Risky Regencies

The Bronte Sisters -the other side of history

My latest Netflix find is The Bronte Sisters, a documentary about Emily, Charlotte, and Ann. I knew very little of the three sisters except that they all lived at home and their father outlived them. As it turns out, the story of the Bronte sisters is a story of how difficult life could be without modern medicine and sanitation.

Howarth, The village where the sisters grew up in Yorkshire, lacked proper sewers. Its dead were buried up on a hill which contaminated the water supply. This problem was not identified until 1850 and even then was not immediately rectified. Lots of people died as a result.

Disease was a fact of life. The Brontes had six children and all of them contracted scarlet fever at an early age. Mrs. Bronte developed cancer and died a slow and painful death. Her last words were, “Oh, God, my poor children.” Ann, the youngest, was not even two years old when her mother died.

In 1824 when Charlotte was just eight years old, she, her older sisters Marie and Elizabeth and Emily, only six, were sent to the Cowan Bridge school, a cruel and harsh place immortalized by Charlotte in Jane Eyre. A year later there was a typhus epidemic and all the girls became ill. Marie, then age 11, was the first to come home, ultimately succumbing to the illness. Elizabeth soon followed her. Charlotte and Emily survived (think of what we would have missed if they had not!)

Later, when Charlotte was teaching at Mrs. Wooley’s school (a much better place than Cowan Bridge), she arranged for Emily, then age 17, to attend. Emily, a shy and complicated person, was extremely homesick for Haworth. She went into a decline that sounded a lot like clinical depression and went home after three months.

The family’s hopes for good fortune rested on the Brontes’ one brother, Branwell, considered to be the most intelligent, most artistic, most creative. He was sent to London to attend Art school, but instead squandered his tuition money and indulged in alcohol and opium. After this, his life just slid into worse and worse addiction, embarrassing his family with bouts of public drunkeness. He died of tuberculosis at age 31 after a wasted life.

Without Branwell to depend upon, it was up to the girls to make money, but they were not very successful at anything they tried. Ann was able to keep a job as a governess longer than Charlotte’s attempt at that profession, but the young man she fell in love with died of cholera.

Charlotte decided they should set up their own school, but that attempt failed. Desperate, she came upon a set of poems Emily wrote and got the idea to have them published. Each of the sisters contributed poems, but the volume only sold a few copies. After that, Charlotte, Ann, and Emily each wrote novels and sent them to publishers. They each published books in 1847. Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was the runaway success. Emily’s Wuthering Heights was considered unconventional. Ann’s Agnes Grey was based on her life as a governess.

A year later Emily died of tuberculosis, and a year after that Ann died of the same illness, leaving only Charlotte. Charlotte kept writing and in 1854 she married, finally having an opportunity for some security and stability in her life. A year later she died of tuberculosis complicated by typhoid fever and pregnancy.

All I could think of while watching this documentary was how prevalent disease and death must have been in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Can you imagine watching your wife and children dying, one after the other? How very awful!! We don’t usually dwell on the prevalence of disease and death of the Regency in our books. For good reason. It’s depressing!

I also couldn’t help but wonder what Charlotte, Emily, and Ann might have produced if they’d lived longer.

What other diseases can you think of that so easily took lives in the 1800s and not now? Do you think Charlotte and Emily could have topped Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights if they’d lived longer?

Come see what I come up with for Diane’s Blog on Thurs. I’ll be announcing my last September winner for my website contest on Tuesday. And don’t forget to check out the new eHarlequin Harlequin Historical Blog.

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12 years ago

Who knew? I had no idea that the Bronte sister’s lives were so tragic. I suppose that is where all that gothic undertone and literary realism comes from. Cholera outbreaks were significant during this time and the demographic it affected was across the board in all classes in England.

Sophia Harrop
12 years ago

Hi Diane – I wonder indeed what else they might have written if they’d survived! It’s interesting to look at how much of a part disease played in the lives of the Brontes. It was a fact of life at the time that so many died from disease, and is unimaginable now.

Another one I can think of is diabetes. My grandmother’s younger brother died from it, around 1916 at the age of 6. Throughout her life she regularly went to visit his grave, where later their parents were also buried. She always referred to her brother as “Our little Jack.” Insulin was discovered in the 1920s I believe, not so long afterwards. So sad 🙁

I’m glad romance doesn’t go into death and disease though (yes, far too depressing!) and I bet people at the time also tried to focus on the more cheerful side of life too – otherwise, how could they have coped?

12 years ago

The disease I find one of the more tragic is puerperal (childbed) fever. So many of those women died of infections brought to them by physicians who attended them, who often came from a sickbed and didn’t know to wash their hands. Death in childbirth is so rare in our country today but was so common throughout human history until quite recently.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Anonymous, I did not know this either. I had wondered why Emily only wrote one book and Charlotte not many more.

Sophia, diabetes must have claimed many lives before insulin was discovered. How very sad it was for your grandmother to lose their “little Jack.”

Susan/DC, death in childbirth and after must have been very common and so tragic. Now it seems so logical to wash our hands often, but then they didn’t know!

12 years ago

If not for penicillin, I would have died as a child from kidney infections, which a great grandfather and his son both succumb to, before penicillin.

12 years ago

My husband’s family had two young girls die from a contagious disease and at the moment I’m drawing a blank as to what it was. There is a 20 year difference between my father-in-law who has passed away and my husband’s uncle who was the youngest brother (now 77). Two girls died between them. The story was that the one girl died and the next year her clothes were given to the next daughter and she died too. Not sure if that was true or she just caught the same disease. Very sad.

I know my ancestors had very large families and it was just assumed that they all wouldn’t survive. Again, extremely sad.

So many horrible diseases – small pox, black plague, bubonic fever, scarlet fever etc. Of course we have new ones today but living in American, we feel less touched by a lot of them.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

I’m a Bronte fanatic and snatch up every bio and novel I can find!! I am definitely putting this on my Netflix list, Diane, thanks so much for letting us know about it 🙂

Louisa Cornell
12 years ago

Definitely going to find a copy of this documentary, O Divine One. Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels ever!

What a terrible travail of a life they had. But one wonders if they saw it that way. When everyone around you has a life of similar misery I think, perhaps, you don’t feel quite so downtrodden.

We were stationed in Pensacola when I was five. My favorite playmates where the two little girls nextdoor, ages 5 and 6. (This was 1963, by the way.) The older girl came down with the measles. I think she caught them at school. Her sister came down with them as well. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I do remember that the older girl died at home from complications from measles. It has stayed with me because it was my first acquaintance with death.

Even then they didn’t know as much about disease, its progress and when something simple might take a turn for the tragic.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Judy, thank God for penicillin! The discovery of penicillin was certainly one of the greatest in medical history. I’m so glad you survived.

catslady, what a sad story. I wonder if the clothing had something to do with the sisters’ deaths.

Amanda, there will probably be no surprises in the documentary, but I think you will like it.

Louisa, how scary to be five and to learn that little girls can die from illnesses!

These days I think young adults die when medical people don’t take their flu symptoms seriously. I’ve heard about several being sent home from the ER only to die at home.

Danielle C.
12 years ago

Emily Brontë did actually write more than “Wuthering Heights”, but Charlotte burned Emily’s papers after her death. I remember reading in some biography that there are letters which show that Emily was contentedly at work on a second novel before she died. Unfortunately, the horrid reviews and slurs on Emily’s character upon the publication of “Wuthering Heights” seem to have persuaded Charlotte that she could best protect her sister’s memory by ensuring there would be no more material for others to revile.

I suppose one has to be thankful that at least some of her beautiful poetry survived.

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

Danielle, the documentary did mention that Emily had written something else. It is a shame it wasn’t preserved.

Michelle Styles
12 years ago

Diane —
Have you been to Howorth?

It is not simply that lot s of people died but that the graveyard which the Bronte house overlooked was improperly drained.Various bodily fluids floated up out of the ground. It is stomach churning. Now of course all is peaceful.
The sisters wrote in the dining room which overlooked the graveyard…
Once you are there, you can understand why Wuthering Heights was written. Jane Eyre is a bit more laid back.
There is also the problem of the alcoholic brother etc.
Anyway, Haworth is well worth a visit. It is also where Railway Children was filmed…

Diane Gaston
12 years ago

I would love to visit Haworth, now that the bodily fluids problem is solved….
Seriously, who wouldn’t want to see the inspiration for Wuthering Heights? Certainly atmosphere and setting played such an important part of that book. Emily was supposed to have wandered the moors. I can only imagine that her head was filled with stories when she took her walks.

Michelle Styles
12 years ago

You must go.

The house is v atmospheric and you can really see the inspiration.
There are a number of walks in the moors and of course there is the pub where the brother sloped off too.

If you go, it is a. hard to find and b. in the middle of nowhere so you will want to stay in the area.
But it is well worth making a pilgrimage there.

12 years ago

How very sad. I had no idea their lives were so difficult and short. No wonder their writings were so dark and gloomy. I will have to get that documentary and watch it. It is sad that such talent never really got a chance to flourish.
Any type of infection was a danger back then. The treatments were often more dangerous than the disease. A ruptured appendix usually meant a long and painful death.

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