The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857)

Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855) outlived all five of her siblings, including her literary sisters, Emily and Anne. The grief at losing her sisters at ages thirty and twenty-nine, respectively, may have been easing with the happiness she found as the wife of Arthur Bell Nichols, and the widespread recognition of her talents as a writer.

Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette had all been published, and Charlotte was recognized as a major talent. Her books sold well, too. And though she was still known as “Currer Bell,” the male pseudonym she’d use to break into the publishing world, her true identity had been established.

But it was not to last. When Charlotte died of complications due to pregnancy in 1855, she had nearly reached her thirty-ninth birthday.  Two years after her death, The Professor, the first novel she had written (but which remained unpublished in her lifetime) was published. The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell was also published that same year (1857), helping to seal her legacy and reputation. Mrs. Gaskell, as she was known, was at the time also a respected novelist, having published Mary Barton and Ruth.

The project was approved by Charlotte’s father, Patrick Brontë, a curate, who had by that time outlived all of his six children.  He, in fact, made the first overture to Mrs. Gaskell barely three months after Charlotte died. The first edition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published by Charlotte’s publisher, Smith, Elder, & Co. Mrs. Gaskell drew much of the material from Charlotte’s letters to her dear friend, Ellen Nussey.

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Charlotte Brontë portrait by George Richmond, 1850

Charlotte, in a portrait by George Richmond, 1850
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Though the biography is considered quite credible and fairly thorough, there were some matters that needed to be downplayed. Notably, one was Charlotte’s years-long one-sided romantic obsession with Constantin Héger. He was the headmaster of the school she had attended in Brussels to train as a teacher while already a young adult, and the inspiration for her first novel, The Professor. To have gone overboard in describing Charlotte’s obsession with this married man would have been considered unseemly for its time.

As recently as 2017, The Life of Charlotte Brontë was listed in The Guardian (UK) as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time! Charlotte was a literary star on both sides of the Atlantic, so it was exciting to find this 1857 review published in a Washington, D.C., newspaper:

 

An 1857 review of The Life of Charlotte Brontë

An original review dated June 4, 1857, The National Era, Washington, D.C.: A sadder book than this we have never read. The very volumes which gave to Charlotte Brontë her brilliant reputation are less sad, less gloomy than this — the true story of her life. It is only through this sorrowful tale that her books can be understood — it is only after reading it, that we can do her justice.

The early years of Charlotte Brontë were spent in one of the bleakest portions of Yorkshire Around her were wide stretches of moors.Her home was an old, cheerless parsonage, fronting a gloomy graveyard. In the home, no mother’s gentle voice was heard, for she died when the children were young.

And the father, Patrick Brontë, though possessed of many good qualities, was stern, unapproachable, and unsocial. The house was not a home, as this word is understood. Three sisters and a brother grew up together [two other sisters, who had been the eldest, died around their respective tenth birthdays], isolated from the outside world, with strange views and feelings, and with intellects diseased by their singular mode of life. This was the result of their narrow income and position, and the pure choice of the father.

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Bronte sisters

The Brontë Sisters’ Path to Publication
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Growing up in poverty with the troubled Branwell

The only son, Branwell, grew up without the means to perfect his education, and was seduced from the paths of virtue by a married woman twice his age. He become dissipated at an early age, filling the inebriate’s grave.

Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne were subjected to close contact with this ruined young man, and saw him hasten day by day to his horrible end. From the father and brother, the sisters drew their ideas of men, for they saw few others.

In their poverty, the sisters resorted to the occupation of teaching in private families, and experienced all that was cruel, cutting, and degrading, in that sphere of labor. The exertions of such a profession sowed the seeds of consumption in her sisters, who, one after the other, fell into untimely graves — not, however, till each had written a story, as full of gloom and shadows as their own lives had been.

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The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë
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Charlotte’s real life incorporated into her stories

The first story Charlotte wrote, The Professor, was rejected by six publishers. Jane Eyre first burst upon the world, and, like Byron, Charlotte woke up one morning and found herself famous. But fame did not give her happiness. It was only the last year of her life, when, at the age of nearly thirty-nine, she was married to a man she truly loved, that she was happy. It was her first happiness on earth — and it was quickly taken away.

To read The Life of Charlotte Brontë is to unfold the realities of her novels; for her life was incorporated into her stories. If they were terrible, so was her life. If her characters were in some respects repulsive and shocking, so were the real characters of her life. No one can read these volumes without acknowledging that he or she has been gazing at the lineaments of a strange and wonderful genius.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre: A 19th-Century Analysis
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A woman of heroic character

Charlotte Brontë was a woman of heroic character, of great nobility of heart. Sorrows which would have crushed others, or driven them made, seemed by to sadden her, and add gloom to her soul. Not for a moment did she give way, but continued her steady work, her life of unremitting industry.

The life, so far as its author, Mrs. Gaskell, is concerned, is admirably done. Her style is at once beautiful and concise. With the utmost delicacy, she has told every fact necessary to a just appreciation of the character of the subject of the memoir. The book will take its place among the very best biographies, and will live, with Jane Eyre and Villette, of the English language.

It was not alone to satisfy curiosity or to amuse the book-reading world that it was written, but to justify the character of the gifted woman, who has been so severely criticized in some quarters. Let he or she who has lived without the joys of home, who never saw a mother’s face, who has trod upon the fiery coals of anguish because of ruin and disgrace in the home circle — who has buried, one by one, all but one of a household — who has, through all of this, rarely uttered a word of complaint — be the first to criticize Charlotte Brontë or her works.

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The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell is available on Amazon,
or can be read online at Project Gutenberg and other sources
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