The Brief Lives of the Brontes – A study in tragic creativity and death


bronte sisters

Portrait of the sisters by their brother Branwell – He painted himself out of the picture, though a ghostly shadow remains


I have always been fascinated by the lives of the Bronte sisters and their brother, Branwell, since I first listened to Kate Bush singing ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a little girl on Top of the Pops and fell in love with her. I was totally captivated by her other-worldliness and eccentricity. I wanted to know more about the story behind the song and why she had chosen this story and this lead me to Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and then later to Charlotte and ‘Jane Eyre’ which I have read many times over the years and later still to ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and Anne. I came to know Branwell fairly recently and have felt a deep sense of sympathy for his torment ever since.

Like ‘Madame Bovary’, Jane Eyre is a book that I need to read at different stages of my transit though life, in order to weigh myself against it and find where I have travelled to since last we met.

I understand the Brontes at a subliminal level; beyond the frustrations and set-backs of their lives or their roles as daughters, carers, educators or sisters. It runs deeper than a shared sense of longing for something which can never be fully realised, beyond the intricacies of gender politics or the fate of women in a man’s world. It is deeper still than our shared need for freedom or the beauty of the natural world or the impossibility of reaching the summit of our human ambitions.

I think the basis is the urge to create and express without constraint.

When I imagine talking with them, I know that we could communicate without words, through the shared experience of watching a hawk flying over the moors or of feeling the wind against our bodies and the desire for our flesh to melt away and leave us free to be all fiery spirit.

There are many things that separate us – time, society, faith, distance and the immensity of their talent, which I could never hope to aspire to, but I feel that I understand them so well that none of these barriers would be insurmountable if we could only cheat death and make a connection.

They were so ‘judged’ by their contemporaries that I feel sure they would be glad to meet someone who has lived in a age where women can be more than their physical appearance or virtuous attributes; where some people can be freed from the constraints of making their way in the world and allowed more time to grow to maturity and where questioning the relationship between human beings and their place in the cosmos is a normal and natural process.

Like the Bronte siblings, I came back home after university and took a while to find a ‘niche’ in the world of work. The demands of a routine and earning a crust were constant irritants in my life during my twenties when I longed for freedom to create and satisfying employment that stretched and challenged me but allowed me room to express myself and grow as an individual. All the striving to achieve academically and the pressures which mould us as teenagers should be realised in our twenties yet we are often hampered and hemmed in, denied the recognition and success that we seek and left feeling that the world is passing us by. I understand the nihilism that descends during those ‘lost years’  and which the siblings experienced too.

Perhaps they would also be saddened a little too by some things that have not changed in the modern world. We still strive after the same sense of self fulfilment that they longed for and often feel similar constraints and burdens despite our seeming freedom.

Women are still judged by appearance rather than internal strengths and qualities and knowing so much more about the wider world, our own limited freedom is set in stark contrast with the many millions of girls and women who have few choices in their lives and appear of little value to their communities. This injustice and waste of talent hampers us all.

I feel sure that the Brontes would be championing the rights of women around the world today, if they lived now, and feeling the sting of inequality as much for our generation as they did for themselves and their fictional protagonists.

Juliet Barker’s fine biography of the family provided me with much more detail about their lives and living conditions and I would recommend it to anyone interested in finding out the complete chronology of their careers and how their coming and going around the vicarage at Haworth shaped their relationships with each other and their father, in particular.

A much slimmer and more accessible account can be found in Catherine Reef’s book ‘The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne which I read to my daughter recently. This is a very straight-forward but moving account of the sadness and loss which underpinned their childhood and which must have deeply affected all of the siblings throughout their lives. Not only the early loss of their mother but also the cruel and untimely deaths of their elder sisters due to the lack of care and love at their school and the inevitable blame and guilt which ran through the remaining family members afterwards haunts the pages of this book.

Faith and acceptance on the one hand, passionate questioning and dysfunctional relationships on the other would seem to form the dual axes of their attachment to Patrick Bronte, their father and with one another as they grew to maturity.

The lack of a mother in their lives must also have had profound consequences for their development and there remains a subtle hint of ‘infantilization’ even to the very end of their stories.

It seems ludicrous to even consider the author of Wuthering Heights as an adult who never fully realised their mature self, yet Emily’s reserve and stubborn love of ‘home’ and inability to really engage with the wider world or to find love, form many friendships or recognize her own celebrity do suggest a deep insecurity and fear of exposure to the adult world despite her fiercely passionate spirit and brave disregard for ‘feminine’ subject matter. What a hard age for a women like Emily to be alive in.

Charlotte seems the most ‘outwardly-looking’ of the siblings and the most resilient in the face of criticism and acclaim but still, the inner struggle is obvious to see in her writing and her reaction to being brought out into society as a specimen on view. A similar dilemma between exposure to ridicule and disapproval and acknowledgement and success would have crushed Branwell, had he ever achieved a similar level of celebrity or had to battle with an inherently sexist hierarchy as she did.

During the Christmas holidays, I watched ‘To Walk Invisible’ with my 11 year old daughter. The drama played out the lives of the four surviving Bronte children over the course of a few years, exploring their creative journey until Charlotte, Emily and Anne achieved literary recognition and Branwell destroyed himself with drink and Opium dependency.

The drama was an honest attempt to portray the family in their home and society and to explore the frustrations and dilemmas which each of the Bronte siblings faced and tried to overcome during their short lives. The production showed all the ‘grittiness’ of their world; the dark streets of Haworth and the cold realities of their straightened financial circumstances but also the beauty of the moors and the snatched moments with nature that lead to the production of their astonishing literary works.


brontes 2

Haworth main street


Of course we all have our vision of who the Bronte family really were and any adaptation will struggle to capture the essence of characters who feel so well-known and beloved to us, as our own family members. Each of the sisters has become a beacon to feminists the world over and therefore translated into individual and unique icons for every devotee. Each of us carry our own version of Charlotte or Emily or Anne in our subconscious and would fiercely defend our imaginary creation against any other interpretation.

The extent of devotion to the sisters and their work can be seen in the many ‘pilgrimages’ made to Haworth today to see the vicarage where they lived and produced some of their work but also in more intimate forms such as body art with quotes from their works – and particularly one sentiment from Jane Eyre which seems to capture the defiance and spirit of the heroine and echo many women’s desire for space and freedom to be themselves.

‘I am no bird and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.’


brontes 3

The Bronte sisters as feminist icons


What more fitting epitaph could there be for woman who lived such a rich and passionate internal life, yet was overlooked by the world for so long. She escaped the ‘cage’ of her skirts to let her spirit sour above the conventions of her age and an inspiration for all other free souls. In their own way, her sisters all did the same too and remain amongst the most beloved writers in the English language.










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