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Charlotte Brontė

Imagine the odds against two sisters of nearly the same age becoming famous authors.  Imagine the greater odds of that happening in a time when writing for women was strictly taboo.  Now imagine that it happened not to two but to three sisters.  It was an absolutely monumental feat.  But the Brontė sisters were absolutely extraordinary women.

On April 21, 1816, Charlotte Brontė was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England.  She was the eldest surviving child of the Reverend Patrick Brontė and his wife, Maria.  She had at the time a brother, Branwell, and two sisters, Emily and Anne.  Following the death of her mother and two eldest siblings, Brontė and her remaining brother and sisters spent much of their play time inventing elaborately detailed fantasies about imaginary kingdoms built around Branwell's toy soldiers.  They named their worlds Angria and Gondal. 

Brontė attended the Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in 1824, but the conditions there were harsh, and she returned home the following year.  In 1831, she was enrolled at Roe Head, where she later worked as a teacher until she fell ill.  Suffering from melancholia, she gave up her teaching post.  Future attempts to earn a living as a governess were equally disappointing, owing to Brontė's nearly disabling shyness, an ignorance of "normal" children, and her burning desire to be with her sisters.

Upon returning to their home at Haworth, Brontė and her two sisters decided to found their own school and set about the arduous task.  They opened the  doors in 1844, but nobody came.  Their advertisements had failed to enlist a single enrollment.

The following year, Brontė accidentally found and read some of Emily's poems.  She said of them, "They stirred my heart like the sound of a trumpet....I know no woman that ever lived ever wrote such poetry before."  She decided to publish a selection of all three sisters' poems under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.  The book, entitled Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, came out in 1846, selling only two copies. 

But the experience spurred the women on to begin writing novels.  Brontė completed The Professor, which went unpublished throughout her lifetime.  But the following year, her Jane Eyre, Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Anne's Agnes Grey were all published, still under pseudonyms.  Jane Eyre was an immediate success.  Brontė dedicated the book to William Makepeace Thackeray, who described it as "the masterwork of a great genius."  The book was largely based on Brontė's real-world experiences.

In her work, Brontė, who is often considered the best writer of the three, introduced a new type of heroine to English literature.  No empty-headed target of their fate, Brontė's women refused to accept the traditional role of female subservience.  The novel severely criticized the limited options open to educated but impoverished women.

While the overnight success of the Brontė sisters was remarkable, it was also short-lived.  In 1848, Brontė and Anne visited their London publishers, where they revealed their true identities.  That same year, Branwell, who had become an alcoholic and an opium addict, died.  Emily died shortly thereafter, and Anne soon followed. 

After months of grieving, Brontė returned to London, where she was introduced to the city's literary circles.  She met Thackeray, whom she had long admired, as well as other popular writers of the day.  She also met the Rev. A. B. Nicholls, her father's curate at Haworth, who was immediately taken by her.  He proposed marriage in 1852, but her father bitterly opposed the union, and Brontė--who didn't love the man in any event--turned him down.  Nicholls left Haworth the following year, the same year in which Brontė's Villette was published. 

"When Easter, with its duties arising out of sermons to be preached by strange clergymen who had afterwards to be entertained at the Parsonage, -- with Mechanics' Institute Meetings, and school tea-drinkings, was over and gone; she came, at the close of April [1853], to visit us in Manchester.  We had a friend, a young lady, staying with us. Miss Brontė had expected to find us alone; and although our friend was gentle and sensible after Miss Brontė's own heart, yet her presence was enough to create a nervous tremour.  I was aware that both of our guests were unusually silent; and I saw a little shiver run from time to time over Miss Brontė's frame.  I could account for the modest reserve of the young lady; and the next day Miss Brontė told me how the unexpected sight of a strange face had affected her." - from Life of Charlotte Brontė (1857) by Elizabeth Gaskell

In 1854, Brontė's father weakened in his opposition to his daughter's marriage to Nichols, and Brontė and Nicholls were engaged.  Nicholls returned as curate at Haworth, and he and Brontė were married, although it seems clear that she still didn't love him.

That same year, Brontė, expecting a child, caught pneumonia.  It was an illness that might have been cured, but she seemed by then to have given up on life.  She said, "It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it." 

Following a long and painful illness, Charlotte Brontė died on March 31, 1855, leaving behind a literary legacy that will last forever.

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