Today is the 201st birthday of brilliant original Charlotte Bronte. In 1847, as her first novel was bounced back yet again to Haworth parsonage, her sisters Emily and Anne made a deal with a London publisher to bring out their novels, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey.” Charlotte read her sisters’ books and took what she needed. Enough with restraint and the unspoken. She would give readers what they want — what she wanted: sex, ambition and Gothic shenanigans. The heroines of her sisters’ books were beautiful, and Charlotte bristled. They said they did not think the public would embrace a plain woman. In the spirit of a dare, Charlotte wrote “Jane Eyre,” in which a plain, orphaned governess wins the heart of a rogue addicted to beautiful women.
When “Jane Eyre” was published later in 1847, it was an immediate rage. The intimate voice of the storyteller made people feel she was speaking to them. Charlotte, not Dickens, invented the child narrator who acutely registers pain. Before publication, Charlotte’s editors urged her to tone down the harshness of the opening chapters set at Lowood School and the agonizing death of Helen Burns (based on Charlotte’s older sister Elizabeth), but she refused.
In 1837, she had sought encouragement from Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who told her women should not write. After the publication of “Jane Eyre,” she mentioned to her father that she had written a novel, that it had earned praising reviews, and that she was making money. Wearily, he said he might consider reading it.
After her marriage to a minister at 38, Charlotte did not write much and died nine months later from a complicated pregnancy, but until that time and except for harrowing periods working as a teacher or a governness, she lived at home with her siblings, and they wrote all the time. No boyfriends, no husbands, no children. Their escape from traditional roles is at the core of their radicalism. It made them scary and thrilling in their time and continues to in ours.