Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Charlotte Bronte (1816–1855)

Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) edit

Charlotte Bronte (21st April 1816 - 31st March 1855) was the eldest of the three Bronte sisters. She was a revolutionary novelist and poet, whose works became a pinnacle classic in English literature. Her novels were originally published under the pen name, Lord Charles Albert Florian Wellesley and Currer Bell. However, novels written under these names are now attributed to Bronte.

Bronte attended Roe Head school in 1831, providing her an education which was uncharacteristic of women during the period. Bronte used this education to teach her younger siblings (Emily and Anne) a year after starting her own education. She returned as a governess in the 1835 and continued on to be the governess of the Sigwick family by 1839. Bronte and her sisters endeavoured to start a school; however, their gender prevent the school from attracting students. Due to this, the three sisters began their writing career, under false personae, as the success of female writers was limited due to their lack of education and social ideas surrounding gender and literary authorship.

Charlotte Bronte was married in June 1854 and soon became pregnant. She passed due to complications in the pregnancy, suffering hyperemesis gravidarum, an extreme form of morning sickness that leads to severe dehydration. While her death was untimely, she was the last of the three literary successful sisters to pass away.

Biography edit

Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816 in Thornton, West Riding, Yorkshire. She was the daughter of Patrick Bronte and Maria Branwell. Charlotte was the third eldest child, and she had five siblings: Maria, Elizabeth, Patrick (Branwell), Emily and Anne.

Their mother, Maria Branwell, died of cancer at age 38 when all of her children were very young, and soon afterwards Bronte's sisters Maria and Elizabeth also passed away. Maria's sister Elizabeth Branwell took care of the family temporary after her sister's death. The death of Bronte's mother had a profound impact on herself and her siblings. The consistent theme of loss is apparent in all of the Bronte sisters' novels, especially manifesting as the death of a mother and orphaning, and is thought to have been influenced by this loss.

Patrick Bronte

Patrick Bronte was born to a large family, who had very little access to economic income or education. He chose to educate himself and succeeded in becoming a school teacher, due to his academic dedication, Patrick attracted patronage from his local community (Stoneman, 2017). With this financial support he studied theology at St. Johns College in 1802, from this and unremitting effort, Bronte was accepted into Cambridge University and finished his bachelor's degree in 1806 (Stoneman, 2017).

His Literary Work

There is a strong correlation between Patrick's faith in Christianity and his literary works (Wilks 2013). During his own self-education, Patrick had received academic support from two local clergymen, Thomas Tighe and Andrew Harshaw. His faith had grown significantly through learning Christian values from these men (Stoneman 2017). He then chose to study theology to develop his knowledge of Christianity further. Ultimately, he became a priest in an England Church in 1807. During his priesthood, Patrick Bronte also became a minor poet and published his first book of verse, Cottage Poems, in 1811. Throughout the book, Patrick stated that everything he had came from God and that his resignation was a path to heavenly reward (Wilks 2013).

Charlotte Bronte and her boarding school experiences

Charlotte and Emily joined their older sisters at Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, which she later referred to as her experiences in the "Lowood Institution" in Jane Eyre (Poetry Foundation 2021). Therefore, the siblings did not have pleasant experiences where they had suffered abuse and privations. It is noteworthy that the sisters' death was primarily contributed to the damp conditions of the school (McLaren 2011). The punishments in Cowan Bridge School was inhumane, which included deprivation of food and recreation, corporal punishment and humiliation, such as wearing a dunce cap when they misbehaved. Unfortunately, the oldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth were gravely ill and died of tuberculosis shortly after leaving the boarding school (McLaren 2011). The loss of the sisters had become a huge trauma for Charlotte, which could be seen in her novel, Jane Eyre. Given that Charlotte's mother had passed away when she was five, she had been considered Maria, the oldest sister, as her mother-figure, rather than just her sister. According to Gaskell (44), Maria was "far superior in mind at any of her fellows and companions", which demonstrated Charlotte's strong attachment as well as her dependence on Maria. These traumatic experiences had strongly affected Charlotte's mental health, especially after her elder sisters Maria and Elizabeth's death, which had intensified her urgent need to establish a career (Gaskell 44). Boarding school would shape the way Charlotte saw the world and how she would mould her future characters.


Since the Bronte family was poor, the girls had to start working to sustain the living. Charlotte became a governess and spent several years teaching at a Brussels boarding school, which was her turning point to become "rebellious" and started writing Jane Eyre. Writing Jane Eyre completely transformed Charlotte's life. Her opinions and fiery writing style became a hallmark. There have been many biography and fiction stories that draw upon Charlotte's "feminist" and "revolutionary" personality and writing.

Early Poetry/The Bronte Sisters edit

After the death of Maria and Elizabeth, the four youngest sisters (Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell) were removed from the boarding school, and they were educated at home for the next six years and started writing their fictional works. The four children had written poems of their imaginative land, Angria. The stories that they created were in manuscripts with elaborate and episodic sagas. They decided to use all the money that their aunt Branwell left to publish their first book. The stories that they created were in manuscripts with elaborate and episodic sagas. They decided to use all the money that their aunt Branwell left to publish their first book. However, they decided to publish the book under male pennames to pretend that they were three brothers since they knew that their writing would not become famous if the readers knew they were women. Consequently, Charlotte wrote as Currer, Emily wrote as Ellis, and Anne wrote as Acton Bell in the poem.  

Even though their first book publication was not satisfied, they did not give up but put more effort into their writings (Reef 2012).  In 1847, the Bronte sisters published a novel respectively. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, and Anne wrote Agnes Grey (Reef 2012). The three young siblings had become successful at their novels, and people referred to them as the "Bronte Sisters" (Reef 2012).  

The Social Background of Jane Eyre edit

Jane Eyre had successfully captured social values and how women were treated unequally by society during the 1800s, especially in the lower socioeconomic background. Women put lots of effort into identifying themselves and fighting for their rights (Gao 2013). While some women were agitated for greater rights, society exalted the saintly and self-sacrificing woman; there was still some social restraint to women. Most women were socialised to be "pure and innocent, gentle and sexually undemanding, submissive and obedient", and lacked many of the rights men experienced at the time. For instance, they were subjected to work in factories. Therefore, poverty was common among people who had a certain level of education, such as the governess and clergyman. As a result, Bronte had been seeking her identity throughout her novel as Jane Eyre. She had represented most women in that period where they faced the dilemma between identity and the emotional reality of oppression (Gao 2013).

Reputation/Legacy edit

Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1847 under the pen name "Currer Bell". The novel mainly focused on the mental growth of the protagonist through a first-person narrative, which Charlotte called "the first private consciousness historian" (Y., 2015). The novel had discussed different aspects of the social criticism with the strong pushback by the Christian morality through the in-depth descriptions of the protagonist. For instance, Jane refused to go to the south of France with Mr Rochester and shack up with him as husbands and wives. Although Jane had a strong affection for Mr Rochester, she left Thornfield at dawn because of her strong Christian beliefs and values (Poetry Foundation 2021).

Written in the Victorian period, many critics argued that the ideologies of Jane Eyre were ahead of time in the way that Jane Eyre approached different social aspects, such as the social hierarchy, sexuality, feminism and religion. As mentioned above, women were regarded as inferior to man and did not have many rights, particularly in publication. Even though most women were allowed to receive etiquette education, they do not receive the same treatment in the publication of their works (Y. 2015). Bronte was an exemplified this difference in the perception and reception of the genders. She did not reveal her true identity but instead used a pseudonym to cover her gender when she wrote Jane Eyre. Consequently, the novel had become bestsellers, and the reviews were positive. It was popular in the Victorian period because ideologies in the book were ahead and had brought a new perspective to think of social issues (Poetry Foundation 2021).

Therefore, many critics argued that Jane Eyre approached different social aspects and was not socially appropriate based on her gender. It was not appropriate for a female writer to have advanced thoughts towards sexuality and other sensitive topics in such a passionate novel (Mentari 2018). For instance, she had challenged the social hierarchy, sexuality, feminism and religion. As self-defence, Charlotte Bronte wrote, "conventionality is not morality" of not yielding unequal treatment towards women in society. It had demonstrated that Charlotte Bronte was a strong and independent woman who did not care much for the social conventions of women even though she knew that the norms might not accept her passion and hot temper (Mentari 2018).

Even though Charlotte Bronte had received many negative comments on her novel after revealing her gender, numerous women, especially the highly educated, supported her bravery in sharing the feminist views in the novel. Charlotte Bronte wrote the novel to spread feminism and that women should be independent and support themselves rather than being oppressed by men. Throughout the novel, she wrote in first-person narration and addressed the readers as "my readers' (Gao 2013). The way she addressed the readers had created more emotional connections and shortened the distance between Bronte and the readers, thus deeply delivered the empathic message to her readers.

Though all three of the Bronte sisters died without money in abject poverty, the impact they had upon the public and literature cannot be ignored or overstated. Despite attempts to diminish the achievements of Charlotte Bronte her work endures as a cornerstone of gothic female literature.

References edit

Abaker, Bahreldin. "The Image Of Victorian Women As Depicted In Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte". European Journal Of English Language And Literature Studies, vol 7, no. 6, 2019, pp. 49-58.

"Charlotte Brontë | Poetry Foundation". Poetry Foundation, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/charlotte-bronte.

Donnelly, Marea. "Loss And Suffering Gave Charlotte Bronte An Authentic Voice". Dailytelegraph, 2016, https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/loss-and-suffering-gave-charlotte-brontes-writing-an-authentic-voice/news-story/d4cbc39d969be539a324aeb41adf9369.

Gao, Haiyan. "Reflection On Feminism In Jane Eyre". Theory And Practice In Language Studies, vol 3, no. 6, 2013. Academy Publication, doi:10.4304/tpls.3.6.926-931.

McLaren, Annette. ‘....you too have power over me’: Oppression in the Life and Work of Charlotte Brontë. 2011. Thesis. University of Western Sydney, 2011.

Mentari, Widya Firmanilla. "Feminism In The Novel "Jane Eyre" By Charlotte Brönte". Lexicon, vol 3, no. 1, 2018.

"Patrick Brontë – Poet, Novelist And Influence". Anne Brontë, 2017, http://www.annebronte.org/2017/05/21/patrick-bronte-poet-novelist-and-influence/.

Pfordresher, John. "Charlotte Brontë’S Teaching Career | Roundtable". Lapham’S Quarterly, 2017, https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/charlotte-brontes-teaching-career.

Reef, Catherine. The Brontë Sisters: The Brief Lives Of Charlotte, Emily, And Anne. 2012, pp. 212-218.

Stoneman, Patsy. "Margaret Smith: An Outstanding Brontë Scholar". Brontë Studies, vol 44, no. 2, 2019, pp. 252-254.

Walter, Natasha. "The Passionate Governess - Charlotte Bronte's Letters Reveal A Struggle Between Spirit And Obedience". The Guardian, 1995, https://www.theguardian.com/books/1995/jul/21/biography.charlottebronte.

Wilks, Brian. "Schools And Schooling In The Life And Literature Of The Brontë Family". Brontë Studies, vol 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 262-268.

Y., Jessie. "Comments On Jane Eyre From The Perspective Of Feminism". World Journal Of Social Science, vol 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 34-37. Sciedu Press.

Further Reading edit



Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell by Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte (1846)

Elliot, Geoffrey, "Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will" Mellon Fund for Research and Publications.

This exhibition provides a personal and primary account of Charlotte's biographical circumstances. From which one can read the letters of Charlotte, which accounts for her days of imaginative teenage years, to the events during her governance, the publishing of her poetry, finally to the mastery of her novels. This digitised gallery also uniquely possesses the only two life portraits oft of Charlotte, which are on loan from London’s National Portrait Gallery. Of particular note from this gallery is the artefact 'Letters to William S. Williams and Ellen Nussey, dated 1848-49,' written by Charlotte Brontë herself, addressing the illness of her brother Branwell, and also the illness of her second sister Anne. These particular letters foreshadow the lonliness and isolation that was to proceed Charlotte proceeding the death of her siblings, that was to be relfected within her famous novel Jane Eyre.

Peschier, Diana, 1950, and Palgrave Connect Literature & Performing Arts Collection 2006. Nineteenth-Century Anti-Catholic Discourses: The Case of Charlotte Brontë. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005.

Between pages 98-108, the authors makes comparatives stances between 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte, and the work 'The Professor' by her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls. They make particular note of the perceived anti-Catholicism of Bronte's work, and states that the anti-roman nature of 'The Professor' aligns itself within a similar political standing. Most importantly this academic work makes note of Charlotte's manipulation of relationship expectations, and how she changed the Catholic master/Protestant pupil relationships to one in which she emphasies the duality of a female imaginative perception.

"The woman he actually meets proves to be quite the opposite: young, attractive and flirtatious as well as devious and sexually dangerous" (p.99)