The Life of Charlotte Brontë
by Elizabeth Gaskell
“Hand in hand they used to make their way to the glorious moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.”
- The Children Who Never Played
- Girlhood of Charlotte Brontë
- Teaching and Further Studies
- The Sisters’ Book of Poems
- The Coming of Success (Jane Eyre)
- Charlotte Brontë’s Closing Years
[Note from the Excellence in Literature editor: Elizabeth Gaskell was a female novelist in her own right and a friend of Charlotte Brontë. She was asked by Brontë’s father to write this biography. She did a lot of research through extensive reading of Charlotte’s letters, but she was still writing from the perspective of a friend, not an objective biographer. Enjoy this adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography, first published in 1857. For other biographies of Charlotte Brontë, see the sources listed at the bottom of this page.]
In February 1820, the Rev. Patrick Brontë brought his wife and six little children,with seven heavily-laden carts lumbering slowly up the long stone street bearing the “new parson’s” household goods, into the midst of the lawless yet not unkindly population of Haworth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England (Shorter).
A native of County Down, Ireland (Shorter), Mr. Brontë had entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1802, obtained his B.A. degree, and after serving as a curate in Essex, had been appointed curate at Hartshead, in Yorkshire . There he was soon captivated by Maria Branwell, a little gentle creature, the third daughter of Mr. Thomas Branwell, merchant, of Penzance. In 1816 he received the living of Thornton, in Bradford Parish, and there, on April 21, Charlotte Brontë was born. She was the third daughter, Maria and Elizabeth being her elder sisters, and fast on her heels followed Patrick Branwell, Emily Jane and Anne.
“They kept themselves to themselves very close,” in the account given by those who remember the family coming to Haworth. From the first, the walks of the children were directed rather towards the heathery moors sloping upwards behind the parsonage than towards the long descending village street. Hand in hand they used to make their way to the glorious moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.
They were grave and silent beyond their years. “You would never have known there was a child in the house, they were such still, noiseless, good little creatures,” said one of my informants. “Maria would often shut herself up” (Maria of seven!) “in the children’s study with a newspaper or a periodical, and be able to tell anyone everything when she came out, debates in parliament, and I know not what all.”
Mr. Brontë wished to make the children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasures of eating and dress. His strong passionate nature was in general compressed down with resolute stoicism. Mrs. Brontë, whose sweet spirit thought invariably on the bright side, would say: “Ought I not to be thankful that he never gave me an angry word?”
In September, 1821, Mrs. Brontë died, and the lives of those quiet children must have become quieter and lonelier still. Their father did not require companionship, and as the daughters grew out of childhood into girlhood, they were strangely without the society that would have been natural for girls their age. The children did not want society. To small infantine gaieties they were unaccustomed. They were all in all to each other. They had no children’s books, but their eager minds “browsed undisturbed among the wholesome pasturage of English literature,” as Charles Lamb expressed it.
Their father says of their childhood that “since they could read and write they used to invent and act little plays of their own, in which the Duke of Wellington, Charlotte’s hero, was sure to come off conqueror. When the argument got warm I had sometimes to come in as arbitrator.” Long before Maria Brontë died, at the age of eleven, her father used to say he could converse with her on any topic with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person.
In 1824, the four elder girls were admitted as pupils to Cowan Bridge School for the daughters of clergymen, where they were half-starved amid the most insanitary surroundings. Charlotte’s character of Helen Burns in “Jane Eyre” is a description from life of Charlotte’s sister Maria. In 1825 both Maria and Elizabeth died of consumption, and Charlotte was suddenly called from school into the responsibilities of the eldest sister in a motherless family.
At the end of the year, Charlotte and Emily returned home, where Branwell was being taught by his father, and their aunt, Miss Branwell, who acted as housekeeper, taught them what she could. An immense amount of manuscript dating from this period is in existence–tales, dramas, poems, romances, written principally by Charlotte, in a handwriting it is almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass. They make in the whole twenty-two volumes, each volume containing from sixty to a hundred pages, and all written in about fifteen months. The quality strikes me as of singular merit for a girl of thirteen or fourteen.
In 1831, Charlotte Brontë was a quiet, thoughtful girl, nearly fifteen years of age, very small in figure–stunted was the word she applied to herself–fragile, with soft, thick, brown hair, and peculiar eyes. They were large and well shaped, their colour a reddish brown, and if the iris was closely examined, it appeared to be composed of a great variety of tints. The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence, but now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature. The rest of her features were plain, large, and ill-set; but you were hardly aware of the fact, for the eyes and power of the countenance overbalanced every physical defect. The crooked mouth and the large nose were forgotten, and the whole face arrested the attention, and presently attracted all those whom she would herself have cared to attract. Her hands and feet were the smallest I ever saw; when one of her hands was placed in mine it was like the soft touch of a bird in the middle of my palm.
In January, 1831, Charlotte was sent to school again, this time as a pupil of Miss Wooler, who lived at Roe Head, between Leeds and Huddersfield, the surroundings being those described in “Shirley.” The kind motherly nature of Miss Wooler, and the small number of the girls, made the establishment more like a private family than a school. Here Charlotte formed friendships with Miss Wooler and girls attending the school–particularly Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor–which lasted through life.
Writing of Charlotte at this time, Mary says the other girls, “thought her very ignorant, for she had never learned grammar at all, and very little geography, but she would confound us by knowing things that were out of our range altogether. She said she had never played, and could not play. She used to draw much better and more quickly than we had seen before, and knew much about celebrated pictures and painters. She made poetry and drawing very interesting to me, and then I got the habit I have yet of referring mentally to her opinion all matters of that kind, resolving to describe such and such things to her, until I start at the recollection that I never shall.”
This tribute to her influence was written eleven years after Mary had seen Charlotte, nearly all those years having been passed by Mary at the Antipodes.
“Her idea of self improvement,” continues Mary, “was to cultivate her tastes. She always said there was enough of useful knowledge forced on us by necessity, and that the thing most needed was to soften and refine our minds, and she picked up every scrap of information concerning painting, sculpture and music, as if it were gold.”
In spite of her unsociable habits, she was a favourite with her schoolfellows, and an invaluable story-teller, frightening them almost out of their lives as they lay in bed.
After a year and a half’s residence at Roe Head, beloved and respected by all, laughed at occasionally by a few, but always to her face, Charlotte returned home to educate her sisters, to practise household work under the supervision of her somewhat exacting aunt, and to write long letters to her girl friends, Mary and Ellen–Mary, the Rose Yorke, and Ellen, the Caroline Helstone of “Shirley.” Three years later she returned to Roe Head as a teacher, in order that her brother Branwell might be placed at the Royal Academy and her sister Emily at Roe Head. Emily Brontë, however, only remained three months at school, her place being taken there by her younger sister, Anne.
“My sister Emily loved the moors,” wrote Charlotte, explaining the change. “Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in the livid hillside her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many a dear delight; and not the least and best loved was liberty. Without it she perished. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. In this struggle her health was quickly broken. I felt in my heart that she would die if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall.”
Charlotte’s own life at Miss Wooler’s was a very happy one until her health failed, and she became dispirited, and a prey to religious despondency. During the summer holidays of 1836, all the members of the family were occupied with thoughts of literature. Branwell wrote to Wordsworth; Charlotte wrote to Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate (Bock), who replied that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and recreation.” To this Charlotte meekly replied: “I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print.”
When the school moved to Dewsbury Moor, Charlotte’s health and spirits were affected by the change; she and Anne returned home. “I stayed at Dewsbury Moor,” she said in a letter to Ellen Nussey, “as long as I was able; but at length I neither could nor dare stay any longer. My life and spirits had utterly failed me; so home I went, and the change at once roused and soothed me.”
At this time Charlotte received an offer of marriage from a clergyman having a resemblance to St. John Rivers in “Jane Eyre”–a brother of her friend Ellen; but she refused him as she explains:
“I had a kindly leaning towards him as an amiable and well-disposed man. Yet I had not and could not have that intense attachment which would make me willing to die for him; and if ever I marry it must be in that light of adoration that I will regard my husband.”
Teaching now seemed to the three sisters to be the only way of earning an independent livelihood, though they were not naturally fond of children. The hieroglyphics of childhood were an unknown language to them, for they had never been much with those younger than themselves; and they were not as yet qualified to take charge of advanced pupils. They knew but little French, and were not proficient in music. Still, Charlotte and Anne both took posts as governesses, and eventually formed a plan of starting a school on their own account, their housekeeping Aunt Branwell providing the necessary capital. To fit them for this work Charlotte and Emily entered, in February, 1842, the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels, and meantime Anne came home to Haworth from her governess life. The brother, Branwell, had now given up his idea of art, and was a clerk on the Leeds and Manchester Railway.
In Brussels, Emily was homesick as ever, the suffering and conflict being heightened, in the words of Charlotte, “by the strong recoil of her upright, heretic, and English spirit from the gentle Jesuitry of the foreign and Romish system. She was never happy till she carried her hard-won knowledge back to the remote English village, the old parsonage house, and desolate Yorkshire hills.” “We are completely isolated in the midst of numbers. Yet I think I am never unhappy; my present life is so delightful, so congenial to my own nature, compared with that of a governess,” was Charlotte’s further description.
The sisters were so successful with their study of French that Madame Héger proposed that both should stay another half year, Charlotte to teach English, and Emily music; but from Brussels the girls were brought hastily home by the illness and death of their aunt, who left to each of them independently a share of her savings–enough to enable them to make whatever alterations were needed to turn the parsonage into a school. Emily now stayed at home, and Charlotte (January, 1843) returned to Brussels to teach English to Belgian pupils, under a constant sense of solitude and depression, while she learned German. A year later she returned to Haworth, on receiving news of the distressing conduct of her brother Branwell and the rapid failure of her father’s sight. On leaving Brussels, she took with her a diploma certifying that she was perfectly capable of teaching the French language, and her pupils showed for her, at parting, an affection which she observed with grateful surprise.
The attempt to secure pupils at Haworth failed. At this time the conduct of the now dissipated brother Branwell–conduct bordering on insanity–caused the family the most terrible anxiety; their father was nearly blind with cataract, and Charlotte herself lived under the dread of blindness. It was now that she paid a visit to her friends the Nusseys, at Hathersage, in Derbyshire, the scene of the later chapters of “Jane Eyre.” On her return she found her brother dismissed from his employment, a slave to opium, and to drink whenever he could get it, and for some time before he died he had attacks of delirium tremens [alcohol-induced delirium involving trembling and delusions (“Delirium tremens”)] of the most frightful character.
In the course of this sad autumn of 1845 a new interest came into the lives of the sisters through the publication, at their own expense, of “Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell,” as explained in the biographical notice of her sisters, which Charlotte prefaced to the edition of “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey,” that was published in 1850.
“One day in the autumn of 1845 I accidentally lighted on a manuscript volume of verses in my sister Emily’s handwriting. Of course I was not surprised, knowing that she could and did write verses. I looked it over, and then something more than surprise seized me–a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, not at all like the poetry a woman generally writes. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy, and elevating. I took hours to reconcile my sister to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication. Meantime, my younger sister quietly produced some of her own compositions, intimating that since Emily’s had given me pleasure I might like to look at hers. I thought that these verses too had a sweet sincere pathos of their own. We had very early cherished the dream of one day being authors. We agreed to arrange a small selection of our poems, and if possible get them printed.”
The “Poems” obtained no sale until the authors became otherwise known.
During the summer of 1846 the three sisters made attempts to find a publisher for a volume that was to consist of three prose tales, “Wuthering Heights,” by Emily, “Agnes Grey” by Anne, and “The Professor” by Charlotte. Eventually the two former were accepted for a three-volume issue, though eighteen months passed and much happened before the book was actually circulated. Meantime, “The Professor” was plodding its way round London through many rejections. Under these circumstances, her brother’s brain mazed and his gifts and life lost, her father’s sight hanging on a thread, her sisters in delicate health and dependent on her care, did the brave genius begin, with steady courage, the writing of “Jane Eyre.” While refusing to publish “The Professor,” Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co. expressed their willingness to consider favourably a new work in three volumes which “Currer Bell” informed them he was writing; and by October 16, 1847, the tale–“Jane Eyre”–was accepted, printed, and published.
The gentleman connected with the firm who first read the manuscript was so powerfully struck by the character of the tale that he reported his impressions in very strong terms to Mr. Smith, who appears to have been much amused by the admiration excited. “You seem to have been so enchanted that I do not know how to believe you,” he laughingly said. But when a second reader, in the person of a clear-headed Scotsman, not given to enthusiasm, had taken the manuscript home in the evening, and became so deeply interested in it as to sit up half the night to finish it, Mr. Smith’s curiosity was sufficiently excited to prompt him to read it himself; and great as were the praises which had been bestowed upon it he found that they did not exceed the truth. The power and fascination of the tale itself made its merits known to the public without the kindly fingerposts of professional criticism, and early in December the rush for copies began.
When the demand for the work had assured success, her sisters urged Charlotte to tell their father of its publication. She accordingly went into his study one afternoon, carrying with her a copy of the book and two or three reviews, taking care to include a notice adverse to it, and the following conversation took place.
“Papa, I’ve been writing a book.”
“Have you, my dear?”
“Yes; and I want you to read it.”
“I am afraid it will try my eyes too much.”
“But it is not in manuscript; it is printed.”
“My dear, you’ve never thought of the expense it will be! It will be almost sure to be a loss; for how can you get a book sold? No one knows you or your name.”
“But, papa, I don’t think it will be a loss. No more will you if you will just let me read you a review or two, and tell you more about it.”
So she sat down and read some of the reviews to her father, and then, giving him the copy of “Jane Eyre” that she intended for him, she left him to read it. When he came in to tea he said: “Girls, do you know Charlotte has been writing a book, and it is much better than likely?”
Soon the whole reading world of England was in a ferment to discover the unknown author. Even the publishers were ignorant whether “Currer Bell” was a real or an assumed name till a flood of public opinion had lifted the book from obscurity and had laid it high on the everlasting hills of fame.
The authorship was kept a close secret in the Brontë family, and not even the friend who was all but a sister–Ellen Nussey–knew more about it than the rest of the world. It was indeed through an attempt at sharp practice by another firm that Messrs. Smith & Elder became aware of the identity of the author with Miss Brontë. In the June of 1848, “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” a second novel by Anne Brontë–“Acton Bell”–was submitted for publication to the firm which had previously published “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey,” and this firm announced the new book in America as by the author of “Jane Eyre,” although Messrs. Smith, Elder & Co. had entered into an agreement with an American house for the publication of “Currer Bell’s” next tale. On hearing of this, the sisters, Charlotte and Anne, set off instantly for London to prove personally that they were two and not one; and women, not men.
On reaching Mr. Smith’s office, Charlotte put his own letter into his hand as an introduction.
“Where did you get this?” said he, as if he could not believe that the two young ladies dressed in black, of slight figures and diminutive stature, looking pleased yet agitated, could be the embodied Currer and Acton Bell for whom curiosity had been hunting so eagerly in vain.
An explanation ensued, and the publisher at once began to form plans for the amusement of the visitors during their three days’ stay in London.
In September, 1848, her brother Branwell died. After the Sunday succeeding Branwell’s death, Emily Brontë never went out of doors, and in less than three months she, too, was dead. To the last she adhered tenaciously to her habits of independence. She would suffer no one to assist her. On the day of her death she arose, dressed herself, and tried to take up her sewing.
Anne Brontë, too, drooped and sickened from this time in a similar consumption, and on May 28, 1849, died peacefully at Scarborough, pathetically appealing to Charlotte with her ebbing breath: “Take courage, Charlotte; take courage.”
“Shirley” had been begun soon after the publication of “Jane Eyre.” Shirley herself is Charlotte’s representation of Emily as she would have been if placed in health and prosperity. It was published five months after Anne’s death. The reviews, Charlotte admitted, were “superb.”
Visits to London made Miss Brontë acquainted with many of the literary celebrities of the day, including Thackeray and Miss Martineau. In Yorkshire her success caused great excitement. She tells herself how “Martha came in yesterday puffing and blowing, and much excited. ‘Please, ma’am, you’ve been and written two books–the grandest books that ever was seen. They are going to have a meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute to settle about ordering them.’ When they got the volumes at the Mechanics’ Institute, all the members wanted them. They cast lots, and whoever got a volume was allowed to keep it two days, and was to be fined a shilling per diem for longer detention.”
In the spring of 1850, Charlotte Brontë paid another visit to London, and later to Scotland, where she found Edinburgh “compared to London like a vivid page of history compared to a dull treatise on political economy; as a lyric, brief, bright, clean, and vital as a flash of lightning, compared to a great rumbling, rambling, heavy epic.”
She was in London again in 1851, and was dismayed by the attempts to lionise her [treat her as a celebrity (“Lionize”)]. “Villette,” written in a constant fight against ill-health, was published in 1853, and was received with one burst of acclamation. This brought to a close the publication of Charlotte’s life-time.
The personal interest of the two last years of Charlotte Brontë’s life centres on her relations with her father’s curate, the Rev. A.B. Nicholls. In 1853, he asked her hand in marriage. He was the fourth man who had ventured on the same proposal. Her father disapproved, and Mr. Nicholls resigned his curacy. Next year, however, her father relented. Mr. Nicholls again took up the curacy, and the marriage was celebrated on June 29, 1854. Henceforward the doors of home are closed upon her married life.
She died on March 31, 1855, perhaps from illness related to pregnancy (Bock); her last recorded words to her husband were, “We have been so happy.” Her life appeals to that large and solemn public who know how to admire generously extraordinary genius, and how to reverence all noble virtue.
This biography is adapted from the “Life of Charlotte Brontë” written by Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, afterwards Mrs. Gaskell (lived 1810-1865), as it was republished in The World’s Greatest Books (Mee and Hammerton), which had this to say about the author:
Mrs. Gaskell’s “Life of Charlotte Brontë,” published in 1857, caused much controversy, which became bitter, and occasioned the fixed resolve on the part of its author that her own memoirs should never be published. This gloomily-haunting, vivid human “Life of Charlotte Brontë” was written at the request of the novelist’s father, who placed all the materials in his possession at the disposal of the biographer. Mrs. Gaskell took great pains to make her work complete.
Bock, Carol A. “Biography: Charlotte Brontë.” Poetryfoundation.org. Poetry Foundation, 2014. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
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“Delirium tremens, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
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“Lionize, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
Mee, Arthur, and J.A. Hammerton, eds. The World’s Greatest Books. Vol. 9. 1910. Project Gutenberg. Web. 20 vols. 1 Mar. 2014.
When will you read Charlotte Brontë’s writing in Excellence in Literature?
E4.8 Honors text: Jane Eyre (if you did not read it earlier)