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date: 30 June 2022

Brontë [married name Nicholls], Charlotte [pseud. Currer Bell]free


Brontë [married name Nicholls], Charlotte [pseud. Currer Bell]free

  • Christine Alexander

Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855)

by Branwell Brontë, c. 1834 [Brontë sisters [left to right]: Anne Brontë (1820-1849), Emily Brontë (1818-1848), and Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) ]

Brontë [married name Nicholls], Charlotte [pseud. Currer Bell] (1816–1855), novelist, was born on 21 April 1816 at the parsonage, Market Street, Thornton, near Bradford, Yorkshire, the third of the six children of the Revd Patrick Brontë (1777–1861) and his wife, Maria, née Branwell (1783–1821). Her siblings were Maria Brontë (1814–1825), Elizabeth Brontë (1815–1825), (Patrick) Branwell Brontë (1817–1848), Emily Jane Brontë (1818–1848), and Anne Brontë (1820–1849).

Early years and education

On 20 April 1820 the Brontë family moved to the bleak moorland village of Haworth, where Patrick Brontë was appointed perpetual curate, a rapid rise for a man who had been born in an Irish crofter's cottage. Intent on upward mobility, Charlotte's father had evinced remarkable cleverness and determination in educating himself, studying for a degree at St John's College, Cambridge, and patiently making a career as an evangelical Anglican. An eccentric and something of a hypochondriac, Patrick Brontë was not the irascible, neglectful father of Brontë legend. He encouraged his children to explore the moors and to take an interest in natural history, habits which provided them with a deep love of nature and a sense of personal freedom. His liberal Wordsworthian attitude towards education, his enlightened toryism, his passion for politics and military campaigns, his enthusiasm for the duke of Wellington, and love of poetry and the classics are all reflected in Charlotte's juvenilia. Her strongest loyalty throughout life was to her father, although she grew to disagree with some of his religious and political views.

Charlotte regretted that she knew so little of her mother, the small sprightly woman who had called her future husband 'my dear saucy Pat' (Wise and Symington, 1.20), and who had not only delighted in the romantic tales of the Lady's Magazine but had also written an essay for publication entitled 'The advantages of poverty in religious concerns'. At Haworth, Maria Branwell Brontë grew steadily weaker from an illness caused by rapid childbearing; she was said to have cancer, but more recently gynaecologists have suggested chronic pelvic sepsis together with increasing anaemia as more likely (Transactions of the Brontë Society, 16, 1972, 2.102). Primitive gynaecological knowledge and lack of funds for further treatment (Patrick Brontë's salary was only about £200 per annum) led to her slow and painful death on 15 September 1821.

Elizabeth Branwell (1776–1842) reluctantly agreed to leave her beloved Cornwall and care for her sister's children and household for, as it transpired, the rest of her life. She was financially independent and, like her sister Maria, she was lively and well read. She would tease guests by offering them a pinch of her snuff and could 'tilt arguments against Mr Brontë without fear' (Transactions of the Brontë Society, 2, 1899, 10.75). She disliked the cold Yorkshire moors and probably resented the authoritarian role she had to play in the Brontë household as guardian of five children and educator of three young girls. There is no evidence for the accusations of harsh discipline and Calvinistic tyranny that biographers have levelled against Aunt Branwell; she was a Wesleyan Methodist who attended Patrick Brontë's Anglican services. Charlotte and Emily seem to have felt gratitude rather than love for her, but Branwell and Anne were genuinely attached to their aunt. Her independence of mind and perseverance in uncongenial circumstances provided the Brontë sisters with a model of a strong woman whose sense of duty had directed her own path in life.

From an early age Charlotte Brontë was keenly aware that, lacking her aunt's financial independence, she must earn her own living. Her hypersensitivity to her perceived lack of physical charm gave her little faith in the ‘marriage market’, and she realized that she must rely on her own fortitude and cultivate what talents she had. Self-improvement became a driving force. She was naturally studious and quickly seized every educational opportunity. At eight she was described as 'Altogether clever for her age but know[ing] nothing systematically' (Barker, 129). But it was not simply useful knowledge that she sought; as a girl of twelve she was keen to cultivate a discerning mind and refine her taste in art: 'She picked up every scrap of information concerning painting, sculpture, poetry, music, etc., as if it were gold' (Wise and Symington, 1.92). It was only with great reluctance that her early ambitions to be first an artist, then a poet, were abandoned for the more typical middle-class female occupation of governess.

Charlotte's first experience of institutional schooling was brief and traumatic. In September 1824 she and Emily followed their two older sisters to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, established in 1823 by the Revd William Carus Wilson (the prototype for Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, 1847). In early 1825 typhoid fever combined with the harsh regime and poor food at the school led to a number of deaths. Maria, already desperately ill, was brought home on 14 February and died on 6 May. After Elizabeth was also sent home ill on 31 May, Patrick Brontë speedily fetched his younger daughters back to Haworth two weeks before Elizabeth's death on 15 June. Both Maria and Elizabeth died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Charlotte's distress and her bitterness towards the school are immortalized in the portrayal of Lowood School in Jane Eyre.

The memory of Maria Brontë, who had been both mother and moral guide to the young Charlotte, inspired the depiction of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. Now Charlotte felt that she must assume the mothering role left by her talented and selfless sister. It was a duty that weighed heavily on Charlotte's shoulders for the remainder of her life, constantly conflicting with her feverish creativity and ambition. At six, fired by the descriptions of the celestial city in Pilgrim's Progress, she had set off towards Bradford in the hope of reaching her dream city, but was found and was returned home by an anxious servant before she reached the outskirts of her own village (Reid, 24–6). This early thwarted escapade prefigures the constant sense of unfulfilled desire and ambition that burdened Charlotte throughout her life; the quiet exterior of her devotion to family and duty masked 'a truculent spirit' (Shirley, vol. 1, chap. 4) beneath its placidity, and produced in her novels and their heroines a poignant ambiguity and passionate frustration towards life. Her novels embody her search for truth in art and for personal integrity in the face of 'this world's desolate and boundless deluge' (Alexander, Early Writings, 243).

For the next five and a half years Charlotte was educated at home. Aunt Branwell taught her nieces their letters, needlework, and a little French, while Patrick Brontë gave Branwell (and later his sisters) lessons in the classics. The children also learned to draw and paint, taking occasional lessons from John Bradley, founder member of the Keighley Mechanics' Institute, and possibly from Thomas Plummer, son of the master of the Keighley Free Grammar School. The gendered nature of their art lessons is evident in Charlotte's earliest letter written to her father when she was thirteen and staying with relatives: 'Branwell has taken two sketches from nature, & Emily, Anne, & myself have likewise each of us drawn a piece from some views of the lakes which Mr Fennell brought with him from Westmoreland' (23 Sept 1829, Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 1.105).

Early reading and writing

Illustrated books seized the imagination of Charlotte Brontë in much the same way as Thomas Bewick's History of British Birds impressed both image and word on the mind of the young Jane Eyre. They provided solace, escape, and inspiration. Charlotte not only copied the engravings in such works but also modelled the format, content, and style of her early writing on the books and magazines that she read. Unlike most middle-class Victorian households, there was little censorship of reading in the Brontë parsonage. The Bible was staple fare; yet Patrick Brontë also encouraged an eclectic diet of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, Pope, Johnson, Gibbon, Cowper, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Southey, and Byron. He borrowed scientific and travel books from the Keighley Mechanics' Institute Library, and more contemporary works from local circulating libraries. His children devoured local newspapers and especially the tory monthly Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine—'the most able periodical there is', the twelve-year-old Charlotte announced (Edition of the Early Writings, ed. Alexander, 1.4)—relishing discussion on the political or religious controversies of the day. Such precocious reading combined with more typical childhood favourites like Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights, and Gulliver's Travels to produce the rich texture of allusion that is so characteristic of Charlotte Brontë's writing.

Reading and discussion fuelled the Brontë children's play and led to dramatic enactments of historical and imaginary events, often woven around the characters of their toy soldiers. One favourite set of twelve soldiers, given to Branwell in June 1826 and known as the ‘Young Men’, led to the documentation of the ‘plays’ and to the Glasstown saga, the story of an imaginary African kingdom colonized by British heroes. These creative adventures were pursued with intense passion and led to partnerships and rivalry. Charlotte and Branwell dominated their younger sisters and vied for control over the narration and direction of the saga. No manuscripts by Emily or Anne relating to the Glasstown saga survive; their first reference to any 'play' is in an 1834 diary note by Emily mentioning their later Gondal saga. Charlotte first recorded the 'plays' in 'The history of the year', March 1829, and wrote her first 'Romantic Tale' the following month, beginning her long literary apprenticeship. (Her earliest extant manuscript, a tiny illustrated story for her sister Anne, is undated and was written at least a year earlier.)

The quantity of Charlotte Brontë's early writings amounts to more than all her later published novels; and Branwell's output is similar. As she and Branwell wrote miniature magazines, poems, histories, reviews, and novelettes for and about the Young Men, the Glasstown saga gradually took shape. They documented the adventures in love and war of their favourite characters, and described their families, friends, and enemies. In doing so, they traced the fortunes of a federation of nations centred on the capital city of Verdopolis (originally the Great Glasstown) and on the rivalry between Alexander Percy, Lord Northangerland (Branwell's hero and alter ego), and the Marquis of Douro, Duke of Zamorna, and King of Angria (Charlotte's hero, the son of Wellington). Charlotte and Branwell wrote prolifically, modelling their characters on eminent political, military, or historical figures such as Wellington, Napoleon, Mary, queen of Scots, or Mme de Staël, or on characters from Scott's novels or Byron's poems. Old geography books, accounts of African exploration, picturesque plates, and their own moorland walks provided a mix of British and exotic landscapes. The adventures they created reflect contemporary colonial expansion, Gothic tales of the supernatural, romantic intrigues, political gossip and scandal.

The Brontë children's manuscripts were originally only a few inches square to match the size of the toy soldiers; they were hand-sewn to look like books and written in a minuscule handwriting to suggest print. The tiny size of their writing meant that the content of the young Brontës' imaginary world remained a secret from the eyes of adults and strangers. This shared activity cemented what Mr Brontë called 'a little society amongst themselves' (Transactions of the Brontë Society 8, 1833, 43.92) that fostered creativity and emotional security. Whenever Charlotte or her sisters were away from Haworth (and by implication removed from their creative and spiritual sustenance), they languished both physically and psychologically.

Schooling at Roe Head and artistic endeavours

On 17 January 1831 Charlotte Brontë went to Margaret Wooler's school at Roe Head, Mirfield, near Dewsbury, 15 miles from Haworth. There she met the two young women who became her lifelong friends and correspondents: the conscientious, calm, religious Ellen Nussey who fulfilled Charlotte's dutiful self and need for affection, and the fiercely independent Mary Taylor (1817–1893), the 'Rose Yorke' of Shirley) whose radical views on politics, women, and religion fuelled Charlotte's ambitious and rebellious nature. Both described Charlotte's acute awareness of her short stature and plain bespectacled appearance, her shyness among strangers, and, ever aware that she was an object of expense to those at home, her diligence in her studies. When she left, Charlotte carried off the silver medal for achievement and the prize for French.

After only eighteen months Charlotte returned home to share her new knowledge with her sisters. Judging from the quantity and lively content of her creative activity over the next three years, this seems to have been the happiest period of Charlotte's life. Together with her family she read, studied, taught, wrote letters to schoolfriends and wandered the moors. She spent hours meticulously copying engravings and teaching her sisters the same exercises in delineating eyes, ears, noses, and classical heads that she had learned at school. Above all, she resumed her writing and the Glasstown saga prospered. In Charlotte's absence, Emily and Anne had formed their own imaginary realm of Gondal, and Branwell had launched a republican rebellion in Verdopolis, the combined Paris, London, and Babylon of their African federation. Charlotte quickly negotiated a peace and an intense literary partnership developed between the two siblings which lasted until 1837 (after which Charlotte relied less on her brother's vigorous plot making). The centre of interest moved to the new kingdom of Angria and the political and sexual fortunes of Zamorna and his new wife, Mary Percy. As Charlotte's interest in Byron gradually replaced her fascination for Scott, her writing reflected both her fixation with her hero and her ambivalence towards her own and her heroines' adoration of him.

Charlotte also drew her Angrian heroes and heroines, often modelling them on illustrations of society beauties, on Finden's engravings of Byron's heroines, or even on local Haworth personalities. Her descriptions of Angrian scenes reflect, in particular, the engravings of John Martin's illustrations for the Bible: his paintings of the ancient world and its cataclysmic events and his picturesque scenes of the Garden of Eden. Early practice and knowledge of the visual arts profoundly influenced Charlotte Brontë's mature writing, especially her close observation of character and scene, her sensitivity to colour, her fondness for the vignette, her method of analysing a scene as if it were a painting, and her passionate adherence to drawing verbal pictures 'from the life' (The Professor, chap. 12). G. H. Lewes praised Jane Eyre for its word-painting: 'The pictures stand out distinctly before you: they are pictures, and not mere bits of “fine writing”' (Allott, 55).

The majority of Charlotte Brontë's 180 surviving illustrations are detailed copies in pencil, ink, or watercolour made from engravings in drawing manuals, books, or annuals. Her meticulous study and duplication of plates is reflected in Lucy Snowe's drawing in Villette (vol. 3, chap. 35), a practice that Charlotte later recognized as an exercise in skill rather than truth in art. Nevertheless this was the contemporary method by which women should acquire the ‘accomplishment’ of painting and Charlotte's diligence was exemplary. Her ambition was not simply for ladylike accomplishment, although she never progressed to oil-painting as her brother did. At least until the age of twenty she aspired to a career in art, possibly that of a miniaturist, which would have accommodated her problem of extreme short-sightedness. Such an ambition, however, was impossible; professional training was denied to her because scarce family funds had to be reserved for Branwell's studio at Bradford, and his private lessons from eminent local painter William Robertson. Although two of her picturesque scenes were accepted for the 1834 summer exhibition of the Royal Northern Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts, in Leeds (Alexander and Sellars, 52), her drawing was destined to be confined within the bounds of the schoolroom.

Teaching at Roe Head

On 29 July 1835 Charlotte Brontë returned to the Roe Head school as a teacher, as Miss Wooler had offered free education for one of Charlotte's sisters in return for her services. Emily accompanied her as a pupil but within three months was physically ill with homesickness and was replaced by Anne, who proved more adaptable. Charlotte remained in Miss Wooler's employment for three and a half years, moving with the school to Heald's House, Dewsbury Moor, early in 1838 and finally resigning in December that year.

Charlotte's second stay at Roe Head was marked by an increasing disjunction between her inner and outer worlds, between her urge to indulge her creative life and her sense of duty. Her Roe Head journal records her misery and frustration with her enclosed conventional life:

The thought came over me: am I to spend all 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 those fatheaded oafs, and on compulsion assuming an air of kindness, patience and assiduity?

Alexander, Roe Head, 413

She lamented the 'divine, silent, unseen land of thought' denied her by the drudgery of her situation. Moments of 'divine leisure' acted like opium to whirl her away to Angria and relief; their interruption by some unsuspecting pupil was akin to physical violence: 'I thought I should have vomited' (ibid., 413).

When she had been a pupil, Charlotte's dream world had provided solace and escape; now that she was mentally and emotionally starved it took possession of her hungry imagination. She herself was shocked by her obsession with Zamorna and his Angrian kingdom; he was her idol, her 'mental King' (Alexander, Early Writings, 142). Racked with guilt about the morality of Angria and her self-indulgence, she came close to confiding the fantasies of her emerging sexuality to Ellen Nussey, who could respond only with a conventional piety that exacerbated Charlotte's sense of sinfulness. Her 'bright, darling dream' had become an 'infernal world' that manifested itself externally in religious crisis. At the same time, Charlotte transferred her desperate need for love onto Ellen, to whom she now wrote in the tone of a lover, deploring her unworthiness and morbid sensibility: 'If you knew my thoughts; the dreams that absorb me; and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up and makes me feel Society as it is, wretched insipid you would pity and I dare say despise me' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 144). She feared that in her obsession for Ellen (as for Zamorna) she was in danger 'of losing sight of the Creator in idolatry of the creature' (ibid., 164), a phrase she later recast to characterize Jane Eyre's fear of obsession with Rochester.

Torn as she was between the conflicting claims of imagination and reality, Charlotte Brontë never wavered from the determination to make something of herself. During her Christmas holiday of 1836 she wrote to the poet laureate Robert Southey, sending copies of her verses, speaking of her ambition 'to be for ever known' as a poet, and asking for his judgement. His advice against the dangers of habitual day-dreams which produce 'a distempered state of mind' echoed her own fears, and his discouragement of her writing for publication might have crushed a lesser spirit: 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life: & it ought not to be' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 166–7). Southey expressed the conventional Victorian censure against women writers, an opinion which only increased Charlotte's frustration at the limits put on women's capacity to earn both a living and distinction. Yet she was grateful for his acknowledgement that she possessed 'the faculty of Verse' and her reply carefully notes that he did not actually forbid her to write so long as she did not neglect 'real duties' (ibid., 168). On the basis of such justification, and despite the continuing grind of teaching, she produced over sixty poems and six substantial novelettes (the latter written during holidays) in the two years before she left Miss Wooler's school at the end of 1838—a 'shattered wretch' (ibid., 178).

'Governess drudgery', farewell to Angria, and plans for a school

At home Charlotte gradually recovered her sense of equilibrium. Her letters show a new self-assurance and a more balanced affection for Ellen Nussey. There is a positive exuberance in her comments on the visits of her father's new curate, the flirtatious and handsome William Weightman, whose portrait she drew with skill and feeling (Alexander and Sellars, 254–5).

Charlotte Brontë's writing at this time demonstrates a new maturity, and a greater reliance on her own experience. Although she continued to use a male narrator, his character was altered, to that of the sardonic Charles Townshend. Elizabeth Hastings, the governess heroine of 'Henry Hastings' (February–March 1839), can be seen as a prototype of Jane Eyre, and Zamorna's seduction of his ward, Caroline, in 'Caroline Vernon' (July–December 1839) is viewed with cynicism rather than excitement; Zamorna is no longer the heart-throb, but simply an old Byronic roué preying on romantic innocence. These last two novelettes mark the end of Charlotte's overt involvement in the Angrian saga. Although she was to write numerous fragments over the next few years, and although Angria continued to provide material for future characterization, scene, and theme, she made a distinct move towards artistic independence from both her brother and her private world.

Publication was now Charlotte Brontë's aim. In December 1840 she sent one of her post-Angrian drafts, probably the fragmentary 'Ashworth' (Alexander, Early Writings, 203–9), to Hartley Coleridge for judgement. His censure of her 'Richardsonian Concern' stung, but failed to suppress her literary ambition. She justified her proliferation of characters as part of her creative process, a world produced 'out of one's own brain', peopled with inhabitants with whom she conversed daily. The habits of her Angrian apprenticeship were to remain in place throughout her literary career.

In the first six months of 1839 Charlotte refused two proposals of marriage, the first from the Revd Henry Nussey, Ellen's brother; the second from the Revd James Bryce, an Irishman whom she barely knew. Her decision to refuse Henry Nussey (whose style of proposal is echoed in that of St John Rivers in Jane Eyre) was brave and honest, since despite the fact that his support would relieve the need to provide her own living, Charlotte did not love him. She remained convinced of the need for self-respect and saw no reason why this should be denied to unmarried women: 'there is no more respectable character on this earth than an u[n]married woman who makes her own way through life quietly pers[e]veringly' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 448).

In May 1839 Charlotte took the temporary post of governess to the Sidgwick family at Stonegappe, Lothersdale, near Skipton, and soon found that the 'governess drudgery' at Roe Head was as nothing compared to the trials of being a private governess. In particular the position was an affront to her sense of pride in her own worth and in her intellectual superiority to her employers. She felt humiliated as an inferior and an outsider, expected to teach and dress unruly children, do the household mending in her spare evenings, and (like Jane Eyre) subdue her internal rebellion and make herself invisible in society: 'I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 191). By 19 June 1839 she had left the Sidgwicks' employment.

In March 1841 Charlotte again tried to reconcile herself to the inevitable: she became governess to the Whites of Upperwood House, Rawdon, near Leeds. By December she was home again, but her situation had been happier partly because of future plans now being made by the Brontë sisters. They intended to open their own school, either at Haworth, or in the East Riding of Yorkshire, which Charlotte had visited with Ellen on her first trip to the seaside in September 1839. There was also the tempting prospect of taking over Miss Wooler's school, which would still allow Charlotte to retain some control over her own life. But the offer was finally rejected in favour of further education on the continent.

Impatient of restraint, Charlotte longed for 'wings' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 266). She was acutely conscious of talents unexercised and a thirst for knowledge unquenched. Her friend Mary Taylor was already studying in Brussels; the school project would simply be postponed so that Charlotte and Emily could improve their languages and attract more pupils. Aunt Branwell agreed to provide the finance, and the 25-year-old Charlotte was ecstatic at the prospect of becoming a pupil again.


On 8 February 1842 Charlotte and Emily, accompanied by their father, set out for Brussels, staying in London for three days en route. Charlotte's impressions of London, the model for her Babylonian Verdopolis, are reflected in Lucy Snowe's narration in Villette when her spirit 'shook its always-fettered wings half loose' as if she were 'at last about to taste life' (chap. 6). The sisters enrolled at the Pensionnat Heger, 32 rue d'Isabelle, Brussels, initially for six months, but they were subsequently invited to stay on, Charlotte to teach English and Emily music in lieu of fees. The Hegers were impressed by the Brontës' application and remarkable progress. Charlotte was inspired by Constantin Heger's innovative teaching of French literature, and by his lessons in composition and literary analysis, which taught her to exercise control over her material and style. She became devoted to this fascinating master, cultured yet choleric, autocratic yet kind. She was less impressed by her dull schoolfellows, who were younger than Emily and herself and uninterested in intellectual pursuits.

Charlotte's studies were cut short by Aunt Elizabeth Branwell's death at the end of October; the sisters failed to arrive home in time for her funeral. Their homecoming was overshadowed by death: William Weightman had died of cholera in early September and Martha Taylor, the lively younger sister of Mary, had died in Brussels, also of cholera, a few weeks before Aunt Branwell. The sisters each received a legacy of £300 from their aunt. Emily was relieved to be able to stay at home and resume her role as housekeeper; Anne returned to her post as governess to the Robinson family of Thorp Green, taking Branwell with her as tutor to the Robinsons' son; and Charlotte returned alone to Brussels on 27 January 1843 as both teacher and pupil. She was soon confronted by a loneliness that dampened her buoyant spirits since she was too timid to accept the Hegers' invitation to join them in their private sitting-room. Mary Taylor had left Brussels, and there was, of course, no substitute for Emily's companionship. Furthermore she felt isolated as a protestant foreigner in a Roman Catholic country.

Charlotte grew increasingly dependent on the company of Constantin Heger, to whom she taught English in exchange for French lessons. She returned his kind gifts of French books and his genuine enthusiasm for her intellectual progress with a hero-worship that bordered on obsession. Mme Heger, an astute woman, became correspondingly more remote and less kind. When Charlotte was alone during the long summer vacation, her isolation and mental torture became too much: she wandered the streets and once, finding herself in the Catholic cathedral of Ste Gudule, vehement protestant though she was, had an overwhelming need to make confession. She later used this situation to powerful effect in Villette. By the end of the year Charlotte—'shaken' in mind and heart—had decided to return home to Haworth. Nevertheless her Brussels experience had been one of personal and professional growth, and it furnished her with significant material for her later novels, especially The Professor and Villette.

A renewal of the old plan to open a school for girls at the parsonage failed to attract pupils and was abandoned. Haworth was no longer a happy place for Charlotte. She was depressed by M. Heger's failure to respond to her letters and by Mary Taylor's departure for New Zealand. Patrick Brontë's sight was failing fast and he needed assistance. After Anne resigned her post at Thorp Green in June 1845 Charlotte gained some relief in a three-week visit to Ellen Nussey who was staying at Hathersage in Derbyshire. There she met the Eyre family and saw their ancestral home, North Lees Hall, where a mad woman was once kept in an upper room. On her return in late July she was confronted by a further trial: Branwell had been dismissed from his post for conduct 'bad beyond expression', having been discovered in an affair with Mrs Robinson (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 412). Unlike Charlotte, Branwell indulged his misery and became a strain on the family, resorting to the alcohol and opium that were to lead to his rapid decline.

Charlotte's own torment of unrequited love remained a secret from her family; it manifested itself in the headaches and 'sickliness' she suffered throughout the rest of her life whenever she was depressed or under stress. Her burning need for some sign of recognition from her old master is revealed in the few surviving examples of the many passionate letters she wrote to him. Almost seventy years later these letters (now in the British Library) were published in The Times for 29 July 1913, one of the saddest records of 'a consuming sentiment burning down self-respect and self-restraint' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 63–4).

Publication of Poems (1846) by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell

Charlotte Brontë eventually alleviated her depression through writing and through the prospect of authorship. In September 1845 she made her famous discovery of one of Emily's notebooks of poetry, and persuaded her very secretive sister that they merited publication. Together with Anne the sisters made a selection of their verses, removed Angrian and Gondal references and polished the poems for publication. They chose pseudonyms designed to avoid criticism based on gender. Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell appeared in May 1846, published by Aylott and Jones at the authors' expense (£31 10s. paid from their aunt's legacy). Only two copies were sold, yet several favourable reviews and the satisfaction of seeing their work in print provided the stimulus needed for the sisters to pursue their ambitions as authors. For Charlotte especially it acted as an antidote to her grief at M. Heger's silence, and to her disappointment over Branwell's deteriorating behaviour.

Meanwhile the Brontë sisters had been reworking and expanding earlier prose drafts into novels designed to reach a wider audience. Charlotte Brontë completed The Professor (27 June), transforming her Brussels experience into an exploration of a happier teacher–pupil relationship; Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, recasting much of the material from her Gondal saga; and Anne Brontë wrote Agnes Grey, based on her life as a governess. Together the three manuscripts were hawked around various publishers for a year and a half, always travelling in the same reused wrapper that betrayed the signs of previous rejection. Finally in July 1847 Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were accepted for publication by Thomas Cautley Newby. But The Professor suffered repeated rejection. The novel had been a calculated reaction against the imaginative excesses of Angria: Charlotte had turned from 'that burning clime … to a cooler region where the dawn breaks grey and sober' (Farewell to Angria, 1839), and the resulting suppression of her imaginative and poetic energy was not a happy one. The Professor was never published in Charlotte Brontë's lifetime, although she often returned to her first novel during her literary career, in an effort to revive what she referred to as her 'idiot child'. The firm of Smith, Elder & Co. (who finally published The Professor on 6 June 1857) had sent encouraging comments with the return of her first manuscript; so it was to them that she now offered a work of 'more vivid interest' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 535), begun in Manchester where Charlotte had attended her father during his cataract operation in August 1846.

Jane Eyre (1847)

Jane Eyre: an Autobiography, 'edited by Currer Bell', was enthusiastically received, was published in three volumes on 19 October 1847, and became one of the year's best-sellers. Speculation was rife about the identity of the author and whether or not it was the work of a woman. The story of the abused orphan child whose sense of injustice and self-worth leads through rebellion and containment to a liberation of the spirit, was both inspirational and threatening for Victorian readers who saw the novel as a potent form of moral and social commentary. Jane Eyre's plea for the equality of all before God, and for spiritual affinity in marriage, was radical. Some critics saw the relationship between Jane and Rochester as improper, and an influential review by Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake) in the Quarterly Review (December 1848) condemned the novel as 'pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition' and, if by a woman, the work of an immoral one who has 'long forfeited the society of her own sex' (E. Rigby, Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre, QR, 84, 1848, 173–4).

All Charlotte Brontë's heroines were seen by many contemporary readers as 'unfeminine' in their displays of deep feeling and independent expression. Jane Eyre's impassioned individualism and personal acts of rebellion against authority and social convention were seen as vigorous and powerfully original, but also as alarmingly analogous to political ferment of the time. Rigby and other guardians of public morality saw the novel as subversive:

We do not hesitate to say that the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.

QR, 84, 1848, 173

Yet the powerful romance of Jane Eyre caught the imagination of readers. The 'grey and sober' character of the rejected Professor had been replaced by a more sensational story, more imaginative writing, and more sustained suspense. Material was still drawn from Charlotte Brontë's own experience—early schooling at Cowan Bridge, childhood memories of fairy tale and early reading, employment as a governess, local houses and tales of mad women immured in attics, her unrequited love for Monsieur Heger, and the like—but this material was transformed by a colourful and intricate pattern of contrasting character and imagery, and unified by the consciousness of the narrator heroine. Her ‘autobiographical’ technique allowed her to expand social conceptions of reality to include emotion and imagination. By emphasizing the importance of a balance between reason and passion in Jane's journey towards social and spiritual maturity, Charlotte Brontë created a Bildungsroman focused not only on the individual's negotiation of the external world but on the well-being of one's interior life. The reader is apprised of Jane's internal world through the use of biblical, literary, and pictorial allusion, through fairy tale, dream, and myth. The poetic use of natural imagery (of fire and ice, and the moon), in particular, enables psychological states to be externalized. Thus the more melodramatic and Gothic elements of the novel are woven into the realistic narrative of an entirely credible character who engages the reader both intellectually and emotionally. This fusion between romance and realism is hailed as Charlotte Brontë's major contribution to the form of the novel.

By January 1848 a second revised edition of Jane Eyre had appeared, dedicated to Thackeray; a third edition followed in April, with a note stating that this was the only novel Currer Bell had written. Newby had finally published Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey by early December 1847, rushing to capitalize on the success of Jane Eyre, whose author was obviously related to Ellis and Acton Bell. He then embarked on a clever but unscrupulous advertising campaign to confuse the identity of the three Bell 'brothers', suggesting that the novels—including Anne's Tenant of Wildfell Hall (June 1848)—were the work of one person. Charlotte and Anne travelled to London to confront Newby with his lies and to allay the concerns of Smith, Elder & Co., by proving their separate identities. They were given a warm welcome by George Smith and his reader William Smith Williams, and taken to the opera, the Royal Academy, and the National Gallery.

Family tragedy and the writing of Shirley (1849)

Charlotte Brontë's first taste of literary celebrity soon paled beside an onslaught of family tragedy. She later confided to Smith Williams:

A year ago—had a prophet warned me how I should stand in June 1849—how stripped and bereaved—had he foretold the autumn, the winter, the spring of sickness and suffering to be gone through—I should have thought—this can never be endured.

Wise and Symington, 2.340

On her return from London Charlotte had begun the first volume of her next novel, Shirley; but within a month it was laid aside as first Branwell died, followed by Emily and Anne in rapid succession.

Branwell's lack of self-discipline was obvious to Charlotte from an early age, yet she shared her family's hopes that the sacrifices made for this favoured and talented son might bring their reward. However, the burden of family expectation and an inability to persevere with routine meant that Branwell was unable to settle to a career. The grandiose expectations of his Angrian world paralysed his humble efforts in the real world: he failed as a portrait painter, a railway clerk, and a tutor. He never made the long-planned trip to London to enter the schools of the Royal Academy of Art. He died aged thirty-one of chronic bronchitis on 24 September 1848, his constitution ravaged by addiction to alcohol and opiates.

Twentieth-century biographers have complained of Charlotte's lack of sympathy for her debauched brother, overlooking the fact that, of all the family, her expectations and disappointment may have been the greatest. The most ambitious of her siblings, she conspired in exaggerating Branwell's capabilities, vicariously seeking through him the professional fulfilment she could not achieve as a daughter. The severity of her bitterness at the dissipation of his talents suggests that she suffered a sense of bereavement long before Branwell actually died. For her his death was a mercy; she felt only pity for his wasted life.

The day of Branwell's funeral was the last time that Emily left the parsonage. She caught a cold, grew rapidly weaker and—refusing to consult a doctor despite Charlotte's desperate pleas—died with relentless stoicism on 19 December 1848, of pulmonary tuberculosis, aged thirty. Almost immediately Charlotte recognized the same symptoms of tuberculosis in Anne. In May 1849, she and Ellen Nussey took Anne to her beloved sea at Scarborough with hopes of restoring her health, but within the month Anne too was dead, at the age of twenty-nine. Charlotte was now left desolate. She had lost not only two beloved sisters but her sole support for her literary endeavours. Together the three Brontës had discussed their plots, style, and characters; Charlotte felt lonely and vulnerable in what was now a 'silent workshop of [her] own brain' (Wise and Symington, 3.21). Yet, as always, she persevered, completing Shirley by the end of August, grateful that she had an occupation and the courage to pursue it.

Shirley celebrates the need perceived by Charlotte Brontë for activity in women's lives, and their right to self-respecting work. In this book, published in three volumes on 26 October 1849 by Smith, Elder, Charlotte abandoned the directly personal female voice of Jane Eyre and adopted a more authoritative, often satirical, third-person narrator in order to challenge the reader's assumptions about women's nature and education, and about contemporary interpretations of religious and political controversy. The novel examines the lives of Shirley Keeldar (based in part on Emily) and Caroline Helstone, two women of contrasting natures and ambition, against a broad socio-historical perspective at the time of the Luddite riots in the West Riding of Yorkshire (1811–12). Keen to avoid the 'passion, and stimulus, and melodrama' (Shirley, chap. 1) for which she had been criticized in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë began her novel with a realist manifesto promising 'something as unromantic as Monday morning'. She intended Shirley to be a mid-century ‘condition of England’ novel, commenting by analogy with the Luddite period, on industrial unrest in the 1840s, on the struggles of the Chartists, and on dissatisfaction with the government, and with a church split by sectarian controversy. Her more urgent agenda, however, was articulated in her letter to Smith Williams, on 12 May 1848: 'I often wish to say something about the “condition of women” question' (Wise and Symington, 2.215–16). The resultant split between the novel's social and political preoccupations and its exploration of the personal lives of the two heroines has been viewed by many readers as a basic flaw in its structure.

Nevertheless, Shirley has maintained its status as a socio-historical novel. As with all of Charlotte Brontë's novels, the text is rich in literary and religious allusion; despite reservations about 'Yorkshire roughness' and a lack of 'good taste' (Allott, 165), contemporary critics praised the work for its cleverness and power. The identity of Currer Bell was again an issue and readers had a field day identifying not only the presumed 'female' author but also the thinly disguised models for many of her characters and places. G. H. Lewes, with whom Charlotte Brontë had corresponded after his positive review of Jane Eyre, attacked Shirley for its 'over-masculine vigour' and the 'intolerable rudeness' of all her characters (p. 163), provoking her celebrated outburst: 'I can be on my guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!' (Wise and Symington, 3.67).

Loneliness and literary celebrity

Literary success became Charlotte Brontë's passport to 'the society of clever people'. Ironically, her acute shyness made this long-standing ambition a trial as much as a blessing. In November 1849 she went to London to stay with George Smith and his mother, fulfilling another ambition to see the works of artists she had admired since childhood and to meet her literary hero William Makepeace Thackeray. She had been mortified to learn (January 1848) that her dedication of the second edition of Jane Eyre, meant as a compliment to Thackeray, had caused him to be the butt of malicious gossip. She had been unaware of the parallel between Thackeray's marriage to a wife who was now insane and incarcerated, and that of Mr Rochester. Thus her dedication to the author of Vanity Fair, whose heroine was also a governess, lent further credence to the speculation that Currer Bell had been a governess in Thackeray's family. Although Thackeray had been magnanimous, thanking her for 'the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life' (Wise and Symington, 2.183), the ordeal of finally meeting him at the Smiths' dinner party (4 December 1849) left her too nervous to eat and awed into silence. By comparison, her visit to Harriet Martineau, an equally formidable figure, was a relief. While in London, Charlotte also attended a Turner exhibition at the National Gallery, saw William Charles Macready acting in Macbeth and Othello, and visited the new houses of parliament.

Charlotte stayed with the Smiths again in May 1850, visiting the Royal Academy and the opera, dining with Thackeray, seeing her childhood hero the duke of Wellington, and having her portrait drawn by George Richmond, the celebrated society artist. In July she met the Smiths in Edinburgh, and the following month stayed with Sir James Kay Shuttleworth near Windermere, where she met Elizabeth Gaskell, her future biographer. In May 1851 Charlotte made a further visit to London where she visited the Great Exhibition three times, and saw the actress Rachel (whom she recreated as Vashti in Villette) perform twice. With George Smith (and under the assumed names of Mr and Miss Fraser) she went to a phrenologist to have her character read. On her final visit (January 1853) Charlotte was determined to see the ‘real’ life of London—the prisons, the hospitals, the Bank of England, and the stock exchange. Fame and its attendant social exposure, however, took its toll. Charlotte could never be at ease among strangers and her constitution was far from robust. Without her sisters to share the success, literary fame had lost much of its lustre.

Harriet Martineau was impressed by Charlotte Brontë's powerful intellect and her physical appearance, describing her as 'the smallest creature I had ever seen (except at a fair) and her eyes blazed'. Charlotte was proud of her large hazel eyes, but was acutely conscious of defects in the rest of her features. Contemporaries noted her 'excessive anxiety about her personal appearance' and her 'quaint old-fashioned look' (Wise and Symington, 3.52). Having her portrait drawn by Richmond was a nerve-racking ordeal, so much so that when the artist mistook her unfashionable hairpiece for padding for her hat and asked her to remove it, Charlotte was reduced to tears of embarrassment (Barker, 644). Her paralysing shyness prevented her from shining on social occasions. Thackeray remembered 'the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes' (Wise and Symington, 3.46) and he admired her ability to spy out 'arrogance or affectation, with extraordinary keenness of vision', but the dinner party that he held for her on 2 June 1850 was a notorious failure: instead of the brilliant conversation his company expected, they were ignored by the guest of honour who spent most of the evening in a corner talking to the governess. Apparently Thackeray sneaked off to his club, leaving his guests to entertain themselves (ibid., 50).

One bonus of success, however, was an increase in correspondence and contact with a variety of new people once Charlotte had returned to Haworth. W. S. Williams at Smith, Elder had been her literary and personal confidant for a number of years, and she now corresponded with writers and critics like G. H. Lewes, Sydney Dobell, and Julia Kavanagh. She formed a genuine friendship with Elizabeth Gaskell, staying with her in Manchester (April 1853), and with the formidable Harriet Martineau, with whom she stayed at Ambleside (December 1850). She refused a proposal of marriage from James Taylor, an employee of Smith, Elder, but wished him well when he left to establish the firm in India. Letters and gifts of books from her publishers kept Charlotte in touch with the literary scene and provided a retreat from the loneliness of the parsonage at Haworth and the uninvited attentions of visitors curious to meet Currer Bell.

On 10 December 1850 Charlotte Brontë's edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appeared, now published by Smith, Elder, and prefaced with a 'Biographical notice' (Wuthering Heights, ed. Marsden and Jack, 435–44). She found the writing of the latter painful but was determined to perform this 'sacred duty' to counter all erroneous conjectures about her sisters' identities and their characters and to justify the so-called 'coarseness' of their writing. In doing so, she became her sisters' interpreter to the world, accounting for the 'eccentricities' and the 'secret power and fire' of Emily's writing by recourse to a theory of Romantic genius: 'the writer who possesses the creative gift owns something of which he is not always master'. She explained that Anne, reserved and long-suffering, was driven by honesty not to 'varnish, soften or conceal'. Thus the myth of the Brontë sisters, untutored in the ways of the world but impelled by a sense of truth and writing purely 'from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition', was established, to be further propagated by future critics and biographers.

Charlotte Brontë's role as editor of her sisters' works is surprisingly inconsistent with her wish to honour their integrity. She added a selection of their poems to the new 1850 edition, ‘improving’ the original texts not only by removing all reference to the imaginary world of Gondal, but also by altering words and adding lines that often changed the meaning and tone of the original. Modern writers have censured such intervention in the text, and they have criticized her for her faint praise of Agnes Grey and her dismissal of the choice of subject of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as 'an entire mistake'. Charlotte Brontë certainly believed that there were certain subjects not suitable for novelistic treatment, and she refused to allow the republication of The Tenant, arguing that the subject was incongruous with her sister's nature and that Anne Brontë had persevered with the work only out of a morbid sense of duty to portray debauchery realistically as a warning to others.

Villette, marriage, and death

Charlotte Brontë was now under constant pressure from her publishers and her proud father to produce another novel. She found the writing of Villette therapeutic but difficult. In this novel, published on 28 January 1853, Charlotte returned to her forte: the female autobiographical mode of narration. An older Lucy Snowe, made cold and duplicitous by adversity, tells the story of her experience as an English teacher in a girls' school in Villette (Brussels); of her suppressed attraction to the handsome English doctor, John Graham Bretton (based on George Smith, Charlotte's young publisher); and of her fascination and love for Monsieur Paul Emanuel, a despotic little professor (based on Constantin Heger). Charlotte's last novel reflects her maturity as both writer and woman. The sophistication of the style is revealed in the way Lucy's narration repeatedly traps and encloses the reader in false assumptions, reflecting the disturbing effects that social repression has had on Lucy herself. Her deception and unreliability are part of the self-protective facade that Charlotte saw as a necessity for a woman's survival in society. Violent metaphors define the repression of self: Lucy knocks on the head her longings to escape her present existence, 'driving a nail through [her] temples'; but they are only 'transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench' (chap. 12). Through Lucy Snowe, the author expressed the bitterness of her resentment at having to live 'a buried life'.

Critical response to Villette was favourable, but the cynical tone did not go unremarked. Despite Charlotte Brontë's efforts to subdue emotion in the novel, Matthew Arnold found nothing but 'hunger, rebellion and rage' in the mind of its author (Allott, 201). Charlotte was deeply hurt that her friend Harriet Martineau found the book 'intolerably painful' and resented the writer's dwelling on the need to be loved (ibid., 172). As previously, with G. H. Lewes's review of Shirley, Charlotte felt both personally and professionally betrayed by a friend; her correspondence with Martineau ceased, but the rupture did not prevent Martineau from paying a warm tribute to Charlotte in her obituary notice. Charlotte was disappointed too by the financial returns from a publisher she trusted. Smith, Elder offered her only £500 for the manuscript of Villette (Transactions of the Brontë Society, 18, 1982, 92.113), the same price she had received for each of her earlier novels, compared to Elizabeth Gaskell's £2000 for her last novel from the same publisher. Charlotte Brontë's total literary earnings were only about £1500.

In the last years of her life Charlotte achieved a personal happiness that had for so long escaped her. Arthur Bell Nicholls (1819–1906), her father's curate for seven years, had been quietly developing a passionate attachment to her, yet Charlotte was shocked when he suddenly proposed marriage. Patrick Brontë was furious and Nicholls left the parish. Although Nicholls had made little impression on Charlotte, except as a model for one of the more competent curates in Shirley, she was now moved by his obvious love for her, by his distress, and by her own embarrassment at the cruel hostility of her father. A secret correspondence led to their engagement and to Nicholls's return to Haworth. They were married in Haworth church on 29 June 1854, spent their honeymoon in Ireland where Charlotte met the uncle and aunt who had raised Nicholls, and returned to Haworth parsonage to look after Patrick Brontë.

Charlotte's letters clearly reveal her genuine happiness, despite the difficulties of adjusting to a reduced independence. In the months before her marriage, she had begun the introductory chapters of a new novel, 'Emma'; now this was abandoned for a new found pleasure in domesticity. Her late found happiness, however, was not to last. Weakened by excessive morning sickness in the early stages of pregnancy, Charlotte caught a chill and died on 31 March 1855, less than a year after her marriage. She was buried four days later in the family vault beneath the aisle of Haworth parish church. Her death certificate records 'phthisis' (tuberculosis) but Dr Philip Rhodes, following Gaskell's description, diagnoses (hyperemesis gravidarumsevere vomiting in pregnancy; Transactions of the Brontë Society, 16, 1971, 2.106–8), a judgement now generally accepted but disputed by J. Maynard (Maynard, 218–24).

The pursuit of truth

When she first chose a male pseudonym, Charlotte Brontë had only a vague idea that women writers were looked on with prejudice. She was shocked to find that even her mode of thinking was viewed by critics as 'unfeminine'. Her unconventional upbringing and her religious training had bred in her a tenacious commitment to truth. Her whole being rose up in rebellion against the need to dissemble: the strain of disguising her loathing of teaching, of living in other people's houses, of being unable to admit (even to herself) her love for a married man, had produced in her not only mental torment but periodic bouts of migraine and intense depression that she referred to as 'the tyranny of Hypochondria' (Letters of Charlotte Brontë, 505), a phrase she also used in Jane Eyre. When she had applied herself to a conventional mode of learning, as in her diligent reproduction of engravings, her imagination had been stultified and her artistic ambitions thwarted. She told her publishers (September 1848):

Unless I have something of my own to say, and a way of my own to say it in, I have no business to publish. Unless I can look beyond the greatest Masters, and study Nature herself, I have no right to paint. Unless I can have the courage to use the language of Truth in preference to the jargon of Conventionality, I ought to be silent.

Wise and Symington, 2.255

The pursuit of truth became the guiding principle in Charlotte Brontë's literary career. Her novels are not only a statement of the position of women in the mid-nineteenth century, but also a timeless plea for the intellectual worth of women, for their financial independence and equality in marriage, for the right to express their passionate selves, and for a religious commitment to truth in life and art. Thackeray paid tribute to 'that intrepid outspeaker and champion of truth, that eager, impetuous redresser of wrong' when he published Charlotte's last fragmentary sketch, 'Emma', in the newly founded Cornhill Magazine (April 1860).

Posthumous reputation and historical significance

Charlotte Brontë was one of the most distinguished novelists of her time, projecting through her heroines the strength of women's intellect and sexuality, as well as her own struggle for integrity and self-sufficiency. Her writing gave a new authority to the female voice in fiction. In the years immediately following her death, Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of her friend (The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857) did much to stress her reputation for courage and integrity. Gaskell had known her only in the last sad years of her life and had been struck by her quiet survival in a life marred by a wastrel brother, a harsh father, and the deaths of her sisters: 'the wonder to me is how she can have kept heart and power alive in her life of desolation' (The Letters of Mrs Gaskell, ed. J. A. V. Chapple and A. Pollard, 1966, 10–12). Using her novelistic skills and building on Charlotte Brontë's own construction of her sisters as romantic heroines (in the 'Biographical notice'), Gaskell portrayed her subject as a long-suffering daughter whose tragic life had been directed by duty and stoicism. The biography was a monumental success, moderating negative judgements about Charlotte's unwomanly writing and establishing a mythology about the Brontës' lives for over a century.

Subsequent decades proved less kind to Charlotte Brontë as an artist. By the end of the century her novels were seen as emotionally subjective and intellectually inferior because, as Leslie Stephen put it, her novels are simply 'the study of her life'. Stephen was replying to Swinburne's 'unfashionable' claims for 'the genius of Charlotte Brontë' (in a Note in Cornhill, December 1877), and his influential judgement shaped the view held by critics in the first half of the twentieth century, namely that Charlotte Brontë is an author with a powerful imagination who wrote in a 'surging flood of self-revelation' but who is a failure as a 'craftsman' (Lord David Cecil, Early Victorian Novelists, 1934). Even with the advent of the new criticism in the 1940s and 1950s, which severed biography from the text, her work was still judged to be lacking in 'formal unity'. In 1948 she was excluded from F. R. Leavis's 'great tradition' of English novelists.

In the last thirty years, however, critics have rehabilitated Charlotte Brontë's reputation by an examination of both the artistry and the socio-historical context of her work. Feminist criticism, in particular, has reorientated debate about the importance of her novels, arguing that earlier values of unity and rationality are no longer unquestioned indicators of literary merit. The passion and rebellion in Charlotte Brontë's writing are now seen as inspirational, and recent critical studies emphasize her intellectual engagement with political, religious, social, and artistic controversies of her time. Her juvenilia, now fully recovered and edited, are seen as a revealing source of her literary apprenticeship and as an indication of her early reading. The later ‘juvenile’ manuscripts are accomplished novelettes in their own right and are now used in schools to provide inspiration for young writers. Twentieth-century critics prize Villette for its sophisticated narration and ambiguity, but Jane Eyre has maintained its appeal as Charlotte Brontë's most popular novel.

Jane Eyre has always been something of a literary phenomenon. The tale of the little governess, 'disconnected, poor, and plain', whose strength of spirit and intellect fortifies her in her pilgrimage towards self-respect and true love, has had a powerful appeal for a variety of international audiences. The novel has been rediscovered by new generations of readers and translated into many languages. It has been reworked for stage, film, ballet, opera, and television. Artists like Edmund Dulac (1905 and 1922) have been inspired to illustrate the novels. Film-makers from Orson Welles (1944) to Franco Zeffirelli (1996) have reinterpreted the characters. Writers such as Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, 1938) and Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966) have found inspiration for their own novels in Jane Eyre; and the passionate internal struggle of the heroine in Jane Campion's film The Piano (1993) owes much to Jane Eyre's pursuit of self-sufficiency and love in the face of a stultifying convention. Jane Eyre itself has been interpreted not only in the context of women's liberation but (with a concentration on Jane's ‘other’—the imprisoned wife, Bertha) in terms of sexual and racial repression. Each successive generation has found its own concerns and cultural values in Charlotte Brontë's classic novel.


  • The letters of Charlotte Brontë, with a selection of letters by family and friends, ed. M. Smith, vol. 1, 1829–1847 (1995)
  • T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, eds., The Brontës: their lives, friendships and correspondence, 4 vols. (1932)
  • C. Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. J. Jack and M. Smith, Clarendon edition, 1 (1969)
  • C. Brontë, Shirley, ed. H. Rosengarten and M. Smith, Clarendon edition, 3 (1979)
  • C. Brontë, Villette, ed. H. Rosengarten and M. Smith, Clarendon edition, 4 (1984)
  • C. Brontë, The professor, ed. M. Smith and H. Rosengarten, Clarendon edition, 5 (1987)
  • E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, ed. H. Marsden and I. Jack, Clarendon edition (1976)
  • E. C. Gaskell, The life of Charlotte Brontë, 2 vols. (1857)
  • E. C. Gaskell, The life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. A. Shelston, 2 vols. (1975)
  • C. Brontë and E. J. Brontë, The Belgian essays: a critical edition, ed. and trans. S. Lonoff (1996)
  • C. Alexander and J. Sellars, The art of the Brontës (1994) [incl. catalogue of art work]
  • An edition of the early writings of Charlotte Brontë, ed. C. Alexander, 3 vols. (1987–91)
  • C. Alexander, The early writings of Charlotte Brontë (1983)
  • J. Barker, The Brontës (1995)
  • C. Alexander, A bibliography of the manuscripts of Charlotte Brontë (1982)
  • M. Allott, ed., The Brontës: the critical heritage (1974)
  • E. McNees, ed., The Brontë sisters: critical assessments, 4 vols. (1996)
  • J. Maynard, Charlotte Brontë and sexuality (1984)
  • P. Nestor, Charlotte Brontë (1987)
  • W. Reid, Charlotte Brontë: a monograph (1877)
  • C. Alexander, ‘Charlotte Brontë at Roe Head’, Jane Eyre, ed. R. J. Dunn, 2nd edn, Norton Critical edition (1987) [includes text of The Roe Head Journal]
  • W. Gérin, Charlotte Brontë: the evolution of genius (1967)
  • J. Stevens, Mary Taylor, friend of Charlotte Brontë: letters from New Zealand and elsewhere (1972)
  • T. Winnifrith, The Brontës and their background: romance and reality (1973)
  • M. Peters, Unquiet soul: a biography of Charlotte Brontë (1975)
  • H. Moglen, Charlotte Brontë: the self conceived (1976)
  • L. Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: a passionate life (1994)
  • A. C. Swinburne, A note on Charlotte Brontë (1877)



  • B. Brontë, group portrait, oils, 1834 (The Brontë sisters), NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Richmond, coloured chalk drawing, 1850, NPG
  • photograph, 1879, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire
  • E. Walker, glass negative, NPG

Wealth at Death

approximately £2000: letters, esp. to George Smith, 18 April 1854, Brontë Society Transactions, 18, pt 92 (1982), 113

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