The death of Charlotte Brontë
By Janet Gezari
I ordered the Kindle edition of Ellie Stevenson’s recent collection, Watching Charlotte Brontë Die: and Other Surreal Stories, because I was curious, and it cost only $2.99. In the title story, Charlotte Brontë dies (or seems to) while riding a bicycle, run down by a car on a cold, wet night. The narrator, a “writer’s researcher” who is obsessed with Charlotte and who lives near Haworth, Charlotte’s birthplace, perhaps 150 years later, remarks that he hadn’t known that Charlotte could ride a bike. The image of Charlotte riding a bicycle is more fanciful than surreal. Although the ancestor of our modern bicycle, the velocipede, was invented in 1817, it was only in the last decades of the nineteenth century that Victorians embraced the bicycle. Even these improved, later bicycles wouldn’t have been a useful means of transportation in the village of Haworth with its steep, cobbled main road, or on the squishy moors nearby where the Brontës walked in all weathers.
Her actual death followed a debilitating illness and occurred almost exactly nine months after her marriage to her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. The death certificate states its cause as “Phthisis” or acute tuberculosis, the same disease that killed Emily and Anne. We know that Charlotte could eat or drink almost nothing until a few weeks before her death and that she was rapidly losing weight. Lyndall Gordon suggests she had a bacterial infection like typhoid, noting that Tabitha Ackroyd, the Brontës’ servant, had died from a digestive infection six weeks earlier and could have communicated it to Charlotte. During Charlotte’s and Tabby’s lifetimes, contaminated water and inadequate sewerage made Haworth one of the unhealthiest places to live in England. Charlotte may have been pregnant (in a letter, she suggests that she was), even though her death certificate omits this information. One conjecture is that she was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, an extreme form of morning sickness that affects no more than 2% of women in the early stages of their pregnancy and is rarely fatal. This past December, when Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of hyperemesis gravidarum, an evolutionary biologist applauded its adaptive virtues and declared that women suffering from it have a reduced risk of miscarriage. (This is a welcome antidote to the myth that associates morning sickness with a neurotic rejection of pregnancy.) It’s hard to know how Charlotte, who saw herself as a daughter, a sister, and at last a wife, would have managed as a mother. Jane Eyre is the only one of her heroines who gives birth to a child, and Jane spends no narrative time on either her agency in this event or her life after it. The novel’s only reference to Jane’s child calls our attention to his eyes, which resemble his father’s “as they once were — large, brilliant, and black.” Like the Duchess of Cambridge, Jane accepts her reproductive mission in life, and many readers have been unable to forgive her for trading so much thrilling rebellion for happy conformity in the end.
Unlike either Anne or Emily, Charlotte was an avid letter-writer, but she was too ill to keep up with her correspondence in the weeks before her death. The few letters she wrote are mainly concerned with other peoples’ illnesses. Even if she had not written her novels, Charlotte’s correspondence—about 950 of her letters have survived—would have made her memorable. Like her novels, her letters convey the social isolation she felt and combatted. Emily thrived in her isolation, and Anne escaped it by finding steady employment as a governess in a busy household, but Charlotte could not feel alive without loving companionship. Her most notorious letters are the ones she wrote to her married Belgian professor, Constantin Heger, revealing what she would have called her monomania and what we would today call a desperate crush. We don’t have Charlotte’s letters to Arthur Bell Nicholls or his to her. Charlotte’s decision to marry him was a healthy response to the intensified barrenness of her life after Anne’s and especially Emily’s death. When she accepted Nicholls, she knew that she was not gaining a husband with “fine talents” and “congenial” views (Gaskell, who approved of the marriage, described him as “very stern and bigoted”), but she believed, rightly, that she would gain a devotion that was passionate and steady. Since only her father, her husband, and two former servants were at her bedside when she died, we lack an account of her death to match her fiercely truthful accounts of the deaths of Anne and Emily. There was no one watching Charlotte Brontë die who could register the awfulness and the ordinariness of her dying.
Janet Gezari is Lucretia L. Allyn Professor of Literatures in English at Connecticut College. She is the author of Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct, Last Things: Emily Brontë’s Poems, and the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Selected Letters. She is currently editing The Annotated Wuthering Heights (forthcoming from Harvard University Press).
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Image credit: Photo of Brontë family vault. Used with permission from sharpandkeen via Flickr. Do not reproduce with permission of the photographer.