Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Charlotte Bronte is one of those authors whose life has attracted as much attention as her writing. Charlotte and her family have been the subject of many books, a stage play, and a film by the French director Truffaut. For some people, interest in the Bronte family is almost on the level of a cult, and there are even organized tours to the places associated with the family's history.
At first glance, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. Born in 1816, Charlotte was one of six children of a country preacher. She lived a quiet, uneventful life. Except for a few years away at school and several brief stints as a teacher, she spent most of her time at home. The Bronte family as a whole suffered from poor health and all of the children died relatively young; but that in itself wasn't unusual in the middle of the nineteenth century. In fact, the only truly unusual events of Charlotte's life occurred during the months between October of 1847 and June of 1848 when she and her two surviving sisters, Emily and Anne, emerged quite suddenly as successful novelists.
At the time, literary society in England was a very small world. For a complete unknown to publish a successful novel was relatively unusual. For three unknowns to manage it in a single year was unheard of. Naturally, everyone was curious about them, though normally the curiosity would have died down as soon as a new subject for gossip came along. But an aura of mystery surrounding the identity of the Brontes kept them a subject of interest for much longer than that. In all innocence, the three sisters had chosen to publish their books under male pen names-as Currer (Charlotte), Acton (Anne), and Ellis (Emily) Bell. They did this partly to escape the prejudice against women novelists and partly to avoid embarrassing friends and acquaintances who might find themselves portrayed in the novels. As it turned out, the pen names only helped to make the Brontes more famous. Everyone was wildly eager to figure out the true identities of Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell. Were they really men? Or if they were women, why were they pretending to be men? There was even a rumor, encouraged by Emily and Anne's publisher, that the three authors were one and the same person.
By the time the truth became widely known, Emily and Anne were dead. Charlotte was the only Bronte who became a literary celebrity during her own lifetime, but all three sisters were well on their way to becoming cult heroines.
Unlike many writers who achieve instant fame, the Brontes' books have stood the test of time. Two of the three books published during that ten-month period in 1847-48- Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights are still widely read and enjoyed today. Anne's novel, Agnes Grey, has never been as popular, but its admirers are often the most enthusiastic of all. One highly respected critic even called it "the most perfect narrative in English prose."
Precisely because the Brontes led such limited lives, many readers have been quick to jump to the conclusion that their novels are highly autobiographical. Where would three young women-who had done little traveling and knew only a few people-get their material, if not out of their own lives? Trying to reconstruct Charlotte Bronte's private life from scenes in her books has become almost a game.
It's true that Charlotte Bronte, like all writers' borrowed from her own experiences. But it's a mistake to think that Charlotte Bronte was Jane Eyre. There are almost as many differences between Charlotte and her famous heroine as there are likenessess. For one thing, Jane Eyre finds her happiness only through love and marriage. The real Charlotte Bronte found her fulfillment in her dedication to writing.
There are other differences, too. Jane Eyre is an unloved orphan. But Charlotte Bronte, although her mother died when she was only five, had a father, a loving aunt, and older sisters to care for her. We don't know very much about Charlotte's relationship with her father. Some biographers think that he was cold and eccentric. Others say that he was a domineering man who did his best to make sure his daughters wouldn't become independent enough to marry and leave home. But no one can be sure if either of these theories is true.
In 1824, eight-year-old Charlotte and her sister Emily joined their two older sisters at Cowan Bridge, a school for the daughters of clergymen. Many readers of Jane Eyre have wondered whether Cowan Bridge was really as terrible as Lowood, the school described in the novel. Charlotte Bronte apparently thought it was, although some former pupils of Cowan Bridge later came forward in its defense. One thing we know for sure is that the teachers at Cowan Bridge were in no hurry to contact parents when their pupils fell ill. Both of Charlotte's older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, came down with tuberculosis in 1825, and by the time the school notified Mr. Bronte, the girls were gravely ill. Maria died a few days after her return home, Elizabeth a few months later.
After this double tragedy, the surviving Bronte children were kept at home, where they were taught by their Aunt Branwell. In their free time, the three sisters and their brother, also called Branwell (it was his middle name) invented complicated fantasies and produced tiny, handwritten books. Many children still indulge in this form of make-believe, but writing down one's own fantasies was far more common in the days when children had fewer books and no television to entertain them. What made the Brontes unusual was that for them the world of make-believe became more important than anything else. Emily and Anne were mainly involved in writing stories about an imaginary island in the Pacific, called Gondal. Charlotte and her brother concentrated on spinning tales about Angria, a fantasy kingdom in West Africa populated by immigrants from England and France. Charlotte was in her mid-twenties before she finally gave up creating new episodes in the lives of these imaginary characters.