When we think of the Brontë siblings, we conjure up images of brooding anti-heroes, poor governesses, and wild Yorkshire moors. In short, we tend to think of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey, novels seemingly written by three lonely and isolated sisters in their family home against the backdrop of the harsh environment of northern England. The minds of Brontë devotees will stretch a little further to include Charlotte’s other novels – The Professor, Shirley, and Villette – and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Many Brontë enthusiasts will also be familiar with the poetry of the sisters, a volume of which was published the year before their novels in 1846 under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Sadly this collection sold just two copies at the time. However, there is much more to the Brontës’ legacy than their poems and published novels.
The Brontës left behind an incredible and substantial body of work dating back to their childhood and consisting of hundreds of short stories, plays, poems, and novellas. The largest, earliest, and arguably most important part of the Brontë sisters’ literary canon is their juvenilia, which also includes the work of their talented but doomed brother, Branwell. Juvenilia are traditionally defined as childhood works by celebrated authors, although there is a continuing debate amongst literary critics and scholars regarding the accuracy of the term as not all writers of juvenilia go on to become prominent or famous authors, and authors of juvenilia are not always children. Branwell Brontë embodies these issues as he did not share the same level of literary success as his sisters in adulthood, and continued writing his own juvenilia until his death at the age of thirty-one. Unfortunately, as a result of the ignorance and neglect of the Brontë juvenilia, many critics and readers continue to perpetuate the myth that these remarkable sisters, tired of scraping a living as teachers and governesses, suddenly decided to sit down one day in adulthood and become writers. However, there was no fairy tale, no miracle, and no spontaneous bursts of creativity and genius, instead, there was hard work, practice, and perseverance.
One of the earliest surviving pieces of Brontë prose is a short story written by Charlotte for her younger sister Anne. Originally untitled, but now referred to as “There was once a little girl and her name was Anne”, it is believed by Brontë experts and historians to have been composed between the years 1826 and 1828 when Charlotte was aged between ten and twelve. The tale of a young rich girl named Anne and her parents, Mr and Mrs Wood is presented in booklet form and illustrated by Charlotte and is unremarkable in terms of literary merit. However, it is a fascinating piece of literary history which helps to demonstrate that successful authors do not simply spring into existence in adulthood and that years of unpublished and often unread works precede celebrated masterpieces. The manuscript is the first of the Brontës’ famous tiny books, which were co-produced throughout their childhood and adolescence, and provided the siblings with years of experience of writing fiction before they ever attempted to become published adult authors. Although the existence of the tiny books is now well documented, their content is less well-known. They feature tales set in the Brontës’ shared fantasy world of Glass Town an exotic territory in Africa which is dramatically different from the wild Yorkshire moors and bleak northern English landscape that seemingly defines the work and history of the siblings. Below are images of some tiny books on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in September 2022.
Despite their age and size, many of these tiny books survive and are located in institutions such as The Brontë Parsonage Museum and The British Library. The books were created to imitate the famous newspapers and magazines of the nineteenth century and demonstrate how, rather than being the isolated and reclusive geniuses of popular folklore, the family engaged with and responded to the outside literary world to create their own tales, initially imitating the styles of their favourite authors in childhood before arriving at the development of their own, original literary voices. The books gradually increased in sophistication until the siblings’ creative partnership fractured in 1834 when Anne and Emily created their world of Gondal, and Charlotte and Branwell replaced Glass Town with the kingdom of Angria in their narratives. I have been lucky enough to view and handle a selection of these manuscripts in the parsonage library, and it is astonishing how much material the siblings were able to cram into such delicate and fragile books.
In March 1829, twelve-year-old Charlotte composed another piece of prose titled, “The History of the Year”, a four-page manuscript which initially describes the activities and whereabouts of her family members. However, more importantly, she also discusses the newspapers and periodicals read by the Brontë family, including Blackwood’s Magazine, the form and content of which inspired the earliest Brontë books. Charlotte provides a snapshot of political and literary history by documenting information concerning politicians and the editors and proprietors of newspapers and magazines. Charlotte also specifically mentions that a man named Mr Driver lent magazines such as Blackwood’s to the Brontë family. Historical evidence suggests he was a Haworth resident demonstrating that their social connections and engagement with literature contributed towards their earliest stories and love of writing. Despire the myths that have sprung up around the family, evidence suggests that they were not isolated prodigies whose later work had no foundation in childhood.
Brontë experts such as Christine Alexander have more recently dated “The History of the Year” to 1828 (see The Brontës: Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, Oxford University Press, 2010). Although this is Charlotte’s earliest surviving manuscript, it may not have been the first that she produced. Although the content of the manuscript is ostensibly unremarkable, the final part is of great significance as it reveals the origins of the earliest “plays” of the children. Patrick Brontë’s gift of twelve wooden soldiers to his son Branwell in 1826 acted as a catalyst for his children’s imagination, and they began to create stories based on the fictional adventures of the soldiers, who would later be known as The Twelves within the Brontës’ paracosmic world. From this, the Brontës’ juvenilia grew and developed, providing the siblings with valuable writing experience before the composition and publication of the sisters’ adult masterpieces. In her history, Charlotte documents the gift of the toy soldiers to her younger brother in addition to the names they were given, and by whom: Charlotte’s was Wellington, Branwell’s was Bonaparte, Emily’s was Gravey, and Anne’s was named Waiting Boy. The short piece may seem to be nothing but childish play, but it is the foundation of the sisters’ later work and Branwell’s poetry and prose which he continued to compose until his death.
Branwell’s earliest extant narratives such as the “Battell Book” from March 1827 and “Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine” from January 1829 pre-date his sister’s surviving work and demonstrate his active and important role in the childhood literature and literary apprenticeship of the Brontë siblings. Despite his early death and wayward lifestyle, Branwell was the first of the siblings to have his work published (in a local newspaper using one of his Angrian pseudonyms, Northangerland). Branwell’s surviving work forms a large part of the Brontë literary canon and was recently re-published in three volumes edited by Victor A. Neufeldt (The Works of Patrick Branwell Brontë, Volumes 1,2, and 3, and The Poems of Patrick Branwell Brontë). Like Charlotte’s early texts, Branwell’s works are significant pieces of literary history which demonstrate that the roots of the adult author’s work can be traced back to childhood and that adult authors – regardless of their success or fame – are products of many years of experience and childhood apprenticeship.
Although the adult works of the Brontë sisters are some of the most loved, widely read, and discussed novels in English literature, critics and readers traditionally focus on the seven novels written in adulthood, with particular emphasis on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. However, there is far more to the Brontës’ legacy than three novels by three sisters; their earliest writings should not be overlooked or forgotten and nor should the work of Branwell, who helped to lay the foundations for his sisters’ later success with his contributions to family magazines. It is time to debunk the Brontë myth that the sisters turned to writing after becoming tired of being teachers and governesses and miraculously produced their masterpieces. To debunk the myth we must read, study, and appreciate the earliest works of the siblings and acknowledge that as talented and remarkable as the Brontë sisters were, they honed their craft for many years and did not spontaneously spring into being one day as fully developed adult writers.
Whilst much of Charlotte’s surviving juvenilia is difficult to access without permission to view archival material or access to out of print volumes, there are still many of her Angrian stories and novelettes that have been re-published in modern editions of her work. Heather Glen’s Tales of Angria (2006) and Christine Alexander’s Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal (2010) are two excellent, easily available and affordable examples. Although now out of print, Winifred Gérin’s Five Novelettes features five of Charlotte’s Angrian narratives, and second-hand copies can easily be found through online booksellers. Unfortunately, most of Anne and Emily’s Gondal saga has been lost or destroyed over time. None of their prose survives, however some of their poetry can be found in volumes such as Alexander’s Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. A small sample of Branwell’s surviving work is also included in Alexander’s volume, however, Neufeldt’s four re-published editions of his poetry and prose are available from online booksellers.
When we think of the fiction of the Brontë siblings, we should not restrict ourselves to Jane and Rochester, to Heathcliff and Cathy, and Agnes and Mr Weston. Instead, we should take a closer look at The Twelves, Charles Wellesley, Zamorna, Northangerland, Henry Hastings, Mary Percy, Mina Laury, and Augusta Geraldine Almeda. It is time for readers to experience the authentic, experimental, and uncensored works of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, and in doing so acknowledge that the child writer looms large in the literature of the parent author.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019).
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.