Patrick Brontë (1777-1861) was the eldest of ten children born to a poor Irish family in County Down, Ireland. He attended Cambridge University with the sponsorship of a local clergyman. In 1806 he was ordained in the Church of England and took his first position in Essex. He advanced through a series of curacies to a position in Bradford where he met his future wife, Maria Branwell. They married, with the grudging permission of her comfortably middle-class parents, in 1812.
Settling first in Hartshead and then Clough House, the couple had their first two daughters, Maria and Elizabeth in 1814 and 1815. A promising position brought them to Thornton where their remaining children, Charlotte (1816), Patrick Branwell (1817), Emily (1818), and Anne (1820) were born. In 1820, the whole family moved to Haworth in Yorkshire where Patrick received a lifetime appointment as curate. Sadly, Mrs. Brontë did not live to enjoy the comfort of the secure position, dying in 1821, possibly of cancer. The two eldest daughters fell ill at boarding school and died within months of each other in 1825.
Charlotte Brontë, 1816-1855
Charlotte attended the Clergy Daughter's School along with her older sisters but returned home upon their deaths in 1825. The next 20 years were devoted to studying, educating her siblings, and a few short terms as a governess. Meanwhile, when she was at home she enjoyed an active creative life with her sisters and brother in which they invented an imaginary world and wrote stories and poems about the people who lived there. Financial support from relatives allowed Charlotte to study for almost two years in Brussels, with the thought of opening her own school with her sisters. When the school failed to work out, she began to cast about for other ways for the family to earn a living.
In 1845 she discovered some poems written by Emily and conceived the idea of the sisters publishing some of their writing. Assuming the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, their Poems were published in 1846. Undeterred by the lack of response, or revenue, engendered by this first attempt, Charlotte went on to write and publish Jane Eyre in 1847. Buoyed by the critical acclaim achieved by Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote Shirley(1849) and Villette (1853). In 1854 she married her father's curate Arthur Bell Nicholas. After a brief but happy marriage, Charlotte died in 1855.
Patrick Branwell Brontë, 1817-1848
As the only Brontë son, Branwell was slated to be successful and provide support for his sisters. Besides tutoring in the classics from his father, Branwell also received painting lessons and in 1838 he set out to be a portrait painter in Bradford. This venture failed and, like Charlotte, Branwell tried tutoring to pay his way. After a five month post in 1840, he took a job as a railway clerk. After a promotion in 1842, his career was cut short when he was let go for discrepancies in his accounts.
1843 found Branwell returned to tutoring, but he was dismissed in 1845, possibly for an inappropriate relationship with his employer's wife. This event seemed to send Branwell into a decline. He made an attempt to support himself by writing, but despite publishing several items, was not able to earn enough. He began drinking and taking opium and ran up debts. Instead of supporting his sisters, he became a burden to them. His emotional distress was aggravated by an undiagnosed case of tuberculosis and by early 1848 his health had deteriorated to the point where he could not longer care for himself. He died at home at the age of thirty-one.
Emily Brontë, 1818-1848
Educated mostly at home, Emily Brontë had only a little formal education, attending Roe Head School in 1835 while Charlotte was a teacher there. She left after only a few months, too home-sick to stay. Despite her minimal formal education, Emily gained a teaching post in Halifax in 1838, but left after six months, again due to debilitating home-sickness. After Halifax, Emily generally stayed at home, managing the household for her father until 1842 when she joined Charlotte to study in Brussels. When the sisters returned home for their Aunt Branwell's funeral, Emily stayed with their father when Charlotte returned to Brussels.
When she wasn't working, Emily, like her sisters, wrote. She participated in the imaginative stories and wrote the poetry which inspired Charlotte to publish Poems (1846). Once the sisters decided to attempt writing for publication, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights (1847) which received almost as much attention as Jane Eyre. Emily's writing career came to an abrupt end when she contracted tuberculosis from her brother. Refusing medical attention until it was too late, she died in 1848, three months after Branwell, at the age of thirty.
Anne Brontë, 1820-1849
The youngest of the Brontë children, Anne was also educated largely at home, though she attended Roe Head School, after Emily left, for three years. Though the youngest, Anne spent the most time actually employed, taking one governess post in Yorkshire for the year of 1839 and then moving to a post near York where she stayed for five years. She was joined in York by Branwell in 1843 when the family took him on as a tutor. Anne left this post in 1845, shortly before Branwell was dismissed.
Returning home, Anne joined in Charlotte's efforts to publish their work and began working on a novel. Agnes Gray (1847), published in a single volume with Wuthering Heights, was largely overlooked by critics. Undiscouraged, Anne wrote a second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall(1848) which received a great deal of critical attention, primarily negative reactions to the brutality described within. Like her sister and brother, Anne's writing career was cut short by illness. Having contracted tuberculosis, probably from her brother or sister, Anne died in 1849.