HALLOWEEN 2017: VERONICA LEIGH
Emily was in an uproar. Known for her volatile temper, she was furious when her older sister Charlotte discovered her private poetry and dared to read it. Her younger sister Anne offered some of her own poetry to read, to keep the peace, which led to a wild suggestion. They could try to publish their work together in a volume, to see if they could turn a profit. They needed money; they needed to find some way to provide for themselves.
Their father was the curate of the small village of Haworth and they could live in the parsonage for as long as he was alive. However, he was now in his seventies and he was going blind. Charlotte, Emily and Anne were educated and trained to be governesses, but they found little success and were all living at home for the time being. Their brother Branwell, who they all had such high hopes for, couldn’t hold down a job and was often ill—from the effects of alcohol and opium. The Brontë sisters were desperate and selling their compositions seemed to be their only option.
They were brokenhearted when their volume of poetry, published under pseudonyms, sold only two copies. But when reviews praised their literary attempts, it encouraged them to try another venture. This time they would each write a work of fiction. For years the Brontë siblings created worlds and wrote stories for their own amusement—when Branwell had been in better health, his own poetry had appeared in print. The Brontë sisters turned to what they knew best for inspiration: the untamed moors, ghosts, lunatics in attics, debauchery, mysterious strangers…
When Emily had worked at a school as a teacher, she had heard the tale of a man taken in by his uncle who became his uncle’s favorite, then was later turned out by a bitter cousin. From then on, his life’s ambition was to humiliate that family. Combined with elements from the stories of her make-believe world and the lore of the moors, Emily penned Wuthering Heights. A macabre tale of passion and revenge, the novel reflected Emily’s own unique personality. What we now consider classic literature initially disturbed audiences and critics alike. None of that seemed to matter to Emily though; she had ideas for a second novel and no one would deter her.
Charlotte wrote a novel inspired by her time spent in Brussels, but after every publisher she submitted it to rejected it, she wrote something else. Jane Eyre was the product of her efforts; the Byronic hero had much in common with a married professor she loved and the plain heroine was a governess like she had been. Thornfield, the hero’s home, is a shadowy place and there seems to be dark entity lurking around every corner. Charlotte used the “mad wife in the attic” element, borrowing not only from popular gothic fiction of the day, but from a story she had heard of a mad woman kept in the attic by her husband, rather than sent off to a sanitarium. A publisher accepted Jane Eyre, and it became an overnight success.
Anne wrote a story entitled Agnes Grey inspired by her experiences as a governess. A straight forward and honest book, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre outshone it and it only received modest success. For her second book, Anne tackled a topic most of society and even her family frowned upon, also inspired by a true incident. A woman had come to her father for advice; her husband was abusive and drank constantly, and Patrick Brontë encouraged his parishioner to leave her husband. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall features a heroine who marries a blackguard, but rather than reform him, he mistreats her and their son. Helen takes her son and goes into hiding to protect him from his father’s influence. They settle in an abandoned gothic ruin, and she gets a second chance at love. Although she scandalized her contemporaries and was not appreciated in the 19th century, Anne has recently had a surge in popularity and modern readers consider her the most feministic of all the Brontës.
The Brontës—the Bells, as the literary world knew them—each had the beginnings of a brilliant career. But when their brother Branwell died of consumption, a darkness far darker than what they had written about in their books hung over the family. At his funeral, Emily caught a chill, and it wasn’t long before she too fell ill. She fought to live but died three months later. Charlotte felt devastated when Anne came down with a cough and they lost her the following spring. Charlotte outlived her siblings by five years and published two other books. She also found a little happiness when she married her father’s curate. Expecting a baby and drained by morning sickness, she too died before her time.
The Brontë spirit lives on through their works, and the Gothic elements they used in their stories. You cannot think of the moors or a lunatic in the attic without thinking of the Brontë sisters. Perhaps their spirits continue to wander the moors; they seemed most at home there.