Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), EMILY (1818-1848), and ANNE (1820-1849), English novelists, were three of the six children of Patrick Brontë, a clergyman of the Church of England, who for the last forty-one years of his life was perpetual incumbent of the parish of Haworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Patrick Brontë was born at Emsdale, Co. Down, Ireland, on the 17th of March 1777. His parents were of the peasant class, their original name of Brunty apparently having been changed by their son on his entry at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1802. In the intervening years he had been successively a weaver and schoolmaster in his native country. From Cambridge he became a curate, first at Wethersfield in Essex, in 1806, then for a few months at Wellington, Salop, in 1809. At the end of 1809 he accepted a curacy at Dewsbury, Yorkshire, following up this by one at Hartshead-cum-Clifton in the same county. At Hartshead Patrick Brontë married in 1812 Maria Branwell, a Cornishwoman, and there two children were born to him, Maria (1813-1825) and Elizabeth (1814-1825). Thence Patrick Brontë removed to Thornton, some 3 m. from Bradford, and here his wife gave birth to four children, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell (1817-1848), Emily Jane, and Anne, three of whom were to attain literary distinction.
In April 1820, three months after the birth of Anne Brontë, her father accepted the living of Haworth, a village near Keighley in Yorkshire, which will always be associated with the romantic story of the Brontës. In September of the following year his wife died. Maria Brontë lives for us in her daughter's biography only as the writer of certain letters to her "dear saucy Pat," as she calls her lover, and as the author of a recently published manuscript, an essay entitled The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns, full of a sententiousness much affected at the time.
Upon the death of Mrs Brontë her husband invited his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, to leave Penzance and to take up her residence with his family at Haworth. Miss Branwell accepted the trust and would seem to have watched over her nephew and five nieces with conscientious care. The two eldest of those nieces were not long in following their mother. Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily, were all sent to the Clergy Daughters' school at Cowan Bridge in 1824, and Maria and Elizabeth returned home in the following year to die. How far the bad food and drastic discipline were responsible cannot be accurately demonstrated. Charlotte gibbeted the school long years afterwards in Jane Eyre, under the thin disguise of "Lowood," and the principal, the Rev. William Carus Wilson (1792-1859), has been universally accepted as the counterpart of Mr Naomi Brocklehurst in the same novel. But congenital disease more probably accounts for the tragedy from which happily Charlotte and Emily escaped, both returning in 1825 to a prolonged home life at Haworth. Here the four surviving children amused themselves in intervals of study under their aunt's guidance with precocious literary aspirations. The many tiny booklets upon which they laboured in the succeeding years have been happily preserved.
We find stories, verses and essays, all in the minutest handwriting, none giving any indication of the genius which in the case of two of the four children was to add to the indisputably permanent in literature.
At sixteen years of age - in 1831 - Charlotte Brontë became a pupil at the school of Miss Margaret Wooler (1792-1885) at Roe Head, Dewsbury. She left in the following year to assist in the education of the younger sisters, bringing with her much additional proficiency in drawing, French and composition; she took with her also the devoted friendship of two out of her ten fellow-pupils - Mary Taylor (1817-1893) and Ellen Nussey (1817-1897). With Miss Taylor and Miss Nussey she corresponded for the remainder of her life, and her letters to the latter make up no small part of what has been revealed to us of her life story. Her next three years at Haworth were varied by occasional visits to one or other of these friends. In 1835 she returned to Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head as a governess, her sister Emily accompanying her as a pupil, but remaining only three months, and Anne then taking her place. The year following the school was removed to Dewsbury. In 1838 Charlotte went back to Haworth and soon afterwards received her first offer of marriage - from a clergyman, Henry Nussey, the brother of her friend Ellen. This was followed a little later by a second offer from a curate named Bryce. She refused both and took a situation as nursery governess, first with the Sidgwicks of Stonegappe, Yorkshire, and later with the Whites at Rawdon in the same county.
A few months of this, however, filled her with an ambition to try and secure greater independence as the possessor of a school of her own, and she planned to acquire more proficiency in "languages" on the continent, as a preliminary step. The aunt advanced some money, and accompanied by her sister Emily she became in February 1842 a pupil at the Pensionnat Héger, Brussels. Here both girls worked hard, and won the goodwill and indeed admiration of the principal teacher, M. Héger, whose wife was at the head of the establishment. But the two girls were hastily called back to England before the year had expired by the announcement of the critical illness of their aunt. Miss Branwell died on the 29th of October 1842. She bequeathed sufficient money to her nieces to enable them to reconsider their plan of life. Instead of a school at Bridlington which had been talked of, they could now remain with their father, utilize their aunt's room as a classroom, and take pupils. But Charlotte was not yet satisfied with what the few months on Belgian soil had done for her, and determined to accept M. Héger's offer that she should return to Brussels as a governess.