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Literature and Sisterly Love

My novel THE GILDED LILY is about the relationship between sisters – one pretty and one plain, when they run away to the gilded streets of London to escape a difficult past. Although the novel is set in 1661, during my research for the novel I looked into the relationships between sisters in lots of different periods in order to see where the tensions between sisters commonly lie. In THE GILDED LILY the sisters’ relationship puts them in danger, but also ultimately saves them.
This post was originally a guest article for Heather Webb’s blog, where I thought I’d share a little about the relationship between famous literary sisters, The Bronte Sisters.
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Did Charlotte Bronte burn her sister Emily’s manuscript?
Originally there were five Bronte sisters. When Emily was only six she was sent to boarding school – the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, which her older sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte already attended. The school was a grim and dismal place, run with the idea of casting out sin by physical punishment. Weakened by this cruel regime, in 1825 Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis. The same disease later claimed Emily and Anne as well. Following these bereavements the surviving sisters, Charlotte and Emily, were removed from the school but they never forgot their harsh treatment and Charlotte made it the model for the terrifying school in ‘Jane Eyre’.
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Life at home was much better for the girls. They were isolated in their house on the Yorkshire moors and so they developed an extremely close relationship, a lot of which was based on a fantasy game. Their father brought their brother Branwell a box of wooden soldiers, and each child chose one and gave him a name and character. Over the course of the next sixteen years they made tiny books containing stories, plays, histories, and poetry written by their imagined heroes and heroines from the fictional “Gondal”. This is the sort of thing I used to do with my sister when I was small. Did any of you?
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Unfortunately, only the stories written by Charlotte and Branwell survive. Of Emily’s work we only have her poetry, but her most passionate poetry is written from the perspectives of Gondal’s fictional inhabitants. In 1845 Charlotte came across Emily’s “Gondal” poems and read them, which made Emily furious when she found out. However, the discovery led to the publication of a volume of Charlotte, Emily, and the youngest sister Anne’s poetry under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. They sold only two copies, but it filled them with enthusiasm for writing. Afterwards the three continued to write but not without rivalry. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was probably written in 1845-6, while Charlotte was working on ‘Jane Eyre’, and Anne wrote ‘Agnes Grey’.
‘Wuthering Heights’Emily’s novel, (under the pseudonym Ellis Bell) was published in 1847 to considerable critical acclaim, though some Victorians were shocked and horrified by the violence it contained.
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After Emily’s death, Charlotte wrote the preface to a new edition and in it preface she apologizes for her sister’s novel by saying Emily wasn’t in control of what she wrote—her “gift” was not of her own making, but Emily was merely the instrument of inspirations from the beyond.
Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know; I scarcely think it is.
And, when her publisher wrote to discuss the novel with her, Charlotte was apologetic:
Ellis (Emily) has a strong, original mind, full of strange though sombre power … but in prose it breaks forth in scenes which shock more than they attract – Ellis will improve, however, because he knows his defects.
About her sister Anne’s second novel, Charlotte took an even harsher line, writing,
‘Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.
And she refused to authorize a new edition of  ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’ Charlotte’s attitude toward her sisters’ literary efforts was patronizing. She decided to “improve” Emily’s poetry when she published an edition of it after her death, altering words and even adding her own stanzas or removing entire parts altogether.
This led to many believing that Charlotte actually burnt Emily’s second novel, a novel for which there is ample evidence in correspondence from the publisher. No novel has survived, hence the accusations. It is unclear whether Charlotte’s motivations were of jealousy, or of protecting her sister’s memory from ridicule. But whatever her motives it is clear that despite this she had great love for her sisters, particularly when she was left the only survivor of the original six children.
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This is what fascinates me about sisterly relationships – they can be both cruel and loving, all within the space of a short time. I hope my readers will find as much fascination in my characters Sadie and Ella Appleby as I found in the Bronte sisters. More information about the Bronte sisters can be found at
or at the brilliant blog by Clare Dunkle http://www.claredunkle.com/design/maidsbrmyths.html
or see Juliet Barker’s excellent book, The Brontës.
Click on these links to read about other famous literary sisters who have turbulent relationships.
Joan and Jackie Collins
Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt’s relationship
THE GILDED LILY is published by St Martin’s Press. Watch the live action Trailer here
Pictures: wikipedia