The Bronte Killings; Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte Have Always Been Seen as Demure and Devoted Sisters. but a New Book Suggests That Their Quiet Lives Were Destroyed by Intrigue - and a Serial Murderer

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Byline: Harry Ritchie

Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. these masterpieces were created by three demure sisters who were devoted to their widowed father, literature and each other, and who created their romantic, imaginary worlds while cooped up in a dark, dank parsonage on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Tragically, after lots of quiet bravery and some decorous swooning, all three died young, victims of their own delicate constitutions and consumption.

Well, not quite, according to the author and criminologist James Tully. In his new book, The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte, he claims that the lives of Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte were ruined by fear, betrayal - and serial murder. He believes that Emily had an affair with her father Patrick's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls - despite his reputation as a cold-hearted bigot, his initial effect on all three sisters can be judged by the way they took his middle name for their pseudonyms, Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell - and may have been pregnant with his child when she died. She was, says Tully, poisoned by the ghastly Nicholls, as were her brother Branwell and sisters Anne and Charlotte, who also became his accomplice.

This may sound like the stuff of Victorian melodrama, and Tully's book is, after all, a novel. But his case for the prosecution, amassed over 10 years, and originally written as a work of non-fiction, is unexpectedly persuasive.

At the very least, it exposes much of what we think we know about the Brontes as unreliable propaganda.

There have always been puzzling aspects to the lives of the Brontes. It is, for example, odd that Branwell, Emily and Anne died, suddenly and young, within eight months of each other and that their deaths happened only a couple of years after the arrival of Nicholls at Haworth. It is also strange that great care was taken to prevent Nicholls getting his hands on Charlotte's money when he later married her and that she died just six weeks after rescinding that agreement. And why did Nicholls obstruct the biography of Charlotte written by Elizabeth Gaskell, and ask Charlotte's friend, Ellen Nussey, to burn her correspondence?

The truth is that we know very little about what went on at the Haworth parsonage. The only real witness we have is Charlotte, through her letters, the accounts of her few friends and Mrs Gaskell's biography.

The Life of Charlotte Bronte is one of the first great biographies in English literature, but it is also a monument to Victorian sentimentality and prudishness. Mrs Gaskell's principal aim, she said, was to show that Charlotte was a `noble, true and tender woman'. So when she came across a fact that didn't fit her cosy picture she ignored it. She chose, for instance, to present Charlotte's marriage to Nicholls as perfect, tragic only because it ended so soon with Charlotte's death in 1855, when she was 39 and, according to Gaskell, pregnant. Nicholls is portrayed as an upright, Christian gentleman. There is no indication of Gaskell's own hostility to Nicholls, or that Patrick Bronte hated the man so much that he objected to the marriage and refused to attend the ceremony.

In contrast, Tully's book is, he says, `based on all the known facts and provides a far more believable story than the authorised version'.

The first suspicious death he investigates is that of Branwell. The Brontes had already suffered several tragic deaths - that of their mother in 1821 and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth in 1825 - when Branwell, the black sheep of the family, died in 1848. According to received opinion, his early demise was nothing less than inevitable. He lived in a place that was infamously dank and unhealthy, and coped with his various failures and reversals, including a possible scandal involving a young boy, by drinking heavily. He is said to have suffered, like all the Brontes, from consumption or tuberculosis. …