HOW did the society that the Bronte sisters were born into shape, ensnare and inspire them?

In her compelling biography, The Brontë Sisters: Life, Loss and Literature, Catherine Rayne explores the lives of the literary sisters and asks questions about the culture and society that influenced them.

The book casts a light on all three sisters, looking at the impact of their childhoods on their adult psyches; the lure of the moors and how their imaginations were moulded by their surroundings.

Written in the mid-19th century, the Brontes’ novels caused quite a stir when first published, not least when the authors were revealed to be women. The Bronte girls grew into women unafraid to write about territories previously only visited by male authors. They tackled taboo subjects of their time - divorce, child abuse, bigamy, domestic violence, class, depression and mental illness.

Catherine’s book offers a fresh perspective on a remarkable trio of trailblazing sisters whose work is still celebrated, 200 years after they were born. She offers a fascinating account of the siblings’ formative years to their deaths, exploring the forces that shaped them.

As she writes in her chapter The Birth of Genius, having educated parents and growing up in a time of huge social change doesn't explain why the siblings developed such extraordinary writing talents: "Many families could follow a similar pedigree with no remarkable offspring, so other influences must have been involved."

She looks at how literature and the world of books sparked their fertile imaginations as children. Having lost two sisters in childhood, and their mother, Emily, Charlotte, Anne and Branwell escaped into books and their creative expression, leading to their intricate play-world.

"Although they naturally paired up at times, they remained a unit and worked and lived together to the extent that they could think and speak for one another...not unusual in siblings, but in the case of the Brontes it appears to have been life long and at time, all consuming," writes Catherine. "As they grew up they seemed to feed off each others' ideas and imaginations so the whole was greater than its component parts. Only as adults did they go in any different direction and often only because work and the necessity of earning an income dictated the circumstances."

Their hilltop parsonage home, and surrounding moorland, were equally important factors. "If one walked through the house from front to back in the first half of the 19th century, one would move through an invisible barrier that exchanged a social and ordered, manmade environment for a natural and disordered one. Standing at the back door of the Parsonage or, better still, at one of the back bedroom windows, one had a 180-degree view of moorland. The view from the front windows and doorway was of the church, the rooftops of the town and the graveyard. The contrast is extraordinary."

After studying the Brontes at school and university, Catherine Rayner became a life member of the Bronte Society. She has researched the family for more than 40 years, and has written two theses on Emily Bronte. She is also a qualified nurse and has studied the effects of childhood on the development and psychology of adults. Her book combines her medical, social and literary interests. “My career as a nurse involved me in psychological analysis of children and adults and furthered my research and understanding of the Bronte siblings and their representation of children and illness in their novels," says Catherine.

Her thorough study of the Brontes and what shaped them takes us from their childhood, and its losses, to education and employment, travel, unrequited love, ambition, restraints, publication, fame and their lasting legacy.

As we mark the 200th anniversary of Emily Bronte's birth, following the bicenteneries of Charlotte and Branwell - Anne's bicentenary is in 2020 - this book is a timely reminder of why we continue to be fascinated by these remarkable siblings.

* The Bronte Sisters: Life Loss and Literature by Catherine Rayner, published by Pen & Sword, priced £14.99.