At age twenty, Charlotte Brontë sent a sample of her poetry to England's Poet Laureate, Robert Southey. His comments urged her to abandon all literary pursuits: "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 will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation." His response indicates the political difficulties women faced as they tried to enter the literary arena in Victorian England; domestic responsibilities were expected to require all their energy, leaving no time for creative pursuits. Despite a lack of support from the outside world, Charlotte Brontë found sufficient internal motivation and enthusiasm from her sisters to become a successful writer and balance her familial and creative needs.
Born at Thornton, Yorkshire on April 21, 1816, Charlotte was the third child of Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell. In 1820, her father received a curate post in Haworth, a remote town on the Yorkshire moors, where Charlotte spent most of her life. In 1821, Mrs. Brontë died from what was thought to be cancer. Charlotte and her four sisters, Maria, Elizabeth, Emily and Anne, and their brother, Branwell, were raised primarily by their unpleasant, maiden aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who provided them with little supervision. Not only were the children free to roam the moors, but their father allowed them to read whatever interested them: Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights, Pilgrim's Progress, and the poems of Byron were some of their favorites.
When a school for the daughters of poor clergymen opened at Cowan Bridge in 1824, Mr. Brontë decided to send his oldest four daughters there to receive a formal education. Most biographers argue that Charlotte's description of Lowood School in Jane Eyre accurately reflects the dismal conditions at this school. Charlotte's two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died in 1824 of tuberculosis they contracted due to the poor management of the school. Following this tragedy, Patrick Brontë withdrew Charlotte and Emily from Cowan Bridge.
Grieving over their sisters' deaths and searching for a way to alleviate their loneliness, the remaining four siblings began writing a series of stories, The Glass-Town, stimulated by a set of toy soldiers their father had given them. In these early writings, the children collaboratively created a complete imaginary world, a fictional West African empire they called Angria. Charlotte explained their interest in writing this way: "We were wholly dependent on ourselves and each other, on books and study, for the enjoyments and occupations of life. The highest stimulus, as well as the liveliest pleasure we had know from childhood upwards, lay in attempts at literary composition." Through her early twenties, Charlotte routinely revised and expanded pieces of the Angria story, developing several key characters and settings. While this writing helped Charlotte improve her literary style, the Angria adventures are fantastical, melodramatic, and repetitive, contrasting with Charlotte's more realistic adult fiction.
After her father had a dangerous lung disorder, he decided once again that his daughters should receive an education so they would be assured of an income if he died. In 1831, Charlotte entered the Misses Wooler's school at Roe Head. Shy and solitary, Charlotte was not happy at school, but she still managed to win several academic awards and to make two lifelong friends: Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey. Although she was offered a teaching job at Roe Head, Charlotte declined the position, choosing to return to Haworth instead. Perhaps bored with the solitary life at Haworth and looking for an active occupation in the world, Charlotte returned to Roe Head in 1835 as a governess. For her, governessing was akin to "slavery," because she felt temperamentally unsuited for it, and finally, following a near mental breakdown in 1838, she was forced to resign her position. Unfortunately, governessing was the only real employment opportunity middle-class women had in Victorian England. Because the family needed the money, Charlotte suffered through two more unhappy governess positions, feeling like an unappreciated servant in wealthy families' homes; she didn't enjoy living in other people's houses because it caused "estrangement from one's real character."
In an attempt to create a job that would allow her to maintain her independence, Charlotte formed the idea of starting her own school at Haworth. To increase her teaching qualifications before beginning this venture, she enrolled as a student, at the age of twenty-six, at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels so she could increase her fluency in French and learn German. Charlotte loved the freedom and adventure of living in a new culture, and formed an intense, though one-sided, passion for the married headmaster at the school: Monsieur Heger. After two years in Brussels, suffering perhaps from her love for Heger, Charlotte returned to England. The plan to open her own school was a failure, as she was unable to attract a single student.
Instead, Charlotte began putting all of her energy into her writing. After discovering Emily's poems, Charlotte decided that she, Anne, and Emily should try to publish a collection of poems at their own expense. In 1846, they accomplished this goal, using the masculine pseudonyms of Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell because of the double standards against women authors. Although their book, Poems, was not a financial success, the women continued their literary endeavors. Excited to be writing full-time, they each began a novel. Anne's Agnes Grey and Emily's Wuthering Heights both found publishers, but Charlotte's somewhat autobiographical account of her experiences in Brussels, The Professor, was rejected by several publishers. Again refusing to become discouraged, Charlotte began writing Jane Eyre in 1846, while on a trip to Manchester with her father where he was undergoing cataract surgery. While he convalesced, Charlotte wrote. The firm of Smith, Elder, and Company agreed to publish the resulting novel, and the first edition of Jane Eyre was released on October 16, 1847. The novel was an instant success, launching Charlotte into literary fame. It also netted her an impressive 500 pounds, twenty-five times her salary as a governess.
But the pleasures of literary success were soon overshadowed by family tragedy. In 1848, after Anne and Charlotte had revealed the true identity of the "Bells" to their publishers, their brother Branwell died. Never living up to his family's high expectations for him, Branwell died an opium-addicted, debauched, alcoholic failure. Emily and Anne died soon after. Although Charlotte completed her second novel, Shirley in 1849, her sadness at the loss of her remaining siblings left her emotionally shattered. She became a respected member of the literary community only when her sisters, her most enthusiastic supporters, were no longer able to share her victory. Visiting London following the publication of this book, Charlotte became acquainted with several important writers, including William Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell, who was to write Charlotte's biography following her death.
In 1852, the Reverend Arthur B. Nicholls, Mr. Brontë's curate at Haworth beginning in 1845, proposed marriage to Charlotte. Earlier in her life, Charlotte had rejected several marriage proposals because she was hoping to discover true love, but loneliness following the death of her last three siblings may have led her to accept Nicholls' proposal. Saying she had "esteem" but not love for Nicholls, Charlotte's relationship with her husband was certainly not the overwhelming passion of Jane and Rochester. Her father's jealous opposition to the marriage led Charlotte initially to reject Nicholls, who left Haworth in 1853, the year Villette was published. By 1854, Reverend Brontë's opposition to the union had abated somewhat, and the ceremony was performed on June 29, 1854. After the marriage, Charlotte had little time for writing, as she was forced to perform the duties expected of a minister's wife and take care of her aging father. In 1854 Charlotte, in the early stages of pregnancy, caught pneumonia while on a long, rain-drenched walk on the moors. She died on March 31, 1855, a month before her thirty-ninth birthday. The Professor, written in 1846 and 1847, was posthumously published in 1857, along with Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë.