That the supernatural should be associated with the most famous trio of sisters in literature, the Brontës, should perhaps come as no surprise. Raised by their grim and brooding father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, in the bleak hillside village of Haworth in Yorkshire, Charlotte, Emily and Anne were lonely, dreamy children. Their mother died the year after Anne was born and, since their surviving parent spent most of his time in his study – often even having his meals alone – the girls were left to themselves to read and wander on the wild empty moors surrounding their home. Together the Brontë children – they also had an unhappy brother named Branwell – made up stories of an unreal world, writing them in tiny handwriting on small sheets of paper, which they stitched together to look like real books. For one year Charlotte and Emily went to a school for the daughters of clergymen, but they were very unhappy there. This tumultuous early life inevitably found its expression in their fiction. Charlotte gave a terrible picture of her school in Jane Eyre, where she called it ‘Lowood’. Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, is a wild, strange, powerful book, containing stirring descriptions of the Yorkshire moors that she knew so well. Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, contains a terrible account of a drunkard, which was written from what she knew about her brother Branwell’s alcoholic binges. The three sisters were very different in character. Anne was gentle and open, Charlotte was quiet but with very deep feelings, and Emily, who was perhaps the greatest of the three in talent, had the strongest and the strangest character. She was silent and reserved and endured pain of body and mind with determination; only in her writing can be seen the fierce passions which she kept hidden inside her. The three also each had very different attitudes and experiences of the supernatural.
‘Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits; that world is round us, for it is everywhere’. These lines come from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and are spoken by Helen Burns, the tragic and saintly character said to be based on Charlotte’s two elder sisters, who both died as infants in 1825, not long after Emily, Anne and Branwell were born. Charlotte’s seminal novel, with its haunting depiction of the first Mrs Rochester, locked away in an attic yet casting an ominous shadow over the lives of all who are aware of her existence, has several such metaphysical undertones, but never explicitly strays into the realm of the unearthly. This is not the case with all of her work. Charlotte began writing poems and ghost stories at the age of twelve, and several of these pieces were rediscovered and published many years after her death. Napoleon and the Spectre (click to read!) was one of a number of fragments preserved by her widower, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nichols. Extracts appeared in Poet-Lore in Autumn 1897 and its first separate edition was printed for private circulation by Clement Shorter in February 1919, limited to only 25 copies. The story was later published for a wider audience in the Brontë collection of juvenilia, The Twelve Adventurers (1925). It was originally written in 1833, nearly 30 years after the mysterious death of French general Charles Pichegru, who Charlotte apparently believed had been strangled at the instigation of Napoleon – hence the identity of the ghost, ‘Piche’, which returns to haunt the French Emperor.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights contains perhaps the most memorable ghostly image in all of English literature. The novel’s unforgettable opening features Lockwood, the tenant of Thrushcross Grange, having a nightmare in which he sees Catherine as a ghost trying to enter through the window of the eponymous remote moorland farmhouse. It is speculated at several points during the story that the anti-hero Heathcliff might be a demon or at the very least that he sold his soul to the devil in return for his latter-day riches. The supernatural theme extends far beyond Heathcliff, however, for the moors, the people and Wuthering Heights itself are all infused with supernatural elements. Not even the local chapel is exempt, for it is said that ‘No clergyman will undertake the duties of pastor’ there. The book ends with the suggestion that together Heathcliff and Catherine will haunt the moors for ever after. In real life there are persistent rumours to this day that Emily’s ghost continues to haunt Haworth, perhaps as a Will o’ the Wisp flitting around the moors. There are even stories that, after Emily’s death in 1848, she appeared to her last remaining sister Charlotte with her last unpublished work. This so-called ‘lost Brontë’ is said to still be out there somewhere, perhaps buried in the churchyard at Haworth. Emily’s ghost is doomed to wander the moors – much like her heroine Catherine – until this is found and published.
It is a little known fact that Anne Brontë’s grave lies in St Mary’s churchyard in Scarborough rather than in Haworth with her siblings. In life she was much under the Wesleyan influence of her Aunt – also called Branwell – who is thought to have encouraged her tendency towards religious melancholy. As a child she was particularly close to Emily; together they invented the imaginary world of Gondal, the setting of many of their dramatic poems. Anne wrote in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall of the relationship the eponymous tenant had with her man, a dissolute chap of ill-repute. Her novel shocked Victorian society with its realistic portrayal of the downtrodden position of women. There is some suggestion that Anne’s elder sister Charlotte was upset by the novel’s content, so much so that she was once moved to comment ‘the choice of subject was an entire mistake’ and prevented its republication for a time after her sister’s death. Never a particularly healthy woman, Anne was deeply affected by Emily’s death in 1848 and her grief further undermined her physical health. Shortly before she died, scarcely a year later, Anne wrote her last poem, A dreadful darkness closes in, in which she deals with the realisation of being terminally ill. It is a sad postscript to her life and to all of the Brontë siblings, who were all outlived by their father, who died in 1861, a broken and embittered man. Thanks to their shining literary legacy, however, they were subject to a following that has never ceased to grow. Their home, the parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire, now the Brontë Parsonage Museum has become a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.