Raiya is an engineer by profession and a writer by passion. Her friends keep telling her that she has this habit of randomly drifting off into space when her eyes lock upon a particular object, her ears tune out and she becomes oblivious to her surroundings. What she doesn't tell them (for fear of ridicule) is that this is actually the time when she is concocting a poem, structuring her next article or coming up with the plot of her next story. She was a columnist for the youth supplement of Saudi Gazette and her work has been featured in SAMAR magazine and on Chowk.com. A winner of Oxford University Short Story Competition 2012, she lives in Karachi and works for the aviation industry.
The Brontës: A Talented Trio
The kids called it Angria. It was an imaginary world with real and fictional characters in a game they had created from a set of toy soldiers. It was the summer of 1826, and their father had brought the toy soldiers for his son, Branwell, who had in turn shared them with his three sisters.
Raised by a stern aunt after their mother’s death, the four children had found solace in the collection of books in their father’s library. The kids loved reading, and it was perhaps because of this love for stories that they started spinning their own tales. At first, the siblings wrote a play, Young Men, where the toy soldiers became characters in the imaginary colony of Angria. Soon, they started writing elaborate stories and poems about this paracosm, where each sibling controlled an island.
Later, the two younger sisters felt their older siblings had kept the best characters – the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte – for themselves and given them inferior roles such as a grave-looking soldier called Gravey. The little ones left Angria and created their own rebel world, Gondal.
Unfortunately, not much of the writings related to these imaginary worlds – perhaps one of the earliest forms of fantasy fiction – have survived, but that doesn’t mean the brilliant minds behind them went unnoticed. Three of the creators went on to join the ranks of the most renowned writers in English Literature.
These were the Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – who later wrote such classics as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Throughout their lives, the Brontë sisters continued on the magnificent literary journey they had embarked upon in their childhood.
In Biographical Notice for Ellis and Acton Bell, Charlotte Brontë wrote in retrospect, “The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest pleasure we had known from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition.”
Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
Reaching adulthood, the three girls moved to writing poems but in secrecy. In the summer of 1845, Charlotte accidentally came upon a collection of poems written by Emily.
“I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me, – a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine… it took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication,” Charlotte wrote in Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.
Gaining encouragement by her elder sister’s approval of Emily’s poetry, Anne also showed Charlotte her work. Charlotte had the same opinion about her youngest sister’s work, and the three of them decided to get a book published. After the long and arduous task of finding a publisher, the three sisters finally came out with their very first book in the summer of 1846.
The first formal publication by the Brontë sisters was titled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The three sisters had assumed male pseudonyms to avoid the prejudice that existed against female writers at the time. The first letter of the pen names corresponded with the first letters of their original first names.
Although this publication sold only three copies, the Brontë sisters were not discouraged.
Under the same pseudonyms as earlier, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heightsand Anne’s Agnes Grey were all published in 1847, and fame and success soon followed.
A Slice of Their Own Lives
As young children, the writings of the Brontës involved brave warriors, kings, queens and their aims and schemes to occupy faraway lands. It comes as a surprise, then, that later on when the three sisters began writing novels, their characters and plots were closer to real life than imagination. In fact, all the three sisters included something out of their real life experiences in their plots, settings and characters.
Take, for instance, the Lowood School in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The cruel treatment meted out to the girls at the school was inspired by what Charlotte witnessed at her first School, Cowan Bridge. She attended this school with Emily and her two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. The description of Lowood in Jane Eyre runs like this:
“Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet… Then the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid. From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.”
Their father removed both Emily and Charlotte from the school after the two elder sisters died of tuberculosis due to the poor conditions at the institution. These deaths left a considerable impression upon Charlotte which can be felt in the final death scene of Helen Burns, a student with Jane Eyre at Lowood School.
Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in her biography of the Brontë sisters that Helen Burns was “an exact transcript” of Maria Brontë. Similarly, the novels Villette and The Professor were based on Charlotte’s experiences as a boarding school teacher in Brussels.
The difficulties faced by Lucy Snowe of Villette in the fictional country of Labassecour while settling in a culture different to her own are based upon Charlotte’s own experiences as a boarding school teacher in Belgium, and the male protagonist of The Professor is also a teacher in a boarding school in Belgium.
Emily Brontë’s settings were also inspired from real life. The descriptions of Thrushcross Grange, Wuthering Heights and the general descriptions of the moors in the novel are strongly coincident with that of Haworth Yorkshire, the place where the sisters grew up.
Over the years, several buildings located in the area have been assumed as possible contenders for Emily’s source of inspiration. One of the possible buildings is High Sunderland Hall which was located just outside Halifax, West Yorkshire. This building was demolished in 1951 and stood just a few miles from Law Hill House, where Emily worked as a school teacher. The hall had a grotesque carving on its front similar to what is provided in the detailed description of Wuthering Heights in the book. Similarly, Shibden Hall in Shibden, West Yorkshire, could have been the inspiration for Thrushcross Grange as it is also close to Law Hill and is equivalent in grandeur and splendor to Thrushcross Grange.
As for the characters, Emily might not have derived them from a source in her real life, but the characters of Wuthering Heights are timeless and can easily be related to in all ages. These characters are driven by the common feelings of love, greed, prejudice, and revenge that are shared by all human beings regardless of their background, location or time period. For instance, Catherine Earnshaw and Isabella Linton, two women living in the eighteenth century behave just like modern day women belonging to the high society who think that the world only revolves around them. When it comes to love and marriage, they are as confused as the modern woman of today. When Nelly Dean asks Catherine why she loves Edgar she replies:
“‘Well, because he is handsome, and pleasant to be with.’
‘Bad!’ was my (Nelly Dean’s) commentary.
‘And because he is young and cheerful.’
‘Bad, still.’ ‘And because he loves me.’
‘Indifferent, coming there.’
‘And he will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband.’
‘Worst of all. And now, say how you love him?’
‘As everybody loves – You’re silly, Nelly.’
‘Nay; you are making a jest of it: it is exceedingly ill-natured! It’s no jest to me!’ said the young lady, scowling, and turning her face to the fire.
‘I’m very far from jesting, Miss Catherine,’ I replied. ‘You love Mr. Edgar because he is handsome, and young, and cheerful, and rich, and loves you. The last, however, goes for nothing: you would love him without that, probably; and with it you wouldn’t, unless he possessed the four former attractions.'”
The youngest sister Anne Brontë, in fact, wrote a whole novel which is more autobiographical than fiction. Agnes Grey was inspired by Anne’s experiences as a governess. The unruly and spoiled children of the families she worked for and her inability to control them due to the restrictions placed upon her by the children’s parents are all depicted in the novel. While she worked for the Inghams, one day she killed a group of birds to save them from their eldest son who tortured birds just for amusement. This incident is reproduced vividly in the novel.
Not only Anne but Charlotte also served as a governess as being a governess or a teacher were the few options available to females looking for employment in the eighteenth century. That is perhaps why governesses play central roles in most of their stories. Nelly dean, a governess, is the main narrator in Wuthering Heights. Also the protagonists of both Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre work as governesses.
Chick Lit of Victorian Era or Not
The Brontë sisters are often misinterpreted to be the Judith Mcnaught or the Danielle Steels of the eighteenth century: their works treated as chick lit of the Victorian era. The messages and themes in their stories are obscured behind a veil of undue attention to the romance depicted in these works. However, romance – though present – is never the central theme of any Brontë story.
Jane Eyre is not a love story between a governess and her master. It is the story of the courage of an orphaned young woman with no means of support, who decides to make a mark of her own in this world. Similarly Agnes Grey chronicles the events in the life of a woman who, moved by her family’s financial ruin, opts to work as a governess to support herself. The way Grey falls for the curator Edmund Weston is only a subplot to complete a sensitive character.
Villette’s Lucy Snowe goes to France herself in search of employment and it is there that she finds her love interest. Shirley’s central characters Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar end up marrying the two brothers they liked but never during the course of the novel do they come across as two women whose sole purpose in life is to find a man to get settled. In fact the basis for Caroline’s and Shirley’s friendship is the fact that Caroline being an orphan girl surrounded by meek and submissive women looks up to Shirley who is an independent young woman burning with the desire to do something significant with her life and to help others.
Feminists of the Eighteenth Century
The Brontës are some of the earliest feminist writers. Living in the eighteenth century, the three women were strong critics of the segregation of gender roles and the limited opportunities available to women who wanted to live an independent life. All their works feature female heroines who try to change their situations through their own efforts instead of depending upon a male as was the custom of the society at that time.
An orphan with no means of income, Jane Eyre becomes a governess to support herself. When her family faces financial ruin, Agnes Grey rises to the call and decides to work as a governess as well. Helen Graham of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall leaves an abusive husband and decides to live alone with her child, an unusual feat at that time.
The feminism in the Brontës’ work is best best summed up in these lines of Jane Eyre:
“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it… Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”
Only Emily’s Wuthering Heights can be classified as a true romance novel based on its theme. Even then, Heathcliff – the male lead of the story – is not the typical hero of romantic literature. Brontë’s clever character development makes the readers feel strongly for Heathcliff at the end and they do not classify him as a villain, but there is no way the readers can fall in love with Heathcliff either. Emily gave English literature its most vicious and cruel hero yet in no way a hateful hero.
The works of the three Brontës emphasize themes such as the emancipation of women, cruel treatment of servants, social evils, gender roles, alcoholism and the clash of the upper and lower classes. Their works are timeless because the themes touched upon in these books are as relevant to the society today as they were in the eighteenth century. We may have developed technologically, but our social structure still suffers from the same flaws as back then, and women still have to deal with oppression and inequality on many levels.
In short, the Brontës were a trio of exceptional sisters who gave us writings that are poetic in nature and unforgettable in their themes, livened up by well rounded characters that can be empathized with and related to, filled with descriptions that are fantastically vivid and loaded with dialogue that stays in the reader’s memories long after he has put down the books.