When Charlotte Brontë was 18, she sent a poem to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey and asked what he thought of her writing. This was the 19th-century version of sending a song you had recorded on your phone to Stormzy and asking for feedback.
Now, Stormzy is a generous musician and might even respond to such a request. Southey did write back to Charlotte, though not necessarily with what she wanted to hear. While he praised her poem (“You evidently possess & in no inconsiderable degree what Wordsworth calls ‘the faculty of verse’”), he went on to say: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation.”
In other words, Charlotte should be focussing on what society expected of women at that time: to marry and have children and look after the family. Writing would be a distraction and make her a poor wife and mother.
Luckily she took Southey’s praise of her writing and ignored the rest. As a result, we have Jane Eyre, one of the most exciting novels in literature. And we have the work of Charlotte’s sisters as well: Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Emily, who wrote Wuthering Heights. These novels might never have been published without their sister’s determination.
It is hard to separate Charlotte Brontë from her remarkable family. She was one of six children born to a clergyman and his wife, growing up in a house perched on the edge of a Yorkshire moor, a bleak landscape that strongly features in all the Brontës’ writings. Charlotte’s mother and two of her sisters died when she was young, and the remaining siblings were a tight-knit group throughout their lives. In their teens they created whole fantasy worlds they wrote about extensively, and this creative closeness extended into their adult lives. The three sisters mainly wrote their famous novels as they sat around the dining table together, and they read out bits to each other as they went along. They submitted their novels together to a publisher, and they published their poems together in a single volume.
Why, then, do I think Charlotte deserved to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature during her life rather than, say, Emily or Anne? Partly it’s that she was the driving force of the three, keenest to have their work reach the wider world. But mainly it’s because of Jane Eyre. Charlotte wrote other novels – Shirley, Villette, and The Professor, each with its strengths and weaknesses. But Jane Eyre stands out.
It isn’t even a perfect book. If I were her editor, I’d tell her that we spend too long with Jane at her boarding school; that the St. John Rivers section strays too far off the narrative path; that her uncle’s off-stage death and Jane’s sudden inheritance is a little too contrived; that ending the novel with St John in India is weak. But I can ignore the flaws when so much else is superbly done. The cruelty of Jane’s school days; her fiery relationship with Rochester; the aborted wedding and the madwoman in the attic; her flight to the moors where she makes a new life out of nothing; her decision that brings her to say “Reader, I married him.” All these moments are powerful and entertaining, written with skill and passion.
Above all, I love Jane’s indomitable spirit that sees her move from underdog to triumphant mistress of her own destiny. In one of the novel’s most quoted passages, Jane says to Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” Readers are behind her all the way.
Charlotte too had to exert her will over the Robert Southeys of the world who would tell her she shouldn’t write. If her life had not been tragically cut short aged 38, she might have written several more masterpieces. But for her moving, magnificent Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë will always be a Fellow of the RSL to me.