Charlotte Brontë A Life of Triumph and Tragedy
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
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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.