Three authors who greatly influenced the direction of the English novel also happened to be sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. Charlotte's "Jane Eyre," Emily's "Wuthering Heights, and Anne's "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," extraordinary novels all, comprise this Oxford University Press edition. The people, events and settings which marked these young women's lives, as well as their vivid imaginations, impacted their writing significantly.
Charlotte Brontë consciously tried to achieve financial success from the family's literary efforts. She wanted to make her living as a writer, and her goals were the most professional of the three. Her novel "Jane Eyre," a dark gothic romance, is the story of a governess and her passionate love for her Byronic employer, Mr. Rochester. It is ranked among the great English novels. There are many recurring themes here, some of which are repeated in other works by Charlotte Bronte: relationships between men and women and their different roles and limitations in society; relations between social classes; religion and morality; the need to fulfill the desires of others versus the necessity to maintain one's personal integrity; the conflict between reason and passion, and, of course, Jane's deep need to love and be loved. However, primary to the tale is the magnificent, complex character of Jane herself.
Long before the women's suffrage movement, Miss Bronte created, in the character of Jane, an intelligent, independent, strong-willed female, determined to make her place in the world. Equality between the sexes is not brought up in the novel, neither legally nor politically. What the persona of Jane addresses here is obvious in the following very famous lines: "Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."
Emily Bronte is said, by many literary critics, to be the undisputed genius of the family. An uncompromising, enigmatic, almost reclusive personality, she produced only one novel and a few poems, yet she is ranked among the giants of English literature. "Wuthering Heights," her masterpiece, is the wild, passionate story of the intense love between Catherine Earnshaw, another intelligent, independent, strong-willed heroine, and the gypsy-like foundling Heathcliff. This novel, however, is much more than a love story. "Wuthering Heights" is about hatred, cruelty, delusion, frustrated yearning, deep despair and vengeance. At times its very darkness is depressing and painful. Yet love and faithfulness, which endure beyond death, bring hope and much needed light to this tale; as does a second love story, born from the seeds of the first. The author also addresses the issues of social class here. Emily's powerful prose, its very beauty and energy, make the book such a literary classic. Charlotte published "A Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell" in 1850, in which she explained the morbidity of Emily's work by referring to the "horror of great darkness" in her life.
Of the three extraordinarily gifted Brontë sisters, Anne has been judged the least talented. I say, look at her competition, and her short lifespan. I also think her novel "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," about a young woman's marriage to a dissipated, villainous rake, is brilliant. Some of the behavior described in the narrative is apparently taken from events which Anne witnessed when she worked as a governess. She openly stated that in "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" she, "wished to tell the truth, for truth always conveys its own moral to those who are able to receive it." This well written, extraordinary tale can most definitely hold its own against the works of her sisters, and those of other noted authors of the period. Both "Agnes Grey" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" have been wildly praised for their realism and integrity.
All three girls were born in Thornton, England in the early 1800s. Their father Patrick, was a poor Anglican clergyman. He and his wife had six children. The two oldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth died before reaching adulthood. Their brother Patrick Branwell, was just a year older than Emily. Shortly after Anne's birth their father accepted a position in Haworth, located within the Yorkshire moors, a wide, wild, vast, uninhabited wilderness which was to have a major effect on all three women's writing. Emily loved walking the moorlands with her dogs, so much so, in fact, that she became desperately unhappy when away from home. She was extremely introspective, and preferred the outdoors to the company of her peers. Thus she made few friends. Her intensity of character is evident in "Wuthering Heights."
When Mrs. Bronte died, soon after reaching Haworth, the children were cared for by their maternal aunt. Charlotte and Emily were sent to Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire but they returned within a year. The treatment at Cowan Bridge was very harsh, and Charlotte later modeled Lowood School, ("Jane Eyre"), after it. "The food was poor and insufficient and they were treated with inhuman severity." The two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, actually died as a result of the conditions and the sickness contracted there. Charlotte's fiction is full of motherless and orphaned heroines whose loneliness is frequently the driving force behind their search for a place of belonging
For the next several years, the Bronte children were taught at home. They were extremely inventive and creative with their games and imaginary stories. Charlotte attended Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head for one year in 1831, then returned home and taught her sisters. She went back to the Wooler's school to teach in 1835, but after bouts of depression and poor health, she resigned from her position. Again, Charlotte draws material from this experience to use in Jane Eyre.
Charlotte, Emily and Jane collaborated on a book of poems, published at their own expense, entitled "Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell." The pseudonyms were chosen to match the first letter of their names. In 1847 Anne's "Agnes Grey" and Emily's "Wuthering Heights" were published together in three volumes. Although her first novel, "The Professor" was rejected, Charlotte's "Jane Eyre: An Autobiography" was an immediate success. Oddly, Currer Bell was identified as the editor rather than the author. The subtitle was dropped in subsequent editions.The popularity of the Bronte novels allowed Anne's "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" to be published shortly thereafter. The sisters' identity as authors was at first unknown, even to their publishers. It was not until after the publication of Charlotte's "Shirley" in 1849 that the truth was made public. By the date of this last publication, the Bronte's family life was to be tragically destroyed.
Branwell Bronte, an unstable man with a history of alcohol and opium use died in September 1848. Emily then fell ill and died of tuberculosis December 19, 1848. Anne soon followed, contracting tuberculosis that same year and dying May 28, 1949. Charlotte continued to live virtually alone at Haworth. The three sisters are almost as famous for their short, tragic lives as for their novels.
Charlotte published "Villette" in 1853. During this period, Charlotte also accepted an offer of marriage from her father's curate Arthur Bell Nicholls and on June 29, 1854, she and Nicholls were wed. She became quite ill with toxemia during pregnancy, complicated by the Brontë susceptibility to tuberculosis. She died March 31, 1855. Her first novel "The Professor "was published posthumously in 1857, and a fragment from an unfinished work entitled "Emma" was published in 1860.
Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte were writers destined to have a tremendous impact on English literature. I cannot recommend their novels highly enough.