The Brontes-Literary Ambitions-Part 1

Branwell had already had poetry published in magazines, and he now decided to write a novel. He realised there was no money to be made in poetry, though it was widely seen as a higher form of literature. The girls, my contrast, gathered together their poetry and decided to publish it themselves: self-publishing was quite common then, as it is again now, and authors were often deluded into expecting success. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Action Bellwas published on 6 May 1846, and sold just two copies. All three girls, but particularly Emily, wanted anonymity, partly because they felt that women’s writing was treated with condescension by reviewers and they wanted to judged by the same standard as men. Their pseudonyms were probably taken from the surnames of three intellectual women they admired, Frances Mary Richardson Currer, a Yorkshire philanthropist whom Charlotte may have met, Elizabeth Acton, now famous only for her excellent cookery book but also a poet whom Anne may have admired, and Sarah Stickney Ellis, who wrote about the education of women, and herself set up a school. As for ‘Bell”, it might have been from the educationist Dr. Andrew Bell – but I think it more likely the girls were simply inspired by the new peal of bells installed in Haworth church while they were preparing their book. (Tennyson’s poem ‘Ring out wild Bells’ was alas not written till 1850!) They had to admit that Branwell was right in thinking writing fiction was a better way of making money than self-publishing poetry, and promptly each started writing a novel.

The Brontes-The Teenage Years-Part 1

For the next five years there was no more schooling, other than that provided by Patrick and Aunt Branwell. The make-believe worlds became even more important, with Branwell and Charlotte immersed in ‘Glasstown’ and then ‘Angria’, and Emily and Anne in ‘Gondal’. In the course of their imaginings they produced a huge number of miniature books, in a tiny script based on print. Much of the content was highly derivative, based on their voracious reading of novels, poetry and periodicals such as Blackwell’s Magazine. These collaborative imaginative games continued even into their adult lives, especially in the case of Emily. It was simultaneously a strength and a weakness, the way in which they learned the writer’s craft but perhaps also a way of fending off reality. If as adults they ignored their neighbours while out walking, it was probably not because they were rude (though Charlotte was certainly a snob) but because they were totally engaged in another world, an imaginative world fuelled by authors we no longer read, such as Scott, Byron, ‘Monk’ Lewis and the German Romantic writers. Other people, in the ‘real’ world, simply did not exist. Gondal and Angria had the same kind of hold over them as computer worlds have on some teenagers today. They might even have been familiar with the avatar. Walter Scott described Napoleon escaping from St. Helena as ‘a third avatar of this singular emanation of the Evil Principle’.