Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2014


Katherine Bergeron, Connecticut College's 11th president. Photo by Harold Shapiro

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5 Things You Probably Don't Know About… the Brontë Sisters

5 Things You Probably Don't Know About… the Brontë Sisters
Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, by their brother Branwell (c. 1834). He painted himself among his sisters but later removed the image so as not to clutter the picture. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

by Janet Gezari

1. Charlotte's “Jane Eyre” dedication raised eyebrows
Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of “Jane Eyre” to William Makepeace Thackeray, author of the novel “Vanity Fair,” which she greatly admired. Unfortunately, she didn't know that Thackeray's wife had been declared insane, just like the first wife of Edward Fairfax Rochester, the hero of “Jane Eyre.” Both novels also feature governesses who dream of marrying their employers. Thackeray wrote to Charlotte thanking her profusely for the dedication but felt obliged to tell her that the plot similarities had fueled rumors (untrue) that Rochester was based on him.

2. One sister may have destroyed the other's manuscript
Like both of her sisters, Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis at an early age. She was 30 when she died, just a year after the publication of her triumphant first novel, “Wuthering Heights.” A letter from her publisher expressed enthusiasm about “making arrangements” for her next book, but if she was writing a second novel, no pages survive. Some speculate that Charlotte destroyed the manuscript. The older sister may have found the writing inferior to “Wuthering Heights” or felt that the novel's content would damage her sister's reputation. Charlotte felt so strongly that youngest sister Anne had made a mistake by making marital betrayal the subject of her second novel, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” that she prevented its re-publication after Anne's death at age 29.

3. Twilight Saga gave “Wuthering Heights” a boost
Sales of “Wuthering Heights” tripled in 2009 after a paperback edition was issued with a teen Gothic cover and a sticker proclaiming that the novel was “Bella & Edward's Favorite Book.” Bella and Edward are the main couple in the wildly popular Twilight series of vampire-themed fantasy romance novels. In the third book, “Eclipse,” Bella tells Edward why she keeps re-reading “Wuthering Heights.” What she doesn't tell him is that several characters in “Wuthering Heights” wonder whether Heathcliff is human; at one point the narrator suggests he may be a vampire.

4. Charlotte wrote Emily's real-life rabies scare into one of her novels
In Charlotte's novel “Shirley,” the protagonist is bitten by a mad dog and knows that she may have contracted rabies. The story is based on an incident in Emily's life. One day when Emily was about 25 she approached a strange dog (she loved animals) that was running with its head hanging and its tongue lolling. She wanted to offer it water. The dog bit her. She returned to the kitchen, cauterized the wound with a hot iron and told no one of the incident until the threat of rabies was over.

5. Though the sisters all died young, they had plenty of company
In 1850 — a year after Anne's death and five before Charlotte's — the mortality rate in the Brontës' village of Haworth in West Yorkshire was 44.3 percent above the rate in neighboring villages. The average age of those who died was 25.8 years. The high mortality rate was attributed to poor sanitation, not enough privies, no sewers and an insufficient supply of safe water for drinking and cooking.

Janet Gezari is the College's Lucretia Allyn Professor of English. Her scholarship focuses on the novels of the Brontës, the poetry of Emily Brontë, Victorian and modern novels, contemporary fiction in English and Bob Dylan. She is currently completing “The Annotated Wuthering Heights,” due out from Harvard University Press in fall 2014.

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