Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë (April 21, 1816 – March 31, 1855), the British novelist, was born in Thornton, a small West Yorkshire village in England, part of a clerical family that valued education. She was the family chronicler and champion, leading the charge for herself and her two equally brilliant sisters, Emily and Anne in their quest for publication.

Charlotte’s parents were Patrick Brontë, an Anglican clegyman of Irish descent, and Maria Branwell. The family lived in Haworth, an isolated town on the moors of northern England. She was the third child born to the Brontës; her older sisters Maria, named for her mother, and Elizabeth, each died around the age of ten. Next to Charlotte in age was Branwell, the only brother, then Emily, and finally Anne.


An erratic childhood

Maria died in 1821, when Charlotte was five. In 1824, Charlotte and her sisters Maria (their departed mother’s namesake) and Elizabeth Emily were sent to a school for daughters of the clergy. Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis; Charlotte and Emily returned home. It’s believed that Charlotte modeled the Lowood 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, inspired by a box of wooden soldiers Mr. Brontë had brought home for Branwell. Together, the four children constructed magazines and put on plays.


Becoming a teacher and governess

In 1831, when she was in her mid-teens, Charlotte once again went away to school at Roehead, and modeled some of the characters in her future books on girls she met. In 1835, she returned to Roehead as a teacher, and a few 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. They studied French, German, and literature, thinking to prepare themselves to be teachers or start their own school in the future.

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). Her novel Villette was also inspired by this period of her life.


A 19th century description of Charlotte

The Chicago Tribune (June 28, 1885) published an in-depth article about the Brontë family some 30 years after Charlotte’s death; of course, after she had survived all of her siblings. It read:

“She was very plain-looking, very small, and near-sighted, with the tiniest hands and feet ever seen on a grown-up woman. She had long and abundant hair, which was her only claim to beauty, though her eyes lighted up with emotion and seemed to illuminate her face. She had  great constancy and strength of affection, and an almost morbid sense of duty. She was capable of strong, passionate feeling, though usually self-contained, and was painfully shy, owing, doubtless to her secluded life.”


Bronte sisters

The Brontë sisters, in a painting by their brother, Branwell.
She wrote much about their paths to publication


The quest for publication

In the mid-1840s, Charlotte discovered a stash of Emily’s poems and recognized the genius in them. She undertook the task of finding a home for a collaborative book of poems by herself and her two sisters. They took masculine noms de plume (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were Currer, Ellis, and Acton, respectively, and shared the faux surname Bell).

The book, dryly titled Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell’s Poems, finally did find a publisher, though the authors were required to front the money for its printing, as was the custom. It was published in 1846 to absolutely no fanfare and humiliating sales of two copies.

Bruised but undaunted, the sisters, who had all been working on book-length novels, set about to find publishers for them, with the effort once again spearheaded by Charlotte. She wrote of her efforts in the Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, 1850:

“Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced Wuthering Heights, Acton Bell, Agnes Grey, and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume [referring to The Professor]. These MSS. were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually, their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal…”

The manuscript for The Professor made its rounds and was rejected everywhere, while Emily and Anne’s novels did find publishers. 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 became an immediate bestseller.


Contemporary Jane Eyre cover

Charlotte Brontë page on Amazon


Jane Eyre: fame and controversy

Jane Eyre is Charlotte’s best known novel, telling of its title heroine’s love for the inscrutable and reclusive Mr. Rochester and her quest for independence. Though it has been considered 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)

In 1848, Charlotte and Anne were compelled to visit their publishers in London and revealed themselves as the real “Currer Bell” and “Acton Bell.”


Charlotte Brontë quote
You might also like: Charlotte’s Quotes on the Writing Life


Other works

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. Villette (1853) is the story of Lucy Snowe, 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.


Loss of siblings, a brief marriage, and death

Her brother Branwell and two sisters, Emily and Anne, died tragically young of illness when barely out of their twenties. Some years earlier, in 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.” But she did ultimately marry Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854. After her  beloved sisters died in 1848 and 1849, and with Branwell gone as well, the marriage helped ease the loneliness she must have felt living with just her father in the parsonage.

By all accounts, the marriage began happily. Nicholls was, like her father, a curate, and she involved herself in his work, becoming a bit less isolated. But it wasn’t to last. In 1855, she died in Haworth, England at the age of 38. She was pregnant, caught pneumonia, and possibly became dehydrated These complications contributed to her death.

During the last stages of her illness she woke to find her husband weeping over her and said, “O, I am not going to die, am I? God will not separate us; we have been so happy.” Her unborn child did not survive. Patrick Branwell Brontë, the family patriarch, survived all six of his children.

Two years after her death, Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was published. The publication of Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell was also published that same year (1957), helping to seal her legacy and reputation.


More about Charlotte Brontë on this site

Major Works

Biographies about Charlotte Brontë and the Brontë Sisters

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