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The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne

The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne

2.7 3
by Catherine Reef

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The Brontë sisters are among the most beloved writers of all time, best known for their classic nineteenth-century novels Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and Agnes Grey (Anne). In this sometimes heartbreaking young adult biography, Catherine Reef explores the turbulent lives of these literary siblings and the oppressive


The Brontë sisters are among the most beloved writers of all time, best known for their classic nineteenth-century novels Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and Agnes Grey (Anne). In this sometimes heartbreaking young adult biography, Catherine Reef explores the turbulent lives of these literary siblings and the oppressive times in which they lived. Brontë fans will also revel in the insights into their favorite novels, the plethora of poetry, and the outstanding collection of more than sixty black-and-white archival images. A powerful testimony to the life of the mind. (Endnotes, bibliography, index.)

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
This beautifully written and researched account offers plenty to interest prosy girls who aren't quite ready for Plath.
—Pamela Paul
Publishers Weekly
Reef (Jane Austen: A Life Revealed) offers a detail-rich look at the lives of the Brontë sisters, whose works shocked, entertained, and provoked the minds of their Victorian audiences. This chronological account is three biographies rolled into one, reflecting the sisters’ intertwined lives. In a matter-of-fact yet conversational style, Reef anchors their stories in the historical context of industrial 19th-century England. Names and dates are many, but the narrative also quotes from the Brontës’ poems and letters, as well as those of others (a friend of their brother, Branwell, who died an alcoholic, reflected, “That Rector of Haworth little knew how to bring up and bring out his clever family.... So the girls worked their own way to fame and death, the boy to death only!”). Archival b&w images punctuate the 10 chapters, several of which are devoted to plot summaries of the sisters’ novels. Like the characters in their books, the Brontës were ahead of their time in resisting the constraints placed on women of their era. A comprehensive introduction to the authors behind some of the most-studied novels in English literature. Ages 10–14. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"Romance and heartache and doom, oh my! This beautifully written and researched account . . .  reads like a novel, with rich and evocative language."
The New York Times Book Review

"For readers discovering the wonder of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, this collective biography of the Brontë family fills in fascinating detail of their personal and public lives . . . [a] stirring biography."
Booklist, starred review 

"Gracefully plotted, carefully researched . . . A solid and captivating look at these remarkable pioneers of modern fiction."
Kirkus, starred review

"A detail-rich look at the lives of the Brontë sisters, whose work shocked, entertained, and provoked the minds of their Victorian audiences. . . . . A comprehensive introduction to the authors behind some of the most-studied novels in English literature."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"For anyone who has ever loved the romantic yet melancholy Heathcliff or the determined Jane Eyre, this book belongs on your shelf."
The Huffington Post

"This biography for middle-schoolers introduces a fascinating, close-knit family with lively imaginations who liked nothing better than to run free on the moors that surrounded their home and make up stories and poems about imaginary kingdoms."
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

"If you're in search of a readable, yet detailed, biography of the Bronte sisters, then look no further than Reef's account, an ideal supplement to any student's reading of the Bronte classics."


VOYA - Laura Panter
The Bronte sisters' extraordinary novels were influenced by tragic heartbreaks and lives of hardship. Raised by their aunt from an early age, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were the only sisters to reach adulthood. Their brother, Branwell, consumed by his vices, spiraled into addiction after repeated failed attempts to find success. The siblings spent their childhood writing diary pages and stories, which, in adulthood, turned to more serious writings of poetry and novelizations. The sisters used pseudonyms to publish a slim volume of poetry and their first novels Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, and Jane Eyre. These novels reached literary acclaim in the Victorian age as critics puzzled over whether the authors were male or female. When Emily and Anne were felled by tuberculosis, Charlotte became the most notable author of the Brontes, but still refused to acknowledge her true author identity. Instead she poured her grief and depression into more writing. Reef strives to elicit an interesting biographical account of the Bronte family for fans of the Bronte sisters' novels. The biography is easy to read, although summaries of the Brontes' works hinder the writing. Readers of the classics will already have knowledge of these novels so plot summaries do not add depth to this biography. The book emphasizes the difficulty the sisters had in acclimating to life outside Haworth and in forming relationships with others. This provides an explanation as to why the Brontes wrote novels that were so different from society women. This biography is a decent purchase for school and public library collections where Bronte novels are part of the school curriculum. Reviewer: Laura Panter
Children's Literature - Mary Quattlebaum
Winter holidays, with their chill breezes and skeletal trees, call for holing up with an atmospheric novel, perhaps Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, or the viewing of a DVD based on one. Who were the 19th century women who wrote such spine-tingly fare? Award-winning author Catherine Reef tells their true tale in her Bronte biography subtitled "The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne." With a novelist's eye for detail and a journalist's for accuracy, Reef brings to vivid life the three sisters' motherless home in Haworth, in northern England. This "dirty village of weavers' cottages," the surrounding bleak moors and the childhood plays and tiny books they created with their siblings fueled the rich imaginings of their adult literary oeuvre. A stylish writer, Reef puts the Brontes' work in the social context of the times and examines the girls' dynamics and influences on one another. The trove of period illustrations and movie stills provides a resonant sense of the young authors and their characters. Reviewer: Mary Quattlebaum
Children's Literature - Paula McMillen
When Maria Branwell Bronte died in September of 1821, she is reported to have said, "Oh God, my poor children!" And well she might, for her six children, ranging in age from a few months to six years old, were left in the care of a not particularly paternal clergyman father and an unmarried aunt to grow up in a desperately poor village on the moors of northern England. Aunt Branwell taught the girls to sew when they were of age and Patrick Bronte schooled his only son, Branwell, in Latin and Greek. But the children escaped the parsonage at every opportunity to create their own imaginary worlds upon the moors, developing vigorous imaginations and a passionate love of nature. In 1824, father sent the four oldest girls to a charity school for poor clergyman's daughters; this turned out to be not only an emotionally and physically abusive situation, but deadly as well. Less than a year later, first the oldest daughter Maria—aged 11—and then the next oldest, Elizabeth—aged 10—were sent home with consumption and soon died. Bronte brought Charlotte and Emily home. Life was never easy for them as young women; they tried their hands at being teachers and governesses but they did not like children and did not really want to work. They wanted to be writers. They continued to send away poems and then novels to a string of publishers, quickly finding that they would get more consideration if they posed as men rather than women. Thus Acton (aka Anne), Currer (aka Charlotte), and Ellis (aka Emily) Bell finally had a book of poems published in 1846 and additional poetry collections and groundbreaking novels followed. They did not live long enough to enjoy literary success, however, for Emily died in 1848 and Anne in 1849. Their brother Branwell also died at this time and Charlotte was left alone with her father and stopped writing. She finally married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854, but died less than a year later. The critical reviews of their work at the time were decidedly mixed; it was still very difficult for women to be authors, and even those who were successful still struggled. This is a sympathetic, well-written and well-documented account of these women's lives and would provide a valuable addition to any school or public library desiring biographical material on these eminent Victorian authors. Reviewer: Paula McMillen, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
Gr 8–11—A solid, well-researched biography of the three sisters who wove astonishing fiction out of circumscribed lives while their feckless brother destroyed himself with opium and alcohol. Reef's research is evident in the extensive bibliography; quotations are nicely woven into the text and used as chapter headings. But the author presumes readers' familiarity and interest. She opens the chronological narrative with the family's arrival at Haworth, an isolated parsonage in a small village on the desolate moors in the north of England. The deaths begin almost immediately, first their mother, and then two sisters, malnourished and ill-treated at school and wasting away from tuberculosis. This may be enough to draw some teens into the girls' lives; others, not already acquainted with Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, might need a clearer reason for reading on as the Brontës immerse themselves in imaginary worlds and fail, time and time again, in the real one in their short adulthoods. Eventually, the author provides extensive plot summaries of their works, pointing out where their art made use of their unhappy experiences. Black-and-white illustrations include stills from movies, portraits of family members (done by the subjects), and other images from the time. Libraries already owning Karen Smith Kenyon's shorter The Brontë Family (Lerner, 2002) might not need this title, but fans will appreciate the additional detail.—Kathleen Isaacs, Children's Literature Specialist, Pasadena, MD
Kirkus Reviews
The wild freedom of the imagination and the heart, and the tragedy of lives ended just as success is within view--such a powerful story is that of the Brontë children. Reef's gracefully plotted, carefully researched account focuses on Charlotte, whose correspondence with friends, longer life and more extensive experience outside the narrow milieu of Haworth, including her acquaintance with the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who became her biographer, revealed more of her personality. She describes the Brontë children's early losses of their mother and then their two oldest siblings, conveying the imaginative, verbally rich life of children who are essentially orphaned but share both the wild countryside and the gifts of story. Brother Branwell's tragic struggle with alcohol and opium is seen as if offstage, wounding to his sisters and his father but sad principally because he never found a way to use literature to save himself. Reef looks at the 19th-century context for women writers and the reasons that the sisters chose to publish only under pseudonyms--and includes a wonderful description of the encounter in which Anne and Charlotte revealed their identities to Charlotte's publisher. She also includes brief, no-major-spoilers summaries of the sisters' novels, inviting readers to connect the dots and to understand how real-life experience was transformed into fiction. A solid and captivating look at these remarkable pioneers of modern fiction. (notes and a comprehensive bibliography) (Biography. 12-16)

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

"Oh God, My Poor Children!"

The cobbled road clung to the steep hill as if holding on for dear life. Its paving stones had been set on end, forming a series of little ledges. The nervous horses felt for these rocky shelves to gain a footing; they feared slipping down as they hauled their heavy load.
   It was April 1820, and a new clergyman was coming to Haworth. The Reverend Patrick Brontë surveyed the scene. He told his wife and children that they were all strangers in a strange land.
   Life was easy for no one in Haworth—not for horses, and not for people. Haworth, in northern England, was a dirty village of weavers’ cottages, where death came early. The soured earth barely fed some stunted bushes that struggled to stay alive. Few trees grew in this bleak place, where a sad wind constantly blew.
   Beyond Haworth stretched miles and miles of moorland, that bare, hilly country of rough grass, moss, and bracken. The Brontë children would learn to love this strange, wild land.
   There were six children when the family moved into the parsonage at the top of the hill. Six-year-old Maria helped care for the younger ones, because their mother was ailing. Mrs. Brontë had yet to recover from the birth of baby Anne, four months earlier, on January 17. The second child, Elizabeth, was five, and Charlotte, born on April 21, 1816, was turning four. Patrick Branwell (called Branwell) was not yet three, and Emily Jane, born on July 30, 1818, would be two in summer.
   The children played quietly in an upstairs room while their mother, Maria Branwell Brontë, wasted away. The nature of her ailment remains unclear. She might have had cancer, or she might have acquired a lingering infection after Anne’s birth. Antibiotics belonged to the future, so infections in the 1800s were often deadly. Her unmarried sister, Elizabeth Branwell, journeyed to Haworth from Cornwall, in the southwest, to nurse the sick woman.
   The children turned to "Aunt" if they needed attention or care. They knew better than to bother their father in his study, where he wrote sermons and poems that taught moral lessons. In one poem, he revealed the dreary thoughts that ran through his head on a winter night.

Where Sin abounds Religion dies,
And Virtue seeks her native skies;
Chaste Conscience, hides for very shame,
And Honour’s but an empty name.
Then, like a flood, with fearful din,
A gloomy host, comes pouring in.

   This tall, redheaded clergyman was born Patrick Brunty in what is now Northern Ireland. His father was a farm laborer who could barely read, but Patrick wanted more from life. So he read books, taught school at sixteen, and caught the notice of an influential minister. This man saw that with an education, Patrick might become a fine clergyman, so he sent him to college in Cambridge, England. It was rare for an Irishman, especially one with such humble roots, to attend college in nineteenth-century Britain, but Patrick was uncommonly bright and ambitious. He distanced himself from his home and family even more when he changed his surname to Brontë, which sounded like the Greek word for thunder. He earned a degree in theology and was ordained a minister in 1806. He married Maria Branwell from Cornwall in 1812 and made England his home, returning to Ireland just once.
   On September 15, 1821, Maria Branwell Brontë uttered her dying words: "Oh God, my poor children!" She became the first Brontë laid to rest under the stone slabs of Haworth’s church. "I was left quite alone," her grieving husband wrote, "unless you suppose my six little children and the nurse and servants to have been company." His words implied that he did not. Hoping to marry again, he proposed to three women, one after another, but they all turned him down. None wanted a husband with a small income and a large family. Patrick Brontë remained single, and Elizabeth Branwell stayed on to oversee her late sister’s household.
   Somber Aunt Branwell dressed in black. Like other country women, Aunt Branwell walked in pattens, or platforms of wood or metal strapped to her shoes. Most women wore their pattens outdoors, to raise their skirts above the mud and dirt, but Aunt wore hers in the house to keep her feet off the cold stone floors. There were few carpets in the parsonage, and no curtains hung on the windows, because the Reverend Brontë had a great fear of fire. He kept a pail of water on the staircase landing to be ready to douse a flame in a moment.
   Aunt Branwell taught the girls to sew while the Reverend Brontë took charge of Branwell’s education. The clergyman had high hopes for his only son. He schooled Branwell in Latin and classical Greek, the subjects that formed the basis of a boy’s education. Branwell and his sisters read three daily newspapers and their father’s copies of Blackwood’s Magazine. Blackwood’s printed tales of country life, adventure, and ghosts. Charlotte was thrilled to read stories about Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington. This great military leader had led the English forces in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium. England and its allies defeated Napoleon in this historic confrontation, ending decades of armed conflict between the English and French.
   The children escaped from the parsonage whenever they could to ramble on the moor. In winter they clambered over hills of snow, and in warmer months they ran through banks of brown and purple heather. They learned the calls of grouse, swallows, and golden plovers, and at a favorite spot they plunged their hands into a cold, clear stream to fish for tadpoles. Anne and Emily named this place "The Meeting of the Waters," after a lyric that Anne loved by Thomas Moore, an Irish poet and songwriter.
   Childhood felt as vast as the moor, but the youngsters’ father saw its boundary. Patrick Brontë looked ahead to a time when his daughters might need to make their way in the world. Women with money enjoyed an advantage in the marriage market, and the Brontë girls had none. Like other fathers of his time, Patrick hoped to see his daughters marry, but he wanted to equip them for life in case they stayed single. The only profession open to respectable single women was teaching, so in July 1824, he sent the two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, northwest of Haworth, to be suitably prepared. Charlotte joined them in August, and Emily followed in November. Someone wrote in the school’s register book that Charlotte, age eight, was "altogether clever of her age." Emily, at six, "read prettily." But at Cowan Bridge, the Brontë girls soon learned lessons that were far different from the ones they expected.
   Founded as a charity institution for the daughters of poor ministers, the school at Cowan Bridge was a place of suffering and abuse. The school’s founder, the Reverend William Carus Wilson, saw sin wherever he looked, even in the faces of children. "Sin, like a full-blown weed, lies all before us, ready for the knife," he wrote. "In childhood, the seeds of inbred corruption spring up like luxuriant vegetation." Carus Wilson believed that the girls in his care would grow up to be sinners unless he intervened. As women, they would tempt men to do evil unless he set them on the right path. He employed cruel methods to teach Christian humility and stifle the students’ emerging sexuality. The girls’ hair symbolized beauty, so the school’s staff cut it short. They kept the damp building cold in winter and fed the pupils small meals of burned porridge, stale bread, and rancid meat that turned even the emptiest stomach.
   Any girl who was untidy had to wear a badge of public shame. This proved to be a big problem for Maria Brontë, who never could keep her nails clean or wash her face properly in the few drops of icy water she was given. Because of this shortcoming, a sadistic schoolmistress named Miss Andrews singled her out for punishment. Charlotte never forgot the day when Miss Andrews sent Maria to fetch a bundle of sticks. As Charlotte and the other girls looked on, she ordered the child to loosen the pinafore that covered her thin body. She then whipped Maria fiercely across the back of the neck with one of the sticks.
   It soon became clear that Maria was sick, but at Cowan Bridge, illness was no reason for pampering the body. One morning, Miss Andrews yanked the suffering girl from her bed, flung her to the middle of the dormitory, and scolded her for being dirty. Moving slowly and weakly, Maria got dressed, only to have Miss Andrews punish her for tardiness.
   Her sister’s mistreatment made Charlotte furious, but she had no power to stop it. Maria, however, believed it was her Christian duty to submit. "God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward," she told Charlotte. "Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness?"
   Before long, she passed through that entrance. In February 1825, the school’s managers sent Maria home with an advanced case of the "graveyard cough": tuberculosis. This fearsome disease usually attacked the lungs, but it could spread to other organs as well. It was passed along when an infected person sneezed or coughed and sent tiny droplets into the air for someone else to inhale. People who contracted tuberculosis wasted away and died. They coughed up blood and soaked their bedding in perspiration. They ran a fever and exhausted themselves gasping for breath. They lost so much weight that the illness seemed to be eating up their bodies. This is why tuberculosis had another name: consumption. It was a relentless disease that would be blamed for a third of all deaths among English laborers in the 1830s.
   All her siblings grieved when the eleven-year-old died in May, but Branwell and Charlotte felt the loss profoundly. Seven-year-old Branwell pored over lines in Blackwood’s Magazine that mirrored his own sorrow:

Long, long, long ago, the time when we danced along, hand in hand with our golden-haired sister, whom all who looked on loved!—long, long, long ago, the day on which she died—the hour, so far more dismal than any hour that can now darken us on earth, when she—her coffin—and that velvet pall descended—and descended—slowly, slowly into the horrid clay, and we were borne deathlike, and wishing to die, out of the churchyard, that, from that moment, we thought we could enter never more!

   Branwell read this passage so many times that he could repeat it nearly word for word ten years later. As a teenager and young adult, Charlotte would tell her new friends about Maria’s mistreatment, illness, and death.
   Barely a month had passed since Maria’s burial when a carriage pulled up to the Haworth parsonage. A servant from Cowan Bridge was bringing Elizabeth home because she, too, had advanced tuberculosis. Seeing Elizabeth’s wasted condition, her frightened father removed Charlotte and Emily from the Clergy Daughters’ School immediately, possibly saving their lives. The change came too late for Elizabeth, though. She died in June, at age ten. The family grieved, and Aunt Branwell drew close to little Anne.
   The surviving girls continued their learning in the safety of home. Under their father’s direction, they memorized passages from the Bible and studied grammar, geography, and history. The Reverend Brontë offered them classics from the past, like Shakespeare’s plays and Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic poem on the story of Adam and Eve. His shelves also held works by the Romantic poets of his own time, writers like William Wordsworth and George Gordon, Lord Byron. These poets let nature ignite their imaginations, and they valued feeling over logic and reasoning. When the Romantic poets spoke, the Brontë girls understood. Children who had known so much loss felt comforted thinking of nature as a steadfast friend.
   "Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her," wrote Wordsworth, who lived in the scenic Lake District of northwest England:

tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
&From joy to joy. . . .

   The girls also enjoyed the verses of handsome Lord Byron, who died in 1824, having lived life to its fullest. He had traveled widely, had many love affairs, and fought in wars in Italy and Greece. In nature, he wrote, a person could "mingle with the Universe":

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar.

   None of the children loved nature more than tall, quiet, independent Emily. On the moor, with a dog at her side, she found greater beauty and freedom than the others could see or feel. For Emily alone, "Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath," Charlotte said. "She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights." At home, Emily felt drawn to the kitchen, where she helped Tabby Aykroyd, the paid housekeeper, cook meals and bake bread.
   Some of Lord Byron’s poems told stories of moody, brooding young men, characters like the world-weary Childe Harold, who travels in foreign lands. Misunderstood, these figures live in exile from their homes, sometimes growing cynical and self-destructive. These Byronic heroes appealed to Branwell, who liked to imagine himself as a long-suffering outcast.
   Diligent Charlotte was often reading, but she held books close to her face to aid her weak eyes. Charlotte was small for her age and had brown hair, like her sisters. A large forehead and a crooked mouth made her plain rather than pretty. Smart but not a showoff, Charlotte said "very little about herself" and was "averse from making any display of what she knew," her father noted. A passionate heart beat in Charlotte’s chest, but she kept that hidden, too. She wanted to be a writer.
   Tender Anne, the youngest, was Aunt Branwell’s darling. She was petite like Charlotte and the only one with curls. She was a delicate child who suffered from asthma. As an adult, Anne described herself in childhood, in a poem titled "Self-Communion":

I see, far back, a helpless child,
Feeble and full of causeless fears,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
More timid than the wild wood-dove
Yet trusting to another’s care,
And finding in protecting love
Its only refuge from despair.

Meet the Author

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including many highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

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The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
And who ever read agnes?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The btonte sisters are realy good writers i like them
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hate this book