Charlotte Bronte and Her Sisters
"If you think from this prelude that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment and poetry and reverie? Do you expect passion and stimulus and melodrama? Calm your expectations: reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto."
"Shirley," Chap. 1.
Haworth, in Yorkshire, is a melancholy village in one of the dreariest provinces in England. Its low houses have that dumpy, sad, sullen look to be seen in the peasants of the region; and, massed about a little square-towered church on the top of a small hill, they give to this elevation the severe aspect of a fortress.
Patrick Bronté was thirty-three years of age when, in 1820, he was appointed rector at Haworth. He was an Irishman, tall, with regular features and something in his glance and his carriage which gave the impression of indomitable strength. His wife was small and delicate, but courageous; and she took up, without complaint, her abode at Haworth with her six children, the eldest seven years of age. A cruel malady was sapping her strength; she realized her condition and was resigned to death. Almost immediately after her arrival she was forced to take to her bed and she did not again leave her room in the course of the single year she lived.
A sister of Patrick Bronté, Miss Branwell, an energetic spinster full of prejudices, but good in spite of a certain harshness, assumed the responsibility of the five little girls and the little boy. She immediately took in hand the education of the little girls, and as, in her honest but limited mind, the chief object of life was sewing, she taught them to sew. Whenever he could, Patrick Bronté assigned lessons to his children and heard them recite, but the time was at hand when that method of instruction would soon become insufficient, and he began to wonder if it were not better to send the little girls to school.
It so happened that some clergymen had just founded in the neighborhood, at Cowan Bridge, a school to which ministers' daughters alone were admitted. This was exactly what Patrick Bronté wished, and he took his two eldest daughters to that providential school: Maria, who was eleven, and Elizabeth, who was ten. Two months later, he sent Charlotte and Emily, respectively eight and six. Bran-well, the little boy, and Anne, the youngest, remained at home.
It would seem that one should be happy at Cowan Bridge, it is so agreeably situated near a pretty stream on the edge of vast meadows; but the little Brontés found only sadness, boredom, and illness.
Maria made the best of it in silence. Like all the members of her family she was endowed with unlimited power of resignation, and never did a complaint escape her lips; but she had an incurable disease. To add to her sufferings she was a prey to the malevolence of one of the teachers, who suspected her wrongly of affecting a mournful air to gain the compassion of her comrades. Maria died ten months after her arrival at Cowan Bridge and Elizabeth a few weeks later. Both sisters had succumbed to tuberculosis.
In spite of these warnings, an epidemic of malaria had to strike forty pupils at Cowan Bridge before Patrick Bronté would consent to take his other two daughters from the school. Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth towards the end of 1825. They, were two timid and studious little girls, happy only at home. Charlotte was the gayer and played and talked willingly when she felt at ease. Emily, almost never spoke, but she had so attentive and serious an air that it was difficult to forget her presence. They found at home their brother Branwell, already admired for a very precocious artistic sense, and Anne, who, in her gentleness and her gravity, must have reminded them of the sister Maria whom they had lost.
Miss Branwell resumed their education at the point where she had left it and the three little girls began again to sew. They also read much with their brother and all four passed long hours in discussing the world in general and, in particular, politics, about which they questioned their father at length. Wellington was Charlotte's great hero. She spoke of him with all the vehemence of love, and the three little faces raised to hers would watch her fixedly and open-mouthed. Her activities did not stop there, however, and she wrote novel after novel, most often alone, sometimes with the help of her brother. One day she made a list of her works, adding proudly at the end: "This makes twenty-two volumes." Each book contained from sixty to a hundred pages. It was in 1830; she was not yet fourteen.
At the beginning of the next year, Patrick Bronté confided Charlotte to the care of Miss Wooler, who directed Roe Head School, about twenty leagues from Haworth. Charlotte was happy there; Miss Wooler took an interest in her from the first. In that small, ungraceful girl she divined an exceptional force of character and a way of thinking which was neither of her age nor of her sex.
Meanwhile Charlotte was growing up. She was small without appearing short. Heavy brown hair framed her face. A large nose and an irregular mouth made her already hopelessly ugly, but there was something in the glance of those brown eyes which gave the impression of a deep spiritual force.
When she returned to Haworth after a year and a half at Roe Head, it was above all to busy herself with the education of her sisters. She made them study their lessons in the morning but in the afternoon all three had to sew, for the years might pass but Miss Branwell's theories did not alter. The rest of the time they took walks in the country through the meadows of purple heather or else read Scott's novels and the magazines which they received weeks late.
They, were very proud of Branwell, who seemed the best endowed of the whole family. He was well built and had a pleasing face in spite of hair which was inclined to be reddish. When he was eighteen there was a family council to decide upon his future. He talked and wrote well; he could also draw. His sisters urged him to choose an artistic career, for their ambition would have been to draw and paint if the genius had not been lacking. Not much insistence was necessary to make Branwell yield, for he was eager to have a reason to go to London. In July, 1835, he presented himself at the Royal Academy.
The same year Emily was sent to Roe Head School. Charlotte, who was nearly twenty, was now thinking about earning her living and also went to Roe Head, not as a pupil, but as a teacher. The profession did not please her but she had no choice; Patrick Bronté no longer earned enough to support his family. Anne remained at home. For the first part of the time Charlotte was happy. Her life was monotonous and she was not fitted for her work, but she forced herself, with a Puritanical joy, to do her duty against her will. Her constitution was weak and her disposition became more and more melancholy. This girl, so brave and so firm on every other occasion, was afraid in a dark room. At night she imagined that she heard voices. She was afraid of death, such cruel and such frequent images of which she had had at the rectory, of Haworth. She no longer had any confidence in life and she had only to form a plan to be immediately doubtful of its success. This Protestant girl would have been very much surprised and irritated if she had been told that she resembled a Catholic nun, a prey to the acedia of the cloister; but it was true. At Roe Head, however, she was less disturbed because she was more occupied than at Haworth.
By Julien Green, Winter 1929, Essay