Charlotte Brontë was the daughter of Rev. Patrick Brontë. She lost her mother when she was only four years old. She was a third child in a family of four sisters and one brother but one by one, they sickened and died. She was herself not destined to live long and passed away at the young age of thirty nine, barely nine months after she had been happily married to a man who had been accepted with difficulty by her father. She made every sacrifice to make her only brother stand on his own two feet, taking up teaching which she least liked, but he came to a dismal end, notwithstanding his early promise as an artist of some talent.
Emily, her younger sister and celebrated author of Wuthering Heights died of consumption soon after the publication of her book. Anne, her youngest sister and novelist of some ability died five months later. Her father, Rev. Patrick Brontë loved his children but he had strict ideas of his own regarding their upbringing and training. They grew up suppressed and repressed in every way, but acutely sensitive and intelligent. Maria, the eldest child, when merely seven-years old, could occupy herself with a newspaper or periodical and the father’s satisfaction was that he could always converse with her on any topic with pleasure, as with a grown up person.
Charlotte Brontë was born on the 21st of April, 1816. At the age of eight, she went to Cowan Bridge School. This was a gloomy and damp place and admitted the daughters of the poor clergy. The children were cruelly treated in the name of austerity and discipline, and deliberately starved. She studied there for a year or less but so bitter was the memory of those days that she bore the scar for the rest of her life. The Lowood School in Jane Eyre, with its deadening routine and life of physical hardships, presents, perhaps, the nearest approach to the conditions at Cowan Bridge. In 1831, she got a chance to study again. This time, her experience in the school at Roe Head, was pleasant and happy, though her stay there was not long. She read a great deal and made some good friends. She became, particularly fond of her Principal, Miss Wooler. The Miss Temple in Lowood School is, evidently, built around the sweet personality of Miss Wooler who must have encouraged the students by precept and example, “to keep up our spirits, and march forward”, as she said, “like stalwart soldiers.”
Early Literary Activities
Charlotte had developed a love for literature at an early age. She had been reading and writing voluminously since her school days. She was fortunately placed in this at least. The entire family was devoted to creative activity. The father had published religious poems and sermons. The mother had some small printed works, to her credit, before her marriage. Emily was a poet and novelist and Anne was a minor novelist with two published books, but popular nonetheless. In spite of the harshness of life at Haworth, where their father had shifted in 1820, after the death of their mother, the children lived an imaginative life and “grew up in the private worlds of day-dreams” for want of outside amusement. They played games with wooden soldiers and peopled imaginary towns with characters. Charlotte and Branwell (her brother) founded the Great Glass Town of Angria and Emily and Anne discovered the island of Gondal and took part in its wars and shared its adventures of love. These games of theirs helped them to produce literature which might not have counted for much as quality literary creation but which certainly speaks well of their rich, imaginative life. “They are the products of immense solitude, of imagination turned inwards upon itself, and of ignorance of the world outside Haworth and literature”, as Walter Allen says in his book, The English Novel. Emily never forsook this world of her early days, though Charlotte began increasingly to realize the dangers of this dream existence” and tried to steer clear of her fantasies and her preoccupation with themes of passionate love. She was however, not wholly able to overcome adolescent fancies and love of melodrama. Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre is a typical character from a Gothic novel, secretly tending a mad wife in the garret of his mansion and, otherwise also, leading a Bohemian life. That Jane should not only desperately fall in love with him, for all her scruples and religious bent of mind, but also continue to adore him even when she had come to know of his first wife being alive, was really hard to accept in the Victorian homes. Whatever we may think of the moral implications of such a situation in our own day, it is fair to say that Charlotte Brontë could not have created it without believing herself (however innocently) in this kind of juvenile passion.
Charlotte had experienced love, however briefly, while at Brussels when she fell in love with her French teacher Mr. Constantin Heger. Her Brussels experience was her first and only love. She had, however, to do something to make a living, for even though she might succeed some day in getting some work of hers printed, literature could not feed all the many mouths in the house. She had to teach in schools or act as a private governess. She had been toying with the idea of running a school of her own. This had taken her and Emily to Brussels in Belgium to study with Professor Heger. Emily soon returned to live with the sick father but Charlotte completed her term. She had tasted freedom for the first time and the Professor was also interested in her, in a kindly sort of way. She fell in love with him without being consciously aware of the propriety of such a passion for a married man. Her sense of duty triumphed at long last though. “This trial of her feelings and fortitude,” as Baker says, “opened new worlds of experience for her feminine heart from which she was to draw material for her books, again and again.”
Experiments in Authorship
It was a happy coincidence which made the Brontë sisters think seriously of publishing their writings. On Charlotte’s return from Brussels, their plan to run a school of their own did not seem to prosper. Meanwhile, Charlotte made a discovery that her two sisters had a good enough collection of poems. She had also been composing verses and they decided that they should get them printed in a single volume. It was in 1845 that “Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell” was on sale in the market. Moderate success greeted their venture but their desire to set up as authors was duly whetted. They now looked for a publisher who would accept their three novels — Charlotte’s The Professor, Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey. Unfortunately for Charlotte, her book was rejected on all hands, A faint hope was held out, all the same, by Messrs. Smith, Elder and Company. They wrote to her that they would consider favourably Currer Bell’s (Charlotte’s assumed name) new work as soon as it was ready. She worked hard on Jane Eyre to finish it and became a successful writer the day it was published.
Jane Eyre gets a Publisher
There is an interesting story behind the acceptance of Jane Eyre by the publishers, The publisher’s reader glanced through the manuscript and persuaded Mr. George Smith, the head of the firm, to read it. He took it home and being free till mid-day on a Sunday, he began to browse through it. And this is what happened: “Before twelve o’clock, my horse came to the door, but I could not put the book down. I scribbled two or three lines to my friend, (with whom I was to go into the country) saying I was very sorry that circumstances had arisen to prevent my meeting him, sent the note off by my groom, and went on reading the manuscript. Presently the servant came to tell me that luncheon was ready. I asked him to bring me a sandwich and a glass of wine, and still went on with Jane Eyre. Dinner came; for me the meal was a very hasty one, and before I went to bed that night I had finished the manuscript.”
Jane Eyre took the reading public unawares. It became the talk of the literary world. It went into a second edition in three month time and a third followed soon after. And it has remained a ‘hot favourite ever since October, 1847.
Discovery of the Author’s Identity
The secret of the real identity of the author, Currer Bell, came out under equally interesting circumstances. Mr. Newby, the publisher of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey made a plan of capitalizing on the success of Jane Eyre. He brought out in June 1848 Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and cleverly inserted in the advertisement that the novel was written by the author of Jane Eyre. There was no option left to the sisters but to disclose their identity.
Shirley was published in 1849. Villette, her third novel appeared in 1853, while The Professor, her first novel, was brought out posthumously in 1857. Emma was never completed and was published as a fragment in the Cornhill Magazine, in April, 1860, with a preface by Thackeray. Her “letters” were printed in a book-form, under the title, Hours at Home in 1870.
Charlotte could no longer remain confined to the solitude of Haworth parsonage after her literary success. She had to go out frequently on visits to meet literary celebrities, friends and admirers, although she disliked publicity and continued to be shy and retiring to the last.
Her literary acquaintances included the great Thackeray (to whom she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre), Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Gaskell. She married her father’s curate, the Rev. A.B. Nicholls, in 1854, more out of loneliness than for love. She found real happiness, though short-lived, with him, for she died at Haworth some months after the marriage on March 31, 1855.