This post is designed to celebrate the Brontë sisters and their work in another instalment of our Five Fascinating Facts series. If you enjoy this post, you might also want to see how you fare with our 10 Classic Victorian Novels Everyone Should Read.
1. The sisters’ first volume of poems sold just two copies. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846) sold a total of two copies when first published. However, it was the failure of this poetry volume that convinced the sisters to turn their attention to writing novels: the following year Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey were all published. In a letter of March 1845, Charlotte had written, ‘I shall soon be 30 – and I have done nothing yet. … I feel as if we were all buried here.’ The sisters subsequently adopted their androgynous pseudonyms – Currer Bell for Charlotte, Ellis Bell for Emily, and Acton Bell for Anne – because they suspected their work would receive adverse reviews if it appeared under a female name (compare George Eliot and George Sand). Interestingly, Brontë wasn’t their original surname: their father was named Brunty but he thought this sounded too Irish (sure enough, the Brontë sisters were all of Irish stock), so he altered it to Brontë after one of Horatio Nelson’s titles, Duke of Bronte. What better way to offset the Irishness of your original surname than by paying tribute to the English hero of the hour?
2. Emily paid £50 to have Wuthering Heights published. Although it went on to become a worldwide bestseller and is now perhaps the most famous of all the Brontë novels (it’s between that novel and Jane Eyre), the novel failed to find a publisher and so Brontë paid for the novel to be published, to offset against potential losses to the publisher. Sure enough, the novel was a commercial failure at the time and Emily died, just one year after its publication, believing it had been a flop and would soon be forgotten. (In 2007, a rare first edition of the novel sold at auction for £114,000.) Now, of course, the novel is one of the most widely read Victorian classics, and is immortalised in numerous ways, not least in Kate Bush’s 1978 hit single of the same name. Interestingly, Emily Brontë and Kate Bush share a birthday, July 30th.
3. The earliest known instance of the phrase ‘Wild West’ appears in a novel by Charlotte. Her 1849 novel Shirley also helped to popularise Shirley as a girls’ name. Before Brontë’s novel, Shirley was exclusively a boys’ name (derived from the surname Shirley), but when Brontë used it for her female protagonist, the name gained popularity as a girls’ name. Talking of Charlotte, there was no ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre: Bertha Mason/Rochester was confined to a room on the third floor of the house, which was the room below the attic. So Gilbert and Gubar’s landmark 1979 work of feminist literary criticism should perhaps be renamed as The Madwoman in the Third-Storey Room!
4. Emily Brontë’s dog mourned her death. It is said that Emily’s dog, Keeper, followed her coffin to the grave when she died in 1848 and, for weeks after, moaned and howled outside her bedroom door. Dogs in Wuthering Heights, you may recall, don’t fare too well: Heathcliff hangs Isabella Linton’s dog from a tree (the Lintons’ dog had earlier injured Cathy when she and Heathcliff had ventured over to Thrushcross Grange).
5. Emily once had to put out her brother, Branwell, when he set fire to his bedclothes. The fate of Branwell has been much discussed in the history of the Brontë sisters: his alcoholism helped to inspired the drunken husband Arthur Huntingdon in Anne’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), while there is a rumour that he died standing up, leaning against the mantelpiece, just to prove that it could be done.
If you enjoyed these facts, we have more great Victoriana in our facts about Victorian novelist George Eliot and this selection of Emily Brontë’s best short poems. And discover more great trivia about female authors in our post celebrating the best facts about Jane Austen.
Image: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte by J. H. Thompson, c. 1839, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.