The lives of the Bronte sisters, who wrote such beloved books as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are the focus of the new PBS two-hour drama To Walk Invisible. Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the creative power behind the popular series Happy Valley, the BBC drama covers a period of three years when the sisters became determined to publish their work as a means of self-preservation. The name is taken from a letter Charlotte Bronte wrote describing how the sisters had decided to take on gender-neutral pseudonyms for their books in order to “walk invisible” in a literary world completely dominated by men.
In honor of this new BBC period piece as well as the lives and loves of the Bronte sisters — and their “doomed” brother Branwell — here’s a brief portrait of each famous sibling, starting with the oldest, Charlotte.
Born: April 21, 1816
Died: March 31, 1855 (38 years old)
Books: Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Vilette (1853), The Professor (published posthumously in 1857), Emma (unfinished; published posthhumously in 1860)
Original pseudonym: Currer Bell
The oldest of the surviving Bronte sisters, Charlotte took on a motherly role with her younger sisters and brother, a role which came naturally since their own mother died of cancer in 1821.
Similar to the main character in her novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte was sent to live at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. She believed the poor conditions at the school permanently weakened her health and led to the early deaths of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who both died of tuberculosis in 1825.
After the death of his two oldest daughters, Patrick Bronte brought Charlotte and Emily back home to Thornton. Now free in their isolated home at Haworth parsonage, Charlotte and her siblings created rich fictional worlds together, which later sparked their literary endeavors.
From 1839 to 1841, like her heroine Jane, Charlotte Bronte worked as a governess for several families in Yorkshire. One of her charges, a spoiled child named John Benson Sidgwick, once threw a Bible at her, which also inspired a scene in her first published book, Jane Eyre.
Although Charlotte Bronte wrote The Professor first, she couldn’t find a publisher willing to accept the book. However, her second book, Jane Eyre, was an immediate success and to this day remains one of the most beloved classics of English literature. A Bildungsroman with a haunting, gothic love story with a mysterious twist, Jane Eyre was ahead of its time, masterfully exploring such topics as sexuality, classism, religion, and protofeminism.
In 1848, Charlotte Bronte started working on her second book, Shirley. However, she took a break from writing when her three siblings fell ill and died within a period of only eight months.
The first to die was her brother, Branwell. A year younger than Charlotte, Branwell was the only son in the Bronte family and was also the “problem child” in the pack. A failed painter, Branwell was a severe alcoholic and drug addict. In September of 1848, he died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus, a form of severe malnutrition made worse by his excessive drinking.
After Branwell’s death, Emily became seriously ill. She died of tuberculosis in 1848. Falling victim to the same disease, Anne followed her to the grave in 1849.
To deal with the enormous grief of losing her brother and sisters all in one go, Charlotte Brontë began writing again and finished Shirley in 1849. Written in the third person, her second book is about women’s role in society and industrial unrest. However, reviewers found the book less shocking than Jane Eyre and felt that it did not pack the same emotional punch.
Before her third book, Vilette, was published, the last book to be published during her lifetime, Charlotte Bronte received a marriage proposal from her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been in love with her for a long time. The couple married in June of 1854, and Charlotte became pregnant soon after.
But, sadly, her child was never born.
Although her death certificate states that she died of tuberculosis, scholars believe her death was related to a difficult pregnancy and possibly typhus. She died three weeks shy of her 39th birthday, with the child still in her womb.
Born: July 30, 1818
Died: December 19, 1848 (30 years old)
Book: Wuthering Heights (1847)
Original pseudonym: Ellis Bell
The most mysterious of the Bronte sisters, Emily was an extremely introverted, private person who had few friends outside the family. In her childhood, she was extremely close to her sister Anne. Ellen Nussey, a friend of Charlotte’s, said the two were inseperable and “like twins.”
Since much of what we know about Emily comes from the more outgoing Charlotte, some scholars believe the world was given a glossed over version of her personality, which Charlotte apparently found shocking to such a degree she sometimes questioned her sister’s sanity. However, other people mentioned Emily’s love of animals and passion for the moors, which is reflected in her book, Wuthering Heights.
Since Emily couldn’t find a publisher, the sisters self-published Wuthering Heights, together with Anne’s first book, Agnes Gray. They had to pay 50 pounds to do so, which was a lot of money at the time.
Considered shocking at the time, Wuthering Heights received mixed reviews. Some loved it, some hated it, like the reviewer who wrote the following in Graham’s Lady Magazine.
“How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.”
When Emily died of tuberculosis in 1848, she thought Wuthering Heights was a failure. Little did she know the book would go on to become one of the most famous English literary classics.
Although a letter from her publisher suggests Emily Bronte had started working on a second novel, no manuscript has ever been found.
— audible.co.uk (@audibleuk) January 17, 2017
Born: January 17, 1820
Died: May 28, 1849 (29 years old)
Books: Agnes Grey(1847), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848)
Original pseudonym: Acton Bell
The youngest of the Bronte siblings, Anne was a little over a year old when her mother died. A precocious child, her father Patrick Bronte said, when asked at age 4 what children want most, Anne answered, “age and experience.”
Like her sisters, Anne read voraciously from an early age and had an active imagination. When she was 11, Anne and Emily created their own personal imaginary world, which they called Gondal.
Like her sister Emily, Anne never married. However, it’s likely she had an unrequited crush on her father curate, William Weightman. In Agnes Grey, the main character becomes interested in poetry again because of her infatuation with a curate.
Although Agnes Grey received positive reviews, the book was outshone by the more brilliant and shocking Wuthering Heights, which was published at the same time. But Anne’s second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, was an instant bestseller, selling out in just six weeks. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall realistically depicts alcoholism and debauchery to a degree that was found both compelling and shocking by Victorian audiences.
Because of the sad life story of her brother Branwell, these were subjects Anne knew all too well.
A year after her death, Anne’s sister Charlotte did her an injustice by refusing to allow The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be re-published. In 1850, Charlotte wrote why she had made this decision.
“Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.”
Because of Charlotte’s dismissiveness of her sister’s work, many critics largely ignored Anne, even referring to her as the Bronte sister “without genius.” But in recent years, she has received more attention. In 2013, Sally McDonald of the Bronte society said that in some ways Anne is even the “most radical of the Bronte sisters” because she tackled important, controversial topics such as “women’s need to maintain independence and how alcoholism can tear a family apart.”
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