She was born at Hartshead, Yorkshire, in 1814 (baptised April 23), and by the age of seven was motherless, and her youngest sibling, Anne, only 20 months old. Mrs Brontë's unmarried elder sister, Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, travelled up from Penzance to help Mr Brontë look after his children, and stayed at the Parsonage for the rest of her life, which was another 21 years. In those first few years after the death of their mother, though, it was not to the adult Aunt Branwell that the younger children turned for a surrogate mother, but to their eldest sister Maria. 'Their games were founded upon what Maria read to them from the newspapers,' the family servant Sarah Garrs remembered, and, years after Maria's death, Branwell was still writing morbid poems about his dead sister. It was Charlotte who immortalised Maria, though, in the pious, stoical character Helen Burns in Jane Eyre (1847). Writing to William Smith Williams, her publisher's reader, some 24 years after Maria's death, Charlotte said of her sister: 'Her prematurely developed and remarkable intellect, as well as the mildness, wisdom and fortitude of her character... left an indelible impression.'
In 1823 Maria and the Brontës' second daughter Elizabeth were sent to the fashionable girls` boarding school Crofton Hall at Wakefield. Fees were high, however, and it Mr Brontë`s stipend would not stretch to the same education for all five girls. An opportunity presented itself with the opening, in 1823, of the Clergy Daughters` School at Cowan Bridge, some 40 miles north of Haworth. The school was recommended by some of the most eminent Yorkshire clergy and, since it was subsidised by subscription, fees were only £14 a year, half the price of Crofton Hall. Maria and Elizabeth arrived at Cowan Bridge on July 21, 1824, Charlotte joined them six weeks later, and Emily in the autumn.
By modern standards the school's regime was harsh, although no more so than other boarding schools of the period. Subsequent investigations showed that food was ill-prepared in unhygienic conditions, and many pupils became ill. In February 1825 Maria was diagnosed with tuberculosis and returned home. Soon afterwards Elizabeth too was diagnosed as tubercular, returning home on May 31. A few days later Charlotte and Emily were brought home while still in good health, and never returned to Cowan Bridge. Maria Brontë died at home on May 6, 1825, and Elizabeth some six weeks later.
Patrick Brontë used to say that he 'could converse with Maria on any of the leading topics of the day as freely, and with as much pleasure, as with any adult.' Even Miss Andrews, the unbending teacher at Cowan Bridge, admitted Maria was 'a girl of fine imagination and extra-ordinary talents.' Her premature death was a loss to more than just her family.