As Charlotte Bronte completes 200 years of her literary reign, Subhadrika Sen explores how she and her works are still celebrated in modern times
“To talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking.”-Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte was one of the most futuristic and liberal minded authors of the 19th century. Her writings were largely drawn on personal experiences and emotions which were sensitively highlighted in her novels; something that women of her age feared to express in words. Charlotte had four other sisters and a brother. Two of her sisters – Maria and Elizabeth- died at a very young age due to tuberculosis that spread like an epidemic in their school- Clergy Daughter’s School. This incident became an inspiration for Jane Eyre’s (1847) boarding school.
Bound by the norms of society and times, where women authors were not appreciated much, Bronte and her sisters started authoring novels under pen names. Bronte wrote under the pseudonym Currer Bell, the initials of which retained the initials of her original name. According to Bronte ‘art was most convincing when based on personal experiences’. Her second novel, Shirley (1849) depicting the industrial unrest and the life of women in the society.
In 1839, she took up work as a governess. Interestingly, most of her novels have the protagonist as a young governess. From 1842-44, she served as a teacher in a school in Brussels. This was a boarding school and in exchange of shelter her sister Emily Bronte and she taught music and English in the school, respectively. This boarding school was owned by Mr. Constantine Hedger, whose name has been attached to Bronte’s for years after. Although Bronte did express feelings towards Mr. Hedger, her emotions were never reciprocated by him. Thus, instances of unfulfilled love and yearning are not uncommon themes in her novels The Professor and Villette. While Villette (1853) was her last published work during her lifetime, The Professor was released posthumously after her death in 1857.
Charlotte, fell madly in love with her personal tutor in French and the owner of the school in Brussels where she taught English. Mr. Constantine Hedger was a married man with children; nevertheless she could not suppress her affection towards him. She wrote him numerous letters; at times even two letters a week. In one such letter she writes “Day and night I find neither rest nor peace — if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you always severe, always saturnine and angry with me —“ Ultimately, these letters were handled by Mrs Hedger who warned her of writing a letter every six months and not more. Many of them were torn and thrown away but Mrs Hedger sewed them up and preserved them. Today, these letters find a place in a special collection in the British Library. Drawing inspiration from this incident, the readers would find similarities in the storylines of Jane Eyre and Villette. While in the former, the protagonist finds love and yet loses it again due to the mysterious past of her lover; the latter represents societal barriers for the unison of the protagonist and her lover.
Her approach towards life promoted a different form of Feminism. She had been thrust to the role of a dutiful mother substitute for her siblings after the early death of her mother and elder sisters. Since, then she had always looked into the interests of the others before thinking about her own self. Thus, she had an image of a fiercely independent woman. She did not see marriage the way women of her time saw it. She almost challenged patriarchy and held profound confidence in the principle that women should be allowed to choose a path for their lives and not be pushed into something unwanted and out of their own free will. Bronte grew up in a society where the voices of the women were hardly heard. They were nothing but humans with ear marked existential lifelines daughters, sisters, wife and mothers; and occasionally teachers or private governess. But Charlotte voiced her opinions for freedom and independence in this society. She believed that women were as free as their male counterparts and deserved every rights and opportunities to succeed in the society. Suchetana Mukhopadhyay, an employee at PwC and a former English Literature Graduate from Jadavpur University states that Jane Eyre “can be seen as a prototype of a certain brand of feminism, one that is forged through forgiveness and mercy while strictly adhering to social and religious morality. Another interesting aspect is that Bronte gives her character agency of action. Though she finds herself in adversities throughout this Bildungsroman narrative, she is equally a doer as a receiver, taking ownership of her actions and participating in her fate rather than accepting it passively.”
Her most famous and successful novel, Jane Eyre has been commended by the young and the old for being one of the most outspoken feminist novels. The protagonist, Jane Eyre, thinks much ahead of her time and displays the poignant enigma of a fiercely independent woman which is almost a reflection of Bronte herself. This novel holds as much relevance in contemporary world as it did in the yesteryears. Some readers describe the experience of reading the novel below:
“Jane Eyre! We studied that book in school for literature studies! Loved this book! Plus her quote: ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will’” – Lovelyn Anne Marie Goh
“I was 12 when I first read Jane Eyre, and that novel, for me, was an eye opener. Back then, women were considered to be the rightful property of men, and here we have Jane, a woman who dared to voice her opinion about what’s wrong and right.”- Jashodhara Mukherjee
“What influences me most is she is talked about radical feminism in an era when women were hardly allowed to speak. She is very futuristic.”- Aritrik Dutta Chowdhury
Elizabeth Gaskell, who lived in Manchester, was a dear friend of Charlotte. She had two very profound impacts on the life of this author. First, it was Gaskell, who could coax Bronte into a live of marriage and second, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, was written and published by Gaskell in 1857. It was unusual during her times for one author to pen the biography of another, but Charlotte was always an exception to societal norms during her lifetime, and thus her biography became one too. Gaskell’s house in 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester has been turned into a Museum and hundreds of visitors come to see her legacy even today.
2016, marks the 200th birth anniversary of the author. Thus, various recognitions and honours are being given to her. A second biography of Bronte called The Fiery Heart penned by biographer Claire Harman is one of the books to be released in her honour. That apart, a series of short stories on her famous lines ‘Reader, I married him’ , two novel length adaptations, a literary treasure hunt through the pages of her novel as well as a fantasy plot where the governess displays shades of grey to her character. It is known that Bronte might have made at least five visits to London; however, she was mostly critical of the city in her words. Nonetheless, the Soane Museum has arranged for a special exhibition in the name of the late author to honour her works.
The Haworth Parsonage, which is Bronte’s birthplace, has been converted into a museum. They have launched a series of programme called the Bronte 200 which is a five year long programme and honours each of the Bronte siblings. Details of the programme can be found in their official website: https://www.bronte.org.uk/bronte-200
Throughout her lifetime, Bronte reiterated and deeply believed in the following lines “life is so constructed, that the event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation.’’ Given that Bronte had lost love and fought relentlessly to change the society’s views of women her whole life; but these two principles found immense popularity through her novels and made her one of the greatest, boldest and outspoken authors of the 19th century. Today, it is not just a celebration of 200 years of Bronte but a celebration of a struggle for independence of women and a celebration of the personification of the statement that authors live through their works; years after their souls have departed the earth.