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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) was born in Thornton, west of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire, on April 21, 1816.

She was bought up by her father, Patrick, an eccentric Irish Clergyman, who was in the habit of carrying a loaded pistol in his pocket and an aunt, who was her mother’s unmarried sister. Her Cornish Mother, Maria died in 1821 at the age of 37 of cancer.

Charlotte had four sisters including Emily (1818-1848) who wrote Wuthering Heights and Anne (1820-49) who wrote Agnes Grey. She acted as "the motherly friend and guardian of her younger sisters." Her two other sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of consumption, both in 1825.

Her one brother Patrick, who was known as Branwell, (1817-1848) was addicted to opium and alcohol and often used to frequent the Nelson Inn at Luddenden Foot, West Yorkshire. He was the black sheep of the family. Her father outlived all his children.

Until 1820 Charlotte lived at a bleak, Georgian Vicarage in Market Street, Thornton, West Yorksire. She moved to Haworth Rectory, in Church Street, Haworth where Charlotte and her sisters were bought up in isolation on the Yorkshire moors. The rectory is now a museum. Today over 200,000 tourists visit Haworth a year. Charlotte's father gave the first tour in the 1850s.

In August 1824, Charlotte was sent with three of her sisters, Emily, Maria, and Elizabeth, to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire (which she would describe as Lowood School in Jane Eyre). As borders there cruelty, poor hygiene and starvation made life horrific and hastened the deaths of their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Soon afterwards Charlotte's father removed her and Emily from the school.

At school, Charlotte's English was considered indifferent. There was no indication that she would ever write a novel, let alone one as successful as Jane Eyre.

In 1826 Mr Brontë bought home a box of wooden soldiers for Branwell to play with. Charlotte and her sisters joined in and together they used the soldiers to create an imaginary kingdom called Angria. Over the next ten years, she filled thousands of pages of miniature books imagining and chronicling the fantastic world of Angria.

Charlotte attended Roe Head School West Yorkshire.as a pupil in 1831. It was here, amongst her fellow pupils, that she met the two girls who were to become her life long friends; Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey.

Charlotte took up various positions as governesses and teachers to earn money to pay for an art education for their brother Branwell. In 1842 she went to Brussels to study and teach at a boarding school, the Pensionnat Héger, Charlotte gave any pupil there who displeased her a tremendous tongue-lashing. "If those girls knew how I loathed their company, they would not seek mine as much as they do," she wrote in her journal.

In 1844, using a small inheritance from her aunt, Charlotte set up with Emily a school for girls in their home village of Haworth. Although they advertised they received no pupils, so the sisters turned to their poems and novels which they had been writing.

After leaving school, Charlotte and her sisters read widely at home including Byron and Scott. They wrote magazines in imitation of Blackwoods Magazine. Charlotte used the pseudonym "Currer Bell" when she published her first two novels.

It was the discovery of Emily's poetic talent by her family that led her, Charlotte and Anne, to publish a small book of poems under the names Currer, Ellis & Acton Bell (named thus so as not to reveal their gender). Only two copies were sold. The next year the three sisters each sent a novel to the publishers, Charlotte, The Professor, which only came out posthumously in 1857, Emily, Wuthering Heights and Anne, Agnes Grey, which were both accepted. The disappointed Charlotte quickly raced off Jane Eyre, which actually got published on October 16, 1847 before her sister's novels.

Title page of the first edition of Jane Eyre

The plucky, plain downtrodden Jane was partly based on Charlotte's own experiences and Rochester supposedly on Lord Byron. The Morton to which Jane fled from Thornfield Hall corresponds to the village of Hathersage in the Peak District. The deserted Wycollier Hall on Brontë Way was Jane Eyre's Ferndean Manor. Lowood School was based on Cowan Bridge School.

Jane Eyre was the first novel to have a first-person child narrator.

Charlotte was widely acclaimed straight away for Jane Eyre, William Makepiece Thackery was especially keen. Within a few years Brontë mania had started and people were flocking to Haworth. An American bought up part of Charlotte’s discarded sash window and carried it on his back to Keighley station.

In view of the enormous success of Jane Eyre, Charlotte was persuaded by her publisher to occasionally visit London, where she revealed her true identity and began to move in a more exalted social circle. However, Charlotte never left Haworth for more than a few weeks at a time as she did not like to leave her ageing father's side.

Charlotte was a wee slip of a girl with brown hair, a square heavily featured face, bad complexion, fine eyes and spectacles. GH Lewis, (George Eliot's lover) described Charlotte as "a little plain, provincial, sickly looking old maid." Her fellow novelist, Mrs Gaskell, said she had a forehead that was "square, broad and rather overhanging."


Charlotte had hardly any teeth at all. She was very self-conscious about her lack of teeth and never smiled with her mouth open.

For years Charlotte thought she was too plain to marry and was consequently eloquent about the loneliness of a single woman. She fell in love several times herself including one Monsieur Héger, a choleric, small professor of logic whom she met whilst teaching in Belgium. When she returned to Haworth she continued to correspond with him, despite the fact he was married already, until he ceased the letters. Charlotte was heartbroken.

The extent of Charlotte Brontë's feelings for Monsieur Héger were not fully realised until 1913, when her letters to him were published for the first time. These letters, referred to as the 'Héger Letters', had been ripped up at some stage by Héger, but his wife had retrieved the pieces from the wastepaper bin and had meticulously sewn them back together.

Charlotte's novel Villette,  was written as a result of Charlotte's heartbreak over Monsieur Héger.

Charlotte Brontë was the first person to use the terms ‘cottage-garden’, ‘raised eyebrow’, ‘Now, now!’, ‘kitchen chair’ and ‘Wild West’.

After Branwell, then Emily, and then Anne died within months of each other, Emily's dog Keeper and Anne's dog Flossey provided Charlotte some solace in her grief.

Charlotte Brontë had a cat called Tiger.

The saintly, long-suffering Charlotte was an Anglican feminist and a passionate anti-Catholic who had been influenced by her Wesleyan family background with its belief that only complete adherence to God’s will brings salvation. These themes stand out in her Jane Eyre, where only after the brooding romantic Mr Rochester’s blindness, like St Paul, and his subsequent repentance to God can the book's heroine and Rochester be bought together.

Politically a Tory, Charlotte preached tolerance rather than revolution. Despite her shyness in company, she was always prepared to argue her beliefs.

Charlotte Bronte absorbed her father's Irish accent. Her friend Mary Taylor recalled first meeting her upon entering Roe Head school in January 1831, "she was very shy and nervous, and spoke with a strong Irish accent..." However, she had lost her Irish accent by the mid 1840s, instead speaking with a Yorkshire inflection.

Charlotte did receive four proposals of marriage before, on June 29, 1854, she married her father's curate, the Reverend Arthur Nicholls after initial violent objections from her dad. Charlotte wore a white muslin wedding dress with delicate green embroidery and a lace trimmed bonnet. It was said she looked like a "snowdrop".

Portrait of Arthur Bell Nicholls, at the time of his marriage to Charlotte Brontë, in 1854.

The frenchified Brontë (with the accent over the "E") was Arthur Nicholls idea.

Arthur was faithful, pleasant ans indomitable and Charlotte at first merely admired but later grew to love her husband. He did not share their intellectual interests but made her happy. They had nine months of an increasingly happy marriage as Charlotte found joy in domestic love. 

Charlotte found she was pregnant not long after her marriage, and it was felt she would have a difficult pregnancy due to previous ill-health. Despite this, her husband insisted on her accompanying him to visiting the Brontë waterfall in the rain. The ground underneath was extremely damp and Charlotte caught a chill, leading to pneumonia. She died on March 31, 1855 at Haworth House and was buried at St Michael's Church there. 

Life of Charlotte (1857), written by Charlotte's friend Mrs Gaskill, is considered to be one of the classic biographies, and helped promote the Brontë legend.


Source 1,411 QI Facts to Knock You Sideways, by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin


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