Portrait by George Richmond
(1850, chalk on paper)
|Born||21 April 1816|
Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
|Died||31 March 1855 (aged 38)|
Haworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
|Pen name||Lord Charles Albert|
|Occupation||Novelist, poet, governess|
|Notable works||Jane Eyre|
|Spouse||Arthur Bell Nicholls (1854–1855; her death)|
Charlotte Brontë (//, commonly //; 21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature. She first published her works (including her best known novel, Jane Eyre) under the pen name Currer Bell.
Early life and education
Charlotte Brontë was born in Thornton, west of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1816, the third of the six children of Maria (née Branwell) and Patrick Brontë (formerly surnamed Brunty or Prunty), 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. Maria died of cancer on 15 September 1821, leaving five daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and a son, Branwell, to be taken care of by her sister, Elizabeth Branwell.
In August 1824 Patrick sent Charlotte, Emily, Maria and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. Charlotte maintained that 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 both died of tuberculosis in June 1825. After the deaths of his older daughters, Patrick 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, Brontë acted as "the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters". She and her surviving siblings — Branwell, Emily and Anne – created their own fictional worlds, and began chronicling the lives and struggles of the inhabitants of their imaginary kingdoms. Charlotte and Branwell wrote Byronic stories about their jointly imagined country, Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote articles and poems about Gondal. The sagas they created were episodic and elaborate, and they exist in incomplete manuscripts, some of which have been published as juvenilia. They provided them with an obsessive interest during childhood and early adolescence, which prepared them for literary vocations in adulthood.
Between 1831 and 1832, Brontë 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. She 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. In particular, from May to July 1839 she was employed by the Sidgwick family at their summer residence, Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale, where one of her charges was John Benson Sidgwick (1835–1927), an unruly child who on one occasion threw a Bible at Charlotte, an incident that may have been the inspiration for a part of the opening chapter of Jane Eyre in which John Reed throws a book at the young Jane.
Brontë was of slight build and was less than five feet tall.
In 1842 Charlotte and Emily travelled to Brussels to enrol at the boarding school run by Constantin Héger(1809–96) and his wife Claire Zoé Parent Héger (1804–87). In return for board and tuition Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. Their time at the school was cut short when their aunt Elizabeth Branwell, who had joined the family in Haworth to look after the children after their mother's death, died of internal obstructionin 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 Héger. She returned to Haworth in January 1844 and used the time spent in Brussels as the inspiration for some of the events in The Professor and Villette.
In May 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-financed the publication of a joint collection of poems under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The pseudonyms veiled the sisters' sex while preserving their initials; thus Charlotte was Currer Bell. "Bell" was the middle name of Haworth's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls whom Charlotte later married, and "Currer" was the surname of Frances Mary Richardson Currer who had funded their school (and maybe their father). Of the decision to use noms de plume, Charlotte wrote:
Although only two copies of the collection of poems 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.
The Professor and Jane Eyre
Brontë'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 Currer Bell might wish to send. Brontë responded by finishing and sending a second manuscript in August 1847. Six weeks later Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published. It tells the story of a plain governess, Jane, who, after difficulties in her early life, falls in love with her employer, Mr Rochester. They marry, but only after Rochester's insane first wife, of whom Jane initially has no knowledge, dies in a dramatic house fire. The book's style was innovative, combining naturalism with gothicmelodrama, and broke new ground in being written from an intensely evoked first-person female perspective. Brontë believed art was most convincing when based on personal experience; in Jane Eyre she transformed the experience into a novel with universal appeal.
Jane Eyre had immediate commercial success and initially received favourable reviews. G. H. Lewes wrote that it was "an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit," and declared that it consisted of "suspiria de profundis!" (sighs from the depths). Speculation about the identity and gender of the mysterious Currer Bell heightened with the publication of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne). Accompanying the speculation was a change in the critical reaction to Brontë's work, as accusations were made that the writing was "coarse", a judgement more readily made once it was suspected that Currer Bell was a woman. However, sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong and may even have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an "improper" book.
Shirley and bereavements
In 1848 Brontë began work on the manuscript of her second novel, Shirley. It was only partially completed when the Brontë family suffered the deaths of three of its members within eight months. In September 1848 Branwell died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus, exacerbated by heavy drinking, although Brontë believed that his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell was also 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. Brontë was unable to write at this time.
After Anne's death Brontë 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 in the first person, Shirley is written in the third person and lacks the emotional immediacy of her first novel, and reviewers found it less shocking. Brontë, as her late sister's heir, suppressed the republication of Anne's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, an action which had a deleterious effect on Anne's popularity as a novelist and has remained controversial among the sisters' biographers ever since.
In view of the success of her novels, particularly Jane Eyre, Brontë was persuaded by her publisher to make occasional visits to London, 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 Brontë: