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'It's no work for a woman!'

In 1836, a twenty-year-old Charlotte Brontë wrote to the Poet Laureate of the day, Robert Southey, to seek his opinion about a poem she had written. His reply was kind, but pointed out in no uncertain terms that ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life’ and her ‘proper duties’ were at home.

Charlotte was flattered that this revered figure of authority had taken time to reply, but his instruction also taught her an early lesson: female writers would always be met with bias and prejudice in her male dominated world.

The Brontës lived in a quiet village in Yorkshire. Three sisters and a brother entertained themselves from a young age making up adventures with a set of toy soldiers, whilst their widowed father held the living of the church next door. The children created anthologies of poetry together and wrote tiny books of stories that required a magnifying glass to read them.

Photo right: This tiny book is about the length of my index finger and made from scraps of sugar paper and wallpaper sewn together by the sisters. It is on display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.

Knowing their ‘unseemly’ pastime would be frowned upon, the sisters kept their writing a secret when they got older. They only submitted work to outsiders using pseudonyms and chose names that were ambiguous enough to be passed off as males.

Charlotte Brontë became Currer Bell; Emily Brontë wrote as Ellis Bell, and Anne Brontë was Acton Bell. 

Photo left: The signatures the sisters used as pseudonyms. On display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth.

Their big breakthrough came in 1847. Drawing upon her memories as a governess and remembering two other sisters who had died from tuberculosis at school, Currer Bell wrote Jane Eyre. It received immediate acclaim for the London publishers Smith, Elder & Co.  with critics in no doubt that this new author was male. No woman could possibly know about a man like Mr Rochester.


Meanwhile, Ellis Bell submitted Wuthering Heights, and Acton Bell submitted Agnes Grey to a different publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, who printed the books together in a three-volume set.

Wuthering Heights baffled critics from the outset, who were shocked by its content. They accepted that it was imaginative, but most classed it as coarse, savage and cruel, even from a male author.

Little did these critics know, but Emily’s descriptions of Heathcliff were in fact inspired by her first-hand experience of watching her brother, Branwell, who was an alcoholic and opium addict. Her own solo ramblings across the wild and windy Yorkshire moors provided the setting.

Agnes Grey, based on Anne’s personal experience as a governess, was rather overshadowed in the outcry.

Photo above: A portrait painted by Branwell Brontë of himself and his sisters. He later scrubbed out his own image. On display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth.

Speculation grew about who these unfamiliar new authors were. Due to the fact they all shared the same surname, most critics thought they must be brothers. Some theorised there may be a husband and wife amongst them, and some wondered if they were actually one and the same person.

Charlotte recognised the time was right to reveal her true identity to her own publisher, Mr Smith, who was growing increasingly uneasy that Emily’s and Anne’s publishers were trying to share in the glory of Jane Eyre.

Photo left: A New York edition of Wuthering Heights, claimed to be written by 'The Author of Jane Eyre'. On display at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth.

All correspondence between Charlotte and Mr Smith had so far passed through the name of Currer Bell, so the man was very surprised when Currer Bell’s name was announced and in walked an unassuming, country woman wearing spectacles. Charlotte and Anne had travelled on purpose to London to introduce themselves to him, yet Charlotte still had to prove she was in earnest by showing him a copy of a letter written in his own hand.


He was said to be delighted at the discovery and eager to show off his protégé at the opera. The sisters, however, did not want their confidence betrayed, so to add another bizarre level to the deceit, Mr Smith introduced the ladies that evening as his country cousins, the Miss Browns.

1848 was a bad year for the Brontë sisters. First, their brother Branwell died, followed a few weeks later by Emily.


Anne had just published her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as Acton Bell, but this was considered even more shocking than Wuthering Heights. Reviewers did not like the plot which saw a mere woman leave her unfaithful and abusive husband. A year after publication, Anne also died.


Photo right: The home of the Brontë family, taken from the neighbouring churchyard. Haworth, Yorkshire.

Charlotte was now the only writer left, and keeping Currer Bell’s identity secret was no longer important to her. She had already told her father the truth by giving him a copy of Jane Eyre and revealed her literary exploits to a friend. Her brother (perhaps intentionally) had been the only one of the family never to have been made aware of his sisters’ true talents.

Local residents recognised the settings in Currer Bell’s next novel, Shirley, and villagers began to gossip that Miss Brontë could be the author. Charlotte even suspected her post was being opened before it got to her in their attempts to prove their theories correct.

Her long and enduring friendship with her publisher, Mr Smith induced him to buy the rights of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, and he reprinted them for her in 1850, with a lengthy preface written by Charlotte giving full credit to her sisters for their work and revealing their true identities to the world.

Photo: The rugged moorland landscape around Haworth.

Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, but her novels are still read widely today. The work of all three sisters have successfully endured the test of time, with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in particular being labelled as literary classics.


Not bad, I suppose, considering they were all penned by women.

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6 Komentar

What a brilliant and insightful article. I never knew how difficult it was for women to be published authors back then. Thank you for sharing.

Membalas kepada

Agreed - they must have been very determined women.

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