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. 

Fast Facts: Charlotte Bronte

  • Full Name: Charlotte Brontë
  • Pen Names: Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley, Currer Bell
  • Occupation: Author
  • Born: April 21, 1816 in Thornton, England
  • Died: March 31, 1855 in Haworth, England
  • Spouse: Arthur Bell Nicholls (m. 1854)
  • Key Accomplishments: Brontë, along with her two sisters, broke into the male-dominated writing world. Her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, remains immensely popular and critically acclaimed today.

Early Life and Education

Brontë was the third of six siblings born in six years to the Rev. Patrick Brontë and his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë. She 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 Branwell, moved from Cornwall to help care for the children and for the parsonage. She had an income of her own.

The dining room of the Bronte Parsonage Museum
The dining room of the Bronte Parsonage Museum at Haworth Parsonage.  Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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, and Brontë's sisters Maria and Elizabeth both died soon after the outbreak. 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.

Creating 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. Brontë's first known story was written in March of 1829; she and Branwell wrote most of the initial stories.

Illustration of the four Bronte siblings
Illustration of the four Bronte siblings, who supported each other's imaginations.  Culture Club/Getty Images

In January of 1831, she 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. Brontë excelled in school, including at French. In eighteen months, she returned home, and resumed the Glasstown saga. Meanwhile, her younger sisters, Emily and Anne, had created their own land, Gondal, and Branwell had created a rebellion. Brontë negotiated a truce and cooperation among the siblings. She began the Angrian stories.

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

Teaching Career

In July of 1835, Brontë 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 along, but Emily soon became ill, an illness attributed to homesickness. Emily returned to Haworth and the youngest sister, Anne, took her place.

The school moved in 1838, and Brontë 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. In May of 1839, Brontë briefly became a governess. She hated the role, especially the sense she had of having “no existence” as a family servant, and 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 Brontë, and perhaps more attraction from Anne. Brontë received two different proposals in 1839: one from Henry Nussey the brother of her friend, Ellen, with whom she’d continued to correspond; the other was from an Irish minister. She turned them both down.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Portrait of Charlotte Bronte, circa 1841.  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In February of 1842, Charlotte and Emily went to London and then Brussels. They attended a school in Brussels for six months, then 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. Elizabeth Branwell died that October, and the four Brontë siblings received shares of their aunt’s estate. 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. 

Brontë 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, and returned home, along with Anne. 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, Brontë found Emily’s poetry notebooks, and the three sisters discovered each others’ poems. They 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 them.

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, and 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.

Charlotte Brontë 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 first page of the 'Jane Eyre' manuscript
The first page of the 'Jane Eyre' manuscript in Bronte's own writing.  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

Family Tragedy and Later Life

Brontë had begun a new novel, when her brother Branwell, died in April of 1848, probably of tuberculosis. 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. Brontë 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. 

Brontë, 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, she went to London, where she met such figures as William Makepeace Thackeray, Harriet Martineau, and Elizabeth Glaskell. She began corresponding with many of her new acquaintances and friends and 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. Brontë 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.

Engraving of Charlotte Bronte in a black dress
Engraving of Charlotte Bronte, mid 19th century. Stock Montage/Getty Images 

Brontë wrote Villette, publishing it in January of 1853, and split with Harriet Martineau over it, as Martineau disapproved of it. Arthur Bell Nicholls, the Rev. Brontë’s curate, surprised her with a proposal of marriage. Charlotte’s father disapproved of the proposal, and Nicholls left his post. She turned down his proposal initially, then began secretly corresponding with him until 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. Two stories, "The Secret" and "Lily Hart," were not published until 1978.

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. Today, she is one of the most-read authors in the English language.

Sources

  • Fraser, Rebecca. Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life (2nd ed.). New York: Pegasus Books LLC, 2008.
  • Miller, Lucasta. The Brontë Myth. London: Vintage, 2002.
  • Paddock, Lisa; Rollyson, Carl. The Brontës A to Z. New York: Facts on File, 2003.