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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Charlotte Brontė (1816-1855) - pseudonym CURRER BELL


English writer noted for her novel Jane Eyre (1847), sister of Anne Brontė and Emily Brontė. The three sisters are almost as famous for their short, tragic lives as for their novels. In their works they described love more truthfully that was common in Victorian age England. In the past 40 years Charlotte Brontė's reputation has risen rapidly, and feminist criticism has done much to show that she was speaking up for oppressed women of every age.

"'And you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Mater Reed, because missis kindly allows you to be brought up with them. They will have a great deal of money and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and try to make yourself agreeable to them.'" (from Jane Eyre)

'A little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid', is how George Lewes described Charlotte Brontė to George Eliot. She was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England. Charlotte was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who had moved with his family to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820. The landscape around the parsonage, the lonely rolling moors and wild wind, influences all the Brontė sisters deeply. "All around the horizon the is this same line of sinuous wave-like hills; the scoops into which they fall only revealing other hills beyond, of similar colour and shape, crowned with wild, bleak moors - grand, from the ideas of solitude and loneliness which they suggest, or oppressive from the feeling which they give of being pent-up by some monotonous and illimitable barrier, according to the mood of mind in which the spectator may be." (Elizabet Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Brontė, 1857) After their mother and two eldest children died, Chalotte was left with her sisters Emily and Anne, and brother Branwell (1817-1848) to the care of their father, and their strict, religious aunt, Elisabeth Branwell.

The Brontės were small, Emily was considered to be tall at that time, but Charlotte's dress preserved in the Brontė Parsonage Museum would perhaps fit nowadays a eleven-year old. At the upstairs of the parsonage, a small house, was two bedrooms and a third room, scarcely bigger than a closet, in which the sisters played their games. The front door opened almost directly on to the churchyard. To escape their unhappy surroundings, the children listened stories about the often violent behavior of the countryfolk. When other children enjoyed to play outdoors, they created imaginary kingdoms, which were built around Branwell's toy soldiers, and which inspired them to create continuing stories of fantasylands. Later in a poem Charlotte wrote: "We wove a web in childhood, / A web of sunny air."

Branwell collaborated with Charlotte in creating the imaginary world of Angria. After failing as a paiter and writer, he took to drink and opium, then worked as a tutor and assistant clerk to a railway company. In 1842 he was dismissed and joined his sister Anne at Thorp Green Hall as a tutor. His affair with his employer's wife ended disastrously. He returned to Haworth in 1845, where he rapidly declined and died three years later.

Charlotte attended Clergy Daughter's School in Lancashire in 1824. She returned home next year because of the harsh conditions. In 1831 she went to school at Roe Head, where she later worked as a teacher. However, she fell ill, suffered from melancholia, and gave up this post. At her twenty-first birthday, she asked Robert Southey's advice about her prospects as a writer. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life," answered Southey, "and it ought not to be." Charlotte reply was humble: "I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it." Her attempts to earn her living as a governess were hindered by her disabling shyness, her ignorance of normal children, and her yearning to be with her sisters. From her first job as governess to the Sidgwick family she wrote to her sister Emily: "... Mrs Sidgwick expects me to do things that I cannot do - to love her children and be entirely devoted to them."

In 1842 Charlotte travelled to Brussels with Emily to learn French, German, and management. During this period she fell in love with a married man, M. Heger, the owner of the Pensionnat Heger, a girls' school, where Charlotte and Emily were pupils and Charlotte later taught. When they first met she found him less attrative: "He is . . . very choleric and irritable as to temperament; a little black ugly being with a face that varies in expression." Upon returning to Haworth she wrote him a series of heartfelt letter. Monsieur Heger never replied to any of them.

Chalotte's own attempt to open a school failed in 1844. The Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846) was written with her sisters. The surname was probably taken from Arthur Bell Nicholls, then their father's curate. "Oh! Love was all a thin illusion; / Joy, but the desert's flying stream," Charlotte wrote in one of its poems, perhaps referring her sad experiences in Brussels. Because the sisters thought that their mode of writing was not feminine, they used masculine names.

The book sold only two copies, but the costs were £37; the sum could represent a year's wages. By the time of its publication her sisters had finished a novel; Charlotte's first, The Professor, written under the name Currer Bell, was based on her experiences of teaching in Brussels. Rejected by several publishers, it did not appear in her lifetime. Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were accepted by Thomas Newby in 1847 and published next year.

Although the publishing house Smith, Elder & Co. rejected The Professor as "undersized", they said that if there was a full-scale novel, they would be interested. With this encouragement, Charlotte finished Jane Eyre, which came out in October 1847. Her combination of romance, naturalism, and gothic melodrama became an immediate success. William Makepeace Thackeray, to whom Charlotte dedicated the book, described it as "the masterwork of a great genius". In 1851, Charlotte had a long talk with Thackeray - "he is a great and strantge man," she said to her friend, Ellen Nussey.

The heroine of Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who becomes a teacher and obtains a post as a governess. Her job is to teach little Adčle, the ward of country gentleman Edward Rochester. Their first meeting is described in comical light - Mr. Rochester falls off a horse. The narrator asks "are you injured, sir," but do not get a reply: "I think he was swearing, but I am not certain; however, he was pronouncing some formula which prevented him from replying to me directly." They fall in love, but Jane's world is shattered when on the wedding day, at the altar, a stranger interrupts the ceremony and tells that Rochester has a legal wife, who is living in his attic, hidden away. Jane flees into the countryside, where she wanders penniless from place to place. After she  inherits money from an uncle, she marries the Byronic hero, who is a blinded, ruined man - his insane wife has burned down their house and lost her life in the conflagration. Some readers of the novel suggested that its author was a depraved man. It was followed by Shirley (1848) and Villette (1853), based on her memories of Brussels. Although her identity was well known, Charlotte continued to publish as Currer Bell. Her tragedy, Belisaious, is lost. Two chapters of 'The Story of Willie Ellin' has survived. After abandoning the work, Charlotte later incorporated it into another work called 'Emma'.

In Jane Eyre Charlotte used her experiences at the Evangelical school and as governess. The novel severely criticized the limited options open to educated but impoverished women, and the idea that women "ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags." Jane's passionate desire for a wider life, her need to be loved, and her rebellious questioning of conventions, also reflected Charlotte's own dreams. "Conventionality is not morality" she wrote in the preface to the second edition. "Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last." Jane is an "Ugly Duckling", who fulfills all the teenage romantic dreams of passion, that breaks all obstacles. The gloomy hero, Mr Rochester, represents the ideal of masculine tenderness, which is combined with masculine strength - all along Byronic lines. Jane's discovery at the altar that Rochester has an insane wife hidden in the attic is the most shocking plot twist of the novel. Some later critics have presented that the mad Bertha Rochester is a nymphomaniac. Her character was refreshed in Jean Rhys' novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which told the story of Rochester's ill-fated Creole wife.

The title character from Shirley is perhaps the first fully developed independent, brave, outspoken heroine, a type that has since deeply influenced mass-market novels read by women. Caroline Helstone, the other heroine, is a more conventional figure. In the background of the story is industrial change and the Luddite riots. Charlotte had been at school in the Calder Valley where the attack on the frames and mill had taken place. When Charlotte started to write the book, the four Brontės were all alive and together at the parsonage; before it was finished, a family tragedy shadowed the work.

Branwell, whose wildness and intemperance had caused the sisters much distress, died in September 1848. "The removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement," Charlotte wrote to W.S. Williams. Emily died in December of the same year, and Anne the following summer. In 1854 Charlotte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls - he was the fourth to propose her. She had first rejected him; he had loved Monsieur Heger, and her publisher George Smith, but she had no passionate feelings for Arthur, who had loved her for years and years and had waited for her. Charlotte's friend, the novelist Elizabet Gaskell, who knew how difficult it was for a woman to be both a writer and a spuse in the Victorian society, warned her that she might as well put Currer Bell into retirement if she married. Charlotte died during her pregnancy on March 31, 1855 in Haworth, Yorkshire. Her last words - when she heard her husband praying - were: "I am not going to die, am I? God will not separate us, we have been so happy."

For further reading: The Life of Charlotte Brontė by E. Gaskell (1857); The Brontė's Web of Childhood by Fannie Ratchford (1941); Passionate Search by M. Cromton (1955); Their Proper Sphere by Inga-Stina Ewbank (1966); Weaver of Dreams: Charlotte Brontė by William S. Braithwaite (1966); The Accents of Persuasion by Robert Martin (1966); Charlotte Brontė by Winifred Gerin (1967); The Bronte Novels by W.A. Craig (1968); The Brontes. The Critical Heritage by, ed. by M. Allott (1974); Unquiet Soul by M. Peters (1975); Myth of Power by Terry Eagleton (1975); The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontė by Elfrida Vipont (1893); Charlotte Brontė and Sexuality by John Maynard (1984); The Brontes Irish Background by E. Chitham (1986); Brontės of Haworth by Brian Wilks (1986); The Brontės and Their Background by Tom Winnifrith (2nd ed. 1988); The Brontės by Juliet Barker (1994); Chalotte Brontė by Lyndall Gordon (1994); Charlotte Bronte by Diane Long Hoeveler, Lisa Jadwin (1997); Charlotte Brontė and Victorian Psychology by Sally Shuttleworth (1997); Brontė in Love by Sarah Freeman (2010); Sexual Politics of Jane Eyre: Representations of Fear and the Construction of Text in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre by Ann Erskine (2021); Jane Eyre in German Lands: The Import of Romance, 1848-1918 by Lynne Tatlock (2022) - See also: Jean Rhys - Museums and places to visit: Brontė Society and Brontė Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Keighley; Brontė Way - a forty mile walk in four section to sites associated with the Brontės; Oakwell Hall County Park, Nutter Lane, Birstall - house features as "Fieldhead" in Charlotte's Shirley; The Red House Museum, Oxford Rd, Gomersal, Cleckheaton - House appears as "Briarmains in Charlotte's Shirley; Wuthering Heights Walk, a six mile walk to Top Withins, the setting for Wuthering Heights.

Selected works:

  • Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, 1846 (with Anne and Emily Brontė)
  • Jane Eyre, 1847
    - Kotiopettajattaren romaani (suom. Tyyni Haapanen, 1915; Kaarina Ruohtula, 1973)
    - films: 1934, dir. Christy Cabanne; 1943, dir. by Robert Stevenson, starring Joan Fontaine, Orson Welles, written by Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson, John Houseman. James Agee wrote about Orson Welles: "It is possible to enjoy his performance as dead-pan period parody; I imagine he did. I might have more if I hadn't wanted, instead, to see a good performance." (Nation, February 12, 1944) - Also: I Walked with a Zombie, 1943, directed by Jacques Tourneur and based loosely on Jane Eyre; Mei gu, 1956, dir. Jun Yan; 1970, dir. Delbert Mann, starring George C. Scott, Susannah York; BBC television series 1983, dir. Julian Amyes, starring Timothy Dalton, Zelah Clarke; 1996, dir. Franco Zeffirelli, starring William Hurt, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joan Plowright; mini TV series 2006, dir. Susanna White
  • Shirkey, 1849
    - Shirley 1: Salatut tunteet; Shirley 2: Perijätär ja pappilan neiti (suom. Kaarina Ruohtula, 1968-1969)
    - film 1922, prod. Ideal, dir. A.V. Bramble, starring Carlotta Breese, Clive Brook, Harvey Braban
  • Villette, 1853
    - Syrjästäkatsojan tarina (suom. Tyyni Haapanen-Tallgren, 1921)
  • Professor, 1857
    - Professori (suom. Inkeri Koskinen, 2009)
  • The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories, 1925
  • Legends of Angria, 1933
  • The Secret & Lily Hart: Two Tales, 1978
  • The Early Writings of Charlotte Bronte, 1826-1832, 1987 (edited by Christine Alexander)
  • The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontė, 1833–1834, 1991 (edited by Christine Alexander)
  • The Letters of Charlotte Brontė: Volume I: 1829-1847, 1995 (edited by Margaret Smith)
  • The Belgian Essays, 1996 (edited by Sue Lonoff de Cuevas)
  • The Letters of Charlotte Brontė. With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends. Volume II: 1848-1851, 2000 (edited by Margaret Smith)
  • The Letters of Charlotte Brontė: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends Volume III: 1852-1855, 2003 (edited by Margaret Smith)
  • Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontė, 2007 (edited by Margaret Smith)
  • Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, 2020 (with an introduction by Amanda Ryan)

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