Dear reader: Cut another piece of birthday cake for Charlotte Bronte. It seems I was a month early in celebrating (oops, sorry Char!) Today, April 21st is really her big day. Happy Birthday, girl! Cheers, Rita
“Better to be without logic than without feeling.” — Charlotte Bronte
Portrait of Charlotte Brontë (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Charlotte Bronte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England in 1816. Today is the 197th anniversary of her birth. Charlotte Bronte was the third child born to Maria and Rev. Patrick Bronte. Brother Branwell joined his older sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and baby Charlotte in 1817. Emily came along the next year and Anne was born in 1820. The Brontes moved to Haworth parsonage in 1820.
The parsonage where they lived stood midway between natural beauty and human squalor. To the rear stretched clear, broad moorland. On the other side, the township sprawled up the hill like an ugly sore. Most families shared an outhouse with their neighbors, and the main street was awash with sewage. Disease lurked in every filthy corner. The average age of death was twenty-five. [Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre, by Stewart Ross, Viking Press, 1997]
It wasn’t long after the family settled at Haworth that Mrs. Bronte was diagnosed with incurable stomach cancer. After her mother’s death in 1821 Charlotte, her brother and sisters were raised by their father and her Aunt Elizabeth Branwell. The family was squarely middle class (although Rev. Bronte insisted on referring to himself as a gentleman), so they neither fit in with their working class neighbors in town, nor did they mix with the local gentry. The children grew up isolated from everyone but their immediate family.
They loved to explore the wilds of moors. They made up stories and games and performed plays they had penned themselves.
In 1824 Rev. Bronte felt the older children needed to be formally educated. He chose for the girls a school called “Cowan Bridge, a boarding school for the daughters of clergymen… it was cheap and respectable and promised a good education.” [Ibid] The brochure skipped the part about the cruel teachers and the Tuberculosis and Typhus.
Charlotte found the school to be a prison.
She had to wear a “charity girl” uniform and was allowed to write home only once every three months. The cook ruined the food. The dormitory was cold, the rules strict, the education narrow. [Ibid]
Her older sisters took ill. First Maria came down with TB and had to go home (she died in May of 1825) Then the school was hit with a typhus epidemic. 10-year-old Elizabeth was returned home “to Haworth where, on June 15, she, too died of tuberculosis. ” [Ibid]
That was enough, Charlotte and Emily were called home in the summer of 1825. Rev. Bronte and Aunt Branwell once again took over the children’s education. “They read widely and freely,” had private music and art lessons and some Latin and Greek , but no science and limited math, history and geography.
Brontë (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There was plenty of time to play and explore as well. When Rev. Bronte gave Branwell a set of toy soldiers as a gift the four remaining children created a whole fantasy world called“ Glasstown.” Charlotte and Branwell created “Angria” for the 12 wooden soldiers. (Emily and Anne made up “Gondal.”)
Unmarried middle class women of limited income in Victorian England had two choices in employment. They could become a teacher or a governess. But either profession would require more formal training. Charlotte was sent to Roe Head school in 1831. It was a much nicer institution than the dreaded Cowan Bridge, and Charlotte enjoyed her year and a half there. She returned home to help teach her brother and sister. She went back to the school a few years later as a teacher, this time with Emily in tow. (Emily didn’t take to the school. Anne replaced her after a few months.) After that, “She made two attempts at being a governess, first with a local family, then with a merchant in Bradford. Neither was a success. She found the children hard to control and her work humiliating and boring.” [Ibid]
In 1841, backed by Aunt Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne decided to start their own school. But first the girls needed to be educated abroad. Charlotte went to Brussels to stay with her friend Mary Taylor. Overseas travel changed her. The food, freedom and culture excited her. And in her teacher, Monsieur Heger, she had found her intellectual equal. When their term ended Charlotte suggested she Emily stay on and pay their way by teaching. Slowly she fell in love with her older, married teacher. But eventually she was forced to face reality and leave for home.
In 1845 Charlotte needed to regroup and focus on something positive. She was determined to get published. She convinced her sisters to publish some of their poems. They used the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (their initials) because they would be taken more seriously if readers thought they were men. Aylott and Jones published 62 of the sister’s poems in “Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.” Although the collection received favorable reviews, it sold only 2 copies.
Their next literary projects, this time in prose, would fare much better. Emily penned Wuthering Heights, Anne, Agnes Gray and Charlotte wrote The Professor about her time with Monsieur Heger. Although the first two novels were published (after Emily and Anne put up 50 pounds to help with the printing costs) The Professor was not picked up.
Undaunted, Charlotte wrote her second novel, Jane Eyre while nursing her father after an operation to restore his eye sight. Smith, Elder & Co. published Jane Eyre for 100 pounds in 1847. They optioned her next two novels for the same amount. Charlotte began work on Shirley.
Emily and Anne were busy on new novels too. Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published, but Emily was ill, TB again, and, although she may have finished the novel it never saw publication. Branwell was sick too, both physically and mentally. He died in September of 1848, Emily passed away in December of the same year. By spring of the 1849 Anne was showing “the familiar symptoms of tuberculosis.” She died on May 23.
Charlotte Brontë Photography from 1854, free licence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Charlotte continued to write. The mysterious Currier Bell was by now revealed to be the shy, plain Charlotte Bronte to her publisher George Smith. Smith and his mother did what they could to bring her out into society. Charlotte met fellow writers Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell both of whom she remained friends with for the rest of her life.
She wrote her fourth novel Villette.
Rev. Bronte’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls fell in love with Charlotte and he proposed to her. At first Charlotte didn’t take to the idea. She found him both dull-looking and narrow-minded. Her father objected to the union as well. Nicholls was socially (and financial) inferior to the Brontes. She turned him down. But Gaskell encouraged her in the match, and as Charlotte watched the younger man’s devotion to her father she reconsidered. (Gaskell also used her influence to improve Nicholl’s financial standing.) Rev. Bronte continued to object, but he finally gave in, and the couple were married in June of that year of 1854.
Charlotte was soon with child, suffered from constant morning sickness.
The strain of pregnancy at the age of thrity-nine taxed her strength to its limits. By February she had grown alarmingly thin and was vomiting blood… The wasting sickness dragged painfully on until, by mid-March , all hope was gone. [Ibid]
Bronte died on March 31, 1855. Her novel, The Professor was published two years later, the same year as Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë.