Char­lotte Brontë A Life of Tri­umph and Tragedy

This England - - Literary Landscapes of England - KATHRYN LYNCH

Two hun­dred years ago, on 21st April 1816, the English nov­el­ist Char­lotte Brontë was born. Best known for her novel Jane Eyre, which has in­spired nu­mer­ous adap­ta­tions for film, ra­dio, tele­vi­sion and theatre, she ex­plored the in­jus­tice of Vic­to­rian at­ti­tudes to women with an ex­tra­or­di­nary pas­sion and clar­ity.

Char­lotte was born in Thornton Vicarage not far from Brad­ford in York­shire, the third daugh­ter (Maria was born in 1814, El­iz­a­beth in 1815) of the Cam­bridge ed­u­cated Ir­ish Angli­can cler­gy­man Pa­trick Brontë, and his Cor­nish wife Maria. By the time her fa­ther had been awarded a rec­tor­ship at nearby Ha­worth, on the edge of the York­shire moors, three more chil­dren had been born: Bran­well (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). The tragic death of their mother in 1821 was to cast a shadow over their ab­bre­vi­ated lives. Maria’s sis­ter El­iz­a­beth du­ti­fully left her na­tive Pen­zance to act as guardian to the chil­dren, and though con­sci­en­tious she had no af­fec­tion for them or for her new home.

In 1824 Pa­trick Brontë found a school for the four older girls — the Clergy Daugh­ters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lan­cashire. Here the low fees re­flected the mea­gre ra­tions of un­ap­pe­tiz­ing food, and the dis­ci­pline was harsh as be­fit­ted Carus Wil­son’s goal of pre­par­ing the daugh­ters of poorer cler­gy­men for a life of self-de­nial and sub­mis­sion. Many years later Char­lotte used her ex­pe­ri­ences to in­form her de­scrip­tion of the op­pres­sive in­sti­tu­tion “Lowood” in Jane Eyre, where the harsh un­bend­ing fig­ure of Mr. Brock­le­hurst echoed the real-life Rev­erend Wil­son, and the gen­tle sub­mis­sive He­len Burns her el­dest sis­ter Maria.

When Maria and then El­iz­a­beth died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, Char­lotte and Emily were brought home to pur­sue their ed­u­ca­tion. The four chil­dren read widely, both books and jour­nals, and since “Aunt” and “Papa” were both de­tached and re­mote fig­ures, they were free to be­come close in a world of fan­tasy and sto­ry­telling, in­vent­ing games to play in­doors and on the wild moors. When Papa brought home a box of wooden sol­diers in 1826, each child had one of the fig­ures with its own imag­i­nary king­dom and to­gether they formed the “Great Glass Town Con­fed­er­acy”.

This life was al­lowed to con­tinue for more than five years, but then it dawned on Rev. Brontë that with­out con­ven­tional train­ing his chil­dren would face desti­tu­tion if any­thing hap­pened to him. For this rea­son, in 1831 Char­lotte was sent to Miss Wooler’s School at Roe Head, near Hud­der­s­field, and here she made some en­dur­ing friend­ships, no­tably with Mary Tay­lor and Ellen Nussey. A bright and in­tel­li­gent stu­dent, she moved rapidly to the top of the school, and within 18 months she was able to re­turn home to teach her sis­ters.

When at the age of 19 she was of­fered a post as as­sis­tant teacher at Roe Head, she seized the op­por­tu­nity, so keen was she to im­prove her fam­ily fi­nances. The in­sti­tu­tional life, though, was sti­fling for Char­lotte, and af­ter three years of de­pres­sion she fell into ill health and ter­mi­nated the en­gage­ment.

Char­lotte re­fused two pro­pos­als of mar­riage, one from Ellen’s brother, Rev. Henry Nussey, and the other from an ar­dent young Ir­ish cler­gy­man. At the same time Bran­well’s mount­ing debts ob­li­gated Char­lotte to pur­sue var­i­ous gov­erness jobs, the path taken by many im­pov­er­ished gen­tle­women of the time. Since these gov­erness jobs were un­sat­is­fac­tory, Char­lotte and her sis­ters em­barked on a plan to open a school to­gether. To do this they needed to im­prove their qual­i­fi­ca­tions in French and ac­quire some Ger­man, and in Fe­bru­ary 1842 Char­lotte and Emily were funded by their aunt to go to Pen­sion­nat Héger in Brus­sels.

This was a good school run by Mon­sieur and Madame Héger. When the girls were taught by the charis­matic Con­stantin Héger they were in­spired by his sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion. He recog­nised their ex­cep­tional ta­lents and in re­turn Char­lotte idolised him.

On the death of their aunt in Oc­to­ber 1842 both girls re­turned home, but af­ter a short time Char­lotte re­joined the

Lit­er­ary Land­scapes of Eng­land

school alone, as a pupil teacher. Although she gained valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence, she was lonely and the love she felt for Mon­sieur Héger was un­re­cip­ro­cated.

Re­turn­ing to Ha­worth from Bel­gium in Jan­uary 1844, Char­lotte re­alised that her fa­ther’s fail­ing sight pre­cluded him from be­ing left alone, and con­se­quently her plans for a school would come to noth­ing. Deso­lated, she wrote highly emo­tional letters to Mon­sieur Héger, most of which went unan­swered, and chan­nelled her mis­ery into her po­etry.

It was when, in the au­tumn of 1845, she came across the ex­cep­tional po­ems of Emily, that she felt prompted to gal­va­nize her sis­ters to com­pile a vol­ume of verse (at their own ex­pense), us­ing the sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous pseudonyms Cur­rer (Char­lotte), El­lis (Emily), and Ac­ton (Anne) Bell. Although this wasn’t a suc­cess, a route had opened up for them and in July 1847 she found a pub­lisher for Emily’s Wuther­ing Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey. When her own novel The Pro­fes­sor was re­jected by Smith, El­der and Com­pany she quickly sent off Jane Eyre which she had re­cently com­pleted. It was ac­cepted and pub­lished within eight weeks to a rap­tur­ous re­cep­tion.

This tri­umph was fol­lowed by yet more tragedy, as Char­lotte’s brother Bran­well died in Septem­ber 1848 of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, has­tened by al­co­hol and drug ad­dic­tion, fol­lowed by Emily in De­cem­ber 1848, and then Anne in May 1849. In the Oc­to­ber of the same year Char­lotte’s novel Shirley was pub­lished.

Char­lotte’s lonely ex­is­tence in the par­son­age was punc­tu­ated by so­journs into a more prestigious so­cial world as a con­se­quence of her fame. Her pub­lisher Ge­orge Smith, with whom she stayed as a guest on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, com­mis­sioned a por­trait of her by Ge­orge Richmond as a gift for her fa­ther. It was while she was her pub­lisher’s guest in Lon­don that she met the nov­el­ist Wil­liam Make­peace Thack­eray. She also stayed with the writer Har­riet Martineau, and vis­ited her fu­ture bi­og­ra­pher Mrs. El­iz­a­beth Gaskell in Manch­ester.

Shortly af­ter Char­lotte fin­ished her novel Vil­lette (in which she’d used the mem­ory of Mon­sieur Héger to pro­vide her with the fer­vent in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism of Mon­sieur Paul), Pa­trick Brontë’s cu­rate of five years, an Ir­ish­man called Arthur Bell Ni­cholls, be­came Char­lotte’s suitor. Af­ter a sed­u­lous courtship they were mar­ried on 29th June 1854: Char­lotte’s old head­mistress Miss Wooler gave her away at the wed­ding where Ellen Nussey was the only guest.

Af­ter a hon­ey­moon in Ire­land the cou­ple came back to Ha­worth where Bell Ni­cholls had made the com­mit­ment to con­tinue as cu­rate to her fa­ther, and thus pro­vide sup­port for him in his old age. Char­lotte was soon preg­nant, but sadly be­came ill with ex­haust­ing nau­sea and vom­it­ing, so that her kind hus­band was also to prove him­self a car­ing nurse.

Char­lotte Brontë died on 31st March 1855. In her short life she had tran­scended her cir­cum­stances to in­sti­gate a rev­o­lu­tion in lit­er­a­ture, with the in­tro­duc­tion of coura­geous, pas­sion­ate, in­de­pen­dent hero­ines, de­fy­ing the so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions of the day. In the process she man­aged to achieve the fame for which she had al­ways longed.

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