Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816 – March 31, 1855), the British novelist, lived a life that was both romantic and tragic. Born in Thornton, a small West Yorkshire village in England, she was part of a clerical family that valued education for all their offspring. She was the family chronicler and champion, burnishing the tale of how the three sisters took masculine pseudonyms to improve their chances of finding publishers, and the challenges and prejudices they faced in their pursuits.
Charlotte and her siblings moved with their parents, Patrick Brontë, a curate, and Maria Branwell, to Hawarth, an isolated town on the moors of northern England. Maria died in 1821, when Charlotte was five, leaving the household to be run by her sister and servants.
An erratic childhood
In 1824, Charlotte and her sisters, their departed mother’s namesake Maria, along with Elizabeth and Emily, were sent to a school for daughters of the clergy. Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis. Charlotte and Emily returned home. It is believed that Charlotte modeled the school setting at the beginning of Jane Eyre on her experiences. She blamed the deaths of her sisters on the poor conditions at the school.
The children were supposedly “educated” at home, but were left very much to their own devices. They invented an imaginary world called Angria. Together, the surviving children — Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell — constructed magazines and put on plays.
Becoming a teacher and governess
In 1831, in her mid-teens, Charlotte once again went away to school at Roehead, and modeled some of the characters in her future books on the friends she made. In 1835, she returned to Roehead as a teacher, and a handful of years later, she and Anne attempted to make their living as governesses, a profession that neither cared for.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily left for Brussels, Belgium, to study at the Pensionnat Héger, thinking to prepare themselves to be teachers. There Charlotte fell in love with the married Héger, and used her experiences in her thinly disguised first novel, The Professor, which met with no success in her lifetime (it was published posthumously).
The Brontë sisters, in a painting by their brother, Branwell.
She wrote much about their paths to publication
The quest for publication
It took some time for Charlotte’s work to find a publisher. The manuscript for The Professor was making its rounds and been rejected everywhere, while her sisters Emily and Anne found homes for their novels first. There was a glimmer of hope when one publisher responded that she should send her next work to them, so she wrote and sent the manuscript for Jane Eyre, which was published just six weeks after its acceptance (in the autumn of 1847), and was an immediate bestseller.
Jane Eyre on Amazon
Jane Eyre: fame and controversy
Jane Eyre is by far Charlotte’s best known novel. It’s the story of the heroine’s love for the reclusive Mr. Rochester, as well as her quest for independence. Though it can be construed as a feminist work, it’s also in the realm of the gothic novel due to that little detail of Rochester’s mad wife locked away in an attic. The book sparked a fair amount of controversy when first published; even more so when critics began to suspect that it was the work of a woman, as she had published it under her masculine pseudonym, Currer Bell. Responding to such criticism, she wrote:
“To value praise or stand in awe of blame we must respect the source whence the praise and blame proceed, and I do not respect an inconsistent critic. He says, ‘If Jane Eyre be the production of a woman, she must be a woman unsexed.’ In that case the book is an unredeemed error and should be unreservedly condemned. Jane Eyre is a woman’s biography, by a woman it is professedly written. If it is written as no woman would write, condemn it with spirit and decision — say it is bad, but do not eulogise and then detract.
I am reminded of The Economist. The literary critic of that paper praised the book if written by a man, and pronounced it ‘odious’ if the work of a woman. To such critics I would say, ‘To you I am neither man nor woman — I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me — the sole ground on which I accept your judgement.'” (From a letter to her editor, W.S Williams, August 1849)
You might also like Charlotte’s Quotes on the Writing Life
Shirley (1849) followed Jane Eyre two years later. It’s the story set against the Luddite riots of the Yorkshire textile industry, 1807 to 1812. Villete (1853) is the story of Lucy Snow, helplessly in love with Paul Emanuel. It’s a fairly autobiographical novel, based on Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels and her unrequited love for Professor Héger. Though these books have never been as widely read as Jane Eyre, all three novels have in common a keen insight into human nature, and despite some questionable decisions in the realms of love, a fierce self-belief in personal integrity and independence shared by the heroines.
Charlotte approached fiction writing in such an original way that it attracted many to her romantic yet deeply emotional tales and gained her lasting stature in the world of literature.
Declining marriage, then finally tying the knot
On March 5, 1839, Charlotte Brontë had declined a marriage proposal, writing: “I am not the serious, grave, cool-hearted individual you suppose; you would think me romantic and eccentric.” She did ultimately marry Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854.
Loss of siblings and death
In 1855, she died in Haworth, England at the age of 38 of complications from pregnancy. Her unborn child did not survive, and her sisters Anne and Emily had predeceased her by several years.
More about Charlotte Brontë on this site
- Charlotte’s Preface to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
- Based Upon the Book: An Interview with Charlotte Brontë
- Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell
- Du Maurier’s Rebecca: A Worthy ‘Eyre’ Apparent
- CB’s Quotes on the Writing Life
- The Brontë Sisters’ Path to Publication
- Jane Eyre and I: A Love Affair for Life
- Ask Jane Eyre
- Jane Eyre (1847)
- Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846)
- Shirley (1849)
- Villette (1853)
- The Professor (1857; posthumous)
Biographies about Charlotte Brontë and the Brontë Sisters
- The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (full text on Project Gutenberg)
- Charlotte Brontë: A Writer’s Life by Rebecca Fraser
- Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon
- The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne
by Catherine Reef
- The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors by Juliet Baker
- Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harmon
- Charlotte Brontë on Wikipedia
- Brontë Blog
- Charlotte Brontë on Goodreads
- Charlotte Brontë’s page on Amazon
Read and listen
- Charlotte Brontë – eText Archive and Study Guide
- Audio Recordings of Charlotte Brontë Works on Librivox
- Charlotte Brontë on Project Gutenberg
- Charlotte Brontë page on Amazon.com
Articles, News, Etc.
- The 100 Best Novels: No. 12 – Jane Eyre
- Museum to Open its Doors to Jane Eyre Exhibition
- The Fascinating, Handwritten Poems of Famous Authors
- February 21, 1855: Charlotte Brontë to Ellen Nussey
- Is Jane Eyre a Feminist Icon?
- January 13, 1849: Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams
- 12 Genuinely Great Books About May-December Romances
- Walking: The Brontë Trail
- Letter from Charlotte Brontë to her brother Branwell, 1 May 1843
- Charlotte Brontë: Mixing the Familiar and the Fantastic
- How to Turn Down a Marriage Proposal like Charlotte Brontë
- Excerpt from Shirley by Charlotte Brontë
- Anonymous Review of Jane Eyre
- Jane Eyre and the 19th-century Woman
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