CHARLOTTE BRONTE, modern English novelist, was born on the 21st April 1816. Her father, the Rev. Patrick Bronte, was a native of county Down, Ireland; her mother, Maria Branwell, was of Cornish family. At the date of his marriage, in 1812, Mr Bronte held the living of Hartshead in Yorkshire, and there his two eldest daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, were born. In 1815 he removed to Thornton, in the parish of Bradford, where Charlotte, her brother Patrick Branwell, and her younger sisters, Emily and Anne, were born. In 1820 he was presented to the living of Haworth, and removed in that year to the parsonage, a bleak and solitary house, standing close by the churchyard and backed by a wide expanse of moorland. Mrs Bronte died soon after their removal, and the little family of young children were left to educate and train themselves. They saw little of their father, whose health was bad, and who seems to have been eccentric in his modes of thinking and acting. The charge of the little flock devolved upon the eldest daughter, a girl of between seven and eight when her mother died ; and, under the peculiar circumstances of their life, the children's intellectual powers and sympathies developed with rapidity. Utterly deprived of all companions of their own age, with none of the usual outlets for their pent-up energies, they lived in a little world of their own. The harsh realities around them, the bleak scenery, the coarse and rugged natures of the few inhabitants with whom they came in contact, only impelled them to construct for themselves an ideal world, modelled after their own strange and untrained imaginations, in which they found satisfaction and reality. By the time Charlotte Bronte was thirteen years of age, it had become her constant habit, and one of her few pleasures, to weave imaginary tales, idealizing her favourite historical heroes, and bodying forth in narrative form her own thoughts and feelings. Nor was she alone in this curious occupation ; all the family took part in the composition of juvenile stories and magazine articles. It was a strange training for a child, boding little good for her future happiness when thrown into the ordinary routine of life.
An event which made a deep impression on this strange family circle was the entering of the two eldest girls, in 1824, at a school recently opened at Cowan's Bridge, near Haworth, and intended for daughters of clergymen. A vivid picture of this school, and one which Miss Bronte always maintained was not over-coloured, is presented in Jane Eyre, for the Lowood of that story is Cowan's Bridge.
Of all pupils the Brontes were the least likely to fall in well with the requirements of their new mode of life. Everything was novel and repulsive to them; their peculiar natures were repressed and stunted; their intellectual sympathies found no food. Charlotte and Emily became pupils later in the same year, but it was soon found necessary to remove Maria. Her health had given way completely, and she died a few days after her return to Haworth in the spring of 1825. But a few months later and Elizabeth followed her sister to the grave. The younger girls were removed in the autumn of 1825 ; and Charlotte, as the eldest of the household, took upon herself the duties that Maria had formerly discharged. For six years she remained at home leading the usual quiet, isolated life, and indulging to the full her rare faculty of composition. She then spent one of her happiest years in a school at Roe Head, and some of the acquaintances made there became lifelong friends. To this school she returned in 1835 in the capacity of teacher, and for a time her sisters were with her as pupils. After three years her health, always delicate, gave way alarmingly, and she had to be withdrawn to Haworth. Two short experiences as governess in a family having shown her how little such a life was suited to her, she turned her thoughts towards taking a school, a plan which would have had the special advantage of keeping together the three devoted sisters. Some money was advanced for this scheme by their aunt, and it was resolved that, as a preliminary step, Charlotte and Emily should study French upon the Continent. In 1842, accordingly, they found themselves in Brussels, and a new world, a new experience, was opened up to Miss Bronte's vigorous and imaginative mind, a world to be afterwards reproduced in living characters. She studied hard, and before her return to England in January 1844 had acquired a very thorough knowledge of French.
She came back to a home into which a fresh element of unhappiness had been introduced. Her brother Patrick, a youth of fine talents, had fallen into habits of dissipation, which rapidly rendered him a hopeless drunkard. For some years the sisters had the misery of seeing daily before them the spectacle of a wasted life, of powers thrown away, and of opportunities despised. The details of his unfortunate story may well rest in obscurity. He lingered on till September 1848.
Meanwhile, amid their distress, the sisters, who found refuge in their habits of composition, had made their first literary venture. During their separation, while Charlotte was in Brussels, and Anne in a situation as governess, they had been quietly pursuing their favourite occupation ; and in 1845 they made the discovery of each other's poetical efforts. After some correspondence with publishers they resolved to print a small volume of poems, assuming the noms de plume of Currer, Ellis, and. Acton Bell. The book appeared in the spring of 1846, was barely noticed by the reviews, and attracted no public attention. The authors, however, were encouraged to make a further trial, and each began to prepare a prose tale. Charlotte's was The Professor; Emily's, Wuthering Heights; Anne's, Agnes Grey. The Professor was refused on all hands ; the other two were accepted, but their publication was delayed for some time. Nothing daunted by her want of success, Charlotte devoted herself heart and soul to a new tale, Jane Eyre, which she completed in August 1847. The MS. was accepted by Messrs Smith and Elder; the book appeared with the name of Currer Bell on the title page in October 1847, and at once achieved a decided success.
Few works of an unknown author have been received with such sudden and general acclamation. The utter and even paradoxical disregard for the conventional which the book displayed, the masculine vigour and glowing energy with which the main characters were drawn, and its intense realism, at once seized and secured the popular favour, and showed the literary world that a new and powerful competitor for its honours was in the field. Its success was not so much the result of the favourable verdicts of trained judges, for these came but slowly, as of its own intrinsic force. The delineation of the harsh and rugged but powerful northern character was the revelation of a new world, and the intensest interest was excited as to the true name and abode of the unknown author. Numerous were the conjectures as to Currer Bell, but the secret was well kept. Even the publishers were unaware of the truth, till the disclosure had to be made to them in consequence of the publication of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, and of the announcement of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The public, however, remained in the dark till after the appearance of the second work by the unknown, when a shrewd Yorkshireman, who knew Haworth, divined the secret and published his discovery.
Shirley, this second work, fully sustained the author's high reputation. Yet it was written under melancholy circumstances. The death of Patrick Bronte, in September 1848, was followed by the deaths of Emily and Anne in quick succession. Emily died on the 19th December 1848 ; Anne on the 28th May 1849. Shirley was published in October 1849. The disclosure of Miss Bronte's name as the writer at once introduced her to the great literary society of London. She met all the most prominent men of letters of the time; yet, though she was in the world, she was not of it. Her previous life and her peculiarly sensitive and retiring disposition made notoriety and attention painful to her, and she gladly escaped to the quiet of Haworth parsonage. Slowly, and with long interruptions from failing health, her last work proceeded to completion. Villette was published in 1853, and was hailed with universal delight. It is in some respects the most pleasing of her works, while it at the same time exhibits some of her gravest faults. The description of the life at the foreign pension, and the whole delineation of the principal characters, are reflexes of her own experience, and impress one with their vivid reality and truth. The plot, however, is unskilfully constructed, and the interest seems to shift from one set of characters to another in the progress of the story.
In June 1854 Miss Bronte was married to her father's curate, the Rev. Mr Nicholls, and for a brief period she tasted the strange new happiness of domestic life. But the seeds of decay were in her constitution; the same malady that had carried off her sisters, worked its way with fatal facility in her enfeebled frame. She died on the 31st March 1855. After her death The Professor, her first luckless tale, was published from her MSS.
A comparison has sometimes been made between Miss Bronte and Miss Austen. The points of contrast are certainly more apparent than the points of similarity; and it is a fact not without significance that Miss Bronte could never thoroughly appreciate the merits of her great predecessor. Both were consummate masters of literary expression, and both finished their work with the utmost care and precision. Miss Austen is distinctly superior in skilful evolution of plot and in the nice adjustment of character and incident. But her figures are tame and lifeless when compared with those of Miss Bronte, and what she chiefly lacked, the fierce glow and fire of imagination, and the perception of depths in human nature only revealed through suffering experience, the other possessed to an almost unrivalled extent. Miss Bronte's experience was, indeed, narrow, but it was of a rare kind, such as was peculiarly adapted to her strong and yet sensitive spirit. She had too what Goethe calls the true secret of poetic genius, penetration to the individual and real; what she had herself known and felt, the deep impressions made on her mind by wild scenery, and by rugged yet genuine human natures, that she mirrored forth with living truth and fiery vehemence. Doubtless her strength at times approaches too near to coarseness, the situations become almost melodramatic, and the result may be charged with sensationalism, but the pervading sense of intense reality is more than sufficient to carry off these defects.
Of her three great works Jane Eyre will always be the one which occurs most readily in connection with her name ; it has all the vigour and individuality of a first-born work of genius. Shirley, one of the sweetest love-stories in the range of English fiction, abounds in rich humour, but wants the perfection of artistic unity. Villette contains, perhaps, more of the author's personality than either of the others. The character of the heroine is in truth that of Miss Bronte herself, and the analysis of it is at times morbidly acute. The Professor has never gained much popularity, though the main conception is one of great beauty and is skilfully handled.
Of EMILY BRONTE's works it is somewhat difficult to speak, Hers was a strange nature, not easily understood; and it had but little time to develop. Some of her poems are singularly powerful, and show uncommon abilities. Wuthering Heights is a literary curiosity. Unmistakably the work of a strong mind, into which the wild scenery of the north had sunk deeply, it shows absolutely no comprehension of human character. We are transplanted to a dreamland, enveloped in a lurid thunderous atmosphere, through which stalk fantastic giant beings, gloomy and devilish in their utter wickedness. It is the production of a powerful imagination, but of an imagination unrestrained by any experience of the real, and regulated by no considerations of artistic beauty and proportion.
ANNE BRONTE's was a mind of weaker calibre. Agnes Grey is a gentle, gracefully written tale, founded on the writer's own experiences of a governess's life; but it manifested little power or promise. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has much greater force and vigour; but the main conception is an unpleasant one over which the writer had brooded until she had been seized with a morbid craving to give it shape and substance. It is a painful story, inartistically told.
Charlotte Bronte's friend, Mrs Gaskell, has narrated her life, as only a woman of kindred genius could. Of Emily and Anne, incomparably the best notice is that prefixed by Charlotte Bronte to the second edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. A new and uniform edition of the whole works of the three sisters, with Mrs Gaskell's Life (which first appeared in 1375), illustrated by engravings of the principal places mentioned, is at present (1876) in course of publication.