Charlotte Brontë, a writer like no other and the creator of masterpieces of English Literature–like Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villitte, The Professor–died on 31st March 1855, days short of turning thirty-nine. Possible theories about her death include, Tuberculosis, Phthisis, Neurosis as well as a condition called hyperemesis gravidarum that caused her severe nausea and vomiting during her assumed pregnancy.
The most asked question about Charlotte Brontë is “How did she die?”. However, my question is, why are people so obsessed with her death? Why aren’t questions pertaining to such an important writer’s work more popular? The answer is–because she died. Well, you might be puzzled by my response but I do have a basis for my argument and so let’s track the story.
Mystery of who is Charlotte Brontë?
Charlotte Brontë first hit fame with the publication of Jane Eyre in October 1847. People were stunned to read her novel that was full of a wild passion hitherto unseen in literary works of the time. Hence, it was obvious that they wanted to know more about the author who could produce such work. They were shocked and disappointed to know that the publication contained just the name of the author–Currer Bell–without a hint of biographical information. Rumours were abound, is Currer a woman, is Currer a man, is this author writing under various names and so on. Thus, very early on we see that readers saw Charlotte as an author engulfed in a blanket of mystery. The more she wished to protect her life from public scrutiny the more she felt sucked into the whirlpool of accusations and rumours.
Moreover, while Charlotte had attained fame and recognition during her lifetime, she and her works reached the zenith of literary fame only after she had died. Readers then and readers now wish to read more about her and more of her works but are left stunned because they realise that this author hardly had enough time in her life to complete all that she would have desired to write. What might she have produced had she lived a full life? The possibility of Charlotte’s untapped potential that was buried with her makes her readers scamper about in desperation to find out what it was that took their beloved writer from them. They do not have to dig deep to find that Charlotte’s life was one that was filled with an endless series of sufferings.
Suffering, Illness, Death, Loss- An Endless Chain
Anyone reading about Charlotte’s life would be appalled by the losses she had to witness in her life and astounded by the strength with which she held on. She had to see her mother wasting away and eventually dying of consumption when she was just five years old. Her elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, who probably adopted the role of mother figures in the family, and to whom Charlotte looked up to were also taken away from her by the deadly blow of consumption in a space of few moths when Charlotte was just nine years old. Charlotte was left in the company of her younger siblings Emily, Anne and Branwell but could never experience the care and sense of safety that comes with the presence of a caring and loving guardian in a child’s life.
She formed a deep bond with all her siblings which compensated for the lack of friendships and society in their lives. In my opinion, she saw her younger brother as her equal, a colleague she recognised as having the same skills, potential and brilliance she believed she too had. At this stage of her life, she had accepted that as a man Branwell would have better opportunities for realising his potential than she could ever think of. The problem was, he never did. Branwell was the classic case of a talented individual who wasted away his life disappointed and disgruntled by the mismatch in his belief in his qualities, his expectation and how the world valued his work. Seeing a brother, she thought to be brilliant and someone she could rely on, decaying before her must have been unbearably painful to Charlotte. Branwell eventually died on 24th September 1948 due to alcohol and opium addiction and a final bout of tuberculosis triggered by Bronchitis (Harman 281-82). Charlotte bore this loss but there was anger and disgust accompanying her pain. Little did she know what was to come next.
During the years Charlotte spent at the Roe Head school with Emily and during the decline in Branwell’s health, Charlotte had formed a close relationship with Emily. In my opinion, this relationship was almost parasitic as Emily derived a sense of pleasure from the power and control she exercised over Charlotte, and Charlotte, even at the expense of her freedom, held on to Emily as the sole support in her life.
Soon after Branwell’s funeral, Emily developed a “cold and cough…very obstinate” (qtd in Harman 284). However, Emily shows some of Cathy’s maddening obstinate and selfish behaviour from Wuthering Heights and “refus[ed] to accept any help” (Harman 284). Charlotte’s biographer, Claire Harman is of the opinion that “Emily seems to have fully understood her power over Charlotte–over the whole household–and been strangely determined to…impos[e] on them what Charlotte later called “forced, total neglect”” (285). Emily seems to have the same kind of control over Charlotte that Cathy had over Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, deriving pleasure by the pain caused to Heathcliff because of her suffering. She did all the chores as if mocking death to try and overpower her will. She was defiant almost as if she wanted to say, you try, you can kill me but you will not maim me. She died on 19thDecember 1848, defiant and wilful nearly to the very end. Charlotte was shocked, stunned and pained by the loss of a sister she so cherished and greatly relied on. However, she soon sensed that more was to follow.
Anne, too started showing symptoms of the same disease that had consumed her sister but being one of a compliant temperament, Harman notes, she accepted all the help her family would have liked Emily to take (289-90). Inspite of all the care and treatment she received, she died on 28thMay 1849, having fulfilled her wish to travel to Scarbourough. Her death seems to be peaceful in a way and even triumphant in my opinion. Where Emily had adopted a position of defence against death, Anne adopted a position of attack but both did everything in their power to keep death away. However, Anne having put up the best fight she could, peacefully accepted Death’s win and contently crossed into another world. “Anne was buried in the hillside graveyard of the parish church, overlooking the sea, the only member of the Brontë family not to lie in Haworth” (Harman 293).
In a gut-wrenching event described by Harman, “Charlotte noticed that…Keeper [Emily’s dog] patrolled the little bedroom that Emily had latterly used, and…Flossy [Anne’s dog]…[looked] for Anne” and concludes “they will never see them again–nor shall I–at least the human part of me” (295). In my previous article I had discussed how Claire Harman’s use of illustrations in her biography of Charlotte Brontë makes the image of the Brontë sisters–writing, reading and discussing–come alive. Therefore, I was able to deeply feel Charlotte’s sorrow as she wrote:
The great trial is when evening closes and night approaches–At that hour we used to assemble in the dining-room–we used to talk–Now I sit by myself–necessarily I am silent.(qtd in Harman 295)
It is hard to imagine how Charlotte might have carried on with her life after the loss of all her siblings so cruelly taken away from her. Nevertheless, she did and as Claire Harman opines, with the intention of being “haunted” (300) by their memories and the desire to meet them in another life. Charlotte writes in Shirley
Where is the other world? In what will another life consist?(qtd in Harman 300)
While Charlotte kept writing, infusing her stories with her deepest feelings, her sufferings did not cease. Either it was the fierce criticisms of her literary works or it was the severance of relationships by men she fathomed to have a romantic relationship with. However, Charlotte did find bliss in her life for a few months when she married Arthur Bell Nicholls. This too unfortunately was short lived.
Claire Harman concludes from a letter Charlotte wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey that Charlotte was pregnant in 1855.
Don’t conjecture-dear Nell…for it is too soon yet–though I certainly never before felt as I have done lately(qtd in Harman 373)
Based on the symptoms Charlotte suffered from, Claire Harman concludes that Charlotte suffered from “hyperemesis gravidarum…[in which a] sufferer experiences a violent and ceaseless disruption of stomach and senses” (374), that too, “in an age with so little knowledge of this condition” (375). However, as a diagnosis for pregnancy was not carried out, one cannot conclude with certainty that she was pregnant, purely based on symptoms of morning-sickness and Brontë household’s conclusion of her pregnancy based on their expectations (Maynard). John Maynard has included the opinion of an expert in his research to show that it is not possible to conclude the reason of Charlotte’s death with certainty. She may or may not have been pregnant, however, Maynard concluded based on Dr. Weiss’s comments that, Charlotte suffered from a physical ailment that led to her wasting without being certain what that ailment might have been (74-75).
Her health deteriorated with each passing day and having seen her siblings suffer and die with each passing day she too could sense that she was to die soon. Claire Harman by juxtaposing her poor health with her desire to live emphasises the injustice and cruelty life reserved for her, thereby plunging readers in the anguish Charlotte felt.
Oh! I am not going to die, am I? He [God] will not separate us, we have been so happy.(qtd in Harman 377)
Sadly, it didn’t take long for her fears to come true. “Charlotte…died in the early morning of 31 March  three weeks short of her thirty-ninth birthday” and eight weeks after having been married (Harman 377).
The losses Charlotte had to witness in her life, that of siblings she was so close to and were her greatest support in her life create sympathy for her in the mind of her readers. The abrupt close of a life that had such potential compels her readers to find some kind of explanation for why she had to suffer. Where the readers are able to witness a conclusion in Charlotte Brontë’s novels, and that too a happy one, in reality we are denied this conclusion leaving us with an incomplete experience forever. Moreover, we are left in a cloud of mystery regarding her death. We search, argue, conclude and challenge theories, repeatedly and inconclusively.
Lost in thoughts of an extraordinary woman…
In obeisance to the divine in you,
-Harman, Claire. Charlotte Brontë A Fiery Heart. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
-Maynard, John. “The Diagnosis of Charlotte Brontë’s Final Illness.” Biography, vol. 6, no. 1, 1983, pp. 68–75. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23539178. Accessed 9 July 2021.
-Kenneth King. “Obsession—Beginning with the Brontës: A Revisitation.” The Antioch Review, vol. 73, no. 2, 2015, pp. 225–241. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7723/antiochreview.73.2.0225. Accessed 9 July 2021.