Charlotte Brontë's early years

1777-1812: Charlotte Brontë beginnings

Portrait of Patrick Brontë, father of Charlotte, Emily, Anne Patrick Brontë, Charlotte’s father, was born in 1777 in County Down, Ireland. The family name was then Brunty – Patrick changed it some years later, presumably because it would seem less Irish and more distinguished: Lord Nelson was the Duke of Brontë. Patrick’s father was a poor farmer and both he and his wife were barely literate. Although his mother was a Roman Catholic, his father was Protestant and young Patrick was brought up in his father’s faith. He learned to read and by his own efforts began to acquire some education until by the age of sixteen he was able to work as a school teacher.

With the assistance of the local vicar, Patrick won a place at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, where he financed himself with scholarships and prizes and by tutoring his fellow-students. After graduating, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England in 1807 and worked as a curate in various parishes. He proved to be a popular clergyman, with a natural understanding of and sympathy for the problems of the lower classes. (See Social / political context). In 1809, he moved to a parish in Dewsbury in Yorkshire, where he met Maria Branwell, who was visiting from her home in Penzance, Cornwall at the other end of the country. They married in 1812.

1812-21: The Brontë family

At the time of his marriage, Rev. Brontë was parish priest at Hartshead in Yorkshire and it was here that the first two children were born, Maria in 1813 and Elizabeth in 1815. In 1815, the family moved to Thornton where the remaining children were born: Charlotte in 1816; Patrick Branwell, the only son, in 1817; Emily in 1818; and Anne in 1820. In the same year, 1820, the family moved to Haworth.

It was a literary and intellectual household and the children were encouraged to read and take an interest in the world beyond the parsonage. It was also a pious household, influenced by the Methodism in which Maria Branwell had grown up. In 1821, Mrs. Brontë died of cancer, and Rev. Patrick was left alone with six children aged eight and under.

1821-24: Life at Haworth

To help care for the children, he was joined at Haworth by his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, known as Aunt Branwell. She was a strong-minded person with a well-developed sense of duty and deep religious beliefs. Some biographers believe that she imbued the children with a fear of Hell and with a Calvinist sense of predestination. There is little real evidence for this, but she certainly made her nephew and nieces aware of spiritual and religious matters. She also encouraged their reading and their interest in history and contemporary political affairs. As well as the books in their father’s library, the children read newspapers and journals, both local and national. The children helped their father with some parish work, so had direct experience of the poverty and suffering of the lower classes. They were also free to roam on the surrounding moors which sloped upwards behind the parsonage and which they loved and knew intimately.

Haworth and its setting

The image of the remote parsonage on the edge of the lonely moors is a powerful element in the Brontë myth and gives the impression that the growing children lived their lives out of sight of the profound social changes taking place in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is far from the truth.

Industrial Haworth

Haworth was an important centre for the woollen industry, with connections both to the sheep-rearing areas of Lancashire and North Yorkshire and to the manufacturing and trade centres of Halifax and Bradford. In the Halifax Wool Exchange, where wool was bought and sold, there was a separate room for the trading of wool from the mills and factories in the Haworth area. Both packhorse trails and a turnpike road ran through the village. Rev. Brontë ministered to a populous parish of 7000 people, 2000 of whom lived in the town and the remainder in the outlying area.

Health issues

One part of the Brontë myth that is largely true is that Haworth was a very unhealthy place:

  • Its location on the top of a hill meant that it had a poor water supply, which sometimes dried up in the summer
  • Drainage was also poor and an open sewer ran down the centre of the main street
  • Housing was inadequate and there was great overcrowding
  • The burial ground was also overcrowded and was a source of infection.

As a result of these problems Haworth was especially susceptible to various kinds of contagious diseases, such as typhus. In some years, its mortality rate matched that of the London slums and life expectancy was as low as 19.6 years. Such conditions were not uncommon in the nineteenth century but an 1850 enquiry found Haworth to be exceptionally unhealthy. It recommended, among other things, that no further burials should take place in the cemetery: in fact, they continued until 1861.

The Parsonage in the Brontës’ time

Photo of Brontë Parsonage by D S Pugh available through Creative Commons

Haworth Parsonage today is pleasantly furnished and laid out as a museum, but at the time the Brontës lived there it was much less comfortable:

  • Its situation was not ideal. The well for the parsonage was in the churchyard, later identified as a source of infection
  • It is possible that the house itself was built over an old burial place
  • The house was bleak and undecorated. There were no carpets or wallpaper until Charlotte became a successful writer
  • Rev. Brontë had such a fear of fire that he insisted that there should be no curtains on the windows
  • Few of the rooms would have been heated by a fire and certainly not the bedrooms.

The discomfort was in part deliberate, for Rev. Brontë wished the children to become tough and indifferent to luxury.

1824-25: Cowan Bridge School

Despite its discomforts, the children were happy at the Parsonage and enjoyed the intellectual, imaginative and physical freedom of their lives there. This came to an end in 1824, when first Maria and Elizabeth, then Charlotte and Emily, were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirby Lonsdale. Rev. Carus Wilson was in charge of the school and to some extent he was the model for Rev. Brocklehurst in Photo by Karl and Ali available through Creative CommonsJane Eyre. The description of Lowood School also derives from the sisters’ experience at Cowan Bridge. It was a very strict regime. Rev. Wilson believed in original sin and had a Calvinistic view of predestination, so that any misbehaviour (a term interpreted very widely at the school!) was seen as a lack of God’s grace in the girls concerned. (See also Charlotte Brontë and education and Charlotte Brontë and childhood). In 1825, Maria and Elizabeth fell ill at Cowan Bridge and returned to Haworth, only to die. Charlotte and Emily were then also removed from the school.

1825-31: home and the first writing

The surviving children became even closer to each other after the death of their older sisters and settled again at the Parsonage with their father, Aunt Branwell and the cook, Tabitha Ackroyd, who was with the family for over thirty years.

Reading and writing

They continued to read widely in books and periodicals, including writers such as George Byron, whom many would have regarded as unsuitable reading matter for young people, but whose heroes exercised a great influence on their imaginations. At about this time, they began to write stories of their own, based on their imaginative games. These were co-operative enterprises, involving all four of the children.

Angria and Gondal

By Thiedbold available through Creative CommonsIn June 1826, Rev. Brontë returned from a journey with four wooden soldiers as presents for each of the children. Both their games and their writings soon became focused on these soldiers, and they stitched together small books containing stories about these ‘Young Men’ as they were called. Out of these books there developed the sagas of Angria (mainly written by Branwell and Charlotte) and Gondal (Emily and Anne). These became highly elaborate and included both prose and poetry, using both real characters and situations, drawing on their knowledge of recent history, and fictional material, influenced by their reading. These co-operations continued until the siblings were in their twenties, and had some influence on what the sisters went on to write in their novels.

Further education

Towards the end of this period, Charlotte was again away from home for some months, as a pupil at Roe Head School, near Dewsbury. This came about because Rev. Brontë was ill and wanted to be sure that his children began to acquire the means of earning a living. It was a good school, with a more liberal and humane regime than at Cowan Bridge. During her time there, Charlotte learned how to survive away from home, and formed close non-family friendships, lasting for the rest of her life, with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.