When the novels of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were published in the late 1840s, their wild, passionate, sometimes violent content, caused a sensation. Public opinion was divided. Some critics described them as "brutal", "coarse" and "wicked", but the appetite of the reading public to obtain books written by the Bell brothers was insatiable. Then there was the added mystery of the identity of the authors.

Thomas Newby, who had published Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey, seeing the success of Jane Eyre, published by Smith, Elder & Co. and wishing to benefit from the latter's success, claimed the novels were written by the same author. When he published Anne's second novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall in 1848, it was advertised as the latest work by Currer Bell.

The three sisters were left with little choice but to reveal their true identities. Emily, preferring anonymity, refused to accompany Charlotte and Anne to the offices of Smith, Elder & Co. in London. One can only imagine the surprise of publisher George Smith when confronted by two quaintly dressed young women claiming to be the brothers Bell!

Success for the sisters was but a brief episode in their short lives. The shadow of death lingered over them all. Losing their mother and two older sisters when they were very young played a pivotal role in their tales of orphans, spirits and hauntings.

As children, they grew deeply attached to their parsonage home and its close proximity to the moors circling the village of Haworth. In adulthood it provided them with sanctuary when homesickness and adversity overwhelmed them.

A set of soldiers given to brother Branwell were given identities and existed in imaginary worlds invented by the children. Christened 'The Young Men', they inhabited an empire known as 'Glasstown'. Branwell and Charlotte later developed the East African province of 'Angria'. Emily and Anne created 'Gondal', a large island in the North Pacific. Their tales of love affairs, political intrigue and bloody battles, were assiduously recorded in miniature handmade books and dominated their thoughts well beyond childhood, sowing the seeds for the novels to come.
The sisters' own experiences of life sharpened their senses and coloured their perception of the world about them.

Clearly, Emily's love for moorland life, with its wild and solitary aspect of nature, presents itself throughout her novel Wuthering Heights. Her time spent away, first as pupil then as teacher and a brief spell as student in Brussels with Charlotte, only served to remind her how much she missed home.
Anne paints a grim picture of the reality of life for a governess in Agnes Grey. A position considered to be only marginally higher than that of a servant and one she held herself for several years.
Charlotte's stoical heroines are drawn from her own strong willed viewpoint and passionate nature. They each suffer hardship and heartache but survive the adversity. Her own unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, the married professor who taught her in Brussels, is woven into the storylines with dramatic effect.
Patrick Brontё, born in Emdale, County Down, Ireland in 1777 won a scholarship to Cambridge University and graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in Divinity in 1806.
After various posts as curate in Wethersfield in Essex, Wellington in Shropshire and Dewsbury Minster in Yorkshire, he secured his first ministerial position in nearby Hartshead. Around this time he met the bright and talented Maria Branwell, the niece of a friend, who was on a visit from Penzance. They married in 1812 and settled in Yorkshire. Their first two daughters, Maria and Elizabeth were born whilst at Hartshead. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne were born in the parsonage at Thornton, before the family moved to their final home in Haworth, where Patrick remained as minister for the rest of his life.
Maria, tragically died from cancer within the year of arriving in Haworth. A servant heard her cry, "Oh God, my poor children!" The youngest, Anne, was less than a year old.
Patrick reared his children with the help of his late wife's sister, but anxious to provide them with a mother, proposed marriage to various ladies known to him. A widower with six children would not have been an attractive proposition. They turned him down!

The Brontė Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontė
© National Portrait Gallery London

was never to realise his early potential as a writer and artist. Fired from two positions of trust, he returned to live at home. Broken in spirit and weakened by drink and drugs, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 31 in September 1848. His famous portrait of Charlotte, Emily and Anne with the bizarre removal of his own image, is a haunting reminder of his precocious talent.

Emily, infected by the disease which killed her brother, died three months later aged 30, leaving Wuthering Heights as her enduring epitaph and poetry considered to be some of the finest in English literature.

Anne, died in Scarborough in May the following year, afflicted with the same disease at the age of 29. The only member of the Brontё family to be buried elsewhere. A place she loved.

Charlotte, prone to melancholy, was left to comfort her father. She achieved public and critical acclaim during her lifetime, thanks to her friendship with publisher George Smith, who introduced her to London society and its inner circle of literary celebrities.

Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate finally won her hand and at the age of 38 she became his wife. Happiness was short lived. In frail health, weakened by the early stages of pregnancy, she died within the year of her marriage in 1855.


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