Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

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, leading the charge for herself and her two equally brilliant sisters, Emily and Anne in their quest for publication.

Charlotte and her siblings lived 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 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. Together, the surviving children — Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell — constructed magazines and put on plays.

Becoming a teacher and governess

In 1831, when 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).

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, she  had survived all of her siblings. It read:

“She was very plain-looking, very small, and near-sighted, with the tiniest hans 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

It took some time for Charlotte’s work to find a publisher. The manuscript for The Professor made its rounds and been rejected everywhere, while her sisters Emily and Anne found homes for their novels. 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.

Contemporary Jane Eyre cover

Jane Eyre on Amazon

Jane Eyre: fame and controversy

Jane Eyre is 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)

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. 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.

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, of complications from pregnancy.

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.

More about Charlotte Brontë on this site

Major Works

Biographies about Charlotte Brontë and the Brontë Sisters

More Information

Read and listen

Articles, News, Etc.

Film adaptations


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