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...
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