THE BRONTES AND THE ULTIMATE TABOO; Insanity. Beatings. A Brother's Forbidden passion.As a Lost Book by Charlotte Bronte Is Auctioned, the Truth about Literature's Oddest Family

Daily Mail (London), November 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

THE BRONTES AND THE ULTIMATE TABOO; Insanity. Beatings. A Brother's Forbidden passion.As a Lost Book by Charlotte Bronte Is Auctioned, the Truth about Literature's Oddest Family


Byline: by A.N. Wilson

THE DOCUMENT is tiny. Its 19 pages are the size of your credit card. Its author was 14 years old. And it is expected to reach in the region of [pounds sterling]300,000 when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby's auction house on December 15.

For this is a lost story by none other than Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, and a member of the famous family who lived in the parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

Our fascination with the Bronte sisters is seemingly inexhaustible. This autumn alone, there have been new films of Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights. Director Andrea Arnold's brooding, silent Wuthering Heights is the 27th film adaptation of this book.

Both films have as their backdrop the bleak moorland landscape which was so formative in the Bronte sisters' strange and secluded lives. But for all their insular existence, the stormy passion contained in the pages of the books shocked readers -- as well as gripping them -- when they were first published in the 1840s.

Emily Bronte was all passion, and Wuthering Heights makes clear her obsessions with some of the darkest subjects of all. The story concerns a forbidden love between its heroine Catherine and the brooding Heathcliff.

There are hints of incest (Heathcliff and Catherine are brought up as brother and sister); race (Heathcliff is a 'dark-skinned gypsy' and actually black in the new film); and even necrophilia (Heathcliff is obsessed with Catherine's corpse after she dies).

Charlotte Bronte was a more balanced character than Emily, and her story in Jane Eyre of the plain little governess who attracts the love of her boss -- a swarthy, rather villainous squire who secretly keeps a mad wife in the attic -- is of perennial fascination to the addicts of romance.

But the newly discovered little story of Charlotte's coming up for auction contains its own dark suggestions of incest -- and of madness as well.

Where did this darkness and turbulent passion come from? An answer of sorts can be found in that extraordinary house Haworth Parsonage -- now one of the best literary museums in the world -- where the Bronte children saw out their short and all too tragic lives.

Not only did they lose their mother, Maria, to cancer when the oldest child was just seven years old. But of six siblings -- five of them girls -- two died before reaching their teens and none lived beyond the age of 39.

Visitors to Howarth will know that Charlotte Bronte, her sisters and her brother Branwell jotted down many poems and stories in just such tiny booklets as the one which has been recently discovered.

Tightly written on minute pieces of paper, and illustrated, these stories reveal the imagined worlds in which the closely-knit family all lived.

Thousands come every year to see the tiny books, the tiny rooms the family inhabited, the tiny clothes worn by these tiny reclusive people, and to savour the (if we are honest, rather unwholesome) fantasies which were concocted by a family of eccentric introverts in that remote, cramped residence.

Emily, the tall sister, (5ft 6in) invented a world called Gondal, a mystical land of magic, to escape the sorrow that never left her over her mother's death. Charlotte, more practical, and minute, invented the Kingdom of Angria.

In these stories, she imagined herself being swept off her feet by the Marquess of Douro -- the title belonging to the Duke of Wellington's heir -- whom she renamed Zamorna.

The tiny books at Haworth number tens of thousands of words, and they are a sign of how much the Brontes lived in their own world, how cut off they were from outsiders.

When neighbours visited the parsonage they noted how, in the presence of strangers, these little people would hug one another like timorous animals huddling against predators.

They spoke not with the local Yorkshire dialect, but with the Northern Irish brogue of their father, the Rev Patrick Bronte.

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