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From Bell to Bronte

Becca Challis explores the life and works of Charlotte Bronte and her family at the beginning of their bicentenary celebrations

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Last month brought the 200-year anniversary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, one of the most prominent figures in English Literature and the author of such revered works as Jane Eyre and Villette. The Brontes are one of the most prominent families in literature, and the next five years bring three more Bronte bicentenaries. Next year will see Charlotte's brother Branwell's celebrations, followed by those of her sisters, Emily and Anne, in 2018 and 2020 respectively.

Image: Bronte Society
Image: Bronte Society

The Bronte sisters remain staple authors on the bookshelves of libraries and shops everywhere. Charlotte's Jane Eyre, Villette and Shirley continue to influence the world today; for example, Shirley was the first instance of the name being given to a woman, as prior to the novel, 'Shirley' was a name for a man. Charlotte's works also make the first known references to the 'Wild West', the 'cottage-garden' and a 'raised eyebrow', plus 150 other well-known phrases.
The Brontes' attachment to literature began at an early age; the children created imaginary worlds named 'Angria' and 'Gondal', displaying some of the earliest forms of fantasy writing. Charlotte's sisters Emily and Anne were also successful authors in their own right; Emily is famed for Wuthering Heights and Anne for Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. All three women used pseudonyms, publishing their works as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, male names which preserved their original initials. They took the active decision to hide their female identities in order to be taken more seriously, alongside George Eliot and many other Victorian women writers; the debate surrounding male pseudonyms still continues today.
Despite their successes, the lives of the Brontes were filled with sadness. Charlotte was born in Thornton in 1816 and was the third of six children. Her father Patrick was an Irish Anglican clergyman, who moved the family to Haworth in 1820 to become the priest of St Michael and All Angels Church. In 1821 the first tragedy hit the Bronte family when Charlotte's mother Maria died of cancer, and the children were then looked after by their father and their aunt Elizabeth.
All three women used pseudonyms, publishing their works as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

In 1824 Patrick sent his four daughters away to school at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, but the poor conditions there are often blamed as the cause of the tuberculosis which caused the deaths of Charlotte's sisters Maria and Elizabeth in 1825. After returning home, Charlotte looked after her younger siblings Branwell, Emily, and Anne. Here began the literary ambitions of the Bronte family, as the children passed the time by writing stories and articles together.
Charlotte later attended Roe Head School in Mirfield before becoming a teacher there. She then became a governess and worked for many families. Charlotte and Emily moved to Brussels in 1842 to enrol in a boarding school where Charlotte taught English, and Emily music. They returned home prematurely after their Aunt Elizabeth's death, but Charlotte travelled back to Brussels alone three months later. She fell hopelessly in love with the founder of the school Constantin Heger, an unrequited love story which would heavily influence her novel Villette.
A year later she returned to Haworth for good but wrote heartbreaking love letters to Heger, sometimes as often as twice a week. Eventually Heger's wife stepped in and instructed Charlotte to write once every six months at most. Heger attempted to destroy the letters before his death, but his wife reconstructed the torn pieces of paper and left them to their children. The general public did not know of Charlotte's attachment until 1913, when Heger's children donated the letters to the British library. This knowledge swiftly altered public opinion of her as a saintly and innocent Victorian woman.
Jane Eyre was published in 1847 within six weeks

In May 1836 Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-published a collection of poems using their pseudonyms, however only two copies of the collection were actually sold. Charlotte then wrote The Professor which was not successfully published, but Smith, Elder & Co. expressed an interest in a longer work by 'Currer Bell'. She sent her second manuscript and Jane Eyre was published in 1847 within six weeks. The work was a huge success, however some controversy arose around its second edition dedication to William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair. At the time this was seen as insensitive by some, as Jane Eyre features a man with a mentally disturbed wife, and Thackeray himself had his own wife declared 'insane'. However, Thackeray thought it was "the greatest compliment I have ever received" and has famously praised Bronte's work. Charlotte also received criticism from her former schoolmaster, Reverend Wilson, who saw himself in the character of Mr Brocklehurst and threatened to sue Bronte - something she managed to avoid by writing him an apology.
Branwell, Emily and Anne all died within eight months of each other

In 1848 Charlotte began work on her second novel Shirley, but before completion Branwell, Emily and Anne all died within eight months of each other. The girls both died of tuberculosis, a disease which took four members of Charlotte's family. It was thought originally that Branwell died of the same illness, however it later emerged that he died of a lung condition caused by alcoholism, as well as suffering from an opium addiction. Branwell was also known to have been unfaithful to his wife, and had consequently been an inspiration for some of the characters in the Brontes' works.
Charlotte wrote as a way of dealing with her grief, leading to the publication of her second novel. Villette was then published in 1853 and was the last work published during her lifetime. A year after the deaths of her sisters, Charlotte revealed the identities of Currer, Ellis and Acton in the preface to the combined edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey.

Image: The Telegraph
Image: The Telegraph

The world had been speculating on their identities for years and was shocked to find the authors of these popular works to be three country girls - even Charlotte's editor was unaware of her identity. After her confession Charlotte was whisked into London society, befriending high profile women such as Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South.
Shortly before this, Charlotte received a proposal from Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate and the man from whom part of her pseudonym originated. She initially turned down his offer, and her father also objected to the union partly due to Nicholls' financial situation. Gaskell encouraged the match and after many secret meetings with Nicholls, Charlotte agreed. Her father, however, refused to give her away at the wedding despite eventually giving his consent. Charlotte became pregnant soon after the wedding but died with her unborn child on 31 March 1855, just three weeks before her 39th birthday.
Nicholls asked Gaskell to write a biography of Charlotte's life. Gaskell's work is famous as a revolutionary biography, bucking the trend of listing various achievements and instead focusing on the author's personal life. Gaskell was selective in her content, as she was shown the Heger letters but chose not to include them. Her portrayal of Charlotte is perhaps the greatest influence we have in the way that we see the Bronte family today. Many critics have criticised Gaskell for her saintly depiction of life in Yorkshire, as evidence today suggests the contrary - that it was a lively, gossip-filled place and that Charlotte had her own very secret love life. There have since been many more biographies of Charlotte Bronte, the most recent by Claire Harman which was published at the beginning of 2016.
In 2003, Jane Eyre was voted number 10 in the BBC's Big Read Survey

Charlotte Bronte was an incredibly talented author, proof of which is the continuing popularity of her novels. In 2003, Jane Eyre was voted number 10 in the BBC's Big Read Survey to find Britain's best-loved novel of all time. However, at the time of publication Charlotte was met with criticism; Elizabeth Rigby wrote in the Quarterly Review of 1848 that she found Jane Eyre to be 'pre-eminently an anti-Christian composition.' Since then many successful film, television, radio and literary adaptations of the novel have instead helped ensure Bronte's popularity. Famous novels including Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys were inspired by Jane Eyre and it is rumoured that Angela Carter was working on a sequel to Bronte's masterwork just before her death in 1992.
At the helm of the events organised to commemorate the bicentenary is the Bronte Society, which was founded in 1893 making it one of the oldest literary societies in the world. The Society has also published its own journal since 1895 which is solely dedicated to Bronte research, making it the centre of 'Bronte Studies' worldwide. Their events are incredibly varied and often centred at The Parsonage in Haworth, the home of the Bronte family which today is a museum dedicated to them. The Parsonage receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and has coined the name 'Bronte200' for their upcoming celebrations.
As children, Charlotte and her sisters passed the time by creating miniature books and magazines together

A series named 'The Parsonage Unwrapped' features new evening events and tours focusing on themes such as 'Love and Marriage' or a specific Bronte sister. The museum is also hosting a 1940s weekend with displays of memorabilia and film stills from the Golden Age of Cinema and Hollywood's greatest adaptations of the Brontes' works.
The Society also threw Charlotte a birthday party with tea and cake while pupils from Haworth Primary School performed scenes from her most famous novel, Jane Eyre. Author Tracy Chevalier (The Girl with the Pearl Earring) has curated an exhibition named 'Charlotte Great and Small' for The Parsonage which, according to the website, will examine the "contrasts between Charlotte's constricted life and her huge ambition".
As children, Charlotte and her sisters passed the time by creating miniature books and magazines together. The 'Charlotte Great and Small' exhibition will display some of these tiny creations alongside contemporary art installations by artists responding to the theme of 'miniature'. These include a knitted Jane Eyre and a tiny embroidered bed.
Chevalier's work for the bicentenary has been extensive. As well as curating the exhibition, she has edited and compiled Reader, I Married Him, a book of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre written by a variety of distinguished women writers including Helen Dunmore and Susan Hill. The book has been positively received, with The Times commenting in its review: "This collection is stormy, romantic, strong - the Full Bronte."

haworth landscape with reservoir in bronte country 183179768
Image: AboutBritain.com

Further afield, events include 'A Celebration of Charlotte Bronte in Quilts', also devised by Chevalier, an exhibition in which quilters have submitted their own pieces inspired by Bronte. Visitors will also be able to view the unfinished quilt that the Bronte sisters made with their aunt. In London there is an exhibition celebrating Charlotte Bronte's life at the National Portrait Gallery which runs until August, and in May the Northern Ballet are touring with their production of Jane Eyre.
The Brontes are also of great significance to us in the county of Yorkshire. The landscape features heavily in all of the sisters' novels and is famous the world over as a result. 'Bronte Country' is used to describe the area in which they lived, in the West Yorkshire Pennines.
Famous for its rolling hills through to the dark moors, the Yorkshire landscape is immortalised in the work of the Bronte sisters. The University of York has a Literary Yorkshires project, which largely features the Bronte sisters, and Dr. Trev Broughton of the University's department of English and Related Literature explains that the department is "very conscious of Charlotte, Emily and Anne as part of our local heritage".
In celebrating the bicentenaries of the Brontes, tourists are flocking to the places which inspired these literary women. A visit to Haworth is a must, to visit both their home town and the world-renowned Parsonage museum. Top Withens is often thought to be Emily's inspiration for the landscape of Wuthering Heights, while the ruins of Wycoller Hall are said to have inspired Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre.

haworth bronte bridge 152077679
Image: AboutBritain.com

Cowan Bridge is said to be the inspiration for Lowood School which Jane attends in her youth, and Roe Head is the school in which Charlotte Bronte took up her first teaching post. Norton Conyers in Wensleydale fits the description of Mr Rochester's Thornfield Hall, particularly after the discovery in 2004 of a blocked staircase from the ground floor to the attic, similar to that which is described in the novel. Charlotte visited the house herself and it is said she was given the idea for the mad Mrs Rochester from a story by the owner of another 'mad woman in the attic'. Finally, 'Bronte Walk' is a two-and-a-half mile walk from Haworth to Bronte Falls, a waterfall mentioned in Charlotte's letters. This walk was frequented by the Brontes and there can be no better way to commemorate them and their legacy - apart from curling up with a copy of Jane Eyre.

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