Charlotte Brontë

The English novelist Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) portrayed the struggle of the individual to maintain his integrity with a dramatic intensity entirely new to English fiction.

Charlotte Brontë was born in Thornton in the West Riding of Yorkshire on April 21, 1816, the daughter of an Anglican minister. Except for a brief unhappy spell at a charity school, later portrayed in the grim and gloomy Lowood of the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, most of her early education was guided at home by her father.

After the early death of her mother, followed by that of the two older sisters, Brontë lived in relative isolation with her father, aunt, sisters Anne and Emily, and brother Branwell. The children created fantasy worlds whose doings they recorded in miniature script on tiny sheets of paper. Anne and Emily devised the essentially realistic kingdom of Gondal, while she and Branwell created the realm of Angria, which was dominated by the Duke of Zamorna. Zamorna's lawless passions and amorous conquests make up the greater part of her contributions. Created in the image of Byronic satanism, he was proud, disillusioned, and masterful. He ruled by strength of will and feeling and easily conquered women, who recognized the evil in him but were drawn into helpless subjection by their own passion.

This dreamworld of unrestricted titanic emotions possessed Brontë with a terrible intensity, and the conflict between it and the realities of her life caused her great suffering. Thus, although her life was outwardly placid, she had inner experience of the struggles of will with circumstance and of desire with conscience that are the subject of her novels. Her conscience was an exceptionally powerful monitor. During a year at a school in Brussels (1843/1844) she seems to have fallen in love with the married headmaster but never fully acknowledged the fact to herself.

Brontë's first novel was The Professor, based upon her Brussels experience. It was not published during her lifetime, but encouraged by the friendly criticism of one publisher she published Jane Eyre in 1847. It became the literary success of the year. Hiding at first behind the pseudonym Currer Bell, she was brought to reveal herself by the embarrassment caused by inaccurate speculation about her true identity. Of all Brontë's novels, Jane Eyre most clearly shows the traces of her earlier Angrian fantasies in the masterful Rochester with his mysterious ways and lurid past. But the governess, Jane, who loves him, does not surrender helplessly; instead she struggles to maintain her integrity between the opposing demands of passion and inhumanly ascetic religion.

Within 8 months during 1848/1849, Brontë's remaining two sisters and brother died. Despite her grief she managed to finish a new novel, Shirley (1849). Set in her native Yorkshire during the Luddite industrial riots of 1812, it uses social issues as a ground for a psychological study in which the bold and active heroine is contrasted with a friend who typifies a conventionally passive and emotional female. In her last completed novel, Villette (1853), Brontë again turned to the Brussels affair, treating it now more directly and with greater art. But in this bleak book the clear-sighted balance the heroine achieves after living through extremes of cold detachment and emotion is not rewarded by a rich fulfillment.

Despite her literary success Brontë continued to live a retired life at home in Yorkshire. She married a former curate of her father in 1854, but died within a year on March 31, 1855.

Further Reading on Charlotte Brontë

Still standard is Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (2 vols., 1857). Winifred Gérin, Charlotte Brontë (1967), is reliable and more complete. Robert B. Martin, The Accents of Persuasion: Charlotte Brontë's Novels (1966), is the only book-length critical study.

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