Charlotte Brontë

One of my favorite literary works is Jane Eyre.  It is the only book by Charlotte Brontë I have read.  It is a wonderful mixture of suspense, romance and intrigue.  Her heroine Jane was a parallel to herself, a woman who was strong.  For some reason, I thought Jane Eyre was Charlotte’s first book but today I learned that it was one called, The Professor which was rejected by the same publisher who published her sister’s novels Agnes Grey and Wuthering HeightsThe Professor was finally published in 1857, two years after Charlotte’s death.  The Professor is based on her experiences as a language student in Brussels in 1842 and it’s told by the only male narrator she used.

Charlotte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire in 1816 to to Maria (née Branwell) and her husband Patrick Brontë, an Irish Anglican clergyman.  Charlotte was the eldest of the three Brontë sisters.  She was the third of six children.  Her mother died of cancer in 1821, a year after the family moved a few miles to Haworth, where her father had been appointed Perpetual Curate.  Charlotte and her siblings were  cared for by her aunt Elizabeth Branwell. 

In August 1824, Charlotte and three of her sisters, Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, which she would describe as Lowood School in Jane Eyre.  Charlotte claimed that the school`s poor conditions permanently affected her health and physical development and hastened the deaths of her two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth who died of tuberculosis in June 1825. Soon after their father removed Charlotte and Emily from the school. 

Home for Charlotte was in Haworth Parsonage—a small rectory close to the graveyard of a bleak, windswept village on the Yorkshire moors.  These moors were the ones Emily used for in Wuthering Heights.  While at Haworth, Charlotte acted as “the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters”.   Charlotte had one brother, Branwell.  He died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus exacerbated by heavy drinking in September 1848, although Charlotte believed his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell was also a suspected “opium eater”, (i.e. a laudanum addict). Charlotte`s sisters, Emily and Anne both died of pulmonary tuberculosis in December 1848 and May 1849, respectively.  Charlotte and her father were the only ones left.

In 1846, two years before Charlotte lost her sister Emily, she, Emily and Anne published a joint collection of poetry under the assumed names of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  Charlotte chose the name Currer Bell under which she wrote Jane EyreCharlotte later wrote about this.  “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; 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 that 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; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.`

Critics found her novels coarse and there was speculation about Currer Bell`s identity and  whether Bell was  man or a woman.  In view of the enormous success of Jane Eyre, Charlotte`s publisher encouraged her to visit London occasionally.  That`s  where she revealed her true identity and began to move in a better social circle, making friends with the likes of Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray and G. H. Lewes.  Charlotte was never away from Haworth for long because of her ailing father.

William Makepeace Thackeray`s daughter the writer Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie shares a very interesting account of Charlotte Bronte`s visit to her home.  …two gentlemen come in, leading a tiny, delicate, serious, little lady, with fair straight hair, and steady eyes. She may be a little over thirty; she is dressed in a little barège dress with a pattern of faint green moss. She enters in mittens, in silence, in seriousness; our hearts are beating with wild excitement. This then is the authoress, the unknown power whose books have set all London talking, reading, speculating; some people even say our father wrote the books – the wonderful books… The moment is so breathless that dinner comes as a relief to the solemnity of the occasion, and we all smile as my father stoops to offer his arm; for, genius though she may be, Miss Brontë can barely reach his elbow.

My own personal impressions are that she is somewhat grave and stern, specially to forward little girls who wish to chatter… Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study, and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess… the conversation grew dimmer and more dim, the ladies sat round still expectant, my father was too much perturbed by the gloom and the silence to be able to cope with it at all… after Miss Brontë had left, I was surprised to see my father opening the front door with his hat on. `

He put his fingers to his lips, walked out into the darkness, and shut the door quietly behind him… long afterwards… Mrs. Procter asked me if I knew what had happened… It was one of the dullest evenings [Mrs Procter] had ever spent in her life… the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone off to his club.

I guess Charlotte was better at writing than socializing or maybe she just didn`t enjoy the company. 

In June 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate and, in the opinion of many scholars, the model for several of her literary characters such as Jane Eyre’s Rochester and St. John. She became pregnant soon after the marriage. Her health declined rapidly during this time, and according to Gaskell, her earliest biographer, she was attacked by “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness.”  I read in another biography that Nicholls had proposed to Charlotte before and she refused him perhaps because her father had strongly objected.   It could be due to the fact that she didn’t love Nicholls.  The following year Nicholls left Haworth.  It was the same year Charlotte’s novel Vilette was published.  I started reading this book but didn’t finish it. 

By 1854, Mr. Brontë’s opposition to the proposed marriage had weakened, and Charlotte and Nicholls became engaged.  Nicholls returned as curate at Haworth, and they were married.  However, although it appeared that that Charlotte admired him, she still did not love him.  Her heart belonged to someone else.  She had unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, the married professor who taught her in Brussels.  In The Life of Charlotte Brontë, the posthumous biography of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, the details Charlotte’s love for Heger were suppressed because Gaskell felt that it would be too much of an affront to contemporary morals and possibly cause great distress for Charlotte’s still-living friends, father and husband.

In 1854 while she was pregnant, Charlotte caught pneumonia.  Sadly, the following year,  Charlotte and her unborn child died.  She was only 38 years old.  Her death certificate gives the cause of death as phthisis (tuberculosis), but many biographers suggest she may have died from dehydration and malnourishment, caused by excessive vomiting from severe morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum. There is also evidence to suggest that Charlotte died from typhus which she may have caught from Tabitha Ackroyd, the Brontë household’s oldest servant, who died shortly before her. Charlotte was interred in the family vault in The Church of St. Michael and All Angels, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England.

Today, we celebrate Charlotte, an English novelist and poet whose novels have introduced us to stoical heroines who shared her own strong willed viewpoint and passionate nature. Like her they suffered hardship and heartache but survived.  Charlotte was the first novelist to depict the psychological and social reality of a woman’s struggle for power.  She wrote about emotional repression and the female psyche.  It is believed that she paved the way for writers like George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy who wrote novels with strong female protagonists (Lives and Legacies:  An Encyclopedia of People Who Changed the World). 

Jane Eyre will always be a positive role model for many because as a woman and a Christian, she refused to compromise her moral beliefs, her integrity for love.  She preferred to walk away from that love than stay and become a woman she would grow to despise and be ashamed of.  She did what was right even though it was hard and painful.  Jane Eyre was the book that sparked a movement in regards to feminism in literature.  The legacy of Charlotte Brontë lives on today as she remains one of the most widely read novelists in the English language.

I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.
 
Men judge us by the success of our efforts. God looks at the efforts themselves.
 
You know full well as I do the value of sisters’ affections: There is nothing like it in this world. 

Charlotte Brontë 

 

Sources:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Bront%C3%AB; http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/cbronte/brontbio.html; http://www.brontelegacy.com/legacy.htm; http://www.dejaelaine.com/charlotte.php; http://www.online-literature.com/brontec/the_professor/

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2 responses to “Charlotte Brontë

  1. “Nicholls returned as curate at Haworth, and they were married. However, although it appeared that that Charlotte admired him, she still did not love him. Her heart belonged to someone else. She had unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, the married professor who taught her in Brussels.”-From the article above.

    Is there any definite proof that she was still in love with Mr Heger the time that she married her husband? The letters that were later published after her death were from years before she decided to marry her husband. And though those letters were are considered to be love letters by some, other people have debated about the letters being an expression of gratitude to to her former teacher, Mr Heger. Furthermore, many have debated what the actual meaning of those letters was, and if she was actually in love with him or there was a different meaning to her letters.

    Your article presents the Heger incident as something that was directly connected to her marriage, when their is still debate about the contents and meaning behind the letters. Include the other arguments that have been brought up about the letters rather than giving a perspective that has already been determined and makes it seem like it was the absolute truth.

    • Hi Claire,

      Thank you for your comments. I took them under advisement and decided to research more about Charlotte’s relationship with her husband. I have a few questions though. If the letters were not love letters, why did Mr. Heger tear them up? And why didn’t he reply to any of them? And it seems strange that his wife would rescue them and preserve them. And Mr. Heger later agreed to have them put in a museum.

      It’s a fascinating story. It is worth revisiting. At a later date, I may do a follow up post, presenting these other arguments, views, possibilities.

      Thank you again for your input. Much appreciated and noted.

      Regards,
      AMB

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