Born in West Yorkshire on 21 April 1816, Charlotte Bronte would grow up to become one of the best-loved writers in the English language, and her books remain popular to this day. Tonight, a stunning production of her 1847 novel Jane Eyre opens here in Norwich, and we thought we’d take a look back at her life.
Young Charlotte’s greatest ambition was to be a writer, and in 1846, she persuaded her sisters to publish Poems by Currer Ellis and Acton Bell (the sisters’ androgynous pseudonyms). It sold just two copies. By 1847 though, Jane Erye would prove to be an immediate success, and Charlotte would go on to publish novels including Shirley and Villette. Her final novel, The Professor, was published posthumously.
1820: Patrick Brontë is appointed as incumbent of Haworth, and moves into the Parsonage with his wife, Maria, and their six children.
1821: Maria dies of cancer, and her unmarried sister Elizabeth Branwell moves into the Parsonage to take care of the children.
1824: The sisters, excluding Anne, attend the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge near Kirkby Lonsdale. The experience provides Charlotte with a model for the infamous Lowood School in Jane Eyre.
1825: Charlotte’s eldest sister Maria is sent home and dies at the Parsonage in May, aged 11. Elizabeth, ten, also returns home and dies in June. The surviving children remain at home for the next few years, creating a rich imaginary world sparked by their father’s gift to Branwell of a set of toy soldiers. They are eager readers and produce their own tiny illustrated books, small enough for the toy soldiers, with minuscule handwriting.
1831: Patrick’s lack of a private income means the sisters need to earn a living as governesses. Charlotte is sent to Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, Mirfield, later returning as a teacher and taking Emily and Anne as pupils.
Branwell takes art lessons in Leeds intending to apply to the Royal Academy of Arts in London but after a short stint as a professional portrait painter in Bradford in 1838, he returns to Haworth in debt.
1838-9: Emily is briefly a teacher at Miss Patchett’s School at Law Hill, Halifax, but then returns to Haworth.
1840: Anne takes up a post as governess to the Robinsons at Thorp Green Hall, near York, staying for five years and also securing a job for Branwell as tutor to the family’s only son.
1842: The sisters make plans to set up a school of their own at the Parsonage and in February Charlotte and Emily travel to Brussels to the Pensionnat Heger to learn language skills for their school. The trip is funded by their Aunt Branwell, but she dies in October and the sisters return to Haworth.
1843: Charlotte returns to Brussels as a teacher at the Pensionnat Heger.
1844: Charlotte comes home to Haworth permanently, suffering the pains of unrequited love for her teacher Monsieur Heger. A prospectus is circulated for the sisters’ school, but no pupils are forthcoming.
1845: Anne leaves her employment at Thorp Green and returns to Haworth, followed shortly after by Branwell who was dismissed in disgrace, allegedly for a love affair with his employer’s wife.
1846: Charlotte, Emily and Anne use part of their Aunt Branwell’s legacy to finance publication of their poems, concealing their true identities under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Only two copies of Poems are sold.
Charlotte’s first attempt at writing a novel for publication, The Professor, is rejected by several publishing houses before it arrives at the offices of Smith, Elder & Co. Although the firm declines the novel, their response is sufficiently encouraging for Charlotte to send them her next work, Jane Eyre, begun in a dreary Manchester lodging whilst nursing her father back to health after a cataract operation.
October 19, 1847: Jane Eyre is published by George Smith.
December 1847: – Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey are published by Thomas Cautley Newby. Following the success of Jane Eyre and the publication of two further ‘Bell’ novels there is speculation about the gender and identity of the authors.
June 1848: The publication of Anne’s second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall forces Charlotte and Anne to travel to London to reveal their identities to George Smith, as the unscrupulous Newby was trying to pass off the work of his author as being by the more successful Currer Bell.
September 24, 1848: Branwell, who has increasingly fallen back on alcohol and opium for solace, dies of tuberculosis aged 31. Emily and Anne are also ill.
December 19, 1848: Emily dies of tuberculosis three months after her brother at the age of 30.
May 28 1849: Anne also succumbs to tuberculosis. She had travelled with Charlotte to Scarborough to try a sea cure but dies after just four days in the resort. She is laid to rest in the churchyard of St Mary’s, high above the town.
October 1849: Charlotte’s novel Shirley is published. She travels to London to stay with George Smith and his mother and enters London’s literary society, being introduced to her literary idol, the novelist W.M. Thackeray. During visits over the next few years, she sits for her portrait for society artist George Richmond.
August 1850: Charlotte is invited to the Lake District where she meets novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Later in the year Smith, Elder & Co. gains permission from Newby to reprint Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, and Charlotte edits the works. She sorts through her dead sisters’ papers to provide a selection of their poetry.
1852: Charlotte rejects a marriage proposal from her father’s curate, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls.
1853: Charlotte’s last novel Villette is published.
June 29, 1854: Having relented and accepted Arthur’s proposal, the couple are married in Haworth Church.
March 31, 1855: Charlotte dies in the early stages of pregnancy, just three weeks before her 39th birthday.
1857: Two years after Charlotte’s death, her first novel, The Professor, was finally published. In the same year Elizabeth Gaskell’s moving tribute to her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, also appeared.
See Jane Eyre here until Saturday; tickets are available now.