Hazel McHaffie

The Bronte sisters

As most people know, writers and journalists are keen on anniversaries. Gives them a hinge, a focus. So you won’t be surprised by this blog post. It’s 170 years ago, in 1846, that three of the best known and best loved books in the English language were written and published by three sisters. 200 years since the eldest, Charlotte Brontë, was born. Charlotte is one of my all time favourite writers so I absolutely couldn’t overlook this date.

Charlotte Bronte books The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – were all shy, frail girls living in an age of high child mortality (40% died before the age of 6; average age at death 25/26), in a vicarage overlooking a cemetery where they would probably have witnessed anything up to eight funerals a day. Life was cheap. Their two older sisters both died early from TB whilst still schoolgirls. Their dissolute only brother died of illnesses relating to his alcoholism.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne too all died in their late twenties or thirties. In their short lives they experienced much hardship, thought to have inspired their writing, and certainly there are elements of boarding school tyranny, suppression and harassment of governesses by their charges and employers, threats of the occult and harsh religious condemnation, isolation on bleak moorland, unrequited love, as well as the necessity to earn a living when there were no male relatives to protect them from poverty. It’s a tribute to their strength of character that they could rise above these harsh and potentially crushing circumstances and be awe-inspiringly creative.

Jane EyreJane Eyre is probably the first novel that made a profound impression on me and one of the few I’ve read several times. You can see how faded and ancient my copy is now, but it remains a firm favourite. I’ve even watched several different screen adaptations of the story – something that can easily ruin a book for me. It blows my mind to think that it was penned at a dining room table while Anne and Emily scribbled their stories at the same time on the same table; that it was written with a quill pen; that it was a response to rejection of an earlier manuscript – The Professor (another early favourite). Charlotte is described as a tiny frail creature, but what she lacked in stature she more than made up for in her personality and character. She was the driving force behind all three sisters (as the Bell brothers) submitting their writing for publication. They had always written stories and poems for their private amusement; now it was out of necessity.

Pause for a moment. Imagine. Jane Eyre Agnes Grey Wuthering Heights … all coming out within a few months during that year. All written by unknown young women. Laboriously, by hand. The result? Amazing success for all three. But sadly and unjustly little fame for their authors during their lifetime.

Since then, of course, all have become beloved and timeless classics. Who hasn’t heard the name Brontë? Who hasn’t read at least one of their books? What a record. What an achievement.

In 2016, surrounded by ease and plenty, shut away peacefully in a room dedicated to writing, with gadgets and ready communication at my fingertips, no necessity driving me to write … I salute them all. And feel truly humbled in their presence.

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