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`Do you like London, Miss Bront"e?' `Yes and no'

By Charles Theodore Houpt / June 3, 1986

HER father's name was Brunty, his birthplace a village with a euphonious name, Drumbally-roney, in County Down, Ireland. In an age of remarkable families, he was to become the parent of one of the most remarkable. When he entered Cambridge, he changed the spelling (hence the pronunciation) of his name; it may be that Adm. Horatio Nelson's elevation to the title Duke of Bront"e in 1799 provided a suggestion of distinction. Patrick Bront"e's ordination as pastor in the Church of England enabled him to marry Maria Branwell, sister to the ex-mayor of Penzance, in December 1812. They had six children, two of whom did not survive childhood. The other four, Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, Emily, and Anne, established reputations that have made the name Bront"e unforgettable.

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Father Patrick was for 41 years the vicar of Howarth, in Yorkshire, 10 miles from Bradford, on the edge of the moors. The Parsonage there became the stage for the Bront"e drama. Although schooling and, later, work as governesses or teachers necessitated the daughters' temporary absence from home, the Parsonage, like a giant magnet, drew them back and back, and Patrick's influence in their lives persisted to the very end, for he outlived them all.

It is difficult to isolate one of these figures for discussion because they were so closely entwined, and, to a greater or lesser degree used one another as models in their books. They began their literary experiments early, for amusement, as there was in their environment little in the way of diversion besides walking on the moors. Anyone who has visited the Parsonage (now a museum) remembers the manuscripts written by these children in script so minuscule as to be indecipherable without a magnifying glass. Their imaginations were stimulated by their reading, their daydreams, and their ambitions to be authors. Their father, who himself had so aspired, encouraged them.

They chose to write about imaginary islands which they peopled with characters. Charlotte and Branwell invented a state called ``Angria,'' located in West Africa. Emily and Anne chose ``Angora,'' a mountain kingdom of people called ``Gondals,'' in the Arctic.

These literary labors, and they were extensive, continued into their late teens and early 20s. Emily was still at work on poems about the Gondals when she was planning and beginning to write ``Wuthering Heights.''

Of the three sisters, Charlotte was the most enterprising, despite an inherent shyness. Fortunately for posterity, Charlotte's initiative sometimes outstripped her reticence.

Shy people often take refuge in writing privately; throughout her life Charlotte always had a correspondent in whom she could confide. The result is an immense number of letters, some of which, regrettably, were destroyed by her husband after her passing, some of which were suppressed by her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell. The remaining letters, however, provide intimate -- sometimes startling -- glimpses into the lives, thoughts, moods, and opinions of the self-effacing sisters and their profligate brother.

Charlotte, for all her shyness, reveals herself to be a person of fixed opinions, opinions she sometimes had to relinquish. An outstanding example is her satiric outlook on curates, reflected in her novel ``Shirley''; ultimately she married her father's curate, Arthur Nicholls, whom she had disliked for eight years! Another example is her admiration for that literary lady Harriet Martineau -- up to the point of the latter's adverse review of Charlotte's last novel, ``Villette.'' Thus ended a beautiful friendship!