In this post of HER Stories I wanted to share the story of one of my literary heroines. Through loss and hardship she was patient and her writing was all the more beautiful for it.
Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 and was the third daughter of her parents Reverend Patrick and Maria Brontë. When she was just 5 years old her mother passed away leaving her and her five siblings to be looked after by their aunt.
Charlotte’s father sent her and three of her sisters to school in Lancashire where the conditions were very poor and their health was constantly affected because of this. Her two older sisters contracted tuberculosis and passed away after a short illness, leaving Charlotte as the oldest sibling. This school was the basis of Lowood School which Jane Eyre attended in the novel.
Charlotte attended a different school later and following her eduction she had several different positions as a governess. Charlotte spent time in Brussels with her sister Emily where they attended a boarding school to further their studies of languages and in return they respectively taught English and Music. Whilst at this school Charlotte became very attached to Constantine Heger who ran the boarding school and this came to influence her writing for the novels ‘The Professor’ and ‘Villette’.
In 1846 Charlotte and two of her sisters, Emily and Ann, self-funded the publication of a collection of their poems and they did so under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. On their reasons for using a pseudonym Charlotte said 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.”
Charlotte’s first manuscript The Professor was rejected and was only published after her death. Following this rejection Charlotte set to work writing another manuscript. Her second manuscript, Jane Eyre, was accepted and published. This work was groundbreaking at the time as the style was innovative and the fact that it was written from the first-person perspective of a female. Jane Eyre was immediately successful and was widely appreciated, receiving many positive reviews. However, whether this success and critical acclaim would have been the same had she used her real name, is unfortunately doubtful.
In 1848 Charlotte began working on her next manuscript, Shirley. Shortly afterwards she was faced with more loss and grief. Her brother Branwell died from illnesses exacerbated by heavy drinking. Following his funeral, her sister Emily became seriously ill and at the end of 1848 died from tuberculosis. Just five months later, her sister Anne also died from the same illness. Throughout this period, Charlotte was unable to write due to the trials she was facing however, as a way of dealing with her grief she continued her writing after Anne’s death.
Charlotte’s novel Shirley was published in October 1849. This was another groundbreaking novel as it dealt with issues such as the industrial unrest and the role of women in society.
Due to the success of her novels, mostly Jane Eyre, Charlotte was persuaded by her publishers to make visits to London and it was then that her true identity and gender were revealed. Some reviews took a different tone after this, calling her writing ‘coarse’ however her novels continued to be successful.
Charlotte was married in 1854 to Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was her father’s curate and had apparently long been in love with her. Her father had initially been against the union due to Nicholls’ poor financial status, however, Charlotte’s friend supported her and used her contacts to try and help Nicholls financially. Charlotte’s father eventually gave his blessing to the marriage and was supposed to give Charlotte away however, left her to walk alone at the last moment.
Charlotte fell pregnant soon after the wedding but her health declined rapidly during this time. Sadly, Charlotte died with her unborn baby on 31st March 1855. Charlotte had been married for just 9 months and was 38 at the time of her death.
Having suffered so much loss in her life, Charlotte was an inspiration in her efforts and struggles to be published and recognised. She fought against the stereotypes and expectations of her gender, even by having to use a male pseudonym to get her manuscripts published. Her works were groundbreaking in their perceptions and portrayals of women in society. She helped pave the way and inspire more female writers and for me, she still does today.
If you haven’t read her works, I strongly recommend you do so – especially Jane Eyre!!