Saturday 24 September 2016

Now, let us also recall that the 200th birthday of the woman who wrote 'Jane Eyre' is coming up

Gerard O'Regan

Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30

Big screen: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in the 2001 adaptation of Jane Eyre.
Big screen: Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in the 2001 adaptation of Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte's life - perhaps more than that of any other English author - has been well chronicled over the years. A tragedy strewn saga, encompassing isolation, loneliness and rejection, played out against the stark beauty of the Yorkshire moors, is for countless book lovers an enduring fascination.

  • Go To

Her emotional fixation with an unavailable married man who did not reciprocate her passions, left her particularly bereft and forlorn, at a pivotal point in her development. When she subsequently resorted to taking Arthur Bell Nicholls as her husband, her reservations and worries about an uncertain future ran deep. Not only was she marrying somebody she did not love - but of almost equal concern was the fact he was from Ireland.

Charlotte was of course half-Irish herself. Her father Patrick was a native of Co Down, and most famously an indulgent parent, when it came to encouraging the literary output of his children. But he was also a complex man of the cloth, and as a Church of England minister, he seemed ever anxious to distance himself from his poverty stricken childhood. He even changed the family name of Prunty - which can be traced back to the Irish clan O'Pronntaigh - to the more exotic sounding Bronte hoping it would smooth his pathway through English life.

And perhaps taking a cue from her father, Charlotte for most of her adult years, tended to ignore or downplay any legacy of Irishness which might influence her thinking or writing. She would remain determined that her English Protestantism, would always stay a step above, what she perceived to be the rabid Catholicism of the Irish peasantry.

There is irony therefore that the married man, who was the great unrequited love of her life, was a Catholic. But during her time as a teacher in Brussels, Constantin Heger remained determinedly oblivious to her charms. After she had returned to Yorkshire, he choose to ignore her subsequent lovesick letters, dismissing them as the outpourings of an immature young woman.

Despite her heartbreak, Charlotte would initially turn down a proposal of marriage from Mr Nicholls, the young Irish curate working with her father in the parish. As is made clear in correspondence she considered him dull and tedious. However, she later changed her mind, and decided she would marry him after all. Patrick Bronte's old snobbery resurrected itself once more and he refused to give her away at the wedding. He felt his daughter - who at this stage had achieved literary fame - could do better for herself than striking out with a relatively impoverished Church of England curate.

The couple spent their honeymoon in Ireland, with her new husband showing her around Dublin, including Trinity College, where he had been a student. They then travelled to Banagher, Co Offaly, to meet members of his family, continuing on to Kilkee, Tralee and Killarney. Charlotte admitted she was enthralled when she saw the majesty of the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, but some old prejudices remained.

"I heard a great deal about Irish negligence,'' she wrote in one of her letters back home.

"I own that until I came to Kilkee I saw little of it. Here at our inn - the splendidly designated West End Hotel - there is a good deal to carp at - if we were in a carping humour - but we laugh instead of grumbling - for outdoors there is so much to compensate for any indoor shortcomings.''

However, the odyssey in Ireland for the newly weds could not last too long. Her long widowed father was in failing health and living on his own in the Haworth parsonage. Her two sisters had already succumbed to a form of consumption, and her brother had died from alcoholism and drug abuse. She and Arthur decided to return in some haste to Haworth.

Unfortunately, Charlotte despite having discovered an unexpected happiness with her second choice husband, would also die within a matter of months, a victim of the many fatal diseases prevalent at the time. Arthur remained on with her father in the parsonage, until Patrick Bronte passed away six years later.

He then returned to Banagher, bringing with him memories and mementos of his all too short time, as husband of the famous author. He would get married again and live out his days in Co Offaly where he is buried. He died in 1906 aged 88.

For lovers of the English language there will always be a particular fascination with the Bronte story. But since we are giving so much attention to marking the centenary of the 1916 Rising, let us also recall that the 21st of this month, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the woman who wrote 'Jane Eyre'.

Charlotte Bronte's life and work is a reminder of the ever overlapping world of language both the British and the Irish have come to share.

Of course we can't really claim her as one of our own. But there is assuredly a Celtic strain in her novels she could never really acknowledge.

And the Irish blood in her veins was surely part of those many mysterious forces which made her a writer of genius.

Irish Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice