I was once asked in a pub quiz: ‘Who is the least famous Brontë sister?’ Of course I had to swallow my anger at the injustice of it all and write down Anne Brontë, as I knew that was the answer they were looking for – but it isn’t correct. Less well known is Maria Brontë, the tragic genius of the family, but the least known of all the Brontë sisters is the second sister: Elizabeth Brontë. Isn’t it time that we recognised her as a flesh and blood human, and not just a footnote?
- This is one clue that Elizabeth had different priorities to her siblings. While they loved to play and read and invent stories, Elizabeth liked order and tidiness, and the more practical things in life. This is also confirmed by her admission entry in the records of the Clergy Daughter’s School at Cowan Bridge.
- Elizabeth went to the school in the company of her eldest sister Maria on the 1st July, 1823 and in the following months she would also be joined there by Charlotte and Emily (thankfully for Anne Brontë in the light of what we now know about the school, she was too young to attend). They were all assessed as to their academic abilities upon arrival, and it is also noted what they were to be schooled for, i.e. what occupation they were expected to attain in later life. Maria, Charlotte and Emily Brontë are all listed as future governesses, but Elizabeth is recorded as being schooled to be a housekeeper. We know that she was not given French, music or drawing lessons, as her sisters at the school were. Her accomplishments are summed up as: ‘Reads little. Writes pretty well. Ciphers none. Works very badly. Knows nothing of grammar, history, geography or accomplishments.’
- Nancy Garrs, family servant, recalls how the young Elizabeth would lead her younger sisters by the hand on their walks across the moors, and that she was ‘very thoughtful’ in her treatment of them