Charlotte Bronte at 200: How the Jane Eyre novelist defied gender boundaries

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.”

So began one of the most famous works of literature in the English language, the story of ‘Jane Eyre’ created by one of Yorkshire’s greatest writers, Charlotte Brontё, born on April 21st 1816 at Thornton near Bradford.

Her story starts with her Irish born father Patrick Brontё who began his career in the church in Yorkshire by accepting a curacy in 1809 at Hartshead in the parish of Dewsbury. It was during this time he met his future wife, a Cornish girl called Maria Branwell who was visiting her uncle, another clergyman. Patrick and Maria were married in December 1812.

In 1815 Patrick moved his family to Thornton near Bradford and here the five children were born. Within five years the family had moved again, this time to Haworth for the rest of their lives.

Charlotte described the location of the house:

“A village parsonage amongst the hills bordering Yorkshire and Lancashire. The scenery of these hills is not grand- it is not romantic; it is scarcely striking. Long low moors, dark with heath, shut in little valleys where a stream waters, here and there, a fringe of stunted copse. Mills and scattered cottages chase romance from these valleys.”

Patrick and Maria were to be married only nine years when a cruel blow struck with Maria dying from cancer in 1821.

In July of 1824, Patrick Brontё took his two eldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth to a school for daughters of the clergy at Cowan Bridge between Leeds and Kendal. Two months later he took Charlotte and Emily to join their sisters.

The place was badly managed and food was in short supply, cooked badly and its presentation left something to be desired. In the spring of 1825 about forty of the girls fell ill and the cause was put down to the food. The cook was dismissed and after that there was much improvement.

None of the Brontё sisters fell ill in the epidemic, said to have been typhoid, but Maria began to display signs of consumption. Her father was sent for and he took her home immediately and soon after, Maria died. A few weeks later Elizabeth’s health deteriorated and she also died a victim of ‘consumption.’ This left Charlotte, ten years old and the eldest girl, in a ‘motherless family’

In 1831 Charlotte became a pupil at Roe-Head School in Mirfield near Dewsbury. She paid particular attention to her English, French and drawing before returning to Haworth, but in 1835 due to financial needs, she returned to Roe-Head as a governess.

Roe Head School in Mirfield, where Bronte was a pupil and later a teacher
Roe Head School in Mirfield, where Bronte was a pupil and later a teacher

By the spring of 1839 Charlotte had once again returned to Haworth. By this time, she had turned down two marriage proposals, and the sisters discussed the household’s future prospects and how it would be financed. It was decided that Charlotte and Anne would seek employment and Emily, due to her delicate health, would stay at home and look after the house and her father.

For a short time, Charlotte was employed as a governess to a wealthy family at Stone Gappe Hall in Lothersdale, North Yorkshire. Her time here was not the happiest, but it did inspire her to transform Stone Gappe into Gateshead Hall for her novel ‘Jane Eyre’.

Charlotte spent time at home in Haworth for eighteen months and then obtained employment as a governess at a house in Rawdon near Leeds, leaving her sister Emily in charge of their home at Haworth.

Charlotte and Emily contemplated starting a school of their own, but Charlotte’s employer persuaded them to postpone the plan and instead spend six months on the continent at an educational institute. In 1842 it was decided the two would go to Brussels and spend time at the boarding school run by one Constantin Héger. They stayed in Brussels for the summer, each day going to the boarding school. Soon, sad news reached them to say that their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell who had joined the family after the death of their mother, was seriously ill. They hastily made their way back home, but by the time they reached Haworth, aunt Elizabeth had died and all they could do was to join in the grieving.

Charlotte went back to Brussels alone in January 1843 in order to take up a teaching post at Héger’s boarding school. Her stay was short there returning to Haworth in January 1844. Many years later some letters from Charlotte to Constantin Héger were published revealing the love Charlotte had for him, but that love was not reciprocated,

The following year, Charlotte discovered some poems written by Emily. The outcome of this was that the three sisters each selected some of their poems and sought to have them published at their own expense in 1846 under the rather ‘masculine’ names of ‘Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.’ The name ‘Bell’ was ‘borrowed’ from their father’s young curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. They believed it necessary to keep their real identity a secret due to the prejudice against women authors at that time. Only two copies of the book were sold, but they carried on writing.

Charlotte with her sisters Anne and Emily, painted by her brother Bramwell. He later painted himself out of the picture
Charlotte with her sisters Anne and Emily, painted by her brother Bramwell. He later painted himself out of the picture

The girls continued to write and discuss with each other their stories and would each read to the others what they had written. When the novels were completed they looked towards having them published in one volume but this was in vain. It was decided then to separate the books, but Charlotte’s ‘The Professor’ was rejected. Charlotte had however completed her most famous novel ‘Jane Eyre’ at this time and it was accepted by Smith and Elder who had previously also rejected ‘The Professor’.

The name of ‘Currer Bell’ and the immediate success of ‘Jane Eyre’ prompted Charlotte and Anne to visit their publishers in London and reveal their true identities as young ladies and not young men much to the publisher’s surprise. In the same year, 1848, their brother Branwell died in September and Emily in December. Charlotte described Emily’s passing:

“…To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remonstrate, was a pain no words can render.”

Charlotte and Anne carried on with their lives without Emily and Branwell, but within five months, Anne died on a visit to Scarborough. Charlotte continued writing ‘Shirley,’ her second novel whilst coming to terms with the terrible losses of her siblings.

During the writing of the last novel to be published during her lifetime, ‘Vilette,’ published in 1853, Charlotte was proposed to by her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls who had been in love with her for a long time. At first, this proposal was turned down, her father objecting due to Nicholls’ lack of money. Eventually however, her father relented and Charlotte now more attracted to Nicholls, agreed to marry him and on the 29th of June 1854 they were married, the marriage however would be a short one. Charlotte became pregnant but progressively ill during November and in February 1855 her condition worsened. Finally, on March 31st she and her unborn child died.

Charlotte was buried in the family vault of Haworth Church. Her father had outlived them all dying in 1861 age 84. Widower Arthur Bell Nicholls, returned to his native Ireland and married in 1864 to his cousin Mary Bell. He died in 1906 age 88 leaving little to Mary apart from souvenirs of his first wife Charlotte. The souvenirs included that famous painting by Branwell Brontё of his legendary sisters, three girls who astonished early Victorian society with their writings.