If you haven’t already guessed, I am a massive fan of the Brontë family. To share this passion with you, I’ve created a new series on my blog: An Introduction to the Brontës. I’ll be discussing Charlotte first, before moving onto Emily and Anne – I may even end up publishing ones on Branwell and Patrick too. This post will introduce you to the lives of the Brontë family, whether that be their personal life or their literary one. It’ll be useful to those of you who are new to the family’s writing, as well as prove useful to those of you who are already familiar with them.
I’ll be starting out with Charlotte for obvious reasons – she is, in my opinion, the best Brontë sister (although, they are all equally as talented). Since first reading Jane Eyre, Charlotte has intrigued me. I’ve even chosen to compose an 8,000 word dissertation on her (call me daft). There is something about Charlotte that draws me in: it could be her unique writing style; or the way she embeds proto-feminist values in such early 19th century writing; or maybe it’s due to this Brontë mythology I’ve been fed on for so long. Either way, I can’t get enough of her.
A brief summary of her life:
Charlotte was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, on the 21st April, 1816. She was the third daughter of six children – five girls and one boy. At the age of four her father, Patrick, was offered the perpetual curacy of St. Michael and All Angels’ Church in Haworth, thus meaning the whole family up and moved. Unfortunately, not long into their move Maria, Charlotte’s mother, fell dangerously ill due to suffering from the final stages of uterine cancer. Charlotte and her sibling’s care was left to Maria sister and the children’s aunt, Elizabeth.
In 1824, Charlotte and three of her sisters, Elizabeth, Maria and Emily, were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. Due to the school’s poor conditions, both Elizabeth and Maria died from tuberculosis in 1825, and Emily and Charlotte were withdrawn. Back at home, Charlotte engaged in writing. The surviving children penned poetry about their own fictional words – Charlotte and Branwell’s mainly concerned Angria, which were highly Byronic stories. Considering the age of the children, their juvenilia are extremely complex stories, dealing with mature subjects.
Eventually, Charlotte went onto more education at Roe Head, before accepting a position as a governess at Stone Gappe amongst a few other places. Upon deciding that she hated being a governess, Charlotte and her two remaining sisters decided to open their own school, a plan which sadly fell through. To prepare themselves for this step, Charlotte and Emily both enrolled at a boarding school in Brussels. Whilst studying and teaching there, Charlotte became deeply attached to her professor, Constantin Héger. Her devotion led to a sharp and painful disconnection between the two, which has inspired many of Charlotte’s narratives.
After this, Charlotte starting composing novels, before she died in 1855 from symptoms of pregnancy mixed with tuberculosis.
Unfortunately, and ashamedly, I haven’t read much of Charlotte’s juvenilia, so it’s hard for me to summarise. Therefore, I turn to the Brontë experts for this – from a young age Charlotte and Branwell collaborated in writing poetry and stories set in their imaginary world of Angria. They were prolific; Charlotte claiming she had written more before the age of 13 than afterwards. Writing these poems and stories helped Charlotte through a rough time teaching at Roe Head, which she continued to write until her early 20s. Many of these texts were exotic, scandalous and passion-fuelled, thus showing how developed Charlotte was in her literary skills at such a young age.
Poetry is what introduced not only Charlotte but Emily and Anne into the publishing world. Charlotte persuaded her sisters into publishing a collection of their poetry. The sole reason behind this was to secure an income for the family if anything happened to Patrick. Emily, although reluctantly, accepted this offer as long as their identities were concealed. In 1846 Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell was thrown out into the world. These explored a whole range of topics including: death, the passage of time, life, passion, regret and so on.
Unfortunately, this was a huge disaster and only two copies were sold. However, the reviews which they did receive highly praised the sisters writings, mainly Emily and Anne’s.
You can purchase an illustrated edition of the poems here.
The Professor was Charlotte’s first written novel, although it was cast to the side-lines for the duration of her life, only being published after her death. In summary, this follows the story of William Crimsworth, an orphan who turns his back on money to forge a new life in Brussels as a professor. Whilst there, he becomes infatuated with two women: the school’s directress, Mademoiselle Reutter, and a nineteen year old pupil, Frances Henri.
This novel, although fictional, is also semi-autobiographical. Charlotte used her own experiences of being a teacher in Brussels to help shape this story, whether that being in the form of having authority over the pupils, or the student-teacher relationship which Charlotte so desperately wished for her and Héger. Although you shouldn’t read this as Charlotte’s diary, she most definitely incorporated her own life into this story.
Although The Professor is an extremely flawed story, it was Charlotte’s first attempt of writing a mature, full-length novel. Therefore, read it as an experiment. The authoress is finding her feet within the literary world; she wouldn’t have penned the brilliant Jane Eyre without first having written The Professor.
Charlotte’s most famous novel. Jane Eyre tells the tale of yet another orphan, Jane, who is placed in her aunt’s care after her parents died. She has a rough upbringing; her cousins torment her, and her aunt neglects her before finally sending her off to a charity school that resembles Charlotte’s own Cowan Bridge. Managing to survive school, Jane becomes a teacher before taking a post at Thornfield Hall as a governess. Here, she meets Mr. Rochester, the mysterious Byronic hero who will complicate her life in more ways than one.
Jane Eyre is packed full of the devices which make reading so fun: the bildungsroman narrative, the Gothic, proto-feminist ideals and representations, the incorporation of real life, symbolism, and pathetic fallacy, to name but a few. To have the best reading experience, I’d suggest reading this one critically in order to fully appreciate what Charlotte is trying to do. It’s brilliant novel, definitely one worthy of its canonisation.
Taking a step away from her Romantic side, Charlotte channels her inner-Realist side to compose this social novel. The backdrop of the story is concerned with the Luddites uprising in early 19th century Yorkshire, but intertwined with this story is not one but two love stories. This allows Charlotte’s to explore the psychological effect of loss and love, as well as frequently challenge the ideals of female conventionality. It’s a endearing story about love, friendship and the changing world.
Shirley is especially good at destroying patriarchal values. Charlotte manages to do so through something as simple as a name; Shirley is typically a male’s forename or a family surname in this century, yet our protagonist is ironically named it because her parents were expecting a boy. Through this name, Shirley can escape the confinements of womanhood; she runs an estate, handles business affairs and all other conventionally male jobs of the time. These proto-feminist ideals are also directed through the growing bond between Shirley and Caroline – they act as catalysts for each other, helping to defy all expectations of womanhood.
Villette is considered to be a sophisticated development of The Professor – this is due to the similarities in plot and settings. However, I feel like the two novels couldn’t be more different. Villette is a complex story. It’s not another narrative discussing the plight of a governess, but instead focuses on the idea of the “self”. Charlotte explores how one is governed by Reason, Emotion and Feelings, thus representing this invisible battle which constantly forges on inside your mind. Due to the nature of this novel, one must read it psychologically in order to fully appreciate it.
Similar to The Professor, this is a semi-autobiographical novel in the sense it occasionally parallels with Charlotte’s life. Just like what Charlotte experienced, our protagonist, Lucy Snowe, is so desperate for relief that she, as a Protestant, seeks comfort from a Catholic priest. This is only one occasion that mirrors Charlotte’s life. Villette is an extremely moving story that is packed full of weighty and controversial subject matters, and it’s these kind of narratives where Charlotte’s best qualities shine through.
Just be aware this book can be dense in some areas, and is occasionally written in French, but beyond that, it’s remarkable novel to understand Charlotte as a female writer in the 19th century.
If you’ve read this extremely long post on Charlotte Brontë, then I think you’re set to read anything by her. I hope this proved helpful to those of you who are new to Charlotte, and are unsure of where to start. Each of her novels offer you something different, yet they can be quite daunting to start. Charlotte is an extremely talented author; she does not care for conventionalities, and shares her opinions on topics that are way ahead of her time.
I hope you enjoy reading her work. I’ll have another Introduction to the Brontës up soon.
Thanks for reading, Lauren Xx