The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XII. The Brontës

§ 1. The Brontë family

WHEN Mrs. Gaskell published The Life of Charlotte Brontë, she was forty-seven, and had already written Mary Barton; Cranford and Ruth. In six years, there were to follow Sylvia’s Lovers and that story in which is embalmed the charm of all things fading—Cousin Phillis. The biography was worthy of its author. Here was presented, not less truthfully than exquisitely, all that it was essential to know of the sad story of Charlotte Brontë’s life, and, interwoven in its texture, and consummately in place, the beautiful piece of prose in which Ellen Nussey told of Anne Brontë’s death. It was surprising that this masterpiece, at its first appearance, should have been marred by indiscretions of revelation, relating, in part, to the father of the sisters, to whose paternal care the book paid tribute, and who was still alive, an octogenarian. The explanation was, partly, that Mrs. Gaskell was a novelist whose first obligation was truth to character, and who was interested in the subordinate personages of her narrative mainly in so far as they illustrated the figure of its heroine; and, also, partly, that the task she had set herself—to tell soon and fully Charlotte Brontë’s life-story—was not one that could possibly have been executed without giving some temporary offence. Yet, the main lines of the story were seized and held with the unerring hand of genius, and, in the amended version, we now possess a book that, both in its candour and in its restraint, remains the true record for posterity.

Of the substantial accuracy of its picture of the Brontë household, there is no longer any question. Some of the original domestic details now banished from the volume may not have been correct; but such stories as attached themselves to Patrick Brontë do not gather round a man of an exacting character. His custom of dining alone in a house with two sittingrooms is sufficiently significant. “No one,” writes Mary Taylor to Ellen Nussey, a year after Charlotte’s death, “ever gave up more than she did and with full consciousness of what she sacrificed.” Family affection for his offspring, on the one side, of course, there was, and, on the other, deep filial piety and that cherishing fondness which springs from piety; but it is a main element in Charlotte Brontë’s later history that talk in the lonely house must often have been “but a tinkling cymbal.”

Patrick Brunty or Brontë, as, at Haworth, he came finally to write the name, was, so far as we know, a pure Irishman. He was born in Emdale, county Down, in 1777, and, in 1802, presumably with the aid of some slender savings, he entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. After taking his degree, he held various curacies, settling down finally, in 1820, in the incumbency of Haworth. But the troubles of life were not over; for, in less than two years, his always delicate wife, Maria Branwell, whom he had married in 1812, had died, leaving him the care of six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne, of whom the eldest was eight and the youngest not yet two years of age. In this difficulty, his wife’s sister Elizabeth Branwell took up her residence with him at Haworth, remaining there as mistress of his house till her death. Thus was the household constituted till Charlotte Brontë was twenty-six.

For so large a family, the house in the graveyard was a confined habitation: it stood at the top of the steep and drab village, its front windows looking on the church and the graves, and its back on the wide-stretching moors over which the tiny girls loved constantly to ramble. Their father was not a learned man; but he knew enough to teach infants, and it was a mistake that, in order to provide them with more systematic instruction, he should have sent four of them to a clergy daughters’ boarding school. This was an absurdly cheap subsidised institution, for no other was within his means; and the disastrous experiment, afterwards forming the basis of the account of Lowood in Jane Eyre, came to an end within a year. Charlotte Brontë believed that the precarious health of her two elder sisters had suffered from the experience. In any case, the first tragedies of her home were the early deaths of the much-loved Maria and Elizabeth.

The household, thus reduced in numbers, remained at Haworth for the next six years, occupied with reading, rambling, household management and, above all, with literary invention; and it was not till 1831, when Charlotte was nearly fifteen, that she was again sent to a boarding school, this time to Miss Wooler’s at Roe Head, where she made the acquaintance of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, who became her lifelong friends. Miss Wooler was kind and competent, and eighteen fairly happy months of pupilage resulted, three years later, in Charlotte’s returning as an instructress, while Emily and Anne also became pupils in the same school. But Charlotte was not born to be a teacher of young girls, and, after another interval of three years, she returned to Haworth, fretted in mind and spirit. Yet, something had to be done to replenish the family exchequer on which the one, and thoroughly unsatisfactory, brother was beginning to make a series of claims. Emily had attempted and failed to live the life of an assistant schoolmistress under peculiarly exacting conditions, and there was nothing left for Charlotte and Anne except to become governesses in private families. But, though the gentle Anne was, apparently, a good governess, retaining one post for four years, the experiences of neither of the pair met their wishes, and it occurred to Charlotte and Emily that they should qualify for the three setting up school by themselves. For this, some knowledge of foreign languages was indispensable, and, in February, 1842, the two sisters, aged, respectively, twentyfive and twenty-three, had found their way as pupils into a foreign school, the pensionnat Héger, rue d’Isabelle, Brussels. The short year spent there was made especially interesting on account of the lectures of the professor of literature, Constantin Héger, a man of thirty-three who, obviously, added to some of the usual Napoleonisms of the professeur des jeunes filles (Napoleonisms to which Charlotte Brontë was not blind) a genuine force of character, something of the genius of exposition and a touch of that ironic or semi-humorous malice which is the salt of personality. But this brightening episode was not to last, and, in eight months, the sisters were hurrying home too late to attend the deathbed of their aunt Branwell.

The home was reorganised, Emily being left to keep house. Branwell, who had failed in several occupations, found a post as tutor in the same family where Anne was governess, and Charlotte Brontë allowed herself to be tempted to return to Brussels, in January, 1843, as instructress in English. She was now verging on twenty-seven, and at Brussels were the surroundings that had broken the dull monotony of her life. Hitherto, this monotony had been endurable; henceforth, it was no longer so. As she taught in the school of the Hégers, at times instructing Constantin Héger and his brother-in-law in English, and hearing from him constantly of the high things in literature and life, there was set up that rapport of intelligence, and, more than this, that interplay where soul responds to soul, of which, hitherto, she had known nothing. In a year, she was back in the lonely house, herself now twice lonely “for remembering happier things.” All had not gone well in her absence: the brother was hastening down a career that ended in an early grave; the plan of a school had come to nothing; the tone of the communications she sent to her adored professor, too exalté led to the ending of all communication; and in the letters she wrote to Brussels in these barren years we can hear the cry of a stifled heart. In March, 1845, she writes to Ellen Nussey:

  • I can hardly tell you how time gets on at Haworth. There is no event whatever to mark its progress. One day resembles another: and all have heavy lifeless physiognomies… There was a time when Haworth was a very pleasant place to me: it is not so now. I feel as if we were all buried here… Write very soon dear Ellen.
  • There was one way of escape and one only—for “the imagination is not a state,” as Blake tells us, “it is the human existence itself.”