Charlotte Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, in Thornton, Yorkshire, England. The third of six children, she spent much of her childhood at her father’s parsonage in Haworth, England. Curiously, though their early life in Haworth seemed stern and somewhat deprived, Charlotte and her sisters and brother all found adventure and happiness exploring the moors near the parsonage and recounting their lives in spirited discussions and writings. Their father, Patrick Bronte, had risen from extreme poverty in Northern Ireland to become an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and then an Anglican priest in 1897. He passed his love of learning and vigorous discussion on to his children.
Charlotte briefly attended Cowan Bridge, a finishing school in Lancashire, with her sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Emily. A typhoid outbreak at Cowan Bridge soon claimed the lives of her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, and provided Charlotte with the background for a similar incident in the beginning of Jane Eyre. When Charlotte and Emily returned to Haworth because of their sisters’ untimely deaths, Patrick Bronte decided to educate them-as well as their brother Branwell and sister Anne-himself, with the help of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, and the parsonage servant, Tabitha Ackroyd.
The children delved into literary works by William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Dryden, Sir Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth, as well as politically affiliated Whig and Tory newspapers and popular magazines such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh and Keepsake. Early in the children’s lives, their eldest sister, Maria, had coached them in the writing and production of original short plays, and upon her return to the parsonage Charlotte assumed this role. This collaboration with her siblings was interrupted in January 1831, when tuition provided by her godparents allowed Charlotte to attend another private school, Miss Woolner’s school at Roe Head. Here, as at Cowan Bridge, Charlotte gleaned background information for her future as a teacher and writer. Also while at Roe Head, Charlotte made the acquaintance of Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, whose friendship would shape much of Jane Eyre and her later works.
As a student and, later, an assistant teacher at Roe Head, Charlotte resolved the shortcomings in her formal education and concurrently developed a sense of resentment about her servitude to inferior-minded people. Both the confidence and the resentment were incorporated in Jane Eyre’s personality.
At the age of sixteen, Charlotte returned to Haworth to tutor her sisters and brother for three years. She then taught at Roe Head again and then at the Dewsbury School before serving as a governess to earn money for her family and offset the loss of funds squandered by Branwell in his attempt to establish himself as a painter. Although two marriage proposals-the first from Ellen Nussey’s brother Henry and the second from a young Irish curate-boosted her confidence, Charlotte refused both men, believing that she would follow the dictum made at age twelve to remain single. Throughout this period, Charlotte and her sisters continued to write fiction and poetry.
In preparation for opening their own school near Haworth, Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels in 1842 to complete their education, a venture funded by Aunt Branwell. While at the Pensionnat Heger, the sisters polished their understanding of European literature, manners, and customs; Charlotte drew many lessons of prose style-later to be used in Jane Eyre and other novels-from her study of the French language. As the year progressed, Charlotte found herself attracted to Constantin Heger, her teacher and the husband of the school’s owner. The emotional tension created by her apparently unreciprocated affection became integral to the dramatic structure of Jane Eyre’s relationship with Rochester.
Upon their return from Belgium, the Brontes failed in several attempts to establish their own school. Frustrated by this failure and by their brother Branwell’s degenerate life, the Bronte sisters strove, under Charlotte’s direction, to compensate themselves by publishing their own books. They paid the publication costs for their first effort, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), and sold only two copies. In 1847 Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were published. Charlotte did not publish Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell until a few months later. She subsequently earned 500 pounds for Jane Eyre, a sum that marked her work a financial success.
She and her sisters visited their publisher, George Smith, in London a short time later to declare themselves as the true identities behind the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. From the time of this first meeting in 1847 to her death seven years later, Charlotte benefited from her contact with Smith. He and his mother established a network for Charlotte in London, introducing her to the sophisticated circles of society, including most of the major literary celebrities of the day.
Smith also aimed to promote Charlotte’s career by publishing her second novel, Shirley, an extensive three-volume work. Between 1848 and 1849, however, Charlotte was buffeted by personal tragedies that drew her attention away from her writing. With the death of Branwell in September 1848, Charlotte sunk into a depression triggered, perhaps, by guilt over having judged her brother’s degeneracy so harshly. Charlotte was further shaken by the sudden decline and death of her sister Emily, who was overcome by tuberculosis in December 1848, and by Anne’s death in May 1849.
Darkened and hardened by these emotional traumas, Charlotte immersed herself in the writing of Shirley and published the novel in October 1849. Villette, her third novel, was published four years later.
Charlotte traded the literary life for domestic duties upon her marriage in June 1854 to Arthur Bell Nicholls, curate of the parsonage where Charlotte’s father had been pastor. Debilitated by illness, Patrick Bronte became the focus of Charlotte and Arthur’s daily routine. Charlotte also helped her husband run the parsonage, but, at the turn of year in 1855, she began suffering the side effects of an ill-fated pregnancy. Because of her fragile condition, she succumbed to illness and died on March 31, 1855, at the age of thirty-eight.