Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte was the oldest, most ambitious and longest-living of the three remarkable Brontë sisters, who were writing in the mid-19th century. Jane Eyre was Charlotte’s first novel and it was an instant hit, despite being criticised for its passionate portrayal of the life of a fiercely independent governess. Women in Charlotte’s novels are not looking for husbands — although sometimes they find them anyway — they are searching for independence and equality. It may not seem too shocking now but, at the time, it was revolutionary.


“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed,” says Shirley, the eponymous (sharing the same name as the book’s title) heroine. “Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.” How far have attitudes changed?


“Think of my marrying you to be kept by you, monsieur! I could not do it; how dull my days would be!” These are the words of Frances Henri in The Professor, as she discusses her marriage. It was incredible for a woman to keep her job after marriage — but Charlotte’s heroines insist on independence above all else.


“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” Jane Eyre was not just a radical novel because it insisted on women’s equality, it took seriously the life of a poor governess, and ended with her marriage to a someone of a far higher class.


Before the Brontës, Gothic literature was not taken very seriously: it was unrealistic, flighty fiction full of swooning maidens. But Charlotte and her sister Emily wrote far more intellectual Gothic novels, where the spooky supernatural was blended with the realism of daily life.


Many of Charlotte’s characters are teachers and governesses, often with female pupils. She was drawing on her own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, but education is also central to her characters’ search for independence. Women are just as intelligent as men, she implies — and learning is their route to equality.