|Portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond, 1850|
This year marks the 200th birthday of celebrated author Charlotte Brontë. Born April 21st, 1816, she lived for most of her life in the village of Haworth.1 The Brontës’ house was at the top of a hill, above the church and backing onto the moor.2 It was surrounded on two sides by the churchyard cemetery, no doubt “a constant reminder to the inhabitants of their mortality.”2
The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are full of illnesses, injuries and untimely deaths, as were their lives. Their mother Maria was taken ill in January 1821 with what is believed to have been cancer of the uterus.1 There was little that could be done to treat her cancer or help her symptoms, and biographers have written about the “prolonged physical pain” that Maria suffered.1,2 In September 1821, Maria died, leaving behind six children, the eldest of whom was 7, the youngest only 20 months.1 During Maria’s illness, the Brontë children came down with scarlet fever, which was often fatal in those times.1 Remarkably, all six children survived.
In July 1824, the two eldest Brontë sisters, Maria, and Elizabeth, were sent to Cowan Bridge school. Their entry had been delayed because they were still delicate from having the whooping cough and measles in the spring.1 In August, Charlotte was sent and in November, Emily as well. Anne, who was only four, remained at home with her aunt while their brother Branwell was taught at home by his father. The school register notes the diseases each girl has had at the time of enrollment, and that they have been “vaccinated,” presumably against smallpox.1
There is no doubt that descriptions of life at Lowood School in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are based on the sisters’ own early experiences at Cowan Bridge School. The school was strict and rigorous in its discipline and daily routine; the children were often hungry and cold, and their whole existence lacked comfort.1 In the late winter of 1825, an epidemic of typhus broke out at the school.3 Typhus, sometimes called low fever, putrid fever, jail fever or ship fever, was found on board ships, in prisons and wherever people were packed together in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.4 Charlotte describes the spread of disease in Jane Eyre:
That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which…crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded [rooms]… Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils… Many…went home only to die: some died at the school, and were buried quietly and quickly, the nature of the malady forbidding delay.5
Charlotte’s sister Maria, already unwell with tuberculosis, became very ill with typhus. She died in May 1825.1 Her sister Elizabeth, who was also very sick, died the following month.1 The character Helen Burns, Jane Eyre’s friend at Lowood, is based on Charlotte’s lost sister Maria, who had been a mother-figure to her younger siblings ever since their real mother had died.3
In 1831, at age 15, Charlotte went to school again.3 Mary Taylor, a fellow pupil and friend at Roe Head School, described Charlotte as “so short-sighted that… in a game…she could not see the ball.”3 Charlotte had myopia and wore spectacles in her adult years, as does her character William Crimsworth in The Professor, published posthumously in 1857. Charlotte’s myopia may have been in part due to the miniature painting she did and the small books that the Brontë children used to write.6 Elizabeth Gaskell, who was the first biographer of Charlotte Brontë and published her account in 1857, described those small books as “almost impossible to decipher without the aid of a magnifying glass.”3
The Brontë siblings had to consider their future livelihood should illness or death prevent their father from providing for them. The sisters, for whom career options were limited, took up various teaching roles.3 However, the prospect of a lifetime as governess appeared bleak in the sisters’ eyes.3 Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Anne’s Agnes Grey, both published in 1847, describe the hardships faced by the eponymous heroines in their work as governesses. In 1841, the three Brontë sisters thought of starting their own school in Haworth. To become more qualified for this, Charlotte and Emily left for a school in Brussels to learn languages.3
In September 1842, while in Brussels, Charlotte and Emily received the sad news that William Weightman, Mr. Brontë’s curate, had died of cholera at age 28.3 Cholera was a feared disease at this time – it killed rapidly on a massive scale, attacking people of all social classes.2
Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population was the first comprehensive investigation of the people’s health.2 By the mid-1840s, reputable numbers could demonstrate that poor drainage, inadequate water supplies, and overcrowded housing were related to increased rates of serious illness and early death.2 The alarmingly high mortality rate in Haworth prompted Charlotte’s father Patrick Brontë and the local surgeons to petition the General Board of Health for assistance in procuring a better water supply.1,2 In 1850, Benjamin Babbage, who was sent as the inspector in charge of the inquiry, published his now famous report. His observations and conclusions were shocking.
Babbage found that the average age at death in Haworth was 25.8 years, comparable to some of the unhealthiest districts in London; 41.6% of the population of Haworth died at less than six years old.2 The high death rate was due to poor working conditions and to the appalling sanitary state of the village. There were no sewers in the village; drainage was mostly in open channels along the road.2 The whole village was also affected by the hill-top position of the graveyard with the town below. Babbage recommended the immediate closure of the graveyard as well as drastic improvements in the village as a whole.2
Like his sisters, Branwell Brontë also had to find work. Despite early promise, a career as published poet or portrait painter was never realized.1 He worked in (and was dismissed from) a series of jobs. Eventually, he sought solace in alcohol and laudanum, succumbing to fits of fury and drunken stupors.3 Branwell once set his bedclothes alight, an event that is said to have inspired the episode in Jane Eyre where Bertha Rochester lights her husband’s bed on fire.1 The broken Branwell likely also inspired Emily’s character Hindley in Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, both published in 1847. In fact, convinced that the dissolute character of Huntingdon was too exact a portrait of Branwell, Charlotte was opposed to a reprint of her sister’s novel after its authors’ death.3
Branwell died September 1848 at age 31. Soon after, Emily became very ill. She died December 1848 at age 30.1 Charlotte wrote: “her fever is quieted, her restlessness soothed, her deep, hollow cough is hushed forever.”1 Emily was extremely thin when she died. Her coffin measured only 17 inches across.3Consumption, or tuberculosis, soon claimed Anne too. She died in May 1849 at the age of 29 and was buried in Scarborough, the only one of the Brontë family not in the vault at Haworth.7
Charlotte, the last sibling left, suffered frequent headaches and toothaches, for which she kept three small pill boxes containing various medicines in her sewing box.3 Back in 1845, Charlotte had taken her father to Manchester to undergo cataract removal surgery, likely a daunting procedure in the pre-anaesthetic age. After the operation, Charlotte’s father lay in a darkened room for a month, during which time Charlotte had begun writing Jane Eyre.2 Now grieving the loss of her siblings, Charlotte turned to her writing once again. Her novel Shirley was published in 1849 and Villette in 1853.
In 1852, Mr. Brontë’s curate, Arthur Nicholls, proposed to Charlotte. He was initially refused by the daughter and sent away by the father.3 However, Charlotte wrote to her friend in April 1854: “Mr. Nicholls has persevered… In fact, dear Ellen, I am engaged.”3 It is a line reminiscent of the now famous “Reader, I married him”5 from Jane Eyre. The lavender-coloured dress that Charlotte wore as she left for her honeymoon demonstrates her short stature.3 As good nutrition is essential for growth and development, it’s possible that the deprivations of Cowan Bridge school left a lasting legacy in more ways than one.
In December 1854, Charlotte was expecting a child. Sadly, Charlotte died the following March, three weeks short of her 39th birthday.8 The cause of death entered on Charlotte’s death certificate was “Phthisis”, a term once used for a progressive wasting disease, especially pulmonary tuberculosis.9 It was the same cause of death as recorded for her mother, all four of her sisters, and her brother.3 According to modern medical opinion, however, Charlotte’s death was more likely to have been a result of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance caused by intractable vomiting in the early stages of pregnancy, a condition now known as hyperemesis gravidarum.3,8
A lack of curative therapies meant that illnesses in the 19th century were often a death sentence for the patient. In many instances, the medicine practiced by Victorian physicians, which frequently included purging, bloodletting, blistering, and dosing with dangerous drugs, probably did more harm than good.4 Readers and critics have wondered what the Brontë sisters would have written had they lived longer, but given the health context of the time, it is somewhat miraculous they survived as long as they did. Charlotte, Emily and Anne produced seven complete novels between them, and through these, their spirit lives on.
- Barker J. The Brontës. London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicholson; 1994.
- O’Neill J. The world of the Brontës: the lives, times and works of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. London, England: Carlton Books Limited; 1997.
- Gardiner J. The world within: the Brontës at Haworth – A life in letters, diaries and writings. London, England: Collins & Brown; 1992.
- Mitchell S. Daily life in Victorian England. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; 2009.
- Brontë A, Brontë C, Brontë E. The collected novels of the Brontë sisters. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Limited; 2008.
- Alexander C, Sellars J. The art of the Brontës. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 1995.
- Vicary T. The Brontë story. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 2008.
- Harman, C. Charlotte Bronte: A Life. UK: Penguin Viking. 2015.
- “phthisis.” The Australian Reference Dictionary. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press; 1992.
VASUDHA CHANDRA, MBBS Hons, UNSW, is a doctor working in palliative care. She completed her medical degree at the University of New South Wales. Vasudha is also a literary speaker and a writer who has published articles, short stories, and poetry. She is a member of and has been a presenter for, the Australian Brontë Association and the Jane Austen Society of Australia. Vasudha lives in Sydney with her German shepherd dog, Konan, who is named for the author-doctor (Arthur Conan Doyle) rather than the barbarian!