No group of sisters has captured the literary imagination like the Brontes. The mysterious romance of three young and ultimately tragic women who grew up in isolation on the windswept English moors and yet helped change the Western literary canon has only expanded since their untimely deaths. But this romanticizing ignores the very real truth that, ultimately, these were three girls who needed something to entertain themselves with and relied predominantly on their own imaginations.
What’s more is that the mere fact that Emily and Anne died so young and abruptly (30 and 29, respectively), leaving Charlotte, the eldest, with their countless diaries and papers demonstrates the sad truth that a great deal of their childhood writing is lost to us forever. Charlotte, as the sole Bronte left to ensure her sisters’ legacies, most likely did what she thought was best in destroying their imaginative childhood writing or accidentally losing it, yet one can’t help but worry that sibling rivalry played a role. Among the four Bronte children that survived to adulthood, a clear dynamic existed: Charlotte and her brother, Branwell, versus Emily and Anne. While all four spent a great deal of their free (and working) time writing and dreaming up stories, only Charlotte and Branwell’s childhood prose exists.
Perhaps in an effort to escape the harsh and lonely landscape they were raised in, all four Brontes created imaginary, exotic kingdoms as the settings of their stories. They were inspired by the real life adventures of the Duke of Wellington, the colonial expansion into the tropics that was gaining steam in the 19th century, the romantic and gothic writings of Walter Scott and Lord Byron, and a box of toy wooden soldiers that their father brought home to them. Such was the importance of these wooden soldiers to the imagination and the later writing of the three sisters that we know the exact date that they arrived: June 5, 1826. Charlotte took the time to explain in diary:
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! It shall be mine!” When I said this, Emily likewise took one and said it should be hers. When Anne came down, she took one also. Mine was the prettiest of the whole and perfect in every part. Emily’s was a grave-looking fellow. We called him Gravey. Anne's was a queer little thing very much like herself. He was called Waiting Boy. Branwell chose Bonaparte.
At Charlotte’s urging, the four children created their own islands to manage. Yet, true to form as in any sibling-run game, Anne and Emily were annoyed by their inferior relegations by Charlotte and Branwell, and staged a rebellion, forming their own island: Gondal.
Gondal has all but been lost to us today. One can purchase the entire prose narrative of Angria, created by Charlotte and Branwell, but all that is left to us from the mysterious Gondal are poems and diary entries. From these, we can scrape together a basic understanding of this wild island nation, located in the exotic Pacific and run by the two-faced King Julius and, eventually, his dangerously beautiful, dominant Augusta Geraldine Almeda. (It should be noted that Augusta shares the first name of Lord Byron’s well-known muse and beloved half-sister.) Gondal also had a distinctly Gothic feel to it, with its ruined castles, dungeons, exiled prince and princesses, and looming mountains. We also know that, unlike their older siblings, Anne and Emily never outgrew their love of writing about their island. In a diary entry from when the 27-year-old Emily and 25-year-old Anne took a train trip to York, Emily wrote:
During our excursion we were Ronald Macalgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Angusteena, Rosabella Esmaldan, Ella and Julian Egremont, Catharine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the palaces of instruction to join the Royalists, who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans.
For Emily, the line between reality and fantasy was easily blurred. She was capable of switching, in one diary entry, from a description of the kitchen she sat in to tales of Gondal, as evidenced from a 1834 diary entry: “The Gondals are discovering the interior of Gaaldine; Sally Moseley is washing in the back-kitchen.”
One of the tragedies of the loss of the Gondal prose is the fact that critics would have a greater understanding of Emily and Anne’s evolution as writers. We know that Emily’s Wuthering Heights, which to some seems to have appeared out of nowhere, featured characters that were originally residents of Gondal. Critics have even argued that the tempestuous Catherine was inspired by the willful Augusta. We know even less of Anne’s personal writing career, though it is tempting to say that the female-dominant kingdom of Gondal could easily have been an early influence for her later feminist-leaning works, such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Of course, without the prose, we’ll never know.
We do know that Charlotte destroyed or lost the Gondal writings. Just why, we can only speculate. Was it sisterly jealousy? After all, with the success of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848, Charlotte prevented the book’s reprinting after Anne’s death the following year. It’s clear that Anne and Emily never stopped writing Gondal stories in their adulthood, so was Charlotte attempting to prevent any more posthumous literary success for her sisters?
The truth may be less scandalous. By all accounts, Charlotte could’ve been simply following her own sisters’ wishes. Emily, after all, selected several Gondal poems for the sisters’ published collection, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, but deleted all references to the island-nation. After all, Gondal seems to have been a private safe space for Emily and Anne, to which even Charlotte did not have access. Emily had even gone into a rage when Charlotte discovered and read her Gondal poetry one day.
Perhaps Charlotte was also attempting to save her sisters’ reputations by destroying works that featured passionate female characters that had multiple lovers and elements of speculative fiction. Charlotte regarded the lure of fantasy as dangerous and, therefore, could have wanted to simply protect her sisters. The final possibility is the most straightforward and boring: The Gondal narratives were simply lost.
Unless these writings are recovered, we have nothing but the three sisters’ surviving texts to use for interpretations of Gondal. Perhaps it is the mystery of this island-nation that makes it so intriguing to modern critics. Or perhaps it is simply charming to know that the Bronte sisters started their literary career like many others today: writing fan fiction.
Kerry Fiallo is a New York native and a freelance writer afflicted with an overwhelming love for books and black tea. She is currently in the process of attaining a Doctorate in Women’s and Gender Studies and has her Master’s in English Literature. Along with contributing here, she is an editor and writer for The Geekiary. Follow along with her adventures through fandom and feminism on Twitter: @FangirlingDaily
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