Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 to Maria Branwell and Reverend Patrick Brontë in the village of Thornton, Yorkshire. She was the youngest of her sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. By 1820, the family had welcomed three other children: Patrick Branwell (1817), Emily (1818) and the youngest, Anne, in 1820. That same year, the family moved to the Haworth Parsonage, where Mr. Brontë took the position of Perpetual Curate at the Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Elizabeth Branwell later moved in with them, as the mother of six had begun to suffer the symptoms of cancer and found it difficult to maintain the household. Maria Branwell died in 1821, her battle with cancer put to an end. The loss of their mother at such a young age forced the children into early independence, and would forever impact their lives.
A writer and Irish Anglican curate, Patrick Brontë's strong religious beliefs became the core of his childrens’ morals and values and greatly influenced Charlotte's writing. It his highly probable that Charlotte, despite her father's frequent disappearances into his Office, inherited her thirst of knowledge and love of writing from him. Patrick Brontë highly valued education and it was with all intentions of goodwill that, in 1824, he sent his daughters (all excluding Anne, who was too young at the time) to Cowan Bridge School, the boarding school for less fortunate Clergymen's daughters. The experience would prove a devastating turn in the family's life.
“Discipline at [Cowan Bridge School] was strict and included public beatings and the wearing of ‘untidy badges.’ Food was often contaminated and rancid, and there was an outbreak of “low fever” (typhus) in 1825.” The harsh living conditions accompanied by advanced stages of tuberculosis were too much for the two eldest—Maria died at the school, Elizabeth shortly after the remaining girls were sent home. This caused an enormous impact on Charlotte, one which would greatly influence not only her most famous novel, Jane Eyre, but also her outlook on life. Shortly after their return home, the remaining children dived headfirst into Angria, an imaginary world they had created and spent their days writing about. The imaginary became a thing of solace for Charlotte, an escape from the world and a playground in which she could cultivate her growing talent for writing.
In 1831, Charlotte was enrolled as a pupil to Roe Head. Here, she met what would become her lifelong friends: Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey. She took her studies very seriously—money was scarce and so her sisters’ education depended upon the success of her own—and finished her year at the top of her class, returning home to teach her sisters what she had been taught. Eight years later, Charlotte accepted her first offer of work as a Governess for the Sidgewick family. Depression followed as she discovered that she had no love for the vocation, and she left three months after to return to Haworth. One year later, Charlotte took another position as a Governess, this time in the White family. She left nine months after, returning home to work in collaboration with her sisters to establish a school for young ladies.
The boarding school, it was determined, would be established in their home and Elizabeth Brandwell, their aunt, was willing to give them money to put their plans into action. The house was prepared, advertisements were made and sent to any connections of their knowing, but to no avail. Due to their misfortunate situation (i.e. the unknown, unpopulated location of Haworth), they received little beyond letters of apology expressing kind encouragement, but no immediate interest. Without pupils, the project was abandoned.
In 1842, Charlotte and Emily left for a school in Brussels, Belgium, to complete their studies of English, German and French. This extensive period of intense studying allowed both ladies to grow and flourish as writers. As well, Charlotte formed a particular friendship with her French professor, Mr. Heger, who is thought to have been the inspiration for her novel, The Professor. With the school year coming to a term, they received a letter from home: Elizabeth Branwell had died. Though their aunt was already deceased, Charlotte and Emily left for Haworth and arrived in time for the burial. Another year passed and, as Emily would not come with her, Charlotte went back to Brussels alone, this time as a schoolteacher. One year went by and she left for home, saddened to be leaving Mr. Heger, but glad to return home (an event which surely influenced her poem Regret).
Newly arrived at home, Charlotte compiled poetry that she and her sisters had written. The book of poetry was published in 1846 under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. As the authors would gain popularity, rumours would begin that they were not three persons, but one and the same. Charlotte wrote The Professor, but it was rejected for publication. In 1847, all three sisters sent for publication what would become some of literature's most prized pieces: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were all accepted and published under their adapted pseudonyms. It wasn't until 1848 that the sisters revealed their true identities to their publishers in London. Their brother, Branwell, died that very year from an addiction to drugs and alcohol without ever knowing that his sisters were published authors.
Emily was not long in following her brother's footsteps to the grave. She, too, died later in 1848, followed by Anne, who died the following year. From this time to around 1851, Charlotte became part of a great literary circle, meeting influential authors and conversing with minds equal to her own. She visited London and spent much time working on the edition of some of her sisters' work. “…I am busy just now [she wrote to Ellen Nussey]. Mr. Smith wishes me to reprint some of Emily’s and Anne’s works, with a few little additions from the papers they have left; and I have been closely engaged in revising, transcribing, preparing a preface, notice, etc. As the time for doing this is limited, I am obliged to be industrious. I found the task at first exquisitely painful and depressing; but regarding it in the better light of a sacred duty I went on, and now can bear it better.” (Spark, Muriel. The Brontë Letters, p. 179)
The year 1852 brought with it the unexpected proposal of A. B. Nicholls, the curate of Haworth since 1845. Her father's violent protests, however, accompanied by the fact that she was not in love with him, led Charlotte to decline the offer. They continued to correspond through letters, as Mr. Nicholls left for one year and Charlotte published her next novel, Villette. In 1854, Mr. Nicholls returned to Haworth and become engaged to Charlotte, her father’s protest having diminished during his year-long absence. Though the couple shared an intimate friendship, it does not seem as though Charlotte truly loved him. Perhaps she married him more out of solitude than love, as some time before she wrote to Ellen Nussey in a letter: “The evils that now and then wring a groan from my heart, lie in position; not that I am a single woman and likely to remain a single woman, but because I am a lonely woman and likely to be lonely.” (Spark, Muriel. The Brontë Letters, p.187). When announcing her engagement to Ellen, it was without much fuss or passionate feeling. "Certainly I must respect him, nor can I withhold from him more than mere cool respect. In fact, my dear Ellen, I am engaged.” (Spark, Muriel. The Brontë Letters, p.199). It is interesting to note the differences between her marriage compared to that of Mr. Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre. Where the character shared a kindling passion with her husband, the author felt amity toward hers.
Charlotte Brontë died of pneumonia in 1854. It is strongly suspected that she was pregnant at the time, though she completely denied the possibility in a letter to a friend. Her illness was long and painful; death, when it came, was welcomed with relief.