my poor children” are heard by the older Bronte children. This will stay with them always, but other influences will give the children happier recollections of their mother. 

Following the early death of his wife, Patrick makes attempts at persuading a number of female friends and acquaintances to marry him and become a mother to his six children. It was a common practise, but after several refusals he decides to ask his wife Maria’s older sister if she will help and Elizabeth Branwell agrees, moving from Penzance to Haworth and becomes the children’s second mother, ‘Aunt Branwell’. They adore her and she in turn dotes on them, dedicating the rest of her life to looking after them. Aunt Branwell is the keeper of Maria’s memorial and she honours it; regailing the children with the tales of their mother when she was young and full of joy and laughter. 

Maria Bronte nee Branwell the Bronte sisters mum.

Despite the early loss of their mother, the Bronte children have a happy childhood, they are loved and cared for and the family have enough money and food. Aunt Branwell is always there to help, advise and nurture. Tabby Ackroyd the family’s maid is central to the children’s well-being and along with Aunt Branwell provides the grounding, love and care the children need, she is universally adored and remains with them for the rest of their lives. Tabby and Aunt Branwell’s influence can be clearly felt in the Bronte Sisters work and they spent many hours entertaining the children with stories, tales and legends.  

 Patrick Bronte is a father who is devoted to his children and spends a great deal of his time, energy and effort on his children’s education and entertainment. He is open, intelligent and generous, buying them all the books and toys they could ask for and allowing them great physical and intellectual freedom and unconditional love. He has very modern views; teaching his daughters to read and write and hold strong opinions by encouraging them to read challenging material, that at the time, many considered unsuitable for women, never- mind girls. He is keenly aware that his daughters will either need to marry well or earn their own living and so seeks to have them formally educated to assist them in adulthood.  

Patrick Brontë faces a challenge in arranging for the education of the girls of his family. Whilst the family are respectable and can live comfortably, his income will not support the formal education of six children and he had no wealthy connections to help him provide this. Patrick Bronte’s problem is very common and one that the church and wealthy philanthropists had attempted to solve.  The solution is the creation of many schools where the fees are reduced to a minimum, named “charity schools” – their mission is to assist families that cannot afford to formally educate their children, such as those of the impoverished clergy. Mr. Brontë researches and considers very carefully the best direction for his daughter’s education. As Juliet Barker comments in her significant book on the Brontes, Patrick reads the reports, in the Leeds Intelligencer of 6 November 1823, of cases in Bowes, and Richmond, where pupils have been discovered gnawed by rats and suffering from malnutrition to the extent that some of them have lost their sight.

He is well aware of the need to select a school very carefully and there is nothing to suggest that the Reverend Carus Wilson’s Clergy Daughters’ School would not provide a good education and good care for his daughters. The school is affordable, and its patrons are all respected people, including the daughter of Hannah Moore, an author of recognised works and a close friend of the poet William Cowper, both proponents of a correct education for young girls. As a result, Patrick believes Cowen Bridge Clergy Daughters School to be the right place to send them. 

Cowen Bridge – once home to the Clergy Daughters School attended by Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte & Emily Bronte. The school was the inspiration for Lowood Institution in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

So, in 1824, whilst Anne is considered too young to start, the four oldest Bronte girls make a start at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, with Patrick accompanying them to the school to see them settled and all seems well.  Unfortunately, the area and buildings at Cowen Bridge are very damp, and the food of appalling nutritional value, so the following year, when Tuberculosis arrives, it sweeps through the school. The two eldest Bronte Sisters; Maria and Elizabeth fall ill and are swiftly removed from the school, but tragically die soon afterwards within a few weeks of each other on 6 May and 15 June 1825. Charlotte and Emily were also withdrawn from the school and returned to Haworth. The loss of their sisters is a traumatic event that shows in Charlotte’s writing. In Jane Eyre, Cowan Bridge School becomes Lowood Institution and some of the people from that event are represented in the story.  

The Brontes are at home, recovering their strength and grieving the loss of their two older sisters. The remaining siblings are drawn together and Patrick buys them a set of wooden soldiers sparking the creation of an imaginary world. By 1827 their imaginary worlds and adventures are being written and the Bronte literary legacy is born. The siblings are prolific in their literary output, with Branwell creating a homemade Blackwoods Magazine, he and Charlotte start writing their Angria stories and Emily and Anne are not to be left behind, creating the Gondal sagas. Charlotte’s miniature books and poems are entertaining the whole family. 

Despite the disaster of Cowen Bridge school, Patrick is still convinced that his remaining daughters must receive a formal education and overlooking several nearer and less expensive school he enrols them at Miss Wooler’s School at Roe Head, Mirfield. It’s 1831 and 14-year-old Charlotte meets Margaret Wooler a kind and warm individual who shows fondness for the Bronte sisters and has a great influence on Charlotte in particular, she appears in Jane Eyre as the kind and compassionate Miss Temple.  Patrick’s choice of school is excellent – Charlotte is very happy there and her studies progress really well. In the short time she is there, timid Charlotte makes a number of lifelong friends, in particular Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. Charlotte returns to her family in Haworth from Roe Head in June 1832 and by 1833 she has written her novella The Green Dwarf. 

1835 arrives and Miss Wooler offers Charlotte a position as her assistant, she accepts. The Bronte family decide that Emily will accompany her to pursue studies that would otherwise have been unaffordable. Emily’s fees are partly covered by Charlotte’s salary. Emily is 17 and it’s the first time she has left Haworth since leaving Cowan Bridge. It’s the 29 July 1835 and as the sisters leave for Roe Head School and Branwell occupies himself writing a letter to the Royal Academy of Art in London, to present several of his drawings as part of his candidature as a probationary student. 

Branwell Bronte – a self portrait

Charlotte teaches, but finds that it is not to her taste and that her pupils are dullards. She alleviates the boredom by following the development of Angria which she receives in letters from her brother. Durning 1836 Charlotte writes to Robert Southey, Poet Laureate to ask for advice on writing poetry and receives a very discouraging reply. During school holidays, at Haworth, she writes long narratives.  Emily does not settle at Roe Head School and is very homesick, after three months she seems to be declining and is taken home to the parsonage. Anne takes her place at the School, she settles well and stays at Roe Head until Christmas 1837. In the meantime, Miss Wooler moves her school to Heald’s House, at Dewsbury Moor, where Charlotte complains about the humidity that makes her feel unwell and she decides to leave Miss Wooler’s School. 

Patrick is worried about the family finances as they are being pressured by the imposition of the Church rates, a local tax levied on parishes and Aunt Branwell is being very careful with the household expenses, but it is clear the Emily must remain at home, so Charlotte and Anne are taking posts as governesses. As the Leeds Manchester Railway line opens in October 1840 Branwell delightedly holds a position working for the railway. This doesn’t end well as the accounts are found to be inaccurate and Branwell is dismissed. Anne saves the day, helping Branwell get a post as drawing master at Thorpe Green where she is working.  By 1842 the sisters, with encouragement from Patrick have formed a plan of opening a school at the Parsonage, however, they are aware that they will need to increase their own knowledge of some subjects. Escorted by Patrick Emily & Charlotte set off for Brussels to the Pensionat Heger, where they will study Music and French amongst other things, It is an exciting but difficult time for the sisters; they are learning new skills and travelling, but, they miss their home greatly.

Both Charlotte and Emily are making excellent progress with their studies, when in October 1842 the death of their beloved Aunt Branwell calls them back them to Haworth. They are devastated, at her loss, but, Aunt Branwell has left them an inheritance of about £900 (around £100,000 in today’s money) and this means the girls no longer need to work as governesses and they now have the funds for their school project.

However, the Hegers write; offering Charlotte and Emily positions as teachers, Emily declines, she would much rather remain at home and she has made such good progress with her music. Charlotte however, returns to Brussels and finds that she is deeply attached to her married professor Mr Heger, she is suffering from unrequited love, isolation and loneliness and returns home to Haworth in January 1844. Things are not going well for Anne and Branwell at Thorpe Green. Anne has been relatively happy and settled, until it is discovered that Branwell is having an affair with Mrs Robinson the wife of their boss. Anne and Branwell are dismissed from their posts and return to home Haworth.  

The sister’s school project has made good progress, but, unfortunately when they advertise only a couple of pupils can be attracted and they abandon the plan in 1844. This is for the best, as Branwell is descending into Laudanum and alcohol addiction and his behaviour is increasingly erratic and aggressive.  

A new curate has arrived at the parsonage, this is nothing new and the sisters seem quite ambivalent about him, his name is Arthur Bell-Nicholls. The sisters are writing daily and one day in Autumn 1845 Charlotte spots a small notebook poking out of Emily’s writing desk, she takes a peek and discovers Emily’s poems. Emily is furious that Charlotte has read her work but after many days of talking and persuading, the sisters reach an agreement that they will publish a book of poetry featuring work from each of them. The book of poetry is published in 1846 and the authors Currer, Acton & Ellis Bell are nudged gently into the public eye. The sisters are using male pen- names to avoid personal publicity, they need not worry, as the book only sells Three copies, although they are asked for an autograph by one purchaser – it’s the only known exampt of Currer, Ellis & Acton Bell’s signatures together. 

The Bronte sister’s pen name signatures.

Branwell is in very ill health and the sisters are writing, with Anne finishing Agnes Grey and Emily completing Wuthering Heights, they secure publication for these in 1846 with Newby. Charlotte has finished her novel: The Professor, which she presents to several publishers with no result. Although the publishers Smith Elder & Co also decline it, they politely say that if the author has any longer works they would be happy the receive them.  Patrick’s eyesight has been declining for some time and he needs an operation to remove cataracts. Charlotte accompanies him to Manchester for the operation and convalescence and whilst she sits by his bed-side she starts a new novel, she titles it Jane Eyre.

Smith Elder & Co take one look at Jane Eyre and publish it immediately, it is the hit of 1847 and causes quite a stir amongst the public and within literary circles. Emily & Anne’s publisher seeks to create some publicity for his authors Acton & Ellis Bell of the back of Currer Bells success with Jane Eyre by claiming that they are all one person. Charlotte publisher is concerned and writes to Currer Bell asking for clarification. Anne & Charlotte head to London and give Mr Smith the surprise of his life when they present themselves to him, to prove they are not the same person. 

This is a heart-breaking time for the family, as Branwell finally sucumbs to his illness in 1847 and dies. Much of his behaviour and some of his tales and ranting provide material and inspiration for Anne’s second novel The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, which she publishes in 1848. Meanwhile Emily has caught a serious cold when she got soaked at Branwell’s funeral and this leads to illness and ultimately her death in 1848. Anne’s health has also been declining and in 1849 she begs family and friends for a trip to her beloved seaside and she dies at Scarborough. 

Anne Bronte’s grave at Scarborough.

Charlotte continues to write and her second novel Shirley is published in 1849, she is bolstered by her friends, she writes and visits and receives guests including Miss Wooler. Over time her fame continues to grow and she travels and is making new friends and acquaintances, such as George Smith, her publisher whom she visits regularly. She also forms friendships with Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell. Charlotte suffers from bouts of ill health, not always improved by the doctor’s prescriptions, as one gives her Mercury poisoning in an attempt to cure her migraines. She is very keen to remain at home as her health improves in early 1852 and completes the first draft of Villette.   

Patrick takes great pride in Charlottes achievements and when his curate Arthur Bell-Nicols proposes to her Patrick is furious. In the face of her father’s fury Charlotte has refused Mr Bell-Nicholls, but Patrick’s unpleasantness to him is adding a layer of sympathy to her friendship with him. Charlotte’s health declines again and her father is aware that it is in part due to his treatment of Mr Bell-Nicholls. Ellen Nussey and Charlotte have quarrelled, possibly regarding Mr Bell-Nicholls and Miss Wooler tries to help them fix things, but to no effect.  It’s 1854 and Ellen is ill, this provides a good excuse for Charlotte to write and the breach between them has started to heal a little. In the mean-time Charlotte and Mr Bell Nicolls have reached an agreement and they have become engaged.

Charlotte is delighted and nervous as she walks to the church with Miss Wooler, it’s the 29th June 1854 and – her wedding day, she is dressed simply in White and after all the fuss of the preparations she’s relieved to be here. The couple honeymoon in Wales and Ireland, Charlotte meets Arthur’s family and they are very happy. Arthur and Charlotte’s happiness increases in 1855 as they realise that she is pregnant. However, as her pregnancy progresses Charlotte’s health is declining and she takes to her bed. Within weeks the household is devastated by the death of Tabby Akroyd and on 31st March 1855 Charlotte Bell-Nicholls dies. Shortly after Arthur & Patrick ask Mrs Gaskell to write Charlottes biography and the so Bronte legend is born. 

Of course, this is not the end of the Bronte story, their legacy lives on in their literature, if you haven’t read it then give it a go, it’s amazing!.

I hope you enjoyed the potted history of the Brontes.


Sarah x

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