Charlotte Brontë is one of England’s most significant and beloved authors. Though much of her life was marked by tragedy, her novels and poems endured and are still hugely popular nearly 200 years later. Charlotte Murphy looks at the landmarks of her impressive life
Early days in Yorkshire
Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Market Street Thornton, west of Bradford in Yorkshire, the Brontes’ home before moving to the famous Parsonage in Haworth. Her father Patrick and his wife, Maria, moved the family to Haworth in 1820. The Brontë children loved the moorland around their home and spent much time exploring and playing in it. The windswept landscapes of the Moors, as well as the Yorkshire Dales, are synonymous with the sisters’ works, providing the perfect setting for their beloved tales.
In fact, their relationship with the moors is so well known that the entire stretch of countryside is known as ‘Brontë country’. The rugged hills and valleys are a must-visit for any Brontë fan.
Any fan of Charlotte’s knows about Lowood School and the unhappiness Jane Eyre experienced during her time there. Brontë actually based Lowood on her own school – the Clergy Daughters’ School in Lancashire. Throughout her life, she claimed that the school’s poor conditions permanently damaged her health and contributed to the deaths of two of her sisters, Maria and Elizabeth.
The school building is now a picturesque holiday cottage that’s the perfect place to stay if you want to explore Brontë Country. Just a walk from Yorkshire Dales, Cowan Bridge is a beautiful small village worth visiting in itself; couple this with a visit to the moors and you will have truly walked in the footsteps of the Brontë sisters.
Returning to Haworth Parsonage
After the deaths of his daughters Maria and Elizabeth, Patrick removed Charlotte and Emily from the school back home to Haworth Parsonage. The Parsonage was a place of devastation for Charlotte – her mother passed away here – but it is also where she and her sisters wrote their beloved novels. For more than five years this is where the Brontë children learned and played together, writing and telling romantic tales for one another and inventing imaginative worlds which played out at home or on the desolate moors.
The family home is now the Grade I-listed Brontë Parsonage Museum, a writer’s house museum maintained by the Brontë Society, and the go-to trip for every Brontë fan.
Between 1831 and 1832, Charlotte continued her education at Roe Head in Mirfield. She then returned as a teacher from 1835 to 1838. Unhappy and lonely as a teacher there, she released her sorrows in her poetry, writing a series of melancholic works during this time. She then went on to take up many positions as governess to families across Yorkshire, a career she pursued until 1841. Charlotte did not enjoy her time as a governess; she felt her employers treated her almost as a slave and constantly humiliated her. However, she continued to see herself as equal in terms of intelligence and talent, and her time as a governess is reflected in her creation Jane Eyre’s experience.
In fact, it may have been her sister Anne who gave her the idea to write about a governess. Both sisters had negative experiences of teaching: Anne documented hers in her own novel Agnes Grey, which Charlotte read before working on Jane Eyre.
Life in Brussels
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily travelled to Brussels to attend a boarding school run by Constantin Héger to improve their abilities in French and German. Charlotte and Emily’s writing talents caught the attention of Héger, and after a brief trip home upon the death of her aunt, Charlotte returned as a pupil-teacher. She received intense literary training and gained material that served her for her novels. This included the garden within her school building, which was an unexpected treasure for Charlotte and was used for inspiration in her novel Villette.
But it wasn’t just this little haven that remained in Charlotte’s mind. She grew feelings for her professor, Héger. However, letters suggest that, the clearer Charlotte’s feelings became, the more withdrawn Héger appeared, and no romance was to develop.
Back to Yorkshire
After returning to Haworth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne self-financed the publication of a joint collection of poems. Only two copies were sold but the sisters were encouraged enough to embark on their first novels. Charlotte wrote under a pseudonym, Currer Bell, and achieved increasing success with every novel she wrote.
Final days in Haworth
Charlotte became pregnant soon after her wedding in 1854 to Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, but her health declined rapidly. She died, with her unborn child, on 31 March 1855. Her death certificate states the cause of death as tuberculosis, but biographers suggest that she died from dehydration and malnourishment due to severe morning sickness. Brontë is buried in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Haworth, the very place where she grew into the renowned writer that we know and love, and whose influence on the literary world is still as clear as day.