Essay

A Little Society

From the Brontës to Dorothy and William Wordsworth, literary siblings challenge assumptions of lonely genius.

by Casey N. Cep
A Little Society
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti

For years, a tiny pub on the road between the English villages of Haworth and Keighley has been home to a peculiar rumor. The Cross Roads Inn was one of Branwell Brontë’s favorite haunts. It was at the Cross Roads that two of Branwell’s friends claim he read from a manuscript that featured the characters who would later appear in the novel Wuthering Heights.

Despite Charlotte Brontë’s insistence that her sister Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, the rumor that their brother Branwell penned the novel has persisted. In their various biographies, Juliet Barker, Daphne du Maurier, Lucasta Miller, and Fannie Elizabeth Ratchford all considered the possibility that Branwell was the true author of Wuthering Heights. Barker claimed to have identified a story of Branwell’s that influenced the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff; du Maurier pointed to poems written by Emily and Branwell as evidence of an early collaboration between the two that could have blossomed into Wuthering Heights.

The persistence of the rumor reflects the curious, cloistered upbringing of the Brontës, but also the more universal experience of siblings. Collaboration and competition between brothers and sisters exists no matter their vocations, but literary siblings challenge our assumptions of lonely genius, isolated writers alone at their desks. Patrick Brontë, father to the four artists, who raised them himself after their mother died, wrote: “As they had few opportunities of being in learned and polished society, in their retired country situation, they formed a little society amongst themselves—with which they seem’d content and happy.”

“A little society” is the perfect description of siblings. Brothers and sisters have long encouraged one another’s literary careers: letters and drafts change hands; carefully chosen words of praise and criticism pass between lips; scraps of paper, coveted notebooks, and particular pens move between writing desks.

The Brontës—Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne—were all prolific writers as children. When Charlotte was ten and Branwell was nine, they began to write plays set in the fictional world of Glass Town. When Emily and Anne were old enough to contribute, Glass Town grew into the separate kingdoms of Gondal and Angria. Together, the four children filled miniature books and tiny magazines with poetry and stories.

Their juvenilia reveal young artists finding their voices, but also their audience. Writing first for one another, they learned how to write for others. When the sisters finally published a book in 1846, it was a collection of poems. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell sold poorly, and the sisters redirected their efforts to fiction. Emily and Anne continued writing poetry privately, but Charlotte would write poems again only to mark the deaths of her siblings.

On the Death of Anne Brontë” is one of Charlotte’s most sorrowful poems. “There’s little joy in life for me,” it begins. From the first stanza (“I’ve lived the parting hour to see / Of one I would have died to save”) to the last (“And now, benighted, tempest-tossed, / Must bear alone the weary strife”), she laments her sister’s death and her fresh solitude. She outlived all of her siblings: Branwell and Emily died in 1848; Anne followed them to the grave less than a year later. Charlotte would be their literary executor after their deaths just as she had been their literary champion in life.

That same closeness characterized the relationship between Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Although they lived apart during much of their childhood, the siblings were reunited as adults and eventually cohabited for many years in the Lake District. In an essay on Dorothy, Virginia Woolf wrote: “It was a strange love, profound, almost dumb, as if brother and sister had grown together and shared not the speech but the mood, so that they hardly knew which felt, which spoke, which saw the daffodils or the sleeping city; only Dorothy stored the mood in prose, and later William came and bathed in it and made it into poetry.”

Dorothy would copy verses for her brother and assist him with correspondence, but she was also a talented writer. While she wrote little for publication, her journals, travelogues, and poetry are all now in print. It is clear that her writing influenced her brother’s or, as Woolf noted, that “one could not act without the other.”

It was Dorothy who made notes in her journal about a fateful walk the siblings took on April 15, 1802, when they “saw a few daffodils close to the water side … a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road.” Dorothy recorded that she “never saw daffodils so beautiful [—] they grew among the mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced.”

Only a few years later, William would return to that entry and craft from it one of the most iconic poems in the English language. Written in iambic tetrameter, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” captures “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils.” While the poem celebrates “the bliss of solitude,” the poet himself rambled through the Lake District with his sister. In one of her own poems, “Floating Island,” Dorothy wrote that “the lost fragments shall remain, / To fertilize some other ground.” She might very well have been thinking of the way her own writing nurtured her brothers.

The collaboration between siblings is not always so indirect. Charles and Mary Lamb co-authored several collections of poetry and prose for children. Long before he had established his reputation as an essayist and a critic, Charles collaborated with Mary on Tales from Shakespeare (1807), Mrs. Leicester’s School (1809), and Poetry for Children (1809).

Mary, who suffered from mental illness, wrote poetry and stories almost constantly when fueled by her mania; Charles, not without his own struggles, suffered from depression and alcoholism, both of which led to severe writer’s block. Brother and sister were linked not only in illness but in tragedy. Mary came to live with Charles after murdering their mother in a psychotic episode. Although Mary was 31 and Charles was only 21, he became her legal guardian and refused to have her committed. They lived together for 40 years, until Charles died.

Well known in literary circles, Charles and Mary were forever linked to one another. It was Thomas Carlyle who called the siblings “a very sorry pair of phenomena,” but everyone from Keats to Coleridge to Wordsworth enjoyed their company. While they hosted many of London’s literati, their deepest friendship, their strongest relationship, was with one another. It was brother and sister who saw one another through madness and depression, frustration and addiction. “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both,” Mary wrote in 1805, “to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying & say we will be better on the morrow.”

Unlike the Lambs and the Wordsworths, pairs of siblings in which the brother’s reputation far exceeded the sister’s, one Victorian family produced a daughter whose fame has outlasted that of her brother. Christina Rossetti is considered one of the greatest Victorian poets, while her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti is remembered more for his status as sibling than painter or poet.

Born to an accomplished poet and Dante scholar, Christina and her brother were the “two storms” in a family of four children whose other dyad was known as the “two calms.” All four of the Rossetti children had accomplished careers as writers and critics, encouraged by a childhood filled with arts and letters. As teenagers, they played rounds of bouts-rimés, racing against one another to write sonnets with specified forms and rhymes; Christina was the youngest, but is said to have excelled most at the game.

While Dante Gabriel founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to surround himself with other artists, Christina found support from the Portfolio Society, a group of female poets. Despite their esteemed position in literary society, they remained each other’s best critics. Exchanging letters almost daily for years, they critiqued one another’s work, suggested new topics and themes, and helped to organize poems into volumes for publication.

Private disagreements, including Dante Gabriel’s suggestion that certain topics are unsuitable for female writers and Christina’s increasing unwillingness to accept her brother’s revisions, did not keep them from championing one another’s work in public. And while Christina’s most remarkable poem, Goblin Market, testifies to the love between sisters (“For there is no friend like a sister / In calm or stormy weather”), it was her brother Dante Gabriel whose illustrations accompanied its publication. And like Branwell Brontë, who painted a famous portrait of his sisters, Dante Gabriel produced iconic images of Christina.

Tellingly, Branwell’s painting of his sisters, the only surviving group portrait, originally included his likeness: the blurred pillar between Emily and Charlotte was once Branwell. As the oil paint fades, the canvas is slowly revealing Branwell’s figure. Brothers and sisters are not always at peace, and posterity plays favorites. Branwell is as spectral a figure in the portrait as he is in the pages of literary history. The competition for prizes, publication, and readers in life often continues posthumously, and not all siblings are peaceable partners in literary creation.

Where there is ink, there is envy. Literary siblings are certainly not exempt from the rivalries that animate other families. One sibling’s success fuels another sibling’s writing with jealousy and ambition or thwarts the other sibling’s efforts entirely; the connections of one sibling to the literary establishment facilitate another sibling’s career or, less ceremoniously, earn the lesser sibling a footnote in literary history as simply that, a biological relation.

Literary siblings are not only a thing of the past. Contemporary poetry is home to at least two of these little societies: Matthew and Michael Dickman are twin brothers who edit one another’s poetry and share a publisher; Fanny and Susan Howe are sisters whose poetic careers span decades. While many artists long to be orphans, free of family and obligation, some poets find strength in their siblings. The complicated dynamics of these little societies are fascinating and fraught. Collaborating on juvenilia, editing one another’s drafts, supporting one another through depression and doubt, championing each other’s work: these little societies sustain one another in ways only siblings could.

Originally Published: October 22, 2013

COMMENTS (5)

On October 23, 2013 at 6:52am Eric wrote:
A very interesting article. As I grew up near Haworth I have always been interested in the Brontes.

On October 28, 2013 at 11:14am Al de Baran wrote:
No one believes, or has ever believed, the ridiculous straw-man
depiction of the completely isolated genius. As a pro-social polemic,
this article therefore falls flat.

"While the poem celebrates 'the bliss of solitude,' the poet himself
rambled through the Lake District with his sister."

This is a gross misreading of "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud".
Wordsworth's actual lines read,

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They [the daffodils] flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude [...]"

What Wordsworth is "celebrating" here is not "the bliss of solitude" in
contradiction to the bliss of countryside walks with his sister. The
poet is celebrating the power of imagination and of "emotions
recollected in tranquillity" to stimulate poetic composition. And the
writing of poetry is usually, though not always, a solitary activity.

On October 28, 2013 at 11:30am P wrote:
I believe father did not raise the Brontes on his own. Their aunt played a significant role in their upbringing after the death of their mother. Enjoyed the article though.

On October 31, 2013 at 6:06pm Victorianna wrote:
What a joy reading William Wordsworth's poem "I Wander Lonely as a Cloud".

On December 22, 2013 at 4:07pm Baban "the fair world" wrote:
Hi Jane and Caspian - I hope you're alright in Ireland. I thought
of you (that's a crime) these days, but one of the reasons why
the Irish landscape can never be entailed by these siblings of
cyclic fate is that at some unknown date British legislation
acknowledged that persistence leads to madness. The eclipse
of law and madness in these fabled sisters lives is much that
keeps the book publishing market and the "status of the
economy" driven towards an identity-based society. Sometimes
when I travel I'm free of it. Shouldn't the Yorkshire moors,
under that sort of British legislation, be free of the great
madness too?

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 Casey N. Cep

Biography

Casey N. Cep has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. She lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and you can follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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