Arts Feature: Do you know the Brontë Brothers?

Amelia unearths the secret past of the Brontë sisters and explores the difficulties female writers faced in the 19th century...

Unless you are a literature student specialising in the 19th-century gothic genre – you probably aren’t familiar with the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, no?

Try Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë… hopefully these ring a bell (pardon the pun). The sisters are responsible for some well-known novels such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. However, fans of these novels when they were published in the 1840’s would only have been familiar with the three male pseudonyms aforementioned. The sisters kept their initials when picking their aliases to keep their writing personal to them, for example, Acton Bell is Anne Brontë.

The Brontë sisters had an upbringing that was as bleak as the moors they explored in childhood. Charlotte, the eldest of the three, was only five when her mother died and nine when her two elder sisters succumbed to tuberculosis. An autobiography would probably have been more heart-wrenching, enthralling and addictive than any fictitious material that came from the girls, right?

“The Brontë sisters had an upbringing that was as bleak as the moors they explored in childhood.”

The reason for not using their birth names when writing the critically acclaimed novels or co-written poems is explained by Charlotte after the death of Emily and Anne (barely thirty when they too died from TB!) She explained: “We did not like to declare ourselves women, because we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

At this time, men wrote whatever genre and topic they liked for a universal audience, anyone that could read essentially. Whereas women were expected to write for an exclusively female audience about domestic affairs (such as cooking and sewing). Charlotte herself was told: “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.”

This does not mean that women were not contributing significant amounts of great literature during the 1800’s but were not as well known. Another Gothic authoress writing alongside the Brontës was Mary Shelley (The Modern Prometheus better known as Frankenstein) choosing to publish anonymously.

“Charlotte herself was told: “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.””

Any written source by women in history is invaluable, even the fictional kind can offer insight to the anxieties, pleasures, and expectations that they really experienced, not what their male counterparts documented about them.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” – Jane Eyre

Finally, the mothers of 19th-century literature paved the way for the masses of women who branched out into all kind of genres including modern day sci-fi, fantasy, erotica, and crime fiction.

Amelia Flanagan

To read more of Amelia’s writing check out her blog here.

Featured image courtesy of Housing Works Thrift Shops via Flickr.

Image use licence here.

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