They grew up in Yorkshire, but their Celtic heritage set them apart

In 1820 Patrick Brontë was appointed as incumbent of Haworth, and arrived in the township with his Cornish-born wife Maria, and their six children. Although Haworth remained the family's home for the rest of their lives, and the moorland setting had a profound influence on the writing of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, the family history began not in Yorkshire, but in Ireland, where Patrick, first of ten children, was born in County Down on March 17, 1777.

Driven by ambition, Patrick left his humble origins far behind and was accepted at St. John's College, Cambridge, where his original family name of Brunty was dropped in favour of the more impressive sounding 'Brontë'. The hard work and commitment which had won him a place at Cambridge carried him through several curacies, mainly in the north of England, until he arrived at Haworth. By this time Patrick Brontë was a published author of poetry and fiction, so that his children grew up accustomed to the sight of books carrying their name on the Parsonage shelves.

On September 15, 1821, Mrs Brontë died of cancer, and her unmarried sister Elizabeth Branwell came to take charge of the Parsonage, exchanging her comfortable Penzance home for the harsh climate of a bleak northern township. In 1824 the sisters first ventured into the world outside Haworth to attend the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge near Kirkby Lonsdale. The experience, which provided Charlotte with a model for the infamous Lowood School in her novel Jane Eyre, ended in disaster when her eldest sister Maria was sent home in ill-health. Maria died at the Parsonage in May 1825, aged 11. Ten-year-old Elizabeth was returned home shortly after, only to die at Haworth on June 15.

For the next few years the surviving children remained at home, creating a rich imaginary world sparked by their father's gift to Branwell of a set of toy soldiers. Because of the important role education had played in his own life Patrick encouraged his children in their pursuit of knowledge. Any books that came their way were eagerly devoured, and they produced their own tiny illustrated books, small enough for the toy soldiers, with minuscule handwriting to deter the prying eyes of Parsonage adults.

Their father's lack of a private income meant the sisters needed to acquire accomplishments that would enable them to earn a living as governesses: the only career option socially acceptable for young ladies with no fortune. To this end Charlotte was sent to Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head, Mirfield, in 1831. There she met her lifelong friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. She eventually returned to the school as a teacher, taking first Emily then Anne as pupils.

Branwell, the only boy of the family, when not receiving lessons from his father, was often left to his own devices. Eventually his brilliant conversation earned him what Elizabeth Gaskell considered 'the undesirable distinction of having his company recommended by the landlord of the Black Bull to any chance traveller who might happen to feel solitary or dull over his liquor.' Branwell took art lessons in Leeds, but a plan to apply to the Royal Academy of Arts in London never came off, and after a short stint as a professional portrait painter in Bradford Branwell was back in Haworth in debt.

In 1839, after one brief attempt as a teacher at Miss Patchett's School at Law Hill, Halifax, where she was reported to have told her pupils she much preferred the school dog to any of them, Emily was also back at Haworth. Although often unhappy, Anne seems to have been best able to cope with life as a governess. Her second post, as governess to the Robinsons at Thorp Green Hall, near York, lasted five years, and her success enabled her to secure the post of tutor to the family's only son for Branwell.

Branwell was proving a cause for concern; an earlier post as tutor, and a position as clerk-in-charge on the Leeds-Manchester railway had both ended ignominiously, and this new situation was to be no exception. Anne decided to leave her employment at Thorp Green and came back to Haworth in June 1845, followed shortly after by Branwell, dismissed in disgrace for 'proceedings bad beyond expression' - allegedly a love affair with his employer's wife.

In an attempt to escape the hated life of a governess the sisters planned to set up a school of their own at the Parsonage. In order to acquire the language skills to attract pupils and secure the school's success, Charlotte and Emily spent a year studying in Brussels, funded by their aunt. It was Aunt Branwell's death in 1842 which brought the sisters back to Haworth. Emily remained at the Parsonage as housekeeper while Charlotte returned to Brussels. Charlotte returned to Haworth permanently in 1844, suffering the pains of unrequited love for her teacher Monsieur Heger. A prospectus was circulated, but pupils could not be found.

The sisters had continued to write, and in 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne used part of their Aunt Branwell's legacy to finance the publication of their poems, concealing their true identities under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Poems was published by Aylott and Jones, but despite some favourable reviews, only two copies were sold. Undeterred, the sisters absorbed themselves in their next literary venture, novel writing.

Charlotte's first attempt at writing a novel for publication, The Professor, was rejected by several publishing houses before it arrived at the offices of Smith, Elder & Co. Although the firm declined the novel, their response was sufficiently encouraging for Charlotte to send them her next work, Jane Eyre, begun in a dreary Manchester lodging whilst nursing her father back to health after a cataract operation. If Poems ranks among the great failures in publishing history, then Jane Eyre must count as one of the great successes.

George Smith accepted the book without hesitation, and the novel appeared on October 19, 1847. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey had already been accepted by the London publisher Thomas Cautley Newby, and appeared as a three-volume set in December 1847. Following the success of Jane Eyre, the publication of two further 'Bell' novels fuelled speculation about the gender and identity of the authors

The publication of Anne's second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall forced Charlotte and Anne to reveal their identities to George Smith, as the unscrupulous Newby tried to pass off the work of his author as being by the more successful Currer Bell. The two sisters travelled to London in July 1848 and confronted the astonished George Smith in his Cornhill office. Charlotte and Anne, staying quietly at the Chapter Coffee House, resisted Smith's attempts to show them off, but they did find themselves being escorted to the opera, the National Gallery and the Royal Academy of Arts.

Charlotte's pleasure in her new-found success turned out to be shortlived. Branwell, who had increasingly fallen back on alcohol and opium for solace, had been ailing all summer. Tuberculosis was gaining a rapid hold on his abused frame. He died suddenly on Sunday September 24, 1848, aged 31, with the whole family at his deathbed.

While Charlotte was still reeling from the shock of Branwell's death it became apparent that Emily and Anne were also ill. In fact Emily too was dying from tuberculosis, and never left the house again after Branwell's funeral. Refusing to admit she was ill, she dragged herself out of bed every morning and continued to carry out her share of the household chores. Her death came at the age of 30, three months after her brother's, on December 19, 1848. All Charlotte's concern was now directed towards her last surviving sister, who seemed unable to shake off her cold. A lung specialist called in to examine Anne shortly after Emily's death confirmed Charlotte's worst fear, that she was likely to lose this last, much-loved sister.

Anne submitted to all the futile treatments then available, but any benefit proved temporary. In January 1849 Charlotte wrote: 'Anne cannot study now, she can scarcely read; she occupies Emily's chair - she does not get well.' Anne was anxious to try a sea cure, and on May 24, accompanied by Charlotte and Ellen Nussey, she set out for Scarborough, a place she had loved from her summers there with the Robinson family. It was in Scarborough that Anne died, just four days later, on May 28, 1849, aged 29.

To spare her father the anguish of yet another family funeral, Charlotte took the decision to bury her sister in Scarborough, where she was laid to rest in the churchyard of St Mary's, high above the town. Stunned by the tragedies of the previous nine months, Charlotte wrote: 'A year ago - had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849 - how stripped and bereaved I should have thought - this can never be endured'.

Charlotte turned to writing to sustain her through the dark days ahead. Her novel Shirley, begun before Branwell's death, was taken up once more. The novel was published in October 1849, and as winter approached, Charlotte fled Haworth to stay with George Smith and his mother in London. Her fame had provided her with a means of entering London's literary society, but by this time, Charlotte found that her sense of loss and the seclusion of her life at Haworth had left her unfitted to enjoy it. During her London visit Charlotte was introduced to her literary idol, the novelist W.M. Thackeray, but the experience proved more of an ordeal than a pleasure.

Over the next few years there were more visits to London, during one of which she sat for her portrait to the society artist George Richmond. As Charlotte's true identity gradually became known her fame brought her a great deal of attention, and in August 1850 she was invited to the summer residence of Sir James and Lady Kay-Shuttleworth above Lake Windermere, where she met the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Later in the year Smith, Elder & Co. gained permission from Newby to reprint Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Charlotte agreed to edit the work, correcting many errors which had appeared in the first edition, and also making changes of her own. She undertook the melancholy task of sorting through her dead sisters' papers to provide a selection of their poetry, and also wrote an emotional biographical notice of the two authors.

Charlotte's last novel Villette was published in 1853. At this time the atmosphere at the Parsonage was emotionally charged: Charlotte had rejected a marriage proposal from her father's curate, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, and Patrick was incensed by the mere thought of the poor Irishman pursuing his famous daughter. What Charlotte saw as her father's unjust treatment worked in Nicholls' favour, and the couple were eventually married in Haworth Church on June 29, 1854. Though Charlotte had entered the married state with misgivings she found unexpected happiness with Arthur.

The happiness did not last. Charlotte died on the morning of March 31, 1855, in the early stages of pregnancy, just three weeks before her thirty-ninth birthday. There were to be no direct descendants of the Brontës of Haworth. Patrick Brontë lived on at the Parsonage for a further six years, cared for by his son-in-law, and died there on June 7, 1861, at the age of 84.

In 1857, two years after Charlotte's death, her first novel, The Professor, was finally published. In the same year Elizabeth Gaskell's moving tribute to her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, also appeared. This biography, along with Charlotte's Biographical Notice of her sisters, have become key sources for interpretations of the family, and have ensured that the story of the Brontës' lives continues to exert as much fascination as their fiction.

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