Charlotte "Jane Eyre" Brontë (1816-1854)

Charlotte Brontë was born 21 April 1816, third of the six children of Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. The major event of her young life was the death of her mother in 1821, which created a lot of chaos. In 1824, Charlotte and her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to the newly-opened Cowan Bridge Clergy Daughters' School1.

Conditions there were bad even by the standards of the time, and it was not long before both Maria and Elizabeth became ill enough to be sent home, where they both died of consumption in the spring of1825. Patrick brought Charlotte and her younger sister Emily, who had recently joined them at the school, back home as soon as the other girls became ill, but Charlotte in particular never forgot what the school had been like2.

The surviving kids all became each others' best friends. They created the kingdom of Gondal3 and wrote all kinds of epic stories and poems set in that realm. Charlotte and Branwell were in charge of Angria proper, while Emily and Anne (the youngest) ran the neighboring kingdom of Gondal.

Charlotte's next adventure was going to school in Brussels with Emily in 1842. Charlotte's time there was brief, less than two years, but it led to her eventual writing of Villette4 beginning in 1852.

Back home, Charlotte lapsed into chronic unemployment and severe hypochondria, actually thinking she was going blind, just like her father was. In 1846 the three sisters published a book of Poems5, and though sales were very slow, the reviews were good and spurred on further literary endeavours. Charlotte's novel of this time, The Professor, was actually rather bad, suffering from a less-than-believeable main character. In August of 1846 Charlotte began work on Jane Eyre. Though it was published in 1847, Charlotte didn't tell her father about it until the next year, when the novel's success was plain.

This success was followed up by tragedy, however. In September 1848, Branwell died, probably due to his extrememly heavy drinking; this was closely followed by Emily's death from consumption in December 1848, and Anne's death of the same disease in May 1849. Bereft, Charlotte and her father clung to each other for support. Charlotte's grief is plain in the last third of her novel Shirley, which she'd been working on when all the death started.

Eventually, Charlotte started spending some time in London, meeting other writers of the day. Thackeray in particular was a fan of her works, and, when she attended one of his lectures, she found herself loudly and very publicly introduced to Thackeray's mother as "Jane Eyre"6.

Her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, proposed to Charlotte in December, and Patrick was absolutely furious, forbidding the marriage and saying some rather awful things about Arthur. This was the one thing that could possibly have gotten Charlotte to seriously consider marrying him, which she did, in June of 1854.

Marriage seemed good for Charlotte, though her best friend from school, Ellen Nussey, was extremely jealous of Arthur suddenly taking up all of Charlotte's attention7. No one got to monopolize Charlotte's attention for very long: she died on 31 March 1855, of what was listed on the death certificate as "exhaustion".

Fortunately for Arthur and Patrick, they'd learned to get along. They were of great comfort to each other after Charlotte's death, which for some reason, was the signal for a lot of gossip, some of it malicious, in the newspapers and magazines. To counteract this, Patrick and Arthur eventually asked Mrs. Gaskell, an author friend of Charlotte's, to write an authoritative biography. Unfortunately for them, Mrs. Gaskell got nearly all of her information from Ellen Nussey, who took great advantage of this to make Arthur seem a villain, and Patrick ended up represented as a stern, overbearing father. This was all accepted as true for many years, and made all of Charlotte's critics suddenly feel sorry for her8.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontës. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

  1. This is the school later made famous by Charlotte in Jane Eyre under the name of Lowood School. It was not quite as awful as Lowood, but Charlotte's portrait was accurate enough for many of those in the area to recognize immediately which school she was referring to.

  2. Charlotte was indignant about many things for most of her life.

  3. Charlotte and Branwell were always messing up each others' plotlines. Branwell would kill off Charlotte's favorite characters, and in revenge, Charlotte would turn Branwell's favorite characters into villains. None of the characters ever stayed dead or stayed evil, but they had to work pretty hard to explain these incidents away9.

  4. Jane Eyre was actually not the most autobiographical of Charlotte's novels. Villette is the one where she poured her heart out about her days at the Heger school, and her unrequited love for Mr. Heger. Mrs. Heger was not amused.

  5. This was the first use of the famous pseudonyms Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell.

  6. Charlotte was livid, as she still clung to the hope that not EVERYONE had yet figured out who 'Currer Bell' really was. She and Thackeray had a knack for annoying each other.

  7. This becomes important later on.

  8. They had all said that it was unnatural for a woman to write as harshly as she sometimes did. After Mrs. Gaskell's book, they were able to blame all the unnaturalness on Patrick.

  9. While it was pretty impressive that they put so much effort into these works, they didn't really show any signs of genius, as you may have heard. In fact, the whole thing turned out to be kind of detrimental to their psychological well-being.

Selected Works:

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