Charlotte Brontë was the third child of the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell. Born in 1816, Charlotte was soon followed by her brother Patrick Branwell in 1817, her sister Emily in 1818, and her sister Ann in 1820. The four siblings had an extremely close relationship, and their childhood collaboration would lead to a creative spirit unexpected from the children of an Anglican clergyman. In 1821, the family moved to Haworth in Yorkshire, where the Reverend had been appointed Perpetual Curate. Maria Branwell died of cancer in 1821, leaving five daughters and one son in the care of their somewhat severe father.
In 1824, Reverend Brontë had his four eldest daughters sent to study at the Clergy Daughter's School in Cowan Bridge. Conditions at the school were poor, and fever constantly broke out at the school. Throughout her life, Charlotte would attribute the school's poor conditions to the deaths of her sisters Maria and Elizabeth, both of whom succumbed to tuberculosis. After the death of their sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were withdrawn from the school and brought home, and the children's aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, became their new instructor.
Though the remaining children were deeply affected by the death of their two sisters, they filled their spare time with imaginative fantasies and fictitious worlds. For example, after their father gave Patrick Branwell a box of toy soldiers in 1826, the children were inspired to invent and write sagas about imaginary worlds called Angria and Gondal. Considering the bleak surroundings of the Yorkshire countryside, it is not surprising that the Bronte children began to explore their powers of imagination at an early age.
In 1831, Charlotte was sent to study at the Roe Head School, an institution headed by Mrs. Wooler and containing seven to ten additional students. Because of her father's declining health, it was particularly important for Charlotte to have enough of an education to be able to be economically independent. Charlotte's time at the Roe Head School was difficult: her Irish accent, uneven education, and quaint manner of dressing set her apart from the other pupils at the school, and she suffered from extreme homesickness. However, Mrs. Wooler was an encouraging teacher and helped Charlotte to overcome the limits of her previous education. Charlotte eventually earned several awards for outstanding scholarship, and, in 1832, was offered a position as a teacher at the school.
Charlotte declined the offer to teach at the Roe Head School in order to return home and instruct her sisters, over whom she now had educational advantages. The majority of Charlotte's time was spent studying with her sisters, teaching Sunday school classes, exploring the moors, and writing short fictional works. She also corresponded frequently with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, both of whom she had met at the Roe Head school. In 1835, Charlotte returned to Mrs. Wooler's school to teach while her sister Emily accompanied her as a pupil. Emily soon left the school because of homesickness but was replaced by her sister Ann.
Three years later, Charlotte left the Roe Head School in order to assume a position as a governess to the Sidgewick family. Leaving her post after only three months, Charlotte returned to Haworth. In 1841, she took a post as governess to the White family but, again, left after only a few months. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily traveled to Brussels in order to complete their education at a pensionnat run by the schoolmaster Constantin Hegin and his wife -- and exchanged English and music lessons for board and tuition. After a brief trip back to Haworth, Charlotte returned alone to Brussels and became emotionally attached to Hegin. When Charlotte's love was not reciprocated, she became overwhelmed with depression and returned to Haworth in 1844.
Upon Charlotte's return, she and Emily realized their dream of opening a school in Haworth. Unfortunately, the school was a complete failure: the advertisements for the school did not result in a single public response. With the failure of the school, Charlotte and her sisters were free to focus on their literary careers. Having discovered some of Emily's poems during the previous year, Charlotte decided to publish selected poems of all three sisters; in 1846, a collection of their poems was published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Charlotte's first novel, "The Professor," was also written during this time, though it was initially rejected for publication and was met with very little enthusiasm. However, Charlotte's second novel, "Jane Eyre," was published the following year and was a resounding success. The same year also saw the publication of Emily's novel "Wuthering Heights" and Ann's "Agnes Grey."
In 1848, Charlotte visited her publisher in London and revealed the true identity of the "Bells." However, her happiness at their literary success was soon marred by the death of her brother, Patrick, followed shortly by the deaths of both Emily and Ann. Charlotte coped with her loss by spending time within the literary circles of London, among such making figures such as William James Thackeray, and striving to edit her sisters' works. At this point, Charlotte began to suffer from health problems of her own.
In 1852, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, the curate of Haworth since 1845, proposed marriage to Charlotte. Unfortunately, Charlotte's father was violently opposed to the match, and Charlotte refused to accept the proposal. According to many accounts, Charlotte was not in love with the Reverend Nicholls and thus, was not overly heartbroken at her father's opposition. In the midst of this disappointed courtship, Charlotte worked on her next novel, "Villette," which was published in 1853. The following year, the Reverend Brontë's opposition to the Reverend Nicholls faded, and the Reverend Nicholls renewed his proposal to Charlotte. Despite her seeming apathy towards him, Charlotte married him in 1854. Shortly after becoming pregnant, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and died of the disease in 1855. She was only thirty-nine years old.
Some biographers claim that Charlotte Brontë actually starved herself to death because of her dislike of her husband. Others argue that her death was merely a subconscious effort to relieve herself of the depression that had plagued her entire life. Charlotte's personal life was ultimately an unhappy one, and, according to her contemporary biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte never harbored any hope for the future. The settings and themes of her novels and poems demonstrate this sense of hopelessness and also highlight her belief that God had appointed some people for sorrow and some people for happiness. Although "Jane Eyre" can be read as a happy novel, the isolated mentality of the heroine and the difficult circumstances of her upbringing clearly reflect Charlotte's own perception of the world.
Study Guides on Works by Charlotte Bronte
Published to widespread success in 1847 under the androgynous pseudonym of "Currer Bell," the novel "Jane Eyre" catapulted 31-year-old Charlotte Brontë into the upper echelon of Victorian writers. With the novel's success, Brontë was able to...
Kate Millet, author of Sexual Politics, wrote of Villette that it was "too subversive to be popular." Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë's friend and her first biographer, said that the story of Villette was not as interesting as that of Jane Eyre....