Most famous for her passionate novel Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë also published poems and three other novels.
She was the third of six children of Patrick Brontë, an Irish crofter’s son who rose via a Cambridge education to become, in 1820, a perpetual curate at Haworth, in Yorkshire. Charlotte was only five in 1821 when her mother Maria died. Four years later her two older sisters died as a result of the harsh conditions in the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, Lancashire to which they and the eight-year-old Charlotte were sent in 1824. Charlotte’s experiences at the school influenced her portrayal of Lowood School in Jane Eyre. After the death of the two oldest Brontë daughters, Patrick and Maria’s sister Elizabeth gave the children a stimulating and wide-ranging education at home. Charlotte, her two younger sisters Anne and Emily, and their brilliant, unstable brother Branwell invented complex imaginary worlds, which they wrote about extensively in tiny homemade books – a fruitful literary apprenticeship. Aged 15, Charlotte enrolled at a new school not far from Haworth. Roe Head School was less harsh than the Clergy Daughters’ School, but Charlotte spent only 18 months there before returning home.
As an adult, Charlotte worked as a governess and spent some years teaching at a boarding school in Brussels; her unrequited love for the school’s headmaster, informed her novels Villette (1853) and The Professor (published posthumously in 1857). It was the passion and rebellion of Jane Eyre (1847) that earned her fame, and when visiting London she moved in the best literary circles, befriended by Mrs Gaskell and Thackeray – the latter remembered ‘the trembling little frame, the little hand, the great honest eyes’. Shirley (1849), written during and after the tragic deaths of her three siblings within a single year, displayed Charlotte’s engagement with both women’s rights and radical workers’ movements.
In June 1854, she married her father’s curate Arthur Nicholls, who had long been a loyal suitor. She became pregnant but, severely weakened by morning sickness, died aged 38 on 31 March 1855.