Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë
Portrait by George Richmond
Born (1816-04-21)21 April 1816
Thornton, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Died 31 March 1855(1855-03-31) (aged 38)
Haworth, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
Pen name Lord Charles Albert
Florian Wellesley
Currer Bell
Occupation Novelist, poet, governess
Nationality British
Genre Fiction, poetry
Notable works Jane Eyre
Spouse Arthur Bell Nicholls (1854–1855; her death)


Charlotte Brontë (/ˈbrɒnti/, commonly /ˈbrɒnt/;[1] 21 April 1816 – 31 March 1855) was an English novelist and poet, the eldest of the three Brontë sisters who survived into adulthood and whose novels have become classics of English literature. She first published her works (including her best known novel, Jane Eyre) under the pen name Currer Bell.

Early life and education

Charlotte was born in Thornton, west of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in 1816, the third of the six children of Maria (née Branwell) and Patrick Brontë (formerly surnamed Brunty or Prunty), an Irish Anglican clergyman. In 1820 her family moved a few miles to the village of Haworth, where her father had been appointed perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels Church. Maria died of cancer on 15 September 1821, leaving five daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and a son, Branwell, to be taken care of by her sister, Elizabeth Branwell.

In August 1824 Patrick sent Charlotte, Emily, Maria and Elizabeth to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. Charlotte maintained that the school's poor conditions permanently affected her health and physical development, and hastened the deaths of Maria (born 1814) and Elizabeth (born 1815), who both died of tuberculosis in June 1825. After the deaths of her older sisters her father removed Charlotte and Emily from the school.[2] Charlotte used the school as the basis for Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

At home in Haworth Parsonage Charlotte acted as "the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters".[3] She and her surviving siblings — Branwell, Emily and Anne – created their own fictional worlds, and began chronicling the lives and struggles of the inhabitants of their imaginary kingdoms. Charlotte and Branwell wrote Byronic stories about their jointly imagined country, Angria, and Emily and Anne wrote articles and poems about Gondal. The sagas they created were episodic and elaborate, and they exist in incomplete manuscripts, some of which have been published as juvenilia. They provided them with an obsessive interest during childhood and early adolescence, which prepared them for literary vocations in adulthood.[4]

Roe Head School

Between 1831 and 1832 Charlotte continued her education at Roe Head in Mirfield, where she met her lifelong friends and correspondents Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor.[2] In 1833 she wrote a novella, The Green Dwarf, using the name Wellesley. She returned to Roe Head as a teacher from 1835 to 1838.

In 1839 she took up the first of many positions as governess to families in Yorkshire, a career she pursued until 1841. In particular, from May to July 1839 she was employed by the Sidgwick family at their summer residence, Stone Gappe, in Lothersdale, where one of her charges was John Benson Sidgwick (1835–1927), an unruly child who on one occasion threw a Bible at Charlotte, an incident that may have been the inspiration for a part of the opening chapter of Jane Eyre in which John Reed throws a book at the young Jane.[5]


Plaque in Brussels

In 1842 Charlotte and Emily travelled to Brussels to enrol at the boarding school run by Constantin Héger (1809–96) and his wife Claire Zoé Parent Héger (1804–87). In return for board and tuition Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. Their time at the school was cut short when their aunt Elizabeth Branwell, who had joined the family in Haworth to look after the children after their mother's death, died of internal obstruction in October 1842. Charlotte returned alone to Brussels in January 1843 to take up a teaching post at the school. Her second stay was not happy: she was homesick and deeply attached to Constantin Héger. She returned to Haworth in January 1844 and used the time spent in Brussels as the inspiration for some of the events in The Professor and Villette.

First publication

In May 1846 Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-financed the publication of a joint collection of poems under their assumed names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The pseudonyms veiled the sisters' gender while preserving their initials; thus Charlotte was Currer Bell. "Bell" was the middle name of Haworth's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls whom Charlotte later married, whilst "Currer" was the surname of Frances Mary Richardson Currer who had funded their school (and maybe their father).[6] Of the decision to use noms de plume, Charlotte wrote:

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.[7]

Although only two copies of the collection of poems were sold, the sisters continued writing for publication and began their first novels, continuing to use their noms de plume when sending manuscripts to potential publishers.

The Professor and Jane Eyre

Title page of the first edition of Jane Eyre

Charlotte's first manuscript, The Professor, did not secure a publisher, although she was heartened by an encouraging response from Smith, Elder & Co. of Cornhill, who expressed an interest in any longer works Currer Bell might wish to send.[8] Charlotte responded by finishing and sending a second manuscript in August 1847. Six weeks later Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published. It tells the story of a plain governess, Jane, who, after difficulties in her early life, falls in love with her employer, Mr Rochester. They marry, but only after Rochester's insane first wife, of whom Jane initially has no knowledge, dies in a dramatic house fire. The book's style was innovative, combining naturalism with gothic melodrama, and broke new ground in being written from an intensely evoked first-person female perspective.[9] Charlotte believed art was most convincing when based on personal experience; in Jane Eyre she transformed the experience into a novel with universal appeal.[10]

Jane Eyre had immediate commercial success and initially received favourable reviews. G. H. Lewes wrote that it was "an utterance from the depths of a struggling, suffering, much-enduring spirit," and declared that it consisted of "suspiria de profundis!" (sighs from the depths).[10] Speculation about the identity and gender of the mysterious Currer Bell heightened with the publication of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily) and Agnes Grey by Acton Bell (Anne).[11] Accompanying the speculation was a change in the critical reaction to Charlotte's work, as accusations were made that the writing was "coarse",[12] a judgement more readily made once it was suspected that Currer Bell was a woman.[13] However, sales of Jane Eyre continued to be strong and may even have increased as a result of the novel developing a reputation as an "improper" book.[14]

Shirley and bereavements

In 1848 Charlotte began work on the manuscript of her second novel, Shirley. It was only partially completed when the Brontë family suffered the deaths of three of its members within eight months. In September 1848 Branwell died of chronic bronchitis and marasmus, exacerbated by heavy drinking, although Charlotte believed that his death was due to tuberculosis. Branwell was also a suspected "opium eater"; a laudanum addict. Emily became seriously ill shortly after Branwell's funeral and died of pulmonary tuberculosis in December 1848. Anne died of the same disease in May 1849. Charlotte was unable to write at this time.

After Anne's death Charlotte resumed writing as a way of dealing with her grief,[15] and Shirley, which deals with themes of industrial unrest and the role of women in society, was published in October 1849. Unlike Jane Eyre, which is written in the first person, Shirley is written in the third person and lacks the emotional immediacy of her first novel,[16] and reviewers found it less shocking. Charlotte, as her late sister's heir, suppressed the republication of Anne's second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, an action which had a deleterious effect on Anne's popularity as a novelist and has remained controversial amongst the sisters' biographers ever since.[17]

Disputed photograph taken about 1855; sources are in disagreement over whether this image is of Charlotte or of her friend, Ellen Nussey.[18][19]

In society

In view of the success of her novels, particularly Jane Eyre, Charlotte was persuaded by her publisher to make occasional visits to London, where she revealed her true identity and began to move in more exalted social circles, becoming friends with Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell, and acquainted with William Makepeace Thackeray and G.H. Lewes. She never left Haworth for more than a few weeks at a time, as she did not want to leave her ageing father. Thackeray’s daughter, writer Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, recalled a visit to her father by Charlotte:

... 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. ... Everyone 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.[20]

Charlotte's friendship with Elizabeth Gaskell, while not particularly close, was significant in that Gaskell wrote the first biography of Charlotte after her death in 1855.


Charlotte's third novel, the last published in her lifetime, was Villette, which appeared in 1853. Its main themes include isolation, how such a condition can be borne,[21] and the internal conflict brought about by social repression of individual desire.[22] Its main character, Lucy Snowe, travels abroad to teach in a boarding school in the fictional town of Villette, where she encounters a culture and religion different from her own, and falls in love with a man (Paul Emanuel) whom she cannot marry. Her experiences result in a breakdown but eventually she achieves independence and fulfilment through running her own school. A substantial amount of the novel's dialogue is in the French language. Villette marked Charlotte's return to writing from a first-person perspective (that of Lucy Snowe); the technique she had used in Jane Eyre. Another similarity to Jane Eyre lies in the use of aspects of her own life as inspiration for fictional events;[22] in particular her reworking of the time she spent at the pensionnat in Brussels. Villette was acknowledged by critics of the day as a potent and sophisticated piece of writing although it was criticised for "coarseness" and for not being suitably "feminine" in its portrayal of Lucy's desires.[23]


Before the publication of Villette Charlotte received a proposal of marriage from Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate, who had long been in love with her. She initially turned down his proposal and her father objected to the union at least partly because of Nicholls's poor financial status.[24] Elizabeth Gaskell, who believed that marriage provided "clear and defined duties" that were beneficial for a woman,[24] encouraged Charlotte to consider the positive aspects of such a union and tried to use her contacts to engineer an improvement in Nicholls's finances.[24] Charlotte meanwhile was increasingly attracted to Nicholls and by January 1854 she had accepted his proposal. They gained the approval of her father by April and married in June.[25] They took their honeymoon in Banagher, Co. Offaly, Ireland.[26]


Charlotte became pregnant soon after her wedding, but her health declined rapidly and, according to Gaskell, she was attacked by "sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness."[27] She died, with her unborn child, on 31 March 1855, aged 38. Her death certificate gives the cause of death as phthisis, but many biographers[who?] suggest that she died from dehydration and malnourishment due to vomiting caused by severe morning sickness or hyperemesis gravidarum. There is also evidence that she died from typhus, which she may have caught from Tabitha Ackroyd, the Brontë household's oldest servant, who died shortly before her.[citation needed] Charlotte was interred in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Haworth.

The Professor, the first novel Charlotte had written, was published posthumously in 1857. The fragment of a new novel she had been writing in her last years has been twice completed by recent authors, the more famous version being Emma Brown: A Novel from the Unfinished Manuscript by Charlotte Brontë by Clare Boylan in 2003. Most of her writings about the imaginary country Angria have also been published since her death.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Portrait by J. H. Thompson at the Brontë Parsonage Museum

Elizabeth Gaskell's biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë was published in 1857. It was an important step for a leading female novelist to write a biography of another,[28] and Gaskell's approach was unusual in that, rather than analysing her subject's achievements, she concentrated on private details of Charlotte's life, emphasising those aspects that countered the accusations of "coarseness" that had been levelled at her writing.[28] The biography is frank in places, but omits details of Charlotte's love for Héger, a married man, as being too much of an affront to contemporary morals and a likely source of distress to Charlotte's father, widower and friends.[29] Mrs Gaskell also provided doubtful and inaccurate information about Patrick Brontë, claiming that he did not allow his children to eat meat. This is refuted by one of Emily Brontë's diary papers, in which she describes preparing meat and potatoes for dinner at the parsonage.[30] It has been argued that Gaskell's approach transferred the focus of attention away from the 'difficult' novels, not just Charlotte's, but all the sisters', and began a process of sanctification of their private lives.[31]

Héger letters

On 29 July 1913 The Times of London printed four letters Charlotte had written to Constantin Héger after leaving Brussels in 1844.[32] Written in French except for one postscript in English, the letters broke the prevailing image of Charlotte as an angelic martyr to Christian and female duties that had been constructed by many biographers, beginning with Gaskell.[32] The letters, which formed part of a larger and somewhat one-sided correspondence in which Héger frequently appears not to have replied, reveal that she had been in love with a married man, although they are complex and have been interpreted in numerous ways, including as an example of literary self-dramatisation and an expression of gratitude from a former pupil.[32]


Branwell Brontë, Painting of the 3 Brontë Sisters, l to r Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë. Branwell painted himself out of this portrait of his three sisters.
An idealised posthumous portrait by Duyckinick, 1873, based on a drawing by George Richmond


  • The Young Men's Magazine, Number 1 – 3 (August 1830)
  • The Spell
  • The Secret
  • Lily Hart
  • The Foundling
  • The Green Dwarf
  • My Angria and the Angrians
  • Albion and Marina
  • Tales of the Islanders
  • Tales of Angria (written 1838–1839 – a collection of childhood and young adult writings including five short novels)
    • Mina Laury
    • Stancliffe's Hotel
    • The Duke of Zamorna
    • Henry Hastings
    • Caroline Vernon
    • The Roe Head Journal Fragments

The Green Dwarf, A Tale of the Perfect Tense was written in 1833 under the pseudonym Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley. It shows the influence of Walter Scott, and Charlotte's modifications to her earlier gothic style have led Christine Alexander to comment that, in the work, "it is clear that Brontë was becoming tired of the gothic mode per se".[33]


  • Jane Eyre, published 1847
  • Shirley, published in 1849
  • Villette, published in 1853
  • The Professor, written before Jane Eyre, submitted at first along with Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, then separately, and rejected by many publishing houses, published posthumously in 1857
  • Emma, unfinished; Charlotte Brontë wrote only 20 pages of the manuscript, published posthumously in 1860. In recent decades at least two continuations of this fragment have appeared:



  1. As given by Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature (Merriam-Webster, incorporated, Publishers: Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995), p viii: "When our research shows that an author's pronunciation of his or her name differs from common usage, the author's pronunciation is listed first, and the descriptor commonly precedes the more familiar pronunciation." See also entries on Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, pp 175–176.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fraser 2008, p. 261.
  3. Cousin, John (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. E.P. Dutton & Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Miller 2005, p. 5.
  5. Phillips-Evans 2012, pp. 260–261.
  6. Lee, Colin (2004). "Currer, Frances Mary Richardson (1785–1861)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 1 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Biographical Notice of Ellis And Acton Bell", from the preface to the 1910 edition of Wuthering Heights.
  8. Miller 2002, p. 14.
  9. Miller 2002, pp. 12–13.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Miller 2002, p. 13.
  11. Miller 2002, p. 15.
  12. Fraser 2008, p. 24.
  13. Miller 2002, p. 17.
  14. North American Review, October 1848, cited in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage by Allott, M. (ed.), Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974, cited in Miller (p18)
  15. Letter from Charlotte to her publisher, 25 June 1849, from Smith, M, ed. (1995). The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: Volume Two, 1848 – 1851. Clarendon Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> cited in Miller 2002, p. 19
  16. Miller 2002, p. 19.
  17. The Novels of Anne Brontë.
  19. Side-by-side comparisons between the photo and undoubted photographs of Nussey can be found at
  20. Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie. Chapters from Some Memoirs. cited in Sutherland, James (ed.) The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. OUP, 1975. ISBN 0-19-812139-3.
  21. Reid Banks, L. (1977). Path to the Silent Country. Penguin. p. 113.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. 22.0 22.1 Miller 2002, p. 47.
  23. Miller 2002, p. 52.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Miller 2002, p. 54.
  25. Miller 2002, p. 55.
  26. Alexander, Christine; Sellars, Jane (1995). The Art of the Brontës. Cambridge University Press. p. 402. ISBN 0-521-43248-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "Real life plot twists of famous authors". CNN. 25 September 2007. Retrieved 12 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. 28.0 28.1 Miller 2002, p. 57.
  29. Lane 1953, pp. 178–83.
  30. Juliet Barker, The Brontës
  31. Miller 2002, pp. 57–58.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 Miller 2002, p. 109.
  33. Alexander 1993, pp. 430–432.
  34. "Review of Emma Brown by Charlotte Cory". The Independent. 13 September 2003. Archived from the original on 19 September 2011. Retrieved 12 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "Constance Savery, Life and Works". Retrieved 12 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>; see for example Publishers of Savery's Adult Novels.[self-published source?][better source needed]


  • Alexander, Christine (March 1993). "'That Kingdom of Gloo': Charlotte Brontë, the Annuals and the Gothic". Nineteenth-Century Literature. 47 (4): 409–436.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Fraser, Rebecca (2008). Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life (2 ed.). New York: Pegasus Books LLC. p. 261. ISBN 978-1-933648-88-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lane, Margaret (1953). The Brontë Story: a reconsideration of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Miller, Lucasta (2002). The Brontë Myth. London: Vintage. ISBN 0-09-928714-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Miller, Lucasta (2005). The Brontë Myth. New York: Anchor. ISBN 978-1400078356.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Phillips-Evans, James (2012). The Longcrofts: 500 Years of a British Family. Amazon. pp. 260–261. ISBN 978-1481020886.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource 

Further reading

  • The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 3 volumes edited by Margaret Smith
  • The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Charlotte Brontë, Winifred Gérin
  • Charlotte Brontë: a passionate life, Lyndal Gordon
  • The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets, Dennis Low (Chapter 1 contains a revisionist contextualisation of Robert Southey's infamous letter to Charlotte Brontë)
  • Charlotte Brontë: Unquiet Soul, Margot Peters
  • In the Footsteps of the Brontës, Ellis Chadwick
  • The Brontës, Juliet Barker
  • Charlotte Brontë and her Dearest Nell, Barbara Whitehead
  • The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller
  • A Life in Letters, selected by Juliet Barker
  • Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk, Janet Gezari, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992
  • Charlotte Brontë: Truculent Spirit, by Valerie Grosvenor Myer, 1987
  • Charlotte Brontë and her Family, Rebecca Fraser
  • The Oxford Reader's Companion to the Brontës, Christine Alexander & Margaret Smith
  • A Brontë Family Chronology, Edward Chitham
  • The Crimes of Charlotte Brontë, James Tully, 1999
  • I Love Charlotte Brontë, Michelle Daly 2009

External links