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THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES - BIOGRAPHY (continued)
In 1830, Mr. Bronte fell ill. Ironically, since he recovered to live to an advanced age, the lives of his three daughters were made miserable from that time on by the fear that their father would die and they would be left to support themselves. (Even more ironically, Mr. Bronte outlived all his children.) The next year, Charlotte was sent to school again. Roe Head, as the school was called, was a very pleasant place, not at all like Cowan Bridge. While Charlotte was an excellent student and made two lifelong friends during her two years at Roe Head, she was too shy to feel completely at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. After leaving school in 1832, at the age of sixteen, she spent most of the next ten years at home. The only exceptions were a two-and-a-half-year period when she went back to Roe Head as a teacher while first Emily and then Anne were pupils there, and two brief stints as a governess that lasted only about ten months altogether.
Unlike her sister Emily, who never tired of hiking the windswept moors around the Bronte home in Yorkshire, Charlotte longed for travel and a more active life. Since her experiences as a governess had been unhappy ones, she decided that perhaps she and Emily should open a school of their own. Her plan called for them to prepare by going to Belgium to brush up on their knowledge of foreign languages. Charlotte was already twenty-six when she and her sister entered the school of Monsieur and Madame Heger in Brussels, and she was soon teaching English lessons as well as studying. Emily went home after a year, but Charlotte stayed on until 1843, when for some reason the relationship between herself and Mme Heger became tense. Judging from some letters she wrote, it seems that Charlotte had fallen in love with M. Heger. Had he returned her affection? Probably not. The theme of an impossible love affair-with a married man, a teacher, in one case even a Belgian teacher-keeps coming up in Charlotte Bronte's novels. Many readers can't help concluding from this that M. Heger was the great passion of Charlotte's life. But we can't be sure.
Less than two years after Charlotte's return home, her brother Branwell was involved in a scandal. As the only boy, Branwell had been the focus of the whole family's hopes for worldly success. Charlotte, in particular, had always believed that her brother was the true genius of the family. The devoted sister was the last to see what was obvious to everyone else: Branwell was a total failure. Not only had he never carried through on his ambition to become a painter, he was an alcoholic, a gambler, and eventually a drug addict. Anne, the only sister who had managed to persevere with her career as a governess, had arranged a job for Branwell as a tutor with the same family she worked for. Branwell repaid the favor by getting involved in a messy affair with the lady of the house, Mrs. Robinson. In the end, both he and Anne were sent away in disgrace.
By 1845, it seemed that all of the Brontes' hopes and plans had come to nothing. Branwell was an idle drunk, whose periodic rampages disrupted the peace of the house. Charlotte and Emily's school never got past the planning stage, and all three sisters were at home again. Only then, as a last resort, did the Bronte women begin to think seriously about writing for publication. Jane Eyre was actually Charlotte's second novel (her first, The Professor, wasn't published till years later), but it came out before either of her sisters' books and paved the way for their success. Some critics have a hard time understanding how Charlotte, many of whose childhood Angria stories are quite awful, could have developed into the mature writer who produced Jane Eyre. However, in one way there is a direct connection between those private childhood fantasies and Jane Eyre: Unlike most writers of her time, Charlotte didn't claim to be presenting an objective view of society. And she could identify with people who were the outsiders in Victorian society-children, poor relatives, powerless employees of rich families, women in love with men who did not-or could not-love them in return. Today it's quite common for a novel to be intensely personal. In 1847, when Jane Eyre appeared, it was a daring departure, perhaps more daring than even Charlotte realized.
Charlotte's naivete about literary society is shown by an incident that occurred shortly after Jane Eyre was published. William Thackeray, a successful and socially prominent novelist, wrote Charlotte a letter praising her book, and in gratitude she dedicated the second edition to him. Charlotte may have been the only literary person in England who didn't know that Thackeray, like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, had a wife who was insane. To make matters worse, Thackeray had just published a novel about a scheming governess who tries to seduce her employer. Gossips put two and two together and decided that the author of Jane Eyre had been having an affair with Thackeray!
As this incident shows, women novelists in the 19th century were expected to be personalities-either romantic adventuresses or eccentrics. Charlotte confounded everyone by being neither. She impressed the people who met her as being small, ordinary-looking, and rather shy. Nor, despite the passionate pleas for women's independence in her books, was she much interested in becoming a feminist crusader. All she did, or wanted to do, was to write good books. Instead of giving up in disappointment, some of her admirers became all the more curious and continued to pick through Charlotte's novels in search of clues to hidden mysteries in her past.
In 1854, Charlotte did the one thing that could have surprised her intimate friends and her public alike-she got married! Charlotte had received two marriage proposals when she was in her twenties-one from a man she barely knew and another from a clergyman who made no secret of the fact that he was proposing on the rebound after being rejected by another young woman-but she had always taken it for granted that she would never marry. How could she hope to find a husband who'd understand her need to write or who'd measure up to the romantic heroes of her imagination? Oddly enough the man Charlotte finally chose to wed was neither her literary equal nor a brooding hero in the mold of Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester. He was Arthur Bell Nicholls, a sober curate (assistant minister) who had been quietly in love with Charlotte for several years before he even knew that she was the author of the celebrated novel, Jane Eyre. Though not an intellectual himself, Bell was apparently quite proud to discover that the quiet middle-aged woman he had fallen in love with was a literary genius. And Charlotte, to the dismay and skepticism of some of her admirers, had decided that she could combine a career as the author of unconventional novels with a very conventional married life.
Charlotte seemed about to do just that. She was already pregnant when, after less than a year of marriage, she fell ill and died of tuberculosis-the same disease that had killed her sisters and brother.
Charlotte's early death provided the drama that many of her readers had looked for, and failed to find, in her life. Some biographers have portrayed Charlotte as a tragic heroine, who walked around shrouded by an aura of gloom, constantly preoccupied by the subject of death. But when you consider the number of early deaths in her family, it's surprising that Charlotte worried as little about death as she did. In spite of her withdrawn, introspective childhood, Charlotte managed to lead a productive and fulfilled life. She completed four novels, coped with the stress of sudden fame, and at the age of thirty-eight decided to embark on a career as a wife and mother. According to her biographer and friend, Mrs. Gaskell (see the Further Reading section of this guide), Charlotte Bronte refused to believe, almost to the end of her last illness, that she was going to suffer the same fate as her four sisters and her brother. When she heard her husband at her bedside praying to God to spare her life, Charlotte's reaction was surprise. "Oh, I am not going to die, am I?" she asked. "He will not separate us; we have been so happy."