Biography of Charlotte Brontë

19th Century Novelist

Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte, from a watercolor by Paul Heger, 1850. Hulton Archive/Culture Club/Getty Images

Best-known as the author of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë was a 19th century writer, poet, and novelist. She was also one of the three Brontë sisters, along with Emily and Anne, famous for their literary talents. 

Dates: April 21, 1816 - March 31, 1855
Also known as: Charlotte Nicholls; pen name Currer Bell

Early Life 

Charlotte was the third of six siblings born in six years to the Rev. Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë.

Charlotte was born at the parsonage in Thornton, Yorkshire, where her father was serving. All six children were born before the family moved in April 1820 to the 5-room parsonage at Haworth on the moors of Yorkshire that they would call home for most of their lives. Her father had been appointed as perpetual curate there, meaning that he and his family could live in the parsonage as long as he continued his work there. The father encouraged the children to spend time in nature on the moors.

Maria died the year after the youngest, Anne, was born, possibly of uterine cancer or of chronic pelvic sepsis. Maria’s older sister, Elizabeth, moved from Cornwall to help care for the children and for the parsonage. She had an income of her own.

The Clergymen’s Daughter’s School

In September of 1824, the four older sisters, including Charlotte, were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, a school for the daughters of impoverished clergy.

The daughter of writer Hannah Moore was also in attendance. The harsh conditions of the school were later reflected in Charlotte Brontë's novel, Jane Eyre.

A typhoid fever outbreak at the school led to several deaths. The next February, Maria was sent home very ill, and she died in May, probably of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Elizabeth was sent home late in May, also ill. Patrick Brontë brought his other daughters home as well, and Elizabeth died on June 15.

Maria, the eldest daughter, had served as a mother figure for her younger siblings; Charlotte decided she needed to fulfill a similar role as the eldest surviving daughter.

Imaginary Lands

When her brother Patrick was given some wooden soldiers as a gift in 1826, the siblings began to make up stories about the world that the soldiers lived in. They wrote the stories in tiny script, in books small enough for the soldiers, and also provided newspapers and poetry for the world they apparently first called Glasstown. Charlotte’s first known story was written in March of 1829; she and Branwell wrote most of the initial stories.

In January of 1831, Charlotte was sent to school at Roe Head, about fifteen miles from home. There she made friends of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, who were to be part of her life later as well.  Charlotte excelled in school, including at French. In eighteen months, Charlotte returned home, and resumed the Glasstown saga.

Meanwhile Charlotte's younger sisters, Emily and Anne, had created their own land, Gondal, and Branwell had created a rebellion.

Charlotte negotiated a truce and cooperation among the siblings. She began the Angrian stories.

Charlotte also created paintings and drawings – 180 of them survive. Branwell, her younger brother, got familial support for developing his painting skills towards a possible career; such support was not available to the sisters.

Teaching

In July of 1835 Charlotte had an opportunity to become a teacher at Roe Head school. They offered her a tuition-free admission for one sister as payment for her services. She took Emily, two years younger than Charlotte, with her, but Emily soon became ill, an illness attributed to homesickness.  Emily returned to Haworth and the youngest sister, Anne, took her place.

In 1836, Charlotte sent some of the poems she had written to England’s poet laureate. He discouraged her pursuit of a career, suggesting that because she was a woman, she pursue her “real duties” as a wife and mother.

 Charlotte, nevertheless, continued writing poems and novellas.

The school moved in 1838, and Charlotte left that position in December, returning home and later calling herself “shattered.” She had continued to return to the imaginary world of Angria on holidays from school, and continued writing in that world after she moved back to the family home.

Shattered

In May of 1839 Charlotte briefly became a governess. She hated the role, especially the sense she had of having “no existence” as a family servant. She left in mid-June.

A new curate, William Weightman, arrived in August of 1839 to assist the Rev. Brontë. A new and young clergyman, he seems to have attracted flirting from both Charlotte and Anne, and perhaps more attraction from Anne.

Charlotte received two different proposals in 1839. One was from Henry Nussey the brother of her friend, Ellen, with whom she’d continued to correspond. The other was from an Irish minister. Charlotte turned them both down.

Charlotte took another governess position in March of 1841; this one lasted until December. She returned home thinking she’d start a school. Her aunt Elizabeth Branwell promised financial support.

Brussels

In February of 1842 Charlotte and Emily went to London and then Brussels. They attended a school in Brussels for six months, then Charlotte and Emily were both asked to stay on, serving as teachers to pay for their tuition. Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music. In September, they learned that the young Rev. Weightman had died.

But they had to return home in October for a funeral, when their aunt Elizabeth Branwell died. The four Brontë siblings received shares of their aunt’s estate, and Emily worked as a housekeeper for her father, serving in the role their aunt had taken.  Anne returned to a governess position, and Branwell followed Anne to serve with the same family as a tutor. 

Charlotte returned to Brussels to teach. She felt isolated there, and perhaps fell in love with the master of the school, though her affections and interest were not returned.

 She returned home at the end of a year, though she continued to write letters to the schoolmaster from England.

Charlotte moved back to Haworth, and Anne, returning from her governess position, did the same. Their father needed more help in his work, as his vision was failing. Branwell had also returned, in disgrace, and declined in health as he increasingly turned to alcohol and opium.

Writing for Publication

In 1845, a quite significant event that started small happened: Charlotte found Emily’s poetry notebooks.  She got excited at their quality, and Charlotte, Emily and Anne discovered each others’ poems. The three selected poems from their collections for publication, choosing to do so under male pseudonyms. The false names would share their initials: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They assumed that male writers would find easier publication.

The poems were published as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in May of 1846 with the help of the inheritance from their aunt.  They did not tell their father or brother of their project. The book only initially sold two copies, but got positive reviews, which encouraged Charlotte.

The sisters began preparing novels for publication. Charlotte wrote the Professor, perhaps imagining a better relationship with her friend, the Brussels schoolmaster.  Emily wrote  Wuthering Heights, adapted from the Gondal stories.  Anne wrote Agnes Grey, rooted in her experiences as a governess.

The next year, July 1847, the stories by Emily and Anne, but not Charlotte’s, were accepted for publication, still under the Bell pseudonyms.  They were not actually published immediately, however.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre and offered that to the publisher, ostensibly an autobiography edited by Currer Bell.  The book became a quick hit.  Some surmised from the writing that Currer Bell was a woman, and there was much speculation about who the author might be. Some critics condemned the relationship between Jane and Rochester as “improper.”

The book, with some revisions, entered a second edition in January 1848, and a third in April of that same year.

Clarification of Authorship

After Jane Eyre had proven a success, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey also were published.  A publisher began advertising the three as a package, suggesting that the three “brothers” were really a single author.  By that time Anne had also written and published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Charlotte and Emily went to London to claim authorship by the sisters, and their identities were made public.

Tragedy

Charlotte had begun a new novel, when her brother Branwell, died in April of 1848, probably of tuberculosis.  Some have speculated that the conditions at the parsonage were not so healthy, including a poor water supply and chilly, foggy weather. Emily caught what seemed to be a cold at his funeral, and became ill. She declined quickly, refusing medical care until relenting in her last hours.  She died in December.  Then Anne began to show symptoms, though she, after Emily’s experience, did seek medical help.  Charlotte and her friend Ellen Nussey took Anne to Scarborough for a better environment, but Anne died there in May of 1849, less than a month after arriving.  Branwell and Emily were buried in the parsonage graveyard, and Anne in Scarborough.

Returning to Living

Charlotte, now the last of the siblings to survive, and still living with her father, completed her new novel, Shirley: A Tale, in August, and it was published in October 1849.  In November Charlotte went to London, where she met such figures as William Makepeace Thackeray and Harriet Martineau. She traveled, staying with various friends.  In 1850 she met Elizabeth Glaskell. She began corresponding with many of her new acquaintances and friends.  She also refused another offer of marriage.

She republished Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in December 1850, with a biographical note clarifying who her sisters, the authors, really were. The characterization of her sisters as the impractical but caring Emily and the self-denying, reclusive, not so original Anne, tended to persist once those impressions became public.  Charlotte heavily edited her sisters’ work, even while claiming to be advocating truthfulness about them.  She suppressed the publication of Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, with its portrayal of alcoholism and a woman’s independence.

Charlotte wrote Villette, publishing it in January of 1853, and split with Harriet Martineau over it, as Martineau disapproved of it.

New Relationship

Arthur Bell Nicholls was the Rev. Brontë’s curate, of Irish background like Charlotte’s father was.  He surprised Charlotte with a proposal of marriage.  Charlotte’s father disapproved of the proposal, and Nicholls left his post.  Charlotte turned down his proposal initially, then began secretly corresponding with Nicholls.  They became engaged and he returned to Haworth.  They were married on June 29, 1854, and honeymooned in Ireland.

Charlotte continued her writing, beginning a new novel Emma. She also took care of her father at Haworth. She became pregnant the year after her marriage, then found herself extremely ill. She died on March 31, 1855.

Her condition was at the time diagnosed as tuberculosis, but some have, much later, speculated that the description of symptom more likely fits the condition hyperemesis gravidarum, essentially an extreme morning sickness with dangerously excessive vomiting.

Legacy

In 1857, Elizabeth Gaskell published The Life of Charlotte Brontë, establishing the reputation of Charlotte Brontë as having suffered from a tragic life.  In 1860, Thackeray published the unfinished Emma.   Her husband helped revise The Professor for publication with the encouragement of Gaskell.

By the end of the 19th century, Charlotte Brontë’s work was largely out of fashion. Interest revived in the late 20th century.  Jane Eyre has been her most popular work, and has been adapted for stage, film and television and even for ballet and opera.

Two stories, "The Secret" and "Lily Hart," were not published until 1978.

Family Tree

  • Mother: Maria Branwell (April 15, 1783 – September 15, 1821); born in Cornwall. Mother: Anne Crane, whose father was a silversmith. Father: Thomas Branwell, prosperous merchant in Penzance. Maria became a teacher when her parents died.
  • Father: Patrick Brontë (March 17, 1777 – June 7, 1861); born in Ireland; ordained August 10, 1806; poor  Anglican clergyman. Studied at St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he changed the spelling of his last name from Brunty. Published poet. Parents: Eleanor McCrory and Hugh Brunty.  (Surname originally mac Aedh Ó Proinntigh)
  • Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë married December 29, 1812.
  •  Siblings:
    • Maria Brontë April 23, 1814 – May 6, 1825
    • Elizabeth Brontë 1815 – June 15, 1825
    • Patrick Branwell Brontë June 26, 1817 – September 24, 1848 – usually called Branwell to distinguish him from his father, also Patrick
    • Emily Jane Brontë July 30, 1818 – December 19, 1848
    • Anne Brontë January 17, 1820 – May 28, 1849
  • Aunt who helped raise the siblings: Elizabeth Branwell (December 2, 1776 – October 29, 1842), Maria Branwell’s sister

Education

  • Clergy Daughters' School, Cowan Bridge
  • Roe Head School, Desbury Moor
  • Pensionnat Heger, Brussels

Marriage, Children

  • Husband: Arthur Bells Nicholls (married June 29, 1854; Anglican clergyman)
  • Children: none; Charlotte died during her first pregnancy

Books by Charlotte Brontë

  • Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell
  • Jane Eyre: An Autobiography
  • Shirley: A Tale
  • Villete

Posthumous Publication

  • The Professor: A Tale
  • The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories
  • Legends of Angria: Compiled from the Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë
  • Emma (unfinished)
  • The Poems of Charlotte Brontë (annotated and enlarged)
  • The Unfinished Novels

Books About Charlotte Brontë

  • Brontës at Haworth: The World Within. Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë, published 1993.  (order from Amazon)
  • Four Brontës: The Lives & Works of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily & Anne Brontë: Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, 1967.  (order from Amazon)