The Instant Expert: Charlotte Bronte, literary legend
Float through any social event with M’s fast facts. This week, Helena Frith Powell looks at the life and works of the author Charlotte Brontë, who died on March 31, 1855
THE BASICS An English novelist and poet, Charlotte Brontë was born in 1816 in Thornton, Yorkshire, one of six children. In 1820 the family moved to Haworth parsonage where her father, Patrick, was appointed curate. Charlotte’s mother died the following year, the first of many deaths in the family that would eventually see her father outliving all his children.
THE EDUCATION Cowan Bridge School for clergy daughters was really the beginning and the end. It was here that the five Brontë girls were exposed to such harsh conditions that two (Elizabeth and Maria) would die of tuberculosis the year after they enrolled and the other three would be plagued with health problems for the rest of their short lives. But it was also the source of inspiration; in Charlotte’s most famous novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë revisits the school and its cruel headmaster, creating some of the most memorable scenes in literature.
THE WRITING Once they were taken out of school by their father to be educated at home, the Brontë children’s imaginations were able to really take off. Along with their brother, Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne created the fictitious worlds of Angria and Gondal and basically trained themselves as writers by reading aloud and discussing their work among themselves. The girls would spend hours on the moors next to their house, walking, chatting, exploring and undoubtedly creating the Byronic heroes of Rochester and Heathcliff who were later to appear in their novels and become literary legends. After her schooling, Charlotte worked as a governess for many years, one of the few careers open to women of her social status and education in those days, as was the case with her famous heroine, Jane.
THE SIBLINGS Talk about a talented bunch. You’ve probably heard of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë? The title, by the way, is said to be based on a house on the moors behind the parsonage called Top Withins. If you feel like a pilgrimage then take some food with you, it’s a long walk from the village. You may not have heard of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Agnes Greyby younger sister Anne, both novels written more in the realistic genre as opposed to the romantic genre her sisters preferred. Branwell, considered by contemporaries as the most talented of the siblings, wrote poetry and painted. But he never lived up to his potential and died in 1848 at the age of 31.
THE FIRST BOOK Was a collection of poetry by the three sisters, published in 1846, which sold only two copies. It was published under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell because the sisters felt they would have more chance of literary success if readers and publishers thought they were men. The sisters were not discouraged by the poor sales figures and started work on their novels.
THE END With the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847, Charlotte, the eldest of the three sisters, became famous. She was even persuaded to travel to London and reveal her true identity, and she enjoyed brief spells in London literary circles, making friends with William Makepeace Thackery, for example, and Elizabeth Gaskell, who would later write her biography. Emily and Anne both died of tuberculosis shortly after Jane Eyre came out (1848 and 1849, respectively, aged 30 and 29) and Charlotte died in 1855 aged 38 from the same disease, along with her unborn child, having married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, in 1854. Patrick Brontë lived on until 1861.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019