Charlotte Bronte – Bicentennial of a Woman of Influence

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond

Charlotte Bronte by George Richmond courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

English novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) has been considered an English national treasure for 200 years.

Acclaimed modernist writer of the twentieth century England’s Virginia Woolf commented that Charlotte Brontë was one of those writers powered by ‘… some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently’.

This year, on April 21 it will be the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of this very influential woman of influence who was a complex personality. Now an iconic figure in the British cultural landscape, Charlotte Brontë declared herself an independent woman in an age ruled by men.

Born in the village of Thornton, West Riding in Yorkshire, Charlotte and her talented sisters Anne and Emily arrived nearly two generations after Jane Austen’s death and success as an independent woman writer.

Thousands of people each year now pay to wander about the Brontë home allowing Charlotte to remain, according to her wishes, ‘to be forever known’. It is hard to see Charlotte without seeing her brother Branwell and her two sisters as well, because Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë who all supported each other in life and work.

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre

Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre (2011), poor, obscure, plain and little

Charlotte‘s first novel, The Professor told the story of an orphan William Crimsworth, educated by a cold, indifferent family.

Her ability to describe the feelings of abandonment he felt could parallel her own experiences at the time when her mother died.

She was just five years of age, an age for a child of understanding real loss.

Losing her two older sisters as well by the time she was eight, leaving Charlotte as head of the family embracing responsibility while her father a clergyman went about his duties, meant she was certainly made of stern stuff.

Clergymen occupied an interesting social status at the time, invited into the homes of the upper classes as more or less equals, while having to tend and look to the poor, acting more or less as the intermediary in a structure based on class.

In this new society of grace and manners, books of etiquette dictated social graces and the acceptable behaviour expected from those who were learning.

When Charlotte with her sisters set out to establish a school in the summer of 1841 she wrote to her Aunt Branwell asking for a loan saying

I feel an absolute conviction that, if this advantage were allowed us, it would be the making of us for life. Papa will perhaps think it a wild and ambitious scheme; but who ever rose in the world without ambition? … I want us all to go on. I know we have talents, and I want them to be turned to account.’

Bronte Sisters

The Bronte Sisters, Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, a painting sold by J.P.Humbert’s saleroom in Towcester, Northants. with an attribution of Victorian artist Sir Edwin Landseer

Charlotte, together with Emily and Anne they studied for two years (1842-3) at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels to gain experience to become teachers, but sadly Charlotte’s ambition to have her own school was never realised.

However she was catapulted into the upper echelon of its contemporary writers in 1846 when her novel Jane Eyre was published under the male pen name of Currer Bell.

Bildungsroman is such a lovely word with a complex meaning; reflecting a ‘coming of age story’, one that highlights the psychological and moral aspects of a person and their growth from youth to adulthood.

It’s all about a quest to be loved, to gain a feeling that somehow you are of some value in the world.

A best seller, Jane Eyre was about being human making mistakes, of having life changing experiences that lead to earning and respecting a place in society, about gaining wisdom and a wealth of knowledge that will aid your journey to ‘know thyself’ and in maturity, reach out to help others, beyond self.

Mia-W-and-Judi-D,-Jane-Eyre-2011

Mia Wasikowska and Dame Judy Dench in Jane Eyre, 2011

Jane’s journey paralleled Charlotte Brontë’s own in many ways, and she adapted her style to suit the demands of the reading market, achieving success as a literary professional.

I have to admit it was one of my favourite novels during my teenage years. I admired her as she struggled to find a balance between social and moral responsibility and the pleasures of earthly life.

I related to Jane in so many ways, especially that self description of her as ‘poor, obscure, plain and little, for when a child is put down by adults, that’s how they feel.

We certainly shared another characteristic in common, a determination to survive. As young girls we were both locked up in a room for hours, even for a minor misdemeanor. How we longed for another life.

Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, unconditional love

Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, unconditional love

Her love for Mr Rochester, the hero of her tale was a wondrous thing although knowing she was his intellectual, but not his social equal as a governess,

‘I have now been married ten years.  I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth.  I hold myself supremely blest—blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine.  No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh…. 

…I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together.  To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company.  We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.  All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character—perfect concord is the result.’*

Damaged painting by Branwell Bronte of his sisters. He was part of the picture and has been removed.

Painted by Branwell, who hoped to become a professional artist, it is well-known to scholars of the Brontes, first mentioned by author Mrs Gaskell in 1853 when it showed just the three sisters separated by the pillar Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Jayne Eyre is such a powerful love story, one that has resonated down the ages and is now considered a classic; of renowned excellence in literary circles.

The novel plugged into the public’s imagination as they engaged emotionally with its heroine, envisioning suffering the same plight as they struggled for self worth, to establish their own identity and to gain not only economic independence but strive to experience love as well.

By the time she published Shirley in 1949 and Villette in 1853, the public had taken Charlotte Brontë completely to their hearts.

Charlotte married her father’s curate in 1854, but always petite in structure and frail in constitution much like Jane Eyre’s best friend at the awful Lowood School, Helen, she tragically died in the early stages of pregnancy in 1855.

“You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven, and that our souls can get to it when we die?”*

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

Works by the Brontë Family

Charlotte Bronte
*Jane Eyre 1846
Villette 1853
Shirley 1849
The Professor 1857
High Life in Verdopolis
Juvenilia: 1829-1835

Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights (1847

Anne Bronte
Agnes Grey 1847
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 1848

Branwell Bronte
The Works of Patrick Branwell Bronte : An Edition (Vol 1)

The three sisters compiled a collection of poetry called Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.

 

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