Charlotte Bronte Life
In 1831 Charlotte was sent to Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, near Huddersﬁeld, where she stayed a year and made some lasting friendships; her correspondence with one of her friends, Ellen Nussey, continued until her death, and has provided much of the current knowledge of her life.
In 1832 she came home to teach her sisters but in 1835 returned to Roe Head as a teacher. She wished to improve her family’s position, and this was the only outlet that was offered to her unsatisﬁed energies.
Branwell, moreover, was to start on his career as an artist, and it became necessary to supplement the family resources. The work, with its inevitable restrictions, was uncongenial to Charlotte. She fell into ill health and melancholia and in the summer of 1838 terminated her engagement.
In 1839 Charlotte declined a proposal from the Rev. Henry Nussey, her friend’s brother, and some months later one from another young clergyman.
At the same time Charlotte’s ambition to make the practical best of her talents and the need to pay Branwell’s debts urged her to spend some months as governess with the Whites at Upperwood House, Rawdon.
Branwell’s talents for writing and painting, his good classical scholarship, and his social charm had engendered high hopes for him; but he was fundamentally unstable, weak willed, and intemperate. He went from job to job and took refuge in alcohol and opium.
Meanwhile his sisters had planned to open a school together, which their aunt had agreed to ﬁnance, and in February 1842 Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels as pupils to improve their qualiﬁ cations in French and acquire some German.
The talent displayed by both brought them to the notice of Constantin Héger , a ﬁ ne teacher and a man of unusual perception. After a brief trip home upon the death of her aunt, Charlotte returned to Brussels as a pupil-teacher. She stayed there during 1843 but was lonely and depressed.
Her friends had left Brussels, and Madame Héger appears to have become jealous of her. The nature of Charlotte’s attachment to Héger and the degree to which she understood herself have been much discussed. His was the most interesting mind she had yet met, and he had perceived and evoked her latent talents.
His strong and eccentric personality appealed both to her sense of humour and to her affections. She offered him an innocent but ardent devotion, but he tried to repress her emotions. The letters she wrote to him after her return may well be called love letters.
When, however, he suggested that they were open to misapprehension, she stopped writing and applied herself, in silence, to disciplining her feelings. However they are interpreted, Charlotte’s experiences at Brussels were crucial for her development. She received a strict literary training, became aware of the resources of her own nature, and gathered material that served her, in various shapes, for all her novels.
In 1844 Charlotte attempted to start a school that she had long envisaged in the parsonage itself, as her father’s failing sight precluded his being left alone. Prospectuses were issued, but no pupils were attracted to distant Haworth.
In the autumn of 1845 Charlotte came across some poems by Emily, and this led to the publication of a joint volume of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), or Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; the pseudonyms were assumed to preserve secrecy and avoid the special treatment that they believed reviewers accorded to women.
The book was issued at their own expense. It received few reviews and only two copies were sold. Nevertheless, a way had opened to them, and they were already trying to place the three novels they had written.
Charlotte failed to place The Professor: A Tale but had, however, nearly ﬁnished Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, begun in August 1846 in Manchester, where she was staying with her father, who had gone there for an eye operation.
When Smith, Elder and Company, declining The Professor, declared themselves willing to consider a three-volume novel with more action and excitement in it, she completed and submitted it at once. Jane Eyre was accepted, published less than eight weeks later (on Oct. 16, 1847), and had an immediate success, far greater than that of the books that her sisters published the same year.
The months that followed were tragic ones. Branwell died in September 1848, Emily in December, and Anne in May 1849. Charlotte completed Shirley: A Tale in the empty parsonage, and it appeared in October.
In the following years Charlotte went three times to London as the guest of her publisher; there she met the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and sat for her portrait by George Richmond. She stayed in 1851 with the writer Harriet Martineau and also visited her future biographer, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, in Manchester and entertained her at Haworth. Villette came out in January 1853.
Meanwhile, in 1851, she had declined a third offer of marriage, this time from James Taylor, a member of Smith, Elder and Company. Her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls (1817–1906), an Irishman, was her fourth suitor.
It took some months to win her father’s consent, but they were married on June 29, 1854, in Haworth church. They spent their honeymoon in Ireland and then returned to Haworth, where her husband had pledged himself to continue as curate to her father.
He did not share his wife’s intellectual life, but she was happy to be loved for herself and to take up her duties as his wife. She began another book, Emma, of which some pages remain. Her pregnancy, however, was accompanied by exhausting sickness, and she died in 1855.
Charlotte’s ﬁrst novel, The Professor (published posthumously, 1857), shows her sober reaction from the indulgences of her girlhood. Told in the ﬁrst person by an English tutor in Brussels, it is based on Charlotte’s experiences there, with a reversal of sexes and roles.
Though there is plenty of satire and dry, direct phrasing in Jane Eyre, its success was the ﬁery conviction with which it presented a thinking, feeling woman, craving for love but able to renounce it at the call of impassioned self-respect and moral conviction.
The book’s narrator and main character, Jane Eyre, is an orphan and is governess to the ward of Mr. Rochester, the Byronic and enigmatic employer with whom she falls in love. Her love is recipro-cated, but on the wedding morning it comes out that Rochester is already married and keeps his mad and depraved wife in the attics of his mansion.
Jane leaves him, suffers hardship, and ﬁnds work as a village school-mistress. When Jane learns, however, that Rochester has been maimed and blinded while trying vainly to rescue his wife from the burning house that she herself had set aﬁre, Jane seeks him out and marries him.
There are melodramatic naïvetés in the story, and Charlotte’s elevated rhetorical passages do not much appeal to modern taste, but she maintains her hold on the reader.
The novel is subtitled An Autobiography and is written in the ﬁrst person; but, except in Jane Eyre’s impressions of Lowood, the autobiography is not Charlotte’s. Personal experience is fused with suggestions from widely different sources, and the Cinderella theme may well come from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.
The action is carefully moti-vated, and apparently episodic sections, like the return to Gateshead Hall, are seen to be necessary to the full expres-sion of Jane’s character and the working out of the threefold moral theme of love, independence, and forgiveness.
In her novel Shirley, Charlotte avoided melodrama and coincidences and widened her scope. Setting aside Maria Edgworth and Sir Walter Scott as national novelists, Shirley is the ﬁrst regional novel in English, full of shrewdly depicted local material—Yorkshire characters, church and chapel, the cloth workers and machine breakers of her father’s early manhood, and a sturdy but rather embittered feminism.
In Villette she recurred to the Brussels setting and the ﬁrst-person narrative, disused in Shirley; the characters and incidents are largely variants of the people and life at the Pension Héger. Against this background she set the ardent heart, deprived of its object, contrasted with the woman happily fulﬁlled in love.
The inﬂuence of Charlotte’s novels was much more immediate than that of Wuthering Heights. Her combination of romance and satiric realism had been the mode of nearly all the women novelists for a century. Her fruitful innovations were the presentation of a tale through the sensibility of a child or young woman, her lyricism, and the picture of love from a woman’s standpoint.
Emily Brontë’s Life
In 1835, when Charlotte secured a teaching position at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, Emily accompanied her as a pupil but suffered from homesickness and remained only three months. In 1838 Emily spent six exhausting months as a teacher in Miss Patchett’s school at Law Hill, near Halifax, and then resigned.
To keep the family together at home, Charlotte planned to keep a school for girls at Haworth. In February 1842 she and Emily went to Brussels to learn foreign languages and school management at the Pension Héger. Although Emily pined for home and for the wild moor-lands, it seems that in Brussels she was better appreciated than Charlotte. In October, however, when her aunt died, Emily returned permanently to Haworth.
As recounted above, Charlotte’s discovery that all three sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—had written verse led them to publish jointly a pseudonymous volume of verse, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; it contained 21 of Emily’s poems, and a consensus of later criticism has accepted the fact that Emily’s verse alone reveals true poetic genius.
By midsummer of 1847 Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey had been accepted for joint publication by J. Cautley Newby of London, but publication was delayed until the appearance of their sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, which was immediately and hugely successful.
Wuthering Heights, when published in December 1847, did not fare well; critics were hostile, calling it too savage, too animal-like, and clumsy in construction. Only later did it come to be considered one of the ﬁnest novels in the English language.
Soon after the publication of her novel, Emily’s health began to fail rapidly. She had been ill for some time, but now her breathing became difﬁcult, and she suffered great pain. She died of tuberculosis in December 1848.
Emily Brontë’s work on Wuthering Heights cannot be dated; she may well have spent a long time on this intense, solidly imagined novel. It is distinguished from other novels of the period by its dramatic and poetic presentation, its abstention from all comment by the author, and its unusual structure.
It recounts in the retrospective narrative of an onlooker, which in turn includes shorter narratives, the impact of the waif Heathcliff on the two families of Earnshaw and Linton in a remote Yorkshire district at the end of the 18th century.
Embittered by abuse and by the marriage of Cathy Earnshaw—who shares his stormy nature and whom he loves—to the gentle and prosperous Edgar Linton, Heathcliff plans a revenge on both families, extending into the second generation.
Cathy’s death in child-birth fails to set him free from his love-hate relationship with her, and the obsessive haunting persists until his death; the marriage of the surviving heirs of Earnshaw and Linton restores peace.
Sharing the family’s dry humour and Charlotte’s violent imagination, Emily diverges from her in making no use of the events of her own life and showing no preoccupation with her unmarried state or a governess’s position.
Work-ing, like her, within a conﬁned scene and with a small group of characters, she constructs an action, based on profound and primitive energies of love and hate, which proceeds logically and economically.
Making no use of such coinci-dences as Charlotte relies on, requiring no rich romantic similes or rhetorical patterns, and conﬁning the superb dialogue to what is immediately relevant to the subject.
The book’s sombre power and the elements of brutality in its characters puzzled and affronted some 19th-century opinion.