The Romantic Lives Of The Brontë Sisters

Photo: Barbara Cushing/Everett Collection.
Charlotte Brontë was born on April 21, 1816. That would make the celebrated author 199 years old today — such a long legacy for a tragically short life. As it happens, the Brontë siblings (Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and a brother, Branwell) had tragedy in common: Not one of them survived past the age of 38, and their two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption in childhood, a month apart. The Brontës also shared a love for the written word and a tendency towards rather messy love lives — including married suitors, refused engagements, and unrequited love. 
Charlotte, the eldest, was the only one to actually marry, but her relationship history was far from conventional. (Really, would you expect the woman who dreamed up Mr. Rochester and the "madwoman in the attic" in Jane Eyre to have a skeleton-free closet?) In Charlotte's case, said "skeleton" went by the name of Constantin Heger, a married man seven years her elder. Heger and his wife, Zoë, ran a boarding school in Brussels, where 26-year-old Charlotte and her younger sister Emily lived, taught, and studied in 1842. The death of the girls' aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who had helped raise them after the death of their mother, prompted their hasty return to England, but Charlotte wasted no time in hurrying back. This time, she stayed on for a year as a teacher — and, by all accounts, fell in love with her married employer. Charlotte returned to England in 1844, but her feelings showed no signs of dissipating. According to the British Library, which has her letters from that time, the young woman wrote to Heger every two weeks ("every fortnight" sounds much more romantic, right?). Mrs. Heger intervened, reducing Charlotte's output to one letter per six months. Eventually, Heger stopped replying.  The letters — which, rumor has it, were ripped up by Mr. Heger only to be pieced back together by his wife and published in 1913 — were largely written in French. Heger had been Charlotte's French tutor at the school, prompting her to declare the language "most precious to me because it reminds me of you — I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul." Heavy stuff.  Upon her return to England, Charlotte also set about writing. First up was The Professor, the story of a young man who becomes a professor at a boarding school, falls in love with a headmistress, loses her to another man, and then falls for the young teacher he has been tutoring. When that manuscript failed to gain interest from publishers, she moved on to Jane Eyre, in which, of course, a young woman falls for her employer, who inconveniently happens to still be married. Villette, too, sees a young nanny striking up a romance with an older professor type. 
Charlotte did eventually marry, but it was short-lived. When Arthur Bell Nicholls, the Brontës' father's curate, first proposed marriage to Charlotte, she rejected him. But, Brontë biographer Elizabeth Gaskell helped persuade her to rethink the decision, and Charlotte and Nicholls were engaged in January 1854. After finally receiving the approval of Mr. Brontë, who had concerns about Nicholls' finances, they were married that June. Charlotte's father refused to attend the wedding regardless, so she walked down the aisle on the arm of her former schoolmistress.  Letters from Charlotte after her marriage make it difficult to gauge her true feelings for her husband. "It is a strange and solemn and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife," she wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey. "Man's lot is far — far different." In another letter, however, she called Nicholls a "dear boy." Charlotte was quick to get pregnant, but the condition weakened her health and subjected her to nausea and fainting spells. The pregnant author died on March 31, 1855 at the age of 38. Nicholls remarried, to a cousin, in 1864. 
Photo: Patrick Frilet/REX USA.
That sad saga brings us to Branwell, the sole male Brontë sibling. Born a year after Charlotte, Branwell was an admirer of painting and literature, and he dabbled in both. He worked as a tutor and railway clerk and, encouraged by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, wrote poems and translations. He was also a troublemaker who was prone to excessive drinking, getting sacked from work, and even setting his own bed on fire. Much of Branwell's private life is shrouded in speculation. There's rumors of his having fathered an illegitimate child, and his love life included a scandalous romance with the wife of his employer (a reverend, no less).  Branwell wrote to his friends about his love affair with Mrs. Lydia Robinson, the mother of his young charges. In 1845, however, he was dismissed from his tutoring post and told in no uncertain terms to stop contact with the family. It is believed that his relationship with Mrs. Robinson caused a furor, but Branwell continued to pursue her until she rejected his attempts to marry her after her husband died. In 1848, Branwell died (standing up, by some accounts) from chronic bronchitis aggravated by drinking. He was 31. 
Though Branwell's behavior was embarrassing to the family, he was apparently held in high regard by his younger sister, the reclusive Emily. The Wuthering Heights author died, at age 30, less than three months after her brother. Tuberculosis was the cause, but a maid at the time commented that her death was down to a "broken heart" over Branwell's death. The exceedingly shy and withdrawn writer had no companions of a romantic nature, though a passion must have brewed within. How else to explain Heathcliff and Catherine's stormy affair?  Last but not least is Anne, the baby of the family. A poet and novelist in her own right, Anne is believed to have formed an attachment to William Weightman, her father's curate at the time. Nothing much came of the friendship, though the curate-involved romance in Agnes Grey and Anne's own pained reaction to Weightman's death in 1842 — "I will not mourn thee, lovely one" — hint at a possibly deeper attraction.  Weightman may have only been a footnote in Anne's history, but he's also viewed as her only romantic liaison. The feminist icon remained single until her too-soon death at age 29, succumbing to consumption just six months after Emily's death and nine months after Branwell's.  And, that's all she wrote. Heartbreak, torment, loneliness, tragic loss...these stories have all the hallmarks of a Brontë novel. Happy endings never were popular with this crowd. 

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