Author Tracy Chevalier, creative partner of the Bronte Parsonage Museum in 2016, on 10 things about Charlotte Brontë to mark 200 years since the author's birth.
1. Charlotte Brontë was tiny – 4 feet 10 inches at most, with a 19-inch (corseted) waist. That was small even in Victorian times, to the point where people remarked on it. She told her friend and biographer Mrs Gaskell that she bought children’s clothes.
2. She told ghost stories at her boarding school at night that entertained and scared her fellow students.
3. As a teenager she and her brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne made up fantasy worlds that they wrote literally millions of words about.
4. Charlotte had self-belief. Aged 20 she wrote to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, asking him to look at some of her poems. That would be like sending Paul McCartney some tunes you had recorded and asking what he thought. Southey replied, famously writing: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be." Charlotte wrote back politely; luckily for us, she ignored his advice.
5. Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote their novels in the dining room just across the hall from their father’s study. Despite their doing so most evenings, including reading aloud and discussing their work together, Patrick Brontë had no idea that his daughters had written or were publishing books until Charlotte told him six weeks after Jane Eyre was published. (Perhaps this says more about an unengaged father than about his daughter.)
6. She wrote on bits of paper, getting a sentence exactly right, before writing it out on the manuscript. She threw away all those bits, so we only see the finished product.
7. Charlotte lived in Brussels for two years to brush up on her French and German so that she could open a school and teach those subjects. Her French teacher, Constantin Heger, was probably the first man to challenge and nurture her intellectually. Unfortunately he was also flirtatious with his students, and she fell in love with him, writing passionate letters on her return to England. He tore them up, but his wife saved the fragments and sewed them back together. Later their children donated the letters to the British Library.
8. The first novel she wrote was not Jane Eyre, but The Professor – loosely based on her time in Brussels, though not so autobiographical as Villette later would be. The Professor was turned down by her publisher even after their huge success in publishing Jane Eyre - it was that bad. The Professor was published posthumously, and is only read now by curious Brontë aficionados.
9. Charlotte had four marriage proposals, only accepting the last after a few years and her father relenting to the match. (He thought Arthur Bell Nicholls – his church assistant – was not worthy of his daughter.)
10. Charlotte lost her mother and two older sisters early in life. Aged 32-33 she lost Branwell, Emily and Anne in the space of eight months. She herself died age 38, either from hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness – she was pregnant at the time of death) or from an infection of the digestive tract similar to that which their old servant Tabitha died from around the same time. Charlotte’s was a life suffused with death. That she managed to create such a life-affirming character in Jane Eyre is miraculous.
Tracy Chevalier is the editor of Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre (Borough Press).