“To you I am neither a man nor a woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me- the sole ground on which I accept your judgement.”
– Charlotte Bronte, to a critic (Oates, V)
Charlotte Bront’s reputation may be explained in part by the astounding success of her first novel, Jane Eyre; it owes much also to the romantic appeal of her personal history, given prominence soon after her death by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s excellent biography. Of greater importance are her explorations of emotional repression and the feminine psyche introduced a new depth and intensity to the study of character and motive in fiction. Charlotte Bront was not in any formal sense a proponent of women’s rights, but in her writing she speaks out strongly against the injustices suffered by women in a society that restricts their freedom of action and exploits their dependent status. Her protests grew out of her own experience, which provided much of the material for her fiction. She once insisted that “we only suffer reality to Suggest, never to dictate,”(“Charlotte Bronte”, 9). Her novels include many characters and incidents recognizably drawn from her life, and her heroines have much in common with their creator.
Charlotte Bront was born on April 21, 1816 at Thornton in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Her father, Patrick Bront, a native of County Down in Ireland, had risen above the poverty of his family to become an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and in 1807 was ordained a priest in the Church of England. In 1812 he met, courted, and married Maria Branwell, a pious and educated young woman from Cornwall. Their life together was tragically brief; Maria bore six children in seven years, then died of cancer in 1821 at the age of thirty-eight. The early loss of their mother had a lasting effect on the children, particularly Charlotte; all her published novels are concerned in one way or another with young women who must lead a lonely path through life without the warmth and security of parental love.
Her mother’s death may have been hastened by the family’s move in 1820 from Thornton to Haworth, where Mr. Bront had been appointed perpetual curate. Beautiful as the landscape might be around Haworth, physical conditions in this rugged little mill town must have been harsh and unpleasant for the parson’s delicate wife. Sanitation in Haworth was primitive; as late as 1850 a government inspector found open sewers and overflowing cesspits on the main street, next to outlets for drinking water. It is hardly surprising that infant mortality rates in Haworth were high or that there were frequent outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. Throughout her life, Charlotte Bront was to suffer from fevers, colds, and bilious attacks undoubtedly attributable to this most inhospitable environment. Nor was there much consolation to be found in the society of Haworth. Its inhabitants, even thirty years later, struck Mrs. Gaskell as a “wild, rough population” among whom there was “little display of any of the amenities of life”(127, 168).
There was little social contact between the townsfolk and the family at the parsonage; the Bront children thusly turned to one another for companionship and entertainment. In August 1824, Mr. Bront sent Charlotte to join Maria and Elizabeth at the recently opened Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Tunstall in Lancashire. This was a charitable institution, where the daughters of poor clergymen might receive an education suited to their station and be prepared for future employment as governesses. Charlotte Bront would later give a vivid portrait in Jane Eyre of the school and its director; though colored by personal bitterness, her account of “Lowood Institution” is in essentials an accurate depiction of the harshness of life at Cowan Bridge. First Maria, then Elizabeth, contracted consumption, were removed from the school, and died at home, Maria on May 6, 1825 and her sister on June 15, 1825. The death of Maria was especially painful to Charlotte; her eldest sister had become a guide and mentor, and Charlotte would later eulogize her patient virtue and premature wisdom in Jane Eyre in the portrait of Helen Burns.
Bront’s life had entered a new phase that was to bring her, however briefly, the happiness she had sought for so long. On December 13, 1852 she received a proposal of marriage from Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s dour Irish curate since 1845. She had long suspected his interest in her, but the strength of his feeling took her by surprise. For the first time since the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte Bront found life at the parsonage congenial and satisfying. Her new role as a wife kept her active and occupied, and her husband, now reconciled with her father, daily revealed qualities which won her respect and increased her attachment to him. But the pleasures of this homely life were short-lived. In January 1855 she discovered she was pregnant; she soon began to suffer from extreme nausea, a condition which her delicate constitution was unable to bear. Worn out by the struggle, she died on March 31, 1855.
Though her own life was sheltered in comparison to that of her heroines, Charlotte Bront discovered to her surprise that she herself was capable of arousing admiration: twice in the same year she received proposals of marriage.
it was the publisher’s objections on this score that led Bront in her next work, Jane Eyre, to the mode of romantic melodrama. Maintaining her pseudonym of Currer Bell, Bront sent off the manuscript of Jane Eyre on August 24, 1847, five days after completing the fair copy. The book was accepted at once; within a month Bront was correcting proofs. The book won immediate and widespread acclaim. The Times called it “a remarkable production,” a tale that “stands boldly out from the mass” (“Charlotte Bronte”,9). Contradictorily, Jane Eyre is also described as “the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit,” exerting the moral strength of “a mere heathen mind which is a law unto itself.” The novel is accused of being “pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition,” guilty of “a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God’s appointment.” The prevailing tone, one of “ungodly discontent,” allies the novel in the reviewer’s opinion to the cast of mind and thought “which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home….” (Lodge, 114-143)
One version of the novel’s origin is that during a discussion with her sisters about the qualities necessary in a protagonist, Charlotte Bront declared that she would show them “a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours” (“Charlotte Bronte”, 9). This intention is evident in the introductory chapters of Jane Eyre, where the ten-year-old Jane is seen as a prickly and unappealing child. She is an outsider, excluded by her Aunt Reed from the domestic circle around the hearth, a recurring image in the novel, and markedly different from her handsome but unpleasant cousins. She lacks their external attractiveness and confident air and is looked on with contempt even by the servants; only the solitary world of books and the imagination offers her any comfort, while her yearning for love must satisfy itself with an old doll. Yet the reader is soon made conscious of Jane’s inner strength; her fierce assertion of self against the Reeds’ cruelty and injustice intimidates even her aunt.
Charlotte Bront conveys very powerfully the child’s sense of alienation, helplessness, and anger in the face of adult oppression. Jane’s rebellion at Gateshead against the tyranny of the Reeds is the first step in her progress toward spiritual freedom; at the same time, the wretchedness she feels after her violent outburst against Mrs. Reed reveals the danger of giving uncontrolled play to passionate feelings (Bronte, 21). The destructive potential of passion, imaged in chapter four as a fiery heath left “black and blasted,” is to become a major theme in the Thornfield section of the novel (Bronte, 24). In depicting Jane’s search for the warmth and security of familial love, Charlotte Bront undoubtedly endowed her heroine with some of her own yearnings. The autobiographical strain is even more evident in the chapters of Jane Eyre describing Lowood Institution, an almost mirror image of life at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge.
The plot of Jane Eyre could have disturbed those to who valued the divisions of social rank, since it follows the progress of a poor orphan from a loveless and humiliating dependence to happiness and wealth as an heiress and the wife of her former employer. Jane is an outcast, a rebel who triumphs over the forces of social convention expressed through caste, religion, and sexual tradition. Victorian readers were disturbed by the novel’s suggestion that women need not always be passive or submissive, and by its treatment of love, which, by contemporary standards, seemed coarse and offensive. The supremacy of romantic love is an ancient theme in literature, but in Jane Eyre it was presented with a frankness and intensity new to English fiction. That intensity is made possible by Bront’s choice of a first-person narrator. Jane Eyre dominates her world, which exists only as it impinges on her consciousness; every action is filtered through the medium of her sensibility, every character lives only as an actor in the drama of her life. An outline of the plot might suggest that Bront’s novel is little more than a creaky melodrama peopled by crude caricatures, but such is the authority, the conviction with which Jane tells her story that the reader is swept along by the narrative, undisturbed by improbabilities of character or plot.
In the course of his study, Bayne accords Charlotte pride of place among the Bront sisters because she had “ten times more power” than Anne and a nature with more geniality and culture than Emily’s (37). Later critics have moved in a different direction, finding Emily to be the greater writer. The stark and mythopoeic qualities of Wuthering Heights undeniably reflect a genius and a vision beyond Charlotte’s capacities. Yet Emily’s enigmatic romance, unique of its kind, was a dead end in English fiction, whereas the painful realism of Charlotte’s studies of the human heart gave a fresh impetus and a new direction to the genre of the novel.
Bayne, Peter. Two Great Englishwomen: Mrs. Browning and Charlotte Bronte. London: Clarke, 1881.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Cornhill, 1848.
“Charlotte Bronte’s Tragedy: The Lost Letter.” Times (of London) 29-30 July. 1913: g. 9.
Christian, Mildred. Victorian Fiction: A Guide to Research. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Colby, Robert. “Jane Eyre and the LIfe of the Mind.” PMLA. 75 ed. 1960.
Glaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. London: Smith, Elder, 1857.
Heilman, Robert. “Charlotte Bronte’s “New” Gothic.” From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1958.
Korg, Jacob. “The Problem of Unity.” Nineteenth Century Fiction. 12 ed. 1957.
Lodge, David. “Language of Fiction: Essays in Criticism and Verbal Analysis of the English Novel.” 1966: pp. 114-143.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Introduction.” Jane Eyre. London: Smith, Cornhill, 1848.
Tillotson, Kathleen . Novels of the 1840’s. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.
Winnifrith, Tom. The Brontes and Their Background: Romance and Reality. London: Macmillan, 1973.