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Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre - Social Conscience and Feminism in Victorian Literature

Why Charlotte Bronte is Important

Charlotte Bronte, the diminutive eldest sister of a literary trio of British Victorian sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte), is important,not only for being a gifted writer, but for the themes she explored in her work. Her main characters were strong, intelligent women who stood up for themselves in a time when women were supposed to be subservient, ruled by male dominated Victorian society.

Charlotte Bronte also explored the dehumanization of poverty and the threat of poverty for women without significant male attachments and the socio-economic status they could provide. Life, in early Victorian England, was a brutal place for an unattached female.

Haworth Parsonage


Charlotte Bronte's Background

Charlotte Bronte was born April 21, 1816 into what would become a large family. Her father, Patrick Bronte, was Irish, originally named Patrick Brunty (past familial versions of the name include Prunty and O'Prunty), who changed his name in hopes of social advancement. After an education in theology, he became an Anglican minister, ultimately stationed at the Parsonage at Haworth in Yorkshire, England, over looking an industrial town, and bordered by a cemetery. The back door opened onto the moors, a wild area of heather covered rolling hills.

The death of his wife, Maria, of ovarian cancer, when the youngest child of 6, Anne was only 2 years old, must have devastated Patrick as well as the children.

Patrick may not have been the warmest of fathers but he saw to the children's education. All of the children were avid readers of books, poetry, and periodicals and well informed of the issues of the day.

He was a stern man, and an eccentric one, though sources believe that this reputation derived form Elizabeth Gaskell's personal dislike of Mr. Bronte. He hoped to make his children indifferent to physical pleasure and attempted to instill humility in their wild little hearts. When a family friend gave the children sturdy boots to keep their feet dry on their romps on the moors, Patrick threw the boots into the fire. They were luxurious and he thought such frippery would encourage a love of finer things and fancy clothing. He had a fear of fire and forbade rugs and curtains in the Parsonage, giving the home an austere atmosphere.

He was concerned over the health conditions of the area. Sulphurous fumes rose up from the factories of the town and an open sewer ran down the main street of Haworth. The cemetery outside of the Parsonage was overcrowded and Patrick worried for their own well as well as drainage that led to infection. He worked to create a more hygienic water supply, organizing the community to clean up the water in 1856.

1944 Film Version of Jane Eyre Depictinig Jane at Lowood with Helen Burns (the character based on Maria Bronte, played by the young Elizabeth Taylor)

The Early Education of Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte's first experience with formal schooling was at the clergy Daughter's School at Cowan's Bridge, a boarding school for the children of clerics. The school was an unpleasant place, damp and chilly with discipline that may have bordered on abuse. The food seems to have been adequate but poorly prepared and stored with the children offered tainted meat and milk that had gone sour.

Patrick sent the girls to school at Cowan's Bridge after several of them were sick with measles and whopping cough. The eldest of the sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, may not have been fully recuperated, but Patrick mistrusted the foul air at Haworth due to nearby factories and open sewers. Maria remained sickly. Her suffering and illness were exacerbated by the cruel treatment of a sadistic teacher and she was finally sent home to die. Elizabeth perished shortly after.

The school was immortalized in Jane Eyre and the character of Helen Burns, Jane's angelic friend is based on her sister, Maria.

Patrick Bronte

Patrick Bronte

Patrick Bronte

Tabby and the Faeries

After the death of Charlotte's mother, Patrick brought in the children's maternal aunt, Aunt Branwell to help care for the children. She kept her distance, however, taking her meals alone in her room (as did Patrick). But Aunt Branwell was well into her 40's when she came, up from the south, a warm place of gardens and flowers. It must have been a difficult adjustment, moving to the cold parsonage.

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne spent a lot of their time in the kitchen with the servant Tabby who claimed to recall a time when faeries roamed Yorkshire, but were driven away by factories. So attached did the children become to Tabby, that when she broke her leg, the children held a hunger strike wanting to keep the woman close by to wait on her.

Fantasy Play - Angria and Gondal

At some point, Patrick brought home a collection of toy soldiers, perhaps for his only son, Branwell, but taken up by the 3 girls, Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

The bright children fell into long bouts of play, eventually creating their own saga of the fantasy kingdom of Angria, a saga that went on for years, helping, no doubt to form the creative minds that would bring us books like Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey.

At age 13, Emily came to believe that Charlotte and Branwell dominated the made-up world, and along with Anne created the alternative kingdom of Gondal, set on an island in the South Pacific. Emily rebelled against the patriarchal Angria by setting up her fantasy sage, presided over by a queen.

The children created notebooks, stories with complicated plot lines rife with character lists, wars, romance, and political intrigue. Emily worked on the Godnal saga until her death.

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In 1838, at age 22, Charlotte wrote a novella based on the Angrian tales, entitled, Stancliff's Hotel. The recently published novella is told in a male voice with humor and earthy slang. The story is evidence of her interest in political and social oppression. When the duke is suspected of treachery, political cheating, and womanizing, the workers take to the streets in protest. But the duke orders his minions to savagely attack the workers whose blood washes the stones of the streets.

An example of one of the tiny books created by the young Brontes.

An example of one of the tiny books created by the young Brontes.

Charlotte at Roe Head School

Due to the erratic income of their preacher father and the loss of income in the event of his death, the girls needed to secure some means of supporting themselves. Charlotte became a teacher at Roe Head School, a school she first entered as a student. She was a favorite of Mrs. Wooler, the headmistress who took on Emiy for free.

Emily, never able to endure being parted form home, fell into a depression and some claim, starved herself into such a state that she was shipped home within 2 months, less she fall to the same terrible fate as her older, departed sisters. Emily was replaced by Anne, who stayed at Roe Head for 2 years.

The school was a good one, set in an airy park-like area with a small body of students. Charlotte's friends, Ellen Nussy and Mary Taylor lived nearby.

But, Charlotte Bronte was unhappy with the dull routine at roe Head. In fact, she complained in her letters:

"Am I to spend the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolical and most asinine stupidity of these fat headed oafs on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience, and assiduity?"

In another letter, she wrote of her life at Roe Head:

"Stupidity the atmosphere, school books the employment, asses the society, what in all this is there to remind me of the divine, silent, unseen land of thought?"

Charlotte Bronte returned home to Haworth after 3 years.

Roe Head School

Roe Head School

Charlotte Decides to Open a Girls' School

In hope of someday opening her own girls' school, Charlotte Bronte with her sister Emily in tow, went to Belgium to study French, German, and school management at the Pensionnat Hegar under Constantine Hegar. This was a cheerful place where the girls were rosy cheeked and well fed. Charlotte taught English and Emily taught music in exchange for their language lessons, room, and board.

Charlotte enjoyed long, intellectual discourse with M. Hegar and eventually fell in love with him. After her return to Haworth, she wrote him passionate letters. Hegar tore the letters up and threw them away, but his wife (for whatever reasons) picked them out of the trash and sewed them together. They remained put away in a drawer until they were found and brought to light in 1913.

The Bronte Sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte as painted by Branwell (you can see the area where he painted himself out)

The Bronte Sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte as painted by Branwell (you can see the area where he painted himself out)

Charlotte's Brother, Branwell Bronte

Meanwhile, Branwell, an aspiring artist, took on employment as a tutor in the same household where his sister, Anne, was governess. After he had an affair with the woman of the house, he returned to Haworth in a cloud of scandal. Instead of applying himself to his art, Branwell fell into alcoholism and drug addiction, throwing fits of rage and threatening alternatively to kill his father, or commit suicide.

One terrifying incident was turned into a plot piece in Jane Eyre. One of the Bronte sisters noticed smoke coming from beneath the door of Branwell's bedroom. Emily doused the fire and half dragged, half carried, the drunken Branwell to safety. Charlotte recalled the event when Jane rescues Mr. Rochester from a flaming bed, the fire set by his mad wife (supposedly locked up in the attic, unknown to Jane).

Let's Write Novels!

In an attempt to secure incomes, the Bronte sisters planned to open their own girls' school at Haworth. Despite a campaign of pamphlets and letter writing, the school never opened.

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, being intelligent, creative writers then moved toward their true callings. Charlotte, realizing Emily's talent at poetry, suggested a compilation of all their poetry into a slim volume self published under the pseudonyms of 3 fictional brothers, Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell. They sold 2 copies. But few people can earn a living with poetry.

Charlotte then proposed that the three of them write novels. She had some trouble convincing Emily to go along with the scheme, but eventually brought her reluctant sister along.

Every night, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne worked together at a large table in the dining room. Wile developing plots, characters, and the other components of fiction, the sisters paced the room. They would walk around the table, discussing strategy, ideas, and themes, all unbeknownst to either Patrick or Branwell.

Charlotte emerged first with a novel based on her experiences at the girls' school in Belgium. But the novel, The Professor, was not published until after her death. However, the publisher was encouraging and Charlotte decided to go on. When she wrote to the poet laureate, Robert Southey for advise, he responded that, "literature can not be the business of a woman's life."

Charlotte accompanied her father to Manchester for his cateract surgery. It was there, at a boarding house during his recovery that she began to write Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is the story of an orphan and her struggle to maintain dignity and security in a grim girls' school called Lowood.

The adult Jane takes a job as governetss for the eccentric, difficult Edward Rochester. Here, Jane enters many discussions with Mr. Rochester, refusing to bow to his will. Jane teases, disobeys, and stands up for herself and her ideals in a time when women, especially women in her position, were expected to me meek and subservient.

Rochester comes to respect Jane, and ultimately falls in love with her. Jane reciprocates the love and admiration, only to be drawn into further troubles when it is revealed, on their wedding day, that Rochester has a wife, a mad woman who is locked in the attic at Thornfield Hall.

In one part of the book, Charlotte speaks, through Jane:

"Woman are supposed to be very calm, generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercises for their faculties, and a field for their efforts - they suffer from too rigid a restreaint, too absolute a stagnation - it is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for them."

Charlotte Bronte, it seemed, was a rebel.

Jane Eyre - Publication, Success, and Controversy

Jane Eyre was accepted and published by Smith, Elder, and Co. on October 19, 1847 under the pen name of Currur Bell. Meanwhile, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey (the story of a governess) which had been accepted by Thomas Cautley Newby, but held back, were published due to the great success of Jane Eyre, in December of that same year.

The Bronte sisters were out there, thrust into the large world, albeit in disguise. Wuthering Heights met with scathing reviews. One reviwer said that anyone who could have contemplated such a novel would also contemplate suicide. Others called it coarse and loathsome.

There was much speculation in the literary world, concerning the identities of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Many thought that the 3 brothers were actually one man, writing as three individuals.When Anne's next novel, The Tennant of Wildfell Hall was to be accepted for publication, there was a mix up in dealing with American publishers due to this question of identity.

In order to move the publication of Anne's book forward, Charlotte decided to reveal her and her sister's identities. Charlotte and Anne traveled to London to visit Smith and Elder. When they were ushered into Smith's office, he wondered who the two quiantly dressed little laides were. Charlotte, unable to think of another indroduction of how to explain  herself, handed Mr. Smith one of his own letters, addressed to Currur Bell.

"Where did you get this?" he damanded. The secret was revealed to the delight of Mr. Smith.

Later that evening, Anne and Charlotte were ushered to the opera by Smith's sisters. Unfortunately, Charlotte and Anne had to wear their simple, rustic garments to the opera.

Sketch of Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte

Sketch of Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte

Sketch of Anne Bronte by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte and Anne Bronte - Social Conscience

Anne, like Charlotte, vividly portrayed the difficult place that single women found themselves in during Victorian times. Without a family, or husband, their only available employment was as teacher or governess.

The role of a governess was often a hard row to hoe. She would be ill received among the servants, seen as 'above' them due to her education; but well 'below' and subservient to her employers and their society. A governess would often dine alone in her room, or separate from adult company, or with the children. When the children grew up, she was out of work, at the mercy of her mistress's kindness when she looked for a new placement.

The educated, intelligent spinster was at the mercy of society as a whole. A spend thrift father could leave her penniless. A womanizing boss could leave her pressured or pregnant, scandalized out of a job, a future, and a reputation.

Married, a Victorian woman was at the mercy of her husband; dependent, no matter his financial or sexual improprieties. She had no avenue of escape or sympathy if he was abusive, alcoholic, or just plain mean.

The threat of poverty was a harsh one. Women and children without the largess of a financially stable male could wind up in an orphanage, a workhouse, prison, or thrown into prostitution. Poverty was viewed as the situation dealt to an individual by God Almighty and to question the deprivations, humiliations, and hunger or being poor was to stand against the highest morals of the land. Yet, Jane casts a cold eye on the rich and powerful. Indeed, one reviewer, in the Quarterly Review (1847) of Jane Eyre said that the novel was:

"preeminently an anti-Christian composition. There is, throughout it, a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment."

In his last days, Branwell created this sketch of himself and the approach of death.

In his last days, Branwell created this sketch of himself and the approach of death.

Charlotte Loses Her Siblings

In September of 1848, Branwell Bronte died from a combination of tuberculosis and alcoholism. Emily caught a cold at his funeral, the last time she ever left the house. She faded quickly, her pale complexion grayed, her weight and strength faded away. She refused to see a doctor, but on December 19th, died on a sofa, her sisters at her side.

Anne died of TB in the spring of 1849.

The loss of her sisters was a heavy blow to Charlotte. Just as they found their calling, they faded away from her. When she found her success, she lost that which was most dear to her.

They say that Charlotte sat alone at night in the dining room. She stood and paced, walked around that table that produced such greatness, alone. She could not sleep without the familiar ritual.

For whatever reason, Charlotte destroyed much of Emily's work, her notebooks, her poetry, and her manuscript for a second novel. To Charlotte fell the task of legacy maker. Of Emily, Charlotte remarked, "She was an unconscious genious who did not know what she had done," leaving us with the enigmatic mystic, a kind of idiot savant.

Charlotte produced two more novels:

Shirley (1849) is set in Yorkshire during the industrial depression of 1811 - 1812. She gave a boy's name to her female protagonist, and popularized that name for girls. It is believed that the character of Caroline Helstone is based on Anne Bronte, while Charlotte herself claimed that Shirley was based on her sister Emily, in happier times.

Villette (1853) is the story of Lucy Snow, a British teacher in the fiction city of Villette. The character Paul Emanuel is based on her beloved Constantin Heger. The books examines Lucy's psycological state in the face of gender roles and repression. Charlotte includes such topics as cross cultural conflict and psychological isolation as well as a conflict between Enlish Protestantism and the Catholic Church.

The Professor written before Jane Eyre was published after her death.

Stancliff's Hotel a novella that Charlotte had written at age 22, was published in 2003.

The Death of Charlotte Bronte

In spring of 1854, Charlotte Bronte married her father's curate, Aurthor Bell NIcholls. The marriage seemed a happy one but Charlotte soon became pregnant then fell gravely ill with an unrelenting form of morning sickness and died, with child, on March 31, 1855. Her death certificate claims death from tuberculosis, but many feel that her death may have been a result of malnutrition and dehydration caused the the perpetual nausea. . Others think she may have caught typhus from the aged servant, Tabby (Tabitha Akroyd) who died of typhus shortly before Charlotte's death.

It was left to her friend, Mrs. Gaskell, to create the myth of the angelic neurotic, trapped in the cold house on the edge of the moors with her eccentric father and weird siblings. Some of Mrs. Gaskell's assertions have been proved, through the Bronte's actual letters and journals, to be false.

Patrick Bronte outlived them all, and died in 1861 at the age of 84.

For Further Reading

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Charlotte and Emily Bronte:The Complete Novels; Gramercy Books 1995

The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell (1857); Oxford University Press 2009

The Brontes: A Life in Letters; Overlook Press 1998

Charlotte Bronte A Fiery Heart by Claire Harmon

The Brontes Wild Genius on the Moors The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker

The Secret History of Jane Eyre How Charlotte Bronte Wrote her Masterpiece by John Pfordesher

Charlotte Bronte A Writer's Life by Rebecca Fraser

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