Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855) was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood, whose novels are English literature standards. She wrote Jane Eyre under the pen name Currer Bell. From Twelve Types by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:
For the Bronte genius was above all things deputed to assert the supreme unimportance of externals. Up to that point truth had always been conceived as existing more or less in the novel of manners. Charlotte Bronte electrified the world by showing that an infinitely older and more elemental truth could be conveyed by a novel in which no person, good or bad, had any manners at all. Her work represents the first great assertion that the humdrum life of modern civilisation is a disguise as tawdry and deceptive as the costume of a ‘bal masque.’ She showed that abysses may exist inside a governess and eternities inside a manufacturer; her heroine is the commonplace spinster, with the dress of merino and the soul of flame. It is significant to notice that Charlotte Bronte, following consciously or unconsciously the great trend of her genius, was the first to take away from the heroine not only the artificial gold and diamonds of wealth and fashion, but even the natural gold and diamonds of physical beauty and grace. Instinctively she felt that the whole of the exterior must be made ugly that the whole of the interior might be made sublime. She chose the ugliest of women in the ugliest of centuries, and revealed within them all the hells and heavens of Dante.
Charlotte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire in 1816, the third of six children, to Maria (née Branwell) and her husband Patrick Brontë, an Irish Anglican clergyman. In 1820 her family moved a few miles to the village of Haworth, where her father had been appointed Perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels Church. Her mother died of cancer on 15 September 1821, leaving five daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and a son Branwell to be taken care of by her sister, Elizabeth Branwell.
In August 1824, Patrick Brontë sent Charlotte, Emily, Maria and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. Charlotte maintained the school’s poor conditions permanently affected her health and physical development and hastened the deaths of Maria (born 1814) and Elizabeth (born 1815), who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. After the deaths of her older sisters, her father removed Charlotte and Emily from the school. Charlotte used the school as the basis for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
At home in Haworth Parsonage Charlotte acted as “the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters. She and her surviving siblings — Branwell, Emily, and Anne – created their own literary fictional worlds and began chronicling the lives and struggles of the inhabitants of their imaginary kingdoms. Charlotte and Branwell wrote Byronic stories about their imagined country, “Angria”, and Emily and Anne wrote articles and poems about “Gondal”. The sagas they created were elaborate and convoluted (and exist in partial manuscripts) and provided them with an obsessive interest during childhood and early adolescence which prepared them for literary vocations in adulthood.
Between 1831 and 1832 Charlotte continued her education at Roe Head in Mirfield, where she met her lifelong friends and correspondents, Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. In 1833 she wrote a novella, The Green Dwarf, using the name Wellesley. Charlotte returned to Roe Head as a teacher from 1835 to 1838. In 1839 she 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 wealthy Sidgwick family at Stone Gappe in Lothersdale, where one of her charges was the young John Benson Sidgwick. John grew up to become a clergyman but as a child was somewhat unruly and he once threw a Bible at the 23-year-old Charlotte, an episode which is said to have inspired the incident in the opening chaper of Jane Eyre in which John Reed throws a book at the young Jane. Politically a Tory, she preached tolerance rather than revolution. She held high moral principles and, despite her shyness, was prepared to argue for her beliefs.
In 1842 Charlotte and Emily travelled to Brussels to enrol at the boarding school run by Constantin Heger(1809–96) and his wife Claire Zoé Parent Heger (1804–87). In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. Their time at the school was cut short when Elizabeth Branwell, their aunt who joined the family to look after the children after the death of their mother, died in October 1842. Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the school. Her second stay was not happy; she was homesick and deeply attached to Constantin Heger. She returned to Haworth in January 1844 and used the time spent in Brussels as the inspiration for some experiences in The Professor and Villette.
In May 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-financed the publication of a joint collection of poetry under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The pseudonyms veiled the sisters’ gender whilst preserving their initials, thus Charlotte was “Currer Bell”. “Bell” was the middle name of Haworth’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, whom Charlotte married. Of the decision to use noms de plume, Charlotte wrote:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.
Although only two copies of the collection of poetry were sold, the sisters continued writing for publication and began their first novels, continuing to use their noms de plume when sending manuscripts to potential publishers.
Charlotte’s first manuscript, The Professor, did not secure a publisher, although she was heartened by an encouraging response from Smith, Elder & Co of Cornhill, who expressed an interest in any longer works which “Currer Bell” might wish to send. Charlotte responded by finishing and sending a second manuscript in August 1847, and six weeks later Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, was published. It tells the story of a plain governess (Jane) who, after early life difficulties, falls in love with her employer, Mr Rochester. They marry, but only after Rochester’s insane first wife (of whom Jane initially had no knowledge) dies in a dramatic house fire.
Charlotte believed art was most convincing when based on personal experience; in Jane Eyre she transformed the experience into a novel with universal appeal. Commercially it was an instant success, and initially received favourable reviews. Critic G. H. Lewes wrote that it was “an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit”, declaring it to be “suspiria de profundis!” (sighs from the depths). The book’s style was innovative, combining naturalism with gothic melodrama, and broke new ground in being written from an intensely first-person female perspective. Speculation about the identity of Currer Bell and whether the author was male or female heightened with the publication of Emily’s Wuthering Heights by “Ellis Bell” and Anne’s Agnes Grey by “Acton Bell”. Accompanying the speculation was a change in the critical reaction to Charlotte’s work and accusations were made that the writing was “coarse,” a judgment more readily made once it was suspected that “Currer Bell” was a woman. However sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong, and may have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an ‘improper’ book.
Following the success of Jane Eyre, in 1848 Charlotte began work on the manuscript of her second novel, Shirley. The manuscript was partially completed when the Brontë household suffered a tragic series of events, the deaths of three family members within eight months. In September 1848, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis exacerbated by heavy drinking, although Charlotte believed his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell was a suspected “opium eater”, a laudanum addict. Emily became seriously ill shortly after Branwell’s funeral, and died of pulmonary tuberculosis in December 1848. Anne died of the same disease in May 1849. Charlotte was unable to write at this time.
After Anne’s death, Charlotte resumed writing as a way of dealing with her grief, and Shirley which deals with themes of industrial unrest and the role of women in society was published in October 1849. Unlike Jane Eyre, which is written from the main character’s first-person perspective, Shirley is written in the third person and lacks the emotional immediacy of her first novel, and reviewers found it less shocking.
In view of her novels’ success, particularly Jane Eyre, Charlotte was persuaded by her publisher to visit London occasionally, where she revealed her true identity and began to move in more exalted social circles, becoming friends with Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell, and acquainted with William Makepeace Thackeray and G. H. Lewes. She never left Haworth for more than a few weeks at a time as she did not want to leave her ageing father. Thackeray’s daughter, writer Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie recalled a visit to her father by Charlotte:
...two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books… The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow. My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter… Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess… the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all… after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him… long afterwards… Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened… It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life… the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club.
Charlotte’s friendship with Elizabeth Gaskell, whilst not necessarily close, was significant in that Gaskell wrote Charlotte’s biography after her death in 1855.
Charlotte’s third novel, the last published in her lifetime, was Villette in 1853. Its main themes include isolation, how such a condition can be borne, and the internal conflict brought about by societal repression of individual desire. Its main character, Lucy Snowe, travels abroad to teach in a boarding school in the fictional town of Villette, where she encounters a culture and religion different from her own, and where she falls in love with a man (‘Paul Emanuel’) whom she cannot marry. Her experiences result in a breakdown, but eventually she achieves independence and fulfillment running her own school. Villette marked Charlotte’s return to writing from a first-person perspective (that of Lucy Snowe), the technique she had used in Jane Eyre. Another similarity to Jane Eyre was the use of aspects from her own life as inspiration for fictional events, in particular reworking the time she spent at thepensionnat in Brussels into Lucy teaching at the boarding school, and falling in love with Constantin Heger into Lucy falling in love with ‘Paul Emanuel’. Villette was acknowledged by critics of the day as a potent and sophisticated piece of writing, although it was criticised for ‘coarseness’ and not being suitably ‘feminine’ in its portrayal of Lucy’s desires.
Before the publication of Villette, Charlotte received a proposal of marriage 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 at least partly because of Nicholls’ poor financial status. Elizabeth Gaskell, who believed marriage provided ‘clear and defined duties’ that were beneficial for a woman, encouraged Charlotte to consider the positive aspects of such a union, and tried to use her contacts to engineer an improvement in Nicholls’ financial situation. Charlotte meanwhile was increasingly attracted to the intense attachment displayed by Nicholls, and by January 1854 had accepted his proposal. They gained the approval of her father by April, and married in June. They took their honeymoon in Ireland.
Charlotte became pregnant soon after the marriage but her health declined rapidly and according to Gaskell, she was attacked by “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness.” Charlotte died with her unborn child on 31 March 1855, aged 38. Charlotte was interred in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Haworth.
Charlotte’s first-written novel, The Professor, was published posthumously in 1857. The fragment of a new novel she had been working on 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. Much Angria material has appeared in published form since the author’s death.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published in 1857. It was an important step for a leading female novelist to write a biography of another, and Gaskell’s approach was unusual in that, rather than analyzing her subject’s achievements, she concentrated on private details of Charlotte’s life, emphasising aspects which countered the accusations of ‘coarseness’ which had been leveled at her writing. Though frank in places, Gaskell was selective about which details she revealed; she suppressed details of Charlotte’s love for Heger, a married man, as being too much of an affront to contemporary morals and source of distress to Charlotte’s father, husband and friends. It has been argued that the approach of Mrs Gaskell transferred the focus of attention away from the ‘difficult’ novels, not just Charlotte’s, but all the sisters, and began a process of sanctification of their private lives.
On 29 July 1913 The Times printed four letters Charlotte had written to Constantin Heger after leaving Brussels in 1844. Written in French except for one postscript in English, the letters broke Charlotte’s image as an angelic martyr to Christian and female duties that had been constructed by many biographers, beginning with Gaskell. The letters, part of a larger and somewhat one-sided correspondence in which Heger frequently appears not to have replied, reveal she had been in love with a married man, although they are complex and have been interpreted in numerous ways, including as an example of literary self-dramatisation and an expression of gratitude from a former pupil.