This week on the BBC, they’ve been celebrating the Brontes. Those sisters have always fascinated me. How did three women, growing up in such isolation, produce such wonderful and groundbreaking books?
Other writers grew up surrounded by friends and family and other writers. The Brontes grew up alone. Their social class made them isolated in Haworth. Their father locked himself away in the study most of the day. Their mother was dead. Their aunt was preoccupied with running the household, and their brother Branwell. They only went to schools for a few years, and those were miserable lonely years, at places more interested in instilling a fear of God in the girls, rather than a love of literature.
But all this left them free to read, and to daydream. They read voraciously, anything they could get their hands on, and nothing was forbidden. Newspapers, Byron, anything. When Branwell received some toy soldiers, they used them as the basis for rich inventive games, and let their dreams run wild. They never stopped the habit of daydreaming. As a school teacher, Charlotte would be frustrated by being interrupted by girls asking stupid questions whilst she was in the middle of her intense daydreams. And they wrote these dreams down. The stories are bloodthirsty, and erotic and adventurous and exciting and often funny and what was important, only the three sisters and Branwell saw them. No adult told them little girls shouldn’t be thinking about bare-chested African Princes or blood-soaked battlefields.
Branwell was supposed to be the writer of the family. He was the man, after all. But, poor man, he could never reach the heights. He found himself stuck in a series of jobs, from which he would be sacked for drunkenness, or theft. The family saved to send him to London so he could paint, but once there, he found himself so overwhelmed by being in the city of great painters, he spent the entire time drunk and never did a thing. He had all the chances Charlotte desperately wanted. Charlotte knew she could be a writer, and this certainty never left her.
She wrote to Robert Southey, the poet who encapsulated the Victorian attitude to women in his poem The Angel In The Home. He wrote back saying a woman’s place was in the home, and not to do with literature.
She wrote back, seemingly meekly, and wrote anyway. Until she went to Belgium, this seems to have been her whole contact with the literary world. Then she and Emily went to Brussels, and met Professor Heger.
He encouraged Charlotte to write. He tried to improve her style and technique by getting her to copy other great writers. He gave her the first praise she had ever had outside her family. No wonder she fell in love with him. For Charlotte, it must have been like stepping into the sun after years spent in the rain. She blossomed. Emily, on the other hand ignored the Professor’s lessons and praise. She wrote just as she always had.
It was Charlotte who persuaded the sisters to publish their poems. Charlotte who persuaded them to write books. Charlotte had the faith, always, since they were children.
So what would have been different if the children had grown up surrounded by family, and writers and other people? Well, there would have been no moors. No passion for the different and the strange. No access to the ‘unsuitable’ books. No time to daydream. Probably no-one to understand the strange, unworldly books they wrote as children. They would have been told to stop that, go into the parlour, and be ladylike. Jane Eyre must never fall in love with adulterous Mr Rochester. Helen Graham’s husband’s drunken abuse must never be mentioned. And Heathcliff – he’d never exist at all.
It was only in the isolation of the moors, of no family, few friends, and no guidance that the Brontes could be formed. They had to be left free to read, and think and daydream. And they had to have the strength and courage to ignore what was expected of them, and find their own lives, free of the conventionality that suffocated others. That was what created some of the greatest literature ever written.