With secret rooms in looming towers and gloomy mansions nessled in the countryside Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily set the stage for the classic Gothic novel with their books, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, respectively. In both books the heroin is an innocent, young, penniless woman of low estate who goes to an imposing manner house to serve in some capacity, in Charlotte’s case as a governess, only to be met with certain dangers and perils that she must overcome and survive. These two books were prototypes of what we know as the Gothic novels in which the heroins faced their natural human enemies, but sometimes the protagonists in this genre were supernatural spirits and ghosts.
In Charlotte’s famous book, Jane Eyre, her primary character is a physically plain governess who, after leaving the bleak orphanage school for unwanted girls in which she was raised and was subsequently teaching, falls in love with her new boss, Edward Rochester, who is equally plain in his looks. But Jane finds herself being bullied by a more attractive and socially superior rival in romance for her Master’s love who viciously calls out her plain “physiognomy” and her inferior social status. However, Rochester reciprocates Jane’s love and proposes marriage to her, only for Jane to find out that Rochester is already married to a “crazy ” woman who he is hiding in the attic under the care of a nurse. So Jane runs away from home and sets up shop as a school mistress in another town where she is proposed to by a clergyman who wants to take her to an African mission field with the not so sweet words, “Jane, you were not made for love. You were made for hard work,” but Jane refuses him. She then returns to the Rochester mansion to find that her former fiance has been blinded and physically disabled as a result of escaping from a house fire that was set by his first wife and that his first wife has died. So Jane marries her lover after all in order to work to support and take care of him, and ironically, finds out that she was made for both love and hard work.
Bronte herself had attended an unpleasant boarding school for girls and had served as a governess, first to her own surviving siblings, after her two older sisters had died of tuberculosis, and then to a stranger’s family. And she had a great disdain for serving in this profession because of disrespect she herself had experienced serving in her profession. So Jane Eyre was, in a great part, a reflection of her own hard life.
Charlotte was born on April 21, 1816 in Thornton, England to Irish Anglican minister, Patrick Bronte and his wife Maria, but her mother died when she was only 5 years old, and she was the eldest of three sisters who survived into adulthood. She and her four sisters were educated at Clergy Daughter’s School where Charlotte experienced the unpleasant conditions in school that she wrote about in her book. After the untimely deaths of her two older sisters, Charlotte and her two surviving younger sisters actually became a writing trio together whiling away their childhood hours making up elaborate stories set in imaginary countries and experimenting with poetry. And in fact, their first published book was a collaborative collection of self published poems under the assumed male pen names of Currier, Ellis and Acton Bell. They did not want the public to know that they were woman for fear of being pandered to and humored by the male literary critics of the day due to their gender, thereby receiving insincere praise. But, unfortunately, the book did not thrive and sold only two copies since Victorian tastes in literature were transitioning from poetry to prose and narrative fiction.
Bronte’s first work of fiction The Professor did not fly with the publishers and did not make it into print, however, but her second novel Jane Eyre debuted to rave reviews and was heartily accepted by the public.
Bronte eventually married the love of her life, Arthur Bell Nicholls, a man her father did not approve of because of his relative poverty and died shortly after the wedding, along with her unborn child, due to the complications of pregnancy, on March 31, 1855. at the untimly age of 38 years.