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Influence Comes in Many Forms: Inspiring the Bronte Sisters

Hello friends and fellow Janeites,

As we continue our way through the Jane Austen-Bronte Sisters reading series, it is time to explore the influences on the Bronte sisters. It is quite unusual, both for the time as well as today, that an entire household should be full of such gifted writers. It is widely known that the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, are all considered great novelists, but the ladies’ father and brother were also renowned writers, penning poems, and essays on their own. One can only imagine the lively conversations to be had in a house where creativity and knowledge were not just treasured but also encouraged to foster. Mr. Bronte was a clergyman and as such he not only gifted his daughters with an extensive library, but also prompted them to expand their minds through reading. Dutifully, they did just that and along the way, they encountered works that moved them and, in some ways, inspired their own writings.

            It seems that Charlotte Bronte was the most effusive when it came to writing about the works of other authors. Letters pertaining to her unique interests have been preserved and are available for analysis. The authoress does not mince words. She has particular tastes and, in some cases, when she is pleased, she speaks lovingly, but in others, she cuts right to the quick. Her views of what would have been considered the most widely read poets of the day are made clear in this passage: ‘If you like poetry let it be first rate, Milton, Shakespeare, Thomson, Goldsmith, Pope (if you will though, I don’t admire him), Scott, Byron, Campbell, Wordsworth, and Southey. Now Ellen don’t be startled at the names of Shakespeare, and Byron. Both these were great men, and their works are like themselves. You will know how to choose the good and avoid the evil, the finest passages are always the purest, the bad are invariably revolting, you will never wish to read them over twice. Omit the comedies of Shakespeare.’

According to Elizabeth Gaskell, the first person to publish a biography dedicated to Charlotte Bronte in 1857, just two years after her death, Charlotte had an intense appreciation for the works of Wordsworth and Southey, but none was so lauded as Walter Scott. In a letter, Charlotte wrote, she described his work thusly:

            ‘For Fiction – read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless…The standard heroes and heroines of novels, are personages in whom I could never, from childhood upwards, take an interest, believe to be natural, or wish to imitate; were I obliged to copy these characters, I would simply not write at all. Were I obliged to copy any former novelist, even the greatest, even Scott, in anything, I would not write.’

Aside from praising the works of Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters were also greatly influenced by other poets. It is said that “The Castaway” by William Cowper was a family favorite poem and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s works were often emulated by the sisters. In both Charlotte and Emily’s works, there are specific instances where readers have drawn conclusions, aligning their descriptions or turns of phrase with something Shelley first created. Excerpts from Charlotte’s Caroline Vernon have been compared to Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” and in Emily’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights we see some of the lovelier phrases and exclamations of passionate feelings derived from words Shelley had previously penned in “Epipsychidion”. That is not to discredit the Bronte sisters or to say that their thoughts lacked originality. They were merely influenced by the works of the great English Romantic poet.

No exploration of the influences on the Bronte sisters works would be complete without mentioning their environment. The young ladies were raised at Haworth’s Parsonage. The family moved to the town in West Yorkshire in the year 1820. The people of the town were poverty-stricken and had difficulty finding work, except in local factories. Charlotte’s novel, Shirley, deals with the plight of factory workers, even though it is told through the eyes of the factory owner and his family. Charlotte and her sisters would have been aware of the plagues that worried those living in their little town, for the people would have relied on their father, a clergyman, for guidance and steadfast support, but their position in life would’ve made it so they rarely mingled with those who would’ve scrambled to support themselves or their families.

Because of their position in life, being neither poor nor extremely wealthy, the Bronte sisters earned their own living by becoming governesses or teachers. These experiences informed much of their writing, as we see displayed throughout their works, particularly in Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte.

And finally, one of the greatest influences on the Bronte sisters was the environment that surrounded them. It is believed that Haworth Parsonage, while kept tidy and respectable, was not a place the young ladies longed to linger. A smell permeated the place because of the close by graveyard and so, naturally, the young women walked about the countryside, discovering the moors which laid nearby. Today, tourists can traverse what is known as The Bronte Way, treading the same paths it is believed the sisters traveled. On one such walkway, it is only two miles from the parsonage to reach a waterfall known as C. It is named in honor of Charlotte because it is believed while walking with her husband to this location that is when she caught a chill and subsequently perished three months later from the exposure. Another walk along this trail is just three miles from the Bronte’s home and it reaches the top of the moor. From there, visitors can see the ruins of an abandoned stone farmhouse. Finally, should one be so inclined, by taking an eight-mile walk, they will come upon the village of Wycoller, near Lancashire. It is believed that the Bronte sisters were all inspired by this town as Wycoller Hall—a sixteenth century stone manor house sitting in the woods nestled between boulders and rushing waters is thought to be not just Charlotte’s inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre, but also Emily’s inspiration for Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights.


Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen

            Throughout this series, we have endeavored to learn more about these authors, who, in some ways, seem so similar. So, it is fitting to conclude this post, regarding influences on the Bronte sisters, by evaluating the way Austen might have inspired the young women. From a letter written in 1848, we learn that Charlotte Bronte was not an avid admirer of her predecessor’s work. She wrote: ‘’Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written Pride & Prejudice or Tom Jones [Henry Fielding] than any of the Waverley novels [by Walter Scott]? I had not seen Pride & Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’


And while it seems, at first blush, that Charlotte did not particularly care for Austen’s musings, she later added:  ‘I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works Emma – read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heart-felt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well…She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound.’

While Charlotte Bronte might not have been enamored with Jane Austen’s works, she certainly had quite the taste for other authors and poets of the day. It is a wonder what these women might have discussed, should they ever have occasion to share a room. If you are curious how such a conversation might evolve, check out “You are Passionate, Jane”: A conversation between Austen and Charlotte Bronte in the Afterlife, part of the web series hosted by Jane Austen & Co, featuring speakers Diana Birchall and Syrie James, available now on YouTube.


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