Sister who blazed longest and hardest
Charlotte was the longest living of the three writing Brontë sisters, almost making it to age forty, and her output was by far the most extensive and most popular in its day. Yet many know her best as the sister of Emily Brontë, author of the revered Wuthering Heights, which she championed.
Her own greatest novel,Jane Eyre, is celebrated in its own right as a seminal gothic romance that is still widely read and, in its numerous film adaptations, widely viewed. Like most of Charlotte's works, it presents an independent woman seeking a balance between love and achievement, which still strikes a chord today. If Emily's one novel is famed as a literary masterwork, Charlotte's most famous of several novels is equally beloved as a trailblazer within a popular genre.
It's also my favourite of the Brontë productions. In fact, I enjoy Charlotte's entire oeuvre.
Maybe none of her novels reach the heights and depths of Emily's masterpiece, nor provide the page-turning thrills of Anne Brontë's two popular books, but with Charlotte I get the sense of reading a hard-working writer, perhaps not quite as naturally gifted as other authors but striving mightily—and succeeding—in making intensely private stories of independently minded women publicly appreciated.
Getting to that point did not come easily to her.
Charlotte Brontë was the third of six children born to an Anglican minister and his wife in Yorkshire, England, but she was hardly six years old when her mother died. Four of the girls were sent to a harsh boarding school for clergymen's daughters, which Charlotte blamed for the death in 1825 of her two older sisters and for the poor state of her own health. The remaining children—Charlotte, brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne—were thereafter educated at home, in a parsonage by the moors, where they lived with their father and an aunt.
The four children read the books and periodicals in their father's library and they began producing their own miniature versions of the magazines and creating romantic, adventurous stories of their own about fantastic kingdoms. Branwell and Charlotte together elaborated the fictional kingdom of Angria, while Emily and Anne worked on their mythical world of Gondal.
Charlotte went away to school for a year and eventually took up teaching herself, accumulating further sad experiences as a governess in England, as a teacher in Brussels, and in a failed attempt to establish her own school.
In 1845 she discovered poems written by Emily and Anne, she was later to claim, and put them together with her own in a collection published the next year as Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, using male pseudonyms for the three sisters.
The book attracted no notice, but by the time it came out the sisters were all finishing new works, novels this time. Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted for publication but Charlotte's The Professor, based on her Brussels experience, failed to find a publisher. However, with typical persistence, she immediately completed Jane Eyre, drawing on her experiences at boarding school and as a governess, and this novel ended up being published in 1947 before her sisters' books. Jane Eyre was a great success, being lauded by Makepeace Thackeray, no less, as a work of genius. (The Professor was eventually published posthumously in 1857.)
When her sister's novels finally were released, they met poor receptions, although Wuthering Heights eventually became recognized as a classic of English literature and Anne next wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was published to some success in 1848.
That year though, both Branwell and Emily died, followed in 1849 by Anne, leaving Charlotte without any of her cherished siblings. Her historical novel Shirley (1849), a portrait of Emily, had been started before any of them had died and was completed after their deaths. With its strong central female character, it is considered a forerunner of the historical romance type of fiction sometimes dismissed as "women's novels".
Charlotte's later works include Villette (1853), again based on her Brussels period. She was still using the Currer Bell name on her books but it was well known who she was by this time.
In 1854 she married a friend of the family, Arthur Bell Nicholls, whose middle name had likely inspired the sisters' pseudonyms. Charlotte died the next year, possibly as a complication of pregnancy. She was twenty pages into her next novel, Emma, which has been completed by other writers in recent years.
The great realist writer Elizabeth Gaskell published The Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857, admiring the last Brontë sister more for her struggle than for her novels. The biography, which skillfully weaves factual and creative passages together, is credited with creating the Brontë myth and is still available.
There is still some debate about Charlotte's place in her family, her promotion and criticism of her sisters' writing, the sources of her own work—even about what she looked like. (Portraits are said to be distorted and photographs disputed.) But thanks to her persistence, we have those great novels to judge what really counts: her short life's work in print.