This week our Cheat Sheet takes a look at the life and work of Charlotte Brontë, another author suggested by our readers…
Just the facts:
- Full name – Charlotte Bront
- Lived 1816 – 1855
- Born Thornton, near Bradford in Yorkshire.
- Charlotte was the third of six Brontë children, and the eldest of the four who ultimately survived to adulthood.
- Their parents were Maria (née Branwell) and Patrick Brontë, an Irish Anglican clergyman, who changed his surname from “Brunty”.
- Many reasons have been proposed for why Patrick made the change of spelling to “Brontë”, the most likely and convincing of which is pretension…
- In 1820, the family moved to the village of Haworth, where Patrick had become vicar.
- In 1821, when Charlotte was five years old, her mother Maria died of cancer.
- Maria’s elder sister Elizabeth Branwell arrived to help Patrick look after the children.
- In August 1924 a decision was made to send Charlotte, Emily, Elizabeth and Maria to the Clergy Daughters’ School, Cowan Bridge, Lancashire.
- Sadly, Maria and Elizabeth, the two eldest Brontë children died within a month of each other having returned home suffering from tuberculosis in May 1825.
- On the other hand, the tyrannical nature of the school served as the inspiration for Lowood in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. So, every cloud…
- Now the eldest sister, Charlotte took on a more maternal role with Emily, Anne and Branwell, the only Brontë boy.
- The siblings began to write stories, poems and articles based around the imaginary kingdoms of “Angria” and “Gondal”.
- Although the very thought of this literary idyl may be enough to turn one’s stomach, this work certainly instilled the children with a love of writing. And, most likely, silly names.
- The stories also often inexplicably featured the Duke of Wellington and various other heroic leaders of the day.
- Charlotte studied for a year at Roe Head in Mirfield from 1832.
- In 1833, Charlotte wrote her first novella The Green Dwarf: A Tale of the Perfect Tense, under the pen name Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley.
- In 1835, she returned to Roe Head school as a teacher, and stayed there until 1838.
- From 1839 she worked as a governess for various families in Yorkshire but found she yearned for the furthering of her own education so…
- In 1842, she and her sister Emily moved to Brussels to study at a boarding school run by the Heger family.
- Not having enough money to pay her way, Charlotte taught English in exchange for her own tuition and accommodation.
- Although both sisters briefly returned to England following the death of their surrogate mother Elizabeth Branwell in 1842, Charlotte returned to Brussels the following year where she was employed full time as a teacher.
- Her time in Brussels gave her inspiration she would draw on for her first full novel The Professor, and her third, Villette.
- During her stay in Brussels, Charlotte also appears to have become infatuated with her (married) employer, Constantin Heger…
- When she left to return once more to Haworth in 1844, she wrote love letters in French to Heger. For the most part, Heger did not reply, and certainly did not appear to reciprocate.
- To add to her disappointment, The Professor, which was not a Fifty Shades-a-like account of her lust for the folically-challenged Heger, failed to find a publisher.
- The Brontë sisters subsequently decided to self-publish a collection of poetry in 1846 using the pseudonyms they would go on to use for all their published work: Curer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell.
- Unfortunately, the collection did not sell well – “The Bells, the Bells, they sold just two books, you know…” was an oft heard whisper amongst the literati.
- If you don’t get the Hunchback of Notre Dame reference there, ignore it. It never happened.
- In August 1847, Charlotte sent Jane Eyre: An Autobiography to publishers Smith, Elder & Co of Cornhill, who had previously rejected The Professor.
- When the book was published six weeks later it received rave reviews and caused a not inconsiderable amount of controversy by those who considered it “improper”.
- Speculation abounded over the identity of Currer Bell – how had a man written such a convincing first person narrative from the point of view of a woman?
- Indeed, how had Charlotte written such a convincing account of a governess in love with her married employer? Oh, yes… Right…
- Although she did not ever leave Haworth for long, she was encouraged to “out” herself to London society as Currer Bell and made occasional visits to mingle in the capital.
- She was not a natural conversationalist, but more of that below…
- In 1848, Charlotte threw herself into writing her second novel, Shirley, but her progress was hindered by the deaths in quick succession over eight months of her three siblings.
- Shirley was published in 1849, but failed to match the success of her previous novel.
- Enter Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate and the source of the sisters’ nom de plume. Nicholls proposed to Charlotte since he had been in love with her for many years and hoped that, particularly now she had lost so many of those she loved, he might offer her some comfort and companionship.
- Charlotte declined.
- In 1853 her third novel Villette was published. The story of a young woman who travels to the continent to teach at a boarding school where she falls in love with a man she is unable to marry – Hang on. This again?
- Partly owing to the encouragement of her friend Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte reconsidered Nicholls’ proposal, and they were married in June 1854.
- Although Charlotte fell pregnant quickly after her marriage, she died on 31st March 1855 at the age of 38.
Key work: Jane Eyre is undoubtedly the finest of her novels. Experimental in narrative form and tone, Jane is a character like none that came before. The use of the autobiographical conceit allows for Jane’s direct expression of raw emotion and desire – that which would have been recognisable to women readers of the time but would most certainly never have been openly discussed by them. Beyond its portrayal of women, the novel’s first person narrative also allowed Charlotte to draw attention through Jane to issues such as the morality of religion as well as educational and social inequality.
Anecdote: Charlotte was once guest of honour at a party thrown by William Makepeace Thackeray. As the writer of the biggest hit of the day in Jane Eyre, everyone present was excited to meet her and to be enthralled by this no doubt scintillating conversationalist. Charlotte arrived, had dinner, and retired to the sofa in the study, having rarely engaged in conversation. In a valiant attempt, one woman steeled herself to ask “Do you like London, Miss Brontë?” After a distinctly awkward silence, Charlotte replied “Yes and no.” She left the “party” soon afterwards.
NB. Contrary to popular opinion, laudanum addict and all round pleasure seeker Branwell Brontë did not die standing up leaning against a mantelpiece “to prove it could be done.” This would appear to be a misunderstood quotation from Douglas Adams.
DO say: “Charlotte Brontë should be seen as the first of a line of novelists attempting to tackle a narrative of the subconscious which would ultimately lead to Joyce, Woolf and modernism.”
DON’T say: That previous joke about “The Bells, the Bells…” – it’s better forgotten. Never say it again. Ever.
Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog
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