Life Lessons From the Brontë Sisters

The enduring fiction by the three Bronte sisters tells us that authors do not have to lead exciting lives to be great. As the Brontes prove, it’s the inner life that counts.

03.19.16 4:00 AM ET

Every so often, a new discovery comes along that reignites the question: what is there possibly left to say about the Brontës?

In 2015, the discovery took the form of an unpublished short story by young Charlotte Brontë, found romantically tucked away in her late mother’s book. It was a story that set ablaze an insatiable and happily reawakened audience: the Brontë fanbase.

The million-dollar question is why the Brontës and their novels are still so popular, while so many of their contemporaries have fizzled and died in our collective memories. Public interest often begins with the Brontës themselves—three impossibly tiny sisters secluded on the Moors, pretending to be men, writing epic fiction that defied the parameter of their own experiences. Yet much of our collective obsession has to do with what we don’t know. Despite exhaustive research over the last one hundred and fifty years, there are still enough holes in our knowledge to breed myths and fantasy. The picturesque romance of the Brontës depends on the incomplete picture we have; as in real life, romance and mystery go hand in hand.

My own obsession with the Brontë legacy was unhealthy enough to inspire me to write a novel on the subject. I hoped, in part, to unlock the secret of the Brontë’s spectacular immortality, even if only to satiate my own curiosity. My research left me with something I was not anticipating: a deep admiration of how well the Brontës and their novels can teach us how to live today. I believe they survived for a century and a half because both the sisters and their characters are excellent teachers, with lessons that are still applicable to every generation of readers.  

Here are the lessons that topped my list—one from each sister. 

1) You know more than you think you know

Read Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, or Mark Twain, and it can seem like writing epic fiction requires epic life experiences. (Hemingway, for one, survived two plane crashes, went on safaris, and used his fishing boat to hunt down German U-Boats in World War II.) And yet another literary giant, Emily Brontë, rarely left her house. She had few friends and seemed to prefer the company of animals to humans.

Despite her isolation, Emily managed to produce a novel that was sweeping in its scale and depth. Wuthering Heights encompasses a full spectrum of human emotion—love, cruelty, infidelity, jealousy, fear, loyalty—and explores the eternal puzzle of death and the afterlife. How did she pull it off?

Emily teaches us that fiction is not defined by what an author has done, but what an author has felt. To write is often to observe, not necessarily to experience. It is possible to be strong, independent, and still be at home; there is nothing limiting or weak about the “domestic” life. Daily life is not to be avoided—in fact, it can be our most fruitful source of truth.

2) Cultivate the true “you”

Jane Eyre—and Charlotte Brontë—are wonderfully helpful when thinking about how to navigate the world, especially as a woman, and especially as a woman seeking the respect of men. Jane does not need to deny her femininity to gain power, nor does she need to actively become more masculine. Her power comes from unapologetically nurturing her existing strengths: an acute mind, exacting morals, and a keen sense of empathy. This is easier said than done (Jane has the benefit of being fictional), yet her generations of admirers speak to the traits that endure outside of fiction. Readers love Jane because she is not trying to be anyone else but Jane.

Charlotte Brontë’s own struggle to find her voice was not always straightforward. She was not always the confident, larger-than-life figure we know today; in fact, early on in her writing career, she showed some refreshing moments of insecurity. Her doubts are relatable and human—it’s as if Charlotte had been staring at the Facebook feeds of Thackeray and Lord Byron, worried that she had fewer friends, fewer likes, and less talent. An insecure Charlotte Brontë is not the one we recognize today, but it’s the Charlotte Brontë who lives inside each of us. Charlotte did not succeed by altering her voice, but by becoming more comfortable with it. In a world where “authentic” has been reduced to a hashtag, Charlotte, like Jane, reminds us that authenticity can’t be acquired—just nurtured.

3) Read between the lines

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë’s best novel, is a terrific reminder to question the reliability of a source, even—and particularly—when it’s presented as the truth.

Anne’s protagonist, Helen, is Anne Brontë’s bravest and most independent female character—a single mom who has left her abusive husband and is now trying to make a living on her own. Yet we never seem to hear Helen’s voice directly. The entire book is a letter by Helen's second husband, Gilbert, to a friend. We see Helen—we even read her diary—solely through the eyes of a man. It’s worth noting that we also see Anne Brontë primarily through the eyes of others, namely the critics and biographers who have until recently relegated her to a shadow in the Brontë family tree.

We’ll never know whether Anne’s narrative trickery was a clumsy plot decision or else a genius bit of meta commentary. Regardless, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall reminds us that history is full of people whose stories have been appropriated and misshapen over the years. Especially in an age where opinions can be formed by a tweet, it’s useful to remember to question the things that seem the most black-and-white.

Catherine Lowell is a writer living in Manhattan. Her first novel, The Madwoman Upstairs, is published by Touchstone.