Plots, characters and key ideas
The Brontës are the world's most famous literary family and Haworth Parsonage, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum, was their home from 1820 to 1861.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë were the authors of some of the best-loved books in the English language. Charlotte's novel 'Jane Eyre' (1847), Emily's 'Wuthering Heights' (1847), and Anne's 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' (1848) were written in this house over a hundred and fifty years ago, yet their power still moves readers today.
To find two writers of genius in one family would be rare, but to find several writers in one household is unique in the history of literature. Charlotte and Emily are ranked among the world's greatest novelists; Anne is a powerful underrated author, and both their father, the Revd. Patrick Brontë, and brother Branwell also saw their own works in print.
The Brontës, published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, were acknowledged at the time for their directness and powerful emotional energy, qualities which were sometimes interpreted by the critics as 'coarse' and 'brutal'.
Myth and Reality
The enduring myth of the Brontës living a life of unrelieved isolation and tragedy was, to some extent, created unintentionally by themselves. Through choosing to write under pseudonyms, the sisters immediately drew a veil of mystery around themselves, as people wondered who Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell really were. Charlotte added to the myth, when, in her 1850 'Biographical Notice' of her sisters, she attempted to protect them from their critics' accusations of 'brutality' by portraying them as unlearned, unworldly young women, writing by instinct rather than design.
The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's first biographer, was also responsible for perpetuating some of the myths. When she published The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, two years after Charlotte's death, she wrote from a novelist's perspective, perceiving Charlotte's life as one of tragedy as she nobly sacrificed herself to duty. The Brontës took on a heroic status often applied to those who die young.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum seeks to separate myth from reality, and to present the known facts about the family.
The Influence of their Home Environment
Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were born at Thornton, near Bradford, but moved to the nearby township of Haworth when Charlotte, the eldest of the famous novelists, was barely five years old. The children's formative years and their mature writing careers were developed in Haworth, amid the dramatic landscape of the surrounding moors. Early biographers and critics sometimes assumed that the Brontës based their fiction exclusively on real-life places, people and events, perhaps unwilling to accept that the daughters of a clergyman could produce what were often perceived as shocking, amoral books. However, this would be to deny the Brontës the power of imagination.
The Parsonage was the home in which the young Brontës' creativity was nurtured, where they created their childhood lands of Angria and Gondal, and in which they served a collaborative literary apprenticeship of over twenty years prior to the publication of their novels. Like most authors, the Brontës drew upon their imaginations, on their personal experiences and the landscape and characters around them, but their mature poems and novels are also rooted in the themes of the early writings of their childhood and adolescence.
The Brontës and Victorian Society
The Brontës occupied an unusual position in society, one which was to influence the themes of their novels. The Parsonage was amongst the largest houses in Haworth, though in comparison with the homes of clergymen in more affluent areas of Britain, it would have been considered small. Similarly, Patrick's annual income of around £200 was twenty times more than that of the average domestic servant, but the Brontës were poor in comparison with landowners or wealthy aristocrats whose income might exceed £10,000 or even £20,000.
In the early nineteenth century, the class system was a far more rigid than it is today. The Brontës' education in the era prior to the 1870 Elementary Education Act, when a large proportion of the population could not read, placed them socially above most people in Haworth. However, they could not afford to keep a carriage, to travel extensively, or to dress and furnish their home as did the upper classes and wealthy manufacturers of Yorkshire. It was essential that the Brontë girls earned a living, and their experiences as governesses, in a social hinterland where they were neither family nor servant, informed much of their writing. Visiting the home in which these three remarkable women spent most of their lives provides a fascinating insight into the freedoms and restrictions of the time in which they lived, and a deeper understanding of their novels.
A new website detailing everything the Brontës are known to have read (or might have read), and its possible influences on their work, is to be found here: http://www.thebrontes.net/reading/.