The Intriguing Life of Charlotte Brontë

Avatar of Noha Basiouny
Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

In 1847, a novel called Jane Eyre was published by a young English female writer called Charlotte Brontë. The story revolved around a young orphan girl, Jane, who was destined to many struggles in her life but strived to achieve equality, become independent, and find love.

The novel was a great success. Lots and lots of people found it remarkably sophisticated. The style of writing was spontaneous, simple, and pretty eloquent. It showed a great command of language and a fine choice of words and sentences. The story was also narrated in the first person which was uncommon at the time.

Furthermore, the story was delicate and tender. The events developed in a mesmerising way combining struggle and oppression with romance and hope. This made reading pretty captivating. Eventually, readers could not help but love and empathise with the main character, Jane.

In addition to the writer’s distinct narrative, Jane Eyre was successful because it was exceptionally unlike anything else at that time. Aside from those who loved it, Jane Eyre being that disparate actually angered many other people. They criticised it because they believed it was ‘realistic’, extremely improper as well as controversial.

In literature, realistic stories usually represent more reality than fantasy. They portray characters that are not exaggerated but rather real, somehow like the readers. These characters along with the events are also described in a lot more detail than average. That said, realism was not very common in English literature in the mid-19th century. So when Jane Eyre, the realistic novel, was published, it received criticism. 

Besides realism, Jane Eyre was thought to be improper and controversial. That is because it portrayed women in a completely different way from what was accepted back then. In 19th-century Britain, society was known as Victorian society, referring to Queen Victoria who was ruling Great Britain at the time.

In Victorian society, women lived their entire lives both preparing to be wives then becoming wives. During their childhood and teenage years, girls had to learn to do housework, cook, cleang, wash, and sew.

They would marry at a very young age and spend the rest of their lives taking care of their husbands and raising up children. On the other hand, husbands always treated their wives not as life partners but more as secondary characters in their lives.

Women encountered a lot of inequality and oppression. They were expected to obey and do their duties in silence. They were not allowed to have opinions, let alone to think or make their own choices. Sadly, that was the social standard. 

But Jane Eyre, the female main character, was different from those Victorian women. She had her own thoughts, opinions, wants, and desires. She had ambitions and dreamed of achieving great things in life. She also fell in love and hoped to share her life with the man of her choice. Accordingly, Jane experienced an inner struggle between what she really wanted and what society wanted her to be. 

That is why Jane Eyre surprised and outraged many conservative people. They believed it deviated from the social norms and was rather calling for women to abandon their roles. But Jane Eyre was calling for quite the opposite. She only wanted equality between men and women.

Another thing that was different about this novel is that it revolved around a character from the lower class. The story was told by a child; in the first person. It also had a detailed description of emotion. All of that was considered bold at the time. 

Now more than 174 years after the book was first published, Jane Eyre is still the favourite book for millions of readers. It is still as vivid and captivating even though the global society has dramatically shifted from the Victorian era. Some people even claim that Jane Eyre was the spark for improving women’s position in society and helping women’s rights.

So if a story could be and stay that innovative for so long, nearly two centuries, how about the person behind it? What kind of writer was Jane Eyre’s creator? Who was Charlotte Brontë?

Well, this is what we are exploring today

Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre’s creator was the English writer and poet Charlotte Brontë. Interestingly, one cannot talk about Charlotte without mentioning the rest of her siblings because all of them have something for literature and art.

Charlotte and her younger sisters Emily and Anne were all writers. They were known as The Brontës. They first published a shared book of poems. Then their first novels came out almost at the same time. While Charlotte is famous for Jane Eyre, Emily’s fame came from Wuthering Heights which has also become one of the greatest novels of all time.

In addition to the Brontë sisters, there was their brother Branwell Brontë who was multi-talented. He was a painter and a poet and was known for his translations from Latin to English.

Early childhood (1816-1824)

Charlotte Brontë was born on April 21, 1816, in a small village in Yorkshire in Northern England. She had a total of five siblings. Her older sisters were Maria and Elizabeth. Her younger siblings were Branwell, Emily, and Anne, in that order.

Charlotte’s father was called Patrick Brontë and he was an Irish priest, a clergyman. Interestingly, he used to spell his surname as Brunty. But at the age of 25, he changed it to Brontë. It is not known for sure why he did that. But the two dots on the ‘e’ refer to the letter being a separate vowel. Charlotte’s mother was Maria Branwell.

When Charlotte was five years old, her mother, Maria, got extremely sick. She fought cancer with courage but eventually died. Charlotte’s father became in charge of bringing up his six children. However, the children’s aunt, Maria’s sister Elizabeth, often gave him a hand in taking care of them.

Three years after the mother’s death, when Charlotte was eight years old, Charlotte’s father Patrick decided to send her along with her sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Emily to school.

First school experience (1824-1825)

It was August 1824 when Charlotte was destined for the second hardship in her still-short life as the school could not be worse. 

In fact, Charlotte and her sisters were enrolled in a boarding school called the Clergy Daughters’ School. It accepted clergymen’s daughters and was more than 150 km away from Yorkshire.

Because clergymen paid little to no fees at all, their children were called charity children. And they were forced by the school to wear a different uniform which distinguished them from the other children. Charlotte particularly found this act highly humiliating.

Most probably due to this uniform, children at the school provoked and insulted the sisters. They especially mocked Charlotte because she used to stick her nose to the books to be able to read. That is because she was short-sighted, meaning she could not see properly unless things were very close.

Another thing that worsened the school experience for the Brontë sisters was its cruel discipline. Children were forced to get up before dawn. They had to wash using very cold, almost freezing water. Additionally, they had to spend an hour and a half reciting their prayers before they were able to have breakfast.

Food was another disaster. Despite the fact that children need nutritious meals to grow, the meals offered by the school were the exact opposite. Breakfast was some kind of porridge that tasted awful because it was often burnt. Lunch and dinner were no better than breakfast. And the only snack they had during the day was a small piece of bread and a cup of coffee. 

Lessons took the most part of the day with only a short, 30-minute break. At the end of the day. children had to spend some time praying as well. By the time they went to bed, they were extremely exhausted. And above all that, every two children had to sleep in the same bed.

And there was the punishing system. Children who did not follow the rules or seemed to make the slightest mistakes were punished. They were not allowed to eat nor to have breaks. They were also beaten in a way that caused physical and emotional pain. That is all besides other acts that deeply humiliated them.

All of that led to horrible, horrible consequences.

The freezing water, poor eating, cruel discipline, as well as all the other bad conditions at the school caused both Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte’s older sisters, to get a tuberculosis infection and eventually die in the following year, 1825.

These dramatic events pushed Patrick, the father, to take his surviving daughters Charlotte and Emily out of school and send them back home.

Early writings (1825-1830)

Since Charlotte was then the oldest sister, she had to take the responsibility of caring for her younger remaining siblings, Branwell and her two sisters Emily and Anne. They all lived in their father’s house, the Haworth parsonage. It was a large house given to the father by the church since he was working there.

The loss of Maria and Elizabeth implicitly influenced Charlotte’s reunion with her siblings and created a strong, friendly bond among them.

At first, they were no different from most children. They spent their leisure time together, made up stories, built imaginary worlds, designed characters, came up with situations and incidents, and acted them out at home.

What was different about the Brontë siblings was that they took these fictional worlds to paper and described them in a lot of detail. One remarkable outcome of these playful acts was the creation of a novel called Glass Town in 1827.

Glass Town revolved around an imaginary world that existed in a different cosmos. The characters that lived in that world were quite iconic. Their lives, desires, and struggles were detailed in a way that was impressively unusual for young children to come up with. This shows how much of a talent the Brontë siblings had from a young age.

Most of the writing was done by Charlotte and Branwell with Emily and Anne participating in some parts. Glass Town was quite elaborate. It was written in episodes in which the events developed and new characters were introduced. Interestingly, Charlotte later confessed that she was describing her own desires and thoughts in those writings.

Another interesting point about Glass Town is that it was ‘locally’ published. At the time, Branwell created a magazine of his own and called it ‘Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine’. Blackwood’s Magazine was in fact a literary magazine that was very popular in Britain back then. 

So Branwell thought he could make his own version of the famous magazine. The handwritten stories, journals, and letters were published periodically in this homemade publication.

The magazine continued and the stories developed in different ways. Almost two centuries later, these early writings by Charlotte and Branwell were turned into a graphic novel—a comic book—and published in 2020 under the same name Glass Town

In 1829, Charlotte wrote her first poem. She was only 13 at the time. That was the first of a total of 200 poems that Charlotte wrote throughout the course of her entire, but short, life. 

Second school experience (1831-1833)

In 1831, Charlotte was enrolled in another school called Roe Head. She was 15 when she started a new experience that thankfully turned out much better than the previous one.

Although Charlotte spent only a year in the new school, she did learn a lot of things. She was also lucky to meet who would later become her lifelong friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. Charlotte stayed in contact with them until the very end of her life. Interestingly, most of what we now know about Charlotte Brontë came from the letters she and Ellen exchanged.

During that one year Charlotte spent at Roe Head, her imagination and passion for writing did not stop. In 1833, she wrote a long story called The Green Dwarf. From that point on and as she grew older, Charlotte gradually left behind the supernatural worlds she used to imagine and started to think of more realistic stories.

Like the young Charlotte, adult Charlotte was so full of energy and dreams and wanted to achieve great things in her life. She also had a profound feeling of responsibility toward her family and she wanted to support them. So after a good, productive year at the new school, Charlotte went back to her family house to teach her siblings Branwell, Emily, and Anne.

First Job (1835-1838)

In 1835, Charlotte returned to Roe Head, this time as a teacher. Work gave her another chance to support her family but financially. She worked there for three years up until 1838. Though this period in and of itself was far from pleasant, it did influence Charlotte’s literary progress.

During these three years, Charlotte felt lonely. She did not like the work at the school very much. The school also imposed many restrictions. Despite that, Charlotte was unable to quit having to support the family. So the only escape for her was poetry.

While working at Roe Head, Charlotte wrote numerous poems which conveyed her desperation and deep sadness. However, they were quite vivid and elaborative at the same time. Such consistency in writing intrigued Charlotte to put her writing talents into practice and pursue a career as a poet.

So she wrote a letter to a famous romantic poet at the time called Robert Southey. She politely asked him for support to become a poet. Although Charlotte knew how women in Victorian society were treated, she probably did not expect such a harsh reply as the one she received.

In his reply, Southey plainly stated that women must not work in literature. And even if they happened to appreciate it very much, they had to focus more on their duties as sisters, wives, and mothers which shall guarantee this urge would be tamed.

Second job (1839-1841)

Charlotte’s life had become extremely rough. Even poetry was not able to pull her out of her misery. So she left Roe Head and in 1839 she accepted a job as a private teacher. She was 23 years old at the time.

This job was then called governess. A governess was hired by families to educate their children instead of sending them to school. Charlotte did not like her job as a private teacher either. The families mistreated her and sometimes even humiliated her. Sometimes, the children who she was supposed to teach were quite disobedient and rather rude to her.

Unable to free herself of the responsibility, Charlotte continued her work as a governess for two years. She did that to particularly support her brother Branwell who was falling behind in life.

Despite his promising abilities and talents in writing and painting, Branwell grew to be an unbalanced man. He did not have the strong willpower to do the hard things. He frequently changed jobs and was immoderate. As a result, he turned to alcohol and drugs to bury his sorrows. Eventually he fell into debt.

Third school experience (1841-1843)

Charlotte quit her job as a governess. Instead, she and her sister Emily decided to open a school of their own to teach young pupils. But first, they needed to develop their teaching skills and improve their French language. So they both enrolled at a boarding school in Brussels. The school was managed by a Belgian teacher called Constantin Héger who would later have a great influence on Charlotte.

School went fine and the sisters worked hard. They even received some recognition from the principal Mr Héger. But again, bad luck was just around the corner.

Charlotte and Emily had to interrupt their school study when their aunt who took care of them passed away. While Emily stayed in England, Charlotte returned to Brussels in early 1843 and participated both as a pupil and a teacher at the school.

With the absence of Emily and the friends she met the year before, Charlotte felt quite unhappy and rather depressed during her second stay at the school. However, something else caught her attention and distracted her a little from her sorrows. It was the school principal Mr Héger.

Héger was unusual, quite unlike any man Charlotte had even met. His personality was strong and his thoughts and opinions appealed to her. So Charlotte’s rebellious spirit and old hopes and talents came to the surface once again.

Gradually Charlotte became attached to Mr Héger and somehow developed affection toward him. That made Héger’s wife, who was also running the school, feel jealous of Charlotte. Yet, Héger tried to suppress Charlotte’s emotions. He even asked her to stop sending him letters when she went back to England; otherwise, they would be misunderstood.

School opening (1844-1845)

During her study in Brussels, Charlotte received profound education in writing and literature. She also learned more about her talents and was taught how to utilise them in the best way.

In January 1844, Charlotte returned to England to join Emily in opening their own boarding school. They decided to host it in their parsonage where they were residing with the rest of her family members.

The idea of using the parsonage came from Charlotte’s genuine feeling of responsibility. She did not want to go away anymore because her father Patrick was ageing. At the time he was 67 years old and his eyesight was getting worse and worse.

Charlotte and Emily worked very hard to prepare their house to become a boarding school. In October 1844, it was ready to receive pupils. The sisters printed out booklets and spread the word about their new school. However, no family enrolled their children because it was too far away. So Charlotte and Emily declined the project altogether.

Self-publication (1846)

The following year, 1846, was the start of Charlotte’s career in literature.

After finding out about some poems that Emily wrote, Charlotte with her two sisters Emily and Anne funded the publication of a shared book of poems. However, the book was not published under their real names. Instead, the three Brontë sisters chose the male pen names: Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell or the Bell brothers.

The Brontës chose these male pen names because they knew readers and critics would not fairly judge their poems if they knew the poets were women. However, hiding their true identities did not help much in spreading the word about the Brontës as writers as the book only sold two copies.

Jane Eyre (1847)

Despite the unexpected failure, the Brontë sisters’ love and passion for writing would not stop. They even continued writing and sent their manuscripts to publishers under the same pen names, hoping they could get a chance for publication.

The first manuscript that Charlotte sent was a novel called The Professor. Although the publisher decided not to publish it, he encouraged Charlotte, who he thought was a man called Currer Bell, to send in more ‘longer’ manuscripts.

At the time, Charlotte was also working on her second novel which she called Jane Eyre. A few months later, Charlotte was able to finalise her novel and sent it to the publisher. Only a month and a half later, in October 1847, Jane Eyre, Charlotte’s best-known and revolutionary novel was published.

Charlotte put her heart and soul into Jane Eyre. The novel was so much inspired by her life and the experiences she went through that it was almost a biography of her. The harsh first school experience was described in detail as the school Jane Eyre went to. Jane’s employer who she loved and could not marry at first was apparently inspired by Mr Héger. A character that is thought to resemble Charlotte’s oldest sister Maria and how badly she was treated at school was also included.

The book was a great success. It sold many copies and received good reviews. One famous literature critique at the time called G. H. Lewes favoured it as well.

Interestingly, the book was published under Charlotte’s pen name Currer Bell. Everybody wondered who this promising writer was and how he could write such a deep story circulating around suffering from a strong feminine narrative. Some people even suspected Currer Bell’s identity.

Two months later, in December 1847, both Emily and Anne succeeded in attracting a publisher to publish their novels Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. These novels were also well received. But again, they were published under Emily and Anne’s pen names Ellis Bell and Acton Bell. This increased curiosity toward those Bell brothers who apparently held so much talent and unique views. 

Charlotte’s identity was not revealed and with the increased probability that Jane Eyre’s writer might be a woman, harsh critique was given to the novel. The story was accused of being rude and deviating from the morals of society and religion as we have mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Yet, even that opposition did not affect the success of Jane Eyre. It might have even increased the book sales since more and more people started wondering about the story that provoked that many people.

Tragedies (1848-1849)

Jane Eyre’s success, however, was hit by a series of tragedies.

In September 1848, Charlotte’s brother Branwell died of chronic disease in his lungs. Two months after his death, in December 1848, Emily got extremely sick and died of tuberculosis, followed by Anne in the following year, 1849.

Before the death of her three young siblings, Charlotte had already started her second novel, Shirley. She resumed writing it after Anne’s death as a way to mourn her siblings and distract herself from the extreme pain she felt.

Charlotte finished the story and sent it to the publisher. The story came out in October 1849, exactly two years after her great novel Jane Eyre was published. However, Shirley was not very successful and the readers did not find it as distinct as Jane Eyre was.

By then, Charlotte was already on good terms with her publisher. So he invited her to go to London and reveal her identity. And she did. This gave her the chance to meet other writers and even become friends with them.

One of the people Charlotte met in London was Elizabeth Gaskell. She was a novelist and a biographer. Their friendship developed in a good way that allowed Elizabeth to write Charlotte’s biography after her death.

Villette (1853)

Charlotte continued writing and succeeded in finalising and publishing her third novel Villette in 1853.

The story was more like Jane Eyre and less like Shirley. The main character, a woman too, also had some inner conflicts between her true desires and the standards of society, something that Charlotte herself had always been experiencing. Charlotte’s third novel was more well-received than the second one. Many critics considered it innovative.

Charlotte’s work also contained a big deal of romance. Both Jane Eyre and the main character from Villette, Lucy, fell in love with men whom they could not initially marry but were able to later on in the story. If we look at how much Charlotte’s own life inspired her work, it might be fair also to consider the opposite. Charlotte poured her own desires and wishes into her work and spoke through her characters.

So maybe deep down she was yearning for love.

Marriage (1854)

After her emotions for Mr Héger were suppressed both by him and by her own choice, Charlotte apparently did not feel the same toward any other man. That may be the reason why she declined marriage proposals one after the other.

But in 1853, another man called Arthur Bell Nicholls who had secretly been in love with Charlotte proposed to her. At first, she refused. But when her friend Elizabeth Gaskell talked her into the positive sides of marriage, Charlotte started reconsidering the proposal.

Elizabeth helped secure a good job for Nicholls whose financial status was not very good when he first proposed to Charlotte. So after good consideration and some growing affection towards Nicholls, Charlotte and he got married the following year, in 1854.

Charlotte’s marriage may be one of the happiest experiences in her entire life. And she may have found the love she longed for.

Death (1855)

A few months after her marriage, Charlotte became very sick. She experienced severe vomiting and fainted a lot. On March 31, 1855, Charlotte passed away at the age of 38. What is even sadder is that Charlotte was pregnant when she died.

The reason for Charlotte’s sickness was long speculated. Yet, it is now believed that Charlotte’s pregnancy was accompanied by many complications. These complications caused frequent vomiting, resulting in dehydration of which she died.

The Professor and Emma

Charlotte’s first book, The Professor, which was turned down by her publisher, was published in 1857, two years after her death.

In 1853, before she got married, Charlotte had begun working on her fourth novel Emma. She only wrote two chapters of 20 pages but was not able to proceed with the story due to her marriage.

The incomplete manuscript of Charlotte’s novel Emma should not be confused with Jane Austen’s novel that carries the same name, Emma. The latter was published in 1815, five months already before Charlotte was born.

A century and a half later, an Irish writer called Clare Boylan used these two chapters and wrote an entire novel based on them. It is a mystery novel, some characters of which were directly taken from Emma’s original manuscript. The new book was called Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë. It was published in 2003.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *