The Brontë sisters are three of the most successful and beloved authors of all time. Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849) were born to Patrick and Maria Brontë in the small village of Thornton in West Yorkshire, England. In 1820, the sisters, along with their parents and siblings Maria, Elizabeth, and Patrick Branwell (more commonly known as Branwell), made the short move to the parsonage in the village of Haworth, which is famous today as The Brontë Parsonage Musuem and attracts thousands of visitors every year. As adults the sisters were responsible for literary classics including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, however, theirs was not an overnight success. Their literary apprenticeship actually began many years earlier in childhood with the creation of the Glass Town saga.
In June 1826, Branwell Brontë (1817-1848) was famously given a set of wooden toy soldiers by his father and it was this event which saw the birth of The Young Men’s Play. Each surviving Brontë sibling (Maria and Elizabeth both died in 1825) picked a soldier, naming them, and creating the characters that would become an integral part of their childhood stories and the later expansion of this world over the next decade (or two decades in Branwell’s case). Charlotte chose her political hero, the Duke of Wellington; Branwell chose a character who was the antagonist of Charlotte’s hero both on and off the page, Naopoleon Bonaparte; Emily and Anne chose Gravey and Waiting Boy, who would eventually evolve into the famous explorers, Parry and Ross. These soldiers, known as The Twelves, made their way into the Brontës’ earliest writings and eventually became the centre of their imaginary world of Glass Town.
Both Charlotte and Branwell recorded this event in their famous tiny books which were greatly influenced by the Brontës’ favourite 19th century periodicals including Fraser’s Magazine and Blackwood’s Magazine. Their childhood play developed into plays, and their plays developed into narratives where the siblings were free to experiment with the writing, editing, and production of texts. Charlotte and Branwell took the lead as the oldest and only boy respectively, and consequently the characters of Anne and Emily took a backseat to the likes of Wellington, Bonaparte, Rogue, Lord Charles, and Douro. Anne and Emily broke away to create their own narratives set in the world of Gondal in 1831. Unfortunately, most of these writings have been lost over time; there are no extant prose pieces, although some of the sisters’ poetry remains in addition to a handful of vague references to Gondal and incomplete character lists in Anne and Emily’s diary papers. However, from the surviving literature we do know that Gondal was much more like England, and more specifically, like Yorkshire, than the lavish African Glass Town narratives which featured luxury, elegance, and high society life.
Charlotte and Branwell continued to enjoy a close creative collaboration throughout their adolescence, even when Charlotte was away at school. 1833-34 proved to be a turning point for the juvenilia as the siblings moved more firmly away from the childish supernatural elements of the early works (Charlotte used the Chief Genii for the final time in The Foundling), introduced new characters who would become central to the saga (Mary Percy), re-developed existing ones who would dominate the later tales (Douro became Zamorna, Rogue became Percy/Northangerland/Elrington), and said farewell to those who were no longer useful (Marian Hume). This period also gave rise to the shift in focus from Glass Town to the Kingdom of Angria, the principal setting for the later juvenilia, which was created by the Verdopolitan Parliament in 1834 as a reward for Zamorna’s success in the War of Encroachment against the native Ashantees.
Charlotte continued to write her Angrian tales until 1839 when at the age of twenty three she attempted to turn her back on her childhood world. Her final completed narrative is the novelette, Caroline Vernon, but the fragment now known as Farewell to Angria (1839) is her final Angrian text. However, Charlotte followed this with the unfinished novel, Ashworth, which is not set in Angria but has strong links to her earlier works, proving that it was never far from her mind. Even her adult novel, The Professor retains some names and characteristics of her juvenilia. Branwell continued to write his own poetry and prose based on the Angrian saga and characters, including an unfinished novel entitled and the weary are at rest until his death at the age of just thirty one in 1848.
Although these writings were initially dismissed when discovered by those such as Charlotte’s friend and biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, who referred to the stories as “weird, wild writing” and collectors butchered them by splitting them up to sell for profit, hundreds of stories have survived the centuries. However, it is the work of pioneering Brontë scholars such as Fannie Ratchford, Winifred Gerin, Christine Alexander, and Victor Neufeldt that has enabled these texts to survive and be transcribed for Brontëites to explore and enjoy more easily. I for one, am eternally grateful to them for their hard work and contribution not only to Brontë and juvenilia studies, but to literature, history, and culture.
Charlotte Brontë’s juvenilia and early works remain a neglected but significant part of her literary canon. Although some of her later Angrian narratives are easily available in paperback editions, many readers and Brontë fans are still unaware of their content, or in some cases, their very existence. It can be daunting to dive into such a complex world when all of the pieces of the puzzle are not easily accessible, however, that does not mean that readers cannot enjoy the parts that are. I’m in the process of compiling a basic A-Z of some of the principal characters and places that shaped Charlotte’s early work to aid those readers who wish to immerse themselves in her fantasy world. I will also feature posts on Branwell’s work as he and Charlotte shared characters, settings, and even plot lines, and together they created a magnificent world that needs to be read and celebrated more.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first.
Elizabeth Gaskell quote taken from The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: J.M Dent & Sons, 1908).