The destination for history

The Brontës: Love, jealousy & sibling rivalry


2016 was a very special year for lovers of great literature, and of the Brontës in particular, as it marks the 200th birthday of the one and only Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette.

She is of course one third of the famous Brontë sisters. Amanda White’s wonderful artwork shows the three sisters on a blustery night outside the Haworth parsonage they’ve made forever famous. Three sisters, all alike and never happier than when together. That’s the image that people often have of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë to this day, but the truth is rather different - and the relationship between Charlotte and her youngest sister Anne in particular was often volatile.

Charlotte and Anne’s sisterhood

Charlotte Brontë is a great writer, undoubtedly, but she is also a very complex character, with dark mood swings and a volcanic temper. She was very deeply scarred by events that happened in her childhood, being just five when her mother died after a long illness, whereas the one year old Anne would have been unaware of what was going on or the loss she had suffered. Charlotte also had to suffer the deprivations of Cowan Bridge school, immortalised as the hellish Lowood of Jane Eyre, and watch her much loved oldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth grow ill and then die before her eyes. Again, Anne was spared the worst of these torments and these formative years helped to shape their respective temperaments: Charlotte, proud and waspish; Anne, quiet yet determined.

All her life Charlotte suffered from deep bouts of depression, which she called bilious attacks and which confined her to bed for days at a time. She could be very sharp even with those closest to her, as when she announced that she had told her employer and friend Margaret Wooler, who was a very kind hearted and inoffensive woman, ‘one or two rather plain home truths which set her a-crying... for two days and two nights together.’

Charlotte was also often riddled by self-doubt and self-hatred, as she revealed on more than one occasion to her great friend Ellen Nussey: ‘Don’t deceive yourself by imagining that I have a bit of real goodness about me... If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity me and I daresay despise me.’

In contrast to fiery Charlotte we have Anne, four years younger and who, despite her often very strong inner feelings, liked to project a calm and quiet exterior. They were very much opposites, and whilst there was certainly love between the sisters, there was often friction and even jealousy.

After the death of her mother and sisters, Charlotte, only 9 years of age, took it upon herself to act as a mother to her brother Branwell, Emily and Anne. She would perch Anne on her knee and read to her, and the first little book we have of Charlotte’s is one that she wrote and illustrated for her youngest sister. It begins: ‘There once was a little girl and her name was Ane.’ In a touching reminder of what had happened to their mother, Charlotte writes, ‘Ane's Mama was very sick and Ane attended her with so much care. She gave her her medicine.’

It is clear that there was a great love between Charlotte, Emily and Anne in their infancy, as may be expected from young girls thrown together without a mother. Emily and Anne would always retain a close and loving bond, with Ellen Nussey describing them as being: ‘like twins - inseparable companions, an in the very closest sympathy, which never had any interruption.’ Between Charlotte and Anne, however, an almost unacknowledged rift occurred.

An early sign of this came when Anne went to Roe Head School in Mirfield in the autumn of 1835. Charlotte was at the time a teacher there, but typically was determined not to show any sign of favouritism to her sister. This left both sisters isolated and vulnerable. Charlotte had sunk into a deep depression where she hated teaching and hated her pupils, whilst Anne had descended into a deep religious melancholy of her own, convinced that she was a sinner who would be condemned to eternal torment. Soon Anne fell gravely ill with what was probably typhoid, and it was only now that Anne was at real risk of death that Charlotte realised how much she had neglected her. It was a guilt she would carry with her forever, a sisterly albatross around her neck.

Anne recovered enough to return home to Haworth, but Charlotte’s depression at the school grew worse in the following months. She found herself imaging that she had hidden illnesses that nobody else knew about. A doctor was called for and advised that she must leave the school or die.

Gentlemen suitors and good looks

In later years Charlotte was one of many women who fell for the charms and dashing good looks of Haworth’s new assistant curate, William Weightman. At first she speaks glowingly of him in her letters, and spends hours painting his portrait and being roundly teased for it. But then, suddenly, this attitude changes. She writes: ‘For all the tricks, wiles and insincerities of love the gentleman has not his match for 20 miles round. He would fain persuade every woman under 30 whom he sees that he is desperately in love with her.’

What has caused this change? Does another bitterly worded letter sent to Ellen hold a clue? ‘He sits opposite Anne at church sighing softly and looking out of the corners of his eyes to win her affection - and Anne is so quiet, her looks so downcast - they are a picture.’

The tables had been turned on Charlotte, the younger sister had usurped the older in this gentleman’s affections. Charlotte felt betrayed by Anne, and she burned with jealous indignation. Charlotte’s publisher George Smith wrote that Charlotte was very self-conscious of her looks, of her extreme small stature, bad complexion, and missing teeth. He famously said that she ‘would have given all her genius and fame to be beautiful’. Anne, however, has been described by people who knew them as the prettiest of the Brontës. Ellen Nussey described her thus: ‘Dear, gentle Anne was quite different in appearance from the others. Her hair was a pretty, light brown that fell in graceful curls. She had lovely violet-blue eyes, and fine pencilled eyebrows, and clear, almost transparent, complexion’. If these looks could ignite a fire within the assistant curate, they also ignited a dark resentment within Charlotte.

Sibling rivalry at work and play

It was a jealousy that had existed, if hidden away, since early childhood. One night Reverend Patrick Brontë brought Branwell some wooden soldiers which were then shared with his sisters, an event that was set their imaginations free and change literary history forever. The young Charlotte described their choices thus: ‘Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part... Anne's was a queer little thing, much look herself, and we called him “Waiting-Boy”’.

It may sound outrageous today, given the supremacy of Charlotte’s reputation over Anne’s, but Charlotte was also jealous of Anne’s writing. The first publication from the Brontë sisters was Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, a joint collection of verse that they paid to have published. Whilst Emily is undoubtedly the best poet among the three, Anne’s verse too is far superior to Charlotte’s which is often laboured and overly-long. Despite poor sales, they were buoyed by seeing their writing in print, and decided upon a plan to publish three novels jointly. Anne’s Agnes Grey found a publisher alongside Emily’s Wuthering Heights, but alas Charlotte’s contribution The Professor was rejected by all who saw it. Without intending any malice the little sister had triumphed over the older again, and to Charlotte it must have seemed insufferable.

Anne also had many skills that Charlotte lacked; despite her great shyness, she could interact with other people when she had to, and was the only Brontë to hold down a job as a governess for any length of time. Indeed, her final charges, the Robinson girls, loved and respected their teacher so much that they continued to write to her and even made the long trip in winter from Derbyshire to Haworth to visit Anne. Anne was an excellent scholar, well versed in the bible, and fluent in Latin in a way that her sisters were not. She also loved to play the piano, as did Emily who became something of a virtuoso at it., an activity out of reach to Charlotte because of her chronically poor eyesight.

When Charlotte writes of Anne it is often disparagingly, as when she tells Ellen that she would not believe how sensible a letter Anne has written, or when she writes that she is worried that Anne’s new employers will imagine that she has a speech impediment. After Anne’s death, however, Charlotte carried out the greatest calumny of them all against Anne, and it was an act that would almost destroy Anne’s reputation as a writer.

‘Take courage, Charlotte, take courage’  

Charlotte Brontë had been asked to prepare Anne and Emily’s novels for re-publication, but she hated Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Was it because it dealt with subjects that outraged her, such as alcoholism and abusive marriages, or was it that she was again envious of how well the book had sold? Probably, it was both. Charlotte told the publisher that Anne’s novel had been ‘an entire mistake’, and that it did not seem worthy of re-publishing. This masterpiece of a novel was therefore suppressed for ten years after Anne’s death, an event that Anne’s reputation is only now recovering from.

Charlotte Brontë teased Anne as a young girl and looked down on her as an adult, was jealous of her looks and her learning, and stopped the republication of a book that would have cemented her reputation as a great author. Do not think, however, that Charlotte was a monster towards her sister. In her heart, she held great love for Anne, even though this was only admitted after Anne’s death. Charlotte’s letters during Anne’s final battle against tuberculosis are heartfelt epistles of yearning love and despair, and her true depth of feelings were shown in a touching elegy she wrote for Anne just a month after she had died:

There’s little joy in life for me,

And little terror in the grave;

I’ve lived the parting hour to see,

Of one I would have died to save.

Was Anne conscious of being slighted by Charlotte? Did she feel, for example, left out when Charlotte took Emily to Belgium with her, leaving Anne behind? We shall never know. Anne Brontë  was, after all, a woman who endured whatever came her way; turning the other cheek was her speciality. We can be sure, however, that Anne Brontë held her oldest sister, the one who had written stories for her as a child, in great love and affection. In Anne’s last moments she urged Ellen Nussey, who was by her side with Charlotte in Scarborough, to be like a sister to Charlotte in her absence, and her final words were said to comfort her: ‘Take courage, Charlotte, take courage’.

Yes, Charlotte and Anne Brontë were loving sisters, but it was a relationship with many ups and downs. In other words, they were true sisters just like any others.

By Nick Holland

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books