The years from 2016 to 2020 mark five important bicentenaries for anyone with an interest in the Brontë family: Charlotte was born in 1816, Branwell in 1817, Emily in 1818 and Anne in 1820. Meanwhile, 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the Reverend Patrick Brontë’s invitation to take up the role of parson in Haworth. The Brontë Society has organised a series of year-long events at the Brontë Parsonage Museum to celebrate each family member in turn, although some of their choices have provoked dissent amongst the membership.
Charlotte Brontë was not the first-born of the siblings, although she was the eldest of those who survived into adulthood: her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth had died by the time Charlotte was eight (their mother died when she was five). Charlotte completed four novels: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and The Professor (published after her death), as well as the joint collection of poems self-published with her sisters under the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. In addition to her writing, Charlotte worked (as did her sisters) as a teacher and as a governess, experiences which provided a great deal of inspiration for her stories.
Like his sisters, Branwell Brontë worked for a time as a tutor, although he was no more successful in that endeavour than he was as a portrait painter or as a railway clerk. Branwell has been mostly overshadowed by the success of his sisters, although he was responsible for the best known portrait of the trio (usually on display in the National Portrait Gallery, but returning to Haworth for three months in the summer of 2018), and is probably most famous for dying of dissipation and TB (in 1848).
Tuberculosis was also the cause of death of two of the sisters, of course, with Emily Brontë dying three months after her brother and Anne a year later. Emily was the least outgoing of the girls, and wrote only one novel, Wuthering Heights, which provoked controversy upon publication, although it is possibly better known now than any of the Brontë sisters’ other works. The exhibition to mark Emily’s bicentenary opens at the Parsonage in Haworth on the 1st of February 2018 (the museum is closed throughout January every year for maintenance) and is entitled Making Thunder Roar. The celebrations will feature contributions from a number of notable women including Lily Cole, Patience Agbabi and Maxine Peake; however, the first of those choices has caused at least one middle aged bloke to resign from the Brontë Society in disgust that a young creative woman should be chosen to represent the career aspirations of an earlier young creative woman. Lily Cole was very restrained in her response, saying “I would not be so presumptuous as to guess Emily’s reaction to my appointment as a creative partner at the museum, were she alive today. Yet I respect her intellect and integrity enough to believe that she would not judge any piece of work on name alone.”
My favourite of the siblings, Anne Brontë, is not to be commemorated until 2020. The youngest of the four, Anne wrote two novels dealing with the status of women in Victorian society: Agnes Grey, about the tribulations of a governess, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, detailing the lack of legal rights for married women and the consequential ostracisation endured by those forced to flee unhappy or violent relationships. Anne’s interest in women’s rights, rather than in the appeal of brooding men, is summed up in my favourite strip by the artist Kate Beaton.
The Parsonage is well worth a visit any time, but particularly during the next few years, when the various exhibitions and other bicentenary events are taking place. I can thoroughly recommend getting to Haworth via the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, and leaving some time free on your itinerary to explore the town itself. You can also play the fun game of Which of these are not in Stevie’s House? if the Museum happens to be running a show and tell of Victorian household items.