Charlotte Bronte is best known for her novel Jane Eyre, and for the fact that her family produced not one but three female novelists. Emily Bronte is celebrated for her poetry and for her work Wuthering Heights. Ann Bronte wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which enjoyed a renewed critical interest after a 1996 BBC production.
Unfortunately, the Bronte Sisters, and their brother Branwell all died very young. Two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died after becoming ill at the school they attended with Emily and Charlotte, the Clergy Daughter’s School. These deaths would influence the treatment of illness in Jane Eyre at the Lowood Charity School which Jane attends.
Biographers of Charlotte Bronte describe an unusual childhood. Branwell, Emily, Ann and Charlotte developed an imaginary world called Angria, based on Branwell’s toy soldiers. The Brontes' father was an evangelical clergyman, sometimes quite hard on the children. Charlotte was sent back to school at Roe Head, where she later became a teacher. Yet her father demanded her presence at home to teach her younger sisters a year later.
Bronte was well familiar with the “governess trade” she describes in Jane Eyre and in Villette. She worked as a governess for two families before returning home to attempt to open a school with Emily. The school failed, but Charlotte took hers, Emily’s and Ann’s poems and had them published. Bronte wrote under the pseudonym Curer Bell, since work submitted by men was more likely to be published.
Also in 1846, Charlotte Bronte attempted publication of her first novel The Professor . It was rejected by publishers, and many critics feel it is a rather immature work, with a subject almost identical to that of Villette. Villette, a novel about a penniless woman who moves to France to make her way as a teacher, differs from Bronte’s first novel in that it employs narration by a female rather than male character. It also stands as a serious attack on both the French and Catholicism.
1848 saw the publication of three Bronte sister novels, Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights. Unfortunately, though the year brought literary triumph to the Brontes, it also brought personal tragedy. Their beloved brother Branwell succumbed to illness after a longstanding addiction to both alcohol and opium. His reckless habits made Charlotte feel some relief at his passing. However, Branwell’s death was followed by that of Emily in the same year, and Ann the year after.
Charlotte Bronte, as the sole remaining sibling fought “melancholia” or more properly termed, deep depression, after her sisters’ deaths. Her novel Shirley was published in 1849, and its title character is thought to have been modeled on Ann. It is a fitting tribute, and moreover, is considered by feminist critics to be the most important and forward thinking of Bronte’s work. The title character is an independent woman who makes her own decisions without regard to the advice of her male relatives and friends.
Villette was published in 1853, two years before Bronte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nichols. Sadly, Bronte contracted pneumonia while pregnant with her first child, and died that same year in 1855, at only 39 years old. The Professor was published posthumously in 1857. Despite a short list of works, she was well respected among her contemporary authors, and maintained a close friendship with fellow novelist, Elizabeth Gaskell.
Gaskell’s work, The Life of Charlotte Bronte is still considered by many to be the best biography of Bronte’s life. Gaskell’s biography later inspired feminist critics to argue for Bronte’s inclusion in the literary canon, and Bronte is now much read in college literature courses. Critics differ as to which of Bronte’s four novels is her best, but find something to praise in all of them. Her work is an important step in the development of feminist thinking, as well as being simply excellent work on its own terms.