- Born: April 21, 1816, Thornton, England
- Died: March 31, 1855 (aged 38), Haworth, England
- Years Active: 1845—1855
- Notable Works: Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), Villette (1853), The Professor (1857)
Charlotte Brontë (21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) is one of the most famous Victorian women writers and poets. She was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels became classics of English literature. She originally published her works under the name of Currer Bell, along with her sisters who also had pseudonyms, but they admitted to them in 1848 and were celebrated in London literary circles.
Her most famous works are Jane Eyre, Villette and The Professor, which was published after her death in 1855. She died during pregnancy of hyperemesis gravidarum, a complication of pregnancy which causes excessive nausea and vomiting.
Early Life and Family
Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Market Street, Thornton, west of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was the third of the six children of Maria and Patrick Brontë, who was an Irish Anglican clergyman. Patrick was appointed perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels Church in the village of Haworth in 1820.
Charlotte’s five siblings, four sisters Maria, Elizabeth, Emily, Anne and brother Branwell, were left to the care of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, when their mother died of cancer on 15 September 1821. Elizabeth Branwell stayed with the family until her death in 1842, because Patrick’s attempts to remarry after his wife’s death were unsuccessful.
In August 1824, when Charlotte was eight years old, her father sent her with Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. Charlotte was of the belief that the school’s poor conditions permanently affected her health and physical development, and also hastened the deaths of both Maria and Elizabeth, who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. Charlotte used the school as the basis for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
After the deaths of his older daughters, Patrick removed Charlotte and Emily from the school. Their deaths affected Charlotte greatly, as she suddenly became the eldest child in a motherless family and was forced her into a position of leadership and responsibility.
Patrick tutored his remaining children at home, all of which thrived in the environment. Charlotte wrote her first known poem at the age of 13 in 1829, and went on to write more than 200 poems in the course of her life. Many of her poems were “published” in their homemade magazine Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine. As children, Charlotte and Branwell wrote Byronic stories about their jointly imagined country, Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote articles and poems about Gondal.
Between 1831 and 1832, Charlotte continued her education at Roe Head School in Mirfield. Although she was initially homesick and isolated from the other students because of her differences from them, it was here where she met her lifelong friends and correspondents Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. She was considerably behind most of the other girls when she entered the school, but quickly moved to the top of the class and stayed there until she left 18 months later.
After leaving Roe Head, in 1833 she wrote a novella, The Green Dwarf, using the name Wellesley, which is around the time when her stories shifted from tales of the supernatural to more realistic stories.
She returned to Roe Head as a teacher from 1835 to 1838, however she was unhappy and lonely as a teacher. Charlotte took out her sorrows in poetry, writing a series of melancholic poems. These poems reflected her longing for home and for Angria as well as her anxious need to reconcile her desire to write with the necessity of continuing to teach to earn a living.
Gradually, she was able to resume a pace of writing comparable to that of her earlier productive times. In December of 1836, Charlotte decided she wanted to write professionally, with the hope of earning her living as a publishing poet. Therefore, she sought the advice from Robert Southey, then poet laureate of England, to whom she sent a selection of her poems. However, he sent her a discouraging response, stating:
“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.”
She did not take his advice, although she kept the letter close. She left Roe Head for good in December 1838 and, in 1939, took up the first of many positions as governess to families in Yorkshire, a career she pursued until 1841.
From May to July 1839 she was employed by the Sidgwick family at their summer residence, Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale, where one of her charges was John Benson Sidgwick (1835–1927). He was an unruly child who, on one occasion, threw a Bible at Charlotte, an incident that may have been the inspiration for a part of the opening chapter of Jane Eyre in which John Reed throws a book at the young Jane. Brontë did not enjoy her work as a governess, noting her employers treated her almost as a slave, constantly humiliating her.
In 1941, Brontë began negotiations for a loan from her Aunt Branwell to set up a school that she and her sisters might operate. She declined the director of Roe Head’s generous proposal that she replace her, turning down a fine opportunity to take charge of an established school with a good reputation.
In 1942, Charlotte and Emily Brontë left England in February 1842 to enrol as the oldest students in a school run by Madame Claire Zoë Heger and her husband, Constantin in Brussels. It was a school of Roman Catholic Belgians and so, being both English and Protestant, the Brontë’s were isolated and didn’t feel comfortable there, although they made considerable academic progress.
They returned to Haworth in November 1842, following the death of Aunt Branwell caused by internal obstruction in October 1842. Emily did not want to return to Brussels after, so Charlotte returned on her own. Charlotte was deeply unhappy during her second stay — she was homesick and deeply attached to Constantin Héger. Héger, however, gave her attention and challenged her in her writing, allowing her to return to the literary issues raised in her earliest poems with a new sense of urgency.
Madame Heger tried to put some distance between Héger and Charlotte and, therefore, Charlotte withdrew from the Belgian school in January 1844 and returned to England. In November, the Brontë sisters abandoned their plan for opening a school in Haworth since not one prospective applicant had responded to their advertisements. This caused Charlotte to fall into a depressive episode — she was having no luck professionally, romantically or literarily.
First Publication and Pseudonym
In 1845, Charlotte stumbled upon a notebook of Emily’s poems and urged her sister to publish her poems with a selection of her own verse, to which were added poems contributed by Anne. They self-published the joint collection of poems under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.
The pseudonyms veiled the sisters’ sex while preserving their initials — Charlotte was Currer Bell. “Bell” was the middle name of Haworth’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls whom Charlotte later married, and “Currer” was the surname of Frances Mary Richardson Currer who had funded their school.
The works were published in Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), which the small London firm of Aylott & Jones agreed to print at the authors’ expense, a common practice for unknown writers. Charlotte took sole responsibility for corresponding with their publisher and for seeing the Poems through the press.
Unlike her sisters’ contributions, nearly all of Charlotte poems in the 1846 volume are reworkings of much earlier compositions, mostly from the period of 1837–1838. She revised them specifically for publication in this volume and not only deleted all references to their original narrative contexts, as her sisters did for their “Gondal poems”, but also changed them to suit her new readership, invoking popular motifs and expressing sentiments that were culturally resonate in 1846.
Because Charlotte’s poems are longer than those of her sisters, she contributed only 19 to their 21 each, so that each writer is given approximately the same amount of space in the book. Each poem is clearly credited to either “Currer,” “Ellis,” or “Acton,” and the contributions by the three are presented alternately, so that they are equally spread throughout the volume. This invites comparison between the three writers and makes Emily’s superiority as a poet noticeable. However, it also obscures a coherence between Charlotte’s poems.
Though Charlotte made every effort to publicise Poems, the volume sold poorly — only two copies in the first year — and received only three reviews, which were, however, favourable. Originally priced at four shillings, the volume was republished by the publishers of Jane Eyre in 1848, and received more insightful critical attention after the publication of Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857.
Charlotte’s first manuscript, The Professor, was rejected nine times before she received an encouraging reply from the firm of Smith, Elder & Co of Cornhill who didn’t want to publish it, but was interested in any longer works Currer Bell might wish to send. Therefore, Charlotte quickly finished and sent Jane Eyre in August 1847, and it was published six weeks later. The book was immediately popular and “Currer Bell” quickly became known by the reading public as “the author of Jane Eyre.”
Jane Eyre tells the story of a plain governess, Jane, who, after difficulties in her early life, falls in love with her employer, Mr Rochester. They marry, but only after Rochester’s insane first wife, of whom Jane initially has no knowledge, dies in a dramatic house fire. The book’s style was innovative, combining Romanticism, naturalism with gothic melodrama. It also broke new ground in being written from an intensely evoked first-person female perspective.
Speculation about the identity and gender of the mysterious Currer Bell only heightened with the publication of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne). This accompanied a change in the critical reaction to Charlotte’s work. Accusations were made that the writing was “coarse”, but sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong and may even have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an “improper” book.
Charlotte was also a talented amateur artist and personally did the drawings for the second edition of Jane Eyre. In the summer of 1834, two of her paintings were shown at an exhibition by the Royal Northern Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Leeds.
In 1848, Charlotte began working on her second novel, Shirley. It took her much longer to write this book because she was dealing with the death of family members during this time and was unable to write. It was published in October 1849 and deals with themes of industrial unrest and the role of women in society. It is written in third person and reviewers generally found it less shocking than Jane Eyre, which is written in first person.
Charlotte was persuaded by her publisher to make occasional visits to London thanks to the popularity of her novels. She revealed her true identity and began to move in higher social circles, alongside William Makepeace Thackeray, Harriett Martineau, and Elizabeth Gaskell. She never left Haworth for more than a few weeks at a time, as she did not want to leave her ageing father.
Her third novel, Villette, which was the last published in her lifetime, was published in 1853. Its main themes include isolation, how such a condition can be borne, and the internal conflict brought about by social repression of individual desire. This book was again written in first person, like Jane Eyre, and Charlotte used aspects of her own life as inspiration for fictional events. It was recognised as a sophisticated piece of writing although it was criticised for it’s “coarseness”.
Other Life Events
During the writing of Shirley, Charlotte suffered the bereavement of her three remaining siblings. In September 1848, Branwell died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus, aggravated by heavy drinking, although Brontë believed that his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell may also have been an opioid addict. Emily became seriously ill shortly after his funeral and died of pulmonary tuberculosis in December 1848, and Anne died of the same disease in May 1849.
Charlotte, as her late sister’s heir, suppressed the republication of Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, an action which had a deleterious effect on Anne Brontë’s popularity as a novelist and has remained controversial among the sisters’ biographers ever since.
After the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte wrote no poetry except for three unfinished poems on the occasions of her sisters’ deaths.
Before the publication of Villette, Brontë received a marriage proposal from Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, who had long been in love with her. She initially turned down his proposal and her father objected to the union partly because of Nicholls’s poor financial status. Charlotte, however, became increasingly attracted to Nicholls and by January 1854 she had accepted his proposal.
They gained the approval of her father by April and married in June. Her father had intended to give Charlotte away, but at the last minute decided he could not, and Charlotte had to make her way to the church without him. They took their honeymoon in Banagher, County Offaly, Ireland. Their marriage was a success and Brontë found herself very happy in a way that was new to her.
Soon after her wedding, Charlotte became pregnant but her health quickly declined. She died on 31 March 1855, three weeks before her 39th birthday, along with her unborn child. While her death was listed as tuberculosis, many have speculated that she actually died form dehydration and malnourishment thanks to severe morning sickness.
Charlotte was buried in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Haworth.
Following her death, Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857. The fragment of a new novel she had been writing in her last years has been twice completed by recent authors, the more famous version being Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë by Clare Boylan in 2003.
A biography, The Life and Death Of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, was published in 1857. This was somewhat revolutionary at the time, because it was an important step for a leading female novelist to write a biography of another.
Charlotte was not a successful poet in her own day, and today she is still rightfully known for her novels rather than for her poems. She has remained of huge historical significance since her death, with her works being read, analysed and enjoyed by readers across the globe. She has been recognised thanks to her progressive beliefs and for allowing the “modern woman” to be heard, particularly in a time when women were considered much less in comparison to men. By writing about her stifled ideas and lack of acceptance in society, she has spoken to generations of readers since her death.
- The Young Men’s Magazine, Number 1 – 3 (August 1830)
- The Spell
- The Secret
- Lily Hart
- The Foundling
- My Angria and the Angrians
- Albion and Marina
- Tales of the Islanders
- Tales of Angria
- Jane Eyre (1847)
- Shirley (1849)
- Villette (1853)
- The Professor, written before Jane Eyre, was first submitted for publication together with Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. It was published posthumously in 1857.
- Emma, unfinished; Charlotte wrote only 20 pages of the manuscript, which was published posthumously in 1860. In recent decades at least two continuations of this fragment have appeared:
- Emma, by “Charlotte Brontë and Another Lady”, published in 1980 — although this has been attributed to Elizabeth Goudge, the actual author was Constance Savery.
- Emma Brown, by Clare Boylan, published in 2003.
- Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846)
- Selected Poems of the Brontës, Everyman Poetry (1997)
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