Charlotte Brontë: Famed Novelist and Eldest of the Brontë Sisters
Of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood, Charlotte Brontë was the oldest. Her most famous work is Jane Eyre, published in October of 1847 under pen name “Currer Bell”. Villette, perhaps her second most famous work and fourth novel, was later published in 1853, just two years before thirty-eight year old Brontë died. To this day, Brontë is remembered for her famous works of English literature, along with her three sisters, Emily and Anne.
Charlotte Brontë was born on April, 21 1816 in Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. She was the third of Maria Branwell and Irish Anglican clergyman Patrick Brontë’s (formerly Brunty or Prunty) six children. Charlotte had two older sisters, Maria (1813/14-1825) and Elizabeth (1815-1825), and three younger siblings, Patrick Branwell (1817-1848), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849). The family moved to Haworth, a village only a few miles from Thornton, because their father had been appointed St Michael and All Angel Church’s perpetual curate. Only a year later, Maria Branwell Brontë passed away of September 15, 1821 due to cancer. Her sister, Elizabeth Branwell, took care of the six Brontë children following Maria’s death. Elizabeth branwell would continue to manage the Brontë household until she died in 1841.
Along with her other sisters Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth, with the exception of Anne, Charlotte was sent to the Clergy Daughters’ school located in Cowan Bridge, Lancashire in August of 1824. Due to poor conditions at the school, Charlotte’s health and physical development was permanently affected. It also led to the death of both her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, from tuberculosis in June 1825. Patrick Brontë removed Charlotte and Emily, the two remaining sisters at the school, shortly thereafter. The school was the basis in Jane Eyre for Lowood School.
Brontë was described as “the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters” upon her return home to Haworth Parsonage. With Branwell, Emily, and Anne, her three remaining siblings, they created fictional worlds and started writing the inhabitants of their imaginary kingdoms’ struggles and lives. The two oldest siblings, Charlotte and Branwell, wrote stories similar to that of Lord Byron’s about Angria, an imaginary country they created together. Meanwhile, Emily and Anne worked on poems and articles about Gondal, their imaginary world. They created elaborate episodes of their sagas, existing as incomplete manuscripts and “juvenilia”, works by an author at a young age. Their imaginary worlds remained obsessive interests during their childhood and adolescence, ultimately preparing them for their future literary careers.
To continue her education, Brontë studied at Roe Head from 1831-32 in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. There, she met Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, who would go on to become her lifelong friends and correspondents. The Green Dwarf was a novella (short novel) Brontë wrote in 1833 under the name Wellesley. As a teacher, she would later return to the school in 1835 until 1838.
After her teaching career at Roe Head ended in 1839, Brontë worked as a governess for various families in Yorkshire until 1841. The Sidwick family employed her from May to July in 1839 while at their Lothersdale summer residence, Stone Gappe. During this time, one of her students, the unruly John Benson Sidgwick, threw a bible at her once. This was perhaps the inspiration for the first chapter of Jane Eyre when a book is thrown at the young Jane by John Reed.
Emily and Charlotte traveled to Brussels, Belgium in 1842 to enroll a Constantin Héger and his wife Claire Zoé Parent Héger’s boarding school. Charlotte taught English while Emily taught music in return for their board and tuition. But their time in Brussels was short, due to their aunt Elizabeth Branwell’s death of internal obstruction that October. Elizabeth Branwell had cared for the children and managed the household after her sister Maria Branwell Brontë died in 1821. The following january though, Charlotte returned to teach at the school once again, but this time, her stay was unhappy. She found herself constantly homesick and attached to Constantin Héger, who ran the school with his wife. In January of 1844, Brontë returned to Haworth. Some of the events that happened during her stay in Brussels inspired parts of two of her novels, The Professor and Villette.
Under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, the three Brontë sisters self-financed a publication of a collection of their poems in May of 1846. With these pseudonyms, the sisters kept their initials while using men’s names to veil the gender. Arthur Bell Nicholls, Charlotte’s future husband, was the Haworth’s curate, his middle name being used as the surname for the sister’s under their pen names. The name Currer came from Frances Mary Richardson Currer, the funder of their school. Only two copies of this poetry collection were sold, but the three sisters did not stop their literary careers at that. Thus, they began their first novels while still using the same surnames when they sent potential publishers their manuscripts.
Though her first manuscript called The Professor was not picked up by a publisher, Smith, Elder & Co. of Cornhill gave her an encouraging response. He expressed interest in any of Currer Bell’s future works they wished to send to him. In response, Brontë completed a second manuscript in August of 1847. Six weeks later, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published on October 16, 1847. This novel was about a plain, young governess named Jane who falls in love with her employed Mr. Rochester after facing many difficulties in her life. Jane and Mr. Rochester marry after his insane first wife, who Jane had no knowledge of, dies in a house fire. Brontë wrote an innovative novel that combined naturalism and gothic melodrama, breaking new ground from the first-person perspective of a woman. She herself believed that art was more convincing if it was based on personal experience, like Jane Eyre was. Brontë had taken her own personal experiences and wrote a novel based on them that became a universal appeal.
Immediately, Jane Eyre was met with commercial success. The initial reviews were favourable, as well. People began to speculate the mysterious Currer Bell’s gender. It was only heightened more when Emily published Wuthering Heights in October 1845-June 1846 under the name Ellis Bell and Agnes Grey by Anne as Acton Bell. Along with these speculations came change in critical response to Jane Eyre as people called the writing “coarse” and began to suspect that Currer Bell was in fact a woman. This did not stop Jane Eyre’s strong sales, perhaps even increasing them due to the book gaining a reputation of “improper”.
Brontë began working on the manuscript of Shirley, her second novel, in 1848. But in a matter of only three months, the Brontës suffered deaths of three family members. Branwell died in September of 1848 due to chronic bronchitis and marasmus. Emily suffered the same fate in December 1848 when she became seriously ill after her brother’s funeral, dying of pulmonary tuberculosis. The following May, Anne died of the same disease as her sister. Just like that, Charlotte Brontë had lost all her siblings and Patrick Brontë, who would ultimately outlive all his children, had lost his wife and all but one of his children. Because of this, Charlotte Brontë was unable to write after the pain of the death of her three remaining siblings.
As a way of dealing with her grief, Brontë continued writing once again after Anne passed away. That October, Shirley, which dealt with the role of women in society and industrial unrest, was published. While Jane Eyre was written in first person, Shirley was written in third, also lacking the emotional aspect of the former. Reviewers found this second novel to be less shocking. As her Anne Brontë’s heir, Charlotte suppressed the republication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, leading to Anne losing popularity as a novelist. Ever since, this has remained a controversial part of Brontë’s life among biographers of the three sisters.
Persuaded by her publisher, Brontë began making occasional visits to London, revealing her true identity of a woman after the success of her novels. She made her way into more social circles, creating friendships with Harriet Martineau and her future biographer Elizabeth Gaskell. Brontë also became acquainted with William Makepeace Thackery and G.H. Lewes. However, Brontë refused to leave Haworth for more than a few weeks at any one time because she did not want to leave her father alone.
Villette was Brontë’s final publication during her lifetime in 1853. This particular novel included themes of isolation, how conditions are born, and the internal conflict that comes along with social repression of individual desire. Lucy Snow, Villette’s main character, travels abroad to teach at a boarding school located in Villette, a fictional town. There, Lucy Snow encounters culture and religious differences, falling in love with a man named Paul Emanuel who she knows she cannot marry. Though she eventually gains independence and fulfillment by running her own school, Lucy Snow is met with a breakdown. Much of this particular novel’s dialogue is in French. Like Jane Eyre, Villette is told in the first person perspective of Lucy Snow. Again, this novel parallels aspects of Charlotte Brontë’s own life. Much of the inspiration came from her time in Brussels teaching at the boarding school when she became attached to Constantin Héger. This novel marked Brontë’s successful return as a novelist, though it was met with criticism by people calling it “coarse” and not very “feminine” when it came to the desires of Lucy Snow.
Arthur Bell Nicholls proposed to Brontë before she published Villette. Nicholls was Patrick Brontë’s curate and had been in love with Charlotte for a long time at that point. Initially, Brontë turned down his marriage proposal as her father had objected the marriage partially due to Nicholls’s poor financial status. Elizabeth Gaskell encouraged her friend to accept the marriage and think of the positive aspects the union would bring. Brontë found herself increasingly attracted to Nicholls as well. So, she accepted his marriage proposal in January 1854. They did not receive her father’s approval until April, marrying two months later in June. Though he had originally intended to give his daughter away, Patrick decided he could not and she would instead have to go to the church without him at her side. After the wedding, Brontë and nicholls honeymooned in Banagher, County Offaly, Ireland. According to biographer and friend Elizabeth Gaskell, Brontë was attacked with “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness” shortly after the wedding. She had become pregnant soon after, but her health was only becoming worse and worse.
Only three weeks prior to her thirty-ninth birthday, Charlotte Brontë died on March 31, 1855 with her unborn child. Her death certificate states that the cause was tuberculosis, but it has been speculated that it could have been dye to dehydration and malnourishment from vomiting that had been caused by either severe morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum. Or, it was possible that Brontë died of typhus, which the oldest servant of the Brontë household, Tabitha Ackroyd, had at the time. Charlotte Brontë was interred at Haworth in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels.
Two years after her death, Brontë’s first manuscript, The Professor, was published in 1857. Since her death, many of her works on the imaginary country of Agria she and her brother Branwell created as children have been published as well. Before her death, Brontë had begun work on a new novel, Emma, that was never finished, though two authors have recently completed it, one of them being Clare Boylan’s 2003 Emma Brown: A Novel from the unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë.