Author of the Week: Charlotte Bronte
By Shani Asokan
Ceylon Today Features
The eldest of the three famed Bronte sisters, Charlotte Bronte was an English novelist and poet who wrote novels now considered classics of English literature. Charlotte was born in April 1816 in Yorkshire, the third of six children to Patrick and Maria Bronte.
Patrick was an Irish Anglican clergyman and in 1820 the family moved to the village of Haworth where he was appointed perpetual curate of St. Michael and All Angels church. In 1821, Maria died of cancer, leaving five daughters, Charlotte included, in the care of her sister, Elizabeth Branwell.
Three years later, Patrick sent Charlotte and her sisters Emily, Maria and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, Lancashire. According to Charlotte, the school’s poor conditions permanently affected her health and physical development, and brought about the death of her sisters Maria and Elizabeth who died of tuberculosis in 1825. Following their deaths, Patrick brought Charlotte and Emily back home.
Later, Charlotte used this school as the inspiration for Lowood School in her novel Jane Eyre. Being the eldest of the children, Charlotte acted as a mother figure and guardian to her younger siblings. Charlotte and her surviving siblings, Branwell, Emily and Anne often wrote poems and stories, creating fictional worlds of their own. They sometimes combined their ideas and created joint fantasy worlds, in which they would write about the lives and struggles of their original characters. They continued to do this into adolescence and it prepared them well for the literary vocations they would each pursue in adulthood.
In 1831 and 1832, Charlotte continued her education at Roe Head in Mirfield where she met and made lifelong friendships with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor. In 1833 she wrote a novella under the pen name Wellesley and around this time, her writing began to shift away from fantasy and supernatural to more realistic stories. She went back to Roe Head as a teacher in 1835 and taught there for three years before moving on to be governess to several families. During her time at Roe Head she wrote a lot of poetry, stemming from her unhappiness and loneliness from being a teacher there.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels to enrol at a boarding school run by Constantin Heger. While at the boarding school, Charlotte, who favoured Protestantism, disliked Madame Heger’s stern practice of Catholicism, which enforced conformity.
In return for board and tuition, Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. However, their time at the boarding school was cut short as their aunt Emily Branwell died suddenly in October of that same year. Charlotte returned to the school alone in 1843 to take up a teaching post at the school. Her time there however, was not a happy one as she was incredibly homesick and deeply attached to the married Constantin Heger. She went back to Haworth in January 1844 and later used her experiences in Brussels as inspiration for her novels The Professor and Villette.
Upon returning to Haworth, Charlotte and her sisters opened up their own boarding school. Though, despite advertisements and inquiries, the school attracted no pupils and in October 1844, they abandoned the project altogether. In May 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-financed a joint collection of poems under assumed names. Each of their pseudonyms veiled their sex but preserved their initials.
The sisters continued writing under their pseudonyms. Charlottes first manuscript did none secure a publisher, but at the expressed interest of Smith, Elder and Co. she sent over a longer manuscript that was Jane Eyre, which was published six weeks later. The book broke ground for its gothic style and first person based female perspective. Charlotte believed that the most successful stories were those based on personal experience, and that’s exactly what she did with Jane Eyre.
In 1848, Charlotte began working on her novel Shirley. The manuscript was only half complete when the Bronte family suffered three deaths within the span of eight months. Charlotte’s brother Branwell died in September 1848 of chronic bronchitis and marasmus exacerbated by heavy drinking. Emily died soon after, of pulmonary tuberculosis and Anne died of the same disease in May 1849. Due to severe grief, Charlotte was unable to write at the time. Following Anne’s death, Charlotte began writing once again, picking up where she had left off with Shirley.
The last novel Charlotte published in her lifetime was Villette. During her writing of this book, Charlotte received a proposal of marriage from Arthur Bell Nicholls which she accepted in 1854. Charlotte was very happy in her marriage and became pregnant quite soon after her wedding. However, her health declined rapidly. She died with her unborn child on 31 March 1855, just three weeks before her 39th birthday. Her death certificate notes her cause of death as tuberculosis but many of her biographers have noted that she may have died of dehydration and malnourishment caused by the severe morning sickness she experienced.