On April 21, 1816 Charlotte Brontë made her first appearance in the world. Born to an ordinary family, from inside the unremarkable surroundings of Haworth parsonage, she would go on to achieve extraordinary things.
Jane Eyre was a landmark of English literature, but one which Charlotte initially had to publish under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. The world of publishing wasn’t meant for women like her and while she often struggled with her later fame and didn’t fit easily into London’s polite society she was determined that her voice and those of her sisters were heard.
Without Charlotte, there would have been no Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and while Emily, whose work is so tied to the landscape of Yorkshire, would have no doubt continued to write, her scores of poems would have likely died with her.
Like the best artists, Charlotte was a tortured soul. Her two older sisters contracted a fatal bout of consumption when she was just nine years old and later she would see her beloved sisters Emily and Anne and her brother die within nine months of each other.
Their deaths forced a retreat into her imagination, but the truth was Charlotte’s heart had already been broken. During a spell in Brussels where she and Emily went to learn French with the plan of returning to Haworth to start their own school, she fell in love with her tutor. Monsieur Heger was intelligent, passionate and brooding - everything Charlotte thought she wanted in a man. Unfortunately her love was unrequited and she returned to Yorkshire bereft.
That heartache was channeled into Jane Eyre, where she was finally able to give her heroine the happy ending which she felt she had been so cruelly denied. Shirley and Villette followed, but it is Jane Eyre for which Charlotte is rightly remembered.
It’s a staple on the GCSE and A-level syllabus, but more than that it has provided inspiration for successive generations of artists and writers.
Today, Haworth will hold a special birthday party in honour of its most famous resident and the 200th anniversary of her birth, but that will just be the start as the town prepares for the impact of Brontë-mania.
“They are a massive part of Haworth and a lot of people know Haworth simply because of the Brontës,” says Claire Foster, who runs the arts and crafts shop Hawksbys with her husband Barry. It has not only brought visitors here but investment too. “I would say we’ve seen about 10 or 12 new shops opening in the last year or so and most of them are independents which has helped freshen the place up.”
There’s a mini industry built up around the Brontës and while it would perhaps be easy for Haworth to become a tacky tourist trap, it keeps its literary heritage understated, and is all the more attractive for it.
Want to know more about the Bronte’s? Here are links to the many Bronte features that we have produced this week...