The final week of National Novel Writing Month is here and that means this is the last Author of Honor blog post of the series. I knew from the beginning that I had to include this novelist. Besides Anne Rice, she is the only other writer who I can say I’ve read most of her works. She has also been a great inspiration to me. So, without further ado, allow me to introduce the author to conclude the series.
A novelist and poet, Charlotte Brontë, along with her siblings Emily and Anne, made an indelible mark on 19th-century prose. My fascination with the Victorian era and Gothic literature drew me to the works of Charlotte years ago. Like most people, I was introduced to the Brontë sisters when I read “Jane Eyre” in high school. I feel I was too young to really appreciate the novel at the time. I didn’t revisit it until my early 20s, a time when I had the itch to delve back into the classics, and I read it with different eyes. I admired her writing and the somber elements of the narrative. The library book I had borrowed contained her complete works, so I read the rest and was in love.
Born April 21, 1816 in Thornton, England, Charlotte was the eldest of three sisters. They were very gifted writers. Emily penned “Wuthering Heights” and Anne wrote “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” The trio was very hush-hush about their writing endeavors and initially published their works under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Although it veiled their true identities, it allowed them to still sneak in their initials, therefore Charlotte was Currer, and so on.
You may wonder why the sisters didn’t take credit for their stories. Well, there were not many female writers during the 19th century and prior. Of course, there was Jane Austen, but even she was discreet about her writing when she started. This was a time when English society was brainwashed to believe that women were prone to fits of hysteria and that they should not be overstimulated because they were the more fragile sex. Ladies were suppressed and restricted to the role of wife and mother.
So, if a woman were to come out and say she was going to pursue writing, it would’ve seemed preposterous and overstepping her boundaries as a female. And, most likely, she would have frightened her husband and he would have had her committed. By concealing their gender, the Brontës hoped their books would be taken seriously and not judged as the hysteric imaginings of women.
When “Jane Eyre” went to print in 1847, everyone wanted to know who was Currer Bell. It was a novel infused with feminism and Gothic melodrama. It featured a strong-willed female character at the center who hid her passions and yet would not be made to feel invisible. If you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the plot, but there are elements such as strange noises in the house, a fire ignited by an unknown force and the mysterious past of Mr. Rochester, the master of Thornfield Hall, that make the story riveting. There are several film adaptations and one I recommend is the 2011 version starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. I feel it stays true to the novel and captures the Gothic elements beautifully.
After experiencing praise for “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte, at the behest of her publisher, eventually revealed her identity. Although she was welcomed into high society and was respected as a writer, she suffered much in her personal life. She buried three siblings. Both Emily and Anne died of tuberculosis without ever witnessing the success of their works. Charlotte also had a brother who had passed of a disease most likely caused by his alcohol addiction.
Interestingly, surviving letters have caused speculation that she was very much in love with a professor named Constantin Héger who she met while living in Brussels years earlier with her sister Emily. He was a married man and the correspondence she sent to him after moving back to England seemed full of passion on her end with no reciprocation on his. Quite the scandal in Victorian English society if it were discovered at the time.
Whatever her status was with Héger, it seems to have inspired the relationship at the center of “Villette,” my favorite piece by the author. It’s a book I’ve read more than once and had the opportunity to study in a Victorian literature class in graduate school. It was not a favorite of my classmates. Many found Lucy Snowe, the narrative’s protagonist, too depressing and woeful. I appreciate it because I think it is the darkest of Brontë’s works and really solidifies the author within the Gothic genre. And given everything she experienced beforehand, who can blame her for traversing a gloomier path. It’s also the last novel she would ever write.
“Day-dreams are delusions of the demon.”
– Lucy Snowe, “Villette”
I could go on about this final work, and I did in a long paper for my literature class, but I’m going to resist the urge. I will say that Lucy Snowe is the most zealous character the novelist imagined, and the story takes you on a downward spiral. Is she manic-depressive? Is she suicidal? Is the ghost of a nun she sees real? And, there’s the scene where she seems under the influence of a hallucinogenic and goes out for a late-night stroll. To me, Charlotte put her entire being into this story and bares her soul. I highly recommend it, but the mood can get quite melancholy. You may be wondering how I could praise a book that seems so glum, but you must read it to understand, and I hope some of you will.
There is a darkness to Charlotte Brontë’s writing that keeps me coming back for more. It makes me wonder if she hadn’t passed away at the age of 38 in 1855, what else she could have written. There has been debate about the exact cause of death, but it is known that she became very ill and died while pregnant with her first child, a fact I was unaware of until doing research for this post.
Although she published only a handful of novels, Charlotte Brontë made a significant impact on Victorian literature and aided in the emergence of the subgenre Female Gothic, which has also been attributed to “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley. As the century went on, writers such as Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker would take the Gothic genre to darker and more morbid places. It’s because of writers such as Charlotte Brontë that women have developed a stronger presence in literature and why she is an inspiration to me.
Sadly, there is no official website for Charlotte Brontë, but if you’d like to learn more about the 19th-century authoress, you can start at The Victorian Web or just dive in and read her books.
Well, that concludes National Novel Writing Month and the Author of Honor blog series. I really enjoyed coming up with these features and learning more about the writers in the process. I thank all of you who have kept up with these posts and took the time to comment. It means a lot to me and I greatly appreciate the support. I also love to hear feedback, so please let me know if this is something I should do again next year. Until the next spooky adventure, stay odd & macabre my friends!