About the Author

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

English writer noted for her novel Jane Eyre (1847), sister of Anne Brontë and Emily Brontë. The three sisters are almost as famous for their short, tragic lives as for their novels. In their works they described love more truthfully that was common in Victorian age England. In the past 40 years Charlotte Brontë's reputation has risen rapidly, and feminist criticism has done much to show that she was speaking up for oppressed women of every age.

'A little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid', is how George Lewes described Charlotte Brontë to George Eliot. She was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England. Charlotte was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who had moved with his family to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820. After their mother and two eldest children died, Chalotte was left with her sisters Emily and Anne and brother Branwell to the care of their father, and their strict, religious aunt, Elisabeth Branwell. To escape their unhappy surroundings, the children listened stories about the often violent behavior of the countryfolk. When other children enjoyed to play outdoors, they created imaginary kingdoms, which were built around Branwell's toy soldiers, and which inspired them to create continuing stories of fantasylands of Angria and Gondal.

Charlotte attended Clergy Daughter's School in Lancashire in 1824. She returned home next year because of the harsh conditions. In 1831 she went to school at Roe Head, where she later worked as a teacher. However, she fell ill, suffered from melancholia, and gave up this post. Charlotte's attempts to earn her living as a governess were hindered by her disabling shyness, her ignorance of normal children, and her yearning to be with her sisters.

In 1842 Charlotte travelled to Brussels with Emily to learn French, German, and management. Her attempt to open a school failed in 1844. The collection of poems, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), which she wrote with her sisters, sold only two copies. By this time the sisters had finished a novel; Charlotte's first, The Professor, never found a publisher in her lifetime, but Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted by Thomas Newby in 1847 and published next year.

Undeterred by her own rejection, Charlotte began Jane Eyre, which appeared in 1847, and became an immediate success. Charlotte dedicated the book to William Makepeace Thackeray, who described it as 'the masterwork of a great genius'. The heroine is a penniless orphan who becomes a teacher, obtains a post as a governess, inherits money from an uncle, and marries after several turns of the plot the Byronic hero. It was followed by Shirley (1848) and Villette (1853), based on her memories of Brussels. Although her identity was well known, Charlotte continued to publish as Currer Bell. Her tragedy, Belisaious, is lost.

In Jane Eyre used her experiences at the Evangelical school and as governess. The novel severely criticized the limited options open to educated but impoverished women, and the idea that women "ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags." Jane's passionate desire for a wider life, her need to be loved, and her rebellious questioning of conventions, also reflected Charlotte's own dreams. Jane is an Ugly Duckling, who fulfills all the teenage romantic dreams of passion, that breaks all obstacles. The gloomy hero, Mr Rochester, represents a woman man: the ideal of masculine tenderness is combined with a massively masculine strength of character along Byronic lines. Jane's discovery at the altar that Rochester has an insane wife hidden in the attic is the most shocking plot twist of the novel. Brontë hints that Mrs. Rochester is a nymphomaniac. Her character was refreshed in Jean Rhys' novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) which told the story of Rochester's ill-fated Creole wife.

The title character from Shirley was an attempted ideal portrait of Emily. However, she does not appear in the first third of the book. Shirley is perhaps the first fully developed independent, brave, outspoken heroine, a type that has since deeply influenced mass-market novels read by women. Caroline Helstone, the other heroine, is a more conventional figure. When Charlotte started to write the book, the four Brontës were all alive and together at the parsonage; before it was finished, a family tragedy shadowed the work.

Branwell, whose wildness and intemperance had caused the sisters much distress, died in September 1848, Emily in December of the same year, and Anne the following summer. In 1854 Charlotte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. She died during her pregnancy on March 31, 1855 in Haworth, Yorkshire.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.