Who were the Brontës?
Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë are three Victorian authors with whom you’re probably already somewhat familiar. You probably know Charlotte Brontë and her novel Jane Eyre. And yes, you’ve definitely heard of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Perhaps you’ve perused Anne Brontë’s works, like Agnes Grey. Heck, you might even know about their artist brother Branwell Brontë.
But the Brontë family’s life was so rich and fascinating that there’s probably plenty about literature’s most interesting family that you don’t yet know. And I’m here to tell you about it. So grab a cup of tea and settle in for story time.
I studied the Brontës — specifically Emily Brontë — for my PhD in English, so a lot of the facts listed below are from my trusty brain bank. But since brain banks aren’t always so reliable…For confirmation on specific dates, names, etc., I primarily referenced The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller, which I discuss more at the end of this article!
10 Facts About The Brontës, the Most Interesting Literary Family Ever
1. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne All Went by Pen Names, and They Were Suspected of Being the Same Person.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë did not originally publish their works under their own names. Instead, they went by the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Like many Victorian women publishing at the time, the sisters chose male pseudonyms.
The decision might have been influenced in part by an interaction a 20-year-old Charlotte had with England’s poet laureate, Robert Southey. When Charlotte boldly asked for his opinion of her poetry, Southey told Charlotte that she clearly had talent, but there was no sense in pursuing it because, “the more [a woman] is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it.” He also told Charlotte that once she was a mother, she would no longer “seek in imagination for excitement.”
After Currer, Ellis, and Acton’s first novels were published, rumors started to fly that the three novels were written by the same person but under different names. Especially after the success of Jane Eyre, people speculated that Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were, as Charlotte, wrote, “an earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which had produced Jane Eyre.”
Charlotte said that they laughed at the speculation at first, but once the assumption became popular belief, Charlotte and Anne felt obligated to travel to London to prove to Charlotte’s publisher that they were in fact not the same person. Emily, who was famously reclusive, refused to join them.
From that point on, the jig was up. Everyone knew that Currer, Ellis, and Acton were actually Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.
2. The Brontës Changed Their Last Name to Disguise Their Irish Heritage.
Brontë sounds like a fancy old English type name, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. In fact, the Brontës come from an Irish background, and their surname was originally Brunty. Patrick Brunty — Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father — was from a poor, illiterate Irish family, and he was embarrassed of his past.
Wanting to make more of himself and create better opportunities for his family, Patrick got an education at St. John’s College, Cambridge. From there, he changed his Irish name Brunty to the more English-sounding Brontë, with an umlaut added to stress that the name was to be pronounced with two syllables.
It is assumed that part of the reason Patrick chose the name Brontë is after British admiral Horatio Nelson, who was the 1st Duke of Bronté.
3. The Brontë Siblings Were Prolific Writers in Their Childhood.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, along with their brother Branwell, were educated at home for much of their childhoods. And so they grew up playing together and creating imaginary worlds that they would all write about. First came Angria, a fantasy world created and run by Charlotte and Branwell. The children would put on plays, make up stories, write poems, and create journals and magazines set in this make-believe world.
Later the two younger siblings, Anne and Emily, would create Gondal, a fictional world comprised of four kingdoms: Gondal, Angora, Exina and Alcona. Poems and diary entries set in Gondal still exist to this day, mostly in the form of a manuscript that was donated to the British Museum in 1933. These works are considered some of the first examples of speculative fiction.
4. The Brontë Siblings Attended a School that Would Later Become the Inspiration for Lowood in Jane Eyre.
In September 1824, Charlotte and Emily, along with their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, were sent away to a school for daughters of the clergy in Cowan’s Bridge. But then in 1825, Typhoid Fever hit Cowan’s Bridge. The illness was thought to be exacerbated by the poor nutrition and rough living conditions at the school. Both Maria and Elizabeth fell ill and died of tuberculosis. After that, Charlotte and Emily returned home.
The Lowood school setting in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is clearly inspired by the Brontës’ experiences at the Cowan Bridge School. Charlotte was not shy about blaming her sisters’ deaths on the conditions at the school.
5. Emily Brontë Preferred Animals to People.
Of all of the Brontë siblings, Emily was the one who was the most misanthropic. She preferred spending her time in nature and around animals rather than with people. It’s even rumored that when Emily was a teacher at Law Hill School, she told her pupils she liked the school dog more than any of the students.
Apparently, nature and animals loved Emily right back. Following Emily’s death, it’s said that her dog Keeper mourned her loss. The dog followed Emily’s coffin to the grave and howled outside of Emily’s bedroom door for weeks after her death.
6. Charlotte Brontë Had Her Fair Share of Crushes.
Although none of the Brontës were famous for their love lives, Charlotte Brontë did have her fair share of crushes. When she was a young girl, Charlotte was obsessed with Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. When she was a young girl, she received a toy soldier and promptly named it “Wellesley.” She also included many characters with names similar to “Wellesley” in her juvenilia. You might even say Charlotte Brontë was one of the first writers of fan fiction.
But Charlotte’s unrequited loves didn’t end in childhood. Charlotte spent almost two years being educated in Brussels, and there she fell in love with her teacher Monsieur Constantin Heger. After returning to her home Haworth, Charlotte wrote four letters to Heger confessing her love for the schoolmaster, who was already married. Alas, Heger tore them up and never responded. But the letters weren’t gone for good. Heger’s wife later found them, pieced them back together, and published them after Charlotte’s death. The letters were printed in The London Times.
Charlotte did find some form of love eventually. She was the only one of her siblings to marry. In 1854, she married Arthur Bell Nicholls, a union that her father vehemently opposed at first. The union was short-lived, however. In 1855, Charlotte died at the age of 38 due to pregnancy complications.
7. Branwell Brontë Struggled With Depression and Addiction.
Branwell Brontë was a year younger than Charlotte and older than Anne and Emily. The four were the youngest of the Brontë siblings, and they became very close. But due to Branwell’s struggles with depression, alcoholism, and opium addiction, Branwell became a source of distress for his sisters. Branwell wanted to be a poet and an artist, and he was frustrated with his lack of success.
In 1834, Branwell painted a portrait of himself with his three sisters. But he became so dissatisfied with his own image that he painted himself out of the picture (see portrait above). To this day, Branwell’s painting of his sisters remains one of the best-known images of the Brontës. It now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Anne Brontë based Arthur Huntington, the drunken husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, on Branwell. Emily also found inspiration in Branwell for her character Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights.
Branwell passed away at the age of 31, most likely due to tuberculosis aggravated by alcoholism and opium addiction.
8. Anne Brontë Was the Feminist of the Family.
Of the three sisters, Anne Brontë’s works are not read nearly as widely, but they really should be! Anne was the most progressive of all of the Brontës, and it shows in her writing. Anne’s novels openly challenge the concept of a woman’s place in traditional Victorian England. Anne Brontë’s second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is consider to be one of the first feminist novels. At the time of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall‘s publication in 1848, the actions of protagonist Helen Graham were absolutely shocking to Victorian readers. A woman leaving an abusive husband to make a life for herself on her own terms? Revolutionary!
9. Emily Brontë’s Novel Wuthering Heights Was Not Successful During her Lifetime.
Emily Brontë’s only novel Wuthering Heights is now considered one of the greatest novels of the Victorian era. It’s possibly the most famous novel from any of the Brontë sisters. And personally, it’s my favorite novel of all time!
But this isn’t about me.
Anyway, although the novel has been met with critical acclaim more recently, Wuthering Heights was not so beloved at the time of its publication. For a long time, Emily could not find a publisher, and when she finally did, she had to pay for the novel to be published.
Following its publication, Wuthering Heights was not a commercial or critical success. At the times, critics acknowledge the passion and imagination in the writing itself, but they believed the story was too dramatic and too dark. Graham’s Lady Magazine called the novel “a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” The Examiner wrote that the book was “wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer.”
Emily Brontë died a year after the publication of the novel.
10. All of the Brontës Died at a Tragically Young Age.
Patrick Brontë was the father of six, and none of his children would live past the age of 40. He survived them all, eventually passing away in 1861, at the age of 84.
Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest siblings, died of tuberculosis in 1825. Maria was 11 and Elizabeth was 10.
Branwell Brontë also died of tuberculosis at the age of 31 on September 24, 1848.
Emily Brontë caught a chill at her brother’s funeral and died less than three months later on December 19, 1848.
Anne Brontë died on May 28, 1849 at the age of 28. The cause of death is thought to be pulmonary tuberculosis.
Charlotte Brontë was the last of the siblings to die. She died due to pregnancy complications on March 31, 1855, less than a month before she would have turned 39.
Further Reading on the Brontë Family
Want to know more about the Brontës? Same, honestly. For a fascinating and comprehensive look at the family’s history and their works, I highly recommend The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller, which is how I confirmed many of the dates and details for this blog post. This book is just a wealth of Brontë knowledge, and it’s a great read!
There have also been plenty of fictional novels inspired by the lives of the Brontës. For instance, My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, and Brodi Ashton puts Charlotte Brontë in the story right alongside her most famous protagonist Jane Eyre. And The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis imagines the Brontës as a team of amateur sleuths. There have been so many books written about the Brontës, I could definitely write a whole other post just about that, so this is just to name a few! Hopefully now you’re just as obsessed with the Brontës as I am, friends.