Anne | Emily | Charlotte
Charlotte Brontë was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who became famous as authors. During her short lifetime (she was born on 21 April, 1816, and died on 31 March, 1855, at the age of just 38) she wrote various short stories and poems, plus four novels, including the novel Jane Eyre that she is best known for. Her work was inspired by her vivid imagination, books she had read, the places she visited and the people that she encountered.
The Brontë sisters' mother had died when Charlotte was five years old. Charlotte and her three sisters Maria, Elizabeth and Emily were sent away to the Clergy Daughters' School in 1824 - their father was Rector of Haworth in West Yorkshire - but the conditions were harsh. The eldest two, Maria and Elizabeth, became ill there and died in 1825. After that, Emily, Charlotte and Anne were educated at home by their aunt Elizabeth Branwell. Charlotte developed her writing skills by creating tiny books about the fantasy land of Angria with her brother Branwell - they included their younger sisters as Emmii and Annii in their stories, but Emily and Anne mostly worked together on their own stories set in the land of Gondal1.
Miss Wooler's school at Roe Head was very different to the Clergy Daughters' School - there were no more than ten pupils. Charlotte went there for 18 months and made friends with Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey. At the age of 15, Charlotte was small and thin, and very short-sighted, but the school enabled her to develop her curiosity and love of learning. When Charlotte returned to Haworth, she also returned to Angria and the other fantasy worlds.
The family was not rich, so the sisters' prospects of marrying well were not good. Instead they took steps to become financially independent in jobs that were considered suitable for women. In 1835, Charlotte joined Miss Wooler's school as a teacher. During that time, Charlotte honed her skills at daydreaming to bring visions of her Angrian heroes to life in front of her. Emily and Anne spent time there, but became ill and returned home. Miss Wooler recognised Charlotte was not in good health, either, so she released Charlotte to return to Haworth in 1837.
Ellen's brother Henry proposed to Charlotte when she was 23, but Charlotte did not love him, so turned him down. In the same year an Irish curate proposed after only meeting her once, so she turned him down as well. She wrote: 'I am certainly doomed to be an old maid. Never mind, I had made up my mind to that fate ever since I was twelve years old.'
In May 1839, Charlotte became a governess. She worked for the Sidgwick family in Skipton for two months, then went on holiday to Bridlington with Ellen by train - the first time she had seen the sea. Then she became governess to the Whites of Upperwood House, near Bradford for eight months. She was expected to do sewing in the evenings as well as look after the children during the day, so the work was very tiring and gave her little opportunity to write. She left the Whites in 1841, when she and her sisters began to make plans to start their own school.
In order to be able to compete with the proprietors of other small schools, they needed qualifications, so Charlotte and Emily spent some time at a finishing school in Brussels, Belgium. They learned French, German and Literature. They also developed their teaching skills: Charlotte became an English teacher, and Emily gave piano lessons to her fellow pupils. They returned to Haworth in 1842, as Aunt Branwell was ill, but by the time they arrived she had died. Charlotte travelled back to Brussels in 1843.
As well as continuing her studies, Charlotte gave English lessons to Monsieur Heger, the proprietor of the school, to help him to improve his pronunciation. However, she returned home at the end of the year as Mr Brontë had lost his eyesight2. Charlotte tried to set up their planned school in Haworth, but was not able to recruit any pupils. Her eyes then became weak so she could not write stories in small books as she had before. However, she wrote letters, many of which were to Monsieur Heger.
After leaving Brussels, Charlotte realised she had fallen in love with him so her letters contained more passion than was proper for friends. Monsieur Heger, a married man, made her promise not to write to him more than twice a year, so Charlotte put some of her anguish into poetry.
In 1845, Charlotte discovered that Emily and Anne had also written poems, so she resolved to work towards achieving their dream of becoming published authors.
They chose the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell - not women's names, but not specifically men's names, either. Charlotte said: 'the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because - without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' - we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.'
Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was published in May 1846 at their own expense (30 guineas) but only two copies were sold that year. Charlotte contributed 19 out of the 61 poems (some of which were possibly adapted from poems set in Angria). She wrote on various themes, including nature and love, but mostly on death and loss of loved ones. The sisters all started working on novels, too. The first to be finished was Charlotte's The Professor, inspired by her time in Brussels. Anne's Agnes Grey and Emily's Wuthering Heights were first to be accepted for publication, but Jane Eyre, the novel Charlotte became most famous for, was the first to be published, in 1847.
In 1848, Branwell died on 24 September, and Emily died on 19 December. Anne died on 28 May, 1849. Alone, Charlotte continued working on her next novel, Shirley. It featured characters based on people she was acquainted with, including Arthur Nicholls, the curate at her father's church. It was published in 1849. In 1850, Charlotte met the author Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell in Windermere. Soon afterwards, James Taylor, who worked for the publisher Smith and Elder, proposed marriage to her, but she disliked his 'determined, dreadful nose'. Her last finished novel was Villette, which was published in 1853.
Mr Nicholls proposed to Charlotte in December 1852, revealing feelings Charlotte never thought he possessed, but Mr Bronte strongly disapproved. Mr Nicholls resigned from his role as curate. He went to Pontefract, but wrote to Charlotte, and she eventually wrote back to him. At first Charlotte merely pitied him, but then she began to grow fond of him. She told her father, and he eventually consented to their marriage, not least because the replacement curate wasn't as good as Mr Nicholls had been, and Charlotte could continue to live with him as well as her husband.
They were married on 29 June, 1854. Mr Nicholls was perhaps too attentive, encouraging her to go on walks rather than write, but her health improved and she began a new novel called Emma. However, that winter she caught a cold and then developed nausea and feelings of faintness. She found she was pregnant. In her weakened state, it was likely that she had developed tuberculosis. Her husband cared for her and provided 'the best earthly comfort that ever woman had'. She died on 31 March, 1855, aged 38.
The novel is presented as the autobiography of Jane Eyre. Jane's experiences at Lowood School reflect those of Charlotte at the Clergy Daughters' School. Jane becomes a teacher and a governess, then meets and falls in love with Edward Rochester, a man with a secret. Featuring more nuanced portrayals of women than were common in novels at the time, plus themes of mental illness and physical disability, the novel has become a much-studied classic of English Literature.
Shirley is a 'social novel' dealing with factual events (the Napoleonic Wars and the Luddite Rebellion of 1811-12), in addition to the fictional story of Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar and their efforts to find their way in the world as women, with or without husbands. The character of Shirley was inspired by Emily - Emily's dog Keeper also appeared as Shirley's dog Tartar. Shirley was not as much of a success as Jane Eyre had been, but it still sold well.
The setting of this novel, Villette, means 'Little Town'. In many ways a reworking of The Professor, being inspired by Charlotte's stay in Brussels, it also includes other autobiographical aspects, plus themes covered in Jane Eyre and Shirley. The story is narrated by Lucy Snowe, an orphan who becomes a teacher. Charlotte's attitude to Catholicism is featured, but in a more nuanced way than in The Professor. Lucy, a Protestant like Charlotte, went to give confession in a Catholic Church because she was lonely and had much on her mind, even though she states 'God is not with Rome'. However, the possibility of Lucy marrying a Catholic man, whose fiancée had become a nun and died young, raises concerns. Viewed as a 'Gothic Novel', it received mixed views when it was first published, but in subsequent centuries it has been appreciated for its psychological power and the 'hunger, rebellion and rage' of its heroine.
Four months after Charlotte died, Mr Brontë invited Mrs Gaskell to write a biography of Charlotte, to avoid unauthorised and inaccurate pieces being written about her in magazines. The biography Mrs Gaskell produced was not the most accurate, as she didn't have access to all of Charlotte's letters and writings, plus she incorporated her own judgement on matters such as Branwell's obsession with a married woman, rather than trying to find out the facts. However, the book helped to increase the fame of Charlotte and her sisters.
Souvenir hunters began to contact Mr Brontë and Mr Nicholls. Some of Charlotte's letters were cut up so that fragments of her handwriting could be sent to them. However, many letters survived for later biographers to explore (Charlotte wrote more than 950 letters during her lifetime), so her fame lives on.
The Professor was published in 1857. Charlotte 'restrained imagination, eschewed romance... and sought to produce something which should be soft, grave and true.' It tells the story3 of aristocratic but impoverished William Crimsworth, who went to Brussels to work as a teacher. It features a romance between a young teacher and an older man, but also includes polemics against Flemish people and Roman Catholics that limited its appeal to publishers during Charlotte's lifetime.
Interest in the Brontës continued into the 20th Century. For example, Gondal's Queen: A Novel in Verse was published by University of Texas Press in 1955, and Five Novelettes was published by The Folio Press in 1971. Charlotte Bronte: Unfinished Novels was published in 1993 by Pocket Classics, including chapters from Emma. Juvenilia: 1829-1835 was published by Penguin Classics in 1996 and includes selections from the Angrian Chronicles plus other stories Charlotte wrote when she was a teenager.
More manuscripts came to light in the 21st Century. A 34-page novella entitled Stanliffe's Hotel, written by Charlotte on tiny notepaper in 1838, was published in The Times newspaper on 14 March, 2003. L'Ingratitude, a short story written for her French lessons in Brussels, was published in the London Review of Books in 2012. Charlotte Brontë: The Lost Manuscripts was published in 2018 by the Brontë Society. It contains transcripts of a poem and story by Charlotte that were found in a book owned by her mother.
Charlotte's works have also been adapted for the screen. A film of Shirley appeared in 1922, and a BBC adaptation of Villette appeared in 1970. Jane Eyre has appeared on film and in television series numerous times since 1934.