“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me”
It is October 1802. A 25 year old Irishman registers at St John’s College, Cambridge. Unable to understand his accent, the registrar records his nameas Patrick Branty. It is a few days later that Patrick notices the mistake, and corrects the spelling to Brontë…
By 1812 Patrick was a curate in West Yorkshire and in December of that year married Maria Branwell at Guiseley church. They went on to have six children, with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë born in 1816, 1818 and 1820 respectively.
Three months after Anne was born the family moved – “in a procession of seven carts and one covered wagon” – into the parsonage at Haworth, nine miles to the north west of Bradford.
Sadly, Maria was diagnosed with cancer less than a year later. She died in September 1821, leaving the children to be raised by ‘Aunt Branwell’.
Charlotte and Emily started school in 1824. As the years passed the three and their brother, Branwell, began to tell each other stories and weave fantasies. They created the worlds of Gondal and Angria: gradually literature and writing became the central point of their lives.
Not that anything would ever come of it, of course. As Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, wrote to Charlotte in 1837, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life; and it ought not to be.”
Undeterred, the Brontë sisters continued to write – albeit under their pseudonyms of Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. In 1846 Charlotte sent a volume of poems to Messrs Aylott and Jones, publishers. Despite favourable reviews, only two copies were sold.
The following year Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Ann's Agnes Grey were published – but it was not until the summer of 1848 that the sisters travelled to London and revealed their true identities.
But then tragedy struck. Emily died – aged just 30 – in December 1848. Anne died five months later at the age of 29.
Charlotte survived to marry her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in June 1854 – but less than a year later she too died.
In March 1857 the first book on the Brontës was published – Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. The Brontë Society was founded in 1893 and two years later – 75 years after the family moved there – the first Brontë Museum was opened above the Yorkshire Penny Bank in Haworth.
Today there are Brontë societies around the world. Everyone who loves literature knows of Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are regarded as classics and loved by generations of readers. They’re books that have been read and re-read; books that have become friends to millions of readers.
And with Cathy and Heathcliff, Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, the determined Helen Graham, the Brontë sisters have given us some of the most memorable characters ever to walk off the page.