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Brontë, Charlotte

novel relationship jane published

(British, 1816–55)

Charlotte Brontë was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire but was brought up in the parsonage at Haworth where her father was perpetual curate. Charlotte was educated largely at home but the periods which she spent away were to prove fertile ground for her later novels. As a child she was sent to school at Cowan Bridge, the unhealthy situation of which led to the deaths of her two elder sisters. Later, she and her sister Emily travelled to Brussels to learn languages and teach. Here Charlotte met the charismatic but married M. Heger, with whom she enjoyed a brief, intense personal relationship. On her return to Haworth, he refused to answer her letters and their correspondence ceased. From 1844 Charlotte and her sisters wrote prolifically, and in 1846 their poetry was published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Jane Eyre's publication in the next year, and its immediate success, was overshadowed by illness in the family. When her remaining siblings died Charlotte was left to support her ailing and demanding father alone, until she married the Revd A. B. Nicholls. Within a few months she herself died.

In all of Charlotte Brontë's novels an unprepossessing heroine, socially deprived and very much alone in the world, struggles to find love and achieve fulfilment. Charlotte Brontë's first published novel was Jane Eyre (1847), appearing under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. Jane, an orphan, suffers torments as the poor relation in the Reed family, adult cruelty at Lowood School (a barely disguised Cowan Bridge), and the grinding monotony of life as a governess at Thornfield until she meets its master, the Byronic, enigmatic Mr Rochester. Her romance with him is central to the rest of the novel, although Christian duty presents itself in the form of the would-be missionary, St John Rivers. The novel has been filmed and televised many times, but no adaptation can do justice to its highly charged emotional prose and the intelligent analysis of the plight of the single Victorian woman.

Shirley (1849), Brontë's next novel, is more overtly political, set in Yorkshire in the time of the Luddite riots, and articulating the condition of women through two heroines, the assertive and independent Shirley, and the oppressed Caroline Helstone, whose impoverished circumstances threaten her relationship with the man she loves. Caroline's sufferings are examined minutely, as are those of Brontë's next heroine, Lucy Snowe, in Villette (1853). Villette is a Belgian town where Lucy goes to teach, and for much of the time she suffers from depression, described with an almost surreal intensity. Her relationship with the teacher M. Paul comes to dominate the last part of the novel. The Professor (1857) was published posthumously and was in fact Brontë's first novel, in which she relives her relationship with M. Heger through that of William Crimsworth and his female fellow pupil-teacher.

Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss).


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