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The Brontë sisters, painted by their brother Branwell, c. 1834. From left to right: Anne, Emily and Charlotte (there still remains a shadow of Branwell, which appeared after he painted himself out).

The Brontë sisters (pronounced /ˈbrɒnti/ or /ˈbrɒnteɪ/)[1], Charlotte (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855), Emily (30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848) and Anne (17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849), were English writers of the 1840s and 1850s. Their novels caused a sensation when they were first published and were subsequently accepted into the canon of great English literature.


Origin of name

The Brontë family can be traced to the Irish clan mac Aedh Ó Proinntigh, which literally means 'son of Aedh, grandson of Proinnteach'. Aedh is a male name derived from Aodh, meaning "fire".[2] "Proinnteach" ("the bestower") originated as a byname for a generous person. Literally meaning "banquet hall," the word is composed of the Irish proinn ("banquet") (a cognate of the Latin prandium ["meal"]) and teach ("house", "hall").[3]

Ó Proinntigh was earlier anglicised as Prunty and sometimes Brunty. At some point, the father of the sisters, Patrick Brontë (born Brunty), conceived of the alternate spelling with the diaeresis over the terminal "e" to indicate that the name has two syllables. It is not known for certain what motivated him to do so, and multiple theories exist to account for the change. He may have wished to hide his humble origins. As a man of letters, he would have been familiar with classical Greek and may have chosen the name after the cyclops Brontes (literally 'thunder').

Unrelated Bronte families are found in Sicily. The name indicates their origin from the town of Bronte.[4] In 1799 King Ferdinand IV of Naples bestowed the honour of Duke of Bronte to Lord Nelson for fighting off the French Navy.

Three sisters emerge

The sisters grew up in Haworth, near Keighley in West Yorkshire (the region has come to be known as Brontë Country), surviving their mother and two elder sisters into adulthood. In 1824 the four eldest Brontë daughters were enrolled as pupils at the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge. The following year Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest daughters, became ill, left the school and died; Charlotte and Emily were brought home.

Branwell Brontë, self portrait, 1840

Of the four Brontë siblings who survived into adulthood, Branwell Brontë seems to have been regarded within the family as the most talented, at least during his childhood and youth. While four of his five sisters were sent to Cowan Bridge boarding school (resulting in the death of his two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, from tuberculosis), Branwell was kept at home to be privately educated by his father, who gave him a classical education suitable for admission to Oxford or Cambridge.

The sisters had written compulsively from early childhood and were first published, at their own expense, in 1846 as poets under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The book attracted little attention, selling only two copies. The sisters returned to prose, producing a novel each in the following year. Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were released in 1847 after their long search to secure publishers.

The novels attracted great critical attention and steadily became best-sellers, but the sisters' careers were shortened by ill-health. Emily died the following year before she could complete another novel, and Anne published her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in 1848, a year before her death. Upon publication Jane Eyre received the most critical and commercial success of all the Brontë works, continuing to this day. Charlotte's Shirley appeared in 1849 and was followed by Villette in 1853. Her first novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857; her uncompleted fragment, Emma, was published in 1860; and some of her juvenile writings remained unpublished until the late twentieth century. Charlotte died at the age of 38 in 1855 after a short illness, possibly related to her pregnancy. She had married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, less than a year earlier.

The first biography of Charlotte was written by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell and published in 1857. It helped create the myth of a doomed family living in romantic solitude.


Various twentieth-century choreographic works have been based on the lives and interrelationships of the Brontë sisters, notably among them Martha Graham's Deaths and Entrances (1943), titled after the Dylan Thomas poem, as well as Gillian Lynne's The Brontës (1994).


  1. ^ Emily Brontë
  2. ^ Behind the Names
  3. ^ Dictionary of American Family Names, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-508137-4
  4. ^ "Bronte". Sicilian Surnames. 24 October 2007. 

Further reading

  • Alexander, Christine and Sellars, J. (1995) The Art of the Brontës, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-43248-0
  • Barker, Juliet (1995) The Brontës, London: Phoenix Press, ISBN 1-84212-587-7

External links



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