April 21

This Day in History

Literary

Apr 21, 1816:

Charlotte Bronte born

Charlotte Bronte, the only one of three novelist Bronte sisters to live past age 31, is born.

Bronte, one of six siblings who grew up in a gloomy parsonage in the remote English village of Hawthorne, surrounded by the marshy moors of Yorkshire. Her mother died when she was five, and Charlotte, her two older sisters, and her younger sister Emily, were sent to Clergy Daughter's School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. The cheap school featured unpalatable food, cold halls, and harsh discipline. Charlotte's two older sisters died of illness while at school, and the grim institution found its way into her masterpiece Jane Eyre (1847).

After their sisters' deaths, Charlotte and Emily were brought home, where they and their remaining siblings, Anne and Branwell, amused themselves by making up elaborate stories about fantastical worlds. When the girls grew older, they all took governess positions in private homes, and from 1835 to 1838 Charlotte taught in a girls' school. Meanwhile, she and Emily formed a plan to open their own school, and in 1842 the sisters went to Brussels to study languages and school administration. In Brussels, Charlotte fell in love with the married headmaster, an experience she used as the basis for her last novel, Villette (1853). Returning to the parsonage at Hawthorne, the sisters attempted to set up their own school but could not attract pupils. Meanwhile, their adored brother Branwell had become a heavy drinker and opium user. When Emily got him a job teaching with her at a wealthy manor, he lost both their positions after a tryst with the mother of the house.

In 1846, Charlotte accidentally found some poems written by Emily-it turned out all three sisters had secretly been writing verse. They published their own book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, adopting a pseudonym because they believed women writers were judged too softly. Only two copies sold, but publishers became interested in the sisters' work. Charlotte's Jane Eyre was published in 1847 under the name Currer Bell. Emily's Wuthering Heights and Anne's Agnes Grey were published later that year. Sadly, all three of Charlotte's siblings died within the next two years. Left alone, Charlotte cared for her ill father and married curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in 1854. Charlotte died during pregnancy shortly after the marriage.

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