Updated: Apr 24, 2019
On this day, two hundred and three years ago, Charlotte Bronte was born. When I talk about Charlotte, it only seems fitting that I also discuss her sisters Anne and Emily. Whilst the loss and grief endured by Charlotte was arguably greater simply because she lived the longest, all three sisters experienced many of the same struggles.
It's hard to comprehend their lives and hardships in a time so different from our own. The family lived isolated on the moors, something that shines through in the dark, gothic nature of their collective works. They were women of great intelligence given so few opportunities - the patriarchy of their time tried (but failed) to stifle their creativity, especially that of Charlotte. When she wrote to the poet Robert Southey for advice in 1836, his response was; 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be'. Fortunately for literature, she didn't heed his words, and continued to write. She had started writing poetry at the age of 13, and produced more than 200 poems during her lifetime.
As children, Charlotte, Emily and Anne concocted the imaginary worlds 'Angria' and 'Gondel', feeding their interest for devising wild tales full of imagination. As young adults, working as teachers and governesses, they continued to support their family whilst simultaneously composing literary treasures in their free time.
In 1846, the Bronte sisters financed their joint poetry publication, under the male pseudonoms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (ensuring that the pseudonyms all carried their true initials). This was the only way for their work to be taken seriously at this point in history. In 1847, Charlotte completed and published 'Jane Eyre', closely followed by Emily's 'Wuthering Heights' and Anne's 'Agnes Grey' published that same year. The publishing establishment of the time would have written them off without a second thought as women, but considered them masters of their craft as men. It wasn't until a year later that the authors were revealed to be women.
One of the many things I find fascinating about Charlotte, is how she used her writing to express emotions and feelings she couldn't otherwise resolve, and this is particularly striking in 'Jane Eyre'. Charlotte's clear, concise and unabashed opinions radiate through in her novels - noted upon by Virginia Woolf in 'A Room of One's Own' - in a way which still enthralls readers today. It is all three sisters' proto-feminist ideology that gives their work such a modern feeling even now; the character of Jane is constantly trying to close the gap between the presumed differences between men and women, declaring that 'women feel just as men feel', and making bold statements (for the time) throughout.
One of my favourite new books: 'The Brontes - A Fanastically Feminist (and totally true) Story of the Astonishing Authors', captures this early feminism I've mentioned wonderfully for young readers.
In 1848, Charlotte started writing 'Shirley', but her brother Branwell and sister Emily died in quick succession, followed closely by the death of her remaining sister Anne in 1849. The novel was finished and published later that year, but perhaps suffered as a result. Written in third person narrative, 'Shirley' was less intimate, and therefore less successful than her first novel had been. However, one thing I continue to be in awe of, is how she used her grief to fuel her writing. Whether her work was successful or not, she carried on despite everything, and continued writing to get her through those darkest of times.
The one big controversy surrounding Charlotte was her choice to suppress her sister Anne's work 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall' from re-publication after her death. 'The Tenant' sold copies even faster than 'Jane Eyre', and is arguably the most bold and feminist of all the sister's works. However, for Charlotte, the subject matter was too close to home - she believed the character of Arthur Huntingdon to be based on their brother Branwell (shown in a less than favourable light). In later years, Anne's work was dismissed based on those widely shared opinions of Charlotte that the book should 'never have been written'. Conceivably this makes her the most underrated and interesting Bronte of them all, and whilst 'Jane Eyre' is my favorite of their books, Anne is definitely my favourite Bronte sister.
In 1853, Charlotte reverted to type and released another incredible novel, dealing with isolation, psychological state and cross cultural conflicts; 'Villette'. Many have praised it for being a more powerful book than 'Jane Eyre', however, for me personally, I loved the naive and youthful drama of Jane just a touch more than Villette.
Sadly, just two years later, and two weeks before her 39th birthday in 1855, Charlotte died along with her unborn child. Whilst her cause of death was listed as tuberculosis, modern biographers have concluded she died from the severe morning sickness affliction, Hyperemesis Gravidarum.
We remember and celebrate the lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne through their incredible contributions to literature, and if you haven't read any of their works yet, I highly recommend giving them a go.
Here is a list of Bronte works that you can purchase from us at Little English Bookworm:
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Villette - Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
We have multiple editions available, so if there is anything you can't find, just send us an email and we'll be happy to assist.