CHARLOTTE BRONTË (1816 - 1855)
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Currer Bell) English novelist and poet.
The author of vivid, skillfully constructed novels, Brontë created female characters who broke the traditional, nineteenth-century fictional stereotype of a woman as submissive and dependent, beautiful but ignorant. Her highly acclaimed Jane Eyre (1847) best demonstrates these attitudes: its heroine is a plain woman who displays intelligence, self-confidence, a will of her own, and moral righteousness. With an oeuvre consisting of four novels, some poems, and other writings from her youth, Brontë is hailed as a precursor of feminist novelists, and her works, often depicting the struggles and minor victories of everyday life, are considered early examples of literary realism. Her novels, particularly Jane Eyre and Villette (1853), have been discussed as part of the Gothic literary tradition, and contain elements of mystery, heightened passions, and the supernatural.
The eldest surviving daughter in a motherless family of six, Brontë helped to raise her remaining brother, Branwell, and two sisters, Emily and Anne. Her father, a strict Yorkshire clergyman, believed firmly in the values of self-education and forbade his family from socializing with other children. Intellectual growth was encouraged, however, and he introduced his family to the Bible and to the works of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott. In their youths, the Brontë siblings collaborated on a series of imaginative stories, plays, and poems set in the fictional land of Angria. Charlotte's contribution to these tales, which were collected and published posthumously as Legends of Angria (1933), served as a catalyst for her mature works and marked the beginning of her interest in writing.
For many years Brontë concealed her writing from her family. After the accidental discovery that Emily, too, secretly wrote verse, and that Anne shared their interest, the three published, at their own expense, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846). The sisters assumed masculine pseudonyms both to preserve their privacy and to avoid the patronizing treatment they believed critics accorded women writers. Poems sold only two copies, but Charlotte was undeterred and continued to write. Her first novel, The Professor (1857), was rejected by six publishers, but her next work, Jane Eyre, was accepted immediately. The work received lavish attention, was praised by Queen Victoria and George Eliot, and brought Brontë into popular literary circles, where she met William Makepeace Thackeray (to whom she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre), Matthew Arnold, and Harriet Martineau.
Brontë went on to publish two more novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette. During the writing of Shirley, Brontë experienced a series of personal tragedies that marked the beginning of a time of intense sorrow and loneliness. Within a period of about nine months, Brontë lost her three remaining siblings, first Branwell, then Emily, and finally Anne in the spring of 1849. After their deaths, Brontë found it very trying to write in solitude. She eventually began work on her final novel, Villette, basing its plot and characters on her unpublished The Professor. The year after Villette's publication, in 1854, Brontë married Arthur Bell Nicholls. She became pregnant early in 1855, dying in March of that year from complications related to her pregnancy. The Professor was published after her death, in 1857.
Many who have studied Brontë's life and works have noted connections between the two, with each of her novels reflecting autobiographical details. In Jane Eyre, the young heroine spends many years as a student, and later a teacher, at a strict girls' boarding school, Lowood. This fictional school bears a resemblance to the Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge, the harsh institution where Brontë and her sisters were sent during their youths. As an adult Jane Eyre becomes a governess, a job also held by Brontë. The somber tone of Brontë's second published novel, Shirley, reflects her grief following the deaths of her brother and two sisters. The heroine of the book, modeled after Emily, is a stoic figure whose courage serves as both a tribute to Brontë's sister and a lesson to the reader. Shirley depicts the friendship of two women, Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, in the midst of conflict and upheaval in the industrial region of Yorkshire, England. Brontë's travels to Brussels and her passionate attachment to Constantin Héger, a married school-master in whose home she lived, are recreated in the student-teacher relationships and in the male characters of The Professor and Villette.
While Jane Eyre was immediately popular, initial critical reception of the novel varied. Several commentators admired the power and freshness of Brontë's prose; others, however, termed the novel superficial and vulgar. Perhaps the best known early review, by Elizabeth Rigby (see Further Reading), flatly condemned Jane Eyre as "an anti-Christian composition." Still other critics questioned the authorship of the novel. Some doubted that a woman was capable of writing such a work, while E. P. Whipple of the North American Review contended that the book was coauthored by a man and a woman. In succeeding generations, the critical assessment of Jane Eyre improved considerably, and for many years, Charlotte was considered the outstanding literary figure of the Brontë family. However, David Cecil's essay (see Further Reading), published in the early 1930s, proclaimed Emily the greater writer and marked a temporary end of Charlotte's critical superiority in the eyes of some critics. Influenced by Cecil's article, these critics compared Charlotte's works to those of Emily, disputing the originality and intellectual quality of Charlotte's novels. Many studies of Brontë's works are focused more on her life than on her writing. During the nineteenth century, reviewers often addressed the nature of Jane's character; by the turn of the century, critics tended to assess Jane as a person of courage and integrity. Critical interpretations during the twentieth and twenty-first century have tended to be more specific in their approach. The characters of Jane, Rochester, and Bertha have been the subjects of detailed analyses, and reviewers have also debated the nature and import of Rochester's disability. Critics frequently discuss the novel's structure, its symbolism, and its autobiographical elements. Feminist literary criticism has given new impetus to a revaluation of the significance of Brontë's attempts to depict through her fiction some of the struggles of women in the nineteenth century. While twentieth- and twenty-first-century discussions of the novel's single theme vary, most scholars agree that in Jane Eyre Brontë wished to stress the possibility of equality in marriage.
In terms of Brontë's novels as examples of Gothic literature, many critics have posited that Brontë broadened the definition of Gothic. While not adhering strictly to the model of traditional Gothic literature, Brontë did borrow liberally from the genre, incorporating dark, mysterious, and supernatural elements into the plots of her novels. In his influential 1958 essay, Robert B. Heilman described Brontë's works as "new Gothic" novels that expand the Gothic tradition by exploring the place of heightened passions in routine, daily life. Her use of Gothic literary elements, Heilman wrote, "released her from the patterns of the novel of society and therefore permitted the flowering of her real talent—the talent for finding and giving dramatic form to impulses and feelings which … increase wonderfully the sense of reality in the novel." A number of critics have suggested that Brontë expanded Gothic conventions through her unconventional female characters. In her 1999 essay, for example, Toni Wein categorized Villette as a departure from traditional Gothic literature because the female characters, with their manipulations and survival mechanisms, are portrayed as heroic rather than evil. In a 1979 essay, Caesarea Abartis examined the ways in which Brontë both adhered to and deviated from Gothic convention, suggesting that Jane Eyre is a precursor to the modern romance novel.