20 fascinating facts about Charlotte Brontë on her 200th birthday
Charlotte Brontë, author of the classic novel Jane Eyre, turned 200 on April 21, 2016. The elder sister to two other classic novelists — Anne and Emily Brontë — Charlotte led a passionate, driven life, though one marred by family tragedies and heartbreak. Her life has been chronicled in Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, a biography written by Claire Harman, who was interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company in 2016.
To celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte's birth, we've compiled a list of 20 facts about her fascinating life.
1. Early fans of Jane Eyre included Queen Victoria, who referred to it as "that intensely interesting novel," and Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, who said he had "lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it."¹
2. Charlotte's sisters objected to Jane Eyre's plainness, arguing that the public would not embrace an unattractive heroine. Charlotte adamantly refused to make Jane beautiful.
3. Two years after her death in 1855, Charlotte's friend Elizabeth Gaskell published a biography about her called Life of Charlotte Brontë. Gaskell was commissioned to write the book by Charlotte's father, Patrick, and it became a bestseller.¹
4. From childhood into their teen years, the Brontë siblings invented an elaborate world inspired by their brother Branwell's toy soldiers. They established countries (Charlotte and Branwell called theirs Angria) and wrote tiny books and magazines for the soldiers.
5. Some of the toy soldiers' tiny manuscripts still exist today. The Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris purchased a booklet entitled Young Men's Magazines for £690,850 in 2011. Written by Charlotte at the age of 14, it consists of over 4,000 words written on 19 pages.
6. She had few memories of her mother Maria, who died when she was only five years old. One of her memories was walking past a door and seeing Maria playing with Charlotte's brother Branwell.
7. She was proposed to by four different men and rejected all of them. She later changed her mind about her final suitor, her father's colleague Arthur Nicholls, and married him.¹
8. She died eight months after her wedding, at the age of 38. Scholar Claire Harman believes she was pregnant and afflicted with a severe form of morning sickness now known as hyperemesis gravidarum. Kate Middleton also suffered from the rare condition during her pregnancies.¹
9. Before publishing Jane Eyre, she was a teacher and governess. She hated the career and treated her students with disdain.
10. She spent most of her life living at her father's parsonage on a remote English moor near Haworth, which she described as "a strange uncivilised little place." She and her siblings wrote Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey in the dining room within the same year.¹
11. Her first published work is believed to be a translation of a French poem, "L'Idole" by Auguste Barbier, which she sent anonymously to a magazine. The magazine has never been identified.¹
12. In her 20s, Brontë studied French in Brussels, where she fell in love with her headmistress's husband, Monsieur Constantin Heger. The romance was one-sided however, and caused Charlotte extreme heartache.
13. Charlotte's father Patrick, an Irish clergyman, was famously eccentric. He carried a pistol almost everywhere he went.
14. Patrick came from a very poor family, but managed to put himself through Cambridge and changed his last name to Brontë. It's uncertain what his original surname was; scholars have seen it written down as Brunty, Prunty, O'Prunty and Branty.¹
15. Charlotte and her sisters were fans of Byron, and their work is influenced by his romantic writing.¹
16. The Brontës frequently purchased stationery from a bookseller named John Greenwood in Haworth. He was very fond of the "gentle" sisters: "When I was out of stock, I was always afraid of their coming; they seemed so distressed about it, if I had none."¹
17. Before their novels were published, the Brontë sisters paid a publisher to print a collection of poetry under their pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. They sent copies to their favourite writers, including Wordsworth, De Quincey, Hartley Coleridge, J.G. Lockhart and Alfred Tennyson.¹
18. One particularly nasty reviewer commented that if Currer Bell was a woman, she "must be a woman pretty nearly unsexed." Charlotte resented attacks on Currer's gender because she had purposely picked an androgynous pseudonym: "To such critics I would say — 'to you I am neither Man nor Woman — I come before you as an Author only — it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me — the sole ground on which I accept your judgement.'"¹
19. With the publication of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë is considered to be the first author to write a novel from the perspective of a child. Charles Dickens claimed he'd never read the novel, but was intrigued by Jane Eyre's use of a young narrator, inspiring him to write David Copperfield.
20. Jane Eyre was an instant bestseller when it was published in 1847, and has never been out of print.
¹ From Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman