Author Spotlight: The Brontë Sisters
For this issue’s author spotlight, the Classics team have chosen to focus on the works of the incomparable Brontë sisters; Anne, Charlotte and Emily. Despite leading tragically short lives, these three women posthumously became some of the most famous novelists of the nineteenth century. Their individual works remain classics of the English language, examining social injustices and pioneering Gothic and Romantic literature. With a few exceptions, pre-twentieth century English literature was dominated by the male voice. In this piece we explore the great talents of the Brontë sisters and how they succeeded in literary fame despite the societal and working limitations put upon their gender in this era.
Anne Brontë was the youngest of the famous literary trio, born in January 1820. Like her sisters she initially wrote under a pseudonym, “Acton Bell.” However, unlike the sensational, Gothic elements present in her sisters’ writing, Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), are grounded in realism. She prioritised the dissemination of truth in her novels. Although her literary legacy has been somewhat overshadowed by Emily and Charlotte’s critical success, readers now recognise the powerful way Anne’s novels address social injustices.
Agnes Grey is a semi-autobiographical novel, influenced by Anne’s experiences as a governess. Although it initially received little critical attention, the book’s frank portrayal of the poor conditions under which governesses had to work is now recognised for its profound critique of working-class injustices. Equally, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published before Anne’s untimely death from tuberculosis in 1849, evidences her refusal to shy away from taboo topics. This epistolatory work is now regarded by critics as one of the first feminist novels, as it powerfully addresses themes of marital abuse, motherhood, gender relations and female liberation. Although Anne has been referred to as “the other one” in critical discussions of the Brontë sisters, the quiet brilliance of her writing shows how undeserving she is of this title. Charlotte and Emily Brontë are undoubtedly literary powerhouses in their own right, but Anne is no exception.
Charlotte Brontë, born in 1816, was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters. She initially wrote under the pen name “Currer Bell,” before admitting to the pseudonym in 1848. Although her first novel was rejected by publishers, her second novel, Jane Eyre, was published in 1847 and remains a seminal text of English literature. It remains a hugely popular and often studied text today. Her use of first-person narrative and exploration of private consciousness revolutionised the form of the prose novel, and the legacy of her influence remains clear across modern literature today. The story of a young orphan and her journey to adulthood and romance with Mr Rochester is one of the best-known and most adapted texts of English literature, especially in film. With the dawn of postcolonial criticism, the novel continued to provoke new interpretations and discussions, most famously in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the tragic life of Rochester’s first wife.
Like her sisters, Charlotte Brontë also wrote poetry, although her novels are best known. Her first novel, The Professor, despite being rejected in her lifetime, was published posthumously. Her other novels, Shirley and Villette, are still well known today. Despite being the eldest, Charlotte outlived all of her siblings, dying at thirty-eight. She remains hugely popular, the best-known writer of her siblings, and her legacy remains evident throughout English literature.
Emily Brontë was born in July 1818 and is the second oldest of the sisters. She clearly didn’t suffer middle child syndrome and equalled her sisters with becoming one of the greatest English novelists of her time. Like her sisters, she did not marry and died 19 December 1848.
What makes Emily Brontë a classic author? Most notably, her remarkable work: Wuthering Heights. This is her only novel, which showcases just how profound and talented she was; it still achieves newfound admiration generations later, proving you don’t need an array of books to become acclaimed in literary circles. Her substantial novel is sufficient and deservingly provides Emily with her classic title. It was initially published under her pseudonym “Ellis Bell” in 1847 and received mixed reviews. The powerfully challenging storyline captured critics’ attention from the very start and is still a well-discussed novel today. The classic piece of literature is now studied across higher education, reinforcing Emily Brontë’s success.
Not only was she a novelist but also a poet. It is said that she wrote nearly 200 poems, with twenty-one surviving in the Brontë Sisters Poems volume (1846). Undoubtedly, these are examples of Emily Brontë’s strongest works with her imagination, creativity and exploration of Romanticism. She boldly challenged thoughts of the time, changing the minds of her readers. Emily Brontë without a doubt remains one of the most influential and greatest English novelists.