The Five Most Surprising Facts about the Brontë Family
By Bella EllisSeptember 11, 2019
Join Bella Ellis—author of The Vanished Bride, the first book in the Brontë Sisters Mystery series—as she uncovers some fascinating facts about the famous literary sisters we thought we knew so well. Read through and comment on this post to enter for a chance to win a copy of The Vanished Bride.
I have always loved the novels of the Brontë sisters, and because I’d read and re-read all of them many times over the years, I really thought I knew pretty much all there is to know about the sisters, their families and their lives. Three spinster geniuses living and writing in the isolated village of Haworth on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, before their untimely deaths, right? Wrong.
As I began to research their lives for The Vanished Bride, reading their letters, contemporary accounts and getting to know the world they lived in, I was continuously surprised by the fascinating, sometimes shocking, facts I discovered.
- Charlotte Bronte and Constantin Héger. In 1842 Charlotte and Emily travelled to study in Brussels at the Pensionnat Héger, a school for young ladies run by Madam Zoë Héger and her husband, Constantin. The sisters’ intention was to further their education and language skills, improving their chances of securing employment. Quite soon after her arrival, it becomes clear that Monsieur Héger had a deep impact on impressionable Charlotte; particularly as he both appreciated and encouraged her brilliance and enquiring mind. It was the kind of attention she longed for. Unsurprisingly, Charlotte fell hopelessly in love with her married tutor. Two years after returning to Haworth she continued to write emotional, tortured letters to him, fraught with longing, ‘I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.’ Eventually a very patient Madame Héger insisted that her husband only corresponded with Charlotte once every six months. We only know about these beautiful letters of unrequited love because in 1913 the Héger family gave them to the British Library. Three out of the four surviving letters had been torn up and then carefully sewn back together and preserved. Did Madame Héger retrieve them from the wastebasket to collect them as evidence of her husband’s innocence in this once sided affair? In any event, she gave us a tantalising glimpse into the passionate heart and mind of Charlotte Brontë.
- Emily Brontë really did own a thunderbolt and lightning dress. We love to think of unconventional Emily, wild and free, roaming the moors around Haworth. Her novel Wuthering Heights and her wonderful poetry give us a portrait of a woman uniquely in tune with the beautiful, sometimes violent and capricious environment she lived in. Emily’s work is always so full of the noise of nature; wind, water, rain and yes, thunder and lightning, so it’s deliciously fitting that we know she caused a minor stir when she selected the material for this gown. The Brontë’s friend Ellen Nussey remembers Emily choosing, ‘..a white stuff patterned with lilac thunder and lightning, to the scarcely concealed horror of her more sober companions.’ For me, this is perfect Emily.
- The average life expectancy in Haworth at the time of the Brontës was only 25.8 years. In fact, despite the rural location of the village mortality rates were on a par with densely populated industrial city slums, and 42% of children died before the age of six. The reasons for this make grim reading. There were only 69 toilets for a population of 2500, and there was no drainage system. Sewerage ran freely down the steep streets, contributing to the frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhus. On top of this, the water supply, which ran down from the top of the moors was filtered through the graveyard, polluting the water with rotting corpse juice. When the graveyard was closed in 1883 it is estimated to have contained between forty and forty-two thousand bodies, some of the graves containing up to ten coffins each. If you look at photographs of the graveyard today you will see it full of mature trees. This is thanks to the report made in 1850 by Benjamin Herschel Babbage—something that Patrick Brontë had long been campaigning for. Mr. Babbage had many suggestions to improve sanitation in Haworth, but one of them was to plant trees in the graveyard to suck up the excess moisture created by the dead.
- For a devout Victorian parson, Patrick Brontë was a very liberal, tolerant man. This is perhaps shown most surprisingly and touchingly in his advice to Eliza Brown, the daughter of John Brown, the Sexton at Haworth in 1855. When Eliza found herself unmarried and pregnant, you might have expected Patrick to cast her out of his congregation. Instead, he writes her the most thoughtful and compassionate letter. ‘In regard to your proceedings, and those of your friend James, you both have acted very properly. You have done all this openly and wisely – which is ever the best way. As the times are hard, and likely to be so, during the winter you should be in no haste about marriage. You should not marry until you have a fair prospect of being able to live without debt and poverty.’ Wonderfully thoughtful, forgiving and wise advice. In 1859 Patrick was obliged to write to Eliza again, this time to inform the young mother, who worked away from home, of the death of her daughter. ‘She got worse and worse, til at last she seem’d to sleep away, til she closed her eyes, on time, and open’d them in eternity.’ He went on to reassure the grieving mother. ‘Every thing has been done for little Jane that could be done…so that there is nothing to regret, left behind (sic).’ Patrick outlived every one of his children; it’s clear he was a man who saw the value in love and compassion over hellfire and brimstone.
- Anne, perhaps the most subversive and revolutionary sister of them all, and the author of one of the first feminist novels. Anne Brontë is perhaps the least appreciated of the Brontës, and her novels Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are lesser-known and -read. She is often thought of as meek and mild, and perhaps not as interesting as her more obviously complicated sisters. However, Anne had a quiet inner steel that was all her own. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, shows her passion for equality for women, even if that meant resisting and flouting convention. Trapped in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic husband, the heroine, Helen, flees her marital home with her son, leaving her husband to live under an assumed identity—scandalous conduct in Victorian England. Part of Anne’s quiet courage comes from the horrors she witnessed in her own life, the destructive life of her addict brother Branwell, but also the women she saw trapped in cruel marriages. In 1840, Mrs. Collins, the wife of a local curate, came to the parsonage to ask Patrick for advice about her abusive husband. Amazingly for a Victorian parson, Patrick advised Mrs. Collins to take her children and leave her husband. When Mrs. Collins visited again a few years later she was able to tell the Brontës she had built a new life for herself and her children. Anne was almost certainly influenced by witnessing this; one can only imagine how it formed her own resolve to be happy and free.
*Author Photo by Adam Evans
About The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis:
Before they became legendary writers, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë were detectors in this charming historical mystery….
Yorkshire, 1845. A young wife and mother has gone missing from her home, leaving behind two small children and a large pool of blood. Just a few miles away, a humble parson’s daughters – the Brontë sisters – learn of the crime. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified and intrigued by the mysterious disappearance.
These three creative, energetic, and resourceful women quickly realize that they have all the skills required to make for excellent “lady detectors.” Not yet published novelists, they have well-honed imaginations and are expert readers. And, as Charlotte remarks, “detecting is reading between the lines – it’s seeing what is not there.”
As they investigate, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne are confronted with a society that believes a woman’s place is in the home, not scouring the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…
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