While researching my biography of her sister Anne, In Search Of Anne Brontë, I discovered a lot about Charlotte too, and she had a life as unique and intriguing as any of her heroines. Some of these facts are funny, some are sad, and some are frankly odd, but they all reveal a little more of a remarkable woman on this, her special bicentenary.
Charlotte and the Brontës will forever be associated with Haworth in West Yorkshire, and she did spend most of her life at the Parsonage there, now home to the wonderful Brontë Parsonage Museum. She was born, however, in the village of Thornton, Bradford around six miles away. Her father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, was village priest there in 1816, and the family didn’t leave for his new post in Haworth until shortly after Anne Brontë’s birth in 1820.
We all know the three Brontë sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, without doubt the greatest writing family of all time. Many also know of their brother Branwell, a wasted talent who after a failed loved affair killed himself with a cocktail of alcohol and opium. Less well known is that Charlotte also had two elder sisters: Maria (named after her mother who died when Charlotte was five) and Elizabeth. Maria especially was said to be a precocious child, but these two oldest Brontë children died of tuberculosis within six weeks of each other in 1825. They had caught it at the hellish Cowan Bridge school they attended, and where Charlotte was also a scholar. The memories of the place would haunt her forever, until she revealed them in her depiction of Lowood within Jane Eyre.
Charlotte was very short sighted, taking after her father who in later life had to have his cataracts cut away without an anaesthetic. She was so short sighted that she had to give up playing the piano, as she couldn’t read the sheet music in front of her. Nevertheless when she was a teacher, her pupils were amazed to find that she could seemingly read perfectly well in darkness, an ability that they thought was some kind of magic.
Charlotte’s father came from a poor farming family in County Down, in what is now Northern Ireland. By good fortune and hard work he earned a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he did all he could to hide his poor Irish roots. This meant that he dropped his actual surname of Brunty or Prunty, and instead adopted Brontë. A Latin scholar, he knew that this translated as thunder, and it was also the name of an Italian island owned by one of his heroes, Admiral Nelson.
If you assumed that the Brontës spoke in Yorkshire tones, you could be wrong. After the Cowan Bridge tragedy, the Brontë children were largely taught by their Aunt Elizabeth and their father. Unlike today, when children mix much more widely and hear other voices on television, their father’s was the predominant adult voice they heard for many years, and this affected the way they talked as well. When Charlotte was 15 she was sent to another school of a much better character, Roe Head. She made lifelong friends there in the shape of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and Mary recalled how when she first met Charlotte, ‘she was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent.’
Just as young girls today may worship a pop star, Charlotte worshipped Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. When as a child she was given a toy soldier, there was little doubt what it was to be called: “I snatched one up and exclaimed: ‘This is the Duke of Wellington! This shall be the Duke!” Heroes named Wellesley appear frequently throughout her juvenile writing, and we can imagine her awe when in her thirties she finally met her hero. She reported to Ellen that he was ‘a real grand old man.’
After spending a year there as a pupil, Charlotte was invited back to Roe Head to act as a teacher. She soon found life as a teacher very different to life as a pupil. Her ‘Roe Head Journal’ of this time is a vicious, angry diary speaking of loathing for her pupils and for herself. She writes of ‘stupidity the atmosphere, school-books the employment, asses the society’ and ‘a dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.’ Emily, very briefly, and Anne were pupils at the school, but after their exits her loathing of teaching grew until her mental health collapsed and she imagined she had illnesses that no-one else could see. Eventually a doctor was called for, who said that she must return to Haworth or die.
From an early age, Charlotte and her sisters loved writing, and she went to the very top to get an opinion on her work. Aged 16 she sent some of her work to the then poet laureate Robert Southey. He replied that whilst she had ‘the faculty of verse’, she should give up her dreams, because ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.’ Strangely enough, the young Charlotte seemed elated at this reply, writing ‘I must thank you for the kind, and wise advice you have condescended to give me... I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print.’
Emily Brontë loved domestic duties, and was renowned throughout Haworth as the best bread maker in the village; Charlotte was rather less of a domestic goddess. When her father was having eye surgery, Charlotte accompanied him to Manchester and lived with him there until his sight recovered. In her letters she confesses that she found shopping for and cooking meals difficult, and that on her first attempt to iron clothes she managed to burn them all.
Many people assume that Jane Eyre was Charlotte’s first novel. In fact that honour falls upon The Professor. The sisters planned to have three novels published together, but whilst Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights were published in tandem, nobody would touch Charlotte’s novel. She had a list of publishers in England, and exhausted it completely in her efforts, but it would only finally be published posthumously. She more than made amends, however, with her second novel about a certain governess.
Charlotte is a giant of literature but she was very diminutive in stature. Her estimated height was around four foot seven, whereas Emily was almost a foot taller, and the tallest of all the Brontës. Her clothes held by the Brontë Parsonage Museum, including shoes, corsets, gloves and dresses, would fit a child today. She was very self conscious of her height and of her looks in general, leading her publisher and close friend George Smith to later remark that ‘she would have given all her genius and fame to be beautiful.’
At age 21 Charlotte, with Emily, left Yorkshire and travelled to Brussels, with the intention of learning languages that would help them set up their own school. She made good progress at the Pensionnat Héger school, but rapidly fell in love with the stern master Constantin Héger. He would be an inspiration for Rochester, but he had the same problem in that he was married. After returning to England, Charlotte wrote him a series of passionate letters. One such reads: ‘I know that you will lose patience with me when you read this letter. You will say that I am over-excited, that I have black thoughts etc. So be it Monsieur - I do not seek to justify myself, I submit to all kinds of reproaches - all I know is that I cannot - that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship. I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains than have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets.’ He never replied, and in fact cut up the letters, but his wife for some reason pieced them together again, which is how they are now at the British Library.
Despite her concerns about her appearance, Charlotte Brontë rejected at least three proposals of marriage that we know of. The first was from Ellen’s brother Henry Nussey. He later married Emily Prescott and became vicar of Hathersage in Derbyshire. He remained there for only two years however, before ill health made him give up his career as a priest. He was later committed to Arden House Lunatic Asylum, where he hanged himself in 1860.
Charlotte often visited Ellen at Hathersage, where she frequently stayed with her brother. In the middle of the Peak District it was later depicted as Morton in Jane Eyre. Inside the Hathersage church that Henry Nussey presided over is the large tomb of Robert Eyre, and a stained glass window to William Eyre, who was a leading light of Hathersage society at the time of Charlotte’s visits.
One of Charlotte’s literary heroes was William Makepeace Thackeray, so she dedicated the first edition of Jane Eyre to him. Unfortunately, Charlotte didn’t know that Thackeray actually did have a mad wife that he kept confined within his home. Whilst a public secret it was well known to London society, who assumed that this new author ‘Currer Bell’ must know Thackeray, and have modelled Rochester on him. When they later met Thackeray characteristically laughed it off, although Charlotte was mortified when she found out the truth.
Charlotte, like Anne and Emily, was a shy and secretive woman, and she kept the fact that she had written her novel even from her own father. At last, she decided to reveal the truth to him. She took the book into his study along with some reviews. When she said that she had written a book, he said that it would strain his eyes to read it. Charlotte then explained that it was published, not in manuscript form. Patrick then said she would lose money, because it couldn’t be a success. At this point she read some of the reviews to him, and he agreed to read it. He later called Anne and Emily to him and gave his verdict: ‘Girls, do you know Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?’
Before Charlotte’s infatuation became too evident, she was well regarded by Constantin Héger and his wife. So much so that, knowing her love of all things relating to the Duke of Wellington, he gave Charlotte a fragment from the coffin of Napoleon Bonaparte that he had earlier bought. It’s now among the many treasures at the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Charlotte’s great friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor lived into old age, and yet neither married. Charlotte herself resisted all proposals until aged 38 she relented and agreed to marry Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, a man she had rejected a year earlier, leaving him ‘sobbing as women never sob’. Ellen was furious when she found out about Charlotte’s engagement, and their daily correspondence was halted for many months until they were reconciled in time for Ellen to act as a bridesmaid. It seems that they had formed a pact as young women to grow old as spinsters together. Why this should be, many people have speculated, but we won’t pry too deeply on Charlotte’s birthday.
The third novel written by Charlotte, although the second published was Shirley. It’s a brilliant book, with many people she knew appearing in it under disguised names, including Mary and Martha Taylor, and her future husband Arthur. The main characters, Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone are clearly based upon her sisters Emily and Anne. When Charlotte commenced the work her sisters seemed in fine health, but by the mid point both Emily and Anne had tragically died. This changed the course of the novel. It’s thought that the character of Caroline had been due to die in the book; Charlotte had been unable to save Anne in real life, but in fiction she gave Caroline a miraculous recovery and a happy ending.
Both Charlotte and her father had been furious when Arthur Bell Nicholls first proposed to her. Patrick thought she deserved better than a man who was his assistant curate, and he also worried who would look after him in his old age if his only remaining child left. Patrick and Arthur seemed to have been reconciled, however, but on the day of the wedding in June 1854 he declared that he felt too ill to leave the house. Charlotte was instead given away by Margaret Wooler, the woman who had been her headmistress and then employer at Roe Head school.
On this special day it’s time to crack open the bubbly, grab a slice of birthday cake, and open a much loved old book, as we say, ‘Happy birthday Charlotte Brontë’!
By Nick Holland