Childhood Writings

Blackwood's Magazine

An Article from Blackwood's Magazine, 1834
Click to enlarge.

Although the mythology surrounding the Brontës’ lives characterizes the Rev. Brontë as a cold and unfeeling parent, the children’s surviving writings actually point to a caring father, although perhaps an absent-minded and preoccupied one. Charlotte had ample literary resources in her father’s bookshelf. She and her siblings also read the two Leeds newspapers the family subscribed to, as well as current popular journals such as Blackwood’s Magazine. During the nineteenth century this type of reading was not considered suitable for young children and was especially frowned upon for girls. However, the only time Mr. Brontë seems to have forbidden reading to his children was when Charlotte and her sisters were caught looking through “ladies’ magazines,” which he thought too full of foolish love stories. Mr. Brontë encouraged independent thought in his children and once wrote that he could discuss current events with them just easily as he would have with adults. Much of Charlotte’s early writing reveals a concern with current politics and world events that goes far beyond her young age.

Mr. Brontë also loved to write, publishing a book of poems in 1811 and several other didactic works before his wife’s death. Although his daughters received only sporadic formal education outside the home, it seems apparent that he worked to instill the same love of the written word in all of his children. They exercised their creative talents by writing numerous stories and poems, but their most important childhood pastime were their “plays”:

Toy soldiers

Soldiers such as the ones
the Brontë children played with

Our plays were established; Young Men, June, 1826; Our Fellows, July, 1827; Islanders, December, 1827. These are our three great plays, that are not kept secret. …The Young Men's play took its rise from some wooden soldiers Branwell had; Our Fellows from Æsop's Fables; and the Islanders from several events which happened. I will sketch out the origin of our plays more explicitly if I can. First, Young Men. Papa bought Branwell some wooden soldiers at Leeds; when Papa came home it was night, and we were in bed, so next morning Branwell came to our door with a box of soldiers. Emily and I jumped out of bed, and I snatched up one and exclaimed, 'This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!' When I had said this Emily likewise took one up and said it should be hers; when Anne came down, she said one should be hers. Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest, and the most perfect in every part. Emily's was a grave-looking fellow, and we called him 'Gravey.' Anne's was a queer little thing, much like herself, and we called him 'Waiting-boy.' Branwell chose his, and called him 'Bonaparte.' [1]

The Young Men’s play gave rise to an imaginary colony in Africa called Angria, peopled by the characters represented by the toy soldiers. Although all four of the children were involved in the play at first, Emily and Anne soon branched off into their own imaginary kingdoms, leaving Charlotte and Branwell to manage the affairs of Angria by themselves. Both brother and sister wrote stories, poems, articles, and histories about the colony, and it seems that they were often at odds with each other regarding how events should proceed. Because many of the Angrian tales do not survive, scholars of the Brontë juvenilia face difficulties in piecing together details of the characters and the overall story of the colony.

Lord Byron

A frontispiece portrait of Lord Byron,
from an 1841 edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Charlotte eventually became the dominant creative force behind the play, and she developed complex, interconnected plots that drew on the often-stormy relationships between several main characters. These plots were also strongly influenced by recent events in the political world, as well as by Charlotte’s current choice of reading material. Magical elements permeate the early stories, in which the four siblings feature as all-powerful Genii who control the colony. By the later stories, Charlotte was more interested in the political machinations and romantic entanglements that she wove into her complex plots, leaving the world of fairy tales behind. Her writing shows the influence of various histories and legends, stories like the Arabian Nights, and the literature of Byron, Scott, and contemporary writers.

The fact that the plays were not just an idle pastime but also a serious literary endeavor is apparent in the seriousness with which Charlotte regarded her creations. She wrote to Robert Southey, then poet laureate of England, in 1837 to ask for his opinion on her writing, and was advised to give up her immersion in her dream world:

The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind; and, in proportion as all the ordinary uses of the world seem to you flat and unprofitable, you will be unfitted for them without becoming fitted for anything else. Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement, of which the vicissitudes of this life, and the anxieties from which you must not hope to be exempted, be your state what it may, will bring with them but too much. [2]

Charlotte replied to Southey’s letter to let him know “your advice shall not be wasted, however sorrowfully and reluctantly it may at first be followed.” However, she does not seem to have taken Southey’s warning against an over-imaginative life too much to heart. Charlotte continued writing and “daydreaming” for the next two years, and she does not seem to have consciously rejected the trappings of her childhood until 1839, when she was twenty-four years old. She wrote,

…It is not easy to dismiss from my imagination the images which have filled it for so long; they were my friends and my intimate acquaintances, and I could with little labour describe to you the faces, the voices, the actions, of those who peopled my thoughts by day, and not seldom stole strangely even into my dreams at night. When I depart from these I feel almost as if I stood on the threshold of a home and were bidding farewell to its inmates. When I try to conjure up new inmates I feel as if I had got into a distant country where every face was unknown and the character of all the population an enigma… [3]

But Charlotte did come up with “new inmates”; the characters in Jane Eyre and her successive novels, although heavily dependent on her imagination rather than her life experience, have no direct parallels in the characters of her childhood plays. Only “echoes of Angrian characters and plot can be found in all Charlotte’s novels and later fragmentary writing.” [4] Realizing that her dream world did indeed inhibit her calling as a writer, Charlotte eventually followed at least part of Southey’s advice and abandoned it for the more believable and solid Yorkshire settings that play such an important part in her later work.

1. Charlotte Brontë’s “History of the Year 1829” as published by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Charlotte-1.html#V). [Return to text]

2. See http://www.wmich.edu/english/txt/Southey.Bronte.html. - This resource has been removed as of 11/22/2010.

3. Reprinted by Fannie E. Ratchford, Legends of Angria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933), 315.

4. Christine Alexander, The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë (New York: Prometheus, 1983), 244.