As the author of vivid, intensely written novels, Brontë broke the traditional nineteenth-century fictional stereotype of a woman as submissive, dependent, beautiful, and ignorant. Her first novel, Jane Eyre (1847), was immediately recognized for its originality and power, though it was some time before its author was universally accepted to be a woman, rather than Currer Bell, the masculine pseudonym she consistently employed. Since then, Brontë has been considered by critics as one of the foremost authors of the nineteenth century, an important precursor to feminist novelists, and the creator of intelligent, independent heroines who asserted their rights as women long before those rights were recognized by society.
Brontë was born April 21, 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire. The eldest surviving daughter in a family of six, she assisted her aunt and her father in raising the three younger children, including her brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne. Her mother, Maria Branwell of Cornwall, died from cancer in 1821, at the age of thirty-eight. Two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died of consumption in 1825. Her father, Patrick Brontë, was a strict Yorkshire clergymen who forbade his offspring from socializing with other children in the village of Haworth, where he had been appointed perpetual curate. Instead, he promoted self-education and encouraged his children to read the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott, as well as newspapers and monthly magazines. Brontë attended a school near Mirfield, Roe Head, for a year before returning home to tutor her younger siblings. She and Branwell began writing their own stories and poems together, set in the imaginary world of Angria; a volume of Brontë's juvenilia in this vein was published posthumously as Legends of Angria (1933). In 1835, Brontë returned to Roe Head as a teacher, while first Emily and then Anne attended the school, though she continued working with Branwell on their Angrian stories. After Anne completed school, Brontë also returned to Haworth, taking occasional positions as a governess. Her interest in writing continued, and she corresponded with established authors of the day, seeking their advice. The poet laureate Robert Southey told her that "literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it." Meanwhile, the family developed a plan to open a school run by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; Charlotte and Emily traveled to Brussels to further their education, but the school never came to fruition. While in Brussels, Charlotte did develop a relationship with her married instructor, Constantin Heger; Heger was supportive of her writing, but their closeness eventually angered his wife, who put a stop to the friendship. Some critics believe Heger to be a model for the character of Rochester in Jane Eyre. Back in Haworth, Brontë became alienated from her former writing partner Branwell, as his alcoholism and immoral conduct became increasingly disturbing to her. She drew closer to her sisters following the discovery of Emily's secret manuscript of poems. Anne, too, expressed an interest in writing, and the three collectively published their poems as Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846), using male pseudonyms to make publication easier. The book sold two copies. Undeterred, Brontë wrote her first novel, The Professor (1857), but could not find a publisher. Her second novel, Jane Eyre, was more successful: the work was accepted for publication immediately and was praised by such diverse readers as Queen Victoria and George Eliot. The popularity of Jane Eyre brought Brontë into the society of authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Matthew Arnold, and Harriet Martineau. She began work on the ambitious novel Shirley (1849), a love story set in the context of an early Yorkshire labor movement, but the loss of her siblings intervened. Branwell died in September 1848, then Emily became ill and died in December of the same year. Brontë had just begun writing again when Anne also became ill, dying in May 1849. Biographers speculate that the completion of Shirley provided a form of therapeutic release for Brontë. The loss of her siblings, however, represented a loss of her writing partners as well. The sisters had exchanged manuscripts and offered authorial advice to each other; writing in solitude presented a challenge. In 1852, she returned to her first effort, The Professor, and attempted to expand it, accepting the guidance of her father in styling the work for publication. She took the general plot of The Professor, greatly expanded its themes and characterizations, altered the ending (which Mr. Brontë had found too unhappy), and adapted elements of the popular Gothic style. The resulting work was Villette (1853), the final novel Brontë published in her lifetime. In 1854, Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls; she died the following year from complications related to pregnancy.
Brontë's novels constitute her major literary output: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, and the posthumously published The Professor. The Professor, both her first and last work, is unique among her novels in being written from the point of view of a male narrator. It tells the story of William Crimsworth, who leaves his post as a clerk at his brother's mill in England to start a new life in Brussels, teaching English at a girls school. There he falls in love with a pupil-teacher and does battle with the Catholic headmistress, eventually returning with his Belgian bride to England. The novel's main themes are its strong anti-Catholicism and the exploration of male sexuality as it relates to social status. With her next novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë examined the position of women in society. Jane Eyre is by far the most popularly and critically successful of Brontë's novels. Her heroine, Jane, was a departure from earlier nineteenth-century female characters: where most heroines were beautiful, ignorant, and dependent, Jane is plain, intelligent, and independent. Jane is an orphaned child who is treated cruelly by her relations. Her education enables her to become a governess for the illegitimate daughter of Fairfax Rochester. The position of governess was one of the few options available to unmarried women not supported by their own families, though one that Brontë well knew was precarious and potentially demeaning. Jane refuses to be demeaned, however, and as she seeks an appropriate marriage partner, she insists on an equal and mutually satisfying relationship, defying both the literary and social conventions of the time. The marriage of Jane and Rochester placed Brontë on the vanguard of women's issues. More directly than Jane Eyre, Shirley presents a powerful indictment of the position of women in nineteenth-century England. Shirley Keeldar is an independent woman, a land owner and mill owner, whose love for the poor tutor Louis cannot be realized because of the great difference in their social status. Still, she rejects the advances of Robert Moore, a greedy mill owner who is focused solely on profits. Robert was intended for Shirley's friend Caroline Helstone but prefers Shirley's wealth to Caroline's poverty. Bereft of her own marriage opportunities, and lacking any prospects for employment, Caroline is forced to live with an aloof and indifferent uncle and in her despair begins to sink into ill health. Brontë parallels the plight of women whose survival depends on the generosity of men to that of workers dependent on the mill owners. Villette similarly depicts a young woman whose fortunes are securely tied either to the men in her life or to the whims of her benefactors. Like Jane Eyre and The Professor, Villette is told from the first-person perspective of a young person separated from family. Lucy Snow lives with her godparents in England, where she falls in love with Graham Bretton, their son. She then enters domestic service with Miss Marchmont, whose promise to include Lucy in her will goes unfulfilled. She travels to the French village of Villette, where she develops a friendship with the local physician, Dr. John, that eventually develops into an obsession depicted by Brontë in the high Gothic mode. Critics have seen in Lucy's behavior one of the first nervous breakdowns in literature to be rendered in realistic psychological detail. Lucy then discloses to her readers a bizarre secret: Dr. John is Graham Bretton, an unusual twist in narration that reflects Lucy's irrationality. Dr. John falls in love with another woman, and Lucy forms an attachment with the brilliant professor Paul Emanuel. At the novel's end, however, Lucy implies that Paul has died in a shipwreck, again leaving Lucy alone and friendless.
Initial response to Brontë's novels invariably noted that they were intensely personal and written in an uncommonly natural style. Whether those attributes were interpreted favorably or unfavorably depended on the reviewer. Though none of her later novels were as popular as her first, they received similar assessments by contemporary readers: Brontë developed a reputation for forceful writing and powerful imagery but also for stilted characterization and a didactic tone. From those first reviews forward, critics have also contended that Brontë wrote too much from her own narrow, even eccentric experience. The relationship between her life and her works has consistently been a theme in Brontë criticism. The 1970s saw strongly feminist studies of Brontë's novels as scholars looked at Jane Eyre and also studied other works, especially Villette, as explorations of women's difficult position in Victorian society—sometimes interpreting Brontë's work as a feminist critique, and in other instances as an example of the obstacles to full self-expression Brontë faced as a woman writer. An important part of the early feminist studies of Brontë's writing came in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's landmark work The Madwoman in the Attic, published in 1979. In this study, Gilbert and Gubar contend that Brontë's novels came to stand for the self-repression, unsatisfied desire, and anxiety of authorship experienced by women writers in the nineteenth century. Gilbert and Gubar's reading of Brontë's work has provided a foundation for much of the later criticism on her novels. Another groundbreaking study of Jane Eyre and the Brontë oeuvre came with the rise of postcolonial criticism. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (see Further Reading) was the first critic to contribute to what became a series of several studies considering the relationship between the oppressed women of Jane Eyre and the subjugated European colonies. Scholars have since differed on Brontë's own positions on slavery and colonialism, but the themes of Orientalism and imperialism have become closely intertwined with the study of issues of gender and sexuality.