Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Yesterday, April 21st, was the great British novelist Charlotte Brontë’s 198th birthday. She was born in 1816 to Patrick and Maria (Branwell) Brontë, their third child, sister to Maria, Elizabeth, Patrick Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Of course, this family has fascinated readers ever since Charlotte, Emily, and Anne became known authors. I would need to learn more about them to form more of an opinion, but there is no doubt they were literary geniuses and artists — complete with a peculiar life. I’ve always been intrigued by where they lived: a parsonage in Haworth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire (the middle of northern England), secluded amid rolling hills and moors; and how they lived: after the deaths of their mother and two oldest sisters, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne were extremely close and created rich, imaginary worlds that were probably as real to them, if not more so, than the tangible one. Their eccentric, intelligent father Patrick, an Irish clergyman, was fond of them but often left them alone; they were cared for by their mother’s sister. They didn’t get out much, but they read and wrote and acted. Charlotte mothered her younger siblings and later on helped support them by becoming a governess and teacher.
I only know Miss Brontë from Jane Eyre, one of my favorite books, and a few short biographies, but I hope that will soon change when I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s (another of my favorite Victorian novelists) biography of her, The Life of Charlotte Brontë. Seeing as it was written in the lifetime of her family and friends, it might skirt around some issues, but I think it’s a great place to start. Published 1857, it was largely responsible for stoking our strong interest in the Brontës that has carried on ever since.
Charlotte wrote what she knew: The infamous girls’ school in Jane Eyre, Lowood, was patterned after the school Charlotte attended, whose conditions killed her two older sisters. Three of the protagonists of her four novels were teachers in one form or another. Their settings are mostly the north of England and Belgium, the places she lived. (Yes, she did get to go out of the country — she taught school for a time in Brussels. Isn’t that neat? She always preferred home, though.) She thought deeply and took keen interest in social issues, so her novels are serious and emotional. She published under the pseudonym Currer Bell to protect her privacy and to sound more masculine, which she thought would make her books more appealing. Jane Eyre (1847) is a fictional autobiography of a girl who becomes a governess. Shirley (1849) is a social novel, set in 1811–1812, about characters in the Yorkshire textile industry. Villette (1853) is about a young Englishwoman who travels to and teaches in Villette, a fictional French-speaking city. The Professor, written first but published posthumously (1857), is another coming-of-age story about a young man who ultimately becomes a professor at a girls’ school. Miss Brontë also wrote poetry and short stories.
It seems like her life was dead-set on being tragic: After seeing her mother die at age 38, her five siblings at ages 11, 10, 31, 30, and 29, respectively, Charlotte was left alone with her father. She married Arthur Bell Nichols in 1854, age 38, but died, pregnant, the following year, on March 31, 1855, shortly before her 39th birthday. Her father died in 1861 at age 84. Wow … the saga of the Brontës sounds just like a grim Victorian novel, doesn’t it? They were all intriguing characters, with strong personalities, great intelligence, and rampant imaginations, they lived in changing times, and they all died young and tragically with the remarkable exception of Rev. Brontë.
To finish, I would like to say that I fully intend to learn more about Charlotte Brontë as I loved Jane Eyre and find her fascinating. I would love to read all her books and a biography or two of her and her family!
What do you know about Charlotte Bronte? Have you read any of her books?