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How Charlotte Bronte's life hid raging passions

On the bicentenary of the celebrated writer's birth, Liadan Hynes examines the truth behind the legend of the famous Bronte sister, her unrequited love affair with a teacher, and how she eventually found domestic bliss...

Published 16/04/2016

Secret depths: a tiny frame and quiet manner hid Charlotte’s passionate side
Secret depths: a tiny frame and quiet manner hid Charlotte’s passionate side
Tragic end: Charlotte Bronte is believed to have died from the extreme form of morning sickness which Kate Middleton suffered when she was pregnant

I am quite convinced that I shall see you again one day - I don't know how, or when - but it must happen, since I so long for it ... Day and night I find neither rest nor peace - if I sleep I have tormenting dreams in which I see you ... Forgive me then, Monsieur, if I take the step of writing to you again - how can I bear my life unless I make an effort to alleviate its sufferings ... If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope. If he gives me a little friendship - a very little - I shall be content - happy ... Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on - they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men's table - but if they are refused these crumbs they die of hunger."

These could be the desperate words of one of Charlotte Bronte's literary creations, but are in fact taken from letters she wrote herself to her former teacher, Constantin Heger, with whom she fell in love while studying at his school in Brussels for two years in her twenties.

In a life filled with tragedy - her mother died of cancer when Charlotte was five, she watched all of her beloved siblings die - this unrequited love affair was the great passion, but not the great tragedy of the Bronte sister who would achieve the greatest literary success in her own life.

Perhaps Charlotte's greatest tragedy was that when she died - said to be in the early stages of pregnancy and suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, the extreme form of morning sickness Kate Middleton suffered when pregnant - she had finally achieved a potentially lasting personal happiness.

Recently married to her father's long-time curate, Arthur Bells Nicholls, it was not the turbulent affair that might have jumped off the pages of one of her novels, but probably all the more sustainable because of that.

Charlotte Bronte was not a beauty, a fact she was painfully aware of throughout her life. She was small - less than five feet - with a prominent brow and nose, a twisted smile, opening to reveal rotting and missing teeth. Like her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre, her tiny frame and diffident social manner hid a passionate nature, expressed throughout her work.

Born on April 21, 1816, she was one of six children, the eldest of the three literary sisters including Emily and Anne. The family grew up at the parsonage in Haworth.

Their aunt Elizabeth moved in shortly after their mother's death to help look after the six children and, while Patrick Bronte largely withdrew from his children after his wife's death, taking all his meals separately for the rest of his life, he gave them a freedom which allowed them to flourish creatively.

Originally from Co Down, of peasant stock, he had made the unlikely transition to Cambridge University, an impressive leap that may have contributed to the sisters' remarkable self-belief in their own abilities.

At 14, Charlotte was sent to a boarding school, Roe Head, to prepare for an inevitable career as a teacher or governess. Having completed her studies and back home after 18 months, she developed a routine of housework, writing and walking the moors.

Soon, though, Charlotte reluctantly returned to Roe Head, this time as a teacher. She eventually came home, seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Charlotte and her sisters toyed with the idea of running their own school. In 1842, Emily and Charlotte went to study in Brussels, to improve their French for such a venture. The lively atmosphere of the school was unlike anything she had experienced.

Then there was Monsieur Heger, the married teacher to whom she would later obsessively write, and who inspired some of her more dominant male characters. None of Heger's letters to Charlotte survive, but he kept a few of hers and they make clear that he wasn't as assiduous a correspondent.

"Your last letter has sustained me -has nourished me for six months - now I need another and you will give it me," she wrote.

Things at home were bleak. The sisters took refuge in their writing, each secretly working on masterpieces that would later be acknowledged as some of the greatest novels ever written.

In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte came across some of Emily's poems. Emily, a strong-willed creature who had once punched her dog brutally in the eyes after he disobeyed her, was enraged at this encroachment on her privacy. To distract her, Anne produced some of her own work. The three sisters decided to approach publishers, Emily insisting it was done anonymously.

They put together a collection of their poems. "As was to be expected, neither we nor our poems were wanted," Charlotte wrote.

They self-published an optimistic 1,000 copies of 61 poems under pseudonyms. Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, sold two copies.

While the book was in production, the sisters, who were now nightly working together around the family dining room table, submitted Wuthering Heights, by Emily, Agnes Grey by Anne and The Professor by Charlotte.

Anne and Emily's books were taken up, with them contributing to a part of the publishing costs. By now Charlotte had almost finished Jane Eyre.

When the book finally reached her eventual publisher, George Smith, he read it in one day. The book sold in the thousands and was reprinted within 10 weeks, with Queen Victoria describing it as "that intensely interesting novel".

Charlotte's earliest impressions of her future husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, were that he was "good - mild and uncontentious".

When he finally proposed, although sympathetic to his obvious emotional turmoil, it gave her "a strange shock" and she turned him down. Her father was enraged at his temerity, and Nicholls instantly resigned.

She seems to have eventually married him in rather a detached state of mind - she signed a pre-nup agreement which in the event of her death protected her assets in her father's favour - but it's obvious a deep affection developed quickly, possibly starting with their honeymoon in Ireland.

The pre-nup was a legality that she overturned when she realised she was terminally ill, saying to her husband shortly before she died: "Oh! I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy."

She died at the age of 38.

Her husband looked after her father until his death at the age of 84 - a sign of the devotion the shy, plain, but wildly talented Charlotte had inspired.

Belfast Telegraph

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