Charlotte Brontë - fact and fiction

The Brontë myth

Photo by Scott Rimmer available through Creative CommonsMany biographies of the Brontës are affected by what might be called ‘the Brontë myth’, which depends on a series of assumptions about the family’s life which are either untrue or derive from a misunderstanding of the surviving evidence:

  • The most prominent of these myths is that the family lived a remote existence on the lonely moors, completely cut off from the world around them
    • This ignores the fact that all three of the sisters – and their brother – at times lived away from Haworth, in the case of Anne and Charlotte for quite long periods
  • Once this ‘truth’ of the Brontës' remoteness is accepted, however, it is a short step to the belief that the sisters knew so little of the world and of human life that the existence of the novels is little short of miraculous. How could a trio of inexperienced young women, ignorant of life and the full range of human emotions, write such passionate and realistic fiction?
  • Other components of the myth include the assumption that the novels of Anne and Charlotte are thinly veiled autobiographical works, that Emily was some kind of pagan or mystic, and that secret suitors lurked in the lives of all three sisters.

Speculative biography

Biographers – many of whom have been novelists – have been tempted to fill the gaps in the biographical record of the Brontës with speculation or straightforward fiction, reading backwards from the novels in a search for clues. This has often distracted biographers and some critics from the real strengths of the Brontë’s poetry and prose:

  • Such speculations tend to make the Brontë novels seem like nothing more than wish-fulfillment on the part of passionate but naïve and sexually inexperienced young women rather than what they really are: powerful imaginative creations, executed with a great deal of skill and literary sophistication
  • Books with titles like The Bewitched Parsonage, Miracle at Haworth and The Dark Quartet make the Brontë story seem unnecessarily melodramatic. They also divert attention from the extent to which the Brontës were knowledgeable about the contemporary world of politics, manufacture and trade. 

This section seeks to set out, as plainly as possible, what is known about Charlotte Brontë’s life. In many cases, it is impossible to separate Charlotte’s experience from that of her siblings, so this is also a brief biography of a remarkable family.