What the Bronte sisters read

Bronte_Parsonage_MuseumYou’ve probably heard of the Brontes, Charlotte, Emily, and Ann, sisters who were brought up in a remote parsonage on the English moor in Yorkshire and were responsible for several great gothic novels, including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey.  My adult daughter was mentioning that she was re-reading Wuthering Heights and she felt a strong sympathy with the characters.  They seemed somehow familiar to her.

“Well you know the Bronte sisters, of whom Emily was one, were like you in a couple of ways. They were home schooled, and they didn’t have a lot of social life.  They became very close,” I said. I remembered this from my undergraduate English Literature before 1865 course.  I hadn’t read a biography, except the two page one in the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

She was interested.  Though she was on her second reading of the novel, she had not read a biography either.  “Hmm.”

“And I think they felt socially isolated, you know, there was a story of how they were just in the house by themselves and they read and made up plays and created their own imaginary world. And went for long walks on the moor.”

“Yes, in Wuthering Heights Cathy is always going out on the moor.  Honestly, Mom, I think the moor in that book is rather an evil place … every time she goes out there, something seems to happen.”

“Well, that’s gothic for you, brooding, dark.”

“Yeah, that describes it,” she said.

This made me go down to the used book shop and look for Wuthering Heights.  But before I started that, I was lured by another book, Charlotte Bronte: A fiery heart by Claire Harman. This new (2016) biography was just what I wanted to read about to learn more about the childhood that created these famous writers.  Were they really home schoolers?  And what exactly was it that happened at the parsonage in Yorkshire in the early 19th century?

As I read I was re-acquainted with the nightmare privations of a charity girls school attended by the four oldest girls in the family and reprised by Emily Bronte in Jane Eyre.(after attending, the oldest, Maria, and the second, Elizabeth, died of tuberculosis).  After such a tragedy, the children’s father (of four remaining children, there having originally been five girls and a son, and their mother having died as well) asked his sister-in-law to come and help raise the girls.  It was she who oversaw the schooling they received, which included reading and writing, and housekeeping tasks such as needlework and making of clothes, and French, although only the son, Branwell, received education in Latin and Greek from his father. This brooding and domineering father was part of the situation indeed, and though he provided a literary environment, it cannot be said for from the first three chapters of Harman’s text that the children received much paternal warmth.

The books they are known to have been familiar with, according to Harman, include:

Aesop’s Fables

Tales of the Genii

The Arabian Nights

The Pilgrim’s Progress

Gulliver’s Travels

The Bible

Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets

The Seasons by James Thompson

The History of Rome by Oliver Goldsmith

Grammar of General Geography by Rev. J Goldsmith

and the History of English by David Hume.

Also there were editions of Shakespeare, Cowper, Southey and anthologies of contemporary poetry. In addition the children read from their father’s periodicals, which included Blackwood’s magazine, and The Leeds Intelligencer .

One detail that Harman includes in her book is that the creativity of the Bronte children was engaged because as Charlotte described in a recollection, they were bored.  There was little to do but read, create plays, and go for long walks on the moors.  This, even more than the list of books, engaged my curiousity. Of course, effective as their education may have been for creating great novels, it’s impossible to wish on your children a childhood as dark as the Bronte’s appears to have been.  And in the end, I have to say that while my own children spent much of their time alone together in the house, and read from a set of classical and contemporary books, the analogies with the Brontes are incomplete, to say the least.  The entire gothic angle is missing.


One thought on “What the Bronte sisters read”

  1. Reading about lives that are so vastly different than my own always makes me think: How would I have survived? How did some individuals thrive?

    I recently watched BBC’s The Victorian Slum House series on PBS. I have also seen The Colonial House and The 1940s House. Without dismissing any of the real hardships and injustices of these historical periods, the overriding experience of all the participants actually living these recreations is that they come to appreciate the simple things in life: community, family, imagination, nature, creativity, and contemplation. Perhaps not bad trade offs for our banal creature comforts…

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