10 Surprising Facts About Charlotte Brontë

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. Though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. Charlotte Brontë was just 5 years old when her mother passed away.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. Charlotte Brontë began writing poetry and stories as a child.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. Charlotte Brontë worked as a teacher and governess but disliked it.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. Charlotte Brontë dealt with a lot of literary rejection.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. Charlotte Brontë used the male pseudonym Currer Bell.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre; her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. Jane Eyre was an instant success.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. Charlotte Brontë was lucky to avoid tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. Charlotte Brontë died when she was just 38 years old, while pregnant.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. Charlotte Brontë fans still travel to visit her home in England.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. Charlotte Brontë helped popularize the name "Shirley" for girls.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

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J.K. Rowling to Release New Children’s Book The Ickabog for Free Online

J.K. Rowling is helping kids (and adults) pass the time in quarantine with a story about a mysterious creature called the Ickabog.
J.K. Rowling is helping kids (and adults) pass the time in quarantine with a story about a mysterious creature called the Ickabog.
John Phillips/Getty Images

In the middle of writing Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling began work on a new book called The Ickabog, which she read to her children in installments as a bedtime story and planned to release once Harry Potter was behind her. Instead, she ended up taking a well-earned hiatus from publishing children’s books that lasted more than a decade.

Today, however, Rowling announced that not only will she publish The Ickabog, but she’s doing it for free as a serialized novel online. The first two chapters have already been posted on The Ickabog website, and you can look forward to a new section each weekday between now and July 10, 2020. The story, which isn’t related to Harry Potter or the Wizarding World, takes place in the fictional kingdom of Cornucopia, where King Fred the Fearless rules with his best friends, Lords Spittleworth and Flapoon, by his side. There, a young boy named Bert Beamish is terrified by the legend of the Ickabog, a mysterious, malevolent creature that allegedly snatches up unsuspecting children all over the countryside. According to Rowling, the story is about “truth and the abuse of power,” and it’s best suited for children up to age 9.

This November, the book will be published in print, e-book, and audiobook formats, and Rowling will donate all author royalties to as-yet-unspecified “groups who’ve been particularly impacted by the pandemic.” She’s also asking readers to enter their illustrations of the story in a competition for a chance to be featured in the print edition this fall. Suggestions of what images the publishers might need for each chapter are listed on the website—the first two chapters, for example, call for pictures of King Fred and his friends, the Ickabog, a map and flag of Cornucopia, Lady Eslanda, and pastries, cheese, sausages, and wine—but it’s made clear that “nobody should feel constrained by these ideas.”

You can find out more about The Ickabog, read the story, and enter the illustration competition here.