Charlotte Brontë: One Third of the Famous Literary Sisters

And our next article is on someone you probably all know: the writer Charlotte Brontë. 📝

As you probably know, Charlotte was part of the well-known Brontë sisters. In the time period in which she started writing, it was pretty unusual for women to succeed with writing or even write at all. But she and her sisters ended up to be part of the best-known authors in English literature. This only happened due to the persistence and efforts of Charlotte Brontë which led to finally getting published. 📖✍️

Read the full article below to get to know this determined and strong-minded woman, who dodged so many obstacles in her life, a little bit better!

Charlotte Bronte| *21-04-1816 | † 31-03-1855 | UK | Writer

When she was twenty years old, Charlotte Brontë sent some of her poems to Robert Southey, the English Poet Laureate, to ask him for his advice. In his response, he famously told her that ‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’. Undeterred – and fortunately for us – she wrote back a snarky letter, continued writing for the rest of her life, and, making dogged efforts to get published, went on to become one of the best-known authors in English literature.  

Born on 21 April 1816, Charlotte Brontë grew up in Haworth, a village in Yorkshire in the north of England, in a remarkably literary and artistic family. She wrote from a young age, creating imaginary worlds with her siblings, known as Glass Town and Angria, and making up adventures for the characters that inhabited them. These stories the siblings wrote down in miniature books no bigger than matchboxes, in minuscule handwriting.  

After a patchy education of a few years, Charlotte had to go out to work to earn a living. For women who did not have much money, the only respectable options for financial security were becoming a governess or teacher, or marriage. Charlotte loathed the idea of marrying for money, and took on several positions as teacher and governess – but hated the work and the poor treatment she suffered from her employers, and craved to write instead.

In her late twenties, after a period of studying and teaching in Brussels (and an attempt to set up a boarding school with her sisters, which failed miserably), events took a different turn and moved her away from teaching. One day in 1845 – Charlotte was 29 years old – she discovered her sister Emily’s poems, found out that they were really quite good, and became determined that her poetry should be published. It took ‘days’ to persuade Emily of this plan, but eventually she agreed. In the meantime, the interest of the third Brontë sister, Anne, had also been sparked, and the sisters, who had always wanted to become authors, set about publishing a collection of their poetry, with Charlotte as driving force. Choosing to publish them under the gender-ambiguous pseudonyms of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell, as women writers were not taken as seriously as men were, the poems appeared in a joint volume, published with the sisters’ own money. Although only two copies of the first edition were sold, the sisters didn’t give up. 

Hoping to make money from writing, they each started working on a novel – Charlotte on The Professor, Emily on Wuthering Heights and Anne on Agnes Grey, now all classics of English literature. For a year and a half, they sent their manuscripts to many publishers, without any luck. Finally, after Emily and Anne’s novels were both scheduled to appear in print, Charlotte received a rejection yet again – although this time she was asked to provide another sample of her work. She sent in the finished manuscript of Jane Eyre, which she had been working on in the meantime. It was published within a matter of weeks, in 1847, and immediately became a bestseller. 

Of her four novels, Jane Eyre is the one Charlotte Brontë is best remembered for. Over the years, it has come to be seen as the ultimate feminist novel, and its main character, Jane, has become a feminist icon. With Jane, who we follow from a ten-year-old orphaned girl to a young woman, Brontë created a character who goes against society’s expectations of women and follows her own path. From the start of the story, she fights against all forms of oppression and injustice and has an unshakable sense of self-respect. While they were written down by Charlotte Brontë over 170 years ago, Jane’s ideas about the complete equality of men and women, as well as her declarations of self-worth – captured in the famous line ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will’ – still feel radical, and exciting, today. 

At the time of publication, amidst speculation about whether ‘Currer Bell’ was a man or a woman, some critics considered the defiant, outspoken character of Jane to be quite shocking, and certainly not fit for a woman writer to portray. Among readers, though, the book became a major hit.  

A year after the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte’s life saw an upheaval. The Brontë family had already seen its fair share of deaths: Charlotte had lost her mother at the age of five, and four years later the two eldest Brontë children, Maria and Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis. Now, her remaining siblings, Branwell, Emily and Anne, died from tuberculosis one after the other in a space of just nine months. None of them lived past the age of 31.  

After their deaths, Charlotte continued writing – perhaps also as a way to cope – and published two more novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853), during her lifetime. She also started visiting London on occasion, where she was a celebrity thanks to the craze surrounding Jane Eyre, and became somewhat familiar with the city’s literary circles. In 1854, she married Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate – a man who she had initially rejected, but eventually became quite happy with. Nine months after the wedding, she died with her unborn child at age 38, on the 13th of March 1855, probably from pregnancy complications. Two years later, the first novel she had ever written, The Professor, was published posthumously, with the help of her husband. 

In her works, Charlotte Brontë created female protagonists with rich inner lives, determination and a strong desire for independence, as well as showing their suffering, depression, loneliness and frustration. Her books are saturated with the idea that women are full human beings, just as men are, and rail against the stereotypes and circumstances that constrain them. To this day, they are widely read, and countless film-, radio-, theatre- and literary adaptations have been made of her best-known work, Jane Eyre. What’s more, a cult has sprung up around the Brontë sisters themselves: today, the Brontë family home is a much-visited place, where fans of Charlotte can admire the very clothes she wore, and see the dining room table where the sisters wrote their novels. The desire Charlotte Brontë expressed in her youthful letter to Southey ‘to become for ever known’ as an author, has certainly come true. And it’s not just her work that resonates: while her complex female characters continue to appeal to readers today, her own life – of a woman who fought to overcome societal expectations and was determined to become a published writer, rather than take on one of the limited options that were available to women at the time – also remains a source of inspiration. 


Author: Saskia Bultman
Image: Evert A. Duyckinck

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