Portrait of Charlotte Brontë
The lives of the Brontë sisters have become almost as romanticized as the stormy, Gothic novels they wrote – Charlotte, her sisters Emily and Anne, and their brother Branwell living in near isolation with a sternly religious father on a lonely, windswept moor, inhabiting a world peopled by their vivid imaginations and fueled by their literary genius. This Myth of the Lonely Geniuses began soon after Charlotte Brontë’s death, and it has helped to popularize the sisters’ writings to generations of readers. Even so, this myth does not accurately reflect many aspects of the Brontës’ lives.
The Brontës’ home was Haworth Parsonage near Keighley in Yorkshire. Charlotte Brontë, perhaps the most famous of the sisters, was born in 1816. She was the third daughter of the Rev. Patrick Brontë and his wife Maria, who died in 1821. Her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, acted as mother figures for the rest of the children even after their aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, moved into the parsonage to help with their care. When Charlotte was eight years old she and her two older sisters were enrolled in a girls’ school, but Charlotte was brought home about a year later, after both Maria and Elizabeth became ill and died. Although she spent some time as a pupil at two other schools, her education was conducted for the most part at home. As a young woman she served as a teacher at a girls’ school and as a governess for a local family for brief periods, but each time she suffered from acute homesickness. Charlotte and her younger sisters Emily and Anne also made a failed attempt at opening their own school for girls at Haworth.
Haworth Parsonage, the home of the Brontë family
As young adults, the sisters dedicated themselves to their writing and published a volume of poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in 1846. The first novels of Emily and Anne, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, were accepted by publishers the following year. Charlotte’s first attempt at publication, The Professor, was rejected. Her second novel, Jane Eyre, was published in late 1847. Although controversial, the novel met with commercial success.
Despite the three authors’ accomplishments, the following years were difficult ones for the family. All of its members suffered from intermittent illnesses, some severe. Branwell died in September 1848 from complications related to his persistent alcoholism and drug abuse. Emily and Anne both became seriously ill soon after. Emily died just two months after Branwell, and Anne followed in May 1849. Left to care for her aging father alone, Charlotte battled depression and continued her creative activities. Shirley was published in 1849.
Charlotte’s first two novels had been published under her original pseudonym, Currer Bell. After her second publication, Charlotte no longer relied on her pseudonym to shield her from publicity. She traveled to London and was introduced into the literary circle of William Thackeray. She also visited the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, in addition to making several trips to the homes of friends and acquaintances, and she continued writing. Her third novel, Villette, was published in 1852.
In 1854, after lengthy opposition from her father, she married the curate of Haworth, the Rev. Arthur Nicholls, and traveled through Ireland with him shortly after their marriage. Later scholars and biographers have debated whether the couple was happy together, but their marriage lasted for less than a year. Only a few weeks after learning she was pregnant, Charlotte was diagnosed with pneumonia. She refused all food and water, complaining that they made her nauseous, and she died about six weeks later, on March 31, 1855.
Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was finally published after her death, in 1857. Her first biography, written by her acquaintance Elizabeth Gaskell, was also published in that year. Arthur Nicholls stayed at Haworth to care for Charlotte’s father until his death in 1861, and then returned to his native Ireland. He died in 1906.