Charlotte Brontë Charlotte Brontë

The eldest of the three writing Brontë sisters, Charlotte Brontë assumed some of the maternal care of her younger siblings (including a brother, Branwell) after the death of her mother and two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. In The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), Elizabeth Gaskell brought the eccentricities of the Brontës's lives in Yorkshire to public view. It is this view of the sisters -- locked into the solitary world of the moors and their own fevered imaginations -- that has persisted. But this image of Charlotte Brontë is incomplete.

In 1824, she was sent with Emily and the two elder sisters (who both died that same year) to Cowan School, on which Brontë based the draconian environment of Lowood School in Jane Eyre (1847). A few years after leaving Cowan School, Brontë served as a teacher at Roe Head (where Emily studied briefly), and she developed relationships outside her family that lasted her lifetime.

From 1842 to 1844, Brontë lived in Belgium, where she attempted to gather information (again, briefly with Emily) to set up her own school in England. The plan failed, but she drew on her Belgian experience for two of her four novels, The Professor (written before Jane Eyre but published posthumously in 1857) and Villette (1853).

If Jane Eyre, with its exploration of the world of imagination and social responsibility, is her most famous novel, Shirley (1849), about the Luddite Rebellion of 1811 and 1812, is the one which shatters the Brontë mold. It is a "condition of England" novel, and demonstrates Brontë's concern not only with private dramas but also with public issues of labor and poverty.

Although she did live much in isolation with her increasingly demanding clergyman father, Brontë, long an admirer of the Romantics, made the personal acquaintance of a number of eminent literary Victorians, including William Makepeace Thackeray, Harriet Martineau, Gaskell, and G.H. Lewes (George Eliot's partner). Brontë also broke the spinster mold often associated with the sisters, marrying A.B.Nicholls, her father's curate, in 1854. However, true to bleak Brontë lore, she died in pregnancy only a few months later.