Charlotte Brontë: 10 facts

  • 21 April 2016

There’s more to Charlotte Brontë than blustery landscapes, sheltered spinsters and tormented romances. On the bicentenary of the author’s birth we uncover some surprising truths.

George Richmond, Charlotte Brontë, 1850 © National Portrait Gallery

George Richmond, Charlotte Brontë, 1850

Charlotte Great and Small, an exhibition celebrating the life and work of the author, is at the Brontë Parsonage Museum until 1 January 2017; free entry with a National Art Pass. Celebrating Charlotte Brontë is at the National Portrait Gallery until 14 August, free to all.


As a child she would create imaginary worlds

After leaving their strict, religious school, the Brontë children became increasingly cut off from the outside world. The siblings would create imaginary worlds and write reams of stories for one another. Charlotte and her brother, Branwell, wrote about their fictional country, Angria. Their imaginations served to entertain the children and ready them for careers as writers.


She didn’t always use the name Charlotte Brontë

The author first published her books, including her classic, Jane Eyre, under the nom de plume Currer Bell. Her sisters adopted the names Ellis and Acton Bell to preserve their privacy and mask their gender.​


Her first book only sold two copies

In 1846 Charlotte and her sisters Emily and Anne pooled their finances to self-publish a joint book of poetry, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The publication only attracted two sales but it was noticed by other publishers, and two reviews encouraged them to keep writing. They followed up this effort by each writing a novel; Charlotte’s first full manuscript, The Professor, was declined for publication.


All her siblings had died by the time she was 33

The third of six children, Charlotte lost her mother to cancer when she was five. Four years later her sisters Maria and Elizabeth died of tuberculosis. Tragically, she lost her three other siblings – her brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne – within eight months of each other, between 1848 and 1849.


She was in love with a married man

IIn 1842 Charlotte and her sister Emily travelled to Brussels to find work in a boarding school run by Constantin Héger. While teaching English at the school Charlotte became increasingly attached to Héger, and the letters she sent to him after leaving the school indicate she was in love with him. Héger was a married man and it is certain he didn’t reciprocate the feelings or reply to her letters. Four of these letters were printed by The Times in 1913.


Jane Eyre was partly autobiographical

In the novel a plain governess who started life in a harsh charity school falls in love with a married man. Sound familiar? Charlotte and her sisters attended the Clergy Daughters' School in Lancashire, where the freezing conditions, inadequate nutrition and strict values meant many children suffered poor health, and her two eldest sisters were sent home to die; much like Jane’s friend Helen in the novel. The ‘mad woman’ upstairs has been thought to be inspired by her addict brother Branwell, who would often rage in his room through the night, drunk or high on laudanum.


She had famous friends

Once the popularity of Jane Eyre had established Charlotte as a respectable writer, her publisher persuaded her to make occasional visits to London, where she was introduced to a circle of notable writers and critics. Among her friends and acquaintances were: the social essayist Harriet Martineau; the novelist and author of Charlotte’s first biography, Elizabeth Gaskell; and William Thackeray.


Charlotte was a proto-feminist

‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.’

Jane Eyre is a fiercely independent woman guided by strict moral and religious values, destined to make her own decisions and pay her own way in life. A female protagonist with such a clear sense of self was highly unusual in Victorian literature; as such, the novel has been described as a feminist manifesto with proto-feminist themes. Jane refuses to bend to the demands made of her by the male characters simply because she is of lower class and female. The novel ends with the power balance rectified as she becomes financially independent and Rochester is physically dependent on her.


Her honeymoon was in Ireland

After much persuading, her father finally agreed to Charlotte marrying his curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who had been in love with her for many years. They married in June 1854 and took their honeymoon in Banagher in County Offaly, Ireland.


She may have died from morning sickness

Not long after marrying Nicholls, Charlotte fell pregnant. However, the pregnancy was burdened with nausea and fainting. She died on 31 March, aged 38. There have been many speculations on the cause of death; one is that she died of extreme dehydration and malnutrition from severe morning sickness.

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