I've been fascinated by the Brontë sisters since my teens when I stumbled across the book 'Wuthering Heights'. I'd never really heard of the word wuthering until then. All I knew was that it sounded mysterious and romantic and just a little bit dangerous. I holed myself up in my favourite section of the school library, poring for hours over the works and lives of these extraordinary women who seemed to defy the very era they lived in, achieving so much from a tiny, barren corner of West Yorkshire.
Such is the power of the pen.
Though I loved Emily's poems—what shy teenage girl wouldn't enjoy her reticent outpourings of grave inner turmoil—it was Charlotte I really admired. Charlotte had Gravitas.
Unlike Jane Austen, an earlier literary big hitter who lived a relatively sheltered existence, the sister's lives were far darker. They grew up in Haworth, a tiny industrial town where the average life expectancy was just twenty-five years old. Last summer, I was lucky enough to visit the town—a place I've wanted to go since those early days when I began reading about them in the library. I've been to quite a few writer's houses over the years—I love seeing where great masters penned their works—but this place blew the others out of the water. Simply put, there is an atmosphere, a brooding intensity that can be felt both on the cobblestone streets of Haworth and the parsonage turned museum where they lived. As I trailed through the rooms and took the path down to the churchyard at the bottom of their garden, I could feel the inspiration behind their works, a heavy, indomitable force of human spirit, light and dark in equal measure. Good and bad, it's a place like no other.
Much like the graveyard at the bottom of their garden, death was a permanent resident in the sister's lives. When Charlotte was five years old, their mother, Maria died. It was the first death in her family, but sadly by no means the last. By the time Charlotte herself passed away at age thirty-eight, she'd lost each and every one of her five siblings.
But it wasn't just bad living conditions and death which darkened the world around her. During her lifetime, she witnessed the decline of her alcoholic brother, Branwell, and when she sought escape, which she did to Brussels in 1842, she was left heartbroken by an unrequited love for her professor. Like Anne, she worked as a governess for a time, a vocation renowned for isolation and ill treatment, but it was not to last. For Charlotte and her two beloved sisters, their true passion was writing, the light in their all too often gloomy lives.
In 1846, the sisters self-published a small book of poems under the assumed names, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Charlotte revealed in a letter the decision to change their names was borne from the probability that as women they would face prejudice and that the books they wrote might not be considered 'feminine'. But it wasn't fear of judgement which ultimately led to the name change, rather the desire to be taken seriously, to be judged by the same set of standards a man would be. Charlotte wrote of female authors; 'we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.' There is a wonderful line in a recent BBC adaptation about the sister's lives where Emily asserts, 'When a man writes something, it's what he's written that's judged. When a woman writes something, it's her that's judged.' Arguably, this is something that still stands today. We only need look at our most successful authors, from J K Rowling to Stephanie Meyer to know that women come under much fire in the literary world, perhaps more so than their male counterparts.
Though their initial venture wasn't a success—they only sold two copies of their poems—it paved the way for future works, providing them with the grit and determination to navigate the publishing world. Charlotte's first manuscript, The Professor, was rejected. It must have been a huge blow for Charlotte, particularly as her sister's novels, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, written by Emily and Anne respectively, were accepted for publication. Charlotte, however, persisted, and sent them 'Jane Eyre: An Autobiography', a novel destined to become one of the greatest literary works of all time. Jane Eyre was ground-breaking in that it was written from the perspective of a strong-minded female who, after enduring a difficult childhood, goes on to find both tragedy and love with her foreboding employer, Mr Rochester.
Jane Eyre was different from other literary heroines at the time. She was a character with opinions, a woman who demanded to be treated as equal by those around her, regardless of social status. I've always liked to imagine that through Jane, we get to see what Charlotte might have been like—a strong undercurrent of hope fighting against a tide of adversity in a world which was not quite ready for her tour de force.
Charlotte may have died at thirty-eight, but she lived a full life, leaving behind such a remarkable legacy that the Brontë sisters are remembered amongst the greatest novelists of our time.
Persistence is a characteristic we writers often speak of—the persistence to finish a novel, the persistence to keep trying publishers and agents when every door seems to slam closed in our face. But although I admire Charlotte for this determination, it isn't the main reason I find her so inspirational. There was a light inside her that would not be extinguished, a light that refused to give into the darkness despite all the heartache and sorrow life brought her. She poured that light into her works, fighting the shadows that tried to drag her under. There must have been so much sadness, so much grief, but she persisted, and ultimately, she won.
Charlotte and her sisters never allowed the world to define them. They defined themselves, following their hearts and using their heads and never letting the light go out. As such, they continue to inspire women and writers throughout the world, and if that isn't a happy-ending, I don't know what is.
Juliet Lyons is the author of DATING THE UNDEAD published by Sourcebooks in May 2017.
YOU ARE READING
She Persisted ProjectNon-Fiction
A collection of non-fiction essays about women by women in celebration of never giving up in the pursuit of what's right. Cover design by @KristineInchausti based on an original concept by Barbara Kruger Photograph by Rowland Scherman [The National...