‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when […]
‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.’
These words begin Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, a work of astonishing eloquence and beauty in which she probes with an inward eye into the invisible nature of the human heart.
Charlotte Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, in the village of Thornton and lived in a remote parsonage on the wild Yorkshire moors with her father Patrick Bronte, an evangelical anglican clergyman and a faithful preacher of the gospel (he was a scholar contemporary with Henry Martyn at Cambridge University), her brother Branwell, a poet, an artist and classicist (he painted his sisters’ only surviving group portrait) and her two sisters Emily and Anne ,who were also novelists and poets in their own right.
Charlotte’s mother died when she was five years old so the Bronte children were brought up by their father and aunt Elizabeth who left her native Cornwall and took up residence with the family.
Charlotte, who was tutored by her father in her younger years, was a voracious reader and developed a very rich imagination. For example, she read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton’s Paradise Lost , Walter Scott’s poetry and novels , derived much of her inspiration from Wordsworth’s nature poetry, The Arabian Nights and of course the Bible which she regarded as the best book in the world.
As soon as they could read and write , Charlotte, her brother and sisters who shared a like-mindedness, used to invent and act little plays solely for their own amusement and secret pleasure in which the Duke of Wellington (Charlotte’s hero), Napoleon Buonaparte , Hannibal and Julius Caesar would be conquerors. They also wrote compelling adventure stories and created the magical kingdoms of Glass Town Angria and Gondal which helped establish their own individual styles and develop their storytelling skills. Their compositions and plots became more complex as the children grew older.
At age 14, Charlotte was sent to Roe Head School , a boarding school at Mirfield where she first experimented with writing poetry. Charlotte later returned to Roe Head School at age 19 as a teacher.
In a series of letters Charlotte wrote at age 20 she says that she started to have ‘stings of conscience, visitings of remorse, glimpses of holy, of inexpressible things, which formerly I used to be a stranger to’. She found her heart to be ‘a very hotbed for sinful thoughts’. She longed for holiness and although she had doubts about obtaining it, she knew ‘the greatness of Jehovah’ and acknowledged ‘the perfection of His word’. She implored her ‘merciful redeemer’ so that through his merit he would ensure her reconciliation to God.
In 1839, like her heroine Jane Eyre, Charlotte took a position as a governess and travelled to Brussels to study languages while teaching English, with a view to starting a school with her two sisters. Charlotte however became lonely and longed for home and returned to England in 1844.
Upon returning to England Charlotte was inspired by her experiences in Brussels to begin writing The Professor and Villette. On 24 August 1846 Patrick Bronte had cataract surgery performed on his eye. Charlotte accompanied her father to Manchester for the operation. After the operation Mr Bronte had to lay still in a darkened room for weeks to heal whilst being cared for by Charlotte. It was during this difficult time that Charlotte began to write Jane Eyre. Charlotte’s books were a source of ‘reviving pleasure’ to her father in his old age.
Despite her many talents , Charlotte’s life was always overshadowed by sickness, death and suffering. Her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell tells us that Charlotte was often ill with ‘neuralgic headache’; she also struggled with bouts of ‘melancholia’ (depression) and bore this debilitating illness with great patience. Charlotte was present during the Bronte family’s desperation over Branwell’s opiate addiction and alcoholism and observed his consequent destruction. By May 1849 she suffered the deaths of Anne and Emily who both succumbed to tubercular consumption.
Charlotte’s special relationship she enjoyed with her siblings suddenly vanished and she and her father found themselves standing alone. Charlotte writes in a letter to a friend that when she first encountered these disturbing days and nights she had some misgivings and could not say ‘Thy will be done!’ and felt rebellious and in a gloomy state of mind . She wanted the ‘storm to pass over’ her but after taking up her Bible to read she struggled and prayed fervently to be enabled to resign herself ‘to every decree of God’s will’ and not to be embittered in her heart.
She eventually submitted all to God’s will and came to rely totally on the Lord’s help and power who allowed her to undergo these trials for her own good and as a test as to the measure of his treasures and his love.
During her life Charlotte received and rejected four offers of marriage. She finally accepted the marriage proposal by Arthur Bell Nicholls, a curate in her father’s parish in June of 1854 and received her father’s approval to marry him. They had their honeymoon in Ireland but sadly Charlotte Bronte died a mere nine months later (in 1855) due to complications associated with her pregnancy, leaving Arthur distraught and grieving for his bride.
There is a passage in Jane Eyre in which we catch a glimpse into Charlotte’s innermost thoughts and her deep trust in Jesus Christ:
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit remain-the impalpable principle of light and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return.”
In this remarkable passage, Charlotte Bronte arrives with an overflowing heart at a deep awareness of the truth as to the brevity of this life, its sins and injuries, its terrible moments full of struggle and bleakness, realizing that this world is not our abiding place. She yearns for the time when the redeemed of the Lord ‘will be raised incorruptible’ and pass through the rent veil with ecstatic freedom and revel in the glory of God face to face forever.
The happiness of the redeemed in heaven is the result of the character formed in this life after the image of Christ. As Spurgeon said, the heart that delights in Christ and contemplates his excellence, becomes like Christ.