Saturday 16 December 2017

Reader, I married him - Charlotte Bronte and the secret life of the Bronte sisters

On the bicentennial of her birth, we examine the truth behind the legend of Charlotte Bronte, her unrequited love affair, the secret life of the Bronte sisters and her eventual domestic bliss.

Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in the 2011 Hollywood movie 'Jane Eyre'.
Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre in the 2011 Hollywood movie 'Jane Eyre'.
Charlotte Bronte
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

'I am quite convinced that I shall see you again one day - I don't know how or when - but it must happen since I so long for it…Day and night I find neither rest nor peace - if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you...Forgive me then Monsieur if I take the step of writing to you again - how can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its sufferings…If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope. If he gives me a little friendship - a very little - I shall be content - happy…Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on - they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men's table - but if they are refused these crumbs they die of hunger."

These could be the desperate words of one of Charlotte Bronte's literary creations, but are in fact taken from letters she wrote herself to her former teacher, Constantin Heger, with whom she fell in love while studying at his school in Brussels for two years in her 20s. In a life filled with tragedy - her mother died of cancer when Charlotte was five, she watched all of her beloved siblings die - this unrequited love affair was the great passion, but not the great tragedy of the Bronte sister who would achieve the most literary success in her own life.

Perhaps Charlotte's greatest tragedy was that when she died - said to be in the early stages of pregnancy and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness Kate Middleton suffered when pregnant - she had finally achieved a potentially lasting personal happiness. Recently married to her father's long-time curate Arthur Bells Nicholls, it was not the turbulent affair that might have jumped off the pages of one of her novels, but probably all the more sustainable because of that. Nicholls had quietly loved Charlotte for years. And she, post marriage, was becoming increasingly appreciative of this solid, adoring Irish man.

Charlotte Bronte was not a beauty, a fact she was painfully aware of throughout her life. She was small - less than five feet - with a prominent brow, and nose, and a twisted smile, opening to reveal rotting and missing teeth. Like her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre, her tiny frame and diffident social manner hid a passionate nature, expressed throughout her work. Contemporaries obsessed over the gender of Jane Eyre's creator, a fact Charlotte found frustrating, writing "To you, I am neither man nor woman, I come before you as an author only, it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me."

Born on April 21, 1816, she was one of six children, but the eldest of the three literary sisters including Emily and Anne. The family grew up at the parsonage in Haworth. Their aunt Elizabeth moved in shortly after their mother's death to help look after the six children, and while Patrick Bronte largely withdrew from his children after his wife's death, taking all his meals separately for the rest of his life, he gave them a freedom which allowed them to flourish creatively.

Originally from Co. Down, of peasant stock, he had managed to make the unlikely transition to Cambridge University, an impressive leap that may have contributed to the sisters' remarkable self-belief in their own abilities.

The house was bordered on one side by a graveyard, on the other by the moors; not quite the isolated outpost of legend, it was minutes from a busy village. With only one male son, Branwell, who was to descend into drug- and alcohol-addiction, their father realised his five daughters would need to eventually support themselves, so eight-year old Charlotte and Emily and their two older sisters Maria and Elizabeth were sent to boarding school, Cowan Bridge. The school's brutal regime is said to have inspired the depiction of Lowood school in Jane Eyre. Both the elder sisters contracted consumption and died, and Charlotte and Emily returned home.

Largely left to their own devices, the four remaining Bronte siblings developed a detailed fantasy world which they captured in tiny manuscripts, so small as to need a magnifying glass to be read.

At 14, Charlotte was again sent to boarding school, to prepare for an inevitable career as a teacher or governess. At Roe Head, she was to make lifelong friends, who remembered her physical frailty - she always sat out games, suffered from failing eyesight, and had a quiet, self-conscious manner. In contrast, she showed a vigorous intellect, going instantly to the top of the class. Her biographer Claire Harman in Charlotte Bronte, A Life, suggests that here at Roe Head, she found, for the first and last time, happiness similar to that of home.

Having completed her studies and back home after 18 months, she developed a routine of housework, writing and walking the moors with Emily and Anne. It was a happy time for the Brontes, yet to experience the drudgery of work. Soon though, Charlotte reluctantly returned to Roe Head, this time as a teacher.

"This time it was the beginning of a life sentence for Charlotte," reflects Harman.

As a teacher, she was irritable and impatient with her pupils. "Am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage, forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness, the apathy and the hyperbolical and most asinine stupidity of those fat-headed oafs," she wrote in frustration.

She eventually came home, seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. "To me it contains what I shall find nowhere else in the world," Charlotte wrote of the parsonage. "(The) profound, and intense affection which brothers and sisters feel for each other when their minds are cast in the same mould, their ideas drawn from the same source - when they have clung to each other from childhood and when family disputes have never sprung up to divide them."

Having tried several stints as a governess, a fate she found even worse than teaching - "I see now more clearly than I have ever done before that a private governess has no existence", she wrote to Emily. Charlotte and her sisters toyed with the idea of running their own school. In 1842 Emily and Charlotte went to study in Brussels, in order to improve their French for such a venture.

The lively atmosphere of the school was unlike anything she had experienced, and Charlotte was delighted. Then there was Monsieur Heger, the married teacher to whom she would later obsessively write, and who was to inspire some of her more dominant male characters. In her novels, she described him as "a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperament."

A fellow pupil remembered Charlotte as "a diminutive, short-sighted, retiring personage, of remarkable talents and studious disposition, and very neat in appearance." Charlotte returned for a second year, without Emily, to teach. Alone, her feelings for Heger grew. It was an attachment which would cause her "a total withdrawal for more than two years of happiness and peace of mind," she later wrote.

None of Heger's letters to Charlotte survive, but he kept a few of hers, and they make clear that he wasn't as assiduous a correspondent. "Your last letter has sustained me -has nourished me for six months - now I need another and you will give it me," she wrote.

Things at home were bleak. "He will do nothing except drink, and make us all wretched," she wrote of Branwell. The sisters took refuge in their writing, each secretly working away on masterpieces that would later be acknowledged as some of the greatest novels ever written.

In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte came across some of Emily's poems. Emily, a strong-willed creature who had once punched her dog brutally in the eyes after he disobeyed her, was enraged at this encroachment on her privacy. To distract her, Anne produced some of her own work. The three sisters decided to approach publishers, Emily insisting it was done anonymously.

Telling no one of the plan, they put together a collection of their poems. "As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were wanted," Charlotte later wrote. They self published, an optimistic 1000 copies of 61 poems under pseudonyms. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, sold two copies. While the book was in production, the sisters, who were now nightly working together around the family dining room table, submitted Wuthering Heights, by Emily, Agnes Grey by Anne and The Professor by Charlotte.

Anne and Emily's books were taken up, with them contributing to a part of the publishing costs. By now Charlotte had almost finished Jane Eyre. When the book finally reached her eventual publisher, George Smith, he read it in one day, cancelling all the day's plans. "Children, Charlotte has been writing a book - and I think it is a better one than I expected," her father announced to the family. The book sold in the thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks, with Queen Victoria describing it as "that intensely interesting novel."

Unlike her sisters', Charlotte's publisher was a kind man who cherished his best-selling author, regularly inviting her to stay in his London home. As the real identity of Currer Bell became widely known, she was feted by the great and the good, a fact the reserved Charlotte found somewhat exhausting.

Satisfaction at the achievement of their lifelong literary dreams was short-lived. After her first London trip, Branwell passed away. Emily caught a cold at the funeral. Within months she too was dead. Then, unimaginably, Anne developed a persistent cough. "Life has become very void, and hope has proved a strange traitor," Charlotte wrote to a friend. Within eight months of her brother's death, Anne Bronte died of consumption.

"The great trial is when evening closes and night approaches. At that hour we used to assemble in the dining-room - we used to talk. Now I sit by myself - necessarily I am silent," wrote Charlotte, who would tell her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell that she would continue alone the pacing around the dining room the sisters had engaged in every night. Her career, she told a friend, was the only thing sustaining her. She was then working on her second published novel, Shirley, an industrial novel which did not earn her quite the rave reviews of Jane Eyre.

Charlotte's earliest impressions of her future husband Arthur Bell Nicholls were that he was "good - mild and uncontentious." When he finally proposed, although sympathetic to his obvious emotional turmoil, it gave her "a strange shock," and she turned him down. Her father was enraged at his temerity, and Nicholls instantly resigned. She seems to have eventually married him in rather a detached state of mind, - she signed a pre-nup agreement which in the event of her death protected her assets in her father's favour - but it's obvious a deep affection developed quickly, possibly starting with their honeymoon in Ireland.

The pre-nup was a legality that she was to later overturn when she realised she was terminally ill, saying to her husband shortly before she died, "Oh! I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy." She died at the age of thirty-eight. Her husband went on to look after her father, until his death at the age of eighty-four, a sign of the devotion the shy, plain but wildly talented Charlotte had inspired.

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