March 5

This Day in History

Literary

Mar 5, 1839:

Charlotte Bronte declines marriage

Charlotte Bronte writes to the Reverend Henry Nussey, declining marriage. The 23-year-old Bronte told him that he would find her "romantic and eccentric" and not practical enough to be a clergyman's wife. Rather than marry, Bronte struggled as a teacher and governess to help support her brother Branwell's literary aspirations. In the end, Branwell's excesses destroyed him; his sisters, though, all became literary figures.

Charlotte was born in 1816, one of six siblings born to an Anglican clergyman. When she was five, the family moved to the remote village of Hawthorne on the moors of Yorkshire. The gloomy parsonage produced some of the best-known novels in English literature. Bronte's mother died in 1821, and Charlotte and her older sisters were sent to the Cowan Bridge School, a cheap boarding school for daughters of the clergy. However, her two sisters fell ill and died, and Charlotte was brought home, where she and her remaining siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, invented and wrote about elaborate fantasy worlds to amuse themselves.

Shortly after declining the proposal of Reverend Nussey, Charlotte went to Brussels with her sister Emily to study languages and school administration. Returning to the parsonage at Hawthorne, the sisters attempted to set up their own school, but no pupils registered. Meanwhile, their adored brother Branwell was becoming 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. He eventually died after accidentally setting his bed on fire.

In 1846, Charlotte ran across some poems that Emily had written, which led to the revelation that all three sisters were closet poets. The sisters published their own book, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only two copies sold, but publishers became interested in the sisters' work. Charlotte, under the nom de plume Currer Bell, published Jane Eyre in 1847. 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 his curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, just a year after she published Villette, a novel inspired by a failed romance she had in Brussels years before. Charlotte died during a pregnancy shortly after the marriage.

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